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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Film - Leaving - directed by Catherine Corsini

Star rating – 8/10

This latest French film featuring the perpetual star that is Kristin Scott Thomas is another wonderful showcase for her many talents. She is simply fabulous as Suzanne, the wife of a wealthy doctor with two teenage children, who is re-establishing her career as a physiotherapist after many years of unpaid domesticity. And we know from the off that it will not end well, hearing as we do the sound of a gunshot after she leaves her marital bed, and oblivious sleeping husband, in some obvious emotional distress.

The film is then told in flashback to six months earlier, when she begins a passionate affair with a Catalan builder whom her husband has hired to convert an outbuilding to a new physiotherapy suite for her. And doesn’t he love to remind her just how much it is costing him. He treats the builders with obvious distain, and seems to have no redeeming features at all. The surprise is not that Suzanne starts an unlikely passionate relationship with Ivan, with his run down apartment and criminal record, but that she ever saw anything vaguely attractive in her husband in the first place.

The build up to and enactment of the magnetic attraction and tender affection between Suzanne and Ivan, played by Sergi López, is beautifully and sensitively portrayed. Her nervous face, as she waits to go into his flat for the first time with a bunch of roses for him, their feelings as yet unstated but coming inexorably to boiling point, is worth a thousand words. And of course it all gets very messy.

The film deals with the dire position of women in Suzanne’s position in divorce cases financially, and of the potential of small town politics to be used for the personal ends of its key players, rather than for anything resembling democracy and justice. The reason that Suzanne can bear to walk away from the baubles and trappings of her privileged existence for a man who truly loves her is clear. But the issue of how she can bear to walk out on her two teenage children, with barely a backward glance, is skirted over, and is for me the one weak point of this otherwise moving and emotionally charged film.

But for avowed KST fans, of which I am unashamedly one, this is yet another vehicle for her talent and beauty, which deals intelligently and thoughtfully with a painful and controversial subject. Long may she reign.

Film - Inception - directed by Christopher Nolan

Star rating – 9/10

It is a little difficult to know where to start with this new offering from Christopher Nolan. It is like a cross between The Matrix, James Bond and Sigmund Freud, with a little romance thrown in for good measure. Nolan does not want his audience to be passive recipients of his offering, and there is no way you could just sit and soak up this very clever plot without thinking very hard about what you are seeing; what it all means; and if it is really happening at all.

Here we are thrown into the world of dreams – and indeed, of dreams within dreams. The intricate plot centres on Dom Cobb, excellently played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who deals in industrial espionage of a novel kind. His speciality is breaking into people’s dreams and extracting information from them which is of use to his clients. His personal life is, however, in something of a state of disarray, as he has left his two young children in the care of their grandfather and fled from the US under suspicion of murdering his wife, Mal. In fact we learn that he feels responsible for messing up her mind so much that she lost track of what was real and what was imaginary. And as he did use her as a sort of guinea pig for his new dream techniques, he is entitled to feel more than a little guilt about that. The problem for him is that Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, who he is still desperately in love with, keeps appearing in his dreams and preventing him from thinking, or should that be dreaming (?) straight.

So when a Japanese hot shot businessman with the alleged power to get Cobb’s wanted status with the US authorities expunged, thus allowing his to return to his children, offers him an assignment unlike any he has ever undertaken, Cobb can’t refuse. For this task he needs to not only extract information from dreams, but to go one stage further and to implant thoughts via dreams i.e. inception. The victim for this task is Robert Fischer, played by the ever easy on the eye Cillian Murphy, who is the son of a dying business tycoon, who the Japanese businessman instigating the whole operation wants to persuade to break up his father’s empire, thus leaving the way clear for his rival corporation to get a look in. For this he needs a crack team of operators around him, including the wonderful Ellen Page, who plays the rather aptly named Ariadne, a brilliant young student who will be the chief maze designer and dream architect. But this is no minatour’s labyrinth – this is a mental maze of the most confusing proportions.

If you think that I have put a little too much detail in here by way of explanation, well is does feel like a lot, but I couldn’t honestly find a way of cutting it down without being totalling baffling. Suffice it to say that the plot hinges on the fantastically clever device of going down into several levels of Fischer’s consciousness to influence his thought processes. So the same actors are appearing in different scenes at roughly the same time, only in different levels of dreams and in the dreams of different people. So that’s clear then…. Ariadne sums up the confusion well at one point when she asks "Whose subconscious are we going into actually?" Good point, well made, I thought.

