Wednesday 25 July 2012

Film Review: A Running Jump (Leigh, 2012)

Last year, at the National Theatre, Mike Leigh devised and directed a new play, Grief [review here], a slow-burning work of exquisite stillness and quiet that developed gradually into something extraordinarily intense; watching the production felt like being placed, ever so gently, into a vice, and a full ten months on, I’m still haunted by it. Leigh’s fragrant new short film, A Running Jump, finds him moving in the opposite direction, trading Grief’s slow, sad beauty for full-tilt jauntiness and joviality. One of four films especially commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad - the others are by Asif Kapadia, Lynne Ramsay and Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini  - the canny, candy-coloured A Running Jump transforms London - or at least the East End corner of it occupied by Perry (Eddie Marsan), his wife Debbie (Samantha Spiro), his pa (Sam Kelly) and two daughters (Danielle and Nichole Bird) - into a sports-ground of sorts, replete with characters who become runners, joggers and jumpers as they go about their daily business in the city.

Needless to say, A Running Jump doesn’t have the richness of texture of Leigh’s finest work. But if its short scenes - structured as snapshots - never quite add up to a portrait, the sketch that they do develop is very satisfying. Though Leigh hasn’t made many short films in his career (1988's The Short & Curlies being the most notable) I think it’s a form that suits him. At their least successful, the slightly heightened, broad strokes that constitute the Leigh brand of realism can grate; his approach to characterisation can lead you, at times, to feel that you’ve had enough of his protagonists. Here, by contrast, you’re left wanting more of them. (And there’s no time for finger-pointing admonishments, either.) The cast - made up more of Leigh newbies than regulars - sketch vivid creations, from Marsan’s motor-mouth car-dealer, his entire discourse a variant on patter (“You got a girlfriend? You soon will have in a car like this!”), to Spiro’s  Debbie who channels both Alison Steadman’s Wendy in Life is Sweet (1990) and Karina Fernandez’s flamenco teacher in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) as she instructs her exercise class in her first scene: “C’mon, I wanna smell that juice!”

Edited to the rhythm of the characters’ movements (when Perry gets a brief moment of easeful repose he’s rewarded with one of the film’s rare close-ups), A Running Jump is so marvellously brisk it’s practically Leigh’s first action movie. But the film also finds time to incorporate that Leigh staple: namely, an encounter between two characters with wildly different concerns and modes of expression. Here that encounter is between Sam Kelly as Perry's sports-fixated Dad and Lee Ingleby’s Gary, who comes to buy a car from Perry, and can’t resist sharing his Mayan-calendar-schooled theories about the End of Days. (Ingleby, it must be said, is every inch a perfect new recruit to Leighland.)

There are some infelicities - Gary Yershon’s score, as insistently employed as it was in Another Year, is the major one - but Leigh has produced a lovely little piece of work here, one that’s fluid, funny and crowned by the intermingled irony and beauty of its superb final shot. A Running Jump is, unsurprisingly, no retrograde Chariots of Fire-esque triumph-fest; rather, it simply shows sport as part of the texture of everyday London life. The movie’s emblem isn’t the Union Jack at all, but rather the pink shirt worn by Perry as he dashes through the busy streets, juggling mobiles, endlessly cajoling, on the make.

A Running Jump screens tomorrow on BBC 2 at 23.20.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Film Review: The Players (Les Infidèles) (2012)

Jean Dujardin and Michel Hazanavicius lose a whole heap of post-Artist audience goodwill with their follow-up collaboration, The Players (Les Infidèles), an irksome smut-fest that starts spryly, stutters quickly, and finally conks out. The blame can’t really be laid at Hazanavicius’s door, mind you. For The Players is a portmanteau film: a collection of adultery-themed sketches and shorts, helmed by a range of directors, including Fred Cavayé, Emmanuelle Bercot and Alexandre Courtés, none of whom manages to distinguish themselves here. Casting Dujardin and bromance buddy Gilles Lellouche in a variety of philandering incarnations, and culminating in an embarrassingly awful Vegas adventure (directed by the two actors) that takes a - heavily signposted - queer twist, the films recycle national and gender stereotypes with a staggering lack of irony or insight. Pretty inept when going for gags (witness Courtés’s crisply edited but dismally unfunny Adulterers Anonymous skit) and even worse when striving for depth (see Bercot’s Scenes From A Marriage-lite episode featuring Dujardin and real-life spouse Alexandra Lamy), the movie’s retrograde sexual politics remain unappealing throughout. Actually, it’s Hazanavicius who contributes what turns out to be the best-sustained and most affecting segment, which features Dujardin as a horny conference attendee, frustrated and finally humiliated in his desperate efforts to get laid. The single biggest laugh, though, comes courtesy of Guillaume Canet (atoning for Little White Lies, perhaps?), and involves a pesky pooch and a used condom. Quite literally, it’s a throwaway.

