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Sunday, 30 September 2012

Theatre - The Alchemist - Liverpool Playhouse

Star rating - 9/10

Ben Jonson's brilliant comic play The Alchemist feels as fresh today in its interpretation at the Liverpool Playhouse, as I am sure it did when it was written in 1610. As well as being riotous, hilarious fun, it has a serious message about the shallowness of materialism and the worship of Mammon.

Jeremy is a butler who takes full advantage of his master's absence by teaming up with a conman and using the house to dupe a series of unwitting fools into parting with their money for a variety of ridiculous and greedy vain quests. The success of the play hinges on this comic partnership at its heart, and Nicolas Tennant as Jeremy (reinvented as Face for the cons), and Ian Bartholomew as Subtle are simply fabulous. Bartholomew is especially impressive as his part involves five or six different characters with different voices and appearances. 

Director Robert Icke and designer Colin Richmond have certainly used the sparse set to great effect, with the backstage area visible to the audience, further exposing all the costume changes and duplicity involved in the plot. There is maximum audience involvement along the way, which I have to say was an absolute joy. 

The adaptation has really made the language and message of this gem of a comedy accessible without dumbing it down in the slightest. The whole cast were great, with some of the most complex lines consistently delivered with aplomb. And there were some very well chosen, and much appreciated by me, humorously appropriate tunes played in the interval - Gold by Spandau Ballet; Can't Buy Me Love by The Beatles; and Material Girl by Madonna to name but a few.

It really was extremely funny to witness the succession of gullible fools ring on the doorbell, necessitating slick, and sometimes not so slick, character and costume changes by the con artists, as they convinced their victims to part with their money in return for the promise of gold and other unattainable riches. Another great example of the importance of impeccable comic timing, and the power of very good comedy to retain its humour and message through the centuries. I wonder how many of today's offerings will be able to do the same...

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Film - Killing Them Softly - directed by Andrew Dominik

Star rating - 10/10

Smart, political, funny, violent, with whip smart dialogue, and a pitch perfect soundtrack to die for - the new film from Australian writer and director Andrew Dominik  just about has it all. And throw in fantastic performances from A listers Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta - ably supported by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, and Killing Them Softly is simply an excellent piece of film making. Dominik's last film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which also starred Pitt, was a real treat - this one is even more special.
None of the characters in the story, which is loosely based on the crime fiction novel Cogan's Trade by George V Higgins, are particularly likeable, in fact most are pretty loathsome. McNairy plays a small time crook who helps his bigger time crook friend out, and makes himself some much needed cash into the bargain, by holding up a card school. The joint is run by Liotta who, it is commonly known amongst the criminal fraternity, pulled a stunt to hold up his own poker school some time previously - thus making him prime suspect when a repeat heist takes place. But McNairy's Australian friend (Mendelsohn) is a little less reliable than his partner, and spills the beans about the operation - probably in a drug induced haze -  to someone he definitely should not have told. And all hell breaks out.

Brad Pitt is called in by the corporate masters, via their slick lawyer, to stop the rot - and to ensure the right people are dealt with. Only he likes to kill without emotion - at a distance - or softly as in the film's title. Cue an alcoholic and sex addicted Mickey (Gandolfini) who is flown in to help with the extermination mission. Except he turns out to be unfit for any such sensitive and precise work. 

All the action takes place against the backdrop of the American financial crisis, and the election of Barack Obama on a tidal wave of hope for a more equal society. And the parallels are clearly drawn about the morality lessons for the American nation, and the ethics of the criminals featured in a very thought provoking way.

The interaction between the characters is reminiscent of Tarantino at his best, with the same dark actions punctuated by some very funny lines indeed. Their speech is so smart is could have been penned by Aaron Sorkin. Dominik and his excellent cast deserve all the plaudits which are surely coming their way for this brilliant portrayal of a moribund and morally bankrupt slice of American society. My film of the year so far....

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

DVD - Monsieur Lazhar - directed by Philippe Falardeau

Star rating - 8/10

Fellag plays an Algerian immigrant who steps in to teach a class of French Canadian 11 and 12 year olds after their beloved teacher has hung herself in their Montreal school classroom. His more orthodox, rigid methods are  not what the children are used to. But both he and they grow in their respect for each other, as he helps them to come to terms with their terrible experience.

