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FILM:February 2013

Some of you already know that the husband of Carlie Newman, our film and theatre critic died on 14 January. As that is only a little while back from preparing this, she has put in reviews by fellow critics about a couple of films that she recently saw and enjoyed. The first has two Oscar nominations and she writes that she agrees with the verdict below. Her colleague, Colin Dibben writes:

Air disaster movie meets Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous promo in FLIGHT (cert. 15 2 hrs. 18 mins.), an earnest but over-long and self-indulgent morality tale.

What is it about Hollywood and AA/NA? Has the moral compass of the US movie industry shrunk to such an extent that it thinks the only palatable morality tales are those based on a 12-step programme? Flight is the big-budget Hollywood version of the AA story and, compared to the more nuanced and problematic account in recent indie hit Smashed, it's simple-minded stuff.

Denzel Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a substance-abusing civil aviation pilot who is lionized after saving the lives of most of the passengers and crew, when the plane he's flying experiences catastrophic hydraulic failure. Then the air crash investigation reveals that Whitaker was high as a kite when he crash-landed and it looks like he'll be charged with manslaughter. There's a way out, but it involves lying. Will his new-found if precarious sobriety brought about by a relationship with recovering junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly), lead him to do the right thing?

If the issues displayed in Flight are over-simplified, the film's structure, emulating the recovering substance abuser's journey towards sobriety, is at least unusual. The film starts on a 'chemical high', with Whitaker enjoying a liquid and powdered breakfast that makes him feel firmly in charge of his ship. This is followed by a 'special effects high', with the pretty terrifying airplane incident. Apparently, during filming, the cast were hanging upside down by their seatbelts inside a reconditioned airplane cabin section, for 60 seconds at a time. That's a lot of blood to the head. The film then proceeds to a 'chemical low', to wallow in the doldrums for 45 minutes as Whitaker hits 'rock bottom', as they say in AA. Finally the film reaches for a 'moral high'.

This may all sound rather formulaic but the one thing Flight is successful at is playing with audience expectations, in the short run at least. There's a certain amount of refreshing anticipation from not knowing quite where the film is going next, or what the characters are going to do from scene to scene; but there can be no doubt that ultimately the film is about living ethically or living in 'good faith', as they say in AA.

Denzel does a lovely job of portraying a high-functioning alcoholic, as they say in AA. He's less convincing when he gets glum and depressed. Rising British actress Kelly Reilly looks very glamorous for a junkie living on the sidelines of the Atlanta porn industry; Don Cheadle plays Whitaker's defence attorney with the metaphorical broom firmly in place; and the biggest laughs in the film come from John Goodman as Whitaker's friend and drug dealer, Harling Mays, a man whose sole raison d'ętre is to confound the good influences on Whip. In other words, he's a walking, talking 'dry drunk', as they say in AA.

Robert Zemeckis marks his return to live-action dramatic storytelling after years making films using performance capture techniques (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) with an intriguing and deliberately uneven moral tale.

Ash Verjee reviews The Sessions below and Carlie agrees with his view, too:

If disability and sex is the last cinema screen taboo, Ben Lewin's THE SESSIONS (cert. 15 1 hr. 35 mins.) splinters it into a million pieces with dignity, welcome wry humour, and a lyrical, emotional core that never declines into mawkishness or cloying sentimentality.

Hollywood is certainly no stranger to either the subject of disability or sex as long, of course, as they remain disparate and segregated.

And whilst actors displaying their front bottoms can be seen as either 'gratuitous' or 'brave' depending on the tone of the film, nothing screams 'Award-calibre Performance' like the depiction of some kind of physical or mental illness. It's difficult to know where cynicism ends and noble intent begins, but all too often, soft and yearning orchestral motifs and narratives from the 'Triumph over adversity 101' school of scriptwriting take precedence over nuanced and sensitive portrayals of real issues. In many ways, sex and disability is a bit of a hard sell for an industry that's so strictly governed by the following criteria: sex is fine as long as it's between a consensual heterosexual couple; rape is more problematic; sexual violence more problematic still, female sexual empowerment and liberalism - forget it. Likewise, disability or terminal illness is always represented in transcendent 'spirit-of-humanity' earnestness, or worse, condescension; no one wants to sense the physicality of pain or see the more visceral effluvia of disease, let alone god forbid, moments of intimacy. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cottilard's frank and erotic love scene in last year's Rust And Bone did much to dispel the myth that sexuality and disability shouldn't be on the same screen together. Their scene was sensuous, understated, and light years from all the glossy vanilla-ed non-sex that we see in neatly choreographed and carefully framed scenes from more mainstream movies.

