Friday, 17 November 2017

Theatre at the cinema: Sour cocktail with a great taste

Stephen Sondheim: FOLLIES


This was the latest West End show to come to a movie theater near me last night. I saw it in London in 1987 – twice – with Dolores Gray and then Eartha Kitt singing the show’s ‘anthem’ “I’m Still Here”. This new production goes back to Stephen Sondheim’s original vision: a single extended act and a character development study (wow – in a musical?) rather than a plot-driven drama.

A crumbling brick wall on a revolving stage creates the minimalist set, with a fire escape replacing the grand staircase down which the chorus girls would have paraded in the heyday of the Ziegfeld-style Follies decades earlier. At this 1970s reunion (the theatre is soon to be torn down) the focus is on two couples whose marriages have gone very stale: Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben. Sally was in love with Ben (still is) but she married Buddy, who is a serial philanderer, as is Ben and also Phyllis. These four interact with their younger selves in crisp scenes and songs. If this show were a cocktail – and it very much is - it could only be a whisky sour.

Follies makes a kind of 'companion piece' to Sond-heim’s earlier show Company, which took an equally cynical view of several marriages from the viewpoint of a ‘confirmed bachelor’ (the character wasn’t gay, although that was how gay men used to be referred to - PM Ted Heath for instance!). Some of the songs and production numbers in Follies are re-runs of pastiche vaudeville numbers with the players shadowed by and even dancing with their younger selves .

But it’s the bitterest lyrics – ‘torch songs’ - that stand out, show-casing failed relationships and the disappointments life dishes out. ‘Could I Leave You?’ is sung by Phyllis (Janie Dee who kept reminding me of Sigourney Weaver). ‘Losing My Mind’ is Sally’s big number – Imelda Staunton came into her own with this, though I felt she was underplaying the character in the first half of the show. 

Tracie Bennett sings "I'm Still Here"
The absolute show-stopper (equivalent to ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ in Company) is ‘I’m Still Here’ sung by retired stage siren Carlotta (Tracie Bennett). The best ever performance of the song, for me, was Carol Burnett’s in a concert version of Follies from the Lincoln Center in 1985. Shirley MacLaine sang it memorably in Postcards From the Edge, playing a character meant to be Debbie Reynolds. In this new production Tracie Bennett comes close to eclipsing everybody else. Ms Bennett memorably recreated Judy Garland on stage some years ago – a pity she won’t be in the next year’s new bio-pic (Renee Zell-weger). Much as Elaine Stritch lit up the stage with ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ in the 1972 Company, Tracie Bennett stole the show for me last night.

And what a show this is! Catch a repeat when they show an 'Encore' at your local multiplex.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

David at the movies: Agatha Christie rides again

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS 


This is the greatest who-dunnit of all time, and the 1974 movie - directed by Sidney Lumet, script by Paul Dehn - did it full justice. Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot made Peter Ustinov’s previous per-formances seem light-weight (and surely inspired David Suchet’s approach in the TV adaptations). Could it be bettered?

Yes, it could. This version, scripted by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is gorgeously lavish, with stunningly digitalised locations and a train with more glamour than the Chrysler building. And a fairly lavish cast, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp. Branagh himself plays Poirot; his usual half-Hitler moustache has grown to coat-hanger proportions but the accent is the one we’re used to. The previous murder of little Daisy Armstrong remains the bedrock of the mystery, although this is dripped into the story in fragments. There’s a new prologue, with Poirot solving a theft beside the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (digitally inserted into a Malta backdrop), and the unravelling of the threads is more dramatically paced than it was in 1974.

Some of the cast, now as then, are short-changed (Derek Jacobi and Olivia Colman don’t get a lot to say). Michelle Pfeiffer has the meatiest part and is superb. Wendy Hiller had recently played Queen Mary in 1974 and invested the ancient Russian princess with all of Mary’s Teutonic imperiousness. Judi Dench recycles her Queen Victoria to similar effect here.

It sort of spoils it that most of us know how it’s going to end – it would be a heresy against Agatha Christie to change the final scene (staged here with a slight nod to Da Vinci’s Last Supper!) – but it only spoils it a tad. I envy those who see it without knowing whodunnit. There’s a teaser for Death on a Nile at the end. I can hardly wait.


THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER


This got a rave review in my daily paper. It’s not getting one from me. Weirdness hits a new high.

Surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) recently lost a patient on the operating table. He’s taken young Martin (Barry Keoghan), the patient’s seriously weird son, under his wing. Martin is dating Steven’s cute daughter Kim (Raphey Cassidy). Her young brother suddenly loses the use of his legs. Then Kim does too. Steven and his wife (Nicole Kidman) are at their wits end. WTF is going on?

You may well ask. To underscore the strangeness of the story, the movie is mostly scored to a cacophonous barrage of pure noise, painful to the ears. Colin Farrell, bearded and beefed up from the super-hunk we are accustomed to, plays with deadly seriousness this man whose world is coming apart – reminiscent of Regan’s mother in The Exorcist. Kidman, whose role is more akin to Mia Farrow’s in Rosemary’s Baby, often looks as if she is as flummoxed by this script as we are. The theme is Revenge (that dish best eaten cold).

Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos gave us The Lobster two years ago. Here, as there, there’s a glossy sheen over the production which – with the weirdness – reminded me of an Almodovar movie. Perhaps it was just the soundtrack, but I left the cinema feeling slightly sick. 


CALL ME BY YOUR NAME


After years of famine this is feast year for gay picture-goers: two gay love stories in two months. Scripted by James Ivory and directed by Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name has all the rich texture and subtlety of a ‘classic’ Merchant-Ivory production. It’s 1983 and 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is spending the summer at his parents’ house in Northern Italy. A hunky American graduate (Arnie Hammer) arrives to help his professor father with archaeo-logical research. Elio develops a crush on the charismatic Oliver who, reluctantly at first, reciprocates. A summer of intense passion is bound to have a short lease as Oliver has to go back to the States.

The two leads give deeply felt performances and the spirit of the 1980s – musically and morally – is delicately evoked. Elio’s dad (Michael Stuhlbarg, a near double for Robin Williams), supportive and non-judgmental, is the dad any gay teenager would yearn to have.

Cinematography and the music score are superb. At two and a quarter hours the movie is a tad too long and slow to take off, but the intensity of this love story exceeds God’s Own Country and is very much the equal of Brokeback Mountain. The mood reminded me very much of Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971). A movie not to be missed.

THE PARTY


A 71-minute movie in black-and-white seems a rather poor return on the price of a cinema ticket these days. The Party is a theatrical comedy - it would have to be half of a double bill on stage or perhaps better suited to a TV play. It’s like a middle-class upgrading of The Royle Family relocated to somewhere like Hampstead or Swiss Cottage.

MP Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is hosting a drinks do to celebrate becoming a Shadow Minister (from sarcasm at Thatcher’s expense we can safely infer that she is Labour). Her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) is weirded out after some bad news at the hospital. First guests to arrive are their best friend Patricia Clarkson (in uber-bitch overdrive) and partner Bruno Ganz, then a lesbian couple, then manic coke-snorting Cillian Murphy (at his dishiest), whose wife – though we never see her – provides all the drama. Infidelity (off-screen)is super-abundant and provides most of the humour.

They’re (meant to be) a bunch of unlikeable phoneys, given some snappy dialogue by writer/director Sally Potter (who gave us Orlando in 1992 – now there was a weird movie). Unavoidable echoes of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977), which was much more more hysterical than Janet’s celebration here. Slight and intermittently funny. Not very good value.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Wot I'm reading: Chamberlain in Berlin

Robert Harris: MUNICH


A few years ago Robert Harris revisited the Dreyfus affair. Now he turns his attention to another ‘dodgy’ moment in history: Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich in September 1938 to attempt a watering-down of Adolf Hitler’s intended annexation of a large chunk of Czechoslovakia into the new German Reich. The only alternative to appease-ment is war, and after 10 million deaths in 1914-18, Britain and France are reluctant (and ill-prepared) to face another world war.

Much has been written about Munich. Harris injects a fictional element into history by planting a young traitor in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry who hands a secret document to a former university friend on Chamberlain’s staff, a document which may deter the British from doing a deal in Munich. Paul Hartmann, the traitor in Berlin, is a splendidly complex character: a patriot, proud of his country’s history and culture and deeply appalled that his country’s future is now in the hands of a power-crazed madman. I wonder if Harris will bring Hartmann – and Hugh Legat, his Downing Street friend - back in another story from the war years?

