Of Mice and Men, Edinburgh Lyceum, Theatre Review

3/5

For anyone unfamiliar with John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, it is a simple yet undoubtedly compelling tale of hardship and alienation. Set in California during the Great Depression, the story centres around two migrant ranch workers, George (William Ash) and Lennie (Steve Jackson), as they go in search of employment and security. George is the brains of the outfit, making all the decisions and ensuring both men have a roof over their heads, whilst Lennie is a big and loveable soul; he is not the brightest of sparks, but is undeniably an excellent worker.

Set and costume designer Colin Richmond does well to capture the semblance of Steinbeck’s fable, creating a stark yet oppressive stage which outlines the worn walls of a barn littered with straw and coloured with a mix of warm yellows and light browns. The result is that the viewer gets caught up in the world of the rural West and immerses themselves in the story that ensues.

While on the whole accents are solid, at moments they appear forced and unconvincing, leading to moments of wavering believability. The actors are generally well cast, with George and Lennie being particularly notable. Their ability to portray the ethos of Steinbeck’s characters, through the successful capturing of both men’s plight and victimisation, is commendable and allows a certain degree of empathy.

Despite only being one of the minor characters, John Macauley’s portrayal of the crippled skinner Crooks is powerfully moving and therefore also worth noting. A character who exists in an openly-racist culture, Macauley manages to beautifully evoke the awkward isolation created as a result of a hostile social division. This combined with an impressive encapsulation of the character’s debilitating back injury makes for an endearing and ultimately compelling performance.

Though the play takes a while to get going, this is arguably due to the slow moving dialogue that builds gradually to a closing crescendo. By the end of the first half, the audience find itself encompassed in the struggles of the lead characters and the sympathies that go with them. However, this sympathy is inconsistent. Certain scenes, such as the execution of Candy’s dog, are excellent in their ability to create tension, but unfortunately, this level of engagement is not maintained throughout. Considerable moments of the play feel drawn out and lack conviction; so while the performance is certainly amiable, it is ultimately capricious.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Feb 21st 2012.

Too much work makes Ali a dull boy

Unfortunately, since taking over as editor-in-chief of The Student I have struggled to find the time alongside university work to do much writing. As a compromise I thought I would upload issues of the newspaper to prove to myself I have actually been doing something.

Here is my first edition which was published on Tue Feb 14th 2012:

Carnage Review

3/5

Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the stage play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza is a scathing satire that deconstructs the distasteful nuances of the bourgeoisie. An awkward yet intelligent comedy, it caricatures middle-class America through its use of top performers at the head of their game.

Following a playground dispute between two 11 year-old boys that ends in the ‘disfigurement’ of one by a stick, the parents are brought together in an attempt to establish peace between both parties. What begins as a brief visit delivered with politeness through forced smiles, quickly descends into childlike verbal warfare and petty resentment.

Polanski has made no effort to redefine Reza’s play by altering settings or exploring the various avenues made possible through its transition to film. Instead, the focus remains on the integrity of the performances; a combination of sharp dialogue and impressive acting. Though perhaps the characters are a little too clichéd, this appears necessary for the conflicts of interests and cascading chaos that ensues when civility deteriorates.

A slow burner, the film’s opening tension is painful to watch, yet the pay off is definitely worth it. As inhibitions are lost – thanks predominately to the aid of a single malt – and integrity thrown out the window, the niggling criticisms that follow are hilarious. Christoph Waltze’s turn as a sardonic misogynist delivered in deadpan fashion is fantastic, whilst Jodie Foster’s part as the melodramatic victim constantly seeking recrimination is equally brilliant.

However, one cannot help but feel that Carnage is far better suited as a play. From its simple setting to archetypal characters, it retains an essence that seems to belong in the realm of theatre. Here, existentialist themes can be explored without being criticised for being overly pretentious, and the strong personalities appear more appropriate. The unrealistic circumstance in which the two couples find themselves at each other’s throats, though entertaining, doesn’t quite transfer to film.

By remaining faithful to the spatial and temporal reality of the theatre production, Polanski limits himself to a piece that is gratingly uncomfortable, but not always in a good way.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Feb 2nd 2012.

Politics or Perfection?

A look at this year’s questionable Oscars nominations.

It is around this time each year that people complain about the alleged ‘terrible’ Oscars nominees. 2012 has been no exception, with many outwardly disagreeing with the Academy’s choices. However, although it has been heralded as one of the worst years for cinema in a long time, it is undeniable that there have been films far superior to those nominated that haven’t received the recognition they duly deserve. This is not a new trend but a factor of the Academy Awards that has taken place since their inception in 1929.

