Sunday, 28 May 2017

Film Review - Miss Sloane (15)

You're a piece of work, Elizabeth.
Zero Dark Thirty. Interstellar. The Martian. You want steely determination, Jessica Chastain is your woman. And as the Elizabeth Sloane of this film's title she has never been more single-minded - to the point of ruthlessness. Take the film's opening moments, when Miss Sloane is being grilled by her own lawyer in preparation for a congressional hearing that may break her. The camera lingers on Chastain's icy features, as if trying to make her flinch. Not a prayer. Not yet. The screws will really have to turn in this taut political drama before her cool exterior even threatens to crack. 
Sloane, you see, is that 21st century political animal - a lobbyist for hire in Washington DC, who's paid to influence America's legislators in their decisions. She's also highly successful due to her cunning, foresight and willingness to trample over opponents and allies alike in pursuit of her professional goals. A woman to admire from a distance, but never to tangle with. The fight of her career comes when a small lobbying firm attempts to steal her services; they want her to lead the charge to have a bill passed tightening background checks on US gun ownership. Fired more by the challenge than by any ethical considerations, she agrees to take it on.

And so the scene is set for an old-fashioned David/Goliath story, that's if David were a pill-popping borderline sociopath with no discernible moral boundaries. 
Miss Sloane is a slick and compelling piece of entertainment, driven chiefly by Chastain's power-dressed central performance. Yes she can be endearingly vulnerable elsewhere (see her in The Help), but here she's a study in severity, admirable and appalling in equal measure - pushing the audience's sympathy to breaking point. She's backed up by a smart supporting cast including the ever-dependable Mark Strong as her wary new boss, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a colleague with an emotional stake in the gun control issue and Alison Pill as the trainee lobbyist she left behind when jumping ship. It's to the film's credit that women are shown to have agency throughout, in the traditionally masculine environment of Washington.
John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) directs with a steady hand, but the movie's other great strength is its script. Unusually for a Hollywood film only one writer is credited - Jonathan Perera with his first ever screenplay. Reminiscent of The West Wing it's sharp in both wit and intelligence, giving the cast plenty to chew on and trusting the audience to keep up. I've bewailed some below-par screen writing here of recent weeks - well here's an example of how to do it properly, kudos to Perera. And if the latter section of the film sets off too big a dramatic fireworks display, it's forgivable. 
Miss Sloane as played by Chastain, you see, deserves room to breathe as a character. It's why this very good piece of cinema might make even better television. She and the other lobbyists, on both sides of the issue, are much too complex and fascinating to be summed up in two hours of screen time. On the small screen subtlety need never be sacrificed for explosive denouements. But that's a whole other issue, all to do with the new Golden Age of TV. 

For now enough to say that Miss Sloane is a fine political thriller for the big screen, driven by that central powerhouse performance. See it and relish every duplicitous moment.
Ed's Verdict: The plot twists get outlandish, but Jessica Chastain rocks it to the end.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Film Review - Alien: Covenant (15)

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
1979 gave us a horror film hard to match in terms of sheer naked dread. Alien, with its floating house of horrors the spaceship Nostromo, introduced cinema-goers to a new brand of claustrophobic terror. The sequels had their pleasures (Aliens stands out as a superb action film), but never yet have they matched the cold-sweat intensity of the original. So does Alien: Covenant come close? Answer - at points. But in truth this prequel is attempting to do more than scare its audience silly.
The film acts as a bridge between 2012's Prometheus and Alien, as director Ridley Scott expands the storytelling universe he helped create. Prometheus told the story of archaeologists delving into space for the origins of human life and discovering threats on which they hadn't bargained. Alien: Covenant manages to take that story further, reintroducing the nasty critters of the 1979 film and splicing it all into a larger whole. 
The 'Covenant' is a spaceship carrying two thousand deep-sleeping Earth passengers to the planet they hope to colonise. The fifteen-strong crew are awoken by a planetary distress call - yes, the same one that will interrupt the sleep of the Nostromo crew years later - and so they descend to a world recognisable by fans of the franchise. Of particular interest are second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterson), wrestling with a very personal grief, and 'synthetic human' Walter (Michael Fassbender as an upgrade of the android character he played in Prometheus). The numerous surprises they encounter on the planet surface prove fascinating and deadly in equal measure.
Covenant is, on many levels, a refreshing Alien addition, managing to be more than a stalk-and-slaughter reprise. It tells a fresh story, one that advances Prometheus' themes of life's origins and the relationship between creator and creation. When the horror elements do kick in, they're thrilling and revolting in equal measure, resulting in much clutching of cinema armrests.
Waterson is very much in the Alien tradition of capable female leads (we last saw her helping Eddie Redmayne with his Fantastic Beasts and she probably wishes she was back wrangling nifflers), while Fassbender lends all his charisma to the enigmatic Walter. Fassbender fans  - trust me, you will not be short-changed here. Add to all that the bleak-but-beautiful aesthetic that Scott brings to his science fiction films and there are pleasures aplenty. 
Shame about the script then. The ideas are intriguing, as is the universe building and accompanying literary allusions - but the dialogue is often second-rate and, aside from our leading two, no characters get adequately sketched. The plotting needs work too - I'm no health-and-safety fascist, but the number of basic protocols this bunch ignore is absurd. Logic gets sacrificed in the name of story advancement a few times too many, and that's harder to stomach than all the body horror on display. Cliched scripting is always a shame - but never more so than in a film of genuine ambition and scope, which this most certainly is.
Alien: Covenant does much to compliment Prometheus, while establishing a broader context for the original Alien. For those reasons alone it's worth a viewing. Add some decent writing and this would truly have been worthy of the Nostromo's ill-fated crew. Note - when your script borrows quotations from Shelley, the rest of it should really try and match up! 
Ed's Verdict: A welcome expansion of the visually splendid Alien universe - but call in the screenplay doctor please!

