Blakeson - Writer

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

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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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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