The Oscars nomination process is one that clearly adheres to a number of set rules and principles. It is governed by a political process that means certain types of films can never make it to the short list and the same people can’t win on numerous occasions. It is arguable that were a director to jump through the hoops and make a film that ticks all the right boxes, they would have no problem garnering that much sought after Oscars nod. Being the most esteemed award to be offered to members of the film community, you would presume it should commend originality, artistic merit and exceptional acting skills, however, more often than not, those films that are placed in the limelight are simply safe choices that are average at best.

The top films of the previous year can be split into two main categories. The first illustrates a celebration of nostalgia, featuring allusions to the past and the supposed Golden Years of cinema. It is this category that has captured the hearts of the Academy and therefore landed this year’s Oscars nods. Hugo, which leads the pack with 11 nominations, is a commemoration of the work of George Méliès, much forgotten following his decline as a result of the first World War. Similarly, The Artist, which is just behind with 10 nominations, is a homage to the silent era and captures the devastating effect the advent of the talkies had on silent actors. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, with 4 nods, perhaps best encapsulates the ethos of this year’s nominations as it delightfully explores the disenchantment of one’s own era and longing to be part of artistic ages past.

The second group can be collated due to their unconventional intensity that often treads a fine line between gratuity and tastefulness. Perhaps due to the controversial nature of their content these films have been largely overlooked, despite featuring some of the best performances of the year. It is surprising that We Need to Talk About Kevin received no attention despite Tilda Swinton giving arguably her finest performance and an exquisite cinematography that blended the beautiful with the grotesque. Similarly, Michael Fassbender’s performance in Shame is flawless in its delivery, yet due to the tender subject of the film, never stood a chance.

In the Best Foreign Language Film category, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In received no recognition despite being one of the best films of the year, let alone one of the best foreign films. However, again due to the controversial nature of its content it is perhaps understandable that it was never considered.

Olivia Coleman’s turn in Tyrannosaur was a brutal portrayal of a woman trapped in an abusive marriage and yet she didn’t receive any notice. Ryan Gosling in the graphic Drive, Australia’s Snowtown, Britain’s Kill List. These were all brilliant films but never had a look in due to the constraints placed on what constitutes an ‘Oscar Worthy’ film.

There were, however, a number of surprising omissions that can’t be disregarded due to contentious content. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who gained a Golden Globe nod for his part in 50/50 was nowhere to be seen, as was Charlize Theron for Young Adult. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, infinitely better than Kung Fu Panda 2 yet perhaps dismissed due to Spielberg’s numerous nominations for War Horse. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, most probably forgotten due to the excitement over the director’s ill advised Nazi comments.

So far it appears that the only awards ceremony that seem to have acknowledged the year’s truly best films is the London Critics’ Circle Awards. Unafraid to buck the trend, they heralded the real deserving films. It remains puzzling how films as trite as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or as emotionally manipulative as War Horse can be given any attention yet this seems to be the way of the Hollywood circle. One piece of advice: don’t go looking to the best picture nominees for a decent piece of cinema.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Jan 31st 2012.

A Walk to Remember

Photo Credit: Melanie Sangwine

On a cold January morning in Edinburgh, when most people are tucked up in bed, the sun begins to rise, illuminating the castle and gently melting the frost. Towards the esplanade, a small group huddled around one man begin a countdown.

As they reach zero, a faint cheer is heard and a bearded figure emerges wheeling a buggy piled high with equipment. The man’s name is James Thomas and he has just begun a walk from Edinburgh to New Zealand.

On a trip that will cover 12,500 miles, through 15 countries and take him two years to complete, he will be crossing hostile territories, Indonesian rainforests and the Australian desert to reach the antipodal point of Edinburgh, Dunedin. With no support team, he is carrying all the equipment he needs himself and intends to spend his long nights camping, couch surfing and staying with friends where possible.

Originally from West Cork in Ireland, Thomas has been living in Edinburgh for the last five years whilst studying film and photography at Edinburgh Napier University. Having graduated last year, he notes, “I was struggling to find work in film and photography so I decided to fulfil this thing I’ve always wanted to do.”

Aiming to walk 130 miles a week- a distance which equates to roughly five marathons- it is undeniable that this will be a very demanding challenge.

However, Thomas remains admirably optimistic, he comments, “I don’t think it is going to be too bad physically. There are people who do physical labour, working on building sites every day and doing much harder things than what I’m doing. I’m just walking.” Already a keen rambler, he has experience trekking in the Annapurna and a couple of months ago made the trip from Inverness to Fort William in preparation for his expedition.