But The Sessions goes further. Man of the moment John Hawkes, so memorably hypnotic in films like Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, here plays Mark O'Brien, poet and polio victim, on whose 1990 essay this film is based. The setup is extraordinarily simple - bar a few flashbacks, the action oscillates between three primary locations: Mark's church, where he informs a compassionate but addled priest (William H. Macy) of his intention to 'become a man' via a sex surrogate; Mark's simple ground- floor apartment, containing as its centrepiece his iron lung (a terribly imposing construction of steel and glass), and the homely residence of Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), the professional stimulator Mark employs. In her modest study, she conscientiously dictates notes from the sessions she shares with Mark, noting progress, occasionally pausing at the magnitude of just what it is they're sharing.

At times it's hard to tell who is more out of their depth. The sessions themselves are shot with meticulous inhibition, even if the participants themselves are scared half to death. Watching Cheryl coax Mark from timidity via a number of 'body awareness exercises' is a moving experience - part sex seminar, part compelling insight into carnal awakening. But mostly it reminds us, able-bodied as we probably are, of the little things that comprise real human contact: the headiness of touch, sweetness of breath, the electricity of skin on skin. At first, Cheryl seems stoic, even businesslike. We expect a moment when she'll crack and the two will fall in love. Ultimately, that Cheryl doesn't fall for her client, despite being deeply moved at his plight and relentless optimism, proves to be The Sessions' trump card, a winning diversion from convention, and one that re-contextualises her earlier formality as creditable professionalism. Hunt's character has a beauty, a resilience and intelligence that we fall for, utterly; for us men she's the holy grail of sexual partners, someone who banishes our neuroses and embraces us completely.

But this is Hawkes' film, though I suspect he'd be too modest to take ownership. He quite literally does more with his face that most actors do with their whole bodies. Director, Ben Lewin cleverly refrains from aligning the camera with Mark's recumbent position on his gurney. It's a subtle but constant trick, silently commenting on how one views and is viewed. It's made even more noticeable during the only times we see his head face on: when he's in bed during the sessions, blissful or apprehensive, his eyes darting from object to object.

There are no 'outro' montages, no codas, no epilogues come the end of the film. Just an ending as sincere as its beginning, with Mark's narration telling us all we need to know. For a film that does its best to be unremarkable, The Sessions is very, very remarkable indeed.

As we approach Oscar time and look at the nominations, some thoughts occur on the possible outcome of the main categories: Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN looks very likely to win something, possibly Best Picture and Director (although Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI is a magical, mystical, well-made film).

Daniel Day-Lewis as the American President towers over most of the other actors in the Best Actor category. But what about ZERO DARK THIRTY? Kathryn Bigelow's magnificent film about the search for and capture of Osama Bin Laden is equally as strong a contender for Best picture as Lincoln.

We find young and old in the Best Actress group. The child actress Quvenzhane Wallis is now nine but was only six when she starred in the film, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILDS. I would really like to see Emmanuelle Riva, 85, win this as both she and the film, AMOUR are magnificent and it should also get the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director (Michael Haneke), but foreign films have a difficult time.

As for Best Supporting Actor…this is a hard one to call. Could well be Alan Arkin for his very amusing performance in ARGO. I would, however, be surprised if Anne Hathaway does NOT receive the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her small but very well executed part in LES MISERABLES.

     
     
     

 

 


 

THEATRE TIP

I have recently reviewed a number of major West End musicals. At the other end of the scale, there is a small but beautifully produced SALAD DAYS at the Riverside Studios.

This revival of the charming 1954 Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds' musical is set in its time and shows the effect that the discovery of a magical piano which makes everyone want to dance, has on a young couple who are finding their way in the world.

It is well-sung and danced by Tete a Tete opera company - there is some inventive choreography - and the young couple, Leo Miles as Timothy and Katie Moore as Jane are full of energy and bounce around the stage in a captivating manner.

The show is delightful and would make a lovely outing for families of all ages. It is recommended.

  until 2nd March 2013 - Box office - 020 8237 1111

My colleague, George Savvides saw and now reviews TROJAN WOMEN at the Jack Studio Theatre, in the Brockley Jack pub: Seneca's version of Euripides' timeless anti war tragedy has been freely translated by Howard Colyer whose adaptation is economic and sparse. At the end of the Trojan war there only a few survivors - all the men have been slaughtered and the women, including Queen Hecuba, are at the mercy of the Greek army. Agamemnon wants Cassandra as his trophy while Andromache, Hector's proud wife is to be given as a gift to Achilles' son Pyrrhus.

