Monday 28 July 2014

Film Review: Blackwood (Wimpenny, 2013)

Films that go bump... In Blackwood, the debut feature by British director Adam Wimpenny, Ed Stoppard plays Ben Marshall, a lecturer not long recovered from a breakdown, who moves with his brood – wife Rachel (Sophia Myles) and son Harry (Isaac Andrews) — to a remote country house in order to take up a new teaching post and give the family a fresh start.

But it’s not long before Ben starts sensing that something is wrong in the house beyond its clanking pipes and messy leaks. He starts being plagued by visions that seem to relate to previous occupants and that suggest that his family might be under threat. Are the visions real? Or could it be that the doctor is cracking up again?
With its strong, theatre-schooled British cast, Blackwood is the kind of film one feels well-disposed towards. And though generic and familiar from the off, it has some intriguing aspects that sustain interest for a while. Indeed, the movie begins promisingly enough, with pleasing forebodings and some well-orchestrated moments of menace. Wimpenny and screenwriter J.S. Hill also prove quite adept at sketching out tense, believable family dynamics: there’s nice work from Stoppard and Myles in these early scenes and engaging stuff from Russell Tovey – as a former soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – and from Greg Wise (last seen bopping his way through the likeable Walking on Sunshine), as a colleague of Ben’s with designs on Rachel.

Alas, as the movie progresses, it loses the semblance of intelligence it started out with, succumbing to increasingly nonsensical plot developments. Careless in its handling of minor characters (such as Joanna Vanderham as a PhD student who is the new squeeze of Wise’s character), the movie finally stretches credibility to breaking point. What begins as a Woman in Black/Amityville Horror/Don’t Look Now hybrid (with a touch of The Turn of the Screw and even Kill List on the side) finally degenerates into a risible rip-off of The Shining, complete with histrionic performances and an unnecessarily blood-soaked climax. There’s certainly enough promise in the early sections to suggest that Wimpenny might yet make a worthwhile feature but his resolution of Blackwood proves feeble in the extreme.
Blackwood is released in the UK on 1st August.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Theatre Review: Medea (National Theatre, Olivier)

As Lucy Jackson has summarised recently, the myth of Medea is one that continues to resonate and reverberate powerfully in our culture, inspiring fresh revisionings in literature, art, film and on stage. That said, the 2012 incarnation of Euripides’s text - Mike Bartlett’s soap-opera-verging-on-sitcom variation for Headlong, which set the story in a contemporary English suburb  - struck me as mostly ridiculous, despite the committed efforts of Rachael Stirling in the lead.

Carrie Cracknell’s major new production for the National, which had its first preview on Monday, proves a much more assured, arresting and absorbing experience than Headlong’s. (This, despite the coughers, over-laughers and people who had certainly NOT switched off their fucking mobile phones who sadly constituted some of the first performance’s audience.) It’s a potent new version that - in aspects of its aesthetic as well as its overt, bracing feminism - feels all-of-a-piece with Cracknell’s recent projects: her much-admired A Doll’s House for the Young Vic and this year’s Blurred Lines at the NT Shed.  I don’t want to comment too specifically on the staging at this early point in the run, so as not to spoil the pleasure of discovery for others. But suffice it to say that Cracknell and Ben Power (who contributes a supple, fluid and robust translation) succeed in finding a contemporary context for the story that (unlike Bartlett’s) doesn’t make you cringe, that still allows for grandeur, and that cuts to the dark heart of the play’s exploration of the damage wrought by betrayed and thwarted love. Tom Scutt’s design - initially underwhelming; gradually revelatory - captures  precisely the production’s mixture of the intimate and the epic, the feral and the domestic. As does the score by Goldfrapp (a band whose charms have mostly been lost on me, I have to confess), who come through here with a series of evocative soundscapes that move compellingly from twinkling atmospherics to swelling choral surge.  
The production won’t be as divisive as the National’s spectacularly polarising Edward II was last summer, but it’s still one that audiences will debate and argue over, I think. There are, it must be said, some odd aspects: the under-utilising of Dominic Rowan as Aegeus , for one.  And while the all-female Chorus is a marvellous touch, and mostly brilliantly integrated, I could have lived without the Pan’s-People-via-Pina-Baush contortions that Lucy Guerin’s choreography puts them through at various points. 
Still, the production grips and moves. And at its centre is a performance by Helen McCrory that is as thrillingly rich and inspired as you could wish for.  Fierce yet fragile, bitingly witty and savage in self-laceration, the captivating McCrory shrinks the auditorium to intimacy as she also finds a devastating vulnerability and, yes, tenderness in the character, honouring all the contradictions of a woman turned “expert in terror, expert in pain.”  It is, already, a performance to haunt you, and one that, in the production’s stunning final third, communicates the play’s tragedy with the force of a thunderclap.

The production runs for 1 hour 40 minutes without interval. Booking until September 4th. 


Monday 14 July 2014

Film Review: Begin Again (Carney, 2013)

John Carney's Begin Again offers more winsome (if tediously foul-mouthed) music-based uplift in the mould of the director’s overpraised Once, though decidedly glossier and with the dubious added bonus of Keira Knightley grimacing and gurning away in one of the lead roles. Knightley plays—or, in her usual manner, has a game go at playing—Greta, an English girl in New York who gets dumped by her musician boyfriend (Adam Levine, of Maroon 5, in a creditable film debut) and finds herself dragged along to an open mic night where she’s talent spotted by Dan (Mark Ruffalo) a down-on-his-luck music exec who hearspotential in her fey folky warblings. The film follows the pair as they collaborate on an album, its tracks recorded live in different locations in the city.

