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Sunday, 31 January 2010

Film - A Prophet directed by Jacques Audiard

Star rating 9/10

French cinema was already on a high from the excellent Mesrine films last year, but this latest offering from Jacques Audiard in the shape of a brutal prison drama is a class act. Newcomer Tahar Rahim is terrific as Malik, a nineteen year old French Arab man, just about to get his first taste of the harsh world of adult prison life, after his youthful detention experiences. And be warned – it is a very violent film.

The terrified Malik is quickly nobbled by César , the Corsican prison Godfather, to either kill another Arab prisoner that he wants disposing of, or to be killed himself. Hobson’s choice – but Malik quickly learns that he needs all his wits about him if he is to survive.

And survive he does, mainly be becoming a lackey for César, brilliantly and terrifyingly portrayed by Niels Arestrup. Malik endures being treated like, and regularly referred to as, a dog by the Corsican prisoners who run the jail, but just as he gets an education in literacy from the prison authorities, he also gets an education in survival, as he quickly learns to bide his time, to quietly make useful alliances, and that revenge is a dish best served cold.

The film is long, at 155 minutes, but the action is gripping as we take every step of Malik’s brutal journey with him. A great soundtrack adds to the tension, with a superbly underplayed slow version of Mack the Knife over the closing credits courtesy of Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Very violent?– yes. Superb entertainment? – indeed. Best film of 2010 so far?– definitely.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Theatre - A Raisin in the Sun - Royal Exchange

Star rating - 7/10

This play by Lorraine Hansberry set in the south side of Chicago in the 1950s was the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. And it must have really put the cat amongst the pigeons when it first played, dealing as it does with issues of racism, segregation, and the place of their African heritage in the lives of fifth generation black Americans.

Lena is the matriarch of the family, whose husband has died leaving her with a financial legacy bigger than her wildest dreams. But it is not bigger than the dreams of her son Walter, who badly wants the freedom and dignity that he thinks the money will bring. Ray Fearon, last seen by me helping Kevin out in the garage, not very convincingly in Corrie, is surprisingly first class in his powerful portrayal of the angry and resentful Walter, whose plans go painfully awry. There is also great support from Jenny Jules as his wife Ruth, who just longs to get out of their cockroach infested rented apartment and have a home of their own. And also from Tracey Ifeachor, as his younger sister Beneatha, who is studying hard to be doctor against all expectations for a young black woman at the time.

The play is still capable of invoking a passionate reaction from the audience too, despite the fact that it feels a little overlong, with a little tighter writing and sharper production being needed in places. And it must be said that Starletta DuPois has great difficulty in remembering her lines as Lena, in a way I must say that I have never seen before to such an extent at the Royal Exchange. Whether it was lack of rehearsal, or review night nerves, it did detract from the overall strength of the piece, which is unfortunate to say the least.

As overall this play has a powerful message, and I will remember it for the anger, pain and ultimate dignity of Walter – Ray Fearon was truly wasted in Kevin’s garage, and he steals the show at the Royal Exchange.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Books - Small Wars by Sadie Jones

Star rating – 7/10

As with her first novel, The Outcast, Sadie Jones tackles the repressed emotions inside a family, and how those emotions inevitably burst to the surface under extreme pressure in her second novel Small Wars. The setting this time is Cyprus during the 1950’s, and how Hal Treherne, a Major in the army, is posted there with his young wife Clara and their twin baby girls.

The story reveals how Hal feels brutalised by the horrors of war – many of the episodes recounted have more than distant echoes of events in the present day Iraq/Afghanistan conflict. It is the story of a marriage under extreme pressure, and how two loving and basically decent people cope with the fissures this brings to their relationship.

It makes for uncomfortable reading in places, as where Hal in turns acts in a very brutal way towards Clara, at a time long before post traumatic stress disorder was recognised. The characters are both trying to maintain a stiff upper lip; a product of their upbringings and of the age they are living in. It also brings home the fact that in war, so very little changes, even to this very day, which is a sobering thought.

Jones tells the story from both their perspectives equally, although she does not really try to get under the skin of their innermost feelings, which sometimes feels to be merely scratching the surface. Nevertheless, it is a well written period novel, which skilfully evokes the era it is set in, and keeps you guessing the final outcome to the very end.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Film- Still Walking – directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda

Star rating – 7/10

This new Japanese portrait of a family still grieving the tragic death of their eldest son 12 years previously is a gentle mirror on the intricacies of a family who are, like many families, not at all at ease with each other. Yoshio Harada plays a retired doctor who measures the success of his sons solely by whether or not they choose the same profession as he did. His wife is happy entertaining her remaining children and their families as they come home to mark the anniversary of her son’s death. She is not so happy, however, with the behaviour of her husband, who is, to put it very mildly, a glass half empty sort of guy.

The slightly overlong introduction to the family members sets the scene, as food is prepared for the gathering. And the pleasant but materialistic daughter wants to both keep the peace, and to secure her family’s permanent place in her parent’s home at the same time. Alongside her is her remaining brother, who has obviously annoyed his parents by marrying a widow with a young son.

