Thursday, 5 November 2020

Film Review: Fisheye (dir. Szcześniak, 2020)


There's nothing novel about a kidnapping plot as the basis for a thriller. But from such a familiar premise Michał Szcześniak fashions something fresh in Fisheye. The writer-director's first fiction feature follows his acclaimed work in documentary and shorts, and was the winner of two prizes at this year's Młodzi i Film festival: one for Agata Kurzyk's score and the other for Julia Kijowska's lead performance.  While the film's theatrical life now seems uncertain - it was to have opened in Polish cinemas on 13 November but that was before the government's announcement of the latest restrictions - it's worth seeking out this engaging thriller whenever and wherever you can. 

When we first meet Kijowska's Anna she's the epitome of prickly professional competence: a scientist preoccupied at her microscope in a lab, responding to an interloper with a brusque "Not now! I'm busy!" Making a possibly revelatory (and lucrative) discovery, Anna drives home to tell the news to her handsome boyfriend Janek (Wojciech Zieliński), who's up for celebratory sex and eager to make a baby. Shunning that idea, Anna heads out to buy food - only to be grabbed in the doorway of her building (rendered in a wonderfully effective long-shot and abrupt cut), and to awaken in a blue-pannelled, soundproofed room, certain that she's been the victim of a case of mistaken identity. 

And, in a very particular way, she has. Reliant upon several narrative twists, Fisheye is the kind of picture that only a churl would "spoil."  Suffice it to say that what starts out with indications of being a medical / corporate genre thriller exercise, with added echoes of Panic Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane, gradually delves into more psychological territory by using the abduction premise to give Anna a unique, unsettling perspective on her life and identity. 

Much concerned, as its title suggests, with issues of distorted perception, the film has the right kind of claustrophobic ambience but never feels static. Szcześniak and his collaborators  - including DP Paweł Dyllus, editors Magdalena Chowańska and Ireneusz Grzyb, and brilliant sound designer Radosław Ochnio (of Baby Bump and 11 Minutes among many other credits) -  give an exciting visual and aural dissonance to the piece, the better to put us into Anna's headspace as she interacts with her elusive  captor (Piotr Adamczyk, in an effective performance reliant on voice work more than anything else) and finds layers of the repressed past peeled away. 

The invariably striking Kijowska gives a committed, highly physical performance that charts every step on Anna's journey from disbelief to despair to a catharsis that's as tentative as it is hard-won, holding the film together through some uncertain moments. The picture supplies the surprises and suspense you might anticipate, but it's as an exploration of a woman belatedly coming to terms with her past that Fisheye achieves its more lasting, haunting power. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Film Review: Mangrove (Sight & Sound: December 2020)


My review of Steve McQueen's Mangrove is in the new December issue of Sight & Sound. You can order the issue here

Blu-ray/DVD Review: Mademoiselle (dir. Richardson, 1966)


My piece on Tony Richardson 's Mademoiselle, which is just out in a new Blu-ray/DVD edition, is up at BFI. You can read it here

Film Review: Eternal Beauty (dir. Roberts, 2019)


My review of Craig Roberts' Eternal Beauty is up at Sight & Sound. You can read it here

Film Review: Summer of '85 (dir. Ozon, 2020)


My piece on Summer of '85 is up at Sight & Sound. You can read it here

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Film Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Kaufman, 2020)


By turns passive and direct, open and opaque, poet, physicist, painter and Pauline Kael (!!!), Jessie Buckley's protean performance provides a fascinating, spiralling human centre to Charlie Kaufman's studiously brainy and beserk latest, I'm Thinking of Ending Things.

