Wednesday, 28 July 2010

You've got a friend in me...

So, it's Pixar time again. Possibly the only studio (if they are a separare studio?) that can produce animated film after animated film which satisfies adults whilst pleasing children, and doesn't result to ridiculous, unfunny slapstick jokes. I don't think that there are any Pixar films that I actually dislike. Pixar was my first film love, and I feel lucky to have been able to grow up with their films.

Toy Story 3 is the latest offering. I'll have to confess that I wasn't actually as I excited about the third installment of what is probably one of my favourite movie franchises as much as I was about Up (2009). For me, Up was something special, which rarely comes along. Despite everyone saying Toy Story 3 was amazing, and the film even receving 5 stars from The Times, which is probably one of my most reliable sources, I still wondered why I wasn't that excited.

Due to a distinct lack of excitement, I wasn't disapointed. That's not to say I was enthralled either, but at least it wasn't like a second episode of Nine (2009). Now that was one of the biggest disapointments ever.

I believe that Pixar are now curtailing the franchise, which is a good thing, to end it before it becomes tired and no one wants to see it anymore. I do feel a little annoyed everytime I see a poster for the fourth Shrek film, which no one needs.

So, back to Toy Story 3. The plot centres around Andy heading off to college, and what becomes of his toys as a result of this. He plans to store them in the attic, but unfortunately his Mum accidentally takes them to a day nursery. It is up to Woody to lead their escape, which culminates in them finding their way back to Andy's house. Overall, the action was enjoyable, with many of the little, special nuances that only Pixar could get right. For instance, the teddy bear being attatched to the rubbish truck in the same way that Stinky Pete was stowed into the pocket of the girl's rucksack in Toy Story 2, and the way that Woody and the gang are able to overcome anything.

Unfortunately, the plot was a little predictable, although the ending very moving. I think that may be an age thing, though, what with it being the time in my life when I too am thinking about moving on. The animation, though, was spot on as usual, and the humour good and never seeming forced.

I do love Joan Cusack's voice acting as Jessie, it never seems contrived, and as a fan I can instantly hear her unique tones. I think Jessie is my favourite character, after all my own Jessie doll still sitsa proudly on my bookshelves.

On the whole, it was great to relive my childhood, and to see how Pixar have managed yet again to create a good piece of entertainment. Sadly, I'm pretty sure it will not be Oscar-callibre in the way that Up was, but nevertheless it was a wonderful way to spend an hour and a half. For this reason, I've decided to rate the film at 76/100. Toy Story 2 is still my favourite of the three films.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Love changes everything...

After four days in Bath, Inception the next day, then walking over 84 miles in 6 days, there was onyl one remedy. Of course, I went to the theatre. The show in question was "Aspects of Love". Now, though, after 11 days of constant activity, all I could do today was write my review and listen to the cast recording of the wonderful German musical, "Tanz der Vampire". Luckily, I now have three weeks before I go on holiday to relax. Not that I am ever physically able to relax, but you know what I mean. For now, here is my review of "Aspects of Love":

Trevor Nunn’s revival of “Aspects of Love” is the latest musical revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Anyone who knows me and my theatre obsession well will also know that the Menier is my favourite Off-West End theatre, and that I try and see as many of their productions as possible. I am not a fan of Andrew Lloyd-Webber by any means, but after consulting the opinions of several trusted acquaintances and listening to a few songs, I came to the conclusion that the score of “Aspects of Love” is probably one of his best scores. It is also very repetitive, like many of his other scores, but this one seems to have several layers, and reflects the simple, contemplative nature of the piece.

I am less keen on the lyrics, by Charles Hart and Don Black. It is still a mystery to me as to how love can change your hands, and I did spend a long time last night wondering how Sondheim would have written the lyrics. I’m confident that he wouldn’t have written that love changes your hands. What I’m trying to say here is that, whilst the lyrics are passable, they are nothing special. What they do succeed in doing, though, is telling a story; even if it is spelt out in as slow a way as possible.

The musical is adapted from the novel by David Garnett. I haven’t read the novel, but I quite want to now. The plot of the musical is simple: it focuses on Alex Dillingham, who falls in love with Rose Vibert, a French actress who is older than him. He invites her back to his uncle’s villa, without his permission. As they begin to fall in love, Alex’s uncle, George, unexpectedly arrives. This is where it becomes complicated, because Rose also falls in love with him. Later, she claims she has to leave, so Alex goes off and joins the army. When he returns two years later, he finds out that Rose has married his uncle. They go on to have a daughter, Jenny, who ends up falling in love with Alex. At the same time, George has an Italian mistress called Giuelletta, and Rose a lover called Hugo. All in all, the plot actually seems less complicated than it does here, because it is very drawn out. The musical is almost sung through, although there are several snatches of dialogue, which breaks it up a bit.