Ultimately, this is not simply a personal endeavour but an effort to raise funds for children’s charity UNICEF. On choosing the organisation, he says, “It’s a very international challenge so I wanted to support an international charity. I wanted a charity that no matter where I went people knew what it was for.”

He has high hopes, with aims of raising £1,000,000 over the course of the trip. But, as he rightly points out, “If David Walliams can get it for swimming the channel, surely I can get it for walking around the world.”

The motivation behind his adventure appears ambiguous. “It changes every day. Most recent is I just turned 30 so I’m saying to myself this is the last chance I can go out and do something as I’m not getting any younger. I’ve always wanted to do this. Travelling to the antipodal point has always been the thing.”

With a keen desire to have something to show for himself, it is apparent that for Thomas this is a very personal ordeal. When asked how he thinks it will affect him as a person, he contemplates for a second before answering, “It is inevitable that it will change me somewhat but I don’t know yet whether it will change me for the better or for the worse.” As the interview draws to a close, we come to a stop and I thank him for his time, already glad that in a few minutes I will be inside and beginning to get warm after what was a bitterly cold morning. However, for Thomas, this is only the beginning, and as I bid him farewell, he turns and begins to walk the long road, alone.

For more information, or to sponsor James, you can visit his website here.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Jan 31st 2012.

Classic Cult: Silent

With The Artist already receiving huge critical acclaim despite the awards season having only just begun, it seems appropriate to look back at some of the most influential silent films that have recently received a surge of interest.

The early shorts that emerged during cinemas infancy are extraordinarily insightful, and, despite technical limitations, illustrate incredible ingenuity and artistic skill. Georges Méliès’ La Voyage dans la Lune which features the iconic image of a spaceship landing in the eye of the moon, was recently alluded to in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and remains a must see for anyone with an interest in cinematic history. Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou is another short that has received cult status. Presenting a series of tenuous scenes that attempt to depict dream logic in narrative flow, its haunting representation of a woman’s eye being sliced in half has become famous.

Horror was a popular genre during the silent era and was dominated by German expressionist directors. Films such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, which remains a chilling cult classic, while Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is stunning with its elaborate sets and dreamlike sequences. It has also been cited as the first film to introduce the ‘twist ending’.

Silent comedy is best known through the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. While The General is often cited as Keaton’s best film, it is exceeded by Sherlock Jr. in terms of impressive special effects and unconventionally humorous situations. Chaplin, known predominately for his endearing character ‘The Tramp’, created heart-rending comedy that is perhaps best realised in his film City Lights.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the first true science-fiction masterpiece in film. Its exploration of the social crisis between workers and owners, through a dystopic vision that mirrors the capitalism of Marx and Engels, is both powerful and unforgettable. The precursor to all modern sci-fi, it returned to the public eye in 1984, when Giorgio Moroder released a restored version featuring a soundtrack from artists including Freddie Mercury, Jon Anderson and Adam Ant.

The best love story of the silent era has to be Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. A poignant depiction of a married couple that looks at the fragile nature of human relationships, it offers a bit of everything, making it an outstanding piece of cinema.

Perhaps one of the most enduring scenes in silent film can be found in the dramatisation of the mutiny that took place on board the Russian battleship Potemkin in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The massacre of civilians on the Odessa steps is as iconic as it is horrendous and is paid homage to in many modern classics.

However, the finest silent film of all time has to be Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. A depiction of the trial, imprisonment, torture and execution of Joan of Arc, its extreme close-ups featuring actors without make-up and incredible performance from Renée Jeanne Falconetti make it one of the most harrowing films of all time.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Jan 24th 2012.

Subdued Gervais leads monotonous Golden Globes

Ricky Gervais led an evening of celebrations last night for the 69th Golden Globe Awards, held at the Beverley Hilton, Los Angeles.

The British comedian returned to host the show for his third time; something of a surprise given the numerous complaints he received from celebrities he targeted last year.

However, this year’s awards saw a considerably more subdued Gervais, leaving many feeling let down after his audacious performance 12 months ago.

His attacks seemed more focused on the awards themselves which he claimed lacked the esteem of the Oscars, instead being to them, “what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton – a bit louder, a bit trashier, a bit drunker.”

The overall result was a ceremony that lacked the excitement and controversial appeal that made last year so enjoyable. Instead, generally lacklustre and humdrum speeches which listed countless people that needed to be thanked made for a somewhat monotonous affair.

The awards themselves provided few surprises, with The Artist picking up best motion picture – comedy or musical, best score and best actor – comedy or musical for Jean Dujardin.

The Descendants also received notable recognition, being named best motion picture – drama and George Clooney being awarded best actor – drama.

