Friday 24 November 2023

Dance: Duets in the dark

Young Associates: Mixed Bill
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells • 22-23.Nov.23

This year's Young Associates showcase features four very different duets, each with its own distinctive tone. They are all performed on a dark stage with very strong lighting, as seen in the images...

Falling Forwards
choreography Maiya Leeke
dancers Joshua Hawkins, Emily Lue-Fong
music Randolph Matthews

Maiya Leeke's work emerges from her background as a jazz saxophonist, and as a dancer she appeared in Barbie. This piece features a range of intriguing juxtapositions between two dancers, a male and female wearing loose, flowing costumes that sometimes seem to get in the way. They move against each other, on their own and sometimes in unison, creating eye-catching shapes. On the soundtrack, breathy rhythms give way to music as the choreography shifts from sharp movement into much more musical expression. The couple comes together to perform a series of lovely moves before separating again. The movement is demanding, beautifully performed to create engaging characters and a story that's involving and even moving. 

Ida’s Solace
choreography Elisabeth Mulenga
dancers Laurie Ward, Steffi Fashokun
music by Travis Yu

Elisabeth Mulenga takes inspiration from cinema as she explores the human psyche. This piece is challenging and sometimes abrasive, as two women in calf-length dresses writhe in unison and then separate to strike poses that have echoes of horror, sometimes juddering or breaking into huge facial expressions. Performance art rather than dance, the movement is often awkward and difficult, deliberately revealing the strain both in the individual and in the way they try to interact with each other. It also sometimes feels aggressive and violent. Much of this is alienating and even disturbing, but it's also eerily intimate. So even as it pushes us away, we are intrigued.

At the Foot of the Brae
choreography Roseann & Sula
dancers Yu-Chien Cheng, Naissa Bjørn
sound design Jan Brzezinski

With a plinth in the centre of the stage, this piece features two androgynous dancers who are both male and female, performing in ways that suggest a queer struggle for connection and meaning in life. It's a moving piece, choreographed theatrically by Roseann and Sula to echo their experiences growing up in central Scotland. This involves evocatively staged extended solo sections that include enormous movement, revealing huge effort and big emotional outbursts. Then when the dancers are together, they fly around the stage with real power. But there's always a struggle, a push and pull. It's a lovely depiction of gender fluidity, a cry for hope.

My Glimmer Boo
choreography Blue Makwana
dancers Lauren Jenkins, Tanisha Addicott
lighting Amelia Hawkes

Dedicated to Matthew Perry, this cheeky piece uses friendship as its central theme, opening with a voiceover introduction to two social media stars. They emerge grinning and snapping selfies, adeptly performing a riotously athletic TikTok style routine before shifting their costumes for a modern dance section. This includes emotional turns on their own and as a pair, leading into a more classical dance piece that's elegant and empowering. Then the phone is back as they merge all three styles in a whizzy, inventive way, performed with intricate skill to a remixed version of the Friends theme. The music all the way through is clever, and the red and black colour scheme inventively interacts with the lighting. It's also very sweet.

For information, visit SADLER'S WELLS >

photos courtesy Sadler's Wells • 22.Nov.23

Thursday 23 November 2023

Critical Week: What you wish for

Things have shifted up a gear here in film awards season, with more screenings and links than it's possible to watch. Everyone wants us to consider their movies, and there simply isn't time to watch everything, so we're all making lists and watching what we can. It can be a bit overwhelming, but there are of course worse jobs out there. The big movie this week was Disney's new animated feature Wish, and I was invited to the gala UK premiere in Leicester Square and also a Christmas party the next day. The film is sweet and entertaining, but there's not much to it. A more satisfying animated movie is Adam Sandler's Leo, a nutty romp about a classroom lizard who helping the students with their problems. It's both silly and smart, and also very funny. 

Robot Dreams • Napoleon • Monster
Totem • American Symphony
Bridging between arthouse and blockbuster, Michael Mann's Ferrari recounts a pivotal period in the life of the car maker, played by Adam Driver. The entire cast is excellent (including Penelope Cruz and Shailene Woodley), and the film is strikingly well shot and edited. Tilda Swinton gets a superb double role as mother and daughter in The Eternal Daughter, an enigmatic haunted house movie from Joanna Hogg. I loved its atmospherics. Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki's Fallen Leaves has won some big awards this year, and it's easy to see why. It's a wonderfully deadpan romantic comedy, fiercely original with topical touches. And another award-winner, Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda's Monster is a gorgeously constructed drama that carries a huge emotional kick.

