Colette (dir. Wash Westmoreland) 2019

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Biographical historical costume drama is a relatively specific genre of movie, but one that is in vogue at the start of 2019, with “The Favourite” and “Stan and Ollie” also getting UK release in January this year. Colette captures the zeitgeist in other ways too, it is about female empowerment, we watch Colette slowly grow in confidence and competence after entering Paris as a young ingenue, the wife of a powerful and authoritarian man about town. The storyline about gender fluidity and sexual freedom is timely too, as her relationship with Missy is treated in an honest and positive manner.

The film is set in Paris and Burgundy at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. It concentrates on the early life of Colette, the time of her first marriage, which was to Henry Gauthier-Villars a renowned Parisian socialite. It ends with the publication of the first Colette novel, although she was successful and notorious throughout the rest of her life, she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

The film is lovingly made and the dialogue is beautifully written, Wash Westmoreland obviously cares about Colette and admires her writing, the film is directed in a manner that reflects her style, unhurried and descriptive, although aside from a few double entendre witticisms the film is less racy than her books. Giles Nuttgens is the cinematographer – the rooms, houses and gardens all look lush and inviting. The acting throughout is wonderful. Keira Knightley gives us a great performance in the title role, we watch her grow in courage and independence as the film goes on. Timothy West is brilliant as Willy, her despotic yet hugely charismatic husband. A lovely combination of good writing and good acting makes you understand how this dictatorial man held sway over Colette’s strong personality for so long.

The cast is of the highest quality throughout. Denise Gough is wonderful as the convention defying Marquise de Belbeuf, Missy. She plays the part sympathetically and with gusto. She is shown as a major influence on Colette’s courage and bravura. Jake Graf has a nice cameo as Gaston de Caillavet and Fiona Shaw is lovely as Sido, Colette’s mother.

Colette is a beautifully made and beautifully written biopic about a strong revolutionary woman. It focuses on a specific period of her life and we get the story very definitely from her point of view, however as she herself says in the film “The hand that holds the pen writes history”. The film is uplifting, inspiring and enjoyable.

Widows (dir. Steve McQueen) 2018

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This film is based on a story written by Lynda La Plante which was originally made as a six part miniseries that was shown on ITV in 1983. It was very popular in the UK at the time and was the start of a successful career in crime shows for the writer. The original series was set in East London and the show started with a security van catching fire in the Kingsway Underpass at Waterloo Bridge. This remake has moved the action to Chicago. The script has been co-written by director Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl. It is possible to see connections between the two films. They are both gritty, urban films with intelligent, believable dialogue.

The quality of the writing and directing team shines throughout and they have made Widows into a terse modern thriller. It has the edge of the seat moments, great characters and good plot twists – all the crowd pleasing elements necessary for an entertaining heist movie. It also has components that fix it firmly in todays society, with attention given to both the #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. These actually add to the realism of the storyline and increase your connection with the characters portrayed.

The cast list is impressive too with some big names even in the smaller roles. Robert Duvall delivers a good cameo as a cynical, corrupt retired politician, handing over to his, not yet quite as corrupted, son – a part nicely played by Colin Farrell. Daniel Kaluuya is brilliant as a cold, hard, nasty villain. I hope he gets another best supporting actor nomination for this. The best parts in this film though are for women and all four grab the opportunities with both hands. Elizabeth Debicki is wonderful as Alice, a woman who has been brought up to please men, but gradually realises that she has the ability to have her own voice too. Viola Davis won best supporting actress Oscar a couple of years ago, her performance here must put her in contention for one in a leading role. Veronica is a beautifully written part and she pitches it perfectly.

The cinematography is great. Sean Bobbitt shows us Chicago from many different viewpoints and we are given the sense that it is a city of affluence and poverty, often in close proximity. Without direct words we are shown how short a step it is, from luxury to danger. The soundtrack is by Hans Zimmer and his use of Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind to underpin a poignant moment is beautifully done.

Widows is so good because it touches on issues like political corruption, racism, sexism, domestic violence, religion and the difficulty of getting babysitters without them being the main thrust of the story.  Steve McQueen has done a very good job of making an entertaining, enjoyable, thriller of a heist movie, where the protagonists are believable people with the real world going on in the background.

