The Party – Review

by Ren Zelen 

The Party is a stinging satire written and directed by Sally Potter. A modern drawing-room comedy which like all good guests, doesn’t outstay its welcome. It lasts only 71 minutes, but packs in some short, sharp, shocking swipes before rolling up to a punchline which will bring a wry smile to your face and leave you chuckling on your way home.

A select soiree is being held in a London townhouse owned by Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), an ambitious politician, and her academic husband Bill (Timothy Spall). The celebration is due to Janet being appointed Shadow Minister for Health – a prestigious position and a stepping stone to the ultimate post of Leader of the Party.

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Janet’s guests include old friend Jenny (confidently portrayed by Patricia Clarkson), a witty American cynic, adept at acidic one-liners, and her unlikely partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), an aggravating German new-age-guru, who has a stream of advice to cope with any crisis.

They are followed by Martha (Cherry Jones), a fellow academic and old university friend of Bill’s, who is in a lesbian relationship with her young partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer).

The last arrival is Tom (Cillian Murphy, in an uncharacteristically comical vein), a city banker in an expensive suit, who arrives nervy and sweating and proceeds immediately to the bathroom to sniff a goodly amount of cocaine and check his handgun. Tom has apparently been assisting Janet with private-sector partnership initiatives. His famously ‘lovely’ wife Marianne is Janet’s colleague, but is due to arrive at some point later on.

While Janet prepares food in the kitchen, husband Bill sits in the lounge, drinking steadily and only rising from his armchair to choose another vinyl disc to put on his turntable.

Unlucky incidents foreshadow some immanent event – a fox briefly enters through the doors to the garden, a window is smashed by a champagne cork, Janet’s entrée gets burned, and the fire alarm stubbornly continues to sound until silenced by force. Everyone congratulates Janet and raises a toast to her appointment… but then the revelations begin.

Martha’s partner Jinny reveals that she is pregnant with triplets, and Bill, finally emboldened by alcohol, has an announcement of his own which changes the tone of the whole proceedings and results in a torrent of angsty philosophizing from everyone present.

The ensemble offers opinions and platitudes on topics such as idealism versus realism, faith versus science, and conventional medicine versus homeopathy. Gottfried is ever-ready with his personal philosophy that all crises are an opportunity for ‘deep personal transformation’.

The academics, politicos, realists and idealists begin to turn on each other as the revelations, bombshells, accusations and disasters accumulate. The verbal pace becomes frenetic and the action farcical, as everyone’s principles come into question and insecurities and neuroses come to the surface.

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The action is starkly lit and shot in black and white by Russian cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov, giving illumination and emphasis to faces, especially in close-up. The Party often feels theatrical, like a one-act play by Simon Gray, Anthony Schaffer or Tom Stoppard. However, it also boasts smart dialogue which scrutinizes bourgeois pretentions and self-obsession and is the most enjoyable film yet from a director who is generally known for anti-mainstream films (such as the adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, verse drama Yes and talking-heads piece Rage).

The Party however, proves to be eminently entertaining, intelligent, and absurd, featuring delightfully gleeful performances from a prestige cast.

Filmed as the Brexit result was announced, The Party signifies a gathering of guests, but also indicates an analysis of left-wingers, intellectuals and feminists reappraising their ideals in a seemingly increasingly reactionary, materialistic and venal world. In The Party, Sally Potter entertains us with a farce, while slyly offering a commentary on the current ‘state-of-the-nation’.

The Party is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now! 

Hocus Pocus – 25th Anniversary

At the start of October, I change my black cats purple collar to an orange one with jack-o-lanterns on it, switch to pumpkin spice flavoured coffee, and start watching Halloween films. And Hocus Pocus is always on the watchlist.

A kind-of horror film for kids from the wonderful people at Disney, Hocus Pocus was a bit of a flop in cinemas, and yet somehow became a perennial favourite on video and TV. Now, it’s a Halloween cult classic, and it’s also 25 years old this year.

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In case you haven’t seen it, Hocus Pocus is the story of two teenagers and one little girl who accidentally bring back three witch sisters from the dead on Halloween Night in Salem. With the help of an immortal talking cat, they must race against time to stop the Sanderson sisters before they devour the children of the town. But that’s just the bones of the story.

There are a few things that make the film kinda great, and the first that has to be mentioned is the Sanderson sisters themselves. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy play the three witches, and have a blast doing it. They really throw themselves into being comical and diabolical, and have great costumes too. Their whole motivation is that by drinking the essence of local children, they can look young forever, and yet their idea of youthful beauty is still pretty witchy. Midler is their leader, and with prothetic buck teeth, she’s kind of creepy and dark, but still delightful. Parker is the bubbly, flirtatious one, while Nijimy is kind of jocular and foolish. They’re clearly having a great time being bad, and their cartoonishness keeps them lovable and also not too scary for the younger kids.