Overall, Act One was quite boring. It seemed to go on forever, with not much happening. It was difficult to learn anything about the characters, and impossible to gain an understanding of why they were acting this way. By contrast, Act Two seemed jam packed and almost too quick. The ending was good, because it did leave some questions in my mind, which is what I like. My consensus was that the production was very good overall, it is more flaws in the material which let it down.

The production reminded me of last year’s West End production of “Sunset Boulevard”, which, like “Aspects of Love”, was a minimalist version compared to the original productions. What “Sunset Boulevard” had that “Aspects of Love” lacked, for me, were characters which drew you in and made you really empathise and care about them, partly why I couldn’t rate this production as high as I thought I would be able to.

Trevor Nunn is one of my favourite directors. I know many people say that his productions are too slow and drawn out, but what they forget is that the pieces he choose usually lend themselves particularly to this. I thought that the direction was very good, fitting into the space well and drawing out aspects of the story. I obviously didn’t see the original production, because it closed two years before I was born, but am now wishing that I had done, because Nunn also directed this production, and it would be interesting to compare the two. I know that the original production was at the Prince of Wales in the West End, which is very large, although the piece was originally intended as a chamber musical, so it must have been wonderful to finally do it in this way. It was also clear that he had done a lot of text work with the cast, because they seemed to really feel many of the lyrics and convey emotion through them.

The set design was quirky, remaining the same throughout the production, but designed so that it could adapt to all of the scenes well. The screen in the centre of the stage was perhaps unnecessary – did we really need to see mocked up photographs of the characters when they were on stage? I sort of wish that it hadn’t been there because it wasn’t fitting with the period the piece is set in, and was a minor distraction. The rest of the set was dragged on noisily for each scene, usually by the ensemble, because the way the layout of the Menier had been changed and they way the backdrop curved round into the wings meant that tracks couldn’t be used. This was distracting, and there were quite a few long blackouts where it was just the orchestra playing. This wasn’t necessarily a problem, but would almost definitely be changed should the production transfer to the West End or beyond.

I had no idea about the plot or the characters prior to seeing the show. The only thing I really knew, other than who the composer and the director were, was that Sarah Brightman and Michael Ball had originated the two leading roles. With Brightman originating the role of Rose, I thought that the part would mainly focus on singing, and that there wouldn’t be much of a character for the actress to become, since Brightman was not rated particularly highly for her acting abilities (the fact she receive no Tony nomination for “The Phantom of the Opera” when her co-star did and the show was set to dominate is another tell-tale sign of this). However, I have since learnt that the character of Rose Vibert is complex, and difficult to pull off. Katherine Kingsley, last seen in “The 39 Steps”, did this well, although sometimes her acting was too over the top for such a small space. I didn’t really empathise with her that much, not even at the end when she was left with nothing.

When I heard that the Menier would be reviving “Aspects of Love”, I sort of hoped that Ruthie Henshall and Julian Ovenden would be cast as Rose and Alex respectively, reuniting my favourite on-stage couple, who I saw in Marguerite. With Ruthie currently on the Great White Way in “Chicago”, this was never going to happen, but at times, Kingsley really did remind me of her, both facially, in her build and through her acting.

Alex was played by Michael Arden, who wasn’t as attractive as Julian, but was definitely in the same league from a talent point of view as him. He had great stage presence, despite playing Alex very shyly in contrast to Kingsley’s Rose. At several points during the show I felt as though he was looking at me directly (I was sitting on the central aisle of the second row, so he was at my eye height), and my Dad commented on this afterwards, which made me realise that it wasn’t just me.

Overall, the two leads had good chemistry, and throughout I felt as though it was their story, and that the other characters were what they were – supporting characters. I very much enjoyed Dave Willetts’ performance as George, since I his performance as Max von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard last year was one of my favourite performances of the year. Yet again he was one of the highlights of the show, conveying a subtle maturity and understanding. Even when his character was silent, he managed to draw my attention to him.

The ensemble were very good, despite having a lot less stage time than I suspect they would have had in the original, more flamboyant production. They only had one opportunity to dance, which was in Act Two, and this was a welcome occasion to break up the show a bit. The rest of the cast playing named characters were nothing special, their performances were good but by no means outstanding. It is worth noting, though, that Dominic Tighe, who used to be a member of the classical group Blake, played the role of Hugo, Rose’s lover, showing that he is obviously serious about pursuing a theatre career as opposed to a singing career.

Overall, I don’t feel disappointed, because everyone who I spoke to prior to seeing the show told me that it is essentially a flawed show. After Paradise Found, anything was going to be an improvement, and I’m glad that the Menier is back to producing productions of a really high quality. I’ve only given the production three and a half stars, because whilst it was good and even great in most ways, it just lacked something special that could have made me give it more.

