Monday 21 December 2015

Review of 2015: Cinema - 15 Favourite Films

While only a handful of theatre productions (Everyman, Play Mas, Pig Girl, French Without Tears, Now This is Not the End) made an impression on me this year, 2015 turned out to be a fairly strong year for cinema, overall. Sure, UK distribution remains in a pretty sorry state, Hollywood gets lazier and more risk-averse … yet, against all odds, filmmakers keep producing gems: mostly, it must be said, in languages other than English.

I was very happy to attend  Cannes for the first time this year, even if the Festival offered a solid rather than a truly spectacular line-up on this occasion. (You can read my full coverage here). Quality control was considerably  more sustained at the emotional roller-coaster that was this year's unforgettable Gdynia Film Festival, where much of the most creative and rewarding work I saw all year was screened.  

That being said, this year's Kinoteka was stronger on classics than new films, but the modest Cinema Made in Italy season at least gave Londoners their only chance to catch Ermanno Olmi’s haunting WWI miniature, Greenery Will Bloom Again (Torneranno i prati). London Film Festival itself boasted a pretty strong line-up that cherry-picked the best offerings of other major fests and included some premieres of its own. Having heralded 2015 as “the year of the strong woman” (a categorisation I address a little bit in my piece on the Opening Night film Suffragette), the LFF made sure to award its top prize to a female director on this occasion. Yet the choice - Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, a fitfully amusing yet ultimately rather thin satire on male competitiveness featuring no women in the cast - seemed to tell its own story: namely that, as in the literary sphere, awards these days are more likely to go to female artists who make men the protagonists of their work.

A few films that coulda been contenders in my own 'Top 15' missed out for one reason or another. Inside Out was undoubtedly the screening with the best bonhomie at Cannes, and it’s one I look back on fondly. But the more problematic aspects of the movie – most cogently outlined by Sophie Mayer in her characteristically incisive piece on the film – weren’t quite mitigated for me by its surface cleverness. John Crowley’s hugely likeable Brooklyn stayed sensitive and strong for most of its duration but was marred by a finale that I seem to be alone in finding rushed, contrived and fake. By contrast, Todd Haynes’s fawned-over Carol worked its way to a great ending, had the year’s best score, and moments of exquisite beauty, yet the softening and simplifying of the central relationship made the film emotionally unsatisfying and rather frustrating in the last analysis. On the other hand, I was very pleased to see Tom Browne’s brilliant debut film Radiator (which came out in the UK in the same week as Carol) finally getting a much-deserved cinema release. Browne’s film made my list last year. Without further ado, here’s this year’s set.

Sunset Song (dir. Terence Davies)
Following his rather botched adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea, it was especially pleasing to find Terence Davies back on peak form once again here, with a spell-binding take on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic that entered deeply into the soul of the novel and emerged as pure cinema. Hypnotic, deeply affecting and crowned by a superb performance by Agyness Deyn,  Sunset Song places the responsive viewer in what Roger Ebert once described as a “film reverie”, captivating with the rhythm of its images and the music of its voices, which prove pretty much impossible to shake off. 

11 Minutes (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski) 
Setting a diverse group of characters in motion in contemporary Warsaw, and charting their progress over the same 11 minutes of the day, Skolimowski‘s latest is a sensational city symphony that's equally alert to the quotidian and the ineffable. A jittery, poetic mosaic of urban experience, it's at once a warning, a wake-up call, and one helluva wild ride. Full review here.

Mountains May Depart (dir. Jia Zhangke)
Brilliantly book-ended by Pet Shop Boys' version of “Go West,” Jia’s decades-spanning drama about Chinese diasporic experience opens on the cusp of the millennium and proceeds to unfold with the grace and subtle, cumulative power of a great novel, spinning out of a Fenyang love triangle an absorbing exploration of continuity and change, what’s recuperable  and what’s forever lost. Also recommended: Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang, an insightful and affectionate portrait of the filmmaker directed by Walter Salles. Full review here.

James White (dir. Josh Mond)
The latest film from the Borderline collective (the group comprising NYU alums Josh Mond, Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin) again gives us hope for serious-minded American independent cinema, after all. As tightly coiled as Mountains May Depart is beautifully open and expansive, James White also places a mother/son relationship at its centre. But here that relationship is defined by proximity rather than distance, the film focusing on an NYC slacker (Christopher Abbott) caring for his dying mom (Cynthia Nixon).  A tenderer, kinder cousin to Campos’s great Simon Killer, James White finally narrows down to an intense duet for Abbott and Nixon that’s performed with absolute bravery, and features some of the year’s finest screen-writing, to boot. Bravo (again) Borderline Boys. Full review here.

