Friday 31 August 2018

Sunday 19 August 2018

States of Independence: on the 8th Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź, 13-20 July 2018

"You need an independent spirit if you're going to go into film or music: so many people will tell you that you can't do it," said Diane Warren, on stage at Łódź's EC1, a former power station now transformed into a vibrant cultural and exhibition centre in Poland's prime cinema city. "Independent Spirit" was not only the name of the award that the popular songwriter was receiving at the Closing Ceremony of this year's Transatlantyk Festival. It was also, in part, the theme of the entire 7 day event which, under the title "Independence Now: Myself, Freedom, Rebellion, and Homeland," took the occasion of the centenary of the restoration of Poland's sovereignty as the spur to create a programme that would explore these issues in a range of contexts far beyond those of the nation's own history, from the personal to the political to the artistic to the complex interstices between.

Joanna Kulig, Transatlantyk Best Acrtess winner 2018

As I noted in my coverage last year, such inclusivity has been a characteristic feature of Transatlantyk since its inception. Reflecting the stewardship of its acclaimed composer founder Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, it's a "glocal" festival in which music and film are equally important elements, and in which screenings and concerts are supplemented by a city-wide selection of events: master classes, political discussions, and special film-related foodie evenings presented in the "Culinary Cinema" strand.

Wolta (dir. Kotecka and Poryzała)
The festival's range was evident in the diversity of winners at the aforementioned Closing Ceremony, which, alongside Warren, included Joanna Kulig (Best Actress winner for her performance in Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War); the critic and professor Annette Insdorf; composers Dario Marianelli and Radzimir Jimek Dębski; and the astronomer and humanitarian activist Janina Ochojska, recipient of this year's Glocal Hero Award. Emerging artists were also celebrated in the exciting Instant Composition Contest and the Polish Short Film Competition, where it was pleasing to see a preponderance of female directors, including the top prize for Monika Kotecka and Karolina Poryzała's superb, elegant Wolta. Meanwhile, an icon of feminist film, Sally Potter, received the FIPRESCI +93 prize, and gave a characteristically eloquent, engaged and inspiring master class at the beginning of the festival. Retrospectives dedicated to Miloš Forman, Andrzej Barański and Lucian Pintile were also highlights of the event.

Horizon (dir. Kajrishvili)
With new American features such as Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Steven Soderbergh's Unsane, Joshua Leonard's Behold My Heart and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's The Endless consistently underwhelming, it was left, as often, to world cinema to provide more compelling visions. Freedom within familial and domestic contexts was the focus of a number of films presented in the "New Cinema" section, with both Guillaume Senez's likeable Our Struggles (Nos Batallies) and Tinatin Kajrishvili's terrific, Ceylan-esque Horizon (Horizonti) depicting, from opposite perspectives, parents absenting themselves from their families. 

Scary Mother (dir. Urushadze)
Horizon was part of a strong showing for the blossoming new Georgian cinema, which included Mariam Khatchvani's Dede and Ana Urushadze's Scary Mother (Sashishi deda). Khatchvani's handsome Caucasus-set drama focuses on a young woman's struggle for self-determination against prevailing cultural traditions, while Urushadze's taut film evokes the challenges involved in women's claiming of creative space, as the heroine (striking Nato Murvanidze) pens a lurid roman a clef that her family react to negatively. Already awarded at several festivals, Urushadze's movie suggests a companion piece to her compatriots Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross's similarly patriarchy-challenging My Happy Family, one of the highlights of Transatlantyk last year.

In My Room (dir. Köhler)
The influence of the Dardennes brothers' brand of social realism was evident, with varying degrees of success, in some productions, including Jean-Bernard Marlin’s Sheherazade, Sebastian Schjaer’s The Omission, Shin Dong-Seok's Last Child (Salanameun Ayi), Dario Albertin’s Manuel, and Meryem Benm’Barek's popular Sofia, which won the Kamera Akcja award, voted for by the jury of young film critics. But other filmmakers ventured into odder terrain. Isabel Prahl's Different Kinds of Rain (1000 Arten Regen zu Beschreiben) explores a family's increasingly wayward attempts to communicate with a son who's locked himself in his room and refuses to leave, while Ulrich Köhler's similarly opaque In My Room offers a lo-fi take on apocalypse, as its protagonist (excellent Hans Löw) awakens to find himself seemingly the last man left on earth.