The other major acting awards went to Meryl Streep for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady and Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn.

Singer Madonna was awarded best song for ‘Masterpiece’ which features in her directorial debut W.E.

Christopher Plummer won the best supporting actor award for Beginner’s and Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for The Help.

The best director gong went to Martin Scorsese for Hugo, his first venture into the world of 3D and children’s cinema.

Best screenplay was awarded to Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris whilst Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn won best animation.

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation continued its winning streak picking up the award for best foreign film.

Morgan Freeman was awarded the Cecil B. De Mille award, given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for outstanding contributions in the world of entertainment.

Presented by dame Helen Mirren and the iconic Sidney Poitier, Freeman announced in his speech, “it has been said that if you do what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. So for the past 45 years or so, I’ve never had to work. My passion has always been acting.”

Evidently moved by being handed the accolade by Poitier, he referred to him as his “guiding beacon in life,” proclaiming that in his household, it will not just be known as the Cecille B. De Mille award, but the, “Sidney Poitier award” as well.

With the awards season now in full swing, everyone is looking towards the Oscars which will take place next month. Last night’s winners provide interesting possibilities for the upcoming awards as the Oscars do not have separate categories for drama and comedy or musical. It therefore stands that both The Artist and The Descendants have considerable potential in landing the top prizes.

Taken from The Student, published online Mon Jan 16th 2012.

The Artist dominates Critics’ Choice Awards

The Critics’ Choice Movie Awards kicked of the Hollywood awards season last night, with silent film The Artist picking up a number of the big prizes.

A film that has made a considerable impact since it premièred at Cannes last year, it walked away with the evening’s top award for best picture as well as best score, best costume design and best director for Michel Hazanavicius.

Accepting the honour, Hazanavicius joked in his speech, “I made a silent movie. I don’t like to speak so much.”

The other film to receive notable recognition was Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the 60s’ civil rights movement novel, The Help. It received a number of the key acting accolades with Viola Davis winning best actress, Octavia Spencer winning best supporting actress and the cast being honoured with best acting ensemble.

The other big winners were George Clooney, who received the best actor award for his performance in The Descendants, Christopher Plummer, who won best supporting actor for Beginners and Thomas Horn, who was recognised as best young actor/actress for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Despite being nominated for 11 awards, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo only received a single honour, for art direction.

However, Scorsese was also presented with the music and film award given to those who have, “heightened the impact of film through the brilliant use of source and soundtrack.”

Sean Penn was presented with the Joel Siegel award, which honours those who understand that the greatest value of a celebrity is as an enhanced platform to do good works for others. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake on January 12th2010, Penn founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organisation which raised money and awareness following the disaster.

Other winners included Drive for best action, Bridesmaids for best comedy, Rango for best animated feature, Moneyball for best adapted screenplay, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo for best editing and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 for best sound and makeup.

The CCMA’s have come to be a fairly reliable indicator for Oscar winners, providing an impressive correlation between award winners in previous years. With The Artist and The Help dominating the field, they stand in considerable contention for the top spot next month.

Taken from The Student, published online Fri Jan 13th 2012.

Classic Cult: Christmas

Christmas is a time for family, fires and forgiveness, and no more is this apparent than in the films televised during December each year. Endless showings of Toy Story and Love Actually illustrates the public’s fundamental desire to see something light hearted and fun, whilst also managing to capture the Christmas spirit. However, for the cult enthusiast, there are a multitude of options which allows for alternative viewing, so long as you don’t rely on the TV guide to make it happen.

Regularly featuring on lists of worst films ever made, Santa Conquers the Martians (1964) is an alternative Christmas tale that sees Santa kidnapped so he can bring Christmas joy to the people of Mars. Featuring a young Pia Zadora and one of the most entertaining attempts at creating a polar bear in cinema, it remains a great cult classic. For fans of The Flaming Lips, Christmas on Mars (2008) is a definite must see. Written and directed by the band’s frontman Wayne Coyne, and featuring the entire band in the cast, this is arguably the most psychedelic science-fiction Christmas feature around. Containing an almost indecipherable plot and frequent bouts of superfluous colours and foetuses, Christmas on Mars epitomises cult cinema.

A Muppet Christmas Carol would be the obvious film from the Jim Henson Company to watch at this time of year, yet they boast a number of other great Christmas features. Most notable of these is made-for-TV movie The Christmas Toy (1986). In a world where toys play when people aren’t watching, but who are frozen forever if caught out of their normal place, Rugby the plucky tiger plush toy is on a mission to try and be this year’s Christmas present, so he can remain the favourite toy for another year. With more than a passing similarity to Toy Story, it is undoubtedly one of the best low-key Christmas family films. Babes in Toyland (1986) is another television film and features all the necessary elements for a top notch cult film: a young Drew Barrymore, Keanu Reeves, singing, nursery rhyme characters, a villain who lives in a bowling bowl and Pat Morita (aka Mr Miyagi) as the Toymaster. Despite being a relatively atrocious film, it remains entertaining nonetheless.

