Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Scottsboro Boys @ The Garrick Theatre



Kander and Ebb always merged their entertaining musicals with a strong social message.  The Scottsboro Boys is no exception, even if it leans a little heavily on its message to the detriment of entertainment.

The show follows the true story of nine young black men in 1930s Alabama, falsely accused of raping two white women.  The actual plot is fairly basic, following the men through multiple trials and the injustice they face purely for their skin colour.  Hayward Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon) emerges as the leader of the group – a determined man wedded to the truth - but really this is a stunning piece of ensemble work from a consistently strong cast.

What makes the show, though, is its form, with the narrative ironically framed as a minstrel show.  The juxtaposition of a dark comedic tone and serious issues twists the form into unnerving satire, the cast mimicking bigoted white folk through grotesque, cartoonish characterisation.  The two white women, for instance, are played by James T Lane and Dex Lee with hilarious effect, which only emphasises the shock factor.  It’s an incredibly provocative show: you will laugh and question in equal measure.  And in solemn moments where the humour pauses (the ending especially), the show proves its worth through powerful imagery and storytelling.

The set design, from Beowulf Boritt, is barebones, cleverly using just a set of chairs to evoke everything from a cell to a bus.  Whilst this does provide focus, the show does lack a little in its visual stimulus.  The all-white costumes, too, are a little contrived.  Likewise, the score is brilliant but is missing the big tunes of Chicago and Cabaret.  Instead, Kander and Ebb settle for vaudeville pastiche to serve the style rather than provide pure musical entertainment.

It’s in the performances that the show truly shines.  Susan Stroman’s direction and choreography is superb, the cast offering some terrific physical performances alongside some of the best dance sequences in the West End.  Colman Domingo (Mr Bones) and Forrest McClendon (Mr Tambo) are particularly enjoyable to watch as the amusing comperes of the show, playing a variety of physically distinctive characters.  Vocally, too, the cast are excellent – one a capella moment especially shows off their voices to gorgeous effect.

The Scottsboro Boys may not be the strongest show in the Kander and Ebb canon, but this production still packs an emotional punch with its earnest social agenda.

4/5

Watch: The Scottsboro Boys runs at the Garrick Theatre until February 2015.


Monday, 20 October 2014

Fury (2014) - David Ayer


If there’s one thing that Fury does well, it’s depict a terrifying vision of the horrors of war.  Set in WWII, this is an unflinching and brutal film: men are stabbed in the eyes, shot at numerous times and frequently burnt alive.  It is far from a pleasant watch.

What’s more terrifying, though, is the abhorrent characterisation.  The plot follows an American tank crew journeying through Nazi Germany as they gleefully and sadistically pummel the enemy with machine gun fire.  Almost every man on screen is motivated by testosterone-fuelled machismo, manly posturing substituted for deep acting.  The claustrophobic camerawork inside the tank forces us to question the morality of each flimsy, stereotypical character: the religious man, the violent man, the token Mexican.  Brad Pitt’s crew leader Don Collier at least shows some emotion and fragility away from the rest of the crew, but it’s hardly a complex role.  The generic performances would be bearable if the actors stopped persistently mumbling their lines.  They are simply bullies who see murdering the “mother f*cking Nazis” as sport.

The audience witnesses the narrative through the eyes of Norman (Logan Lerman): a young, naïve boy newly assigned as assistant driver on the tank.  He is a good person, a conduit for our reasoned morality who refuses to pull the trigger and treats women with kindness.  Yet this is a film about how war turns good men into monsters.  We are meant to question who the real enemy is – the predominantly faceless, silhouetted Nazis, or the monsters the camera forces us to confront.  Soon (too quickly) even Norman is swept up in the war, swearing and firing with abandon.  This may make sense thematically, but narratively it leaves us with nobody to sympathise with.  For these men, killing is “the best job I ever had”.  You may start to wish the Nazis were winning.

Mostly, this is a film that tells us how to feel.  It’s emotionally charged with an eminently quotable script and a cast of hateful characters.  We have no choice but to dislike every man on the screen, to feel guilty about the atrocities that occurred.  This is not a subtly thought-provoking film; this is a film that explicitly presents us with grim violence to funnel our thoughts down a specific path.  Steven Price’s emotive score only fuels the fire.  Over the course of the film, we become desensitised to the sheer amount of brutality but we never warm to the characters.

Director David Ayer proves his worth with the action sequences that ensure Fury is an exhilarating, visceral and tense watch, but it lacks the developed characters to hold the emotional weight of the narrative.  “You’re a hero buddy” Norman is told at the end of the film.  You’ll feel like one for sitting through it.

