Saturday, 16 April 2016

Basia Bulat, Sunset Blvd: The Musical, and confessions of a completist - Reviews #233

I've been out of the flat a bit. See:


Photo by me, can you tell?

Basia Bulat (Hoxton Square Kitchen) - Since I last saw her properly a year ago, giving my favourite live performance of 2015, Polish-Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat has undergone a quite startling transformation. There were hints of it in the Rough Trade mini-gig she did in February: a strident, rocky performance of songs from her new record, Good Advice, somewhat removed from that earlier folksy set played chiefly on the autoharp. Nothing prepared for me this, though: the whispery, wispy, baby-faced Bulat reincarnated as a power-pop diva in a gold cape, charisma bursting from her, as she belted out crowd-pleasers from behind a keyboard, like some improbable, magnificent union between Janis Joplin and Carly Simon.

Across the 90-minute show, and backed by her Canadian band (comprising support act The Weather Station and a bonus lead guitarist) she played six instruments on songs from the past 11 years, her voice everything from a sweet seduction to a tortured wail, including a stomping dance version of Let Me In (first heard as a Leonard Cohen-esque ballad last year), Fool - with its smooth falsetto replaced by a new arrangement that allows her to vocalise over a full band) - and, best of all, a Springsteen-like version of Five, Four, last heard as a faintly neurotic folk song. Between, there were autoharp versions of four beloved Bulat standards, including In the Night and Heart of My Own, the pop explosion that is Tall, Tall Shadow (title song of her 2013 record) and persuasive renderings of the hopeful Someday Soon and the furious, self-mocking La La Lie, two of the best songs from her current album.

The only track that didn't quite land was Good Advice, partly because of some sound problems at the venue, and partly because it's the least interesting song on her current LP. The encore - It Can't Be You played on a ukulele - was familiar, but little else about this show was, aside from its sheer mindblowing quality. With Yasmine Hamdan, she must be the best and friendliest live act around. (She also had an adorable smear of lipstick on her cheek for the entire show - marry me now, Basia.) (4)

SUPPORT: The Weather Station were happily in that 5% of support acts who are really good, particularly singer and guitarist Tamara Linderman (who sang backing vocals for Basia). They sound like a compact Canadian Fairport, though the songs I liked best were the stripped-down ones using Linderman's ethereal voice to full effect. Their less conventional elements are, unusually, also the less successful. (3)


Sunset Blvd. (London Coliseum) - A good first half gives way to a sensational second in this headline-grabbing revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical (based, of course, on Billy Wilder's seminal 1950 movie), which features Glenn Close in the role that won her a Tony and made her a musical star: Wilder's repulsive, tragic silent movie queen, Norma Desmond. Close is merely OK, struggling (literally) to hit the high notes or wring much of the implicit pathos from the role, but the 48-piece on-stage orchestra creates a sensational sound as it brings to life some of Lloyd Webber's most exquisite, affecting melodies, and both Michael Xavier (as Joe) and Siobhan Dillon (as Betty) are superb, Xavier articulating the character's inner conflict and broiling self-loathing in a way that I snobbishly thought might be beyond a West End musical star, while vocalising the numbers impeccably and looking terrific in a little pair of swimming shorts. There's a nice performance from Fred Johanson too, as Max, Desmond's imposing, unhappy butler.

Lonny Price's staging is imaginative, while relying on the imagination - consisting primarily of a metal gantry with two staircases and platforms - and I particularly liked both the use of archive LA footage (beamed onto a translucent screen) and, less obviously, the 'car chase' effect, which consisted of two people running down the steps in the semi-darkness, each holding torches in both hands (they never got around the second problem, though, which is that when they're 'parking' at the back of the stage, they just look like two men with their backs to the audience). A minor shortcoming of the musical adaptation is that Christopher Hampton's rhyming lyrics lack the bitter, sardonic poetry of Wilder's dialogue (some of which remains intact), while the recurring motif - while sumptuous - is perhaps ultimately overused. On the whole, though, I found the show hugely entertaining: a richly atmospheric evocation of Hollywood malaise, immersive, periodically exuberant and ultimately triumphant, if not quite for the reasons I expected. (3.5)


The Caretaker (The Old Vic) - I'm not a massive admirer of Harold Pinter's work: his way of writing (just start and you can figure out what it means later, or else not bother and just wait for critics to admiringly tell you) may have heralded a new type of theatre, but what if that type of theatre was a bit, you know, shit? Having said that, I can't watch The Servant - the 1962 Joseph Losey film written by Pinter - without being irredeemably sucked into its psycho-sexual confrontation of class politics, and much of that brilliance is to be found in the text, and between and underneath its abrasive lines.

