Archive for October, 2012


Posted: October 29, 2012 in Cinema

Most of the previous 22 Bond films have been little more than tongue-in-cheek variations of their predecessors and they have become British cinema’s equivalent to the Christmas panto – grotesque villains, exotic “dames”, familiar plots, etc. – but the last one, “Quantum of Solace”, was so abysmal that the continuation of the series seemed threatened. At first, the choice of Sam Mendes, whose cv suggests he would be more at ease with Shakespeare than Fleming, as director of the 23rd came as a surprise, but it is a choice that now seems inspired. Mr Mendes has done for 007 what Christopher Nolan did for Batman, infusing intelligence and humanity and, in so doing, he has not ditched the action thrills, visual spectacle or old traditions; he has simply made them all bigger and better to produce a multi-layered epic. A great cast of top drawer British thespians is joined by Javier Bardem, already the nastiest screen villain of this Century so far, now even nastier. The best Bond at least since “Goldfinger”, maybe the best of them all.

The trend for down sizing big musicals to fit into tiny spaces has been led by the Menier Chocolate Factory, but now its near neighbour is threatening to take over. After the stunning revival of “Mack & Mabel” in the Summer, the same Vault space is taken over by this gender bending piece. Underneath railway arches with trains rumbling overhead as they approach or leave London Bridge station, some of the best singers and dancers around give everything, all within touching distance of almost every member of the audience. The show is a so-so musical, not from Broadways’s top drawer, making it little short of miraculous that the performers and production team have transformed it into what we see here. Anna Francolini is wonderful in the title role, leading a superb company. Great entertainment!

A rarely-seen 1924 Eugene O’Neill play, written before the familiar masterpieces but after “Anna Christie” which was performed so successfully at the Donmar last year. Most of the writer’s trademarks are here, a tight dysfunctional family unit, characters yearning for better lives, but the key element that is missing is believability with the result that the play comes across more like Victorian melodrama than serious theatre. The acting is strong, overlooking some dodgy accents, so it is hard to blame the actors for failing to make their characters’ words and actions credible. Also the production is fluid and creates several haunting images, but however worthy the efforts of all involved, the task of making this play relevant to a 21st century audience ultimately proves beyond them.

With the Cottesloe configured to resemble the House of Commons, the audience seated on the Members’ benches, James Graham’s new play examines the turbulent proceedings during the hung Parliaments of 1974-79 from the perspectives of the Whips’ offices of the two main parties. In an age when all politicians appear to be University-educated, “middle class” and pre-occupied solely with media spin, it jolts to be reminded of days when party politics reflected genuine class warfare and events in the House were seen to be of life and death importance. And so, with every vote counting, we see members wheeled into the Chamber on hospital trollies wearing oxygen masks and we are left in no doubt that this was a battlefield, as scenes are performed in the manner of conflicts in Shakespeare’s history plays. The ensemble cast is top class, the writing is crisp, at times bitingly funny and the direction is fluid, peppered with deft touches. A memorable evening.

Cabaret*** (Savoy, 10 Oct 2012)

Posted: October 17, 2012 in Theatre

Any musical that is staged as a star vehicle for a pop singer and a soap actor needs to be approached with caution, but this revival of Rufus Norris’ 2006 production of the Kander & Ebb classic dispels most doubts. Will Young as Emcee first appears as a hideous demented clown and then becomes exposed (even literally) to varying degrees of ridicule which he carries through with assurance; he takes risks which could explain why his career has already outlasted most of the reality tv winners who succeeded him. However, Michelle Ryan, although not technically deficient, gives us a one dimensional Sally Bowles which alters the balance of the show; normally her relationship with Clifford (Matt Rawle) would be at the heart of the narrative but, here, the older couple take centre stage. Fortunately, Linal Haft and the wonderful Sian Phillips are on hand to grasp the opportunity with relish. If anything, the production over-emphasises the already obvious dark political undertones, particularly in a shocking finale but, overall it packs a real punch.

