Thursday 26 April 2012

Film Review: Beloved (Les Bien-aimés) (Honoré, 2011)

Following his unforeseen foray into porn-ish experimenta with the intriguing oddity that was Homme au bain (2010), the prolific Christophe Honoré returns to more expected territory with Beloved (Les Bien-aimés) (2011), which was the closing night film of Cannes 2011 and gets its UK release on 11 May. More expected territory, perhaps, but hardly predictable. Contrasting with Homme au bain’s low-key approach, the new film is, in fact, Honoré’s largest-scaled, most ambitious work to date. Disappointingly for those anticipating a Toni Morrison adaptation, it’s a decades-spanning, city-hopping musical (not that the director wants the film labelled as such) that teams the director with his star muses Chiara Mastroianni, Louis Garrel and Ludivine Sagnier and also reunites him with the composer Alex Beaupain who wrote the score to Honoré’s first musical, the lovely Love Songs (2007). There’s a crucial new addition to Camp Christophe this time, though. And that’s Catherine Deneuve, who’s paired here with her real-life fille Mastroianni for a film that sometimes suggests Terms of Endearment (1983) shorn of sitcom and sentiment (and with songs!) as it chronicles and contrasts the amorous adventures of its mother/daughter protagonists over 40 years.

A foot fetishist’s wet dream, the film’s lively, skittish opening follows a young Parisian shop-girl, Madeleine (Sagnier, perky and peroxide blonde), in 1964, as she steals a pair of shoes from her workplace and slips them on on her way home. With an insouciance that’s a trademark of certain Honoré characters, Madeleine is happy enough to be mistaken for a hooker, which brings her into contact with a Czech doctor, Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), whom she marries, has a child by and accompanies to Prague. But Jaromil’s philandering results in the end of the marriage, and Madeleine returns to Paris with their daughter, Vera. Jaromil remains a presence in the women’s lives, however, continuing a sexual relationship with Madeleine even into the latter’s remarriage. As Vera grows up (to be played by Mastroianni, as Denueve takes over from Sagnier as Madeleine), the movie’s scope broadens further, following Vera as she travels to London, where she meets and falls for a gay American drummer, Henderson (Paul Schneider), whose (apparent) inability to requite her affections is mirrored in the predicament of Vera’s ex, Clement (Louis Garrel), who’s still frustratedly in love with her.

By turns playful and ponderous, sexy and sad, exultant and reflective, Beloved zips through moods with extraordinary dexterity, making light work of its generous 138 minute running time. The central dialectic that the movie is based around - '60s free love contrasted with Age of AIDS uncertainties - sounds banal. But the complexity of Honoré’s approach means that the contrast doesn’t come off as glib, nor does the disparity between libertine mother and angsty commitment-phobe daughter feel too stressed. As his earlier work has shown, Honoré has a knack for writing edgy, funky, spontaneous scenes that seldom progress as one expects, and his sharp dialogue surprises, delights and unnerves in equal measure. Riffing on French film history in  a way that manages to delicately evoke rather than slavishly replicate, Honoré’s work retains a fresh, airy vibrancy. And no contemporary writer-director I know is better at presenting the kind of messy, unresolved relationships that both frustrate and sustain us.

Honoré's appetite for unpredictability extends to his use of the locations here, which scrupulously avoid touristy landmarks, whether in Paris, Prague or London. Some may take issue with the way in which socio-political events serve as a mere sketchy backdrop to the characters' emotional problems. And yet the film takes you by surprise even here, notably in the memorable way it catches the mood of post-9/11 Montreal, where the darkest, most painful section of the movie unfolds.

Indeed, like Honoré’s 2009 film, Making Plans for Lena (2009), Beloved develops a novelistic richness of texture as it progresses, and Beaupain’s songs - simply staged and adroitly employed at moments of crisis or decision for the characters - form part of that richness here. (The translation of the lyrics isn’t always so inspired, sadly.) Mixing buoyant pop and tender piano laments, the songs allow genuinely complicated emotions into them and underscore some of the movie’s most indelibly beautiful moments, from the wonderful transition scene that ushers Mastroianni and Denueve into the movie to Henderson and Vera’s shared expression of alienation and unbelonging on “Ici Londres.” And sequences that should by rights be the height of kitsch - Sagnier singing her romantic disillusionment as the tanks roll into Prague in ‘68, for example - win their way through to a surprising amount of emotion.

