The Dark Knight

July 28, 2008

            As you no doubt have  already heard, ‘The Dark Knight’ is very, very good. And I am in agreement with the rest of the population. It is very, very good. After Christopher Nolan’s first retelling of the Batman origin, we were all rather excitemed when he said he would return to direct a second instalment. And with the first film set up for the possibility of a Joker story we were not disappointed when this was fulfilled. To top this off Christian Bale returned to role, as well as Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine reprising their parts, but it was when Heath Ledger was billed as The Joker that we knew that this ace was going to help deal a delightful hand.

            The sequel is much more action packed than Nolan’s first instalment. With the character and motivation behind Batman already set up, the director had licence to throw him into the deep end. Action layered upon action with a coating of creamy action surprisingly never once got boring. It was even to the point where often Batman would turn up in a fight even though the story left him halfway across Gotham. No one really complains over that sort of continuity. Besides, the monorail system must be really prompt. His mode of transport shifts focus away from the Batmobile too. A simply joyous moment is the introduction of the Bat-Cycle. Watching it pop out from nowhere made me squeal with glee.

            This film is not all about action and bikes and action and monorails. There is in actual fact a very solid plot beneath the gothic glamour. When the film deters into having two main villains I was worried that it had gone the way of Spiderman 3, which literally collapsed under its own weight of plot lines and ideas. Fortunately the appearance of Harvey ‘Two Face’ Dent was well balanced and integrated with the main plot line. Aaron Eckhart delivers an excellent performance and really grasps the betrayal he has felt on behalf of the city when he undergoes his transformation (which also looks great). Christian Bale picks up Batman exactly where we left him, which is no easy feat, but this time he is allowed to explore his sentimental side. Quite refreshing really when compared to the heavy-set brow, trouble minded Bruce Wayne of the first instalment. This film sees him gallivanting around with more women, more cars, and actually has a smile on his face.

            Talking of smiles on the face… Well, it was impossible to review ‘The Dark Knight’ without mentioning Heath Ledger’s Joker. After his death earlier this year, which shocked not only the film world but the entire globe, people began wait in anticipation to see if The Joker was to be his last great role. Put simply this was the best swan song he could have asked. From his pencil pushing introduction onwards Ledger delights the audience throughout. His Joker is much more troubled, less comic book villain, truly maniacal. Ultimately, more human! The audience that I saw the film with delighted in his unhinged perception of the world, laughing along with the darkest of dark comedy. Everyone was enjoying the jokes along with him. Ledger is frankly outstanding and his performance is worth seeing.    

            It is very difficult to pick apart a film that works so well. The cracks in its façade are non-existent. This is a perfect action film for the summer blockbuster slot. It’s dark, it’s brooding, it’s high octane action but still distinctly Batman. Ledger comes out top dog in this film, and without the unfortunate events of earlier this year he would have been walking out of the Oscars with a Best Supporting Actor statue under his belt. I’m sure of it. 

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Wall-E

July 22, 2008

            I do not believe that I have ever seen the words ‘Pixar’ and ‘bad’ in the same sentence. The studio’s output over the last 20 years, from their short films to their features, have been consistently well above par, with many of their films becoming instant classics upon release. Indeed, if a Pixar film is not an instant classic people are not just disappointed but shocked that this studio would produce something sub-standard.

            Fortunately their latest offering comes into former classic category. ‘Wall-E’ follows the story of a refuse collecting robot, the last robot on Earth, who has been left to clean up the mess made by human beings who float around the galaxy waiting for the planet to be habitable again. However, Wall-E’s daily routine is turned upside down when a strange robot called EVE arrives on Earth. This does not sound like a Pixar plot, nor does it start like one. This film opens in relative silence with Wall-E cleaning up and going about his regular business. The film does eventually descend into the trademark shenanigans and adventures that we have come to love from Pixar, but the opening deserves some more page space.

            There are few films where you think, ‘Wow, that was a truly amazing opening. The rest is going to be great’. ‘Wall-E’ is one of these with its subtle nods towards ‘2001 Space Odyssey’. Everything from the sad string based music to the wastelands of Earth covered with signs from the omnipresent ‘Big’n’Large Company’ makes the opening of this film quite different from any animated feature I have seen. It is dark, foreboding and certainly not child friendly. The desolate piles of rubbish scattered with ‘dead’ Wall-E units makes for a truly sinister picture. This vision of distopia strikes a chord deep inside of you, and makes wonder if Pixar have quite hit the mark.

