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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Film - Drive - directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Star rating – 8/10

A lot has been said about the level of seemingly gratuitous violence in this new film by director Nicolas Winding Refn. But there are two other facts about this movie that you can’t deny. Firstly, the cinematography is to die for – beautiful sleek shots of Los Angeles at night. And perfectly framed takes of the other indisputable element to the film - the wonderful, quiet, unassuming, too cool for school Ryan Gosling.

Gosling plays a guy who is a skilled stunt driver for Hollywood’s finest by day, and by night a getaway driver for heists. And his handbrake turns are good enough to rival Steve McQueen. The driving sequences are thrilling, even if his rule of giving his passengers five minutes – no more no less – to do their criminal deeds, then he is out of there, ready or not. And he wears great leather driving gloves and a silver silk jacket with an orange scorpion emblazoned across the back that it sure to be being copied and in a high street near you very soon.

He happens to fall in love in a very sweet kind of way with his neighbour, single mom Irene, played with superb sensitivity by Carey Mulligan. But her husband is in prison and a bad lot, so it was never going to be a very wise move. Neither Gosling nor Mulligan’s characters are really fleshed out – it’s just not that sort of story. Instead we go with them on a hellish journey as Gosling tries to help her recently released husband protect his family by doing one last job. And you can guess the rest.

I admit it is a bit problematic that the Driver goes from a soft spoken, sensitive soul who loves playing with Irene’s young son, and who is too gentlemanly to even attempt to make a move on her; to a violent thug, but Winding Refn views his art in terms of two things - violence and sex. He wants us to feel extremes in this piece, and we certainly do. And yes it is very violent - shockingly violent. But it is also a beautiful piece of film making, with a star in the shape of Gosling that you can watch all day long.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Books - The Hemlock Cup:Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

Star rating – 6/10

The ancient city state of Athens in Socrates’ day is undoubtedly a really fascinating subject. And in her biography of the philosopher, Bettany Hughes, aims to place her subject firmly as a product of this time and place, when democracy was born, for some citizens at least.

It gives some fascinating insights into the workings of the city; how it came to be so dominant in the ancient world; and then how it lost its grip on power, never again to be the influential and all conquering powerhouse that it once was. But one of the problems I have with the book is that, although it reveals some interesting facts about Socrates along the way, the reader never really gets under the skin of the man whose biography it purports to be. It talks around the subject of Socrates rather than being a true biography. Possibly this is because some of the only sources of real knowledge about the man come either via an Aristophanes play or the works of Plato. And of course he intriguingly never wrote down a single word of his own thoughts for posterity. I just found it a bit frustrating to end up with a vague picture of Socrates and his pursuit of rational thought, rather than a rounded picture that is normal to gain from a biography.

The other problem I have with the work is that I wanted to be transported to the world of ancient Greece, and not be constantly pulled back to modern day Athens with its dirty motorways and back streets by Hughes’ own modern travels. These vignettes do not add anything to the story of Socrates, and if anything positively detract from it, by adding a layer of irrelevance that does not help Hughes’ cause.

The story of how Socrates fought for, but also rebelled against his state, and paid the ultimate price for doing so is a great one. But truly accomplished biographers, like Claire Tomalin for example, get to the heart of their subject; readily signpost moments of educated conjecture on their part rather than fact; and are above all clear and meticulously researchers. By labelling this interesting historical book as a biography, it is bound to suffer by comparison.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Theatre - We Are Three Sisters - The Lowry

Star rating – 5/10

As a bit of a Brontë fan, and a lover of Chekhov’s 1901 play ‘Three Sisters’ I was really looking forward to this new piece from Northern Broadsides which explores both at the same time in ‘We Are Three Sisters’. It isn’t actually as obscure as it sounds, as Chekhov allegedly wrote his play after reading the biography of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell.

