Talking Movies

September 21, 2016

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

The Abbey characteristically gives the bloody cul-de-sac of the Somme equal precedence with the seminal Rising in this year of centenaries, but this is a stunning revival of Frank McGuinness’ work of imaginative empathy.

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Old Pyper (Sean McGinley) is haunted. In his workshops he rails against phantoms, guilt-ridden over being the sole survivor of a band of brothers wiped out at the Somme in 1916. As he remembers the slaughter the phantoms materialise, and we flashback to their meeting for the first time after enlisting. There is Young Pyper (Donal Gallery), to all concerned instantly pegged as a ‘rare boyo’, sparring with Craig (Ryan Donaldson). There is the inseparable Moore (Chris McCurry), blind as a bat, and his more confident friend Millen (Iarla McGowan). There is the disgraced minister Roulston (Marcus Lamb), an old enemy of Pyper’s, and a Derry boy Crawford (Jonny Holden). And then there’s Belfast bashers Anderson (Andy Kellegher) and McIlwaine (Paul Kennedy). As these pairs, existing and new, bond the terrible sacrifice of the Somme campaign looms before them all.

McGuinness’ rambunctious second act, in which he introduces eight characters in uniform in a barracks setting, and yet makes them all vividly individual, is a marvel of concision and inspiration, and, after seeing The Plough & the Stars earlier this year on the same stage, perhaps just a bit reminiscent of O’Casey. Thoroughly contemporary though is the abstracted third act’s pairing of the men on their leave before the full measure of devotion is called for. Not least because while Millen forces some courage into Moore on a rickety bridge, Crawford literally beats metaphysical common sense into Roulston, and Anderson helps McIlwaine mount a late Orange march, Pyper on a remote island entices Craig into revealing that he is also a rare boyo. McGuinness’ reaching across the divide to depict Unionists is mirrored in an audience weeping for McIlwaine, who would of course beat them all senseless for being Taigs.

The emotional knockout punch of the final charge by the doomed soldiers may be the most moving theatrical moment 2016 will see.

4.5/5

September 16, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

What We Do in the Shadows main-man Taika Waititi delivers another blast of New Zealand comedy gold with a warm-hearted and utterly ludicrous chase movie.

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Ricky (Julian Dennison) is moved from the big city to the sticks by the state in the grouchy shape of social worker Paula (Rachel House) and her police minder Andy (Oscar Kightley). Ricky is enthusiastically welcomed to farm life by Bella (Rima Te Wiata), and less enthusiastically tolerated by her gruff husband Hector (Sam Neill). Once Ricky stops trying to run away, and not getting very far, he settles in to this last chance foster home. But then tragedy strikes and he runs away into the Bush rather than be institutionalised. Hec pursues to drag him home, but a series of unfortunate events leave them on the run, pursued by self-righteous hunters, Paula and Andy, and the entire forces of the media and law and order of the island. And all that is before they encounter Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby)…

Taika Waititi’s adaptation of Barry Crump’s novel is a visual delight. At times, such as Paula’s listing of Ricky’s previous misdemeanours and some of the action beats, it feels like Edgar Wright is directing the comedy is so visually driven. Indeed as Waititi builds and builds in his finale, things become so hysterically overblown that it feels like the end of The Blues Brothers. But there’s also a rich spread of verbal comedy from Ricky mangling words like ‘Majestical’, and Paula and Rick arguing over who is Sarah Connor and who the Terminator in their relentless pursuit through the Bush, to Waititi’s delirious cameo as an impressive clergyman to rank beside Peter Cook’s in The Princess Bride, and a jaw-droppingly sustained sequence of misunderstood statements by Ricky about Hec that lands Hec in the most serious of hot water imaginable.

Scott Pilgrim died a horrible death at cinemas, if you don’t see this treat in the cinema you can’t complain when the multiplexes are full of Melissa McCarthy dreck.

5/5

September 9, 2016

The Blue Room

Mathieu Amalric co-writes and stars in his second outing as director, an extremely lean adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel.

