Monthly Archives: October 2014

Rembrandt: The Late Works (National Gallery)

From now until January 2015, an exhibition of drawings and paintings from the last years of the life of Rembrandt van Rijn (better known as Rembrandt alone) can be viewed in a series of connected rooms in the basement of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.

It’s essential to pick up one of the booklets (and probably an audio guide, too) as you go in, as there are no explanatory texts on the walls to accompany the works, which are linked under headings such as ‘Self-Scrutiny’ (a group of Rembrandt’s famed self-portraits), ‘Light’ (including 1661’s ‘Conspiracy of the Batavians’ which was rejected for Amsterdam’s Town Hall, existing now only as a fragment of painting which sits beside the original, full drawing), ‘Experimental Technique’ (including 1665-9’s famed ‘Self-Portrait With two Circles’ and 1666’s ‘Lucretia’ (the first of two paintings on the subject in this exhibition), ‘Emulation’ (with 1662-5’s ‘Juno’, taking the work of Titian as inspiration), ‘Observation of Everyday Life’ , ‘Artistic Conventions’ (including 1662’s ‘The Syndics’, with its playful depictions of officials, and the dual portraits of man and wife Jacob Trip and the formidable Margaretha de Geer), ‘Intimacy’ (with 1655’s ‘Titus at his Desk’, showing Rembrandt’s son at study, and the masterly ‘Jewish Bride’ from the same year where a couple who could be the Biblical Isaac and Rebecca share a moment of tenderness within the painter’s gaze), ‘Contemplation’ (with its studies of apostles Simon and Bartholomew),  ‘Inner Conflict’ (with the second ‘Lucretia’, from 1664, in anguish at the point of suicide by dagger, and 1654’s compelling ‘Bathsheba with King David’s Letter’, in which the lady emerges from her bath with the letter inviting her presence in the sovereign’s bed), and finally, ‘Reconciliation’ (with the 1655 etching of ‘Abraham’s Sacrifice’ and Rembrandt’s final painting, 1669’s ‘Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple’).

Alongside the showy paintings (which are sometimes lit in a way that you cannot see full details close up and need a lot of space to get the full effect from afar) are a number of drawings, etchings and drypoints which exist in various ‘states’ (in which Rembrandt would make copies of the drawing at certain point and then make further revisions – in the case of 1653’s ‘The Three Crosses’ we can see three versions of the same composition side by side for the first time (they belong respectively to the British Museum, Rijksmuseum, and the V&A).  The techniques of an artist at work are fascinating to see, whether his constant revision of the same subject, or his use of scratches or pallet knife work on his oils.

Like the exhibition of the works of Leonardo da Vinci which showed here three years ago, this is unmissable precisely because of the chance to see works together which are usually found elsewhere, and this is a beautifully curated exhibition.  I was also reminded of the Korda film of the 1930s on the life of Rembrandt which featured Charles Laughton in the lead, and that obviously took inspiration from the later self-portraits – although, of course, Rembrandt only lived to the age of 63, so never got to what we term ‘old age’.  Look in the face of his portraits though and you see an artist who is quite aware of his place in the world and of the realities of mortality.


Importance of Being Earnest (Richmond Theatre), review

Lucy Bailey’s re-imagining of Oscar Wilde’s classic play comes to Richmond Theatre direct from the West End and a short tour which has stopped at Bath, Brighton, Aylesbury, and finally comes to a stop at Birmingham next week.  Reviews have not been kind to the ‘Bunbury Players’ who have put on this show.

But just a moment – let’s take a step back.  The conceit of this production is that it is now a play within a play – an ageing group of amateur players putting on a dress rehearsal of their long-running version of the ‘Importance’ in the sitting room of George (who plays the roles of Lane and Merriman), and Lavinia (Lady Bracknell).  So you get funny, but rather unnecessary bookending segments written by Simon Brett

The actors are so much older than those usually playing the parts, they practically creak along – Martin Jarvis at 72 plays Jack Worthing, Nigel Havers, ten years younger, is Algernon Moncrieff.  Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolen and Christina Kavanagh as Cecily are certainly mature, while at 81, Sian Phillips has a last hurrah as emoting the ‘handbag’ line.  I only mention the ages because they play up to them – it doesn’t actually matter once the play proper gets going.

Some reviews have stated that if you love Wilde’s play, you will hate this, but not so.  I found it an affectionate spoof which is genuinely funny, and which does not damage the fabric of the play that much – it doesn’t matter that Gwendolen’s costume splits and needs to be sewn by the costume lady during the scene, or that cucumber sandwiches arrive just in time for Lane’s ‘not even for ready money’ line.  Giggles do come from Havers’ Algy having to change out of trainers into slippers mid-speech, or his ingratiating winks at the audience.