Meanwhile Helen, the cause of this ghastly war still maintains her innocence...

James Farrell's production for Nameless Theatre is not helped by Libby Todd's awkward set design which leaves little space for the company of twelve actors to move freely. The play opens with a masked Greek chorus of women as they lament their fate and their future before each one of them takes it in turn to come on as the play's protagonists. Mariam Bell is a strong Andromache whose fate seems to be much worse than the others with a threat to turn her into Pyrrhus' whore and kill her young son Astyanax.

Jess Tobert makes a voluptuous Cassandra, very much aware what's in store for her when she goes to Mycenae and no one believes her prophesies. Josephine Rogers brings a wide eyed innocence as Helen and Jacquie Crago is a clearly spoken Hecuba but unfortunately totally lacks any regal presence. Thankfully the performances of Georgio Galassi as Talthybius and Tania Batzoglou as Calchas bring a much needed Mediterranean heat and passion to the production.

It is good to see this pub theatre attempting to present Greek tragedy to a modern audience without gimmicks or extreme directorial devices.

  until 2nd February. Box office - 0844 8700 887


George Savvides also reviews MARE RIDER (Arcola Theatre): We find ourselves in a hospital ward, all glossy white walls and floor, looking in from both sides of the room. A woman is asleep in the bed. Suddenly she wakes up with a scream and is confronted by a crow-like creature which proceeds to taunt her, circling and posing, dancing and caressing.

Is this a dream, a nightmare, or is it really happening? Selma is confused: where is her new-born child, what has happened to the baby, is this person she understands to be called Elka responsible?

Gradually we realise that Elka is a frequent visitor to Selma, although the nurse who responds to an alarm call doesn't know about her nor does Selma's husband.

Leyla Nazli's vibrant new play keeps you guessing and totally intrigued throughout. Selma believes that Elka is a subversive and vengeful baby-stealer, a mare rider, a creature of myth. How much of this is real or just in Selma's head?

Anna Francolini is excellent as Selma, drawing us into her dilemma and allowing us to share her pain and Kathryn Hunter is magnetic as Elka; funny one moment and terrifying the next, flying around the room as if on wings, commanding the stage. Hara Yannas and Matthew Flynn also give solid performances as the nurse and Selma's husband and provide light-hearted relief in this elegant, fluent production by Mehmet Ergen designed with great style by Matthew Wright.

  Until 16 February Box Office - 020 7503 1646


When I saw THE JUDAS KISS at Hampstead Theatre in October, I finished the piece I wrote about it at that time with the words, "The play is more than worthy of a West End transfer." And thus it came to pass. For those of you who didn't manage to catch it then, it is now on at the Duke of York's Theatre. Wilde, one of our greatest writers - this time Irish - is shown in two life-changing episodes from his life.

Rupert Everett is superb as Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss, a revival of the 1998 play written by David Hare and now directed by Neil Armfield. He is neither camp nor over-flamboyant but is genuinely moving in the two episodes of Wilde's life depicted on stage.

In the first act we see Oscar Wilde, following the failure of his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry, coming to the Cadogan hotel in 1895.

He refuses to leave and go into exile to save himself from a prison sentence. We watch as Everett as the middle-aged Wilde takes his time in ordering and eating a luxurious meal.

In his inter-action with his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, (Freddie Fox) Wilde treats his peculiar views as equally important to those of his long-term friend, Robbie Ross (Cal MacAninch), who desperately wants Wilde to leave quickly and travel to safety in France. Oscar, "I've always had a low opinion of action," stays in England.

In the second act, a broken Wilde, having served his two years in prison, is back with Bosie who has invited Oscar to join him in Naples. Bosie has no money to support the now broke Wilde but tries to carry on a gay life-style. Some of the audience seemed very excited at the sight of the handsome naked fisherman (Tom Colley), who is most at ease sitting and talking to Oscar. It is only now that Wilde is able to comprehend the true nature of his boy love - his complete selfishness and self-absorption. Staying with Bosie loses Oscar the support of his wife. Everett's Wilde looks older and ill now.

Alongside Everett, Fox's Bosie proves a good-looking partner, less screechy now than he was in the original Hampstead Theatre production; he is used to having what he wants when he wants it. Bosie petulantly states that his suffering is worse than Oscar's. Rupert Everett doesn't play Wilde, he IS Oscar and padded and made up, his own good looks are submerged into the middle- aged and, after his stint in prison, ill Oscar.