But they have. With the picture set, the focus shifts to our hero. As the last robot on Earth, Wall-E is a solitary and rather sad little machine. The fact that the robots in the film speak in beeps and blips forces the animators and audiences to watch the movements; everything from their fingers and heads turns to the inflections of the eyes, or optical devices. Each tiny tilt and shuffle suggests more than dialogue ever could and parallels are already being drawn between the heroes and figures of silent cinema history like Charlie Chaplin. Someone mentioned a likeness to Woody Allen in another review. The slightly self-sorry feel comes out of Wall-E, peering from behind his eyes like Allen does from those trademark glasses. Scenes where he sifts through junk for his own treasures really brings out this comparative quality.

But it is not all doom and gloom for this film, otherwise it just would not be a Pixar film. The scenes inside Wall-E’s home bring a real magic to the film. The wide eyed love of all things human brings, well, a real human quality to the refuse collecting unit and the audience partakes in the nostalgia and wonder of this cave of wonders. For a character only ever speaks three English words, he is more fleshed out and loveable than millions of other characters I have ever seen.

Once again, Pixar’s animation is flawless. The reason that this studio is a cut above the rest is because they have a handle on gravity, shading, weight distribution; the list is endless. And it is because of their absolute grasp of animation physics that you really get lost in this world and allows you to truly commit to the story. Watching Wall-E and his love interest EVE (yes, robots can have love interests even if they can’t speak to each other) dancing through space propelled by sonic engines and a fire extinguisher is utterly joyful. And although a lot has been said about the Earth scenes already, its look of dust and rust is pitch perfect. The floating, hand-held feel of the camera in the Earth scenes is totally unexpected and perfectly executed allowing a different feel from the normal huge sweep or utterly still camera points of earlier films.

It would be easy to write a book about the wonders of this film. The fact is that I do not want to give too much away about any of it because every moment is either filled with childlike wonderment or poignant adult sincerity. Pixar have made a film that all the family can actually enjoy. If you do not see this while it is in cinemas then I do not think that you can go to bed happy this year. Wall-E is an instant classic, a must see and piece of cinema history. Go now!  

Dry Rot

July 14, 2008

            The Loft Theatre in Leamington Spa reminds me of my own local theatre back home where I grew up in Kent. Everything from the red velvet curtains, the squeaking seats and the need for an overture before each act put me in the mood. This theatre experience was going to take me back to my grass roots ambitions of amateur theatre and it did not fall short of my expectations.

            ‘Dry Rot’ is a comedy set in rural 1940’s England. The Wagstaff family’s newly owned country house-cum-bed and breakfast is beset by an unlikely rabble of characters led by Alfred Tubbe. Tubbe plans to win a bet on a horse race taking place at the near by racetrack by switching the tipped winner for one he has brought in especially to fail, and needs to do it all before the Wagstaffs find out.

            The play itself is very hit and miss. The writing was inconsistent and heavily padded with dialogue about getting someone a cup of tea, even at 3am. The 10 strong cast are all given side plots to main horse racing story but most of them never seem to be resolved. Daughter Susan Wagstaff and secretary John Danby never fulfil their love plot while the eventually presence of Police Sergeant Fire is utterly superfluous and leads only to an unnecessary, although extremely well timed, chase scene involving most of the cast and a shot gun.

            In spite of the play being ropey to say the least, the cast did a good job to flog this dead horse of script. Bill Davis as Colonel Wagstaff was an enjoyable performance with good comic timing and played the enjoyable force of confused reason that often drove the play along. Another delightful performance came from Michelle Bezant whose Vicky Pollard inspired maid Beth interacted well with other cast members, who sometimes actually forgot about reacting altogether. Her undeveloped romance with Tubbe’s sidekick Fred Phipps was one side plot warmly welcomed but unfortunately stopped short.

