Friday 31 December 2010

A Little Light Linkage (II)

So, to end the year, a second helping of favourite recent dispatches from the Blogosphere. (Here's the first helping.)

Michał Oleszczyk's favourite films of 2010 at Last Seat on the Right.

Featuring only one movie released in 2010, moviesandsongs365's Films of the Year list.

Mike Lippert at You Talking to Me? on Aronofsky's Black Swan.

Matt at The Fffurbelow! on Coppola's Somewhere.

From There Ought To Be Clowns, the second fosterIAN theatre awards  Epic in scope and execution.

A Christmas message from the inimitable (and award-winning) Mr. John Gray at Going Gently.

And this one's not a recent one, but it might just be my favourite blog post of the entire year: Sally Potter on "The True Face."

Thanks to these lovely people, and of course to everyone who's stopped by this blog in 2010.

Happy 2011!

Sunday 26 December 2010

Review of 2010: Cinema - 10 Favourite Films

Cinema memories, 2010.

A Taliban on the run. A pregnant woman dancing in a nightclub, accompanied then alone. Child soldiers sleep, clutching soft toys. An American flag is raised in the Philippines. Pioneers let an Indian lead them. Dirty Dancing gets re-created. A dentist slumbers in her Spitfire. Two strangers play at being lovers (or the other way around). A gangster and his girl sway to Doris Day. A father watches his daughter ice-skate. A last supper is scored to Swan Lake. Juliette Binoche’s red lipstick. Romain Duris’s amazing hair. In Sanremo, a Russian woman pursues her son’s friend – soon to be her lover - through the city streets. In California, an Englishman receives a phone-call. A French child tells his mother a story, and becomes part of it.

Great year to be a movie-goer. And impossible to restrict this list to just 10 films...

Le cinéma comme refuge. Too slight for some, Ozon’s intimate drama about a pregnant junkie connecting with her dead lover’s brother during one summer felt incredibly personal and resonant to me. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a perfectly wrought short story, and a film that gains from being placed in the wider context of the director’s body of work. Excellent performances from Isabelle Carré and Louis Ronan-Choisy as the odd couple working out their futures after loss (they’re both superb subjects for Ozon’s caressing camera), but what counts the most in Le Refuge is the attention to atmosphere, the focus on gazes and touches, and, especially, the director’s genius for capturing his characters in solitary, private moments. A beauty.

O pioneers! The big surprise of this year’s London Film Festival, Kelly Reichardt’s awesome film, set in 1845, focuses on three families being led by an unreliable guide off of the Oregon Trail. Reichardt brings to this historical drama the same considered, slow-burn approach that distinguished her contemporary-set films; she brings a healthy reappraisal of gender and racial politics too. With its brilliant, spare script, stunning cinematography and perfectly-pitched performances from Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson, the visionary Meek deserves major attention on its theatrical release next year.

One of Claire Denis’s most sustained and affecting films, with a brilliant performance from Isabelle Huppert as the coffee plantation owner refusing to leave her African estate as civil war breaks out around her. Seductive and disturbing, direct and elliptical, you don’t shake White Material off easily. And to quote Blondie: “My dream is on the screen.”

An interesting companion piece to White Material in many ways, Xavier Beauvois’s drama about a group of Cistercian monks debating whether to leave their North African monastery in the wake of Islamic fundamentalist attacks is a masterful piece of work. And in the late sequence set to Swan Lake Beauvois provides one of the most emotionally overwhelming pieces of cinema that I’ve seen this year.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of sustained joy and happiness radiating from the films released this year, or at least not the ones that meant the most to me. But I recall smiling pretty much all the way through Alain Resnais’s brazenly barmy Wild Grass, a great comedy about, ahem, loneliness, fantasy, ageing and obsession. Aged 88, the director demonstrates more movie-struck glee here than most filmmakers half his age. The viewer shares the delight. (Year's best poster, too.)

The Fugitive for existentialists. Plopping his Taliban hero down in a snowy, rural Poland, where he’s hunted by both human and canine pursuers, Jerzy Skolimowski presents a marvellously idiosyncratic spin on the man-on-the-run movie here, distinguished by superb cinematography and a truly brilliant (wordless) performance from the great Vincent Gallo. The political dimensions of the story, though unavoidable, are ultimately downplayed; instead, Essential Killing takes on the primal intensity, clarity and mystery of an ancient folk ballad.

I love the ability that certain French filmmakers have to present family dramas on a scale that’s at once intimate and epic. Honoré’s latest achieves just that. And Léna's confounding protagonists were my favourite movie characters of the year. If you’re listening Artificial Eye, please give this one a proper UK release.

All the Sayles virtues - intelligence, perspective, humanity, insight, wit - are on display in the director’s compelling drama about the Philippines-American War. Again, if you're listening Artificial Eye...

The antidote to Four Lions. I wasn’t at all  prepared for the intense emotional impact of London River, Bouchareb’s film about two characters searching for their missing children in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, and its effect was no doubt accentuated by walking out of the cinema straight onto the London streets. Remarkable performances, and I admire the way that the film’s final moments complicate the healing and catharsis that’s achieved in the central relationship.

Before its unfortunate third-act stumble into hysteria, Guadagnino’s sumptuous melodrama - "Visconti on acid," in the words of its star - was a thing of absolute beauty, featuring a(nother) knock-out performance from Tilda Swinton as the adulterous matriarch. See it, and swoon.

In addition:

Heartbreaker (dir. Pascal Chaumeil)
Heartbreaker was quite delightful, a lively romantic comedy with edge. But a case could be made that the movie’s real subject is Romain Duris’s incredible (and envy-inducing) hair.

