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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Film - Side Effects - directed by Steven Soderbergh

Star rating - 7/10

This is a psychological thriller with some big moral issues to explore - the nature of mental illness; the proximity of most people to mental instability; insider trading; and the role of advertising, drug companies, and doctors in choosing medicines to prescribe for profit rather than entirely for their patients' benefit. It is as slick and smart as you would expect from director Steven Soderbergh, with some great performances from a star studded cast.

Rooney Mara stars as Emily, the young wife of a former financial high flyer who is just completing a four year prison stretch for insider trading. When her husband Martin, (Channing Tatum), is released she finds it hard to hold things together, and signs of her previous depression quickly come to the fore in a dramatic way. Manhattan psychiatrist, Doctor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), is very sympathetic to her case, but nevertheless is very quick to prescribe the latest drugs to help her, without any real degree of caution about possible side effects. 

But as things start to unravel, the ripples stretch much wider than just Emily herself - all their lives are affected as their cosy worlds come crashing about their ears. There are some chilling twists that are gloriously unexpected, and the plot is brilliant for three quarters of the way into the film. But, without giving away any vital parts, Soderbergh should really have resisted the temptation to tie up every possible loose end in the drama. The end of the film looses the impact it could have had by leaving a little more up to the audience's imagination, and indeed intelligence. 

However, both the chemistry between Mara and Tatum as the loving couple, and the patient/doctor relationship between Mara and Law is great. And Catherine Zeta Jones makes a fabulous appearance as the former psychiatrist who treated Emily, and who Law turns to for help. And the other criticism of the film I have is really a moral one, in that Jude Law's character should really have suffered a little more for his greed and focus on profit rather than patient care, or at least I would like to think so, but then again maybe in the real world that's just the way it goes. 

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Film - Beyond the Hills - directed by Cristian Mungiu

Star rating - 8/10

Just like his previous film about the horrors of life for ordinary people in Romania, Cristian Mungiu has delivered a very tough watch in Beyond the Hills. His previous offering 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days concerned the shocking plight of a young woman having to undergo an illegal abortion. This time it is the treatment of a troubled young woman at the hands of the priest in a remote and austere rural monastery.

Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has left the orphanage where she grew up and joined the monastery, leaving behind her friend Alina (Cristina Flutur). The film opens with a vulnerable and distraught Alina returning from working in Germany, and coming to find her, intending for them to leave together. It soon transpires that their previous close bond included a sexual relationship which Alina is very reluctant to let go of. As she realises that Voichita's deepening faith is a potential barrier to her desperate plans, she becomes increasingly disturbed, to the horror of the quiet and strict religious community.

It is clear that Alina needs professional help, both physically and mentally, and a violent breakdown winds her up in a severely under resourced hospital. The doctor feels she would be much better off back at the monastery, so extremely reluctantly she is placed back in the care of the nuns and their authoritarian priest. As her condition worsens, her frightening episodes of mental breakdown lead the priest to conclude that she is possessed by Satan, and that an exorcism is the only thing that can save her, with tragic consequences for them all. 

This emotionally draining yet spare plot is brilliantly enacted by the whole cast in such an impressive manner that  it's easy to forget you are watching actors and not real people in a chilling and terrifying ordeal. The story is apparently based on a real life experience, which makes it all the more chilling. The scenes in the desolate monastery are so surreal that whenever a brief slice of everyday normality is interjected via a hospital trip, or a visit to Alina's previous foster home, it has a surreal jolting effect to remind the viewer how bizarre the community life really is. 

To be picky, the film is probably about half an hour too long ( but then I often think that these days), but Mungiu is an absolute master at creating bleak and searching portraits of the deeply unattractive, and in this case frankly horrifying, side of Romanian society. It stayed with me long after the credits rolled. 

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Gigs - The Avett Brothers - The Ritz, Manchester

Star rating - 8/10

Scott and Seth Avett from North Carolina, who with their band make up The Avett Brothers, certainly know how to enjoy themselves in a positive a wholesome way, and their enjoyment of the music is infectious. Their gig at the Ritz in Manchester was one of only two UK dates this year, on the back of their new album release The Carpenter. And their music straddles genres, with  bluegrass, country, and rock elements all creeping in.