The film involves dazzling sets, including Paris folding in on itself, and huge crumbling cites of the mind. The action is so fast paced it leaves you slightly dizzy, including as it does gravity defying feats in hotel corridors, alongside exploits in lift shafts, and fierce gun fighting in snowy tundra, all involving the same characters at the same time.

The whole concept of the exploration and manipulation of dreams is a brilliant one. If only we could do that. The film is also emotionally engaging, with Cobb haunted by the vision of his beloved, if by now slightly deranged, dead wife; and Robert Fischer dealing with feelings of inadequacy in the face of his father’s stratospheric corporate success.
I can’t admit to understanding everything in ‘Inception’ – even with a couple more viewings it may still be a trifle confusing for me. But it is very refreshing to be asked to think so much, and to concentrate so hard, as well to sit back and enjoy this dazzling spectacle of an action movie.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Theatre - War Horse - New London Theatre

Star rating – 8/10

I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘War Horse’. I didn’t know if this critically acclaimed and wildly popular show that transferred a few years ago from its debut at the National Theatre to its current West End home, would live up to the hype, or just be a good old fashioned dollop of sentimentality. Well this story, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, of a Devon lad and his beloved horse, is sentimental – there’s no denying that. But it is also a good story, which is very well acted, and whose skilful use of puppetry is simply breathtaking at times.

It is definitely a play for all ages – young and old alike. It is beautiful, sad, moving and clever. Albert comes across his horse, Joey, by accident as a result of his father’s drinking. He learns how to look after the thorough bred and the bond between them develops before the audience’s eyes. It does sound odd that you are so quickly taken in by the puppets. The horse is brought to life by two people inside it, with a third operating the head and doing the very authentic sound effects. I think the key to the way it draws you in is in the horse's eyes, which are very realistic, and in the movement itself, which is astonishingly good. Quite how the puppeteers keep up the illusion for the nearly three hour long performance is amazing.

Things take a turn for the worse when Joey is sold to the army and goes to fight in the First World War in the French mud. Albert, desperate to be with his beloved horse, lies about his age to sign up and go to fight and find him again. I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say there were many moist eyes at the end of the performance.

The high quality of the production by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, and the incredible brilliance of the Handspring Puppet Company in creating not only Joey, but other horses, a goose, crows and various inanimate objects that I won’t specify for fear of giving too much away is spectacular.

I know it is basically a sentimental story, aimed largely at families, but it was very good, very moving, and very clever, and this big kid enjoyed it immensely.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Theatre - Danton's Death - National Theatre

Star rating – 5/10

For me a political play needs to explain its context adequately for its audience, and to give its characters some depth. This production of Georg Buchner’s ‘Danton’s Death’ at the National sadly does neither. And I so wanted to like it, starring as it does the fabulous Toby Stephens as the title part in question. But not even his acting prowess could save this play from being something of a turkey.

It is set in 1794 in post revolutionary France, during the so-called Reign of Terror. George Danton had previously been a supporter of the revolution, and played an active part in it. But he has now become somewhat indifferent to politics, preferring instead to spend his time between the arms of his wife, and any arms in the nearest brothel he can find. His new enemy is Robespierre, who is busy executing leading figures in the revolution who he previously fought alongside. At least I think that is roughly the historical context – the play didn’t really help out in a massive way by giving any back story, so I may be a bit hazy on some of the detail.

Good as Stephens undoubtedly is (please refer to my recent review of ‘The Real Thing’ at the Young Vic if you need a reminder), he cannot rescue either the part or Danton from his inevitable sticky end. This heavyweight play gives the audience no relief in the form of an interval either – just 2 hours of heavy duty moralising. And it also pains me to say that the couple of parts for women in the shape of Danton’s wife and a prostitute he cavorts with near the beginning are very unconvincingly played by their respective actresses.
Two good moments eased the weighty crusade of righteousness – one was a rousing rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’, and the other was the final guillotine scene, which will have audiences debating long after the play has finished how they achieved the special effects. I suspect that they didn’t really behead the actors, but someone should suffer for this turgid and frankly boring production.

Theatre - All My Sons - Apollo Theatre

Star rating – 9/10

This splendid production of ‘All My Sons’ serves to remind us what a tremendously powerful playwright Arthur Miller is, and one whose work is still as relevant today as when it was written. His 1947 play is about a family torn apart in the course of a single day by the weight of past lies and deceptions.

