Friday, 31 October 2014

The Vikings of Helgeland @ The Drayton Arms Theatre



With the rise in popularity of TV shows like Game of Thrones and Vikings, it seems it was only a matter of time before Ibsen’s The Vikings of Helgeland was brought to the stage, here in its London premiere.  With its atmospheric use of rousing orchestral music, authentic fur costumes and rustic wooden set, this production certainly has the look and feel of an epic drama.

In actuality, the narrative has a much smaller scale.  A family drama set in 10th century Norway, it involves the children of the authoritarian Viking Ornulf (John McLear) – predominantly his daughter Dagny (Emma Kemp) and adopted daughter Hjordis (Roseanna Lynch) who steal away with their rivalling warrior lovers.  What ensues is a tale of revenge and honour, a family at war and sorcery.

Despite the onstage fire, the cast don’t quite show the necessary passion to set the drama ablaze.  The romantic twists of the second half are much needed to inject some excitement into the narrative, yet they come too late and are easily predicted.  The male leads, though intensely performed by Harry Anton (Sigurd) and Fergus Leathem (Gunnar), are neither aggressive barbarians nor poetic heroes, whilst Emma Kemp’s Dagny is too naïve and girlish.  As such, it’s Roseanne Lynch who offers an inspired performance as the proud and manipulative Hjordis who delves into witchcraft.  Lynch truly commits to the role, bringing some magic to the stage.

Ibsen may have aimed for Shakespearean grandeur with this play, but it delivers neither the drama nor the poetry of the Bard.  The script is verbose and provides little action, comedy or romance.  As such, the pacing is sluggish, in need of some light relief amongst all the brooding speeches.  It’s certainly an ambitious play to take on, but the cast don’t quite offer believable depth of character.

What director Antonio Ferrara and designer Caitlin Abbott do nail is a suitably evocative mood.  The minimalist set hints at frosty snowscapes; past legends are shown through mythical silhouettes; Gunnar’s child is depicted by a truly terrifying looking puppet; and the cast all perform with Scottish accents – not quite Norwegian but appropriately gruff and consistent across the board.  Yet for a play about brutal warriors, passionate romance, tragic deaths and a touch of the occult, it all feels a little bloodless.

3/5


Watch: The Vikings of Helgeland runs at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 22nd November.



Thursday, 30 October 2014

La Bohéme - ENO @ The Coliseum


Is there an opera more Romantic than La Bohéme?  Not just a tragic, doomed love story, the whole notion of heroic bohemian artists working outside of mainstream tastes in relative poverty is built on the foundations of Romanticism.

In Jonathan Miller’s realistically portrayed production of Puccini’s opera (now in its third revival), it’s the latter that’s emphasised.  Isabella Bywater’s multi-tiered, rotating set design has a suitably cold palette, transporting us from shabby interiors to atmospheric snow covered cobbled streets.  It’s brought to life by the scurrying, ever-busy chorus – the bustling Café Momus scene of Act II is a particular highlight.  This isn’t a radical production; the setting has been updated to 1930s era Paris, but the clear and traditional aesthetic ensures the narrative is lucid and the music is the key focus.  That’s a welcome trait – Bohéme is not to be messed with.

That balance can’t be said of conductor Gianluca Marciano.  The English translation of the libretto from Amanda Holden (no not that one) is full of comedy as well as pathos, even if the rhyming is sometimes stilted.  It’s a shame, though, that the words are so frequently overpowered by the sometimes indulgent orchestra.  Balance and diction are both issues here.

If the setting is evocative, the acting doesn’t quite have the necessary passion.  American soprano Angel Blue sings the role of Mimi beautifully, delivering a rich tone and subtle fragility, yet her characterisation is too meek to make an impact and her singing is easily overpowered by the orchestra.  On the other hand, David Butt Philip offers an impassioned and tender sing as Rodolfo with a stunning upper register.  Together, the central pair don’t quite have the necessary chemistry.  That’s especially true by comparison to Jennifer Holloway’s flirtatious Musetta and George von Bergen’s hot-blooded Marcello.  Other periphery characters are a little underdeveloped, but the ensemble produce a brilliant sound.

