Mother! film review *****


Mother! 28th September 2017

What the dickens was that all about.

My guess is that director Darren Aronofsky, as with his previous films, is not entirely sure himself. And that is no bad thing. Here is a chap who seems to have a happy knack of selling multi-layered, grand, quasi-surreal psycho-dramas (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) to a willing public on a sufficient scale to please studios and backers and keep the critics happy. Nowhere near Polanski, Hitchcock or Bunuel as film-makers yet but a sort of bastard child of these masters. Except with all the modern technology. I have griped before about Hollywood’s chronic lack of ambition, with technical wizardry and fantasy burying story-telling and ideas, but this is a criticism you can’t level as Mr Aronofsky.

The classic tropes of home invasion and horror movies pervade Mother! but this is just the starting point on to which Mr Aronofsky grafts a hulking great parable on eco-catastrophe, the agony of childlessness, the collapse of privacy and manners, the rise of Messianic populists,, the tragedy of devotion and just about any thing else that takes his fancy. Despite its mythic qualities it is eminently watchable thanks to the performances and DA’s direction, allied to the cinematography of Matthew Libatique. And it is blackly comic.

The film begins and ends with a conflagration from which emerges a crystal which I guess symbolises life (we also get a beating heart at regular intervals). The remote house in which the stories takes place is a metaphor for planet Earth. It also couldn’t look more Amityville if it tried. Javier Bardem as Him (no names here) has a bad case of poet/writer’s block. His younger wife, Jennifer Lawrence, on whom the camera spends an inordinate  amount of time, has very tastefully rebuilt his home following the fire. She wants a child – but like the next book nothing is coming. Cue a knock on the door. Surgeon Ed Harris thought it was a guest-house. He is a “bit forward” as my aunt would say but he is a “fan” of Him’s work so he gets to say. Then the wife, MIchelle Pfeiffer, pitches up and properly “makes herself at home”. Like Jennifer Lawrence you want these people out of the house sharpish but Him can’t see the problem.

Then sh*t really happens. Let’s just say DA doesn’t hold back. It is an exhilarating, if claustrophobic, ride to the apocalyptic climax. Basically Mother has had enough. I haven’t see DA’s Noah but, on the basis of this, I need to as there are, I gather, multiple parallels to be enjoyed. There are certainly great big dollops of Old and New Testament fable mashed into the madness.

I was properly perturbed by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer and Javier Bardem was as convincing as he could be as this bizarre beatific character. The Gleeson brothers chew up the fragile scenery just like their Dad does – why is it that Ireland produces the greatest actors and playwrights per capita. It’s the story-telling and the Guinness I suppose. Obviously though, given the story is told through her eyes, the film only works if Jennifer Lawrence convinces and she does. BD wouldn’t see the film with me as she has no time for JL BD is rarely wrong so I must savour this rare instance of her fallibility. For Ms Lawrence plays a blinder. Just to properly creep us out I gather DA and Ms Lawrence are now an item. Old Sigmund Freud would have a field day.

You probably should see this film. An utterly indulgent mess that explodes on to the screen. I will definitely watch it again.





After the Rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre review ***


After the Rehearsal

Barbican Theatre, 28th September 2017

So what was this going to be? Another flawed, portentous (pretentious?), langourous stroll through a story which might better have been left in its original format, like Obsession here at the Barbican earlier this year in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam Residency? Or a searing, metaphysical psychodrama in the manner of A View from the Bridge? You never quite know what you are going to get from wunderkind director Ivo van Hove although in this case, given the production of After the Rehearsal and its sister play Persona, are already staples of TA’s performance repertoire, it was possible to get a pretty good idea in advance.

Now I have to confess I was not at my best on the night of this performance and probably should have stayed tucked up in bed with my fading man-flu. The draw of the theatre once again proved too strong (the addict always craves stuff like this – the theatrical equivalent of absinthe) so I made a deal with myself: watch After the Rehearsal and then duck out unless you are absolutely riveted. Well I fear I was insufficiently riveted. On the other hand there was more than enough to chew on in After the Rehearsal and, as I have come to expect from TA’s finest, the performances were marvellous.

After the Rehearsal and Persona are based on Ingmar Bergman films, the former made for TB in 1984 and the latter for the cinema in 1966 (when he had refined his technique to the bare minimum). Unsurprisingly, Bergman is one of Ivo van Hove favourite artists. A version of Scenes From A Marriage has been in the TA repertoire since 2004, Cries and Whispers since 2008 and this double bill since 2012. Mind you Bergman’s influence on European theatre (I mean them not us) has been pretty profound. His own productions were apparently as famous for how they looked as the stories they told. Bergman himself worshipped August Strindberg. Both reach deep into Swedish identity. 

