Friday, 7 February 2020

The Doctor will see you now

Having seen the 1967 Rex Harrison Doctor Dolittle in the cinema as a child (it was the same year as Disney’s first Jungle Book), I was – at the very least – curious about the latest film with Robert Downey Jr in the titular role.

What would it look like with CGI at its present level; would it have an environmental message; and  what would Downey Jr be like in his post-Tony Stark career?

Based – loosely – on the novel, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, from Hugo Lofting’s series about the eponymous doctor, it opens with him having withdrawn from any form of public life after his wife has died.

But Queen Victoria needs him – because she’s ill – and Stubbins, the teenage son of a family of local hunters needs him, because he’s accidentally shot a squirrel while trying not to shoot animals.

It is not staggeringly original, but it doesn’t really suffer from that.

While Stephen Gaghan’s film never feels howlingly original, it is superbly well executed and has enough laughs (and one big emotional moment) to retain audience interest.

If I could talk to the animals was the most famous of Leslie Bricusse’s songs from the ’67 film. It was the daydream of every child – and judging by the children in the audience today, little has changed, even without the song.

There’s really no message other than ‘be nice to each other’, ’family is what you decide it is’ and don’t be bad to animals (a message I first learned from Sheri Lewis and Lamb Chop many centuries ago).

But not everything has to have Big Messages.

The cast is a joy. Forget the faux furore over Downey Jr’s Welsh accent – the accent is unexpected, but a) why not? and b) it doesn’t get in the way of anything. And his characterisation doesn’t have the smugness of Ironman. 

In support, Jim Broadbent as Lord Thomas Badgley, Michael Sheen as Dr Blair Müdfly  and Antonio Banderas as Rassouli, the king of pirates, have huge fun as panto baddies.

Harry Collett is a charming Stubbins, while Carmel Laniado as Lady Rose (one of Victoria’s maids) also turns in a delightful, gutsy performance.

But there are stars aplenty in the voice cast, including Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spence, Tom Holland, Ralph Feinnes (taking a leaf out of George Saunders’s books as a tiger named Barry) Selema Gomez, Marion Cotillard and Frances de la Tour.

It all rather reminds me of Peter Rabbit – the sequel to which lands soon.

Far from a classic is is, but it’s still perfectly enjoyable light entertainment for the end of a working week. And that is not a case of damning with faint praise.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Kani and Sher provide meat for the mind

John Kani and Antony Sher
It’s South Africa, 25 years after the death of apartheid and the birth of the Rainbow Nation. Successful classical actor Jack Morris is struggling to learn his lines for the eponymous role in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Interrupted by the doorbell, he is horrified to discover that the carer/nurse that he was expecting from an agency is actually Lunga Kunene, an elderly black man and senior nursing sister.

But why does he need a carer/nurse? Because he has stage four liver cancer. Can he live long enough to perform Lear? Can he stop seeing Kunene as all black people?

Kunene and the King is written by South African acting legend John Kani (the first black Othello on stage win South Africa in 1987, and also T’Chaka in Marvel’s Black Panther), who also plays Kunene in this RSC production, which has been seen in Stratford upon Avon and Cape Town before arriving in London’s West End.

Now, just to be clear, in 1985, after appearing in the anti-apartheid play Sizwe Bansi is Dead, which Kani co-wrote with Athol Fugard, he received a phone call saying that his father wanted to see him. On the way there, Kani was surrounded by police, who beat him and left him for dead. His left eye was lost in the incident and he now wears a prosthetic.

Kani is more than qualified to give lessons in what apartheid meant – and what its legacy means. He's lived it. And he is scathing, for instance, of Jacob Zuma’s corrupt governance.

At approximately 96 minutes – with no interval – this is a short work, but while it has plenty of laughs, it’s also full of enough intensity for double that time.

In some ways, it feels simplistic: yes, yes, yes – we (the white West) know about this! Don’t labour the point!

But any simplicity is superficial. There’s real meat here – on a number of levels. The clashes of culture, ‘othering’ – and not one by any one group alone; the universality of Shakespeare; the fear of mortality …

This is a deceptive work by Kani – a work that is utterly apt not just for South Africa, but (like the Bard’s works) for everywhere and perhaps particularly in these fraught times.