Despite its flaws, there are frequent moments where vocal lyricsm and the sweeping orchestra join harmoniously.  That’s testament to Puccini’s sumtuous score and lush orchestration, which remain incredibly moving.

4/5

Watch: La Bohéme runs until the 6th December.


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Jessie J - Sweet Talker


“I’mma do it like it ain’t been done”, Jessie J sings on the opening track of her latest album.  If by “ain’t been done” she means release an album that won’t flop, she’s thoroughly mistaken.

The thing is, ‘Sweet Talker’ isn’t necessarily a bad album.  There are catchy hooks, some heartfelt lyrics and, most of all, some impressive and passionate vocals.  If there’s one thing that Jessie J does better than most it’s sing.  And she really can SANG.

Yet, three albums in, it’s clear that she just doesn’t know what sort of artist to be anymore.  Criticised at every turn, her previous albums have contained hip-hop anthems, pop anthems, ballad anthems, feminist anthems and everything in between.  Now the anthems are running thin, offering nothing we haven’t heard before.  ‘Sweet Talker’ falls into an odd safe zone that accomplishes nothing.  But where else can she go?

Seal Me With A Kiss is an album highlight that at least offers something different (for Jessie at least).  Featuring De La Soul, it’s a 90s style funk banger that proves to be a decent fit for her vocal riffs and ticks – even if the middle eight rap from De La Soul is terrible (“girl you know I can’t sleep ‘till I poke”).  Elsewhere Burnin’ Up is another attempt to recapture the essence of Do It Like A Dude; Keep Us Together is a catchy piano-led mid-tempo pop track; the title track falls into the EDM trap; and Bang Bang is as shouty as pop tracks come.

For the most part, the album is a series of (supposedly) powerful ballads.  Fire soars like an unstoppable inferno, her vocal becoming increasingly crazed.  The raw emotion of Personal is lost in typically over-cooked singing.  Get Away finally ends the album on a much needed quiet note.  The main criticism against Jessie J is that her singing is emphatic to the point of hyperbole, her music so overblown it slips into melodrama.  ‘Sweet Talker’ does nothing to address this issue.  She’s always been at her best when she doesn’t take herself so seriously – Do It Like A Dude, Domino and, here, Seal Me With A Kiss – but in her desire to be taken seriously by both critics and public she’s taken things too far.  A frequent occurrence.

Her response is the dramatic Masterpiece.  “If you don’t like my sound, you can turn it down”, she spits, “Sometimes I mess up, I eff up, I hit and miss, but I’m ok, I’m cool with it”.  Is she?  Over the course of the three albums, you get the impression that Jessie J is something of a perfectionist, yet by constantly striving for perfection she’s shooting herself in the foot by releasing an endless string of ‘bangers’ that never quite hit the mark.  In the search for her enigmatic masterpiece she should probably take her own advice: nobody’s perfect.

2/5

Gizzle’s Choice
* Personal
* Seal Me With A Kiss
* Keep Us Together

Listen: ‘Sweet Talker’ is available now.



Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Grand Guignol @ The Southwark Playhouse


There’s a fine line between horror and humour.  Too much gore and screaming and the audience will be lost in fits of laughter.  Grand Guignol, however, manages to balance things, serving shocks and laughs in equal doses.

The Theatre du Grand-Guignol in Paris (1897-1962) was known for its horror dramas.  Its plays were filled with so much explicit violence and frights aplenty that a resident doctor was employed to care for the audience.  Tales of murder, revenge and sadism delighted audiences, effectively delivering the torture porn in many of today’s horror films.

This particular play, written by Carl Grose and transferring from the Theatre Royal Plymouth, is a fictionalised account of the theatre in its heyday.  It focuses on playwright Andre De Lorde (Jonathan Broadbent), a tortured artist whose sick mind conjures up gruesome, macabre stories for his adoring audience.  He is met by psychologist Dr Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson) whose interest in the theatre extends to De Lorde himself – what kind of man could write such stories?  Hilariously, De Lorde is haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe who provides him with inspiration, though there’s also a wealth of childhood trauma for the doctor to uncover.  It’s all wrapped up in a murder mystery, with a series of grisly murders taking place outside of the theatre walls.  It asks us to question: does art imitate life, or is life imitating art?

