Posts tagged with “review”

Posted 11 months ago

[A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2013; Matthew Tennyson as Puck, John Light as Oberon]

The Globe’s 2013 Dream is the gayest production of the play I’ve ever seen - and I mean this as a great compliment, because it was excellent to see how certain directorial choices acted as a counterpoint to the text’s ostensible celebration of heterosexual marriage and straight teenage love-lunacy. The queer subtext got a proper airing out of the closet, and made the show feel all the fresher for it. 

The costumes were gorgeous - think Elizabethan courtly love meets sylvan erotica - and the spirit world was peopled by beasts and creatures of the woods - all tusks and hooves, feathers and hair, soil and suede - as far removed from the light and glittery fairies of Victorian imagination as Sendak’s Wild Things. Magic here was pagan rumpus: powerful, rooted in nature and dangerous.

It was a very unusual Dream also in the fact that last night was the first serious bout of autumn weather after our prolonged Indian summer. It was COLD. (An Oberon strongly reminiscent of Khal Drogo did heat things up a little.) As ever, the open air nature of the Globe has tremendous powers over the perception of the play. The chill in the air highlighted all the references to darkness, storms, and climate change in Titania’s speech: trouble in faerieland brings chaos to the mortals’ planet. Once peace is made between the faerie Queen and King, nature is restored: the wind blows strong, the sky goes dark, the nights grow cold. Summer bids farewell… and winter is coming. 

Posted 1 year ago

The BFI continues to turn out some lovely and unusual choices for the festive seasons. Last year they screened Meet Me in St Louis, and this year it’s Babette’s Feast (1987) - a film I had never seen, despite being best friends with a professional chef who adores it.

The story: in the middle of the 19th Century a tiny religious community in rural Denmark witnesses the arrival of various strangers (a Swedish captain, a French opera singer) who seek to woo and marry the local pastor’s two beautiful daughters. The daughters are bashful and devoted to their religion, and partly by choice, partly by accident, they end up embracing spinsterhood. A final stranger arrives, this time a French woman called Babette, who is on the run from Paris after the revolution kills her entire family, seeking to stay in the village as a maid and cook in the pastor’s house. The two -now elderly- sisters tell her they can’t afford to pay her services (even though they are quite well off), but she agrees to stay on and work for them regardless. She settles into life in Jutland, learns Danish, strikes up a series of friendships and working relationships with the villagers, and is generally accepted as a mysterious and extravagant member of the community. One day she receives a letter telling her that she has won a huge prize of 10,000F in a French lottery. It appears obvious that she is going to leave the village and move back to France, but before leaving she asks the sisters to be allowed to prepare a special French dinner for the 100th anniversary of the parish. The exotic ingredients begin to arrive - caviar, Burgundy, Champagne, quails, and even a giant live turtle - and the villagers’ religious beliefs begin to shake: won’t all this excess seem depraved in the eyes of God? 

On my way to the screening I read this review on Little White Lies, and with it in mind I sat in the cinema, feeling a little worried that I was going to see something placid and superficial - if not outright perverse at a time of global financial crisis. Fortunately I think the reviewer is mistaken on many counts, and most of all on the understanding that this is a story that celebrates consumerism, expenditure and wastefulness as opposed to spiritual richness. Only a strict Calvinist, or somebody who has neither tastebuds, nor appreciation of the social and emotional value of collective dining, let alone an understanding of the experience of cooking for others can come up with such a reductive idea.

This is not simply a film about the earthly delights of eating, and it’s far from the epicurean selfishness of the gastronomy fanboys glorified in so many recent popular TV programmes. On the contrary, Babette’s Feast is a celebration of generosity and the shared pleasure of offering one’s talent and taste to others. Food in the film is a social and emotional catalyst, something to thaw the frozen mind and enlighten the spirit’s way to goodness and joy.

It also isn’t an anti-religious film. While Babette’s Feast certainly does criticise the Puritanical meagreness of this Jutland community - dictated not by poverty, but by enforced tightness and suppressed pleasures that lead to unresolved tensions - the film is also a deeply spiritual meditation on the idea of service and sacrifice: Babette offers up all the lottery money she unexpectedly wins to buy the extravagant ingredients for the dinner. It’s not a wasteful gesture because it is done to honour the household that took her in at a time of disgrace. She spends all the lottery money for others who helped her, not leaving any money behind for herself alone to be able to return to France: the dinner is a heartfelt thank you note written with her genius and talent, a gift to those who were kind to her. 

