Sunday, 19 March 2023

BFI Flare: Raise your hands

Of course, it's only the first weekend of BFI Flare, and I'm already feeling sleep-deprived. It doesn't help that the warm/cold weather has caused havoc with my sinuses, I'm still recovering from a missed night's sleep to watch the Oscars, and each day is starting early and ending late. But I'm still out and about, seeing films and catching up with festival friends at BFI Southbank, which is aways a buzzy venue throughout the run of this festival. I may not feel like the life of the party this year, but I'm out and about - so say hello if you see me. Here are some more highlights...

dir-scr Carter Smith; with Cooper Koch, Jose Colon  22/US ***
Unusually unsettling, this offbeat horror thriller features a line-up of visceral jolts that cleverly play on deeper internalised ideas. Writer-director Carter Smith takes a stripped-back approach to filmmaking, keeping things gritty and loose while honing in on quirky character details and playing provocatively with tropes from both horror and gay cinema. So even if the story and characters are somewhat lacking when it comes to internal logic, the film creates a superbly queasy sense of unease.

Kenyatta: Do Not Wait Your Turn
dir Timothy Harris; with Malcolm Kenyatta, Matt Miller 23/US ****
Covering a vitally important political campaign in perhaps too much detail, this documentary is essential viewing simply for what it says about American politics. Using a fly-on-the-wall style over the course of two years, filmmaker Timothy Harris zeroes in on a milestone candidate who simply rejects the idea that only straight white guys can run the country. As a gay Black man, Malcolm Zenyatta knows rather a lot more about the state of his community.

Horseplay [Los Agitadores]
dir-scr Marco Berger; with Bruno Giganti, Agustin Machta 22/Arg ***.
Argentine filmmaker Marco Berger continues to provocatively explore the nature of masculinity in this loosely unstructured comedy-drama about a group of friends who play very close to the boundaries. But the meandering pace conceals a startling swell of very dark emotions, from toxic machismo to self-loathing homosexuality. These things are depicted in ways that force the viewer to think, continually blurring the lines society says are neatly cut and dried.

Wolf and Dog [Lobo e Cão]
dir-scr Claudia Varejao; with Ana Cabral, Ruben Pimenta 22/Por ****
Set in the Azores archipelago, this strikingly visual slice of life is artfully shot by cinematographer Rui Xavier. Writer-director Claudia Varejao tells the story in a way that feels almost accidental, capturing tiny moments that accumulate along the way. The narrative feels meandering and elusive, with only a few sharply pointed events, but this provides the space for us to put ourselves into the situations and consider our reactions... FULL REVIEW >

Bread and Salt [Chleb i Sól]
dir-scr Damian Kocur; with Tymoteusz Bies, Jacek Bies 22/Pol ***
Bracingly shot in observational style, this Polish drama gets up close to its characters even as it neglects the narrative. It's an often harrowing depiction of a small town where young people think it's cool to deal in racism, bigotry and bullying. And the thoughtful central character draws us in, even if his journey remains stubbornly off-camera. Writer-director Damian Kocur has a terrific eye for real-life interaction, so the film has power as a document of a place and time. But stronger storytelling might have made it involving and moving.

The Inspection
dir-scr Elegance Bratton; with Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union 22/US ****.
There's striking artistry in the way filmmaker Elegance Bratton recounts an autobiographical narrative about a Black gay man in US Marines boot camp during the "don't ask, don't tell" years. Never preachy, the film has an earthy, intensely internalised tone that puts its complex characters into a razor-sharp perspective. And its knowing authenticity adds both deep emotion and a textured, vital comment on the nature of bigotry... FULL REVIEW >

Saturday, 18 March 2023

Stage: Confronting colonialism

Broken Chord
choreography Gregory Maqoma
music Thuthuka Sibisi
with Gregory Maqoma, Tshegofatso Khunwane, Nokuthula Magubane, Simphiwe Sikhakhane, Lubabalo Velebhayi and the Echo Vocal Ensemble conducted by Sarah Latto
dramaturg Shanell Winlock Pailman
technical design Oliver Hauser
sound Nthuthuko Mbuyazi
costumes Laduma Ngxokolo
Sadler's Wells, London • 17-18.Mar.23

Strongly resonant on a variety of almost inexpressible layers, this clever performance piece combines music and movement to tell a true story through an impressionistic eye. Choreographer-performer Gregory Maqoma and musician Thuthuka Sibisi take an unusually visceral approach, with eye-catching staging and powerfully engaging music that cuts to deeper currents of truth under the surface. So watching this show feels like a revelation.

