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FILM:April 2012

Three documentaries are of interest this month. First, THE FOUR HORSEMEN (cert.tbc 1hr. 37mins), a documentary which delves into the pros and cons of the sort of capitalism we have in the UK and the USA. Writer and director, Ross Ashcroft, looks at the disaster that we now face which has been brought about by the greed and profit- seeking of bankers and other very rich people. 23 well-known people who have held jobs at a top level give their opinions on the economic system and how the failure of capitalism as practiced today has failed our civilization so that we have very wealthy and extremely poor folk, "malnutrition on one side and obesity on the other." Some interesting facts emerge such as the comparison between the massive amounts Roman charioteers earned and top sportsmen now! Same with high earnings of chefs in the past and nowadays! The lobbying by rich companies means that in the US there is a massive influence on government legislation by those who can afford it. And the four horsemen? Well, grinding us down are: a rapacious financial system, escalating organised violence, abject poverty for billions and exhaustion of the earth's resources.

Somewhat different is the feature documentary, HOW TO RE-ESTABLISH A VODKA EMPIRE (cert.tbc 1hr. 15 mins.). Film director, Dan Edelstyn tells the story of how he discovered the journals of his grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich and in a kind of "Who Do You Think You Are?" followed her journey from the Ukraine across Europe to Northern Ireland.

The film depicts two parallel stories, the present day in which Dan goes to the Ukraine and finds the still active, small vodka distillery that was run by his great grandfather and the story of Maroussia where Dan and his wife, Hilary, re-enact Dan's Jewish heritage. There are some moments of humour as Dan, who admits to being business illiterate, tries to market the vodka in England. Made with great enthusiasm, the film enlightens as well as amuses.

How pleasant to watch a well-crafted film about a most interesting character, and the documentary, BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK (cert.12A 1hr. 24mins.) provides interest in abundance. Bill Cunningham is a photographer who at over 80 is still working as a sort of fashion photographer for the New York Times. "Sort of" because his is a very special take on the fashion world. He not only photographs fashion shows and high society events, but also takes photos of ordinary people in the streets. Bill is sure that he can only capture a complete fashion picture by covering all these different events. In fact this is what Bill lives for. He believes that by looking at people walking around the streets of New York one can get a real feel for clothes that are wearable and for the actual trends in fashion, rather than those brought to us by haute couture.

Bill chronicles the street clothes and the charity soirees he attends in two columns he pens for The Times Style section, "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" which he illustrates with very carefully selected photographs. He tends to let the subject of each column come to him as he cycles around New York in his trademark blue jacket with his camera around his neck.

We see him preparing a column on bags and shoes, very carefully arranging and re-arranging the photos on the page until they meet his approval. We see many of his photos – spectacular ones of famous models and just ordinary folk caught in blizzards or hurrying to work.

While he is a very public figure - very well known in fashion circles - he is a private person and few people know what Bill does in his spare time and how he lives. Director, Richard Press, has done an excellent job in gaining Bill's respect for his work and finally allowing him into his private tiny studio apartment above Carnegie Hall where he has lived for 50 years. His home is full of filing cabinets. He hangs his very few clothes on hangers on these cabinets. We learn that Bill started off in millinery and see some of his flamboyant creations.

A number of famous people speak to camera showing their admiration for Bill by explaining his unique contribution to the fashion scene. Anna Wintour, Editor in chief of Vogue, comments, "We all get dressed for Bill." He knows a number of eccentric folk, including the few neighbours left living at Carnegie Hall. Bill has high moral standards and refuses to eat or drink anything (not even water) at the charity dinners he attends as he is there to report on events, he says. Although we learn that he attends Church every Sunday and his family are Catholics, all we really know about Bill's inner life is what we see and hear, including him confessing - in a very jolly manner- that he has no time for relationships because he is too busy working. It is great to enjoy a lovely little film, made with affection, which is truthful to its subject. This is a welcome change from the many somewhat average films currently on offer!

There are two reasons to welcome WANDERLUST (cert.15 1hr 38mins.): first Jennifer Aniston stars in a good film for once and secondly this is a rom-com that is actually funny!

