To all my readers, I hope you have a happy and sacred Easter break.
“The Sound of Music": stage version
This great Rodgers and Hammerstein show is on at Brisbane's QPAC at the moment. I went the other day, along with about 500 schoolkids (figure supplied by QPAC staff member!) on a school excursion. The performance was pretty much a sell-out and, especially with so many youngsters in the audience, lively and enthusiastic.
So is the show itself. Great fun and highly enjoyable. Of course, it is virtually impossible to comment on a stage version of this show, without comparing it with the famous 1965 film of the same name directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The show currently in Brisbane is apparently based on a production at the London Palladium. If you go to a show like this, you know the story backwards, you know the songs and lyrics backwards, so you go with expectations of high fidelity to the movie. You won't be disappointed.
The story scarce needs repeating: Maria, the novice nun, sent as a governess to the widowed Captain von Trapp and his seven children; Maria and the captain fall in love, marry, then are forced to flee when the Nazis take over Austria in 1938; all the more captivating as it's based on a true tale.
All the well-known songs are in this stage production, though not always in the order they occur in the film. Indeed, this stage version includes two songs not in the movie, which is a point of extra interest in itself. The story is presented on stage pretty much as it was on film, though for obvious logistical reasons, some of the film's scenes, e.g. outdoor shots, are not replicated on stage. This doesn't matter; you will recognise and warm to every scene on stage.
The performances in the stage show, with one partial exception, are excellent all around. The seven children were lovable, cute and superb. Their singing was excellent and their dancing, especially in the "Doe, Ray, Me" song, was great. A QPAC staff member told my friend and I that most of the children were local recruits, and that the little girl who played Gretel was only seven. She was a real little trouper! The role of Maria was played by a relative unknown, Amy Lehpamer, who, nevertheless, has extensive stage experience, and boy, was she good. First-rate singer, good actress, excellent dancer. I couldn't help thinking during her performance: "She's channelling Julie Andrews!" Cameron Daddo played Captain von Trapp, but I thought his performance was, in part, the only weak point in the show. Daddo is a fine actor who has given us many excellent performances on stage and screen. However the Captain's character is ex-military and sometimes tough. Only in the second half of the show, when the character has to confront the Nazis, did I feel that Daddo "toughened up" sufficiently to capture this facet of Captain von Trapp. Also, Daddo has a naturally soft voice and sometimes the venue's sound system failed to capture his singing and dialogue. David James plays Max Detweiler, the lovably self-interested impresario, and he has some of the best lines in the show – "I like the way rich people live. I like the way I live when I'm with them!" James carries the part with great aplomb and assurance. Marina Prior, a very experienced performer, is in good voice as Baroness von Schraeder.
The show has a live orchestra who performed at a very high standard. These days, I'm never quite sure whether small, theatre orchestras are reinforced by computerised backing tracks. If these guys were, the backing tracks were so well integrated with the live musicians that you couldn't tell the difference. As well, the scenery and decor are really spectacular, and the lighting is superb. Some of the really memorable scenes, from a lighting, atmosphere, and decor point of view, are in the abbey and the church, during the Mother Superior's scenes and the wedding. In this stage production, the Mother Superior is perhaps a little stronger and more centre-stage than she was in the movie, and she was a strong enough character there, as we all know.
The ultimate test of any stage show is the audience reaction. My audience, especially reinforced by all those schoolkids, loved it. They applauded every song. They cheered and clapped the first kiss between Maria and the Captain. When Maria first appears in her wedding dress, the audience loved that and applauded it too. Everyone entered into the spirit of the occasion. This rubbed off on the players, and everyone had a high old time. When they were taking their curtain calls at the end, the cast got a tremendous reception from a highly appreciative crowd.
It was a really good show, greatly enjoyed by everyone, performers and punters alike, and I thoroughly recommend it. It'll make you want to have another look at the movie. Like I did.
My star rating (out of five): * * * * 1/2
This is not a bad movie and I enjoyed it – if "enjoy" is the right word. I have some doubts about that, as I will explain later. I had a few problems with the film itself, quite apart from the question of "enjoyment".