But Monsieur Lazhar has a dark past of his own, which inevitably rears its head. This is a beautiful, subtle and moving film which features some great performances from the class of young actors, and a terrific portrayal of their substitute new teacher.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

DVD - The Kid with a Bike - directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

Star rating - 8/10

Now out on DVD is a very touching French film about a ten year old boy whose father has abandoned him to a children's' home. Cyril wants desperately to believe that his father still wants him, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He forms a relationship with a hairdresser, who he persuades to act as his foster parent at weekends.

Samantha shows unswerving dedication to the child, in the face of some pretty rough treatment. But what stands out here is the achingly sad story of Cyril, whose pain as a result of his parental neglect and lack of love is visceral. He shows animal strength and stubbornness, especially when his beloved bike is stolen by local youths, yet his emotional frailty is deeply moving. 

The acting is superb, especially from Thomas Doret playing Cyril, and  Cécile de France as Samantha is also very convincing in her supportive role. This film from directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne is certainly not an easy watch, but it is truthful and revealing about the failings and weaknesses of humans, and is ultimately redemptive in its message.

Books - The War Is Dead, Long Live the War - Bosnia: The Reckoning by Ed Vulliamy

Star rating - 10/10

Some books we read for pleasure and amusement, and some to gain insight and knowledge. Some books we feel we should read, but there are some books that we simply must read. Journalist Ed Vulliamy's harrowing and jaw dropping account of the aftermath of the Bosnian War at a distance of twenty years after is such a book.

Vulliamy tellingly compares the Bosnian context to the response of the German nation to its own shameful Nazi past, with its collective awareness of what was done, and fierce determination to remember the full horror of Hitler's 'Final Solution' for the Jewish people. Concentration camps are preserved for posterity so that future generations can bear witness to the full evil of what happened, and hopefully to help such unthinkable atrocities and barbarism from ever recurring. The rest of the world also helped with the process of rehabilitation, barely fifteen years after the end of World War II The Beatles were performing in Hamburg, and Germany has emerged as a strong and democratic nation. 

This is all in stark contrast to the same period following the Bosnian conflict. And although this book is about events after the war, they cannot be recounted without making reference, in shocking detail, to some of the bone chillingly sadistic and cruel episodes which took place during it. Nazi style concentration camps sprung up, in a Western European nation which not long before had hosted the Winter Olympics, to house the 'ethnically cleansed' Bosnian Muslims after their houses were burned down and many of their number were slaughtered. Vulliamy reveals in great detail, from his own personal experience during the conflict, how the outside world at best ignored the existence of these camps, and at worst colluded in covering them up.

Rape and torture of horrific kinds were routinely committed, and many of the prisoners were forced to commit unspeakable acts on each other for the amusement of their captors. Genocide is not a word to be used lightly, but there is no other way to describe the actions of the Serbian army under President Slobodan Milošević and his henchman General Radovan Karadžić.

And all the more shocking is the failure to come to terms with what was done, despite war crimes trials in The Hague. Today Bosnian Muslims cannot grieve at national shrines and try to come to terms with what was done to them. There are no monuments - the Serbians won't agree to them being built, and anyway many of the more barbarous acts are denied, despite the evidence of thousands of Bosnian Muslim bodies being painstakingly sifted through to be able to give their remaining families some way of mourning them. And woman have to face their rapists across the street every day, either having served a short term in jail, or many going unpunished for their crimes.

But aside from these frankly deeply depressing realities, the stories of the people that Vulliamy has come to know are brilliant reminders of how such conflict touches families and individuals, as well as nations. One particularly heart-warming detail is that of the Manchester City star striker Edin Džeko, who is nothing short of a Bosnian national hero for his fierce pride in his nation and refusal to adopt citizenship of other much more glamorous footballing nations when he had the chance. As a City fan myself, it is pleasing to know that some of our pampered stars have principles and loyalty that have nothing to do with riches, and that such qualities cannot be bought. 

Vulliamy's own part in helping to publicise the existence of the concentration camps, and in acting as a witness in The Hague is distinguished and to be applauded. As is his determination to continue to make the world sit up and take note of what is still happening today through this brilliant and brave book. It frankly demands to be read.