Mediterranea (dir. Jonas Carpignano) 
Suggesting De Sica combined with Claire Denis, Carpignano made his  portrait of two African migrants attempting to adjust to their new life in Italy an atmospheric and deeply moving humanist drama. The subject matter could scarcely have been more timely yet, in its specificity, its depth and its bracing compassion, Mediterranea goes way beyond what a newspaper report might give us. Full review here.

Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Altman attitudes. 70s spirit. Stoner poetry. The twistiest, most baffling of plots. Paul and Pynchon made a great, gonzo pairing, even if Owen Jones and quite a lot of other people didn't think so, the fools. Best P.T.A since Magnolia.

A Bigger Splash (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Also reflecting in a surprising way upon the migrant crisis, Luca Guadagnino turned his Pantelleria-set reworking of Jacques Deray and Jean-Claude Carrière’s 1969 La Piscine into a stylish and rather delicious take on the moral dubiousness of glamorous idling foreigners, with Tilda Swinton as a recuperating rock star, Matthias Schoenaerts as her lover, and Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson as the disruptive interlopers to their idyll. Blissfully entertaining, not without some political bite, and sexy as hell, the film boasts an unmissably outrageous, hilarious (and revealing...) performance from Fiennes as both the tale’s supreme hedonist and its moral conscience. Full review here.

Moje córki krowy (These Daughters of Mine) (dir. Kinga Dębska)
The overwhelming response at the end of the Musical Theatre screening of this was one of my favourite "audience moments" in 2015. Moje córki krowy won over a whole lot of us at Gdynia with its perceptive, tart yet generous and often laugh-out-loud funny take on family relations, and its brilliant performances. Everything that Mia Madre wasn't, basically. Full review here

Regarding Susan Sontag (dir. Nancy D Kates)
Avoiding the traps of either hagiography or hatchet job, Kates produced a rich, absorbing (and surprisingly funny) portrait of one of the greatest of American intellectuals that did justice both to the complexity of its subject’s personality, and to her epoch-defining work. The inclusion of Sontag-referencing clips from Bull Durham and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (yeah!) are but one indication that Kates knows exactly what she’s doing here. Best bit: a clip from this spectacularly awkward interview that captures Sontag at her sharpest, most contrarian and uningratiating best. 

Córki Dancingu (The Lure) (dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska)

“Two mermaids walk into a Warsaw nightclub…” A deserved winner of the Best Debut prize at this year’s Gdynia, Agnieszka Smoczyńska's ingenious genre-hopper combines dreamy beauty, gory body horror, broad humour  and some great musical sequences to create a highly distinctive variant on the Hans Christian Andersen story  that ends up pretty far from Disney territory. Deserves to be widely seen in 2016. Full review here.

They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile (dir. Johanna Schwartz)
As direct as Timbuktu was fragmentary and impressionistic, Schwartz’s superb documentary  about the 2012 Islamic Jihadist takeover in Northern Mali conveyed righteous anger at  the oppressions inflicted, as it celebrated  the resilience of the artists affected.   

An (dir. Naomi Kawase)
So unfashionably earnest that it ends up feeling rather radical, Kawase’s latest is the oh so lovely account of the bonds  forged between three lonely souls; a  dorayaki seller, a teenage customer  and the elderly woman who comes to his stall in search of work. A restorative delight, An also boasts a darker thematic undercurrent involving state-sanctioned  prejudice that got carelessly overlooked by those who jumped to dismiss the film as way too sweet. Full review here


Love is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)
Like An, Love is Strange was also notable for its tenderness, Sachs delivering a wry and infinitely  touching portrait of a temporary separation enforced upon a couple (excellent Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) that was every bit as delicate as the Chopin featured on the soundtrack. Full review here.    

Body/Ciało (dir. Małgorzata Szumowska)
Szumowska’s most accomplished and best sustained work to date combines elements of detective drama, supernatural enquiry and deadpan black comedy, as it focuses on a widowed prosecutor, his anorexic teenage daughter, and the latter’s therapist, a spiritualist who believes that the family's matriarch is trying to make contact from beyond the grave. Terrific performances from veteran Janusz Gajos, newcomer Justyna Suwała and the ever-brilliant Maja Ostaszewska, and Szumowska’s quirky touches (“Śmierć w bikini”!) make this reason/faith face-off an idiosyncratic and appropriately haunting experience. Full review here and read my interview with Szumowska about the movie here

The Pearl Button (dir. Patricio Guzmán)
From oceanic mysteries to the brutality of the Pinochet regime via the fate of Patagonia’s indigenous tribes: no one does docs like Guzmán does docs. In his brilliant latest, the director once more transforms our ideas of nature, of politics, of history, of existence itself. (And all in 80 minutes.)  