And then there was the Mexican mystery thriller Lost in the Night, a riveting offbeat thriller that refuses to be what we want it to be. The wacky German satire Captain Faggotron Saves the Universe is amateurish but has its own charm. And the lively documentary Scala!!! is a delight, tracing London's iconic repertory cinema with style, humour and insight. Away from the cinema, I also saw Lovetrain2020 and the new Young Associates mixed bill (review up soon) at Sadler's Wells and Connor Burns: Vertigo at Soho Theatre.

Things keep getting busier this week, with films including the musical remake of The Colour Purple, Timothee Chalamet in Wonka, Eddie Murphy in Candy Cane Lane, George Clooney's The Boys in the Boat, Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction, Isabelle Huppert in The Sitting Duck, Melissa McCarthy in Genie, George MacKay in Femme, Hong Kong crime thriller The Goldfinger, the John Galliano doc High & Low and the Olympics doc We Dare to Dream.

Sunday 19 November 2023

Stage: Charmingly transgressive

Connor Burns
Soho Theatre, London • 16-18.Nov.23
UK tour 6.Oct.23-23.Mar.24

Scottish stand-up Connor Burns takes his acclaimed Fringe show on the road, travelling to pretty much every corner of Great Britain (plus a stop in New York), ending up back home in Glasgow in March. His offhanded style of delivery and deliberately edgy material make him thoroughly engaging, especially as he continually apologises for each transgressive gag. Then he says something even more outrageous, which leaves us laughing conspiratorially.

Most of all, Burns is lightning fast, quickly picking up on what's happening in the theatre, and weaving razor-sharp punchlines into each throwaway comment. He delights in skating close to the edge of controversial subjects, mischievously riffing on things like female empowerment, gender identity and Oscar Pistorius, and he miraculously manages to do this without ever losing the audience. He has a gift for accents, and joyfully lampoons a wide range of people, starting with his own Scottish brogue before mercilessly taking on Australia.

What makes this so engaging is that he delivers every jab with expert timing, as if he's having a private chat with us, confiding his politically incorrect opinions, even though we know that he's joking (and he reminds us just to be sure). His jaggedly hilarious comments about shifting genertional attitudes, as a Millennial looking at Baby Boomers and Gen Z, are wonderfully observed to add unexpected depth to the material. And through all of this, his cheeky, knowing smile is utterly charming, undercutting our ability to be offended by even his rudest material. This is a rare gift, so we can only hope that Burns never gives into pressure to tone things down.

For information, visit CONNOR BURNS >
photos by Melody Joy • 18.Nov.23

Saturday 18 November 2023

Dance: Sowing the seeds of love

Emanuel Gat Dance
choreography & lighting Emanuel Gat
with Eglantine Bart, Tara Dalli, Noé Girard, Nikoline Due Iversen, Gilad Jerusalmy, Péter Juhasz, Michael Loehr, Emma Mouton, Rindra Rasoaveloson, Abel Rojo Pupo, Karolina Szymura, Sara Wilhelmsson
music Tears For Fears
costumes Thomas Bradley, Wim Muyllaert
Sadler's Wells, London • 17-18.Nov.23 ★★★

Emanuel Gat takes such a loose approach to choreography that this show can't help but be entertaining, especially for fans of the 1980s pop band Tears For Fears, whose songs underscore the show. Performers run around the stage with abandon, using improvisational techniques that stretch their muscled bodies in expressive directions either along with the music or in complete silence. But while it's visually impressive, and the dancers are seriously talented, there's a nagging sense that the show is essentially pointless.

The dancers appear on stage one by one, in somewhat indulgent fashion dressed colourfully and individualistically in what seem to be bunched up sheets and curtains. These look very cool, but are perhaps impractical for physical movement, so it makes sense that costumes are shed layer by layer until a joyful number later on in which everyone is skipping around in underpants. This finally allows us to see the sheer strength these performers are deploying to strike these various controlled poses, which sometimes evoke children at play or contestants in a voguing ball. 

