Les Misereables – hear the people sing

Les%20MisIf you like the stage show, you are gonna like the film. It really is as simple as that. And likewise, if you didn’t like the musical you aren’t gonna like the film either.

I am an unashamed fan of the musical Les Miserables. I have seen it on the London stage three times! Therefore I liked the film. It is the exact same story with the exact same characters singing the exact same songs (and for those that don’t know, the entire stage show and film is sung – there is no spoken dialogue).

For the uninitiated and sceptical though, maybe the film offers a far cheaper way than the extortionate west end theatre prices of finding out what all the fuss is about. And I do know people who having said they hate musicals, on being dragged to the stage show of Les Miserables turned out to love it. Then again, I know others who turned out to hate it as much as they thought they would! 

If you are curious though, this new film version of Les Miserables really should be seen (and heard) on the big screen, because with its huge sets and rousing songs it is big.

But does the film add any value to the stage show? Actually, I think it detracts value.

The film uses CGI technology and the magic of cinema to recreate the look of 19th century France (just ignore it is really Greenwich Naval College) in ways no stage show could or would dream of doing.

But therein lies the problem. The theatre asks the audience to use its imagination to fill in the gaps and pretend it is real. If in a movie the gaps aren’t filled in properly, something seems wrong.

The opening half of this new film version did look gritty, grimy and realistic. But the second half, mostly set on the barricades, looked like the stage set built in a movie studio. In the theatre we accept that we are watching just a handful of the hundreds of revolutionaries fighting the French army. But this is not clear in the film and consequently the handful we are watching, and their stand, look a bit pathetic.LesMis_rables_2446250b 

There is the issue of melodrama too. And Les Miserables is very melodramatic. Now again, this is ok on the stage. The theatre lends itself to melodrama. With most of the audience sitting so far back from the stage, the performers almost have to be over the top in their vocal delivery and acting.   

The Director of the new Les Miserables movie Tom Hooper has however stuck his camera right in the faces of the actors. They sing straight into the camera. Therefore the melodrama is just too in your face. The lack of subtly in the story, acting and lyrics are just too exposed.

Indeed Anne Hathaway’s dramatic delivery of the tragic I Dreamed a Dream is filmed so close we just see her head and shoulders for the full duration of the song as she cries and wails and looks terribly upset.

As well as exposing the flaws, this style of framing also gets a bit repetitive, though Hathaway does sing and act very well. 

les-miserables-image02The other lead actors are somewhat uneven. All can sing passably, even Russell Crowe, just about. Hugh Jackman’s voice is pretty weak, but he acts the central part of Jean Valjean very well. Eddie Redmayne is all vein bulging intensity. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are everything you’d expect of the pantomime villains. While the younger women, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Samantha Barks as Eponine, sing well enough, but have little to do except look sad.

Despite what therefore sounds like a very critical review of the film, I have been humming the songs ever since I saw it. The story is epic and bombastic but with its rags to riches themes set against doomed revolution and personal redemption, in the end, I was moved. But then, I love the stage show, so I was going to like the film.

Movies, Theatre

The Master and Margarita – Overwhelming

tumblr_m82v9kIRBd1rr3yo0o1_1280What a story! What a play! Epic. Not only for its almost 3 and half hour length, but for its multi layered stories set thousands of years apart. These include oppression in Stalinist Moscow and religious myth that are relayed with fantastical farce and gritty realism using gigantic video screens and an aggressive, confrontational theatrical style.

The running length actually flew by, because for the most part this was a seriously engaging and engrossing play, staged with staggering creativity and energy. Theatre at its best.

In fact I didn’t want it to end. And when it did end, and I was left with a multitude of questions, I wanted to watch it again straight away to try and make sense of some of it.

An impossible task though no doubt. For even Simon McBurney, the Director of theatre company Complicite’s take on the classic Russian novel The Master and Margarita staged at London’s Barbican, admits in the programme notes “the whole book is a mystery to me.”

But complete understanding is clearly not integral to the enjoyment of this story by Mikhail Bulgakov. Or perhaps more accurately, not integral to feeling its impact, as such was this play’s intensity, it is at times hard to enjoy. The stunning opening and most of the second half in fact left me feeling quite uncomfortable.

This is another literary adaptation whose source novel I have never read. In fact until having tickets for the play bought for me I had never heard of it. Which now, having done some research, seems incredible, such it seems is the novel’s stature as a masterpiece of the 20th century.

Director McBurney also says in the programme notes that he has lost count of how many people have told him it is their favourite novel. And the few people I mentioned I was going to see it to said the same.Toby Sedgwick and Ajay Naidu in The Master and Margarita at the Barbican

So what is it about? Well how long you got?

