Friday, May 30, 2014

Hue and Cry II

I was about to write a blog post saying that in spite of the fact that I'd had the DVD of the movie, Hue and Cry, on my shelves for some time, I'd never watched it. To my surprise, when I checked back, I did watch it in 2007, and wrote about it then. Both my wife and I said last night, I don't remember ever seeing this before. Which is puzzling, because I usually have a reasonable visual memory for movies, and so does she, and at least some aspects of the first viewing will be remembered in the second.

So I don't need to say any more about the film, except to say that it was just as enjoyable on a second viewing as I'd obviously found it on the first. However, what I don't seem to have noted at the time is the detail. Right from the opening credits, which are white-washed onto a real wall, with boys playing, running, fighting in front of them, and with a bit of humour thrown in (Wot? no producer? says one, and Stick no Bills in another, with a tatty Ealing Studios poster fluttering alongside) there's an attitude of 'Let's see if you pick this up, audience.' Added to this is Auric's opening music which fits beautifully to all the zipping around and punching that's going on.

Every time the main group of boys appear - and there are around a dozen of them, and one girl (Joan Dowling, who later married Harry Fowler, the main 'boy' in the film, and who sadly committed suicide at the age of 26) - not only do we get a sense of their individuality, but all manner of other 'business' is going on. In one scene one boy is holding a bag of chips; the arm of another reaches over several times to pinch a chip while the others are talking. One boy is being buried in bricks from the bombed-out building site in another scene, and is left to fight his own way out when the others all rush off. One boy has a pet mouse (which has a couple of important scenes later) and it's casually walking up around his collar when we first see him. There's a scene where the first 'The Trump' - a boy's adventure weekly that plays a vital role in the film - is snatched back and forth between three or four of the boys, including its owner. Nobody ever stands around in this movie: the boys' characters and movements are distinct and well-worked out. Charles Crichton, the director, obviously had a good eye for how boys of that generation behaved, and the movie is full of things to keep the eye attentive.

And there's plenty of comedy: in one notable scene that takes place in a department store at night the boys are waiting for the crims to arrive: the owner of the mouse is hiding under a mannequin's skirt. The mouse escapes, and heads over to a speak-your-weight machine. The boy dives for the mouse and the machine speaks his weight. The shop's caretaker arrives and tries to get the boy and the machine speaks their combined weight, and then other boys come and then the police and the machine, with its pompous voice, can hardly keep up.

Alistair Sim has only a few scenes, and plays a character who can hardly sit still. Crichton has him up and down around his cluttered flat, talking nineteen to the dozen, and performing as only Sim could do, and doing so many bits of business that brain must have been whirling. He gets star billing in spite of appearing for about ten minutes all up, but as Sim always did, he makes those ten minutes unforgettable.

I mentioned in the previous post that a great deal of the film was shot on location, outside in the bombed-out streets of London. In the background of several shots you can see workers rebuilding, and further away still, the barges and boats on the Thames. The film manages to be a documentary of a particular time in the city's history as well as an entertaining story.






Wednesday, May 28, 2014

More on creativity

As I  mentioned in the last post we went and saw the play Souvenir last night: resilience was the major character aspect for Florence Foster Jenkins, along with a remarkable inability to hear what others heard. Artists need resilience. Up to a point I have it, though I can get quite down about things not going well, perhaps less than I once did. My wife's had to say more than once that either you do the work because you love it and want to do it and don’t care about the immediate results, or you get all depressed about it if it doesn't take off as you expect. There’s an obvious choice about which one is going to be more effective, but of course it isn’t always easy just to pick up yourself after a knockback. 

Foster Jenkins’ was right to be resilient, though she was wrong in not being able to hear criticism. However, the thing that her pianist discovered ˗ at least in the play ˗ was that she could hear the right music in her head; she just couldn’t reproduce it. I think in a way that’s what a lot of artists ˗ including writers ˗ struggle with: the story, the music, the performance they have in their head isn’t matched by what they achieve in reality. I've often had a piece of music in my head that's really excited me, but trying to get it down on paper turns out to be impossible. Sometimes it turns into something altogether different which has a life of its own. Sometimes it just goes down the tubes. And then there are the piano performances I've given in my dreams...