I especially liked the interplay between Lunghi and Kavanagh in the garden scene, which makes this scene sharp and fresh, while Rosalind Ayres is fun as Miss Prism, all twitches and wide-eyed mock innocence, and Niall Buggy as the drunken actor who suddenly morphs into the clearly enunciating vicar is fine.  Patrick Godfrey as George/Lane may be more interested in the test match scores but those of us who remember the 2002 film know he can play the dual manservant roles standing on his head.  Here he just has fun.

The programme, too, entertains, with a spoof set of biographies and adverts.  Delightful.

I’d have a laugh watching the Bunbury Players do this play, were they real, but as they are not, I enjoyed watching this group of veterans gently joshing Wilde’s characters into sharp relief.  I would not have let the play go on beyond Wilde’s famous final line, though.


Here Lies Love (National Theatre) review

Fresh from New York, this musical collaboration between David Byrne of Talking Heads and DJ Fatboy Slim is all about Imelda Marcos, and here the parallels between this show and ‘Evita’, the Lloyd Webber-Rice show about Eva Peron may begin to show.

The nugget which gave birth to this disco spectacular was the news that Mrs Marcos had her own glitterball and dance floor in her Manila mansion, and this gave Byrne the idea to build a libretto which uses bits of speeches, letters and found footage to build lyrics which tell a story.  The selling point which is new and different is the inclusion of the audience members in the ‘pit’ (here the stalls of the new Dorfman Theatre, formerly known as the Cottesloe, with seats removed and moving platforms added) who line dance, jump around, and interact with the actors at key moments.

Imelda Marcos was born in 1929 and was dirt poor until hooking the big fish, president-to-be Ferdinand (1917-1989).  Before that romance (which gives rise to the bouncy song ‘Eleven Days’, referring to their odd courtship where they met once, she was showered with trinkets for a week and a bit, and then she married the guy) she was in love with Ninoy Aquino (1932-1983), who jilted her because she was ‘too tall’ and later reappears at various points in the musical to castigate her behaviour much in the way Che did with Evita.

You don’t need to understand too much about Filipino history to enjoy this musical, although at certain times a memory of real events was stirred, especially towards the end where the Marcos are forced to flee during the People’s Peaceful Revolution, which led to Cory Aquino (1933-2009), widow of Ninoy, assuming the presidency.   The songs will help you along throughout their history, and that of Imelda’s childhood friend and nanny, Estrella.

Politics occasionally rears its head, as masked figures evoke world leaders like Reagan who were personal friends of Marcos – other key moments are shown in video projections, some of the actors re-imagining real events, some of Imelda Marcos herself.  There is pulsating music, disco lights (largely pink), and a lot of energy.  The songs themselves, though, are a bit underpowered at times, the opener being sickly sweet, the title song sounding a little bit like the Neil Diamond classic ‘Sweet Caroline’, and others which show promise – ‘The Rose of Tacloban’, ‘When She Passed By’, ‘Order 1081’ – in danger of getting lost in the sea of dancing bodies.  ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ simply evoked memories of the Spamalot spoof ‘A Song Like This’.

Still, there is much to enjoy here, and the leading actors – former Saigon Kim, Natalie Mendoza as Imelda, Gia Macuja Atchison as Estrella, Dean-John Wilson as Aquino, Mark Bautista as Marcos – are on good form.  I wasn’t sure about the use of real transcripts of calls to move the plot along, but the sound mix is fine, the lyrics are audible, and from centre circle, where we were, we got an excellent view of the action and the inspired choreography.


Vertigo, 1958 – ★★★★

#9 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

A slightly unnerving string led score by Bernard Herrman and titles by Saul Bass which play on colours, shapes, and eyes lead us into the first shot of ‘Vertigo’, Hitch’s film of the French novel ‘D’entre les morts’ by Boileau-Narcejac.

That first shot shows hands and a man climbing, running, pursued by the police across rooftops – but these are not the jolly rooftops the sweeps danced on in ‘Mary Poppins’, but something much more sinister. And this is where James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson first started with his own terror of high places.

Stewart was one of the two good guys of Hollywood who went slightly more nuanced for Hitch, in this final collaboration between the two (following ‘Rope’, ‘Rear Window’ and the remake of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’). This is perhaps the most sinister of the roles he played, and here is is excellent.

Barbara Bel Geddes (later Miss Ellie in ‘Dallas’) makes a strong appearance here, in a naughty conversation between the two about corsets, brassieres and love lives. Her Midge is a honey blonde but she is not one of Hitch’s showpieces, but more of a centering force for Scottie as he trying to conquer his acrophobia and fear.

