Tuesday, 28 November 2006

rampage [dir george gittoes]

Rampage tells the story of three brothers. One dies. Another’s in Iraq. The third, whom the film finally concentrates on, goes looking for a recording contract.

All three brothers are rappers. The film is created around the notion that it’s as dangerous to live on the wrong side of the tracks in Miami as it is to live in Baghdad. Whilst shootings are clearly rife in Dade County, it still seems to be pushing it to say it’s worse than Iraq. A soldier says at one point that he’s safer in Baghdad, which may be the case for a US soldier but not, in would seem, for many. However, the film seems to realise that the comparison is tenuous if not odious, and the focus shifts away from the elder brother in Baghdad after the middle brother Marcus is shot in a gang incident at a party.

As the director/ narrator says, the younger 14 year old brother speaks like Shakespeare. Rap, rhyme, words, are part of all the brothers’ metabolisms. The younger brother says he started rapping when he was five. The violence that thrives around them seems to fuel their literacy. The rappers write down lyrics, have debates in rap, are more than ready to spontaneously rap about anything, anywhere.

Maybe the violence of their environment fuels this, maybe not. It’s a telling moment when the head of ‘Sony Rap’ or whatever he is, tells the kid that he’s the future of Rap, but that he can’t sing about what he wants to. He needs to become more audience friendly. Parents don’t want their children listening to a 14 year old rapping about AK 47s. You sense that if you try to stop the kid singing about what he has to sing about, he’ll never become the future of Rap. And what he knows about is shootings and drive-bys and his brother being killed.

In the end Rampage seems to skirt around issues. It won’t criticise the suits who tell the younger brother to change his tune. It doesn’t comment on fellow members of the soldier’s ghetto who criticise him for fighting Bush’s war. The film makes the strange choice of flying two of the brothers to Australia for no particular reason. The only time Gittoes comes out with a take on what he is doing as a filmmaker is when he leaves an Australian radio journalist’s query about his actions in the film, replying with an acknowledgement that the media interest he brought to the family might have precipitated Marcus’ killing. There’s probably another movie to be made about the macho documentary maker’s relationship to his subject matter, but we don’t get that here. What we do get is a snapshot of a remarkable community, which oozes poetry like blood; whose children are as proud of the epithet ‘poet’ as they are of being warriors.

It’s the people on the wrong side of the Miami bridge who truly treasure the language we speak.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

tosca's kiss (il bacio di tosca) [dir daniel schmid 1984]

The Goethe institute on Exhibition Street is a small venue. You get neither trailers nor adverts. There's a homely air to the red seats. It feels not unlike a school hall.

The films they show are not mainstream. My friend recommended Tosca's Kiss. I knew nothing about it. The film is a documentary, made over twenty years ago. In it's company the audience visits the Verdi home for retired musicians in Milan. The opening and closing shots of the building are the only exteriors in the whole film. The rest is captured in people's rooms, in the dining room, in an old storage room, on the stairwell.

The featured characters are all over seventy, and most will be dead by now. Some sung with Callas. Others refer to Caruso as though they knew him, as they may have done. Many performed in New York, Rio, Buenas Aires or Montevideo. All have opera in their bones. The caretaker and the cleaner appear. The cleaner sings with one of the former sopranos. The small audience in the Goethe Institute burst into applause. The staff say that no-one lives in the present in this place; everyone exists in a golden past.

Schmid captures these characters with a disarming charm. It would not be hard to make the film seem like an exercise in nostalgia, but the film resists. Instead, it is a study of ageing. The characters sing with enthusiasm. They play around. They are arrogant or self-obsessed, they are kindly or lovable. Age doesn't seem to have induced wisdom, neither has it dulled their appetite for life.

I don't care for opera. By the end of the film I was happily swimming in it. Within the film, opera feels like the folk music of Italy. There's only the one shot of the outside world, but few films have ever transported me to the country of their filming so effectively. Revealing that a country is made up of the personages who live, age, and will die there. As the film began I feared that ninety minutes in this world would be stretching it. When the credits rolled it felt like the viewer was being forcibly removed from a quirky corner of musical heaven.