Honoré seems to have learnt something from his filming of the sex scenes in Homme au bain, too. His style here is more sensuous and tactile than ever, with the actors often filmed in swooningly intimate close-up. The cast withstand the scrutiny, thankfully. Mastroianni delivers a performance to match her star turn in Lena for bravery and emotional insight. In a cheeky move, Honoré keeps us waiting quite a while for Deneuve’s first appearance but our patience is rewarded by the witty, elegant and finally moving performance that she gives. The greatest revelation, perhaps, is Schneider, terrifically strong and touching as Henderson, but there’s also a super turn from Milos Forman as the older Jaromil, who's granted an amazing exit sequence that's haunted me in the several weeks since I saw the movie. A few characters do get short shrift, notably Michel Delpech as Madeleine’s second husband, and - a brilliant sequence set in London's Institut Français notwithstanding - Garrel’s role doesn’t quite take off either; he’s also saddled with the movie’s least distinguished song in “Reims.”

Beloved’s overall trajectory from light-hearted frivolity to chilly melancholia won’t suit viewers who like their movies to announce their identities early on, and its final developments may strike even those who don’t as unnecessarily harsh. Still, even when the film falters, it’s never less than engrossing, and its stylistic brio, emotional honesty and audacity in moving the movie musical into fresh, distinctive terrain won me over at pretty much every turn. Honoré’s last few films weren’t granted a UK cinema release; Deneuve’s presence has ensured that this one has been, so make it your mission to catch it where you can.

The soundtrack can be listened to here.

Friday 20 April 2012

CD Review: In the Time of Gods (Dar Williams, 2012)

For an album that, in the words of its creator, boasts “an epic setting” and that draws upon Greek mythology in order to explore contemporary political, social and moral issues, Dar Williams’s In the Time of Gods strikes as a decidedly modest, low-key listening experience overall. No towering, large-scale American Doll Posse-esque opus, this (disappointing, perhaps, for those of us who were kind of hoping to see Dar don a selection of wigs and outfits for this venture). Rather, Williams offers a distilled (just 32 minutes) set of ten short songs that initially feels like one of her slightest releases to date.

Read the full review at PopMatters.

Friday 13 April 2012

Theatre Review: Oedipussy (Lyric Hammersmith)

A whole heap of soul-satisfying silliness is offered at Oedipussy, the latest show by the celebrated comedy troupe Spymonkey. The group - comprising Brits Toby Park and Petra Massey, German Stephan Kreiss and Spaniard Aitor Basauri - have teamed up with members of another venerable theatre company for this particular venture, collaborating with Emma Rice and Carl Grose of Kneehigh to create a rather spectacular, scattershot spoof of Greek tragedy.

Read the full review at OneStopArts.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Film Review: The Kid With A Bike (Dardenne, 2011)

“Maybe that is the mirror of the art of cinema … To perceive … in the cinematic projection the Other that is yourself and that your daily life occults.” (Luc Dardenne)

There isn’t a great deal of violence in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest Seraing-set exercise in empathy, The Kid With a Bike (2011). But what there is - a lunge with a knife; a second, surprise swing of a baseball bat - hurts like hell. The reason must be that the filmmakers’ celebrated style - nicely defined by Joseph Mai as “sensuous realism” - pulls the viewer into such intense intimacy with their characters that to see them do violence - or to see violence done to them - is incredibly painful. Art-house darlings they may be, but the Dardennes favour no arty distancing in their approach. Rather, theirs is a cinema of close contact and present-tense immediacy (a flashback in a Dardenne film is unthinkable), one based around the viewer’s response to the bodies in the frame. The episodes that I recall most in the brothers’ work are such intensely physical moments: the heroine’s tortuous journey with that gas canister at the end of Rosetta (1999); Bruno in The Child (2005) dropping to his knees and clinging to the legs of the woman who now despises him; Lorna in The Silence of Lorna (2008) bashing her head against a hospital wall as part of her steadfast route to a “better” life.