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Julien Gahyde (Mathieu Amalric) seems to have it all. He is a pillar of a rural French community, and has a thriving agricultural machinery business, spacious modernist house, and loving wife and daughter – Delphine (Lea Drucker) and Suzanne (Mona Jaffart). And yet Julien is dissatisfied. So when old flame Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau) reappears in his life he begins on a torrid affair conducted in the titular hotel locale. But Esther is even more dissatisfied with her husband, the perenially ill Nicolas (Olivier Mauvezin). As a pharmacist how easy it would be for her to poison him. But such a notion is idle speculation, a sick fantasy. But when Julien is trying to explain himself before the juge d’instruction (Laurent Poitrenaux), he finds that gossip, coincidence, and appearances may count for more with the forces of law and order than the truth…

Amalric co-wrote the screenplay with co-star Cléau, and they mischievously withhold telling us exactly what crime Julien has been charged with, or what has actually happened, until quite late in the film; when the blue room of the title takes on a new and chilling meaning. While famous Belgian Simenon may have written the source novel, the film also has Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On a Train hovering over it, as you begin to suspect Esther of being a psychopath who has carried out her half of a trade of murders not agreed to by Julien. But then Julien would say that, wouldn’t he…? Amalric’s direction is extremely brisk as this is only 76 minutes long, just beyond Christopher Nolan’s no-budget debut Following. It is also unabashedly an erotic thriller as it features eye-wateringly explicit nudity from the co-writers Amalric and Cléau.

The Blue Room is a slight film, which feels like it could’ve used one more draft to add some details and trim some repetitions, but it creates a palpable sense of impending doom.

3/5

September 8, 2016

Anthropoid

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star in a brutally compelling take on the cost of assassinating the Butcher of Prague at the height of WWII.

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Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) parachute into Czechoslovakia after years in exile. They quickly discover how deep the occupying Nazis’ regime of fear and infiltration has gone in their attempts to make contact with the Resistance. But with the help of Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) and Marie Moravec (Alena Mihulova) they begin a life of deep cover in Prague. Fake girlfriends Marie Kovarnikova (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafkova (Anna Geislerova) help to deflect suspicion at these two loitering unemployed men, but it also raises the question of the nature of their mission. Josef is at peace that he has signed up for suicide, but Jan is eager for an escape plan after the assassination. And the assassination attempt itself raises moral questions; articulated by Resistance chief and Doubting Thomas Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski).

If killing Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s third-in-command after Himmler and a chief architect of the Final Solution, would lead to the reprisal execution of 30,000 Czechs, is it morally justifiable to do so? At what point does informing on a handful of men to save thousands of men become morally defensible, or is it ever so when faced against an evil like the Nazis? Sean Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin don’t have any answers to these knotty questions, but allowing the characters to raise them elevate this film from gung-ho heroics. The deepening attachments between Josef and Lenka and Jan and Marie could become stock, but that the philosophical divide between the two men is amplified by the women; Lenka in particular is a breakout performance by Anna Geislerova as a soldier in the shadows of formidable steeliness who, like Josef, regards their death warrants as signed.

Ellis acts as his own cinematographer with a noticeably grainy aesthetic, almost a homage to Zapruder’s JFK footage. This is not a sumptuous recreation of occupied Prague, it is focused on the details of espionage, weapons manufacture, and assassination, and invites comparison with Jason Bourne for extended wordless sequences of practical spy-craft. Oddly enough the timing of the assassination places this structurally beside The Dark Knight, but building towards a climax of historically accurate honourable heroism that is as alien to Hollywood storytelling tropes as (the previously fantastical) 47 Ronin‘s finale. If there is one quibble it is that Bill Milner’s At’a Moravec is so ostentatiously introduced as a violinist, at which point your stomach knots that the ability to play will be taken from him; because sadistic cruelty is the modus vivendi of the Gestapo.

Anthropoid is not a tale of derring-do, but a muted study in suicidal bravery, which will leave an audience saddened beyond measure but glad to have seen such heroism.

3.5/5

September 2, 2016

It’s just me and my drone

While watching three different BBC documentaries recently I was struck by the unusually expansive quality of their aerial photography; and then realised they were all using drones.