Becoming Astrid (dir. Christensen)
More immediately accessible was Pernille Fischer's Christensen's Becoming Astrid (Unga Astrid), an exceptionally sensitive and absorbing account of the early life of the children's author Astrid Lindgren. At first - in a church scene that finds a bored Astrid subverting the priest's rhetoric and geting chided by her mother for blasphemy - it looks like Christensen is going to be too obvious and single-minded in presenting the heroine's transgressiveness. But the film's feminism deepens and complicates as it progresses, and Lindgren enters into a relationship with her married boss. Becoming Astrid doesn't fall into the typical biopic trap of elevating the heroine above all the other characters, and there are lovely supporting performances from Trine Dyrholm as the sympathetic woman who takes care of Lindgren's baby, and Maria Bonnevie as the apparently uptight mother who proves to have reserves of acceptance and playfulness. In the main role, Alba August is radiant; at times suggesting Carey Mulligan or Maggie Gyllenhaal, but with a delicacy and fortitude that's all her own, she keeps us attuned to the character's feelings all the time. Christensen's film was a deserving winner of this year's Distribution Award, voted for by the festival audience.

Swinging Safari (dir. Elliot)

At the less reputable end of the scale was Stephan Elliott's Swinging Safari, a broad and rambunctious satire on 70s Australian suburbia, which presents the interactions of a group of (would be) libertine patents and their perplexed offspring. As usual, Elliott throws too much into the mix for everything to stick, and a lot of promising elements - such as Kylie Minogue as a dog-menacing boozer - are squandered in the film's excessively manic approach. Still, there are some amusingly tasteless set-pieces, as well a few surprising moments of lyricism, and at its best the film suggests John Waters remaking The Ice Storm. 

The Harvesters (dir. Kallos)
African settings yielded several distinctive films. A French, Greek, Italian, Polish and South African co-production, Etienne Kallos's The Harvesters (Die Stropers) starts out looking like a fairly standard gay coming-of-age story, but ventures into darker, more disturbing territory as it concerns itself with the exchange of identities between two teenage boys. There are some narrative inconsistencies but the film remains engaging and provocative, with seductive, burnished cinematography by Michał Englert that sometimes recalls his work on Małgorzata Szumowska's In the Name Of (W imię…).

Djon Africa (dir. Guerra and Reis)
In contrast to the intense and brooding tone of The Harvesters, João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis's blissful Djon Africa is the most joyous, open and relaxed of Daddy-quest films, following its ambling protagonist as he leaves his home in Portugal to seek out his unknown father in Cape Verde. Loose, digressive and fluid in its structure, and completely unpretentious in content, the film carries the viewer along on its buoyant lightness of spirit. A similar breeziness characterises Jhonny Hendrix's Candelaria, which finds a cash-strapped elderly Cuban couple accidentally turning amateur pornographers when a video camera falls into their hands. Affectionate, funny and deeply moving in the end, the film blithely transcends the potential tackiness of its premise, creating a portrait of a couple that's also a portrait of Cuba itself. A Sundance favourite, Gustavo Pizzi’s Loveling (Benzinho) charmed too, in its generous depiction of a large Brazilian family dealing with a son's prospective departure for Germany.

McQueen (dir. Bonhôte and Ettedgui)
Finally, documentaries were particularly well-served in the programme, with two artist portraits standing out. Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui's McQueen may follow the now-patented methods of recent doc hits such as Asif Kapadia's Amy and Nick Broomfield's and Kevin Macdonald's Whitney Houston films in its approach to Alexander McQueen, the talented, troubled icon of "Cool Britannia" culture, but it offers a lucid, often insightful account. The main drawback is the over-use of Michael Nyman's score, a cut and paste affair that jarringly incorporates bits and pieces of the composer's most well known soundtracks to emphasise every emotional beat in this take on McQueen's story.

Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (dir. Mikurda) 

Structured, like McQueen, in chapters, Kuba Mikurda's much-anticipated Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (Love Express. Przypadek Waleriana Borowczyka) offered one of the most potent explorations of the festival's theme in its presentation of the confounding career of the Polish provocateur who shook up cinema with his avant-garde animations and transgressive live action features before sinking into the tawdrier reaches of the porn industry in the 1980s. Avoiding the portentous, ceremonial tone that characterises McQueen and its ilk, the film is sharply focused rather than comprehensive, making no mention of Borowczyk's childhood background and instead picking up from that most turbulent of years - 1968 - when Borowczyk made Goto, Isle of Love and embarked on his most fertile creative period. A good range of interviewees (Terry Gilliam, Peter Bradshaw, and Andrzej Wajda, among them) offer funny, engaging insights, and Mikurda incorporates some pleasing, unstressed ludic touches (watch the cutting go into overdrive when a twitchy Slavoj Žižek appears). Given the dominance of male speakers, the film's engagement with the sexual politics of Boro's output feels a bit limited (despite interesting contributions from the writer and psychotherapist Cherry Potter and The Beast’'s Lisbeth Hummel). But Love Express remains a terrific, overdue exploration of one of the oddest career trajectories in contemporary cinema, as well as an intelligent inquiry into the shifting meanings of artistic freedom during the sexual revolution and beyond.