Strictly Ballroom, Piccadilly Theatre, London W1.

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Strictly Ballroom is a crowd pleasing juke box musical. It certainly has a lot of good things going for it. The film, on which is based, is a classic Australian indie comedy of the early ’90s and it is wonderfully odd and funny. The songs are popular upbeat singalong tunes that the audience will know and love. The cast is great and the director and choreographer have some great musicals on their CV.

The show has been rewritten for the stage and a new character, a narrator, has been added. The idea is brilliant, he sings the songs, adds perspective to the larger than life characters and propels the action along with some knowing repartee. Matt Cardle plays this part, Wally Strand, and he does a good job. He has a great voice and he is nicely self deprecating. However there are 35 different songs in this 2 hour show, many of them delivered in two, three or more pieces. He rarely get to sing more than one bar without stopping. It would have been lovely to listen to a complete song in one go, instead of hearing them broken up into fragments.

The story has not been changed from the film and is simple but solid. The difference is that, in the film it was mostly played straight and the characters were unintentionally amusing. Here we have cartoon-like caricatures played for laughs and the comedy feels strained at times. There are funny lines and the caricatures are comical. The acting is  good, Matthew Stevens and Anna Francolini’s over the top performances as Doug and Shirley Hastings were both enjoyable.

Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen are both good dancers and excellent as Scott and Fran. The ensemble look good, but the stage at the Piccadilly is too small fit the entire company  and the group set pieces feel cramped and uncomfortable.

The set is sparse and effective, it needs to be because of the lack of space. The costumes are wonderfully sparkly and camp. “Strictly Ballroom, the Musical” has been damned with faint praise, the show is fun and the audience gave it a warm reception. It is a good show, but the sum does not quite live up to all its parts. I liked it but the expectations are high and, in London’s West End, the competition is fierce.

 
 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

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This is a new adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel. David Harrower has changed the telling of the story, in some ways it is closer to the book than any of the previous adaptations have been. It is told in flashback rather than the flashforward of the book, but the main roles from the book are all here and their character foibles are more to the fore than in the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith.

The Jean Brodie of this play is more obviously manipulative, but still charismatic. She is a talented teacher, hugely influential, on the children she teaches. However, with great power comes great responsibility and the story is really about whether her personality allows her to use her talent to its best effect. There is no doubt that Jean Brodie is a fantastic role, although Maggie Smith – with her best actress Oscar for the part, makes it a brave soul who would be prepared to take it on. Lia Williams is amazing in the role, she really makes it her own. She shows us why the girls are so in her thrall, and she gives us an insight into why this is not necessarily always in their best interests.

The cast is small and all are good. Angus Wright is excellent, as usual, as Gordon Lowther, the music teacher whose love for Jean Brodie is not returned. His part, in particular, is more compassionately written here than in other versions, this works well as a contrast to the more dissolute role of Teddy Lloyd.   I really enjoyed seeing the role of Joyce Emily brought forward in this adaptation. Nicola Coughlan is really good in the part, I think we will be hearing that name much more in the future.

The set is simple with clean lines and cool colours, reminiscent of Rennie Mackintosh. There is also a kind of Japanese Shinto influence with different bells arranged around the set, ringing intermittently before the start and during the interval, ensuring that we are all in a state of relaxation before the action begins.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a great book and this is a lovely new adaptation of it. The dialogue is crisp and clear, the characters are sympathetically written, and the acting is top class. It is playing until the end of July, I know the Donmar has a tendency to sell out very quickly, but if you can get your hands on a ticket, then I would recommend that you do.

Shoreditch Takeover, Shoreditch Town Hall, London

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Shoreditch is the centre of cool in London at the moment, so you would expect its contribution to the Dance Umbrella Festival 2017 to be cutting edge and innovative. On both these counts it certainly delivers. Shoreditch Takeover is made up of four very different pieces, happening in separate spaces within the beautiful old building that is Shoreditch Town Hall. Twenty first century art within nineteenth century architecture.

First is Rays, Sparks and Beating Glows. This is choreographed by Julie Cunningham and is an intense piece, about gender and feminism, for four dancers. It is performed without music, although there is some spoken word towards the end.