With this production, it’s very much art imitating life.  Presenting numerous sections of De Lorde’s plays like dissected corpses, we are literally the audience within the theatre of the play, the fourth wall as transparent as a ghost.  The ceiling above the audience literally shudders at the entrance of Poe, whilst the script is full of actorly jokes that climax with an evil critic (I don’t know what they could possibly mean…).  Some audience members on the front row were even sprayed with blood in this performance.

And there’s enough blood here to make Sweeney Todd look like a pussycat.  As one of the characters jokes, what sells is “guts and tits”.  The play does have a certain creepy atmosphere to it, but it’s soon filled with blood splatters, tongues being cut out, intestines sprawling across the floor and eyeballs being…removed. 

The violence, though, all fits into the melodramatic style of intentionally hammy acting – even if it borders on silly at times.  The story builds on horror clichés, delivered to the audience by the superb cast with a knowing wink and a nudge.  Robert Portal's eyebrows alone bring a sinister edge to the multiple characters he plays, and Emily Raymond is hugely entertaining as Maxa, ‘the world’s most assassinated woman’.  This is a horror play that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  That may deter some people looking for a genuine thrill and, certainly, the play somewhat oversimplifies its psychoanalytical elements.  Yet Grand Guignol is full of gory visual delights that provide laughs at the twisted end of the spectrum this Halloween.

3/5

Watch: Grand Guignol runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 22nd November.

Ticket courtesy of Official Theatre, visit their website here.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Taylor Swift - 1989


This is it.  This is the moment that 2014 has been waiting for.  By comparison to last year’s deluge of comeback albums from huge artists (Beyoncé, Daft Punk, Katy Perry, Gaga, Britney, Justin, Kanye and Eminem to name just a handful), this year has been a veritable desert.  Instead, 2014 has mostly been the year of the debut.  Until now.  Unless Rihanna Beyoncé’s an album, this is the best we’re going to get.  That’s no bad thing.

This is also the moment that Swift herself has been waiting for.  2012’s ‘Red’ was the album that saw her rise from country star to popstar, but ‘1989’ is her real pop breakthrough.  As she said herself at the reveal of lead single Shake It Off a couple of months back, the album has stemmed from “not wanting but needing to write a new style of music”.  The result is not only her best album, but probably the best pop album of the year.

That “new style” is in fact late 80s pop, hence the album title (also her year of birth).  Yet the 80s have been mined for years now by pop musicians – all epic synth waves, bleeps and bloops and processed beats.  Is Swift simply playing catch up?

Oh no, this is no pastiche.  She’s far too savvy for that.  ‘1989’ is a consolidation of all the best pop music from the past few years mixed with that unique Swift sound.  Listening to the album, there are shades of everyone from Katy Perry to CHVRCHES, Haim, Lorde and Twin Shadow amongst others.  The intro of opener Welcome To New York immediately establishes the glittery synthy sound; the sparse production of Blank Space wouldn’t sound out of place on Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’; Style features plenty of soaring guitar solos amidst pulsing synth bass that brings to mind Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer; and the widescreen feel of Out of the Woods is Swift’s twist on CHVRCHES style electro pop.  And that’s just the first four tracks.  Later, ballads like This Love and Clean slow the tempo, fusing country guitars with evocative, nocturnal moods (the layered vocals of the former are an especially beautiful moment).

As if Swift herself wasn’t a competent songwriter, one look at the credits is enough to get pop fans excited: Max Martin, Shellback, Ryan Tedder and even Imogen Heap all assisted with writing and producing ‘1989’.  That’s the dream team right there, the first two especially ensuring the album has that polished Scandi quality that’s pretty much integral to all modern pop music of note.

Amongst all of this, though, ‘1989’ is still very much a Taylor Swift album – indeed it’s a natural extension of her biggest hits from ‘Red’.  The deluxe version of the album includes some voice memos that give insight into her songwriting process.  Strip back the production to just piano and/or guitar and this is the same Swift that fans know and love.  The lyrics remain as honest, truthful and candid as ever, ensuring this is an album with heart and soul rather than just another cold electronic 80s knock-off.  Shake It Off is the only major exception with its jokey lyrics (“this sick beat”, “hella good hair”), but even Swift allows herself a pure pop moment of joy.