2/5

Watch: Fury is released on 22nd October.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ella Henderson - Chapter One



After the huge success of Ghost, it's a dead cert that Ella Henderson is set to be the next long-term star from the show.  'Chapter One' is a solid, confident debut album (and a vast improvement on that from James Arthur who eventually beat her in the competition), but it's not quite pop perfection.

Ghost established the soulful, gospel sound that's become Henderson's trademark, but it's no surprise that, as the only song written by Ryan Tedder, it's far and away the album's highlight.  Henderson had a hand in writing each track, proving she's certainly a competent songwriter, but nothing quite lives up to that opening single.

Thankfully 'Chapter One' is a surprisingly varied affair.  Empire offers a soaring, militaristic feel; Glow takes her in a darker, electronic direction; Mirror Man is a sexy, stomping retro anthem; The First Time is one of many songs in which scorn is turned into a bright, catchy melody; and Rockets sees Henderson at her breeziest.  It's in these uptempo tracks that she's at her best, with a pop sound that blends retro chic with modern soul - even if it verges on Radio 2 territory at times.

As she proved on X Factor, though, Henderson was always queen of the ballads.  Yet it's here that the album stumbles.  Exposed piano lament Yours falls flat; Hard Work is a sugary twee 50s ballad; and All Again is essentially the winner's single she was denied.  Give Your Heart Away at least has some depth to its modern power ballad sound, just on the right side of cheesy.  That's not to mention the myriad of soundalike ballads included on the deluxe version.  All that emoting just becomes tiresome.

The comparisons to Adele are somewhat unavoidable, with both artists favouring a retro soul sound to carry their big vocals.  Whilst vocally strong (if a little grating), Henderson just doesn't have the same unique tone and her songwriting doesn't carry the same emotional weight.  There's a decent pop album here, though, full of easily likeable, catchy tunes.  And if the Adele comparison has one positive, it's that the inevitable 'Chapter Two' from Henderson will be a massive hit - and deservedly so.

3/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Ghost
* Glow
* Mirror Man

Listen: 'Chapter One' is available now.



Saturday, 18 October 2014

Tinashe - Aquarius


"Welcome to my world", Tinashe purrs at the end of the opening title track.

The thing is, Tinashe's world sounds a lot like everyone else's.  Mark 'Aquarius' alongside the likes of Banks, Jhené Aiko, Dawn Richards and Aaliyah - yes it's another moody, sombre R&B album.  In the absence of a Q4 Rihanna release, this'll have to do.

Yet the LA singer (who writes and produces her own work) undoubtedly stands out from the pack.  This is a slick and sexy release with dark, clipped productions and a soft girlish vocal.  It's simply a stronger overall package than that of her peers.

As well as her own input, Tinashe has surrounded herself with some top talent.  Fellow producers include the likes of Blood Orange, Stargate and Cashmere Cat, whilst there are features from Dev Hynes, Schoolboy Q, Future and A$AP Rocky.  That said, Tinashe's own voice remains the strongest - she's far from a weak vocalist used as a conduit for others.

Where other similar artists are pushing towards a cold, metallic future, Tinashe has a pleasingly retro slant that harks back to a 00s R&B sound indebted to Timbaland.  The finger-clicks of 2 On; the smooth soulful sound of How Many Times; the upbeat pop feel of All Hands On Deck; or the pure pop brilliance of Wildfire and its shattering snare drum.  And who else does live performances with dance routines like this anymore?

That old school influence blurs with a modern sensibility for an overall sound that brings R&B up to date, with a chart-friendly, soulful edge.  The title track provides a spacey introduction before the clipped beats, ominous sub bass and sensual melodies of Bet.  That continues in Cold Sweat and Feels Like Vegas, whilst Pretend puts a modern spin on an R&B ballad.  'Aquarius' sags a little in the second half and the interludes are largely unnecessary, yet it's an album packed with potential singles.

Tinashe's sound might be indebted to some key influences but with an album this polished, she's taken the best bits of Aaliyah (sadly no longer with us), Ciara (seemingly dead career) and Rihanna (lost?) and made them her own.  It's clear that 'Aquarius' really is the dawning of a new star.

4/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Bet
* Pretend
* Wildfire

Listen: 'Aquarius' is available now.