It is a Canadian/Irish co-production about a kidnapping in the US. I think kidnapping is an especially cruel crime, in some ways more appalling than murder itself. So, I am not normally attracted to a film about kidnapping. This movie, however, won a Best Actress Oscar in 2016, so I thought it worthwhile to have a look at it.
Brie Larson, who got the Best Actress award, plays Joy, a girl who was kidnapped and held by her captor as a sex slave for seven years, having a son, Jack, to him along the way. The two are held in a shed, named "the room", and never see the outside world except through a skylight. Joy brings up Jack as best she can, explaining the outside world that they see on TV (their captor, Old Nick, allows them a TV) as a mixture of fantasy and fairy stories. But Joy is planning an escape and she needs to switch tack and tell Jack the outside world is not a fantasy of fairy stories, but real. Jack, as you can imagine, has great difficulty absorbing this sudden revelation.
Although the movie is based on a novel, its story bears close parallels with a number of recent, high-profile kidnap cases where victims, usually very young women, were held for some years, survived, and were eventually liberated. I thought immediately of the Jaycee Dugard case in the US, where the kidnapped girl was held for 18 years, had two daughters by her kidnapper, then was liberated in bizarre circumstances. Indeed, the night after I saw this movie, there was a documentary on TV about the Jaycee Dugard case.
The film is in two parts; the first half takes place in "the room" and shows the lives of mother and son in their confined little world punctuated by, er, “visits” from Old Nick, while the second half takes place in the outside world after mother and son have achieved freedom. In many ways, I found the two main characters' reactions to the outside world – especially those of Jack – much more interesting and challenging than their lives in "the room".
Performances are very, very good. Brie Larson as the mother certainly deserves her Oscar for a Best Actress performance. However, if there was an Oscar for Best Kid Actor, it should go to young Jacob Tremblay, the Canadian kid who plays Jack. He gives an outstanding performance. Joan Allen and William H Macy give solid performances as, respectively, Joy's mother who bonds immediately with her new grandson, and her father who just can't accept young Jack. The themes of the movie's second half are, as you would expect, quite challenging: how does one adjust to freedom after a long period of incarceration, how do you handle the media's overwhelming interest in your case (Joy's TV interview is a classic, cynical exercise in "blame the victim"), rejection (in Jack's case) by relatives, and the kidnapping's long-term effects on the victim's relatives (Joy's parents have since separated and re-partnered), to name a few.
Direction by Irishman Lenny Abrahamson is brisk and effective, while the movie is not too long: nearly 2 1/4 hours. My major problems were with the "escape" aspects of the story. The ruse used by Joy to gain freedom was so simple and obvious I don't believe a kidnapper as cunning and smart as Old Nick would fall for it. The trick is taken straight from a classic, French 19th-century adventure novel. Unsophisticated 19th-century villains might fall for it, but I don't believe street-smart 21st-century villains would. Also, upon his escape, Jack is able to give so few clues to the police, how come the latter liberate Joy seemingly within an hour or two? Even more problematic, would Old Nick have allowed Joy to survive, knowing young Jack is talking to the cops?
Despite these weaknesses in the story line, the movie certainly holds your attention. Don't see it, though, if you are feeling down and depressed. The film's subject-matter is obviously not "laugh-a-minute" and makes the viewer sad when contemplating man's inhumanity to man, or rather, to woman. Yet, as a piece of movie-making, the film holds you in deadly fascination, and the performances of all the actors involved make it well worth while.
I went with a lady companion who, because of the film's depressing topic, only gave it 3 1/4 stars. My rating is a little more generous.
My star rating (out of 5): * * * 3/4
(I originally penned this piece in another place, before the Oscars for 2016 were announced. Since "The Revenant" did very well in the Academy Awards, I thought I would re-write and re-publish my views on this film in light of the Oscar awards.)
