Monday 31 March 2014

Film Review: A Story of Children and Film (Cousins, 2013)

Mark Cousins's latest doc, A Story of Children and Film, is out in the UK shortly. You can read my take from TIFF 2013 here.
The film also has a terrific website:

Monday 17 March 2014

Theatre Review: Invincible (Orange Tree)

Darren Strange and Laura Howard in Invincible (Photo: Robert Day)
It’s meet-the-neighbours for the second time in a row over at the Orange Tree, as Stephen Sewell’s domestic dystopia It Just Stopped is followed directly by Invincible, the latest play by Torben Betts (The Company Man, Muswell Hill). This time out the focus is on Emily and Oliver, middle-class Londoners (he’s henpecked and eager-to-please; she’s forever expressing pained liberal sentiments) who’ve relocated North to escape London’s economic pressures and “live our lives on a more human scale.” The pair invite their new neighbours, Alan and Dawn - hard-drinking Northerners - over for the evening. And so as the chat shifts from sport to schooling, from art to politics, the stage is set for a decidedly Mike Leigh-ish clash of classes, cultures and personality types and an attempt to draw from the couples’ interactions a wider portrait of what’s gone awry at the moment in this green and pleasant land.
While offering scattered moments of amusing, sharply observed social comedy (Emily preparing to give her verdict on Alan’s cat paintings is especially memorable) Betts’s play proves disappointing overall, never quite transcending its overly familiar, shopworn scenario. Like Leigh’s weaker works, the piece feels too obvious and rigged in its construction of opposing personalities, and the attempts to flesh out the often crudely caricatured characters with depth (a dead child here, a soldier son serving abroad there) feel more tacky than anything else. Some of the comedy is sitcom-broad (to wit: a gag about Karl Marx and the Marx Brothers) and the poignant moments don’t have the weight they should in Ellie Jones’s production, which comes complete with daft dancing scene change interludes but doesn’t manage to make the music a major player in the characters’ interactions, as David Lewis did so well in his 2011 How to be Happy, a play to which Betts’s feels like something of a companion piece.
The performances from Laura Howard as Emily, Darren Strange as Oliver, Samantha Seager as Dawn and Daniel Copeland as Alan are good, and I especially liked the suggestions of sadness that Copeland brings to the bluff Alan. But the performers can’t always overcome the play’s odder notions: a final suggestion that all the uptight Emily needs (and wants), after all, is to be dominated by Oliver is particularly grisly. As delivered last Friday, the evening’s most potent line was accidental: on the very day of Tony Benn’s death, what were the odds of seeing a play that featured a reference to Saint Benn himself?
Invincible runs at the Orange Tree until 12th April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Monday 10 March 2014

Film Review: Under The Skin (Glazer, 2013)

Sporting a dark wig, blood-red lipstick and a fur coat, and speaking in lusciously plummy clipped-Brit tones, the piquant Scarlett Johansson drives around Scotland in a grubby white van, enticing horny hitchhikers to hop in for a lift. Few, inevitably, can resist. They get more than they bargained for once they do, though, for what the men don't know is that Scarlett's femme fatale is actually an alien on the hunt for human prey.
But while going about her mysterious mission – sometimes abetted by a glowering motorcycle man – our anti-heroine observes human activity, and gradually becomes a participant in it. A group of hoodlums rock her van aggressively. A gaggle of party girls manoeuvre her into a club. The turning point comes when she encounters a shy disfigured man who stirs her sympathy and interest, inspiring her to abandon her assignment and take a walk on the human side for a while.
From its woozy – practically migraine-inducing – opening sequence to its startling, snowy deep-woods climax, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin proves a total trip and a treat. Distilling Michel Faber's acclaimed novel to its essence (in a way that may not thrill some of the book's admirers), Glazer - in his first film since the intriguing but muddled Birth (2004) - produces something that's as singular as it is cinematic: a movie whose mix of sci-fi poetics, wigged-out weirdness and gritty social realism suggests nothing so much as Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch taking Ken Loach out on a date.
That the film doesn't go down an explicit horror route, even as it constantly threatens too, may disappoint some viewers. But Glazer's approach is, distinctively, all about suggestion and atmosphere. Mica Levi's haunting strings-and-synth score shimmers and shivers over images that veer from abstraction to cinéma vérité, while the director's background in music video shows through in the highly stylised scenes in which the hitchhikers meet their fates. These sequences are beautifully, captivatingly creepy, with water and darkness and bodies popping and melting like Francis Bacon designing Terminator 2.
Throughout, the use of locations – from beach to shopping centre, city street to suburbia – is also superb and if the film presents a very bleak, grotty vision of Glasgow, Glazer's approach isn't entirely without humour either. "Are you comfortable?" asks Scarlett of one of her victims, in her most seductive mode. The reply: "No, I just wanna go to Tesco."
Acting alongside a very motley crew of men, Johansson proves absolutely ideal casting as the woman who falls to earth, her distinctive gait and watchful air projecting a curious otherworldliness without ever overegging it. Throughout we feel the character taking in the various impressions and stimuli she receives from her surroundings – whether its grim-faced shoppers in the streets or Tommy Cooper on the telly – and becoming increasingly receptive to it. As a chilly exploration of what it means to be human, and a compelling vision of our everyday world through alien eyes, Glazer's movie gets precisely where its title indicates.

