Last night I headed to a preview screening of the upcoming film The Guest starring British actor Dan Stevens. First things first, one thing is for sure – we’re not in Downton Abbey anymore Toto, but more on Mr Stevens later. The Guest is a psychological thriller/ genre slasher horror movie, directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett (who worked together on 2011’s You’re Next).
Set in dusty, sleepy American suburbia, the Petersons are grieving the loss of their oldest son Caleb, who has been killed in action in the Middle East. His mother Laura is struggling to cope, father Spencer is drinking more than you sense he used to, younger brother Luke is the school punchbag and daughter Anna is secretly dating the boy her parents do not approve of. In to this fractured family arrives David, who claims he not only served with Caleb, but was one of his closest friends, who was with him when he died and who promised to share with his family how he felt about each of them.
Although reluctant to accept him initially, David soon becomes central to the family, through cleverly identifying each member’s weakness and stepping in to help them with it (for example, if ever there was an advert for not bullying someone this is it). However Anna soon becomes suspicious of this mysterious, handsome stranger and begins to question if he really is who he says he is.
In order to enjoy this film you need to go in with an understanding of the type of genre film you are about to watch. If you are expecting a film along the lines of a modern action thriller, akin to the Bourne movies, then you’ll probably be a little underwhelmed as that’s not the sort of film Wingard and Barrett have sought to make here. Instead The Guest is an homage to the road movie / slasher horror VHS films of the 70s/80s and it’s not ashamed to flaunt it, with much success.
The Guest starts out as a fairly tense thriller. Despite his charming, polite manner, the audience senses David is hiding something and an uneasy atmosphere settles over the film. As the story moves along, so does the style and it soon becomes more akin to a cheesy old school slasher horror film. This clearly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but Wingard and Barrett have executed the film perfectly for the genre, one they clearly have much affection for. It is tense, thrilling, disturbing, with scenes of violence, but also quite a few moments that you can’t help but find funny, whether it’s a ridiculous line, or an over the top shoot out scene, there will be moments when you’ll laugh out loud. During certain scenes I genuinely felt I had time travelled to another decade, such are the nods and winks to other similar movies. It’s even set at Halloween, complete with Halloween high school horror fun house.
It would be difficult for many actors to pull off the central performance in this style of movie, but Dan Stevens is utterly (and I admit surprisingly) fantastic. He convincingly switches from mild-mannered, charming young man, who you’d happily take home to your mum, to a frighteningly dangerous psychopath. In-keeping with the genre, there are a number of scenes that end on a close up shot of his face – as if watching a ticking time bomb that will inevitably go off at any moment. In fact, there are moments where he is almost cyborg-like, turning his head in ways that immediately made me think of Robert Patrick’s T-1000. He embodies the character of David absolutely and gives a very believable performance and as the 70s/80s horror elements kick in you are in no doubt that no one is safe in his presence! I did find the film had become a little too ridiculous by the end, but its last few climatic scenes are yet another nod to the past, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Also, shallow as it is, I can’t review the film without acknowledging how incredible Dan Stevens looks in it. A few years ago, the Downton star would have been an unlikely action movie pin-up. Not anymore. He is lean, suave and very very sexy in The Guest and the film’s makers clearly capitalise on this, as in one scene David emerges from the shower in just a towel. His American accent is pretty decent too. Maike Monroe is also very good as Anna, bringing a depth to the role that you don’t expect from the young, attractive blond, whose work as a waitress requires obvious shots of her in a sexy short outfit!
Much praise should also be given to the film’s composer Steve Moore, whose evocative music is perfect. It certainly made me think of films such as John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween and The Terminator, which is clearly the point.
The Guest is therefore a bizarre film. As a genre piece it is very good indeed, although there is a risk that some audience members may miss the whole point entirely. Personally I found it very entertaining – a great mix of action, tension, and cheesy silliness, with a brilliant performance from Dan Stevens, who will no doubt be seen in a whole new light after this film. Bond anyone? I wouldn’t say no!