When we first meet Linda (Aniston) and George (Rudd) they are in the process of purchasing a micro-loft (in reality a studio apartment) in Manhattan. Within a few days he loses his job at a financial firm when his boss is arrested for some misdemeanour and Linda's latest documentary film about penguins is rejected as being too depressing.

Suddenly they find they have no money and the apartment - promoted as being most desirable when they purchased it - is now considered not worth much on the market. Their only option is to sell up and go to George's wealthy brother in Atlanta, where they are promised accommodation and a job for George.

On the way they stop overnight in a commune called Elysium where they feel at ease with the charming members. When they reach the large ostentatious house belonging to George's brother Rick (very amusingly played by Ken Marino) they are most unhappy to find Rick is a complete jerk and his wife Marisa (an amusing Michaela Watkins) a tipsy bored housewife. The job turns out to be looking after rich Rick's portable toilets business. After one too many snide remarks by Rick, George and Linda walk out and decide to give communal life a try. They return to Elysium where they are greeted enthusiastically by founder member Carvin (Alda) and the rest of the members under the leadership of charismatic Seth (Theroux). Sharing of property and free love and drugs are on offer and while George enjoys the drugs and then talks about doing all the rest that is available, Linda actually has a go. Becoming distant from each other they reach a point where they have to decide on their long-term commitment to the new lifestyle and to each other.

There are some laugh-aloud lines in the movie and many that bring a smile to one's face. Aniston has her usual hairstyle and acts much the same as in her other comedies. However, as she takes off her clothes in the commune, she does appear to free up. Rudd is good looking and manages to convey both anxieties about his life, his work and his wife as well as a good comic touch in his interaction with the other characters.

While no earth-shaker, this is an amusing movie, acted with enthusiasm by the ensemble cast and it should provide a pleasant cinema visit.

We find Ewan McGregor playing a fisheries scientist in SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (cert.12A 1hr. 45mins.). Based on Paul Torday's 2006 debut novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the film's director, Lasse Hallström, has had to translate its mixture of comedy, drama, romance and political satire into a workable piece. Fred Jones (McGregor) is working in an office-bound job as a scientist. He suddenly finds himself caught up in a most unusual adventure after he receives a phone call from Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), the young representative of a Yemeni Sheikh (Amr Waked), the owner of a sporting estate in Scotland, and a keen fisherman. The sheikh wants to introduce of salmon fishing into the arid wadis of the Yemen.

Fred considers the scheme absolute madness and explains to Harriet the impossibility of getting enough fish, making sure they swim upstream, and that there is water during the dry season and so on.. With the lure of a great deal of money Fred agrees to meet with the Sheikh. He has trouble at home in the shape of his wife, who, realising their marriage is not functioning well, has taken a job in Geneva leaving her husband at home alone for a long period.

The Sheikh believes that taking his love of fishing back to his home country will help promote peace and spiritual reflection in a land which is currently ravaged by conflict.

Learning of this plan, the British Prime Minister's chief PR-spinner Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) contacts Fred and tells him to ensure the scheme's success. When Fred visits the Sheikh's home, he finds himself succumbing to the Sheikh's enthusiasm. He warms to the plan, and also finds himself attracted to the lovely Harriet. Unfortunately Harriet has a boyfriend, a soldier, who she has only known a matter of weeks. He goes off to Afghanistan and goes missing, and Fred is forced to encourage her to find him.

Torday's novel is composed entirely of emails, memos and letters which screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) had to adapt for the screen. Hallstrom has put together a most charming film and is well served by the cast. McGregor is very convincing as the scientist and even more so as the wooer of lovely Emily Blunt, who shows that she is capable of holding her own in a comedy. Scott Thomas gives her usual excellent portrayal as the bossy PR lady, in a small, but well executed role. A good film with no swearing - at least, I didn't notice any - and suitable for most age groups. See it at your local cinema in April!

Also recommended: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (cert. 15 2hrs 37mins.) Although, as you can see, this is a very long film, it is worth staying with it. Directed by the excellent Nuri Bilge Ceylan, it is a contemplative road trip in which a local doctor, the local police commissioner and others including the two suspects drive around looking for the place where the victim of a murder has been buried. That is a very bare summary as the film is really a discourse on life and the consequences of actions as the characters gradually reveal their inner thoughts. Slow and beautifully filmed, you need to be prepared to use your mind for this one. Not to all tastes!