Friday, 17 October 2014

The Drop (2014) – Michaël R. Roskam


A film about one man and his dog, The Drop will appeal to anyone keen to watch Tom Hardy cuddling a puppy for two hours. More so, this film will be remembered as the final performance from the late James Gandolfini before he tragically died of heart attack in 2013.

Set in the grim, bleak surroundings of working-class Brooklyn, the narrative revolves around the fictional notion of ‘the drop’: a covert scheme whereby each night a certain bar is chosen as a drop point for criminal money, before being funnelled to local gangsters. Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) runs one such bar under the ownership of ex-gangster Cousin Marv (Gandolfini), but when he unwittingly becomes the victim of a robbery he is drawn into the criminal underworld.

Along the way he rescues an abused pit bull puppy from a trashcan and, together with his emotionally damaged neighbour Nadia (Noomi Rapace) they nurse him back to health. A relationship soon develops between them that becomes strained once the dog’s real owner returns. Just as Bob rescues the puppy, the puppy is his own escape route from a life of crime.

In a distrusting and dreary neighbourhood, Bob is undoubtedly the good guy. We first witness him handing out free drinks to console some mourning customers and he frequently visits the local church. He is generous and benevolent, the local saint. He even names his pooch Rocco after the patron saint of dogs. Yet however righteous he may be, he remains associated with criminals and hides a dark past. Hardy gives a nuanced performance that balances the endearing and dangerous sides of the character, along with a clipped vocal. Rapace and Gandolfini are also well cast in their respective roles.

The Drop is a slow building crime thriller, with a slightly loose narrative that remains gripping. It might not do anything out of the ordinary, but the excellent performances ensure the film does just enough to keep us entertained.

3/5

Watch: The Drop screens at the London Film Festival, with general release in the UK on 14th November.


Foxcatcher (2014) – Bennett Miller


Foxcatcher, from the director of Moneyball and Capote, is essentially trying to be David O. Russell’s Oscar winning The Fighter. Yet it simply doesn’t have the same calibre of acting talent to pull it off.

As with that other sports movie, this is a biographical drama of brotherly love. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play brothers Mark and David Schultz: the former an Olympic Gold Medal winning wrestler, the latter his revered trainer. The competitive nature between them is palpable in the early stages. One particular training scene perfectly mirrors their relationship – it begins tenderly enough but gradually becomes more aggressive and violent.

Mark seeks to escape the shadow of his older brother and is easily lured to the Foxcatcher estate by wealthy heir John du Pont (Steve Carell) and his speeches of honour and patriotism. Du Pont is desperate to coach a world-class wrestling team with Mark at the head; moreover, he longs for the respect of his disapproving mother (a scene stealing Vanessa Redgrave). Soon du Pont’s manipulative nature and destructive lifestyle take the fore, dragging both brothers into his corrupt world.

Du Pont is an utterly loathsome and unsympathetic character, living at home with his overbearing mother who treats him like a child. A proud man and drunk on power, his clearly Republican views manifest as extreme jingoism. He spends his money on a US army tank and surrounds himself, like a president, with white walls and trophies. He even demands to be known as ‘Eagle’, with a beak-like nose to match. Yet Carell struggles with the demands of the character and is almost impossible to take seriously with such ridiculous prosthetics.  The Psycho-esque relationship with his mother is also under-explored.

Tatum, meanwhile, is significantly lacking in acting chops. He’s well known for his physical roles, whether dancing, stripping or, here, wrestling and is clearly trying to follow in the footsteps of his Magic Mike co-star Matthew McConaughey. Yet for most of the film he simply lumbers around the screen like a gorilla, all mumbled words, jutted chin and heavy limbs. Only Ruffalo brings warmth to the film as family man David, yet even he (as with the other characters) suffers from a lack of character development that ultimately leaves the film flat.

No amount of self-congratulatory hugging and back clapping can heighten Foxcatcher beyond melodramatic bromance. Such abhorrent characters may be based in fact, but reading the history books would be more entertaining than this soulless piece of film.

2/5

Watch: Foxcatcher screens at the London Film Festival, with general release in the UK in January 2015.


Mommy (2014) – Xavier Dolan


Mommy is a film that’s striking for many reasons. But what’s immediately apparent is its use of a 1.1 aspect ratio. It’s a perfect square, not only framing the characters and focusing our attention, but also suggesting inescapable claustrophobia. For one brief moment towards the end the screen expands – a dream of happiness and freedom, of redemption, of hope. Yet it remains, ultimately a dream.

