Friday, 21 June 2013

Mixtape Movies Blogathon: Childhood Portraits

Following the A Life in Movies and Desert Island DVDs Blogathons, the inventive Andy at Fandango Groovers has come up with another idea. This time, the challenge is for bloggers to compile a list of five or six movies (plus one wildcard) that serve as a cinematic equivalent of a Mixtape by complementing each other or fitting together in some thematic way. Since a recent conversation revealed just how many of my childhood memories are actually cinema-going memories, and since I eagerly await the appearance of Mark Cousins’s latest doc A Story of Children and Film (which sounds like a Mixtape Movie itself, if ever there was one), I’ve picked childhood as the theme for my selections. Kids coming to terms with absence, with their own gifts and abilities, and confronting beasts and burglars are the heroes and heroines of the films  below. 

Home Alone (Columbus, 1990)

“This is my house, I have to defend it,” intones Master Culkin. Vigilantism, self-sufficiency and family values, Hughes-style. Given its message, is it any wonder that Home Alone wowed children pretty much the world over? A kid may miss his family eventually, this movie says. But in the meantime he’s entirely capable of surviving perfectly well without them.

Paradise (Donoghue, 1991)

Encompassing grief, friendship, empowerment and resolve, Donoghue’s movie - about the summer spent by a sadsack city boy (Elijah Wood) with his mother’s friends in the country – looks at its adult and child protagonists with equal affection and tenderness, slowly revealing the connections between their emotional experience of the world.

The Long Day Closes (Davies, 1992)

“Mam, can I go to the pictures?” Movie love. The rituals of home, church and school. A first scary stirring of homosexual desire. Davies makes the intimate experience of his 1950s Liverpool childhood something universal, far-reaching, embracing and profound here. If there’s just one sequence to demonstrate the rapturous, melancholic uniqueness of The Long Day Closes it’s this one.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, 2011)

 A child’s eye view of the bayou, this could be a Maurice Sendak book brought to the screen by Terrence Malick. And in Quvenzhane Wallis’s enterprising Hushpuppy, Zeitlin creates one of the most memorable heroines of the recent American screen. I find the shot of the kids returning to the Bathtub following their dreamy night on the boat to be overwhelmingly powerful.

The Sixth Sense (Shyamalan, 1999)

Forget the ghosts, forget the twist. What makes The Sixth Sense such an enduring, deeply affecting childhood portrait, for me, is that it's about a kid coming to terms with an ability that it takes him the whole movie to recognise as a gift rather than a curse.


The Kid With A Bike (Dardennes, 2011)

With characteristic Dardennes doggedness, Cyril (Thomas Doret) sets about seeking out his errant father. The renunciation of the pursuit is the point of the story. And the humanity of the movie is cemented by its heart-wrenching final shot.


Michael (Schleinzer, 2011)

An icily enigmatic coda to the (mostly) affirmative films listed above is provided by Marcus Schleinzer’s deeply subversive drama, which presents a middle-class office worker holding a young boy captive in his basement. And shows this predicament to have more in common with a traditional parent/child dynamic than we might care to admit.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Theatre Review: Sweet Bird of Youth (Old Vic)

Groggily rousing herself from her hotel bed sheets, Kim Cattrall requests her spectacles - the better to inspect the bare-chested boy-toy she’s hooked up with. “I don’t mind waking up in an intimate situation with someone, but I like to see who it’s with,” Cattrall coos. Her verdict on said stud? “Well, I may have done better but God knows I’ve done worse.”

Nope, this isn’t, as you might imagine, a deleted scene from some Sex and the City episode, but rather the opening Act of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, in which Cattrall is starring at the Old Vic. It’s to Cattrall’s credit that the spirit of SATC's iconic Samantha Jones doesn’t hover too closely over her characterisation of Alexandra del Lago (aka the Princess Kosmonopolis), a sexually voracious faded movie star whose desperate flight from a disastrous screen comeback has led her into the arms of one Chance Wayne, a would-be actor still grasping for his big break. But it’s not to the production’s credit that it ends up making something quite cumbersome and clunky out of Williams’s play.