People's Republic of Desire (dir. Hao Wu)
Hao Wu's People's Republic of Desire brings us up to date with a sobering portrait of the seductions of online celebrity culture as experienced in a Chinese context. The film focuses on the ups and downs in the experiences of the singer Shen Ma and the comedian Big Li, as they compete for viewers and "gifts" in the increasingly crowded market of webcam live-streams on the network. During a period in which upward mobility in China has dramatically decreased, such platforms offer people a way to get rich, but, as the film broadens its scope to incorporate the perspectives of fans and, briefly but tellingly, the CEO of YY, it becomes apparent that it's the networks themselves that are the ultimate beneficiaries.

Faces, Places (dir. Varda and JR)
If People's Republic of Desire offers a disquieting take on the consequences of a life spent in front of a computer screen, then Agnès Varda and JR's Faces, Places (Visages, Villages) provides a counter: this is a film about the pleasure and necessity of venturing out into the world, of making contact with people and places in a sensory, tactile manner. A close attention to the haptic symphony of senses and perceptions that make up real, lived interactions has always distinguished Varda's documentary and essay films, and this time she and her collaborator are on the road through France in the latter's "photography van," interviewing people that they meet and then pasting large portaits of them on to the sides of public spaces. Miners, the wives of dockers, and a woman refusing to leave her home despite pressure from developers are among the subjects of the film's gentle, considerate and loving gaze. Varda and JR prove delightful sparring partners throughout, their affectionate bond a subversive one in a period in which divisions between genders and generations are being widely stoked.

As usual with Varda, the structure of Faces, Places is fluid and associative, constantly teasing out connections and patterns between film and life, the quotidian and the cosmic. The context is, of course, entirely - and delightfully - French, as a gleeful homage to Bande à Part and a painful non-encounter with that film's director attest. But in its unassuming way the movie's reach is much broader, as Varda once again sharpens our perception of the world, heightening awareness of what can be noticed, appreciated and loved within it.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Something's Better Than Nothing, Yes?: Top 5 Madonna Movies

1. Who's That Girl (dir. James Foley, 1987)

Probably a surprising choice, given that Who's That Girl is routinely ranked amongst Madonna's most woeful efforts, and won her a second Razzie for Worst Actress in 1988. For me, though, James Foley's screwball caper - basically Bringing Up Baby updated to the contexts of 80s Yuppiedom and street culture - offers pure pop pleasure from its delightful animated credit sequence onwards, with Madonna's peroxided ex-con rifling through accents and poses as she shakes up Griffin Dunne's staid tax attorney in an attempt to bring to justice those who put her in the slammer. With a script that's blissfully silly but also surprisingly smart about American class attitudes, the movie boasts rooftop chases, hapless hoods, two Patagonian cougars, a lovely tranquil nocturnal mid-section (complete with John Mills cameo!) and the sublime Haviland Morris giving one of the great unsung comic performances of 80s cinema as a WASP princess with a secret slutty side ("Loudon, what part of Scarsdale are you in?"). Big fun.

2. A League of Their Own (dir. Penny Marshall, 1992)

As the cheeky taxi dancer finding friendship and focus on the baseball field Madonna slots right in to the terrific ensemble of Penny Marshall's loving and often very funny portrait of the women's leagues of WWII, as well as contributing the touching "This Used To Be My Playground" to the soundtrack.

3. Evita (dir. Alan Parker, 1996)

Alan Parker's long-delayed film isn't subtle, but Madonna's shrewd, intelligent performance is; she inhabits the role with an icon's understanding and delivers the score - probably Rice and Lloyd Webber's best - with a grace and elegance that's a class apart from Broadway belters.

4. Desperately Seeking Susan (dir. Susan Seidelman, 1985)

In an otherwise scathing review that indicts Leora Barish's script for stupidity and Seidelman's direction for amateurishness, Pauline Kael reserves praise for Madonna: "She moves regally, an indolent, trampy goddess [and] luxuriates in suburban materialism as if she'd discovered the pleasures of imperial Rome."