In After the Rehearsal, director Hendrick Vogler (I assume Bergman himself) and young actress Anna are discussing their production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play where Anna is playing the godly Agnes. The conversation expands beyond the play taking in their views on life and the lies they tell. Vogler tries to manipulate Anna. She responds. It turns out Vogler had an affair with Anna’s mother Rachel, also an actress, and she appears in on stage (though in his mind). She is broken by drink and depression but still pulls him to pieces. When she leaves Vogler and Anna imagine a future together: is this real or constructed1?

Now as ever with Bergman there are times when you feel like it would have been a good idea for someone to put their arm around him and tell him not to worry, it might never happen. But “it” does  happen and his exploration of what goes on in our heads and how this sets the narratives we create for ourselves and how the passage of time affects our identities is as penetrating as it gets. This in turns links back to the nature of theatre. Are we always acting? What are our real selves? Who are we trying to impress? Why do we lie to ourselves and others?

The Dutch text is taut and, as in other TA productions, the act of having to read the sur-titles means the words seem to penetrate deeper. Given the fact that not much actually happens (that isn’t the point) there is an awful lot of movement on the stage and lighting, props, music and sound all inject life into the “action”. Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Vogler, (who was a brilliant Coriolanus in Roman Tragedies though looked a bit lost as Joseph in Obsession), is again a colossal, brooding presence on stage. Gaite Jansen, who is a relative newcomer to TA, presents a calculating Anna. Best of all though was Marieke Heebink as Rachel whose desperation convulsed through her entire body. I still remember her fearsomely sexual Charmian alongside Chris Nietvelt’s haughtily needy Cleopatra in Roman Tragedies.

So why wasn’t I more taken with this play. I think, once again as with Obsession (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***), that the obstacle that I can’t quite get over lies in the transfer of film to stage. Bergman is full of close-ups. The Barbican stage is not. As Vogler says in this play ultimately theatre is text, actors and audience. If plot takes a back seat then character needs to come to the fore, and in a text like this I need to see right inside their heads. And I couldn’t.

Still Mr van Hove’s productions can never be ignored. Next up Network at the NT.


The Limehouse Golem film review ****


The Limehouse Golem, 15th September 2017

Now I love a well told Victorian Gothic melodrama and by and large this is what you get here. It is based on the novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by the prolific (if occasionally wayward) author, Peter Ackroyd, though the screenplay by Jane Goldman has a few nips and tucks. It has taken a fair few years for the book (written in 1994) to find its way to the big screen, which is surprising given its obvious cinematic feel and structure.

The laconic Bill Nighy plays Kildare from the Yard who is, we are given to understand, a brilliant detective but whose career has been stymied by his sexuality. The whole world seems to be on his shoulders. He is ably assisted by Daniel Mays as reliable sidekick, George Flood. A gruesome case comes their way, (which superiors want nothing to do with), which is a copycat of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, from forty odd years earlier, and which formed the inspiration for a novel by Thomas de Quincey. Some-one is using the copy of this book in the British Library reading room to scribble macabre details of the murder. Suspicion falls first on the enigmatic playwright John Cree (played by Sam Reid who is currently treading the boards in Girl From the North Country at the Old Vic) as one of the occupants of the reading room at the time of the scrawling. But Cree is dead, and his wife Elizabeth (the elfin Olivia Cooke) stands accused of poisoning him.

From here Kildare enters the world of the Music Hall where our Lizzie has become a big star and where Cree wooed her. A number of larger than life characters, some of whom meet with a grisly end, are paraded, as we delve deeper into the world of deception, artifice and ambiguous sexuality. A pretty clumsy metaphor but it works. And just for good measure we get to meet novelist George Gissing, the mighty Karl Marx and a languid Dan Leno (the excellent Douglas Booth – on this performance he should be snaffled up for a lead on the stage), also a darling of the music hall, and Lizzie’s mentor, all of whom were with Cree  in the reading room.

Now I will be honest you are probably going to work out whodunnit way before Kildare, given the discernible feminist sub-text, but no matter. This is a visual feast (with Yorkshire doubling up handsomely for the East End augmented by technology) which, with told largely through flashbacks, has enough momentum to engage and performances (notably Eddie Marsan as Uncle alongside Ms Cooke, Mr Booth and Mr Nighy) that get under the skin of the characters. I can see that if you are expecting a complex, twisting plot you might get frustrated at the nocturnal atmospherics and the exploration of theatricality, but for me, (particularly the beautifully shot Music Hall scenes), this is what makes the film interesting  Hats off to cinematographer Simon Dennis as well as director Juan Carlos Medina.