The work relies on the strength of the actors playing the roles in this two-hander. At first, you think that Kani seems physically constrained –  until you understand that the character is all buckled-up self-restraint: he’s seen the worst behaviour of both white and black South Africans in the fight to set his country free and subsequently, and is fighting against his own anger to be a good human being.

His has been a life spent constantly struggling within himself to be humane and to bolt down the rage within against what he has seen and experienced.

It is a superb performance.

Opposite Kani is his South African compatriot, Antony Sher, as Morris. And Sher also turns in a simply stunning performance as someone struggling with his place within history and against a dreadful disease. Neither of the men are flawless – but neither are evil either.

It’s on until 28 March. There are still tickets available – and I recommend it.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

David Copperfield – a dickens of a good time

Charles Dickens is one of the UK’s greatest storytellers, yet not easy to read. Okay, well I struggle. Don’t get me wrong: I love the stories, but because Dickens wrote them initially for serialisation, there seems so much padding that I struggle to get to the end of any of them – even though much of that padding is the sort of social commentary that I hardly disapprove with.

The only ones where I’ve managed to get to the last page (so far) have been Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol.

David Copperfield was Dickens’s eighth novel – serialised between 1849 and 1850 and published as a book in the latter. It is on my shelf in a classic Penguin edition. I have made more than one effort – but have never made it all the way through (Nicholas Nickleby and Great Expectations are others; Pickwick is glorious in places, but again, seems too episodic).

My knowledge of David Copperfield is therefore a mixture of managing about half the novel – and TV adaptations.

Against that background, it’s quite possible that Armando Iannucci’s latest big screen version, The Personal History of David Copperfield, does the greatest service to Dickens’s work.

Don’t worry: put The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin out of your mind. This is not Dickens on sweary ’roids, but a tale beautifully told.

There are substantial edits and some changes to the original story, but not as much as to alter it beyond recognition. Personally, the only thing I would have an issue with is that Peter Capaldi’s Micawber is a bit too knowing, rather than a naive innocent abroad.

The film has raised some eyebrows because of the colour blind casting: if you haven’t been to the RSC or National Theatre much in the couple of decades, then you might find it a shock. However, since all entertainment – whether big or little screen, theatre, panto or opera – requires the audience to suspend it’s belief and accept something unreal as real, then I have as much sympathy for anyone whining about this film as about the RSC’s gender-flipped Taming of the Shrew.

Iannucci has retained the episodic nature of the book, but kept it tight. The cinematography is a joy and the ensemble cast is excellent.

We’ll start with Dev Patel, who is wonderful as the eponymous hero: a real sense of naivety, the fear of revelation and the guilt of trying to hide his background – yet far from being a blank slate (often an issue with Dickensian heroes). A complex performance made to look simple – and a very engaging one.

Hugh Laurie is simply fabulous as Mr Dick and Tilda Swinton is a great Betsy Trotwood.

For many years, I have seen Mr Murdstone as equivalent to a paternal great uncle: a Plymouth Brethren preacher who lived in (as I remember it) a dark house where he commended my father for snapping at my child self for daring to scuff the carpet while The Adults Talked Religion. Darren Boyd didn’t seem right to me at first, but is actually every bit as sinister and nasty as he should be.

Lancastrian Benedict Wong does a great turn as Mr Wickfield, while Ben Wishaw is a superbly slimy Uriah Heep. Rosalind Eleazar, in her film debut, makes a wonderful Agnes, Morfydd Clark is a brilliant Dora (and – fleetingly – David's mother), Nikki Amuka-Bird is a suitably sharp and unpleasant Mrs Steeforth, while Aneurin Barnard is good as James Steerforth, winning both sympathy and condemnation from the audience.

Daisy May Cooper makes a delightful Peggotty, with Paul Whitehouse an ebullient Mr Peggotty.

In fact, there is no bad turn here. It is a magnificent ensemble.

So, on the production side, credit to Zac Nicholson for the cinematography – and, of course, to Iannucci, for direction, joint screenplay (with Simon Blackwell) and joint production (with Kevin Loader).