Joe Keller is a successful businessman with his own thriving family firm, and a committed family man, popular amongst the neighbourhood children and jovial by nature. His wife Kate is emotionally brittle from the disappearance of one of their two sons three years ago. Larry was a pilot in the Second World War, who is missing presumed dead after this plane failed to return to base. Joe and Kate are powerfully and brilliantly played by David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker. Their uneasy domestic balancing act unravels and weaknesses are painfully exposed before the audience’s eyes.

Their surviving son, Chris, is determined to move on, partly by becoming engaged to Annie, the former girlfriend of his dead brother. He invites her to stay with the express purpose of asking her to marry him, a purpose not entirely helped by his mother’s refusal to accept that Larry is dead. Stephen Campbell Moore and Jemima Rooper give excellent supporting performances as Chris and Annie, who desperately want to move on with their lives, but are ultimately frozen by the events of the past.

The jovial Joe is hiding a lie so big that it will cause the family to be ripped apart. He let his former business partner, who also just happens to be Annie’s father, take the rap and resulting prison sentence for allowing parts for planes to be used in the war to leave their factory with defects covered over by hasty and botched welding. When this terrible secret comes to light, it is apparent that he is not the only family member to know, or at least suspect, this truth. Miller’s superb and morally challenging script shows how the weight of lies can cripple. It also feels entirely relevant with its theme of sending people to war with defective or inadequate equipment, with deadly consequences. More than shades of Afghanistan here then.

This is an emotional powerhouse of a play, with a great cast who bring its fissions to light slowly but surely. The whole cast are worthy of the standing ovations they undoubtedly receive each night, and Suchet and Wanamaker show why they deserve the rich praise that has been lavished on them in particular, and on this tremendous production.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Film - White Material - directed by Claire Denis

Star rating – 7/10

Isabelle Huppert is superb in this violent, brutal and fractured film about the dying days of an unnamed French colonial African country. She plays Maria Vial, who we meet as she is clearly in desperate straits, ignoring the pleas of the departing French army from their helicopter to leave with them for the sake of her family. The magnificent Huppert shows Maria as beautiful, strong, stubborn and proud, as she defies this advice and implores the fleeing native workers to stay just one more week to help her get the coffee harvest in on her family plantation.

Claire Denis directs this taught and uncomfortable story, told partly in flashbacks to happier times just prior to the outbreak of civil war. It is not at all clear whether she wants her audience to empathise or despise Maria and the white community like her who have taken the wealth of the country for their personal gain while the local population lived in relative poverty.

Maria is struggling with her own family too: her lazy teenage son Manuel, who has considerable difficulty even getting out of his bed as civil war rages around them. His encounters with some child rebels make extremely uncomfortable viewing, and have a profound effect on Manual. Maria’s ex husband is played by Christopher Lambert. He too implores her to go home to France but she cannot imagine what her place would be in French society, feeling as she does umbilically tied to the African landscape.

This film is barren and beautiful and shocking. It does feel slightly over long, and the score at times imposes a little too much when the dramatic scenery and action could speak for themselves. It does reveal just what lengths settler communities the world over will go to in order to protect their wealth and material possessions, and it is no spoiler to say that they do not meet with a positive end. Thought provoking and bleak, admirable and horrific – Dennis certainly likes to challenge her audience.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Exhibitions - Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings - British Museum

Star rating – 7/10

This collection of Italian Renaissance drawings feels particularly suited to the dramatic setting of the Reading Room at the British Museum. Many of the works are on loan from the Uffizi in Florence, and it is a rare thing that these fragile pieces are allowed to leave Italy. The drawings, by some of the most dazzling Renaissance masters, were never intended by their creators to be put on public display, being as they were in the main, preparatory exercises for great paintings.

Artists featured here include Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, Michelangelo and Raphael. And it is fascinating to get an insight into how they went about creating their masterpieces by drawing parts of their subject matter first. These drawings reveal just how much work went into their subsequent creations, but are beautiful in their own right too.

I must admit that not all of the 100 or so drawings featured here are as breathtaking as the best of them. Some do feel very raw and very like the artists are feeling their way to later creative powers. But the purpose of this exhibition is as much to reveal the process of painting and the promise of the finished pieces, as to impress the viewer with the mastery of the creators’ pencil. The detail on some of the drapery and clothing is spectacular, such as on Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio’s ‘Drapery for the Risen Christ from 1491, so accurate that it is almost like looking at a photograph. My own favourite by ‘A follower of Giovannino de’Grassi’ is the ‘Cheetah’ done in water colour and showing beautiful detail of the big cat.