Theatre Review: Mottled Lines (Orange Tree)

The latest addition to the growing canon of dramas inspired by last summer’s riots is Mottled Lines, the debut play by Archie W. Maddocks, which closes out this year’s Orange Tree season with a short (just eight performances) run at the theatre this week. A member of the Orange Tree’s recently-established writer’s group, Maddocks originally developed Mottled Lines as a “response” to the play that opened last year’s season, Václav Havel’s The Conspirators. But it’s clear that the piece has become very much its own, distinctive thing. What I find most admirable about Mottled Lines is its avoidance of fact-ratcheting, pseudo-journalistic, verbatim schtick. Eschewing mere reportage, Maddocks’s approach here is at once direct and oblique. His play takes the form of a series of monologues delivered to the audience by five “archetypal” figures who offer their viewpoints on the causes and the fallout of a set of events referred to simply as “the incidents.” Henry Bell’s production thus makes for a potent end to an Orange Tree season that’s dexterously whisked us from contemporary Muswell Hill to St. John Hankin’s England and Amiri Baraka’s America, via excursions into Crimp-land and the WWI trenches, only to land us back in our own present moment, with some pressing problems to face.

Maddocks’s thesis - that the riots developed from a breakdown in communication between social groups that lead to a pervasive (and still-spreading) climate of fear - is far from startling. And at times the characters’ endless eloquence (I don’t know about you, but I tend to flinch when terms like “ideology” and “hegemony” turn up in plays, somehow) becomes wearisome. But at its best, Maddocks’s writing has force, surprise and conviction. And, gaining from the intimacy of the Orange Tree space, the monologue form feels just right for a piece that’s deeply concerned with failures in communication and their results. The playwright has written some memorable arias of blame, accusation and self-vindication for his quintet of protagonists, who present their views in speeches that combine elements of harangue, confession, sermon and poetic reflection.

These soliloquies are vibrantly delivered by an accomplished cast who manage to bring some shades of particularity - and the odd subversive touch - to the archetypes that they’re embodying. Alert to the power of language and its abuses, The Fear (stunning Charles Mnene) articulates a pervasive and politicised sense of social disenfranchisement; for him, the desire to “take a little bit extra” is simply the natural consequence of many years of deprivation. Hipflask in his briefcase, Steven Elder catches precisely his politician’s mixture of insecurity and arrogant entitlement; for him, “taking a little bit extra” is a deserved benefit for a lifetime of hard work. As The Wolf, Gabeen Khan slickly and even sweetly spins utterly alarming theories regarding “those who are clogging up the gears of our country.” Akiya Henry imbues The Sparkle with her customary vibrancy and emotional transparency. (The play might benefit from a second female character, however.) And Michael Elkin’s aggressive, angry copper - big on animal analogies - gets some of the strongest moments here, especially an electric encounter with The Thug, in which he deconstructs the latter’s “urban ensemble” - trainers, baggy trousers, hoodie, scarf - as cultural signifier.

Bell’s intelligent, crisp production, which has the actors occasionally taking a pew to address specific audience members directly, keeps the mood charged, taut and urgent. The pessimism of the payoff feels pat, but there’s enough good stuff here to make Maddocks’s next work an exciting prospect. And to make you hope that Mottled Lines itself might have a further life.

Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Theatre Review: The Two Most Perfect Things (Riverside Studios)

The two most perfect things, according to Noël Coward, were his wit and Ivor Novello’s profile. Taking that characteristically Cowardian comment as their starting point, Adrian Fisher and Stuart Barham have crafted a rather charming, if ultimately very slight, tribute show that uses the words and music of Coward and Novello to create a dual portrait of two of the most celebrated - yet also sometimes derided - figures in twentieth century British popular culture. First seen in its full version at the Jermyn Street Theatre last summer, Fisher and Barham’s show (simply staged and unfussily directed by Richard Digby Day) now takes up residence for a few weeks at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios before heading to Edinburgh next month. And while the evening lacks the elements of surprise that Alistair MacGowan brought to his Coward tribute show, Sincerely Noël (which was presented at Riverside Studios in 2010), it remains, overall, an entertaining nostalgia-fest that’s sure to please Coward and Novello enthusiasts.

Friends, rivals and occasional collaborators, Coward’s and Novello’s lives and careers overlapped in interesting ways. And The Two Most Perfect Things constructs a lucid narrative that skips briskly through the main incidents in the pair’s creative lives, combining elements of concert, revue and biography as it does so. The show’s elegantly-costumed quartet of performers - Fisher as Coward, Darren Bennett as Novello, and Margaret Preece and Nova Skipp in a range of roles - are accompanied by Musical Director Barham on piano (he’s fleet of fingers though looser on some of his lines) as they sketch out the trajectory of the two men’s lives and careers.

The first act is particularly good, as it compares and contrasts Coward’s and Novello’s backgrounds, establishing them as the sons of ambitious mothers, and detailing their first forays into show business on their way to becoming “the darlings of their age.” The show is at its most artful and effective when it uses the men’s songs as comments on aspects of their experiences: Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” for example, is sung to Bennett’s Novello by Preece and Skipp in the guise of adoring fans.

