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Monday, 31 August 2009

Film: Hurt Locker – directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Star rating - 10/10

I wasn’t prepared for this film at all. Not an out and out anti war film, but squarely on the side of the soldiers, it is relentless, powerful and absolutely engrossing. Director Kathryn Bigelow wants us to really feel what it is like for the three main characters in this drama, and boy did I sweat with them.

The action follows the exploits of a three man special unit who deal with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) in Iraq in 2004 in the final 38 days of their tour of duty. Sgt James (superbly played by Jeremy Renner) joins the team as their leader to replace their previous boss who was blown up by a bomb. James is an adrenaline junkie who seems almost suicidal in his quest to do his job of disarming the powerful devices, with many enemy eyes watching his every move, many times without his full protective suit. He takes risks that his fellow unit members are appalled at, but they also have to respect his sheer bravery and audacity, and have no choice but to follow where he leads.

The full horror of the realties of being is such a hostile environment unfold in a series of almost impossible missions. The audience are gripped by the action, and by the moments of immense tension throughout the entire film, as the soldiers trawl through abandoned buildings and remote desert locations on their missions.

There are a couple of notable cameo performances from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes, but the main action is always with James and his men. Great performances are also had from Brian Geraghty as Specialist Eldridge, who is clearly on the verge of a breakdown; and from Anthony Mackie as Sgt Sanborn, who at one point is even tempted to kill James and make it look like an accident just to escape from his recklessness.

In the end, for me, this was a film about the futility of war, and the bravery of the soldiers who fight in it, as well as the untold damage that it does to them, during or long after the conflict. One of the most telling comments on war, which seemed so out of place with the obvious reality we were watching, is from the hapless army doctor, who tells Eldridge that he should have a good time as war is also supposed to be fun.

No fun at all is to be had though, in this fantastic film, that I am sure will stay with me for a very long time.

Books – The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
Star rating - 6/10

This assured debut novel sizzles along, and pulls you right in. It tells the juxtaposed tales of a schoolgirl’s illicit affair with her teacher; and the subsequent enactment of this tale in the local Drama School’s end of term first year production.

It is all about acting – most of the characters seem to be playing a part – either to the reader, or to other protagonists in the plot. Many of the adults in the story are either co-incidental, like the mothers of the girls leaning to play the saxophone with the very dark unnamed saxophone teacher with her rooms above the Drama School building. Or else they are very dark characters, like the father of Stanley, who is trying to get into the drama course, and subsequently stars in the ill fated production. Stanley’s father seems to specialise in very tasteless jokes about paedophilia and related topics.

It is a coming of age tale, with the affair involving the teacher awakening all sorts of sexual feelings in the girl’s friends, and also in her little sister, Isolde. We are also introduced here to the strong character of Julia, whose schoolmates have already cast as a lesbian, and who is never afraid to challenge and put her well rehearsed point of view. She loves the shock value of her opinions, and her stance seems to be in a certain way that of this whole book.

It constantly challenges the reader to question what is going on, who is really doing what, and why. It is a little hard to follow in places, with large amounts of action taking place at different times with little clue as to where each piece of the jigsaw fits in with the whole. The Rehearsal is written in an unusual and distinctive style, but many of the characters seem to speak in a constant stream of soliloquies, which is a little hard to believe.

However, the saxophone teacher gives us a clue about what the rehearsal in the title actually alludes to when she says to one of her pupils’ mothers’: ‘remember that these years of your daughter’s life are only the rehearsal for what comes after. Remember that it’s in her best interests for everything to go wrong.’ And it does…

A very striking and different novel, which was also a real page turner. An accomplished debut with the promise of much more to come.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Film: Broken Embraces – directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Star rating - 8/10

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest offering, again starring his favourite leading lady – Penelope Cruz, is a homage to film making itself. It splits the story between present day Madrid, with the blind former film director Mateo Blanco (played by Lluís Homar), who has tragically lost his sight and will now only answer to the name of his former pseudonym Harry Caine; and flashbacks to 1994 and the making of his last film, which starred Lena (beautifully and sensuously played by Cruz), as the mistress of a ruthless but rich businessman who will do anything to keep her under his control.

At times an exciting action movie, at other times quite dark and tragic, and again in places very, very funny, this is another gem of a film from Almodóvar. The violence and suffocation of Cruz’s relationship with her older lover in the flashback scenes, is lightened by some lovely humour in the present day scenes, such as when Diego, the son of Mateo/Harry’s best friend and agent Judit, is exploring the possible storyline for a vampire romance film.

He alludes to many other films in the piece, including one of his best movies to date – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown from 1988– via the use of that old favourite, the spiked gazpacho trick. But this film is not just for serious film buffs. It is a complex and involved plot but not too difficult to follow. Cruz is at her brilliant and stunning best when working with Almodóvar. The colour is terrific and soundtrack great.