Gat describes the show as an invitation "to come and join a community of individuals, as they make their way along constantly changing landscapes". Indeed, there is the strong sense here of how people come together and maintain their identities in a company, performing in unison while still having their own individual flourishes. Even so, the approach never taps into the deeper emotions, leaving the audience impressed but unmoved.

While all of it is eye-catching and often sexy, only a few numbers manage to find a more resonant impact. The most powerful piece is a pas de deux between two men who create a vivid tension that pushes and pulls between them. And several solos are performed with astonishing physicality and a hint of internal emotion. But most of this feels rather random, even if it's always beautiful.
For information, visit SADLER'S WELLS >

photos by Julia Gat • 17.Nov.23

Thursday 16 November 2023

Critical Week: Signature move

Awards season is in full swing now that the actors strike has ended, and I've had a couple of nice Q&A screenings this week (see Insta for pics). Big year-end movies are beginning to appear too. Zac Efron, Harris Dickinson, Jeremy Allen White, Lily James and writer-director Sean Durkin came along to present The Iron Claw, their astonishingly involving, powerfully moving true drama about a family of wrestlers. And Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby and Ridley Scott were on the red carpet for the Leicester Square premiere of Napoleon, a first-rate epic biopic about the French leader that looks properly amazing on the biggest screen possible. 

Rustin • Saltburn
May December
Meanwhile, Colman Domingo is excellent in the biopic Rustin, about the unsung Civil Rights organiser. Alexander Payne's The Holdovers is a 1970s-style wintry delight starring Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph. Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick are fierce in the harrowing Aussie Outback thriller The Royal Hotel. Taika Waititi's true-life comedy Next Goal Wins is a gently witty story about the world's worst football team, starring Michael Fassbender. Jesse Eisenberg turns into a meathead for Manodrome, a very dark drama that doesn't always work but gets us thinking. From New Zealand, the drama Punch is thoughtful and moving. Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron is even more spectacular than expected. Godzilla Minus One is a beefy prequel set in post-war Japan. The doc American Symphony finds surprising emotion while following Jon Batiste as he composes an orchestral piece. And the Powell and Pressburger classic The Red Shoes is even more dazzling in a new restoration. I also caught up with this one...

Dance First
dir James Marsh; with Gabriel Byrne, Fionn O'Shea 23/UK ***
While director James Marsh adds considerable visual flourish to this imaginative biopic about Samuel Beckett, there's a nagging feeling that the story is incomplete, as if it is skipping across the surface of a darkly complex figure. So while the script and performances add nuance in the characters and relationships, everything feels eerily out of reach. Thankfully, superb performances as Beckett from Gabriel Byrne and especially Fionn O'Shea give the film layers of insight and context. 

Films this coming week include Disney's new animated feature Wish, Michael Mann's Ferrari, Tilda Swinton in The Eternal Daughter (a full 15 months after I missed the screening in Venice!), Mexican thriller Lost in the Night, Australian drama A Stitch in Time, deep-fake doc Another Body and arthouse cinema doc Scala!!!, plus LoveTrain at Sadler's Wells and Connor Burns: Vertigo at Soho Theatre.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Critical Week: You're a winner, baby

Arriving back in London, there's a lot to catch up on, both with writing and movie watching. But I'm working my way through it all, fending off jet lag and surprisingly not too bothered by the cold, wet, dark days here. Awards season is in full swing now, so there are plenty of for-your-consideration films to watch, plus TV series as I am voting in both film and TV categories in this year's Golden Globes. I've only just begun to catch up.

Anatomy of a Fall
The Eternal Memory
Films this week included yet another unexpected performance from Nicolas Cage, this time as a hapless nice guy propelled into a surreal social media flurry in Dream Scenario. It's smart and strange, and wonderfully provocative. Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani are back as The Marvels, an bonkers action comedy that's funny but vacuous. Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott lead the teen comedy Bottoms, which is rude and amusing, and never quite gets to the point. The important and engaging doc Every Body is a bracingly honest look at life for three intersex people, bursting with humour and music. And I caught up with this one on the plane...