A Single Man (dir. Tom Ford)
You can quibble with the rather cosy, life-affirming message that Tom Ford’s adaptation imposes on Isherwood’s much more tart and cynical novella. But, despite awkward and unconvincing moments, overall A Single Man worked for me. Debate continues to rage about whether the movie’s sheer unabashed stylised gorgeousness is more suited to a commercial than a narrative film but I’d argue that Ford’s arsenal of stylistic tricks work effectively to convey the protagonist’s consciousness. Not so much style over substance, then, as style as substance. And even those unmoved by the visuals couldn’t deny the power of Colin Firth’s great performance.

Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
A hymn to love or a hymn to Juliette Binoche? Well, both, perhaps. Less will-they-or-won’t-they? than are-they-or-aren’t-they?, Kiarostami’s memorable deconstruction of “the couple” is enigmatic and obvious, exasperating and beguiling, heavy-handed and understated, witty and poignant, all at once.

Lourdes (dir. Jessica Hausner)
Despite the fact that it’s one of the films that stayed with me the most throughout the year, somehow I never got around to writing about Lourdes, Hausner’s rich, wry film about a multiple sclerosis sufferer (Sylvie Testud) on a pilgrimage who experiences what may or may not be a miracle. The marvellous Michał Oleszczyk at Last Seat on the Right gives the best account of this film that I’ve read.

Father of my Children (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
"The beauty and cruelty of life," conveyed with equal perspicacity in Hansen-Løve's profoundly affecting film.

Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola)
Confirming Coppola as one of our foremost cinematic poets on the seductions - and the limitations - of ennui.

The Illusionist (dir. Sylvain Chomet)
Chomet’s delightful follow-up to the great Belleville Rendezvous: quieter, sadder, wiser.

The Limits of Control (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Forget The American.

Two disappointments: Another Year and Happy Few.

Not seen and need to be seen: Black Swan, Dogtooth, Rabbit Hole, Carlos, The Kids Are All Right, and Enter The Void.

Agree? Disagree? Well, lemme know.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Review of 2010: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions

While no single production stood out for me this year, 2010 certainly offered some incredible theatre experiences, of which the ten below - presented in order of viewing rather than preference - were among the ones that I enjoyed most. No new plays on the list, I’m sorry to note; again, this will hopefully be remedied in 2011. Click on the titles for full reviews of the productions.

In a year that saw some highly eccentric (though often exhilarating) takes on Shakespeare, it’s pleasing to recall Peter Hall’s marvellous traditional production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre. Full of fun and feeling, the production was elegantly designed, finely detailed and well-cast across the board, with particularly good work from Rachael Stirling, who brought a wondrous grandeur and intensity to Helena’s unrequited love for Demetrius. But, inevitably, the star of this particular show was Judi Dench whose Titania (via Elizabeth I!) was variously ethereal and earthy, and never more cherishable than when hee-hawing with delight at Oliver Chris’s adorably transmogrified Bottom.

“Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon, my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot …” Somehow I never thought I’d shed tears during a Samuel Beckett play but Roger Rees’s delivery of Vladimir’s great late monologue moved me deeply, and exemplified the ways in which Sean Mathias’s brilliant production excavated the play’s tender, human heart.

Pitched somewhere between Restoration comedy and Whitehall farce, the National Theatre’s exuberant and utterly charming revival of Dion Boucicault’s 1841 comedy became something of a phenomenon. With deliciously florid, full-on star performances from Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, and great supporting turns from Richard Briers, Nick Sampson and Michelle Terry, Nicholas Hytner’s production gave pure pleasure from beginning to end, and I could happily watch it again tonight.

Marianne Elliot’s lavish staging of Middleton’s revenge tragedy had as many questionable ideas as good ones, and the elaborate (yet limp) staging of the final massacre was a silly and sad mistake. But at its best the production gripped like a motherfucker. It earns its place on this list due to the thrilling staging of the famed scene in which the fiendish Livia (Harriet Walter) distracts the Widow (Tilly Tremayne) with a game of chess so that the rape of the latter’s daughter-in-law can be accomplished. At such moments, Elliot’s production clearly had Middleton’s witty, warped vision entirely in its grasp.

Thanks to the venerable Mr. Ian Foster at There Ought To Be Clowns whose great review persuaded me to experience the delights of this hilarious, adorable and insightful musical at long last.

The best production that I saw at the Orange Tree Theatre this year, Sam Walters’s droll and very moving revival of Pinero’s play.

TV crews, security cameras, suited security guards with ear-pieces - I winced at the beginning of the NT’s Hamlet, and imagined that I was in for a miserable time. But by the end Hytner’s production had won me over entirely, and provided yet more reasons to love the Greatest Play Ever Written, not least Rory Kinnear, giving great Dane. 

Enticing me over to the Tricycle Theatre for the first (but definitely not the last!) time, Iqbal Khan’s stunning revival of Arthur Miller’s 1994 opus about the fall-out of Kristallnacht and its effect on a Jewish couple in Brooklyn ended up being perhaps my favourite production of the year. The extent to which Miller succeeds in linking what he calls “a public concern and a private neurosis” in Broken Glass is debatable. But the play’s flaws didn’t seem to matter very much, not with performances of this calibre: Antony Sher, Lucy Cohu, Nigel Lindsay, Madeline Potter and Emily Bruni were simply superb. Khan’s production was gripping, intense, haunting and beautiful; what a shame that it didn’t manage to transfer.

While it didn't quite match Rupert Goold's immaculate 2007 production, great performances from Deborah Findlay, Leo Bill, Sinéad Matthews and Kyle Soller distinguished Joe Hill-Gibbons’s thoroughly involving revival of Tennessee Williams’s classic.

Combining vaudeville and Latin Mass, carols and rap, puppetry and torture porn, Ed Hall’s all-male Propeller company re-imagine Shakespeare’s most notorious history play as some gonzo Victorian medical drama. Chilling, funny and frequently barking mad, the production dug out the play’s political seriousness and its ghoulish comedy to produce as exciting and inventive a staging as I can ever imagine having the privilege to see.