And they are one of those bands whose songs sound so much better with raw passion and energy injected into them via their live performances, and  Live and Die, and Down with the Shine from the new record really sounded great.  Gimmeakiss sounded like pure rock n roll - but with a banjo; and they can deliver great foot stompers in the style of Johnny Cash too.
But their sensitive side also came out on Through My Prayers, which they performed as a beautiful acoustic duet; and with Seth taking a solo spot on The Ballad of Love and Hate

When they told the adoring crowd that they would have stayed there and played all night if they could  - well it was hard not to believe them. They delivered just what the crowd wanted with I and Love and You. And whilst not all their songs could be considered classics, it's very hard to find fault with such positive, genuine musicians who love what they do and just want to share it with their audiences.  And by the way - Scott's resemblance to Russell Brand is uncanny - just saying.

Theatre - The Daughter-in -Law - The Crucible, Sheffield

Star rating - 7/10

DH Lawrence is not everyone's cup of tea - his views on women sometimes feel dated at best, and some of his work has certainly caused more than a raised eyebrow amongst feminists at times. But in this 1912 play, currently being revived at the Crucible by director Paul Miller, and set in a small Derbyshire mining community, it is the women who deliver the strong, even dominant roles. 

Mrs Gascoyne is very much a matriarch, but has recently had to give up her grip on her elder son Luther to his new wife Minnie. She does, however still have her younger son Joe still under her roof and her grasp. The opening scene between Joe and his mother, discussing the recent union of Luther and Minnie, is terrific. The air crackles with drama and wit, and the authentic East Midlands accents make the  scene really come alive. Lynda Barron and Andrew Hawley are both absolutely excellent in their roles, as they debate the qualities of Luther's new wife. Mrs Gascoyne does not think much of her new daughter in law at all, and mocks her airs and graces. 

But all is not well, as they learn from a visitor that Luther has, as yet unbeknownst to him, made another young woman pregnant before he got married, and the consequences of his actions now come back to haunt the whole family. This development only adds to the already tense married relationship between Luther and Minnie, each feeling unable to show their emotions to the other. Minnie is also an interesting strong female character, who possesses independent wealth and a career. Simon Daw's terrific set revolves between Mrs Gascoyne's humble home, and the more stylised new parlour of the newlyweds. 


There are substantial themes to be grappled with in what follows - the role of mothers in bringing up sons; and the relative roles of men and women in marriage. Some of Lawrence's opinions, expressed through the characters feel out of place today. Minnie twice declares that she would rather have a husband who hit her than one who did not show he cared. This does sit rather uncomfortably with our modem view of domestic violence. 


And some of the language jars in an unnecessarily shocking way - the decision to leave in the 'n' word on two occasions, when it was not really necessary to the plot at all, felt a missed opportunity and rather censorious. And despite the excellent opening scene, the play dragged slightly afterwards, with long pauses that were anything but pregnant. That's a bit of a shame as it could have been excellent, instead it being a solid production. But it did leave me thinking that DH Lawrence isn't always as bad as he has been painted, and wondering if our modern eyes always do his views justice. 



Friday, 15 March 2013

Film - La Voz Dormida - directed by Benito Zambrano

Star rating - 6/10

The period following the Spanish Civil War, with its systematic and brutal persecution of anyone who opposed the victorious dictator General Franco, is a fascinating one. La Voz Dormida (The Sleeping Voice), being shown as part of the Cornerhouse annual !Viva! festival of Spanish and Latin American film, deals with this period of Spanish history, but not in a completely satisfactory way.

It follows the lives of two sisters, Hortensia who is in prison for her commitment to the Communist cause, and who has to endure the harsh conditions there whilst  pregnant; and Pepita who does not consider herself to be political, but is nevertheless drawn into the struggle via the people she loves. Pepita works as a maid for a doctor, who is aware of the situation of her sister, but whose wife does not approve of any Communist activity owing to her own losses in the Civil War.  Pepita supports her elder sister as best she can by visiting her, and by smuggling messages to her brother in law, who as a fellow Communist is in hiding, with a serious gunshot wound. Whilst helping out, she falls in love with another Communist and her life's path is set. The lead roles are played very convincingly by Inma Cuesta and Maria Leon, and both actresses portray their characters with conviction and talent.

But the film has more of the feel of a TV mini-series to it, and is overly romanticised and at the same time far too graphic in terms of the torture meted out to anyone the regime considers to be dangerous. It is based on a bestselling novel by Dulce Chacon, which I haven't read so cannot comment on how faithful this adaption is. My bet is that this script does not do the original work much justice, as it is too obvious, and signposts far too much of what could be left to the viewer to deduce. It's a shame as it could have been fabulous in the hands of a better director like Ken Loach. Now he would really have done justice to this important and shocking subject matter.