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Theatre Preview - Love, Love, Love

It's your fault. All of it. I wanted to tell you. I thought you should know.
As part of the creative team on Tower Theatre's forthcoming production of Love, Love, Love I'm not in a position to write a review. I mean I'd like to tell you what a scintillating evening of drama the show is going to provide. How a highly talented group of actors is going to bring Mike Bartlett's words and story to life in ways that will make the audience laugh uproariously, bridle with outrage and cringe with recognition. How it'll be moving and thought-provoking and divisive and an all-round riveting piece of theatre... but I'm involved, so I can't. Shame, that.

What I can do is talk a bit about the play and its writer, in my usual non-spoilery fashion. 
Bartlett is a darling of stage and screen in Britain right now (King Charles III, Doctor Foster) and has pulled off the trick of being both unerringly smart and populist. I could go into detail regarding his CV, but frankly it's all on Wikipedia and safe to say it's impressive. Love, Love, Love is one of his crowning achievements, showcasing as it does key Bartlett attributes - painstakingly crafted dialogue, wit and emotional savagery. (His language and the way he structures it is truly something to relish. Every word, every pregnant pause is scripted with care. For that alone this play is worth experiencing.)
The most striking aspect of Love, Love, Love, however, is how massive themes (of social change and politics and class) are explored within the confines of one family unit, albeit over several decades. The play leaps during three acts from 1967's Summer of Love to 1990 to the present day, its central characters aging from their late teens to their mid-sixties. What other dramas have done anything similar? Well I can think of Peter Flannery's TV epic Our Friends in the North (nine episodes covering thirty-one years) and the Trainspotting films if you watched them back-to-back (twenty years). But on stage, in a single three-act drama? None spring to mind. (Set me straight with multiple examples in the comments section below, please.) 
The remarkable thing about the Love, Love, Love time leaps is how the play creates an impression of lives lived in between - of shared memory and experience. From three glimpses of these characters and their children on key occasions in their lives, we see an entire family trajectory - full of love, acrimony, hope, disenchantment, anger, accusation and... well, more love. There are enough emotional fireworks here to burn down a theatre - and they pay off because Bartlett has written his characters like they've lived in each other's pockets a hell of a long time. It's as funny as it is tragic, as moving as it is infuriating. But that's family life, right?
So ultimately, what's the play about? In essence it's a story of the post-War Baby Boomers and whether or not their actions screwed over subsequent generations. Yes, that's all. It's a bit like that line from Don Henley's Boys of Summer about seeing 'a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac' - the Grateful Dead fan who's traded in his '60s idealism and embraced the capitalist dream. However Bartlett goes a step further and questions the whole meaning and validity of the Summer of Love in the first place. 

Oh - it's also about parents and children and trying to bridge the generational divide and about whether love can sustain over a lifetime.

Basically, it's about a lot of stuff. But one thing it's not about is easy answers. Are the post-War generation smug and complacent sell-outs? Are their children a bunch of slackers who won't take responsibility for their own lives? Those questions are best thrashed out in the pub afterwards. This is primarily a play to make us laugh, to make us angry and to make us think. 
Tower Theatre's production of Love, Love, Love can be seen at Theatro Technis, Camden from 23-27 May (7.30pm, matinee Sat. 27 at 3.00pm). It may well be a vital and enthralling piece of theatre, taking you on a roller-coaster of emotion laced with satirical wit - a razor-sharp revisiting of a modern classic. Again, that's not for me to say.

