English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth & La Sylphide

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Song of the Earth & La Sylphide

Music by Mahler & Lovenskiold

English National Ballet

Palace Theatre, Manchester

11 October 2017

Tamara-Rojo and Joseph Caley in Song of the Earth. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

We saw an excellent double-bill, a presentation of two very different pieces, by the English National Ballet.

Song of the Earth featured Tamara Rojo, the company’s artistic director, in a now rare principal role and it might best be described as a poetic meditation on the earth and the sky, the seasonal cycle of renewal and decline, death and life in all its forms. Beautifully done, the choreography by Kenneth MacMillan as fresh as morning dew, it was based on Mahler’s wonderful song cycle and the two singers were Rhonda Browne and Samuel Sakker.

As for La Sylphide, that was something else again. It was a dark fairy-tale about a fiery enchantment leading a young man away from a safe (but dull) path – marriage to a nice girl – and into a dark gargantuan forest where he is deserted and left to die alone. The fate of those who are tremulously plucked out serves as a warning to the herd. A tortuous trajectory and an ignoble death. Best not to dwell.

This show had it all: art, dance, perfection.

English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth & La Sylphide is on national tour until January 2018. Details here.

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

UK, 2017

HOME, 15 November 2017
The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Mimetic desire is alive and well in modern America.

A surgeon kills a boy’s father, he is culpable or perhaps the operation just went awry. So the boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), takes it upon himself to mete out revenge on the surgeons family. He casts a curse, kind of, and this aspect of the film reminded me strongly of Thinner, an old Stephen King novel. Modern medicine is helpless against the curse and to avert the worst the surgeon must kill again.

It is an unsettling film, as with  this director’s previous work, with everyone on the surface civilized and polite yet driven by primordial urges. Instincts are our gods and they live in us still.

There is a neat scene at the end (anyway, I liked it) where the daughter liberally squirts tomato ketchup on her chips. It is as though the director were saying: Well, remember, none of what you have seen is real blood. No one actually died here. But of course they had.

And people killed people.

Kaleidoscope

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Kaleidoscope

Directed by Rupert Jones

UK, 2017

HOME, 15 November 2017
Kaleidoscope

This is a seductive yet not entirely satisfying film.

We are puzzled and intrigued by Carl (Toby Jones) right from the start. His few possessions, above all a treasured kaleidoscope, stand as the sad ruins of a failed life. His relationship with his mother (Anne Reid, who like Jones is excellent) is cringey, creepy and compelling.

What is terrific is that it is almost a wholly psychological film: you are gripped by Carl and by what is going on in his head. Yet that is what lets you down a little at the end: you are uncertain what has actually happened and what Carl has otherwise feared or imagined.

Anyway, it is a well-crafted entertainment, something more than that.

One Nite in Mongkok

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One Nite in Mongkok

Directed by Derek Yee

Hong Kong, 2004

HOME, 14 November 2017
One Nite in Mongkok

There is a contract killer, name of Lai Fu, who arrives in Hong Kong to carry out a job.

He hooks up with a call girl. It happens when she is being beaten up by a client and he intervenes, slamming the guy’s head against a wall. Once, twice, three times. Just to be on the safe side.

They then roam, this happenstance couple, through the streets of Mongkok, dodging the cops who are pursuing them (though mainly him), evading gangsters (the call girl’s client calls on some bad dudes), trying to stay safe.

Not a whole lot of sense to the story, in truth, as Lai Fu never manages to carry out the hit. But there is betrayal and double-cross, rogue cops and gunfights, seedy motels and rain-slick city streets bathed in neon and darkness, displays of heroism and descents into humiliation, random moments of ecstasy and elegy.

It is enough to keep you happily watching.

The Long Good Friday

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The Long Good Friday

Directed by John Mackenzie

UK, 1980

HOME, 9 November 2017
The Long Good Friday

Harold, an entrepreneurial gangster, wants American money (here, the Mafia) to invest in a grand project, revitalising London’s docklands.

When they decline – all those IRA bombs going off, like the fallout from Brexit now, leads to too much instability and uncertainty for their liking – Harold (Bob Hoskins) is irate. They have no bottle, he tells them. And, anyway, he doesn’t need them. Because Britain is part of the common market now. And he will go in with the Germans – yes, the Krauts – instead. They will realise what a promising opportunity he is offering. America, the special relationship, all that malarkey, that’s in the past. Europe is the future for him. It is one of the best moments and it makes you realise that the film, always of its time (Thatcherite Britain), has now acquired a certain vintage.

