Sunday, 19 February 2017

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

"My eyes don't shed tears but boy they ball when I'm thinkin' 'bout you," sang Frank Ocean on Thinkin Bout You from his 2012 album 'Channel Orange'. It was a watershed moment. Here was a young black man - a hip hop artist in an aggressively straight world - not only showing emotion, but showing emotion for another man.

Now, with the Oscar-nominated Moonlight, cinema has caught up. It's an exploration of African-American masculinity, following the life of Chiron from youth to adulthood (the connotations of his name from Greek mythology are surely no coincidence). In many ways, his life feels like a cinematic cliché: he's so shy he's practically mute, he's bullied at school, his mother is a drug addict, and with no father he lacks a male role model. Yet this sort of life is tragically commonplace in current day America.

Things pick up when the young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), known as 'Little', by chance meets Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan is a sympathetic figure, straddling the harsh world of drug dealing and a comfortable home life with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Together they provide Chiron with something his mother (Naomie Harris) could never provide: safety, comfort, acceptance.

As he grows up, Chiron struggles to dictate his own path as he navigates the alternate worlds Juan so effortlessly balances. He eventually ends up serving a prison sentence before becoming a drug dealer, but was this inevitable with such a selfish, emotionally abusive mother? Were Juan and Teresa powerless to stop this downfall?

It's telling that the film is divided into three sections for each of Chiron's identities: Little, Chiron and Black. No matter which identity he chooses - the shy child, the explorative teenager, the mask of an aggressive thug - he remains the same person underneath. His experiences shape him, but they do not dictate his identity.

That is the key message of this film: to be a man is to accept your identity, your flaws, your decisions and take responsibility for your life, no matter what your background. You can cry and still be a man. You can show vulnerability and still be a man. You can love and support your mother and still be a man. You can be gay and still be a man.

Barry Jenkins directs with tenderness and delicacy, the camera lingering on his subject questioningly but without judgement. Orchestral strings take the place of diagetic hip-hop - the soundtrack fittingly subverting masculine expectations - but mostly it's overwhelming silence that reflects the amount of noise inside Chiron's head.

The performances are indeed Oscar-worthy, in particular Ali's touching portrayal of Juan that's equal parts hard and soft, and Harris' frightening performance as Chiron's mother that's far removed from the Miss Moneypenny we know from Bond. And the three actors playing Chiron - Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes - do a remarkable job between them of depicting a single, confused man in crisis.

And to think, this film has been released in such a tumultuous time in US history. Crumbling relations between the black community and the police. The shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse. The country's first black president leaving office for...whatever Trump is. Even the #oscarssowhite debacle and the snubbing of black artists at music awards. Black identity, masculinity and homosexuality are in crisis and Moonlight encapsulates all this and more. It is the most Oscar-worthy film of the lot. An awards snub would be painfully ironic.


Watch: Moonlight is out now.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Last Guardian - SIE Japan Studio

The Last Guardian - SIE Japan Studio

Some friends of mine recently got a pet dog. Cute and cuddly as he may be, it's not easy looking after an animal. He runs wild, he barks, he's far from toilet trained, and he speaks about as much human as I speak dog. Training takes time and patience but the results are rewarding.

Video games have long had a fascination with pets, but The Last Guardian, from the mastermind behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Fumito Ueda, is the new standard. It brings together the best of those two games - the unique pairing and 'escape the castle' theme of Ico and the grand creatures of Shadow of the Colossus - and tasks a young boy with befriending a strange beast known as Trico.

Kitty looks majestic

This isn't just a squiggly polygon whose virtual poop needs cleaning up, nor a bouncing puppy whose fluffy face needs stroking with a stylus. Trico is a mythical amalgam of cat, dog and bird, but he feels like a real beast, one that needs regular feeding, petting and training. The animation and AI combine for one of the most expressive and emotive virtual characters yet seen: the way his mournful eyes follow the boy's movements, his howling when they become separated, his gleeful bounding upon reaching an open space, his little wiggle as he prepares to leap.

More so, it's the warm and charming bond between the beast and the boy that makes The Last Guardian so compelling, cleverly expressed through animation alone. They are, unexpectedly, dependant on one other. The boy feeds the beast special barrels of goop, removes spears to heal his wounds, and bravely leads the way when Trico is tentative to proceed. In turn, the beast can destroy the mechanical armoured enemies that litter the environment and can leap to new areas with the boy clinging on to his feathery back. The game's opening wonderfully portrays the wariness of these two characters around one another; by the end their relationship is symbiotic, their fates forever intertwined.