On a literal level the play intertwines the story of a poet in Moscow in 1939 who sees a literary censor beheaded by a tram, is visited by the devil who shows him a conversation between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, gets sent to a mental hospital where he meets a man who tells his own life story which involves writing a masterpiece of a novel about the same conversation between Christ and Pilate, is censored, and thrown in the hospital while his lover is taken to a midnight ball in hell (after the devil has performed a black magic show at a Moscow theatre) by Satan’s flunkies who also beat people up in Stalinist Russia. Oh and there is a demonic talking lewd cat too.

Got all that? Well I am not sure I have either even after seeing the play. And there were areas of it that I was really struggling to follow or stay engaged with. Yet there were other areas which were completely entrancing and profound.

The theatrical experience of this production matched the wild and wonderful story too. The energy from the performers was incredible, with a lot of running, a lot of complete nudity and a lot of intense dialogue. And there is a staggering revelation towards the end which left me in awe of one of the main actors.

Scenes in Stalinist Moscow would morph into Roman occupied Jerusalem, or hell, seamlessly with few stage props or sets. Scenes of quiet sensitivity and honesty were mixed up with bawdy stand up comedy and performers directly confronting audience members as if in a smutty pantomime.

The use of lighting effects and video was also extremely exciting. Close ups of the actors faces would be broadcast live on a huge video wall at the back of the stage. Overhead video of the actors provided optical illusion type effects against the video wall. The audience was also filmed and shown on this wall which creaked and cracked and crumbled throughout.

Some of these techniques did not work for me however, and there was often just too much going on. This detracted from the story which also had elements which I just did not like – the cat in particular and the scenes with the devil felt intellectually conceited. I also at times found it hard to feel emotionally engaged with the main characters.

2818c3c27b417f80c51b20098984f604Yet at other times I was completely mesmerised by what is up there amongst the most amazing pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Modern, sensory, aggressive, energetic and challenging.

Of course it is the themes of the story that underpin the whole experience of the play. And despite the criticisms of some areas already made, the subjects of freedom, literary expression, honesty, storytelling, living for art, love and ultimately forgiveness, emotionally resonated through incredibly powerful imagery and dialogue.

This is made all the more moving by the obvious autobiographical nature of parts of the story and Bulgakov’s knowledge that the book would never be published in the world he lived in.

So overwhelming yes, but deeply penetrating too. And now I can’t wait to read the novel.



Fuerzabruta – wow!

GetAttachmentThis show has to be seen to be believed! And it really has to be seen because it is jaw droppingly brilliant.

And literally so. I had my mouth wide open pretty much throughout the 80 minute duration of Fuerzabruta, marveling at what was going on in front and mostly above me and waiting with excited nervousness for what the hell was going to happen next. And I had seen it before six years ago.

But what is it? Well that isn’t so easy to answer because it is almost indescribable. Visually stunning is what it is. Mind blowing is what it is. But it really defies any sort of genre categorisation.

The prosaic facts are that it is on at the Roundhouse in Camden and is an Argentinean “post modern theatre show” (as wikipedia describes it).

What this apparently means is a raucous, loud, intense, in your face, part circus, part modern dance, part techno rave, with incredible stunts performed on all manner of stage craft, all over the theatre’s space.

There is a man running on a conveyor belt through walls while being shot at, there are ballet dancers running around the walls of the theatre Spiderman like, there is a kind of fantastical battle between a man on a woman on a huge disc thing spinning above the audience’s heads, there are huge tanks of water lowered from the ceiling with mermaid like women dancing in them, there are people crawling on a huge see-through plastic sheet that has been inflated above the audience, there are people flying down through this and pulling audience members up from the floor.

And all this is done to a thumping soundtrack, with a lot of live primal drumming, screaming and shouting, strobe lighting, wild dancing and things being smashed.Performers+from+Fuerza+Bruta

It is exhausting just to watch it! God knows how the relatively few performers manage to get through all this but their enthusiasm, along with the intensity and sheer wonder of it all, is incredibly infectious.

And the audience are left no choice but to participate in it all, having to move around as the sets change position and literally invade the space the crowd were once standing in. The water tanks descend so low that hands rise from the crowd to literally touch the membrane the dancers are sliding and crashing about on. The climatic scene relies on the audience to move the set across their heads.

And believe me, I am no fan of dancing, especially to this type of music, but it is hard not to such is the exuberant joy of it all.

And that I think is what it is all about. There is no discernible plot or meaning to any of it. But who cares, because it is so much fun. In fact the performers seem to have more fun than the audience. But who can blame them. I wanna do what they do! Though how do they do it!