I’ve never forgotten the story about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, told by the woman who was page-turning for his accompanist one night. She was rapt by his performance ˗ as she should have been; he was a consummate performer and deserved all the kudos he got. But as they came off stage she heard him berating his performance as mediocre and well below his best. She was astonished because she couldn’t equate his view of it with what she’d heard. (Foster Jenkins had the opposite problem, of course.) What it did for her was disappoint her; it didn’t make her feel that striving for the best was important; criticism of your performance was important. And yes, of course it is. But that should be something you deal with yourself. Let your audience take out of the performance what it can and will. Don’t be so overwhelmed with your own performance that you become boastful; equally don’t let minor slips be a major issue; correct them if you can in the next performance. 

The adjudicator at the Junior Singing Competitions this month said to the kids performing: everyone makes mistakes in performance (the actress playing Foster Jenkins made at least three slips in her lines last night that I noticed) ˗ in fact, she said, professional orchestras make an average of seven mistakes per minute in a concert. This doesn’t take away from the overall performance, which for most of the audience will be enthralling or delightful or exhilarating. Always improve, and always strive to improve. But don't pull yourself down because you haven't achieved what you hoped for. 

Quite apart from anything else, even the most astute audiences fail to notice most things that go wrong in performances. 


Souvenir

Last night, courtesy of the surprise gift of a friend, we went to see Souvenir, a play being performed at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre. Souvenir was written by Stephen Temperley, a musician, actor and playwright. It began life as a full-scale play (presumably with a large cast), was abandoned, was tried as a one-woman show, and finally morphed around 2003 into the two-hander that was performed last night. This is the first time the play has been produced in New Zealand, so good on you, Fortune, for doing it. Sadly the house was only half-full, which is a pity, because not only is the play good and worth seeing, it's immensely funny and is performed with huge energy by Angela Johnson and Michael Lee Porter.

Johnson plays the incredible widow, Mrs Florence Foster Jenkins, who is convinced that the perfect music she hears inside her head is what she produces for her audiences. She's sadly disillusioned about this, and yet audiences flocked to hear her in her later years when she began putting on charity concerts, first at the Ritz Hotel, and finally at Carnegie Hall. She even made some recordings. Johnson, who in real life looks nothing like the dumpy Mrs J, gives a performance of such warmth and delight that you realise how people were willing to suspend judgement on the woman's singing. In spite of the fact that we know that she sings absolutely awfully - Johnson gives us dozens of samples of this awful singing - she had such resilience and enthusiasm that it was hard to turn her down on her ideas. Johnson adopts something of the chortly tones of the famous TV character Mrs Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) in order to bring her character to life, and gives great emphasis to certain words and lines.

Porter plays the role of pianist Cosmé McMoon. (Yup, that was his name.) He also narrates the story to us, and is onstage the entire play. (Johnson gets brief patches offstage, but for most of those she's whipping out of one costume and into another.) Porter not only has to tell us the story in speech, but sometimes in song (accompanying himself on the grand piano that takes up a good deal of the space) and then has to become Cosmé as he was twenty or so years earlier. Porter is an accomplished pianist, has a pretty reasonable voice, and performs the complex and constantly switching role of appalled pianist, counsellor, comforter, and possibly even substitute son with aplomb. His role is more difficult, because he's the audience's confidante as well, and sometimes is expected to give us the nod and wink while being in the middle of a scene with Foster Jenkins.

