Blakeson - Writer

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Terra Firma" / "A Number" / "Woman Of Flowers" / "The Commuter" / "The Shape Of Water"

My first reviewing assignment of the year was National Dance Theatre Wales three-part “Terra Firma” at the Sherman – a welcome chance to see two pieces I’ve seen before – “Folk” and the beautiful “Tundra”, alongside the recently-developed “Atalay”. Obviously, I’m no expert in dance, but there’s plenty there, in terms of grace and skill to delight the non-aficionado.
My second was the first in the new season at The Other Room – Caryl Churchill’s “A Number”, in which a father encounters cloned versions of his adult son. A very clever and involving two-hander, handled with great assurance.
And most recently, there was Theatr Pena’s “Woman of Flowers” at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – Sion Eirian’s take on Saunders Lewis’ adaptation of the story of Blodeuwedd, from the Mabinogion – a rare chance to see some pleasingly weird classical Welsh theatre in English.
Sara Gregory in "Woman Of Flowers" (photo: Holly McCarthy)
I wouldn’t normally have gone to see a Liam Neeson action feature in the cinema, but “The Commuter” is notable for featuring my niece, Ella-Rae Smith, in what turns out (spoiler alert) to be an important role. The story of a recently unemployed salesman (and former cop) who is bribed/blackmailed by criminals to track down an associate on a commuter train, it’s very slickly directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; and Neeson is more charming than he’s allowed to be in his “Taken” guise. And, of course, Ella is excellent.
 “The Shape of Water”, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is a fable of connection and outsiderdom, featuring a magical lead performance from Sally Hawkins. She plays Elisa, a mute cleaner, in a U.S. government facility in 1960s Baltimore, who becomes entranced by a new acquisition – a sea-creature captured in South America, the study of whose biology would impact on Man’s ability to breathe in space. The period detail is impeccable, as are the performances – Michael Shannon as the saturnine bad guy, Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s gentle, gay neighbour, and Octavia Spencer as her feisty friend and work-colleague.  It doesn’t break any new ground thematically, but it tells an age-old story with great style and sensitivity, and is well deserving of all the awards and nominations which are coming its way.

Friday, January 19, 2018

"Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri"

As any writer will attest, it’s the easiest thing in the world to come up with an eye-catching premise; it’s quite another to weave a compelling story from it. In “Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri”, a woman puts up said notices in order to highlight what she believes is police ineptitude in investigating the horrific rape and murder of her daughter several months earlier. The fact that the story develops in a deeply involving and not entirely predictable manner is a testament to the genius of writer-director Martin McDonagh.
"Three Billboards..." (Blueprint Pictures)
The lead role of Mildred Hayes is a gift for Frances McDormand, all coldly righteous fury mingled with grim wit, but this is only one of several laudably complex characterisations; most controversially, Sam Rockwell, playing a laughably unpleasant idiot cop who just may be good at his job. Woody Harrelson does excellent work as the embattled police chief; indeed the entire supporting cast is given the opportunity to dig deep, mining humour and pathos from subtly written archetypes (e.g. Peter Dinklage’s unhappy town dwarf, John Hawkes as Mildred’s violent ex-husband, Samara Weaving as his “bimbo” girlfriend).

This is a film about the deleterious and sometimes energising effect of grief and guilt, which also prompts one to reflect on the nature of goodness and justice. As well as serving us a good few narrative curveballs, McDonagh also makes exemplary use of the bleached, Southern landscape, natural beauty co-existing uneasily with human misery and drabness. 
Three Billboards…” is a powerfully told, compassionate, brutally beautiful film whose emotional impact lingers long after the credits roll.

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Sunday, January 07, 2018

"Treasure Island" / "The Last Jedi"

I ended 2017 in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent, as usual, and persuaded my mother to accompany me to the New Victoria Theatre to see their Christmas production, following on from last year’s “The Snow Queen”. This was Theresa Heskins’ rambunctious take of R.L. Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, featuring some mild gender-tweaking, and plenty of rock-inflected music. Since we were up in the balcony in this theatre in the round, some of the ground-level action was inevitably lost to view, but the ship-board setting ensured plenty of swinging in the rigging. A large, multi-talented ensemble, too, with most of the cast also playing in the band. Jolly fun, with inevitable hints of bleakness.
"Treasure Island"

My first film of 2018 was the latest in the Star Wars canon – “The Last Jedi”. As a non-devotee, I just about managed to keep track of goings-on in terms of the struggle between the brutally autocratic largely black-clad, Caucasian First Order and the multi-ethnic, proletarian rebels. Director Rian Johnson copes well with the spectacular, space-battle aspects of the story-telling, his script full of pomposity-deflating humour. Some of the acting is inevitably one-dimensional, given the narrow focus of the characters’ various journeys, but Adam Driver impresses as the conflicted Kylo Ren; Benicio Del Toro also benefits from a darkly ambivalent role. As the middle film in a trilogy, it inevitably leaves us hanging, but it’s a solid piece of work.