            The best-planned part of the whole evening was the set. A well-constructed and sturdy multi-layered structure put the effort of minimalist sets to shame, revealing them to be no more than someone doing a lazy days work. Revealing was the buzz word of the play, with the pick of the frantic and high comedy scenes coming from mishaps with the secret passageway discovered in the front room by Tubbes and Phipps. The wonderful sliding door mechanism in a bookcase made me feel as if I had walked into a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Only far sillier. 

            The performance was polished and heavily thought through, but it had only moments of glory. The rest of the play was subdued under the need for tea and extraneous plots. This performance could have gone under the directorial scissors a little more. Nevertheless, ‘Dry Rot’ provided a heart-warming return to memories of my youth and I walked out smiling. Job done.   

Welcome to the Sticks

July 8, 2008

            French cinema has slowly been creeping back into the British mainstream. 5 years ago if you asked anyone about what they thought French cinema, the masses would reply that they had seen ‘Amelie’, and the arts students would reply that if you had not seen ‘The Dreamers’ then you did not really understand French cinema. But with the recent rerelease of ‘Jules et Jim’ and last year’s tribute to the capital ‘Paris Je T’aime’, it was only a matter of time before other films began to spring up.

            One of these is Danny Boon’s ‘Beinvenue chez les Ch’tis’ (Welcome to the Sticks). Following a postal manager Phillipe Abrams, an excellent piece of casting in the form of Kad Merad, who inadvertently has his office relocated from the sunny and sophisticated south of France into what he believes is going to be the cold and comfortless north region. While the plot may sound thin and incomprehensible to an audience that does not understand the cultural heritage of the French north south divide, this film works happily for the United Kingdom where the English north south divide seems to fairly similar to what these regions of France think of each other.

            While Kad Merad is an excellent comic actor on his own, his scenes by himself are few and tend to move towards stereotypically French comedy, including an hilarious scene with a wheelchair. The comedy, and consequently the film, really kicks off upon his arrival in the north and his unlikely friendship with the molly coddled alcoholic postman Antione Bailleul (Danny Boon). Their scenes together spray a good tension and misunderstanding that eventually leads to a delightful comic banter and what seems to be an earnest friendship.

            Unlike a considerable amount of comedy that is churned out by the Hollywood studios in the last few years leading to the rise of stars like Ben Stiller and Will Farrell, this film decides to invest in the relationships of characters and fleshes them out so that they are not two dimensional joke machines on legs. The sincerity of the relationships between the five unlikely post office workers as they go to lunch at the local chip stand is something deeply missed by big American productions and this film could teach them a lesson to about emotional continuity.

            There are few low points of this film though. One is that a good half of the film and part of its resolution is the dislike of the north by the south. No matter how many times the joke is told in its different ways, it does start to grate after around 45 minutes. Without a dubbed version of this film, a large amount of the distinctive sharp French comedy is lost in translation when attempting to show the difference in accents. This results in most of the northern characters having the subtitles changed to distort their pronunciation of their words. An excellent idea and well attempted but it does make for difficult reading and a wandering joke about fish, most likely hilarious in French, is completely lost because of the sheer speed at which the lines are delivered and that you need to read at.

            Besides these minor points, ‘Welcome to the Sticks’ is a fun, light hearted and warming comedy. Everyone from Kad Merad and Danny Boon to the irritable mother and the town yokels are well cast and excellently played, dipping either side of the line of light comedy and slight severity. I hope for the future more films like this come out of France and make into the mainstream cinemas. Get this one DVD, because it won’t disappoint you. 

Warwick Student Arts Festival 2008

July 1, 2008

For five years the Warwick Student Arts Festival, or WSAF for short, has become a staple part of the end of the academic year for many Warwick University students. As the biggest student run arts festival in the UK, WSAF continually boasts a broad range of events from theatre to art, from photography to interpretive dance, from films to dance demonstrations. Since its inception in 2003, the festival coordinator and their team have continued to expand the range of events and this year was no exception. 