The small parts are all played as real people not just caricatures and the set design manages to depict the two different settings admirably: the large double bed in Act I replaced by a single bed in Act 2. Both acts start with a couple having lively rumpy dumpty in a bed - in the first act it is the waiter, Albert, and his girlfriend and in the second act Bosie and an Italian fisherman (the very handsome, well-endowed Tom Colley). In order to have his mother's money, Bosie leaves Oscar alone in Naples. I advise booking now as tickets are already being snaffled up! Highly recommended.

  until 6 April 2013 Box Office - 0844 871 7627


The new play at Hampstead, DI AND VIV AND ROSE shows that once again Hampstead Theatre has homed in on a bright talent. First seen at the Downstairs Hampstead studio space, Amelia Bullmore's play, directed with verve and slickness by Anna Mackmin is an exciting piece of new theatre.

Showing the friendship between three young women which begins at university in 1983 when, aged 18, the three very different girls meet and form a lasting relationship, it continues with short scenes through the years until 2010. They share a house - paid for by Rose's stepfather - then go their separate ways and come together at moments of happiness and sadness. At times the play with its numerous brief scenes seems more suitable for a television show rather than on the stage but the writing is so full of humour and emotion that it wins one over.

Gina McKee, Tamzin Outhwaite and Anna Maxwell Martin

Added to this there are three superb performances from Anna Maxwell Martin who shows the vulnerability between her seemingly shameless behaviour as she beds numerous boys in her university days; from Tamzin Outhwaite as the sporty lesbian who manages to bridge her life outside the house with pure comradeship with her two friends and from Gina McKee who, although she looks older than 18 in the early scenes, convinces us of her character's intensity of studying to achieve her career goals.

There is a gorgeous scene at the end of the first Act when the girls dance wildly (choreographed by Scarlett Mackmin) to Prince's Let's Go Crazy and grow together in hilarity as they move around the stage. This witty, moving play deserves a wider audience.

Unfortunately THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER (production in association with the Young Vic and The Old Vic Tunnels) staged in the exciting Old Vic Tunnels was on for only a very brief period. Performed by actress Fiona Shaw and the dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, it was beautfully staged by Phyllida Lloyd. Fiona Shaw spoke the poem slowly and clearly, bringing out the narrative and also the emotion felt by the characters invoked. She had tears on her face when she spoke the lines,

Water water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink.

Daniel Hay-Gordon's body conveyed meaning and movement with every twist of his body, including portraying the albatross.

The sound effects were most evocative of the atmosphere in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem. The whole show brought out a new sense of this well-known poem. If it is revived, do take the opportunity to see it

The Tricycle Theatre continues to provide plays which engage one's mind and, although, at first view ONE MONKEY DON'T STOP NO SHOW would appear to be just a light comedy, there is depth in the portrayal of the characters who strive hard, in most cases, to change their way of life.

Any complaint about over the top acting is offset by the play being staged as though it were a live recording of a family sitcom with a live audience - complete with canned laughter and applause.

The play is set in Philadelphia in the 1970s and the Harrison family is proud to call themselves the most respectable black family living in the suburbs. In particular Myra Harrison (Jocelyn Jee Evans) pushes herself to the limits in her efforts to appear sufficiently polite and behave as the gentry do.

Mispronouncing words and phrases she imposes her way of life on her son, Felix (Isaac Ssebandeke) and Preacher husband, Avery (Karl Collins). Referring to her dog, she announces, "…cost me five hundred dollars, It's got a protogee."

The family is forced to come to terms with the ordinary world outside their cosy existence with the arrival of Myra's niece Beverley (Rebecca Scroggs) who turns up from the rural South, looking much younger than her 20 years. She is now the ward of Caleb, a smart, street-wise guy, who is surprised to find he has an adult on his hands rather than a small child.

When Felix introduces his new girlfriend, who comes from the wrong side of the tracks, into his home, the family has to learn to change.

The broader than life characters are all really well portrayed. Jee Evans' Myra reminds me of Beverley in Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party. She has the same certainty that her behaviour is correct and everyone else's is wrong.

Director Dawn Walton has done a grand job in bringing the characters to life and making their predicament so amusing to watch and respond to as they speak directly to the audience. Catch it while you can, where you can

  until 9 Feb at the Tricycle, Box Office - 020 7328 1000 FREE

then touring:

   
13th Feb 2013 – 16th Feb 2013
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
20th Feb 2013 – 23rd Feb 2013
Derby Theatre
28th Feb 2013 – 2nd Mar 2013
Hull Truck Theatre
12th Mar 2013 – 16th Mar 2013
Belgrade, Coventry
     
     

Carlie Newman

   
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