Kitty needs petting

Around this concept, SIE Japan Studio have built a beautiful environmental puzzle game, with imposing constructions to be navigated in a surreal world of crumbling ruins drenched in stark sunlight. It's a marvel of stone and green, mist and bright light, towering ruins and rustling leaves. Stylistically it is breathtaking, even if at times it shows its PS3 heritage.

However, the game does frustrate when it remembers it's a game and not just a pet simulator. The sense of weight and momentum add to the realism of the animation, but the controls are imprecise and too often lead to death. The game's camera is also utterly untameable, struggling to balance confined spaces with Trico's might.

Kitty runs free

And while Trico is a wild animal, puzzle solving is often stalled by his lack of understanding commands. It's a double-edged sword: what makes him feel real results in gameplay that doesn't run smoothly. Similarly, the boy is helpless to defeat enemies alone meaning much of the game is taken out of the hands of the player - an irritating decision that nevertheless forges a dependancy on the beast.

Hints are sometimes overstated, but on the whole the game has the same minimalist presentation that you'd expect from Ueda. On the one hand its narrative is intriguingly ambiguous, on the other it's bafflingly obtuse, sometimes illogical and requires plenty of trial and error.

Kitty got stuck

Yet the game's weaknesses are also its greatest strengths. The minimalist presentation and reliance on Trico's intelligence are stylistic choices that lend the game its enchanting sense of character, its poetry, its raison d'être. Just like a real pet, the boy affectionately strokes Trico's nose as the beast nuzzles against him and all is forgiven.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Rag'n'Bone Man - Human

Rag N Bone Man - Human

If there's one thing music reality TV has taught us, it's that audiences like to be surprised. When an unlikely superstar walks on to the audition stage, or when the judges turn to see a figure that's disconnected from the voice: a young girl singing mature opera, a boy with a smouldering timbre, or more typically a rags to riches story of the lower class singer with the impeccable voice. That's TV for you.

That sort of shock value is, initially, the appeal of Rag'n'Bone Man, an artist who appears to defy expectations. With his impressive beard and penchant for tattoos, you might expect him to be fronting a 00s nu metal band. But here he is singing pop-soul with a loud vocal that soars and crackles.

Strip away the aesthetic, however, and you're left with little more than the next Emeli Sandé or Sam Smith: nice voice, bland songs. It's fitting then that, like them, Rag N Bone Man has won this year's BRITs Critics' Choice award and is being touted as 2017's one to watch.

It's certainly a nice enough voice, as heard on the a capella Die Easy that sounds more like a negro spiritual. Indeed, there's a real mix of old and new on Human - best of all the Motown twist of Arrow and its earworm chorus, or lead single Human with its pulsating electronic bassline and gospel harmonies.

Elsewhere, though, this breakthrough album is unimaginative, unoriginal and unworthy of your time. It's as if this great voice has been discovered but neither the singer nor the label know what to do with it. The flimsy, nondescript songs simply do not do the voice justice, whilst the horn heavy soul production is nothing we haven't already heard countless times before.

Nice voice, bland songs and far from the best music 2017 will have to offer.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Human
* Arrow
* Die Easy

Listen: 'Human' is out now.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Madam Butterfly @ King's Head Theatre

Madam Butterfly @ King's Head Theatre

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most beautiful, tragic love stories in opera history. It’s also rife for modernisation and reinterpretation, as the exceptional Miss Saigon can attest to.

One particular area of interest is the ambiguity in Lieutenant Pinkerton’s true feelings for the young Butterfly, something that’s brought to the fore in this modernised version at the Kings Head Theatre, directed by Paul Higgins. By transferring the opera to present day, Higgins hopes to highlight Japanese patriarchal society and the over-sexualisation of school girls. Here, Matthew Kimble’s Pinkerton is a sleazy American permanently attached to a bottle of Jack Daniels. He prays on the youthful Butterfly (Becca Marriott) with a smarmy grin, she dressed in girlish Harajuku fashion. It certainly adds a new angle to the opera, but it’s an uncomfortable watch. “I want you to love me, to love me very gently, to love me like a child,” sings Butterfly, in this new translation from Amanda Holden. From the characterisation, there’s a disturbing disconnect between the intentions of Pinkerton and Butterfly.

