Present Laughter at The Old Vic: presented by NT Live.


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I won’t dwell too long on this because it isn’t easy to see, although I think an ‘Encore’ screening is happening again in Edinburgh, in December.  if it is You MUST go see it.

We saw an NT Live screening of it in Leith on Thursday, and it is fantastic.

Although it’s described as an ensemble cast this is one thing above all others, Andrew Scott.  (You know, the sexy, sorry girls he’s gay, priest from Fleagbag?)  He is screamingly, achingly, outrageously funny in a performance that must shed a few pounds in weight each night.  He must have slept well on matinee days.

It’s a simply miraculous performance with so many nuances that you simply sit mouth agape at times.  The laughter, by now, being too painful.  This must be in line for theatre prizes galore.

Noël Coward’s writing seems incredibly of now, and yet the play was written in 1939.  It’s aided by the gender-swapping of Helen and Joe Lyppiatt, so that Garry Essendine’s central character becomes bisexual (homosexual really) and it’s this confusion over his sexuality that makes it far more contemporary than it might have been.  Indeed In the 1970s the director Peter Hall wrote, “what a wonderful play it would be if – as Coward must have wanted – all those love affairs were about homosexuals”.

Director Matthew Warchus has to take the credit for manifesting the legendary Hall’s vision and for pulling off a series of performances that, despite being wonderfully OTT, fully engage the audience.  In particular the thunderously rousing assault that is Daphne Stillingon (by Kitty Archer) is simply breathtaking.  In no other circumstances would she remotely have got away with it.

Every moment of overacting (that clearly Garry is guilty of on the stage) has a knock on effect on the rest of the cast (when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle,  a storm subsequently ravages half of Europe).

Most notably Garry’s secretary Monica Reed (Sophie Thomson) is simply hilarious and Suzie Toase as Helen (should be Henry) Lyppiatt.

The one calming influence in all this is Garry”s estranged wife, Liz (a beautiful study in arch wit by Indira Varma).

Amidst all this hilarity it’s clear that, hidden by the bravado, Garry is a bundle of self doubt.  Indeed his surname, Essendine, is an anagram of “neediness”.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

A tremendous and exhausting tour de force that deserves all the five star reviews it mustered in the summer.  See it if you can.

 

 

 

 

 

Zombieland Double Tap: Movie Review


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I love a zombie movie.  I really do.  And I like spoof zombie movies just as much.

Pound for pound I’d say the zombie genre is one of the most successful to hit our screens – from George Romero to Simon Pegg and here, in this now double franchise, Zombieland.

Of course the original was pure gold and, amazingly, the same director, Ruben Fleisher, and the same star team of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin (and, whisper it,  Bill Murray) team up for the sequel some ten years later.

Two new stars join the line up – Rosario Dawson (successfully) and Zoey Deutsch (less so as a dumb blonde that’s just a bit annoying).

It  opens brilliantly with a zombie attack on the Columbia logo giving us the first belly laugh within 5 seconds.

What follows is a sort of Fight Club (those captions including an outstanding title sequence) meets Shaun of the Dead but with much higher production values and a cracking script played out by an ensemble of genuine starts that truly look like they are having as much fun as you could ever have making multi-million dollar pay checks.

Sure, it’s not going to trouble any award judges.  True it’s not going to solve any global problems and sure it’s not going to change anyone’s life, but it sure is fun.

If you loved Z1 (7.6 on IMDB) I suspect, like me you will enjoy Z2 (7.2 on IMDB) just about as much, maybe more.

It’s ridiculous and it’s great.

 

 

The Irishman, movie review: Yet another Scorsese masterpiece.


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Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence and now The Irishman.  Most Directors would give a limb to have made just one of these magisterial films.  That list numbers 12.  And then there’s a bunch more of note sitting just below these.

The cinema industry is up in arms at Netflix pinching surely one of Scorsese’s last great outings from under their noses.

£200m was pumped into this movie that’s been sitting around, unmade for a decade.

It tempted Joe Pesci out of his retirement and put Pacino, Pesci and De Niro under Scorsese’s gaze for the first time.

And what a gaze.

In a 210 minute film that gives about 5 to women this is a man’s, man’s, man’s outing to outman all of its lofty predecessors, but there were many women in the audience of the big screen showing I attended and they loved it.

Anna Pacquin, De Niro’s daughter, is the only female character of note in the movie (the wives are fairly incidental).  Her single scripted word screams volumes from the screen and makes her appearance meritorious despite its paucity.

Pacino and Pesci are wonderful, but it’s a De Niro movie.  Scorsese’s real muse this bookend’s both of their careers starting with Taxi Driver and surely ending here.  It’s a massive performance full of grit, humour and pathos.  It’s simply breathtaking.  Especially when you consider the mid – late career crud that De Niro has been serving us.

Note this, Phoenix has competition for the Oscar that we all thought was surely a shoo-in only a month or two ago.