Indeed, the Dardennes have been famed for putting their characters through a school of hard knocks (often literally) and they’re at it again with The Kid With a Bike. The titular kid is 12-year-old Cyril (a remarkable debut performance by Thomas Doret). Carrot-topped, sad-eyed yet determined, he’s “in care” when we meet him: and his idée fixe is a reunion with his errant father Guy (Jérémie Renier) who’s dumped him there. Cyril has what many a Dardenne protagonist has possessed: namely, an always-on-the-move doggedness. One of his breaks for freedom leads him into contact with the kindly Samantha (Cécile de France), a hairdresser who agrees to take care of him at the weekends, and with whom he gradually forms a bond. But waiting in the wings is another father figure, Wes (Egon di Mateo), a young hoodlum eager to lure Cyril into a life of crime.

In a great review for The New Yorker (which I thank the marvellous Michal Oleszczyk for providing for me), Anthony Lane identifies some of The Kid With a Bike’s antecedents, from Oliver Twist to Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows. The Dickens connection seems especially apt: the opening chapters of David Copperfield, as described by Claire Tomalin in her recent Dickens biography, fit The Kid With a Bike precisely. “They show with a delicate intensity the pain of a child,” Tomalin writes, “[and] how someone who offers love to a neglected child becomes all important.”

That’s what the Dardennes show too: their movie conveys Cyril’s toughness and his vulnerability with incredible poignancy, albeit without recourse to Dickensian sentimentality, and his relationship with Samantha is beautifully portrayed. The redemptive impulse that has often been at the heart of the Dardennes' cinema - its tendency to edge  disenfranchised protagonists towards a moment of connection or recognition or atonement - is extended in The Kid With a Bike, a film that the brothers apparently toyed with calling “A Fairytale for Our Times.”

Still, the great gift of the Dardennes' cinema has always been its ability to make us care for characters who might be considered our daily “Others” and who very often inflict as much damage as they suffer. With character back-story elided we’re once again drawn into a fundamentally physical, present-tense relationship with the protagonists here, one in which their gestures and movements and sounds are invested with incredible emotional and psychological weight. It’s through these gestures, indeed, that we get to know them. Note Cyril's desperate clinging to Samantha in the scene in which they meet. Or the eagerness with which Cyril follows his father around in one sequence. Or Samantha’s whimpering cry as she makes a phone-call that she doesn’t want to make.

For some critics, it seems, the brothers’ tactics have become overly-familiar and formulaic. And yet such a stance doesn’t really account for the freshness and vibrancy of The Kid with a Bike as it plays out. For me, the film takes its place alongside Rosetta and The Child as one of the Dardennes’s finest works, its presentation of Cyril’s growth in awareness - his gradual realisation that he must accept affection where it is offered, rather than pursue it where it is denied - constituting as moving a trajectory as any in their cinema. The tears that you just might shed at the end - and I found myself racked with sobs as the credits rolled - are tears of sorrow and hope combined. They’re also tears of gratitude, for such a compassionate, tender and restorative movie.

CD Review: Skulk by Jim Moray (2012)

