Living in the clouds: Perfect Days is just a monotonous Tokyo story

Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of MUBI

The idea that depicting monotony needn’t be monotonous is hardly a new idea.

Take Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman which with exacting slowness depicts three days in the life of a repressed housewife. Or more recently Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, which spans a week in the life of the poet. These are unvarnished works which, through acute psychological detail nonetheless build to crescendos of genuine dramatic heft.

Just because something is boring, they suggest, doesn’t mean that the experience of watching of it should be. There are, however, some films which are boring to watch, which slide towards tedium and frustrate with their emotional dullness.

Wim Wenders’ new film, Perfect Days, is one of the latter; a series of trite encounters which say dull things about a dull subject, exacerbated by the smug contentment with which it presents itself. Happy to be slight, it’s a work of maddening incuriosity, full of broad gestures made by characters who only occasionally register psychologically or emotionally.

Perfect Days follows Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), who works as a cleaner for the Tokyo Toilet, a series of seventeen public toilets of artistic distinction in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighbourhood. He lives in a small apartment, and like the protagonists of Akerman or Jarmusch follows an intense daily routine.

He is woken by the sound of an old lady sweeping outside; he reads, shaves, waters his plants, dons a set of overalls, gets a coffee from a vending machine, and starts his van. He soundtracks his drives with cassettes of 70’s American rock.

Hirayama goes from toilet to toilet and treats his work with a seriousness which baffles his younger colleague, Takashi (Tokio Emoto). His routine is repetitive but not without pleasure: after work he washes in a bathhouse and eats in a restaurant before returning home to sleep.

Wenders and co-screenwriter Takuma Takasaki try to portray Hirayama as an enigma, they make various allusions to his past without ever explicitly revealing just how he came to be cleaning toilets.

The film lusts after Hirayama via incessant close-ups which try, and fail, to imbue him with a sort of spiritual purity. If only everyone who cleaned up faeces and urine for a living could find such joy in the morning sky… It is wishful and, ultimately, deeply belittling.

Realising this, Toni Froschhammer’s editing rears its head and any scenes involving cleaning are zipped through snappily. Perfect Days focuses then on a series of mildly excruciating encounters between the cleaner and various other zany outsider-figures.

He gets dragged along to a music store by Takashi and listens to Patti Smith with Takashi’s girlfriend Aya (Aoi Yamada). These moments are sweet, but shallow – though Takashi and Aya suggest themselves, in their brief appearances, to be vastly more interesting characters than Hirayama. Sensing our awareness of this the film has Aya disappear, and Takashi leave his job.

If the first hour of Perfect Days is a slog, the second is more compelling owing to the abrupt appearance of Hirayama’s teenage niece Niko (Arisa Nakano), who has run away from home. The film slows down and takes a breath.

Wenders and Takasaki finally begin to do more than merely gesture towards psychology; Niko cannot fathom why her uncle would take a job such as his so seriously, Hirayama can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t. She watches her uncle work with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.

Yakusho and Nakano imbue these scenes with two senses of weariness, middle-aged and adolescent, and the effect is moving if derivative. Hirayama is the surname of the family in Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 Tokyo Story, a film which so painfully depicts the inevitable rifts that fissure between young and old, tradition and modernity.

So, if the second hour of Perfect Days is a rehashing of old ideas, at least the film finally expresses an opinion on something.

Why Wenders doesn’t devote the entirety of his film’s runtime to the dynamic between Hirayama and Niko is a question with a straightforward answer: to do so would require a genuine interest in depicting psychology and not merely capturing superficial quirks.

Lurking behind a veneer of arthouse pretension, Perfect Days is little more than a tedious and arrogant film full of hollow motifs and dull images. No doubt the cultural bourgeoisie Wenders has spent fifty years pandering to will relish it – it must be lovely living in the clouds.