But you'll want to have an opinion, won't you?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Film Review - Lady Macbeth (15)

Through hell and high water I will follow you.
The first thing to know about Lady Macbeth is that the ferociously ambitious queen from the Shakespeare play doesn't actually feature as a character. The second is that the spirit of that formidable woman infuses every second of the running time. The protagonist Katherine runs deep under a still, brooding surface, much like the film itself. She's easy to underestimate - but only a fool, it transpires, would make that mistake.
Set in 19th Century Northumbria, Lady Macbeth introduces us Katherine, the bride in a cold and clearly arranged marriage. Trapped in a remote and austere country house, her role is as a corseted doll to an older man - mistress of the house in name only. Her husband is boorish, her father-in-law tyrannical and her prospects grim. The attentions of a maidservant only serve to reinforce her life's soul-crushing routine. Respite comes when both men are drawn from home by business, and it's then that she experiments with how she might best alter her situation. The results will stay with you a long time after the closing credits.
Based on Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, this is a hugely impressive first feature by director William Oldroyd. In an era of 'louder is better' excess, this is a welcome exercise in stripped-back cinema. The screenplay is intelligent and spare (courtesy of another first-timer Alice Birch), with natural light and sound used throughout in service to a bleak and harsh vision. Any incidental music is saved for critical moments, with the ambient noise of rural Northumbria (and good old silence) serving to build up dramatic intensity. Indoors it's the clump of shoes on hardwood floors, clack of shutters and tying of creaking corsets that convey the extent of Katherine's oppression. Every shot counts too, the story built with economy and clear, striking visuals.
Then there's the performance of Florence Pugh in the lead.
Previously seen in The Falling with Maisie Williams, Pugh is nothing short of magnetic. Starved of dialogue in the early scenes she does most through her eyes and her stillness, and it's mesmerizing every time. Here is a girl mired in stultifying boredom, but quietly willful - craving freedom both moral and physical. It cannot be long, we feel, before she attempts on some level to break out. Christopher Fairbank and Paul Hilton do good, scowling character work as father-in-law and husband respectively. Naomi Ackie draws sympathy as hapless Afro-Caribbean maid Anna, while Cosmo Jarvis impresses as cocky stableman Sebastian. All, however, remain firmly within Pugh's orbit as her character evolves relentlessly.
Lady Macbeth is an absorbing drama, not least because of its power-plays in a world where gender, race and class all play a role. (This isolated community has one complex and fluid pecking order.) It's also got enough windswept moors and broiling passions to make Emily Bronte proud - eroticism and violence both lurk beneath its calm, threatening to assert themselves. 

As for the extent to which Katherine channels the iconic Shakespearian lady of the title - I suggest you find that out for yourself.
Ed's Verdict: Engrossing drama with a dark, compelling heroine and a surprising power to shock.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Theatre Review - Kindertransport (Tower Theatre Company)

Know your number. If you don't know it, you might forget who you are.
The Kindertransport was a rescue effort prior to the Second World War, in which ten thousand predominantly Jewish child refugees were taken into Britain from Nazi-controlled territories to be fostered and schooled. Diane Samuels' play distills the experiences of numerous such children into one fictional character, Eva Schlesinger. And in Tower Theatre's production the poignancy of this young immigrant girl's story is captured superbly, demonstrating more than a little contemporary relevance.
The action of the play unfolds in a dual time-frame, with the adult Eva's daughter Faith uncovering a cache of photographs, letters and storybooks from her mother's childhood. Born in Hamburg, Eva was packed off aged ten for England undergoing a bewildering and terrifying journey - to meet with her adoptive mother, the kindly but no-nonsense Lil. Open-hearted young Eva, however, was a far cry from the grown-up Evelyn (she had now adopted the English form of her German name). The audience wonder along with Faith how Eva came to box off her childhood memories so literally and completely. Even with the Holocaust casting its shadow over the drama, the answer has a unique power to shock.