The tale of Chance’s return to his Gulf Coast hometown where he hopes – in a decidedly harebrained scheme - to use his acquaintance with the Princess to finally kick-start his career and reconcile with his teenage lover in the process, Sweet Bird of Youth is far from Williams’s most perfectly constructed work. But still it has interest and appeal. There’s a definite charge to the Princess and Chance’s interaction (they’re both using each other flagrantly but can’t help swerving into tenderness at times), as well as bite and poignancy in the exploration of what “the enemy - Time” does to human aspiration, plus a fascinatingly grisly, animalistic undertow to the piece. In a choice bit of symmetrical plotting, our hero’s girl, Heavenly, has undergone a hysterectomy after being infected with syphilis by him, and Chance now faces castration by Heavenly’s odious politician father Boss Finley and his goons should he attempt to contact her again.

But rather than embracing the kinky, heightened elements that Williams has provided, Marianne Elliott’s po-faced production treats the material with unseemly seriousness and reverence, often draining the humour and quirky lyricism from the piece. What needs to be bright, vivid, bold and arresting is here mostly gloom and pathos. Dan Jones supplies grimly portentous music, Bruno Poet’s lighting is glum, and Rae Smith’s design – while enabling efficient quick scene changes – makes the hotel set look ludicrously palatial. These opening scenes, which should be funny and sexy as the Princess and Chance negotiate the terms of their relationship, seem interminable and turgid; the production achieves the not inconsiderable feat of making Williams look like a boring writer.

Trying for the occasional melodramatic flourish, Elliott adds shadowy figures and hokey lightning flashes to the proceedings, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it and there’s very little camp fun to be had. Nor is the evening very intense. For all its cuts (no hysterectomy, no castration, no evils-of-miscegenation chatter), Richard Brooks’s 1961 film version offered a much more compelling rendering of the play than this one ends up being. Elliott and dramaturg James Graham have made their own trims and tweaks to the text - including (very oddly) the omission of Chance’s final monologue. But with a running time of three hours, the production still feels torpid, and it seems highly likely that further cuts will be made, especially to the first half.

Cattrall (her natural sexiness somewhat hampered by an unbecoming wig) and Seth Numrich (making his London stage debut as Chance) are still clearly in the process of feeling their way into their roles during this preview period; both actors have strong, compelling moments, but sparks don’t yet fly between them. The production’s energy level does thankfully pick up, though - especially when dynamic Owen Roe starts snarling and sleazing away as Boss Finley. His scene with Heavenly (the striking, touching Louise Dylan) and Aunt Nonnie (spot-on Brid Brennan) is the only time when the play’s mixture of humour and menace really steams through. Still, a production of Sweet Bird of Youth in which these supporting characters, rather than Chance and the Princess, emerge as the most engaging figures, can’t feel anything but underpowered. Or rather: neutered.

Booking until 31 August.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Theatre Review: The Amen Corner (National Theatre, Olivier)

James Baldwin’s plays are so seldom seen on UK stages that the National Theatre’s decision to revive The Amen Corner is already a cause for celebration in itself. The even better news is that Rufus Norris’s take on the play proves spot-on in all departments: a lively, loving staging that’s funny, sad, soulful and tuneful by turns. All that being said, you wouldn’t call The Amen Corner Baldwin’s finest work: it’s sentimental, sometimes hackneyed in its plotting, and horribly patriarchal in its perspective. But Norris’s beautifully acted production sweeps along with such unabashed panache that you might not realise your objections to what the play’s saying until after the evening is through.

The action unfolds in two locations: the Harlem apartment occupied by Margaret Alexander (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), her son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and her sister Odessa (Sharon D. Clarke) and the humble corner church above it that serves as Margaret’s ministry. Margaret is a pastor given to fiery sermons and hardline pronouncements, a single mother who was abandoned by her hard-drinking jazz musician spouse, Luke. Or at least that’s the way Margaret tells it. For the surprise reappearance of the now ailing Luke (Lucian Msamati) results in a slightly different version of the couple’s past coming to light, one that spurs the already-conflicted David – who’s inherited his father’s musical gifts and resents his mother’s attempts to push him into the Church - into further rebellion and finds the congregation soon plotting a coup to get Margaret ousted.