Honourable Mentions: Greenery Will Bloom Again, Brooklyn,  Louder Than Bombs, Force Majeure, Something Better to Come, Son of Saul,  Evolution, My Nazi Legacy, Youth, Baby Bump, Carol, Cemetery of Splendour, Panie Dulskie, My Love Don’t Cross That River, The Lobster (first half only).   

Disappointments, duds: Desierto, The Daughter, The Falling, Manglehorn  

Still Unseen: 45 Years, It Follows, Arabian Nights, The Forbidden Room, Phoenix 

Monday 14 December 2015

Review of 2015: Music - 10 Favourite Albums

2015 was a year when a lot of my most memorable music experiences happened live: whether it was Barb Jungr’s soul-shakingly great reinventions of material by Cohen and Dylan, The Beatles  and others, Sufjan Stevens turning the delicate autobiographical intimacies of Carrie & Lowell into  a staggering rock spectacle, or Carmen Consoli  inspiring awe-inducing expressions of Italian adoration at her show as part of David Byrne’s Meltdown. These experiences live only in memory now, and are, perhaps, all the more potent for that. Below, though, is a list of the motley crew of albums that I listened to and loved the most this year, along with links to a few choice tracks from each.

 The Light Princess, Original Cast Recording
"My Own Land", "Queen Material", "No H20" 

The Trackless Woods, Iris DeMent
"From the Oriental Notebook", "Listening to Singing", "Like A White Stone"

Skeleton Crew, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Music Complete, New Order

Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens

The Rose of Roscrae, Tom Russell

"The Last Running," "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos", "The Rose of Roscrae"  

Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl, Various Artists
"Jamie Foyers", "Schooldays Over", "The Terror Time"

The Other Side of Desire, Rickie Lee Jones

Honeymoon, Lana Del Rey
"Freak", "Music To Watch Boys To", "Salvatore"

Leonard Cohen: Zaśpiewany, Various Artists
"Lawina",  "Jestem Twój",   "Tańcz mnie po miłości kres"

Bonus: the Made in Dagenham OCR loses a few points for only being available as a download. But I have such affection for David Arnold and Richard Thomas's witty, wonky, silly, smart score that leaving it off the list for that reason seems a bit churlish. These songs make me really happy, especially the sublime (Toby Keith-inspired...?) account of US self-image that is "This is America". (Take a listen, below.) A list book-ended by the scores of musicals that should still be on, in other words ... Merry Christmas!   

Concert Review: Barb Jungr’s Festive Feelings, Crazy Coqs, 12 December 2015

James Stewart’s George Bailey memorably discovered that “It’s a wonderful life” in Frank Capra’s enduring classic, a film described by Sally Potter as now seeming “positively Marxist in its values.” Although not alluding to the film directly, by putting “Beautiful Life” in their “Festive Feelings” Christmas show, Barb Jungr, Peter Horsfall  and Jenny Carr seemed to make a nod in the direction of Capra’s title.

Written by Jungr and Adrian York, the jazzy, supple “Beautiful Life” came a few songs into the trio’s set at Soho’s great Crazy Coqs club on Saturday night. It was one of those moments – there are usually a number of them in Jungr’s shows – when you feel a shift in the energy of the room: the experience of a deep collective catharsis. At this time of mad consumerism, over-spending, and great waste, Jungr made the song itself into a little anti-capitalist beacon: a vivid celebration of nature’s joys, of what’s free, available and already there to be shared, if we’re open and awake enough to really experience it.  

Always among the most infectiously ebullient and inclusive of performers, Jungr was in especially buoyant mood at Saturday night’s show, clearly relishing the interplay with the packed crowd, and with Carr and Horsfall, the former accompanying her on piano, the latter on trumpet.  Making a few concessions to expected material  via delightfully wry takes on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”  and “Winter Wonderland”, the set-list was otherwise as inventive as you’d expect - and as delectable - gently expanding the boundaries of what’s classified as Christmas music.

