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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Film - Damsels in Distress - directed by Whit Stillman

Star rating – 8/10

Director Whit Stillman has not made a film since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, and dancing again features prominently is his extremely funny campus tale Damsels in Distress. It’s quirky and very charming, even if it doesn’t exactly keep its momentum going entirely throughout.
It is refreshingly not full of Hollywood A listers, the cast brilliantly led by Greta Gerwig as Violet, who organises a small group of American college girls into trying to save potentially suicidal fellow students. The young women who gather around her are acerbically judgemental, as they set out to attract boys who are not good looking or cool. The action seems to be set in present day, but there are oddly no sign of any social networking going on.

And there are some very, very funny scenes, particularly one involving doughnuts. As the film unwinds, it becomes obvious that Violet is fundamentally unhappy and as damaged as she thinks the people she is trying to help are. Stillman manages to create characters who are both comedic and repellent , and with whom his audience can’t help but empathise with too.

The dancing is fabulous, and is becoming a Stillman trademark feature. This is an uplifting oddity of a film which is a delight to watch. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

DVD - Las Acacias - directed by Pablo Giorgelli

Star rating – 6/10

Just out on DVD is a very quiet and understated road movie/love story from Argentinean director Pablo Giorgelli. Ruben (German de Silva) is a middle aged truck driver who has agreed to take a woman passenger, Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) with him from Paraguay to Buenos Aires as a favour for his boss. He obviously prefers his own company, and is a bit put out, in a silent kind of way, when she appears with a five month old baby girl in tow.
There is not much dialogue to speak of, with the noise of the truck’s engine featuring more prominently than any words. But the way their relationship develops is quite affecting, and not at all sentimentally done. The film is only 82 minutes long, but to be honest the long silences make it drag slightly at times. But watching Ruben’s emotions slowly come out of hibernation, first towards the young baby, and then to her mother, is very gently and nicely done.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Films - Marley - directed by Kevin Macdonald

Star rating – 8/10

Bob Marley’s charisma shines through in this highly enjoyable and informative documentary about the man who put reggae music on the world map. It’s amazing to think that he was only 36 when he died of cancer in 1981, having achieved so much in his short life.
Kevin Macdonald’s impressive film, if slightly overlong at 2 hours 25 minutes, charts the rise of this gifted and highly influential man from the dirt poor countryside of Jamaica to the harsh streets of Kingston. His beauty is striking, and his talent undeniable. What is more surprising perhaps is just how driven and hard working he was, making his fellow band members rehearse for hour upon hour, and only getting about three or four hours sleep a night himself.

Macdonald hints at some conclusions that his audience might draw from the interviews he shows of many of Marley’s close friends and family members, without ever really spelling them out. And there is a wealth of detail that I was not previously aware of, like the impact of his having a white father, who deserted his mother very early on in his life and was not around to share his son’s childhood. This, and his mixed race heritage, seems to have lead Marley to a deep sense of rejection and a feeling of not belonging.

His salvation was the Rastafarian religion which shaped his life and music, and which grounded him in his core beliefs of peace and love to all humanity.  But some of the more contentious details are skirted over, like his attitude to his children and the many women in his life. His daughter, for example, is very visibly still hurting from not being able to really get close to her father, even when he was on his deathbed.

 Marley comes across as an ultra competitive person, who was just as capable of being cold to those close to him, as he was of being extremely warm and generous to the thousands of people who came to him for charitable hand outs. And the political dimension to his relationship with Chris Blackwell and Island Records is not really not explored, just hinted at.

So maybe one day there will be another story told about Bob Marley, which doesn’t leave out some of the details which his family want to remain hidden. I am sure it will be equally fascinating, but for the moment it is enough to enjoy this inspiring man and his uplifting music. This film is a great reminder of the power and joy of Marley’s songs, and it was good to see how many of the audience were in their twenties – so his is also music for a new generation perhaps. 

Theatre - Henry V - The Globe at Liverpool Playhouse

Star rating – 8/10

Cards on the table – I love this play. It reminds me of when my eldest son was 5 and enjoyed nothing more than dressing up like a knight and watching alternate versions of it.  Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Oliver were certainly staples in our house for a while about 20 years ago. Happy memories....
But apart from my maternal nostalgia, it is a cracking play, and the Globe Theatre have certainly got a great production of it touring the country before taking it to their home this summer. Jamie Parker is suitably regal and commanding as the warrior king. He should be used to playing him now, as he was the same Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at The Globe in summer 2010. But his former life of debauchery has most definitely been left behind, as he inspires his ‘happy few’ soldiers to a heroic victory against the mighty French armies on the fields at Agincourt.