It might not be as dark as you remember Dickens (frankly, I'm thankful for that) – but there is darkness here: for instance, in the presence of so many homeless people on the streets of London, glimpsed increasingly throughout the film.

But go and see for yourself.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is in cinemas now.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Jojo Rabbit – savaging propaganda and bigotry

Have you ever noticed how, at the cinema when the certificate is shown on screen, it will include keywords about the film’s content: ‘moderate violence’ or ‘mild swearing,’ it will tell you, for instance.

It’s difficult to know why this happens, since people have already made the decision to shell out their hard-earned and take their seat.

Does anyone ever leave on seeing this ‘guidance’?

Before Jojo Rabbit, the first word that pops up with the certificate – and which I’ve not personally noticed before – is “discrimination”. Which is amazing really, given that this is a film about the Nazis, propaganda and bigotry.

As the opening titles make clear, it’s “an anti-hate satire”.

But if you survive such a warning, then Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler is a 10-year-old boy living with his mother in Nazi Germany in the latter stages of the second world war.

Jojo has fallen hook, line and sinker for all the nationalism and bigotry with which he’s been pumped by the system – in spite of his mother clearly not agreeing with any of it. But his invisible friend, a childish Hitler, eggs him on.

A member of the Hitler Youth, he earns the sobriquet Jojo Rabbit after he finds himself unable to kill a rabbit as ordered at a youth camp.

But then Jojo finds out that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl in their home – and slowly he finds that the propaganda he’s been fed is being challenged.

Taika Waititi had wanted to bring the story, based on Christine Leunens’s novel, Caging Skies, to the screen for years. Now he’s done it and the wait has been worthwhile.

In spite of having written the screenplay, directed and co-produced it – and played Hitler – Waititi (whose maternal grandfather is of Russian-Jewish heritage) never lets himself get in the way.

It’s frequently very, very funny, but never loses sight of the main aims: to throw a spotlight on the utter crassness of intolerance, the real dangers of nationalism, fake news and propaganda – and the impact of all these on children.

A little aside here.

A German friend, himself born in 1946, once told me how, in 1945, a 16-year-old cousin was on the front line to defend his home town against the allies.

Fully indoctrinated, he waited in a trench, his gun sights trained on the advancing US forces. Then he realised that a young American soldier was looking down his own sights at him.

Clarity cut through the propaganda and he realised that, just as he did, the American probably only wanted to go home to his mother. The teenage German threw down his weapon and threw up his hands.

Tragically, many more boys – and girls – did not reach such a conclusion. And perhaps it needs noting that a 16-year-old in 1945 had been just four when Hitler had come to power.

It was an anecdote that I remembered forcefully when watching Waititi’s film. Today, we’d know that what happened to my friend’s cousin and what happens to Jojo and his friends is ‘grooming’.

There are plenty of laughs, but it’s never at the expense of the humane message and indeed, I suggest taking tissues, because there are a couple of real couple of kicks to the gut that bring home the importance of the message.

It’s an excellent cast. Scarlett Johansson is a revelation as Jojo’s mother. Thomasin McKenzie as Jewish teenager Elsa is vulnerable yet strong – and (importantly) never plays the character as a ‘victim’.

Sam Rockwell gives a very nice performance as Wehrmacht officer Captain Klenzendorf, who has been ‘demoted’ to running Hitler Youth camps after losing an eye in the war.

Stephen Merchant has a cameo as a suitably sinister comic book Gestapo officer, while Rebel Wilson turns in a similarly fine cameo as Fräulein Rahm, a Hitler Youth camp instructor who spouts the most ridiculously extreme anti-Semitic propaganda.

Waititi’s own turn as Hitler is also very good – as is that of Archie Yates as Jojo’s friend Yorkie.

But to a large extent, the film rests on the 12-year-old shoulders of Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo himself – and it is a remarkable performance of enormous nuance.

And just a brief mention for the incredibly clever weaving in of pop culture references – keep your eyes peeled – which are not gratuitous but add to the whole.

Waititi has done something remarkable with Jojo Rabbit: in so many ways, you tell yourself it shouldn’t work. But in its irreverence and it’s sense of fun, it is perhaps one of the most deeply serious movies of our times and its message could hardly be more important.