In fact, lyrics are at the heart of Swift’s style.  She simply has an uncanny ability to capture youthful love in all its forms.  Here, her lyrics certainly have greater maturity and melancholy than before, but she’s now a woman of 24 rather than a love-struck teenager.  Known for writing about her ex-lovers, Blank Space is perhaps her most self-referential with its chorus lyric “got a long list of ex-lovers / they’ll tell you I’m insane / but I got a blank space baby / and I’ll write your name”.  New Romantics ends the deluxe version with a title that transcends both the 80s genre and Swift's own propensity for romance.  Elsewhere, the lyrics have an urgent cinematic quality (Out of the Woods for instance) and are filled with poetic imagery (Wildest Dreams - “say you’ll remember me standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset”, or Bad Blood – “band-aids don’t fix bullet holes”).  Mostly, Swift proves herself to be a master storyteller through her lyrics.  That’s something that comes from her country heritage; now it’s simply applied to an electronic pop aesthetic.

In that respect, ‘1989’ is an evolution, not a revolution.  It’s also the pinnacle of 00s pop, taking all the clichés of 80s music that have influenced current trends and smacking a big Swift stamp across it all to rise above the competition.  It’s clear, then, that she’s the biggest popstar of 2014.  And with good reason.

5/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Style
* Out of the Woods
* This Love

Listen: '1989' is available now.

My Lifelong Love - An Evening With Georgia Stitt and Friends @ The Garrick Theatre


Making her West End debut with My Lifelong Love, composer Georgia Stitt is still probably best known as the wife of that other composer of modern musical theatre: Jason Robert Brown.  Yet in this one-off evening celebrating her music, she proved that she’s certainly his equal.

Stylistically there are clear similarities between their music.  Both follow a comparable dramatic rhythm, merge word painting and a sense of classical composition with accessible pop melodies, and hold storytelling as a core focus.  Every song is a story in its own right, both composers having a penchant for contemporary subjects – brutally honest and believable love stories in our modern world.  Yet where so many New York composers attempt to replicate JRB’s sound, only Stitt can truly compete.

Stitt isn’t afraid to put herself into her music.  ‘Palimpsest’, for instance, is a song that details her love affair with New York City – her most biographical song – whilst her encore was a song dedicated to her husband.  On a broader scale, her songs of human relationships are relatable and deeply moving – songs like ‘The Wanting Of You’ from Alphabet City Cycle and ‘I Lay My Armour Down’ from This Ordinary Sunday.  Even her setting of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet XXIX’ puts a modern spin on his poetry, with beautiful orchestration.  These songs were all performed in the first half of the concert.  Taken out of context from their respective shows and song cycles, the art song quality ensured they remained dramatically sound (theatre auditionees take note).  The second half featured a work in progress, The Danger Year, a song cycle exploring the need for human connections.  The technological opening number ‘Connect’, the dramatic twists of ‘The Baby Song’, and the amusing ‘A Platonic Affair’ particularly stood out.

This was also an evening to show off the incredible talent currently on the West End.  Simon Bailey, Norman Bowman and Jamie Muscato all gave convincing performances with some beautiful vocals.  Bailey was able to let loose with the rhythm and blues flavoured ‘At This Turn In The Road Again’, whilst Bowman and Muscato both delivered sincere emotion – particularly ‘Sonnet XXIX’ and ‘Light Of The World’.

However, Stitt surely knows how to compose for the female voice; it was the three female performers who truly stood out.  Caroline Sheen’s theatrical vocal ensured her delivery of each song was always imbued with dramatic emotion, whilst Eva Noblezada has a likeable pop tone to her voice that matches her youthful exuberance (especially on the amusing ‘My Lifelong Love’ from The Danger Year).  However, it was Cynthia Erivo who gave the outstanding performance of the night.  Her singing is quite simply sublime: a sumptuous tone, effortless control and the stage presence of a superstar. 