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

"The Disaster Artist" / "Wind In The Willows" / Flossy & Boo / "Cut & Run" / "The Chimes"

Like most people, I guess, I haven’t seen Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” in its entirely, the clips that are available on Youtube having done enough to ensure me that it truly is one of the most inept films ever released. I was heartened, then, to see that “The Disaster Artist”, James Franco’s lightly fictionalised documentation of its production, is funny in a warm and sympathetic rather than a derisive way. The chemistry between him as Wiseau and Dave Franco as co-conspirator Greg Sestero is palpable (they are brothers, after all), and the portrait of obsessive ambition steaming ahead despite deficiencies in terms of talent is all too easy to relate to. A highlight in a year of strong, diverse films.
"The Disaster Artist"
Theatre experiences lately have included “Unspoken”, a double bill of mental illness-themed plays from Eno Theatre at the University of South Wales, and a number of festive offerings: The Sherman’s main stage production of “Wind In The Willows”, which was great fun; my first experience of local surreal comedy duo Flossy and Boo in their “Alternativity” at The Other Room; and Charles Dickens’ “The Chimes” – an adaptation of one of his Christmas novels, taking place in St John’s Church near Chapter, and featuring people who have experience of homelessness amongst the ensemble – highly effective, if a little unsubtle in terms of spoon-feeding contemporary relevance.
Flossy & Boo (photo: Llyr Attala)

And most recently, at Chapter, there was a Dirty Protest development (i.e. script-in-hand) performance of Branwen Davies “Cut And Run”, starring Catrin Stewart. Given that it’s the tale of a Welsh Londoner returning to spend the festive period at home, it could almost be a companion-piece to their previous success, Matthew Bulgo’s “Last Christmas”. The similarities end here, however; it is very much a woman’s story. There is dark humour and poignancy in equal measure; and its prospects should benefit from the fact that the narrative leaves Wales and Christmas far behind.

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Stalin Paddington Lehrer Dance Maiden Tiger Glass

Armando Iannucci’s “The Death Of Stalin” is even more brutally funny than one might expect from a famed political satirist, since it is based in verifiable fact. It depicts the jockeying for political position following the protracted passing of the post-Revolutionary Soviet leader, with Simon Russell Beale brilliantly loathsome as security chief Beria, and Steve Buscemi on excellent form as Kruschev, the voice of reason. The casting is flawless as a whole, with Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough and Jason Isaacs also especially effective. Furthermore, it avoids the trap of being about a lot of men shouting in darkened rooms via some witty camerawork, not to mention all the shootings. Perhaps the most shocking element, however, is the depiction of Stalin’s popularity amongst his people – which may or may not impact on the film’s chances of ever being shown in Russia.
There were more reflections on dictatorship in Fio’s production of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death And The Maiden” at The Other Room, in which a former political prisoner confronts the man she suspects of being one of her torturers; very tense and nightmarish.
Lisa Zahra in "Death And The Maiden" (photo: Kieran Cudlip")
A tad more light-hearted was Adam Kay’s “The Remains of Tom Lehrer”, in the sophisticated surroundings of the Ffresh Restaurant at the Wales Millennium Centre – an excellent show, in tribute to the work of one of the cleverest – and darkest - musical satirists of the 1950s and 1960s.
There have been several other notable events at that venue in the past couple of weeks. The ambitious, large-scale musical “Tiger Bay”, set in multi-cultural Cardiff in the early part of the 20th century, boasted an impressive cast and score (and a slightly puzzling sub-plot), and seems to have been a hit with local audiences.
"Tiger Bay" (photo: Polly Thomas"
Most recently, there was the visit of the Clod Ensemble with “Under Glass”, in which we are put in the role of scientists, observing the lives of several individuals in glass cases, as though they were specimens. Very clever, if occasionally obscure.
There was also “Roots”, at the Dance House, round the back of the Centre – in which the National Dance Company of Wales offered four short, diverse, and very satisfying pieces, as part of Cardiff Dance Festival 2017.
Also part of the Festival, but at Chapter, was a double-bill comprising Liz Roche’s “Wrongheaded” – a piece rooted in the politicisation of women’s bodies, particularly in Ireland, but, obviously universally applicable – and Laïla Diallo’s “In This Moment”, a solo rumination of the concept of our experience of time. Also striking was a piece which contained only a modicum of actual dance – “Hardy Animal” by Laura Dannequin, in which she reflected on her experience of chronic back pain and its effect on her career and self-perception.
"Hardy Animal"
The latest “A Play A Pie and A Pint” production at the Sherman was “The Burton Taylor Affair”, which was a well acted but disappointingly shallow take on the lives of two great actors. Somewhat more inspiring was an evening of playlets and music put on at the nearby AJ’s Coffee House by Gareth Ford-Elliot’s Eno Theatre.
Perhaps the highlight of the month, if not the year, was “Paddington 2” – a beautifully cinematic and warm-hearted return to a universe in which a small, well-meaning bear can wander about spreading light wherever he goes. Excellent performances from Hugh Grant, as the pantomime villain, and Brendan Gleeson, too. Jolly fun, with a lightly handled theme of positivity and inclusiveness.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

