Film Review: Gravity

So, on Wednesday, I went through the nail-biting experience that is watching Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

It’s very difficult to talk about the film’s plot without giving away key surprises and twists, but suffice to say: Sandra Bullock is a research scientist up in space for the first time working on a particular project for NASA (her status as novice astronaut is important) and George Clooney is her well-practiced superior and flight commander, who’s far more at ease with his life as a space explorer. All does not go smoothly on their trip and Cuarón uses the setting of space to brilliant effect as they are thrown into greater and greater peril.

Firstly, Gravity is utterly beautiful. The special effects are elegantly done and it did seem hard to believe they weren’t actually filming in outer space at times. Our narrative focus and audience connection is Dr Ryan Stone, Bullock’s character. As the new girl in space, her discomfort and panic when things go wrong, aligns perfectly with the audience’s perspective. She reacts as we might. Cuarón moves deftly from outside her helmet looking at directly at Bullock, to ‘inside’ the helmet, as if looking through her eyes. This helps to build an immersive, physical cinematic experience, that is – in this case – delicately enhanced by the use of 3D. I’m not usually a fan, but here, as in Life of Pi, the 3D effects are used to draw you in and take you on more of a journey with these characters, rather than just as a gimmick. The camera twists and turns, often leaving the viewer as disorientated as the astronauts. All of which adds to the tension in the atmosphere. It clocks in at a well-paced 90 minutes, meaning that the action rarely lets up throughout the film.

Gravity is totally dominated and owned by Bullock. I’ve always enjoyed her work, but her performance here is extraordinary. She has to carry most of the action by herself and she is compulsively watchable throughout. There isn’t a huge amount of dialogue and Bullock uses every trick in her actor’s arsenal to communicate Dr Stone’s state of mind. I struggled to think of another actor who could have done as good a job.

I thoroughly enjoyed Gravity. It was tense, well-directed, well-acted, fast-paced and managed to keep a fairly ambigous tone. Others may disagree with me, but I genuinely wasn’t sure what sort of direction several key plot points would take and I felt that this only added to the film’s good qualities. It has also confirmed that, unlikely though it is, should I ever get the chance to head into space – I will be running madly in the opposite direction. Where Space Camp made thinking on your feet in space seem fun, totally do-able and a place to make lifelong friends, Gravity reminded me that it would be absolutely terrifying. But, while I may not be advocating space travel anytime soon, the film comes heartily recommended.

Book Review: Trinkets by Kristen Smith

Kristen Smith is a successful screen writer, whose credits include She’s The Man, 10 Things I Hate About You and Legally Blonde. Trinkets is her first novel, which I came to hear about through this excerpt on the brilliant Rookie website.

The basic plot for Trinkets is: three teenage girls, from vastly different backgrounds and social spheres, meet at Shoplifters Anonymous. We have Tabitha (popular, high school princess with jock boyfriend), Moe (social outcast, misfit with boy who won’t acknowledge her in public) and Elodie (wallflower, poet, new girl). An unlikely bond forms and the girls begin to challenge each other as thieves and to shake up what’s wrong in their lives.

Trinkets was an unequivocally easy, light-hearted read; I started and finished it in one train ride. Being YA, it is squarely aimed at teenagers, but as I still have a great amount of affection and nostalgia for my teen years, I didn’t find this off-putting. Smith clearly has an ear for teen-speak, capturing the right inflections and colloquialisms. We hear from each girl in turn, getting a sense of their individuality and narrative voice. Tabitha and Moe write in prose, whereas Elodie writes in poems. This device feels a little affected and pretentious, but then again, teen girls (especially those who aspire to be poets) tend to be a little affected and pretentious when it comes to writing.

The problems the girls are dealing with at home (love, divorce, grief) are realistically conveyed and the reasons behind their choices to act out, either through shoplifting or other means, are thoughtful and understandable. Smith evokes the rush that must come from stealing effectively and you feel the adrenaline and the joy our protagonists get from doing the unexpected. Their cross-social-borders friendship allows them all to explore who they are and who they actually want to be, encouraging each other to fix what they don’t like about their lives. Smith has written an empowering tale of friendship, as our central trio are allowed to grow and learn from each other. They support one another and give each other the courage to do what they need to. This postive message ‘you can find your people and you’re not alone or wrong in feeling awkward and outsider-y’ is a great one to give to teenage girls, if a little neat for me. I found the resolutions to their shoplifting and other problems a little too easy and tidy and would have preferred a little more exploration of how they were going to navigate life now as a trio, but overall it was a sweet book and enjoyable read.

Dance Review: BalletBoyz – the TALENT 2013

Where: Milton Keynes Theatre / When: 12th November 2013

I was able to catch a performance of the BalletBoyz latest, the Talent 2013 this week. The performance consisted of two contrasting pieces with an all-male cast. Enjoyment of both pieces was increased by the inclusion of a short film before each, detailing the creative process from the choreographer’s perspective.

The first work was Liam Scarlett’s first commission for the BalletBoyz and his first to use contemporary dancers. Entitled ‘The Serpent’ and set to a haunting score by Max Richter, the piece was raw and emotional, the dancers writhing and sliding and swooping and wrapping themselves around each other, effectively evoking the titular creature. The company looked exquisite; all being at the peak of their physical prowess as dancers, they made their strength and physicality seem delicate and elegant. The set design was minimal, save for some evocative blue and white lighting, which was smartly designed. This coupled with the costumes of flesh coloured tights only, added to a sense of seeing something pure and primal.

The movement was remarkable throughout and I found the choreography very romantic, watching the dancers cling together and hold each other through some beautiful steps and there was great fluidity and languor to the movement. I did feel that it was a little overlong and found the jumps in tone musically a little disconcerting (the pace and energy of the music leapt around throughout) but it was a beautiful dance work nonetheless.