In Fatherland, his acclaimed first novel, Harris vividly and disturbingly created a Britain that had lost the war against the Nazis. The reader is perhaps expecting another rewrite of history here. The Munich scenes are highly dramatic. And what a cast of players! Hitler, whom one character remembers from a few years earlier as “this half-sinister, half-comical brawler and dreamer” who is now poised to turn the world upside-down. Mussolini, when he smiles, is “like a child’s drawing of a sun”. And Chamberlain, “a Messiah of Peace” with no personal charisma but a desperate commitment to postpone another war to end wars.

People are cheering in their gardens as the Prime Minister’s Lockheed aircraft climbs out of Heston aerodrome. The great optimism with which the mission to Munich was greeted by almost everyone in Britain (except Winston Churchill) reminds us that appeasement was welcomed in 1938, however disparagingly later historians have come to view.

Like John Le Carré (and like Graham Greene), Harris elevates the thriller to the class of Literature. His prose makes other best-selling writers look trite. This in the opening scene in the Ritz hotel restaurant: ‘He turned to find the maître d’, palms pressed together as if in prayer, grave with self-importance.’ A page later, with war seemingly inevitable, the author imagines: ‘The diners at the Ritz would abandon their white linen tablecloths to crouch in slit trenches in Green Park.’  Sorry, but you don’t get sentences of that calibre in Dan Brown. 

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Wot I'm reading: Tomorrow's headlines?

SAM BOURNE: To Kill the President


A US president described as ‘a drooling sexist predator …[who] makes billions, never pays taxes, dumps his wives as soon as they sag even a teeny bit’ – we can only be thankful that this is a piece of fiction. Sam Bourne’s unnamed and unstable President is offstage throughout the book, but he wants to bomb North Korea off the map, deport Muslims and other migrants (not just first-generation migrants) and demolish healthcare to lower higher-rate taxes. Not the kind of man you want as leader of the “Free World”.

This is a conspiracy thriller with a difference. From the start we know that it’s the Secretary of Defense and the White House Chief of Staff who decide that POTUS needs to be eliminated for the good of the nation. Maggie Costello, a principled West Wing aide left behind from the previous Administration, learns of the planned assassination and sets out to save the life of a man she loathes – at great risk to herself, obviously.

Mr Bourne’s Washington is horribly believable and many of the characters are believably horrible. The President’s chief counsellor, 'Mac' McNamara (interesting choice of name), is a racist thug whose ideology comes from further to the right than the Klansmen. When the previous year's election campaign is revisited, some familiar chords are struck.

This must be the best assassination thriller since The Day of the Jackal (1971, in case you can’t remember), brilliantly plotted, tautly paced and deeply disturbing. It reads very much as if it’s ‘torn from tomorrow’s headlines’. It has – I will say no more than this – a very satisfactory ending. Watch for those headlines.

Friday, 27 October 2017

David at the movies: now here's the weather forecast

GEOSTORM


Only a few years from now the world’s climate is controlled by satellites in near-Earth orbits. Until – surprise! – something goes wrong and the satellites start to generate freak weather instead of preventing it: an ‘oasis’ of deep freeze in the middle of the Afghan desert, mega-hailstones and tornados, eruptions beneath city streets. At the NASA-type headquarters of Climate Control sacked space engineer Gerard Butler is recalled to find out who is sabotaging the network.

The casting alone is likely to help you identify the villain from his (or her: no spoilers!) first appearance, but as Butler faces lethal threats on the giant international space station, meteorological disasters multiply. The tsunami which usually inundates the Big Apple is directed at Dubai for a change. Mr Butler has an ex-wife and a cute daughter – cliché alert – plus there’s a Cain-and-Abel subplot with his estranged brother (Jim Sturgess). There’s even a stray dog in a storm-threatened Asian market for us to put at the top of our Must-Be-Saved list.

Andy Garcia is the newest US President – a distinct improvement on the Orange One! Gerard Butler is a bit wooden: was he their first choice or did other actors turn the role down?