True, some of the featured songs have been presented by Jungr in other contexts. For example, Joni Mitchell's “River” (“this needs a gospel choir – and you’re it”, Jungr reminded us, inspiring the first of several joyous singalongs) formed part of her Stockport to Memphis album and “To Love Somebody” (here rescued from its placing in ITV3's 2015 Christmas ad) was included in her Nina Simone-dedicated shows

But these inclusions all emerged new-minted here, with subtle rearrangements, Horsfall’s great trumpet-playing, and some gorgeously quirky, gospel-influenced three-part harmonies supplying wonderful fresh textures.  Moreover, by incorporating material by Mitchell, Dylan and The Beatles (subject of her latest collaboration with John McDaniel), the show emerged as not merely a novelty item but rather as all-of-a-piece with Jungr’s other musical explorations.

As always, Jungr evoked and explored a wide range of human experience in “Festive Feelings”, treating each song as an encapsulated, highly emotional story. No nuance was neglected, no meaning skated over (pardon the pun).The show opened with “Ring Them Bells”, a gem drawn from her beloved Bob’s great 1989 album Oh Mercy, and progressed through a hilariously hammy and spiky “Fairytale of New York” to an exquisite, lusciously deep-toned “Waterloo Sunset.”

An unexpected take on Les Paul and  Mary Ford’s “Vaya con Dios” transported us down Mexico way (“I don’t know about you, but at Christmas I always think about Mexico…” Jungr deadpanned, cheekily justifying the song’s inclusion in the set),  while Horsfall got retro with lovely, warm leads on “Moonlight in Vermont” and “The Christmas Song”. “Peace in the Valley” found Jungr in thrilling gospel mode, hot-wired to the song’s images of transcendence and transformation and beautifully backed by Carr and Horsfall's harmonies. There was even a pleasing nod to Jungr’s years in The Three Courgettes (the group she formed in the '70s with Michael Parker and Jerry Kreeger) via the (inadvertently) double-entendre-strewn “Christmas is Coming.” Finest of all perhaps was “Here Comes the Sun,” which moved gloriously from tentatively-expressed hopefulness to ecstatic affirmation as it welcomed a redemptive thaw.   

From Vermont to Mexico, New York to Waterloo we travelled, then, and the journey made “Festive Feelings” the most delightful of seasonal pick-me-ups. I went into the show at the end of a slightly grim day that had left me a bit dismayed by various factors: London’s grubbiness, the consumerist crush, other people’s demands or distancing. I emerged elated, reminded -  as Jungr’s shows, in their richness and radical humanity, are wont to remind us -  of the many ways in which it’s a beautiful life, after all.    

"Festive Feelings" has finished at Crazy Coqs, but you can see the show at Altrincham and at Newbury later this week. Details here.  

CD Review: Scenes From A Well-Spent Youth: Exploring the Songs of 1965-75, Tim Benton

On his excellent album Scenes From a Well-Spent Youth, Tim Benton revisits a selection of popular songs from the 1960s and '70s. As the record’s title indicates, these are all songs that Benton associates with his formative years. Noting that the featured tracks are all “from an exceptionally fertile time for popular music”, Benton reveals that these are songs that he performed when he was “just starting out as a singer” in Wellington, New Zealand and, as such, are “loaded with echoes of people, places and experiences past”. The notion  of a retrospective glance is nicely encapsulated by the tracks that bookend the record: Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s sublime “Goin’ Back” is the opening song, while a setting of Fran Landesman's poem “A Paradox” closes the work, with its melancholy recognition that “It’s the happy memories that make you sad,…/ the memory of a better day, so fair and far away/that breaks your heart.”      

In between, the song choices encompass an impressive range, moving from Motown to musical theatre to singer-songwriter classics. However, the album is as stylistically cohesive as it is carefully sequenced. Working with the talented arranger and pianist Simon Wallace, Benton’s approach is to strip down the songs to their bare bones in piano and voice arrangements that place the emphasis firmly on the lyrics of each composition. As such, the approach is somewhat similar to Wallace’s work with Barb Jungr, with supple, inventive, jazzy piano playing serving as the sole accompaniment to the  singing. Benton’s rich vocals are immediately striking and inviting, his delivery at once stately and sensitive, dramatic and delicate, as the material requires. 

Highlights of the generous selection of 17 tracks include arresting treatments of “Laughter in the Rain”, “Out in the Country”, “Chelsea Morning”, “24 Hours From Tulsa”,  “Last Train to Clarkesville and “It’s Too Late”, each of which gain fresh textures. However, Benton succeeds in making all of these songs, no matter how iconic, sound like intimate, personal statements here.   