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The first documentary was Simon Reeve’s travelogue in Greece, in which elaborate pull-out shots of mountainous Greek landscapes seemed to come from nowhere; starting too close to Reeve to be a zoom from a helicopter, but ending up too far away to be a crane shot. They were of course drones, and Reeve even made the drone the centre of attention when he and its operator jumped out of a van in a salubrious part of Athens and surreptitiously sent their drone straight up to see how many of the local worthies were cheating the government of tax by pretending they didn’t have a swimming pool when there were clearly nearly twenty in the drone’s frame. Such guerilla tactics would make Werner Herzog proud, and of course Herzog has employed drones himself; nearly making everyone sick in Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D by flying from a vineyard up to the titular site. But drone technology has developed since Herzog’s 2010 shoot.

Brian Cox’s recent Forces of Nature loved nothing better than tracking Cox from a hundred feet above as he walked along English beaches or Icelandic glaciers, and the images were startlingly good. Whereas Herzog’s drone imagery was disjunctive, Cox’s drone imagery was notable only for the style it employed, not for any difference in quality to more traditionally mounted cameras. One of those signature styles was a reprise of the Reeve special, narrating to the camera which suddenly tumbles back in space and reveals itself to now be airborne and the narrator standing near the edge of a Greek valley or the white cliffs of Dover. Peter Barton’s The Somme From Both Sides deployed its drone in a related manner to great effect. At a fraction of the hassle of using a crane camera Barton delivered his narration to a drone which then swooped upwards to reveal the landscape beyond him, so that we went from a trench’s view of the battlefield to an aerial vantage point in seconds. This was tremendously effective in conveying why the Germans made the Somme so bloody for the British; from the trenches you miss the obvious differences in height over the wider landscape which the Germans consistently put to work in their defensive strategy.

But can advances in drone technology and falling drone prices make for a new cinematic aesthetic? David Fincher in Side by Side notes that he was able to place a camera in a boat for a sequence in The Social Network because of how lightweight a digital camera could now be. If a drone camera needing only one operator can achieve a shot that would have taken Orson Welles days to prepare for with the technology of his time then could we be in for a new avalanche of style in indie movies? If someone wants to achieve the isolating effect of the pull-out from Gary Powers in the dock in Bridge of Spies they don’t need the resources of a Spielberg, they could just hover their drone and then fly it away and make their low-budget drama suddenly seem incredibly slick. Forget filming your movie on your iPhone like Tangerine, imagine sitting in the IFI’s smallest screen watching a low-budget film in which unknown actors look out a window when the camera suddenly pulls away from them and keeps on retreating, observe them fading away into irrelevance as just some of the people with stories in this city.

The Drone Aesthetic.

August 22, 2016

Graham Greene Festival 2016

The Graham Greene Festival returns after a sojourn last year for another hectic long weekend of events in Berkhamsted organised by festival director Mike Hill.

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Hill says of this year’s event “In The Third Man, Graham Greene lampooned earnest literary gatherings by sending a writer of cheap novelettes to answer questions on James Joyce and the stream of consciousness. He might forgive us for organising a literary festival in his honour, an event now in its eighteenth year. People from all over the world will again descend on Berkhamsted to celebrate his life and works – many of them seasoned Greene Festival-goers, some first-time visitors. All are welcome, and all assured of a varied and interesting programme. There may be some earnestness, but there will certainly be friendliness and laughter. I hope you will come along.”

The festival is organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust as Berkhamsted was where Graham’s father was headmaster of the venerable public school which Graham reluctantly attended; a deeply unhappy experience immortalised in the 1971 autobiography A Sort of Life. Greene mellowed towards his hometown though, returning to it imaginatively in late novels The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy. The four-day festival is only a half-hour train ride from London Euston, and is well worth the attention of all Greene fans in the Home Counties and beyond. As well as film screenings, gala dinners, and talks by both Greene scholars and film-makers involved in adaptations of his works, the festival has become a venue for launching new works of academic Greene scholarship.

