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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Film - Coriolanus - directed by Ralph Fiennes

Star rating – 8/10

Ralph Fiennes has produced an impressive and very contemporary version of the seldom performed Shakespearean drama Coriolanus, in which he both stars in the title role, and directs. I am a big fan of updating the bard with modern settings, this time in the middle of the 1990’s Balkan conflict, yet keeping the original lyrical words intact. My favourite example of this has to be Baz Luhrmann’s wonderful ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Mr. DiCaprio in 1996.

Fiennes seems perfect for the role of the famous and victorious Roman general Caius Martius, who leads a celebrated early victory in the city of Corioles against those pesky old Roman enemies, the Volscians. On his return he is given the title Coriolanus in honour of the victory, and is encouraged by his adoring and commanding mother to swap his army fatigues for the robes of a politician. But the power games and spin of this world do not rest easy with his more straight forward soldierly character, and he is very ill suited to the skills of diplomacy and democratic niceties.

Gerard Butler is superb as his powerful and handsome nemesis, the commander of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius, who is loved by his own people in a way that Coriolanus could never be. You could say the two men have a love hate relationship, having battled it out on many previous occasions with no-one emerging victorious, and their relationship is verging on homoerotic at one point. And Vanessa Redgrave as his domineering mother was born to recite Shakespeare, making the words she utters seem like everyday conversation with her immense grasp of their power and nuance. She shows here again what a phenomenal actor she is.

I can see though, why this is not one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays – it is very wordy, with no great consistency of hero to worship like Henry V or villain to despise like Richard III. There are only shades of grey as Coriolanus goes from hero to villain to anti hero to tortured soul. He is pushed on relentlessly by his adoring mother to enter the world of politics, but the soldier in him cannot cope with the flattery and fawning that must accompany it. He is not prepared to compromise his principles for the love of the people – unlike many of today’s toadying breed of public figures and politicians. In some ways this is a refreshing stance (are you listening Nick Clegg?) but obviously ultimately a very flawed one for the pursuit of power.

The Balkan comparison makes real sense, and there are also very real parallels with the Arab Spring, and the angry, hungry mob which features in the plays opening scenes. There is a clever use of rolling news channel newsflashes, and Jon Snow reading breaking news to explain the developing plot did not feel out of place. And although the dialogue is dense in places, Fiennes makes it relatively easy to follow.

Now for a bit of a moan – Coriolanus was not showing at my local friendly neighbourhood multiplex and was only on a very small screen at the art house Cornerhouse cinema, and with limited screenings. So I had to frequent a multiplex in the city centre – can you believe it? Should it really be so hard to watch an intelligent, well acted, relevant Shakespearean drama? The answer of course is no. But catch it if you can – if only when it comes out on DVD!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

DVD - Melancholia - directed by Lars von Trier

Star rating – 5/10

Maybe it’s me – and I am entirely willing to believe that it could be – but Lars von Trier’s blue planet disaster film, which is just released on DVD, is totally baffling, not to say nuts, and about an hour too long. The dramatic classical music that overplays the puzzling introduction for at least 10 minutes - or at least it felt like a very long time – signals that this is an event rather than a film whose plot you can follow from start to finish. And the image of the Ophelia-like bride floating in water gives a clue that all will not turn out for the best from the off.

I’m all for few a few twists and turns along the way, but quite how you can go from a wedding somehow ruined by the bride’s mental health problems, to a planet about to crash into the earth and destroy us all is a bit of a stretch. Kirsten Dunst is terrific as Justine, the advertising executive who is getting married to Michael at her sister Claire’s lavish castle like home. Charlotte Gainsbourgh is also very good as the organised sister who is justifiably annoyed after she has gone to so much trouble to organise the wedding, and her wealthy husband is footing the bill to boot. It’s not quite clear why Justine is not entirely happy on this day, but her mother, played wonderfully by Charlotte Rampling, is bitter and twisted enough about the matrimonial state in her wedding reception speech to make you suspect that possibly Justine didn’t have the ideal role model.

It all goes very wrong, don’t ask me why, I couldn’t really say, and the partially muffled dialogue didn’t help much either. Anyway Justine has a break down and stays with Claire, who helps her to get better. And bizarrely, as she does so, it is her sister’s turn to freak out and lose the plot as the gigantic blue planet gets closer. Her husband assures her that it will just be a near miss. How can he tell? The film whirls into a totally different act, and as Claire becomes more and more agitated, Justine seems to be entering a state of ecstasy.