Horror is a genre which dominates cult Christmas films, from the slashers of the ’70s and ’80s to more recent attempts at bringing a scare factor to the festive season. Some of the classics include Black Christmas (1974), Christmas Evil (1980), Gremlins (1984), Santa’s Slay (2005) and Jack Frost (1997). However, Silent Night Deadly Night (1984) is one that particularly stands out. The development of the lead character, who becomes increasingly psychotic after witnessing the massacre of his parents, justifies it as one of the better horror Christmas classics.

Good cult Christmas films have been relatively sparse in recent years, however, Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) breaks the mould with its slick combination of comedy and horror. A tongue-in-cheek film that looks at the ‘secret’ behind Santa, it is an entertaining foray into the alternative Christmas story.

Remembered for its iconic line, “You’ll poke your eye out,” A Christmas Story (1983) is a coming of age story that rivals Home Alone. Following a nine-year-old boy named Ralphie, who despite the best efforts of everyone around him, does everything in his power to ensure he gets a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. Watchable time and time again, it is one of the top cult comedies to see at this time of year.

Finally, no cult Christmas is complete without Scrooged (1988). It’s fantastic blend of horror and comedy, starring Bill Murray as a conceited, cynical TV executive, makes it the first stop for anyone looking for alternative Christmas viewing. There have been countless productions of A Christmas Carol but few are as original or entertaining as Richard Donner’s adaptation.

There is no need for anyone to watch endless re-runs of overplayed and clichéd films at this time of year. The alternative possibilities available will provide enough entertainment to far exceed the festive period. It simply remains a difficulty as to where the best place is to start.

An expanded version of an article first published in The Student, Tue Dec 6th 2011.

Las Acacias Review

4/5

Following its success at Cannes earlier this year, Las Acacias has gone on to impress film festival audiences the world round. For a directorial debut, Pablo Giorgelli creates an astonishing piece of cinema that isn’t afraid to break modern conventions.

The film follows Rubén (Germán de Silva), a truck driver who has spent many years travelling the lonely roads of South America. On one of these trips he agrees to take a woman, Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), from Paraguay to Buenos Aires as a favour for a friend. What he doesn’t realise is that Jacinta has also brought her five-month-old baby, Anahí (Nayra Calle Mamani) along with her.

As a man who has clearly spent a lot of time on his own, it is evident that Rubén is not overly impressed by his new companions. However, what ensues is a touching portrayal of a budding relationship that affords the piece an undeniable realism.

The overall performances of the cast are spellbinding. As a well known character actor, de Silva is pitch-perfect in his transformation from tired cynic to a lonely man in need of familial affection. As a first performance, Duarte upholds a natural believability that allows the viewer to truly accept her as the character she plays. This is no doubt helped by the incredible chemistry she shares with the young Mamani. It is hard to believe that the two are not really mother and daughter, as the bond between the pair is astonishing.

Although the film contains very little dialogue, the facial movements and expressions of the cast are sufficient to depict the exact feelings and desires of their characters. Giorgelli’s decision to keep conversation to a minimum is an audacious move, but one which undeniably works. It mirrors reality in the way strangers have a tendency to be quiet and defensive towards each other when they first meet, but who gradually relax as time goes by. As Rubén and Jacinta become increasingly comfortable in each others company, a warmth begins to develop and an obvious chemistry blossom.

The film’s cinematography is another point worthy to note. Predominately featuring two camera angles – either on de Silva or Duarte – there is a definite emphasis that all the attention of the film is focused on these two characters. As blurred images of desolate landscapes drift by in each scene, these two remain in focus. Both are clearly troubled by a past they would rather put behind them, and this is no less portrayed in the way the film is shot. Focusing on the present, it is as though outside the cab of the truck everything else ceases to exist. For the short time the three are together, that is all that matters.

No doubt the slow pace of the film will deter those in need of something more visually stimulating, its attention to detail and well thought out comparisons to real life, make it a fantastic debut. There is a certain charm found in Giorgelli’s piece that is rarely seen in conventional cinema; it allows the viewer to reflect on the lead characters circumstance and relate to it in a way that is not often possible in fiction.

Las Acacias will be screened at the Cameo from Dec 9th.

Taken from The Student, published online Wed Dec 7th 2011.