I expected Geostorm to be a dud, but it’s actually fairly thrilling. Yes, it’s a mishmash of borrowings from other disaster movies – 2012, Volcano, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow with even a dash of Moonraker in the space station scenes – but it’s well paced with a halfway-decent script and engaging characters. The science is probably wide of the mark (though a conspiracy-nut friend of mine believes our climate is already being controlled by malign forces). I’m not sure this was worth the 3D surcharge, but it is worth the price of admission.


BLADE RUNNER 2049


I’m not often lost for words, but I really don’t know what to say about this belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner. The original was visually stunning and densely plotted. This new version is even more dazzling to look at, but if there’s a plot to be found, I’m afraid I lost it. Ryan Gosling plays ‘K’, a new generation hunter of rogue androids for the LAPD. In other words he’s the new Deckard (Harrison Ford) who was hunting rogue androids in 2019 Los Angeles (the 1982 movie was set in 2019: try to keep up). But he ends up tracking Deckard who has himself (I think) gone rogue. There are humans who may be androids and androids who may be humans, but this confusion was a major element in the first movie and there’s a lot more of it now.

At two and three-quarter hours the film is way too long. There’s a protracted sequence towards the end in (I think) Las Vegas, in an arena peopled by flickering holograms of bygone stars (Sinatra, Monroe, Elvis, Liberace), which for me encapsulated the whole movie: a feast for the eyes but overkill for the brain. High concept - low impact. Don Siegel's 1955 Invasion of the Body-Snatchers is still my favourite sci-fi.

Doubtless the fault is with me but I came away from Blade Runner 2049, as I did from Inception and Shutter Island, with the feeling that I’d been looking at the Emperor’s New Clothes. I wouldn’t say Don’t go to see this picture, but be prepared to be very (very) bewildered.

THE SNOWMAN


Another movie that didn’t make much sense. I haven’t read the rave-reviewed Jo Nesbo novel it’s based on, but this kind of slightly ‘noir’ Scandi-navian police procedural is usually adapted for tele-vision. The ingredients are formulaic: a detective with a drink problem (Michael Fassbender) investigates a serial killer who leaves a trademark/signature (the snowman) at each of his gruesome crime scenes.

The psychology of the murderer is too lightly sketched in – abortion and abandonment seem to be part of his motivation – and the story goes off in too many directions with too many characters. The pace is erratic and then there’s a rushed denouement which has some ludicrous elements, with a death scene that we’ve seen before (in Omen 2 and elsewhere).

The Norwegian scenery is very attractive and so is Michael Fassbender, although the script doesn’t make many demands of him. Did this start out as a 6-hour series? If that’s the case, the condensation has created a huge muddle, and it’s still too long at two hours.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Wot I'm reading: Going, going, gone girl

EMILY ELGAR: If you knew her


Emily is a member of my Sussex Authors group and this is her first novel. 

Newly-wed and newly pregnant Cassie is in Intensive Care in a Brighton hospital after a hit-and-run accident on a country lane. Watching her are Alice, the senior nurse in ICU, pregnant herself after many miscarriages, and Frank, an alcoholic stroke patient with Locked-In Syndrome – he can see and hear but is as powerless as the comatose Cassie. Somebody is arrested for the hit-and-run but Alice and Frank think the police have got the wrong man and Cassie’s accident was not an accident. She and her baby may still be in danger …

This ‘woman-in-peril’ story inevitably calls to mind 2012's Gone Girl, which, with its unlikable protagonists, made for an unsettling movie. I was also reminded of Robin Cook’s Coma (1977), the ‘granddaddy’ of the medical thriller. If you knew her is written from three viewpoints (Alice and Frank in the present, Cassie in the recent past) but all three are written in the present tense, which I’m never comfortable with. There’s a lot of grief and perhaps too many miscarriages, but the pace and the tension are neatly tightened. This is a promising debut which would make a nail-biting movie (I hope, for Emily’s bank manager’s sake, that it does!). 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

David at the movies: Royal carry-on

VICTORIA & ABDUL


Very much a ‘companion piece’ to Mrs Brown (1997), this cosy piece of royal hagiography finds the Old Girl nearing the end of her reign, her health and her hearing in decline, curmudgeonly and sorry for herself.  The arrival of a humble but handsome Indian clerk at Bucking-ham Palace brings a sparkle to her fading eyes. The rest of the court are aghast as Abdul slips swiftly into the role of latest (and last) Best Friend, the role previously – and a lot more cavalierly - occupied by John Brown.

