Winter Solstice @ HOME

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Winter Solstice

By Roland Schimmelpfennig

Actors Touring Company & Orange Tree Theatre

HOME, 14 February 2018

David Beames (Rudolph) and Marian McLoughlin (Corinna) in Winter Solstice by Roland Schimmelpfennig presented by Actors Touring Company and Orange Three Theatre. At HOME Manchester, Tue 13 - Sat 17 February 2018. (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

David Beames (Rudolph) and Marian McLoughlin (Corinna) in Winter Solstice by Roland Schimmelpfennig. At HOME Manchester, Tue 13 – Sat 17 February 2018. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

When Corinna (Marian McLoughlin) visits her daughter’s family for the Christmas holidays, she brings along Rudolph (David Beames), a man she had met on the train coming down.

This Rudolph fellow is a bit mad, as you might gather from his name, but here it doesn’t show, at least not at first. He enters a fractious household, an unhappy middle-class family with fashionable foibles. Bettina (Kirsty Besterman) makes obscure, quasi-romantic films and has slowly come to despise Albert (Felix Hayes), her liberal intellectual husband, a fellow who writes obscure, quasi-significant, guilt-laden books. His books have the kind of titles typical of Agamben, Sloterdijk Zizek… You get the picture. We learn that Albert is having an affair, while Bettina may be about to embark on one with Albert’s best friend.

Schimmelpfennig’s play is funny and entertaining, at certain moments excruciating to watch, and this Actors Touring Company & Orange Tree Theatre production is lively and inventive. It does a lot with a little: five actors and a table and myriad knick-knacks (whose sly use suggests that matters here are not as they seem) is all it has going for it, but it is enough. There’s much more to the play than the comedy, mind, and it is not just that Rudolph is an old Nazi, a stand-in for the alt-right and the Neu Reich as represented by AfD and the current Austrian government. His talk of pride and renewal, of a love of mankind (excepting those deemed to be Lebensunwertes Leben) and community (that good old Volksgemeinschaft), shows as much. No, Schimmelpfennig as well casts a critical eye over the (neo) liberal paradigm that has brought the likes of Rudolph into being. He finds it shallow, woeful, wholly inadequate to withstand the juggernaut that is coming at it full pelt.

In truth, I didn’t leave the theatre with any great feeling of Aufgehoben, which was probably the point. Sober disenchantment was the effect of this very satisfying play.

Winter Solstice is at HOME for only a few days more, until 17 February. Details here.

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Shiraz: A Romance of India

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Shiraz: A Romance of India

Directed by Franz Osten

India, 1928

HOME, 6 February 2018

There is plenty of vitality to be found still in this silent film of 1928, now released with a newly minted, soul-stirring soundtrack by Anoushka Shankar.

It is set in Mughal India and tells the story (or a version of it, anyway) of muted yet strong passions behind the building of the Taj Mahal. You have Shiraz, who comes to try and rescue the Princess Selima when she is kidnapped and sold as an odalisque. Alas, she is to wed her captor, the Emperor Shah Jehan, a man of noble blood. Still, Shiraz watches over her from afar, just to make sure he treats her right.

I was quite taken by with Lady Dalia myself (played by the wonderful Seeta Devi, born Renee Smith), a scheming beauty with fiery eyes. She is the black swan or evil queen in this story, and quite an enticing one at that. Eventually, she is found out, and once her sinister machinations are revealed to the Emperor she is banished from the kingdom.

As for the Emperor himself, if you really get on the wrong side of him you could find an elephant’s foot coming down onto your face or feel a red hot poker in your eye. A nasty piece of work, he is, and no mistake.

Shiraz is a beautiful, sometimes surprisingly brutal film.

Loveless

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Loveless

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Russia, 2017

HOME, 1 February 2018

The film presents a stark picture of Russian society as it is now.

There is the Russian flag over the school entrance at the start, where we see Alyosha, the unloved boy, walking home; there are the Russian colours emblazoned on the tracksuit of the monstrous mother on the treadmill at the end.