Blending traditional Xhosa and modern dance styles, this is the story of the African Choir, which in 1861 travelled from South Africa to Britain to raise funds for a school. They even performed for Queen Victoria. They are played as exuberant artists by Maqoma and four fellow singers, who have complex reactions to their encounters with this culture that has colonised their homeland. Surrounded and sometimes cruelly confronted by the British people, played by the Echo Vocal Ensemble, they assert their own experiences and traditions.

While depicting a specific event, the performance bristles with wider repercussions relating to the power dynamics between the coloniser and the colonised, including the sense of cultural superiority that exists on both sides and should be able to coexist peacefully, each enhancing the other. Bluntly told by the Brits to "go home", these musicians are forced to confront their inner fears and decide whether to face bigotry head-on or to run away. And as they stand within this white gaze, the show encompasses waves of meaningful themes relating to migration and identity.

Most important is the way this piece puts these experiences into sensual perspective, so that remembering history becomes a physical act in a series of stunning set-pieces, most eye-catchingly in a sequence involving flour and dough. It's intensely provocative, but also celebratory in the way it digs beneath the surface to explore the humanity underneath. So while this is a beautiful piece that's loose enough to allow for a variety of interpretations, it's also both darkly challenging and deeply hopeful.

For details, visit SADLER'S WELLS >

photos by Lolo Vasco & Thomas Muller • 17.Mar.23

Friday, 17 March 2023

Stage: Fair is foul and foul is fair

The Tragedy of Macbeth
by William Shakespeare
with Henry Maynard, Briony O'Callaghan, Simon Gleave, Daniel Chrisostomou, Vyte Garriga, Paulina Krzeczkowska, Dale Wylde, Kyll Anthony Thomas Cole
director/designer Henry Maynard
music Adam Clifford
Southwark Playhouse Borough • 14.Mar-8.Apr.23

Like an assault on the senses, Flabbergast takes on Shakespeare with a high-volume storm of mud and blood. It's a purely visceral production that will engage fans of the Scottish play with its earthy sensibilities and quirky touches. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with the material will find it almost impossible to follow, as the dialog is extremely difficult to hear and the narrative is thoroughly blurred by the on-stage chaos.

This is Shakespeare's familiar story of ambition and paranoia, as Macbeth (played by company founder Maynard) and his power-hungry lady wife (O'Callaghan) conspire to kill King Duncan (Chrisostomou). Macbeth assumes the throne, but the couple is consumed with fear that someone will try to take them down. They proceed to kill those closest to them in an attempt to protect their rule, but this sparks a civil war. 

All of this takes place in a whirl of activity on the floor of the theatre, surrounded on three sides by the audience. The violence is intense, including against children (who are evocatively performed using puppetry), with wine and ink spilled in bloody puddles. Silly comical interludes emerge out of nowhere, with performers mugging playfully at the audience before diving back into the epic tale of betrayal and murder.

Wearing floor-length skirts and increasingly grubby attire, each actor inhabits multiple roles, and since it's so difficult to hear the dialog, this makes it even trickier to keep track of characters and plot-lines. As does the repeated technique of cast members speaking words in unison, which sounds cool but is impenetrable. Even so, the surge of energy and passion is vividly felt, and there are some genuinely wrenching moments along the way, such as when Macduff (also Chrisostomou) learns that his wife (a soulful Krzeczkowska) and children have been killed on Macbeth's orders.

Obviously, this play has real power, and has resonated strongly for centuries as it grapples with enormous themes. The three witches that drive the action are vividly rendered here by the cast's three actress, with shrieking voices that chill the soul. And there are plenty of other loud screams, bangs, thuds, raucous songs and lively choreography to keep things sparking. None of this is terribly original, but it looks great. Although by eliminating the softer textures, it feels like little more than sound and fury.

For details, visit SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE >

photos by Michael Lynch • 16.Mar.23

Thursday, 16 March 2023

BFI Flare: Take back the streets

The 37th edition of the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival kicked off last night at BFI Southbank in defiance of the government-caused strike that shut down the entire Tube network. This is one of the largest and most important film festivals in the UK, and its influence goes global as a celebration of the very best films tackling queer topics. It's also one of my favourite festivals, because the Southbank becomes party central for 10 days. We all love reconnecting our "Flare friends" each year - a particularly great bunch of people. And it's also a rare festival that still has filmmakers mixing in with the audience. Here are some highlights for the first couple of days (with my usual Critical Week down below)...