Another great, if slightly indulgent film from Almodóvar – but when self indulgence is this good to watch – who cares?

Friday, 28 August 2009

Books: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Star rating - 6/10

Well we all think we know just about everything there is to know about the Tudors, and in particular the lustings of Henry VIII, followed by the legal and religious justifications that were concocted afterwards to justify his divorce from Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. Hilary Mantle has told the story from a different and unfamiliar point of view with this book – that of Thomas Cromwell.

She takes us from his humble beginnings and violent childhood in Putney, to his devotion to Cardinal Wolsey through his post as legal secretary, to even more devotion to Henry himself as his chief minister after the fall of his former master. It has to be said that it is a very long book (650 pages in all) but it is nonetheless the 2:1 favourite for this year’s Man Booker prize.
Mantel does keep the story flowing very well, with a vast and intricate cast of characters that does, however, get a bit confusing in places. It was difficult to work out if that was because of the number of players, or if her style of flashbacks to earlier action muddied the waters a little.
She obviously likes to take a different viewpoint to the accepted version of these familiar characters. Thomas Moore, for instance, is not portrayed in a particularly flattering light. He seems pompous and even cruel to his long suffering wife – whom he says he only married to keep house, and whom he forces to endure long conversations with his dinner guests in Latin, even though she can’t understand a word of it. So a very different portrayal from the usual Man for all Seasons then. But Anne Boleyn is pictured here, as in many other retellings of the tale, as a Machiavellian character with no redeeming features at all, who had "a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes".

This is a good yarn, interestingly retold from Cromwell’s point of view, with a flowing and easy style that kept me reading until the bitter end. And although we all do know how it all ends – with the executions of both Anne Boleyn and Cromwell himself eventually, Mantel chooses to leave us with the tantalising prospect of Henry just about to make a five day trip to Wolf Hall – home of one Jane Seymour…

Film: ‘Mesrine – Public Enemy Number One’ – directed by Jean-Francois Richet
Star rating - 7/10

This is the second half of the film portrait of the charm, violence, escapes, more charm, and a lot more violence of real life criminal Jacques Mesrine (pronounced Meerine as he insists throughout the film). Vincent Cassel again excels as the infamous French gangster who we catch up with here as he revels in his own infamy, and believes that his bank and casino hold ups are somehow his fight against the system.

It is a fast paced action piece, although his wit and humour also make it very funny in places. There are also a couple of touching scenes with his dying father and his daughter that help to show his more gentle side. Just before one court room escape, Mesrine delights in demonstrating the packed courtroom just how corrupt the system is by showing off the key to his handcuffs that he claims to have bought from a police officer.

He writes his life story during one of his short prison stays- and revels in the embellishment that he gives the tale. He really is out to create his own legend.

Again it is fast, funny and brilliantly filmed. But very violent – and the ending (which we saw through different eyes at the start of the first installment) is inevitable when it finally comes. This beats anything else in its genre around at the moment hands down.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Film: ‘Sin Nombre’ – directed by Cary Fukunaga
Star rating 8/10

This is a brilliant, although very brutal film, about illegal immigrants trying to escape Honduran poverty via Mexico into the good old USA. In this directorial debut, which is executively produced by Gael Garcia Bernal, a young teenage girl Sayra (impressively played here by Paulina Gaitan) is looking for a better life along with her estranged father and her uncle.

It features some extremely brutal gang violence, with gang member Willy breaking their code by carrying on an illicit romance behind the gang leader’s back. After the tragic aftermath of his actions, he finds himself on the same freight train as Sayra and her group of escapees.

The unlikely relationship that ensues between the trusting Sayra and the desperate and broken Willy is moving. The cinematography is also impressive, with the morning sunrises across the desperately poor land showing how cruel and hard life must for some Central American people.

It was hard to watch the sheer brutality that this film was so honestly attempting to portray, but nevertheless I could quite see why is was awarded the 2009 Sundance Festival Directors prize. Bleak but nonetheless beautiful.

Exhibition: 'Putting on the Glitz - wallpapers and wall coverings with that extra something'
Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester until Nov 09
Star rating 6/10

This exhibition is of special wall coverings which incorporate precious metals from the late 19th century to the present day. I was especially interested in it as I have just finished choosing new wallpaper patterns for my own home. The collection includes sumptuous Japanese gold embossed hand painted patterns from the 19th century, right through to current designs.

A notable inclusion is the Pollyanna design from the mid 1980's which is hand printed large green parrots on foil, and at £68 per roll in 1985 it's not hard to see why most people only used it on a single wall. So our current craze for feature walls (one which I must admit I have recently succumbed to in not one but two rooms), is not a new thing... The metal effect 1984 Copacabana design, with its light reflective undulating pink waves made me smile and took me right back to Gloria Estefan and Miami Vice memories.