To conclude, one of my childhood illusions was shattered yesterday. I always believed knife-throwing to be real, and that the person on the target could be seriously injured if it went wrong. During the knife throwing in the show, as part of the circus scene, I tensed every time a knife was thrown. Afterwards, my Dad told me that the knives were not actually being thrown at all – the actor was flicking them down his sleeve, and a knife was simply popping out of the board. So for my whole life I had believed that someone could be seriously injured, when all the time it was just a joke!

3.5 Stars

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The screen? It's quite big...

As a matter of fact, the screen in the London South Bank IMAX is the biggest screen in the country. It was my first time at the IMAX today, and an excellent chance to see a film in crystal clear detail. The only problem witht eh size of the screen though, was that it was impossible to look at everything at once. Other than that, though, there were no problems at all. It also has to be noted how comfortable the seats were, and also how well behaved the audience was. It's been ages since the last time I was in a completely full cinema, but there were no people talking, or rustling, or using their mobile phones anywhere near me, which was very refreshing to see.

I know it's comments like this that make me seem really old, in a bad way, but little things like this are important.

The film my family and I saw was Inception. I had been looking forward to this for over a year, eve rsicne I read the final details on casting. For once, unlike the Nine (2009) disaster, all my expectations were met, and some were even surpassed, hence why I've given the film 96/100.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception centres around the concept of creating a new world through dreaming. After being enthralled by one of Nolan's earlier pieces of work, The Prestige (2006), which is another intelligent concept thriller, which is importantly also character driven, I was expecting more of the same standard, and was not disapointed. The ending was of course a final twist which ties everything together for the viewer. Much of the cinematography was also the same as The Prestige, and the special effects were good - there were not too much, and all served a purpose, it wasn't just a case of the CGI people seeing how many explosions they can cram into one film.

The Dark Knight (2008), another film by the same director, is fairly violent for something rated 12A. Luckily, Inception was less violent, and was not set as darkly at The Dark Knight,amking for much easier watching. The script was excellent, because it moved the story along and ensured that I never became bored. Many articles in the press claimed how ahrd the plot was to follow/understand, even comparing it to The Matrix, but it was actually easier to follow/understand than The Prestige.

Now, I can finally talk about the cast that I was so excited about. Having graduated to watching more serious films through Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in Titanic (1997), his is a career that I've always been interested in following. Although his character was similar to some of the characters that he's played before, he still carried the film and delivered an engaging performance. He managed to play a character who didn't understand himself very convincingly, which is probably difficult, because an actor interpreting a role would obviously understand their character, so to convey that was really quite an achievement.

Marion Cotillard as the wife of Leo's character was stunning in what little screen time she had. When I watched La Vie en Rose (2007), I hated everything about the film, except for her performance, and she quickly became one of my favourite French actresses. There was this one scene, in Inception, where her feeling of desperation just connected with me, and really made me feel for her.

Of the ensemble cast, the two real standouts were in Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two quirky young actors. Whilst Page tends to play a lot of similar roles, she does play them well, and I always seem to be able to relate to her characters.

So far, I've only seen three 2010 films, and it's over halfway through the year. Of the three I've seen, I can firmly say that Inception has been the best by a long way, and will have a good shot at the Oscars, although the July release may hinder this a little.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

There are giants in the sky...

My new favourite song from "Into the Woods". It's hard to believe that I have never seen a Sondheim musical on stage, ever, despite knowing Sweeny Todd, Gypsy, Into the Woods and Assasins off by heart, and being the owner of a well thumbed copy of an excellent biography. This year is, of course, his eightieth birthday, so I'm pleased that I will be seeing "Into the Woods" at one of my favourite theatres. The theatre in question is Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, and we're seeing the show the Saturday after I've found out my GCSE results.

If my results are as good as I hope, it will be a really great way of celebrating. If they're not, it'll be a way of consoling myself. As of today, it's only 45 days until results day.

This summer is the second longest summer of my life. The longest will be the summer after A Levels, which will hopefully precede university. So far, I haven't actually become bored, and I don't think I will. I organised my bookshelves today, and realised that I have 48 books that I haven't yet read, and there were also a further 15 books that I've borrowed from various people and libraries, all of which are unopened. Several of these are Moliere, though, which is a very daunting task, considering they are in French, with no translations. I'm looking forward to reading as many of these books as possible, and watching the eighteen DVDs which are still in their cellophane. I've recently got an Amazon account, and whilst the six French and German grammar books were brought with good intent, it's another thing to actually start using them productively.