The Stroll
dir Zackary Drucker, Kristen Lovell; with Kristen Lovell, Ceyenne, Carey 23/US ****
Documenting a specific period in the New York queer scene, this film has a sense of urgency about it that's impossible to escape. These are the stories of real people who transcended their circumstances to make a huge impact on society, and yet they're still battling against hateful bigotry. Filmmaker Kristen Lovell bravely puts her life on the screen, adeptly codirecting with the gifted Zackary Drucker, revealing the humanity of transgender sex workers who are still seeking basic human rights.

Egghead & Twinkie
dir-scr Sarah Kambe Holland; with Louis Tomeo, Sabrina Jie-a-fa 23/US ****
Colourfully augmented with eye-catching animation, this lively teen road trip comedy is bright and funny, and it has a strongly pointed edge as well. Writer-director Holland includes such personal details that this must be an autobiographical story. The characters have remarkably authentic layers to them. And while the film is aimed at a young audience, it says a lot about the complexities of figuring out who you are and finding your way in a world where you feel like a social oddball.

Three Nights a Week [Trois Nuits par Semaine]
dir Florent Gouelou; with Pablo Pauly, Romain Eck 22/Fr ***.
Beautifully shot with lush light and colour, this French drama spins around a warm, offbeat relationship that catches two people, and their friends, by surprise. The drawn-out narrative plays like a gay fantasy, as that cute guy isn't as straight as he thinks he is. So the plot sometimes feels over-deliberate. But honest feelings run through each scene. And director Florent Gouelou isn't afraid to lean into a feel-good moment... FULL REVIEW >

1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture
dir Sharon "Rocky" Roggio; with Kathy Baldock, Ed Oxford 22/US ***.
Aimed at viewers who know their way around the Bible, this documentary features people who take Christianity seriously as they take on a hot potato topic: looking into what the Bible actually says about homosexuality. Using scholarly research, the film finds proof of mistranslations that have led to misunderstandings, extensive abuse and ruptured relationships. And filmmaker Sharon Roggio is grappling with this topic in a way that's remarkably personal... FULL REVIEW >

Strip Jack Naked: Nighthawks II
dir Ron Peck; with Ron Peck, Nick Bolton 91/UK ****.
Not actually a sequel, this is an experimental making-of doc that also serves as a detailed autobiography of the filmmaker. It's telling, provocative and extremely personal, and has its own important place in film history. Peck assembles the material in a kaleidoscopic way, framed with images of men in an editing suite looking at clips from 1978's Nighthawks, including scenes from the fundraising pilot and extensive footage that was cut out of the film... FULL REVIEW >

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L  W E E K

Movies to watch this week included the star-packed 80 for Brady, which is sustained by the powerful wattage of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Rita Moreno and Sally Field, despite an odd, unfunny script. The superhero sequel Shazam! Fury of the Gods abandons the brightly funny original's tone for more dour grey-hued effects-based mayhem, which seems like a silly mistake (see also the recent Ant-Man sequel). Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is an engaging biopic that distracts the audience with far too much geek-out detail about the origins and importance (!) of pinball. Rye Lane is one of the best British romantic comedies in recent memory, original and very funny, with charming leads and terrific South London locations. And I of course had to check out Andrea Riseborough's Oscar nominated performance in To Leslie. She's great, the film's ok.

This coming week I'll mainly be watching films that are part of BFI Flare, plus Keanu Reeves back for John Wick Chapter 4, Florence Pugh in A Good Person, the Italian drama The Eight Mountains, the true-life Spanish thriller The Beasts and the doc Kubrick by Kubrick. And I also have a couple of theatre press nights (reviews here soon).

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Dance: East meets West

The Rite of Spring
choreographer Seeta Patel
music Igor Stravinsky
performers Kamala Devam, Sarveshan Gangen, Sarah Gasser, Aishani Ghosh, Kieran Heralall, Nidhaga Karunad, Kishore Kuman Krishnan, Indu Bhageloe Panday, Seeta Patel, Shree Savani, Adhya Shastry, Moritz Zavan Stoeckle, Sooraj Subramaniam
musicians Samyukta Ranganathan, Prathap Ramachandran, Vijay Venkat, Roopa Mahadevan and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conductor Kirill Karabits
sets Rachana Jadhav
costumes Sandhya Raman, Anshu and Jason
lighting Warren Letton
Sadler's Wells, London • 13-14.Mar.23

Dancer-choreographer Seeta Patel merges traditional South Indian dance with Western classical music in this astonishing two-part show. Traditional bharatanatyam dance involves creating delicate shapes with hands and feet along with lively facial expressions to convey both narrative and emotional depth. And shifting the philosophical perspective to the East brings both fresh resonances and a riveting sense of earthy connection.