Some of the foil designs came with appropriate health and safety advice about not using it near light sockets - with a worrying disclaimer that the manufacturers would not be held responsible for any resulting accidents! Shocking wallpaper indeed.

This is a small but lovely exhibition which shows how we have indulged our desire for opulence (both via the real thing and clever imitations) by way of our wall coverings for generations.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Books: The Salati Case - Tobias Jones

Star rating - 6/10

OK maybe nothing to do with either London or Manchester culture per se - I contend that as I read this Italian set crime novel between the two cities, it qualifies as an entry on my blog.

This is apparently the first book in a new crime series by Jones about the private investigator Castagnetti, who we find here investigating the case of a disappearance some years ago with a view to clearing up an inheritance issue. I have to say I do love crime books with a clear sense of place, and also which give us an insight into the pleasures and foibles of the main investigator. Great examples of the genre I think are Rankin's Rebus and Camilleri's Montalbano, which make Edinburgh and Sicily respectively really come alive on the page and have kept me gripped throughout the series and longing for more.

Jones does not achieve this same trick successfully enough for me. Whilst we do get the feel for Castagnetti's bee keeping hobby and personal mode of retreat, this is not brought out in enough detail. I did not really come away from the book knowing much about him, or even wanting to find out much more about what made him tick. Also, the author does not bring Italy to life through the tale enough for my tastes.

I found the crime story, as it unfolded, interesting enough to keep my attention, although a little difficult to follow in places. Some of Castagnetti's methods are, as all good exponents of this type of activity tend to be, a little unorthodox, although some of the stunts he pulls spill over into the realm of incredulity for me. However creative one has to be in the world of Italian crime investigation and corruption, I am just not sure that Castagnetti would get away with behaving as he does in places in the book.

So a fair if not brilliant start to his exploits. Hopefully the character of Castagnetti will develop over future instalments, as well as sharing with avid crime consumers like me more of the sense of his surroundings.

Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire - Donmar Warehouse, Covent Garden
Star rating - 8/10

My first ever trip to the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden was a hot and sultry affair - both the famous Tennessee Williams' play, and the temperature in the theatre. I wasn't really sure if that was a regular feature here, or just a special effect to make us feel we were in the Deep South, although I suspect it was the former. The play completely lived up to its four star reviews. It was full of drama, passion, and lives wasted or gone tragically wrong. Rachel Weisz, playing the washed up heroine of the piece, Blanche DuBois, was stunningly good. Rachel Wilson as her put upon little sister Stella, was also excellent, and looked a good deal more attractive than she had done when playing Jayne Ayre on TV, although I suppose that was to be expected.

The role of Stanley, Stella's husband, was played by Elliot Cowan. When watching the play I felt that he was not attacking the role enough or playing it with the force it needed (not really living up to the wonderful Marlon Brando film version of the character). When I subsequently remembered that he had put in a magnificent performance as Henry V at the Royal Exchange in Manchester about a year ago, I was surprised by this seeming relative lack of spirit here. Maybe it has something to do with having to act with a southern American accent. I have to say that I would find it very off putting as an actor to have to concentrate so hard on getting the accent right and not just on the lines and the drama of the play. That might explain it - but then I am not an actor so who am I to say?

I must also mention the wonderful Daniela Nardini (yes - Anna from This Life) was great as the neighbour upstairs. And it did give me a certain amount of guilty pleasure to note that however sexy and gorgeous she was as Anna, she is still facing the same mid life physical deterioration as the rest of us (although obviously still gorgeous) - had to mention that...

Overall then a wonderful play that left me drained and all my emotions awakened. A particularly brutal but necessary scene aside, it is a wonderful play, wonderfully acted, that left me feeling sad but better about the world - which to me is sort of the whole point.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Film: Mesrine - Killer Instinct

Star rating - 9/10

I went to see this classy French film at the Cornerhouse in Manchester last night. I am usually a bit suspicious about films made in two parts that you have to pay to go to see twice (although the recent Che Guevara double bill proved my scepticism to be misplaced on that score so you never know ), but nonetheless I held my doubts in check and I am so glad I did. The film is based on the true story of gangster Jacques Mesrine (magnificently played here by Vincent Cassel). Jacques charms and fights his way out of the French campaign in Algeria, into a life of heists, gangsters and shoot outs - all put together with a nice dash of 60's chic across Paris, Spain and Montreal.
The action is non stop, the two hours passes like a flash. I did feel a bit guilty about wanting Jacques to emerge triumphant from his various escapades including an audacious prison escape. Not sure in reality it is good to be on the side of such violence but hey - this is the movies. The film makes clever use of split screen action, and uses music of the period to great effect, including the juxtaposing of Tammy Wynette's Stand by Your Man with Jimmy Hendrix - that has got to be a first.
I for one can't wait for the second instalment of the adventures of France's alleged Public Enemy Number 1.