Re-casting Judi Dench as Her Majesty gives the story continuity as well as a degree of credibility, though this is rather obviously a small moment of monarchy stretched into a full-length comedy-drama. Even playing a frail old biddy, Dame Judi is at full throttle, calling to mind Edith Evans’s unforgettable Lady Bracknell and Bette Davis’s Elizabeth the First as much as other portrayals of Queen Victoria. Ali Fazal is as beguiling as he needs to be, although his grumpy companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) steals many of their scenes, playing Sancho Panza to Abdul’s Quixote. Tim Pigott-Smith’s swansong as the head of the royal household has a pantomime grandeur to it; and Michael Gambon’s Lord Salisbury and Eddie Izzard’s Prince of Wales bring gloriously camp echoes of the Carry-On franchise, as - especially - do Olivia Williams’s Lady Churchill and Simon Callow's cameo as Puccini.

Directed with great verve, wittily scripted and sumptuously produced, this is a charming - and touching - slice of ho-hum history.


GOD'S OWN COUNTRY



After two months without a movie (a bout of summer bronchitis, thanks for asking) - two in two days. Two very different movies. God’s Own Country is a ‘pastorale’, a gay romance set in the Yorkshire dales. Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is having a hard time running the family sheep and cattle farm with his dad incapacitated by a stroke. His dad’s old mum (Gemma Jones) keeps house for them. Johnny’s only joy in life is a night on the piss in the local pub and the occasional quick shag with one of the local gay-boys.

Then Alec (Gheorghe Ionescu) arrives to help with the lambing season, a quiet handsome Romanian with a good command of English. Initially distrustful of each other, they abruptly fall into an intense sexual relationship which plays out against the birth and death of lambs and the repairing of fences and drystone walls on the bleakly beautiful hills of northern England.

It’s impossible not to compare this with Brokeback Mountain. The two men do not have smokescreen wives, but they live in a community which appears to make it hard (though perhaps not impossible) for them to ‘out’ themselves. Their relationship is supercharged (a tad more explicit than Brokeback) but they never articulate their feelings. Ironically it is the Romanian who finds it easier to talk but he too keeps his emotions contained. The movie reverberates with sensuality but what is not said is all the more intense for being unsaid.

The film will presumably be mostly seen by gay men and the friends of Dorothy’s friends. But its theme – about finding an escape from loneliness and drudgery – is not just a gay one. It’s a love story in which the L word isn’t mentioned, doesn’t need to be. The final scenes combine flawless acting with sensitive direction and a beautifully understated script.


IT


The 1990 version of this, with Tim Curry as Pennywise the killer clown, was a 3-hour miniseries. This new edition calls itself IT Chapter One, so at least one sequel can be franchised (hopefully just the one). There are echoes of other Stephen King adaptations in this nerve-shredding visit to Derry, Maine (regular King territory), where there’s a summer of child abductions and murders every 27 years.

The whole movie is screened from the viewpoint of the kids, mostly the half-dozen plucky young teens who do battle with the monster in the late 1980s. They’re a geeky bunch: one with glasses, one with a weight problem, one with a stammer, one with an over-protective mom. There’s also a bunch of older bullies whom we remember from Carrie (and Grease and every other teen movie). And there is one girl, Beverley (Sophia Lillis, who has all the tomboy appeal that Jamie Lee Curtis brought to her early ‘Scream Queen’ roles); Beverley has a very creepy possessive single-parent dad. It seems weird that apart from glimpses of dysfunctional parents and teachers, there are no adults called in as the kids – on their own – tackle the new killer on the block.

As horrors go, this one is pretty scary without too much resort to evisceration. The clown monster Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, not as camp as Tim Curry but pretty evil) has bunny teeth which early on we see opening into a CGI shark array worse than Alien.

This workmanlike version of IT (Chapter One) is faithful to the spirit of King’s novel and is definitely up there with the better movies sourced from a book of his  - with Shawshank, Misery, the original Carrie and Stand By Me still the front-runners (for me). Let’s hope they make an outstanding job of Chapter Two.