For Sama: Documentary review.


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Baby Sama. On the front line.

If you are looking for gratuitous expositions of the Syrian war this isn’t for you.

If however, you are looking for an in-depth and long-term study of how human beings driven by principle and humanity behave with integrity, in an absolute hell-hole that is East Aleppo, then it is.

It’s a heart-wrenching (but actually also heart-warming) exploration of what makes human beings, on the right side of the fence, great.

It’s set throughout the siege of Aleppo and follows the story of Waad Al-Khateab her daughter Sama and her husband (a doctor/surgeon/activist who runs an unofficial hospital) Hamza whom she meets, marries and has the aforementioned child, Sama, with during the documentary.

Waad films the proceedings, but the end product is a collaboration with co-director Edward Watts (who has several ISIS-based, and award winning, TV documentaries on his CV).  Both deserve immense credit.

It’s essentially a love letter to Waad and Hamsa’s daughter, as Waad narrates her story of the battle to her daughter whilst showcasing the incredible humanitarian work of her fearless husband in conditions that are beyond credible.

ISIS targeted the hospitals of Aleppo (a HUGE city of 4.6 million inhabitants), systematically blowing them up and sending them underground into what look like unsanitary conditions but somehow seem to function throughout the siege.  They are constantly bombed and on many occasions makeshift operating theatres become awash with blood.

The scenes of devastation that slowly unfold in the last few weeks of Aleppo’s intolerable siege are quite horrendous.  We are talking about a blitz here – and the city becomes a shell, very reminiscent of both London and Dresden in WWII.

And yet, life goes on.  Despite the torture, and the many deaths that we graphically witness, there is a strong sense of defiance and just getting on with it.  (Keep Calm and Carry On.)

One scene, in particular, when we witness the birth of a, perhaps, still born baby is so deeply distressing that you will never forget the images.  It’s mind-blowing.

This is a (very warped) joy of a film.

It’s not blessed with any frills AT ALL.  No music, no SFX, nothing.  Just a story that is devoid of schmaltz or emotional manipulation.  It just says what it sees.  It places not blame. It vilifies nobody.

But what emerges is a heroic culture that everyone should see.

Expect success in the next awards season.

 

 

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.


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I am a lifelong Atwood fan, but she blows hot and cold (in this case, I’d say, warm).

I love her sci-fi and future-gazing stuff most, but I also was mesmerised by The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Some of her more hippy stuff leaves me a bit cool.

This, the 35 years later follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), bagged her her second Booker Prize (shared) but, amazingly THT wasn’t the other, it was the aforementioned Blind Assassin.

She wrote this, the follow up to THT in response to endless requests from fans to explain how THT played out and decided to make it both a prequel (from Aunt Lydia’s point of view) and a sequel (from Baby Nicole’s point of view – Ofred’s daughter that she smuggled out of Gilead at the end of THT).

Another key character shares the storytelling duties but I shall leave that to you to find out who it is, if you care to indulge.

It’s very different to THT (and less satisfying as a result) because what made THT such a treat was the shock and the graphic detail in which Atwood brought her excellent brand of feminism to a dystopian tale that was truly horrifying.

The Testaments is a completely different vehicle.  She’s done the shock: this time she’s simply telling a story, a thriller really, to explain what lay behind THT.

Gilead is a key character in the plot.  It’s the state that has created these vile, corrupt, religious extremist men and it turns out that far from being the worst enforcer imaginable in Gilead Aunt Lydia is, in fact, a rather more complex, and sympathetic, character.

Essentially Lydia has realised that the concept of Gilead has gone too far.  It has run away with itself and it’s time for some reparation, how this is carried out is both complex and, at times, confusing (particularly in the first half of the novel).

It gradually unfolds as a rip-roaring story, well told, but for me it lacks the terrifying set pieces that makes THT so brilliant.  It slowly becomes a page-turner but that, for me, isn’t what makes prize-winning writing.

Atwood has a real ability to personify her characters, and the novel benefits greatly from most of its readers (surely) having watched Ann Dowd’s awesome portrayal of Aunt Lydia on MGM TV’s outstanding THT.

