Tuesday 22 March 2016

Concert Review: Natalie Merchant, Royal Albert Hall (16 March 2016)

My review of Natalie Merchant's concert at Royal Albert Hall last Wednesday is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Cinema Made in Italy 2016

My piece on the Cinema Made in Italy 2016 showcase is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Film Review: The Pass (dir. Williams, 2016) at BFI Flare 2016

BFI Flare, London’s LGBT Film Festival, gets underway between 16– 27 March. It’s a significant year for the Festival – its 30th anniversary, no less – and one that’s being marked with a number of special events, retrospectives and reminiscences, as well as a great selection of new films. (The full programme can be read here.)  

While the reach of the Festival remains resolutely – and hearteningly – global, the selection of Opening Night film for this year seems a pointedly British choice. Ben A. Williams’s The Pass is an adaptation of John Donnelly’s play of the same name, which explores sexuality in the context of contemporary British sport and celebrity. It’s been a notably quick turnaround for this adaptation: the play debuted at the Royal Court in 2014, where it got labelled (a bit reductively) “the gay footballer play” and where the frequent shirtlessness of its lead actors was one of the most remarked upon aspects of the production.

Rest assured, shirtlessness is still central to the film version (as the pics illustrate...), which Donnelly has written the screenplay for himself. The piece cuts into the lives of its two protagonists at crucial moments over ten years in three different hotel rooms. When we meet Jason and Ade they’re young guys holed up in a hotel in Romania, indulging in much banter and laddishness as they await a game that could prove life-changing for their careers. By the time the pair meet a decade later, only one has achieved the dream of superstardom, but the memory of what might have been remains – in different ways – sharp for both of them.

The play’s attention to attitudes towards homosexuality in football (and the way such attitudes can be damagingly internalised) is a pertinent, unexplored topic. Unfortunately, obviousness is as central  to The Pass as shirtlessness is: the piece places its conflicts on the surface and is sometimes pretty crude in developing them. (The title, duh, refers to both the erotic and the professional elements of Jason and Ade’s interaction.) 

The opening scene generates its only suspense over whether the pair will shag or not, and, as played here, the central section – with Lisa McGrillis overdoing it in a too-broad-for-the-screen turn as a pole dancer with her own agenda – is not entirely convincing.

Despite these shortcomings, The Pass proves fairly compelling, and, in its final stretch, becomes something rather more than that. Given that nothing has been done to “open the play out” for film - the action remains entirely confined to the three hotel rooms – the catch-all disparagement “stagey” is definitely going to be flung at the movie. For me, though, Williams’s distilled approach works just fine, and I have a strong feeling that the piece would fall apart completely if Donnelly had devised new scenes outside the hotel rooms (showing Jason and Ade on the pitch, say).

As it is, this boldly talky film builds to a tough and memorable climax that generates a surprising amount of emotion, revealing a truly touching sense of loss and waste in its characters’ lives, and somehow redeeming the less successful earlier sections. Well supported by Arinze Kene as Ade (and with Nico Mirallegro contributing a brilliant cameo as an up-for-it bellboy), the charismatic Russell Tovey really comes into his own here, communicating Jason’s combined arrogance and vulnerability, his bravado and neediness, in a way that’s pretty devastating, and that brings the patchy proceedings together in an unexpectedly powerful manner. It’s a bit of a shame that Williams and Donnelly see fit to add a soppy flashback coda. But the raw emotion of the previous scenes means that The Pass lingers in the mind for longer than you might expect.

The Pass screens at BFI Flare on 17 March. 

Film Review: Summetime (La Belle Saison) (dir. Corsini, 2015) at BFI Flare 2016

When it comes to crafting intense, serious-minded movies that really do justice to the disruptive and soul-shaking experience of falling in love, few filmmakers do it like filmmakers working in France do it these days. The Closing Night film in this year’s BFI Flare festival, Catherine Corsini’s superb Summertime (La Belle Saison) is another case in point, delicately and intelligently presenting the romance that develops between two women in the early 1970s.

