Sunday, 22 August 2010

Theatre Review: An early Miller masterpiece makes a welcome return.

All My Sons. By Arthur Miller. At the Apollo Theatre, London. With David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker. Booking until 2 October 2010.

"All My Sons" may not be traditionally the most well-known of Arthur Miller's plays, but this terrific revival proves why it was the piece that made his name in 1947.

A stormy overture sets an ominous tone for this mid-20th-century morality tale. Joe Keller (David Suchet) is a successful air parts manufacturer, who is living with his wife and one of his sons - we learn that the other, an air serviceman, is still missing in action after the upheaval of the Second World War. His business partner has been imprisoned for allegedly supplying faulty machinery that caused the deaths of several pilots in the war, and when his suspicious family come to Keller for answers, the man is forced to account for his own part in the decision to place material gain over social responsibility.

The first act may be necessary to introduce the neighbourhood's complex relations, as well as to contrast the trivial domestic trifles with the more destructive events to come, but it is a very slow burner. When the plot finally accelerates towards the middle of the second half, it explodes with the inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Director Howard Davies, who oversaw the last major production, expertly piles on the tension again here and coaxes some superb performances. Zoe Wanamaker may be more adept at stricken mothers in serious drama than TV comedy, so convincing is her Kate Keller, who is unwavering in her belief that her vanished son is still alive; Wanamaker generates the right amount of pathos as she becomes entangled in her husband's web of betrayal and deceit. As the surviving son, Chris, Stephen Campbell Moore contributes an equally heavyweight turn in the difficult role of the moral centre of the play, modulating from angered to anguished as he comes to question his father's decency. Naturalistic set and lighting designs add gritty realism to an already volatile atmosphere of blame and guilt, which pervades right up until the devastating climax. The final revelations provide the proof that this early masterpiece from a great American dramatist should be counted among his best work.

Verdict: **** 1/2 out of 5

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Film Review: A blockbuster with brains.

Inception. Directed by Christopher Nolan. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, et al. Legendary Pictures, 2010. On general release. Certificate 12A (moderate violence).

Ever since he shot to fame with his reverse-chronological psychological thriller, 'Memento,' back in 2000, director Christopher Nolan's star has continued to rise. He has garnered both critical and commercial success with 'Insomnia,' a remake of a Norwegian suspense film which relocates the action to the frozen wastes of Alaska, and 'Batman Begins,' a dark reboot of the DC Comics franchise, along with the latter's sequel, 'The Dark Knight.'

Audiences should be waiting excitedly for Nolan's next Batman installment, scheduled for release in 2012. And with very good reason, judging by his latest picture, 'Inception,' which is perhaps the Brit's most ambitious project to date. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a master thief who uses the power of dreams to invade his marks' subconscious and steal information their conscious selves would normally prevent from disclosing. In one last mission, he is hired by a Japanese businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to convince the son of a wealthy oil baron and Saito's corporate rival to break up his father's empire. It's an original premise, but as anyone who has seen the clunky Michael Jackson 'musical' "Thriller - Live" in the West End can tell you, a good idea badly executed sounds like a bad idea.

Fortunately, Nolan manages to assemble a believable cast around DiCaprio. Ellen Page in particular excels as the inexperienced but impassioned rookie in the gang, delivering an impressive turn when she confronts Cobb about the skeletons in his closet, which threaten to derail the entire operation. The dream sequences are visually striking, filled with projections (images of the subconscious), Penrose stairs and dizzying mirrors; at one point characters engage in a 360-degree tussle in an imaginary hotel corridor. But what really makes this film a winner is the plot: absorbing and genuinely suspenseful, it convinces as an update on the heist thriller, but its true power lies in the way Nolan exploits the most primal of human abilities - the capacity to dream - for subversive intentions. The ambiguous end may be a logical leap too far, but nevertheless the director's vision of a morally-fractured, heightened sense of reality within what is ostensibly an imagined world is so fully realised in this film, you may be hard-pressed to find another blockbuster this summer as rich, pacey and imaginative as this one.

Verdict: *****/5

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Theatre Review: What a triumphant night!

Jersey Boys: the Story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. At the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Viewed on 14th July 2010. Running until 22nd August 2010.

The Toronto iteration of the global musical phenomenon, "Jersey Boys," became the longest-running show to play at its venue on 30th April, entertained its millionth customer less than a month later, and will have played to packed houses for more than two years by the end of its Canadian season. And little wonder.