The Guest will be on general release in UK cinemas from 5th September 2014 but here’s the trailer: http://youtu.be/y0E2Qh6wLS4
(Photo by Jason Bell)
The announcement that the National Theatre would be staging Medea for the first time filled me with uncertainty as to whether I wanted to see another version of this quite traumatic play so soon after Mike Bartlett’s modern adaptation starring Rachel Stirling. However the announcement of Helen McCrory’s casting made the decision for me and resulted in me seeing two of the strongest performances by women currently on stage in London in the same week (the first being Gillian Anderson down the road at the Young Vic).
Euripides’ tale is certainly not an easy one to contemplate, as it forces its audience to consider one of the most horrifying acts imaginable – whether a mother really could consider murdering her own children. Medea is not just a woman however – she is a warrior. She has killed for love in the past and people do fear her. Now the man she did all of that for, Jason, has deserted her for a younger bride, leaving her in a state of heightened emotion and desperation.
Over the course of the production’s 90 minutes the audience witnesses first hand Medea’s struggle to understand his betrayal and her growing need for revenge on him and his new bride, Kreusa, daughter of the King of Corinth Kreon.
There is much to enjoy about this new version by Ben Power, directed by Carrie Cracknell (last at the National Theatre for the excellent Blurred Lines). The staging is very good (particularly if sitting in the raised winged side sections of the Olivier), as Tom Scutt takes full advantage of the height available in the National’s largest space through a split level set. Medea’s home, which she shares with her nanny and sons is on the lower level, complete with outdoor forest, lending an eerie creepiness to the setting. Above, is the world her husband has left her for, as the King prepares for the wedding celebration of his daughter to Jason. I loved that this world was never clearly seen, always witnessed through a thin gauze covered window, starkly separating the two worlds of the story. It also meant moments could occur simultaneously, most effective when, as Medea talks to us, we see the scene unfold above as her revenge on those who have hurt her begins.
The music, created by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp is also superb. It suits the disturbing, uncomfortable mood of the play perfectly and, when coupled with the unique dance movements of the chorus of women watching over Medea’s actions, becomes both beautiful and also quite unsettling. In part it almost feels as if you are watching someone’s dream (or perhaps nightmare).
I did however find the setting a little strange. It’s modern, but the home of Medea feels as if it’s from maybe the 60s in style. This doesn’t really matter for the production until her children are given modern technology to play with, which I found quite jolting. It didn’t seem to fit the period and so took me out of the world of the play momentarily.
I did also think some of the acting seemed a bit stilted from Danny Sapani, who plays Jason, although this may perhaps be exactly how he is meant to feel to you, when compared with such a strong character as Medea.
As Streetcar found my focus centring on Gillian Anderson, by the very nature of the story, this play’s driving force is that of Medea herself and Helen McCrory is absolutely brilliant in the role. She commands your attention and is completely believable as we watch Medea make decisions that will have such a irreparable impact on all those around her. She is in moments humorous, sarcastic, angry and crucially also able to convincingly convey Medea’s moments of both vulnerability and strength. We follow her as she makes decisions out of her desperate need to cause Jason the same pain as he has caused her. Despite a brief moment of hope provided by her old friend Aegeus (played very well by Dominic Rowan), during which it seems a new life is possible for her, there is an inevitability hanging over the world of Corinth, something which is enhanced by the opening monologue by Michaela Coel who plays Medea’s servant and nanny, who sets the tone of unease from the beginning.
I have always been a fan of Helen McCrory (who I last saw on stage in the wonderful The Last of the Haussmans) and she is truly superb in this production. There may have been aspects I did not like, but despite these misgivings, I would not have wanted to miss seeing such a powerful performance. The Best Actress category during next year’s awards season will certainly be crowded!
Medea continues its run at the National Theatre until 4th September 2014. Its final performance on 4th September will also be screened as part of NT Live. For more details visit the National Theatre’s website http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/medea
After its superb production of A View From A Bridge, the Young Vic is clearly on a roll as its current production, Tennessee William’s classic Pulitzer prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, continues to play to sold out houses. After failing to get to the Donmar’s much-praised production in 2009, I was very much looking forward to my first Streetcar (in no small part due to Gillian Anderson’s involvement) and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
The play centres on the lives of three characters, sisters Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski and Stella’s husband Stanley, after Blanche arrives for a visit a decade after her sister last saw her. Over the course of the evening the audience learns more about Blanche’s past and struggles and sees how each of their desires impacts on those around them.