Delphine (Izïa Higelin) is a country girl who’s diligently worked on her family farm for years but who’s enjoying a taste of independence and freedom in Paris. There, during a feminist protest, she meets Carole (Cécile de France), an older woman who’s in a relationship with a man but who’s gradually swept up by Delphine’s passion for her. But when Delphine’s father suffers a stroke, and she returns to the farm and a way of life she still feels deeply connected to, the women’s relationship is tested, to stay the least.

A (sometimes explicit) love story between two women of contrasting goals, backgrounds and temperaments caught up in mutual attraction, Summertime’s obvious reference point is Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Colour, and Corsini’s movie definitely seems to have taken some inspiration from that film thematically and also stylistically (note the camera’s lingering gaze on Delphine as she smokes or reads alone in the early scenes).

Yet Summertime carves out its own identity as it progresses and involves the viewer on its own terms. The opening Paris-set scenes are a little bit too insistent in demonstrating that Second-Wave Feminism Was Fun: happy and giggling, Carole and her sisters take to the city streets to stage protests and interventions scored to Janis Joplin tracks. But the love story develops compellingly, and the film really hits its stride when Carole joins Delphine for a visit at the family farm, the two women keeping the true nature of their relationship hidden from Delphine’s quiet and watchful Mother (Noémie Lvovsky) , who’s briefly – and very touchingly – liberated by Carole’s restless presence, as the three work side by side on the farm. (The farm scenes suggest a version of the feminist utopia Carole’s promoted -  but not a version she’d want to hang around in for too long.)

For those of us who’ve been used to seeing de France short-haired and self-contained in films such as The Singer and The Kid With A Bike, her passionate performance here is a pleasurable surprise. She’s well-matched by the excellent Higelin who makes Delphine a compelling – sometimes frustrating – mixture of forthrightness and reticence. And after Haynes’s Carol, which blanded out Highsmith’s knotty characters to a disappointing degree, it’s refreshing to see a film that recognises that two women in love aren’t magically exempt from the selfishness, casual cruelty and communication failures to which all relationships are subject.

In a scene whose significance isn’t realised until the film’s sublime final moments, Delphine talks about the boggy terrain of her native land, the way it seems to hold her back, the way she sinks into it.  A number of recent films – from John Crowley's Brooklyn to Lamberto Sanfelice’s Chlorine - have focused on the rites of passage of young women faced with a choice between familial responsibility and desire for something different: a choice that’s been defined in these movies as a choice about place. Summertime is a distinguished addition to that company. A distinction between country and city life is also at the heart of this movie, but Corsini is balanced in her presentation of it, showing the seductions and drawbacks of both urban and rural spaces in gay experience.  And unlike Brooklyn, whose conclusion felt contrived and fake to me, Corsini judges her ending perfectly here, building the drama to a heart-rendingly poignant finale that’s truly worthy of this most beautiful and believable of love stories.

Summertime screens at BFI Flare on 26 and 27 March. 

Thursday 10 March 2016

Preview: Kinoteka – The 14th Polish Film Festival, London (7 – 28 April, 2016)

Szanowni Państwo! Kinoteka – The Polish Film Festival takes place in London from 7th – 28th April.  Now in its 14th edition, the Festival continues to go from strength to strength, and the 2016 line-up is a particularly enticing one, with a great mix of new titles and classics, arthouse and mainstream, interviews, concerts and exhibitions, that testify to a very vibrant moment for Polish film while honouring its rich history as well.

When I wrote about last year’s edition, which was largely based around the “Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” tour, I took issue with just two aspects: the paucity of new films presented and the lack of work by women directors, with Aneta Kopacz’s short Joanna and Agnieszka Holland’s Provincial Actors the only female-helmed films featured over the two month season. The latter absence felt particularly unfortunate and unrepresentative, given the large number of women working prominently in Polish film financing, production and distribution at the present time.

Agnieszka Holland

It’s pleasing, then, to see both of these issues remedied this year, with a focus on Holland – who’ll be in attendance for an “In Conversation” with Mark Lawson at the BFI on 12 April – and a strong showing for a wide range of recent films, from Marcin Wrona’s Ansky-derived Demon through Jacek Bromski’s hot bromance thriller Anatomy of Evil to Małgorzata Szumowska’s much-honoured Body/Ciało. (The only regrettable omissions in the programme this time are Filip Bajon’s delicious Krystyna Janda-starring huis clos Panie Dulskie and Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s wild mermaid extravaganza Córki Dancingu (The Lure), a winner at both Gdynia and Sundance.)

