ASMF: BELL: USHER HALL: 19 JAN 20

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with Joshua Bell, center, in a dual role on Wednesday at Avery Fisher Hall.

“Oh glorious 1713 Huberman Stradivarius in the hands of Joshua Bell”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

The Usher Hall have done a great feat of marketing with their Sunday Classics International Concert Series.  It utilises concert downtime, offers below premium rates to hirers and audiences alike, and thereby enables second tier orchestras from around the world to perform in a city with the musical cachet of Edinburgh.  And by second rank I am not being pejorative.  How often do you get to hear the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Swedish Philharmonia, or St Petersburg Symphony (not Philharmonic)?

Moreover, the repertoire offered is accessible, and as a consequence of all of the above the Hall is usually sold out except for the Gods, mostly by the elderly not especially musically literate or regular concert goers, and, by the sound of things, after a good lunch.  The queues from the Box Office tailed back into the cold January air. There was a real buzz.

On the question of sound of the non-musical variety I again criticise the audience for their indiscriminate coughing.  January and February concerts are of course the worst for this, and I have again asked the Usher Hall to put a note in the programme such as do the Royal Festival Hall advising patrons to cover their mouth with a hankie when coughing is inevitable as it reduces the sound by 90%.  Compared with the discipline of the audience last night in Berlin who remained silent throughout and for 20 seconds after the conclusion of the BPO’s Bruckner 4, this lot were an ill-behaved bunch that would have got chucked out of any self-respecting German or Austrian concert hall.

End of rant.

In the context of the above, to have perform on a Sunday afternoon the Academy of Saint Martin’s in the Fields, undoubtedly one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world with probably the longest pedigree, alongside top soloist and their Music Director for over eight years, Joshua Bell, the mould was truly broken and I felt we were in for a real treat.

Only so-so.  The playing throughout was technically perfect, but the works were not over demanding.  The tempi were fast, not uncommonly so, but particularly in the two Bach pieces there was no time for the emotion to come through. You have to work to get the emotion in Bach, but it is surely there.  Both the Violin Concerto in A Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No 3 showed a pleasing brilliance of tone – oh glorious 1713 Huberman Stradivarius in the hands of Joshua Bell, what a privilege to hear its singing, pure, transcendent tone – but both were textbook readings of these pleasant pieces you could have found on a budget price label.

It was the glorious Mahler arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet No 14 in D minor that made the case for the band.  Whether Schubert or Bach is spiritually deeper would keep musicologists arguing for days, but the combination of Schubert and Mahler was formidable.  From the opening bars it was immediately obvious that we had gone up several notches in terms of interpretation, even allowing for, once again, the tempo being slightly on the fast side.

Why Astor Piazzolla’s (1921-1992) Four Seasons of Buenos Aries was chosen as the final and part of the programme beats me, other than for its superficial entertainment value.  A selection of tango inspired pieces with some virtuoso violin playing but in the the-dansant style delighted the audience, but classical music it was not, nor meant to be.

The overall impression of the afternoon was of a top-class band entertaining us, but without unduly stretching our critical faculties.  As such it was hugely popular with the audience.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 19 January 2020)

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“The Monstrous Heart” (Traverse Theatre, 22 Oct – 2 Nov : 19:30 : 1hr 15mins)

onyK4_DA

Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” Elegant and attentive direction”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

An obvious symbol lies on a table at the centre of the stage.

A dead beast as the first actor of an analogy game that unfolds itself like a Russian nesting doll – the monstrous, the wild, the Other, the Mother, the Daughter. A metaphor and, ultimately, a show that rushed like hot blood within a febrile body: hastily.

During a storm in the Canadian mountains, the prodigal daughter visits her mother after a long time to seek answers and amend past decisions.

The attempted analysis of the human passions and post-freudian determinism (which of course condemns women first) with clear romantic allegories (Frankestein, connection between nature and sentiments through sound and light design) fails along the way. A good idea, but unfortunately without resolution.

Director Gareth Nicoll’s taste for Shakespearean, abrupt violence and the delicate language of gestures are as easily seen in this production as his others. But even elegant and attentive direction and fairly competent acting cannot save a flat plot and circumspect script.

A neatly conducted rhythm at the first part of the dialogue becomes a self-explanatory, polarised monologue. Rather than raise drama or empathy, the self indulgent storytelling leaves one wondering if one character is listening to the story or the actress is simply waiting to say her speech.

There’s a lack of tension all the way through the script: the position of power remains always the same, embodied by the daughter, whose acting is quite hectic and leaves no room for audience expectancy at the beginning. Nevertheless, her physical characterisation is superb. The restraint of the mother was sometimes staggered by little details (dramatic hand tics in particular), but the character blossoms once she downs a dram and the actress allows herself to relax.