This strikes me as a profoundly Christian idea - think of the parable of the talents: he who hides his talent in the ground does not make it fruitful and wastes it for himself, his master and his community. For a long time I was very confused about this story - although I couldn’t articulate it, I found its moral greedy and capitalist, and couldn’t get my head around it. I recognise now that its significance is that even the most apparently useless talents we are given must be put to good use for others.

Babette’s Feast does precisely that, and it proves a wonderful, alternative Christmas movie for the non-religious. For surely even an agnostic like me understands that the only joy in life is the joy we share with others, and if I can bring some joy into your lives by telling you to go and see this film, then even my silly talent for talking endlessly about films will have been put to a good use. 


PS. A practical note of advice: do not watch this film on an empty stomach, or if you do, make sure you have a sumptuous dinner ready when you leave the cinema - you’ll be very, very hungry.

Posted 1 year ago

Mark Rylance (Olivia) and Stephen Fry (Malvolio) in Twelfth Night, dir. Tim Carroll at Shakespeare’s Globe, London 2012 (photo by Simon Annand)

For the rain it raineth every day 

I have spent more time at the Globe theatre watching plays (and later volunteering and freelancing) than is reasonable. I first visited the theatre in 1996, and saw the opening production of Henry V the following year. On that fateful August day, Mark Rylance walked on stage, recited the play’s opening lines (O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention), and kicked open a door somewhere inside me I didn’t even know existed. That open door led me to some strange countries, not unlike Illyria - an oxymoronic land of merriment and Puritanical condemnation, of mistaken identities and willful pretence, of cruel jokes and harmless witty foolery. A place where people fall desperately in love at first sight, or long for lovers they cannot have.

I watched theatre nearly seven days a week, for years. I moved to England, went to drama school, directed plays. I worked and lived in and for the theatre. Then something broke. I became frustrated with career options that offered hard labour but little reward. I turned bitter, critical and exhausted; there was no more joy in it for me. I remember reading a line in a Lorca play that hit me right on the head: you have to destroy the theatre or live in the theatre! It’s not fair to boo from backstage! I don’t how I ended up there, but there I was: booing from backstage. So I opted out, cut theatre out of my life. I went to the cinema. After a while I fell in love again - this time with an equally thrilling, rich and challenging art, but one that is at the same time safer, more distant: nobody looks back at you, nobody can touch you from a silver screen.

Last night I went to see Twelfth Night at the Globe. It’s a production I have seen many times before, because it was originally performed by the Globe company at Middle Temple Hall in February 2002 on the 400th anniversary of the play, and later transferred to the Globe for the summer season that year. Mark Rylance reprised his hilarious, intense Olivia; Paul Chahidi was again a perfectly savvy Maria, and Liam Brennan a muscular yet refined Orsino. New cast member Stephen Fry (!) played Malvolio – the most sympathetic and believable Malvolio I’ve ever seen, a joy to behold. Johnny Flynn and Sam Barnett were (impressively similar-looking) Viola and Sebastian: both eloquent, sensitive, courageous survivors. And my favourite actor from the original cast, Peter Hamilton Dyer, returned as Feste (make no mistake: Feste is the core of the play; with his tenor voice and sharp sense of humour PHD was born to play this part).

This new cast is extremely well-balanced, and all parts are fully characterised through costume and smart, inventive performative touches that feel really grounded in the world of the play. The minimal but effective direction allows each cast member to play his part to the full, using the beautiful setting of the Globe-turned-Elizabethan-mansion, as well as the very lively audience, as a perfect foil for jokes and confessions, really drawing on the energy of the live, open air experience so essential to the magic that the Globe can create.

Globe productions can incorporate so many external agents into their ebb and flow - weather, accidents, audience response - and the best Globe shows are organic, sensory events. In Shakespeare’s times people spoke of ‘hearing’ a play rather than ‘seeing’ it, and while great attention was paid to visual comedy (for example in the scene where a confused Orsino realises he feels attracted to Cesario/Viola and, transported by the music, nearly kisses him - observed by a watchful Feste), this show is primarily an extraordinary aural experience. The combination of the text being spoken so clearly and accurately that every word makes sense, and an inspired use of music to accompany so many scenes (and pre-show, interval, final jig and curtain call), creates a world of sounds and sighs – breath made song for the purpose of laughter, lament, and nourishment alike (If music be the food of love, play on is, after all, the opening line of the play).

