Month: March 2015

Anna Karenina

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24/03/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Tolstoy’s classic tale of blighted love gets a stripped-down, eclectic interpretation at the Exchange, replete with multi-ethnic casting and a selection of accents that range from deepest cockney to broad Scottish. Adapted by Jo Clifford, this co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse casts Oblonsky (Ryan Early) as the play’s occasional narrator. Rakish and dissolute though he may be, (Early’s playful performance is one of the production’s strongest cards) he’s also the only character here who actually seems to be enjoying himself. Elsewhere all is woe and misery.

Anna (Ony Uhiara) is a faithful and dutiful wife, happy with her marriage to the older Karenin (Jonathan Keeble) until she sets eyes upon the dashing Count Vronsky (Robert Gilbert), the moment accentuated by the use of a dazzling spotlight beamed in from outside the performing area. She embarks on an affair which will have catastrophic consequences for her and those around her. Production designer Joanna Scotcher has chosen a minimalistic set, through which run a set of train tracks along which a pair of tables are pushed backwards and forwards across a central pit of earth. Through the course of the action, the latter is used to represent the earthy attributes of the likeable but muddled Levin (John Cummins), the grubby stigma attached to a married woman carrying on so brazenly and it even provides the opportunity for Karenin to (quite literally) sling some mud at his unfaithful wife. It could be argued that this symbolism is somewhat overused (and it must have been a nightmare for the play’s costume department!) but it would have been nice to see a couple of bigger set-pieces along the way – the death by train that kicks proceedings off is criminally understated and the famous horse race that is the story’s centrepiece requires all our powers of imagination to envisage.

That said, this is an accessible production of what can, in the wrong hands, be a rather ponderous story. Clifford’s skilful script clearly delineates the various strands of the tale and over the space of nearly three hours, proceedings never lose pace. It’s interesting to note that six members of the same cast will be taking on the Bruntwood Prize-winning play The Rolling Stone from Tuesday 21st of April.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Two Days, One Night

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21/03/15

The French are renowned for their light and frivolous comedies, but Two Days, One Night is a drab and realistic look at the ravages of austerity and there’s frankly not a smile to be seen. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a young Belgian mother who after a short absence from the factory where she’s employed (largely because of suffering from depression) finds herself in the invidious position of having to persuade her eighteen colleagues to vote for her to stay in her job, knowing that to do so means they each have to give up a promised €1000 bonus.

The cameras follow Sandra as she trudges desperately around a succession of locations, pleading her cause and being met with reactions ranging from sympathy to the threat of violence. The directors, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne keep everything simple and ultra-realistic while Cotillard’s vulnerable performance will have you rooting for her to succeed. Were this a Hollywood movie, we all know how the story would end but this is reality and it’s to the Dardenne’s credit (they also scripted the movie) that they manage to pull together a conclusion that manages to be both realistic and positive.

Well worth checking out on the smaller screen.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Beating McEnroe

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27/03/15

The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We enter the theatre to find a bearded man dressed in a tennis headband and a towelling bathrobe. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor silently contemplating a pile of tennis balls. As the crowd continues to shuffle to their seats, he starts to throw the balls to people and urges them to throw them back. Then, once everyone is assembled, he gets us all to chant some kind of repetitive mantra.The man is Jamie Wood and the show is Beating McEnroe, a monologue about the infamous Wimbledon showdown between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980. It’s also about how the young Jamie came to terms with always being whupped at tennis by his older brother. It’s about hero worship and the awful realisation that one day, all heroes must inevitably be bested, often by people who don’t seem to deserve the acclaim. Along the way there’s some slapstick, some dancing and some very funny visual jokes. Wood’s charming persona allows him to effortlessly manipulate the audience into helping him out, acting as his umpires, his ball boys and girls even at one point impersonating him (nice one Susan!) and his big brother. This is interactive theatre at its best and while it’s undeniably a piece of fluff, it’s fluff that’s performed with great skill and a disarming lightness of touch – enough to earn it a nomination for a Total Theatre Award at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

I had the task of tying a carton of table salt to Jamie’s head, which might sound decidedly odd, but which resulted in the funniest visual gag of the night. I felt as though somehow I had contributed to the evening and left feeling rather pleased with myself. We caught this performance at the end of it’s run at the Traverse, but those seeking a genuinely entertaining night at the theatre could do a lot worse than booking to see this at the Lowry in Salford where it plays for just one night on Saturday 28th of March. You’ll believe a man can become a human tennis ball!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Chappie

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18/03/15

Few directors have made such a triumphant cinematic debut as South African,Neill Blomkamp. His first feature District 9 was an assured production, a canny blend of science fiction and social commentary, that blasted his career into the stratosphere. His next offering, Elysium was rather less successful but nonetheless, very watchable, even when it suggested that a human being could undergo drastic bodily surgery without bothering to remove his T-shirt. Chappie, however, is a real dog’s dinner of a film. Not only is it incredibly derivative (it comes across as an unwieldy amalgam of Robocop and Short Circuit) it features clumsy scripting and some pretty terrible performances in key roles.