PS. If this does float your boat the book is well worth a read as are Mr Ackroyd’s musings on this great city (London of course!) though I am particularly partial to Hawksmoor and Chatterton. More peripherally if you have never read Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, put it in your suitcase now for the next holiday. It is an amazing novel full of layers and with a bravura structure. If you like that Wise Children is even better.



Logan Lucky film review ****


Logan Lucky, 30th August

Every so often BD and myself settle down to take in one, two, or sometimes all three, of the Ocean’s films (not sure if that is grammatically correct). The pleasure lies in knowing exactly what is going to happen and in the happy feeling it brings on. So boo hoo me as BD will be off soon into the big wide world but I reckon we might still get a few more viewings on her intermittent returns.

And now we can add Logan Lucky to the stable. It is Steven Soderbergh directing again and once again it is an impossible heist movie that goes right (for the perpetrators), with a cracking twist and no real victims. What’s not to like. Well nothing as it turns out.

Now in contrast to the Ocean’s stable our heroes are not Flash Harrys (or whatever the US equivalent is) and we are a long way from glamorous Las Vegas. West Virginia to be exact complete with John Denver, NASCAR, roadside bar, country fair, beauty pageant, and penitentiary. Divorcee and single dad Jimmy (Channing Tatum sporting a subtle limp) is booted out of his job so turns to brother Clyde (Adam Driver doing the full on wry, droll Adam Driver shtick) and sassy sister (Riley Keough) to pull the heist and get rich quick. To make the plan work they need local big crim Joe Bang to literally provide the bang – trouble is he is in the nick. Daniel Craig as Joe doesn’t hold back. Dyed blonde buzz cut, guns permanently flexed and a ludicrous Southern drawl. (Mind you this is not the worst accent by some margin – cue Seth MacFarlane  as a British drinks entrepreneur – surely the worst mangled Cockaneee since Dick van Dyke). For no particular reason other than comic effect the unlikely Bang brothers are roped in (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid – as bozo cliched as you like) and the convoluted plan is set.

And a marvellously entertaining plan it is. No details here. Go see for yourself. What is most heartening though is the affection with which the film treats its characters. This means there is a welcome focus on the lives of, particularly, the Logan siblings, and from this emerges a very gentle morality tale about the fairness of life in modern (in this case white) America.  The Logans have a history of bad luck – hence the title – and this story marks some form of recompense. We laugh with, not at, these characters. Not always laugh out loud but audible chuckles certainly. Lovely stuff.

So the inverse in some ways of the Ocean’s crew. But you will feel the same, if not more, affection for the Logan crew and you will get the same pleasure in seeing how the deed was done. And it is funnier. And, it its own way, as cool. We know Steven Soderbergh is a masterly and versatile film-maker (roll on Ocean’s 8). But I was most impressed here with writer Rebecca Blunt. And I loved the soundtrack. Can’t wait for a second instalment.

Detroit film review *****


Detroit, 29th August 2017

I sheepishly admit that, up to now, I had not see a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow in its entirety. I have tried to get going on The Hurt Locker a couple of times but seemed to recall interruptions and general life business got in the way. I mean to correct this omission on the assumption that her previous work is as powerful as Detroit.

For gut-wrenchingly powerful this is. Ms Bigelow and previous collaborator-writer, Mark Boal, have taken the real life events at the Algiers Motel in July 1967, set against the backdrop of the Detroit race riots, and created a genuinely gripping polemic against racial injustice. Hate, fear and violence are realistically portrayed by a uniformly excellent cast. From the direct historical prologue, through the police raid on the “blind pig” celebration party, which was the catalyst for the 12th Street Riot, and finally the closing scene where one of the survivors, Larry Reed, seeks some closure by returning to a career in singing, I was transfixed. The hand held cinematography of Barry Ackroyd takes you right inside the Algiers Motel during the crucial hours, but the cameras work just as effectively in the “vintage” riot scenes, the courtroom scenes and the scenes in the police station. It seems to me that every shot has been thought through to craft a “realistic” experience. The soundtrack adds to the intensity and the story of soul group, the Dramatics, whose lives changed dramatically that night, adds an agonising poignancy to complement the anger. 

If I had to single out one performance it would be Will Poulter as Philip Krauss, the leader of the Detroit Police Force patrol which raids the Motel. He is up against pretty stiff thespian competition in the form of John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes, the conflicted security guard who gets caught up in the incident, and Algee Smith, as the aforementioned Larry Reed. Poulter captures the matter-of-factness of Krauss’s racism perfectly, but also shows the way he seems to be both addicted and fearful of his own paranoid recklessness. You will hate him but you will recognise him.