Tower's production is a finely-crafted piece of storytelling, and under Angharad Ormond's shrewd direction becomes a haunting evocation of a troubled childhood. The entire set is the attic where Eva's memories have been stored, so it's appropriate that the space resolves into her one-time Hamburg home, a rattling train carriage or a dock. The lighting is subdued, simultaneously intimate and secret, while the shadow-play on a background screen conveys a macabre storybook reminder of children being led far from home. Arguably most potent of all is the live soundscape - a haunting fusion of singing glasses and Jewish melodies played on piano strings by sound designer Colin Guthrie, like chimes of the past Evelyn is so reluctant to revisit. 
The cast is a strong ensemble, most of whom will be staying with the production for its June revival. Katrin Larissa Kasper plays the younger version of Eva, taking her from wide-eyed innocent to strong-minded young woman through subtle modulations in accent, mannerisms and spirit. It's a fine performance - embodying as it does all the fear and confusion of the Transport's young and vulnerable refugees. The various adult men she encounters are played by Paul Willcocks in the same leering mask (another well-judged innovation). All Willcocks' characterisations - from officious to jauntily racist, and in one case flesh-crawlingly malevolent - combine into Eva's scary experience of anonymous male authority.
As the mature Evelyn, Ruth Sullivan is remote and severe, her brittle exterior hinting at depths of emotion she dare not plumb. When she finally does give vent to what lies beneath, the moment is searing in its power. Amanda Waggott and Clare Joseph portray the play's two other mother-figures. As Lil, Waggott moves deftly between the two time-zones - a stern but loving foster-mother to Eva and the buffer between Evelyn and her daughter Faith. In both eras she's a welcome source of warmth, empathy and down-to-earth humour. 
Joseph meanwhile is quietly heartbreaking as Eva's calm and courageous blood-mother Helga. An early scene in which she teaches her daughter sewing skills for the migrant journey ahead is deceptively gentle, and returns to our minds with painful resonance later on.
Compassion runs deep in this production, but Kindertransport is ultimately a play of unsparing emotional honesty. It makes no concession to any audience expectations built up in the first act - possibly its greatest strength as a drama - and act two shocks as much as it moves. This is a story of mother-daughter relationships either forged in or tested by the same tumultuous 20th Century events, and the personal consequences of the Transport run deep for three generations of Eva's family. Survival, we are reminded, can come at a truly terrible cost. 
Having sold out at Theatro Technis last month, Kindertransport can be seen again at the Gatehouse Theatre, Highgate, from Saturday 24th June to Sunday 2nd July. Rachel Causer will be taking the role of Faith, with Annemarie Fearnley also joining the ensemble. This show is clearly a labour of love for director Ormond, done justice by her tightly-knit cast and creative team. It's also a hard-hitting and timely reminder of the plight of child refugees - and of the lifelong consequences such a childhood brings.


Monday, 1 May 2017

Film Review - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A)

Does anybody have any tape out there?
Some films you feel predisposed to like - or even love - before the first frame hits the screen. 

Guardians of the Galaxy was the most unmitigated cinematic joy of summer 2014 - a movie crammed with entertaining incident, which boasted more memorable lines in its first twenty minutes than most can manage in their entire run-time. It brought together an endearing band of squabbling heroes - Peter Quill (outlaw), Gamora (assassin), Drax (vengeful brute), Rocket (raccoon) and Groot (tree) - and had audiences fall in love with them by the closing credits. So does the sequel match that film's sheer verve and likeability?
Answer... almost.
Before I expand on that potentially heart-sinking word, let me talk about everything the film gets right. 
Guardians 2 reconnects with our gang in the thick of battle - not in service to the galaxy, but pursuing Quill's old trade of bounty hunting. A little bit of double-cross on the part of Rocket quickly puts them on the run from a very unforgiving planetary civilisation. Meanwhile they are also being tracked down by an enigmatic traveller called Ego (a bearded and benevolent Kurt Russell), who can shed light on the mystery of Quill's parentage.
Where this all leads is as cosmic as you might hope - vast, visually splashy and full of unforeseeable twists. It's also a refreshing story departure from the first film, refusing simply to retread the Guardians versus Thanos plotline and finding a very different route to the galactic jeopardy we all anticipate. Character backstories are explored, and questions left hanging last time around are given satisfying answers. While friendships between the sparring heroes deepen, it's the development of secondary characters - such as fin-headed Yondu and Gamora's cybernetically modified sister Nebula - that often proves most interesting. (Kudos to Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan for fleshing out their roles in surprising and entertaining ways.)
Oh, and Baby Groot is everything you hoped Baby Groot could be. Most of the funniest scenes involve Baby Groot.
This is a film with a whole lot going for it. Here's my 'however'. 

Put simply, the writing isn't as sharp as first time around. In the 2014 film director James Gunn was teamed with Nicole Perlman, and I can only assume it's her absence that makes the difference. Yes Guardians 2 made me laugh, but not as much. Yes it moved me, but not as deeply. And that's all down to the dialogue - not plotting or performance or anything else. There's a sense of a film stretching for the zippy, zingy repartee that made the original so refreshing, and not always getting there. Gunn is a wonderful director of this demanding material, but his screenplay sadly lacks the finesse of a good writing partner. Basically he's trying too hard. 

It's a shame, because there's so much else to love here. Guardians Vol. 2 is gorgeous, unpredictable and galaxy-expanding in its epic scope. It's great visual storytelling and full of excitement. And of course it has a splendidly integrated soundtrack courtesy of the Awesome Mixtape #2. 
If Vol. 3 is going to rebottle the first film's lightning, however, it needs to give these terrific characters the words they deserve. That'll turn mere liking back into loving.