Carney can be insightful on music biz machinations and these aspects provide some of the more interesting elements of the picture. But Begin Again (which was called Can A Song Save Your Life? when I saw it at TIFF last year, and I’m not sure how much of an improvement the new title can be considered) is ultimately too transparent in its feel-good designs upon the audience and too clumpy in its plotting. It’s the kind of movie in which everything is on the surface, every emotional beat underlined and made obvious. Greta starts meddling in Dan’s personal life just so the pair can have a little spat but ultimately the movie is all about relationships getting repaired—lives being saved, indeed—by the healing power of song. That could work, were the featured tracks, written by the formerly-witty Gregg Alexander, not such bland affairs (just as they were in Once)—folk-influenced pop full of would-be poetic musings, and as forgettable as the film’s title. In addition, for all the wittering about artistic integrity and “authenticity” that goes on here, the movie itself feels mighty inauthentic: when the characters are in a tight spot, for example, they simply call on a beneficent multi-millionaire hip-hop star (Cee-Lo Green) to help them out.
Catherine Keener and Hailie Steinfeld go to waste as Ruffalo’s estranged wife and kid, but Ruffalo himself brings some rumpled charisma to his role and James Corden does some pleasantly relaxed funny-buddy schtick as Greta’s busker pal. The movie is undistinguished, and I found it resistible (much more so than the superficially crummier Walking on Sunshine; see below). But it probably pushes enough buttons to turn itself into a hit.

Friday 4 July 2014

Film Review: Walking on Sunshine (dir. Giwa and Pasquini, 2014)

The success of Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! (2008) and, more recently, Dexter Fletcher's Sunshine on Leith (2013) has pretty much made the jukebox musical into the default British film musical form these days. But whatever quibbles one might have about that, there’s no denying the silly retro charms of the latest addition to the fold, Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini’s Walking on Sunshine, which sets the entanglements of Brits in picturesque Puglia to a choice selection of 80s hit pop songs. With its gorgeous setting, its nuptials-based plot, its up-for-it cast and its locals reduced strictly to supporting roles (as eye candy or comic turns), it’s not hard to spot that Mamma Mia! is the movie that Walking on Sunshine desperately desires to be. But I for one found Giwa and Pasquini’s film a good deal more enjoyable overall. The plot is less stupid, the performances are less embarrassing, and, most importantly, Giwa and Pasquini have a better idea of where to place the camera than Lloyd did, staging some lively, wittily choreographed numbers.
There’s plenty of obviousness, of course - intercut hen and stag party sequences set to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Wild Boys,” for example- but also some real attempts to tell the story through song. There’s a great poolside “Venus” that becomes a creditable Busby Berkeley homage , a beautiful beach scene lit by The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” a surprisingly emotional climactic “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and, best of all, George Michael’s “Faith,” amusingly turned into a duet for two ex-lovers. And the movie sustains a friendly, affectionate tone throughout.
Throwing themselves into the dance sequences with great gusto and really acting their way through the songs, Annabel Scholey and Hannah Arterton are terrifically likeable as the sisters whose romantic travails provide the plot’s pivot (the former’s about to be wed to the latter’s Italian holiday romance ex; as in Vicky Christina Barcelona [2008] one almost senses the spirit of Henry James hovering over the premise. ALMOST). They’re gals of contrasting sensibilities, each with something to learn from the other, and the movie devises satisfying parallel arcs for both of them. X Factor alumna Leona Lewis doesn’t distinguish herself in her film debut but Greg Wise nicely updates his caddish Sense and Sensibility Willoughby with a fun turn as Scholey’s still-interested ex.
Of course, the movie has some shortcomings: the economic details of the characters lives aren’t so much fake as non-existent, and supporting characters (including Katy Brand’s erotic novelist pal) are underused. But, experienced with some equally 80s-enamoured pals (and, preferably, some booze), Walking on Sunshine more than does the job. Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and T’Pau tracks requested for the sequel, please.

Theatre Review: The Boss of it All (Soho)

Made between the controversial (and brilliant) Dogville follow-up Manderlay (2005) and the even-more-controversial (but less brilliant) Antichrist (2009), Lars von Trier’s 2006 work The Boss of it All feels rather like the von Trier film that got away. The movie certainly has its admirers (I know several people who swear by its greatness). But as a lower-keyed proposition than the attention-seeking shock-fests that have constituted most of von Trier’s recent output it’s a film that many may not be aware of. Which is a shame, as this corporate comedy based around a sitcom premise (an out-of-work actor is hired by the boss of an ailing IT firm to pretend to be the “real” boss and thus take the rap and the responsibility for unpopular decisions) sustains a droll, distinctive atmosphere, even if you don’t very often hear yourself laughing out loud.   
The first von Trier adaptation to make it to the UK stage, Jack McNamara’s skilful production for his New Perspectives company does make you laugh out loud. I found the play much more purely enjoyable than the film:  better structured, pacier, more focused in its exploration of the idea of leadership as performance, and, simply, a whole lot funnier. Making some judicious cuts to the plot and characters, McNamara retains - and, indeed, accentuates - some of the film’s arch meta conceits, including narration (provided by von Trier soundalike Claus Reiss) that comments  on the staging and anticipates audience response, which works nicely.  The production has a razor sharp clarity that's  aided by Lily Arnold’s sleek, stylish design and a cast – Gerry Howell, Ross Armstrong, Anna Bolton, Tom McHugh, Kate Kordel and James Rigby – who work together wonderfully well, creating a great office dynamic. Swift, smart and terrific fun.

Booking until 27 July.