I confess I knew nothing of these events and only had a vague knowledge of the Detroit riots. I certainly had no idea as to the scale of the response by the authorities to these riots – National Guard, army, tanks, artillery, snipers – the spectre of Vietnam hangs heavy. I gather Ms Bigelow and Mr Boal have made some fairly significant changes to explain the gaps in the “known” facts of the case, and have collapsed down the investigation and subsequent trials. In a telling construction the black characters in the film largely reflect the real life protagonists but the names of the white characters have been altered. This has served to heighten the drama and the argument. It seems from the extensive Wikipedia entry that the injustices meted out to the victims here were carried through into the subsequent trails of the police perpetrators, and that the events had a profound impact on the nature of race relations in the US.

And yet you will be left with a profound feeling that very little has changed. I am no expert on the nature of racism in the US, and my view is informed by my politics and reading (so damn me as a hand-wringing liberal), but, it seems to me, that by dramatising these events of 50 years ago, the makers of this film have served to underscore what is still so wrong now.

I can see that some might recoil at the graphic way in which events are portrayed or might reject the way in which white police brutality is so absolutely contrasted with black helplessness. But I was left reeling and seething from a very fine piece of film-making. There is enough utter escapist shite on the screens of cinemas everywhere, or indeed, serious films that run scared of taking a view. So those like Ms Bigelow, who get the budget and the cast to make such howls of indignation, should be rewarded by us the audience with our attention in my humble opinion.

Dunkirk film review ****


Dunkirk, 26th July 2017

Regular readers of this blog (soon to be counted on the fingers of more than one hand I confidently predict) will have worked out that I am not a committed film buff, preferring the theatre, art exhibitions and, within limits, classical music concerts. And I am a bit random in what I do end up seeing at the cinema, though with a bias to the kind of foreign language efforts that the Guardian approves of.

Dunkirk though was going to be an obligatory view however largely for the subject. As I observed in my review of the rather pedestrian Churchill (the film not the bloke – see here Churchill film review **) the mythology of this history is deep-rooted. What I didn’t do though was pay much attention to director. cast or the much vaunted production choices which underpin Dunkirk the film. So the absence of CGI, the focus on character as metaphor, the absence of blood and guts, the intersection of time periods, in fact the whole Sunday morning 1950s matinee quality which pervaded the whole affair was a welcome surprise.

Nothing wrong with using technology to create visual drama and spectacle for the cinema audience but, in my experience, it can mean plot. character and meaning can take a subsidiary role to the visual extravaganza. Not here. You are not going to be surprised by the depth of psychological introspection revealed in the dialogue nor should you expect a devastating indictment of the politics that lie behind what was a humiliation for the Allied forces. This is a straightforward telling of the “story” but smartly avoids moralising or mythologising precisely because of what is not there. Instead it is an engrossing impression, complete with banging score and some cracking camerawork, of a sequence of events. Branagh does a Branagh, Rylance does a Rylance, Hardy does a Hardy and the somewhat lesser known cast members (all blokes) all fall into line (including that Tom Glynn-Carney who shines in The Ferryman on the stage).

I couldn’t tell you if director Christopher Nolan’s non-linear storytelling is the mark of an auteur or just a way to cut down editing costs but it is effective for me. Too much mainstream cinema is boring for me because it is linear and predictable so this was a welcome diversion.

Anyway all I up I wandered in. sat down, got caught up in the film and the people in it, came out and broadly forgot about it. That’s enough for me and way more than I normally get when I inadvisedly see a “blockbuster” film.


Churchill film review **


Churchill, 25th June 2017

I am a sucker for screen portrayals of Churchill. I didn’t really get on with The Crown last year on NetFlix but John Lithgow was on the money as the great man. And the past performances from the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney and obviously Robert Hardy all live in the memory. Obviously “the greatest ever Briton” was a barrel of contradictions but the mythology runs very deep in my and prior generations.

We have Gary Oldman to come in the Darkest Hour later in the year directed by Joe Wright (recently expertly pulling the strings in the Young Vic’s Life of Galileo Life of Galileo at the Young Vic review ****). And here the Brian Cox took on the role in this eponymous film directed by Jonathan Teplitzky with Miranda Richardson alongside him as wife Clementine. The film deals with the few days leading up to the D Day landings (Operation Overlord) and focuses on Churchill’s seeming reluctance to embrace the plans (explained by the horror of Gallipoli in the WWI). The screenplay and performances do a good job of showing why he was opposed to the operation but there isn’t really much in the way of plot beyond that.

It is all a bit ponderous I am afraid with Cox barking out the majority of his lines and an awful lot of him looking morosely into the distance. It s hard to actively dislike and the two leads try their best with what they given but it just doesn’t really have enough bite or depth.

Never mind. They’ll be plenty more Churchill’s to come.