The show opens with Shree, in which Patel appears on-stage by herself, accompanied by projections from which she is born as Mother Nature then progresses through the seasons accompanied by voice (Ranganathan), percussion (Ramachandran) and flute (Venkat), eventually approaching her inevitable wintry death. It's a fascinating introduction to the wholistic approach of bharatanatyam, telling a story through eloquent, full-bodied physicality that's seamlessly integrated with the music.

While Shree may feel perplexing to a Western audience, it forms an astonishing foundation for The Rite of Spring, with the full Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performing Stravinsky's music along with 12 seriously agile dancers in costumes that blur gender lines. Vivid lighting provides striking atmospherics on the plain stage, as the performers swirl and spin around each other. From sequences in unison, dancers single themselves out until it becomes clear that one has been chosen as their leader, leading to a series of consequential interactions. There's a fluidity to the performance that's hypnotic, using patterns, shapes and colours to connect with the audience on a visceral level. 

Split into two segments with an undulating interlude, The Rite of Spring explores the connections between humanity and nature, shifting through moments that are playful, powerful, sexy and yearning. The dancers and musicians seem like they're almost supernaturally connected to each other. And an profound sense of purpose emerges as the chosen one rises to the demands of his position. Which makes the show a subtle, provocative reminder of the responsibilities we have simply because we are living beings.

For information, visit SADLER'S WELLS >

photos by Foteini Christofilopoulou • 13.Mar.23

Saturday, 11 March 2023

Out on a limb: Oscar picks & predictions

I never feel hugely confident about predicting the Oscars, mainly because I am always hoping for upsets. This year's race has been unusually tricky to predict, with distinct winners from the guilds, Bafta and various precursor awards. So this year I'll feel happy if I get my usual 15 out of 20 correct. I get to vote in several awards during the season, but here's who I'd vote for if I got my hands on an Oscar ballot, along with who I think will win, and who could sneak in and walk off with the prize...

Will / should win: Everything Everywhere All at Once
Dark horse: All Quiet on the Western Front

Will win: All Quiet on the Western Front - Germany
Should win: The Quiet Girl - Ireland
Dark horse: Close - Belgium

Will win: Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio
Should win: Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Will win: Navalny
Should win: All The Beauty and The Bloodshed
Dark horse: Fire of Love

Will / should win: Everything Everywhere All at Once - Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Dark horse: The Fabelmans - Steven Spielberg

Will / should win: The Banshees of Inisherin - Martin McDonagh
Dark horse: Everything Everywhere All at Once - Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert

Will win: Women Talking - Sarah Polley
Should win: Living - Kazuo Ishiguro
Dark horse: Glass Onion - Rian Johnson

Will / should win: Michelle Yeoh - Everything Everywhere All at Once
Serious contender: Cate Blanchett - Tár

Will win: Austin Butler - Elvis
Should win: Colin Farrell - The Banshees of Inisherin
Dark horse: Bill Nighy - Living

Will win: Angela Bassett - Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Should win: Hong Chau - The Whale
Dark horse: Jamie Lee Curtis - Everything Everywhere All at Once

Will / should win: Ke Huy Quan - Everything Everywhere All at Once
Dark horse: Barry Keoghan - The Banshees of Inisherin

Will / should win: Babylon - Justin Hurwitz
Dark horse: All Quiet on the Western Front - Volker Bertelmann

Will / should win: Naatu Naatu, RRR - MM Keeravaani, Chandrabose
Dark horse: Hold My Hand, Top Gun: Maverick - Lady Gaga, Bloodpop

Will / should win: Elvis - Mandy Walker
Dark horse: All Quiet on the Western Front - James Friend

Will / should win: Everything Everywhere All at Once - Paul Rogers

Will / should win: Babylon - Florencia Martin, Anthony Carlino
Dark horse: Elvis - Catherine Martin, Karen Murphy, Bev Dunn

Will / should win: Elvis - Catherine Martin
Dark horse: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever - Ruth E Carter

Will / should win: Avatar: The Way of Water - Joe Letteri, Richard Baneham, Eric Saindon, Daniel Barrett

Will / should win: Elvis - Mark Coulier, Jason Baird, Aldo Signoretti
Dark horse: The Whale - Adrien Morot, Judy Chin, Anne Marie Bradley