Leonardo da Vinci was slightly different from other Renaissance masters as he did not just create drawings to prepare for his paintings. He loved to draw as a medium in its own right. And it shows here in beautiful pieces such as his technically brilliant ‘Head of a Woman’. Titian’s ‘Young Woman’ from 1510-15 reveals the plump and soft flesh of his subject in startling detail, and is more beautiful than the picture that he eventually created of this same subject.

As you know by now, I am no art critic, but this exhibition is very interesting, and reveals the promise of much more that was to come in the paintings of some of the Renaissance greats featured here.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Books - Juliet Naked - Nick Hornby

Star rating – 7/10

Nick Hornby’s latest novel involves a subtle, bare plot, and employs his usual conversational writing style, which inevitably leads to him not being given the recognition he so deserves by the literary establishment. ‘Juliet Naked’ is a cleverly observed study of fortysomething male obsession with music and fandom - which is fuelled by the power of the internet to link similarly obsessed people (mainly men) across the world, and to therefore sustain and fan the flames of their obsession long after they should have died out. It is also bitingly accurate about the inability of some of the male species to create and sustain meaningful relationships.

Duncan and Annie have one such unhealthy 15 year relationship. The boredom and inertia of their lives in the bleak east coast town of Gooleness positively seeps from the pages. Annie works in a local museum where the event of the decade was a shark washed up on a local beach that she is now curating an exhibition to commemorate. So people there clearly need to get out more. And Annie has had to share her man with another, the American singer songwriter turned reclusive wild man Tucker Crowe. We join the couple on holiday in America making an inevitable pilgrimage to the site of Tucker’s mysterious disappearance from the music scene followed an alleged incident in a toilet. Duncan is obsessed with all things related to Tucker, and spends most of his time and energy discussing the minutiae of his life (or actually what his fans think his life is – as they don’t actually know anything about him since he disappeared from view).

Duncan is busy being unfaithful to Annie with someone at his school, but Annie is taking infidelity to a whole new level when she opens a package addressed to Duncan, and plays the first new material released by Crowe in over 20 years before Duncan has a chance to hear it. Clearly an unforgivable offence. When Duncan does hear it, he quickly writes a rave review on the Tucker Crowe website that he runs, ‘Can Anybody Hear Me?’ In a fit of pique Annie writes a much more objective review herself and posts it alongside Duncan’s. After all, this material is just a solo acoustic version of a previous album, which is much inferior to the original in her eyes.

This is where the fun really starts, as the real Tucker Crowe actually responds to her email, and tends to agree with her assessment of the material. The developing relationship between Annie and Tucker is nicely observed, and written in true Hornby style. Duncan’s reaction to it is amusing and inevitable. Hornby is at his best when writing about the mechanics of music and how people relate to it, as with his earlier classic ‘High Fidelity’. Whilst this novel does not quite hit the high spots of some of his early work for me, it is still an entertaining, amusing and honest account of relationships, and why we are sometimes so bad at them, for all sorts of reasons.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Film - When You're Strange - directed by Tom DiCillo

Star rating – 8/10

Tom DiCillo uses archive footage to tell the story of the Doors from their beginnings in 1966 when Jim Morrison was so shy that he had to sing with his back to the audience, facing the band like he did in rehearsals, to his tragic but somewhat inevitable death in Paris in 1971, aged just 27. It is narrated with feeling and empathy by Johnny Depp, and is inevitably the story not just of the band, but of the hypnotically beautiful Morrison himself.

It includes great live footage of their concerts, and most of all shows how Morrison lived without compromise. He did what he wanted to, with little regard for his career – often to the frustration of his band mates. There is shocking footage included of him being assaulted on stage by the police for daring to be different. Morrison was a star that burned so brightly in his sky that he could only exist for a short time, like so many other rock legends – Hendrix, Joplin, Elvis, and Lennon included. Would he have been so revered if he had lived on to become an aging rocker like Mick Jagger? – I think not.

This fascinating film also makes you realise just how many great songs the Doors recorded, some of which are not even included here. Morrison’s fellow band members were excellent musicians, who were propelled into superstardom status as very young men for a while due largely to their talismanic front man Morrison. The one missing element for me was the voices of rest of band, or the story from their perspective, which is strangely missing. But the camera loves Jim, and he sure loves the camera, either on stage in his tight leather trousers to emphasise his manhood, or off stage mingling mischievously with fans before a concert. If you like the Doors, you will love this film, if you don’t, or don’t know much about them, I would guess it probably won’t convert you, but it might just make you a bit curious, which can’t be bad thing now can it?