Not only does the iconic music of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons translate extremely well to the stage, the musical's writers were ingenious enough to combine an enlightening Hollywood biopic, as narrated by the Seasons themselves, with spiffed-up theatrical replays of their back catalogue. The potted history of the band may have been simplified somewhat to make room for the Broadway numbers - two groups of characters represent an ever-revolving cast of artists - but the result is still a sophisticated, modern drama. The script modulates perfectly from zestful wit to dark seriousness, humanely addressing some of the more unglamorous aspects of the Seasons' lives, such as Frankie Valli's troubled family relationship and the band members' dropout lifestyles before they hit the big time.

The Four Seasons convince in their roles, having all honed that New Jersey drawl: Quinn VanAntwerp injects passion into a Bob Gaudio determined to champion songwriting as an art and not commercial business, refusing to cave into the interests of producers unwilling to pick up his next composition. (In a stark irony, the piece would become the runaway success and much-covered "Can't Take My Eyes Off You.") The resemblance between Jeff Madden's falsetto and Valli's own is chilling. But the real stars of the show are the songs, which are exhilaratingly performed. Classic hits, such as "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and of course, "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)," are consciously designed to recreate the live Seasons concert experience, complete with horn section at one point, to stunning effect. There are some neat stylistic touches too: when the band makes their TV debut, a screen broadcasts the images shot in real time on the stage in faux black-and-white, seemingly in nostalgia for an era when MTV videos were yet to choke our living-room sets.

Television and music may have moved on since that first appearance, but the sounds of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons continue to endure beyond the transience of modern pop, symbolising an age when your integrity to songmaking was all that counted. The winning ensemble of "Jersey Boys" prove the group's timeless appeal; you will probably leave the theatre with a Sixties swing in your step.

Rating: *****/5

Age Recommendation: 15+ for moderately frequent strong language.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Film Review: Clint Eastwood's urban drama is a provocative film, but no grand masterpiece.

Gran Torino. Directed by Clint Eastwood, 2008. Out now on DVD.

Clint Eastwood, one of the great Hollywood legends of the late twentieth century, is comfortably maturing into his new role behind the camera, having been involved with a string of successful pictures including "Million Dollar Baby" and his twin WWII films, "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters of Iwo Jima." His directorial follow-up to "Changeling," the 1930s mystery drama starring Angelina Jolie, shares some of the noirish tones of that film, but couldn't be more different.

Even at the grand old age of seventy-eight at the time of this film's release, Eastwood proves there's mettle in his acting boots yet. He takes star billing in this contemporary urban tale as Walt, a cantankerous and bigoted Korean War veteran overcoming the loss of his cherished wife, which leads him to retreat further still from the family he's already isolated himself from. After his treasured 1970s Gran Torino car is the unwilling participant in a foiled carjacking, however, he soon comes to befriend the somewhat idiotic teenager responsible, Hmong neighbour Thao, who tried to steal the vehicle in an attempt to ally himself with his cousin and his fellow gangbangers. Thao and his college student sister Sue introduce Walt to his family, and gradually Walt learns of their plight at the hands of the gangbangers, culminating in a vow of revenge.

The supporting cast are well balanced and the film portrays the Hmongs largely sympathetically, but the picture belongs to Eastwood. In his last main acting role, he gives a sterling performance, skilfully revealing a witty and warmer side to the initially unagreeable Walt as he tries to provide the role model for Thao that he never gave to his own sons. However, it is in these portions that the film sags, following the pair of them as the younger begins to integrate himself positively into wider society, and the script loses momentum as a result. When conflict eventually does return, there is no denying the film's power as it races towards an emotionally-charged finale. It may fall a little short of the masterpiece that is "Million Dollar Baby," but "Gran Torino" manages to score an equally provocative note in its final moments.

My verdict: ****/5
Certificate: 15

Saturday, 29 May 2010

TV Review: UK entry for Eurovision 2010 didn't sound good to me, unfortunately...

The 55th Eurovision Song Contest. Aired 29th May 2010, BBC One, 8pm.

Despite all the fanfare, the promotion, and not least the songwriting credentials of two-thirds of the legendary Stock, Aitken & Waterman, the United Kingdom's entry for the fifty-fifth Eurovision Song Contest, "That Sounds Good to Me," scored disastrously in the competition's results, receiving only 10 points. This pales in comparison to the winners, Germany, who ran away with this year's victory with 246 points.

Pete Waterman, a former judge on the UK's "Pop Idol," was responsible for such hits during the 1980s as Kylie Minogue's "I Should Be So Lucky" and Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." And therein lies part of the problem. The singer, Josh Dubovie, clearly has masses of vocal potential and his enthusiasm for the stage is evident, but the song itself seems rather dated next to the sophistication of Ireland's ballad or the sheer brilliance of Turkey's very contemporary contribution, which even won over the author of this blog, despite not having any pretensions himself to enjoying hardcore rock music on a regular basis.