The humour is unexpected and one scene, in particular, where an absurd conversation about a fish takes place in a car, reminds us of the Chicken Royale scene in Pulp Fiction.  Clearly Scorsese has been noting the competition and, here, matches or possibly even exceeds them.

This demands to be seen on the big screen.  The monumental running time sits better with a cinema screening where you can tackle it, in its full immensity, without trips to the teapot (or wine cellar – it’s a two bottler).  What it allows Scorsese is the time to tell a complex tale languidly.  It gives him room to explore male relationships, bonding and latterly reflection on a life that has had much shame.

That Scorsese takes maybe 30 minutes to conclude a movie that in other hands would last five is telling.  But it’s exactly this that lies at the heart of an epic that sadly many will just say is boring.

It’s anything but.

Much has been made of the ‘de-aging’ technology, mostly critically, but it really helps to tell a four-decade story using the same actors throughout.  OK, it made De Niro a little rosy-cheeked at times, but it gets away with it.  And the ageing of Pesci, in particular, is amazing.  His final scenes of a man in very old age are moving and gripping.

I was blown away.

 

Doctor Sleep: Movie Review.


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This is a direct follow up to the Shining.

Indeed, the opening scenes star a young Danny Torrance and his mum Wendy (with Alex Essoe playing Shelley Duvall playing Wendy Torrance).  At a later point in the movie a Jack Nicholson impersonator also joins the proceedings (only it’s an uncredited, in IMDB, actor playing Nicholson playing the barman Lloyd).  These could, of course, have been terrible missteps but director Mike Flanagan adeptly carries it off, just.

In fact the entire movie is a dangerous exercise in, just, getting away with it.

It neatly explains some of the mysteries of the much cherished The Shining movie, but steps away from the mostly unspoken horror of Kubrick’s classic to become a sort of Harry Potter fantasy.

So, strangely the first 20 minutes and the last thirty (both truest to the original) are the most satisfying.

In the middle lies a pretty stodgy lump of twaddle really (Flanagan both directs and edits, which contributes to the stodge) and centres on a curious interplay between Ewan MacGregor, as the whisky soaked but recovering alcoholic that Danny has turned into, another shiner, played well enough by 13 year old Kyleigh Curran (her character name Abra is a pretty clunky pun) and a radiant Rebecca Ferguson, as the arch villain and leader of gang of bad ‘shiners’,

McGregor is tolerable, not something I’d often say, playing the part understatedly.

It is what it is.

This is not even a patch on its predecessor but there are just about enough pluses to keep you involved for its challenging 210 minute run time.

A curiosity, I’d say, that committed Shining fans, like me, should on balance, go see.

Just.

 

Sorry We Missed You: Movie review of Ken Loach’s latest drama.


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Sorry we missed you, says the card from the DPD driver.  Your parcel is in your wellingtons in the back garden.

Well, that’s a familiar message to us middle class online shoppers.

How we curse when our delivery man (looking a bit stressed) arrives late.

What we don’t know, until now, is perhaps why he’s late and the repercussions.

Loach and his usual writer, Paul Laverty, have crafted another slice of life drama out of real delivery man stories, real care worker stories.  But the problem with this latest opus is that they have basically lumped all of the worst case scenarios onto one family.

The outcome is, therefore, an almost unbelievable tidal wave of misery.  Of course this story is possible but it’s too contrived.  It’s like following the proverbial gambling addict backing red but black coming up time after time after time on his worst ever losing streak.

Add to this Loach’s penchant for using under-exposed (or non-professional) actors and he runs the risk of it not coming off.  And in this case there are too many misfires from his earnest, but variably talented, cast.

In the lead, Kris Hitchen does a good job of holding the whole thing together, although it’s the relationship with his charming daughter (who largely steals the show) Lisa Jane that is the emotional heart of the movie.  Sadly his world-weary care-working wife, Abbie, played by Debbie Hollywood fails to match up.  She has no previous pedigree and I don’t expect she will progress on the back of this, despite a valiant attempt to pull off a difficult role.

I don’t intend to spoil this with plot detail but I can tell you this is RELENTLESSLY bleak.  To the point of being unbelievable:  few in the gig economy can have ALL of this bad luck but I totally understand that many have some.

If only the misery had been doled out to more characters, and if only the acting had been of a universally higher standard this could have been a Loach great.

But it’s not.

I, Daniel Blake had few of the faults of this latest outing and all of its strengths.

Saying that, Ken Loach is one of our great polemicists and his voice is vital in our hideous Tory-driven self-centred economy.

Boris will never watch this, and if he does he’ll scoff at it.  But, then, we scoff at his privilege.

I’m sorry I can’t rate this amongst Loach’s best, but it deserves to be seen, albeit with a slightly forgiving viewer attitude.

A great director performing at sub-par is nevertheless a great director and I still rate this a 7/10.

 

 

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.