This year’s highlights include the coup of a talk by Labour Big Beast, political biographer, and proud Yorkshireman Roy Hattersley on the recusancy of Shakespeare and the 20th Century revival of an English Catholic literary tradition. There is also an interview with Greene’s daughter and nephew, and a rare chance to see a 1961 version of The Power and the Glory starring Laurence Olivier and George C Scott, as well as two episodes from the 1970s Thames TV series Shades of Greene. The 2014 Festival innovation of a Greene book club is retained and expanded to include eight different titles (including my personal favourite The Ministry of Fear). Festival venues will feature exhibitions including ‘Greene in Theatreland’, and alongside the Festival bookstall’s recherché joys will be Richard Frost’s bookstall, with a large selection of books by and relating to Greene.

 

 

Thursday 22 September

Court House, The Gatsby, The Rex Cinema

Afternoon session (Cost: £5)

Court House, beside St Peter’s Church

2.15 ‘Graham Greene’s Common’: a guided walk (under three miles; includes WW1 trenches) led by Brian Shepherd, with readings from A Sort of Life and The Human Factor by Judy Mead and Richard Shepherd.

Assemble outside the Court House for introduction. Cars/lifts and stout walking shoes required for the start of the walk at Inns of Court War Memorial, New Road car park. If wet, illustrated talk with readings in the Court House.

 

Evening session

The Gatsby

5.30 Social gathering and buffet supper at The Gatsby. -7.15 Two courses and a glass of wine; vegan/vegetarian option. (Limited to 73 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.) Cost: £16

 

Film Night at The Rex Cinema

7.30 The Power and the Glory (CBS Television, 1961 – 90 -9.30 minutes) Director: Marc Daniels. With Laurence

Olivier, George C. Scott, Julie Harris, Cyril Cusack, Roddy McDowall.

Introduced by Professor Neil Sinyard. Cost: £9

 

Tickets are available for purchase online at www.grahamgreenebt.org, or by telephone: 07988 560496

 

Friday 23 September

The Town Hall, The Civic Centre

Morning session (Cost: £15)

The Town Hall

9.45 Journey With Maps: the beginning of Greene’s Quixotic holidays: a talk by Professor Carlos Villar Flor on Greene and Father Leopoldo Duran.

10.45 Break for tea and coffee

11.15 Travels with Auntie: the BBC’s James Naughtie interviews Nick Warburton about his writing career and his radio adaptations this year of The Honorary Consul and The Power and the Glory.

 

Break for lunch

 

Afternoon session (Cost: £15)

The Town Hall

2.30 The Catholic Muse: a talk by Lord (Roy) Hattersley.

Why, until the end of the nineteenth century were there so few distinguished Catholic writers and why were so many of the Catholic poets and novelists of the twentieth century converts? Roy Hattersley – carefully distinguishing between Catholic writers and writers who were Catholics – offers answers to those questions and tries to resolve the age old conundrum, was William Shakespeare, in the language of his age, a Papist?

3.30 Break for tea and coffee

4.15 Graham Greene Book Club: eight discussion groups, each focusing on a different Greene novel: The Man Within, England Made Me, The Power and the Glory, The Ministry of Fear, The End of the Affair, Our Man in Havana, The Human FactorThe Captain and the Enemy.

 

Evening session (Cost: £10)

The Civic Centre

7.45 Film night: two episodes from Shades of Greene -9.45 (Thames TV, 1975-6): Two Gentle People (50 mins), with Harry Andrews and Elaine Stritch, and Dream of a Strange Land (40 mins), with Ian Hendry. Introduced by: Dr David Rolinson of

Stirling University.

 

Saturday 24 September

Deans’ Hall and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School

(Castle Street)

Morning session (Cost: £16)

Deans’ Hall

9.30 Current Greene Research: presented by a University of North Georgia panel of students and faculty.

10.30 Break for tea and coffee

11.00 Graham Greene remembered: Vincent McDonnell, author of The Broken Commandment, interviewed by Mike Hill.

12.00 Launch of Graham Greene Studies by Professor -12.15 Joyce Stavick.

 

Break for lunch

 

Mid-afternoon session (Cost: £16)

Deans’ Hall

2.15 Greene and Jews: a talk by Professor Cedric Watts on the paradoxical treatment of Jews in a number of Greene’s nonfictional and fictional works, including The Name of Action, Stamboul Train and Brighton Rock.

3.15 Break for tea and coffee

3.45 Regarding Graham: Caroline Bourget, Greene’s daughter, and Nick Dennys, Greene’s nephew, interviewed by Dr Jon Wise.