It is a production full of fun and joy – the physical joy of beautifully ornate language being articulated for the pleasure of our own ears and hearts, of gorgeous garments that swish and flutter as characters move (Orsino does wear changeable taffeta!), of bodily enjoyment in dance, love, drink and food – the purest joys there are. It may not be the darkest, most sophisticated interpretation of the play, but for me it was simply the definitive production my favourite Shakespeare comedy.

I can’t remember where I read something that Mark Rylance said about Olivia being like a country that’s moving from winter to spring thanks to the experience of love. Last night under a pouring, cold autumn rain, something inside me thawed. Like the last piece of wood on the fire after a long, merry evening drawing to its melancholy end, it warmed me up and reminded me why I loved the theatre. And why you can’t forget your first love, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how far away from it you travel.

Posted 2 years ago

And now for something completely different: a brief review of Anna Karenina

After that nice cinephile post about Wong Kar-Wai I feel I should let you know that Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is rubbish from beginning to end. 

The main issue with it is that it thinks it’s Russian Ark, but it’s in fact Moulin Rouge-meets-Downton Abbey. (Lady Mary Crawley even turns up as a minor character!) My problem is mostly not with the silly conceit of setting the film in a theatre, which could possibly work even if it’s not so terribly original (hello Powell & Pressburger), but rather with - in order:

  • Keira Knightley. She can’t act. I don’t care what you say. And she’s too young and skinny for Anna Karenina. In a world where Rachel Weisz exists, why oh why do we have to be put through this?
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson: he looks like Lord Flashheart, and he is as expressive as a cardboard cut-out. It’s hard to imagine why Anna would throw her entire life to the wind for this flimsy peroxide blond hipster moustache.
  • The Levin/Kitty storyline gets short shrift again. Ok, I understand it’s not as attractive as the Anna/Vronsky plot, but it’s there because it matters to both the structure and the morals of the story. It’s also heart-breaking and frustrating, interesting and important. The two actors here do well with what they have - and the famous scene of their second marriage proposal is genuinely moving - but the script treats them in such a marginal way that both Kitty and Kostya (who should be the soul of the story where Anna is the body and the heart), come across as superficial. 
  •  Jude Law actually does a pretty solid job in the film. But I never felt much sympathy for Karenin, and here I do. Is that right? I’m not sure.
  • The biggest problem of all: the acting styles dramatically differ from one actor to the other - some appear to be in a Jane Austen adaptation for TV, some at the grand Opéra du Paris. The only one who understands that this adaptation’s concept calls for melodrama is Matthew MacFadyen, whose Stiva Oblonsky is a work of genius, a performance with a sense of tragicomedy worthy of a Gogol story.   
  • Am I the only one who found the continuity editing really messed up? If the aim was for a modern, expressionistic aesthetic with disrupted, fast cuts and hallucinatory visuals (perhaps translating the death-driven passion at the core of the relationship between Anna and Vronsky) then there wasn’t enough of it and what little there was wasn’t well done. Simply copying a few Scorsese shots (see: The Age of Innocence) without any substance just doesn’t cut the mustard. As Scorsese himself has found out.

So, to sum up: read the book - you won’t regret it. Pay to see this film - you might.

Posted 2 years ago

Three weeks ago Criterion announced they are bringing out In the Mood for Love on blu-ray; I never got into that film back when it was released and thought I should give it another go.

If I was indifferent then, this time I was entranced: the grain of the images, the colours, the music seeped through my eyes into my mind and heart. The sensuousness of the world inhabited by the characters was so deeply intoxicating that I even had a dream about the film the night after I watched it. Love, longing, loneliness, memories, mysteries, missed connections: what they mean and how they affect us is much clearer when you’re older.

