Friday, 19 November 2021

Tick, Tick... BOOM! - review

Tick, Tick... BOOM! (by and on Netflix), titled after one of its hero's musicals, is the film directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the acclaimed creator of Hamilton. Perhaps appropriately, it is about musical theatre and, itself, turns into a musical; covering the few days, in early 1990, leading to star-crossed composer Jonathan Larson's 30 birthday. 

At that time, Larson, who went on to write Rent, was in the throes of completing his first musical, on which he had been working for eight years, before a crucial showcase in front major players in the industry. With social puritanism and the AIDS epidemic as background – with close friends getting infected, or sick; some of them dying, Larson, a straight man, struggles to write a final key song for his show, while confronting existential questions about creativity, his life choices, and his priorities.

The film features numerous examples of Larson's work meshed into the narrative of those few days. Some are part of the story, which shows the build up to the showcase, while others help tell the story itself, although it quickly become unclear which does which, turning the whole thing into a multi-layered, metatextual confection. 

Although set in 1990, the show offers many resonant themes for our no-longer-so-early 21st century. The sci-fi musical Larson is working on is about a celebrity culture based on appearance, that doesn't seem that different from our own, and the film ends on a rousing chorus of questions about apathy and freedom that also seems quite relevant to our time. 

While they went over the head of this terrible gay, the film is clearly packed with references to and in-jokes about musical theatre that will delight all those musical queens in the audience, and the cameos by Judith Light (as Larson's laissez-faire agent) and Bradley Whitford (as Stephen Sondheim) are both very enjoyable. 

Andrew Garfield, in the title role, successfully carries the whole edifice on his shoulders (There are very few scenes if any in which he isn't present, if any), which leads to perhaps the one criticism that can be made about the project: that, once again, it is a film placing the story of straight white male centre stage. There is a gay best friend, and it is nice to note the presence of MJ Rodriguez (of Pose fame) in a minor role, but all characters are really only foils to Garfield's Larson, who truly dominates the film. 

Although this isn't really a happy story, the film is never maudlin, and always manages to keep fairly upbeat and entertaining, while somehow still packing a serious emotional punch. It is a great debut for Miranda, and an interesting insight into the contingencies of creative life and into Larson, who died at 35, the night before the first performance of his best known show, Rent

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Ridley Road - review

Having just was watched (and reviewedParis Police 1900, I find it interesting to be presented with another series with very similar theme to indulge in a little comparison. 

Ridley Road, also available on iPlayer and only 4 episode long, is set in 1960s Britain, where a Jewish ingenue finds herself infiltrating the ranks of the National Socialist Movement (the British Nazis). There is actually a fairly similar subplot in Paris Police 1900. 

In both cases historical events and characters are drafted in to anchor the narrative, and in both cases, the viewer is presented with a quality piece of television drawing on past events to entertain and potentially illuminate a worrying aspect of our current society. I think it is no coincidence that those two series should appear at this particular moment in time.

That is however where the similarities stop. Where Paris Police 1900 is dark and dangerous, even brutal at times, Ridley Road is solid and safe. It offers all one would expect from a BBC period drama; the implecccable reconstitution, the great ensemble case, the rounded plot. But for those very reasons, perhaps even more so because of its subject matter, it fall a little flat and doesn't quite convince, even if it is entertaining enough.

I think it possibly lacks a little depth too, and is, in the end, little more than a spy story in an original setting, with some historical resonance. Rather than trying to provoque thought or to make a point, the way I think Paris Police 1900 does, it is simply telling an interesting story. It is perfectly adequate, but adequate doesn't quite cut it.

Paris Police 1900 - review

Paris Police 1900 is a French series currently on iPlayer, that somehow only took about 6 months (rather than the usual 2 years) to make it across the channel (who said Brexit made exchanges more difficult?!).

The series is set in... err... Paris, in 1899. On the surface it is a gory police thriller, following the meandering investigation of the murder and dismemberment of a young woman.

So far, so Nordic Noir; were it not for the 'exotic' setting, and the lack a truly central investigative figure. While the handsome Inspecteur Jouin is suitably aloof and monosyllabic, and works as the connecting character in the story, he isn't a dominating presence in the narrative, which includes a number of interrelated subplots with their own leads.

Crucially, as made abundantly clear by the jaw-dropping(!) opening scene, the makers of the show have created an unique, and unprecedented portrait of a not-so-Belle Époque, as, literally, a fin-de-siècle society, decadent, violent, cruel, and bloody.

We are plunged into a bleak and brutal dystopia in which individuals flail to retain some dignity, even as others try to take that away from them. This is something reflected in the storytelling itself, which is unflinching in its unglamorous representation of dead bodies and physical cruelty to humans and animals.

Although there are moments of bitter humour and irony, the show is not for the faint-hearted. This is underscored by a beautifully gloomy cinematography that, incongruously, yet very effectively, references science-fiction films, such as Blade Runner, and the vernacular of slasher movies.

The political background the slow-paced story is set in, also brings a huge amount of depth and interest to the narrative. As it is announced that the convicted Jewish spy Alfred Dreyfus (who never appears in the show) is being sent back from a tropical penal colony to mainland France for a retrial, a number of factions cynically fan the flames of anti-Semitism in pursuit of their own interests. Historical characters and events are predominantly interlaced with the central investigative story to great effect; it was all very instructive.

Paris Police 1900 is a unique and intriguing piece of television, successfully straddling different genres, that, in the end, invites the viewer to reflect on the parallels that can be made with the current rise of right-wing extremism, and its underlying causes.

Although not announced official, a second season is apparently already in the works, set in 1905, presumably to coincide with the next major episode of the Dreyfus saga, when he was reinstated in the army.