It's possible that people with some musical background might enjoy the piece more than those who don't have one, but it's certainly not necessary to know anything much about opera to appreciate the play. (There are a number of popular songs in the play too, mostly played and sung by McMoon.) The actors give every line great value, and milk every bit of comedy out of the script. It would be interesting to see a production of the play which wasn't played quite so much for laughs; I suspect it's possible to do it in an entirely different way. Here, of course, the laughs make the unfunny scenes all the more poignant: there are two strong scenes towards the end of each act in which Mrs Foster Jenkins has brief moments of insecurity about what she's doing. In the first McMoon loses his temper at her inability to see how she comes across to others, and is hurtful. Such is the way in which the script is written and performed that it's Foster Jenkins who we side with; McMoon is absolutely right in what he says, yet somehow we believe in the woman.

The play speaks to all artists, most of whom have an ongoing insecurity about what they're creating in the world. Is it of any real value, or will be forgotten as quickly as yesterday's news? Is the judgement of friends and family true, or does only the judgement of a wider audience count? And are we reading that judgement correctly, or are we interpreting it in the light of our own belief about what we're creating? Many great artists have been ignored in their lifetime and have only come into their own after they're dead. Many artists who seem to hold the stage at present will soon be forgotten forever. Actors in stage plays present something nightly for a week, or a month, or even years, and then nothing of it remains, except memories. Performance is perhaps one of the most ephemeral of the arts: a concert here, a play there, and next day it's as if it had never been. If an audience misses seeing or hearing it, there is no memory of it. And curiously, the videoing of live performances can often be disappointing: they're not big enough, they lack that buzz that the audience contributes.Things that the actors thought they were conveying seem to be flat and banal. Or they may seem so over-the-top that you wonder what the live audience actually thought.

There's no doubt that Foster Jenkins somehow missed hearing what was heard by others. Her recordings testify to this, and she has been hugely mocked and laughed at. But at the end of the play, when McMoon tells us that she died not long after her Carnegie Hall concert (not of a broken heart, as many claimed, but of natural causes), he speaks of the fact that inside her head she could hear the perfect music. And Johnson comes out on stage again at that point, in a dress that is lovely and not foolish (as many of her stage costumes were), and sings Ave Maria so beautifully that it makes your own heart break. Perhaps in heaven Mrs Foster Jenkins sings still, and now performs truthfully what she couldn't achieve in this life.