 

Late afternoon session (Cost: £12)

Deans’ Hall

5.00 The Birthday Toast: by David Pearce.

5.15 ‘I’ve always wanted to be in a publisher’s office’ (Graham Greene, 1933): a talk by Professor Judith Adamson on Greene the publisher.

 

Evening session (Cost: £35)

Old Hall

7.45 Festival Dinner: three courses with wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian alternative. (Limited to 60 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.)

 

Sunday 25 September

Careers Library and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School

(Castle Street)

Morning session (Cost: £15)

Careers Library (next to Old Hall)

10.00 ‘Something to catch hold of in the general flux’: Greene’s presentation of religious ideas and longings in his first three novels – The Man Within, The Name of Action and Rumour at Nightfall: a talk by Dr Alice Reeve-Tucker.

11.00 Break for tea and coffee

11.30 Taking liberties: two controversial film adaptations of, and by, Graham Greene: a talk by Professor Neil Sinyard.

 

Lunch (Cost: £24)

Old Hall

1.00 Farewell Lunch: cold buffet, wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian option. (Limited to 60 tickets. Book by Thursday 15 September at the latest.)

 

 

Tickets

Tickets are available for purchase at http://www.grahamgreenebt.org, or by phone: 07988 560496. A Season Ticket to all events, excluding the film at The Rex and meals, is available for £95. There is free admission to Festival events (excluding the film at The Rex and meals) for under 21s and holders of the Dacorum Card.

Enquiries: grahamgreeneboxoffice@gmail.com

 

Friends

Become a Friend of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust at http://www.grahamgreenebt.org and receive a quarterly newsletter, a Festival discount of £1 per event (for up to five events), or a Season Ticket to all events, excluding the film at Thee Rex and meals, for £95.

 

Graham Greene Birthplace Trust

On the website (www.grahamgreenebt.org) there are further details of the talks, interviews and speakers, online ticketing service, and information on any changes that may arise. Tickets will be on sale at the door for all events other than the meals and the Rex film, but it would be preferable to book in advance online from the website. Season tickets are available for those who plan to attend all the talks.

August 13, 2016

The Constant Wife

Alan Stanford directs Somerset Maugham’s 1920s comedy of marital infidelity and hypocrisy to amusing effect, but in a broad manner.

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Constance Middleton (Tara Egan Langley) has it all: rich, lovely house, delightful daughter at boarding school. But her friends and relations feel sorry for her. Well, some of them do. Her redoubtable mother Mrs Culver (Belinda Lang) most certainly does not; indeed she has called on her daughter expressly to prevent her spinster daughter Martha (Rachel O’Byrne) informing Constance that her husband John (Simon O’Gorman) is having an affair with Constance’s bubbly and vacuous best friend Marie-Louise (Caoimhe O’Malley). Both of them are surprised when they learn that Constance knew all along, and even more surprised when she manages to convince Marie-Louise’s husband Mortimer (Peter Gaynor) that he is a monstrous cad for suspecting his wife. Little do they realise that Constance has a plan, involving gossip, plausible deniability, and her former beau Bernard (Conor Mullen) just returned from China.

Constance takes a job with her entrepreneur friend Barbara (Ruth McGill), and emancipates herself from economic dependence on her husband; much to his fury. Indeed there’s a lot of comic male bluster in this play. The Constant Wife is quite funny, but is played as slapstick. Gaynor has a fantastic stride of determined and manly apology, while Mullen lurks in a doorway looking back and forth at the adulterous couple with the suspicious gaze of a man who’s just been told what’s going on (and leans back hilariously for one parting warning glance), and O’Gorman nearly blows a gasket in remaining dashed polite to a man he wholeheartedly desires to knock down and set to.  Given Constance’s Shavian speeches on economics and her mother’s Bracknellisms you wonder if Patrick Mason could elicit subtler laughs and trim the third act repetitions.