Scenes From a Well-Spent Youth is available to buy via CD Baby.   

Thursday 10 December 2015

Concert Review: Barb Jungr and John McDaniel Perform The Beatles (St. James Studio)

My review of "Come Together: Barb Jungr and John McDaniel Perform The Beatles" is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

CD Review: Gone Like The Cotton , The Cox Family (2015)

Gone Like the Cotton, the latest release from the Cox Family, has been a long time coming. The album was actually recorded back in late 1997 and early 1998, with Alison Krauss producing and Union Station contributing, and was to have been the group’s second album on Asylum. But when the label went through various changes and upheavals  at the end of the ‘90s, the Cox Family found themselves without a deal, and the album, still only half-finished, was unceremoniously shelved, ending up in the Warner Bros. vault at Burbank.

For both Krauss and the Cox Family themselves the situation was clearly a frustrating one. So it’s heartening that,  17 years on, Gone Like The Cotton is finally seeing the light of day, with the group having headed back to the studio this past April to belatedly finish the project. In the intervening years, the Cox Family have experienced both professional success (notably, their contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou? film and soundtrack, and the Down From the Mountain tour) and personal sorrow (a car crash that left patriarch Willard paralysed from the waist down, and, in 2009, the death of matriarch Sue Marie from cancer).

Such events give added poignancy to a beguiling record that has the feel and appeal of a family album brought to life. Natives of Cotton Valley, Louisiana, the Cox Family are steeped in the traditions of gospel, blues and country, and unaffected naturalness, charm and authenticity are evident in every note they sing. The beautiful soulful harmonies of siblings Evelyn, Sidney and Suzanne are the album’s main draw, and the range of material is impressive as the record combines pure country elements with elegant, well-judged pop and rock flourishes. Suzanne takes the lead on the punchy, sultry opener “Good Imitation of the Blues”, while Evelyn follows it with a delicate, plaintive “Lost Without Your Love”.  Sidney delivers a driving, catchy “In My Eyes” that, propelled by Sonny Landreth and Pat Bergeson’s guitar work, skirts Fleetwood Mac. Given that he’s now unable to perform, It’s also touching to hear Willard’s contributions, including leads on a brisk, no-nonsense take on the Louvins’ “Cash on the Barrelhead” and the Cline brothers’ “Honky Tonk Blues”.

Evelyn’s silky lilt makes beautiful work of Kim Richey’s “Desire”, and Suzanne turns Kevin Brandt’s “Good News”  into a gently funky item. The most personal song, though, is clearly the title track: a Sidney/Suzanne co-write that pays touching tribute to times and forebears now lost. Throughout  Krauss’s production is unfussy, sympathetic and alert to the subtleties of the vocal and instrumental interplay .Gone Like the Cotton isn’t precisely a lost classic, but having it’s a warm and lovely record whose availability, however belated, is definitely good news. 

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Theatre Review: Jack and the Beanstalk (Hackney Empire)

My review of Jack at the Beanstalk at Hackney Empire is up at The Reviews Hub. You can read it here

Film Review: The Lure (Córki Dancingu) (dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska, 2015)

A seductive siren song, a scream, and a segue into an enchanting storybook-style credit sequence... The opening few minutes of Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s Córki Dancingu (The Lure) do a pretty good job of indicating, in microcosm, the mix of genres that make the movie such a crazy, confounding and supremely enjoyable ride. “Two mermaids walk into a Warsaw nightclub…” might sound like the opening to a dirty joke, but in fact it’s a pretty fair summary of the basic premise of this movie, which won the Best Directing Debut and Best Make-Up prizes at this year’s Gdynia Film Festival, where it was a wild card addition to the Main Competition. (You can read my full coverage of the 2015 Festival here.)

An  ingenious mash-up of various genre tropes, Smoczyńska’s film combines dreamy beauty, broad humour, gaudy musical interludes and gory body horror to offer a fresh variant on the Hans Christian Andersen story that ends up pretty far from Disney territory. Think Cronenberg and Luhrmann collaborating on a Splash remake and you’re a little bit closer to grasping the movie’s singular appeal.