I thought I'd see The Caretaker for my birthday though, as I like Timothy Spall, and his performance in Secrets & Lies (which I finally saw last year) has stayed with me like little else. Sadly this interminable production is one of the worst I've seen since I started regularly going to West End shows a couple of years ago. The second act provided its fair share of pathos and comic discomfort, thanks chiefly to George MacKay's barking, aggressive, leather-jacketed Pinter surrogate, though Daniel Mays' monologue at the close was extremely well received. Spall was dreadful, though, torpedoing the majority of the play with a single grating, borderline-unlistenable affectation of a line delivery that made me pray for the show to finish.

Three hours it lasts, including two intervals: that's a long time to be incredibly irritated. (1.5)



What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) - Two of Hollywood's greatest actresses together at last: Bette Davis and Anna Lee. Joan Crawford's in it too.

Robert Aldrich's deliriously nasty Gothic thriller has Hollywood in its bones, and Hollywood stars in their element. As film historians have observed before, Davis's persona was as the great sadist, Crawford's the great masochist, and their roles here are tailored perfectly to their mismatched talents: Bette as ghost-faced former child star, Baby Jane Hudson, who has recently gone mad and taken to persecuting her sister, crippled Golden Age legend, Blanche (Crawford). Lee - who gave three of my favourite performances, in Ford's How Green Was My Valley, Lewton's Bedlam and Fuller's Crimson Kimono - is rather underutilised, though perfectly fine, as their solidly suburban neighbour, while big-boned Victor Buono plays Bette's new musical collaborator with an agreeably repellent, sickly charm, though also quite a bad English accent.

After a masterful prologue (magnificently utilising footage from Davis's most loathed studio potboiler, Parachute Jumper), Aldrich tips us into a rotting mansion, where Davis proceeds to isolate, starve and generally terrify her big-browed nemesis - and if that manifestation of the stars mutual dislike is rather fanciful, the animosity itself was genuine. No two stars ever took bigger lumps out of another than these two (except perhaps for Tom Neal when he kicked Franchot Tone's head in), with the mercurial, sometimes monstrous Davis memorably dubbing her bed-hopping rival, "The original good time that was had by all."

I'm not sure that Aldrich's celebrated, trendsetting and meticulously well-directed film necessarily delivers on all of its early promise, as its story settles into a slightly repetitive rhythm, but it has many passages of nerve-shredding tension, some big dollops of pitch black comedy and two stars in fantastic form. I'm not generally a fan of Crawford, but there's no faulting her work here - she had, as the meme goes, one job, and did it very well - while Bette, that little black love heart on her blanched face, is in simply rampaging form, playing the last word in difficult siblings, though not one without an extremely latent sentimental side. (3.5)


La peau douce (François Truffaut, 1964) - Frustrated author Jean Desailly, bored with wife Nelly Benedetti, begins an affair with an air-hostess (Françoise Dorléac), and - worried about being unmasked - proceeds to make some foolish decisions.

It's Brief Encounter meets The Third Man, with nouvelle vague flourishes, fragments of Truffaut's own philosophy and some Hitchcockian suspense: note how the director immediately pitches us into a heart-stopping sequence that we really shouldn't care about, just as he'd envisaged when he spoke to Hitchcock about this very subject in 1962.

The film, Truffaut's fourth, was a critical and commercial failure upon release, with him lamenting that it had been too cold and unsentimental, with a protagonist no-one could care for, but it's full of great details (like Dorléac distractingly examining her reflection in a table knife), fine location flavour (a break-up on a Parisian rooftop!) and intuitive, intelligent female characters.

I'd class myself as a big fan of the director, but I don't think he actually made that many great films: acclaimed movies like Jules et Jim, Anne and Muriel, and The Last Metro leave me cold. This one, though, is mature, intriguing and quite brilliantly directed, if not exactly likeable.