The film is a window into the minute detail of Japanese domestic life – and that aspect of the piece is very interesting. But many of the main characters are not people with whom I could sympathise a great deal at all. They are cantankerous to each other, and are not prepared to say what they really feel at most points.

They are living with the broken hopes and dreams that died with their son Junpei. They are crushed by the weight of the expectations of their father. And they are coming to terms with the new reality of the mixed up families in modern Japan.

I cannot say that the family portrait painted was ‘lovely’ – as the publicity posters proclaim. This is however, a very interesting and intimate portrait of how a family copes with loss and disappointment, and carries on regardless.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Theatre – I am Yusef and This Is My Brother – Young Vic

Star rating – 6/10

Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play reminds us of a chapter of history that still arouses very strong emotions amongst those directly affected by it, as evidenced by the passionate reaction to it by some of this packed audience. That chapter was the war of 1948 that resulted in the creation of the new state of Israel, and the uprooting of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and lands. And I am very sympathetic to that cause.

This play tries to straddle three interconnected strands – the historical context of the war; the moving relationship between two brothers – one of whom has some form of learning disability; and a doomed love affair. All with tremendous potential in their own right to produce a great play. The problem for me here was that none of the strands were clear enough or strong enough in the telling. The story was a bit confused and difficult to follow. That was partly due to practical staging issues, such as not been able to read the surtitles for part of the play when they were blurred by being projected onto the folds of a piece of cloth.

But nevertheless I absolutely applaud the attempt, and I did enjoy the evening. But just felt a little confused at the end of the play. And there was such a lot of water involved that I did feel for the actors in the cold, air conditioned to within an inch of its life theatre. But maybe that’s just me….

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Film - The Road - directed by John Hillcoat

Star rating – 8/10

Let’s get the admissions out of the way first – I haven’t read the Cormac McCarthy book on which this bleak film is based. It is now on my ‘to read’ list, but I may have to leave it a little while until I subject myself to it such blackness again. And bleak this film really is – even though by popular opinion it is not as bleak as the novel.

The road of the title refers to the journey made by a man and his young son after a catastrophic disaster has wrecked havoc on Earth, leaving any survivors prey to starvation, murderous gangs, and cannibalism. The two leads are on screen for most of the film and are impressively and heart rendingly played by Viggo Mortensen as the desperate father, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son. His mother, played in flashback by Charlize Theron, could not face up to the nightmare of struggling for survival in such a barren and hostile world, and leaves her family to fend for themselves while she goes into the dark night to her inevitable death, whilst wishing they had shot themselves whilst they still had enough bullets left to do so. And as the film goes on, you do feel that she may have had a point.

The two struggling survivors have to stay alert for every moment of every day and night - for any chance of finding a scrap of precious food; and to the ever present danger of finding hostile fellow survivors, driven to robbery and murder in the desperate circumstances.

The cinematography is stunning, with the dying planet perfectly captured on screen as the pair make their near impossible journey south to the coast. But the pointlessness of the journey is a bit baffling. There will be no happy ending at the coast. Only misery all the way. What else could they expect really?

Hollywood has obviously left its imprint on this version of the story, with the more bestial element of the book toned down considerably by all accounts. But nevertheless the innocence and hopefulness of the boy are very touching. He will not let his father succumb to the madness of treating all strangers as murderous enemies. So my advice is, if you are suffering from the January blues, this may not be the film for you. But if you want a powerful, post apocalyptic, well acted story with a bleak message – then this may just fit the bill.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Film – I’m Gonna Explode – directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Star rating – 6/10

This is a Mexican teenage love and angst movie from Gerardo Naranjo, with Gael Garcia Bernal as one if its executive producers. The story is told from the perspective of 15 year old Maru, impressively played by Maria Deschamps. She is disaffected at school and clearly feels on the margins of her fellow pupils. So when Roman, (Juan Pablo de Santiago), the son of a right wing politician, gets kicked out of his private school and comes to Maru’s, it is clear that they are quickly going to find each other.

Neither are very happy. Roman has been understandably very troubled since the car crash in which is mother is killed, caused by his father’s drunk driving. His father, and his new stepmother are not really interested in Roman, so he goes off the rails. It is not as clear why Maru feels so alienated, but she immediately views Roman as a kindred spirit when she sees him fake his own hanging in a school production, to the understandable shock of the rest of the school.

They quickly decide to run away – but only get as far as a tent on the roof of his father’s expensive apartment. They steal provisions when the coast is clear, and whilst they are alone, their first fumbling sexual encounters begin. The relationship between them is nicely told – with Maru in turns encouraging then rejecting Roman’s advances in her nervousness and naivety. Eventually they get further than the roof, and steal a car to make a more conventional getaway.

The central characters are likeable and engaging, although the story is a bit meandering, and would have benefited from a sharper plot line. Roman’s father and step mother are cold and selfish. He clearly just needs a bit of affection and understanding, and so does not really have a clear idea of what they will do if they succeed in their escape plan.

And of course there is no happy ending. Just a good, if a bit of a wayward story, compellingly played by two promising, and beautiful, young actors.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Film – Avatar – directed by James Cameron

Star rating – 7/10

There are a couple of questions worth pondering about this latest James Cameron blockbuster, firstly, does it justify the long wait, the reputed $230 million it took to make, and all the hype; and secondly, is it any good as a 3D movie (and indeed are 3D movies themselves a worthwhile medium).