Please don't say, "Another film about the Holocaust!" as Agnieska Holland's IN DARKNESS (cert 15 2hrs. 23mins.) is different. For a start the main characters are not saint-like. The chief protagonist, Leopold (Robert Wieckiewicz), is a tough city sewer worker and petty thief, who is called upon to perform an act of supreme bravery (or possibly foolishness, his colleague says): to save a group of Jews who are threatened with death by the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Poland. He leads the group into the sewer tunnels, where they survive for 14 months. Very dark (both in lighting and emotionally) the film is extremely well made by director Holland and performed with sensitivity.

Finally, THE KID WITH A BIKE (cert. 12A 1hr.26mins.) is an interesting story with an extraordinary untrained child, Thomas Doret, as the star. Cyril (Doret) has been abandoned in a children's home, supposedly only for a month, by his father. Cyril is desperate to find him and also retrieve his bike. With the help of a local hairdresser, Samantha (attractive Cecile de France) he finds both, only to be rejected by his father. Luckily Samantha is willing to take him on for weekends in spite of his association with a disreputable young crook. The Dardenne brothers have provided us with another well-crafted film albeit with few nuances but a new, really splendid child actor.

     

 

 


 

THEATRE TIP

The production of FAREWELL TO THE THEATRE (Hampstead Theatre until 7 April) has just the right design for the story of Harvey Granville Barker, who as a writer and director of plays believed in sparse, clean simplicity. Not so well-known today, Granville Barker was also a leading actor in his day.

The play deals with a specific moment in Granville Barker's life: based in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1916, he is in the middle to trying to get a divorce from Lillah McCarthy in order to marry Helen Huntingdon. Staying at a college with other English exiles, Harley looks at his life in the theatre and at the nature of art. While the play could be seen as not having much dramatic action, the interest lies in the characters - what they say and what they actually mean. The author, Richard Nelson, himself American, is interested in the aspect of foreignness depicted by most of the characters here, and in Roger Michell's finely tuned production, they are able to portray parts of their lives with tenderness and clarity.

Ben Chaplin gives a good portrayal of Granville Barker's discomfort in the politicking of the college. His loneliness and troubled spirit are shown well. Jemma Redgrave is emotionally moving as the widow who has found out (only after her husband's death) that he had another household with a second female partner. We recognise in Tara Fitzgerald’s interpretation of Beatrice, who is also visiting, someone who has become bored with her husband and is drawn to a younger student

The picture shows Ben Chaplin with Tara Fitzgerald

Altogether this is a satisfying production of which Granville Barker would surely have approved.

Although A SONG CYCLE FOR SOHO (Soho Theatre now ended) will have finished by the time you read this, it is such a good show with four fine, singer-actors that I am sure that you will be able to hear the songs somewhere else and see this cast perform again. In the intimate setting of the Soho Theatre, Michael Cantwell, James Gillan, Claire Moore and Niamh Perry - all of whom have appeared in top West End musicals - put across the songs, with wit and sadness as required. Directed by Simon Greiff, the singers are accompanied on the piano by musical director Sarah Travis and guitarist John Gregson. The songs have been written by a variety of songwriters. And composers.

I particularly enjoyed Douglas Hodge's "Fade to Black, a dramatic song put across with feeling by Michael; "It's Hard to be an Artist" by Alexander S Barmange a song about painting a dead man sung by all four singers; Claire Moore brings out the comedy in Barnaby Race's "Mummy Knows Better." Let's hope that more people get the opportunity to enjoy this show.

THE SUMMER HOUSE (Gate Theatre until 24 March) is a comedy thriller devised and performed by Will Adamsdale, Neil Haigh, Matthew Steer and John Wright. Directed by Wright, the play shows how three men on their stag weekend in Reykjavik are found in a fairly drunken state in a nightclub by Neil who persuades them that he will guide them to a coastal summer house to enjoy the real wilds of Iceland. Once there they are subject to the outside elements of high winds and snow as well as the difficulties inside the house associated with male bonding and the masculine enjoyment of a hot tub. Joined with this modern tale, and making use of the land of myths, we are given a little story of a trio of incongruously camp Vikings awaiting execution and three Norse Gods.