And finally, a shout-out to those actors, writers and directors whose talks and Masterclasses have offered so much insight and inspiration throughout the year, in particular Fiona Shaw, Simon Russell Beale, Lesley Sharp, Miriam Margolyes, Deborah Findlay, Simon Callow, Willy Russell, and Judi Dench.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Review of 2010: Music - 10 Favourite Albums

Music that moved me this year. As often, several of the albums that I responded to most in 2010 were built around an over-arching concept, theme or narrative - and a couple of them were made up of many different voices and very diverse musical styles. In this pick-and-mix download era, it’s heartening that so many bands and artists are keeping faith with the idea of the album as art form, paying close attention to sequencing and continuity, and producing such carefully structured and developed work. This has turned out to be an American-dominated list, and I notice that I seem to have lost contact with British folk music this year - to be remedied in 2011! Anyway, here's my soundtrack to 2010; click on the links for full reviews.

Contra - Vampire Weekend (XL)

“In December, drinking horchata ….” The Vamps's follow-up to their superb debut album was one of the first records that I purchased in 2010 and it ended up being the album that I returned to most throughout the year.  Contra's ten songs are little rollercoaster rides in which a variety of genres - rock, ska, pop, punk, reggae, folk - are dynamically  merged. Galloping drums, blaring synths, M.I.A samples, harpischord; it's all here. Strong hooks lurch into more turbulent territory, only for the melody to be briskly reinstated. The arch, thoughtful lyrics - and Ezra Koenig's appealing, protean delivery of them - keep pace. The band create wonderfully infectious songs in which, after the initial seduction, you're constantly discovering fresh elements. Hands down, the year's best musical pick-me-up.  

Hadestown - Anais Mitchell (Righteous Babe)

On Hadestown, Mitchell and her collaborators transplant the Orpheus myth into a novel context: the album’s underworld is “an exploitative company town” in an epoch evocative of Depression-era America, where Orpheus wields a banjo not a lyre, and Hades is a “sadistic, wall-building boss king” whose wife Persephone “moonlights as the proprietress of a Speakeasy.” The context informs the musical approach and the record moves compellingly through American folk forms, encompassing blues, jazz, ragtime and swing, with dips into the avant garde. Issues of poverty, love, power, oppression and the poet as potential threat to the status quo emerge gracefully; the album wears both its erudition and its ambition very lightly. Ultimately, though, the central pleasure of Hadestown is the distinctive qualities that its vocalists bring to the material. Mitchell’s girlish, lyrical delivery; Justin Vernon’s hushed intensity; Greg Brown’s marvellously imposing rumble; Ani DiFranco’s funky sensuality; Ben Knox Miller’s oddball rasp and the Haden Triplets' spry interventions combine to make the album into a tapestry of perceptions and perspectives, a musical collage, and one that has both personal and political resonance. Great record.

                                       Here Lies Love - David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (Nonesuch)

One of the year’s oddest musical ideas - a song- cycle based around the life of the Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, and, in particular, her relationship with Estrella Cumpas, the woman who looked after her as a child - became, for me, one of the year’s biggest successes. Musically, the album takes its cues from Marcos’s own predilection for club and dance music, with Norman Cook and collaborator Tom Gandey (Cagedbaby) combining soul, disco, and Latin-beats with Broadway and techno elements. Not all of it works, but after repeated listens Here Lies Love has become an album that I cherish as much for its flaws as for its moments of beauty and insight. As with Hadestown (also originally conceived for the stage) it’s the diverse voices that make the record such an enjoyable experience. And it’s quite a crew that Byrne’s assembled for the project: Tori Amos, Cyndi Lauper, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Martha Wainwright and Roisin Murphy, amongst them. Immortalising Ms. Marcos alongside Eva Duarte, Jesus Christ and Jerry Springer as the unlikely subject of a pop opera, Byrne and his collaborators get you thinking and dancing, together. Now all that remains is to get the album back to the stage - preferably with this cast.

Beautiful traditional American music - straight-up, no gimmicks, no irony. From the gorgeous yearning of “Alone In New York” through the tight, Band-ish harmonies of “Crop Comes In” to the driving bluegrass of “Heart Attack” Wildwood beguiles, warms, delights. Songs that sound vital and fresh, but also as if they’d existed forever.

Merchant’s double album, her first release since 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter, offers a selection of diverse verse, by poets both well known and obscure, musicalised to dramatic, dynamic and haunting effect. There’s a heart-warming sense of continuum to Leave Your Sleep, of reaching through time to connect and collaborate, and Merchant’s consistently inventive but unshowy arrangements and gorgeously empathetic and understated vocals do full justice to the texts she’s selected for the project, resulting in a wonderfully humane work that’s variously playful, heartbreaking and life-affirming. Clearly a labour of love for Merchant, Leave Your Sleep is an entrancing experience for the listener.

This Is Happening - LCD Soundsystem (DFA)

“Go and dance yourself clean!” yelps the excitable James Murphy. Sound advice - and make sure you take a copy of the deliriously enjoyable This Is Happening with you when you go.

                                        Swanlights - Antony & The Johnsons (Rough Trade)

Although I’d still like to hear more exuberance and playfulness on an Antony and the Johnsons’s album again, Swanlights proved to be an enjoyable experience overall and a considerable improvement on the band's previous release The Crying Light, with more interesting arrangements, more committed vocals from Antony, and some truly beautiful moments. Tenderly renewed.

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Mercury)

Arcade Fire’s third album never came to mean quite as much to me as it apparently did to most people. Lyrically, Win Butler’s variously vague and overly-literal complaints about suburban sprawl, ennui and the inadequacy of modern youth don’t have quite enough substance to sustain 16 tracks; the targets seem obvious; and the record introduces not so much as a scrap of humour to sweeten the pill. And yet passages of awesome musical beauty give The Suburbs power and interest throughout, and have meant that I’ve kept returning to the record consistently, enjoying it more and more each time. The ace up the album’s sleeve is the glorious “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” an exhilarating disco number that suggests a musical direction that Arcade Fire might do well to expand upon in the future.