The second work of the evening was Russell Maliphant’s ‘Fallen’. It contrasted greatly in tone and design from the first, though the two definitely complemented each other. Fallen was set to a pounding, relentless soundtrack of drums and bass notes by Armand Amar which lent a tense expectancy to the work.  The lighting design evoked an underground, dank, shadowed space and the overall effect of the movement, lighting and sound was to make me feel like I was on the edge of a rumble. It had shades of West Side Story-esque gangland warfare; it felt as if the piece could explode into violence at any minute. The movements were rhythmic and wonderfully symbiotic, with great feats of strength displayed again. I think I preferred this piece to The Serpent, purely for the added energy and volatility the dancers’ brought to it.

The performance as a whole was incredibly enjoyable. It was great to see such a young, gifted group of performers really pushing themselves physically and producing some incredible effects with their bodies. Well worth seeing if you get the chance – the company continues to tour throughout November 2013.

Book review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Yes, yes, I know I’m late to the party. Mark Haddon’s acclaimed book ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time‘ was first published in 2003. It has been sitting on my bookshelf (in hardback, no less) for many, many years but I have finally got round reading it and seeing what all the fuss was about.

The basic plot is as follows: Our narrator is 15 year old Christopher Boone. Christopher has a few quirks of behaviour and personality. He describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’. Haddon never states quite what Christopher’s condition or issue might be, but the most commonly held belief is that he has Aspergers, which is on the autism spectrum. At the start of the novel, Christopher finds his neighbour’s dog, which has been killed, and immediately determines he will solve the mystery of who the culprit might be. His investigation sets off a chain of events and presents Christopher with many challenges to his world view.

On picking up the book, I was quite worried that this would be someone’s attempt to try and ‘understand’ autism and that it would be patronising. However, I found that whatever was the cause of Christopher’s more unusual habits really wasn’t a concern within the story, nor does it particularly matter to the reader.  Christopher is who he is; explanations aren’t necessary. I thoroughly enjoyed being presented with a different perspective on the world and found Christopher’s analysis of events and behaviours amusing and occasionally uncomfortably clear-sighted. I found the parts of the novel that detailed mathematical or scientific problems rather dull, but understood that including those was natural to Christopher and created a more authentic narrative.

I found Haddon’s explorations as to why someone might groan when in distress, or need to hide away or need to have an order to life very moving and totally relatable. Christopher’s reactions to stress or trauma may be extreme by ‘average’ standards, but Haddon’s reasoning behind them was not only empathetic and thoughtful but made absolute sense to me. Most people feel anxious at some point or another and we all have ways of calming ourselves down – some more obvious than others. As someone who craves order and neatness when stressed, Christopher’s desire for patterns and logic when under duress seemed comeletly natural to me.

I found Christopher’s story funny, emotional and ultimately inspiring. He forces himself to do things he finds difficult in order to achieve things and that is something I’m sure we could all get much better at. An easy and very uplifting read – heartily recommended.

Theatre Review: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

Where: Duke of York Theatre / When: 2nd November 2013

As a longtime fan of PG Wodehouse’s inimitable Jeeves and Wooster, I was very excited to see that there was to be a stage adaptation. My excitement grew when I read that Stephen Mangan was playing Bertie Wooster and Matthew MacFadyen his ‘gentleman’s gentleman’, Jeeves. Surely, with source material so ripe with possibility and such a gifted cast, it was a guaranteed hit?

Well, the answer is a resounding, deafening, YES. ‘Perfect Nonsense‘ is sublimely good. Rather than make it a straight play, the Goodale Brothers, who are adapting the story, turned the premise into a play within a play. Bertie Wooster has decided he makes a decent actor and will use this medium to describe a recent scrape. Bertie will play himself throughout, while Jeeves and Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia’s butler Seppings play all other parts. Jeeves and Seppings also handle all staging and effects. This is a genius move by the Goodale Bros and Sean Foley, who directs. It allows plenty of comedy to be extracted from the amateurish sets (and sometimes from how un-amateurish they are!) and from the constant changing of characters by MacFadyen and Mark Hadfield, who plays Seppings.

Too much plot can’t be revealed for fear of spoiling the effect, but the basic outline involved Bertie travelling to Totleigh Towers, where he has to simultaneously steal a cow creamer, evade a particularly persistant law-man and reinstate the engagement of his pal Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett- among numerous other hiccups. As always with Jeeves and Wooster, the plot and farce build into ever more confusing and complicated webs until Jeeves steps in – using occasionally ludicrous methods to solve Bertie’s problems.

The physical comedy and essential timing displayed by all three actors was utterly perfect. Not one beat was missed and the energy displayed on stage was impressive. Stephen Mangan is a known deft comic touch and his Bertie is sweet, dim and unfailingly upbeat. His reading of the character was delightful and was a perfect conduit for the audience. Matthew MacFadyen, more usually associated with dramatic roles, had another chance to display his range as a comedy actor, following his stint in Private Lives in 2010. He leapt deftly between roles, changing voice and costume with great speed and pulling off the remarkable trick of managing to play Jeeves playing Gussie Fink-Nottle etc. Similarly, Mark Hadfield, hitherto unknown to me, turned in a remarkable performance, infusing all of his characters with a distinct personality of their own.

Sean Foley, the Goodale Brothers and the cast have really produced something special in ‘Perfect Nonsense‘. It was consistently funny, superbly acted and a total delight from beginning to end. The audience I was in gave a standing ovation at a matinee, which, in my experience, usually means you’ve seen something universally loved. Heartily recommended – go and see while you still can!