Perfect Days – official trailer

Perfect Days releases in cinemas on 23 February, for Birmingham screenings follow the below links:

The Electric Cinema: www.electricbirmingham.com
MAC: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/cinema/perfect-days
Mockingbird Cinema: www.mockingbirdcinema.com/production/perfect-days

For more on Perfect Days visit: https://www.perfectdays-movie.jp/en

Simon Beaufoy’s The Full Monty – running at The Alexandra Theatre until 3 February

Words by Ed King / Production pics by Ellie Kurtt

Written for the stage by Simon Beaufoy, the UK screenwriter who penned the Oscar nominated 1997 film (that made over £160m from a production budget of only £3m), The Full Monty opened at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham on Tuesday 30 January – directed by Michael Gyngell.

Running at The Alex until Saturday 3 February, the show will go on to eight more cities across the UK, before heading back to Canterbury its final run in April at The Marlow.

A immensely popular film, the title of this well established narrative describes the ultimate show all our six struggling protagonists have ultimately committed to – after realising without six packs and washboard stomachs they’ll need to bring a bit more to the table if they want to cash in Chippendales style.

But like the expression itself, The Full Monty is not a story about taking your clothes off. It’s about the desperation so many in Sheffield and other cities felt in the nineties as the legacy of successive Thatcher governments ravaged the widespread provider that was Sheffield’s steel industry – leaving broken unions and communities scrabbling in the shadows.

The play opens as Gaz (Danny Hatchard) and Dave (Neil Hurst) are breaking into their once workplace to “liberate” some steel girders for £40 a pop. With them is Gaz’s son, Nathan, played brilliantly on the Birmingham opening night by Rowan Poulton – a young actor from South Yorkshire who outshone several of the adults around him.

Gaz is behind on his child maintenance payments, to the point he is about to lose access to Nathan, and not wanting to take a job “stacking shelves in Morrisons” or working night shifts as a security guard they embark on their own ‘steel industry’ – plundering the abandoned warehouses that used to be the bread and butter for many families, including their own.

But crime doesn’t pay, apparently, and after seeing male strippers pack out their local working men’s club they decide that sex is probably a better pitch.

So, led by Gaz, played well by Hatchard but who Beaufoy’s script leaves a little difficult to feel overly sorry for, they start recruiting other men to perform a one night only strip that could earn them some much needed quick cash.

Enter Lumper (Nicholas Prasad) a security guard literally at the end of his rope, the ironically named Horse (Ben Onwukwe), and the beauty next to the beasts, Guy (Jake Quickenden).

And along the way, with each character shinning their own individual light into the increasingly dark corners, the play addresses issues around sexual inequality and inadequacy, male suicide, body dysmorphia, and homophobia – although often with a light touch and language that is certainly ‘of its time’.

Jumping from warehouses to working men’s clubs, from side streets to jobcentres, Jasmine Swan’s mailable stage gets twisted, turned, separated, and stuck back together to represent all locations – looking superb throughout, and a little reminiscent of the Les Misérables barricades that came before it.

The cast all bring their characters to life, working well together, and allow each other enough room to show their true skin – figuratively and literally. And at the other end of the chronological rainbow to the young Nathan/Poulton, Gerald (Bill Ward) represents the challenges facing older men who lost their livelihoods with a superb balance.

The second half brings the narrative firmly together, including a wonderful recreation of ‘the job centre queue scene’ where the subconscious steps being practiced by the central cast come out as ‘Hot Stuff’ is played whilst they wait to sign on.

And, despite the very early calls to “GET YOU KIT OFF, ALL OFF” from some tensely sexually aggressive audience members, the grand finale is genuinely fun and heartfelt.

Laugh out loud funny from start to finish, with poignant moments and a fantastic soundtrack throughout, The Full Monty is a great night out. One that will make some laugh, some wince, a few dance, and with a message still pertinent nearly three decades later.

The Full Monty 2023/24 UK tour – official trailer

The Full Monty runs at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until Saturday 3 February, with tickets available from £26.00. Click here for more information and links to online ticket sales: www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-full-monty-the-play-by-simon-beaufoy/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham

For more on The Full Monty 2024 UK tour, visit: www.fullmontytheplay.com

For more from The Alexandra Theatre, visit: www.atgtickets.com/venues/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham

The comfort of dissonance: The Zone of Interest is a sickening depiction of horror reduced to the everyday

Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of A24

The relationship between aesthetics and ethics is a slippery one at best. But there are no ethics without emotions, and the most striking thing about The Zone of Interest, the new work from visionary Jonathan Glazer, is that it depicts a complete void; of empathy, of colour – figuratively and to a certain extent literally – and of basic humanity.