Writing about Jim Moray’s gig at Twickfolk a month or so ago, I called his new album, Skulk, his best record yet. It’s a judgement I stand by, following a good few weeks of  intensive listening to the album, which was released yesterday. Moray’s records have always had their splendours, but their overall impact has sometimes been lessened by awkward moments and forced experimentation. Quality control is sustained throughout Skulk, however. The sound -  more traditional than ever, but with plenty of room for unexpected flourishes -  is diverse yet cohesive. You hear the influences - Nic Jones, John Martyn, June Tabor, Chris Wood - but the record ends up as its own entirely distinctive, singular thing. The musicianship is superb (with Andy Cutting, BJ Cole and Tim Harries among those putting in appearances) and the choice of material exemplary, the ten tracks exploring classic folk topics - separation, war, Love Gone Wrong, the supernatural, random acts of violence and oppression - in seductive arrangements that vary from spry and playful (“The Golden Glove”), to intense and dramatic (“The Captain’s Apprentice,” “If It’s True”), passing through the languid, brooding, atmospheric and jazzy  ("The Eighteenth of June," “Courting is a Pleasure”). A well-judged cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love” twangs and roars; the rollicking “woodland elf rapist” ballad “Hind Etin” grips and entices. And “Lord Douglas” is, perhaps, the most exquisite thing that Moray has recorded to date, a stunning variant on the Child Ballad "Earl Brand" that Moray has elegantly fashioned into a seamless seven minute narrative that moves and haunts and thrills. Essential.

CD Review: 1000 Pound Machine by Kate Campbell (2012)

“Boarding now; going South.” So sings Kate Campbell on “Montgomery to Mobile,” the fourth track on her new album, 1000 Pound Machine . The South, of course, is where Campbell’s music has always headed, and where it’s sprung from. Across the albums she’s recorded since her 1995 debut Songs From The Levee , the Mississippi-raised Campbell has crafted incisive, evocative songs that tell vivid stories rooted in the past and present of her native South. Drawing upon a variety of musical styles (gospel, folk, country, rock) and addressing topics ranging from Civil Rights to spiritual enlightenment, Campbell’s songs have avoided didacticism or dogma to focus instead upon the lives of individuals experiencing both momentous change and daily tribulations and joys. Her touching and frequently witty songs serve to subtly complicate reductive conceptions of the American South, a land still too frequently perceived, as her masterful song “Look Away” notes, in terms of “black and white.”

Following last year’s excellent live album Two Nights in Texas , 1000 Pound Machine is Campbell’s first album of new material since 2008’s Save the Day. The title alludes to the piano, around which most of the album’s arrangements have been developed, this time. Overall, the record doesn’t match Campbell’s most affecting work - such as Monuments (2003) or her 2005 masterpiece Blues and Lamentations - for impact. But it does offer some pleasures. The standout tracks include the aforementioned “Montgomery to Mobile,” which continues Campbell’s exploration of race relations and Southern iconography by daring to imagine Rosa Parks and George Wallace sitting together on a Greyhound bus-ride; the ineffably catchy “Wait For Another Day,” which puts a series of pressing duties on hold in order to attend to a loved one; the homesickness waltz “Red Clay After Rain”; the beautiful instrumental “The Occasional Wailer” and the tender tribute of “God Bless You Arthur Blessit”. Some tracks don’t quite ignite as hoped: in particular, the languid, twanging “Alabama Department of Corrections Meditation Blues” doesn’t fulfil the promise of its great title (or maximise Emmylou Harris’s cameo), while the uplift offered on “I Will Be Your Rest” and “Walk With Me” is more generic - and less lyrically inspired - than usual. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here, even if the album lacks the richness of texture of Campbell’s finest work.

Reviewed for PopMatters.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Film Review: The Awakening (Murphy, 2011)

For those underwhelmed by James Watkins's mediocre film adaptation of The Woman in Black, here’s a much more substantial proposition. Nick Murphy’s superior ghost story - the director’s debut feature - failed to generate much interest on its brief theatrical release last year. But it turns out to be a stylish, intriguing and highly distinctive piece of work that marks Murphy out as a talent to watch. The movie is so rich, visually, that I regret not having seen it on a big screen, but I was very glad to have the opportunity to catch it on DVD, and would recommend it highly.

The film unfolds at Rockwood, a boy’s boarding school, in 1921. Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a writer and academic of (you guessed) an unwavering rationalist stance who revels in exposing the supernatural as a falsity. (She’s introduced hijacking a séance.) Florence is approached by a schoolmaster at Rockwood, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), who seeks her advice about a ghostly apparition at Rockwood, which has apparently resulted in the death of a child. Arriving at the school, Florence is eager to uncover a logical explanation for this happening, but soon finds her cynicism tested by a series of strange events and appearances.