Wake Up! - John Legend & The Roots (Sony)

On Wake Up!, his best album to date, Legend teams up with hip hop band The Roots to revisit classic 1960s and 70s protest songs written and/or made famous by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers and Nina Simone. Stirring and empowering, the record also offers a thoughtful counter to more sentimental narratives about Obama’s America. The choice of material is surprising and delightful, the band are on fire, Legend sings with passion and conviction, and Wake Up! achieves what Salamishah Tillets calls a “potent mix of timeliness and timelessness.”

How I Learned to See in the Dark - Chris Pureka (Sad Rabbit)

Singer-songwriter Pureka’s third album is an intense and powerful set of songs that richly rewards the listener. Produced with Merrill Garbus, the album’s robust, melodic tracks build confidently and seductively with a steady accretion of instruments. A beautiful consistency of tone is sustained, yet each track has a distinctive identity, from the moody opener "Wrecking Ball" and the taut, haunting "Hangman" through the urgent "Landlocked" and the sturdy groove of "Broken Clock" to the driving, catchy "Lowlands" and the gorgeous, dramatic "Time is the Anchor". A striking and accomplished record that deserved to be much more widely heard; do seek it out.

And for good measure: two great gigs- Richard Shindell at TwickFolk and Tori Amos at Apollo Victoria.

Review: Once Bitten (Orange Tree Theatre)

A very strong Autumn season at Richmond’s lovely Orange Tree Theatre concludes, as per tradition, with a comedy for Christmas, in this case a production of Alfred Hennequin and Alfred Delacour’s 1875 farce Le procés Veauradieux, in a new adaptation by Reggie Oliver that’s been christened Once Bitten. Described by Oliver as “a complete, indeed paradigmatic, example of the classic French farce,” and acknowledged as a play that influenced Feydeau, the plot revolves around a lawyer, Fauvinard, who’s involvement in a divorce case is complicated by his mistress, a meddling mother-in-law, a lawyer friend, Tardivaut, and his  mistress, an excitable uncle with narcolepsy, a jewel theft, and a rather troublesome dog.

Following so closely on the heels of my less-than-satisfying encounter with Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear at the Old Vic, Once Bitten didn't seem like a particularly appealing prospect. But, happily, Sam Walters’s confident production proves to be a considerably more engaging experience. Hennequin and Delacour’s plot has more interest and bite (pardon the pun), and Oliver’s translation is nimble and witty, encompassing bare-faced innuendo (“She’s got the doctor up there giving her a thorough going over”) and big comic set-pieces (a brilliantly staged attack by dead dog), while also digging out elements that would excite a Freudian, from mother fixations to suspected incest and a narrowly averted uncle/nephew rape.

And, although this was only the fourth performance, the cast are completely on top of their game, and reassuringly at ease with the material. Orange Tree regulars David Antrobus (as Fauvinard) and Mark Frost (as Tardivaut) give memorable performances, and there's nice work from Amy Neilson Smith as a timorous, befuddled maid, and Beth Cordingly as Fauvinard’s canny mistress. Briony McRoberts brings a marvellous gleaming-eyed gusto to her fearsome mother-in-law who's dedicated to catching Fauvinard out (“I’ve got my eye on you, and it’s wide open!”) and Richard Durden is delightful as the uncle whose randiness is constantly thwarted by his tendency to fall asleep whenever he sits down (“I’m up all night!”). Door slams and doggy noises are provided by Sophie Acreman, while Sam Dowson’s set evokes bourgeois study and tart’s parlour with customary economy. Nothing life-changing here, then, but at least Once Bitten does - very skillfully - exactly what it says it will do on the tin. A fun evening.

The production is booking until 5th February.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Review: Somewhere (2010)

Despite the diversity of their settings - 1970s suburban America in The Virgin Suicides (1999), early-noughties Tokyo in Lost in Translation (2003), 18th century France in Marie Antoinette (2006) and now contemporary Hollywood in Somewhere (2010) - the films of Sofia Coppola have displayed a remarkable consistency of theme and tone. Ennui, alienation, melancholy, fleeting connections - these are Coppola’s subjects, and her movies explore them in a highly distinctive film language that’s equal parts poetic and deadpan. As much as those of any mainstream American director, Coppola’s films sublimate narrative to atmosphere and mood, and, whatever its specific origins, her work always feels very personal, built out of her own interests and observations. The director's methods seem to drive some viewers a little crazy, particularly in Marie Antoinette, where her subjective, playful yet discreet approach challenged traditional expectations of historical drama and the biopic. Other viewers - myself included - found that film to be a refreshing antidote to the duller manifestations of both genres.

Coppola’s new movie, Somewhere, which won the Best Film Prize at the Venice festival, is a smaller-scaled work than Marie Antoinette. It’s closer in spirit to Lost In Translation - a little too close at times, if truth be told. The focus is on a hot young actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) who’s frittering away his days in a haze of pills, pole-dancers and parties at the Chateau Marmont. This routine is interrupted by the arrival of his almost-estranged 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) whose mother is going away and needs Johnny to take care of the girl for a few weeks. The pair’s time together is the focus of the second half of the movie. They play games, entertain Johnny’s pal, go to Italy for an award ceremony, watch TV, eat ice-cream, sunbathe and swim. And grow a little bit closer, inch by inch.