Does the end fit the rest of it? I'm not sure. It's bloody good, though. (3)


Kiss and Make-Up (Harlan Thompson, 1934) - This plays almost like a parody of 1930s cinema, with white art deco sets, stylish wipes and an abundance of slightly stilted chorine types with fixed smiles, singsong voices and few clothes. Those bit parts are played by the entire roster of the 1934 WAMPAS Baby Stars, but unlike Clara Bow and Dorothy Mackaill (1924), Mary Astor, Mary Brian, Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray (1926), and Joan Blondell, Constance Cummings, Frances Dee, Rochelle Hudson and Karen Morley (1931), none of this bunch would go on to major stardom: 1934 was the most fallow crop, and the last.

Kiss and Make-Up is a bit sexist, a bit racist and a bit silly, concluding with an idiotic, pointless slapstick chase. But it's also surprisingly funny and full of novelties: slick, mobile direction, Edward Everett Horton and Helen Mack singing a duet about cabbage, and a neat POV opening where you get to be Cary Grant.

The story is that old chestnut - done best in Capra's Platinum Blonde - about a professional (beautician Grant) who loves a boring, shallow woman (his Galatea, Genevieve Tobin), not realising that he should be with his doting, lovelorn secretary. It would be a bit less disingenuous if Hollywood itself didn't routinely prize beauty over character, and the secretary was relatively unattractive, rather than a brunette Helen Mack.

Cary Grant only really became Cary Grant with Leo McCarey's hysterical 1937 film, The Awful Truth, one of the funniest movies ever made, but this is probably the closest he came before that, and it's definitely among his best early performances, with an easy charm, an aloof, offhand wryness even when the joke is very much on him, and even a couple of tuneful performances of the song, Love Divided by Two.

The best thing about the film, though, even acknowledging its attractive look and above-average dialogue, is Horton, who is at the peak of his powers: the scene between him and Grant in Tobin's room is genuinely hilarious. (3)


Sherlock Holmes (Albert Parker, 1922) - Here's a novelty: a Sherlock Holmes film without a mystery in it. It's based on a play by William Gillette - who popularised some of the iconography we associate with the character - but it's more true to the incidentals of the character than his essence, the detective portrayed as a romantic sentimentalist who'll go to the wall for the woman he loves.

An extraordinarily handsome John Barrymore - about to embark on his legendary stage triumph as Hamlet - is Holmes, who comes to the aid of a foreign prince and fellow Cambridge University student (Reginald Denny), bringing him into conflict with a nefarious, hairy Limehouse resident by the name of Moriarty - who seems to have been taking style tips from Barrymore's own Mr Hyde (unleashed on an unsuspecting public the previous year).

As a fan of film history, it's fun to see Barrymore as Holmes, to see a debuting Roland Young (as Watson) and William Powell (as a thief in the detective's employ), to see Moriarty introduced in the centre of a spider's web, and the likes of Denny, future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and D. W. Griffith's mistress and leading lady, Carol Dempster, playing off one another. I'm glad the film was rediscovered in the '70s after being thought lost, and that Hugh Hefner stumped up the money for the restoration (!).

It's not actually very good, though. There are trick walls and secret passages (in my experience, a fail-safe indicator that I'm watching a shit film), the Holmes-Watson relationship - so integral to a successful adaptation - has but a single moment of genuine warmth, and the story is just really boring, because there's no mystery and not really any suspense: it's just people squabbling over some letters for 85 minutes. I think so, anyway: I'm not sure if there are frames missing from the existing print, but it all gets quite confusing towards the end, before a completely incomprehensible climax.

Barrymore was a truly great actor, but a lot of the time he couldn't really be arsed, and with Hamlet on the horizon, you get the feeling that his thoughts were over Elsinore rather than at 221b Baker Street. (2)


The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003) - Philip Roth's magnificent novel about a professor with a deep, dark secret, becomes an extravagantly bad film starring Anthony Hopkins, who does at least bother to do some acting, which I know he regards as something of a chore nowadays.

The scenes in the '40s about the professor's past are actually rather effective, but square-jawed, long-faced Wentworth Miller - though fine - looks and sounds nothing like Hopkins (who is orange and Welsh) and Nicole Kidman's irritatingly shallow performance sinks the rest, the portentous, overrated actress playing a one-dimensional stock character, rather than the fascinating one Roth wrote.