Monday, May 26, 2014

The Source

I can't say I'd come across the 2011 film The Source before, and there don't seem to be many English-language reviews of it online. It's directed by Radu Mihăileanu, a Jewish Romanian-born French director who also wrote the script in collaboration with two French writers. It has more than one title: as you can see from the poster, it's called La Source des Femmes, (The Source of/for Women) but the poster on IMDB names it La Sorgente dell'Amore, which translates as The Source of Love. All are equally valid: there is dialogue in the film in which the source of or for women is discussed, and also the source of love, that is, where does love come from - the answer in the film is pretty much, from women, although that's not the whole story. 
But there's a further aspect to the word, source: in the movie the starting point for the story is the spring up on the hillside to which the women must go each day with their buckets to collect water. This water is the source of life - especially in the drought-stricken time in which the movie takes place - and its place far up on the hill is another source: a source of contention. The women argue that their menfolk (who sit around most of the day doing nothing because the drought has destroyed their crops and livestock) should take the money gained from passing tourists and use it to put a tap from the spring right within the village. The men are loathe to - among many reasons is the one that women should know their place, and if they only had to go to the water in the village, what else would they do with their time? 
One of the women, an outsider, whose husband (a much more kindly and gentle man than most in the village) has taught her to read and write, begins a sex strike, and this has ramifications for all concerned. The story is an old one - the bawdy Greek comedy, Lysistrata, is one of the oldest known versions of it - but Mihăileanu and his team have set it in a remote North African village where Islam is the dominating force, and where men have license to beat their wives (just as one would beat children, gently, to discipline them, says the local Imam), and to demand sex nightly, if they're so inclined. And where teenage girls are frequently thrown into marriage without any instruction or care. 
Unlike Aristophanes' play, the comedy is minimal (though the film is billed as a drama/comedy) and there are some vicious beatings, fights, slappings and the like. People's passions run high here, and no some seems immune from a good slap across the face. 
But the story has more to say than just bringing harmony back between husbands and wives - harmony does return, as you'd expect, but at considerable cost. There is the much bigger issue of Islam itself, which pervades the lives of the people alongside elements of folk religion. Though these people are Arabs, they've been in this part of the world a very long time. 
The gentle husband talks at one point of the Islamic Enlightenment. If there's such a thing, it's got very stony ground in which to grow in in this village, and at the film's end it's debatable as to whether it's made much progress. Certainly there's an important scene in which the educated wife fronts up to the Imam with great respect, and counters his views of how husbands and wives should behave by quoting back the Koran to him with great confidence. He's shaken by having a woman stand up to him, but, to his credit, does listen, and reflect on it. 
In spite of the male domination aspect, this is a film where women have the focus. They sing at the beginning and at the end (the film is almost a musical at times - some of the story is told in song, and some of the interactions between men and women, or women and women, take place in musical terms), they have two other wonderful scenes in which what they're singing is exactly what the men don't want to hear, and which publicly embarrasses them. and they have a scene in their bathhouse (where there is some nudity on display) in which they discuss sex quite openly as well as the prospect of a sex-strike. Women's talk may embarrass men, but the women aren't embarrassed by it - the group song early in the piece is quite forthright in this regard. 
Love is a big theme throughout - it's seldom mentioned by the men, except in terms of disparagement - but for the women it's a thing to hold onto dearly; if it can be received and given it's priceless. The educated couple at the centre of the movie celebrate love, even when it also seems to make their lives more complicated (a man the girl had loved previously turns up to make things difficult), and several of the women long for love but have never received it, including one who gets the educated women to write letters for her to a man she loves, named, somewhat improbably, Slim
At times the wealth of subplots almost gets in the way of the focus of the story (one scene, in which one of the young husbands tells the educated man just how much he hurt him when he treated him as a lesser person, seems to be going somewhere and then doesn't) but Mihăileanu holds it all in place somehow, and makes the film all the more rich for all its different elements. It could have been a diatribe against Islam and its treatment of women; it could have been political (there are a few elements of this); it could have been primarily a love story. It's all these and more.
And what a cast: Algerian Leila Bekhti is wondrous as the educated wife; her husband is played by Palestinian actor, Saleh Bakri, who manages to overcome the occasional inconsistencies in his role. The older women have faces that never came from any Hollywood movie (some of them may be non-professionals). Israeli actress Hiam Abbass plays the vicious mother-in-law with an underlying fury - justified, we learn in due course, but terrifying all the same. Biyouna, who has a face of considerable ugliness (but happens to be a great star in her native Algeria) plays the aging widow who encourages, provokes, and generally manages to keep her finger in several pies at once. This international cast - it also includes several French-born actors - speak and sing in Arabic throughout, and it's more satisfying than having them dubbed (though the film was dubbed into French for the French!)
The Source is a revelation: for one, a look at an area of the Arab world in which terrorists have no obvious presence; a picture of Islam in which jihad is mentioned but in a totally different context; and much more. The Dunedin Public Library has a copy.





Sunday, May 25, 2014

To those growing older and soon to part

This article, by Jim Battersby, Minister Emeritus, Auckland, was written a few years ago. I came across it while working for the Presbyterian National Mission Office (now unfortunately, no more). It's an excellent piece, full of good advice. I was given permission at the time to reproduce it. 