The show perhaps does not have quite the same sense of astonishment on a second viewing and it feels like it has been padded out a bit unnecessarily. But I still loved it.

Fuerzabruta at the Roundhouse in LondonIt is also not for everyone. There were some young kids and elderly people in the audience and why the hell not, but you gotta be prepared for a club-like experience regarding the music, lights and volume. You also gotta be reasonably open-minded, as this is like nothing you have seen before.

But even if that isn’t you, and even if you hate the show, as I said, it has to be seen to be believed.

So go buy tickets now. It is on for another two weeks and there are a handful of tickets left. If you hate it, you’ll have had an experience unlike any other. And most people are gonna love it.


The Impossible – Traumatic

The Impossible

The Impossible is everything you expect a “true story” film about one family’s plight during the 2004 Boxing Day Asian Tsunami to be. Traumatic, harrowing, frightening, emotional (tear jerking in the extreme in fact), moving, dramatic.

How can it not be all these things?

And while it is all very predictable – apart from who does or doesn’t live, there are no surprises here at all – this is a brilliantly put together film.

The acting, as you would expect, is superb. Ewan McGregor at his best, though out acted by an excellent Naomi Watts. And the kids too do a fine job.

The special effects, as you would expect, are amazing. The tsunami is brought to life with spectacular and horrific realism. From being tossed around underwater and battered by all manner of deadly debris, to being out of control, rushing with the water to a totally random fate on the surface, it is powerfully done. The sound effects help with this too – the cinema (if it’s a good one with a proper sound system) feels like it is shaking.

The chaos of the aftermath is also, as you would expect, impressively created. Be it the apocalyptic landscape left by the water, or the mania and confusion at the hospital.

And the feelings of fear, panic, loss, loneliness and even rising to the occasion,  are, as you would expect, extremely effectively portrayed.

So what is the point of this film?

I mean I liked it. It was well made (bar a hokey Jaws like intro music and a rather drawn-out ending). I was even entertained by it. But should I have been? Should this be entertaining?

As I left the cinema at the end of the film a middle-aged chap jovially said to me “so going to Thailand for Christmas next year then egh.. ha ha ha…” Which didn’t seem funny to me.

Is this not entertainment based on others suffering? It’s a great story, no doubt. But what did this film tell me that I didn’t know about the human condition or suffering? What did it make me think or feel about these ideas that I hadn’t already thought? Well nothing really.

Still from The Impossible
The Impossible

Does that matter? Is there value in seeing close up the horror of that day? Does that help those of us who were not there or knew no one there understand it better, or relate better to those who were there? Does this offer any kind of tribute to those who were killed that day? Does it help us prepare for our own inevitable losses? Or is it just a blockbuster movie designed to thrill? I don’t know.

The fact that the film is based very much on one family’s experiences of this disaster which affected millions is also problematic.

On the one hand this keeps the film tight. The suffering of anyone else, though not shunned, is kept firmly in the background (as are, thankfully, any graphic details of the deaths – though again this is not shunned, notably with an overhead shot of body bags).

This narrow plot device also leaves the film free of too much criticism that it is focused on the plight of western holiday-makers instead of the local Asian communities who suffered equal horrors. The few Thai characters are presented well – as helpful villagers or competent medical staff.

But on the other hand the firm focus on one family leaves the film unable to explore wider themes. There is no room outside this one family’s experiences to explore anything else other than the obvious emotions we would expect.

This was not the case in the excellent 2006 HBO TV film Tsunami: The Aftermath, with a host of stars including Tim Roth, Toni Collette, Gina Mckee, Sophie Okonedo and Hugh Bonneville.

The Impossible

This told the story from various people’s perspectives including, notably, a local Thai family. It also looked at the British diplomatic corps inability to cope with the situation and delved into exploitative actions of holiday companies who in the immediate aftermath, were buying up land where villages had stood, for hotel development.

Apart from a bigger budget and therefore better effects, The Impossible, for me, added nothing that the HBO film hadn’t already looked at. Less in fact.

So The Impossible is, in conclusion, and as I hope I’ve made clear, everything you’d expect it to be. And whether this makes it a great film or not is, I guess, dependent on your views about these things. For myself, I am really not sure!


Life of Pi – Excellent

Suraj Sharma and tiger in Life of Pi. What an extraordinary story. And brought to life with extraordinary visuals. This is surely the epitome of what good cinema should be. The stuff of dreams!

I have never read the book and somehow came to the film knowing little about it except that it is about a boy stuck in a boat with a tiger.

And that is essentially what the main bulk of the Life of Pi consists of. But this is layered with adventure (in true Robinson Crusoe castaway fashion), excitement, humour, sadness and mystery.