In a futuristic Johannesburg, everyday policing is carried out by ‘Scouts,’ humanoid robots, capable of making their own decisions. They are the brainchild of Deon (Dev Patel) a nerdy worker in a giant corporation who dreams of one day creating a true AI – a robot capable of independent thought and the appreciation of art and music. This idea is pooh poohed by Deon’s workmanlike boss, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver, with very little to do but sit behind a desk and look stern.) Deon’s success is also envied  by his macho associate, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who has his own law enforcement project waiting in the wings and doesn’t mind taking a few shortcuts. When Deon runs some unauthorised experiments on a damaged Scout, the result is Chappie, (voiced by Blomkamp regular, Sharlto Copley) but things become complicated when Deon and his creation are kidnapped by a couple of local hoodlums, Ninja and Yolandi, who want to use the robot for their own nefarious purposes. They set about teaching Chappie how to be bad…

As in his previous films, Blomkamp is great at achieving a credible look in his futuristic world and the motion capture work employed here is of the very highest quality, so it’s a shame that the same care and attention hasn’t been lavished upon a credible script. Events pile haphazardly one on top of the other, but seem to follow no discernible logic, while the aforementioned Ninja and Yolandi are portrayed by a couple of South African rappers (they haven’t even bothered to change their names) who between them display the acting skills of… well, a couple of South African rappers. Frankly, they stink up the screen, which drives a fatal nail through the heart of the film.

The word is out that Blomkamp’s next project will be part of the Alien franchise, but he’ll have to work very hard indeed to rise above the scrappy disappointment that is Chappie. What a shame.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Still Alice

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16/3/15

Still Alice is of course, the film that secured Julianne Moore a well-deserved Oscar and this tale of a fifty year old Professor of Linguistics, struck down by Early Onset Alzheimers, becomes even more poignant with the news that writer/co-director Richard Glatzer, died just two days after the Oscar ceremony. (He suffered from the rare but equally debilitating condition ALS.) The film is surprisingly understated, avoiding the excesses of so many other medical issue dramas and it could be argued that it cuts away before things get too messy, but the enterprise is held together by Moore’s extraordinary performance, which instills a kind of creeping terror in the viewer; we’ve all experienced many of the  problems she encounters here. Who hasn’t found themselves walking into a room and then drawing a blank as to why we’ve gone there? Could what we’ve dismissed as mere absent-mindedness be something more sinister?

We first encounter the eponymous Alice at a University lecture where she momentarily forgets what she’s about to say. A little later whilst jogging around her hometown, she suddenly discovers that she doesn’t recognise her surroundings, even though she’s right outside the University where she works. (This scene is terrifying.) Alice’s husband and fellow academic, John (Alec Baldwin – don’t be afraid, he’s quite good in this) tries to do what’s best for his wife, but the demands of his own career cause complications and there are more of those too for Alice’s children, when it transpires that the rare type of Alzheimer’s she’s suffering from is familial – it can be passed on to them. This is devastating news for eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) who is trying to start a family of her own, while flakey youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) ironically manages to grow closer to her mother as her condition advances. From here, we witness the gradual disintegration of Alice’s life as with each successive day, a little more of her memory is eroded and irrevocably lost.

Still Alice isn’t a great film – indeed, with a lesser performance at it’s core, it could easily have stumbled and fallen, but it does have Moore’s intelligent and heartfelt input and that’s enough to kick it out of the stadium. I was warned that I would need a box of Kleenex for this one, but though I sat there consumed with dread throughout (my own Mother suffered with Alzheimer’s for the last ten years of her life) I managed to stay resolutely dry eyed  – a testament, I think, to the fact that the story never panders to histrionics and presents a realistic portrayal of an illness that surely does require more research and investment than it’s currently receiving. Worth seeing? Yes, but mostly for Julianne Moore at the top of her game.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

It Follows

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01/03/15

The horror movie genre has been in a sorry state for some time now, lost in a welter of found-footage shaky-cam cliches that neither surprise nor scare the viewer – so it’s heartening to witness what feels like the beginning of a new wave of scare movies that offer something a bit more original. First up was Jennifer Kent’s antipodean frightener, The Babadook, which delivered a well needed kick to the ailing beast. Now comes It Follows, a film that despite owing a massive debt to the work of John Carpenter, nonetheless offers an interesting new direction, one that manages to generate genuine dread throughout the film’s duration.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is the unfortunate teenager who after indulging in a little casual sex with Hugh (Jake Weary) is rather bluntly informed that she has now inherited the unwelcome attentions of a shapeshifting creature that will pursue her (luckily it only moves slowly) and will kill her unless she first has sex with somebody else, thereby diverting the creature’s attentions to the new partner. The creature, which comes in a whole variety of guises, from an old lady to a urinating teenager,  is only visible to those who are being hunted by it.

You could look at this film as an allegory about STDs and you could also criticise its rather protestant approach to promiscuity (something else it has in common with Carpenter – in Halloween, the sexually active girls are murdered by Michael Myers, whilst virginal Jaime Lee Curtis survives) but what you won’t be able to deny is that David Robert Mitchell’s adept handling of the material wracks up almost unbearable levels of tension. The comparisons with early John Carpenter don’t stop there – the gliding steadicam shots along suburban streets evoke the semi-legendary setting of Haddonfield, while the wiry synthesised score also recalls that director at the height of his powers. It’s hard to believe that this is accidental, more likely a homage.

But while it wears its influences on its sleeve, I don’t want to deny Robert Mitchell’s undoubted skill at creating something refreshingly original in the world of horror. This is unsettling stuff that will make you feel very uncomfortable and that, after all, is the name of the game.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney