28 Feb 2018

At the Movies

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 28 February 2018

Simon Morris welcomes three comedies that offer mixed delights; The Party, Game Night and Finding Your Feet.

The Party, a film festival favourite, boasts an all-star cast in a celebration that goes wrong.

It's a classic comedy, with veteran writer-director Sally Potter its unlikely source.

Potter isn't the most prolific of film-makers.The Party is just her sixth movie since the gender-bending Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton, captured everyone's attention 26 years ago.

Nor is Potter easy to pigeonhole. She's made a film entirely in close-ups, another one written in iambic pentameter, and a documentary about the tango.

Which is why such a confident, expert comedy-drama like The Party is so unexpected.

The Party has been described as political and post-Brexit, which it isn't really. It's also being hailed as a feminist statement, which it isn't either.

In fact, The Party is an old-fashioned, well-made one-set farce - the sort of thing you'd expect from Tom Stoppard, or a Woody Allen movie before he started losing the plot. Certainly the star-studded cast list is very Woody Allen.

It opens on politician Janet - played by Kristen Scott Thomas - celebrating her rise to the heady heights of shadow minister. She's invited her closest friends for drinks and vol-au-vents.

But for some reason her husband Bill, played by Timothy Spall, seems a little distracted. The quality of the casting continues to dazzle as the first guests arrive - Patricia Clarkson as the bitchy April, and Bruno Ganz as her New Age boyfriend Gottfried.

Clarkson sets the tone of The Party - acid-tongued and cynical, but fiercely supportive of Janet in her moment of triumph.

Next to arrive was meant to be Marianne, but she's mysteriously delayed, and has sent her glamorous young husband Tom - Cillian Murphy - in her place.

Rounding out the guest list is a rather happier couple - Martha and Ginny, a salt and pepper pairing of American Cherry Jones, and one of the great English Emilies, Emily Mortimer.

For the first half an hour or so of The Party we watch the various elements and forces start to arrange themselves almost invisibly.

Is the relationship between Janet and Bill quite as supportive as we've been led to believe? Bill's clearly got something on his mind, with every intention of dropping it in at the most inappropriate moment.

Tom, the right-wing, neo-liberal cuckoo in The Party's nest, has his own secrets, lies and shady motives. What's in the bag, Tom - apart from heroic amounts of cocaine?

Meanwhile the happy lesbian couple Martha and Ginny are starting to fray a little at the edges, and Gottfried's facile diagnosis of everyone's problems is hardly helpful.

You may notice that I'm bending over backwards not to give much of the plot away, other than to confirm that it's a real-time, disastrous dinner-party, in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

Classic farce, in other words, and who knew the usually rather intellectual Sally Potter had it in her?

But that's not why I'm claiming that The Party isn't just the best film this week, but possibly the best of the year.

In an age of wildly inflated spectacle, and self-important message films that never seem to reach a conclusion, The Party is just 70 minutes long.

Even if it achieved nothing else but demonstrate that it's possible to say what you have to say in half the time of most recent movies, The Party has shown the way for Hollywood and the world.

Forget 3D and virtual reality. What the world wants is better, shorter films. With that in mind, I can't commend The Party highly enough.

English comedy Finding Your Feet features some old favourites - both actors and storylines.

Finding Your Feet is another of those undemanding English comedies that pop up three or four times a year, aimed at the so-called "Golden Age" audience.

The formula depends as much on its cast list as any intrinsic quality of the film itself.

So perhaps it's not surprising that script-writer Meg Leonard does actually come from a casting background.

Finding Your Feet is Meg Leonard's first script, and it shows. But she may have called in some favours to populate it - including the feisty Imelda Staunton in the starring role of Lady Sandra Abbott, first seen celebrating her husband's MBE.

Next thing you know Sandra surprises husband Mike - John Sessions with a Welsh accent for some reason - in the arms of his old Whose Line Is It Anyway colleague Josie Lawrence.

Sandra flounces out of the house and into the flat of her long-estranged sister Bif - short for Elizabeth - played by Celia Imrie.

Timothy Spall plays Charlie, a charming chap who lives on a colourful barge. This is generally a role set aside for Bill Nighy or Tom Wilkinson, and the best you can say about Timothy Spall is he gives it his best shot.

Bif and Charlie are part of an old-time rock and roll dance class, and they invite Sandra to join in.

Belatedly we're told that Sandra used to be a champion schoolgirl dancer. Get used to these sudden disclosures - they happen all through Finding Your Feet.

At the dance class we run into Jackie - another of those thankless cameos that Joanna Lumley keeps finding herself doing in movies like this.

Meanwhile the script is wrestling with its own problems - like how to keep Lady Sandra and Charlie apart until the end of the movie.

Some last-minute hurdles are put in their way, while Sandra is given some unmotivated makeovers.

And what about sister Bif? Don't we need some concrete evidence that she really is the free-loving Bohemian Sandra claims she is?

Suddenly Bif acquires a boyfriend called Gerald, played by nobody famous so don't get too attached to him.

It's a bit random to bring in poor old Gerald just so Bif can do the old gag about being afraid of living.

But now Finding Your Fee needs to get back to the dancing of the title - hindered by the fact that none of the lead actors can actually dance at all, and are required to be ghost-danced by some backup dance-extras.

A last-minute dance event is cobbled together to show that Sandra has been loosened up by the joint efforts of Bif, Charlie and the Spirit of the Dance.

But really by now none of us care, even when the production takes a last-minute trip to - why not? - Rome.

Like many of the plot elements of Finding Your Feet it's all too late, and clearly Sellotaped onto the script at the last moment.

Which is why, despite a game and attractive cast, the film resolutely refuses to find its feet.

In Game Night, a competition between friends takes an unexpected turn.

Game Night's youngish marrieds Max and Annie - played by the generally likeable Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams - both like winning and have regular couples' nights with their games-minded friends.

Max's even more competitive brother Brooks, who drives into the movie in a flash Stingray, takes over the gang, and offers to throw a game night to end all game nights.

So - let the games begin. But then something unexpected happens, and Brooks is captured by some remarkably convincing hoodlums. Could this cosy, fictional murder mystery have been hijacked by something less fictional?

If so, his guests are a little slow catching on.

The couples all head off in different directions. But when Max and Annie arrive at a seedy bar, they start to suspect that Brooks really has been kidnapped by real bad guys. And that may not be a harmless toy that Annie picked up a minute ago.

So now we find Max and Annie in a brand-new plot, haring off after a brand-new McGuffin with a bunch of brand-new bad guys on their trail.

The fact that everyone in Game Night seems to be well aware of the derivative, and increasingly pointless, nature of the plot isn't helping. Smirky self-consciousness is no substitute for a plot that makes sense.

The trouble with a movie based on games and unexpected revelations is that it becomes increasingly tempting for the film-makers to keep adding plot twists.

You think you know what's happening, but then you're wrong - again. It's yet another twist.

That's Max and Annie's next-door neighbour Gary, played by Jesse Plemons, an actor who can play dumb or sinister, so spends the whole of Game Night switching between the two.

But just because you can keep switching doesn't mean you should. The best advice I can give for a film like this: stop hitting the "switch" button, or if you must, do it once and do it right.

The final sign that Game Night needs a firmer hand on the tiller is that the cast, despite the ever-shifting storyline, starts trying to help by improvising extra jokes along the way.

The fact that capable comedy actors like Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams find themselves in under-baked nonsense like Game Night is rather an indictment of the standard of comedy scripts in Hollywood right now.

The best test of a script is always the ending. If there are more than three of them, go back and rewrite!