Blakeson - Writer

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"Mother!"

Darren Aronofsky’s new film, “Mother!”, seems to have been polarising critical opinion, with even connoisseur of creepiness Mark Kermode expressing confusion. It stars Javier Bardem as a writer, but focusses on Jennifer Lawrence as his young wife – indeed for the vast majority of the running-time, the camera either focuses on her face or reflects her increasingly panicked point of view.
The couple share a hermetic existence in a large, isolated house which she is busy refurbishing as he tries to overcome his writers’ block. This is interrupted by a knock on the door from Ed Harris as a doctor, who turns out to be a fan of Bardem's work and who, at his invitation, quickly makes himself at home. Soon, his blousy wife, Michelle Pfeiffer arrives, and it turns out that this is far from being the last or most disturbing intrusion. After a traumatic event, things seem to settle down, until the climax, when everything goes to hell.

The easiest way to interpret “Mother!” is as a depiction of the creative process – the artist needs emotional disruption (either first- or second-hand) in order to be inspired; then, once a piece of work is completed, it is handed over to audiences and critics to do with as they see fit.

It is certainly an intense watch, with echoes of filmmakers as diverse as Polanski, Bunuel and Cronenberg. Lawrence is as watchable as ever, but the ensemble as a whole is very strong, in service of Aronofsky’s nightmarish vision. One is always grateful for powerful, non-generic storytelling, but I’m not sure I want to repeat the experience in a hurry.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"When In Roam" / "Benny" / "hang" / "Quiet Hands"

And so the post-Edinburgh Festival theatre drought in Cardiff finally came to an end.

My first reviewing assignment for the new season was “When In Roam”, an intriguing dance-based performance piece by South American-born, Welsh resident Thania Acarón, all about relocation and shifting identities.

Then, at Chapter there was “Benny”, a one-person play which aroused controversy when first announced, because of the perceived sexism of its protagonist, comedian Benny Hill; but it turned out to be a fairly conventional, affectionate biographical portrait of an artist by the creative team who brought us “Grav”, the play about much-loved Welsh sport/media figure Ray Gravell.
 
Liam Tobin in "Benny" (photo: Kirsten McTernan)


Following hard on this came the first in a season of curated shows at The Other Room – the death-penalty-themed “hang”, by debbie tucker green, from Run Amok Theatre; highly tense and very well performed.

"hang" (photo by Kieran Cudlip)
And most recently, again at Chapter, there was “Quiet Hands”, Tim Rhys sort-of- sequel to “Touch Blue Touch Yellow”, about “mate crime” – specifically in the context of autism, but readily applicable to many situations.  



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Thursday, August 24, 2017

"England Is Mine"

Morrissey bio-pic “England Is Mine” seems not to have stormed the box-office, perhaps unsurprisingly, since non-Smiths lovers will all have steered clear, casual fans will be disappointed by the absence of Smiths music, and others may have been put off by some of the singer’s more intemperate political comments of the past few years. Also, reviews have tended to be lukewarm. I have to say, however, that I loved it.
The story follows Stretford’s Steven Morrissey from his days as a writer of self-important letters to the NME, via a false start to his rock star career alongside Billy Duffy (later of The Cult), and a number of reverses which see him slump into stasis, to the very start of a creative partnership with chirpy young Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston). Mark Gill, who co-wrote the screenplay with William Thacker, shows an assured directorial touch, finding poetry in glum Manchester locations which, frequently and inevitably reference future Smiths lyrics (cemeteries, fairgrounds, iron bridges etc).
Jack Lowden, unrecognisable from his turn as a fighter pilot in “Dunkirk”, is a more robust Morrissey than the fey eccentric of caricature, reflecting the hero’s portrayal of himself, in his excellent autobiography, as having been sporty in early adolescence. He is also surrounded by women, most notably Jessica Brown Findlay as Linder Sterling; and although he shows no interest in them, the only hint of other sexual preferences here is in his choice of cover version for his debut gig with the Nosebleeds.
Jessica Brown Findlay & Jack Lowden

The supporting cast is excellent, especially Simone Kirby as his supportive mother; not to mention Graeme Hawley as the exasperated boss in Steven’s Inland Revenue job who is well aware that the constantly tardy youth is spending much of his time filling notebooks with reflections on how idiotic everyone is other than himself.
Rather than a conventional rock star tale, this is the story of a young man with big but vague ideas slowly growing in confidence. Perhaps it misses a trick at the very end by avoiding a triumphal tableau; this, though, is in tune with the tone of the whole film - inspirational in a determinedly low-key manner.



