Category: Theatre

BIRDMANBIRDMAN (OR ‘THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE’) directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (USA, 2014)

From the stylish opening credits and free-jazz drumming of Antonio Sanchez’s unorthodox soundtrack, this is a movie that is keen to make an immediate impression.

It is the kind of derring-do which could so easily have backfired and then been dismissed as nothing more than brash arty-fartiness. Yet Birdman postively revels in its showiness and having a excellent supporting cast, that includes Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in prime form, means that all the risks are calculated ones.

The story revolves around Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, one time celluloid superhero who now feels all too human as he approaches the third age. By adapting a Raymond Carver story for a Broadway show he wants revitalise his flagging career and, in the process, demonstrate that 60 is the new 30. Continue reading

The fifth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.

STEPPENWOLF by Hermann Hesse (1927)

steppenwolf The Steppenwolf of the title is Henry Holler, a tired intellectual living a solitary life in an attic flat in a cosy bourgeois home. He is 50 years old and weary of life to the point of contemplating suicide. The nephew of his landlady observes that “the root of his pessimism was not world contempt but self contempt”.

Holler thinks of himself as a kind of Jekyll & Hyde figure with the wolf in him representing the pleasures of the flesh. Despite his book learning he finds no enjoyment in the spiritual life and finds himself  “outside all social circles, beloved by none”.

In this desperate state he meets Hermine who is a member of a Magic Theatre advertised as being ‘For Madmen Only’. She teaches Holler to laugh, dance and enjoy sex without guilt.

Above all, she despises his patronizing attitude to those he regards as uneducated:  “You learned people and artists have, no doubt, all sorts of  superior things in your heads, but you’re human beings like the rest of us, and we too have our dreams and fancies”.

Through Pablo, who plays in the theatre company’s band, Holler learns that music is not something to be felt with the heart not something to analyse or philosophise over.

The moral of Hesse’s novel can be summed up by the criticism of what he calls the “never-ceasing machinery” of everyday life which can prevent people from being “the critics of their own lives and from recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead”.

What he advocates as an alternative is to “learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest”.  

I second that emotion.

ARCHIPELAGO directed by Joanna Hogg (UK, 2010)

In the age of digital cinema and crowd pleasing blockbusters, social realism has largely gone out of fashion.

Top grossing movies are often those with the most elaborate special effects. while modest, people-centred dramas or comedies tend to rattle along at such a rapid pace as though directors are worried that if viewers are given time to draw breath they’ll realise how superficial these  ‘entertainment’ packages really are.

Thankfully, there are still filmmakers out there who focus on stories with genuine substance and depth. Joanna Hogg is one of them.

Archipelago is a slow-moving, at times static, film that many could lose patience with but which stands as a welcome antidote to the contrived story-lines and stereotypical characters you find in so many so-called ‘serious’ dramas. Continue reading


ANONYMOUS directed by Roland Emmerich (UK, 2011)

If you believe that Bush’s government planned the 9/11 attacks, that men didn’t really walk on the moon or that Elvis is still alive, then you’ll have no problem with the central premise of Anonymous. This holds that William Shakespeare did not actually write the plays and sonnets which are regarded as the pinnacle achievements of English literature. Having a couple of bona fide luvvies – Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi – in the cast gives a measure of authenticity to this theory. Since we know so little about Shakespeare’s life, the idea that this was an alias for another author is not completely preposterous. That doesn’t stop this being a bonkers  and boring movie that takes huge liberties with historical accuracy.

In this version of events, the ‘Virgin’ Queen Elisabeth I (Redgrave) is anything but chaste and is even a mother while Edward De Vere (Rys Ifans) is the man behind the quill, the true Bard.

Rafe Spall as ‘the bard’

.Screenwriter John Orloff takes the scholarly enquiry into the authorship question and adds a number of wild speculations to spice things up still further. German director Emmerich made no such claims of intellectual rigor. He merely did a few internet searches and decided there was something in this story. As the man behind Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich is more concerned with making a cinematic spectacular with an exotic 16th century backdrop. The look of the movie is the best thing about it; the recreation of costumes and Elizabethan London is imaginative and visually splendid. It’s a pity that there wasn’t the same level of commitment to the storytelling. The non linear narrative serves as a smoke screen to mask the numerous plot holes and adds a bogus complexity to what is, in essence, a straightforward tale of power, corruption and lies. Depicting Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) as a semi-literate social climber has plenty of comic potential but this is largely ignored. Instead the tone is pompous and self consciously didactic. What could have been a lively farce therefore becomes a dull and over extended drama.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK directed by Charlie Kaufman (USA, 2008)

This is a movie about life and dreams but mainly it’s about death.

We all have dreams, both big and small. Some of them are realized, most are not.

What gives us the impetus to work through our personal bucket lists is the transience of existence and the knowledge that someday we will die, as will everyone we know.

Theatre director Coden Cotard has a big dream. He wants to stage a play about everything: birth, dating, family and death. Particularly the last of these since, as he puts it bluntly yet accurately, “we are all hurtling towards death, but here we are for the moment, alive”.

Cotard wants his production to stand as his legacy and demands that there must be no compromises. It should tell the brutal truth, warts and all – no limits, no filters. He prepares post it notes for each participant, a single fact that the actors must build upon to create a character. Quickly you get the impression that the concept is so vast that it is unworkable. Continue reading


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