Emerging from their watery lair, our mermaid heroines (the absolutely terrific duo of Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska) find themselves taken in by the proprietors of a nightclub ("with a license for adult entertainment") in the Polish capital. Here – as "Silver" and "Golden" -  they soon end up appearing as one of the club’s acts. “I’m so proud of you girls, my pretty ones,” coos the bewigged chanteuse Krysia (the reliably brilliant Kinga Preis, never more cherishable than when crooning “I Feel Love” here), as Silver and Golden become a hit at the club. However, it’s not long before the contrasting responses of the pair to their new environment start to lead to problems, as the mermaids’ presence sees a host of violent and erotic tensions getting unleashed.

Creatively choreographed and designed, The Lure offers considerable visual pleasure, and the movie’s subversiveness goes beyond its inventive genre-mixing. It’s also evident in the picture’s take on '80s Warsaw: here not the grey, grim, oppressive location of cliché but rather rethought as a space for pleasure, fantasy and fulfillment. “The city will tell us/What it is we lack”, sing our heroines, during the most ambitiously staged musical sequence, which takes place during – yes – a shopping spree. Yet the darker side of the metropolis is not overlooked, either, and the movie isn’t afraid of getting into some pretty disturbing territory as it progresses.   

Like Grzegorz Jankowski’s gleefully scuzzy rock band comedy Polish Shit (Polskie Gówno), which was a highlight of Gdynia 2014, The Lure also stands as another example of current Polish creativity in the musical genre, clearly drawing on a specific national context yet universal enough to resonate much more widely. The vibrant score, composed by sister duo Barbara and Zuzanna Wrońska (Ballady i Romanse), testifies to that inclusivity, encompassing joyful pop, disco, tender ballads and punk, in a way that does justice to the movie’s shifts in mood. 

Perhaps inevitably for a film that tries out so much, The Lure falters at times, and a number of viewers at Gdynia professed to finding the film’s tonal shifts jarring. But “unevenness” is part of the wildness of the ride here, and I for one was impressed by the way in which the movie keeps up pace, moving out of its diverse modes with swiftness, and intelligently adapting the Andersen material with a shrewd and witty eye on contemporary gender politics – including a biting feminist twist.  

In her otherwise positive review of Splash, Pauline Kael wrote that Howard's film is "frequently on the verge of being more wonderful than it is – more poetic, a little wilder". I’m happy to report that The Lure lacks for neither poetry nor wildness. The movie is out on Christmas Day in Poland, and I sincerely hope that it’s distributed elsewhere too, since there’s potential for the making of a true cult classic here. 

Film Review: Radiator (dir. Tom Browne, 2014)

Tom Browne’s wonderful debut film, Radiator, has finally been released in UK cinemas.  It was one of my favourite films of the 2014 London Film Festival and made my Top 10 list last year. You can read my review here.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Theatre Review: Evening at the Talk House (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Notwithstanding a few gems, and unless the next couple of weeks yield something really special (Anita Dobson and Katie Price job-sharing in panto, anyone…?), 2015 can’t be considered to have been an absolutely vintage year for London theatre, overall. And things have now reached a new low at the National with Ian Rickson’s production of Wallace Shawn’s latest play Evening at the Talk House. When Rickson’s production started previewing last week, it wasn’t long before the verdict was in via Twitter, with several people deeming the play to be “the worst thing ever staged at the NT” or even “the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” “What does Twitter know?” sniffed the man seated next to us before last night’s performance began.  Well, in this case, quite a lot, as it happens.

It’s true that knee-jerk reactions on social media can mean that a stark “good or bad” consensus can build around a production too quickly these days. This happened almost exactly three years ago at the Royal Court, with Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness,  a play that that was immediately – and, in my view, unfairly - dismissed by most early commentators online. 

Actually, Evening at the Talk House shares some similarities with Crimp’s play: notably, a jaundiced view of the contemporary world and the workings of power therein.  But where  In the Republic of Happiness was illuminated  by moments of great theatrical brio and passages of very beautiful, intelligent writing, Evening at the Talk House is a leaden, pitifully half-baked creation. There’s a hint of Agatha Christie – and even of Theatre of Blood –  to the premise, which concerns the reunion of a group of theatricals at the club they used to frequent, and the strong suggestion that one of the assembled company may mean the others  harm.

But, after a relatively promising (if exposition-heavy) first twenty minutes (which includes the production’s only arresting image, as the protagonists silently reunite, while Josh Hamilton’s playwright, Robert, introduces them to us), the play gets worse as it goes along. It’s as if Shawn had written down a list of issues that were irking him - declining cultural standards, TV versus theatre, the terror threat and the response to it, the seductions of nostalgia - without really bothering to shape them into a cogent dramatic form. Sure, there’s enough topicality to certain references to generate a few uneasy audience titters. But the approach to the themes is so feeble that the play builds no tension, no cumulative force. The revelation of what some of the characters are up to isn’t shocking or even chilling, as it’s clearly meant to be. Rather, it’s just silly and unconvincing.  