Virginia Woolf’s famed remarks about her composition of The Waves - “I am writing to a rhythm not to a plot” - fit Coppola’s filmmaking style in Somewhere. It’s rhythm that counts in this movie, and while the film’s languid, measured pace will test the patience of some, I think it makes the film work like a balm on the viewer. There are no massive emotional blow-ups, no big transitions: as always Coppola prefers to keep the conflicts under the surface. The substance of the movie is in the details - from the pole-dancers packing away their equipment to Cleo preparing breakfast - and in longer sequences like a simply gorgeous ice-skating scene that marks an early shift in the protagonists' relationship. It’s also in lovely running gags, such as the endless parade of women who accost Johnny, and the string of abusive text messages he receives from some bitter ex. (The way Dorff reacts to these missives, it seems that the abuse just confirms the way Johnny feels about himself already.)  Coppola views her characters with a wry, affectionate eye, and gets some amusing celeb-culture satire into the movie too. Dorff and Fanning work beautifully together, and as a quiet, tender anatomisation of a father-daughter relationship the movie earns its place alongside Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008).  

Somewhere won’t do much to change the minds of people who view Coppola's films as empty style-exercises focusing on privileged characters who are sketchily drawn at best. But those beguiled by the director’s style will find plenty to enjoy here. Johnny’s journey doesn’t quite have the poignancy or impact of Bob's and Charlotte’s in Lost In Translation but it’s affecting nonetheless. The film starts with the character in his Ferrari, obsessively circling a piece of track, getting nowhere. At the end he’s striding out on foot, heading … somewhere.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Review: A Flea In Her Ear (Old Vic)

“It’s only funny when something goes wrong,” quipped my companion just before we decided to abandon yesterday’s somewhat ill-fated second preview of A Flea In Her Ear at the Old Vic - a performance that ended up running 40 minutes behind schedule due to tech hitches and actor injury. Uncharitable words, perhaps, but not entirely inaccurate. First performed at the Old Vic in 1966, in a fondly-remembered production starring Albert Finney and Geraldine McEwan, Feydeau’s 1907 play is widely regarded as one of the finest farces ever written, and one of the dramatist's very best plays. Set in turn-of-the-century Paris, it’s the story of misadventures at the Hotel Coq d’or, at which a motley group of characters have assembled for a series of trysts. Suspecting that her husband Victor Emmanuel Chandebise’s loss of interest in sex is due to infidelity, Raymonde sets a trap for him at the Hotel, via a fake love letter penned by her friend Lucienne, who’s married to a gun-toting and insanely jealous Spaniard, Don Carlos. Raymonde, in turn, is lusted after by Victor Emmanuel’s friend and colleague Tournel. Meanwhile, Victor Emmanuel’s speech-impaired nephew Camille heads to the Hotel for an assignation with the Chandebises’s cook, Antoinette, pursued by the latter’s husband, the butler Etienne. Complicating matters further is the hotel’s alcoholic porter, Poche, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Victor Emmanuel.

Despite its classic status, Feydeau’s play didn’t look at its freshest last night - unless you happen to find characters with speech impediments and funny-foreigner gags intrinsically hilarious, that is. And Richard Eyre’s production - which avails itself of the John Mortimer translation of the play that scored such a big hit in 1966 - is still clearly in the process of finding its feet. Farce in which you can see the gears grinding (or failing to grind, in the case of a particularly troublesome revolving bed) can be painful for the audience, and so it occasionally proved last night, particularly in a would-be frenetic conclusion to Act 2 that looked stilted and uncomfortable, and finally persuaded us to desert our posts.

All this being said, the actors certainly worked their damnedest to get laughs out of the material. Most successful were Oliver Cotton as Victor Emmanuel’s doctor, Jonathan Cake as Tournel, a frenetic Freddie Fox as Camille, the stylish Fiona Glascott as Lucienne, the always-reliable Tim McMullan as Etienne and - in particular - John Marquez, unleashing a truly epic lisp and fine flamenco skills as Don Carlos, the most outrageously stereotyped Spaniard to grace the stage since, well, Tim McMullan’s turn in the 2006 National Theatre production of The Alchemist. As Raymonde, Lisa Dillon (fresh from her success in the Old Vic’s Design For Living) looks like she still needs some time to settle into the role, while poor Tom Hollander struggled valiantly on despite his injury in Act 1, getting some decent comic mileage out of his dual roles as Victor Emmanuel and Poche.

It’s a funny thing about the Old Vic under Spacey: the productions are invariably slick and classy, well-cast and well-acted, and the theatre seems to have built up a tremendous amount of audience good-will over the years. And yet I never really feel much of a sense of urgency or necessity about the venue's programming, and seldom emerge really fired-up or excited about what I’ve seen there. A Flea In Her Ear has some promising elements and once the production finds its feet it will no doubt make for a mildly diverting evening’s entertainment. But - last night, at least - a comfy sofa and the Fawlty Towers boxed set seemed a much more attractive proposition.

The production opens on 14 December and is booking until 5 March.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Review: Making Plans For Lena (2009)

With Dans Paris (2006) and the musical Les Chansons d’Amour (2007) the prolific writer/director Christophe Honoré produced two of the freshest, most delightful French movies of the 00s. Honoré’s last film, La Belle Personne (2008), an adaptation of a Madame de Lafayette novel relocated to a contemporary Parisian high school, also had its splendours, but sadly the movie never received UK distribution. Despite success at a number of film festivals, it looks like a similar fate might befall Honoré’s latest work, Making Plans for Léna (2009), which is a genuine shame. I was grateful to have the chance to see the film at the Cine Lumiere last week during the French Film Festival, and found it to be a beautiful work, a wry and empathetic movie that fits snugly into the contemporary canon of intimate yet epically-inclined French family dramas, from Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998) to Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008).

The Léna of the title (Chiara Mastroianni) is an unemployed 30-something mother of two, who’s in the process of separating from her husband Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr). The film opens with Léna and her kids, Anton and Augustine, travelling to her parents home in Brittany to spend the holidays with her sister Frédérique (Marina Foïs) and brother Gulven (Julien Honoré) while her mother and father (Marie-Christine Barrault and Fred Ulysse) go on vacation to Rome. Once there, Léna discovers that her parents have invited Nigel along too, a decision that immediately brings Léna into conflict with her family, all of whom seem to think that they can organise her life better than she can.