In short, this is a strong initial concept that craves revision. I hope that it’s returned to, for the simple reason that the idea, the discourse, the creative team’s work and the cast have so much to offer – but, unfortunately, cannot be cured from the restraints of the substandard playwriting.

Maybe the magnificence of a living bear cannot be portrayed if the insides are not beating guts, but soft stuffing.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 23 October)

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. 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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Little Shop of Horrors (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: Aug 19 – 24 : 17:45: 1hr)

“A faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

I’ve always had a weakness for Little Shop. Call me puerile, but there’s a lot of musicals that’d benefit from a giant, bloodthirsty jazz plant. Fiddler on the Roof is an amazing show, but imagine Sunrise, Sunset with Levi Stubbs scatting in the background. It was with glee, then, that I saw a production was to be brought my doorstep.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Little Shop of Horrors is classic black comedy: a nerdy schmuck finds an alien plant that changes his life for the better – the only catch being that Audrey II demands human blood in exchange for continued success. Think Faust, if Faust was a rock opera set mostly in a flower shop.

Bob Hope Theatre stays true to this narrative whilst squeezing the original work into a tight hour – and, in that respect, it’s a real success. As someone who is shamefully familiar with its predecessors, places where material was cut and fused for time was surprisingly seamless, incorporating the dramatic flow into the changes with masterful attention to inter-scene connection. Though a few scenes (especially those reliant on emotional revelations) felt a little pressed for space, it’s a necessary evil of the Fringe business.

Performances are strong across the board, with every player slipping into Little Shop’s caricature cut-out roles with aplomb. Whilst not doing anything particularly new with the roles, there was no place where the demands of the characters were not met. Richard Cooper is wonderfully nebbish as Seymour, in stark contrast to Sarah Leanne-Howe’s Audrey – straight out of the pages of a 1950s Good Housekeeping. Kris Webb’s murderous Audrey II, whilst lacking the booming presence of his predecessors, brought a pointedly creepy smoothness to his role. Managing to look vaguely threatening in a big frond costume is tough, but honest to God it happens.

MVP of the production must go to Andy Moore, with his standout performance as Orin Scrivello. Energetic, gleefully sadistic and uncomfortably charismatic, Moore keenly captures not only the essential energy of the play, but also the essence of what makes his character such a joy to watch. Praise for energy also goes to Paul Stone as Mushnik. Though his accent takes certain peaks and troughs during the performance, he immediately lights up the stage with each appearance.

However, Little Shop demands more than theatrical chops. Rock Opera is a hard beast to wrangle, especially on the small stage. And don’t think for a moment that the singing performances in this show are not incredibly worthy – they are, especially in the case of Chiffon, Crystal & Ronette. However, technical mastery is just one facet of this kind of performance, and unfortunately, the necessary punch and energy required to really hammer home the intensity and spectacle of a rock opera simply wasn’t there. The songs had heart, but (apart from a select few) nothing every really comes in for the killing blow. Tension doesn’t range high enough, sorrow cannot go low enough. This is a cast with the potential to hit the audience like a sledgehammer, and it’s disappointing to see it miss.

It’s deceptively hard to pull off an established show, especially with a smaller budget and Fringetastic time constraints. The performance by Bob Hope Theatre, whilst not bombastic, is nevertheless a faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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Will Gompertz: Double Art History – The Sequel (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 19 – 25 : 15:35: 1hr)

“A fun hour.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It’s a fairly uncontroversial opinion to say I like art. Art is pretty neat. Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and Monet have pride of place in my apartment, but as far as really knowing anything about art goes, I’m basically like if someone put a dog in a high school class. Will Gompertz, of Tate and Guardian fame, assures me that he can change that in an hour.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a straightforwardly constructed piece: a humorous lecture wherein Gompertz teaches the fundamentals to a crowd of mostly drunk Fringe goers, with a ‘big exam’ as the dramatic raison d’être. There aren’t many shows where I find myself holding a tiny pencil, wondering if a joke is going to be on the test – though, it’s not as distracting as one might think.

And, overall, it works. It works better than one might expect, and that’s not simply down to the demureness of Edinburgh’s day drinkers. Gompertz proves to be a compelling core for a one man show, and brings an energy that’s seldom seen on the Fringe stage. It’s difficult to describe: somewhere south of nervousness, east of smug, and altogether interpersonally compelling. Evidence of his knowledgeability is widely documented, and this show merely adds to the pile. The way he handles the material, the genuinely loving lilt of his voice when describing a form of expression he clearly holds dear to his heart. Whether or not you even like art, Will Gompertz probably likes it enough for the both of you.