Dear Jack and Grace,
In a recent phone conversation, Jack mentioned that as you are now both in your 80s, you have been talking about the inevitable parting that is ahead of you. That’s good. It is realistic. Sooner or later one of you is going to be left. I recall only one occasion when husband and wife died together, and that was in a car crash. Although my parents died within a few weeks of one another in their late 80s, both my grandfathers outlived their spouses by some years. In my years of ministry, I have met many “relicts” as they used to be called.
I myself have been “solo” since I was 72 – more than 11 years. I know something of the pain of parting, and the change of circumstances that follows. Of course, nothing can really prepare us for this eventuality, but I think something could be done to temper those agonising bewildering months and years that follow. Finding out the hard way of the many things I was faced with when my Barbie died, I have tried to leave information that may be of ready assistance to my children when my time comes to die.
I think the most important first step is for couples to talk about the inevitable parting, each explaining to the other what their wishes are about such things as content of funeral services, burial or cremation, and where ashes should go. Not all couples are equally familiar with financial arrangements about the home, where important documents are kept, what bills have to be paid and when, where family records are kept, where the record of Christmas cards exchanged is (useful for notifying friends of the other’s death), the addresses of close friends of one that may not have been close friends of the other. (A good idea might be to keep a notebook “Where to find” you could each enter such things in.) Often the husband or wife has handled such things by him/herself. It is often the husband who has attended to the outside chores. He knows from years of practice where the lawn mower is, how to start it, whether it uses petrol or petrol and oil; where seeds are kept and when they should be planted, what are all the gadgets he keeps in his workshop, and so on.
On the other hand, it is often that the wife has done the shopping, cooked the meals, done the housework, leaving the husband ignorant of such arts. If you haven’t worried about meals much, you need to know your way around a supermarket, what cuts of meat there are etc, how to plan meals, how to cook them - at what temperature and for how long. These are mysteries that many men have not been let in to, or have not seen fit to be concerned about.
Then the awful day arrives without warning!
In latter years, my wife used to ask me to take a turn with the cooking. My usual reply was that in our generation the women looked after the indoors while the men took charge of the outdoor tasks around the home. I don’t quite know what prompted my change of heart, but while we were overseas my wife took ill. Sometime after, I promised her that when we got home, that for a start, once a week, on Wednesdays, I would plan the evening meal, buy the necessary ingredients, prepare and cook the meal, and wash up afterwards. We got home on a Thursday, and she died very suddenly the following Tuesday morning. So my promise was never fulfilled.
But I had all the shopping and cooking, washing, cleaning and so on to do on my own, thereafter. One unexpected help to me was memories of my mother or wife’s housekeeping that I had unconsciously recorded. Another help I received at first was “my Little Red Cookbook” - a recipe book I started when my wife was ill about 10 years before she died. This was a compilation of basic meals and at what temperature to cook them, and how much is a “little of this, and a pinch of that”, and “how long  until it looks cooked” etc. I nearly drove my wife (and also my sister) mad getting precise details. Soon after Barbie died I went to a night school nearby to try to enrol in a basic cooking class. Only cooking classes for Italian and Asian foods were available! So I learnt a lot by trial and error, augmented by advice from my sister and some friendly ladies.
Another helpful thing would be to make a list of whom you want to have your very personal possessions (like jewellery or tools etc), and if you have any requests about the disposal of other personal possessions.
One of the best things I ever did (and it was in our 70s), was to raise a matter that had for years been between us, undiscussed. With trepidation I slowly raised this (after a couple of stumbling attempts, I admit), and we talked it out. Each was able to explain to the other his/her situation way back, the circumstances, attitudes, understandings and misunderstandings at the time and over the years. It was a tremendous relief to both of us. One of the unexpected spin-offs was that we fell in love again, and I had the good fortune in our last few months of taking her into my arms daily and more, and saying, “I love you so much my darling”. Barbie echoed this in her own words. We knew that when the time came for parting, there would be no regretted “unfinished business” of this nature. This proved most significant to me.
I learnt from this, how important it is for couples at any age, but especially if they are growing older, to make the opportunity to discuss things previously left unsaid, but which are at the back of their minds. Such things may be in the nature of confessions – or perhaps even more importantly and easily overlooked, expressions of how wonderful the other is, how much is owed to that person, the depth of one’s love, and similar endearments. Even to say often, “I love you” is important at the time, and  vital in memory. All this kind of thing, if left undiscussed, features later as unfinished business, and “the book once closed cannot be re-opened”.
It is also important to talk about, or even record for the other, what you remember about your ancestors, and maybe your own back ground. This can be done via a tape recording. While your spouse may value this, your children and grandchildren will probably value it even more.
It could be that with the years, your spouse has developed infirmities of some kind – e.g. loss of sight, hearing, mobility, and has become quite dependent on you. Have you ever thought of sharing ideas of how you spouse could best cope without you – what alternative aids could be available, what kind of care might be best, how you could avoid if possible, putting a burden on your children, especially
on the only one who is nearby? One often has better insight into the other and his/her “quirks of character” than the person him/herself, and may be able to suggest inner strengths not yet tapped, and better attitudes of coping with difficulty.
One of the things I have missed most – and I don’t know the answer for it, is the opportunity to talk over with Barbie everyday things, and to recall together special memories, little intimacies, and personal jokes. There is simply no other who can fulfil this role, and it is a pain that just has to be borne.
On the other hand, I recognise in my “going solo” for nearly 12 years, there have been some gains. I have discovered new insights into myself, gained new interests, new activities,  new skills, new friends. I am still discovering what I don’t really want to; the strength of independence, standing on my own feet without the lifelong love and support of the other very special person.
Sometimes, but not so often now, I cry in my loneliness, which no other can assuage – I suppose it is self pity, but I excuse myself by saying it is natural and understandable. If it is a weakness, I accept it, and don’t beat myself.
Well dear friends, I hope you read and digest this, and make some use of it in pondering any ideas from it that sound useful to you. It is only one person’s point of view. But he wishes he had had as long a partnership as you two have.