O’Malley Fassbenders as the callous airhead, and Lang is delightfully withering, but O’Byrne overplays her RP accent somewhat. Eileen Diss’ appropriately airy set design gives us a drawing room flooded with light, and Peter O’Brien pulls out all the stops in designing a whole wardrobe of glorious flapper era outfits for Maugham’s women to model. Programming this as high summer fare, for the second time in a decade, seemed an absurd exemplar of Michael Colgan’s latter sterility as artistic director, and news of his retirement followed soon after. Maugham’s play is good, but can one justify reviving it when the Gate has only produced three Stoppard shows since 1984? Being The Real Thing, and Arcadia twice. We know the Gate needs full houses but couldn’t an exuberant Stoppard like Night and Day, Indian Ink, or Jumpers pack a house too?

The Constant Wife is entertaining, but not of Cowardian calibre. It and the Abbey’s ramshackle The Wake have represented a veritable Scylla and Charybdis of commerce over aesthetics and ideology over aesthetics this summer.

3/5

The Constant Wife continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 3rd of September.

August 12, 2016

Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates

Zac Efron and Adam Devine need nice girls to accompany them to Hawaii for their sister’s wedding. Instead they get Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick.

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The inseparable Stangle brothers Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) live together in a chaotic flat, work together selling liquor to the harassed likes of Marc Maron, and party together just a bit too hard. And so their parents (Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) insist that they both find nice girls to bring as wedding dates or be barred from the wedding of their beloved younger sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard). The idea being that the brothers rile each other up when they go stag, whereas some respectable girls will calm them down. But when their Craigslist ad goes viral, they get royally played and end up taking Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick). Soon the self-absorbed co-dependent hedonistic BFFs Tatiana and Alice have wreaked more destructive chaos on the wedding than the brothers stag ever could have.

Bill Nighy at a 2009 L&H Q&A promised with perfect deadpan that The Boat That Rocked contained “a lot of stupid jokes … profoundly stupid jokes.” One might say that Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates is a stupid comedy, a profoundly stupid comedy, without many jokes. It is in fact a variation on the great transatlantic comedy chasm, but unlike previous summer puzzlers Let’s Be Cops and The Heat this is not an obvious thriller script repurposed as a comedy by the addition of crassness, crudity, and mugging for laughs rather than the insertion of jokes and comic characters. Bad Neighbours writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien have penned a cookie-cutter Apatow gross-out rom-com about accepting responsibility, but without Rogen or Hill to riff absurdly, the improvisation encouraged by SNL director Jake Szymanski produces little of true value.

Continuing the trend noted by Bret Easton Ellis whereby gay characters fade out of spectacle aimed at the international market but proliferate in domestic fare, we have stand-up Alice Wetterlund as Cousin Terry; a bisexual yuppie tormenting Mike in a fashion not dissimilar to Kieran Culkin’s constant poaching of Anna Kendrick’s boyfriends in Scott Pilgrim. Except that, as with Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani’s bizarre cameo as a masseur, in the absence of charm and wit you find yourself unsure how to interpret this. Laughing at and with minorities at the same inclusive time? Is it a bold move or sheer laziness to have Jeanie’s black fiancé Eric (Sam Richardson) be so unambiguously boring? Is the movie’s apparent need for Beard to do what Plaza and Kendrick presumably wouldn’t slightly creepy or predictable? And can zippy pacing and breeziness overcome inanity?

Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, like Suicide Squad, contains lines in TV spots and trailers that don’t appear in the movie. But we don’t need Szymanski’s director’s cut.

2.5/5

August 10, 2016

Edfringe Lift-off

At Large Theatre Company are taking three one-act shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and they did a warm-up in Players Theatre before leaving Dublin.

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Beryl

Beryl (Lesley-Ann Reilly) offers a very specialised service to gentlemen callers to her modest flat, but not what you think…

Frank (Alan Rogers) is an extremely diffident man, who seems continually on the point of bolting as if this was all a bad idea. Beryl meanwhile has more bonhomie than is needed for the two of them. The early interchanges in Lesley-Ann Reilly’s script entice us to understand this as a man paying for sex for the first time, before we realise it’s something entirely different: Beryl’s services are allowing men to dress in women’s clothes for the first time. But as Beryl draws Frank out of his taciturn shell, and he stalks about in high heels that remind him of his mother, proceedings take a dark twist as his guilt-ridden motive for availing of her services is laid bare.