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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

"Dunkirk"

I realised, as I settled in to watch “Dunkirk” that I have seen all of Christopher Nolan’s feature-length films on the big screen (apart from his low-budget debut “Following”, which I caught up with on television). It was, therefore, the promise of an all-enveloping cinematic experience which drew me to resist my long-standing aversion to war films (“Apocalypse Now” excepted). I have to say I’m glad I made the effort.

Even on a standard cinema screen, Nolan is adept at ensuring that we are up close and personal in all of the three story-strands. The action is most sweatily tense when as we follow the fate of the British WW2 soldiers, overseen by an anxious Kenneth Branagh, waiting to be evacuated from the French coast and facing constant danger from Nazi bombers. Mark Rylance’s plucky boat-owner, setting off across the Channel to rescue stranded troops faces his own traumas; and the plucky Spitfire pilots, led by Tom Hardy, tasked with fending off German planes, are stuck with the most conventionally heroic and visually familiar narrative elements.

Nolan’s cleverly-structured script situates the three stories in different time-scales, ensuring that they converge at a climactic point. The dialogue is straight from period cinema, but the sense of dread is palpable, and in the midst of impeccably choreographed and photographed mayhem - hats off to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema - at least one tragedy comes out of nowhere. Hans Zimmer’s score riffs cleverly on Elgar, and subtly ramps up the tension.



There have been many bloodier or angrier or more frenetic war films, and Joe Wright’s “Atonement” certainly gave far more of a sense of the scale of the event – 400,000 troops are spoken of here, but largely unseen. It is Nolan’s focus on individual experiences, however which, with great effectiveness, conveys the sense being a part of greater events whilst still being isolated from them.


This is filmmaking at its most involvingly cinematic.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Where Do Little Birds Go" / "Seen" at The Other Room

The second Cardiff Fringe Theatre Festival took place last week, colonising unusual venues in various parts of town. I only managed to make it to one show: the Welsh premiere of Camilla Whitehill’s “Where Do Little Birds Go”, in the intimate downstairs vault of the Little Man Coffee Company in the city centre. A one-person play based on the true story of a young woman’s traumatic involvement with the Kray twins in 1960s London, it was highly evocative, with a very effective central performance from Kate Elis, and some clever sound design.

Kate Elis (photo: Ben Jones)

More recently, following on from June’s Young Artists Festival at The Other Room, the temporary companies which were formed to perform short plays by established writers were re-convened. This time we gave those pieces which were written by newer playwrights during the week another rehearsed reading, this time in front of a paying audience, under the banner of the venue’s regular “Seen” events. Thus, I got the chance to direct three of my original four actors in a re-staging of Gareth Ford Elliot’s drug-dealer monologue “Bull Shade Skank”, which was great fun. It was also useful sitting in on the post-show feedback session, during which audience-members offered valuable insights into each of the pieces (the other writers being Luke Nixon, Jenna Beth Lowendahl, Hefin Robinson and Melangell Dolma). A much-needed reprise.

By the way, I wrote more extensively about my experience of the Young Artists Festival on my National Theatre Wales Community blog.



