Blakeson - Writer

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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"La La Land" / "The Snow Queen"

Damien Chazelle’s third feature, “La La Land” starts as it means to go on, with an unashamedly lavish song and dance set-piece taking place in a Los Angeles traffic jam, immediately succeeded by a brief, surly encounter between the two characters who eventually turn out to be the principals: Emma Stone’s Mia, an aspiring actress, and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, an intense jazz pianist, who is something of a purist.
A slow-burning romance ensues, with the magical moments played out as classic widescreen movie musical numbers, enhanced by 21st century CGI. As the relationship progresses, however, the staging becomes more prosaic.
The theme of the piece is the importance of chasing one’s dreams, and the inevitable disappointments and compromises which one has to encounter; although in Sebastian’s case, the compromise involves a lucrative job in a pop/soul combo with old friend Keith (John Legend). Mia’s journey has a few more bumps in the road, but somehow one is never convinced that she is a failure-in-waiting.
Stone’s apparently effortless likeability is the film’s main selling-point, her open features regularly filling the screen; her soul-destroying audition scenes are particularly tense. Gosling’s character is more of a closed book, although it’s good to see him essaying light comedy, and his keyboard skills (mimed or otherwise) are impressive.
The overall impression is of experiencing a contemporary Broadway musical, complete with not-quite-memorable tunes. Technically, the film is a significant achievement, however, and it certainly hits home emotionally, the ending being especially clever.
La La Land” is beautifully realised, and worthy of all the awards buzz, falling short only because it skimps on the darkness.
"La La Land"

My hometown Christmas treat this year was “The Snow Queen” at the New Victoria Theatre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme (shamefully, my first visit in many years). This boasted a surprisingly large ensemble (compared to Cardiff productions), with many cast-members also part of the on-stage band in Theresa Heskins’ take on the Hans Christian Anderson classic. There were hints of Miss Havisham in the title character, folksy, Brecht-Weil-tinged songs, and a bit of a science-fiction spin at the denouement. Very enjoyable.

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Festive Theatre 2016

Obviously, the highlight of the past few weeks has to be the Pixies gig as reviewed in my previous post. There have also been a few theatre trips, though:

Most recently was an unlikely double-bill; “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the very likeable Christmas show for under-sevens at The Sherman; and, in the evening, “OTUS”, an intriguing hybrid dance/circus piece from Company Oliveira & Bachtler in the Dance House at the Wales Millennium Centre.
"The Emperor's New Clothes" (photo: Kirsten McTernan)

Looking further back, there was “Some People Talk About Violence”, from Midlands-based Barrel Organ at The Other Room; the Sherman’s Christmas show for over-sevens, “The Borrowers”; the dreamy and tragic “Light Waves, Dark Skies” from We Made This at Chapter; and “Looking Through Glass”, the none-more-dark festive offering from difficultstage, once more at The Other Room.

"Looking Through Glass" (photo: Kieran Cudlip)
All very stimulating, but frustrating, for obvious career reasons.

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Pixies in Cardiff

“Everyone’s so old” said a voice, in the crowded pub around the corner from the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, just before the Pixies’ gig. Alright, the voice was mine; the band did form, after all, thirty years ago (in Boston Massachusetts), becoming UK indie favourites (much played by John Peel and his night-time Radio One colleagues) in the late 1980s. And there was definitely the whiff of nostalgia in the air.

Those questing souls who could be bothered to make it into the venue before 8pm were rewarded with a short but intense set from Malmo-based four-piece Fews, who delivered some tasty, drone-inflected power-pop, the single “The Zoo” going down especially well.

The headliners kicked off their 100-minute concert with “Bone Machine” (the first track from “Surfer Rosa”, their debut album), segueing into classic single “Monkey Gone To Heaven”; the set as a whole, however, leant heavily on the newer material, such as the punky “Um Chagga Lagga”. Most of the hits were present, however: “Wave Of Mutilation”, “Velouria”, “Debaser”, Neil Young’s “Winterlong”, Here Comes Your Man”, “Caribou”; and “Where Is My Mind” in particular prompted a mass outbreak of smartphone video-recording.