It must be difficult to follow in such large footsteps, but Parker largely gets the tone just right. Not copying the previous deliveries of the more famous speeches, but stamping his own brand on them. The battle scenes are well played – always tricky in such a small space – damn that writer!

The whole cast is excellent, but special mentions should go to Brendan O’Hea as the amusing and verbose Welshman Fluellen, and to Brid Brennan as the narrator who persuasively and gently guides the audience through the fast paced action. Great entertainment, comedy and drama all rolled into one package. 

Friday, 20 April 2012

DVD - Moneyball directed by Bennett Miller

Star rating – 8/10

As the Premier League season draws to its nail biting end (interest declared now as a 100% blue and nervous Man City fan), you may well be wondering how teams such as Newcastle United have achieved such great results this year with a team assembled on a relative shoestring. Well, look no further than the DVD of Moneyball for all the answers. And before you ask, no, you don’t have to understand baseball to appreciate it at all.
This is the true story of how the total underdogs of American baseball in 2001, the Oakland Athletics, took the league by storm, and very nearly won it too, by making use of statistics and analysis in a way never before seen in sport. This film is an adaptation of the book by the brilliant Michael Lewis, who manages to turn to the credit crunch and the near collapse of the Euro into page turning thrillers. And it doesn’t harm this film’s cause that it features Brad Pitt, who gives a simply fantastic performance as Billy Beane, the failed baseball star turned General Manager of the A’s. 

Oakland are really struggling at the bottom of the league - think Wolves with knobs on – when Billy accidently stumbles across an analyst with an freshly earned economics degree from Yale, who holds the key to unlock the winning formula.  Jonah Hill is fabulous as the unassuming Pete, who is able to analyse players records in a totally unique way, so that a team like Oakland with scant resources, are able to assemble a team of players that no-one else wants to buy, and turn them into winners. This goes against everything that is the accepted norm in the sport – when players are bought according to ridiculous criteria such as their girlfriends’ looks - ‘Ugly girlfriend? = no confidence – not bought’.

Beane is a complex, bittersweet character, who is battling not only the club hierarchy, but his own demons. But his partnership with Pete in finding value in players that are universally rejected using complex mathematical formulas is a great story. Pitt plays it brilliantly, and the story is all the more fantastical for being true. And, although as a Man City fan I really shouldn’t admit this, there is a great morality tale in finding value in the rejected, and in allowing money not to triumph in the end. Stirring stuff of dreams. Now, what about those weekend fixtures...

Theatre - Love's Labour's Lost - Northern Broadsides at the Lowry

Star rating – 8/10

It always amazes me, although I should know better by now, that comedies written so long ago can still delight and entertain modern audiences, and have me howling with laughter as much as the Northern Broadsides current production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost triumphantly manages to do.
This is a delightful frolic through the King of Navarre and his three friends’ attempts to be studious and celibate academics for three years in his Spanish kingdom. They do not bargain for the delights of the Princess of France and her ladies arriving to tempt them away from their dry books. The comic timing is brilliant, and Matt Connor especially, as Berowne, gives a stand out performance. 

The colours and styles of the costumes are delightful, and the musical accompaniment to the merriment is great fun. Barry Rutter again shows how Shakespeare can be delivered in good, honest Northern accents, and still be appreciated for the genius he was, brilliantly accentuated by this hilarious modern adaptation.

Adam Foggerty is also great as the lumbering peasant Cotsard, who manages to get things wrong in all the right places. But it feels churlish to point out any more of the performers, as all round great entertainment and side splitting humour was delivered by each and every one. 

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Film - Le Havre - directed by Aki Kaurismäki

Star rating – 6/10

This is quite a slight offbeat film from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, set amongst the working class people in the French port of the title. And it’s no advert for Le Havre as a place, but it is a heart-warming, and gently political story.  
Marcel (André Wilms) is an elderly shoe shine man who takes pity on a Congolese boy who has come into the country illegally, and managed to escape the authorities. He helps Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), to escape to his mother in London, despite his own wife being very ill. Most of his friends and neighbours pitch in to raise money for the escape, and it is an affectionate demonstration of people who have the least being most generous with what little they do possess.