            With events being spread across four large venues as well as smaller obscure alcoves of the campus, WSAF has turned over more than 80 events this year. The university’s regular output of exciting and often well-produced theatre continues confidently into this week, and new student writing dominated this year’s theatre. ‘Cardboard Metropolis’, although not a polished performance, shows the potential of what young writers at Warwick have to offer. Performances of Pintar’s ‘The Dumb Waiter’ and ‘You’re A Good Man, Charlie Man Brown’ were but two of the many examples of established playwrights proving the students’ abilities to find the heart and soul of these texts, an amazing feat considering many of the actors and crew members had only recently finished sitting their final year examinations.

            Exploring new modes of art is often a welcomed and thrilling experience but some of these experimental pieces unfortunately fell flat on their faces. Quest, a fantasy inspired musical, attempted to amalgamate the bleak world of sorcery and dragons with the lipstick world of musical theatre resulting in a bizarre and often laughable attempt at a play while Angel in Crayola attempted to break the constructs of theatre altogether but to little avail. The performance was uninspiring, badly written and convoluted.

            But these examples are few and far between. Staple favourites such as The Warwick Shootout Screening, where audiences delighted in the winning films from the most extreme film making competition in the country, and the various Warwick orchestras and bands put on a good show and did not disappoint their audiences. Every musical act from the Big Band to Opera Society to Chamber Choir performed to highest degree.

            The dance elements of the festival have been given more prominence this year. The Pole Dancing society took centre stage in the Piazza, the centre of the campus, with a vibrant and enthusiastic performance from society member Rose Biggin. Likewise, the Tribal Rhythms event was a joy to watch. Combining the best elements of Bellydance, Break-dance and Capoeria, these three societies delighted audiences with an innovative amalgamation of three very different yet wholly exhilarating dance styles. 

            The highlight of this year’s festival was the Warwick Sketch Show crew, BabyChimp, whose Evening Without Dignity had audiences laughing out loud from beginning to end, resulting in one of the most enjoyable hours I have ever spent in a theatre. Each sketch was pitch perfect with a range of material that seriously lambastes the best parts of society whilst exhibiting a surprisingly credible element of the bizarre.

            If you can wait until 2009, and can get to Warwickshire for this week of their final term, Warwick students will not fail to delight all comers to this innovative arts festival. Even when compared to some of the larger and more professionally run arts festival that are cropping up all over the country, WSAF is setting a high bar for the others to compete with. 

Apologies

July 1, 2008

Dear readers

Many apologies for not having posted recently. I have been travelling a lot and working on various theatre projects and have had little to no time to post a review. However, above is a new review of an entire festival. That is to compensate. 

Hope you enjoy it and thank you for waiting. 

 

Resting

June 13, 2008

If you have checked back for your weekly dosage of Six Minute Column, I am sorry to report but it has been put on hold till next week. I am in Milan until Tuesday.

However, the blog will restart the Monday after with review of the city of Milan. Our first travel piece makes it way to you.

Keep safe.

Troilus and Cressida

June 9, 2008

            It is important to note right away that Cheek By Jowl have already tried their hand at Shakespeare. The director of their 2004 production of ‘Othello’, Declan Donnellan, has assembled the largest cast the company has ever put on stage and turned to one the Bard’s lesser-known and more problematic plays. Tracing a troubled period in the Trojan War, ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is on the one hand a love epic of two young Trojans and on the other a gritty play critiquing the systems of war and battle honour. With a noticeably minimal set in the main of theatre of The Barbican, and returning their favoured traverse staging, I waited for the lights to lower to see what Donnellan would do with this mixed bag of a text. On paper, the play combines the best parts of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the military elements of the Histories cycle to create a decent but not always easy balance of love and war.

            This means play itself is a ‘slow burner’, needing time to set up the numerous plot strands, and by consequence the first of half this production lagged. The choice to modernise speaking patterns was handled well by some actors but others did not even grasp the meaning of what they were saying. Oliver Coleman’s Paris was a disastrous performance, causing the audience around me to move around in their seats in squeamish discomfort. Many of the actors seem to have confused passion with shouting and when combined with some of the strong regional accents in the cast it made for very difficult listening. Laurence Spellman as the mighty Ajax lost many of his lines because of this combination and unfortunately for the most part could not be understood.

