Michael Odewale: #BLACKBEARSMATTER (Pleasance Courtyard, 1-25 Aug, 17:30, 1hr)

“Clearly an adept writer and jokester.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Your reaction to Michael Odewale’s chosen title for his new stand-up hour, #BLACKBEARSMATTER, will likely indicate how amusing you will find the ensuing comedy. The joke, like much of the hour, is witty, but somewhat surface-level, and raises a few more questions than laughs. That being said, Odewale is clearly an adept writer and jokester, whose talents certainly shine from time to time, in between slightly weaker setups and punchlines.

The venue, a small dark Pleasance space, suits his winking, confrontational approach well, letting Odewale lock eyes with audience members who react with mixtures of amused discomfort and pearl-clutching giggles, to good comic effect. His material ranges from daring jabs at consumerism and privilege, to more self-deprecating observations on Black masculinity and some of his own morally dubious personal habits. Each of these topics elicits a good belly laugh or two over the course of the show, including some truly tickling insinuations that terrorism benefits the running shoe industry, and a darkly hilarious story about the etiquette of discussing peanut allergies on a date. 

Many of Odewale’s bits, rest assured, are certainly amusing, but just as many make one feel some more fine-tuning is in order, and perhaps a rethink of comic timing. The comedy is not quite consistent or energetic enough to elicit the kind of enthusiasm needed to make an audience thoroughly recommend this hour to their friends — like the title, a great deal of his jokes are creative, but without much spark. Odewale’s persona, however, of a sardonic, witty, and flawed Black male shrewdly navigating the parameters of modern society, has much potential, and I personally would happily see his next show, assuming the punchlines get tighter, the segments more focused, and Odewale’s energy more palpable. A performer to remember, but a show that could use more bite and verve for now. 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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It’s True It’s True It’s True (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 16-25: 13:00: 1 hr)

“A deliriously engaging hour that combines essential social commentary, historical document, and top-notch courtroom drama.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

The Edinburgh Fringe offers many delightful kinds of attractions one could find in few other places; food, drink, venues, performances, people, et cetera. Perhaps the most exciting of them all, as I was reminded while watching Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, is ideas. This production, while also filled with outstanding craft from top to bottom, breathes life into one of the most singularly creative ideas this festival has to offer.

Directed by Billy Barrett, and ‘written’ by Barrett and Ellice Stevens, this show demands to be taken as an essential piece of theatre. I say ‘written,’ because the script is translated verbatim from the real-life transcripts of a 1612 trial in Rome. The trial in question concerned whether pompous socialite Agostino Tassi had raped budding painter Artemisia Gentileschi (who went on to garner wide praise, success, and notoriety later in her life), and here lies the first inspired idea within Barrett and Stevens’ project. The transcript, translated from Latin and Italian, is an utterly fascinating document, considering what it implies about the sensibilities of the time surrounding status, sexuality, truth, lies, legacy, misogyny, and more. Of course, without needing to labor the point at all, Breach Theatre’s piece makes it quite clear that the conversations spoken back then about consent, assault, and accusations of unacceptable male behavior are hauntingly similar to ones the modern world has faced with increasing frequency over the last few years. One may find it at times difficult to believe the verbatim transcripts could include parallels so blatant as the moments where Tassi, arrogant and dismissive of the proceedings through and through, directly echoes the word of infamously accused men: “she’s not my type,” “she was asking for it,” “she’s a wh*re anyway,” and so on.

To bring these disarming moments to life, Barrett has assembled a blisteringly talented trio of actors, all of whom multi-role as various judges and testifiers, and all of whom are remarkably capable of stealing a scene. Sophie Steer, as Artemisia herself, is captivating from start to finish; her Artemisia is withdrawn at times, aggressive in others, defensive when she needs to be and just the right amount of multifaceted. Kathryn Bond, who plays numerous roles but most notably the Gentileschi house’s maid Tuzia, has an electric way of performing, so that she achieves exciting, lightning-fast delivery while also mining both pathos and hilarity in the process. But it is Harriet Webb, playing Tassi with a frighteningly familiar swagger, who edges out the top spot among the three. The smarm, threat, and cunning Webb pours into her depiction of Tassi make for an uncomfortably amusing concoction; some ought to beware, however, the searing condemnation of a certain ‘yah’ accent that gets thoroughly skewered as a sonic ‘red flag.’ Overall, though Webb’s performance captivated me the most, all three performers deserve immense credit for giving this piece an electric energy and impressive momentum.