Atwood’s ability to switch character from niaive wife-to-be, to angsty teenage rebel, to elderly overseer is notable, but some of the naivety of the characters’ talk, written in a first person vernacular, renders elements of the book quite simplistic and, so, less engaging than it might have been if written in the third person.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but is it Booker winning standard?

Not in my book.

 

Rent: by B2 Productions.


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I was unfortunate enough to see Bruce Guthrie’s 20th anniversary production of Rent, at the Festival Theatre in 2017.  So poorly staged and, in my view, performed, that my wife and I left at the interval.  (It is a long first act right enough).  So when I heard B2 Productions was staging the show it wasn’t my ‘news of the year’.

Nevertheless, I went to see it on Saturday afternoon having photographed it on the Dress/Tech rehearsal night.

That combination, and being behind a camera, didn’t really give me a sense of what a show, this production, was REALLY going to be like and so my prejudice remained in place as the curtain proverbially rose.

I needn’t have worried.

The show is a bit of a period piece, set in Alphabet City, in New York’s Lower East side, and centres on a group of ‘squatters” certainly they are rent evaders, although they remain connected to, if not best friends with, their apartment owner, an ex student friend turned property-owning tycoon.  He’s changed.

The flat is a hang out for a bunch of entertainers and would be’s that variously date as boy to boy, girl to girl, boy to girl and, I’m sure if written today, would have numerous other configurations.

Critically it’s the tale of one year, Christmas to Christmas, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid 1980’s, and numerous cast members have various degrees of affliction of the dreaded disease.

Coming togethers and breaking ups proliferate over the two hours of the show with a wall to wall score that gives everyone in the ensemble cast a chance to shine – and by God do they do that.  I counted eleven soloists among the cast, each of whom performed miracles with a libretto that is in places quite thin but that adds up, when performed as well as this, to far more than the sum of its parts.

Before I talk about any of the cast, and the incredible band, I need to put this in perspective.

The venue, Leith Theatre, is golden.  It’s an emotional experience just walking through the front door, never mind having the chance to perform on its treasured boards.  It’s an iconic place.  Everything about it is anti the establishment.  It’s not Edinburgh.  It’s not funded or cared for by our government.  It’s a community project of monumental scale.  It needs to be supported.  B2Productions is part of that.

The next thing is THE RENT SIGN.  It was created by Craig Robertson, but I believe Black Light need considerable thanks too.  It dominates the proscenium arch and is a constant reminder of what we are watching, but also it’s the centre-piece for the stunning lighting design by Grant Anderson.

It’s a visual triumph.

So, to the cast, who could do nothing without the direction of Claire Stewart, the movement of Natasha Rose and the magisterial musical direction of Kerry-Anne Dougan.

The performance I attended brought my fellow audience member to a sobbing wreck during Act II’s I’ll Cover You by Charlie West.  Extraordinary.

Sarah Innes, Ronan Rafferty, Hayley Scott, and Daniel Umpleby (an amazing Angel) and  Ben King all make this a truly great musical appreciation.  But may I just mention a few others?

The duet between Mark Smith and Mellisa Jay blew my mind.

Eilidh West showed amazing emotional range.

And to finish off, our guide through this kind of emotional wreck was the understated. but constantly engaging, Gregor Robertson.  A beautiful performance that, for me, finally smashed it in ‘What you own‘ – a rage against America.  It could be now.

I’m biased – of course I am.  But I honestly disliked the professional performance of this (above) so much that I couldn’t see it out.

This, I couldn’t approve of more.

 

Succession Series 1 and 2. Review.


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And here they are.  All of the pigs in one big poke.

Stupidly I missed Season 1.  For some reason I didn’t zone in on its qualities on first airing and let it go by me.  But the early rave reviews in the national press for Season 2 made me reconsider it and I started again, binging the 20 episodes over the last month or so.

And what a treat it was.

Jesse Armstrong (the show runner) was previously responsible for Peep Show, The Thick of it and even, back in the day, contributed to the excellent Smack The Pony.  He wrote the hilarious Four Lions too.

What this means is that although Succession is essentially a drama it is, in fact, a full blown comic feast with one liners ricocheting across the screen with siege-like ferocity and quantity.