Friday, 8 October 2021

The Normal Heart @ National Theatre - review

This is a brain dump written as soon as I got home from the show. More a more cogent review (which I completely agree with), check out: Review: The Normal Heart at National Theatre, by Hailey Bachrach.

I know lots of people have been raving about this production of Larry Kramer's largely autobiographical play at the National Theatre, but I was disappointed.

Despite being fairly wordy and rather on the long side (at 2hr40), it did sustain my interest and I was never bored. The performances are great (loved Liz Carr) but it's not a great piece of writing to beginning with (the structure is anaemic and it ends very abruptly), and some very questionable directorial decisions didn't help.

The Olivier Theatre has been set up to be in the round (centered around the revolve as a the stage), but the director didn't seem to bother to take that into account one bit (it could have been as simple a flipping the switch and have the stage going round all the time, if he really couldn't be bothered). The whole show is plays "straight" to the normal stalls of the theatre. Tough luck if you are sitting on what is effectively the stage.

There were also some crucially emotional scenes (a death scene in particular) that are rushed, and not given space to breath, with the actors scurrying off stage almost before the scene is over.

Finally, the show opens on what appears to be a vigil (this is never explained), where an "eternal" flame is lit that stays hanging over the stage (too high, in my view) throughout the play.

Instead of using its coming back down (coinciding with the illumination of a pink triangle on the floor of the stage - an apt reference to the holocaust, which is mentioned repeatedly during the play - see below), this takes place after the curtain call, when most people have stopped paying attention. It could have been a very powerful visual to end the show. It even feels slightly disrespectful, if you think about it.

In conclusion: a missed opportunity, I think, and a production unworthy of a national theatre.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Green Book - review

Green Book, currently on iPlayer, is the heart-warming tale of an unlikely friendship between a famous sophisticated black musician and a rough-around-the-edges Italian-American self-styled bullshitter. It is based on a true story.

This is a story of prejudices overcome and differences accepted. It is also about privilege. But, rather than being preachy and worthy, as it could so easily have been, it is, most of the time, funny, and just utterly lovely.

The film came under criticism when it was released for embracing a white saviour trope, but I think this is overlooking the extent to which both characters learn from each other and end up changing each other's outlooks.

It is perhaps in some ways utopian or overly optimistic in its presentation of race relations in 1960s America (or indeed in the 'Western' world nowadays) but it can't hurt to dream for a couple of hours.

The performances by the two leads are great too and the film looks beautiful. This middle-class white man (clearly not the best person to pass judgement on the presentation of the film's main themes) found it a real treat, deserving the Oscar for Best Picture it won in 2018.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

L'atelier (The Workshop) - review

Not a little ironically, considering its premise of a group of young people taking part in a literary workshop, L'atelier (The Workshop - 2017), currently on iPlayer, is one of those French films where seemingly not much is said and even less happens. And yet it manages to be utterly intriguing and quite thrilling too.

The story is set in La Ciotat, a notorious former shipyard near Marseilles, where a (socially and ethnically) diverse group of teens is meant to be writing a thriller together under the guidance of an established author.

This leads to explorations of the creative process and the act of writing, but also of the social and political climate of a France still reeling from the Bataclan and Nice terrorist attacks.

Perhaps because the book to be written has to be a thriller, violence is not only also discussed, but lurking just below the surface: Reality, in the shape one of the members of the group, threatens to overcome fiction right up to the last few minutes of the film. In the end, however, the written word provides its renowned catharsis.

Although ostensibly an essemble piece, the film really centres on only two of its characters, sadly leaving the others two-dimensional or at least under-developed. However, Laurent Cantet, the director, finds the time to travel to that foreign country that is the past by including archival footage of La Ciotat and its shipyard.

The film, which is packed with implicit references to Camus' L'étranger (echoing in its very title) and its despondent view of the absurdity and senselessness of life, keeps the viewer guessing throughout as to its nature. It is a very French, a very cerebral, film but one that is, counterintuitively, not boring. It is also hopeful, and a truly thought-provoking piece.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Deep Water - review

Deep Water is an Australian murder mini-series (4 episodes) currently available on Netflix.

Despite being set in Sydney (around Bondi Beach), this is in many ways one of those dark, brooding serial-killer stories, recently popularised by the "scandi-noir" genre, although Detective Tori Lustigman (played by Yael Stone, of Orange is the New Black fame) is thankfully not quite as tortured as so many of her nordic colleagues. She is, in fact, a fairly-straight-forward, tough woman on a mission, which, in its own way, is quite refreshing.

The story is complex, the writing is tight and the performances are first class; all coming together to form a gripping and tense, sometimes even moving, thriller.

However, what could easily have been a slightly formulaic, if not predictably stereotypical, plot, also functions as an unflinching and often disquieting exposition of homophobia that feels grounded in historical truth.

Its various and numerous guises, as well as its manyfold consequences, are presented to the viewer in all their insidious banality and/or revolting horror. This is ultimately what makes this series special and worth watching, if, at times, harrowing too.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Uprising - review

Uprising on BBC iPlayer is a three-part documentary series, directed by Steve McQueen, centered around the New Cross Fire in January 1981, in which 13 black youths died at a house party.

The event took place in a context of heightened racial tensions, only a few months before the Brixton Riots and other violent protests across Britain (England, really, it seems), which are also covered in the programme.

The documentary presents archival footages and testimonies from survivors of the fires, their family, and civil rights activists, to create a powerful, moving, and sometimes shocking, narrative of grief, lives upturned, social injustice, racism, and institutional callousness.

Although stark in its simplicity and never sentimental, it is a gripping piece of cinematic storytelling, vividly bringing to life a dark moment in the history of the country, exactly 40 years on. Stunning, in every way.