Monday, 20 November 2006

requiem [dir. hans-christian schmid]

I was told that this was a horror movie. That might be the result of my informant's lack of attention to detail, or it might have been misleading publicity. There is certainly more than a hint of The Exorcist about the film, and there's a rumour that this was the case that seminal horror was based on.

Horror movies get made and horror movies sell. The shelves of DVD rental shops are littered with low-budget, cheaply made horror flicks, responding to our carnal need to be scared within a secure environment. Most horror movies are cynical exploitations of some kind of acute suffering. Requiem boasts that it is based on a true story. It's German. There has to be something terrifying in store, I thought as I settled back into the Curzon Soho seat. However...

Requiem is not a horror movie. Yes, it does feature an exorcism, but this is not a Friedkin, heads- spinning exorcism. This might even be the real deal. The camera hovers outside the room where the exorcism takes place, reluctant to intrude on Michaela Klinger's torment. An afternote informs us that this is just the first in a series of exorcisms she will undergo.

The director, Hans-Christian Schmid, isn't interested in the sensational, box office aspects of the story. He's interested in Michaela. The film makes us make friends with her, just as her two suprisingly decent university friends do. She's an epileptic oddball, on the cusp of implosion, and she knows it. She may be possessed by demons, she may not be. It depends on what you believe in. Michaela, as she tells her new class on her first day at University, believes in God. Her class mates laugh at her, but the teacher of pedagogy asks one of them what they believe in, and all they can say is they don't know.

In a sense, Requiem is a rites of passage movie: young woman goes from sheltered background to university, finds herself. The unsettling thing is the self she finds seems to belong to the Dark Ages. In a remarkable performance, Sandra Huller suggests that Michaela has chosen her fate, absorbed it like the saint she reveres, or a mother, or a businesswoman. A weaker performance from the leading actress would leave Michaela looking like a victim or a psychotic, but Huller manages to incorporate Michaela's unimpeachable selfhood into everything she does, whilst others around her are influenced by superstition or peer pressure.

Requiem is not always an easy ride. There are no cheap thrills. Being possessed by demons, be they real or imagined, is not an easy or a thrilling experience, the film suggests. Meticulously located in what one imagines to be an accurate recreation of the seventies, this is the flip-side of The Exorcism, and all the tacky 'horror' that film spawned. A braver legacy is implied, whose suffering is so acute the director refuses to dwell on it, instead celebrating the life this cursed woman lead.

Friday, 17 November 2006

dr faustus [dir rupert goold @ hampstead theatre]

Let’s see what we’ve got. We’ve got Dr Faustus himself, coming on stage near a skull which is where the tea will later be kept, (instigating a Hamlet joke – two teas or not to two teas), summoning up Mephistopholes who appears, Caliban stylee, in rags and dirty make-up. Then we’ve got the Chapman Brothers, laid back provocateurs of the art world. And isn’t that Matthew Collings who wrote a book about them all? And last but not least, there’s a refugee from Afghanistan whose brother was beheaded by the Taliban….How’s all this going to come together?

The fact that it doesn’t really might be less important than the fact that the director/ writer thought it worth a try. Just as the Chapmans ‘rectified’ Goya, so Goold is ‘rectifying’ Marlowe’s Faustus, chopping up the text, adding his irreverent take to it. Goold is commenting on the Chapman brothers commenting on Goya who’s not really commenting on the Faust legend commenting on Hell. Which is also a work by the Chapman brothers.