The mixture of Viking history and Norse mythology with the complications of present day relationships is put across with anarchic humour and a lot of inventiveness with scenery, sound and props.

Nicholas Kent's last production for his beloved Tricycle Theatre, now hit with cuts in their finance, is THE BOMB (until 1 April). In two parts, it comprises 10 short plays which together give the history of the nuclear bomb from 1940 to the present day.

The first show, First Blast, has the subtitle Proliferation. It begins strikingly with Zinnie Harris' play From Elsewhere: the message, with two German alien scientists trying to sell their nuclear fission theories to Whitehall. Proliferation shows the development of the bomb and has an especially witty satirical piece by Lee Blessing. His Seven Joys shows an exclusive club which has in membership just one American (Rick Warden), who possesses a glowing egg and a servile British manservant (Michael Cochrane). Then a Russian (Simon Rouse) comes in with his own egg and the club's membership grows and grows until we realise that every country has their own "egg" and we fully understand what the eggs symbolise. The last one is Little Russians. John Donnelly's black comedy shows Ukraine in 1993 and is basically about a period of disarmament following the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

The second show, Second Blast: Present Dangers develops the themes both thematically and historically from the first session. As in the first one this show has a number of filmed verbatim sections and there is a particularly forceful contribution by Richard Norton-Taylor denouncing Britain's independent nuclear deterrent as neither independent nor a deterrent.

I found David Greig's The Letter of Last Resort one of the strongest of the whole cycle. It gives us 2015, and a new Prime Minister (Belinda Lang), having to deal with a big ethical and moral dilemma.

She is told, by her Civil Servant (Simon Chandler) that it is part of the duty of every new PM to write a letter to the commanders of Trident nuclear submarines instructing them how to act after Britain has been wiped out by a nuclear attack. The PM apparently has two choices: to retaliate, or not retaliate. The latter would lead to a virtual act of doing nothing, so what is the point of having the means of mass destruction is the question that arises.

Belinda Lang as the Prime Minister in "Letter of Last Resort."

This is a thoughtful, intelligent play and as with the others, raises as many questions as it answers.

The final play, From Elsewhere: on the watch… by Zinnie Harris brings us back to the scientists we saw some seven hours earlier (!) at the beginning of the cycle. The pair, now inspectors investigating Iranian facilities, prove that they are absolutely powerless and the real danger of nuclear weapons is revealed.

Artistic Director for 28 years, Kent shows exactly what we shall be losing. He uses simple but effective scenery in a variety of locations and presents the plays with a good eye for details and an even better sense of the spirit of each one, be it comedy or tragedy or something nebulous in between. The actors are multi-talented and depict each of their characters precisely and correctly. The underlying format is strong, with the various short plays giving very different views on the growth, and changes in nuclear production, use and policy. Kent is a leader in political theatre and we can only hope that the tradition that he founded will continue at the Tricycle.

In Edward Bond's BINGO (Young Vic until 31 March) Shakespeare (Patrick Stewart) is shown as an older man. This Shakespeare has spent a long time in London and has come home to retire at New Place, Stratford. Bond vividly shows us what is, in fact, the last year of the Bard's life.

We see Shakespeare as a landowner, a wealthy man who strives to protect his profits. Although he seems compassionate to a poor starving female vagrant who has been found in the wrong area and so must be punished by the law, he is not moved enough to protect her from her punishment. Shakespeare remains sitting on his bench as he learns what has happened. The young woman (a sensitive portrayal by Michelle Tate) having been seduced by Shakespeare’s old gardener (John McEnery) and later exposed by the gardener’s son, is carted away by the law. She is then bound and hung and burned on a stake in a particularly gruesome manner and the Bard still takes no action.

We learn that Shaespeare doesn't like his wife, who doesn't appear, in this play, and suspects his daughter, Judith (played in a suitably sour-faced manner by Catherine Cusack) of wanting his wealth. All of this is put across by Stewart who conveys the author's version of Shakespeare with just the right mixture of petulance, weariness, dislike of his family and lack of interest in the world outside Stratford.