God Bless, and loving regards,
Jim

Friday, May 23, 2014

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

We watched Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia tonight, and while admiring the artistry of its playing-out, the top-notch ensemble acting, and the cinematography, it has to be admitted that some 150 minutes of screen time in which small things happen at a relatively slow pace is somewhat trying. Even the story that's told in a serial fashion throughout by the Prosecutor turns out to have only a so-so fulfilment. And quite what's with the long last section in which an autopsy is done, slowly, and thankfully mostly out of sight, I'm not sure.

Ah well, it takes all sorts of movies to make the world of films. While I'm kind of glad I saw it (my other half found it tedious), I think it could have done with some cutting without losing anything of its quality. Scenes in which the dialogue consists of mind-numbingly mundane words, the sorts of words that everyone's forgotten two seconds later in real life, don't allow the brain to engage in anything but puzzlement.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Oddfellows

I've been eating Allen's Oddfellows (white peppermints) since my childhood, which is quite a long time. I'm not sure if Allen's always made them or if they took over the original company. Anyway, Nestlé's now makes them, having taken over Allen's.

For as long as I can remember, Oddfellows have been a certain shade of slightly-off-white, and they've been quite solid in texture. In the last few times I've bought the sweets, they've become whiter than white, as though Persil had got hold of them, and the texture is still hard but verging on the crumbly. To my eye there's been a change in the mix, so I wrote to Allen's today to see if I can find out if this is true. It would be a pity because the Oddfellows I've had recently don't seem to be up to the original standard.

I guess they'll tell me that nothing's changed and I'm imagining it. We'll see. I'll let you know.

Besides this apparent change they've brought in other versions of Oddfellows: mint-flavoured (which take a bit of getting used to but are okay), strong mints (which are exactly what they say, and aren't truly Oddfellows at all) and little mints, which are kind of mini-strong mints. I just note this by the by.

Finally, in relation to Oddfellows, here's the classic TV advertisement that used to be shown in the 80s, when the sweets were still very popular. You'll recognise a few familiar faces in it.

Update, 19.5.14
Part of an email from Nestlé:

Thank you for your feedback regarding our product, ALLENS Oddfellows 200 g Family Pack.
 
We endeavour to produce products of the highest quality that can be enjoyed by our consumers. Changes to our products are not made lightly. Much research is conducted prior to a change, in the hope that we can offer our consumers a product of the highest standard, both in terms of appeal and quality. We have moved to natural colours which has changed the Oddfellows to a white colour but should not have affected the size or texture of the lolly.
 
We are sorry to hear that you have not enjoyed our product since our change.  We understand your disappointment and sincerely hope this will not deter you from purchasing our products in the future.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A musical and a mystery

In a bit of a marathon last night, we watched two DVDs...probably nothing at all to people who go and watch all six of the Star Wars movies in a row, as some did recently in Dunedin, but still not something we often do. I can remember as a teenager going to two movies in one day and thinking that if people knew about it they'd say I was being more than a little frivolous with my time.

Anyway, one of the movies was Calamity Jane, which I'd thought I hadn't seen since it first came out in the fifties. However, I suspect I have caught up with since then, as a lot of it was quite familiar. I've recently arranged four of the songs into a medley for the singing group I conduct, The Choristers. The songs are as popular as ever, and well written. In fact the music in the movie bounces along from the moment the credits start with enormous energy, and is well-integrated into the storyline.

Doris Day is the absolute star in this musical. Even Howard Keel, who has a good deal of screen time, can barely stand up to the utter feistiness, enthusiasm, and freshness Day brings to her role of a kind of Wild West tomboy. She gets all the best songs and she packs a punch from the moment she first appears. Thoroughly enjoyable even after fifty-one years. And somewhat unusual in that this is a movie musical that was turned into a stage musical, rather than the other way round.

The second movie was in another league altogether. Two or three times we looked at each and debated whether we'd continue watching. I'm glad we did, though the movie had some slow moments, and kept making you think it was going to turn into some grisly horror piece. The film was The Sound of My Voice, a movie I'd never heard of until I took a chance on it when I found it in the Library's DVD collection.

It's about a young couple who've decided to make a documentary exposing a group they're convinced is a cult. They sneak film and recording equipment in but more than once something goes wrong and they don't get the results they expect. The woman who's at the centre of the group claims to have come from the future, and of course she already has a bunch of devotees who believe every word she says. The young couple, and another young Asian-American couple, are the newest possible disciples, and we go through the rigmaroles of seeing them gradually being inculturated.

The couple don't live with the cult, but join them regularly at night for their initiations. This means at least they can get away from the saturating presence of the mysterious leader, but it also means that things start to fall apart out in the real world.

The film was written by Brit Marling, who plays the cult leader, and the director, Zat Batmanglij (can that be his real name?). The story is presented in several episodes, some introducing completely new characters who seem at first unrelated to the main story. Marling's character, Maggie, is a highly-intelligent persuader, a person who it's difficult to fool or trip up, and who manages to convince those following her that she really is who she says she is. The persuasiveness of her approach shows how easy it is for people who want to believe - and even for those who don't - to fall into the trap of allowing someone to take over their lives. The film has several intriguing twists and turns, and an ending that leaves you not as sure as you think you are about what's gone on, though it's a very satisfying ending for all that.

The cast is excellent, although none of them are particularly well-known names. Christopher Denham (who I've seen before but is one of those actors that you couldn't easily identify) plays the documentary-maker, and Nicole Vicius, who's also been in a number of movies, plays his girlfriend.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Three films

Three movies in as many nights. After not having watched movies either on TV or DVD for a few weeks, it's been quite relaxing (after finishing my second book and getting it published online) just to lie on the couch and watch something instead of working.

First there was a strange Jet Li movie on TV - Unleashed; then Silver Linings Playbook with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence; and finally, tonight, the almost fifty-year-old A Town Like Alice, a film based on only the middle section of Nevil Shute's famous novel.

This last of the three shows its age mostly in the now-stiff-looking performance by Virginia McKenna, so British that nothing disturbs her upper lip. Peter Finch is excellent, as he always was, and has already gone past that very English style of acting that a few other members of the cast indulge in. Even given that it's virtually a road movie, A Town Like Alice, is still very watchable, and there are some excellent scenes, and a strong supporting cast. Fortunately the film focuses almost entirely on the war section of the story; the bookends about improving the lot of a group of Malayan villages, and setting up work for unemployed people in a remote Aussie town, are barely hinted at.