Just as Pinkerton shows a lack of respect for Japanese culture – laughing at her traditions and frequent bows – so too does Higgins. Only last month Notting Hill’s Print Room theatre was accused of “yellowface” for its all-white cast. It’s a topical issue and whilst Higgins may have good intentions for this production, the casting feels out of touch with current politics. What’s worse is the cartoonish characterisation. The inspiration may be Japanese manga comics, but from the pursed lips of Sarah Denbee’s Suzuki to the comically wide-eyed innocence of Butterfly, it feels more like playing on stereotypes for laughs rather than a profound use of modern cultural identity. As Marriott shuffles around the stage, bows and flutters her eyelids whilst clutching a Hello Kitty doll, it utterly undermines any sense of drama or tragedy.

Indeed, a few bright neon colours and a shuttered backdrop do not represent the varied cultures of Japan and its mix of advanced technology and honourable tradition. The modern setting adds little to this production, even whilst there may be some truth to the interpretation. The second half does improve as the performance becomes a more straightforward tragedy, but it’s not enough to undo the damage of the first. It’s simply not credible that this reinterpreted Pinkerton would ever return, that he would suddenly have a conscience, or that he should have any form of redemption. And, when Butterfly and Suzuki complain of their lack of money, why is Butterfly seen listening to an iPod? Hasn’t she heard of eBay?

There is some fine singing here even with the miscasting, Marriott hitting all the right notes despite the characterisation and Sam Pantcheff singing a rich baritone as US consul Sharpless. Puccini’s score is reduced to piano and cello, but sadly musical director Panaretos Kyriatzidis and cellist Alison Holford struggle to contain a whole orchestra beneath their fingers.

Where so many opera productions cling to tradition, it’s brave of Higgins to bring something new to this beloved work – something the Kings Head Theatre is well known for. Yet in today’s highly politicised world and climate of ethnic sensitivity, this production is sadly misguided.


Watch: Madam Butterfly runs at the King's Head Theatre until the 18th March.

Madam Butterfly @ King's Head Theatre

Madam Butterfly @ King's Head Theatre
Photos: Christopher Tribble

Monday, 6 February 2017

Firewatch - Campo Santo


Not all games have to be enormous open world complex adventures to make an impact. Sometimes what’s not there is more arresting.

Enter mystery thriller Firewatch, the debut game from developer Campo Santo. It’s a game often drenched in silence. It’s a game about isolation, not densely populated realistic worlds. It’s a game about focus and simplicity, wrapping up its story in around three hours.

The art style is breathtaking

That simplicity is exemplified in the text based opening, detailing the back-story of protagonist Henry and his wife Julia. Short statements loaded with emotion and gentle, evocative music are enough for the player to invest in this heart-breaking story, making small choices along the tragic path. It’s a devastating beginning.

The focus on the writing continues throughout the game, as the narrative unfolds through conversations and the occasional written note. We play as Henry as he embarks on a summer job as a firewatcher in the Wyoming forest in 1989. He’s there to escape, to isolate himself from his troubled life. His only contact is his boss Delilah, who communicates solely via radio. Firewatch has themes more akin to literature as it plays with perspective and a potentially untrustworthy narrator, but it’s interactive storytelling that only games can fully explore.

Just look at those colours

Thankfully Firewatch excels with its dialogue – essential for this sort of game. It’s never less than natural and believable, with nuanced voice performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. Henry and Delilah are hugely empathetic and often humorous as they discuss their lives, their thoughts, their fears. Unlike so many characters in video games, they feel human.

It’s the visuals that are immediately striking, however. Based on a painting by artist Olly Moss, the Wyoming forest is saturated in colour and mesmerising to watch. The grass gently rustles in a soft breeze as the sunlight pours through a canopy of lush trees, dappling the ground with light and shadow. You will absolutely want to stop and admire the view on countless occasions, the stunning visuals marred only by a sometimes choppy frame rate and some pop-in (on PS4). 

I mean, come on

The peace and tranquillity are tangible. You will revel in the silence, music used sparingly to punctuate key moments of dialogue. Yet this colourful world and its chunky almost cartoon aesthetic disguise the adult drama bubbling beneath the surface as Henry and Delilah unravel a mystery hidden in the forest. Soon that silence becomes oppressive, the solitude is utterly disquieting, and the atmosphere changes to tense and ominous. You listen out for each rustle of movement and question each shadow. Is Henry being followed? Is fire the least of his worries?

Look. At. That.

The plot is littered with ambiguities, but the fire does eventually burn out. In its quest to manipulate the player, the story ultimately amounts to very little with an ending that fails to reward the mystery and constant second-guessing. Yet Firewatch is a gaming masterclass in playing with expectations – this colourful world is not what it seems and in this instance it’s a joy to be fooled.