Blakeson - Writer

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

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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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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