Faustus and the Chapmans paths only cross once, in the aftermath of their failure to win the Turner prize. The lights are going on and off in homage to Creed, and Faustus wanders through, stuck in his perpetual torment, whilst the Chapmans discuss the beauty of simplicity in art. A dangerous tactic. I found it hard not to think there might have been more tension if the Chapmans and Faust had had a dramatic reason for being in the same room, rather than a theoretical one. A note which carried through the whole play – it’s a nice enough device, pitting the enfants terrible against the daddy of enfants terrible, but unless the two stories genuinely crash into each other, rather than merely poetically allude to one another, it’s hard to see how this in any way ‘rectifies’ the original.

As a consequence, what you get is stripped down Faustus, the edge taken off it. Where a contemporary audience might have been terrified/ fascinated by Faustus’ incantations of magical spells, to a modern audience it feels like so much Shakespearianism. Faustus’ delight in the powers Mephistopheles grants him gets lost, and his tale is reduced to an ongoing dialogue with the disconnected anti-christ.

The artworld scenes work better. The interplay between the Chapmans operates on a suitably deadpan note. They have a narrative – the journey from Turner also-rans to cultural heretics, even if Helena’s interjections leading to Jake’s disquietude seems contrived. Yet their tampering with the Goya etchings hardly comes across as a damnable action, (especially as its artistic effectiveness is on show in the lobby, where the actual Chapman/ Goya works can be seen – although it was interesting to note that the night I was there, no-one was paying them a blind bit of notice), and whilst Faustus sees his soul streaming into the heavens, the audience knows that the Chapmans will face nothing worse than marginal notoriety and relative wealth.

As I left the theatre into a rainy Swiss Cottage night, I overheard someone saying it was a real actors piece. This seemed accurate, though it’s also a director’s piece, a design piece, even an artists piece. It feels like one of those shows where the parts are more than the sum of the whole. This may be the result of some kind of Faustian pact the director has made in over-reaching himself. If so, it’s more of a virtue than a vice. Even though we get two plays for the price of one, and though I question the use of a Taliban victim’s supposed testimony being appropriated in the name of art - (another line the play fitfully explores is the meaning of cruelty and art’s capacity to capture that thing) – Goold’s play is consistently, though never sensationally, thought-provocative.

Nb: No play will ever illustrate Martin Creed’s minor masterpiece as effectively as this; probably the most striking usage of a Turner prize winning work the London stage has seen.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

blasted (zerbombt) [dir thomas ostermeier for berlin schaubühne]

What happens to a writer whose work shocked the establishment and who subsequently committed suicide? Some British writers embroider their authenticity by claiming to be the keepers of her flame. Critics who expurgated this play when they first saw it attend European conferences to analyse her legacy.

Sarah Kane has become an icon. Of what exactly no-one’s quite sure. (More) doomed youth. The person is gradually superseded by a myth. The plays become part of the canon. She will never say anything sardonic ever again, but her words can come back to haunt you.

The actress playing Cate in this production for the Berlin Schaubuhne, directed by Thomas Ostermeier looks a lot like Sarah Kane. This cannot be entirely accidental, and seems initially off-putting. It suggests the play sees itself as the authentic version. The tone of the production is polished, with gravitas. We are offered a sumptuous feast of pickled baby and sautéed cock. The production values put the average subsidised British theatre show to shame. The ceiling really collapses. The stage revolve is employed not once, not twice but four or five times, as though we are watching some grotesque slow-motion carousel. A wheel of immovable cruelty. It’s the most brilliantly integrated use of a revolve I’ve ever seen.

Blasted is, in this production, a lost act from the Book of Revelations; the one where hell descends to our earth because we have brought it upon us with our moral inadequacies and putrid materialism. It’s a hair’s breath away, dirty bombs waiting in the wings, even if the play was originally inspired by the Balkan war.

Nothing has changed, the cruelty is immovable. It’s easy to see why the play possesses what might be described as ‘universal appeal’. As the production comes to the end of a stately two hours, the baby is bitten, the journalist buggered, his eyes Gloucestered. The play enters a death-world which has lost its power to shock (what were all those critics getting so upset about back in the naïve nineties?). We are watching the inevitability of our decline. Suicide will soon seem like the last remaining sensible option.