The cinematography is gorgeous, the special effects great, and the shots of the blue planet looming ever closer are truly beautiful. But it’s all just a bit bonkers...

Film - Haywire - directed by Steven Soderbergh

Star rating – 6/10

It’s difficult to watch a secret agent action film without comparing it to the wonderful Bourne stable, and there is no doubt that Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Haywire’ is simply not in that class. But if you want a good couple of hours entertainment in the company of martial arts supremo turned actor Gina Carano, then this is quite fun.

Carano is good – well to be specific very good at the fighting bits, and quite good at the acting too – even putting some of the professional thesps in the cast to shame a bit. She plays Mallory, a US government agent who finds herself fighting for her life against her former masters. The rest of the cast is pretty star studded, with Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Puss in Boots (aka Antonio Banderas), and Channing Tatum in support. But their hearts are not always in this one - especially McGregor who is especially weak.

There are some nice location shots of Barcelona and Dublin, where Carano has to run through the streets and over roof tops with gun in hand ready for action – as you do. Some of the plot is a bit silly, like the young guy she makes hand over his car and drives away at speed, who then offers her sips of water and takes a bullet out of her arm with a pocket knife while she is making her getaway at the wheel. I think I would have been a little less sympathetic than he was in that situation to be honest.

But it is harmless, entertaining, if a little mindless fun. And Carano is sure to be back – just like Jason Bourne.

Gigs - The Secret Sisters - The Ruby Lounge

Star rating – 9/10

The Secret Sisters are Laura and Lydia Rogers - a couple of simply charming real life sisters from Alabama, whose love of their country music heritage, courtesy of their parents, shines through their music. In their latest gig at The Ruby Lounge they delighted the audience with their warmth and musical talent.

I first caught them supporting Ray LaMontagne last year at the Bridgewater Hall, and thought they were great. But their beautiful harmonies, with voices that wrap around each other perfectly, sound even better in a more intimate venue. They performed great tracks from their first self titled 2010 album like ‘Tennessee Me’, which they claim not to like much but is a real cheesy crowd pleaser; and their cover of a lovely old Irish folk song ‘Do You Love An Apple’.

The covered country standards like Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, as well as tracks by Crosby, Stills and Nash; and Skeeter Davis, who was a new one on me but well worth checking out – inspirational as she was to many including the legendary (in my house anyway) Tammy Wynette. The sisters talk fondly of their southern roots, while being very aware of the stereotypes applied of that part of the US. One of their new songs, ‘Tomorrow will be Kinder’ was written by Lydia about a tornado that hit in Alabama when they were touring in Australia.

They seem very grounded, happy and charming personalities, with elder sister Laura doing most of the chatting. They are currently recording their second album which will have more self penned tracks on it – so look out for them here again sometime soon. Their voices are great, and they just make you want to smile with their lovely depressing songs. Pure country magic!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

DVD - The Silence - directed by Baran Bo Odar

Star rating– 7/10

The Silence is an accomplished debut from German director Baran Bo Odar. It is not so much a whodunit as a study in guilt. A schoolgirl was raped and murdered 23 years ago whilst out cycling in the country lanes near her home, and the crime remains unsolved. There is no mystery for the audience however, as the two men involved are shown with one brutally committing the crime, and one watching him do it.

On the exact anniversary of the murder, 23 years later, the detective who fruitlessly led the investigation is about to retire from the police, and is still haunted by the crime remaining unsolved. And another young girl goes missing in very similar circumstances, so similar that the conclusions cannot fail to be drawn that she had also been murdered, maybe by the same person.

The film painfully studies the effects the loss has had on the original victim’s mother, on the parents of the recently missing girl, as well as the police themselves, who are not without their own private tragedies. And of course, the killers themselves have rightly not been able to escape the after effects of their own terrible actions. The action is very well shot, with a great colour palette making the contrast between the beautiful rural locations and the deeds committed there all the more stark; and the sound track is suitably menacing and disturbing in all the right places.

The acting is great, but the end is a tad anticlimactic, as the culprits are known from the start, but this is a well done crime movie, and the director is certainly one to watch out for.