The design of the production seems to have divided opinion but I loved it. Staged in the round, on a rectangular space, dressed as the small New Orleans apartment of the Kowalskis, the set slowly begins to rotate once Blanche takes her first secret drink and only briefly stops during the play. For me this was a brilliant staging choice by Magda Willi and director Benedict Andrews (whose recent work includes the brilliant Three Sisters at the Young Vic in 2012). As an audience member you can’t help but feel as if you are intruding on the innermost lives of the characters and there is a wonderfully effective voyeuristic quality too – some scenes you see clearly in front of you, but others you glimpse through a window or bathroom door, until your perspective shifts with the stage. There are moments when characters overhear/see things they perhaps shouldn’t and it is the same feeling for the audience. The timing of this movement is perfect, mirroring Blanche’s descent into helplessness, occasionally speeding up to match the pace of a scene, before stopping at one moment, which felt abrupt but absolutely right for the scene.
This production has also brought the play in to a more modern setting but despite this change in period, the apartment of Stella and Stanley feels very real. Unlike the childhood the sisters had, the Kowalskis are not wealthy and are making do with a simple two rooms, drawing a curtain across when extra privacy is needed (although it’s sheer quality means that nothing is really hidden in these rooms). It’s also fantastic that for the most part the actors remain on the stage, requiring quick changes in the confines of a curtained bath tub. This all adds to the pace and voyeuristic nature of the production.
Its main power is driven by the acting of the three leads. Ben Foster is very strong as Stanley – a man you quite like until his first violent outburst shifts your perspective of him. As a former soldier, you sense all the time that his military instinct to react in the moment, often with frightening results, is lingering just under the surface. He does however clearly love his wife and feels threatened by Blanche’s presence and you are constantly waiting for them to erupt at one another, leaving Stella caught in the crossfire.
Vanessa Kirby is one of my favourite young actresses (doing fantastic work in the Young Vic’s Three Sisters and the National’s recent Edward II to name just two) and she is wonderful as Stella. The conflicted emotions she feels when faced with supporting her sister and agreeing with her husband are conveyed brilliantly and its with unease that you watch her return to a man, who although loves her, is at risk of lashing out like an animal. She also has a very believable relationship with Gillian Anderson’s Blanche (no doubt helped by the actresses’ friendship, which began when they starred opposite each other in Great Expectations for the BBC). Corey Johnson is also very good as Mitch, Stanley’s friend who becomes entranced by Blanche. For a brief moment, he gives both Blanche and the audience hope that perhaps she may finally have a better future and some of his scenes with Gillian Anderson were particular highlights for me.
The play focuses however on Blanche’s journey and spiral into desperation and Gillian Anderson does a stunning job bringing this to life so vividly. Beginning with a haughty attitude of someone used to the finer things in life, we slowly watch as her facade begins to slip and we learn that her life has been somewhat different from the one her sister has assumed.
Gillian has to encompass so many emotions as Blanche in order to make her a fully rounded character and she does this superbly. Her Blanche is a woman who can turn in one scene from a giggly young, somewhat naive woman, to a sexy, sensual seductress, to someone who is clearly deeply troubled and desperately trying to keep her world together. I loved the touch that no matter the circumstance, including just getting out of a bath, Gillian’s Blanche is always in a pair of killer heels – its part of her image, which she is determined to cling to, even as it falls away. I have always thought Gillian was a superb actress (yes I’m an X-Files fan, so what) and over the years she has only become more impressive in her various roles. Here she draws the audience in so much to Blanche’s disintegration that by the end of the production I certainly felt exhausted and incredibly moved after having watched such a powerful and emotional performance.
For me one of the thrills of live theatre is seeing a production that is so powerful that by its end you know it’ll always stay with you. As the lights went out at the end of this production I had no doubt this was one of those productions. Its rare, powerful emotion, which demands so much from its cast was a privilege to watch and I have to admit, if I can acquire another ticket before the end of the run I’ll gladly experience it all over again.
