Blakeson - Writer

Cardiff-based film, theatre and gig reviews, cultural ramblings, whingeing, short films, etc.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Michael Kiwanuka at Cardiff Tramshed

This was my second visit within a few weeks to Cardiff’s newest major city-centre concert venue, The Tramshed, and it was a transcendent experience.

First up was a solo set by youthful, lank-haired troubadour Isaac Gracey, whose folk-tinged, electric and acoustic guitar-led balladeering went down very well. His original material was pleasingly melodic, and delivered in a strong, confident voice – he did mention that his only previous visit to Cardiff was on a choir tour. There were also a couple of Bob Dylan covers, in tribute to the great man’s long overdue recognition by the Nobel Prize committee.

Headliner Michael Kiwanuka’s act kicked off in the same way as his new album, with the lengthy, keyboard-led, Pink Floyd-inflected introduction to “Cold Little Heart”, which cleverly set up the tone of his set, dominated as it was by extended, atmospheric extemporisations.

Michael Kiwanuka

Music industry marketing being what it is, Kiwanuka is tagged as a “soul” singer - and his voice comes across somewhat more powerfully than it does on record - but what his five-piece backing band (including two drummers) delivers is as much influenced by robust Dylan-esque singer-songwriters and classic rock as by Ray Charles. Their exuberance mitigates the melancholic tone of the “Love and Hate” album, and the collective mood is a celebratory one, as exemplified by the jubilant response to “Black Man In A White World” from the overwhelmingly Caucasian capacity crowd.

There were relatively few songs from his brilliant first album, “Home Again”, but “Tell Me A Tale” received the psychedelic wig-out treatment (although the absence of jazz flute was a shame). The encore comprised a deeply moving version of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April”, and a rousing, sing-along rendition of the new album’s title track.

Vintage stuff.

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

"The Weir" / "Told By The Wind" / Roathbud 2016

Being a part-time/amateur theatre critic certainly throws up some startling contrasts.
Last week, I was privileged to see the Sherman’s production of Conor McPherson’s modern classic “The Weir”, all about the power of story-telling, and full of profane, quicksilver Irish wit. And the very next night, at Chapter, was The Llanarth Group’s “Told By The Wind” featuring dancer Jo Shapland – all about quietude and stillness, apparently within a relationship, influenced by Japanese “Noh” theatre. I have to say I found the former more entertaining and trenchant, but “Told By The Wind” had its moments.

"The Weir" - photo by Nick Allsop

The annual Made In Roath arts festival has taken place this week, livening up the neighbourhood. Since it is run by unpaid enthusiasts, not everything which is advertised actually materialises, but Roathbud, the evening of film screenings by local artists is always reliable, and this year I was proud that my aria film “In Limbo” was part of the programme. It’s always good to see one’s work on a big screen, and in the company of an indulgent audience.

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Sunday, October 09, 2016

"Kiss Me Kate", "The Mountaintop", film festivals etc

I got a late call to review “Kiss Me Kate”, from Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre, which I was unable to resist – it’s not often that one gets the chance to see one of the classic Broadway musicals performed by one of the great companies. It helped that I already knew many of the songs, although listening to them in the context of the plot (which, frankly, didn’t really hang together), one gained a new appreciation of Cole Porter’s musical inventiveness and lyrical wit.

Other recent review assignments were Alan Harris’ playful examination of guilt, “The Terrible Things I’ve Done” at Chapter; and, at The Other Room, Fio’s wonderfully acted Welsh premiere of “The Mountaintop”, Katori Hall’s multi-award-winning examination of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King.

"The Mountaintop" (photo - Aenne Pallasca)

On Friday, I attended a day-long workshop for emerging filmmakers, organised by BFI Wales, at which Rwandan-born director Kivu Ruhorahoza spoke, outlining his struggles and strategies, and giving insights not only into the kinds of films which inspire him (e.g. “Elephant”, “American Psycho”), but also about the practicalities of surviving as a creative, and of selling your work to producers and festivals. Inspiring, in a subtle way. It was also interesting to note that many of the attendees were reassuringly middle-aged.

There have been a couple of small ego-boosts – my film of Lissa Kiernan’s poem “Census” has been accepted into the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Munster, Germany – my first successful entry for this prestigious, biennial event; and my adaptation of Carl Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia” will be screened at the inaugural New York Jazz Film Festival in a few weeks’ time. Which is nice.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

"The Girl With All The Gifts" / "Wonderman

It goes without saying that filmmakers’ takes on the "Zombie Apocalypse", vary widely, from the cheap and nasty to the broadly comical, blatantly political and gravely sophisticated. Colm McCarthy’s "The Girl With All The Gifts" (written by Mike Carey, adapting his own novel) falls into the latter category, although many of the familiar tropes are securely in place – head-splattering gunshots, desolated urban landscapes, spurious scientific explanations etc.
The focus, however, is on the eerily centred child, Melanie, wonderfully played by Sennia Nanua, whom we first encounter in a secure research facility, along with dozens of other young virus-carriers; as well as  Glenn Close’s  ruthless scientist, Paddy Considine’s hard-assed guard/soldier and Gemma Arterton as her much-loved teacher, Miss Justineau. Needless to say, they soon find themselves on the road, in search of salvation.
Were it not for the robust language, and the customarily ridiculous level of gruesomeness, this might almost be a children’s film, since Melanie is the primary heroine/villain, and it is the discovery of other children amongst the zombified (or, rather, fungus-infected) hordes which leads the narrative into unexpected territory.  McCarthy makes good use of his transformed locations (including, apparently, my home town of Stoke-On-Trent, which will have needed little work done), and there are even hints of dark humour as Considine’s Sgt Parks gradually rediscovers his humanity.
The heart of the piece, though, is the relationship between Melanie and Miss Justineau, which is beautifully handled; and it is this which gives "The Girl With All The Gifts" the edge over most entries in this over-subscribed genre.
"The Girl With All The Gifts"