Hope is a key theme of the film in what is a striking, daring and highly provocative narrative. The Oedipus complex has provided influence for countless filmmakers, yet in Mommy it manifests in disturbing fashion. Diane (Anne Dorval) is our protagonist, a desperate mother forced to look after her violent, ADHD-suffering son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) when he is removed from a detention centre in French-speaking Canada. The film explores their relationship as, with the assistance of their naïve, stammering and inquisitive neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément), they attempt to move on with their lives.

There’s no doubt that life would be easier without Steve. Eccentric and highly sexualised, he flips unpredictably from dangerous and abusive, to misunderstood. His love for his mother manifests in unsettling ways; for one, he never actually calls her ‘mommy’ – in fact he calls her anything but and only seems to respond to violence. Pilon’s performance is humorous yet horrifying. Diane is hardly a role model though. Foul language, sexuality and alcohol feature heavily in her life – she is comical yet fearless and devoted to her troubled son. Somehow their dysfunctional partnership works, though it eventually takes its toll on her with dire, heart-breaking consequences.

Hope is ever present though, with director Xavier Dolan utilising a warm colour palette to enrich each location. It’s a visual style that contrasts with the shocking narrative and the intoxicating performances therein.

The use of music, too, is striking, though this is the film’s only major misstep. Songs such as Dido’s White Flag, Counting Crows’ Colourblind and Oasis’ Wonderwall are included almost in their entirety, which gives the film the feeling of a pop video. This only seems anachronistic to the drama, jarringly removing the audience from the film’s world. Ending with Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die provides a laughable, clichéd climax.

Mommy remains a striking view of the struggles of motherhood – a tough watch that pushes the audience to thought-provoking extremes.

4/5

Watch: Mommy screens at the London Film Festival.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Whiplash (2014) - Damien Chazelle


There comes a point in every musician’s career when they reach a crossroads: do you push yourself that bit further to become the best you can be, or do you give up?  What is it that drives us towards perfection?  Does practice really make perfect?

Whiplash is a film that explores the idea of fear as a motivator.  We’ve all had that teacher (whether in music or not) who scares you into silence and paralysis.  For some of us it’s a deterrent; for others it pushes us towards achievement.  Director Damien Chazelle captures this in a film of unparalleled intensity that deserves plenty of Oscar nominations next year.

This is an old-meets-new depiction of New York City, juxtaposing cool icy modernism with the dazzling warmth of the limelight.  Jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) is in his first year at music conservatory where he is invited to join the core jazz band, led by conductor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).  An utter perfectionist, Fletcher leads the band with military precision, bullying the musicians through physical and verbal abuse.  In one scene he dismisses a trombonist purely because he was unsure about his tuning.  Yet in Andrew he’s met his match.  Inspired by the jazz greats, Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich especially, Andrew aspires to be a legend, to the detriment of his personal relationships.  He’s unable to hold a girlfriend, his arrogance destroys his family relationships and he sulks around the corridors without any friends.  Fletcher simply wants to push his students beyond what’s expected of them, yet his methods are highly questionable.  For him, “good job” are the two most harmful words in the English language.  In today’s instant fame-obsessed world, Whiplash is a film that highlights the passion and hard work needed to achieve celebrity status – whatever the cost.

As Fletcher, Simmons is the embodiment of pure evil.  This is a terrifying, tyrannical performance that haunts long after the credits – perhaps the greatest screen villain of the year.  His duplicitous, manipulative nature is equally captivating yet horrifying.  One minute he’s lulling the musicians into a false sense of security with kind words, the next he’s using emotional tactics, horrendous insults and physical abuse to instil total fear.  With a single, slight hand movement he has complete control over the musicians, the camera and the audience – he is truly conducting the drama.  There’s plenty of black humour too: “just relax” he coos to Andrew with a wry smile.  Yet he’s not an entirely unsympathetic character.  There’s undoubtedly a certain noble integrity to his single-mindedness and his passion.  It’s his methods that are under scrutiny.

The Faustian parallels are clear, with Andrew selling his soul to the demonic, sadistic Fletcher in order to become the best drummer he can be.  The chemistry between the two actors is highly charged, each a formidable foil to the other.  That Teller actually played the drums himself is a remarkable achievement, but in a film where practice really does make perfect, his physicality and endurance is astonishing.  With the film completed in just 19 days, his exhaustion is tangible.

Further, this is a film that emphasises the physicality of musicianship and the rigorous discipline required rather than mental genius.  The dynamic camera is edited to every beat and pulse of the music, extreme close-ups visualising literally the blood, sweat and tears of performance.  As such, Chazelle’s cinematography absolutely heightens the tension.  Like the hypnotic drum roll that opens the film, Whiplash builds intensely through an almighty narrative crescendo before firing like a machine gun in its climactic final scene.  It's a battle of nerves: with a distinct lack of dialogue, emotion pours from every drum beat and acute facial expression.