A Streetcar Named Desire continues its run at the Young Vic until 19th September 2014. All performances are sold out (with the exception of the charity gala performance costing £150). However, some standing tickets may still be available from the box office and a day seat lottery takes place each day. The production will also be screened via NT Live in cinemas on 16 September 2014. For more information visit the Young Vic’s website here
From post apocalyptic America in Mr. Burns on stage, to post apocalyptic Australia in the second film by Australian director David Michod, whose first film Animal Kingdom was very well received. If there’s a lesson to learn from The Rover, it could be – never steal someone else’s car, as it is this very action that is the catalyst for the rest of the story. However, that is probably an unfairly simplistic way to look at the film as a whole.
Set in the Australian outback ten years after what is referred to as “the collapse,” the film’s plot is driven (pun intended) by Eric, played by Guy Pearce and his determination to track down the men who have stolen his car. Along the way his path crosses with Rey, who is badly injured from a gunshot wound, but as one of the thieves’ brother, is in the unique position of guiding Eric to their location. Rey is also looking for payback for being left to die by his brother.
What begins as a form of captor/hostage relationship soon becomes something much more complex. Eric and Rey are certainly not friends, but they come to rely on each other, to a certain extent, as they make the journey through the desolate landscape. The film is shot in a very specific style – presenting this vast land in a way that highlights its beauty and its emptiness at once. Its grey and barren vistas perfectly enhance the desperate lives of those depicted in the story.
I did find the story rather miserable ad it is certainly not an easy film to watch. Parts of it feel quite slow, with little dialogue, which can begin to feel quite tiring. It’s also rather violent in places, although the unexpected moments of violence are very effective at jolting the audience. An example being Eric’s encounter with a travelling circus, who no longer travel. However, despite this film not really appealing to me and my personal tastes, the acting of its two leads is undeniably excellent. Guy Pearce is superb as Eric – a man of few words, whose life was clearly already desperate before the collapse and who is simply existing now rather than living. His face sometimes expresses so much without a word being uttered. He is certainly not a particularly likeable character, but he is made more human through his interaction with Rey.
Robert Pattinson, in a role polar opposite to the one he is inevitably most famous for, is very very good as Rey and it is him who the audience care about, if you can really like any of them at all. It’s clear Rey has always been dominated by his brother Henry, his opinion never sought or valued. Initially he refuses to accept that his brother would leave him for dead, but soon cannot fail to accept the truth and although an unlikely pair, he develops a bond with Eric.
Eric demands he talk for himself, something he has clearly rarely (if ever) done and through their journey together we see Rey grow in confidence as he begins to prove he isn’t as hopeless as Eric (or his brother) have thought. Pattinson’s performance as Rey, where every word is spoken with either a stutter, nervous twitch or mumble, with body language to perfectly complement it, is impressive. He plays Rey as someone who seems quite child-like and innocent even after he has killed. As an audience member, I knew I shouldn’t really like him, but I did slowly start to warm to him and that is in large part due to Pattinson’s performance.
David Michod’s world is also certainly believable. This isn’t a Mad Max-style futuristic apocalypse world, but a barren, crumbling place, where people are simply existing. There is still a reliance on money (US Dollars ironically) and I could believe that such a place could become a reality (although I wouldn’t want to experience it)! The mood of the film is enhanced by its score by composer Antony Partos. There may be little dialogue at times but his industrial, unsettling music fills the void and seems to match the tone of the film perfectly.
Both actors at the Q&A afterwards praised Michod, as a film maker who takes risks and lets the actors do the same. I can see how that must be appealing. It’s certainly an odd film, so I’m not entirely sure the risk paid off, as by the end I did wonder what the point of it all was. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the central performances held my attention throughout and are impressive enough for me to give this film an average score (maybe a 3/5). I’ll be interested to see what people think once it’s released.
The Rover is released in the UK on 14th August 2014. See the trailer here: The Rover trailer
On Thursday I was lucky enough to have a ticket to the World Premiere screening of Deep Breath, the first episode of Doctor Who starring the new Doctor – Peter Capaldi. After a difficult few weeks for the Doctor Who team after various leaks, it was lovely to see so many people turn out in Cardiff City Centre to celebrate what is still such a treasured part of national television and welcome a new actor in to the role. On the announcement of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor last year I was thrilled with the choice (although, as when David Tennant left, I’d hoped for Chiwetel Ejiofor, but his recent critical success probably means this will never happen now).