In all, this was an evening of heartfelt storytelling, stunning vocals and an abundance of on-stage talent.  This shouldn’t be the last time Stitt’s music is heard on a West End stage.

5/5

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Spine @ The Soho Theatre


On the surface, Spine is a hilarious little monologue.  Performed by Rosie Wyatt, this is the story of a proper Laaandaaan girl - the crude and aggressive Amy.  She falls out with friends, sleeps with men she probably shouldn't, and has a particularly rocky relationship with her mother.  Wyatt's vivid characterisation - both vocally and physically - is hugely entertaining, delivering Clara Brennan's often vulgar script at amusingly high velocity.  It's a portrayal that carefully balances realism and fiction.

Yet there's more to Amy than meets the eye.  She soon befriends an elderly widow and the two women strike up an unlikely friendship over stolen library books, with more in common than expected.  An activist in her younger days, Mrs Glenda is keen to pass on the baton of political power, proving herself to be far more than just a helpless old woman.  Spine thus becomes a story of inter-generational feminist power; of a misunderstood young girl learning to reach her potential.

It's the sort of thematic richness you'd expect from a longer play, but this one-act monologue is concise and layered, providing plenty of thought-provoking talking points.  Some of the finer details may get lost amongst the characterisation and the plot feels a touch conceited at times, but the pacing is well thought out and the narrative style is intense and gripping.

It's Wyatt's tour-de-force performance that truly impresses - a feat of both memory and acting skill.  Playing both women distinctly, her delivery is brash, comic and surprisingly touching.  This is simply brilliant and engaging storytelling.

4/5

Watch: Spine runs at the Soho Theatre until 2nd November.



Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Rivals @ The Arcola Theatre


On its opening night in 1775, The Rivals was criticised by one actor in the audience as “intolerably long”.  That may still be the case 240 years later, but it remains an enjoyable Restoration romp.

The plot itself is typical of the genre, full of romance and marriage proposals, mistaken identity, deceiving letters and class reputations across its lengthy five acts.  The wealthy Lydia Languish longs for her life to mirror the romance novels she eagerly devours; soon she gets more than she bargained for.  That the programme comes with a detailed synopsis is a very welcome addition.  Yet Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play is often considered one of the masterpieces of the age and that remains clear centuries later.  The narrative is thematically strong and easy enough to follow, the characters colourful and distinctive, and the language – so integral to the genre - is full of wit and humour, proving Sheridan to be a master wordsmith.

The main success of this production, from director Selina Cadell, is its authenticity.  Emma Bailey’s minimal set design has a pleasingly hand-crafted feel, whilst the scene changes are accompanied by sprightly dance music performed by the actor-musicians (under the musical direction of Eliza Thompson).  Rosalind Ebbutt’s costume design is also of note, balancing authentic wigs and dresses with modern colour coordination to match the characters.

Yet it’s the acting that truly takes centre stage here.  The cast is led by Gemma Jones (perhaps best known as Madame Pomfrey in the Harry Potter films, amongst numerous theatre credits) who plays the hilarious Mrs Malaprop.  Her misuse of words and sayings provides frequent laughs; her character is Sheridan’s main conduit for wordplay.  The acting style across the cast is full of eccentricities – from the love-struck Lydia (Jennifer Rainsford) and her melodramatic flouncing, to the pathetically wet Faulkland (Adam Jackson-Smith) and the contrasting servants Fag and David (both played by Carl Prekopp).  Nicholas Le Prevost is also a joy to watch as the comically naughty Sir Anthony Absolute. 

Cadell gently pokes at the farcical nature of the play, with plenty of asides and audience participation providing opportunity for humour – eyebrows are raised, actors bow at every entrance and costumes and props are temporarily stored amongst the stalls.  It may be long, but The Rivals never fails to entertain.

4/5

Watch: The Rivals runs at the Arcola Theatre until 15th November.