Using a simple set, director, Angus Jackson moves the play between the Bard's garden, the local tavern and Shakespeare's wood paneled bedroom. This revival of Bond's 1973 play is worth catching before it closes.

Oscar Wilde's plays are notoriously difficult to put across in a manner which brings out the truth but also allows the witty words to be communicated with delicacy. That this production of AN IDEAL HUSBAND at the very intimate Rosemary Branch Theatre (until 7 April) doesn't quite succeed is due perhaps to the inexperience of the main actors with this playwright's work and the overwhelming difficulties in achieving success with Wilde.

The fascinating story of the play is concerned with the expectations of Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Rose Robinson) of her husband, Sir Robert Chiltern (Sunny Moodie). She believes him to be perfect and beyond reproach. Unfortunately, after the devious Mrs Cheveley has got her fangs into him, he begins to appear far from the splendid creature she believed in. Because of a past swindle Sir Robert is open to blackmail. Mrs Cheveley says that she will expose how he made his fortune and got his power if he refuses to support her new canal proposal. At first he agrees and then worried that his loving wife will leave him if he does anything dishonourable - he hasn't told her about his earlier misdemeanor - he withdraws from his agreement with Mrs Cheveley.

The interference of Lord Goring (Kieran Simms) at first nearly ruins matters, but he manages to persuade Gertrude to come round to the view that, "A man's life is of more value than a woman's." and she forgives her husband. This is not a view feminists would support but Wilde presents us with his many witticisms in such a charming manner that the audience tends to smile and nod! Wilde's plays are always worth seeing and this pared down straightforward production gives us the words, although they are not always presented with enough panache.

About as far away from Singin' in the Rain, which is jolly and funny, is SWEENEY TODD (Adelphi until 22 September), which is humorous but grim, and a superb production of Stephen Sondheim's musical.

Almost unrecognisable with his slicked back, side-parted hairstyle and pasty face, Michael Ball portrays the wronged barber with passion and sings with the most beautiful sound. Matched by the excellent Imelda Staunton as his accomplice, Mrs Lovett, the pair are mesmerising and one would wish they were in every scene were it not for the fact that there are some other good actor-singers and a number of beautifully staged scenes

Imelda Staunton & Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd.

Jonathan Kent has changed Sondheim's original period setting from Victorian to around the 1930s. The story of the wronged barber is still there but the scenes of melodrama, such as in the madhouse, lose some of their impact. The chorus tells the story and they take part as poor people, as inmates in the asylum and so on. We are thus able to feel the life of the city of London going on around the barber and his activities. We learn that he was deported on a trumped up charge and, after many years, has returned to London with a new name but the same wish for vengeance against those who not only punished him but also destroyed the lovely life he had with his beautiful wife and baby daughter.

Sweeney goes into Mrs Lovett's abode. He sees and tastes her disgusting pies and moves back to the upstairs room, where he used to live. He becomes a barber and his one desire is to bring vengeance on the Beadle (Peter Polycarpo) and the Judge (John Bowe). Sweeney becomes even more incensed when he learns from Mrs Lovett that the two defiled his wife before she poisoned herself and the Judge "adopted" their daughter, Johanna (Lucy May Barker). How he achieves his revenge finally after much blood-letting, is the gist of the remainder of the story. Mrs Lovett finds he has killed his first victim and joins in with enthusiasm when she discovers that humans of all kinds turn into very tasty pies. Her pie-shop becomes very busy and financially successful and she develops a passionate love for Sweeney.

Ball's demon barber doesn't start out with murder on his mind, but develops a taste for it as he realises it will help him to reach the end he desires. Ball manages the character so well that we relish alongside him the moment when he lifts up his barber's knife after his first killing. Staunton's gifts as an actress of great maturity come to the fore as she uses them to great effect here and also puts across the lyrics in an amusing and most tuneful manner. While Lucy May Barker is somewhat light in delivery, she trills along nicely in the bird song and is good in the scenes in and after the asylum incarceration.

The multi-tiered set serves the director well and Kent has managed Sondheim's creative musical score skillfully, with the orchestra and all the performers doing it justice. If you can take the excessive spurts of blood and still enjoy the wonderful music and singing along with appreciating the superb cast, you will certainly find it worthwhile seeing this outstanding production more than once.

     

Carlie Newman

   
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