The screening was great fun, with St. David’s Hall a huge venue to screen the episode for the first time and the appearance of Peter and Jenna on stage before the start was greeted with applause and cheers. After the screening there was a Q&A with them and Steven Moffat, which had some interesting and some ridiculous questions. Peter Capaldi thinks his Doctor has been influenced by all the previous ones (he is a lifelong fan after all) and both the actors talked about how much fun they had had filming the series. Peter Capaldi was asked about his audition and he mentioned how he had no idea that he was the only person Steven was planning to audition! Jenna was asked about her favourite costume and she said the one from Asylum of the Daleks as she got to wear an egg whisk! Steven also joked about when Peter was picking his costume and he’d receive photos of him in various clothes and you could tell when he didn’t like an outfit from his face. It was clear when the right one had been found as the photo he received was Peter in full Doctor pose mode! Steven was also asked if there were any plans for a 10th Anniversary celebration for modern Who next year (which seems nuts after a 50th really doesn’t it?!). He said there were no plans, but who knows what the truth is with Mr Moffatt!
So what did I think of episode one “Deep Breath”? It isn’t a straightforward answer as there are positives and negatives. Starting with the positives – first and foremost, Peter Capaldi is a fantastic Doctor and I have no doubt he will only get better as the series develops. His Doctor is funny, with some very witty lines in this episode, but he is also darker. As when Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor rebooted the show in 2005, you are conscious that with this Doctor there is a distinctly darker man within and this will be even more evident with the 12th Doctor. Some say this is a brave choice and perhaps it is, but I think it’s absolutely right for the show now, almost ten years after its return. I’ve enjoyed all three of the modern Doctors, but it’s time for something different and a darker Doctor is an exciting prospect.
The opening episode also sees Clara dealing with a new Doctor and their relationship is re-established for a new era. I was a little irritated by her initial reaction to him – she has after all seen every Doctor and understands what regeneration means, so her attitude felt a bit odd in some respects. Although, I suppose despite meeting 13 Doctors, Matt’s was “her” Doctor so perhaps this reaction is fair enough. There is some lovely development over this feature length opener of their relationship, right through to the end (which was probably my favourite bit of the whole episode).
There is a new version of the theme tune and opening credits sequence, which I loved. It’s a variant on the time vortex but focuses on the cogs of time and looks lovely on screen (and interestingly people tell me it’s based on a fan’s You Tube idea)! Murray Gold’s music is great, although the Doctor’s theme didn’t leap out at me here the way Matt’s did in The Eleventh Hour.
As for the story itself, this is where my negatives kick in. I won’t give much away, but for me the plot of Deep Breath is just average. First episodes of a new series aren’t easy, but I thought the plot was a bit boring and not very original. Beginning with a dinosaur in the heart of London, we see the Doctor, Clara and the Paternoster Gang encounter an eerie half-faced villain, who is using those around him for his own disturbing purpose. The most frustrating aspect for me is the episode’s use of elements from an earlier stand-alone story, which will be obvious to fans. There is even a couple of references to this other story by the Doctor. For me, this didn’t alter the fact it’s partly an old idea and referencing that, although amusing, didn’t make it less annoying. I want new ideas for this Doctor, not variants on old ones.
I’m also not a fan of the Paternoster Gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax. They still feel more CBBC than Doctor Who to me and their inclusion results in repetitive dialogue and plot points. We are reminded about ten times that Vastra and Jenny are married. We get it – one reminder is enough and the constant mixing genders, war-like talk of Strax feels a bit dull at this point. I know lots of people like them but I’m not one of them. There are some fun moments and lines with them here (Vastra being Scottish gets a good scene for example), but overall I hope they pop up less this year.
There are also some odd choices – the dinosaur has a purpose but it’s a bit needless. I also didn’t like how villain’s story was resolved and I couldn’t help wondering what the point of it all had been. It seemed a bit too easy to me. Although, this does include a great sequence, which is quite different for the show and will no doubt have people debating for weeks to come and I’ll be interested to see what sides people take on that debate.