Superbly entertaining – and with a deeply significant message.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Taming the Shrew offers laughs and pause for thought

In the critical analysis of Shakespeare that emerged in the late Victorian era, it was decided that the canon included three problem plays: All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida.

These were so called because they are complex and ambiguous, and shift rapidly between comedy and a darker tone.

It’s a vague enough definition – and Shakespeare’s work so wide ranging – that other works have been included in that description over the years.

The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens, Merchant of Venice and even Hamlet have all found themselves with the ‘problem label added.

Rather more recently, author Professor Neil Rhodes has described the defining element of a problem play as possessing a controversial plot.

On this basis, even if The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592) is not classed as a problem play, then it’s a play with a big problem.

Here we have the tale of Petruchio, who marries and then ‘tames’ the shrewish Katherine – i there an equivalent male adjective for ‘shrewish’? To do so, he employs psychological torture (denial of sleep and food) as he ‘educates’ his new wife to understand that, if he says the sun is in fact the moon – or visa versa – then it is.

Subservience is the order of the day and makes, we are told, for a peaceful, loving marriage.

As such attitudes have been seen as increasingly unacceptable, directors have sought to find ways of dealing with it in more modern terms.

For instance, in 1978, in Peter Bogdanov’s iconic modern-dress production at Stratford – the first time I had seen the RSC – Jonathan Pryce and Paola Dionisotti played the leads, (with David Suchet as Gremio). Here, Dionisotti made Kate’s final speech one of defeat, not of a victorious sense of having delight at having been ‘tamed’.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production by Justin Audibert is not the first to flip the genders in the piece, but it is particularly successful.

By presenting Italy as a matriarchal society, the comments and actions about and against those who do not hold power become more obviously jarring: in which case, how have societies regarded them (and still do, to varying degrees) as acceptable when said and done by men against women?

It also helps to bring out the centrality of money to the society represented – not least in terms of its links with marriage through dowries and land, with women having an intrinsic link to property.

And when, in the play’s closing monologue, our gender-flipped, male Kate tells us: “I am ashamed that men are so simple, To offer war where they should kneel for peace …” we have the play concluding with a comment on toxic masculinity that gives it all an added edge, and has the audience laughing sharply as Kate faces them from the front of the stage.

However, Taming of the Shrew was neither a po-faced nor puritanical play – it’s a bawdy comedy with plenty of references to sex that the first audiences would have found hilarious.

Rather, this is Carry On Taming the Shrew for the #MeToo era.

The company’s Merry Wives of Windsor that I saw at the end of 2018 had me laughing out loud more than at any previous production of anything by the Bard and, while this doesn’t manage quite that level of hilarity, there are are no shortage of laughs from an exceptionally strong cast – all of which also helps to avoid any whines about it being ‘PC’.

My pick of a terrific ensemble has to be Sophie Stanton as Gremia – one of three scheming suitors for Kate’s younger brother, Bianco, who cannot be married until his sibling has been paired off. Somehow she manages to glide around the stage, her Elizabethan skirts presumably hiding wheels, with the audience constantly laughing at the movement. Together with her struggles with words, swords and more, it’s a glorious comic performance.

Joseph Arkley is very good as Kate, while Claire Price has a ball as Petruchia. Hortensia, another suitor for the hand of Bianco, is served excellently by Amelia Donkor and Amy Trigg makes a wonderful Biondella, servant to Lucentia.

Oh, and what a delightful nod to Broadway to have Petruchia absently sing a line from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at one point – an acknowledgement that, for all its problems, The Taming of the Shrew remains a very popular entertainment. All of which serves to remind us, were it needed, that Shakespeare remains the Bard for all seasons and all times.

The Taming of the Shrew is in repertoire at London’s Barbican with As You Like It and Measure for Measure until 18 January – After that, it will visit Canterbury, Plymouth, Nottingham, Newcastle and Blackpool –, before heading to the US, South Korea and Japan –

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Knives Out is a razor-sharp whodunnit with laughs

It’s nearing Christmas and as we head to the shortest day, what could be more comforting than a good story? And among the most appropriate tales for long, dark nights, then a good whodunnit must rank pretty high.