Rickson’s dour, lackadaisical production can’t get a rhythm going, for all that The Quay Brothers’ design tries to inject a bit of mild Gothic ambience into the proceedings. The actors (including Shawn himself in the decidedly masochistic role of a luckless, beaten-up actor named… Dick) don’t find their footing, either. There’s a wonderful moment when Sinéad Matthews and Anna Calder-Marshall, as the club’s hostesses, first appear together. But even these two great actresses – specialists in magnetic eccentricity, the both of them – don’t distinguish themselves here. (Using her beautiful raspy-squeaky voice for all its worth, Matthews’ valiant effort to bring some emotional truth to a final encounter is palpable – and painful.)  Ultimately, the limp material seems to have defeated everyone. Written without insight, wit or shapeliness, Evening at the Talk House is inert on the stage, lacking even the energy or the craziness to be labelled a true folly.

Booking until 30th March. 

Monday 23 November 2015

Film Review: Carol (dir. Todd Haynes, 2015)

Todd Haynes's Carol is out in the UK on Friday. You can read my review from Cannes Film Festival here

Book Review: Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman (Fourth Estate, 2015)

My review of Hadley Freeman's great celebration of 80s' films, Life Moves Pretty Fast, is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Thursday 12 November 2015

Film Review: The Lady in the Van (dir. Hytner, 2015)

There’s really only one good reason to see The Lady in the Van, the new film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s hit 1999 play, and that’s Maggie Smith’s performance in the title role. Smith is one of those actresses at whom the dubious term “legend” is flung so readily that it’s become all too easy to take her for granted. More worryingly, the term also serves to obscure her incredible, enduring, inventive artistry as a performer. Smith demonstrates that artistry at every level in this film , going beyond her excellent recent work in Quartet (2012) to deliver one of her all-time great screen performances.

Playing Miss Mary Shepherd, the homeless woman who pitched up on Bennett’s Camden street, ended up moving into his driveway, and stayed there for some 15 years, Smith captures every shade of the character’s combined defensiveness and exhibitionism.  Considering that she played the role on stage, and on radio, the freshness of Smith’s work here is little short of amazing. Nothing seems set or forced; rather, every gesture and inflection feels organic and spontaneous. As Smith plays the role, the van seems an extension of  Miss Shepherd’s physical being. Splashing yellow paint over the vehicle, her Miss S. is clearly in her dotty element. Moreover, Smith goes beyond the individual character to create an iconic presence here:  an exasperating, admirable,  hilarious, and deeply moving portrait of eccentricity.    

The Lady in the Van badly needs the richness and depth that Smith brings to it, because, in pretty much all other aspects, the film is a dud. The movie was directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the play in its original stage incarnation, and if ever there was a work that needed a director with more critical distance on the material then it’s this one. Hytner demonstrated his lack of judgement when it comes to Bennett’s writing as Artistic Director of the National Theatre when  he staged the playwright’s awful play People in 2011, a drafty whinge about the National Trust (!) that, if submitted by a new writer, would doubtless have been dumped in the nearest bin.  

Here, working from an adaptation by Bennett himself,  Hytner shows the same kind of unseemly reverence for Bennett’s writing. The meta-apparatus of the play (including the device of having two Bennetts as characters interacting and expressing his conflicted attitude to Miss Shepherd) is accentuated here. A rare expressive image -  such as Miss S. being raised into an ambulance - is spoiled by having Bennett (Alex Jennings) editorialising  over it in voice-over, telling us what we’re being shown.  Complete with pointless cameos from each of The History Boys actors, the end result is that the material seems even more smug, arch and masturbatory on screen than it did on stage.  