Compounding the misery is Sinise's Nathan Zuckerman (a recurring figure in the author's work), who must be about the most nondescript character I've ever seen in a film. The source novel may well be unfilmable, but it could be filmed quite a lot better than this. (1.5)



The Kingfisher (James Cellan James, 1983)
- One of the loveliest things I've seen in ages: a magical, marvellously escapist made-for-TV drama with a cast of three and a tender score, as a lonely bachelor (Rex Harrison), living with his gay old butler (Cyril Cusack), who makes a move for the one that that got away a half-century ago (Wendy Hiller), following the death of her husband.

The material is good if imperfect - there's a touch of pointless slapstick and an ill-advised diversion about Harrison's fatal conquests that seems in rather bad taste given the actor's involvement in Carole Landis's suicide - while the direction is fairly standard and unimaginative, but the performances are an absolute joy, with Harrison and Hiller sparking as they had in Major Barbara (one of my favourite 10 films) 42 years earlier, and Cusack providing memorable though not exactly hilarious support.

Sexy Rexy plays the unrepentant but genuine, wistful old cove you'd expect, dialogue still like honey on his lips, while Hiller creates another of those impeccable, distinct characterisations she could turn out at will: a twinkly-eyed, joshing, witty, knowing and self-aware woman who's happy to get sloshed but blessed with tremendous emotional intelligence (a pensioned-off, very English version of Myrna Loy's character in Libeled Lady, perhaps).

The filmed legacy of this renowned stage actress is a strange and spotty thing: she made just 18 movies, along with 40-odd TV appearances, during a career that spanned from 1937 to 1992, but what remains is of inestimable value for anyone who admires the artistry of acting. Through the nuanced control of her incomparable face, a stage-honed understanding of gesture that she adapted for the all-seeing camera, and that deep, modulated and inimitable voice, she thought out loud, and what she thought was usually extraordinarily beautiful. I really do think she's the greatest sound actress of all time. And this TV drama that I supposed would be a mere footnote for this completist is a wonderful thing. (3.5)


All Passion Spent (Martyn Friend, 1986) - This three-part adaptation of Vita Sackville-West's most popular novel is quiet, contemplative and ultimately extremely rewarding: the story of an 85-year-old widow (Wendy Hiller) - previously wedded to the establishment - who finally gets to show her innate non-conformity.

It takes ages to get going (the first half of the mini-series is basically just her purchasing and redecorating a house), but the music's nice, the script is unusually classy and meditative, and the scenes between Hiller and her eccentric longtime admirer (Harry Andrews) are extraordinarily moving.

This portrait of a stoical, accepting and non-judgemental woman, blessed with a gentle power that comes from deep within, is among the great achievements of her incomparable career. What surrounds it isn't generally in the same league, but it's worth seeing for the central performance alone. (3)



The Entertainer by Margaret Talbot (2012)
- The story of 20th century America, told through the prism of the author's father, Lyle Talbot, whose career mirrored the transition from localised to mass market entertainment, as he went from tent-show star, carny performer and stage actor to Pre-Code leading man, Ed Wood alumnus and TV sitcom favourite. His daughter Margaret is a New York staff writer, and the book does often feel more like an extended magazine feature than a weighty non-fiction tome - it's wide-ranging, thoughtful and interesting, whether documenting the early 20th century paradigm from character to personality, or dissecting the shortcomings that prevented Lyle from becoming the star that Warner Bros expected him to be - but sometimes rather slight (its anecdotes range from the memorable to the truly mundane), increasingly shows its working, and occasionally branches off into pretentious speculation (as in a simply dire passage imagining the later life of the actor's first girlfriend).

His biographer is broadly a good writer, though, her occasional weird, mannered, nature-themed metaphors compensated for by her ability to be witty, psychologically insightful and often subtly and deeply affecting (the final paragraph of her introduction is wonderfully realised). Sometimes she goes off on a mystifying tangent about a minor character in Lyle's life, and at times takes us into territory probably only interesting to her immediate family, but she writes movingly about both of her parents, knowledgeably about her father's minor Pre-Code triumphs, and perceptively -about everything from sexual attraction to Nebraska to the appeal of the sitcom Lyle appeared in, Ozzie and Harriet, and about the America it played to. Lyle himself had a remarkable life, rather than being a particularly interesting person, but in this ambitious, readable and slightly flawed book, he plays a new role: a man through whose long and diverse career we can better understand America, and the American century. The cover is absolutely beautiful too: a perfect pastiche of 1932 movie credits. (3.5)


Thanks for reading.

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