I know this boy, you think, his name that of the youngest of the Karamazov brothers, played by an actor (Matvey Novikov) who in appearance is strikingly similar to the protagonist of Ivan’s Childhood; as we have learnt, allusion is all with Zvyagintsev. Apart from Alyosha, the film has many people who, it seems, don’t know their hearts. It is as though the content of their lives is an almighty distraction from their genuine concerns. As though this icily cold, emotionally bleak Russia, in appearance so contemporary and European, were in denial of its steppe-wide soul. Only twice do you see that soul burst out in grief and anger – the boy crying, the fight at the morgue – but when it does it is irresistible, raw and bloody, torrential in its downpour. That is a sign, of course, that in some sense it is always present.

Only monsters can survive in this climate, and Montgomery was right. Don’t ever, ever, march on Moscow. This nation will defeat you, always.

Andrey Zvyagintsev (I wonder whether he is related to the chess grandmaster Vadim Zvjaginsev, author of 1.e4 c5 2.Na3!?) has made another masterpiece.

The Final Year

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The Final Year

Directed by Greg Barker

USA, 2017

HOME, 1 February 2018

This documentary is all about Obama’s last year in the White House, with as counterpoint news of Trump’s election campaign playing in the background, threatening to destroy all that had been built.

The focus is on foreign affairs, the calamitous war in Syria above all, North Korea is off the radar and Yemen and Libya, likewise, barely mentioned. John Kerry is an impressive, workmanlike personage, while Samantha Power comes across as emotive and empathetic, a trifle priggish, and ultimately ineffectual. No one, least of all the Russian delegation at the UN, is listening to her. As for Obama, he is good at making inspirational speeches (it is what got him elected, after all) and killing people with drones (as he has admitted himself, when speaking to aides) but little else besides, it seems. Making decisions does not come easy to him.

You come away thinking: Are these the guys tasked with carrying the world on their shoulders? I mean, really, is this the best we can do? If so, no wonder the world is in such a parlous state. There is a point where an Obama advisor, name of Ben Rhodes, speaks of the danger of Trump dismantling what the administration has built. But is it really worth saving? And the question of what it is about Obama’s administration that brought Trump into being is left unanswered.

And to return to Samantha Power for a moment: she calls the Russians at the UN ‘shameful’, but wasn’t it also shameful for the UN to take military action in Libya, intervening in a sovereign country turning it into the basket case it is today? She, above all, was the person who argued for that action – and it has been disastrous. Don’t try to improve the world, the wise John Cage once wrote, you will only make matters worse.

An insipid documentary despite, or perhaps as a condition of, the great access given to the Obama administration.

The Nothing Factory

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The Nothing Factory

Directed by Pedro Pinho

Portugal, 2017

HOME, 30 January 2018

A factory shuts down and the workers are left with nothing to do.

The receivers are called in and, while some workers hang around hoping the machines will start up again, others take severance pay. Later, the remaining workers go on to strike and occupy the shop floor.

It is an overlong film, frankly, having a running time of about three hours. But there are several interesting moments, including a dinner conversation between a handful of French intellectual types (how’d that get in there?) and a sort of song and dance sequence. I liked the film, in fact, mainly because, besides having echoes of Godard and Alexander Kluge, it feels like the future. For now, we have globalisation, which has bought cheap Chinese steel and all the rest. The real crisis will come, mind, with the advent of AI, an advance that will make all factory hands – and many professionals too – redundant.

It will be upon us sooner than we think. And how will working people be able to make a living then?

Lover for a Day

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Lover for a Day

Directed by Philippe Garrel

France, 2017

HOME, 27 January 2018

You have, like, a love triangle.

There is a daughter who, having broken up with her boyfriend, moves in with her father and his girlfriend, a young woman of her own age. In short time, the daughter seems to plot the removal of her rival. She does so unconsciously, unbeknownst to herself, as though under the influence of a quasi-Electra complex: that’s the art of the film.