It is a vanitas for our age of bleak cruelty, in which horror is normalised to the extent that images of unfathomable suffering perforate our screens and collective consciousness so that it’s all too easy to feel nothing at all.

It’s an artwork that drags us back to the evils of the Holocaust to force us, frankly and subjectively, to examine the ways in which we are complicit with the very systems of cruelty which recur throughout history like tumours; and, crucially, those who perpetuate them.

Speaking of, when we first see Rudolf and Hedwig Höss (Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller) it’s in a scene of bucolic bliss. The birds sing and children toddle in a clear stream. Later, for his birthday, Rudolf is presented with a canoe and the paint stains their baby’s bottom green. You’d be forgiven for failing to notice the guard tower and barracks peering over the walls of their garden.

Höss was the real-life commandant of Auschwitz: each morning he kisses the children goodbye and strolls next door to oversee the unthinkable. Hedwig tends to the roses in her immaculate garden. Is a flower still beautiful if it’s on the same soil as Auschwitz? Glazer, in one sequence of close-ups, forces us to contemplate an answer.

Höss ran Auschwitz as a factory for torture and murder in which the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum estimate 1.1 million men, women and children were killed. Yet most striking about the film is in Glazer’s staunch refusal to literally depict the horrors of the camp.

Save for one horrific low-angle shot of Höss with plumes of black smoke billowing from behind his head, Glazer is far more interested in showing the luxurious comforts that Höss and Hedwig were afforded by their proximity to atrocity.

Hüller plays Hedwig like a curled python: in one scene she tries on a fur coat pillaged from a new arrival to the camp and excitedly finds a lipstick in the pocket, in another she threatens to have a servant’s ashes scattered in the fields of Babice for mislaying the table.

The extremes of Hedwig’s personality contrast with Höss’, who appears happy to do the job and be content in his belief that he’s doing the right thing. We see him stop to pet a dog and you’d be forgiven for forgetting that this was the man who, on multiple occasions, condemned random prisoners to death by starvation over the escape of one inmate. A man of contrasts, then, in a film bursting with them.

Lee, who runs Mockingbird Cinema, is keen to stress before the screening that the projector isn’t broken; after a brief credits over foggy whiteness, we sit in blackness for at least a minute while Mica Levi’s expressionistic score belches and whines like some infernal machine. Evil has no banal middle-ground, Glazer stresses. It’s black and white. You’re complicit or you aren’t.

There is a pall of rot seeped into the very images we see. Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal shoot entirely in natural light, which renders the image as sickeningly muted and pale.

Some of the characters, like Hedwig’s mother Linna (Imogen Kogge), retch and splutter incessantly. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of living downwind from a furnace. Or maybe it’s just an alignment of body and soul.

The dissonance between ignorance and complicity is evoked too by Johnny Burn’s superlative sound design which through-scores the entire film with the sounds of the unthinkable. The constant screaming, the barking of dogs, the chugging of furnaces. Set against constant depictions of domestic comfort it’s legitimately nauseating.

A glimmer of hope is found in a young Polish girl inhabiting the titular Zone – an area surrounding Auschwitz that was still closely monitored by the Nazis – who sneaks into the camp under the cover of night to hide apples for the prisoners.

Glazer and Żal shoot these scenes in monochrome infrared and perhaps lay it on a bit thick, ostensibly suggesting that the act of hiding food in Auschwitz is so kind that it breaks the colour spectrum.

But when placed alongside Glazer’s climactic coup de cinema, which quietly pulls us into the present, it suggests that the good of humanity will only prevail if its evils are preserved for all to reckon with. How will we know ourselves otherwise?

This is punishingly forceful filmmaking from one of our most vital cinematic artists. The dissonance between what we see and hear in The Zone of Interest plunges us into an abyss of torture and picnics, of lilacs and drownings.

It slices through the noise of contemporary debate like a scalpel along flesh; the evil of Glazer’s vision of Auschwitz is not banal or ignorant, it is willing and glad. I can think of no artwork so horrendously necessary for our species to witness.

The Zone of Interest – official trailer

The Zone of Interest releases in cinemas on 2 February with preview screenings at Mockingbird Cinema on 27 and 28 January. For Birmingham screenings follow the below links:

The Electric Cinema: www.electricbirmingham.com
MAC: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/cinema/the-zone-of-interest
Mockingbird Cinema: www.mockingbirdcinema.com/production/the-zone-of-interest/

For more on The Zone of Interest visit: www.a24films.com/films/the-zone-of-interest

2:22 A Ghost Story at The Alexandra Theatre – running until 20 January

Words by Ed King / Production pics by Johan Persson

“If Ghosts don’t exist, then why do people see them…?”

It’s a fair question, the eternal question, and for Danny Robins it has become an obsession underpinning a career. The one-time standup comedian has done OK from the undead, having penned and produced such well known podcasts as Haunted, The Battersea Poltergeist, and Uncanny.

But for most of us the idea of ghosts can produce fear, scorn, doubt, or even comfort, which is the game play for the four principal characters in 2:22 A Ghost Story – called as such because at 2:22am every morning Jenny (Fiona Wade) hears a man shuffling and crying in her daughter’s bedroom.

Her husband, Sam (George Rainsford), is away on a business trip and Jenny is left in a new and unfamiliar house alone … or is she?

The play is set in the living room and kitchen, with Sam’s old friend and possibly more, Lauren (Vera Chok), invited round for a dinner party, with the challenge being to stay up until the row of twos appear on the kitchen clock. Lauren’s brought Ben (Jay McGuiness) her new flame, thermostat expert, oh yeah and son of a medium – helpful when you literally offer a poltergeist a seat at the table.

Sam is ‘team sceptic’ and Jenny is ‘team believer’, phrases any listener of the podcast Uncanny will be all too familiar with, and Lauren and Ben are the grey area in between.

There’s character backstory that bring some familiar facets of the ghost delusion (hat tip to Dickie) to the fore, such as Jenny’s religious background and Sam’s unwavering need to prove his position – as well as Lauren’s need to challenge and Ben’s personal experience of fitting in.

But in essence it’s a discussion, one I’d suspect most people watching the play will have had at one point or another – otherwise they’d be in a different theatre. And the acting across the board is superb, with some standout first night confidence from Jay McGuiness – the cast member with more singing and dancing credits on his portfolio that down the line drama.

The lighting is simple and effective too, using blackouts (and I mean blackouts, I overheard one of the front of house staff kvetching about trying to find their way out of the stalls), lightning strike strobes, and framing the whole thing in a bold red border that creeps you out in between scenes.

I would have a word with whomever is operating the smoke machine though, which comes into play every time Ben pops backstage (the garden) for a cigarette, as they could do with taking their finger off the button a bit earlier – unless the laughs from the front row were some intended light relief.

Confidently directed by Matthew Dunster and Isobel Marr, firm hands with excellent credentials covering both established drama and new writing, this is a play that lives or dies (pun intended) on the strength of the script and those delivering it.

So, let’s look at that with the lights on. Save a few swear words that might surprise someone who followed the 12+ age guidance to the letter, it’s brilliant.

It’s not Shakespeare or Pinter, and it’s not trying to be – 2:22 A Ghost Story is a play about a possibly haunted house in modern day Greater London and the relationships between and behind the people on stage experiencing it – and by proxy, us all off stage too. And it works.

In fact, the weakest moment is the one bit I can’t tell you about, but you’ll probably love it (I can be ‘team sceptic’ when it comes to script writing) and by the time the penny drops it won’t affect your night out either way.

2:22 A Ghost Story is an engaging, funny, sometimes scary look at paranormal phenomena – beautifully acted by the 2024 cast. And if you’ve been interested enough in ghosts and ghost stories to read this review, you’ll love it.

2:22 A Ghost Story runs at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until 20 January, with a BSL performance at 2:30pm on Saturday 20 January. For more information and direct links to online ticket sales, visit: www.222aghoststory.com

For more from The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, visit: www.atgtickets.com/venues/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham/

Jack and the Beanstalk at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall – running until 31 December

Words & pic of cast by Amelia Daly

The pantomime, a cherished English tradition often underestimated in its artistry, set the stage for a magical evening as we settled into our seats at Sutton Town Hall for Talegate Theatre’s production of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Anticipating an enchanting Christmas-filled performance, the dimming lights accentuated the glow of head crowns and scattered plastic toys throughout the audience. The atmosphere buzzed with anticipation, particularly among the children perched on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting the show to commence.

Danny Mills, with his impeccable outfits and comedic ability, undeniably stole the show with his spot-on portrayal of the Dame, captivating the audience with every appearance. His comedic timing delivered the classic panto lines with ease whilst still making us feel shocked. And, adding another string to his bow, the majority of the diverse array of outfits worn by Mills were handmade by the talented actor himself. Stepping onto the stage in a striking cow-print ensemble, complete with a stylish hat and a ‘hot to trot’ necklace, Mills seamlessly blended camp and fashion.

The rest of the cast varied in quality; some of the singing fell short, and the acting was occasionally unconvincing. However, the ‘art of panto’ was mastered by certain cast members more effectively than others. Notably, Billy, portrayed by Tommy Murry, captured the essence of high energy and slapstick timing admirably. Jack, played by Harry Hindley, showcased commendable singing ability and portrayed believable character moments. Although both of their dancing lacked consistency and occasionally fell out of sync.

The choice of casting a woman, Rachel Richards, as the villain Slimeball was a refreshing departure from the norm and added a unique dimension. However, Richards failed to evoke a sense of intimidation; the antagonist lacked the menacing presence needed to elicit fear – even that onstage anticipation as an audience shouts out where the enemy may or may not be standing.

Nevertheless, the giant was genuinely scary, and the costumed performers shined, including the cow that, at times, stole the spotlight with their physical performance. The dance musical number stood out as another highlight, flawlessly performed by a group of incredibly heartwarming and adorable young dancers who – alongside Mills – confidently stole the show.

The obligatory inclusion of audience participation, especially the game of catch and throwing a necklace full of toilet rolls, brought a delightful interactive element that connected well with the crowd. (Perhaps my personal experience enhanced the enjoyment, as I happened to be an adept catcher of the toilet roll, making it a particularly memorable and engaging moment for me.)

However, at the beginning of the second act, when Jack and Billy successfully reached the top of the beanstalk, the humour took an unfortunate turn with repeated fat jokes aimed at the Dame. And in the context of 2023, such jokes feel cheap, outdated, and lacking humour.

While pantomimes often embrace plot holes and playfully poke fun at themselves, the notion that the Dame couldn’t ascend a ‘magic’ beanstalk due to a certain size felt strained. Especially considering that a four-legged cow effortlessly navigated the same beanstalk several times.

Overall, Talegate Theatre’s production of Jack in the Beanstalk at Sutton Town Hall was a delightful night that perfectly encapsulated what a local pantomime should be — a fantastic dose of Christmas fun. The show catered wonderfully to a diverse audience, ensuring enjoyment for every member of the family. Regardless of whether the actors hit every mark, the cast were great at creating a fun atmosphere.

If I were a resident of the Royal Town, or could get my way to Sutton Town Hall, I would undoubtedly make the trip to experience this festive piece of joy during the holiday season.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall until 31 December, as presented by Talegate Theatre Productions – with tickets priced from £19/26 (children aged 2-16) and £26/29 (adults).

For more information and links to online ticket sales visit: www.suttoncoldfieldtownhall.com/pantomime-2023

For more on Talegate Theatre Productions visit: www.talegatetheatre.co.uk

For more from Sutton Coldfield Town Hall visit: www.suttoncoldfieldtownhall.com