CD Review: O Love (Ernest Troost, 2014)

The work of the singer-songwriter Ernest Troost first came to my attention last year via Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band’s excellent album White Swan, which I reviewed for PopMatters. That record featured two brilliant Troost-penned tracks which were, for me, among the highlights of the album: the murderer’s lament “Evangeline” and the superb family saga “Harlan County Boys.” A year later, Troost has released a new album of his own, O Love, a record that finds him supplementing his brand of country, blues and folk-influenced Americana with a rockier flavour and a vibrant full-band sound.
The results prove compelling. Troost has a warm, empathetic vocal style that pulls the listener into the songs but can also turn assertive and gritty when need be. And, supported by a sterling group of musicians, plus beautiful harmony vocals from Nicole Gordon, he’s crafted an album that flows smoothly but not blandly and that boasts several terrific tracks, the best of them rooted in narrative and character. The striking, punchy opener “Old Screen Door” pieces together vivid, disturbing images of family conflict, while the driving title track slides from despair to possible redemption. The twanging “Weary Traveller” and the portentous “Storm Comin’” are both infectious and there are also memorable love songs that manage to be heartfelt while skirting sappiness: the lovely “Close” and the elegant “The Last To Leave” are the finest of these.

Troost takes “Harlan County Boys” slower and more delicately than Glaze and co’s brisker bluegrass-inflected take, making the song an intimate family portrait, economical but rich in its evocation of place and character, and one that ranks alongside the likes of Richard Shindell’s “Reunion Hill” as a contemporary folk classic that's at once specific in its detail and yet timeless and universal in its evocation of loss and endurance. In sum,  an honest, humane and ultimately heart-warming record from a fine artist.


O Love is available on Travelin’ Shoes records from 29th April. Further information here.

Monday 3 March 2014

Theatre Review: Versailles (Donmar Warehouse)

Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn in Versailles (Donmar Warehouse)

My review of Peter Gill's new play Versailles, at the Donmar Warehouse, is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.

Film Review: Stranger By The Lake (dir. Guiraudie, 2013)


When it comes to intense, erotic explorations of human desire on screen – whether painful or joyful, homosexual, heterosexual or the many permutations in between – few filmmakers are doing it like French filmmakers are doing it, these days. Granted, an association of le cinéma français with explicit depictions of sexuality has been standard – even cliché – for many years now: at least since Alain Cuny’s head dipped beneath Jeanne Moreau’s waist in the 1959 Les Amants. But it’s certainly the case that directors as diverse as Catherine Breillat, François Ozon, Claire Denis, Christophe Honoré and, most recently and controversially, Abdellatif Kechiche with Blue is the Warmest Colour have continued to place desire and corporeality at the centre of their work, and have done so with a challenging candour and bracing sensibility that makes most contemporary American cinema look fairly pallid and juvenile by comparison. 
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake (L’Inconnnu du lac) is the latest addition to the fold. A festival favourite that deservedly won the Queer Palm and Best Director prizes at last year’s Cannes, the status of this elegant, provocative, genre-crossing film as a contemporary queer classic already seems assured. In its tactility, its attention to place and space and its unabashed focus on the male body, Stranger By The Lake evokes Denis’s work, and, more specifically, Ozon’s seductive and terrifying See the Sea (1997) which contains a central beach-and-woodland sequence that looks like a significant inspiration for Guiraudie’s movie. For Stranger By the Lake unfolds entirely at a picturesque gay cruising area on the French coast where men flop naked on the sand, check each other out and head to the woods for sex. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) has pitched up at the spot for the summer and passes his time talking with the solitary bisexual Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), lusting after the moustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou) and being lusted after, in turn, by the voyeur Eric (Mathieu Vervisch) whose attentions he continually rebuffs.

The film might have the feel of a particularly classy porn flick were it not for the diverse bodies it presents, and for the director’s careful attention to the nuances of all aspects of the men’s conduct and contact. Stranger By The Lake succeeds in making of the beach setting a microcosmic universe with rules and codes all its own (a recognisable, archetypal, near-timeless queer space), and though a killing occurs - and gets witnessed by Franck – the movie is far from the murky Cruising rip-off that this premise might suggest. A considerable amount of suspense builds up, and the film is genuinely transgressive in its presentation of lust increased rather than diminished by the witnessing of a murder. But the tone throughout is mostly tranquil, watchful and calm, based around Guiraudie’s patient observation of the men’s various interactions. These yield often surprising admissions (as well as not-so-surprising emissions) and some pearls of behavioural comedy, not least thanks to Eric’s appearances: forever fondling himself as he observes the assignations of others and pulling up his shorts to beat a retreat when he’s admonished for peeking. The film features as much chatting as shagging, then, though what there is of the latter is eye-poppingly explicit, going further in its depiction of gay male sex than any of the directors cited above have dared so far. At times, indeed, the movie’s sunny summer setting and talky tendencies call to mind Eric Rohmer let off the leash: “Anal at the Beach,” perhaps?
Aside from its confident merging of moods and genre tropes, and its uniformly excellent performances, what really distinguishes Stranger By The Lake, though, is its attention to atmosphere and the primal, elemental quality that Guiraudie brings to the material: a quality that gives the film the resonance of myth. Throughout, the movie makes the viewer aware of natural sounds: birdsong, the lap of the water, the wind in the trees, the men’s groans of pleasure or pain, the rhythms of their conversation. The quietness, punctuated by such sounds, gets to the viewer, casting an initially seductive and ultimately an eerie spell, as Guiraudie leaves one character alone, calling his lover’s name into the dead of night.  It’s a haunting, unsettlingly ambiguous conclusion to an intelligent, beautifully controlled and thoroughly absorbing film.