Nicole Scherzinger - Big Fat Lie



Nicole Scherzinger Popstar has been pretty busy over the last couple of years since her last album, 2011’s ‘Killer Love’.  She’s been playing judge on The X Factor, shampooing her locks for Herbal Essences, snuffling yoghurts for Muller and will soon be appearing in Cats on the West End stage.  Listening to ‘Big Fat Lie’, though, you do wish she’d have concentrated a little more on the music rather than getting her nose covered in Greek whipped liquid fluff.

Lead single and opening track Your Love could have marked the start of something decent.  It’s certainly a little different for the 2014 charts, all percussive beats and electronic sparkles (even if it’s lacking in the bass department).  Sadly it massively underperformed on release.  That it was followed by the incredibly dull On The Rocks is indicative of a music career stuck in a downward spiral.

Scherzinger is so much better than this.  She’s one of the sexiest women on the planet.  She can dance and perform onstage better than most.  And she’s got a decent set of pipes.  So why settle for this album of trite?

Electric Blue, featuring rapper T.I., is the only other track on ‘Big Fat Lie’ worth listening to.  Its syncopated beats and retro synths, coupled with her breathless falsetto, make for one hell of a sexy track that successfully borders both pop R&B and hip-hop.

The remains of the album, though, is generic pop R&B at best, devoid of hooks.  The monotonous Heartbreaker revolves around a single, repetitive bassline; God of War is notable only for its sweary chorus (“I’m so glad you’re gone / You’re so f*cking annoying”); the title track is a typical “oh woe is me I’m rich and famous and heartbroken” slow jam; and Run is a snore-inducing piano-led ballad that doesn’t show off Scherzinger’s vocal as much as it should.

For the most part, ‘Big Fat Lie’ meanders through a series of tracks attempting to replicate the same futuristic R&B sound that everyone else is doing so much better – the sparse Bang; the autotuned Just A Girl.  It’s about time Scherzinger took control of her career and released an album of forward-thinking pop.  She’s certainly capable of it.

Instead she’s released an album that’s essentially a bad Cheryl F-V record.  To say anything else would be a big fat lie.

2/5

Listen: 'Big Fat Lie' is available now.


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 is 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.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Wild (2014) – Jean-Marc Vallée



There are plenty of travelogue, “into the wild” films out there with a “follow your dream” life-affirming message.  But few emphasise their point as much as the overblown Wild.

Starring Reese Witherspoon and based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, this biographical drama opens to the sound of orgasmic relief as walking shoes are removed.  So too is a toenail.  It’s a mere indication of her pain.

From there we follow Cheryl on her path along the Pacific Crest Trail: 1,100 miles stretching from the Mexican border to Canada.  It’s a film of female empowerment and motivational poetry as she finds her inner-strength to keep pushing on, distrustful of every man she meets along the way.  “What kind of woman are you?” one male character asks: the film is her voyage of discovery.  To the backdrop of beautifully shot desert vistas, snowy wilderness and rain-soaked forests, we follow Cheryl on her path to enlightenment – a path that climaxes, suitably enough, at the Bridge of the Gods.

Through flashback we discover the reasons behind her journey – and they’re as stereotypical as they come.  “I’m the girl who says yes instead of no”, she dryly notes, her lifestyle wilder than her solo adventure.  Divorce?  Check.  Dying mother?  Check.  Abusive father?  Check. Heroin and sex addiction?  Check.  It’s a catalogue of bad lifestyle choices and unfortunate circumstances.  Her journey through the wilderness is an extreme method of redemption (full of glaring symbolism and spirit animals) to become the woman her mother wanted her to be and put her life on the right track – literally.

If the film’s message wasn’t heavy-handed enough, the soundtrack heightens the film to hyperbole with some terrible, clichéd choices.  Cheryl’s main earworm is Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound; Portishead’s Glory Box becomes a feminist anthem with its repeated line “give me a reason to be a woman”; More More More accompanies her heroin addiction; and First Aid Kit have covered R.E.M’s Walk Unafraid, for obvious reasons.  The lyric “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” in Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa only serves to hammer home the film’s sentiment.  Cheryl even stumbles across a group of musicians mourning the death of Jerry Garcia, guitarist of the Grateful Dead who likewise suffered from heroin addiction.