5. Dick Tracy (dir. Warren Beatty, 1990)

A timely reminder of a moment when comic book movies had some individual personality, and didn't go on forever. As Breathless, Madonna sings Sondheim and slinks through her scenes with witty, studied sultriness underpinned by a dash of melancholy. More!

Bonus: In Bed With Madonna, Bloodhounds of Broadway, Body of Evidence, (as director) W.E

Just no: The Next Best Thing, Shanghai Surprise, Swept Away 

Thursday 2 August 2018

Theatre Review: Othello (Shakespeare's Globe)

The last ten years or so can't be said to have lacked for starry Othello productions on UK stages, whether it's Chiwetel Ejiofor facing off with Ewan MacGregor at the Donmar, Clarke Peters and Dominic West in a high-Wire production at Sheffield Crucible, or Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear at the NT. Still, there's something particularly exciting about the prospect of Mark Rylance returning to the theatre that he ran to play Iago opposite André Holland (of Barry Jenkins's Moonlight and several stage Shakespeares in the US) in the title role. However, the results, in Claire van Kampen's erratic production, don't prove ideal.

Part of the problem is the tendency of the Globe audience to turn every play into a comedy, so that each instance of dramatic irony generates guffaws and even a line such as "Strangle her in her bed" is greeted with hearty laughter by some. But that tendency is exacerbated in van Kampen's production via the farcical scampering around that occurs in its early stages.

Rylance is the principal offender here. He begins by speaking the lines at breakneck speed; his proficiency with the language means that (almost) every word is heard but, still, several vital utterances don't have the weight of thought. Red-capped and nimble, Rylance tries out lots of interesting things in the performance but his Iago finally feels less mercurial than incoherent. Even before Iago's soliloquies start Rylance seems to be acting more to the audience than to the other performers; that approach may be justified to a degree, but when he does start to get more of a relationship going with his fellow cast members it feels like too little too late. Ultimately Rylance neither succeeds in creating a disturbing presence here nor in making something really fresh out of the role.

Holland fares considerably better. In the early scenes, his stillness and poise are in such contrast to Rylance's restless scurrying about that it's a relief to look at and listen to him. (A very stylish coat helps, too.) He treats the language with ease and naturalness, his American accent accentuating Othello's outsiderness, and he makes contact with the other actors while still being inclusive of the audience. In the second half, the performance becomes a bit more generalised (Rylance's feebleness as an antagonist doesn't help him), but Holland is by far the best reason for seeing this production.

There's solid support from William Cubb as a Lear-ish Brabantio, from Aaron Pierre as a hot-headed Cassio, and from Badria Timimi and Catherine Bailey in the effectively re-gendered roles of Lodovica and the Doge of Venice. (Bailey also doubles as a sparky Bianca.) Jessica Warbeck is competent and sometimes touching as Desdemona, belatedly achieving the production's most unsettling moment as she feels what she believes to be her husband's conciliatory embrace turn into strangulation.

As Emilia, though, Sheila Atim underwhelms, giving an awkward performance that doesn't maximise the huge potential in this crucial role; the great "Willow" scene between her and Desdemona seems not so great here. This is particularly disappointing in a season that seeks to trace the character of Emilia through Shakespeare's drama, leading to Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's recently-opened new rabble-rouser about Emilia Bassano. Following her acclaimed turn in Girl from the North Country, it's not too much of a surprise that van Kampen gives Atim a bonus song to sing, but the most sparkling thing about the actress here is her costume: two (rather inappropriate) gold outfits with gold earrings and a shock of gold hair to match. (This Emilia out-dresses her mistress.)

Otherwise, Jonathan Fensom's design is undistinguished and unilluminating, which might be said of the production as a whole. Little thought seems to have gone into context or the exploration of certain relationships, so that promising aspects such as Iago and Emilia also being in an "interracial" marriage don't receive the attention that they merit. Rylance's gabbling and some cuts to the text ensure that the evening is a fairly pacy one, but the end result is to make the material look more like a clunky melodrama with comic elements than a searing examination of jealousy and manipulation. Holland's compelling performance aside, this is an unintense production that doesn't dig deeply enough for the racial and sexual politics of the play - or, simply, its tragedy - to resonate as they should.

Othello is booking at the Globe until 13 October.

Concert Review: A Summer Evening With Natalie Merchant (Oxford SJE Arts, 30 July)

My review of Natalie Merchant's recent Oxford concert is up at PopMatters. You can read it here