I originally wasn't going to see this film in a cinema, but wait till it came out on DVD. Partly this was because of its reputation for violence, and partly because of its alleged excessive length. The other day I relented, and saw it in cinema release. Yes, it's very violent in places. Yes, it's very long – a little over 2 1/2 hours. But it's worth it. It received 3 Oscars at the 2016 Academy Awards, and I can see why.
It has a Mexican director, Alejandro Inarritu, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Smith, and it's partly based on a novel by Michael Punke which, in turn, was partly based on a real-life incident. The lead character, Hugh Glass, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio who got the Best Actor Oscar this year for his performance. Quite right too. He is brilliant. His nemesis, a lying, venal, and ruthless character named Fitzgerald, is played by Tom Hardy – another excellent performance from this versatile actor. This film is not the first time the Glass story has been on the silver screen, but this one's memorable.
Glass is a member of, and guide to, a party of fur trappers way out in the American wilderness in the 1820s. He is accompanied by his half-Indian son, while brief flashbacks in the movie show Glass's relationship with an Indian woman and her death at the hands of white soldiers. The trappers are ambushed by hostile Indians who kill most of the whites, in a brilliantly staged battle sequence. A small group, including Glass, his son, and Fitzgerald escape overland and head for a frontier fort many miles away. While hunting game for the survivors, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear and horribly injured. His comrades, led by Fitzgerald, think Glass won't live, kill his son so as to leave no witnesses, steal his rifle and supplies, and abandon him to his fate. Glass doesn't die, but sets out for the fort, determined to wreak vengeance on Fitzgerald. Along the way he has death-defying adventures with hostile animals, hostile Indians, and hostile trappers. But he also gets help from friendly Indians and, bit by bit, crawls, scrambles, and limps his way towards the fort, safety, and revenge.
The body count in this movie is very high, and the deaths are usually graphic and grisly. Life on the frontier in the 1820s was nasty, brutish and short, and this film pulls no punches. If you have a delicate stomach, be warned. However, DiCaprio, as the put-upon Glass, is superb. I've always enjoyed his roles and in this one, he hits a peak. I'd love to know how they made the scene where he fights to the death with the grizzly bear. Real bear? Animatronic bear? Man in bear suit? It probably wasn't a digital bear; it's been reported that Inarritu wanted no digital special effects. However he did it, the scene is an absolute corker.
The magnificent forest, snow and mountain scenery was filmed in the US, Canada, and Argentina. This is one of those movies where the location, the countryside where the action takes place, is really a character in the story too: Glass must overcome not only hostile animals and humans, but a wild, beautiful, and unrelenting wilderness as well. This guy does a Bear Grylls nearly 200 years before Grylls was invented. The photography is absolutely stunning, particularly on the big screen, and deservedly won the Best Cinematography Oscar this year. It brought back floods of memories of my time years ago in Canada, when I travelled through similar scenery in British Columbia and Québec.
Hugh Glass is a real, historical character who actually did suffer a grizzly bear attack and had to struggle through the wilderness for days and weeks to reach safety. However, this film is more than just simply a fictionalised re-telling of part of his life. The movie operates at several different levels; partly it's a revenge flick, partly it's a "man versus wilderness" flick, partly it's about how the whites treated the native American Indians and how the Indians reacted, and also partly about the sometimes overlooked influence of the French in the early history of the US. Perhaps, right at the end, there is a hint of spiritual redemption too.
The direction is very good – the movie rightly won Inarritu the Best Director award at this year's Oscars. The editing is mostly good and to the point, the music soundtrack hits just the right atmosphere though it does sometimes telegraph the movie's punches, and the grim story moves along at an unrelenting pace towards the final confrontation. I have only two criticisms of it: First, its length. Although the film does not drag, I thought it could have been shortened a little, to everyone's satisfaction. Second, the incomprehensibility of much of the spoken dialogue. When the characters spoke English, they spoke in such mumbled, slurred, backwoods accents, I only understood about 50% (if that!) of what they said. When they mumbled or slurred in French or the native Indian language, this didn't matter because subtitles were used. I only wish subtitles had been used for the English language dialogue too.