The film is held together, though, by a gritty and formidable performance from Witherspoon.  It’s a convincing portrayal that combines humour with genuine emotion, though watching her hiking under tough conditions makes you wonder how much she’s really acting.  Still, it's an Oscar-worthy performance in a film that, like director Jean-Marc Vallée's previous film Dallas Buyers Club, is likely to scoop plenty of awards.

Wild may have a strong message at its heart, but this isn’t a cuddly sentimental film.  It’s a gripping watch and a great example of a strong female protagonist – if only it had a little more subtlety.

3/5

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


Eden (2014) – Mia Hansen-Løve



Eden has one of the coolest soundtracks of any film.  Set in Paris predominantly during the 1990s, the film’s narrative is set to the backdrop of the development of French electronica and the 'French touch' generation: garage, techno and house.  Specifically, the music of Daft Punk features heavily, with the likes of Frankie Knuckles, Cassius, Juliet Roberts, M.K. and Martin Solveig also appearing on the soundtrack.

The appeal of this musical genre, as the central character puts it, is the contrast between robotic techno and warm, soulful vocals; later he mentions the balance of euphoria and melancholia.  This is something the film equally tries to balance, but it’s less successful than the music it references. 

That’s because the film’s heart is squarely in the music rather than its modern bohemian characters.  The narrative follows aspiring DJ Paul over twenty years of his life, from underground beginnings as he sneaks out at night to attend secret raves, to forming DJ duo ‘Cheers’ and travelling to New York and Chicago; through the trials and tribulations of drug addiction and a string of girlfriends, to finally putting his life in order.  It’s hardly a glamorous view of the musical lifestyle as he forever struggles with money and gradually loses track of his friends and family, who all grow up around and without him.

Yet by the end of the film, do we really know him?  Félix de Givry offers a stoical performance as Paul, but there are only two key moments where he shows any genuine emotion: the death of his cartoonist friend Cyril (suitably accompanied by Daft Punk’s Veridis Quo), and when he finally gives in to his overbearing mother towards the end.  It’s a lengthy film and, at one point, a character praises Paul for not changing, but his lack of development is a major frustration.

One success of the film, though, is the blurring of fiction and reality.  Many of the clubs and parties genuinely took place and the film is full of real-life musicians.  As such, Eden certainly captures the frenetic, buzzing ecstasy of clubbing, hand camera shots artfully interrupted by strobe lighting and pulsing neon.  The rising fame of Daft Punk also punctuates the film.  To quote LCD Soundsystem, they begin by literally “playing in my house”; by the end, Within from recent album ‘Random Access Memories’ is used in the soundtrack, yet the duo are humorously unrecognised without their robot helmets.

Still, the bare-bones plot may be secondary to the music, but it allows those robotic beats and soulful vocals to take the fore.  As such, Eden is a fitting celebration of a hugely influential musical movement.

3/5

Watch: Eden screens at the London Film Festival and is released in France in November.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Falling (2014) – Carol Morley


That director Carol Morley went to art school comes as no surprise watching The Falling.  Starring Maisie Williams (Arya Stark in Game of Thrones), the film has an artistic dreamlike quality that lulls us into its world of perversion.

Williams plays Lydia, a schoolgirl in 1969 shunned by her agoraphobic mother (Maxine Peake) and attached at the hip to best friend Abbie (Florence Pugh).  Morley captures the dreary, prison-like world of school with its washed out greys, juxtaposed with the beauty of the natural world outside.  The girls spend their days reciting poetry and discussing losing their virginity, longing for an escape.  It’s accompanied by a soundtrack from Tracey Thorn – a repeated reminiscence of hypnotic xylophone.

After tragic events, Lydia’s world unravels.  The bond between the girls is so strong that, when broken, it has magick qualities.  Seemingly possessed, Lydia suffers from fits of fainting that soon spread across the school like a virus in a wave of orgasmic ecstasy.  What ensues is a witch-hunt: are these girls truly hysterical, or is this just attention seeking?

The Falling, then, is an exploration of female neurosis tied into issues of identity, puberty and grief.  There is, of course, a psychological reason behind the events involving Lydia’s relationship with her mother, but before then we witness the silliness of endless fainting and incest with her brother as Lydia becomes increasingly crazed, her hysterical nature arising as displaced sexual desire. 