As in his Untold Stories memoir, Bennett’s self-presentation in The Lady in the Van treads a somewhat sneaky line, with apparent self-deprecation barely concealing hefty self-regard. On the one hand, he’s constantly flagging up the fact that his involvement with  Miss Shepherd  was based around his desire to exploit her as a colourful character in his writing. (The theme of the piece is, ultimately, the use that writers make of other people and real experience in their literary work.)  On the other hand, Bennett is really showing us just how much  more caring his attitude to Miss S. was when compared to most of his would-be liberal neighbours: whether he’s cleaning up her stools or facing off with her social worker (Cecilia Noble).  As often at his weakest, Bennett is subtly judgemental about everyone here, sometimes in the weirdest of ways.
Apart from Smith (and Gwen Taylor, who has a few effective moments as Bennett’s Mam), none of the cast really gets the opportunity to distinguish themselves. As the Camden neighbours, Frances de la Tour and Nicholas Burns drift in and out to little effect; while Deborah Findlay and Roger Allam keep popping up to contribute unfortunate remarks about Bennett’s writing - before we get to see a National Theatre audience whooping their approval at his latest play, just to confirm the playwright’s greatness, after all. There’s no doubt that Alex Jennings gives good Bennett(s), but his work here remains an impersonation, no more, no less. 

Lacking the zest of Bennett’s screen-writing at its best (1984's A Private Function, say), The Lady in the Van gets worse as it goes along, in terms of both story-telling and style. The ending – featuring a horrendous "ascension", a Day for Night flourish, and – yup – a cameo from Bennett himself –  is flagrantly embarrassing. Oddest of all, perhaps, is the strong suggestion that Bennett, now blissfully partnered, won’t need to access his "creative" side any more. Alongside Smith’s stunning performance, that’s pretty much the only good news that The Lady in the Van offers.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Film Review: Brooklyn (dir. Crowley, 2015)

There’s a whole lot to love about Brooklyn, John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel. (A book that, somewhat optimistically, is already being described as a “classic” by some commentators.) Like James Gray’s superb 2013 The Immigrant (disgracefully still unreleased in the UK ), Crowley’s film is a throwback: a work of old-style Hollywood classicism that’s polished and intelligent and made with great feeling and sympathy. Like Gray’s movie, the film also has the novelty of offering a female perspective on migrant experience to America. Here the focus is on Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a girl who leaves behind the Irish village where she grew up, and heads to New York to start a new life.

“I’m away to America,” Eilis tells her sometime-employer, Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), only for the woman to start guilt-tripping her for leaving her mother and sister behind. Yet, despite her quiet demeanour, Eilis is made of stronger stuff than it might appear, and, following an awful passage, she arrives in Brooklyn and begins finding her feet with a job at a department store, while staying in a boarding house run by one Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters).     

It must be noted that Brooklyn presents a far cosier view of immigration experience than The Immigrant did, and its flagrant flattering of America (which will doubtless ensure that the film fares a whole lot better at the box office than Gray’s movie) can stick in the craw. In the film’s vision, there’s no danger of exploitation for an immigrant to New York: all there is is homesickness, which is swiftly overcome by meeting a nice Italian boy (Emory Cohen), and “thinking like an American.” (At some level, the material suggests that Tóibín is working out - and  justifying - his own “defection” to the United States.)

Yet, for the most part, the film’s perspective is nuanced and balanced enough. When the movie began, I feared that we might be in for this year’s Philomena, but, working  from a shrewd adaptation by Nick Hornby, Crowley doesn’t succumb to Oirish clichés (no one even says “feck”) and the interactions are lovely, believable and compelling throughout. Returning for a visit to her home-town after a family tragedy, Eilis realises that there’s much that she’s missed about Ireland, and is presented with quite the dilemma when a nice new suitor (Domhnall Gleeson) starts taking an interest in her.   

As Eilis, Saoirse Ronan provides the film with an unusually quiet centre while nonetheless keeping us attuned to the protagonist’s feelings all the time. It’s a beautiful, deeply felt performance, and the actress  is well supported by fine work from Gleeson, from Walters (who, for once, manages not to overdo it as the strict landlady) and from the sleepy-sounding Cohen who brings some credible shadings to a somewhat idealised characterisation.

Brooklyn is so well-made and so likeable, and builds up so much goodwill, that it’s a significant let-down  – almost a breach of trust – when the film finally plays false with us. Eilis’s dilemma (to stay in Ireland, or to return to the US) isn’t resolved in an organic manner; rather, it’s tied up via a plot contrivance involving the unconvincing intervention of a minor character who forces the protagonist into a decision. Moreover, that decision is accepted by another character with a swiftness that fails to ring true. A little more ambivalence and ambiguity would not have gone amiss here. Brooklyn is one of the year’s best mainstream films, and I recommend it highly. Yet the fakery of the sentimental conclusion means that the movie's exploration of the tug of the Old World versus the pull of the New doesn’t linger with the viewer as much as it might have done, in the end.