I guess this is the reason why the film didn’t resonate with me back then: not enough life, not enough opportunities to experience the frustration of impossible love, the unwieldiness of attraction. Probably my cinematic tastes weren’t as catholic as they are now. When I was growing up cultivating my cinephilia, Hong Kong and Korea were all the rage: Wong Kar-Wai was trendy, but I was unfashionably into Welles, Scorsese, Almodovar and Lang. Determined as I was to master the four languages I could speak, I avoided films in languages I didn’t understand, thus foolishly precluding myself the possibility to get into Asian cinema. Now with a bit more life experience under my belt, and decidedly more visual literacy, I am rediscovering the beauty of Kar-Wai’s work.

Last night I watched Happy Together again, and here was another surprise: another marvellous piece of work about difficult loves, travels and plans gone awry, finding a place for the past while moving on. The acting is superb by all involved, which is not surprising, given WKW’s free-flowing (random perhaps) working method, which allows him to shoot hours and hours of improvised footage in which actors find their characters, create stories, carve out minute moments with surgical precision. Christopher Doyle’s photography is a breathtaking roller-coaster ride of lurid places turned lyrical in black and white, colours distorted by memories, intense accelaration and aching slo-motion. I think I may have a new favourite filmmaker.

(Also lately I’ve been thinking of potential double bills, and In the Mood for Love/Lost in Translation and Happy Together/Weekend would work a treat.)

[images from Happy Together via contre-plongees]

Posted 2 years ago

I saw a great production of Antigone at the National Theatre last night, starring  Christopher Eccleston as Creon and Jodi Whittaker as Antigone.

The post-9/11 setting was clearly inspired by contemporary political cabinets and military offices, and the chorus consisted of civil servants, soldiers and journalists. At the beginning of the show Creon and his generals assembled around a TV set to watch the Theban war, replicating the famous image of Obama & co watching the attack on Bin Laden’s compound in the Situation Room.

As a whole, the show was really tight: the sharp direction created a fast, heightened pace, going straight to the play’s tough moral core without unnecessary melodrama. I guess we can safely say that director Polly Findlay (whose work I’d so enjoyed in the NT’s Paintframe double bills last year) is no longer up and coming: she’s well and truly landed.

Eccleston was extraordinary - articulate, humorous and totally compelling. His Creon was a man possessed with the righteousness of power, a Blairite fixation on the conviction that law must be enforced always and without mercy. His unwavering devotion to principle caused not only personal tragedy, but also the total trashing of justice; the final catharsis when he realised his great failure as a leader was thus all the more crushing. I really hope to see him do more stage work. He’d make a perfect Angelo in Measure for Measure.

(I sometimes miss the theatre so much. It’s so nice that after years when I couldn’t bear to walk into the dark space I now find it thrilling again.)

[photo via]

Posted 2 years ago

via Carnage; o, Il polpettone « JunkiePop

Giovedì scorso sono andata al cinema in Germania a vedere Carnage; in sala c’era un gruppetto di Fräulein che ogni volta che appariva in scena Christoph Waltz andavano in brodo di giuggiole (e io con loro), e quando si è tolto i pantaloni, non ti dico, nessuna di noi capiva più niente e i mariti volevano farci rinchiudere.

E per la serie “fin qui tutto bene”, le mie elaborazioni critiche su Carnage passano per l’asilo e il rituale della devastazione del refettorio come Opera d’Arte Totale. Si mangia tutto su JunkiePop.

Posted 2 years ago

A Separation (جدایی نادر از سیمین, translit. Jodái-e Náder az Simin), written and directed by Asghar Farhadi is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s about Nader and Simin, an upper-middle class couple in contemporary Iran. Simin wants to get divorced in order to leave the country; her husband refuses; their 11 years old daughter is caught in the middle.

The plot follows what happens when the wife moves out of the family home and Nader has to hire a carer for his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. 

The script is clear and mysterious at the same time; it appears extremely simple on the surface, but unravels a whole series of topics and debates that can’t possibly leave anybody untouched - and unsurprised.

The film is shot with great restraint but never appears mannered; Farhadi uses hand-held cameras to get as close as possible to the core of the story, and powerfully captures some rich, naturalistic performances to suit the strong, complex characters. 

I don’t know that much about contemporary Iran, but the film struck me as coming from a very honest and deep place within the country and its culture; its portrayal of gender and class relations is nuanced and sophisticated, and never falls into the easy traps of either sanctimonious accusation or sentimentalism to which many films of this kind are prone.  