Hoskins is brilliant: big and brash, a parochial prince who dreams of building an empire. Certain scenes, for example those in the abattoir and that at the end, Hoskins facing a gun and certain death, are edgy and effective even now. You realise that the title is a play on The Long Goodbye.

A great British gangster film, and there are not that many of them.

The Death of Stalin

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The Death of Stalin

Directed by Armando Iannucci

UK, 2017

HOME, 9 November 2017
The Death of Stalin

The great leader kicks the bucket – this is in March 1953 – and there is a slimy tussle  between his cowered heirs (Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov, Zhukar, etc.) to acquire the greasy sceptre.

It is an unlikely subject for a comedy, but in Iannucci and the cast’s hands it becomes compelling satire and splendid caricature. Moreover, while you chuckle you are never allowed to forget that this regime murdered people, or that Beria was a sadistic pervert who had a penchant for little girls.

In order to deliver an effective drama, however, there have been some trade-offs. It has a truncated timeline: Beria was actually arrested in June and shot at the end of the year, not around the time of Stalin’s funeral. And the striking caricatures, which hardly correspond to the men themselves, can create characters who are amusing and therefore halfway likeable, whereas all were monsters. Khrushchev wasn’t a good guy, a liberaliser, even though he may have been the best of a bad lot. He saw decolonisation by the Western powers as an opportunity to make mischief abroad, in contradistinction to Stalin’s policy of socialism in one country. With the advent of Khrushchev, the cold war began in earnest.

An entertaining comedy.

 

Sorcerer

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Sorcerer

Directed by William Friedkin

USA, 1977

HOME, 9 November 2017
Sorcerer

Three desperate men arrive in a run-down banana republic.

One is a Palestinian terrorist, another a French businessman fleeing bankruptcy, the third an American trying to evade the mob. An ex-Nazi runs the flophouse where they stay, that’s the kind of pedigree it has. Once a sanctuary, now the men want to move on.

So when an opportunity arises, they get jobs as truck drivers transporting volatile explosives through treacherous terrain. It is dangerous, but the pay is good. At one point, the trucks have to be driven across a honest-to-goodness, jungle canyon rope bridge (see pic above).

Friedkin’s re-make of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear – which was released on DVD by BFI earlier this year – is fast moving and has minimal dialogue, with each scene a lightening sketch. A nerve-jangling, Tangerine Dream score adds to the anxiety. There is fatalism in abundance. These men have precarious, throw-away lives. They no longer matter. It is like a story by Jack London or B.S. Traven, a Howard Hawks film without the upbeat ending.

Not a masterpiece, but a riveting watch all the same.

Uncle Vanya @ HOME

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Uncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov

HOME, 8 November 2017

Hara Yannas (Yelena) and Jason Merrells (Astrov) in Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Andrew Upton, directed by Walter Meierjohann. Presented by HOME Manchester (Fri 3 - Sat 25 November 2017). Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Hara Yannas (Yelena) and Jason Merrells (Astrov) in Uncle Vanya. Presented by HOME Manchester (Fri 3 – Sat 25 November 2017). Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Yelena, with elderly husband in tow, decides to spend the summer at their country estate.

We don’t know precisely where the estate is, but it may well be in what is now Ukraine, since in the text of the play there are a couple of mentions of Kharkov. Anyway, the beautiful Yelena (Hara Yannas) is a femme fatale and, without quite meaning to, she provokes desire and destruction, fantasy and frustration in others, and is not immune to these demons herself. Chaos ensues.

One of her conquests, the character that most strikes a chord, is Doctor Astrov (Jason Merrells); he treats her husband, Professor Serebrayakov (David Fleeshman), and treats the local peasants as well. He also cares about forests, wildlife and ecology, and is concerned that each generation is squandering their inheritance, leaving little (even by way of good roads) for those who will come after. Another is Vanya (Nick Holder), who is Sonya’s uncle. A sad, sympathetic figure, who for a long time has been put upon by the professor, he is a man who gradually comes to realise that he has wasted his life. At the end plain Sonya (Katie West) – and it is her story as much as anyone’s, Vanya is her uncle after all – attempts to comfort him through an Orthodox homily. They must accept their lot in this life and look to the next for salvation. This passivity sits uneasily, especialliy when you realise that in her life she (perhaps not he) will likely experience collectivisation and famine (there were approximately 3 million deaths from starvation in Ukraine in the ’30s, according to Timothy Snyder). But at least the good Doctor Astrov’s vision of progress and industrialisation will be partly realised. (Incidentally, Chekhov was, I read on page two of the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography, Stalin’s favourite writer.)