In its baroque way, the production works. The play’s steel-eyed brilliance shines through. The set and the revolve and white noise TV screen compliment it. Yet it feels to me as though something’s been sacrificed with all this stateliness. The wit in the lines, the black theatrical humour. There aren’t many laughs. It’s all in danger of becoming a bit too literal. Or reverential. Occasionally it felt as though it was the writer as icon whose work was being staged, rather than the writer who used to walk amongst us.

the prestige

Coming out of the Peckham Multiplex I call Mr Blue, filmmaker, and tell him I’ve just seen Nolan’s film. Why? he cries, the critics all said it was Rubbish!

I have thoroughly enjoyed the film, and all of a sudden I’m wondering if it wasn’t hokum after all. The wool has been pulled over my eyes, I have fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the flashing bulbs of Hollywood.

The revelation, the ‘prestige’ itself, is not exactly astonishing. I guessed it sometime after Michael Caine did, but got there nonetheless. Admittedly much of the acting seems as old as the sets are supposed to look, creaky, undercrafted. The pace is sometimes erratic as the narrative flies from trick to counter-trick, from Colorado to London. Ah, I think for a second, losing my nerve, rain falling on the Rye, maybe I’ve been suckered.

Nolan knows a thing or two about dazzling an audience. His first film, Following, is heart-free but cleverly constructed. His second, Momento, was breathtaking. Thereafter Insomnia was a pale imitation of the original and I missed Batman. The Prestige has him back where he belongs. Which is messing around with plots. Demonstrating his cleverness; keeping us guessing.

Messing about with plots. At one point Bale’s magician says to Jackman’s magician – you have to be prepared to get your hands dirty. Nolan seems to know that in order to create something that looks clean and calculated, you have to mess around. He’s willing to flip between past, present and future, between Colorado and London, timelines all of a muddle, pretty girls coming and going, David Bowie scattering some cheese on proceedings. Does a pile of tophats in a glade really mean something? When we see them a second time do they mean something else? Do they mean what we think they mean or do they mean nothing at all? Is magic all pretence? Is there such a thing as the truth?

In the end, all is bound to be revealed. The ‘prestige’ is the final revelation of the magic trick, when the disappeared reappears, the audience applaud. Nolan can never quite hope to match the effectiveness of a great magic trick on screen. Film is not quite magic, which thrives on an audience’s physical participation in the deceit to generate wonder. But he can emulate a magic trick, he can lead us through the pathways of a magician’s chicanery. To my mind it seemed appropriate that the ending failed to match the complexity of the plot. Even if the finale is anti-climactic, we’ve still been treated to a dazzling show. To be taken through the machinations of a plot is in some ways more entertaining than to be seduced by it. The very principle of The Prestige seems to be to reveal rather than deceive, in so far as the filmmaker can, meaning that disappointment is embedded in its enterprise.

All the same, I now wonder if the filmmaker realised this, or if he thinks he’s pulling one over on his audience. In which case the film fails miserably. But if he doesn’t it’s clearly a great success. It all depends where you’re looking. The very fact you can’t be quite sure implies the film’s doing something right. Or perhaps it really is a load of old hokum. Still raining in the Rye.

NB – The one character who has the ability to glean the truth which underpins the magician’s innate deceit is Bale’s wife, who can tell by the way he says he loves her whether he means it or not. Only later do we learn how right she truly was, but in another way the revelation matters not at all. Because in her actions and her words lurk the notion that there is a deeper truth that cannot dissemble no matter how hard it tries, a truth which is tied up with our understanding of love. Perhaps a braver film would have followed this further, for the wife, recognising there is little place for her understandings in a Hollywood blockbuster, hangs herself.

little children (d. todd field)

So what's this movie about then? At one point, Jennifer Connelly's character, who makes unspecified documentaries, interviews a child whose father has been killed in Baghdad. The child says something extremely profound which leads the workaholic Connelly to realise the value of her own family and she calls home in a frustrated attempt to speak to her neophyte house-husband Patrick Wilson.

