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Wednesday 31 December 2014

The Green Prince (2014), Documentary Film by Nadav Shirman, 9* out of 10

This is a true spy story about a most unlikely informant and his deceptively cuddly handler. Every avid reader of John Le Carré’s novels anticipates what must follow: the tough and cynical world of espionage agencies will triumph over any optimistic belief in human nature  – but reality can be stranger than fiction, even when it comes to trumping a comfortably pessimistic world-view.

The Green Prince tells the story of Mussab Hassan Youssef, son of one of the leaders of the Hamas movement, who for 10 years worked as an informant for the Israeli Shin Bet spy agency. The title of the film is the codename given to him by Shin Bet. Mussab Hassan Youssef and his Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak tell the almost unbelievable story in their own words through separate interviews. 

Mussab Hassan Youssef gives us considerable insight in how he became an informant and how he justified his role by preventing numerous suicide bombings of innocent Israeli civilians by the militant wing of Hamas. Both the informant and his handler, the latter initially much more cold and calculating, gradually developed personal motivations and a close relationship. That relationship, of course, is highly asymmetric. Ben Yitzhak is in the powerful position. He has the backing and support of the formidable Shin Bet behind him. Mussab Hassan Youssef has to rely entirely on himself. He risks life and limb every minute of every day. But gradually Hassan Youssef develops his own inner coherent narrative and self-confidence; the tables begin to turn.

At this point every avid reader of John Le Carré’s novels knows what will happen next. The tough and cynical world of espionage agencies must triumph over any optimistic belief in human nature  – but reality can be stranger than fiction, even when it comes to trumping a comfortably pessimistic world-view.

This is a story of a journey by two human beings whose lives intersect and who at different moments are compelled to make important decisions raising moral dilemmas that lie at the outer limits of normal human experience. The strength of this film is that it draws us into the question: what would I do?

For the deceptively cuddly Gonen Ben Yitzhak this is the story of an inner journey. For The Green Prince his code-name appears to foretell not only an inner journey but an amazing outer transformation: through the metaphorical kiss of Beverly Hills plastic surgery and dental work, Mussab Hassan Youssef morphs from unattractive frog to Hollywood like Prince Charming. 

The fictionalized action movie of his life may already be in the works, Green Prince - the musical cannot be far behind.

Nadav Shirman has created a compelling documentary that deservedly won the prestigious Sundance Festival 2014 audience award. The questions raised as you watch this movie will resonate for a long time.  A must see.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Here Lies Love, Musical, written by John Byrne and Fatboy Slim, National Theatre, London, 8.5* out of 10

Alex Timbers’ production is dynamic and inventive, getting members of his audience involved in the action in very creative ways. A young, attractive and energetic ensemble delivers the choreography of Annie-B Parson to great effect so that the enthusiasm truly spreads across the audience. Very watchable.

The intimate theatrical space formerly known as the Cottesloe has been refurbished and renamed the Dorfman Theatre. It is being inaugurated with the rags-to-riches biopic of one of the post-war period’s most notorious female political icons, Imelda Marcos.

Here Lies Love tells the story of the former Philippines first lady who had to be rescued by the US government by helicopter from the roof of the Manila presidential palace when the Philippines went through a peaceful uprising long before the Arab Spring and removed the authoritarian regime established by General Ferdinand Marcos with a bloodless overthrow and return to democracy. 

Imelda’s humble origins contrasted with her unlimited ambition for power and wealth. She leveraged her beauty queen looks to good effect. Rejected by her boyfriend the later senator and presidential hopeful Ninoy Aquino for being taller than him, she managed to gain the undying devotion of World War II-hero and later President Ferdinand Marcos. Her appetite for New York, glamour, shoes and parties could now be fully indulged in mainly with other people’s money being syphoned off and turned into her own. (The musical ends with her exile from the Philippines, but in 2014 , now well into her eighties, Imelda is back in the Philippines as an elected senator with an estimated net worth in excess of USD 5 billion).