But this certainly isn’t a show to go to for deep insights into Coward and Novello as creative artists. Rather, it’s simply a warm and affectionate celebration of the pair’s work which seeks to highlight the timeless craft of their song-writing. For it’s the songs, both well- and lesser-known, that are the stars here, and they’re immaculately delivered by the performers. Everyone gets their moment to shine - Fisher most brightly on a delicious rendition of “A Bar on the Piccolo Marina,” Bennett on a very funny “And Her Mother Came Too” and Skipp on a passionate “Why Does Love Get in the Way?” - while their harmonies on Novello’s patriotic anthems “Keep The Home Fires Burning” and “Rose of England” are irresistible.

But, of the performers, it’s Preece who seems to be having the best time and whose enthusiasm proves most infectious. Capable of turning on a dime from goofiness to elegance, she preens delightfully in her early scenes as Novello’s mother (“the second most famous woman in Wales!”) and gets hilariously squiffy on “What Do You Mean?” but delivers “If Love Were All” and “Someday I’ll Find You” with exquisite tenderness and control.

The Two Most Perfect Things falters a little in its second half and over-eggs the pudding with an extended encore medley that not only spoils the emotion created on a gorgeous group rendition of “Wild, Wild Weather” but that also seems designed simply to shoehorn as many Coward and Novello compositions into the show as possible. (Even so, there are some surprising omissions. No “20th Century Blues”? No “The Land of Might-Have-Been”?) As biography, the show doesn’t go deep, but at its best it does succeed in highlighting the enduring appeal of the men’s work and its ability both to amuse and to speak eloquently on matters of the heart. A few more barbs wouldn’t go amiss, however. Such as Coward’s reported response to the news of Novello’s death: “Despite his plays and his acting, I was very fond of him.”

Runs until 21st July.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Friday 6 July 2012

Film Review: Little White Lies (Canet, 2010)

In 2006, the actor Guillaume Canet scored a big hit with his debut feature as a director, Tell No One, a high concept thriller based on Harlan Coben's novel. I wasn’t as fond of Tell No One as many people seemed to be, but the movie was a model of efficiency compared to Canet’s latest effort, Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs), a painfully inept re-lay-shun-ship drama that focuses on a fraught summer vacation undertaken by a group of thirtysomething pals. The holiday, spent at the property of Max (Tell No One’s Francois Cluzet, miscast, and giving an atypically forced and unconvincing performance here), is a yearly ritual for the group - and they’re not dissuaded from it by the fact that, this year, one of their number, Ludo (Jean Dujardin, pre-Artist eminence) is languishing in hospital following a serious motorbike accident. Over the course of the summer, tensions surface and relationships get reassessed as the deceptions and half-truths upon which the group's friendship is based are gradually revealed.

Mostly, in his approach to the scenes, Canet seems to be going for free-wheeling spontaneity of the Christophe Honoré variety in Little White Lies. But his work as both writer and director here exudes insecurity. The interactions feel mostly fake, the relationships underwritten, and the script keeps resorting to contrived dilemmas. Will Marion Cottilard’s sad-eyed rebel Marie abandon her promiscuous ways and find the “courage” to commit? Will Eric (Gilles Lellouche) and Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) succeed in winning back their partners? Will married osteopath Vincent (Benoit Magimal) regret confessing his man-crush on his (increasingly unhinged) host? And, most pressingly, will Canet stop using montages scored to an entirely random selection of songs to fill up the movie? (Spoiler: he doesn't.)

There are scattered effective moments, the best of which is a poignant - if familiar - sequence that captures the group watching home movie footage of Ludo. But by the time Canet starts hammering home moral platitudes (delivered in the form of a minor character’s self-righteous admonishment to the friends for their selfishness) the movie has lost any good-will that you may have had towards it, while its glutinous finale earns not a jot of honest emotion. And never has a soundtrack so full of great songs  - The Band’s “The Weight,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” Antony and the Johnson’s “Fistful of Love,” Nina Simone’s version of “My Way” - made me cringe as much as this one: Canet employs the tracks so randomly and indiscriminately that it sounds like his iPod got stuck on shuffle. Is Canet doing it his way - or just any old way? On the evidence of Little White Lies, it would appear to be the latter.

Forthcoming: Sing the Delta (Iris DeMent)

In a blog post written at the beginning of this year, I noted that, being so far behind on 2011 music releases, it was fine with me if no new music got released in 2012 - unless Iris DeMent should happen to get around to making another album. Well, lo and behold, Iris DeMent has got around to making another album - her first since her gospel record Lifeline (2004) and her first of all-new material since The Way I Should sixteen - count 'em - years ago. Though DeMent has kept up a fairly consistent touring schedule in the many years between her records, the long gap between releases has pretty much turned her into the Kate Bush of country.  I’m indescribably excited to hear new music from an artist I firmly believe to be one of the best singer-songwriters in America, and whose first two albums are among the finest records of the 90s.The new album is called Sing the Delta and gets its release on October 2nd. The very beautiful title track, which can be listened to here, bodes well.