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Friday 21 January 2011

Barney's Version, Film directed by Richard Lewis, 4* out of 5, great film

Barney Panofsky is the owner manager of the film-production company “Totally Unnecessary Productions” and a regular at Grumpy's in his home-town of Montreal. Having reached his sixties he reflects on the important relationships of his life. Barney is a character; he is blunt, politically incorrect, impulsive, honest, direct, manipulative, self-centred yet lovable, tenacious in the pursuit of happiness.

Barney's important relationships are long lasting and stormy. None is stronger and more loving than the one he has with his father Izzy, a police detective, played here brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman. Izzy has a lot of Barney's qualities and character traits, but one senses that did not have the opportunities in his education and career.

The key to ensuring that Barney's tendency to extremes remains sufficiently channelled to make his tumultuous life one well lived, is the love he shares with his third wife, Miriam. Intellectually at least his equal, she demands and gives truth, honesty love and loyalty. Miriam is calm and understated where Barney is rambunctious and dramatic.

Barney's Version is very much a drama with comedic elements. Paul Giammati received a well deserved Golden Globe for his portrayal of the title role. Rosamund Pike deserves the highest accolades for a beautiful calm and controlled and highly believable performance as Barney's wife. Dustin Hoffman is brilliant, funny and lovable as Barney's dad.

Well played, scripted and directed, Barney's Version is a moving film of great quality, not to be missed.

I had the privilege of seeing Barney's Version at the Tricycle Cinema in London in an event organized jointly with the London Jewish Film Festival. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with Rosamund Pike, who played Miriam. One of Mordecai Richler's daughters was present in the audience. She told Rosamund Pike that her portrayal of Miriam, the character in Richler's novel who was based on her mother, Richler's third wife, was so authentic that the portrayal would have enchanted her father had he lived to see the film.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Woodysez – The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, Arts Theatre London, 4* out of 5, it is great go see it

I do not usually go in for musical entertainment, but as with all my rules I make exceptions. One exception is whenever Stephen Sontheim is involved another is Woodysez, which has just begun a short run, until 2 April 2011, in London's Westend.

Wodysez tells the life story of folk-singer/poet/composer and political activist Woody Guthrie. Guthrie's struggle for the rights of deprived farmers and working-men during the Great Depression and beyond, is the stuff that legend is made of. He is a true and authentic American hero, a man who fought for labour union recognition, who remained clear-eyed and optimistic in a life full of tragedy until a debilitating hereditary disease Huntington's Corea struck him. Guthrie's poetic and musical talents are key lasting influence on the entire folk-singing movement from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan and all the way to Bruce Springsteen.

Woodysez is a simple show, telling Woody Guthrie's life and performing many of his most famous songs. The cast consists of 4 talented and enthusiastic musicians led by the outstanding David M. Lutken who also co-wrote the show. The writers and cast are not only committed to their performance, but clearly have a lot of admiration and love for Woody Guthrie the man, his ideas and his struggle for the dignity of the American working man and woman. Guthrie's clear-sighted view of American society in the Great Depression and his enormous talent as a political songwriter and performer shine through the entire performance of Lutken and the other members of the cast, as they truly connect with their audience.

After the Saturday evening performance, the cast still had the energy for a hootenanny, an informal gathering with folk music, in the Arts Theatre Foyer Bar.  Anyone with a voice, a guitar or a fiddle was welcome to join in. To the delight of a packed swinging, singing crowd, making their request for American folk classics, quite a few talented musicians did.  

Woodysez was a hit when first performed in the UK at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For pure entertainment value it deserves to be sell out in London's Westend this year.

Picture from the Hootenanny after the Saturday Night Performance 

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Tiger Country – Hampstead Theatre written and directed by Nina Raine 3* out of 5

Tiger Country is set in a busy London NHS Hospital. It follows the professional life of doctors, consultants and surgeons who have to do their work under great pressure. How does a junior doctor cope with having to lead a first emergency at A&E? How can a doctor function emotionally when he has to make life and death decisions every day? What when illness strikes a doctor himself or his family? What compromises does a doctor have to make to advance her career?

Nina Raine's play deals with all these issues. It is well crafted and the cast gives a competent ensemble performance. Tiger Country concentrates on the professional conflicts and dilemmas of working as a doctor in an NHS hospital. That is commendable and it works quite well: the play holds the interest of the audience.

The main problem with the play is that we have seen all this in one way or another in films and numerous television series: a Wikipedia-search of the category “Medical Television Series”, for instance, yields 136 entries. A smaller problem is that the acoustics of the Hampstead Theatre are not the greatest. Having said that, it is very attractive looking theatre with comfortable seats.

In one Schultz' Peanuts comic strips, Linus remarks that there is no heavier burden than a great potential. Nina Raine, who won the Critics' Circle Award as Most Promising Young Playwright for her first play, Rabbit, can probably feel Linus' pain. Nevertheless, with the somewhat oddly named “Tiger Country” she has written a not very original, yet entertaining play. I, for one, will go and see her next play, too.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Blue Valentine (2010) Film directed by Derek Cianfrance 5* out of 5 (must see)

Blue Valentine is the story of a young couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). It is told in documentary style and shows the defining scenes from a relationship and marriage that has run into difficulties. Cindy is a modern girl who does not show her feelings easily. She grows up in a home that is full of constant tension between her parents. Her grandmother is her refuge and source of advice on the important things in life. Dean is a young man, highly intelligent but without formal qualifications. He has a kind heart, which he wears on his sleeve. He is also an incurable romantic, ready to make sacrifices, particularly one's that suit him, but less ready to let Cindy forget that he made them.

We learn how Dean and Cindy meet, fall in love, decide to get married. We learn how everyday life takes its toll on two good people who love each other and their little girl. Dean does not like to admit to selfish needs, has become partial to drink and can be difficult to live with, both for his partner and for himself. Cindy, who has invested herself in a career as a doctor, has learnt not to show her feelings spontaneously. But sometimes, coping with earning money for the family, getting on in one's career, being a hard-working mother and dealing with an impulsive husband to whom she is emotionally indebted, becomes just too much. Anybody who has ever been in love and has tried to rescue a relationship, which is threatening to break apart on the frictions of every day life, will feel pangs of recognition.

Every now and again a film comes along that touches the heart and wrenches the gut. Blue Valentine is such a film. The acting performances by Ryan Gosling as Dean and Michelle Williams as Cindy are outstanding. Actors, writers and the director deserve the highest accolades. The film contains so much truth, some of it romantic, much of it painful, that it makes for utterly compulsive viewing.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Midsummer by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre at the Tricycle Theatre London, recommended 4* out of 5 (do go see it!)

Helena is a high powered divorce lawyer having an affair with a married man. Bob is a second hand car salesman who has lost most of his poetic aspirations on the fringes of the Edinburgh underworld. Both find themselves in the same Edinburgh wine-bar/pub on Midsummer weekend.

David Greig's play with songs by Gordon McIntire is above all an intelligent drama/comedy that engages the viewer from beginning to end. The characters and the situations they find themselves in seem truthful. We can identify with them. The result is an authentic romantic drama/comedy that is not sugary. It contains appropriate strong language, the depiction of sexual activity and philosophical musings about the meaning of life at the age of 35.

The play was a hit when it premièred at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival some 2 years ago. In this production by the Traverse Theatre company, Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon give outstanding performances under the excellent direction of the playwright David Greig. The audience is completely drawn into the action of the play. The music is seamlessly integrated into the play thanks to the talents of the cast.

For sheer quality and variety of the plays it has put on in 2010 and the first days of 2011 the Tricycle Theatre, celebrating its 35th birthday this year, is hard to beat.