The episode does have an emotional base and that’s the Doctor and Clara’s relationship – what it was, what it is and where it’s going. I’ve always liked Doctor Who when it cares about character relationships (something I still think RTD was more skilled at than Mr Moffatt) and it was lovely to see some truly emotional moments between them. They are after all the heart of the show and the last few scenes are genuinely lovely to watch.
So there’s my attempt to write a review without giving too much away. For me, the episode’s plot is average, building too much on ideas already used to better effect in an stronger earlier episode. There is also some weak dialogue, particularly from Jenny (“It’s the TARDIS, do you think it’s the Doctor?” – well who else would it be was my response). The episode also did not need to be as long as it is and could be better if some bits were cut down.
However, as expected, Peter Capaldi is superb – he may be older, but that only adds to the image of a Doctor who makes you feel a little uneasy and who you sense you do not want to make angry. A mix of humour and darkness is an enticing prospect and I’m looking forward to seeing what awaits in the rest of this series and beyond (first up appears to be Daleks in episode two). Welcome aboard Mr Capaldi – all of time and space awaits!
Doctor Who begins with Deep Breath on Saturday 23rd August 2014 on BBC One. Follow this link for the trailer: Series 8 Official Trailer
Originally posted on Semi-Partisan Sam:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Picture: A view from West Hampstead, London. A solitary beam of light (“Spectra”, by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda) pierces the London sky as lights are switched off across the nation in observance of the outbreak of the First World War.
I had intended to catch Daytona at the Park Theatre earlier this year and so was thrilled to hear it had transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket for a short West End run. I have always admired Maureen Lipman as an actress and, although I wash’t a huge fan of A Little Night Music a few years ago, she was great and so the opportunity to see her in something else on stage was quite appealing. I was also interested to learn that actor Oliver Cotton, who has written the play, was also starring in the West End transfer.
Daytona is a fairly contained play. All the drama takes place in one setting in 1986 Brooklyn, in the home of Joe and Elli, a Jewish migrant couple who have been married and living in the States for decades and who enjoy spending their time competing in senior ballroom dancing competitions. In to their fairly mundane, safe existence appears Joe’s brother Billy, whom they have not seen for almost 30 years. However, this is not a play about a happy, comfortable reunion and as the story progresses we delve in to their past, their secrets and how these have impacted the lives each of the three characters has chosen to live over the decades.
I am cautious not to give too much of the plot away here, as part of the power of the play is discovering truths as you watch it. The first Act focuses mainly on the two brothers and, although crucial for laying the foundations for Act 2, I found this to be quite slow, with the drama picking up more in Act 2, in which Maureen Lipman’s Elli plays a far larger role. The play begins telling one story – that of Billy, who is fleeing Daytona where he has carried out a serious crime linked to their shared past during World War II, but then becomes something different, in which the focus is on the dynamic and connections these three people have shared for years.
All three actors are very good indeed. Harry Shearer (better known here in the UK for his voice work on The Simpsons, where he voices characters including Mr Burns) is strong as Joe. He clearly loves his wife very much and is content with the life they have shared over the years. Oliver Cotton is very good as Billy (a role he didn’t play himself at the play’s run at the Park Theatre). It must be daunting to act in your own play, but he handles it wonderfully. Billy is quite a complicated man, who I both liked and disliked, which made him interesting to watch and he has a great chemistry with both actors, but especially with Maureen Lipman.
However, the heart of the drama is Ellli and Maureen Lipman is superb in the role. We see her display so many emotions, from affection for her husband, to playfulness, to anger, regret and deep sadness and I couldn’t help but be moved by her character. There is a particular point in which she recalls an emotional memory and as she does so, her accent changes so that her Jewish roots become more strongly recognisable. I assume this is a deliberate choice and it works very well indeed.
Some may say Daytona is a bit too slow, but it’s a very powerful, moving story, which is incredibly well acted by its cast and I would certainly recommend it.
Daytona continues its run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 23rd August 2014. For more details visit the Haymarket’s website here.