These conflicts are developed in subtle and consistently surprising ways throughout the film. Honoré is too shrewd and smart about people to simply pit a saintly single mother against a family of awful meddlers - or indeed to pit a saintly family against a hapless single mother. (Take note, Mike Leigh.) Indeed, what’s so compelling about Making Plans for Léna (the apt English title comes from the XTC song “Making Plans For Nigel,” which Barr's character plays for the couple’s kids early in the film) is its complexity of perspective, and the way in which it gradually unpicks the protagonists’ relationships, revealing tensions and alliances, loyalties and betrayals, in the most unexpected of places. The characters, from the youngest to the oldest, are drawn with tremendous skill, and are beautifully portrayed by a cast that includes several Honoré regulars alongside new collaborators.

Following her lovely supporting performance in Les Chansons … and memorable cameo in La Belle Personne, it’s great to see Mastroianni in a lead role, and she gives a vibrant performance that perfectly conveys both Léna’s wilfulness and her uncertainty about her desires. Even when Léna is behaving at her most erratically, Mastroianni keeps us with her every step of the way, creating a wonderfully original, yet thoroughly recognisable, modern screen heroine. The actress gets plenty to bounce off from all the cast, in particular Foïs (a saving grace in Antony Cordier's awful Happy Few [2010]), who gives a marvellously tart performance as the touchy, unhappily pregnant Frédérique. Marie-Christine Barrault is superb as Léna’s mother Annie, while the performances of the child actors, Donatien Suner and Lou Pasquerault, who play her kids are also standouts. Fans of Honoré’s male-muse Louis Garrel might be disappointed to find him relegated to a supporting role here, but, as Léna’s suitor, he has a couple of the film’s best scenes.

Formally, Honoré takes a relatively straightforward approach, but there’s space for idiosyncrasy too. The film digresses when it feels so inclined, as characters tell each other stories or recall their shared past; these sequences bring substance and texture to the drama. The film moves through contrasting moods very quickly and scenes start and conclude at unexpected moments keeping the viewer alert and off-balance. This stylistic quirk suits the characters, a brilliantly inconsistent, confounding bunch who seldom do - or say - the expected thing. (The dialogue throughout is wonderfully frank; I particularly liked Léna’s put-down to her brother-in-law as he whinges about his marital problems: “I don’t need you confiding in me.”) There’s also some casual to-camera address, and, most surprisingly, the insertion of an elaborately enacted Bretagne folk-tale that comments on our heroine’s predicament midway through the film. And in a breathtakingly lyrical section - perhaps my favourite sequence, in fact - Annie sits alone in a church in Rome, her past flashing before our eyes as a selection of still photographic images. These flourishes are combined with great naturalism and a sure feeling for the rhythms of everyday life; among his other skills, Honoré is really a whiz at making domestic detail interesting and dramatically revealing.

Honoré is content to leave several plot strands dangling, and he certainly doesn’t resolve things as one may have hoped; in fact, the movie feels no more “resolved” than daily existence itself. But detail after detail rings true here, and, at its best, Léna creates a wonderfully inclusive, liberating atmosphere for the viewer. The director succeeds in getting life’s messy emotional conundrums on screen with honesty and insight in this thoroughly enjoyable and subtly challenging film.


Review: Of Gods And Men (2010)

Based on the true story of a group of Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, who were kidnapped by an Islamic fundamentalist faction in 1996, Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men (2010) focuses not on the kidnapping itself, but rather on the months leading up to it. A fully integrated part of the community, the monks run a free medical service and even participate in Muslim festivities, and are clearly loved and appreciated by the villagers. But when a group of Croatian workers are brutally murdered by Islamic extremists, the monks' position starts to look more precarious, and they are encouraged by the mayor to leave.

Two recent films about the lives of monks - Pavel Lungin's The Island (2006) and Saverio Costanzo's In Memory of Me (2007) - both drove me crazy with boredom, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of seeing Of Gods and Men. But, well, third time lucky, for Beauvois’s film is really a stunning piece of work. The director doesn’t ram home points about religious (in)tolerance or fill the film with dry debates on Islam vs. Christianity. Rather, he views the monks’ interactions - both with each other and the community at large - with patient, calm and tender observation. This drama on spiritual matters is among the most bracingly human films in recent memory. The ensemble cast do amazing work; an intensely subtle and sympathetic Lambert Wilson as the abbot Brother Christian, and the venerable Michael Lonsdale, as the group’s astute but ailing medic, are particularly fine. An already-celebrated late sequence in which the men listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the camera moving between their variously sorrowful and enraptured faces as the music plays, is as emotionally overwhelming a scene as I’ve witnessed this year. A great, rewarding film, this; highly recommended. 

Review: A Christmas Cornucopia (2010) by Annie Lennox

‘Tis the season: an overwrought, though sometimes beautiful, holiday offering from Lennox

2009’s crop of Christmas albums were a typically mixed bag, encompassing the good (Tori Amos’s Midwinter Graces, Sting’s underrated If On A Winter’s Night…), the bland (Neil Diamond’s A Cherry Cherry Christmas) and the plain ugly (Bob Dylan’s Christmas In The Heart). Although it has some significant problems, Annie Lennox’s A Christmas Cornucopia looks likely to be one of this year’s superior offerings. Reuniting Lennox with Mike Stevens, co-producer of her last studio album, 2007’s Songs of Mass Destruction, the new album is Lennox’s first release on Universal. Featuring a 30-piece orchestra, the African Children’s Choir and Lennox herself on an arsenal of instruments, the album comprises eleven carols and one original composition with nary a reference to jingling bells or snowmen called Frosty among them. The results are lush and slick, classy but not over-cautious, and the album fits snugly into Lennox’s body of work. And yet, for all of its strengths, the record only intermittently stirs the soul.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, A Christmas Cornucopia strives to present itself as a Bona Fide Artistic Statement rather than a commercially-motivated cash-in. Publicity material emphasises Lennox’s long history with these songs - "I remember hearing all these beautiful Christmas carols in choir when I was 6" she has been quoted as saying - and stresses the album’s status as “a labour of love.” The record also comes complete with the predictable, meant-to-be-reassuring disclaimer that the artist doesn’t “personally subscribe to any specific religion,” a statement that might as well read: “Other Belief Systems Are Also Available.”