Fatboy Slim (formerly of the Housemartins) and David Byrne (formerly of the Talking Heads) are themselves British music-scene icons whose heyday overlapped with Imelda’s. She was a wannabe disco-queen and performer at her own glamorous celebrity parties for Western elite politicians and Hollywood wannabes. The musical treatment by Slim and Byrne captures this very well.

Alex Timbers’ production is dynamic and inventive, getting members of his audience involved in the action in very creative ways. At the beginning, the theatre looks like a 1980s disco set and the moving and rotating stage works excellently well as the action moves across time and place. The designers (set: David Korins, lighting: Justin Townsend, sound: M. L. Dogg and Cody Spencer) deserve a special mention. A young, attractive and energetic ensemble delivers the choreography of Annie-B Parson to great effect so that the enthusiasm truly spreads across the audience.

The political background to the story is presented effectively through projections of TV footage of real events. While all the international political drama is not as fully explored as Imelda’s ruthlessness greed and disappointment in the lack of love shown her by her people, one leaves this musical thoroughly entertained, and energised and with the New Years resolution that one does have to do some background reading on the politics and history of the Philippines in the 20th century.

Natalie Mendoza is a charismatic Imelda Marcos, Marc Bautista (Ferdinand Marcos) and Dean John Wilson (Ninoy Aquino) give strong performances and Martin Serreal (as DJ) really rocks the joint and gets the new Dorfman theatre off to a great swinging start.

Sunday 7 December 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, (2014) Film directed by Francis Lawrence 7.5* out of 10

With the Huger Games: Mockingjay dystopian science fiction is coming home – not good sign for the real world.

Katnis Everdeen, (Jenifer Lawrence) the reluctant but victorious female gladiator having morphed into the regime’s recalcitrant superstar has now openly turned against the regime and joined the opposition. 

At the start of Part 1 of the final volume of Suzanne Collins’ young adult fiction book trilogy (spun out in the screen version over 2 films), Katniss has managed to rescue her mother, sister. With her also is Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) one of her two love interests between whom she will eventually have to choose unless polyandry becomes a viable option in her universe or a third marriageable bachelor should turn up unexpectedly. The love story is weakest link in the otherwise interesting  and coherent plot.

Mockingjay shows Katniss as a female figurehead of the opposition uprising, which pitches the agro-industrial regions of Panem (the fictional country in which this tale takes place) against its exploitative capital. The female president of the opposition Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) is surrounded her political advisors some of whom used to advise the ruling regime but have become disaffected with it.

What lifts the Hunger Games to the quality end of not only Young Adult Science Fiction is the coherence of the story with the depiction of a credible exploitative authoritarian regime whose opulence is displayed in a wealthy capital city.  It has achieved that wealth by enslaving the population and exploiting the natural riches of the capital’s hinterland. An other strength of Mockingjay is its depiction of the sophisticated handling through the use of iconic images for propaganda on both sides of the conflict.  The film succeeds through strong performances, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is special political adviser Plutarch Heavensbee to the opposition president. Donald Sutherland continues to shine as the charismatically clever and delectably evil President Snow.

Most disturbing about the Mockingjay - Part1 is that it has been overtaken by reality. The scenes of devastation in Syria and Iraq, the propaganda movies Daësh (Islamic State), the female Kurdish Peshmerga heroines fighting in Syria’s North are today’s reality. So is a President and her advisers watching a commando raid relayed live from body cameras of the elite military unit to the situation room.  What makes our 2014 reality more dystopian than this fiction is the involvement with good and bad intention of foreign governments, international media and non-governmental organisations. Moreover and most frighteningly the brutality with which the rebels conduct their uprising and their use of it in propaganda videos has outpaced anything The Hunger Games Mocking Jay can offer. 

As a result, many in the audience will not be able to keep themselves from wondering whether a government led by Alma Coin surrounded by her advisors will be more effective in providing justice and rule of law to the surviving inhabitants of Panem’s regions than one led by President Snow.  The pictures in our heads of the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are a context which deeply influences our perspective on what is turning out to be an evocative piece of fiction turned, not unsuccessfully, into an epic saga unfolding on the silver screen. Dystopian science fiction is coming home – not good thing for the real world.