Chief gag thrower is the astounding Keiran Culkin, the weasel-faced runt of the Roy Litter who you’d never tire of punishing, but whose acerbic put downs are guaranteed to split your sides ten times an episode.  he takes particular fun in tormenting the, also excellent, Jeremy Strong who plays his inept, drug-consuming brother Kendall with doe-eyed misery as his privileged life gradually falls into greater and greater disrepair.  He’s a car crash of a human being.

The other comic character who never ceases to amuse with his rhinoceros-skin dimness is Matthew Macfadyen as Tom, the dipstick husband of the power hungry Shiv (daughter of the patriarch from hell Logan Roy – Brian Cox in his greatest ever role).

A good sport in this show is to decide which of these feckless fecks you hate the most.  For not a single one of them has any redeeming features.

That said, my wife had a soft spot for the manslaughterer Kendall and I could at least tolerate the inept (but surprisingly devious) Greig – the limpid cousin.  But that’s it, the rest are as hideous human beings as you could make up.

Or are they made up?

The reality is that this is just a great big mash up of the Trumps, Weinsteins and the Murdochs.

Everything in this cesspit is about power and success.  They are consumed with the need, as a media conglomerate, to acquire more and more businesses and with manslaughter and sexual misconduct (and subsequent cover-ups) thrown into the mix the result is a mosh pit of vanity and greed.

Supporting roles of note go to Helen Hunter who is delicious as the two timing competitor CEO who briefly joins the company.  And the outstanding Peter Freidman as Francis and Jean Smith-Cameron as Gerri – Roy’s Nick and Margaret.

The milf- (or gilf-) like attraction that Gerri has for Roman makes for some of the show’s highlights with truly hysterical moments aplenty.

But at its core, and the bedrock of all that is truly awful in the human race, is the commanding presence of bastard-in-chief, Brian Cox, as the patriarchal Logan who surely has never been gifted a role as meaty as this.  Despite over 200 roles on TV and cinema only once has Cox been recognised at the big ones, a lone nominee in the Golden Globes nearly 20 years ago.  This is surely about to change.  His presence is so all consuming that this has the look of certainty about it.

It’s utterly compelling TV with a cinematic quality and a soundtrack to rival the best that Hollywood has to0 offer.  And, oh, that theme music.  My tune of the year, bar none.

Enjoy!

 

Joker: Movie review


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“A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society” is IMDB’s excellent byline description of this deep exploration of disintegrating (disintegrated?) mental health.

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It’s described as taking place in the ‘Scorseseverse’ by some critics, in that Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck appears to be an homage to many of Scorsese’s monumental 70’s characters.  And what’s more, De Niro has a supporting role that shows he still can deliver the goods when not just taking a part for the money.

So I’ve already used the M word and in this Academy Award winning performance (of that there is no doubt) Joaquim Phoenix’s monumental performance will put the Academy back on track after their laughable decision to recognise Rami Malek for impersonating Freddie Mercury last year.

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I detest impersonation movies on the whole, but this is no impersonation, this is a character crafted out of magic.  It’s not a superhero movie in the slightest and all the better for it. It’s simply a character study of great depth and extreme nuance.

One thing I loved about this intense study of a disintegrating man is the extreme close ups that shows Phoenix in all his imperfections, his upper lip, his wonky teeth, his chewed finger nails, his nicotine stained fingers (possibly make-up).  It’s glorious.

It is unquestionably a masterpiece, not just for Phoenix’s performance, but for every SINGLE aspect of cinema:  music (White Room by Cream blasts out of the screen in the final apocalyptic act to tremendous effect – but it’s outstanding throughout), make-up (stunning), costume (stunning), cinematography (stunning – the dance on the steps and the aerial train track shot particularly blew me away), design (epic) and direction (Todd Phillips follows up his epic production, but not direction, of A Star Is Born remarkably It’s interesting looking at Todd Phillips’ Filmography though – a real mixed bag with much of it centred on comedy – The Hangover in particular.)

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But you don’t need me to tell you  how good this movie is – you don’t get a 9.1 rating on IMDB without reason.

See it and bathe in its mastery.