But while you can’t accuse Lennox of a lack of commitment to the material she’s selected, there are times when a more restrained approach might have been beneficial. The album’s arrangements suffer from a tendency to finicky over-adornment and sometimes push Lennox into a harsh, declamatory singing style that’s a little wearying. Some of these issues are flagged up immediately, in the opening salvo, “Angels From The Realms of Glory,” with its crescendo of strings and vocal overdubs, and even more so on the following track, a hybridised Celtic/Middle Eastern take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” The treatment is arresting, but the arrangement never quite gels, and Lennox’s unfortunately Auto-Tuned vocals sound robotic and off-putting. Several tracks start out well only to get swamped in over-elaborate arrangements: the biggest casualty is Christina Rossetti‘s gorgeous “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which begins beautifully but then sabotages itself with an over-wrought middle-section that seems totally at odds with the delicacy of Rossetti’s imagery.

Lennox and Stevens’s evident desire to remove the songs from a comfortable “easy listening” bracket is admirable, but you may find yourself wishing that they’d tone down the stridency a notch. This being said, the contributions of the African Children’s Choir are sometimes genuinely stirring, especially on an urgent and dramatic “Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol)” and in the exuberant choral coda to an intriguingly arranged “As Joseph Was A Walking (The Cherry Tree Carol).”

Ultimately, though, A Christmas Cornucopia proves most affecting when at its sparest. “See Amid The Winter Snow” strikes just the right balance between stately and celebratory, with restrained verses giving way to soulful, high-spirited choruses. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” are similarly beautiful, warm and embracing. Maligned as a schmaltz-fest, the Lennox original (and first single) “Universal Child” sounds elegant and refreshing in context, with a memorable melody and Lennox’s most relaxed vocal performance. She sings with such intelligent conviction and feeling here that even the song’s clunkier, grammatically questionable lyrics (“And I wish to God that kids like you could be like everyone”) are transcended. Such moments make A Christmas Cornucopia a worthwhile effort. But it’s hard not to speculate just how much more consistently appealing the album would have been if Lennox had taken a subtler, lower-keyed approach to more of this material.

Reviewed for PopMatters.

A Christmas Cornucopia is available on Island Records.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Review: The American (2010)

In The American (2010), director Anton Corbijn’s follow-up to his well-regarded Ian Curtis biopic Control (2008), George Clooney plays Jack, an assassin and arms expert who’s in hiding in the Italian countryside following a botched mission in Sweden that resulted in an unforeseen fatality. In Italy, Jack begins to contemplate a different future, even as he takes on a job to procure a weapon for a mysterious contact (Thekla Reuen). But, inevitably, it turns out that his past is more difficult to shake off than he may have hoped.

Corbijn’s film starts strongly, with a confident, well-staged opening scene and a beautiful credit sequence. It continues to grip as Jack makes his move to Italy (the gorgeous village of Castel del Monte in Abruzzo) and begins to settle into the community and make connections. Ultimately, though, classy visuals and an art-conscious ambience don’t compensate for the movie’s threadbare plot and risible, meant-to-be-profound dialogue. (The script is by Rowan Joffe, adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and I’d argue that it‘s a far less accomplished piece of work than his upcoming adaptation of Brighton Rock.) The movie takes itself fatally seriously and its dead spots leave the viewer plenty of time to ponder the narrative’s fuzzy logic and flagrant inanities - such as why it is that every significant woman who crosses Jack’s path - including the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) who falls in love with him - looks like she’s just stepped off of a fashion shoot. The film may present itself as a thriller for intellectuals (ie. one with few thrills and portentous conversations about the nature of sin) but it doesn’t have much more depth than the average James Bond film. The only comedy is unintentional and comes from heavy-handed touches such as our hero significantly ordering an “Americano” and later stopping off in a bar that’s playing (you guessed) "Tu vo fa L'Americano." (He’s the American. Geddit?) Another unfortunate moment has him observing Once Upon A Time in the West on TV in a bar and being informed by the bar-man: “Sergio Leone…Italiano.” But my favourite bad scene is his churchyard conversation with the priest (Paolo Bonacelli) he befriends, in which the latter wonders: “How many bastards have been conceived here?”

Clooney (who also produced) just about holds the proceedings together, with a competent if unexciting performance: his range of pensive and brooding expressions is fairly limited, but he’s physically nimble and looks cool doing press-ups. Indeed, The American looks great throughout but its stylish visuals outclass the plot and the dialogue every step of the way, making the movie an unsatisfying experience ultimately, despite a few taut sequences. For a really distinctive recent take on the assassin-as-existential-hero movie check out Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control  (2009) instead - more profound, and more fun, too.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Review: Propeller's Richard III (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre; & touring)

Having previously presented the Henry VI plays in a slaughterhouse (as Rose Rage) and set their superb Merchant of Venice in a prison, Ed Hall’s consistently brilliant all-male Shakespeare company Propeller return with a production of Richard III that approaches the play as a species of deranged Victorian medical drama. On a set (by Michael Pavelka) that variously evokes mental hospital, torture chamber, mortuary and morgue, a sinister masked Chorus - orderlies by way of Halloween’s Michael Myers - hum and chant, clutch clubs and haul body bags, and generally do Richard’s murderous bidding, singing merry ditties when they’re through.

It’s a strange, surprising ambience that’s created, to be sure. But, as often with Propeller, conceits that in theory sound like the height of gimmickry prove dynamic and revelatory in practice. Richard III has never been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays but as staged here - with judicious cuts and creative additions to the text by Hall and co-adapter Roger Warren - the play made more dramatic and thematic sense than ever before. I was grateful to have the chance to see the production at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre last week; the only disappointment was that the other show that the company are presenting this season (The Comedy of Errors) wasn’t staged at this venue too, and doesn’t open until the group hit Girona next week.