Black Francis was coolly authoritative throughout; long-time co-guitarist Joey Santiago seemed in good health following his recent trouble; drummer Dave Lovering was the exuberant solid rock (and occasional vocalist); and the charming Paz Lenchantin seems to have slotted seamlessly into Kim Deal’s role as moderating female influence (although Deal’s “Gigantic” was absent from the set).

New single “Classic Masher” (one of the best things they’ve ever done) signalled that things were drawing to a close, and following an epic “Vamos”, the band seemed to disappear into clouds of smoke, but emerged to conclude with an even more epic “Into The White”, led by Lenchantin. They then took a graceful bow before abandoning the faithful to their mental exhaustion.

Pixies taking a bow (picture: Pixies)

Less of an exercise in nostalgia, then, than a lesson from a gang of old masters in how to weave a spell. Exhilarating.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Arrival", "Blink", "Love, Lies & Taxidermy", "Cascade Dance Theatre", "Word, Image, Digital"

Recent reviewing assignments have included Phil Porter’s charmingly messy romantic comedy “Blink” at The Other Room; a diverse trilogy of small-scale contemporary dance pieces from Cascade Dance Theatre at Swansea’s Taliesin Theatre and, most recently, at The Sherman, Alan Harris’s “Love, Lies & Taxidermy”, a fast-moving teen-romantic comedy set in Merthyr.

"Blink" (photo: Aenne Pallasca)
 I also went to see Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”, in which Amy Adams plays a linguist who is called in to attempt to facilitate communication when a number of huge obelisks from elsewhere in the universe arrive on Earth (or rather, hovering over a number of locations on it), since their intentions are unclear. It is a thoughtful take on Cold War-inflected alien invasion movies of the 1950s, with the military primed to attack and more scientifically-minded voices advising caution. Adams is the humanistic focus, receiving able support from Jeremy Renner as a wise-cracking physicist, Forest Whittaker as the buttoned-down military man under pressure, and Michael Stuhlbarg as the more gung-ho government agent. It’s not exactly action-packed, and the cerebral take on the representation of the alien language (rather like smoke-signals) means that developments are as hard for the audience to decode as the characters. A clever narrative twist towards the end, however, plunges us into deep emotional waters, forcing us to face impossibly profound issues. Powerful work, which lingers in the mind.


I couldn’t make it to the inaugural New York Jazz Film Festival, but at least my film of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Jazz Fantasia” was there, and picked up a prize in the “mixed genre” category, which was nice.

I also gave a rare academic presentation, speaking at a symposium entitled “Word, Image, Digital”- a return to Cardiff University where I did my first degree. My contribution was about films made by myself and others of poems posted to the no-longer-extant Poetry Storehouse website, and it seemed to go down quite well.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

"Blackbird" / Artes Mundi 7

David Harrower’s Olivier Award-winning play “Blackbird”, from Those Two Impostors, is the latest piece being hosted by The Other Room Theatre, and my most recent reviewing assignment. The tale of a young woman confronting the middle-aged man with whom she had a sexual relationship when she was 12, it is very well acted, but I found it a tad troubling in its apparent even-handedness.

"Blackbird" (photo: Kirsten McTernan)

Also opening in the past week has been Artes Mundi – the 7th edition of the biennial, international art prize, exhibiting in Cardiff. I went to see those elements of it which are at the National Museum, and while there was plenty of interesting stuff on offer – I experienced only a few minutes of John Akomfrah’s migration-themed installation films, and Amy Franceschini’s ambitious “Future Farmers” project looked interesting - the most immediately arresting piece was Bedwyr Williams large-scale “slow” video “Tyrrau Mawr”, imagining a futuristic city in North Wales, with accompanying narration. I fully intend to go again and watch the whole 20 minutes.

Tyrrau Mawr (Artes Mundi)

And another biennial visual arts event, Cardiff Contemporary is also on, and currently livening up the city centre.

Laura Ford's redecoration of Cardiff Castle's Animal Wall for Cardiff Contemporary

Earlier in the week, I was one of a group of filmmakers who met with the latest intake of students of the University of South Wales’ Masters in Film Production, as part of a promising initiative from B.F.I. Wales – aiming to match our proposals with the students’ final projects and the B.F.I.’s know-how in terms of funding. All the others who were pitching were vastly more experienced than me, but it was, at the very least a valuable learning experience.

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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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