Andrzej Żuławski
The recent death of Andrzej Żuławski has turned what was to have been a retrospective, with the director in attendance, into a commemorative celebration, with screenings of the mind-blowing  likes of Possession at the ICA, plus the highly anticipated UK premiere of the director’s Locarno-honoured Cosmos. (You can read Michał Oleszczyk's incisive and heartfelt tribute to Żuławski here.)

Jerzy Skolimowski 

A Jerzy Skolimowski retrospective is another highlight, with rare showings of the director’s early Polish work, and an Opening Night screening of his latest, the sensational city symphony 11 Minutes, followed by a Q&A at the Barbican on 7th April. Other notable events include a screening of the re-jigged version of Jerzy Hoffman’s hugely enjoyable Oscar-nominated 1974 epic Potop (The Deluge) (previously presented at Gdynia in 2014) and the Closing Night Gala, which features a swing band party to complement the screening of Janusz Morgenstern's Goodbye, See You Tomorrow.  

These Daughters of Mine (dir. Dębska)

I had the great pleasure of seeing a number of the new films screened in Kinoteka 2016 at last year’s Gdynia Film Festival, and links to my reviews of Krzysztof Łukaszewicz’s Karbala (Poland’s Hurt Locker, if you will),  Dariusz Gajewski’s Strange Heaven, Kinga Dębska’s These Daughters of Mine, and Maciej Migas’s  Life Must Go On, plus the aforementioned 11 Minutes and Body/Cialo,  can all be found here11 Minutes, These Daughters of Mine and Body/Ciało also made my Top 15 films of 2015 list, and I interviewed Szumowska at last year’s London Film Festival as well. 

The full programme for Kinoteka 2016 can be viewed here. Zapraszamy Państwa do kina, na polskie filmy!

CD review: Full Circle, Loretta Lynn (Legacy, 2016)

My review of Loretta Lynn's new album Full Circle is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Theatre Review: German Skerries (Orange Tree)

Two strangers – one approaching 60, the other in his early 20s – meet at a bird-watching spot overlooking the Tees. As the men talk and bond, little parallels in their experience start to reveal themselves. The older man, Martin, is a school-teacher whose early hopes of leaving the area were dashed by parental opposition. The younger, Jack, is a shift-worker at a local plant, a little bit dreamy and directionless, and being urged to fulfill his potential by his wife Carol.

Alice Hamilton’s beautiful staging of Robert Holman’s German Skerries, a co-production with her Up in Arms company, brings a beguiling tenderness to the Orange Tree stage. The play hasn’t  been seen since its 1977 Bush Theatre debut, and, in some ways, it’s not too hard to see why. This is the sort of work that invariably gets described as “minor-key” and that won’t necessarily appeal to viewers keen on big emotional blow-ups and dramatic revelations. 

Darker elements are present, whether in memories of war (encapsulated in the title image), or the pervasive sense that human aspirations are often doomed to disappointment or, at least, compromise. Yet there’s nothing modishly pessimistic or pushy about the approach: Holman’s writing is spare and delicate, and while the social context is certainly felt – the work touches on industrial unrest and pollution – the play doesn’t hammer home political points, instead presenting these “issues” as part of the fabric and texture of its characters daily lives. As such, the substance of the drama is in the “small” moments – a man raising his hand to wave at a friend out on a boat, not knowing that the person he thinks he’s waving at is now dead; a young woman sneaking up to surprise her spouse – which are revealed here not as “small” but rather as the very stuff of life.     

Hamilton’s production ensures that all of these moments resonate.  Benefiting from an atmospheric sound design by George Dennis, good performances from its quartet – George Evans as Jack, Howard Ward as Martin, Katie Moore as Carol and Henry Everett as Michael – and a terrific set by James Perkins that provides a grassy promontory for the characters to loll, watch and interact on, the play extends a gracious hand of solidarity to the audience. Its quiet humanity is bracing.

German Skerries is booking until 2 April. Further information here.