This could be a conservative message as much as a liberal one. Family matters, blood is thicker than oil. The nominative liberal angle is the sympathetic take on the paedophile, McGovery. These days just to show a paedophile and not have him stoned to death is a badge of liberal conviction, and the clever exploration of his relationship with his mother establishes this movie as several degrees to the left of centre in its sensibility.

Probably. Because, again, the movie is about family. It is set in an anonymous, pseudo-Lynchian middle America, where mothers are bored and rich and fathers can see no reason not to indulge their desires, which have become no more than commodities. The two lead characters, Winslett and Wilson, would appear to be stepping into line by consumating their tender affair. Or perhaps Winslett is actually emulating Madame Bovary and asserting her feminine independence. They both appear to get away with their affair, the paedophile loses his penis, the bully his aggression, status quo returns to a chastened middle America.

It is part of the strength of this movie that these questions buzz around it like flies at the scene of another Bagdad bombing. It's perspective might be considered Humanist, in response to recent ideological leanings of the mother state. The fate of these none-too-likeable characters might be considered trite or insignificant. But its hard not to suspect that the film is not entirely about its characters. It's about the parameters of desire, the way in which desire binds and releases us. The things it can make us do or not do.

It might be noted that Winslett is described by the anonymous narrator (a late editorial choice to echo American Beauty or always part of the plan?) as being small-chested and dowdy and not Patrick Wilson's type at all. The fact that the red swimsuit she wears for large stretches of the movie shows her to be neither particularly small chested, nor particularly dowdy, is typical of the neat contradictions the director either gets away with or provokes.


You can imagine the writer of this play, Peter Morgan, digging out the Frost tapes and realising that he had literary gold dust all over his fingers. (A bit like Herzog and Grizzly Man). One of the keys to creating a hit play is to come up with an idea so good that you know there's no excuse for not making it work.

So Morgan had the idea, now he just had to make a play out of it. This is where the problems start.

Has ever a more lop-sided piece of theatre been created? Probably, but all the same - the first hour of this piece, which runs at one hour forty without an interval, is a turgid lecture, riven with exposition, two dimensional characterisation (the US army advisor who assists Nixon; the 'hippie' journalist, Reston etc) and caricature. Sheen plays Frost with bravado but the script offers no scope for subtlety, Langella tries to open up Nixon but is reduced to strange alcoholic leg-twitching. The piece contains one moment of drama which seems contrived and has no resonance.

Somehow the play lurches to the money. Then, miraculously, it comes together. The gold dust sparkles, the writer transcribes the tapes, we know what they mean, and we are impressed by our own insight and grateful to the writer for permitting us to be so clever. But we are not, I would suggest, moved, nor much the wiser about the human condition, or even the faults of Nixon himself. We now know that he was afflicted by hubris, but have no idea what lead him to lie, to cheat, to hoist himself on his own petard.

Frost/ Nixon isn't really a play. It's a clever idea masquerading as a documentary, recycling an interview. As though to prove the point the design helps us along - when the action switches to 70's New York, there's some footage of 70's New York. When Reston mentions a silver cadillac, there's one on screen for us. The TV sets are there for a reason: when Langella's Nixon is finally wrong-footed by Frost, it's up there for all of us to see, but they tend to obscure as much as they reveal. The play does something similar: we leave the theatre thinking we know the whole story, only to realise a few breaths later that we have barely scratched the surface.


Note 1: For Morgan's account of how he came to write the play, see this article. The show will transfer to Broadway in February and the feature film is in development.

Note 2: Backstage gossip: Langella is a method actor. He drove the director mad by refusing to give a proper performance until the show opened, which may explain the brittleness of his on-stage relationship with Sheen. He is known to improvise lines from the interview which are scripted verbatim, causing Sheen to improvise back. He finds it hard to get out of character, prowling his two dressing rooms with presidential wrath.