Which brings me to where, I think, the other part of the blame can be apportioned. Those behind the British production brought little creativity to their segment of the proceedings. Maybe this was due to a lack of funding: surely Arlene Phillips, were she on the creative team, could have treated us to a more energetic choreographic display? Or more simply, this points to a dearth of imagination among British production talent nowadays. Either way, the consequences were dire for our musical reputation.

Fundamentally, all of those involved (except Mr. Dubovie, who made the best of a bad deal) seemed to underestimate the standard of this year's competition, to our detriment. Admittedly, this year's winning performance was mediocre, and only a slight improvement on the ear-splitting singing (read shouting) of Alexander Rybak. But there were plenty of memorable, creative masterstrokes too: duelling Plexiglas pianoes; dancing motorcylists; flashy violinists - among others. And that is where the UK failed. It failed, simply, to put on a good show.

Even if the tabloids do end up slating Mr. Dubovie tomorrow for the outcome at Oslo, at least he can rest assured that he did the best he could, and the experience will stand him in good stead for the many performances he is likely to have throughout what I am sure will be his lengthy stage career. Plus, of all people, he managed to land the highly-respected Mr. Waterman as his Eurovision colleague. But sadly, this is probably little consolation for Britain ending up in last place in the Eurovision leaderboard for the third time in seven years.

Many commiserations to Mr. Dubovie from the author. And there is always next year: it can only be upwards from here on!

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Book Review: Make "Time" for Niffenegger's dazzling 'concept fiction' novel

The Time-Traveler's Wife. By Audrey Niffenegger. Published by Vintage, £7.99.

Ever since "The Time-Traveler's Wife" first burst into the bookshops in 2004, it has become a literary sensation. According to Wikipedia, as of March 2009, the novel has sold more than two and a half million copies in both the US and UK. I saw the film adaptation last summer, having not read the novel prior to its release, yet I enjoyed it for what I saw as Niffenegger's inventive conceit, which to my mind had translated well to the screen.

When I came eventually to reading the novel, I therefore realised how much the screenwriter and director had excised from it in adapting it for the screen. I felt my understanding of the characters was actually enriched rather than limited because of this very fact. In case you're not familiar with the scenario, the book concerns the relationship between Henry and Clare, who first met when Claire was six and Henry thirty-six, and married when Clare was twenty-two and Henry thirty. This may seem paradoxical, but this is because Henry suffers from a "chronological impairment disorder," which essentially means he can travel through time: without warning, he is pulled into his past or future. It may sound glamorous, but as Henry and Clare discover, such a condition is fraught with difficulties and implications.

The narrative alternates between the two protagonists in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, which makes reading the novel an intimate but ultimately rewarding experience. Niffenegger is able to give us two remarkably emotionally robust central characters, whose relationship is imbued with conflict as a result of Henry's unfortunate time-travelling condition. The author manages to capitalise on the metaphorical opportunities offered by the situation, exploring ideas of free will, fate and existence, while never compromising the emotional turmoil that lies at the heart of the story. We see Henry compelled to relive his mother's death over and over; Clare keeps waiting for a husband who is always disappearing and suddenly reappearing; Henry's sexual history prior to meeting Claire is alluded to in dubious terms. Suspense is carefully maintained in how facts are divulged at different times to different people: the birth of the couple's daughter is no less emotionally affecting for its revelation a few dozen pages beforehand, having seen the couple undergo several traumatic miscarriages. What then becomes the focus is how the plot arrives from A to B: how Henry manages to convince Clare that her persistence will pay off.

"The Time-Traveler's Wife" is a great book, not only for its highly original conceit, but for the skill with which it is weaved into the narrative. The lives of the two protagonists and their allies are very much grounded in reality, but the time-travel device gives it a richness and complexity worthy of serious literature, hence some critics describe the novel as 'concept fiction.' (Indeed, the book is littered with literary references and allusions.) Even if some of the supporting cast are less well-rounded, the compelling story and the intense passion you feel for Henry and Clare to succeed in their marriage more than makes up for it. Like Henry's condition, the novel has to be seen to be believed. A journey through space, time and self, the book deserves to be a modern classic.

Rating out of 5: *****
Age Recommendation: 15+ for strong language, sex references and violence.

The Necessary-But-Trite Welcome Post...


My name is Gah-Kai Leung, I'm currently 18 years of age and living happily in England. I have set up this blog as a record of all the books, films, TV series and other arty-farty things that I have the time, money and/or willpower to discuss and review (hence the title), as well as political and economic developments. It is also designed to nurture my ambition to become a columnist/commentator in a few years' time, when I have gladly received my degree and all.

Hope you enjoy.

Best wishes,