I have a lot more to say about it, but it’s still sinking in, and it’s really one of those cases when the less you know about it before seeing it, the more you will get into it. Go see it.

Posted 2 years ago

Anonymous, or: ludicrousness, redefined.


I could write a review when I stop rolling on the floor laughing, or you could read this one instead (via undertrees).

Posted 2 years ago

Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2011)

Where to begin? It never gets old. There are as many interpretations of Wuthering Heights’ story, subtext and symbolism as there are retellings of it - movies, plays, poems, novels, paintings, biographical studies, literary analyses.

In Andrea Arnold’s version the focus is on the setting: this is England. Not the pastoral country of sanitised TV costume drama, nor the land we have come to picture through Romantic words - here is no Lake-District-travel-brochure-green dotted by bright daffodils, no place for ”emotions recollected in tranquillity”. These lands are moulded in mud and musk, dried leaves, pelting rain, blinding fogs, wind-swept heather, restless rocks. The colour palette is all brown and dirty green, occasionally splashed with the tint of rancid milk. Everything here is turmoil and tumult - the earth friable and unsteady, the sky ready to open and fall down. It’s a world in perpetual late winter, where the coming of spring is only a brief dream. Anyone who has visited Yorkshire in late January can vouch for the truthfulness of this vision.

But of course straightforward realism is not the key. The landscape is charged with something that exceeds geographical accuracy, something that’s not mere filmic symbolism but rather supernatural significance. In this sense, Arnold’s film is much more faithful to the late Romantic imagination than previous versions, but the effect of such construction of landscape is far from sublime, more repulsive. The place is possessed with a portentous Tarkovskian memory, a parchment torched with past abuse and trauma - the flaming hot cheeks of a boy slapped hard, the scabby scars a girl picks and licks to soothe him. Just as violence returns unquenched by time and education, unwieldy passion seeks and destroys.

Heathcliff is black - black of heart and black of skin. Although I must confess I have never seen it done before, this is not a particularly new idea: literary criticism has been pondering the provenance and identity of Heathcliff for years now - Irish foundling? Abandoned gypsy baby? Abducted slave? What is striking is that despite this casting choice, the obvious moral meditations about race and racism that would follow do not cross the threshold of this world. Heathcliff’s treatment at the hands of piggish, racist Hindley is cringe-worthy and horrible, but fortunately Arnold feels no need to hammer the point home. 

However, just as Arnold’s films are never generically straightforward, they’re also not politically naive: Fish Tank was a terrific exercise in disguising dystopian fiction as social realism, and Wuthering Heights is social realism masked as period drama. Thus Wuthering Heights' England speaks of today's England, quite literally by speaking the same language of “cunts” and “fucks” and “bastards” and “okays” heard all over England’s green and pleasant land. The effect of twenty-first century speech delivered in breeches and corsets is at the same time disruptive and utterly beguiling, and it carries Arnold’s political statement: Heathcliff’s voice - just as much as Hindley’s - is the voice of those rioters who set England ablaze earlier this summer - a class despised by the elite, neglected, and abused, for whom violence becomes the only language. 

But, importantly, the politics don’t get in the way of the heart of the story. As much as Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights burns with the fire and brimstone of teen-age: a time of incomprehension and confusion, ruled by the inability to read the signs of adulthood, while the body speaks a language mysterious and compelling. Desire. Sex. Rage. 

The compulsion of violence pervades humans and nature alike: the wind lashes the moors as much as women’s hair and men’s coats; innocent animals die senselessly and get murdered without pity. And yet this raw, brutal, harsh world, is not without poetry; only it’s more Ted Hughes than Wordsworth - both Northern men, one tragic and the other solemn.

My only criticism is that Arnold also seems to suffer from the latest ailment of contemporary directors: the inability to end the film when it should. A good twenty minutes of the central section could have been compressed into five, and the closing three minutes - where, alas, a tinny Mumford & Sons tune bursts in - have a crass, disruptive effect, particularly after an impressive and rigorous approach to soundtrack restricted the use of extradiegetic music to zilch. I hated the ending, and I am sorry for it: it sent up an extraordinary film with a cheap shot. But I am ready to forget it happened.