Will / should win: Top Gun: Maverick - Mark Weingarten, James Mather, Al Nelson, Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor
Dark horse: All Quiet on the Western Front - Viktor Prášil, Frank Kruse, Markus Stemler, Lars Ginzel, Stefan Korte

Dance: Kick off your Sunday shoes

Turn It Out 
with Tiler Peck & Friends
director-curator Tiler Peck
lighting Brandon Stirling Baker
costumes Reid Bartelme, Harriet Jung, Robert Rosenwasser, Amy Page
sound design Christopher Merc
Sadler's Wells, London • 9-11.Mar.23

Acclaimed as one of the very best American ballerinas, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck curated this collection of four energetic pieces at Sadler's Wells. Each is a distinctive celebration of dance performed by a supremely talented ensemble that clearly loves what they do. "Dance is such a hard thing to do," Peck says. "But I love it so much. It really is the best feeling in the world."

Thousandth Orange
choreography Tiler Peck
music Caroline Shaw
dancers Jovani Furlan, Christopher Grant, Lauren Lovette, Mira Nadon, Quinn Starner, KJ Takahashi
musicians Shu-Wei Tseng, Sophia Prodanova, Max Mandel, Adrian Bradbury
(Note that the image is from a previous production)

Created as a conversation between choreographer and dancers, this opens with a tableau featuring six performers in pastel costumes. They then dissolve into couples, spinning in their own directions while also engaging with each other and forming larger shapes together. It's a lovely flourish of colour, a charming burst of classical dance with modern attitude. And the dancers' physicality is remarkable, moving and interacting in enticing ways. Composer Shaw describes the title as a reference to seeing the same thing (like a piece of fruit) over and over again, and yet always finding something new in it.

Swift Arrow
choreography Alonzo King
music Jason Moran
dancers Roman Mejia, Tiler Peck
piano Shu-Wei Tseng

This duet was inspired by Hindu philosophy relating to the soul's desire to close the gap between ourselves and others. It's a fiercely physical piece, in which Peck and Mejia spiral around, pushing in opposition and pulling into each other, while also echoing, growing closer and even merging as one. It's a visceral, intensely energetic performance with physicality that's fascinating rather than passionate. Wearing only a pair of shorts, Mejia has a dominant, lean physicality, while Peck demonstrates her own astonishing strength with staggering pointe work. Indeed, both dancers are riveting, balancing each other perfectly.

Time Spell
choreography Michelle Dorrance, Jillian Meyers, Tiler Peck
music Aaron Marcellus Sanders, Penelope Wendlandt
dancers Michelle Dorrance, Christopher Grant, Lex Ishimoto, Lauren Lovette, Roman Mejia, Jillian Meyers, Mira Nadon, Tiler Peck, Quinn Starner, KJ Takahashi, Byron Tittle

Infused with joy, this is a large-scale explosion of energy and style, blending ballet, modern dance, tap dancing and hiphop together in ways that are often dazzling. And it's accompanied by live music from Sanders and Wendlandt, who use their voices to improvise a score while interacting on-stage with the dancers. The various genres blur together in inventive ways that catch the audience by surprise, and the enthusiasm of each dancer is palpable. At the centre is the interaction between ballerina Peck and tap expert Dorrance, who breathtakingly mirror each other's work. Watching Peck tap dance en pointe alongside Dorrance is heart-stopping.

The Barre Project, Blake Works II
choreography William Forsythe
music James Blake 
dancers Lex Ishimoto, Brooklyn Mack, Roman Mejia, Tiler Peck

Finally, the ballet barre is the focal-point for this multi-part performance involving Peck and four male dancers, plus a rather perplexing short film featuring only hands. The clever choreography allows the dancers to bring their personalities onto the stage, adding some cheeky spark as they interact both with the barre and each other, once again creating an overlapping space where ballet and modern dance interact. Peck's easy grace and weightless leaps are mesmerising, especially alongside male dancers who provide shows of strength and gravity while also soaring themselves.

Each segment is infused with a traditional approach to gender, with muscly men paired with fluid women, performing steps in distinctly male or female styles. So even with progressive approaches to music and choreography, the show also remains oddly stuck in the past. That said, every movement is simply gorgeous, often thrillingly expressive as different forms of dance are fused together into something eye-catching and fresh. These are dancers performing at the very peak of physicality, skill and natural talent. And they bring a playfulness to the stage that's infectious.

For details, visit SADLER'S WELLS >
photos by Geovanny Santillan, Christopher Duggan, Rosalie O'Connor • 10.Mar.23