The Covenant
dir Guy Ritchie; with Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim 23/US ***.
Set in 2018 Afghanistan, this remarkably understated thriller may be fictional, but it has a strong ring of truth to its story of an American soldier who feels a moral responsibility for helping the interpreter who saved his life. Director-cowriter Guy Ritchie recounts the story with an edgy authenticity that often feels like a documentary, so even when the bigger action beats emerge, they feel grounded in human experience. And performances have a terrific earthiness that avoids the usual militaristic bombast.

Films this coming week include Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, Zac Efron in The Iron Claw, Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, Julia Garner in The Royal Hotel, James Marsh's Samuel Beckett biopic Dance First, Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron, Japanese monster reboot Godzilla Minus One, the doc American Symphony and the restored classic The Red Shoes.

Sunday 29 October 2023

AFI Fest: True stories

Travelling home to visit friends and family, it's helpful that I was born in Los Angeles! Not only does this offer a chance to escape to the sunshine during London's drearier seasons, but I can also catch up on film industry stuff while I'm out here. This trip coincided with AFI Fest, which is held at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, so I booked in to see five films (there were about 15 that I wanted to see!). Four of them had cast and crew Q&As, and as three of the films are based on true stories, the real people participated as well, which added huge emotions to the screenings. Photos are on the Insta feed (see below). Here are some comments, with full reviews to come...

Society of the Snow [La Sociedad de la Nieve]
dir JA Bayona; with Enzo Vogrincic, Agustin Pardella 23/Sp ****
Taking on another momentous true story (see The Impossible), Spanish filmmaker JA Bayona finds a visceral, authentically immersive path through a retelling of the 1972 plane crash that stranded Uruguayan rugby players high in the Chilean Andes. Through a series of harrowing events, the film pulls the audience into the emotional complexity of a situation far beyond what we can imagine. It’s bracingly involving, riveting and ultimately cathartic.

Me Captain

[Io Capitano]
dir Matteo Garrone; with Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall 23/It ****.
Taking a bracingly naturalistic approach, Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone traces the immigrant journey from West Africa to Europe, drawing details and perspective from real-life experiences. Intensely personal, the film finds global resonance in its specific story of a 16-year-old whose innate hopefulness is beaten and battered but never extinguished over the course of an astonishing odyssey. This gives the film a soaring humanity.

dir Ellen Kuras; with Kate Winslet, Josh O'Connor 23/UK ***.
Noted photographer Lee Miller is the subject of this detailed biopic, which centres on a pivotal period in time to deliver an emotional punch. Director Ellen Kuras approaches the story skilfully, finding clever resonance in several intense set-pieces, even if the script is never particularly ambitious with the material. And Kate Winslet delivers another powerfully invested performance as a complex woman who plotted her own course through life.

dir-scr Michel Franco; with Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard 23/US ****
Enormous issues ripple through this warm, complex romantic drama, adding unusual depth of feeling as characters confront the past and future. Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco never takes the easy route through the material, cutting in and out of scenes with an edgy style that leaves space for questions and contemplation. It’s unusually vibrant storytelling, rooted in the way experience and memory define our sense of identity, and not always in the most helpful way.

Evil Does Not Exist
dir-scr Ryusuke Hamaguchi; with Hitoshi Omika, Ryo Nishikawa 23/Jpn ****
Both beautiful and challenging, this Japanese drama cleverly draws the audience in with an astute eye for details and characters that are hilariously deadpan in their interaction. Expanding on the evocative music of Eiko Ishibashi, writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi observes scenes with skill and insight, drawing out deeper meanings without us even realising it. So while the film feels somewhat enigmatic, it gets under the skin and lingers.

Also screened at AFI Fest and previously reviewed: ALL OF US STRANGERS (Haigh, UK); FINGERNAILS (Nikou, US); TIGER STRIPES (Eu, Mys); TOTEM (Aviles, Mex); MAESTRO (Cooper, US); THE BIKERIDERS (Nichols, US); 20,000 SPECIES OF BEES (Urresola, Sp); SMOKE SAUNA SISTERHOOD (Hints, Est); ANSELM (Wenders, Ger).

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C R I T I C A L   W E E  K

There aren't many films on general release here that I'm interested in, and I prefer to spend time with my friends and family rather than watching screening links. So these are the only five movies I've seen all week, and I have no plans to watch anything in the coming week either. But you never know - I think Alexander Payne's The Holdovers might be on somewhere...