Sigh. It's so hot at the moment, over 30 degrees. The title of the post of course refers to the song. Whenever I'm nervous, or feel alone, for some reason I always remind myself that there are giants in the sky. The lyric "you wish that you could live in between" has to be one of my many favourite Sondheim lyrics. I do wish I could live in between, though I'm not quite sure what I want to live in between. Could it be my lovely yet slightly dull life at home, and the glittering future life I imagine myself having? Or could it be between my life, and the life I want to have? Regarding the latter, my life actually seems amazing at the moment, I'm just so happy with everything.

I will now head back to daydream land, probably to climb the beanstalk with Jack. It's most unlike me to post a blog like this, my posts have lately become rather personal, and I have no idea why!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Reflection...

...is of course the title of the Disney song which I feel resonates most powefully with me at this time in my life. The song, from Mulan, communicates precisely how a young woman can feel as though she is never good enough for anyone else, and how she feels unable to be herself and has realised that people do not see who she really is from the outside. This is exactly how I feel at certain times. Alan Menken just has a gift of writing songs about female angst, which can either be taken at face value, or analysed deeply, my other favourites being "Part of Your World" from "The Little Mermaid" and "Somewhere that's Green" from "Little Shop of Horrors".

I have just become completely sidetracked by the wonderful world of Alan Menken. The title was actually meant to refer to the week long work experience exchange to France that I have just taken part in. I was going to post a daily diary, but I realised how boring that would be for anyone else except myself to read. Considering also that my trip diary currently stands at about forty handwritten notebook pages, it's better for mine, and everyone else's, sanity just to summarise here the main things I've learnt from the trip. That's not to say my full trip diary won't be compulsory reading for a few, very lucky people.


Reflections:

I feel as though I've learnt many things about the language which I would never have learnt simply by studying at school. There is quite a difference between written French and spoken French, and there are very obvious differing degrees of formality, a lot more so than I would say there were in English. For instance, I regularly heard the subjunctive whilst on my placement at the town hall, but less formal conversations usually omitted the "ne" when using a negative, and often considered mainly of short, one sentence answers.

I was actually a lot better at speaking than I thought I would be. Okay, I did get several genders wrong, but then there is no equivalent to this in English. I also finally learnt when to use the imperfect/perfect tenses, and am hopeful that my previously laughable pronounciation has improved. I assume it has, because I managed to convince a man on the ferry home that I was French.

I think I have now found a new motivation for French. Prior to this trip, I was leaning so heavily towards German, but now, for the first time, I think that the two langauges are balanced in my mind, if that makes any sense at all. French sounds so lovely when it's spoken, and the intonation isn't as hard as I thought. I'm still not quite sure how to intone annoyance, but I'm sure that will follow sometime in the future.

Aside from the language side, I've also learnt many cultural things. It saddened me that the majority of the films showing in the cinema were dubbed American films, when French cinema has some of the most inspiring, unique offerings that I have ever seen. I was allowed to choose the film, so I chose the only French film showing, which, funnily enough, had received the highest critical acclaim. This situation is similar to in Britain, where there are usually a dozen or so imported, monotonously repetitive Hollywood comedies for every British/independent film.

Many of the celebrities in the magazines I read were also American or British, although I did learn a fair bit about the French socialite scene. I also noticed the complete lack of WAGs in the press, which was nice to see. I seriously question why the British press has had such a long term infatuation with such a pointless group of people.

I was also lucky enough to attend an open air theatre festival in Rouen. The amazing Hamlet in 30 minutes spoof really made me realise the true, worldwide significance of Shakespeare. I actually understood pretty much all of the spoof, mainly due to my knowledge of the play, which was a very satisfying feeling.

During my placement, which was at a town hall, the main thing I learnt was how much more important a town hall is in France than in England. This is also where I learnt the majority of my new vocabulary.

Another important observation I made was that the pace of life in France is generally slower than it is in England. At home, I tend to sprint from one activity to another, but I actually quite enjoyed the prolonged meal times and the sitting around waiting for things to happen.

When I was in Rouen, late at night, most caf├ęs were still buzzing, but I saw no drunk people on the street corners, a stark constrast to being in London at the same time. It's also different how most people tended to stay up late, then get up late in the morning. Usually I do the opposite of this, so it's currently proving quite difficult to get back into my old routine.

Overall, I feel that I have grown as a person during the short time that I've spent in France, not only have I improved my language skills, but have also gained a greater degree of self confidence, both in myself and in my abilities. I am sincerely hoping that the offer of a return visit will be taken up....


Final note:

I mustn't forget that I am extremely delighted to have amassed three followers. It's really nice to know that people are actually reading this blog, and that I may actually have something worthwhile to say. I'm also very happy with the new template I've decided to use, for it definitely reflects my personality more than the old, boring pink one.