            Donnellan also used his first act to lay the grounds for his exploration of sexuality and eroticism. His choice to have Richard Cant play Thersites as a drag queen-cum-transsexual was a hard puzzle to decipher. Bursting onto the stage dressed in a workman’s boiler suit, brandishing what look liked a bottle of Cif and cloth and splashed with make-up I was at first intrigued and was almost prepared to let Cant get away with it and see where this device was going. Upon opening his mouth however a voice very much like, if not exactly like, Paul O’Grady’s pierced out from between his lips, making for an off-putting performance. Cant’s performance is quite obviously based on day time television presenter’s famous drag queen alter ego, Lily Savage, and this uncanny impersonation did not seem to fit the tone of the play.

            However, by the start of the second act all the puzzle pieces fell into place. Cant came into his own, and turned out to be the key to Donnellan’s exploration of love and desire. One particular delight was a scene where Cant appears dressed in a ball gown and plays the host in a bizarrely placed yet brilliant cross-gendered cabaret in Achilles’ tent. The relationship of Achilles and his cohorts also blooms in the second half, giving him the convincing drive needed for his final showdown with Hector.

The leads, Alex Waldmann as Troilus and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Cressida, shone throughout the play bringing a youthful counter-point and an injection of life into the longer scenes of military squabbling. Briggs-Owen was the true star of this production whose timid yet strong and youthful heroine made for an enthralling watch. Other notable mentions go to David Caves as Hector and Ryan Kiggell as the most worried and stuttery Ulysses that I have ever seen.

            From a design standpoint Donnellan took a chance to really explore the visual elements of the show, giving rise to some truly amazing set pieces. Paris and Helen’s awkward dialogues were broken up by a publicity photo shoot, an inspired rethinking of genuinely boring scene and a sly critique of celebrity culture, while Troilus’ final speech was spoken whilst being flanked by two giant human shadows, proving how effective a bare set and a pair of spots can really be.

            Cheek By Jowl’s monopoly on cutting edge and experimental theatre now extends to the realm of Shakespeare. If you get a chance to see this show, try to stick out the first act. By the second half, you will realise that you just needed to see the wood through the trees. A wholly gratifying and thought-provoking experience.  

Double Agent

June 2, 2008

            The Mead Gallery at the Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, often brings innovative and informative art exhibitions into what I consider to be one of the best open plan gallery spaces in the UK. It is currently exhibiting ‘Double Agent’, a collection of works by 7 artists whose works are based around adjusting the focus of creation and perception away from the artist onto other people. In spite of the idea being familiar to many art lovers and is ground often covered, the collection is able to invigorate various methods of performance and display to raise old questions about performance and authorship of art.

            Upon entering the first of three spaces, one notices how widely spread the exhibition is, perhaps a little nod to this being the viewers stage. Particular praise goes to Dora Garcia. Her contribution ‘Instant Narrative’ involves a subject sitting in room 1 and typing out what they see as people enter the room in their own narrative voice. This is then projected onto a wall in the next room for the subject to read. This is an exhilarating idea, firmly placing the gallery viewer as the exhibit but what keeps the subjects interest is the live aspect of the artwork. The continually changing screen of sentences makes for a fresh exhibit and undoubtedly connects the viewer with the collection around them. Another well executed idea Joe Scanlan’s presentation of artist Donelle Woolford. With a makeshift studio built inside the gallery, Woolford works on new projects and artwork before the viewers eyes, engaging with audiences members and allowing Scanlan to reach to his audience in a truly hands on manner.

            Not all the artists hit the mark quite as precisely as these two. Artus Zmijewski’s film ‘Them’ may be a brilliant piece of film concerning contrived conflicts in an artistic space, but is simply too long. As one of the first exhibits people see, it will keep the viewer tied to a bench for 27 minutes to watch the film in its entirety. With 3 other video presentations to view, patience unfortunately wears thin over this very interesting film. Pawel Althamer’s sculptures seem to tell no story, and do not seem to fit amongst this largely thought provoking exhibition.