Baldwin, whose stepfather was an authoritarian lay preacher and who himself served briefly as a child evangelist before renouncing the Church, has called Harlem a “southern community displaced in the streets of New York,” and that’s exactly what The Amen Corner presents: it’s a play with the savour of a particular time and place. That sense of community life - a society steeped in religious rhetoric yet with its own tensions, jealousies and power-plays, plus Big City temptations within reach - is expertly rendered in Norris’s production which is especially good at conveying the shift from respect to resentment in the congregation’s attitude towards Margaret and the glee with which they discover that this proud, pious woman who’s set herself above them is in fact “no better than the rest of us.”

Also striking is the insightful way in which the production shows music to be central to the community’s interaction, both inside and outside the church. Overseen by The Reverend Bazil Meade and MD Tim Sutton and dynamically delivered by the cast (with the London Community Gospel Choir – no less - on hand to help out) the selected hymns and spirituals range from the exhilaratingly rowdy to the achingly tender, and Norris makes them, by turns, centrepiece and accompaniment to the action in a way that feels totally natural. First impressions of Ian MacNeill’s cumbersome-looking, slightly murky split-level set - which, in typical MacNeill fashion, sits the interior of the church atop the family’s dwelling so that both are visible throughout - aren’t favourable. But gradually the design comes into its own, enabling the production to shift elegantly between domestic and public space and show the overlapping, counterpointing concerns of each. It’s apt – if a bit obvious - that when Luke slinks back into Margeret's life it’s with a cheeky ditty that puts a blasphemous spin on the hymn that the assembled company are reverently intoning in the kitchen.

What’s problematic about Baldwin’s conception of the piece is the way in which he places a complex, dynamic female character at the centre of the play – and then reveals her to be wrong about pretty much everything. The Amen Corner is dominated by vivid, well-drawn women characters, in fact, and yet it’s Luke’s perspective that ends up being endorsed, Baldwin loading the dice too heavily in his favour. However you slice it, the play is finally about Margaret getting a lesson in humility and coming around to her ex’s point-of-view. Luke can be a handful, we’re given to understand, and his hard-living  ways have taken their toll, but still he represents Truth, Life and Pleasure – all the things that Margaret, in fleeing into the Church, has cut herself of from. Renounce Christianity he might have done, but Baldwin is a highly moralistic writer and underpinning the cosy message that he presents us with here - that to “love the Lord is to love all His children … and never count the cost!” - is a less palatable one. It goes something along the lines of: “Girls, stand by your man.”

Notwithstanding, Baldwin’s language has suppleness and pungency line by line, and the actors’ pleasure in delivering the dialogue is palpable. Across the board, the ensemble excels. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, whom we might have thought lost to the US (Without A Trace, indeed), makes a simply sensational return to the London stage as Margaret, communicating every shade of pride and self-righteousness, of resentment, regret and sympathy, that the character goes through. Her opening sermon is a startler but the performance only deepens from there. Jean-Baptiste is an actress who, even on a stage as massive as the Olivier, makes you feel like you’re watching her thinking in close-up and her performance here is beyond praise: deep and rich and true. As the errant hubby, Lucian Msamati is stuck with some of Baldwin’s worst stuff: he has to be irreverent and a font of wisdom, be proved right in his assertion of his wife’s enduring devotion (ick) and keep collapsing on cue. But Msamati is such a charismatic presence that he gives the role a semblance of believability. Sharon D Clarke makes Odessa an epitome of wry, forthright good sense, while the awesome Cecilia Noble (making a welcome return to the NT after a long hiatus) does a delicious, aspirating turn as Sister Moore – a hilariously smarmy hypocrite with her eye on Margaret’s job. And while Eric Kofi Abrefa’s trajectory as David is perfectly predictable, the actor delivers his final monologue with so much heartfelt emotion that it becomes the production’s most moving moment.

Ultimately, then, there’s a generosity of spirit to Norris’s production that helps to overcome the more rigged and problematic elements of the drama, resulting in a rich, vibrant take on the play, one that has "NT summer crowd-pleaser" stamped all over it. Praise be.

Booking until 14 August.

Saturday, 1 June 2013