Nevertheless, these are small criticisms. They detract but little from the awesome achievement of the director, cast and crew in this superb motion picture. If you have a strong stomach, don't miss it. My female companion and I both agreed on a star rating.
PS: Not long after I saw this film, I was in a doctor's surgery having some skin cancers cut out. The surgeon and I got talking about movies. He had recently seen "The Revenant" too. We both agreed that we liked the movie, then I commented on how awesome was the "bear mauling" scene. The surgeon said, "but when Leonardo DiCaprio sews himself up afterwards, Hollywood got it all wrong!" He then went into a total, technical analysis of the "sewing up" scene, complete with proper surgical terms and Latin names for all the body parts, explaining to me how Hollywood medically stuffed up that scene, and what should have really been done on screen! Of course, it was all double-Dutch to me, but it was so funny. He was so passionate about it. At the end, I just said, "Well, you obviously feel the same way about Hollywood's treatment of medical matters, that I, as an ex-lawyer, feel about Hollywood's treatment of court-room scenes!"
My star rating (out of 5): * * * * 1/2
Concert: Joe Camilleri and the Black Sorrows
I don't go to rock concerts much any more. I love the music but my ears can no longer stand modern amplification. I thought a Daryl Braithwaite concert last year had finished me off for good; great music, energetic performance, but ultra-killer amplification just about shattered my eardrums. So I was very wary when a friend asked if I was interested to see Joe Camilleri and the Black Sorrows recently on a Sunday afternoon at my local RSL club, here in Brisbane's bayside. I said yes, but with diffidence. Another rock music disaster in the making? This time, however, I went prepared: I took along a pair of industrial-strength ear muffs, as worn by jackhammer operators and leaf-blower owners. Would they work?
Joe and the Sorrows have, of course, been Aussie rock legends for yonks. Joe himself has been performing since the 1960s and is still going strong. A little older maybe (he is in his late 60s), much less hair, and probably more portly than he'd like to be, but boy, does he have the energy! Sometimes singing, sometimes playing guitar or his signature saxophone, he bounced around the stage like a 20-something rocker and had the audience, some 150 strong, in the palm of his hand. Gee, he worked hard. The Black Sorrows, four of them, were sedate by comparison, but know how to grind out the hard rock to fire up an audience. Great music from them all.
Sometimes, rock bands annoy audiences by only, or mainly, playing unknown songs from a new album they are plugging, while neglecting their old standards that the audience really want to hear. Not so with Joe and the Black Sorrows. Sure, there was some new material, but they also delighted one and all with many of their old classics – "Chained to the Wheel", "Harley and Rose", and "Shape I'm In", to name some. To shake up the mix a bit, they also threw in a few covers of other people's songs; Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee" set the place on fire, while their last number, their encore, was the Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction". All in all, a great selection.
Audiences at rock concerts are always interesting psychological studies. One half dances, the other half just sit and drink. One guy next to me didn't stir, or tap his feet, or do anything much throughout the entire concert, except drink. A couple, presumably husband-and-wife, on the other side of me, were a study in contrasts: he didn't move once, while she tapped her feet through the whole performance. She probably would have got up and danced if he had asked her, but he never did. Oh well, “there's nowt so queer as folk”, as my dear, late mother used to say.
Time is money, I guess, even in the rock industry. The show was advertised as starting at 4:30 PM and finishing at 6 PM. Joe and the boys started smack bang on 4-30 and concluded their one-and-only encore precisely at six o'clock. A punctual rock legend is, I imagine, a reliable rock legend, especially from the point of view of venue managers. It would never have happened like that back in the 1960s and 1970s, but I suppose things are different now in the cash-conscious, time-poor 2000s. Although I'm an old rocker, I rather like this change. It probably just shows I've become a BOF! (Work it out ...)
And as for my ear muffs? They reduced the killer bass amplification to a background rumble, while I could follow the rest of the music, and at least some of the lyrics, in relative comfort. I emerged from the concert with my hearing intact. So, they were a great success!
Maybe my live rock concert-going career is not yet quite over.
The Lady in the Van
This is another excellent offering from BBC Films. Not only excellent, but highly, highly enjoyable.