Next is Vanessa Kinsuule, who is a wonderful poet. She is, witty, insightful, nostalgic and honest. She has a winning personality, who can really involve an audience and the introductions to the poems are almost as good as the poems themselves.  Her whole set is great and the poem about an evening, dancing at a nightclub, is a highlight.

The third set is Lizbeth Gruwez dances Bob Dylan, a personal interpretation, exploring the edges of dance. For “Knockin’ on Heavens Door”, Lizbeth stands with her back to the audience at the front of the stage and walks, slowly and beautifully, to the back. You haven’t seen minimalism in dance until you have watched this. The Bob Dylan tracks are played on vinyl and are quite scratchy at times, invoking images of drunk and stoned nights in 70’s bedsits.

The final work is a film, The Shadow Drone Project, cleverly filmed from above, where the actual bodies of the dancers can hardly be seen, but instead we watch their shadows interact with each other. Some of this appears choreographed and some not, blurring the line between formal dance and how our brains make patterns.

All in all, a varied and interesting night in a lovely venue, a good addition to the Dance Umbrella Festival 2017.

The Pass (dir. Ben A. Williams) 2016

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The Pass is a film adaptation of a play that was a big hit when it played at the Royal Court Theatre in 2014. I have to imagine that it comes across better in the intimate surroundings of a small theatre. The premise is good, the timing is right for a movie about a closeted gay footballer, but this is not that movie. Had it been made in the 1970’s or 1980’s it would probably have been ground-breaking and interesting but at this moment we do not need a film about a selfish gay soccer star made bitter by the possibility that he might have missed out on true love.

The film is directed by Ben A. Williams and he sticks rigidly to the three act, three hotel room setting of the play. This increases the impression of it being a filmed version of a theatre play and puts another step between us and the action.

Although there are four characters in this film, two of them are two dimensional ciphers. The lap dancer, Lyndsey,  and the male groupie, Harry, are just there to use and be used. Ade, the player turned plumber, is well acted by Arinze Kene, but this film is ultimately about Jason, who is excellently portrayed by Russell Tovey. He develops into the true antihero, without a single redeeming feature. We watch him go from, a not particularly nice, 17 year old to, a harsh and vitriolic, 28 year old over the course of three acts. That is the real problem with this film, we never really liked him in the first place so we don’t really empathise with him.  He doesn’t care about anybody, he uses his wife, his child, his lap dancer, his fan and ultimately even his mate Ade. He chooses lifestyle over fulfilment, so when he is unfulfilled we aren’t particularly surprised or worried.

I had such high hopes for this film, it had so much going for it, and don’t let me take away from an outstanding performance by Russell Tovey, but so many movies made from the 1930s to the 1990s are full of flawed gay characters whose life is ruined by the fact that they can’t cope with the trauma of being queer, and I had hoped that we had moved on from that.

The Hippopotamus (dir. John Jencks) 2017

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“The Hippopotamus” the novel came out in 1994. At the time the book was mildly shocking, moderately funny and quite witty. Stephen Fry was at the height of his popularity, he was clever, droll and sharp. 23 years later and everything has changed, the storyline is slightly distasteful, the writing seems bland and the dialogue is pompous.

Roger Allam is good as Ted Wallace, a washed up poet who investigates a series of miracles taking place in a country house, but he is just about the only good thing about this film. As a comedy it is remarkably banal, his vicious put downs and arch insights fall flat because everyone in the film has some major character flaw that makes the shot too easy to be funny.

The most interesting thing about this movie was trying to work out what had changed in the intervening years, that made the experience of watching it in 2017 so different to reading it in 1994. In the end, I decided that there was a combination of factors conspiring against it. Watching it over an hour and a half  as opposed to reading it over a few days, intensified the characters, made them less rounded, and as the flaws were the part that was important to the storyline, these were the traits that were magnified.  My taste has changed, and although I still enjoy a barbed riposte, I prefer it when both sides have the wit to take part. Sitting ducks make unexciting targets. Attitudes have changed in the last 23 years too, and the story that was shocking, but quite funny in 1994, appears borderline abusive now in 2017.

These things go in cycles, and although Stephen Fry’s star is on the wane currently, in the future he may again be recognised as a major talent. However, at the moment there is not much to recommend this film – save it to watch in 2040.