Director Grainne Curistan keeps the potentially lurid subject matter nicely underplayed for the most part; a tense exchange where Beryl presses a glass of wine on Frank who does not want it recalls the power-plays in Pinter’s The Homecoming concerning a glass of water. A moment where Frank adjusts a scarf around Beryl becomes extremely menacing because Rogers is so successful at keeping Frank an enigma, lost in the mazes of his own mind – he may confess to past misdeeds but in the present he remains unknowable. Reilly’s turn is less cryptic. She is amusing and believable as a chatty Cathy but when Beryl forces Frank to confront his sins and competes with his guilt the performance becomes too outré.

Beryl is always engaging, but ultimately Beryl’s need to trump Frank’s crime by confessing a minor infraction of her own undermines its dramatic impact.

3/5

 

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The Meeting

Writer/director Grainne Curistan unfurls a perfectly normal, perfectly tedious business meeting that starts to go decidedly sideways to delirious effect.

The chairwoman (Elaine Reynolds) begins the meeting with all the confidence of Josh Lyman briefing the White House Press Corps in The West Wing, and it’s just as misplaced as her attempts to canter thru the agenda late on a Friday evening fall foul of her co-workers. Professional absentee Linda (Ann Hogan) is intent on querying a directive on actually replying to emails, Italian Antoine (David Breen) wants something actually done about the stupid f****** doors that keep hitting him in the face and he doesn’t care about not putting bad language on the agenda, and permanently out to lunch assistant Daisy (Kate Feeney) wants to create a taskforce to name the photocopiers to improve morale; the photocopiers’ morale. As squabbling intensifies Linda’s friend Stephanie Morris-Ni Shuilleabhain (Gillian Fitzgerald) arrives late and asks to be recorded as present, only to be trumped by an even later entrant – an enraged boss…

Linda and Daisy are delightful comic creations. Linda’s commitment to union procedures taken to the brink of madness could stand next to Peter Sellers’ I’m All Right, Jack shop steward without raising eyebrows. Indeed her devotion has taken boss Owen (Daniel O’Brien) over the brink of madness, hence his drunken arrival with a baseball bat. If one wants to quibble the lighting design leaves Owen in shadow too often and his roaring indignation runs out of dramatic road, but it transmutes into wonderful groaned apologies and acquiescence in the finale. Michael O’Kelly, Brendan Rooney, and John O’Rourke keep the more farcical elements grounded with their straight men. O’Kelly’s double act with Breen is a particular joy, as he repeatedly is forced to act as translator when Linda affects not to understand Antoine. Curistan’s script builds to a logically demented climax with a sensational and unexpected pay-off of an earlier element.

The Meeting is a hilarious one-act play, fleshing out nine characters whose grains of truth are magnified to comical proportions and loosed in absurdity.

4/5

 

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Nowhere Now

Writer/director Daniel O’Brien satirises international trade, media saturation, and macho posturing in a bizarre, inexplicable, theatrical, and memorable fever dream.

A trade deal is being done. A preposterous amount of beef is to be sold. Many people will make a lot of money. Other people will have no beef to eat. Everything waits upon the arrival of the Prime Minister. And so the Ambassador (Darcy Donnellan), the CEO (Kate Cosgrave), and the Minister (Yalda Shahidi) wait around a table for the PM to arrive and bring all their mind-bending travails to fruition. Meanwhile journalists and victims of the deal (played by Grainne Curistan, Noel Cahill, and Ciaran Treanor) eat from bowls, lie on the ground despairingly, and run about the stage with angel wings strapped to their backs – all part of the colour scheme of red and white that dominates.

Nowhere Now does not have a driving plot. What it does have is lashings of theatrical mood in the cod-Beckettian set-up of people waiting for an important individual who stubbornly refuses to appear as scheduled. Shahidi’s hapless functionary contrasts wonderfully with the swagger with which Donnellan dominates the stage. Donnellan’s interactions with Cosgrave, both women wearing white shirts, red braces and ties, flip from macho aggressiveness to a hyper-theatrical incantation praising the cows that form the meat of the deal; ending with a kiss that further complicates the gender-swapped Mametian shapes being thrown as Cosgrave seems both the secretary and the betraying executive from Speed the Plow. Curistan, Cahill, and Treanor meanwhile act out bizarre scenarios ranging from a lengthy list of excuses to go home that get increasingly demented, to a horrifying way to get your beef hit, and, in, a climax that is hysterically funny, the PM explaining ‘live’ (ahem) on radio that he’s come rather a cropper.