So, as someone with little expectations of the film, and who had seriously not been waiting for this ‘movie event of the decade’, but just went along out of curiosity, then the answer to the first question is that it is a genuinely impressive film, not so much for its storyline, which is engaging enough, but for its fantastic use of CGI, its special effects, and its breathtaking landscapes.

The basic story line, for the record, is that a paraplegic former marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) plays a wheelchair-bound war hero who is selected to take part in a top-secret mission. He is sent to an extraterrestrial moon called Pandora which is inhabited by race of humanoid aliens, the Na’vi. Sully has to become one of the Na’vi, and finds himself a torn between the scientists (led by Cameron old girl Sigourney Weaver) who want to discover the secrets of Pandora, and the mercenaries who only want to plunder the precious minerals there. But Sully starts to question the legitimacy of his task, partly thanks to his romance with the warrior princess Neytiri.

And Cameron introduces a welcome political element to the action, for those who wish to explore it, which admittedly will not be all the Avatar audiences. But there are clear parallels to be drawn with the American role in the current Iraqi/Afghanistani conflict, which don’t take much deciphering. Cameron also makes more than a few nods (some might say shamelessly steals) from Michael Mann’s 1992 ‘Last of the Mohicans’ in at least four scenes. Indeed he even uses one of the same actors, Wes Studi, in the role of Eytukan, the father of princess Neytiri who is understandably reluctant to endorse his daughter’s choice of life partner at first.

The action is first rate, even if the film is a little overlong, although admittedly not as long as some other so called blockbusters. But it is a great film, and it has to be said that it is refreshing to see a hero in a wheelchair whose disability is not really made a big thing of.

And so to the second question, is it any good as a 3D film – well, once you have got over the initial novelty of seeing objects in this added dimension, as they come hurtling towards you out of the screen, I don’t think that there is really much point in having the movie in 3D at all. Sorry and all that – but the special effects would stand up for themselves in their own right without the dark glasses – amusing though they are to wear with your fellow film goers. It just does not seem to be really necessary or add much to the experience. So, although I enjoyed Avatar, I agree with the Mark Kermode view of 3D when he says ‘the future is flat’.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Books – Esther Waters by George Moore

Star rating – 7/10

This book was another ‘neglected classic’ featured on Radio 4 recently, and championed there by novelist Colm Toibin. It is an interesting question – what is a classic? – and are there such things as neglected classics lurking forgotten in our literary back catalogue? But I will return to this later.

Esther Waters was written in 1894, and set in the harsh reality of 1870’s England for a poor servant girl. It caused quite a stir at the time, dealing as it does with issues of immorality such as illegitimacy; divorce; gambling; and the terrible spectre of the workhouse. It was only after Gladstone gave his stamp of approval to the novel that it became accepted and indeed, very popular in its day.

Esther is not a heroine from the usual mould. She is an illiterate serving girl in a horse riding stables, who becomes pregnant after something off a one off fumble with her unreliable paramour. And the resulting struggle by Esther to keep hold of her poor child, whatever else she has to do, is a harsh tale of desperation and devotion. The story is told by Moore through Esther’s eyes, and this makes the characterisation a little sparse in places, as she is hardly a worldly wise woman. She has a simplistic and somewhat innocent view of the world and the people that she meets in it.

However, Moore does a remarkable job of writing from Esther’s female perspective. The book does not feel as if it is written by a man. One of the most powerful scenes is where Esther, who is struggling to make ends meet as a wet nurse in the home of a wealthy lady, discovers that her own baby is ill, but is not allowed to go to him, and realises that the price of keeping the babies of the rich alive may very possibly be the life of her own child, as the two previous wet nurses in the house had found to their cost. Esther makes a powerful speech to her employer about the total injustice of the wet nursing practice that was so common at that time:

‘when you hire a poor girl such as me to give the milk that belongs to another to your child, you think nothing of the poor deserted one. He is only a love-child you say, and had better be dead and done with. I see it all now.’

The story follows Esther through her struggles to make enough money to keep her son, with the prospect of the workhouse never far away. It is a good story, and one in which the reader’s sympathies are clearly with Esther and all girls like her who found themselves in desperate situations through no fault of their own in Victorian England. It is told in a pacey style and is definitely something of a page turner.

But for me, in the end, it is not a classic. Or at least not a classic in the sense of a fabulously descriptive Dickens novel; or a powerful Bronte book full of wilderness and passion. These masterpieces have stood the test of time and are as much loved today as they ever were. The power of the writing and the skill of the authors in crafting beautiful, funny, haunting, sad, rich and descriptive novels is still clear and has stood the test of time. George Moore’s Esther Waters is for me, a highly entertaining and laudable book in its successful attempts to highlight social injustice. But for me the reason that not many people have heard of it, let alone read it, is that it is of its day, and not deserving of the too often used label ‘classic’. So to come back to the question I posed earlier, I do doubt after reading a couple of these so –called neglected classics, if there are really any such books out there at all.