Sunday 30 October 2016

Inferno - Film Review

What: Inferno
Directed by: Ron Howard
Cast Includes: Ben Foster, Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy, and Ana Ularu

Inferno is the third movie installment of the Dan Brown books centred around the character of Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) - the previous installments including The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. In my opinion this is the least successful of the three movies both in terms of content and cinematography.

I usually don't begin by talking about the mechanical aspects of entertainment, but with this film the cinematographic techniques employed by Howard are central to both its construct and themes. In many ways, this is one of the cleverest constructions I have seen in film making. The themes of the story and the book work around the question of illusion and understanding, and Howard has chosen to construct the film around the very modern concept of the affective turn. Modern philosophy questions our relationship to the representational and questions the relationship between the real and the virtual world. Following on from the theories of phenomenology, affect is about exciting visceral responses which inform us about our world as non-representational knowledge. In other words we feel it, we don't think it.

To engage feeling over thought, Howard has tried to immerse our senses in the confusion Langdon feels by cutting scenes in a temporally ad hoc continuum, blurring images, shifting the colour palette out of the realistic and condensing and elongating time. He uses sound to excite and surprise and muffle and amplify. These techniques are masterfully applied, but in the end they obfuscate the journey for the audience rather than allowing the mind to engage in the puzzle.

Let's face it, you read a Dan Brown book, or see a Dan Brown film because you want to solve a puzzle. Audiences who follow Dan Brown are the same ones who follow National Treasure and Tom Clancy stories. These people want to engage their intellect and want permission to feel smart at the end. By disengaging the frontal cortex Howard has alienated the very audience he has courted with choice of material.

Having said that, Inferno is not Dan Brown's best effort either. It lacks the accessibility of content and complexity of puzzle solving which made The Da Vinci Code so exhilerating. Angels and Demons also failed to excite the intellect to the same level, but for me Inferno falls even shorter.

Interestingly, there are layers to Howard's film which would have added to the intellectual intrigue had the film been more accessible. Inferno rests on Dante Allighieri's epic poem Commedia (The Divine Comedy as it is now known). Inferno is the first of three stages - Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Inferno is Dante's journey through hell, Purgatorio is the place for repentant souls, and Paradiso is heaven. Although titled Inferno, Langdon metaphorically travels through all the spheres in this story.

Time is a hugely important construct for Dante's journey, and Brown has cleverly brought in the more modern concept of the Doomsday Clock as an allegory. The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 to measure how close the world was to nuclear annihilation. It has more recently been co-opted as a measure of how close humanity is to extinction through global warming and overpopulation.

The premise is that billionaire bioscientist Zobrist (Foster) is in a panic and places the clock at 1 second to midnight. As such he poses the moral dilemma - is it better to kill half the population to save the rest or allow all of humanity to die? He makes his choice and sets events in motion.

Many layers of activity are in play as Foster enacts his plans. The World Health Organisation (WHO) try and stop him and Langdon tries to figure out who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and how to save the world. Layer after layer after layer of sin and repentance are stripped bare as Langdon (as Dante) travels this convoluted path.

One of the great strengths of the story, if not the film, is the unanswerable moral question of who is doing the right thing. Is Zobrist right? Is WHO right? Who do we follow?

One of the disappointments in the film involves Howard changing the ending. As with all Hollywood product there has to be a happy ending, and there has to be good guys and bad guys so Hanks saves the world as we know he will. The book is not so clear cut however, and follows Dante's own questioning of good and evil. The outcome is more surprising - and more realistic and terrifying.

There are wonderful little nods to Dante including his enchantment with Beatrice and her journey with him through Paradiso. Langdon and Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen) mirror the courtly love of the real Dante and Beatrice, and the temperance discovered in Paradiso. In simple terms, Zobrist represents the punishment and indulgence of Inferno and Dr Brooks (Jones) embodies the Purgatorio as a love with improper ends. I really enjoyed Khan's portrayal of Sims as the repentant soul. Khan is great in anything of course...

In the end, I think it is probably better to read the book than see the movie. You won't get what you came to see in the cinema and whilst I applaud what Howard has done as a movie innovator, it won't satisfy any fans of the author, the actors, or even of Howard himself because it is so different to everything else done before. This is one of those instances where innovation is detrimental to the project.

2 Stars

Thursday 20 October 2016

Scotch & Soda - Circus Review

What: Scotch & Soda
Where: Wonderland Spiegeltent
When: 12-23 October
Performed by: Company 2 and The Uncanny Carnival Band

Photo courtesy of Encore PR

Is that a sporan under your kilt or are you just pleased to see me? You are guaranteed to have some of the best fun you've had in your life finding out the answer to this question and more when you go and see Scotch & Soda at Wonderland Spiegeltent.

Scotch & Soda is a circus experience which has been created with an irresistible sense of fun and it has more shock and awe and delight than finding out who shot JR. It is an hour and a half of non-stop, rollicking silliness and virtuosity delivered with the insouciance and unpredictability of a rowdy night in a whisky bar in Louisiana during Mardi Gras.