Daniel O’Brien’s hour of madness may not be everyone’s cup of tea. There are undeniably longueurs, indeed it probably doesn’t need to be an hour. Cahill and Treanor can be a bit too shouty at times, and in the finale resort to arm-clenching gurning in the background which distracts from the main action. But even with these reservations, O’Brien conjures spectacle from a colour scheme, draws out some great performances, and asserts the theatricality of not needing to make sense.

Nowhere Now in its most coherent moments resembles Speed the Plow assaulted by The League of Gentlemen, and betimes it’s visually striking and memorable.

3/5

August 6, 2016

Suicide Squad

Fury auteur David Ayer gets to play with Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery and the result is an amusing, supernatural-tinged comic-book guys and gals on a mission flick.

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Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) needs more meta-humans to keep America safe in the wake of Superman’s death. So she turns to the dark side of the force, more or less literally in the case of alien witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). When Midway City is torn apart by an eruption of supernatural power Joel Kinnaman’s long-suffering Rick Flagg has to lead into combat the assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), angry mercenary Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), half-man half-crocodile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), repentant pyrotechnic Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and the woman who put the psycho in psychotherapy, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). But true love never did run smooth and the Joker (Jared Leto) is out to reclaim his woman from the forces of evil – i.e. the government.

All eyes were on Robbie’s take on Harley, and it’s a creditable one. There are notes of winsomeness and instability, and the accent is nice when it’s played up. Her brief interactions with Leto’s Mistah J are a comic-book fan’s delight to finally see in live action, but only capture part of the full twisted relationship. Leto is severely underused but makes an impact; he’s more or less Paul Dini’s comics Joker – sinister, but playful. Interestingly Leto’s method madness is apparent onscreen as his appearance in a scene seems to genuinely unsettle all the other players. Will Smith confirms the finding of Focus, that he has found where he left his charisma, even if Ayer doesn’t feed him enough good one-liners. Or anyone else for that matter. Perhaps he was too busy constructing a wishlist for his music supervisors. Suicide Squad‘s budget must have gone in large part on music rights as a preposterous amount of hit songs are blasted out at the least provocation. You could almost imagine Ayer was working through his frustration at never before having helmed a project with the heft to simply buy the rights.

Smith beautifully disses the ‘swirling trash in the sky’ that has become the cinematic convention of the apocalypse this summer, and somehow Suicide Squad feels more faithful to Ghostbusters than the travesty remake; with an ancient evil speaking with a low growl through a young woman, all leading to a confrontation at ornate steps leading to a portal to another dimension. This ‘trippy magic stuff’ as Harley dubs it is a world away from any previous Batman film, and with Batman making cameo appearances here, and the squad’s backstories being sketched in like so many short tales from Dini and Timm, the feel of a comic-book being (at times uncomfortably) plastered up on screen is omnipresent; especially a detail about the Joker’s luck. Smith and Kinnaman have a very Ayer arc, the oft wooden Courtney is surprisingly funny, and Davis is terrific in the surprisingly central role of Waller. But the film’s construction feels a bit off, rattling by in under two hours; the allegation that a severe and needless re-cut took place certainly seems supported by the finish product where a soulful bar scene jumps up a creative level and seems like a refugee from a better more muted movie.

Despite labouring under Zack Snyder’s ‘artistic direction’ somehow all concerned come out of this tour with credit. If only Affleck and Ayer could create their own DC visions utterly unconnected to the Arch-Positivist.

3/5

*Postscript – Aug 12th: After a week of revelations about cut Joker scenes it seems the choppy quality is Ayer’s vision being traduced, and I impugned him on the musical front. This is not David O Russell’s American Hustle jukebox wishlist, but likely how people who make trailers cut a film, sequence after sequence of 2 minute rawk montages…

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