This is nothing, though, to Scottie’s assignment, to watch the ‘possessed’ wife, Madeleine, of an old acquaintance. It’s perhaps fitting that this conversation takes place in a claustrophobic wood panelled room covered in paintings in a high rise building surrounded by cranes building ships. This wife, of course, is brittle Kim Novak, and she’s trouble.

‘Vertigo’ took a while to build its reputation, and is now generally thought to be one of Hitch’s best films – however, I think it sometimes suffers from a dose of over-cleverness and effects, rather than simple dramatic force.

However, Stewart and Novak are good, and you may be aware as you watch this film unfold of the duality of her nature and of the finality of the ending (slightly reminiscent of ‘Black Narcissus’) which once again threatens to pitch Scottie into madness.

The joy of this film is in watching an actor like Stewart being stretched into some rather seedy territory, especially when he meets Judy Barton and sees in her a way to build a fantasy on an obsession he has lost, an obsession which will eventually become a seed of destruction.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


NT Live Encore: A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic)

streetcar

From the screen of the Curzon Richmond, I watched the Encore performance of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, recorded live at the Young Vic.  As this space can be configured in any way to suit the production, designers and directors always have a free hand, and here Magda Willi’s revolving set allows the audience to eavesdrop on the action within the Kowalskis’ home, a minimalist, clinical pot where poker, Chinese lanterns, and the kindness of strangers mix into the plot.

Benedict Andrews directs this production, and updates the costumes and music to give an additional kick to the potency of Tennessee Williams’ play.  So you will hear Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ and PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’ (also used in the series 2 opener of Peaky Blinders), alongside Patsy Cline’s ‘Stop The World’ and an original score by Alex Baranowski.  Although some reviews have stated this is a minus, as Stanley, Stella and Blanche can only exist in the past, I think it balances out the plot well and makes key scenes in the action more relevant and accessible.

Gillian Anderson’s Blanche Dubois makes her entrance dragging a large pull-along suitcase and wearing shades, tottering into an area she clearly despises, having come from better things.  She is a surprise guest at the home of her sister Stella Kowalski (Vanessa Kirby) and Stella’s husband, the brutish Stanley (Ben Foster).  Theirs is a passionate relationship fuelled by violence and desire, and Blanche is walking straight into hell.

Corey Johnson as Mitch is a strong supporting character, who you may remember was essayed brilliantly by Karl Malden in the old film.  He’s the sympathetic one at the card table, the one with the sick mother, the one who sees a beauty and innocence in Blanche which hides any doubt about her age or past.  In one knowing scene which could not have been used in 1951, Mitch and Blanche discuss her marriage and issues around her husband’s ‘degenerate’ nature and eventual suicide.  In parallel scenes in each half of the production Mitch hangs up a pink lantern for Blanche, and then rips it down when he discovers her true nature.

The film’s use of close ups occasionally jars when aspects of the revolving set get in the way, but they are used to great effect in places, especially involving Anderson’s transformation from the cool and calm schoolteacher to the lipstick-smudged doll on the edge of insanity.  It’s a towering performance which will infuriate, amuse and eventually break your heart.  Her interplay with Foster’s Stanley is also very good, and he does not over-dominate proceedings – you know he is there, and you know there is danger when he is about, but he is also content to take second place to Miss Dubois.

Stella is a more problematic character, who seems turned on by domestic violence and who eventually abandons her sister and her principles for the man who has caused everything to collapse, but in Kirby’s portrayal she is very well-rounded and you can see her struggles and her love for her family conflict with her animal passion for her husband.

It’s difficult to fault this performance in any way, and this NT Live production is definitely well worth watching.


Welcome back Peaky Blinders – series 2 opener (spoilers)

When series one of Steven Knight’s ‘Peaky Blinders’ was shown this time last year it ended with what seemed like a cliffhanger setting up a second run with the Shelby family.  My take on that final episode was ‘Setting up a second series?‘ and of course, that was the case.

Endings which leave questions hanging and the fate of others open are always the most infuriating in a way (consider the way the stunning final episode of Sherlock series 2 morphed into the disappointing splutter of the first episode of series 3).  So it with a resounding thumbs-up that I report that no such problem has blighted ‘Peaky Blinders’.

We’re back on the railway station early on in the episode where Major Campbell (Sam Neill) aims a gun at spy Grace (Annabelle Wallis), and with the outstanding question of ‘who fired the shot’ quickly answered, we are ready to move on.

Continue reading


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This blog is all about cinema, movies and stars of every decades. It's wonderful!

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