Technically you can get up at any point to get a drink throughout the show but I confess I couldn't bare to take my eyes off the stage for long enough to take advantage of the real bar. This is a big statement because those who know me understand scotch whiskey and I have a long and loving association and it takes a lot to keep us apart. My advice is to buy a couple of drinks before the start so you don't have to get up...

I am glad I chose the show over the drink though, because I would hate to have missed even a second of what is one of the most original circus shows I have seen in a long time. Company 2 have joined forces with the Uncanny Carnival Band for this night of hypnotic bar room jazz and death defying feats of strength and daring, but to be honest they work so well and seamlessly together it is as if they have always been partners.

One of the things I truly loved about this show was exactly this synergy and the parataxis of the elements. The musicians understand the form and intrinsic intention of circus as well as the circus artists and - apart from being some of the best jazz musicians I have heard - the way the playing and the music are arranged and integrated into the performance meant I was as entranced by the double bass as I was by the aerial trapeze. Given that I spent the entire show switching between open mouthed surprise, gut wrenching laughter, and awe struck amazement this is really saying something about everyone involved.

The originality of the work was also amazing. The show was full of things I haven't seen before. It is really hard for me to pick out anything because it was all so good but if you think you know Chinese Pole you will be in for a big surprise!

Just like a drunk night with friends, the show is full of hilarious oneupmanship, intriguing adventures in the outhouse, the revelation of undergarments which should never see the light of day, and relationship dramas of the most unexpected sort! Prepare to laugh and scream and gasp and hoot along with the performers as they draw you into their night of revelry and mania.

Scotch & Soda really is some of the most fun you will have and it will remind you of why people used to run away with the circus in the good old days. I wanted to run away with this bunch by the end. Whiskey, Jazz, and non-stop feats of amazement. Who could ask for more?

5 Stars

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Waiting For Waiting For Godot - Theatre Review

What: Waiting For Waiting For Godot
Where: Kindred Studios
When: 29 September - 2 October
Written by: Nicholas Lah
Directed by: Gabrielle Savrone
Performed by: Salman Arif, , Nichola Jayne, Nicholas Lah, and Izzy Sumers

Izzy Sumers and Nicholas Lah - image courtesy of Nicholas Lah

Waiting for Waiting for Godot is a new play written by Lah and being performed as part of this year's Melbourne Fringe Festival. It is being presented at Kindred Studios in Footscray, which is a wonderful choice because of the unusual height of that stage which had the possibility to echo the scope and scale of libraries across time, and the existential properties of the mind.

Of course, none of this matters because Waiting for Waiting for Godot has absolutely nothing to do with Beckett, or existentialism, or... well anything of significance really. It is a play about a man trying find a copy of the Beckett and supposedly being thwarted at every turn. 

Except that is not true. In the third scene his friend calls to say she has the book and he can come over to  pick it up. Of course, if that had happened there would be no play. It should have happened.

Lah apparently wrote this play after a few days of frustration trying to get a copy of the Beckett from a library. The publicity says 'don't worry if you haven't read it, neither has the playwright'. It shows. 

Apart from the inherent misrepresentation of using Waiting for Godot in the title, perhaps if Lah was better at researching he would have realised a play by this name already exists. In 2013 Dave Hanson's Waiting for Waiting for Godot appeared in the New York Fringe and at the same time as Lah's play was being staged, a production of the Hanson play was being performed in England. I wish I had gone to England.

Waiting for Waiting for Godot is apparently Lah's first full length play, but I think he might be a bit confused about what a full length play actually is. The show barely lasts forty very long minutes, but it also seems to just stop - mainly because there is just not enough content. 

Savrone has fleshed the ending out with a nightmarish dance scene with a blow up doll - an homage to a psychotic episode to give the play some lift and depth, but at the end I literally had to ask another audience member if it was over. I was glad the answer was yes. In Savrone's defense, she did take over the project after Lah's original director pulled out.

This play has no content, poor character detail, and really appalling dialogue. The actors do their best to create some sort of dynamic but only Jayne seems to have the experience to work with such poor material, and everyone is hampered by Lah's inability to act. Perhaps if he had the foresight to stay off the stage he would have seen the problems with the script during rehearsal...

Savrone has worked hard to give this show life, but this whole venture is a dead man walking. Savrone does try to develop archetypes and physicality with the actors which helped keep me awake but I did question the decision to not use Jayne in the final psychosis scene when Lah dances with the dummy. It would have provided some humour and suggest some kind of cognitive thought if she was able to react within this nightmare.

I was also disappointed Savrone used the book shelves to close off that magnificent stage when it was so evocative of a great chasm - psychic or real. I suspect working in the smaller space of The Owl and Cat has developed her instincts to create intimate theatre which means she missed the opportunity to open this play up. A large space can be daunting.

I really have nothing good to say about Lah's work on either the page or the stage. Jayne has skills and Savrone almost manages to save the show to at least a vestige of watchability, but in the end trimming your mum's toenails would be more exciting than seeing this show.

0 stars

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