So we see her uncovering the girlfriend’s murky past (once, she did a photo spread for a porn mag) and tempting her into infidelity with a guy she knows.

All in all, something of a triumph: a film that is as elegant, spare and beautifully observed as a Patrick Modiano novella.

The Post

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The Post

Directed by

USA, 2017

HOME, 28 January 2018

The good guys always win in the end, though they have to show courage to get there.

That is Spielberg’s vision and it is not without a tranche of truth. Here, in the summer of 1971, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) of the Washington Post go after the hidden US government policy relating to the Vietnam war. And Nixon’s White House tries to stop them.

In true Spielberg style, it is America itself that protects and supports Graham and co, in the form of the checks and balances, the formidable provisions, put in place by the Founding Fathers. Their foresight is the Post’s salvation.

There are many delights to be had in this fibre-enhancing film: the many moments of surprise and suspense; the humour, as when the daughter makes a mint from her lemonade stall; the many conversations between Streep and Hanks and others – it is full of smart talk; Graham’s (Streep’s) transformation and growth from little lady to decision-maker; the allusion, a throw-away joke almost (but, like all here, deftly done), to Watergate at the end.

All in all, it is a supremely accomplished film that both delights and instructs.

In the Cut

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In the Cut

Directed by Jane Campion

Australia, 2003

HOME, 24 January 2018

This is a terribly suspenseful, scary film, fear-laden and fraught with horror.

Frannie (Meg Ryan), a literature teacher with an interest in sexual slang, may know something about a serial killer who is going the rounds. A cop (Mark Ruffalo) is shadowing her, but she is unsure whether he is a protector or a predator.

I found the film impressive on several fronts, above all for its sense of gender politics and as a faithful adaptation of the novel, which I read many years ago. What I admired about the novel was how at the end it switched from first person to third person (disarticulation), thereby showing Frannie’s fate. Here, the ending is different but somehow works as well.

A great film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Directed by Martin McDonagh

USA, 2017

HOME, 24 January 2018

A mother struggles to cope with the death of a beloved child.

Her daughter has been violently murdered and the assailant is still out there. So she advertises her grief to the world, to see whether anyone is listening. To see whether the world can contain it; and the answer, of course, is that it cannot.

There is destruction and commotion aplenty here, an unstinting thrashing about in despair, a thirst for justice or even vengeance. Frances McDormand is excellent as the bereaved mother and Sam Rockwell’s depiction of a dullard cop passes muster. Together, they form an unlikely friendship. A pair of pilgrims, penitents perhaps, travelling a crooked road.

Not an exceptionally great film – it has been overrated in some quarters – but certainly good enough.

Darkest Hour

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Darkest Hour

Directed by Joe Wright

UK, 2017

HOME, 23 January 2018

For Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill, for that alone, the film is well worth a watch.

It looks at the early period of the war: Chamberlain out, Churchill in, yet Lord Halifax still milling about, mobilising for peace negotiations with Hitler. The appeasers not giving up the ghost just yet and the British army stranded at Dunkirk.

Churchill’s trip on the tube is a bit fanciful, but probably serves to illustrate his famous statement that he was merely ‘the roar’, whereas the British people were ‘the lion’. What we see here is his engaging humour, his vulnerability – as we know, he was a man haunted by the back dog of depression – and his immense defiance but not his platinum ruthlessness.

Dunkirk was wonderful, a miraculous heroic rescue but one could argue that it was at Mers-le-Kebir that Churchill really showed his mettle. There, he ordered the sinking of virtually the entire French fleet, an action that killed over 1000 French sailors, to prevent those ships from falling into German hands. It was a cold-blooded decision, which mightly impressed Roosevelt and Stalin at the time. Consider: to destroy the entire navy of your closest ally because they now represent a potential threat to your country; that’s the measure of the man.

Was Churchill the greatest Briton? Yes.