Though they really do steal the show, the protagonists do hold their own. Omri Katz is Max, whose family have just moved from California to Salem, which is something that he’s not taking in stride so well at first. He’s confused by how seriously the town takes magic and Halloween, but he’s a likable kid who tries to get along with people and cares about his little sister, who is played by a really tiny Thora Birch. She is absolutely adorable. Thrown into this is the beautiful Vinessa Shaw as the love interest. She’s the local girl who takes the two newcomers to the Sanderson house, and whom Max tries to impress but in the process accidentally unleashes the evil trio. They’re all really likable kids, and pretty cute. The romance between the two teens is really nice, and all three show a lot of heart.

Which brings me to my personal favourite character in the film, Thackery Binx the cat. What is a story about witches without a black cat? In the grand tradition of 90’s on screen witches, this cat is a talking immortal who used to be a kid, but was cursed. He’s on the side of the kids, and since he has been wandering the earth since the curse, and he misses his sister who was killed by the sisters, he’s a pretty endearing furry character.

This film really delights in being creepy and spooky, but is never really scary. It’s more of a darkly sparkling riot. The three witches are constantly wise cracking and being scared by new technology. There are constant one liners and little jokes all through the film, including the obligatory town bullies, which are always a fun addition. And of course, any film with Bette Midler has to have a few musical numbers, which are mostly pretty fun.

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Perhaps it’s the heady glow of childhood nostalgia that makes people love this film so much, because in some ways it’s not a great film, it has flaws, and yet there’s something about the joy and magic in this film that makes me really get a kick out of watching it every year when October 31st comes around. Over the years there have been talks of a sequel, with the films writer and some of the actors hinting that they would love to be on board. The latest news is that Disney is in talks to do a remake without any of the previous stars, which has caused the obligatory internet furore amongst fans. There’s also a book released by Disney for the 25th Anniversary, which is a novelisation of the film, plus sequel story, which has the daughter of the two teens of the first film dealing with the Sanderson Sisters return, which might interest some of you fans.

For me, I don’t need a remake or a novel, I’m happy to go back and watch those sisters stumble out of the past and into modern, 90’s life, and those two teens fall in love while a tiny, angelic Thora Birch cuddles a talking cat. At 25 years old, this film is still as delightful and funny, and of course, magical, as on first viewing.

Happy Birthday Hocus Pocus!


The Snowman – Review

Michael Fassbender is one of our greatest actors who always performs to his best ability but sometimes gets really shoddy projects to work on. The Counsellor, Prometheus, and Song to Song are all examples of crappy movies that rarely showcase Fassbender at his acting peak.

Sadly, The Snowman is another film to add to this list…

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Harry Hole is a detective on the edge. Despite years of acclaim, he is still alone: Drinking to forget the inner-workings of his mind, he has somewhat alienated himself from happiness and loved ones. Returning to work after a week’s disappearance, Hole is contacted by a serial killer who builds sinister snowmen at the places of his crimes.  With women either turning up murdered or going missing, Hole enlists help from Rekel who believes the murders date back to an unsolvable crime, possibly linked to a high powered individual. As the killer taunts the pair, can Hole and Rekel uncover the truth?

All the ingredients to The Snowman are there. It stars Rebecca Ferguson, Michael Fassbender, and J.K. Simmons, it’s directed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s Tomas Alfredson, and it is based on a book by Jo Nesbo. It should have worked but, sadly, it doesn’t. This is a prime example of adapting from a prominent and lengthy book badly. There are so many elements to Nesbo’s work that aren’t translated well on screen. The plot becomes convoluted, shifting between different points that make no cohesive sense. Shifting through the past and the present, there is little in the way of tangible elements stringing them together. It loses any tension, there is zero interest in the mystery, and you’re left bewildered by the whole product.

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There’s also a lot of production mistakes that are off-putting. The editing is jarring and the sound dips regularly. There are also moments where the dialogue is mismatched and mis-dubbed with what’s happening onscreen.   Especially when it comes to Val Kilmer. Look, I’m not going to divulge too much into the disappoint of Val Kilmer within this film because I genuinely feel that it would merely be kicking a horse while he is down. That being said, one of the most perplexing parts of The Snowman is Val Kilmer. He plays detective Gert Rafto from the 1970s who was on the first ever ‘Snowman’ murder. The actor strains through gritted teeth that barely open to gurn out words that aren’t even matched with his minimal lip movements. It’s a shaky and undeniably odd character that crops up randomly in this mess of a film.

Other than that, I guess the acting is good. Fassbender has never given a bad performance yet and Ferguson keeps gaining more momentum, but it all seems wasted here. Alfredson has misguided his film here which is a shame because his previous work was so brilliant, and so wonderful. I was expecting an engaging serial killer mystery and was left out in the bitterly cold. More slippery than chilling, The Snowman melts quickly on the big screen.

The Snowman is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!