A more playful eeriness was, of course, the hallmark of the work of Roald Dahl, whose centenary was celebrated in Cardiff, the town of his birth, recently. The highlight was the huge “City Of The Unexpected” extravaganza, which saw dozens of Dahl-themed characters and vignettes taking over the city-centre; although the excellent weather led to vast crowds, which were largely unmarshalled. A more contained and satisfying spectacle was “Wonderman”, a show at the newly-opened Tramshed venue, in which Gagglebabble conflated several of Dahl’s sinister stories for adults, in their unique gig-theatre style. A great success, despite a few sound problems.

A Giant Peach at Cardiff Castle

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Thursday, September 08, 2016

"Café Society"

"Café Society", the latest film from Woody Allen, doesn't break any new ground, although since he's an acknowledged master of his art, this is no criticism.
Set in the 1930s, it stars Jesse Eisenberg stars as Bobby, a Jewish New Yorker who goes to Hollywood, hoping that his uncle, a high-flying agent played by Steve Carell, will give him a job. There, he falls in love with a beautiful woman who is patently out of his league - Kristen Stewart. Soon, however, circumstances send him back to New York, and involvement with his brother's not entirely above-board business activities.

Courtesy of legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storare (“Apocalypse Now”; “The Last Emperor”), the look is warm and lush throughout, complemented by the soundtrack of jazz standards; and Allen’s voice-over, which is not as annoyingly expository as in previous films, gives it the feel of an extended short story. Not quite a comedy - although there are numerous funny lines - it is more a rites-of-passage tale, as Eisenberg’s awkward, idealistic Bobby grows harder and more cynical as life deals its lessons, harsh and otherwise.

As usual, the casting is key: Eisenberg avoids imitating the young Woody, and Carell relishes the role of a powerful but conflicted man (in a role apparently meant for Bruce Willis); it’s good to see Ken Stott as Bobby’s crabby father, and Sari Lennick is also impressive as his supportive sister.

It’s been said before, and one hopes it will be repeated several times in the future: Woody Allen treading water effortlessly outdoes most other filmmakers.

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Thursday, September 01, 2016

"Mandela Trilogy" / "Block"

There has been little theatre-reviewing action in the past few weeks, since everyone in South Wales has been raving it up at the Edinburgh Festival. I was lucky enough, though,  to get to see “Mandela Trilogy” from Cape Town Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre, which was a treat, if (inevitably) stylistically uneven, since it treated the life of the saviour of South Africa in three distinct musical styles, with three different Nelsons.

And on Bank Holiday Monday, outside the same venue, I unexpectedly caught the spectacular open-air performance of “Block” from NoFit State Circus and Motionhouse – a kind of depiction of the complexity of urban life, featuring highly talented dancer/acrobats. Remarkable stuff.

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

"The Hunting Of The Snark" / "Star Trek Beyond"

Sherman Cymru’s family offering for the summer holidays is an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense mini-epic “The Hunting Of The Snark”, with a lively cast of six, including on-stage musician. Great fun, with lots of topical references, although the fact that it focuses on the relationship between the Banker and his son (a character invented by writer Annabel Wigoder) means that any grander themes with which Carroll may have been toying seem to get lost.

"The Hunting Of The Snark" (photo: Mark Douet)

The weekend saw a visit to the National Museum of Wales, and the exhibition focussing on the Battle of Mametz Wood during World War 1, at which many Welsh soldiers fell. There is much memorabilia, poetry and art, most strikingly the painting “The Charge of the Welsh at Mametz Wood, 1916”, by Christopher Williams. Also showing is an exhibition of the work of legendary children’s book illustrator Quentin Blake which, seemed barely less dark, given his long association with the morally complex work of Roald Dahl; his illustrations for Michael Rosen’s “Sad Book” are particularly stark. Also somewhat downbeat, although inspirational in intent, is Shimon Attie’s vivid video-photographic tribute to the people of contemporary Aberfan, which was famously struck by tragedy in 1966.

The Charge of the Welsh at Mametz Wood, 1916”, by Christopher Williams

 Star Trek Beyond”, even though its release is tinged with tragedy following the awful death of Anton Yelchin (“Chekov”), is every bit as heartening as its immediate predecessors, despite the replacement of director J.J. Abrams by Justin “Fast And Furious” Lin. Relationships are foregrounded, as the U.S.S. Enterprise, having been lured to a distant planet, is attacked and the crew separated. Idris Elba plays the villain whose motivation (somewhat topically) is to subvert the Federation’s ethos of peaceful co-operation. The visuals are predictably spectacular, but it is the warmth between the crew-members which leaves the most lasting impression.

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