And then there is the cinematography. The 3D effects are as usual pretty much pointless and a hindrance more than a benefit. But the dreamy seascapes, framing of shots, dissolves and layering of sky and sea and starry nights are stunningly beautiful. Majestic even. The look of the film combines with the magical realist style story wonderfully.

And the realisation of the tiger (and other animals, though they only briefly make an appearance) is simply excellent. So good it is easy to just take it for granted. Yet bar one or two scenes, the tiger (mostly CGI generated) and his interaction between main human character Pi is completely realistic and thrillingly so. Quite an achievement.

It is also testament to how engaging and good the film is that the bulk of the action really only consists of the teenage Pi and the tiger stuck for nearly a year on a small life boat (marooned there together following a mid pacific ship wreck).

And while there is magic realism at play, the tiger is very much a fierce deadly and hungry tiger. We are never led to believe that the tiger is not a dangerous man-eating beast that Pi has to keep his distance from. Yet the symbiotic relationship that forms between the two is completely believable, and of course the main point of the story.Life-of-Pi-Ending-Explained

Suraj Sharma as Pi is excellent, as is the wonderfully natural Irrfan Kahn as the adult Pi, who is telling the story years after the event.

It is in the modern-day story telling scenes that we get some elements of spiritual theory being espoused. But this is slight and almost hidden in the pure adventure story.

In fact Pi’s zealot multi-faith beliefs are amusing and charming and never over bearing. If anything the metaphors underlying the story are perhaps almost underplayed.

This is a big and wonderfully creative film both visually and in terms of the story and themes being explored. Yet on the other hand it is just a great adventure yarn.

And the conclusion……….. well just go and see it, it’s excellent.


Admiring Ansel Adams’ America

Ansel Adams: Untitled, about 1960
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

If you love America, or more precisely the scenery of the American west, and if you love moody black and white photography (all of which I do), then you gotta get down to Greenwich and check out the current exhibition of “arguably America’s most celebrated photographer” Ansel Adams.

Perhaps there aren’t as many of Adam’s best or most familiar images as you would expect.

Perhaps the photos are exhibited in surprisingly small prints that are not how you normally think Adam’s pin sharp images of epic scenery should be displayed.

But I loved this exhibition. It is succinct, well themed and staged in an appropriate location and gives a good concise history of modern photography.

And of course there are enough photographs here that simply make you stop and think “wow” as well as want to get on a plane to Yosemite straight away.

And if you want famous or big, there are according to Time Out “some of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century,” on display here, as well as three monumentally large sepia tinged photos.

Titled ‘Ansel Adams Photography from the Mountains to the Sea’, the exhibition of around 100 photos focuses, appropriately for the National Maritime Museum where it is staged, on Adam’s photos of water (though most of that water is in rivers or lakes rather than the sea).

Themes include waterfalls, clouds, gesyers, rapids, rivers and coast.

We see how Adams was a leading proponent of photographic modernism and what this is: hard and sharply focused images as opposed to the softer, painterly like images of yore.

Ansel Adams: Waterfall, Northern Cascades, Washington
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

We learn how this was achieved with greater effect by Adams through getting the maximum range of focus (depth of field) possible so everything is crystal clear and how he saw this as emphasising the apparatus of the camera rather than the human eye. We read how this concept was seen as a scary radical development by traditionalists in the photography world.

But more importantly we are constantly aware of water. But not always through our eyes.

Orson Welles once said, the best pictures are the ones you see with your ears. And a quote by Adams painted on the wall of the exhibition reads “I can look at a fine art photograph and sometime I can hear music.” Indeed these images invoke the sound of rapids crashing down a mountain river, or the wind rustling through riverside grasses. I could almost hear the sea crashing on the rocks of the Californian coast.

While Adams has been criticised by critic Alistair Sooke in the Telegraph for the lack of humanity in his images (which is definitely literally true) I actually found humanity in the photographer’s own excitement transcending the image. Famous for his immaculately composed images, some on display here look like they have been taken spontaneously by Adams, bursting with passion about his subjects.

And those immaculate compositions are jaw droppingly stunning. An image of the Teton Mountains in Wyoming with the Snake River snaking past in the foreground feels like THE most perfectly composed landscape photograph. Too prefect for Sooke, but heavenly indeed.

And the other worldly misty landscape of Clearing Winter Storm Yosemite, in which the scene looks like a sci fi planet from an intelligent blockbuster, is just sublime.

The exhibition, for some, may be too focussed on the craft of photography than the photos themselves. And if you don’t like America or you want colour or people in your photos, then it probably ain’t for you.

For me though this was inspiring art. Now how much is that flight to California…………..