So we have Knives Out from writer, producer and director Rian Johnson’s, a movie offering a very up-to-date take on the isolated country house murder story.

In literary terms, Agatha Christie was the boss of this genre. Her books might seem light, but that takes great skill.

Here, Johnson shows no less skill.

The family of successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey gathers to celebrate his 85th birthday, but the next morning, he’s found dead, in an apparent suicide.

Or was it?

When his will is read, it emerges that, shortly before his death, the author had cut his entire family out in place of his young South American carer, Marta.

Step forward local police – together with “the last of the gentleman detectives,” Benoit Blanc, who’s been anonymously hired to find out what really happened – and we start to learn that quite a few of the family had motives for murder.

This is really very good filmmaking. It’s a twisty plot that produces surprises until the end, with an added layer of interest in the subtle commentary on attitudes among some of the entitled middle class in Trump’s America.

The script is excellent – not least in Blanc’s overly verbose, drawling, southern character, including an hilarious diversion on doughnuts, and doughnuts within doughnuts. Indeed, there are a number of laugh-out-loud moments in the film and more than a few opportunities for a sly chuckle (watch for the final shot).

The cast is universally excellent, headed by Daniel Craig as Blanc and Ana de Armas as Marta.

Other acting nods go to Christopher Plumber, who sparkles as Thrombey, Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, his eldest daughter, and Don Johnson as her husband. Toni Collette produces a very nice turn as a lifestyle guru and influencer whos Harlan’s widowed daughter in law.

As Harlan’s grandson, Chris Evans gets a post-Marvel opportunity to show that he’s not as wooden as Captain America, while Michael Shannon is very effectively creepy as Walt, Harlan’s youngest son.

Thoroughly enjoyable – and sticks in the mind for some time after.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

All badged up

The overarching message from today’s exercise in re-badging my leather jacket, now returned from the cleaners, seems to have been that you can make statements without appearing to do so.

I started badging it some years ago, seeing it as a very personal form of ‘rock chic’ and absolutely refusing to add any obviously ‘political’ badges.

Over the last few years, it’s attracted plenty of comment and enquiry. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think it says more about me and what I believe in than if I’d dressed the jacket in rather more obvious pins.

Loosely, there are themes. And as Thomas Mann once said: “Everything is politics”.

So here’s a guide to my newly badged jacket.

From top left (approximately) – travel is good. We start with a flag pin representing Lübeck. This was my destination as a 50th birthday ‘thang’: I’d never been out of the UK on my own before this and it was a (long overdue) rite of passage to prove I could travel to ‘Abroadland’ all on my own.

I chose Lübeck because of Mann and Günter Grass and because I’d spent around 10 years teaching myself a bit of German so felt a certain confidence in the idea that I might be able to communicate at a basic level.

It was a fabulous and seminal trip.

Füssen? More German stuff – Bavaria; the Alps; simply gorgeous. Ties in with the edelweiss pin.

Then Thomas Mann – I have spares ope this pin; that’s how important it is to me. I loved Buddenbrooks … but then I read Death in Venice and my mind was well and truly blown.

The travel section includes Collioure – of course – plus Vienna, Sorrento and Sicily: all are special to me.

Beethoven is crucial: I love classical music and Ludwig in particular. And his 250th birthday is next year, so it would be poor tom leave him out.

That Concorde? A lovely pin, bought in Folkstone, together with a Spitfire pin. But at present, wearing a Spitfire could send out all the wrong signals, while this suggests European co-operation.

The Royal Opera House? Well, if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know why.

The Haring ‘resist’ pin? Haring at Tate Liverpool was my art revelation this year and resisting the Establishment and racism and bigotry in general is good.

The birds? Well, I saw a kingfisher this year and interacted with a raven (my absolute top bird). I love corvids in general, including those beauties, magpies. Red squirrels – only seen in Germany and Austria – but wonderful nonetheless.

Stephen Sondheim is a god, Star Wars is a big part of my cultural life, along with The Wizard of Oz (and as some of you will know, I’m a ‘friend of Dorothy’), while Captain Haddock represents comics and cartoons, and Shakespeare … well, I ‘dig’ The Bard big time.

This is how to make comments about yourself but leave others imply enjoying the colour!