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.

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Girl from the North Country, Old Vic Theatre, London

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Girl from the North Country contains three or four intertwining stories. These are slight, almost sketches really, but are beautifully told so that we care about the people we see on stage. It contains about twenty songs from Dylan’s back catalogue. These are used, in  an abstract way, to accentuate the drama rather than to move the narrative forward. It would be misleading to call this a musical, it is more a play with musical accompaniment.

The prose and the songs complement each other very well. Given the quality of the cast, the strength of the acting is no surprise. The singing, orchestration and choreography are the revelation. There are some amazing voices in the ensemble. Shirley Henderson and Jack Shalloo, in particular, shock when they sing, but every song is delivered well. The impact of a downtrodden, beaten character suddenly opening their vocal cords is not to be underestimated. Even the songs that I already knew, appeared to be given new life in the context of the play.

The reception of the audience was good, it is not too often that the whole audience stands at the end. I enjoyed this show, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan are a combination that go together very well.

Quartet (dir. Dustin Hoffman) 2012

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Don’t sit down to watch this expecting any deep revelations about the meaning of life. Think more in terms of an episode of Glee with opera music and old people.

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is full of visual metaphors for old age. The time of year is late autumn, there are beautiful sunsets and it is all set in a wonderfully maintained ancient building.  The acting is good, the direction is good, the setting is beautiful and the music is lovely. The story is undemanding, particularly predictable, in fact it is almost facile but it is all very likeable and chilled. It is probably perfect Sunday afternoon fare, you could doze off for a few minutes and when you come back you will still know exactly where you are in the storyline.

It has a cracking cast and the director has left them to do what they do best. Maggie Smith has some great arch put downs, which she delivers perfectly. Michael Gambon is a wonderfully camp, self obsessed director.  Pauline Collins is giddy and dizzy. Tom Courtenay is wounded and rueful, and Billy Connolly is a rude and distasteful old charmer. The dialogue is sharp and there a few nice cameos and set pieces.

Easy and comfortable, if films were shoes, then quartet would be the tartan slipper!

 

Soho, Peacock Theatre, London, 2017

 

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Soho is a great adrenalin rush of a show, packed full with good dance routines, brilliant tumbling, thrilling trapeze work and gravity defying aerobatics. One can’t help but be amazed at the body strength and vigour of the performers. This show is an entertaining mixture of dance show and circus skills. There are aerial silk works, hand balancing, pole climbing, and martial arts all the while telling a story in dance. There is a great dance routine, of everyone getting ready to go out; set in the bathroom of a posh hotel.

The soundtrack is fabulous, it has a real London feel, it varies from Daft Punk, through Mozart, to Bowie, Donovan and Peggy Lee. The sets are simple but clever and it all takes place against a moving backdrop of videos of Soho and its environs. If you are from London, you will enjoy seeing places and characters that you recognise from your time here. There are all the landmarks that you know and love, with scenes set in Brewer Street, Chinatown, and Madam Jojo’s. There are punks, Big Issue sellers, orange clad Hare Krishna followers, loved up ravers, drunken hen parties, lots of London life is here somewhere.

From the moment the curtain opens, there is so much happening on the stage, that you will have difficulty taking it all in. It is a maelstrom of movement, colour and humour right until the final the final bows. Often there are three or four scenes going on simultaneously. Soho is funny, sexy, knowing and, clever, but above all it is exciting.

This show is only here for two weeks, so if you want to see it – get your skates on!

School Of Rock, New London Theatre, London, 2017

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School of Rock’s plot has more holes than a polo mint factory. I almost had to talk myself into suspending my disbelief. However, when I did, this show has funny lines, great tongue-in-cheek, rock songs, and some very talented children.

The opening song “I’m too hot for you” is a clever parody and “Stick it to the man” and “School of Rock” are crowd pleasing, audience participation, stadium rock pastiches. There are other good songs too “You’re in the Band” is catchy and I liked the “Faculty Quadrille” which has recognisable Lloyd Webber moments.

David Finn is likeable and irritating in equal measures as Dewey, but this is as it meant to be. The plot involves him living out his teenage fantasy by changing a class of nerdy kids into 1980s style rock stars. The story is fun, ridiculous and there is a big enjoyable finale, where the crowd goes wild. The children play all their own instruments and their acting and singing is excellent.

This show is a real crowd pleaser, the whole audience was involved by the end and there was a standing ovation. The cynic in me saw a lack of narrative, did not see the ending as happy and felt a bit manipulated. However, I took a lesson that I learned from the “Book of Mormon” song “Turn it Off” and did just that.

Put away your critical eye, embrace your inner teenager, and you will enjoy it too!

The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black) 2016

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This is a curate’s egg of a film – good in parts. It’s sets out to be a pastiche of a corny 1970s Blaxploitation movie, and it succeeds almost too well for its own good. The plot is very ’70s, a light, far fetched, political conspiracy theory.

The characters are caricatures. Ryan Gosling as Holland March is quite knowing about it and carries it off very well, we get to like him and he is actually very funny.  Russell Crowe seems to be just walking through the film saying his lines, so his character is two dimensional. Angourie Rice is great as Holland’s daughter and also has some of the best lines of the show.

This movie contains violence, sex references, nudity, bad language and drug use; all gratuitous, all characteristic of the time. Not so funny in itself but funny because in the 70s they were only recently able to put these into films, so they did, even if it was unnecessary.  The humour is broad, bordering on slapstick, but it works, mostly

The sets are perfect and costumes are right on.  I particularly enjoyed the soundtrack, apparently some of the songs were too late for the time in which it was set, but they felt right to me.

On balance, Shane Black has done an excellent job directing “The Nice Guys” in that, from slight material, he has made a little go a long way.

 

The Wild Party, The Other Palace, Victoria, London.

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Andrew Lloyd Webber has bought the theatre that used to be known as The St. James Theatre and changed its name to The Other Palace. He wishes it to become the place where writers and producers can try out and refine new work.

The first show here is “The Wild Party”. This musical has a lot of good things going for it. The ensemble are fantastic, the songs are good, the comedy songs are very funny. The dancing and choreography are fast and good, the characters are interesting and flawed.

For me, the music is too loud for the size of the theatre, it took me about three songs for my hearing to adjust enough to understand the lyrics. This is a shame because the lyrics that I did hear were acerbic and funny. The ending is a bit of an anti-climax, if ever a show needs an encore routine, this is one. This is such a disappointment because so much of the rest of the show is wonderful.

The songs are a nice mixture of vibrant, funny and bitter. The dialogue is sharp. The choreography is dynamic and energetic. The atmosphere is decadent and sexy. The closing series of songs in the first act is amazing and if they were to somehow make this the finale of the whole show, it would run forever.

It is hard to pick out individual performances, not only because everyone is very good, but also because everyone in the show has their own part to play. There is no chorus here.

Frances Ruffelle and John Owen-Jones have beautiful emotive voices. Donna McKechnie and Bronte Barbe are both funny and have a great song each, showing off their range. Steven Serlin and Sebastien Torkia are a clever comedy double act. Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea are excellent at joining the show together. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt arrives late and threatens to steal the show. The dancing is uniformly outstanding.

This show truly is a wild party, bringing with it all that this entails. It is an exhilarating rollercoaster ride, and like all the best parties – although I may have some regrets the next day, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.