There is quite an amusing performance by aging rock star ‘Little Bob’, and the characters are all quite touching. It doesn’t set the world alight, not is it meant to I suspect. And in its own way it’s a damning indictment of the way so called civilised nations treat people who are desperately fleeing from poverty and war in their native lands.

Books - Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

Star rating – 8/10

Matthew Hollis’s riveting biography of poet Edward Thomas was deservedly praised and awarded when it was published last year. It’s the very well researched story of a circle of adventurous young poets and writers just before the outbreak of the First World War. They set their stall out in the Poetry Bookshop in the then unfashionable district of Bloomsbury, and against the established poets of the day such Hardy and W.B. Yeats. The group serve as a magnet for fellow creative writers, and Hollis keenly captures the spirit of those heady days in his narrative.
Thomas led a bit of a hand to mouth existence as a reviewer and travel writer, but his heart wasn’t really in that. It was not until he, in small tentative steps, found a way to write poetry that his passion was really awakened. 

He suffered from almost crippling depression, which led to his neglect of his long suffering wife Helen and his three children. Although he did genuinely seem to care for them all, he preferred it, and could only seem to cope with life, if he spent frequent time away from them. His behaviour may seem a tad self indulgent, but his malady took him to dark depths, including thoughts of and an actual attempt, albeit half heartedly, at suicide.

His one significant relationship, at least creatively, seems to have been with another poet, the American Robert Frost. Their great friendship was forged during the summer of 1914 in Gloucestershire before the First World War changed all their lives irrevocably. The opinion of his friend on his first attempts at verse meant a great deal to Thomas.

Thomas’s poetry is not about the horrifying events of the war itself, like the more famous war poetry of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. Rather, it is about the country that was left behind, and the great gaps that appeared where the slain had once worked in the fields and country lanes. 

Thomas wrote beautiful poems about loss, and is all the more poignant following his own death in 1917 in Arras, France, at the age of 39. He was quite ambivalent about the war itself at first, but had got caught up in the general movement to enlist, even before it was made compulsory for able men of his age to do so. 

Hollis paints a beautiful picture of a gentle, fragile, and sensitive man, who struggled to cope with the world, but left behind a legacy of verse which is still just as haunting and poignant today. This is a thoroughly memorable, enlightening and moving biography.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Film - Headhunters directed by Morten Tyldum

Star rating – 3/10

I think I have just been cured of a near addiction to Scandinavian crime thrillers. After the pure pleasure of The Killing on TV, and the thrills of both film versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even if they could not quite match the brilliance of the original Larsson novels, I was expecting much more from the adaptation of the Jo Nesbo book Headhunters. To put it mildly... 
So, should I start with the clunky, unbelievable plot? Or with the wooden acting? Or with the totally predictable ‘thrills’, accompanied by unnecessary gratuitous violence and gore? You get the picture. Roger is an unappealing character – a Norwegian executive headhunter, who supplements his income with a bit of high end art theft on the side. Apparently he feels he has to do this to keep his tall blonde girlfriend in the lap of luxury, but all she seems to want is to settle down and have a family. 

He comes a cropper when he messes with the Dutch CEO of a espionage technology company – which is lucky, as it makes for a readymade plot revolving around shootings, hidden tracking devices, and the protagonists stopping at nothing to get what they need. And lots of blood and brutality.

Not one of the characters has any redeeming features to make it worthwhile caring what happens to them. Aksel Hennie as Roger has to wear a ridiculous bouffant hairstyle for most of the time – if it’s not a wig then it’s just very bad hair. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the Dutch baddie looks like he just stepped off an Armani ad – like a very smooth, younger version of Sean Bean with razor sharp cheekbones to boot. The story is ridiculous, and I’m not clear if it is a bad adaption of a good book, or if both are equally stupid. I haven’t read the novel, and am not likely to after this waste of a potentially good couple hours of my life that I will never get back. I’ll get off the fence now.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

DVD - The Well Digger's Daughter - directed by Daniel Auteuil

Star rating – 7/10

Daniel Auteuil makes his directorial debut with a lovely rural French story of family honour and romance across the class divide - much like the ones in which he first made his name (at least in the UK): Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources in the 1980s. This time he plays the role of the father wanting to safeguard his beautiful daughter and even more, to vigorously defend the reputation of his family. 
It is gentle and warm hearted with beautiful scenic locations and matching cinematography. Spanish actor Astrid Berges-Frisbey plays Patricia, his innocent and obedient daughter. French heart throb Nicolas Duvauchelle plays Jacques, the dashing pilot son of a wealthy family, who no sooner wins her heart than he is whisked away to fight in the Second World War.