But I am sorry to say that this production had a distinct feel of an amateur dramatic offering about it. The genius and passion of Emily Brontë, which I always find staggering bearing in mind the secluded life she led, with only the wild moors to inspire her masterpiece ‘Wuthering Heights’, was reduced to a comic turn. The antics of their brother Branwell, involving heavy drinking and an affair with a most unsuitable and, in this play at least, disagreeable, married woman, are featured heavily.

The minor characters in this play, including a doctor and curate, just were not interesting enough to merit them being given so much of the story time. The sisters Emily, Jane , and Charlotte were admirably played by Catherine Kinsella, Sophia di Martino and Rebecca Hutchinson. But the parts they were being asked to play verged on ridiculous, and at other times just plain boring.

The magic of the Brontë story is simply not captured here in this caricature of their lives. And I’m not at all sure that Chekhov would have approved either.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Film - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - directed by Tomas Alfredson

Star rating – 9/10

This film is arguably the first of the autumn Oscar juggernauts rolling into the darkening evenings for our delectation. And on paper it’s going to be a hard act to beat – an adaptation of great John le Carré’s best selling novel; following in the wake of the smash hit BBC TV adaptation starring Alec Guinness which people of a certain age will remember very fondly; an absolutely stellar cast; and an already proven talented and creative directive director in Tomas Alfredson of vampire indi hit ‘Let the Right One In’. The only question really is – does it live up to all the hype?

Gary Oldman is pitch perfect as the controlled and understated George Smiley, who is called back in secret to the murky world of MI6 from recent retirement to help to uncover a Soviet mole in the inner circus. Colin Firth; Ciaran Hinds; Tony Jones; and David Dencik play the four agents who are under suspicion in the grimy brown backwash of 1970’s London. Mark Strong also features as a fellow MI6 member who is sent to Hungary and seemingly assassinated at the start of the action. Or maybe not.

The era is recreated very effectively, with one mirror irritation – the very dodgy wigs. I wish they could have got them to look just a little more realistic. Le Carré’s complex plot is well boiled down into a feature length treat which is relatively easy to follow – if you pay attention. There is not the luxury here of letting some things develop slowly over a five hour TV series, but all the essential elements of the plot seem to have been included.

Tom Hardy is also great as Ricki Tarr, who is determined to break away from the moral depravity of a secret agent’s life. Benedict Cumberbatch also gives good support as the man Smiley trusts as the aide to his secret investigation. It’s interesting in these times to remember how all pervading the Cold War really was. This is a very well crafted piece all round to be fair, and deserved of much praise, but it does not quite reach the dizzy heights that some reviewers are perching it on. Great film, shame about the wigs.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Gigs - CavFest - West Didsbury

Star rating – 8/10

If someone told you that there was going to be a community festival five minutes from where you live, in aid of the funding cuts to your local primary school, with great local bands and lots of lovely stalls selling nice things, and a bar - well in truth, what’s not to like?

Yesterday’s CavFest at Cavendish Road Primary School in the heart of West Didsbury was just great. While some PTAs may baulk at selling mulled wine at the Christmas Fair, this PTA have gone the whole hog and organised a music festival on their playing fields, with great bands and loads of activities for the smaller attendees too.

I can’t say I saw all the bands, or even ascended the climbing wall, but I had a lovely day eating cup cakes and drinking wine and listening to some great music with friends. I particularly liked The Rain Band, who are from Manchester, and being hailed as one of the ‘next big things’. They even had Miss Manchester herself, Rowetta, join them on their final number ‘The Prodigal’. She had to bring her handbag onto the stage with her – no flash changing rooms at CavFest! And I liked their attitude too – making time to play at this small community event after playing at the Ramsbottom Festival the same day. Shame the planned headliner Badly Drawn Boy went back on his word to play CavFest after most of the tickets had been sold and went for headlining at Ramsbottom instead – boo hiss...

There were also sets from ex Chameleons, James, and Inspiral Carpets members but we didn’t manage to catch them all. We popped put to the local eateries when we were peckish, and took cover in Archie and Mary’s for alcohol when the rain got too much towards the end of the day. But thanks to everyone who thought of and brought about this inspired event. West Didsbury rocks!