Those of us who saw Buckley's not-always-stellar work on the London stage some years ago (she was due to return to it this year in Romeo and Juliet with Josh O'Connor before Covid's intervention) would never have suspected the range of her skill and talent on film. But Beast (though overrated) tipped us off and Wild Rose (absolutely lovely) fully confirmed her potential as a major cinema actress. (Then there was the shrewd, watchful, sensitive quality she brought to her scenes in Judy; a perfectly modulated supporting performance.) As the great Steve Vineberg writes of her in Wild Rose: "Buckley has a fresh, totally unaffected camera presence and the instinct to hold the camera, sometimes for medium-long, pensive reaction takes that transport us directly into the character’s complicated feelings."

Buckley does that and a whole lot more in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, pulling us completely into the dilemma of a woman who is contemplating breaking up with Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of six weeks (or is it longer ….?) even as she undertakes a road trip with him to meet his parents at their farmhouse for the first time. 

Adapting Iain Reid's acclaimed 2016 novel, Kaufman - who, as we're well aware, knows a thing or two about the problematics of adaptation - takes the text into areas that mesh with his own thematic concerns, in particular, issues of identity, ageing, and time, which gets fragmented and fractured from the pair's arrival at the farmhouse. Here wild temporal shifts, and Toni Collette and David Thewlis's ripe performances as Jake's parents, suggest Guess Who's Coming to Dinner filtered through the funny-sick existential domestic horror of mother!. 

The nightmarish family dinner party is a stage staple, of course. And in a period in which US cinema has lost (much to its detriment) the strong connections it once had to the stage, Kaufman remains one of the most theatrically-inclined of American writers and filmmakers. Part of the subversive quality of I'm Thinking of Ending Things is its bracing commitment to talk, with two long car journey discussions, superbly performed by Buckley and Plemons, constituting the bulk of the film.

While Kaufman's excellent Synecdoche, New York focused on a play going on for its creator's entire existence (and God knows, some can feel like they do), the new film might be viewed as riffing on general aspects of US theatre history, beginning as a vaguely Annie Baker-ish piece and circling back to climax with an elaborate Oklahoma! homage. (Did anyone really want to watch a - yikes - "dream ballet" when Oklahoma! came out? Does anyone really want to watch one in 2020? Well, Charlie's gonna make you.)  

Allusive to a fault, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is, in Roland Barthes's terms, "a tissue of quotations," incorporating citations from or nods to Eva H.D's poem "Bonedog," Guy Debord, Pauline Kael's great review of A Woman Under the Influence, Forget Paris (!), a (fake) Robert Zemeckis film, and much more. At its best the film achieves the kind of disorientation that Leos Carax did when dialogue from The Portrait of a Lady was suddenly woven into Holy Motors. At other times, - a too on-the-nose discussion of the sexual politics of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," for one - Kaufman appears to be grasping at anything to hand. (As one cynical wag nicely puts it: "I think we’ve reached peak Kaufman self-parody when characters who are the fantasy of a janitor argue about critical theory.")

Still, as a film that's very much about how the absorption of books, essays, films and musicals impacts upon one's perceptions, expectations and fantasies - about how layers of pop culture filter into the psyche - most of the inclusions can be justified. Where the film comes unstuck, for me, is in its incremental revelation of just whose fantasy we're in. Trevor Johnston remarks that it’s "refreshing to hear a female narrator" in Kaufman's work rather than the usual "guys [who] should just get over themselves and spare us the self-indulgence." Yet such a statement seems decidedly ironic when said female narrator's interior life and relationship doubts turn out to be merely the projected fears of a male character.

While the reveal doesn't negate the strength of Buckley's performance, it certainly proves detrimental to the emotional involvement created, yanking us into the consciousness of a figure in whom we're much less invested and turning the film into another extended act of male fantasising. 