The premise - a sceptic’s awakening to the "reality" of the supernatural - is familiar enough. But while tipping its hat to a few classics of the genre - The Turn of the Screw and The Others, most notably - Murphy’s movie avoids getting bogged down in a tedious game of spot-the-homage. Instead, the film moves into some unforeseen territory as it progresses - with erotic and emotional undercurrents rising powerfully to the fore. Murphy proves himself a master of the eerie set-piece - a stunning sequence involving a doll’s house is especially fine - and the movie becomes genuinely disturbing and disorientating in its final stretch, a few scenes achieving a hallucinatory intensity as  what, precisely, Florence needs to "awaken" to is gradually revealed.

Well supported by West and by Imelda Staunton in a pivotal secondary role, Hall gives a strong, distinguished performance that compellingly charts Florence’s journey from smug assurance to uncertainty, terror and recognition. Her presence anchors this sensual, elegant, chilling and moving film - one that’s deeply rooted, as the best ghost stories tend to be, in the experience of loss and grief.

Last 10 Things Seen in the Theatre Meme #5

Time to take stock via that ol' meme.

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:

1. Filumena (Almeida)
2. The Duchess of Malfi Old Vic)
3. The Taming of the Shrew (RSC, Richmond)
4. Sweeney Todd (Adelphi)
5. The Lady From the Sea (Rose, Kingston)
6. Play House/Definitely the Bahamas (Orange Tree Theatre)
7. Hay Fever (Noel Coward Theatre)
8. The King’s Speech (Richmond)
9. Star Quality (Richmond)
10. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Richmond)

Who was the best performer in number one (Filumena)?
I enjoyed both Clive Wood’s and Samantha Spiro’s performances, and it was a pleasure to see Sheila Reid on stage again. (Despite my slight disappointment that she wasn’t, as in Benidorm, in a mobility scooter and telling people to “frig off.”)

Why did you go to see number two (The Duchess of Malfi)?
To see The Best, primarily. Although about halfway through I remembered: “Oh yeah. I really like this play.”

Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (The Taming of the Shrew) that you liked?
For some reason I like: “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes.”

What would you give number four (Sweeney Todd) out of 10?

Was there someone hot in number five (The Lady From the Sea)?
Let’s just say that when certain Redgraves and Richardsons speak, it does things to me.

What was number six (Play House/Definitely the Bahamas) about?
Topless handstands and cleaning a mucky fridge. Coupledom, in other words. (Oh, and “budgie-smugglers” (@ShentonStage).)

Who was your favourite actor in number seven (Hay Fever)?
Unlike a lot of people, I enjoyed all of the actors in this. Top marks to Jeremy Northam, though. And to Freddie Fox for some seriously good lounging.

What was your favourite bit in number eight (The King’s Speech)?
Quoth Victoria Wood: “There was a good bit where it all sort of stopped and I had an ice cream.”

Would you see number nine (Star Quality) again?
I quite liked it, but once was enough.

What was the worst thing about number ten (Long Day’s Journey into Night)?
A few first-performance issues but nothing major, really. It’s a play that’s very dear to me, and a really strong production, so what’s not to like?

Which was best?
Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Lady From The Sea. And I enjoyed Hay Fever and Definitely the Bahamas a good deal.

Which was worst?
Well, The King’s Speech was perhaps even duller than I’d imagined. And I really disliked this production of The Taming of the Shrew by the end.

Did any make you cry?
The Lady From The Sea and Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Did any make you laugh?
Actually, I think all of this set did, at some point.

Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
Consumptive would-be poets rule! So Edmund in Long Day’s Journey into Night will do fine.

Which one did you have the best seats for?
Filumena and Play House/Definitely the Bahamas. And I do have a strange soft spot for the pit cushion area at the Rose. (Especially when sitting next to @3rdspearcarrier and @mzendle, of course.)