            What really separates this collection from others I have seen on the same subject is the interactive element. As well as ‘Instant Narrative’ and Woolford’s studio, the third room is a play space for workshops being run on Saturday’s for school children to come and involve themselves with the artwork. Even the children become the artist, proving that the often-overlooked amalgamation of fun activities and tutoring of art does work. This is engaging children at the right level of artwork, and blows The Tate Modern’s exhibiting of Carsten Holler’s ‘The Unilever’s Series’ right out of the water and showing it for the head counting, gift shop filling exhibition it was. While it may not seem to be as much fun as a slide, children are getting an experience of interacting and affecting professional artwork here that they may not normally have.

            ‘Double Agent’ is an old idea done well. My advice, if you want to pay a visit to the Mead Gallery or at one of the other stops on the tour, is to take an hour out of your day and watch the video presentations and really engage with the material. This is not passively looking at pictures or sculptures, but a chance to immerse yourself in art. As you become the subject, the least you could do is give this well thought collection time of day.  

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

May 26, 2008

            With the Royal Shakespeare Theatre still under construction, and having said a sad farewell to Michael Boyd’s ‘Histories’ cycle, audiences waited with trepidation for the next season from the Royal Shakespeare Company to open in the Courtyard Theatre. Presenting what one could call a ‘safe’ collection of five plays, the crowning jewel being the forthcoming ‘Hamlet’ starring Patrick Stewart and David Tenant, the other plays were promised to sparkle just as brightly. But after a disappointing ‘Taming of the Shrew’, and the visionless offering that was the ‘Merchant of Venice’, I was looking forward to what has been my favourite Shakespeare since I was a child.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that not much can go wrong with ‘Dream’. It is a simple story of tangled love, fairies and what I consider to be one of the best fools in literature, because for any of us who go to the theatre or have been in a school play knows that there is a little bit of Bottom in all of us.

            But in spite of the praises that this production has been given, I must admit that I was less than impressed. The directorial vision was incomplete and entirely incongruous. Gregory Doran’s choice to reference modern pop music acts such as Michael Jackson and Sting may be good for getting a cheap laugh but made the production seem fragmented. Why does Sting have a place amongst lover’s feuds and fairies? No answer was given.

Most of the complaints about this production also come from Doran’s directorial choices concerning his lead actors. Peter de Jersey’s Oberon was as wooden as the forest he lives in and his fairy train was littered with over acting. Joe Dixon’s Bottom may have been the bumbling mechanical that many love, but Doran’s choice to take the character out the context of the play with these dance moves (the first of many examples) made for a sporadic and confusing performance.

            In spite of its problems, people were enjoying the show and there did not seem to be a dull moment for some. The most positive aspects were the overall design elements, with lavish lunar projections, light bulbs and descending Perspex bowers, keeping the audience visually stimulated. Praise also goes to some of the cast. Putting Doran’s perplexing vision to the side, Edward Bennett, as Demetrius, and Natalie Walter, as Helena, really stood out of the crowd as one pair of mismatched lovers. Bennett’s insular persona led to a convincing portrayal of a man fighting between his feelings and Egeus’ preferences, while Walter’s shone using her full range that went above and beyond the two dimensional performances of the other leads. Praise also goes to Mark Hadfield who gave the audience an enjoyably inept and slovenly Puck.

            This offering from RSC continues to hang the old question mark over the nature of Shakespeare an its performance in modern theatre. With an entire complex dedicated to recreating England’s most important literary tradition, as well as funding from arts councils and patrons, what do audience’s want from the Bard’s work in the 21st century? Plays like Boyd’s ‘Histories’ were gripping and frankly unmissable as pieces of theatre, not just Shakespeare, with genuine thought being put into every scene and device. The Histories are difficult plays to conceive on stage. Even the tried and tested Henry V needs a serious amount of work every time it is reconceived.

In comparison, I felt that Doran’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ rode the wave of the text, often relying on the simple yet solid script which carried some of the directors’ more bizarre choices. These came in the form of modern contextual references (the reason for the fairies reversing making articulated lorry noises, or repeating the word bosom are lost on me) and hyperbolical performances, all of which point towards the shows’ aim to please a mass audience. That seems to be what the audience want and it is not ultimately a bad thing. It brings people together to watch text that can be difficult to comprehend but here it has been done at the sake of artistic integrity. The RSC have a reputation to keep up, but the season thus far continues to be a thorn in their side. Let us hope ‘Hamlet’ is not all bark and no bite.