Certain choices sporadically let this momentum down, however. The show is intermittently interrupted by musical transitions, which move the story along through the seven-month trial. The first thing one might notice is that a few of these simply take so long that the pace drops noticeably; a confounding design considering the actors are clearly in place and ready to leap back into the fray, but stay still waiting for the roaring punk interludes to wrap up. The spirit of the musical choices is very understandable — Breach clearly means to imbue the show with the snarling ferocity of the mostly female punk bands they sample. However, these songs drag the viewer out of the 1612 setting perhaps a little too far, especially considering they often come after relatively tame developments in the story. Hearing Tuzia describe Artemisia’s painting habits does not quite build up the energy to warrant a face-melting scream directly afterwards, and the effect is considerably less compelling than the many brilliant elements working so well elsewhere onstage.

The other place that could use some rethinking is the ending; after the mortifying interrogation of Artemisia is finished, the play changes tack into some surreal territory which does not quite hold together with the story that proceeds it or indeed to the disjointed gig-theatre-esque grand finale. This finale, though rousing, seems rather forced, with neither the songs sung nor the visuals introduced feeling relevant to the play’s eminently laudable initial concept. 

And to reiterate, the concept is unquestionably laudable. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is a deliriously engaging hour that combines essential social commentary, a fascinating historical document, and the nail-biting tension of a top-notch courtroom drama. I was reminded repeatedly of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1960 film La vérité, a similarly fascinating dramatization of a similar trial, albeit with a multifaceted woman (played by Brigitte Bardot) on trial instead. Both have deeply nuanced and intelligent means of uncovering bitter truths about the way women are treated both by men and by the legal system, plus some tremendous female performances. La vérité shocks one today because its depiction of society feels unsettlingly relevant considering it was made 60 years ago; the effect of It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, then, considering its dialogue was initially spoken over 400 years ago, is downright infuriating. Credit to Breach Theatre for delivering such a play, for a second round at Fringe, with all the maddening ferocity this subject provokes, and then some. 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Lucille and Cecilia (Assembly Powder Room, Aug 2-24, 13:25: 1hr)

“A successful hour of charming jokes and energetic tricks.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Lucille and Cecilia is a show about two sea lions whose names have the word ‘seal’ in them. Though of course this joke might make an ounce more sense if they were actually seals, the charming simplicity of the gag is still a tickler. So, thankfully, is the rest of this thoroughly amusing and enjoyably bonkers hour of high-energy clowning by Chloe Darke and Susanna Scott of Bang Average Theatre. 

The show takes a playfully scattershot approach to exploring Lucille and Cecilia’s lives and personalities. They perform circus tricks, describe their deep love of fish, and debate what could possibly lie beyond their watery home. Director Steve Brownlie does well to keep the action tightly blocked and includes a well-measured array of props and alternate costumes for the sea lions to bat around for the audience and wield at each other, while Darke and Scott are both charming and affective leading mammals. The only element of the show that resembles a narrative revolves around the two sea lions’ interactions with ‘Trevor the trainer,’ the amusingly-depicted custodian in charge of cleaning and preening the animals. One hates his touch, the other finds it sensuous and exciting, making for some very funny extended sequences where the two show Trevor how they feel, set to a perfectly-chosen rendition of “Ave Maria.” (Both this choice and the use of Air’s “Sexy Boy” show that Bang Average have splendid taste for musical accompaniment.) This and other chapters in the show are performed with pleasant verve and creativity, and both Darke and Scott prove wholeheartedly that they are more than capable clown performers. 

The potential drawbacks to their hour come mainly during the somewhat overlong bouts of character comedy that mainly strike repetitive notes, and do not quite match the showmanship or cleverness of their physical gags. Most of these physical feats are not only very amusing but rather impressive, and leave one wishing Darke and Scott had included a few more of these sharply executed sequences and toned down the Laurel and Hardy slapstick a tad, as these performers could certainly show off their talent for choreography quite a lot more. Thankfully, however, enough of the comedy strikes the right tone to make Lucille and Cecilia a successful hour of charming jokes and energetic tricks that leans right into the refreshingly pure entertainment of watching two human beings put their all into acting like sea lions.

For a uniquely weird, pleasantly escapist escapade, take the splash and see this show. 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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EIFF: “Driven”

“Charming style and notable ambition.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Here is a film with charming style and notable ambition, if a few roughshod elements, which fits together well and features some seriously impressive acting. Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Driven takes its time building up to the central intrigue, and it it time well spent. Director Nick Hamm makes good use of his excellent cast, including the endlessly charismatic Jason Sudeikis, an amusingly dour Corey Stoll, a very game-faced Judy Greer, and the standout Lee Pace, who turns in a masterful performance as the legendary figure John DeLorean.

