The Woman Conquering Space: On Set with Britain’s Brightest New Film Producer

In light of the film premiering at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, here’s another look at what should be an extraordinary film.

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Across the Pond, Gale Anne Hurd and Kathleen Kennedy have become two of the most powerful women in Hollywood after years of hard graft on respective projects such as Aliens, The Walking Dead and the rebooted Star Wars saga.
Now a new British film producer is following in their inspiring footsteps, creating the sort of high end sci-fi adventure that could leave cash tills ringing around the world.

It’s a freezing morning in the final hours of November 2016 as I arrive at GSP Studios near York. After the success of their acclaimed features such as The Knife That Killed Me, and Awaiting, they are boldly going into the world of intergalactic adventure.
Producer Charlette Kilby is wisely wrapped up warm after the coldest night of the year. She’s overseeing filming on Solis, a visually stunning, emotionally gripping sci-fi movie starring Steven Ogg.


Steven Ogg as Troy…

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Film review- Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2

Certificate 15

Directed by David Leitch

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison

The first Deadpool a few years ago was a fun, meta romp, biting the hand that fed it by sending up the X-Men saga while trampling around in the same universe. Fourth walls were broken, as were bones. It was violent, foul-mouthed, action packed and fun. It was also a joke that got a bit tired after an hour, but underlined the fact that some fans were bored of serious superhero sagas and wanted something far more silly.

Ryan Reynolds is back as the Merc with a Mouth, and as the first film made a pile of cash on a modest budget, Deadpool 2 falls into the same trap of many sequels to hit films: more extras, bigger explosions, but gags that aren’t instantly funnier as a result.

The fact the mutant hero can get ripped apart and shot means the stakes are pretty low. Invincible heroes can be pretty dull until their Achilles heel is exploited.

Thrown into the mix this time is time-travelling Terminator-style Cable (Josh Brolin) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison as the John Connor-style kid he tracks down.

But not everything is as it seems.

Reynolds is on good form as the wise-cracking hero; the action scenes are great, and the ’baby legs’ scene is one of the funniest things you’ll see in any Hollywood movie this year.

I’ll admit there was no point when I was moved, but it’s not that sort of movie. It’s another rib-tickling, bone-cracking feature-length sketch which drags one gag out too long at the end, but is never boring.

Zazie Beetz is terrific as Domino, the superhero sidekick whose special power is luck, while rent-a-baddie Eddie Marsan adds gravitas in his brief appearance.

Director David Leitch, who did a great job with Atomic Blonde, juggles the huge set pieces and comedy with skill, and though it would have been as funny with half the budget, there’s no feeling of being short changed.

Daft, occasionally hilarious and pretty forgettable.

Film review- Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Certificate 12A

Directed by Ron Howard

Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson

After The Last Jedi was released in December 2017, some hardcore Star Wars fans were left reeling.

Writer/director Rian Johnson had created a space oddity. It was not the box-ticking fan favourite The Force Awakens, but something rather different. Trippy, bold, daring, a bit cheesy and far too long. It also featured a couple of shark-jumping scenes that ranked as low points of the saga.

While the fans waged long debates over Episode VIII, director Ron Howard was trying to keep his own Star Wars movie on track. Original Solo directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had been shown the door and Howard was brought in to rescue the project. There were rumours that Alden Ehrenreich was struggling as the young Han Solo, but I had a good feeling about it.

And my faith was justified with a rock solid, fun, thrilling occasionally moving fantasy adventure.

All of the cast are terrific. Emilia Clarke has genuine big screen appeal. Donald Glover makes a great Lando Calrissian, and terrific support comes from Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and Paul Bettany.

Fans of Howard’s Willow will be thrilled at the cameo from Warwick Davies, and if like me, you’ve been obsessed with the space pirate for 40 years, it’s a joy to see some of the Easter eggs peppered here and there.

An artefact from a book cover (Han Solo and the Lost Legacy) appears on Paul Bettany’s ship, and I’ve no doubt there’s countless others for the spotting once the DVD is released.

The script is great even if not all of it makes sense. Jonathan Kasdan and dad Lawrence (who penned the best episodes) flesh out the pivotal moments in Solo’s life. Fans who have long wondered what the ’Kessel run’ was and why it mattered will be thrilled by the action scene which features plenty of edge-of-the-seat tension and one of the best loved ships in sci-fi history, the Millennium Falcon.

The whole thing looks terrific. It’s a beautifully designed movie, and John Powell’s score is wonderful. Of course the John Williams moments flashing back (or forward in this case) to The Empire Strikes Back) is the stuff of movie nirvana.

And then there’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, one of my favourite actresses thanks to her work on sublime adult TV comedy Fleabag. Despite playing a motion-captured droid here, her personality shines through.

(Yes, I will be buying an L3-37 action figure when I get a chance).

The relationship between her and Lando is both funny and touching.

And a mention for Joonas Suotamo, whose Chewbacca is still one of the franchise’s greatest assets. Every growl, bark and gesture is a joy, while the relationship between him and Solo is as touching and joyful as Harrison Ford’s with original Chewie, Peter Mayhew.

So, how does it rank in the saga? Well, Empire (obviously), A New Hope, The Force Awakens, Return of the Jedi, Rogue One, Solo, The Last Jedi, Revenge of the Sith, and joint last, Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

You won’t agree, but that’s fine. Each to their own.

I hope we get another Solo adventure, and given a certain plot twist, there’s every chance we will.

9/10

Calendar Girls: The Musical: a chat with star Ruth Madoc, original Calendar Girl Christine Clancy, and writers Tim Firth and ‪Gary Barlow‬

Calendar Girls: The Musical: a chat with star Ruth Madoc, original Calendar Girl Christine Clancy, and writers Tim Firth and Gary Barlow

“A Star Wars musical!” Gary Barlow’s face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning when I ask him and fellow writer Tim Firth if they’d like to work on a dream show.

“Someone must be working on that!” remarks Gary, before he’s rushed off from the launch of Calendar Girls: The Musical.

I’m in Burnsall, where Messrs Barlow, Firth and the Rylstone WI ladies who caught the imagination of the world have re-grouped to launch the revamped show.

It’s a sun-kissed day and the rolling hills and setting looks like it was dressed by the mother of all production designers.

CGTM is set to play Hull New Theatre in the autumn (2018), and as someone who paid to see Barlow and Firth’s masterpiece The Band twice in less than a week, I’ve no problem shelling out again for their other major production when it comes to Hull in November.

During our photo, Gary and Tim are impressed by my love of that show, possibly because I’m not the target audience.

The craftsmanship that went into that production was astounding. They fine-tuned The Band to ensure it had a widespread appeal, and the same care has gone into Calendar Girls.

I first wrote about it when the film was released in 2003. I’m not sure where the time went since then and now, but Firth’s script, the moving story and a wealth of beloved actors ensured that true story had stronger legs than Usain Bolt.

As you may know, the WI members hoped to raise money for a settee for their local hospital when one of their husbands fell ill with cancer. They wound up raising more than £5million for cancer charity Bloodwise.

That was almost two decades ago, but the movie inspired by the story, starring Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Celia Imrie, proved the tale was a winner. A sunflower-shaped ray of hope shining through the gloom of an illness that has touched everyone’s life. Mine included.

During the Press junket, I chat to Hi-De-Hi veteran Ruth Madoc, who plays Jessie in the new stage version.

Calendar Girls: The Musical tackles a subject she’s had first hand experience of: cancer (of the bladder).

“It was only on a well woman’s visit that they found it,” she explains. “I had no symptoms whatsoever. So I’m very aware of the fact that they caught it relatively early.”

I wonder what is it about Yorkshire that is so crucial to making this show work. Could it be set anywhere?

“I think it’s got to have a specific location. IE, you’ve got to have a village that is contained within itself for it to actually work,” she explains. “I mean it couldn’t be any better than the Dales of Yorkshire for goodness sake, because it’s so beautiful. But when you think about it, it could be Cumbria. It could be in the valleys of Wales.”

She adds: “There is another element to it. The nature; what is around you, and how it has coloured them; coloured these folk, and that’s the most interesting thing as well. It’s a sub-text to it, and a backdrop, but it has colour to it. That’s why it’s very special to Yorkshire.”

Ruth is not wrong about the location. As a first time visitor to Burnsall, I’m knocked out by how photogenic it is, so there’s no shortage of outdoor photo ops.

Ruth, Denise Welch and Fern Britton (returning to the stage for the first time in three decades) look radiant, alongside fellow cast members Anna Jane Casey, and Rebecca Storm. Gary and writer Tim Firth don’t look bad either, before they set off for Burnsall Village Hall just up the road.

There, three numbers from the show are performed by Ms Casey, Ms Storm and the assembled cast. I’m not ashamed to say I’m knocked out.

As anyone who’s seen the film will know, an integral element of the story is cake, so the fact I’m sat a few feet from a mouthwatering Victoria sponge makes me wary about literally putting my foot in it.

What I don’t realise until it’s presented to Fern is it was crafted at 6am that morning by Angela Baker.

It was her husband John who provided part of the inspiration for the Rylstone WI Calendar. He passed away 20 years ago in July.

When the tour launches in Leeds on August 16, there’s bound to be a few glasses raised to him and other loved ones lost since the story caught the imagination of the world.

For those attending the Hull New Theatre performances in November, Mr Barlow has no idea whether he’ll be making a surprise appearance, unlike that (greatest) day when he and a couple of famous friends turned up for The Band. (Mark and Howard I think their names were).

Okay, I am a fan of that trio, and while it’s a thrill to get a photo with Mr Barlow, it’s as much of a joy to meet Tim Firth, one of our greatest writers, and one of the reluctant stars behind the Calendar Girls success story.

What he doesn’t know about crafting a hit show or film, isn’t worth knowing, especially the integral nature of the music.

“The truth is with these shows, especially when music is in the room, music is a very unpredictable atom – the structure,” he explains as we sit down for a chat. “It can tell a story within a few notes.

“You use music as a character. It isn’t just there to make moments work. Music is there as a fundamental component that will take the place of words.”

Tim recently saw the show in Italy, but language aside, little had changed. Wherever it plays in the world, it’s always set in Yorkshire.

“The story has really strong roots to the landscape “ he explains. “Sometimes you don’t have to do that. You can do The Full Monty and reset it to America. I can’t really see that happening to this story.”

As the day winds down, I bump into Christine Clancy, one of the original WI ladies. It proves to be one of the highlights of an amazing few hours.

“I was September on this original calendar… with the teapot and the buns,” she laughs.

I ask Christine what was her opinion when she first saw the film?

“Oh we just absolutely loved it. Because we were part of the filming as well. We did have little cameo roles.

“They did quite a bit of filming here, across the other side of the river.”

Was she surprised that the story was so well received overseas?

“A little bit surprised because we didn’t understand how anyone outside the UK would understand the WI bit – the Women’s Institute. But everybody’s just loved it.”

Does she think the film and show sparked a new wave of interest in the WI?

“I believe it did, yes. There’s quite a lot of new WIs that started up because they found out about it (through Calendar Girls) I suppose.”

The million-dollar question I’m desperate to get an answer to: is there some magic that’s passed down to women where they are granted the ability to make incredible Victoria sponges?

“Not that I’m aware of, no,” she laughs. “I can bake them. They’re not bad. Mine’s a good Delia Smith recipe.”

And what does she think of the show?

“Oh it’s great. We obviously haven’t seen this new cast yet, but I’m sure they’ll be fantastic.”

A day later, while making a breakfast cuppa, I find ‘Dare’, one of the standout tracks, rattling through my head. ‘Yorkshire’ also becomes a welcome earworm. Like many of Gary and Tim’s creations, they have a habit of getting under your skin. That ‘fundamental component’ soon becomes part of your life.

(If you’ve never heard ‘Yorkshire’, imagine if the much missed Victoria Wood had penned a version of William Blake’s iconic Jerusalem, and you get the idea).

I’ve no idea whether Gary and Tim will be inspired enough to work on my dream show (the aforementioned Star Wars musical), but one thing’s for certain: I won’t have to force myself to see Calendar Girls: The Musical when it hits theatres later this year.

:: Calendar Girls: The Musical can be seen at Hull New Theatre from 20-24 November, 2018.

All photos: copyright Roger Crow

Film review Avengers: Infinity War

Film review

Avengers: Infinity War

Certificate 12A

Starring Robert Downey Jnr, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo

There was a time when you knew what you were getting with big summer blockbusters. Explosions, battles, banter, special effects galore. Even a start, a middle and an end.

And then the game changed. As box office receipts exploded, Hollywood decided to alter things.

So we had films shot back to back to save money; random cliffhangers like the Saturday morning serials of old, and things that made you wonder ’What just happened?’

Sometimes these things work, and sometimes they don’t, but when you have a multi-million dollar advertising campaign behind it, there’s such a magnetic pull on release day, it creates FOMO (fear of missing out).

Such is the case with Avengers: Infinity War, which originally had a Part One attached. Maybe the marketing people got cold feet on that front, thinking that punters would be disappointed if they realised they were seeing the first of a double bill, and had to pay another £10-£15 for the second part.

So we wound up with what we thought was going to be a standalone adventure.

Not the case. The culmination of a decade’s worth of Marvel movies, AIW is one of the most divisive blockbusters since The Last Jedi.

And ’Star Wars’ would be a good alternate title for this, considering the amount of high profile heroes clashing on an epic scale.

It’s remarkable how the screenwriters manage to juggle so many plot ideas, characters and locations and still keep the whole thing relatively coherent and rewarding.

Within the space of a few minutes, old heroes such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy cross paths with the likes of Hulk, Thor and and a few other familiar faces.

So while the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Chrises Pratt, Hemsworth and Evans vie for most screen time, if the film belongs to anyone it’s Josh Brolin, as the mad Titan Thanos, a character teased during the end of 2012’s sublime and far superior franchise-launching Avengers Assemble.

Certain characters are left out of the mix, possibly popping up in part two. But given the vast amount of protagonists here, you won’t miss them too much.

The beauty of the story, inspired by Jim Starlin’s comic book, is the simplicity of the villain’s quest. Grab eclectic infinity stones for his gauntlet and he becomes all-powerful. The fact just about every Marvel film of the past six years has teased at this plot device helps enormously.

As ever the cast are terrific. A big dysfunctional family bickering, bantering and then using their special powers and talents to fight the big bad when the time comes.

Brolin’s character has far more depth than his thumbprint cartoon face suggests. He’s a giant on a mission which is disturbingly reminiscent of the darkest time of human history, and the last 10 minutes is equally unnerving.

The special effects are wonderful (I can only imagine the thousands of artists who helped craft the biggest movie of the decade), and the pacing is never dull. However, those sucker punch moments that helped make Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man 2 so memorable are sadly absent here. Spectacle overwhelms, but when tragedy strikes, the mood feels strangely inert.

The problem is when you have a character like Doctor Strange, who can reverse time, deaths feel temporary. There’s no finality to a character’s demise because chances are they’ll come back in the next movie, like Phil Coulson’s ’death’ in the first Avengers.

It’s not a bad film. The eye candy is phenomenal, and the battle scenes are well staged, but 140 minutes of heroes clashing with bad guys gets tired when there’s no gravitas.

Maybe certain characters will stay dead. Maybe they won’t. But while I never felt short changed by the scale and inventiveness, it felt like buying a book and discovering half the story missing.

Oh, and the fact Iron Man and Spider-Man’s costumes now appear out of thin air thanks to nano technology is another bug bear. Never have costumes looked so CG as when masks vanish and appear with no sense of weight or substance. What’s wrong with actually putting on a real helmet or mask now and then?

Hopefully part two will provide much needed closure and that all-important sense of emotion missing here.

And hopefully Adam Warlock, one of Starlin’s greatest creations teased at the end of Guardians Vol 2, will also make an appearance.

Given the fact anything can and usually does happen in the MCU these days, that’s more than a possibility.

To be honest, if Jimmy Krankee turned up on a giant penguin humming the theme to Play Your Cards Right, I wouldn’t be surprised.

In these movies far stranger things happen.

And having grossed $640m in three days, clearly fans are loving the epic and the bizarre.

But that ending. Oh my.

What just happened?

8/10

Restaurant review – Las Iguanas, George Street, Edinburgh

Restaurant review – Las Iguanas, George Street, Edinburgh

I don’t expect much from Las Iguanas when I’m invited to review their George Street restaurant in Edinburgh.

Having never been to one of their eateries before, I lower my expectations to be on the safe side.

It’s the end of a full-on couple of days in the Scottish capital; my step monitor has gone through the roof and myself, my partner and a trio of American friends are on our last legs.

Truth is I want to impress them as it’s our last meal of the two-day holiday together, and that fear of the unknown is always a risk.

I needn’t have worried.

From the minute we walk in, the place proves as delightful as the region we’re located in.

We’re soon seated and survey the menu – a feast of tempting ideas. As the feeling returns to exhausted feet, it’s not long before we’re enjoying drinks and starters.

Jessica, our waitress (originally from York), is outstanding throughout. Banter, that essential quality for any waiting staff, ensures we’re at our ease in no time, and the food is just as welcome.

Aside from a terrific margarita, I opt for dishes from the Nightlife menu – a very affordable two courses for £14.95. (That runs Sunday-Thursday from 6.30pm).

My dadinhos, crispy cheese cubes served with sticky chilli jam, disappear alarmingly fast.

We don’t have to wait long for our mains either. My spicy chicken enchilada is terrific. The mix of rice, refried beans, spring onions and cheese is beautifully done.

Normally I’d be defeated by this point, but I’ve burned more calories in a day than I usually manage in a week, so we opt for sharing churros, which come with a dark chocolate and a caramel sauce. And yes, they are also a triumph.

There’s plenty of choices for vegetarians and pescatarians, so there’s no complaints from my regular culinary co-pilot.

In fact there’s not a weak link in the entire night. The food, service, ambience, music and decor is all spot on. Everything we order is delivered correctly, and that’s not always the case in some restaurants if the music is too loud and the waiter mis-hears the order. Watching the sun go down in this elegant part of Edinburgh on a spring night is an added bonus.

Obviously it’s a bit of a trek, but if you are in this neck of the woods in the coming months I’d heartily recommend it. And judging by all the empty plates of my fellow travelling companions, I’d say they’d agree.

Yes, it’s part of a chain, so there’s plenty in Yorkshire too. And no, I wouldn’t need much of an excuse to go back.

Muchas gracias Las Iguanas.