 
 
 

God's Own Country (dir. Francis Lee) 2017

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God’s own Country is a simple love story. A gritty, realistic, unsentimental love story. It is set in surroundings that are bleak and that sometimes seem hopeless. It is peopled with characters whose lives reflect that environment.

It is not an easy watch, Francis Lee, the director, has chosen not to airbrush the harsh realities of farm life on the Yorkshire moors, so there are scenes of birth, death, blood and gore. The characters, too, are depicted in a brutally honest way. They do not talk a great deal and when they do they are often spikey and abrasive. However, the occasional tenderness displayed seems highlighted because of this.

The four main actors are all great, both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe appear to bare their soul for the camera and Gemma Jones is great as Nan. Ian Hart is outstanding, with a beautifully nuanced performance as Johnny’s Dad, Martin. He can be harsh and  blunt, but beneath it all what he wants is his son’s happiness.

This is a film that is defined by the place in which it is set. Not only is this a very British film, it is a northern film, in much the same way that the band, The Smiths, were, when they were at their best. Sometimes the diamond shines all the brighter for being in a rougher environment, and that is certainly the case here. It is a very simple love story made sweeter by being found in such a hopeless place.

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) 2016

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I enjoyed Arrival, it has a lot of interesting ideas. It took me a little while to adjust, because, having seen the posters of huge alien space ships hovering over major cities,  I went in expecting a Hollywood sci-fi special effects blockbuster. This is more of an indie film given a larger than usual budget. Once I had realised that and changed my expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The story is good, both thought provoking and positive. Normally, I like linear narrative, but on this occasion the oblique storytelling suited the tale and the mood of the movie. The lead character is a little two dimensional, but beautifully acted by Amy Adams. The direction is fantastic, Denis Villeneuve has the confidence to make it very slow and deliberate, unusual in the sci-fi genre. He also had the bravery to open himself to the possibility of ridicule, by showing us the alien ships, showing us the aliens, defining their method of communication. This could have seemed preposterous, but in the end, they seemed believable and, particularly in the case of the writing, even beautiful.

The cinematography is lovely, very clever juxtaposition between the wide open spaces of Montana and the cramped confines of their camp. The soundtrack is exceptional, worthy of listening to even without the accompanying film. Everything about this film is high quality, however, the bang that you get for your buck is much more cerebral than is usual in a Hollywood Sci-fi blockbuster, and you should be aware of that before you decide to go.

Arrival was nominated for 8 Oscars at the 2017 Academy Awards, including best movie, but the only one it won was for achievement in sound editing.  It appears in many best of year lists for 2016, topping some of them.

The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 1938

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The Lady Vanishes is a 1938 comedy/thriller classic of the British Film Industry. It was Hitchcock’s breakout success and convinced David O. Selznick to offer him a seven feature deal in Hollywood. It was Michael Redgrave’s first movie part. Margaret Lockwood was already a leading lady, but this was her biggest film to date. It is also notable for being the first appearance of Charters and Caldicott a cricket obsessed comedy duo who were very famous throughout the 1940s.

The film was a huge hit, not only in the UK but also in the US, where it won the New York Times award for best film of 1938. The crime/suspense element of the film is very good with a very clever intricate story. The comedy is genuinely funny, the leading couple have great chemistry and their bickering is arch and witty. The supporting characters add to the entertainment, whether its the whimsical humour of Wayne and Radford as Charters and Caldicott, the slapstick of  Emile Boreo as the Hotel Manager, or even the awkward situational comedy of “Mr and Mrs” Todhunter.

This movie is almost 80 years old, so there are parts which seem unsophisticated from a modern perspective, but for me, this adds to its charm. I love the opening scene, where the avalanche has delayed the train. To our refined eye, it is patently a set up model, but although we know this, it works perfectly well and sets the stage to start the story.

It is one of the films that contains the traditional Hitchcock cameo, very near the end of the film, he appears on Victoria station. Although he was nominated at the Academy awards, as best director, five times, he never won any of them. So this movie was his only award for best director, he won the New York Times award in 1939. This film is a significant piece of British cinema history as well as being a very enjoyable watch.

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