Capable of evoking both mental state and nation state, Hall’s eccentric production brilliantly catches the play’s political seriousness and its ghoulish comedy. Indeed, the line between funny and scary is deliciously, sometimes deliriously blurred here. Familiar scenes emerge new minted, from the wooing of Lady Anne through to a thrillingly staged Eve-of-Bosworth nightmare, in which Richard’s victims emerge from their body bags to curse their killer and bless Richmond. The murder scenes (and Hall even has the temerity to up the play’s body count) are staged explicitly with outrageous, Theatre of Blood-esque bravura and involve an astonishing arsenal of instruments from knives to chainsaws, drills and scythes, not to mention a spot of finger-biting. (The production sometimes suggests Shakespeare via Saw; taking our seats we were warned that the front row was a potential “splash zone”.) But part of what’s so exciting about Propeller’s approach is their willingness to draw from a diverse pool of influences; this Richard merges Latin mass, carols and rap, puppetry and music hall, Victorian Gothic and contemporary torture porn. And, in Hall’s capable hands, it all makes perfect sense.

As always, the ensemble work brilliantly together as a unit, while also essaying vivid individual characterisations. Standouts include John Dougall's moving Clarence, Sam Swainsbury and Richard Frame as his murderers (this pair also prove expert puppeteers in their other roles as the Princes destined for the Tower) and Robert Hands who also does double duty, as an ailing Edward IV and a white-suited, cross-clutching Richmond. The women’s roles are inhabited with customary skill, from Jon Trenchard’s Lady Anne to Tony Bell’s marvellously imposing Queen Margaret, imperious reminder of Yorkist crimes. The statuesque Dominic Tighe commands the attention as Queen Elizabeth, a figure of perpetual mourning who nonetheless proves to be Richard’s match in cunning. (In one of the production’s many witty touches, the women’s black dresses evoke the body bags that litter the stage.) Dugald Bruce-Lockhart presents Sir Richard Ratcliffe as creepily prim, checking his watch as bodies fall, while Wayne Cater offers a truly bizarre (lineless) incarnation of the murderer Tyrrell, emerging like some devil-doll out of the depths of Richard’s disordered psyche.  And then of course there’s Richard Clothier’s mercurial Richard himself, clad in black, lower leg braced, at once the “bottled spider” of Queen Margaret’s description and a plausibly charming, seductive fellow; he suggests an ageing matinee idol at times. It’s a superb performance, witty and shrewd, and the actor hits some truly disturbing notes in the play’s final scenes.

In sum, this exhilarating, rich and daring production is another terrific achievement by Propeller. As usual, the company are embarking on an international tour (details here). Do catch them if you possibly can.

Review: And Furthermore (2010) by Judi Dench

As any trip to a book-store these days will remind you, ’tis the season of the Ghastly Celeb Autobiography. There are always a few exceptions, though, and amidst the chaff, I found it hard to resist a look at Judi Dench’s memoir And Furthermore, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The Great Dame may be sharing shelf space with the likes of Cheryl Cole, Gok Wan, Chris Evans and Katie Price at present but she has one significant advantage over most of these guys: a career that’s actually worth writing about. Dench’s life has already been the subject of a 1998 biography by John Miller, who’s also overseen the publication of both the illustrated volume Judi Dench: Scenes From My Life and the embarrassingly titled but enjoyable and revealing exercise in "Dench-olatry" Darling Judi: A Celebration of Judi Dench, which collected the reflections and reminiscences of nineteen of her colleagues. Miller’s finger-prints are on And Furthermore as well, meaning that there’s much in the new book that’s familiar from those earlier volumes, a lot of repeated jokes and observations and anecdotes. (A personal favourite: Dench “drying” on the opening night of Filumena and replacing the Italian place-names she was supposed to be declaiming with the names of varieties of pasta.)

The new book’s value lies in some of Dench’s commentary on her most recent work, from the unloved production of Madame de Sade (2009) and the mis-conceived musical Nine (2009) to the successful Cranford series. (The volume is so up-to-date that it even includes some brief reflections on the Stephen Sondheim Prom at which she sang “Send In The Clowns” just this past July.) Her account of working on Sally Potter’s great, under-seen Rage (2009) is a bit brief, but there are some terrific reflections on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which she starred as Titania earlier this year.

What’s especially heartening is the love and enthusiasm that Dench still expresses for her profession, and her commitment not only “to continue working right to the end” but to take on as many fresh challenges as possible. “I want to do something that is much more unlikely for me, more daring,” she confesses. “And if I am going to put my energy into a play, then I will do something I haven’t tackled before.”

And Furthermore is written in a brisk and unpretentious style. It won’t satisfy those hoping for sensational revelations: Dench tends to keep the focus on her work throughout, even in the chapter that deals with the death of Michael Williams. Like most of these endeavours, the book often skims the surface and doesn’t ever really get to grips with the depths of the actress’s artistry. Interestingly, though, my favourite passage in the book has Dench challenge the idea that that’s a possible or a desirable aim. Musing on the stresses of film promotion, she offers the following, rather prickly defence of the mystery of her craft:

“[In interviews] you have to sit and answer questions about what you think of the part, why you wanted to play the part, and I think that’s none of the public’s business. … Why should the public know everything? The joy of theatre is not really going and knowing that somebody had a terrible difficulty playing this part, or why they did it; it is to go and be told a story, the author’s story, through the best means possible. In any case, I never know why I’ve done something, it’s for lots of reasons. I want to keep a quiet portion inside that is my own business and not anybody else’s.”

Such scattered subversive observations make And Furthermore a worthwhile reading experience for Dench-olators.

Dench discusses the book at a Platform at the National Theatre on 9th December.