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Thursday, July 06, 2017

"Baby Driver" / "Moment(o)s"

Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” is obviously the work of a man who is obsessed with both pop cinema and pop music, playing much of the time like an extended, Tarantino-influenced music video. It is the story of a tinnitus-afflicted young getaway driver, played by Ansel Elgort, who gets in too deep with his ruthless boss - Kevin Spacey at his playfully chilling best – whilst falling in love with Lily James’ guileless waitress. The arrival of Jamie Foxx’s truly unpleasant hard-ass criminal signals a turn away from shallow showiness, while Jon Hamm also impresses as a more ostensibly friendly co-conspirator. Boasting much audacious synchronisation of soundtrack with action, and some witty car-chases, “Baby Driver” is technically impressive, whilst not being too cool to make us care about the central protagonists. Beautifully done.

Lily James and Ansel Elgort in "Baby Driver" (Working Title)

My most recent theatre reviewing assignment was “Moment(o)s”, actress and director Elaine Paton’s account of her struggles with mental illness, turned into a kind of cabaret, with the help of local performance art duo Mrs & Mrs Clark. Uneasily entertaining, and full of unhappy reminders of my years working at Whitchurch Hospital.

"Moment(o)s (pic: Kirsten McTernan)



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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Other Room - Young Artists Festival 2017 / "The Graduate" / "Wonder Woman"

I’m still struggling to process the transcendent experience which was my participation in the Young Artists Festival at Cardiff’s The Other Room Theatre. The 2017 event was the third – I attended the first as an audience-member. This time I applied as a “young” director (painfully aware both of my lack of experience, and that I would be, by some distance, the oldest person involved), and was delighted to be accepted.

The Festival involves talks and masterclasses from all sorts of theatre professionals (re starting a theatre company, obtaining funding, casting, PR etc), and culminates in the production of five new short plays, to be performed in a block, over three nights. I was lucky enough to be assigned Matthew Bulgo’s “The Language Of War” – a play
about long-distance warfare -  as well as a talented and committed young cast (Tia Benvenuti, Toby Burchall, Grant Cawley and Deborah Newton Smith). The general feedback was that it all went off pretty well (even Matthew seemed not to be overly offended by my treatment of his piece). We also had the opportunity to work on a rehearsed reading of a play by young writer Gareth Ford-Elliot, which was also a valuable exercise.

A wonderful, if tiring week; and if nothing more comes of it, at least I can say that I directed a play (a world premiere, no less) at one of the most important fringe theatres in the U.K.

 
Catherine McCormack as Mrs Robinson (photo: Manuel Harlan)

This year’s birthday trip was a short walk to Cardiff’s New Theatre, to see director Lucy Bailey’s touring production (from West Yorkshire Playhouse and The Curve, Leicester) of Terry Johnson’s adaptation of “The Graduate” – the classic tale of American middle-class discontent, and a favourite film of mine. Jack Monaghan (an actor previously unknown to me) was hugely impressive as the confused Benjamin Braddock, although inevitably owing something to Dustin Hoffman’s legendarily neurotic portrayal. Catherine McCormack’s Mrs Robinson was somewhat less reminiscent of Anne Bancroft’s original – screechier, and more irritating than sultry, such that one could better imagine Benjamin tiring of her, especially when reacquainted with her daughter, Elaine, played as something of an innocent by Emma Curtis. The whole tone of the piece seemed spikier than Mike Nichols' film, and one might even argue that the ending has been somewhat improved. The video back-projections and dreamlike scene transitions were also a nice touch. An excellent evening.


I rather enjoyed Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman”, despite it not entirely making sense, in common with most comic-book films. The pulchritudinous Gal Gadot is perfect in the leading role, as the initially naïve, super-powered Amazon princess who finds herself, via international spy Chris Pine, embroiled in World War I. The computer-generated pyrotechnics manage not to impede the story-telling – the heroine striding across No Man’s Land is an especially impressive image; but Jenkins’ masterstroke is the casting, with Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as hissable villains, and decent roles for familiar British faces such as Lucy Davis, Ewen Bremner and, most significantly, David Thewlis. There’s been some debate about the film’s feminist credentials, but this is a rare Hollywood movie with a female central protagonist who is both an object of desire and a role-model of moralistic pro-activity, so I see nothing to complain about.


 
"Wonder Woman" (Warner Bros)

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