Unleashed is a typically violent Jet Li movie, in which he plays Bob Hoskins' 'dog.' Hoskins has rescued him as a child (after shooting his mother) and brought him up to be absolutely subservient. When the collar he wears continually is loosened, however, he defeats anyone sent against him. Morgan Freeman, doing the typical Hollywood version of what it's like to be blind, and Kerry Conden, playing a piano student who appears to do very little practice, rescue Li by accident, and set him back on his human feet again. The film is full of extraordinarily choreographed fight scenes filmed and edited brilliantly, but it also has strong characterizations from the two leads: Li gets a chance to reveal a soft side, and Hoskins revels in being the ultimate bully and sadist (and manages to survive two major car crashes and various beatings). It was Louis Leterrier's first film as director, and he does an excellent job with his English and French cast and locations. Not for the fainthearted, however.

Silver Linings Playbook (I have no idea what the title refers to, unless it's something to do with the home betting shop Robert de Niro runs) is an in-your-face drama-cum-comedy. Cooper plays a man whose wife was found with another man in compromising circumstances, and who went off his rocker - he was already prone to mental health issues. After eight months in an institution, he's ready to come home - even if no one else is quite ready to have him back. Cooper gives a wonderfully subtle performance underneath all the bombast. Lawrence is equally mentally unhealthy, not helped by having lost her policeman husband in bizarre circumstances. She never says anything you expect, which is quite refreshing, and indeed a great deal of the movie has unexpected moments and situations. Lawrence is wonderful and grabs her role by the throat and tears it apart. (Totally wasted in The Hunger Games - this girl has the goods.)

De Niro plays the manic father again (not far away from his manic father performance in Meet the Fockers), and it's debatable as to which Pat, Senior or Junior, is the more cracked. The leads have top notch support from the rest of the cast, and although it takes a while for the thing to show where it's coming from, it gradually takes hold of you. Interestingly enough, the film departs from the book in many (improved?) ways.






Body

Jack Body is the composer of the week on the Concert Programme. His music has its moments, with some pieces that are exciting because they're almost entirely rhythmic, and others that hang around a tiny phrase and barely move, becoming like a kind of brainworm. I don't think that's quite the word I'm looking for: I mean when a tune gets in your head and you can't get rid of it. Although that's pretty rare with Body's music, which seldom stays in the mind. 

But it occurred to me this morning what it is that makes his music inaccessible. It's geared for top quality players, people who are either professional musicians, or who specialise in this kind of modern music, or amateurs with exceptional skills. Compare this approach to the way composers in the past worked: they provided music that both amateurs and professionals could play, at least in terms of the smaller scale works. I haven't heard much of Body's music that sounds to me as though a decent amateur could manage it - at least not without a lot of hard work. And then, who would they play it for? You have to be a true Body disciple to really want to listen to his music. I've had the radio on most mornings this week when his music has been played. It doesn't come across as satisfying music somehow - it's intellectual and not often emotional, to me at least. The piece currently on has a flute and a harp tripping around a few notes over and over, making slightly different patterns, but not actually going anywhere at all. Nothing to engage the heart. 

Yesterday I heard parts of an interview with James McCarthy, a British composer whose cantata, 17 Days, is being performed in NZ. McCarthy made two comments during the course of the interview which struck me as significant: "I want to write music that people want to perform," and, "It took me ten years to get the modernist approach to writing out of my system." I hope I've quoted him accurately, but I jotted these down almost as soon as he said them. McCarthy's music is being performed (and yes I know Body's is too), but it's performed to large audiences and to rave reviews. It's not reactionary - there's plenty of modern sounds in it - but it can be listened to and will affect the heart as well as the head. 

For me this is the great lack in Body's music: the heart doesn't often get engaged. (The flautist and the harpist are now chattering around another couple of phrases, and still going nowhere...and now two women are chanting the same phrase over and over...and over...)