Besides the excellent performances, I very much enjoyed the music here: Marc Tritschler’s score was outstanding, particularly the passage at the end of act two which served to convey Yelena’s rising frustration. And Joseph Hardy’s playing of a tango (perhaps Piazzolla?) was an unexpected delight an act later; he also played the labourer. I have a few doubts about Andrew Upton’s version of the play (Yelena should have been compared to a naiad, not a mermaid, and there is an allusion to Aivazovsky – who may in part have been the model for Serebrayakov – that is omitted; a couple of other things too), but on the whole this is a very impressive production.

Uncle Vanya is showing at HOME until 25 November, further details can be found here.

Maria Theresa and the Arts @ the Belvedere

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Maria Theresa and the Arts

Curated by Georg Lechner

Lower Belvedere, Vienna

30 June to 5 November 2017

Daniel Schmidely, Maria Theresa in Hungarian Coronationdress, 1742 © Galéria mesta Bratislavy Oil on canvas, 237,5 x 157 cm

Daniel Schmidely, Maria Theresa in Hungarian Coronationdress, 1742
© Galéria mesta Bratislavy
Oil on canvas, 237,5 x 157 cm

We visit the Belvedere, a Habsburg palace turned museum.

First we go to see the medieval treasures in the palace stables, because this part of the museum closes at noon. There are statues, paintings, altarpieces. We see familiar scenes from the life of Christ, Mary and the saints, Saint Ursula among them. Some of the artists are known by name (say, Konrad von Friesach), others by title only (the Master of Laufen, for one) or not known at all. It is an invaluable legacy.

Then on to the Orangery, an exhibition space, to see Klimt and Antiquity: Erotic Encounters, much of which was taken up with the artist’s erotic drawings for a deluxe edition (released in 1907) of Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans by Lucian. High-class porn for rich perverts, that is the impression you got. There was plenty of fine art in the exhibition too, mind, but at the end I didn’t get the sense of there being any coherent, overarching thesis.

Maria Theresa and the Arts, the main exhibition in the Lower Belvedere, had portraits of the Habsburg queen and, overall, it traced the fruits of her patronage. I enjoyed many of the paintings and sculptures here, somewhat to my surprise, not least Jean-Baptiste Pillement’s Rocky Landscape with Rope Bridge (1763) . I am sure that Stewart Lee, he of ‘jungle canyon rope bridge’ fame, would have been even more enamoured than I was. He might have experienced a frission of recognition, even.

Next a pleasant walk through the palace gardens, the Autumn sun resplendent, to the Upper Belvedere and a re-acquaintance with some old favourites. There were the many paintings of the Vienna woods: works by Ferdinand Waldmüller, Emil Jakob Schindler, Tina Blau and the rest. There was Josef Danhauser’s Die Schachpartie, the white king having just been checkmated by an advance of the g-pawn (the relevant details of the final positionbeing: W: Kh1, B: Kh3, Nf3, pawn on g2). There were Caspar David Friedrich’s enigmatic landscapes (six in total here). And on the top floor there were masterpieces by Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, etc.

Call Me by Your Name

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Call Me by Your Name

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Italy, 2017

HOME, 1 November 2017
Call Me by Your Name

Taking place in Tuscany in the early ‘80s, this is a vivid evocation of an idyllic summer romance.

Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives like a lightening bolt, he is some sort of research assistant or PhD student come for a vacation job, at the home of a professor (subject: archaeology) and his wife. Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the couple’s late-teenage son, is attracted to Oliver but there is as well a brutal ambivalence between the two young men.

Now this film (contra Bladerunner 2049) does have suspense: there is visceral uncertainty, existential risk, peril and joy, jeopardy and heartbreak – all of that, and more. For what happens if an advance is rejected? And can any blossoming of love survive past Summer?

The ancient statues dredged from the sea, for the most part sensual male nudes, give the film an elemental quality, as though what we are seeing is a drama that has been acted out many times before. The film, adapted from a novel by Andre Aciman, reminded me as well of The Folding Star, an early Alan Hollinghurst novel. Any way, Luca Guadagnino has made a very fine film.