This is simply an extraordinary piece of cinema, combining music and visual storytelling in explosive unison.

5/5

Watch: Whiplash screens at the London Film Festival, with general release in January 2015.


White Bird In A Blizzard (2014) – Gregg Araki


White Bird In A Blizzard puts a spin on familiar tropes. It harks back to 80s cinema with its detailed setting, soundtrack and precocious adolescent characters, all heightened by its dreamlike style.

This is a narrative of strong women drawn to weak men. Kat (Shailene Woodley) is a sexually active teenager who resents her parents. Her mother Eve (Eva Green) is a bored housewife, jealous of her daughter’s beauty; her father Brock (Christopher Meloni) is his wife’s doormat, pathetic and doting. Theirs is a dysfunctional family – to the point that when Eva goes missing, nobody seems overly bothered.

What ensues is a family drama wrapped up in a mystery. We witness the breakdown of the family through flashbacks paralleling Kat moving on with her life and discovering her sexuality, the family secrets gradually unfurling. The major issue with the film, though, is that the narrative is dissatisfying, its twists and turns easily predicted and all too familiar.  You can see the film's climactic denouement coming a mile off.

That said, the surreal, dreamlike pacing of the film draws the audience into the plot. Kat dreams of her mother, shown through stylised blizzard sequences, whilst a shoegaze soundtrack punctuates the whole film. Director Gregg Araki has created a meticulous vision of 80s small-town America, with authentic costumes and hair, all bathed in a soft, warm glow.  In some ways its style bears resemblance to Donnie Darko, but without the mind-bending plot.

Mostly, it’s the performances that impress. Woodley’s Kat is a cool, sexy and convincing protagonist, but it’s Green who truly steals the film, lighting up every frame she features in. Her portrayal of the lonely Eve is devastating: a faded beauty living vicariously through her daughter. She flips from lurking in corners to putting on a grand, alcohol-fuelled show of sex appeal, with a gravelly voice to match. It’s a performance of poised madness – a real shame, then, that she’s so underused.

3/5

Watch: White Bird In A Blizzard screens at the London Film Festival, with general release on 16th October in the UK.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Memphis @ The Shaftesbury Theatre


Beverley Knight was never given the credit she deserved as a popstar. She has one of the best voices in the UK but until recently it's gone largely under-appreciated. However, it seems she has found a new home on the West End stage, with Memphis following an impressive run in The Bodyguard. Now, finally, she is coming into her own as a performer: a consummate actor, her vocals are monumental as she riffs and growls like you wouldn't believe. How is that voice coming from such a tiny body?

In short Beverley Knight is a sensation.

Thankfully she's backed up by a stellar cast in this production that narrates the tale of black club singer Felicia (Knight) in 1950s Memphis who becomes a star with the aid of hapless white radio presenter Huey (Killian Donnelly). Donnelly’s piercing vocals may not have the same richness of tone as those of his fellow cast members (namely Tyrone Huntley as Gator and Jason Pennycooke as Bobby), but his passion is palpable. As an ensemble, the whole cast create a formidable sound.

Their singing is accompanied by a sometimes on-stage band playing a rousing score that combines rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and gospel, as written by Bon Jovi co-founder David Bryan. Though full of soul and groove, the score is more a vehicle for the performers’ talents: just catchy enough whilst allowing the singers to freely play with the melodies. It’s not until the final number that we are really given a memorable tune.

The narrative, too, takes a backseat to the music. This is a story of racial integration that tackles its issues head on – mainly the inclusion of both black and white performers on the radio and on the television. The comparisons to Hairspray are obvious, but where that show Disney-fied its story somewhat (albeit with catchier songs), Memphis doesn’t shy away from showing abuse. Still, the focus is black dependency on the white man rather than veritable racial freedom – but then, that’s history.

It’s the performers and the production that truly bring this sexy, exuberant show to life from book to stage. The set design (David Gallo) remains clear despite plenty of moving parts and changes; the spectacular choreography (Sergio Trujillo) is energetically performed (skipping rope aside); and the singing is amongst the best you’ll hear on the West End stage.

And then there’s Beverley…

4/5

Watch: Memphis runs at the Shaftesbury Theatre until March 2015.

Ticket courtesy of Official Theatre.