As a fictional piece, this film might face some criticism that its plot is busy and potentially too odd for its own good. But as writer Colin Bateman’s script is based on a series of very real, yet hard-to-believe events, Driven ends up earning an air of true-crime intrigue that holds the audience’s interest well. We follow James Hoffman (Sudeikis), a pilot and family man who may or may not have engaged in drug smuggling in Bolivia as the film begins; he is nabbed by a stone-faced special agent, played by Stoll, who sets up a deal with Hoffman to bring down some big-name drug lords in exchange for a cushy life in California. By chance, the house to which the Hoffmans are relocated is across the street from the man, the myth, the legend John DeLorean, so smoothly masculine that he easily charms all he meets. Hoffman quickly grows close to DeLorean, a relationship which the car designer appreciates more and more as his ambitious dream of crafting “the perfect car” becomes less and less straightforward. There are many winking references to how well-known his DeLorean design would eventually become, but the film regularly reminds us that DeLorean himself endured some serious difficulty in getting it completed. Indeed, though functional as a charming throwback to 70s-style crime thriller stories of intrigue and duplicity, Driven also serves as an intriguing biography of a man who faced remarkably disparate reputations, as both a gifted businessman and possibly a criminal. If story of DeLorean’s mired reputation is news to you, as it was to me, then check this film out if only for the fascinating story behind this stranger-than-fiction series of events. 

This story is well-told, with the various strands of details and developments never confusing and often entertaining. Sudeikis does well portraying Hoffman’s increasingly scattershot decisions, as the pressure mounts from the FBI and his friendship with DeLorean grows more complicated. Greer is good as Hoffman’s wife Ellen, and Stoll turns in some very enjoyable mugging and long-arm-of-the-law self-importance into his special agent role. But it is Pace, who, ahem, outpaces everyone else by far, and imbues his DeLorean with a deeply engaging mixture of performance, ambition, self-doubt, and force of will. Perhaps it is the result of that well-documented tendency for actors performing as real people to seem especially gifted, but Pace nevertheless earns his accolades in this part. It is truly an outstanding performance.

Certain elements of the direction could use more liveliness in a number of scenes, and a few punchlines could certainly use more work. Bateman’s script is very funny in places, but noticeably off the mark comedy-wise in others. However, the story has enough straight dramatic elements that are compelling and engaging that the comedic burnouts do not stick in the mind very long. 

What does come to mind often, especially towards the end, is the striking similarity between the structure of this story and of David O. Russell’s American Hustle. That film, the superior mainly for its richer story, more daring direction, and truly outstanding cast, strikes similar notes in plot, setting, and tone. The 70s glamor, intrigue and distrust between friends and confidantes, manipulative authority figures and comedic undertones all match, but thankfully Driven has enough of its own charms that it feels more like an homage and a partner project than a derivative spin-off. 

Much of this charm, of course, comes from the real-life gravity of it all, and the genuinely fascinating performance by Pace. This is an oddly grounded film at times, which both shows its maturity and keeps it from feeling truly outstanding. But the story is very interesting, the style rather entertainingly retro, and the performances collectively very good. A well-done film, and a good selection by the EIFF. 

 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “The Art of Self-Defense”

“A delightfully sharp comedy.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Here is the funniest film of the festival so far, by a significant margin. In an absurdly deadpan style, with dashes of Jody Hill and Wes Anderson, twisted up with a delightfully uncomfortable cruelty reminiscent of Armando Iannucci, Jeremy Saulnier, and Yorgos Lanthimos, Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is a comedic gem, which is sure to develop a cult following if found and appreciated by the right crowd. 

This is a comedy that fires on all cylinders, but with a refreshingly subtle style. As a film, everything works; its camerawork is impressive and enjoyable, its script is clever and tight, and its performances are perfectly attuned to the material and tone. As a slice of comedy, it truly shines, with laugh-out-loud turns of phrase and amusingly absurd details coming at you constantly. 

We follow Casey, played by a clearly comfortable Jesse Eisenberg, as he reaches the lamentable conclusion that he is just too weak and pathetic at everything. He is disrespected at work and in day-to-day life, finding solace only in the silent support of his minuscule, adorable dachshund (the EIFF has yet to establish an award like Cannes’ Palme Dog, but if it did, this little fella would be a serious frontrunner). It takes a brutal mugging, where a gang of masked assailants on motorbikes attack Casey for no good reason in the street, to spur him into action. Initially, in a hilarious scene that promises extensive rewatch value, Casey attempts to buy a gun — Stearns does not seem to have much political intention with most of this film, but he does not hold back from offering a few sharp and playful jabs at how unbelievably inadvisable gun ownership can often be. Finding little of use there, Casey instead seeks out his local karate dojo, meets the inscrutable Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and signs up to learn some self-defense. Things only get better from there. 