The Donmar has received great acclaim for re-discovering many rarely-performed European classics, giving high hopes for this 17th Century French play by Jean Racine. Sadly these hopes are quickly dashed. The scenario of thwarted love is established within 5 minutes and, thereafter there are virtually no plot developments and no dramatic tensions as the play rambles aimlessly towards a climax that never arrives. Maybe the verse of the French original was its justification but, here, lifeless prose offers no compensation. There are just three redeeming features: firstly the set consisting of a magnificent staircase spiraling down to a sand dune is a visual treat (although it’s relevance to the play remains unclear); secondly Anne Marie Duff in the title role is always worth seeing, she stands out in a cast that otherwise lacks sparkle; and thirdly, at 95 minutes without an interval, it is mercifully short.  Josie Rourke directs. As she nears the end of her first year as the Donmar’s Artistic Director, she needs to understand that this is just not good enough.

Pre-conceptions were of a fossil of a play, a low brow farce by Brandon Thomas resembling Oscar Wilde but filleted of verbal wit and possibly  more fitted to be seen on a seaside pier than in a major London venue. That someone has different ideas becomes clear as soon as the enormous set, occupying almost half of the Menier’s space comes into sight. Thereafter, a top notch cast takes over and delivers an evening of unbroken hilarity. Matthew Horne gleefully gives us his “Gavin” in drag, making no concessions to femininity, and Jane Asher is suitably regal as the real aunt, but the entire company displays exuberance, superb comic timing and, as they hare around chasing each other, considerable athleticism. For those of us who aspire to more sophisticated tastes, there is no need to apologise for laughing so much; this is simply an occasion to sit back and go with the flow.

London Film Festival 2012

Posted: October 12, 2012 in Cinema

With scores of films to choose from, picking a dozen or so to see has to be pot luck. I just decided when would be a good time to go and got tickets for whatever was showing. Some great films have been missed but they can wait for another day.

The big black mark against this year’s Festival is the resumption of screenings, after a two year break, in the Odeon West End where only the popcorn stand is fit for purpose. Seat numbers are almost invisible and, when seats are eventually located, they are narrow and uncomfortable; still worse, sight lines are woeful particularly in Screen 2 where subtitles can be obliterated for anyone under 7 ft tall. This exemplifies how far West End cinemas have fallen behind modern venues elsewhere. Please BFI, think again when organising the 2013 Festival and avoid this dump.

These are the films I saw:

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS**** (UK,  dir Martin McDonagh)
I described “In Bruges” as close to perfection., leaving this successor with a lot to live up to.  “Seven Psychopaths” is written by Martin McDonagh and is about a screen writer called Martin who is writing a film called “Seven Psychopaths”, so it is not surprising that it is so self-indulgent and packed with movie in-jokes that it almost looks capable of choking on its own intestines. If the former film was an homage to Ealing comedies, the homage here is unmistakably to early Tarantino; sadistic, callous, gratuitously violent, continuously inventive and very funny.

A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY*** (UK, dirs Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett)
The liar in question is Monty Python founding member, the late Graham Chapman whose own voice, taken from tapes recorded in 1986, provides the narration. Animated in several different styles and in 3D, it is as anarchic and irreverent as befits its subject, merging fact with lunacy. Most of the laughs come from well known material, but there are plenty of them as well as abundant nostalgia for a bygone age of mirth.

IT WAS THE SON**** (Italy, dir Daniele Cipri)
It is difficult to categorise a film that moves so assuredly between comedy and tragedy. Set in Sicily, it tells of an impoverished family whose life is changed by an eccidental encounter with the Mafia. Rich characterisations and a smooth narrative flow ensure that this film enthrals the audience from beginning to end.

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON** (UK, dir Roger Michell)
Alternative titles might have been “The King’s Speech II” or “What Bertie Did Next”. Samuel West takes over as the stuttering King who crosses the Atlantic to visit FDR (Bill Murray); the Olivias Coleman and Williams play their respective spouses and Laura Linney is the President’s distant cousin/”friend”. Possibly too obviously targeted at Oscars to actually win many, this still has plenty of wit, charm and historical interest even if the script does not deliver quite everything it promises.

KEEP THE LIGHTS ON*** (USA, dir Ira Sachs)
A study over 9 years of an intense and destructive relationship in which the third partner is crack cocaine. The style is low key and understated, avoiding sentimentality and melodrama. Tender, truthful and moving.

IN THE HOUSE**** (France, dir Francois Ozon)
With a plot line that would not stand up to re-telling and surprises at every turn, this superb comedy is literate, outrageous and even slightly surreal. Kristin Scott Thomas appears and to say that the whole cast matches up to her usual standards is about as high a compliment as can be paid.

NO**** (Chile, dir Pablo Larrain)
A riveting political thriller with Gael Garcia Bernal playing an ad man involved in the 1988 Chilean referendum that led to the downfall of the brutal Pinochet regime. Shot to merge in with real life footage, the authentic look and feel adds to the tension of a film that is as informative as it is entertaining.

QUARTET*** (UK, dir Dustin Hoffman)
As it seems that old is the new young in terms of cinema box office, this must be destined for huge success. Set in a home for retired opera singers with Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and a host of others all in reliable form, it is safe, amusing, sentimental and predictable. If you seek challenging cinema, stay away but if you want no more than to spend 90 minutes with a warm smile on your face, this is for you.

MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN*** (Canada/UK, dir Deepa Mehta)
Salman Rushdie’s screenplay adapts his own novel which tells a family story against the backdrop of over 50 years of Indian history. For the most part, this challenge is met remarkably well; the film is absorbing, moving and even humorous and it is only in the last quarter that it loses its way. In this last section, the mystical elements which are infused throughout come to the fore thereby undermining credibility, political statements are too overt and the narrative flow becomes rushed.

BROKEN** (UK, dir Rufus Norris)
In a middle class community in English suburbia, petty tensions escalate, separate lives become interlinked and a chain reaction is created with devastating effects. In its themes and in its style of accentuated drama, it resembles “Crash”‘ but what worked well in a Los Angeles setting looks awkward and unnatural here. It is good to see Tim Roth back on home soil and the actors are generally excellent. However, there is much more to admire in this film than there is to like.

WASTELAND**** (UK, dir Rowan Athale)
Possibly the best British crime caper since “The Italian Job” (or is it the only one?), this is driven by fast-paced direction and energised by a cast consisting mainly of fresh young talent. In the lead role, Luke Treadaway (recently wowing National Theatre audiences in “Curious Incident…”) has ample charisma which helps to carry the film through its transition from the gritty realism of the first half to the wild improbabilities of the later stages.

RUST AND BONE**** (France, dir Jacques Audiard)
Brutal and tender in equal measures, this engrossing drama veers between the extremes of pain and ecstasy in the lives if its chief protagonists, beautifully portrayed by Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. Comparing and contrasting physical and emotional experiences, it is often uncomfortable viewing, but ultimately its rewards are considerable. A Further example of the confidence and maturity of modern French cinema.

An indie cinema miracle. This account of third World America, Louisiana at the time of Hurricane Katrina, is told through the eyes of a small child. Stark and unflinching, it is also life-affirming and, ultimately, profoundly beautiful.

BLOOD*** (UK, dir Nick Murphy)
The gritty cop drama is a genre that British cinema conceded to television many decades ago. So it comes as a neat reversal that this is adapted from a tv original. The narrative twist comes early and, from then, the resolution is inevitable. Therefore it is left to an impressive cast (including Paul Bettany, Mark Strong and Brian Cox) to sustain the interest, aided by the north-west England coastal setting which underscores the film’s bleakness.