The final 20 minutes are as ambitious in concept as they are disastrous in execution; with Buckley now relegated to the periphery, the spell is gone and involvement violated, with an animated talking piggy, an Oklahoma! interlude and an A Beautiful Mind homage the best that we are offered. From Łukasz Zal's excellent cinematography - so different from his studiedly artistic work for Pawlikowski -  to Buckley's great performance, to many memorable moments of unease, I'm Thinking of Ending Things has marvellous elements. It ranks, without a doubt, as one of the most distinctive American films of the year. Its impact is hampered by a frustrating conclusion that, at least as Kaufman has at once over-scaled and under-cooked it, ends up feeling a lot like a betrayal. Still, having just embarked on Antkind (I'm on page 11 and already laughed out loud three times) the movie clearly leaves me with the appetite for a further foray into Kaufman-land.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is in cinemas and on Netflix now. 

Monday, 31 August 2020

Body / Memory/ History - A Report on Retroperspektywy Festival 2020, Łódź

The organisation of a theatre festival - particularly one as audience-inclusive and interactive as Teatr CHOREA's Retroperspektywy was when I attended it for the first time last year - seems a challenging, not to say a foolhardy, endeavour in the current climate. 

Festival Opening (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

"Social distance" is the antithesis of the ethos of most live events. And it's certainly so at this festival, where performers make close contact with audience members not just during the intense, highly physical shows, but also at Q&A discussion panels, and other events held at the converted factory buildings that make up the great Fabryka Sztuki complex in Łódź.

Festival Opening (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

But this most creative of companies pulled off the daunting challenge of this year's Festival in a grand manner, with a rich and diverse programme made up of a mixture of online events, recorded shows, film screenings, VR spectacles and live performances. Audience contact details were taken before each event; masks were mandatory; hand sanitiser provided; and if social distancing was not strictly adhered to at every moment, the Festival still provided a solid model for how to go about the creation and execution of such an event in the disturbing, disruptive times of Coronavirus. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

The title of this year's edition - Body, Memory, History - set the tone. The body is always central to the work of the Grotowski-influenced CHOREA, which mobilises the physicality of the performers on stage in totally distinctive, dynamic ways. Teamwork is key to the group's process and output, which seeks to draw on the power of collective expression while never sacrificing each performer's individuality. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

The premiere of the company's Schulz: Skrawki (Schulz: Scraps) proved a superb opener. The writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is probably best known outside of Poland for Street of Crocodiles (itself adapted for the stage to much acclaim by Complicite and the NT in 1992), and a selection of his stories provide the inspiration for this new work. A combination of installation and physical theatre, the piece presents its six performers - Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, Joanna Chmielecka, Michał Jóźwik, Majka Justyna, Małgorzata Lipczyńska, and Tomasz Rodowicz - occupying separate spaces (including a bath, a chair, and a table) as the audience enters a silent, darkened auditorium. In stillness to start, the six gradually stir into movement, each engaged in a separate task or overlapping action, as director Konrad Dworakowski intones Schulz's prose live. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

A thematic concern with the transgression of matter and the human body emerged, and was vividly evoked thanks to Dworakowski's background in puppet theatre, with strings, wires and sticks integrated into the performers' movements. Enhanced by a perfectly tailored score composed by Paweł Odorowicz, the effect was thrilling and hypnotic: all the more so for being the first encounter with live performance for many months for most audience members.  

In a generous gesture, Schulz: Skrawki was filmed by Hollybaba / Rami Shaya and made available on YouTube for some days after the live premiere. The same was true for all the other shows, including Warsaw STUDIO Teatrgaleria's Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (More than One Animal), a hilarious parody of the anthropomorphising tendencies of certain nature documentaries. 

Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

At times coming off as a wryly avant garde take on Cats, the show presented the antics and behaviour patterns of its indeterminate creatures with the aid of a deadpan voiceover delievered by Agnieszka Podsiadlik (the tricky matriarch of Kuba Czekaj's Baby Bump) and wonderful physical work by the cast: Sonia Roszczuk, Vira Hres, Błażej Stencel, and Agata Tragarz. 

Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

A ludic, absurdist tone - accentuated by some brilliantly funny songs delivered by the duo of Robert Wasiewicz and Marcin Miętus - was sustained. But the show also makes serious and subversive points on issues from community to climate change, while a poetic visual flourish at the mid-point was a beautiful surprise.

iGeneration? (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Also exploring the issue of community, but within the context of young people's engagement with online culture, was iGeneration?, directed by Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, which was presented in a filmed version. The influence of Mariusz Grzegorzek's unforgettable student-developed extravaganza Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki (Fever) was felt here, with dance, direct address, phantasmagoric sci fi elements, and songs by the band Mojo Pin incorporated into the show. 

iGeneration? discussion (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Like the Biedrzycki-directed recent piece Rój. Sekretne życie społeczne ("The Hive: Secret Social Life")iGeneration? doesn't fear didacticism in its explicit critique of over-consumption and technology's detrimental effects on human connection. But the messages are conveyed via theatrical means that are exciting and surprising, such as the presentation of the web as a seething mass of bodies and masks called "the Great Tangle." In defiance of the numbing and dehumanising effects of the Internet, the show ends with a vivid and invigorating defence of emotion delivered by its excellent young cast. 

W zawieszeniu (Fot Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Mortality was a theme in several shows, including Ukrainian company Golden Gate Theatre's Did You Love Me, Dad?, which was presented in a video performance, and the dynamic dance piece Salto Mortale by Majka Justyna and Joanna Jaworska-Maciaszek. Another powerful solo female production on the topic was Monika Wachowicz and Arti Grabowski's W zawieszeniu (Suspended), in which Wachowicz gave an astonishing, exposing emotional and physical performance as a cancer sufferer coming to terms (or not) with her prognosis. The apparent effortlessness with which Wachowicz moved from heightened emotional states - one minute crawling across the stage, gurning and grimacing - to casual, relaxed audience address was prodigious.

W zawieszeniu (Fot Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Based on the words and real life experience of theatre practitioner Marta Paradecka, who died of cancer in 2018, age just 39, and also taking inspiration from Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, the show was an unsettlingly intimate experience, with some haunting sequences. One such made use of Full Metal Jacket's version of the "Mickey Mouse March" on repeat, as the protagonist, caught in shafts of light, used a baton as a series of weapons, first to combat the illness and then to turn against herself. Yet, for all its demanding intensity, the piece was not, finally, a depressing experience. Ending with a toast, and with an angelic apparition scored to the sounds of David Bowie's "Blackstar," this show that looks dying squarely in the face proved a genuinely cathartic experience.

William's Things (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Two outdoor concerts also stood out in the Festival's diverse programme. On the first night, the trio William's Things, comprising Sean Palmer on vocals, Michał Górczyński on contrabass clarinet and Tomasz Wiracki on piano, transformed poetry by William Blake and Henry David Thoreau into a set of stunning jazz punk jams that captivated and confounded in equal measure in their creative approach to the original texts.

Combining folk troubadour sensitivity with theatrical, jazzman attitude and, at times, a Tom Waits-ish growl, charismatic vocalist Palmer also unleashed the most spectacular array of animal noises since Percy Edwards while still keeping every single word he sang crystal clear. From the moment he leapt up to initiate an audience singalong during the band's take on Blake's "The Blossom," the show sustained a great, cleansing energy.


Meanwhile, on the penultimate evening of the Festival, the band NeoKlez - Stanisław Leszczyński (violin)Damian Szymczak (clarinet), Piotr Tomala (accordion / guitar), Kacper Bardzki (bass guitar / double bass), and Kamil Wróblewski (drums, percussion) - delivered a similarly exhilarating set combining Klezmer tradition with rock, funk and techno modernity. A moving moment came when Leszczyński and Szymczak spontaneously wrapped their arms around each other as they paused briefly to watch their colleagues play, transported by the magic of the music. For the audience, the entire Festival felt like just such an embrace, and a vibrant reminder of the power of performance to transform, unite, challenge and enlighten.

Body / Memory / History - Retroperspektywy Festival 2020 took place at Fabryka Sztuki, Łódź, between 21-30 August. Full details of the Festival programme can be found here