The plot is slightly predictable, and maybe not the most challenging French film you might see this year, but nonetheless it’s a lovely old fashioned picture to warm your heart, should it need it.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Theatre - Wonderful Town - The Lowry

Star rating – 8/10

Wonderful Town may not be the best known or even the best musical written by Leonard Bernstein, that honour must surely go to his glorious West Side Story. But it is nevertheless a slick and extremely entertaining light hearted production, with a simply gorgeous musical score. It is set in 1935 New York, with two sisters making their way from the Ohio to Greenwich Village to follow their dreams – one to be a writer, and the other to be a singer.
It is a very successful collaboration between the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, and the Royal Exchange Theatre, with direction from its Artistic Director Braham Murray. Put those together with the name of TV instant hit celebrity fame girl Connie Fisher in one of the lead roles, and this will surely be a hit.

In truth Fisher, returning from surgery on her vocal chords, is not the strongest singer in the cast as Ruth the smart would-be writer, and her voice now has a slightly strange deep quality that is nothing like Maria. But her performance skills are exemplary, with great timing, acting and musicality. The plaudits for the singing in this musical must go to Lucy Van Gasse as Eileen, who plays her blonde sister who has a winning way with every man she meets. And also to Michael Xavier, who is brilliant as Bob Baker, the magazine editor who slowly falls in love with the serious and determined Ruth. Both Van Gasse and Xavier have beautiful, clear, strong voices which soar above the stage.

It may not have the most memorable plot in musical history, and it may not have well known sing-a-long numbers either, but it is engaging and brilliantly choreographed, with great support from the ensemble cast with their perfect timing. There is one very funny scene featuring a load of New York cops doing Irish dancing – not a sight you will see very often I would hazard a guess. The sets are very effective, and give a great sense of the eclectic life to be found in their adopted artistic neighbourhood. 

And it felt very special to have the talents of the Hallé for the evening to showcase the sumptuous music, and nice to see Sir Mark getting right into the spirit of the show, even having his own lines. They will be replaced when this production goes on national tour so the Lowry audiences are especially privileged to hear them play. Overall this musical is one to savour in the light hearted spirit in which it was written, and that’s no bad thing.

Film - Carancho directed by Pablo Trapero

Star rating – 8/10

The backdrop for this thrilling Argentinean film noir is the appalling injury rate and loss of life through road accidents there every year. And inevitably where there’s an accident there’s a claim to be made, and people to exploit. Carancho shows that the corruption which has grown up around this claims industry has spread its dark tentacles into the legal profession, the police, and even the doctors who are meant to care for the victims and their families.
It’s extremely well made, with the muted brownish palette reflecting well the murky dealings of all those involved. Ricardo Darin, who must have one of the most attractive and lived in faces around, and last delighted in the wonderful Oscar winning The Secret in their Eyes, is perfect as Sosa, the lawyer who has lost his licence and gone over to the dark side. He is working for an extremely disreputable company whose business plan is to cream most of the compensation from the victims, and to go to any lengths to achieve it. Sosa finds himself spending his time chasing ambulances, participating in fake accidents, and getting beaten up for his trouble, so he is generally not in a great place.

On one assignation he happens to meet and fall for a young doctor, Luján, who works gruelling night shifts at the local hospital and is new in town.  Martina Gusmán is very convincing as the woman who slowly falls for the charms of Sosa, despite his black eyes and dubious work practices, and she is also the executive producer of the film, so clearly a talented woman in more ways than one.

As romance blossoms Sosa decides to become a sort of Robin Hood figure, trying to give the families back their rightful cash, and planning his escape plan from his miserable life. I did have a slight problem with the grimy dealings of Sosa, and how Luján could fall for him in spite of them, but then she is given her own dark secret to compensate for his.

It’s a very pacey film, with lots of drama, violence and, inevitably, car crashes. The direction is smooth, the acting is slick, and the lead characters are likeable, despite their flaws. It’s not faultless, but it is a great film, and I really could watch Ricardo Darin for hours and not get bored.