"The Cherry Orchard" / "Little Wolf" / "Of Mice And Men" / "P.A.R.A.D.E."

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, theatre-going-wise; headlined by three notable adaptations of extant pieces.
Simon Harris and his Lucid Theatre Company presented “Little Wolf” at Chapter, his take on Ibsen’s “Little Eyolf” – as stylish as a tale of parental loss can be. Also there was August 012’s minimalist version of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice And Men” – typically oddball and adventurous from director Mathilde Lopez.
"Of Mice And Men" (photo: Jorge Lizalde)

"Little Wolf" (photo: Jorge Lizalde)
The highlight, though has to be Gary Owen’s updating of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, set in Pembrokeshire on the brink of the Thatcher “revolution”. Playing in the main auditorium at the Sherman Theatre, and having extended its run even before it opened, it’s slickly done, and both funny and moving.
"The Cherry Orchard" (photo: Mark Douet)
And then there was “My Name Is Rachel Corrie”, from Graphic at The Other Room – a very well acted revival of Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner’s love letter to a martyred student activist.

"My Name Is Rachel Corrie" (photo: Kieran Cudlip)
Not to mention the most high-profile and large scale event of all – “P.A.R.A.D.E.” from the National Dance Company of Wales at the Wales Millennium Centre – conformity-themed dance pieces by Caroline Finn and Marcos Morau preceded by a spectacular revolution-oriented outdoor event featuring a robot walking down the side of the building. Impressive, if ultimately unclear in its intentions.
"P.A.R.A.D.E." (photo: Mark Douet)
There was also the local Made In Roath festival, where, as well as seeing a rehearsed reading of “Little N”, a tender tale of aunt-hood from Kelly Jones, I presented something of my own – a video installation comprising my film “In Limbo”, the aria I wrote with Carlijn Metselaar, and a new film of Edwin Markham’s poem “Brotherhood”.
I also had a couple of short plays performed last week. Firstly, I took part in the Scriptdawg event at the University of South Wales’ Atrium, where I wrote a short relationship comedy over a couple of days to be presented and appraised. Then, most recently, a piece I’d submitted to a “Seen” event at The Other Room was read, along with work by Catherine Lucie and Annie Thomas. This was “The Actress”, part of a mini-trilogy I’ve been working on, which was performed by Caroline Berry. There was enough positive audience reaction to give me confidence in a female-centred script which contains both comic and potentially difficult elements; and some pleasing post-show feedback.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049"

Like all right-thinking people, I consider Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” to be a masterpiece, having seen it in the cinema shortly after its initial release (in those pre-home-video days when films were occasionally given another chance on the big screen). Let’s face it – no great film (or novel or play) needs a sequel. Nevertheless, having been impressed (and baffled) by “Arrival”, I was keen to experience Denis Villeneuve’s take on the tale.
Ryan Gosling stars as a detective whose role, in a not entirely pleasant but high-tech future world, is to find and destroy rogue and obsolete androids. On a routine mission, he uncovers a mystery the solving of which may shed light on his own past.
The look of the film is impeccable (the cinematographer being Roger Deakins), the doomy soundscape powerful, and the presence of original screenwriter Hampton Fancher on the team ensures that no liberties are taken with the universe of the narrative. The performances are also excellent, Gosling suitably stoical, and late arrival Harrison Ford giving full rein to his patented “what the hell is going on?” expressivity, his raddled presence putting to bed one of the original film’s enduring mysteries.
Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford
If the film has a real flaw, it is its length. During its 164 minutes, there are several over-long scene-setting sequences during which tension drains away. And while the theme – what it is to be human – is meaty enough, the fairly straightforward plot does not provide much for us to puzzle over; not necessarily a bad thing.
Blade Runner 2049” is a fine, serious entertainment. Inevitably however, its impact is dulled by the fact that it is merely an adjunct to a classic. Like Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting”, Scott’s film was a phenomenon; like Boyle’s “T2”, this is just another perfectly decent film.

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