As he spends more and more time at the dojo, Casey grows closer to Sensei and learns the intricacies of karate and its disciples. There are the eleven rules each member must invariably follow; there are rituals and secret classes that Sensei rules over with an iron fist; and there’s the mystifying and stoic Anna, played incredibly well by Imogen Poots (in one of two performances beside Eisenberg this year, the other being Kenneth Lonergan’s Vivarium, which I saw at Cannes and liked; these two have excellent chemistry in both). The film really excels as Sensei takes Casey under his wing, and offers sidesplittingly bone-headed advice for making everything in Casey’s life “as masculine as possible.” He dismisses Casey’s interest in France, sensitive music, and small dogs, leading Casey to grow unnaturally tough in a series of terribly funny scenes in which Eisenberg puts his all into embodying unearned confidence and unbridled machismo — all the while letting Stearns hilariously depict the most absurd understandings of manliness you’ll see this side of the Republican National Convention. 

Some of these moments do have some lightly questionable implications as we see eventful shifts in Casey’s attitude at home, at work, and in the dojo, but Stearns deftly stops short of making anything too serious to be an issue. The result of all the silliness also means some developments later on feel rather odd, and don’t always make sense, but the rest of it is so genuinely funny that these cannot be too harshly judged. And Stearns does, to his credit, build up to a genuinely exciting climax that I enjoyed more than anything else at the festival so far. Eisenberg and Poots having already turned in wonderful comedic performances in their time, it is Nivola whose comedic talent surprises as he delivers a genuinely great performance as Sensei. This trio is excellently matched.

If you want a delightfully sharp comedy, with enough laughs to be enjoyable and enough brutality to be engaging and surprising, then seek this out. I wager this will be a very successful streaming title; it’s the perfect type of give-it-a-try movie that will likely make many a curious viewer laugh all the way through their late night streaming session. I know I will watch it again as soon as I am able. 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

“Bright moments.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

“STATURE, JOHN! STATURE!”

Pardon me. While this We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a slight, rather limp feature that leaves little impact, the way Crispin Glover delivers this line during one of this film’s emotional outbursts may be the most quotable moment of the festival for me. So that is definitely a plus.

Directed by Stacie Passon, from a script by Mark Kruger based off Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, this film earnestly attempts to capture the eerie Gothic aesthetics of big-empty-house-filled-with-tragic-memories stories, but comes up with not much exciting or original to do with it. Sisters Constance and Merricat Blackwood (Alexandra Daddario and Taissa Farmiga), and their uncle Julian (Glover) live in the ominous Blackwood manor, near a small town filled with citizens who hate their guts. The film never really clarifies why the animosity has arisen, except general resentment of their wealth and oddness. To be fair, as Daddario, Farmiga and Glover play them, the Blackwoods are certainly wealthy and undoubtedly odd.

Constance is rarely found without an unnaturally wide smile and a disingenuously kind word for everything, though past tragedy seems to have instilled in her a crippling fear of leaving the manor (a fear which is conspicuously unexplored beyond a passing reference). Daddario plays Constance with a certain recognizable glint of 1950s maddened-housewife mania, which suggests some truly sinister effects of their upbringing, but is also cloyingly one-note. Farmiga is much more irritating as Merricat, who glowers and stomps around leaving bizarre mystical offerings and trinkets around, believing herself a kind of sorceress able to protect the house and her sister with hexes and magic. Julian, his mind gone after the same tragedy that took the sisters’ parents’ lives, is mostly portrayed as an annoyance, though Glover does well to conjure a level of pathos to his sad situation. 

The result of these characterizations is mainly a simple dispassion for whatever happens next. Each character is thinly developed, quirky often to the point of being aggravating, and generally just an uninteresting figure. The most interesting character, then, becomes Sebastian Stan’s intrusive Cousin Charles, who appears suddenly and suspiciously in their lives to “help,” and presumably collect a share of their fortune. Passon’s direction almost immediately clarifies that he is bad! and not to be trusted!, which is initially fun, but continues with so little nuance that one can essentially predict every development between the family members from then on. Charles manipulates the soft Constance, antagonizes the more suspicious Merricat, and disrespects the puzzled Julian, particularly when Julian mistakes Charles for his brother, the girls’ father, and yells at him about “STATURE!” This moment really makes the film.