With a screenplay by well-known British playwright Alan Bennett, based on his hit West End play of the same name, which in turn was based on his own memoir, this movie is a slightly black comedy, tinged with some sadness, about old age and homelessness, and the reactions of comfortable, middle-class suburbia.
It is based on a true story which actually happened to Alan Bennett back in the 1970s and 1980s. An old, homeless lady, Mary Shepherd, living in a decrepit van, parked it in Alan Bennett's street in the leafy London suburb of Camden Town. When the local council threatened to move her on, Bennett offered Shepherd his driveway for just a few weeks until she got things sorted. She stayed there 15 years. Shepherd and Bennett became friends, in a slightly guarded and edgy sort of way, with him offering her help from time to time with things like shopping, and occasionally, the use of his bathroom.
The role of Bennett is played to perfection by Alex Jennings, an actor probably best known in Australia for his portrayal of Prince Charles in the excellent 2006 movie, "The Queen". Indeed, in make-up, the physical resemblance between Jennings and Bennett is quite remarkable. For the role of Mary Shepherd, complete with unwashed hair and the colourless, shapeless clothing favoured by the homeless, who else could play this role but the indomitable Maggie Smith? She had played the role in the West End stage play, and reprises it in this film. She is brilliant. We love her as the waspish Dowager Countess, queen of the put-down, in "Downton Abbey"; in "The Lady in the Van" she plays someone at the absolute opposite end of the social spectrum superbly.
While I reacted to the movie as a gentle, though edgy, comedy, it has its dark, serious side. Mary Shepherd is a cantankerous, argumentative, fiercely independent old woman. It's amazing she remained on relatively good terms with Alan Bennett for as long as she did. However, she has her demons: she is on the run from the police, she hates piano music despite her gifted childhood background as a brilliant pianist; and she once trained to be a nun. All these have wrought psychological damage on her. She also has a long-lost brother, who reveals much of her past to the curious and often exasperated Bennett.
The reactions to the old lady of Bennett's friends and neighbours are a fascinating theme of the movie, too. They are a well-off, liberal, arty lot, who tolerate Mary's presence amongst them with various degrees of acceptance. However, Bennett probably hits the nail on the head when he says, at one point in the film, they are only tolerant of her because she chose his driveway, not theirs. As the old lady ages and her health declines, she is reluctantly forced to accept some help from the social services people. Her death one night in the van comes as no surprise. I thought the film's treatment of her funeral – or at least, the very last scene at the funeral – was the movie's only weak point: too overwrought and over-the-top for a woman who was so, almost brutally, down-to-earth in her approach to life. This is a tiny criticism, though.
The movie is ably directed by acclaimed British director Nicholas Hytner, who directed the West End stage version also. It's not too long, being slightly under two hours. Just about perfect. The movie was actually shot in the London suburb where the real story happened, and Bennett's actual house was used in the filming.
The story of Mary Shepherd reminded me of a homeless man, Ziggy, famous in the Brisbane suburb of Toowong some years ago. For many years he lived on the footpath in the High Street in the middle of Toowong, rain, hail or shine, surrounded by the plastic bags and other bits and pieces of his solitary life. He was quite peaceful, everybody knew him, people accepted him and would often stop to talk to him and give him food parcels. I saw him many times, though I never had the opportunity to meet him. Back then, Toowong, too, could have been called a liberal, arty place, being right next door to the University of Queensland. Eventually, though, times changed and Ziggy was moved on. I believe he was ultimately taken in by a church refuge. I don't know what happened to him after that. As Alan Bennett has commented in recent interviews, we are probably not as tolerant anymore of the quirky, "alternative" lifestyle of the homeless. These days, we regard them as a problem to be cured or removed, not valued as remnants of a simpler, more basic way of life.
I hadn't thought of Ziggy for years, till I saw this movie. The film will probably do the same to you: charm, delight and entertain you, but awaken in you some unease at how we treat the less well-off in today's society. Don't let that stop you; this is an unmissable movie.
My star rating (out of five): * * * * 3/4