It’s a perverse narrative wrapped up in poetry.  The cinematic style certainly heightens the film to dreamy fantasy, but it’s difficult to take seriously: the artistry self-indulgent, the plot unintentionally hilarious.  Morley may have put a distinctive spin on the film, but its psychological themes, school setting and linking of female neurosis with the occult is nothing new.

At the least, it introduces Williams as a talented actress far beyond her role in Game of Thrones.  Her turn as the unhinged Lydia is one of the few points of believability in an otherwise bizarre coming of age film.  Peake, too, excels as her almost silent, uncaring mother.

2/5

Watch: The Falling screens at the London Film Festival, with general release soon.


A Second Chance (2014) – Susanne Bier


A Second Chance (a.k.a En Chance Til), a Danish thriller from Susanne Bier, is beautifully shot.  Its central couple live in the Danish countryside, their home surrounded by a picturesque lake and dark forests, the windows covered in Christmas fairylights.  This is no fairytale however.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (best known as Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones) plays Andreas, a cop whose perfect life with his wife and newborn baby son is juxtaposed with that of a junkie couple who keep their son of the same age, soiled and neglected, in a cupboard.  When his own child dies unexpectedly of cot death, he switches the children.  It’s “the perfect crime” – that is, until he is forced to investigate the child’s death himself.

Suddenly those beautiful landscapes turn to haunting, noir shadows.

Bier’s unflinching camera peers into the minds of each character through extreme close-up, questioning their morality.  Is Andreas mad for swapping the babies?  Or is his wife mad for threatening to kill herself at the death of her own son?  And which couple are the more deserving parents: those with the money and comfortable lifestyle, or those connected by flesh and blood?  The narrative may seem a little contrived and misogynistic towards its female characters, but the film remains consistently tense.

Coster-Waldau offers an emotive and convincing performance as the conflicted cop, whilst Maria Bonnevie is unnerving as his hysterical wife Anne.  A Second Chance is a grim depiction of Nordic melancholy, domestic abuse and the struggles of parenthood wrapped up in a stylish thriller that’s daring and gripping from start to finish.

Also stay for the credits to hear the excellent Grown Up by Emilie Nicolas.

4/5

Watch: A Second Chance screens at the London Film Festival and is released in Denmark in January 2015.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Moomins on the Riviera (2014) – Xavier Picard


The Moomins have always been far more than a series of cute and cuddly children's cartoons.  Created by the Finnish Tove Jansson, herself a lesbian, her work is permeated with philosophical depth and issues of the outsider.

That remains true in this new cartoon film.  It all begins with a sunrise over the glorious Nordic idyll of Moomin Valley.  Stunningly hand-drawn in pastel shades and accompanied by folk music, it introduces us to the genial Moomin family.  Like true romantics, they have a rich and satisfactory life, free, self-sufficient and devoid of greed. 

Yet somewhat naïvely, they are lured by their sense of adventure to visit the Riviera in the south.  The lush greens are swapped for a deep amber and the folk music changes to jazz as they journey south to a busy and glamorous land of celebrities, fashion, casinos and money, accompanied by the mischievous Little My.  Here the family are seen as eccentric and treated like royalty, yet it’s soon clear that they are lost in this materialistic world and long for their old life.

It’s a clear cautionary tale against the corporate modern world and its obsession with image, reminding us to take a breather and be content with a simpler way of life.  Further, it reflects the difficulties of the outsider, away from their home and their sense of belonging.  This is suggested not only by the family, but also by the shy dog they meet along the way.  “I only like cats”, he moans, before befriending another dog painted to look like a cat.  It’s a clear message for equality – in the world of the Moomins, we are all free to be ourselves and love who we like.

With an English cast headed up by Russell Tovey as the voice of Moomin, this is a beautifully created, quaint and lovely little film, filled with humour and charm.  The lack of fast-paced action might put off some youngsters, but with its meaningful depth, this is a true family film.

4/5

Watch: Moomins on the Riviera screens at the London Film Festival, with UK general release on 11th October.

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