Stan is impressive, and the standout performer, though that may be unfair given how thinly the other characters are written. Charles does not ever quite have a clear goal or intention, but the predatory way he installs himself in the family and imitates the archetypal patriarch are fun to watch, and he is certainly made fun to hate. If only Passon had made more in this film as fun to watch, it might feel less hollow. But as it stands, We Have Always Lived in the Castle cannot maintain its occasionally bright moments of weirdness and character conflict, instead listing into drab, predictable tales of male aggression, female weakness, and societal disquietude. There are richer, scarier, more engaging tales of a similar aesthetic to be found elsewhere. 

 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “Them That Follow”

“A remarkably powerful film.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Perhaps it’s the bone-chilling speeches I’ve seen Christian scientists deliver to a classroom; perhaps it’s the infuriating conflicts arising lately from the morally bankrupt practice of parents not vaccinating their children; perhaps it’s the intensity of the filmmaking. Likely all three. Whatever the reason, Them That Follow struck me as a remarkably powerful film which, whilst leaving little to the imagination, shines a profoundly necessary light on a real, complicated problem – enough so that its less intelligent elements can be overlooked. What writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage have made may not be perfect, but it is certainly a standout at this festival. 

Them That Follow delves deep into an Appalachian Pentecostal community that populate an eerie mountain and practice an illegal and profoundly dangerous ritual of serpents. That is, they routinely trap and keep deadly cottonmouth snakes, which they believe can channel the will of the Divine, and drape them over their congregants’ necks. If the snake remains calm, the person must be properly serving the will of the Lord; if it bites and poisons them, they must be somehow astray from His path. The absurdity of this logic is well-addressed in some outstandingly intense, spine-tingling sequences in which various parishioners are put through the ritual throughout the film. 

The local pastor, the de facto leader of the area, is played with electrifying fire-and-brimstone passion by Walton Goggins, while the townsfolk who follow him are played with commendable depth and lived-in realism by the likes of Olivia Colman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, and Lewis Pullman. Sparking the narrative are Alice Englert, as Mara, the pastor’s daughter, and Thomas Mann as Augie, a young man who has come to reject the church, but remains in love with Mara. Through some unsettling developments, their relationship becomes a warped rural iteration of Romeo and Juliet’s terrible journey, though somehow even bleaker at points than that story of teenage tragedy. Suffice it to say, the community is capable of some serious self-denial, resentment, betrayal, and ungodliness. 

It would be easy to dismiss Them That Follow as heavy-handed, unrealistic, too twisted for the good of the story and character development. But the directors explore the absurdity of their practices with considerable depth; to anyone moored in reality, this community is harrowingly rife with irresponsibility and endangerment, but to these individuals, it is their only connection to community, salvation, and acceptance. The fiery expressions of desperation, passion, and anguish that brim just below the surface of many a congregate are well-established and engaging to watch unfold. 

World-building aside, however, unfortunately, elements of the filmmaking leave something to be desired, including some unresolved threads and a lamentably abrupt ending that could have benefitted greatly from only a few more minutes, even seconds, of development. In addition, Poulton and Savage’s reliance on extreme close-ups and moody, austere cinematography occasionally smacks of fresh-out-of-film-school ingenuity, yet it rarely detracts seriously from the strength of the setting and performances. 

And the cast turns in some truly special performances. From top to bottom, the acting is sharp, uncompromising, and above all, convincing. More so than most in this festival, the performers disappear into their roles entirely. Goggins gets a refreshingly powerful role, for although he has turned in delightful work as clumsy and cocksure jerks in Tarantino’s last two features, he has always clearly been ready for a meatier material, and he does not disappoint. I certainly had to blink a few times to remind myself I was watching gifted comedians like Colman and Gaffigan, (and even Dever, gaining traction recently for her turn in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and Pullman, who commendably held his own in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at El Royale last year against a positively stacked cast) who so effortlessly can make viewers guffaw and giggle, but here bury that mirth under an impressive amount of characterization. I should not patronize, of course — many a brilliant dramatic performance can be found when a comedian decides to turn their knack for timing and delivery on serious subject matter. Credit to the directors for coaxing so many impressive performances to the screen. 

Credit as well to those responsible for the unforgettable visuals and editing surrounding the truly terrifying snakes. If an award exists for Best Ensemble Reptile Performance, Them That Follow is a sure bet. Ophidiophobes, steer clear. Even as a fan of our slithery friends, I was squirming in my seat. Poulton and Savage have not made a horror movie in a traditional sense, rather an unsettling religious ensemble drama, but they make a real meal of the scarier elements; if you are looking to be disturbed by eerie reptilian menace, and vile human behavior,  — or even if you want to argue about the perils of true religious freedom — look no further.

 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller