Monday 31 December 2018

Review of 2018: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions

With knee jerk complaints about casting decisions taking up a large part of the critical "conversation"; established White critics making racist pronouncements or else bending over backwards to demonstrate their commitment to "diversity" and what Armond White has called "the identity politics fashion that dominates contemporary culture" generally at the forefront, now is surely an odd time to be involved in arts journalism. Responses may seem calculated, artistic standards may be getting shorter shrift than they should be, but for me these 10 productions all offered a powerful reminder that, in such divisive times, theatre can still be one of the best resources we have for bringing us together.

The Nether (Otchłań), Jaracz Theatre
Mariusz Grzegorzek's hallucinatory take on Jennifer Haley's The Nether mixed suspiciously glittering, velvety Victorian and spare, clinical ambience to captivating effect. With projections blossoming and blooming over the bodies of the actors, the play's exploration of the seductions of, and the perversions enabled by, the Internet was powerfully illuminated. Amidst a brilliant cast, Paulina Walendziak stood out for her amazing performance as Iris, the "shining little girl." Full review here.

The Meeting, Chichester Festival Theatre 

Absent from UK stages for far too long, it was great to reacquaint with the wise and humane voice of Charlotte Jones this year. The OT's revival of Humble Boy was a delight, but better still was Jones's new play, about conflicts in a Quaker community,  which moved and involved all who were lucky enough to see it. Here's hoping for a future Meeting down the road. Full review here.

Utility, Orange Tree
Quiet, unassuming American plays have become "a thing" in recent years, countering (a bit) the brashness of the culture at large. One of the best to make it to British shores, Emily Schwend's Utility, slipped through the net somewhat, but Caitlin McLeod's lumimous production proved totally absorbing, immersing us in the kitchen of a Texas household and the everyday dilemmas of a young mother (great Robyn Addison)  preparing for her daughter's birthday party. Full review here.

Caroline, or Change , Hampstead Theatre/Playhouse

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's masterpiece is a work that moves me so deeply and instinctively that I find it almost impossible to write about. Suffice to say (for now, anyway) that it was wonderful to revisit it in Michael Longhurst's fluid production which reminded us that when it comes to subjects for radical musical theatre, a maid at work in a basement, not Founding Fathers' history, is really where it's at.  

Fun Home, Young Vic

Less lucky than Caroline in not getting the West End transfer it deserved (for now, anyway), Sam Gold's production of Tesori's other great musical was a treat to see at the Young Vic.

Ich Czworo, Jaracz Theatre

When Gabriela meets Gabriela... Not content with giving a couple of the year's best film performances (in Fugue and 7 Emotions) Gabriela Muskala was also wickedly good (and hilarious) as the adulterous matriarch in Ich Czworo (Four of Us). Looking like a festive picture postcard, and with fabulous music adding to the joy, Malgorzata Bogajewska's production sexed up Gabriela Zapolska's 1907 play with outrageous aplomb. 

Richard II, Almeida
Distilling the play to its essence, Joe Hill-Gibbins delivered a biting production that freshly illuminated the drama with brilliant Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill complemented by a multitasking ensemble. 

Operetka, Jaracz Theatre

A cast of 30 delivered a spiky, brilliantly choreographed production of Witold Gombrowicz's surreal satirical operetta.

Nine Night, NT/Trafalgar Studios

Natasha Gordon's funny and touching family portrait, with a magnificent Cecilia Noble, deservedly made its way to the West End. 

Hadestown, NT

I've loved Anais Mitchell's Hadestown album since first hearing it eight years or so ago. Rachel Chavkin gave the material the production it deserved in this great staging. "ALL ABOARD!"

Bonus: The Light Princess in Concert (Cadogan Hall), Three Sisters, Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents (Jaracz Theatre), Humble Boy (Orange Tree), Curtains (Rose).

Still to see: Summer and Smoke (Almeida/Duke of York's)

Disappointed: Othello (Globe)

Friday 21 December 2018

Review of 2018: Cinema - 20 Favourite Films

Fuga (Fugue) (dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska) 

Always startlingly different, Gabriela Muskała gave several of the most memorable performances that I had the pleasure to see this year, whether as the eager beaver student in Marek Koterski's 7 Emotions ( Uczuć), or on stage as the adulterous matriarch in Małgorzata Bogajewska's outrageous production of Ich Czworo at Łódź's Jaracz Theatre. Best of all, though, was Muskała's quicksilver turn as Kinga/Alicja in Agnieszka Smoczyńska's brooding, moody Fuga (Fugue). Here, working from her own script, Muskała plays a wife and mother returning to the family fold after two mysterious years of absence, unable to remember anything about her past identity.  Well supported by strong work from Łukasz Simlat and Iwo Rajski as her spouse and son, Muskała's performance combines the enigmatic with the brazenly physical. Fuga doesn't offer the obvious dazzle of Smoczyńska one-of-a-kind mermaid musical horror extravaganza debut Corki Dancingu (2015), even as it shares that film's bold body consciousness and some hallucinatory imagery. But ultimately the subversiveness of the new film runs deeper, into the most private realms of identity and family experience, where Smoczyńska and Muskała dare to venture and lead the audience on an unsettling and unforgettable ride. 

Wildlife (dir. Paul Dano)

Lean on Pete (dir. Andrew Haigh)

A boy within a family and a boy without one. Sensitivity is so rare in the bludgeoning American cinema of the moment, that these two films (albeit one directed by a Brit) are truly to be treasured, both delicately leading their viewers to understated yet deeply moving conclusions. Adapting Willy Vlautin's 2010 novel, the excellent Andrew Haigh ventured into new territory with an intimate odyssey of a teen (soulful Charlie Plummer) and his horse travelling West in search of a distant relative. Meanwhile, Paul Dano made Richard Ford's novel into a perfectly pitched family portrait that boasted great performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, and, in particular, Ed Oxenbould as the kid realising the extent to which one's parents, though deeply loved, can still be strangers.  

Peterloo (dir. Mike Leigh)

What do contemporary audiences want from a historical drama, these days? Pointless power-playing in palaces, if the rapturous response to Yorgos Lanthimos's latest is to be believed. With The Favourite, the director brings his smug comedy-of-cruelty shtick to English costume drama with wincingly arch results (think Peter Greenaway meets Blackadder); the film ascribes the lowest motives to everyone presented and then plays the very fashionable card of asking us to feel sorry for royalty. The fakery of The Favourite makes the sincerity, respect and humanism of Mike Leigh's Peterloo feel even more valuable (and check out Leigh himself discreetly dissing Lanthimos's film here). In this long-cherished project, Leigh makes the dramatisation of one of the most iniquitous events in domestic British history (the attack on a large group of peaceful protesters at St. Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819) into a vast, immersive panorama of the society of the time, one in which - rightly - no one character dominates. Complaints that the film is nothing but a series of boring speeches are nonsense. Rhetoric - its limitations and possibilities, the way it might bring people into a cause or lock them out - is one of the film's subjects, and Leigh's scrupulous attention to creating believable period dialogue makes Peterloo a film that's as rich linguistically as it is visually. Lest we forget that working men and women have died in the pursuit of rights that we may now take too much for granted, this great (and mostly underappreciated) film offers a sobering, potent reminder.

Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón) 

The Chambermaid (La Camarista) (dir. Lila Avilés)

The day-to-day experiences of two Mexican maids - one to a well-off clan undergoing its own domestic strife, the other an employee in a swish hotel in the capital - were the subject of two of the year's best pictures, both of which give respectful, considered attention to the kind of work so seldom seen on screen. Alfonso Cuarón's absorbing, if slightly showy and over-scaled, Roma has been widely  praised, but Lila Avilés' The Chambermaid - humbler, more distilled and ultimately less sentimental - is equally satisfying.

Tully (dir. Jason Reitman)

A brave soul might even put Roma and The Chambermaid in a triple-bill with Jason Reitman's Tully, in which the relationship between a harassed mother and the capable "night nanny" employed to help her out proves mutually beneficial. Since I never saw a Reitman film that I liked so far, Tully was one of the most pleasurable surprises of the year for me: brisk in its storytelling, yet weirdly, beautifully, dreamy in texture. Diablo Cody's (mostly) smart script incorporates sly echoes of Albee's Three Tall Women and Ozon's Swimming Pool into its take on the division between motherhood and selfhood, and the film boasts a fantastic turn from Charlize Theron as the not-so-yummy mummy. 

Djon África (dir. João Miller Guerra & Filipa Reis)

With Djon África, João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis create the most joyous, open and relaxed of Daddy-quest films, following the amiable, ambling protagonist (Miguel Moreira) as he leaves his home in Portugal to seek out his 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. 

Apostasy (dir. Daniel Kokotajlo)

British films that take the subject of religion seriously are a rarity indeed. Daniel Kokotajlo manages it without fuss or fakery in this spare, quietly intense, autobiographically-inspired portrait of a faith versus family conflict in a Jehovah's Witness household in Manchester, in which a daughter starts to question the tenets of the religion that her mother and sister hold dear. As the matriarch, a superb Siobhan Finnernan lets some subterranean slivers of uncertainty and confusion pierce her character's unyielding, implacable facade. 

Nancy (dir. Christina Choe)

Andrea Riseborough is compelling as the Internet-dependent girl given to fabricating stories and personae yet gradually awakening to her own potential as she undertakes what may be another deception or delusion: claiming to be the long-lost daughter of a couple whose child went missing years before. Admirably, Christina Choe's film doesn't go where you might imagine, and is all the more interesting for that. It also boasts wonderful supporting turns from Steve Buscemi and, in particular, J. Smith-Cameron, as the couple whose life Nancy interrupts. 

Journey to a Mother's Room (dir. Celia Rico Clavellino)

Set mostly within the apartment shared by the widowed Estrella (Lola Dueñas) and her daughter Leonor (Anna Castillo), Celia Clavellino Rico’s film is an intimate exploration of a mother/daughter bond that shows bracing compassion to both parties. The film takes its place alongside Benito Zambrano’s Solas (1999) and Almodóvar’s Volver (2006) (in which Dueñas memorably co-starred) as an insightful Spanish mother/daughter portrait, albeit one that entirely avoids the recourse to melodrama of those predecessors. Rather, Rico's quiet film is as delicate in tone as the Vashti Bunyan song featured on its soundtrack. 

Joy (dir.  Sudabeh  Mortezai)

Support the Girls (dir. Andrew Bujalski)

Several memorable films this year explored the experiences of women as collaborators, colleagues or co-workers. Steve McQueen's Widows was probably the most high-profile. Far better, though, were JoySudabeh Mortezai's discreet and powerful drama about a group of sex-trafficked Nigerian women, and Andrew Bujalski's friendly, funny, Demme-ish Support the Girls with Regina Hall gamely making it through the day as manageress of a "brews, boobs and big screens" establishment. 

Faces Places (dir. Agnès Varda and JR)

Because Varda and JR are the best travelling companions you could wish for. 

Sorry Angel (dir. Christophe Honoré)

Sauvage (dir. Camille Vidal-Naquet)

"You don't feel damned between the sunrise and sunset..." The unmistakeable sound of Cocteau Twins' "I wear your ring", scoring an indelible post-coital moment captured in striking overhead shot, is one of the many rapturous episodes in Christophe Honoré's Sorry Angel, which spins a novelistic, digressive account of  a relationship initiated during a screening of The Piano (!), shot through with  Honoré's trademark insight and intelligence. (Read Popsublime's brilliant coverage of the film here.)  Pair Sorry Angel with Sauvage, Camille Vidal-Naquet's equal parts brutal and beautiful portrait of a sex worker's travails, to prove, once again, that when it comes to putting the complexities of love and sex on screen in ways that are frank, natural and honest, French filmmakers are still doing it best. Between sunrise and sunset, there's deep pain in both of these films, but bracing tenderness, too. 

Becoming Astrid (Unga Astrid) (dir. Pernille Fischer Christensen)

Pernille Fischer Christensen makes Becoming Astrid an absorbing account of the early life of the children's author Astrid Lindgren, one which doesn't fall into the typical biopic trap of elevating the heroine above all the other characters. Still, 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. The winner of this year's Transatlantyk Festival Audience Award, Christensen's lovely film deserves to be seen much more widely than it has been. 

Monument (dir. Jagoda Szelc)

In which Jagoda Szelc suggests that hell is the hospitality industry, as she presents a group of young people undertaking an internship at an isolated hotel, overseen by an extremely exacting Manager (played by an exquisitely-styled Dorota Łukasiewicz-Kwietniewska as a lesbian icon in-the-making). Starting in naturalistic mode, as it shows the group adjusting to their work and forming cliques and friendships, the film's fascination lies in the way it seduces the viewer into strangeness. Making good on the great promise of Szelc's debut feature, Tower. A Bright Day (2017), the confidence of the framing and editing, the placement of the actors, the hypnotic dissolves and immersive sound design, and the general attention to atmosphere, would distinguish a veteran filmmaker. 

Candelaria (dir. Jhonny Hendrix)

The Heiresses (Las Herederas) (dir. Marcelo Martinessi)

Two terrific Latin American films that explore long-term relationships with candour, wit and insight. Jhonny Hendrix's Candelaria transcends the potential tackiness of its subject matter - an elderly husband and wife accidentally turning amateur pornographers - to make a delightful portrait of a couple that's also a portrait of Cuba itself. (See it before there's a Vanessa Redgrave/James Earl Jones remake!) And I loved everything about Marcelo Martinessi's The Heiresses, in which Ana Brun is glorious as a timid woman belatedly blossoming in her partner's absence. 

Bonus: Hannah, Leave No Trace, Black Panther, Les DistanciesThey Shall Not Grow Old, Crystal Swan, The Wild Pear TreeIsle of Dogs, Who Will Write Our History, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, McQueen, My Friend the Polish GirlNothing Like a DameWinter FliesUłaskawienie, Custody, Suleiman Mountain, Atak PanikiLove Express. The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk, Scary Mother, BlacKkKlansman (first half).

Disappointed: BlacKkKlansman (second half), Cold War, If Beale Street Could Talk, Hereditary, Suspiria

Just no: Romans, The Endless, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, The Favourite, A Quiet Place, Behold My Heart.

Not Seen Yet: Happy As Lazzaro, Shoplifters, The House That Jack Built. 

Choices from: 2017, 2016, 2015

Friday 7 December 2018

Review of 2018: Music - 10 Favourite Albums

Sinners Got Soul Too, Peyton
Gospel spirit and pop sensibility, perfectly combined, powerfully sung. Essential: "When They Go Low", "Jericho", "Be My Enough". Review here

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Arctic Monkeys

Woozy, weird, confounding and totally addictive. Essential: "Star Treatment", "Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino", "Science Fiction". 

Negative Capability, Marianne Faithfull

Hard truths, directly told. Essential: "Misunderstanding", "The Gypsy Faerie Queen", "They Come at Night". Review here

Whistle Down the Wind, Joan Baez

"A moment captured in a place, it's memory stays strong." The humblest of swansongs (if that's what it turns out to be). Quiet reflection, timeless grace.  Essential: "Civil War", "Silver Blade", "The Things That We Are Made Of". Review here.

Float Like a Butterfly, Barb Jungr and John McDaniel

Songs of Sting, in vibrant piano arrangements, performed with deep feeling, wit and insight by a fantastic duo. Essential: "Desert Rose", "King of Pain", " Shape of My Heart". Review here.

Lost Souls, Loreena McKennitt

Mystical, intoxicating songs to bring us home. Essential: "The Ballad of the Fox Hunter", "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", "Lost Souls". 

                                        My Indigo, My Indigo                                   

Pristine pop songs excitingly ambushed by percussive turbulence. Essential: "My Indigo", "Out of the Darkness", "Star Crossed Lovers".

Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe
Calculated in its "wokeness", sure, but with songs this smart, spry and infectious, who's complaining? Essential: "Pynk", "Crazy, Classic, Life", "Django Jane". 

American Utopia, David Byrne

"I dance like this..." And we wouldn't have it any other way, David. Essential: "Gasoline and Dirty Sheets," "Everybody's Coming to My House", "I Dance Like This". 

High as Hope, Florence and the Machine

The "Cornflake Girl" cover warmed me up, belatedly, to Florence and co. This beautiful and beguiling collection sealed the deal. Essential: "Grace", "Sky Full of Song", "Big God".

the LAMb Poll: Best Christmas Films: Home Alone (dir. Columbus, 1990)

[Written for the LAMb Best Christmas films poll]

With its 30th anniversary - yikes! - on the horizon (and hopefully a spectacular cast reunion in prospect to celebrate that fact), Chris Columbus's Home Alone remains as popular now as ever, its glorious mixture of smart quips, sentiment and slapstick seemingly winning over new generations every time. As a Christmas film, it has everything you could want: warmth and wit, a wonderfully schmaltzy John Williams/Leslie Bricusse song with lyrics about "feeling that gingerbread feeling," and an appreciation of family values that's nicely tempered by ambivalence and scepticism.

8-year-old Kevin McCallister gets his Christmas wish to have his family disappear, thereby fulfilling the desire of many a kid who's grown up feeling lost or unappreciated within the hub bub of their own household. Of course, he eventually wants his folks back - but not before he's proved himself perfectly capable of surviving without them, whether that's by braving the basement that previously terrified him, going on a coupon-savvy shopping trip, bonding with an unfairly maligned neighbour (in that way the movie advocates seeing beyond the family unit, too), or, most famously, fending off Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern's "Wet Bandit" burglars with a dazzling display of booby-trap ingenuity that gives kiddie vigilantism a good name.

I and many others who were children when the film came out aspired to be like the enterprising Kevin, naturally. And Home Alone became a turning point in our movie-going lives, a moment in which films stopped being something we went to just "to pass the time" and instead turned into an all-consuming passion. Watched and re-watched in the cinema, and then at home on video (and not just at Christmas, either), endlessly quoted and acted out, Home Alone delighted, thrilled and empowered us.

The film was a turning point for its screenwriter John Hughes, too, marking his move from teen cinema and adult comedies into the lucrative realm of family-friendly fun, and for its star, Macaulay Culkin, discovered by Hughes in Uncle Buck, who was catapulted into the big leagues thanks to his performance here. Culkin's charisma is at the heart of the film's appeal, but the terrific supporting cast shouldn't be overlooked, either, from bro Kieran as the bed-wetting cousin ("Fuller, go easy on the Pepsi!"), to John Candy at his most adorable, to Catherine O'Hara, irresistibly funny and touching as the mother who - inevitably? - feels the guiltiest about leaving Kevin home alone. (For all the comedy that it milks from extended-family tensions, the film still feels like a mother/son story at heart.)

The little movie that could, Home Alone's phenomenal box office success indicates just how strongly the picture resonated worldwide. I live in Poland these days, where I'm delighted to discover that the film (titled "Kevin sam w domu") is totally adored (Michał Oleszczyk outlines the reasons why in some great just-published remarks here), with the traditional TV screening on the Polsat network still regularly pulling in the biggest audience of the season. For sure, in our uncertain, divided times, there are few experiences more comforting than settling down to the umpteenth viewing of Home Alone and the happy reassurance that Culkin and co. will get us laughing, shedding a tear or two, and - of course - "feeling that gingerbread feeling" all over again.

Vote here!