And, to his credit, I like art a little more after Double Art History. There’s a wealth of material presented in the short hour, and it’s presented well. Gompertz’ approach is highly accessible, aided by the bare smattering of tech, and almost lulls you into a false sense of ignorant security. If you’re irritatingly curious like I am, you’re guaranteed to have your attention held.

However, this is a show that leans harder on the “lecture” side of its composition, as opposed to the “Fringe show” side. The theatrical elements feel more like artifice than fully integrated parts of the production, and whilst lectures are by no means bad, that visible separation sometimes proves genuinely jarring. Key moments of audience interaction felt as if they had no reason to be happening, other than a misplaced sense of theatrical convention. Whilst playing up the cartoonish theatricality of the whole thing is a boon for marketing, I often found myself wishing I could have just listened to Gompertz talk shop for an hour, rather than listen to setups involving an art teacher who doesn’t exist.

That’s not to say the show isn’t charming. It is, and aggressively so. Gompertz and his crew create an atmosphere where, whilst everything doesn’t go right, it’s not for lack of earnestness. There is a fundamental joy about art at the heart of this show, and it shines clearly.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a fun hour, sitting in the presence of someone who knows their field inside out. Whilst it’s not likely to get your pulse pounding, you might come away with a better appreciation for what it means to make art.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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Megazoid (Scottish Comedy Festival @ Nightcap: Aug 15-18, 20-26 : 20:30: 45 mins)

“An extremely charismatic, likeable performer.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

There’s a joy to ridiculousness. It’s like Sudocrem for the general psychic onslaught of existing. Innately, I think there’s something worth celebrating in the ridiculous, and Megan Shandley’s Megazoid is certainly evidence of that fact.

A homegrown Edinburgh talent, Shandley’s approach to comedy is that of a temperamental muscle car: smooth riding for the most part, with occasional and unexpected jolts to high speed. It’s easy to be lured into a false sense of security by her sheer laidback-ness, but there’s a wonderful weirdness hiding just underneath, waiting to express itself in an unexpected punchline.

The material is, as you might expect, varied. Shandley embraces the tried-and-tested “scattershot topics, barely-there theme” approach carved out in comedy clubs since before time, and it works. This isn’t a show that needs to be slick or tightly woven together. It’s hanging out with a cool mate who drinks wine from a bag, and has a lot of thoughts on the Lion King – and honestly? That’s all it needs to be. The comedy is relatable enough to keep you anchored and odd enough to keep you guessing, but never volatile or needlessly edgy. Shandley is unabashedly a feelgood comic, even if she doesn’t set out to be.

But even good works are not without fault. It’s a bittersweet criticism in that this was a show which left me wanting more. Though fantastically relatable, Shandley’s easygoing demeanour sometimes meant otherwise excellent jokes were let down by a lack of pointedness in their delivery. Constantly, Shandley gives teases of over the top physicality, high-energy and clownish expressiveness, but pulls back before things can reach their most pleasing apex. Fringe slots are tight but nevertheless, this is material in want of greater variance in pace.

Perhaps my disappointment was amplified by the quality of what was one display, and wondering what it could be. Shandley has some fantastic material at her disposal: unexpected, bright and even surprisingly intricate. Arcs and connected punchlines surface with joyful abandon, constantly layering and re-layering.

It’s clear that there’s a wealth of material bouncing around Shandley’s brain – even the explanation of the show’s title suggests as-of-yet unseen country, full of unexpected turns and left-field observations, waits somewhere underneath her blonde bob, and ultimately I found myself wishing I could’ve taken a longer safari. This is, as before, bittersweet: for although it limits how much I can rate the show, there’s no limit to how much I liked this show. Shandley is an extremely charismatic, likeable performer, and with revisions this is an act that could really seriously turn heads.

Megazoid is a wonderful 45 minutes of staring through the world through slanted binoculars. Despite the shortcomings of her act, Megan Shandley is undeniably one to watch – in person, as well as in the long span of time.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 August)

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Ensemble 1880, Wagner and Brahms, Institut francais d’Ecosse, 13 August 2019

Image result for ensemble 1880

“By the end of the evening the smiles were huge, the applause loud, and happiness was in the air. “

Editorial Rating:3 Stars

There are many myths and half truths circulating around composers with interesting if not scandalous private lives, and Wagner, along with Liszt, is probably at the top of the list.  An uncompromising man of great passion, he was by no means a modern day commitment phobe and the work we heard tonight, along with its backstory, gives ample proof of this. It is, in fact, a consummation.

Cosima, Wagner’s first wife and twenty four years his junior, was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, herself born of passion.  Married to Hans Von Bulow, a student of Liszt and a celebrated conductor, far too young at 18 and bearing him two children, feeling increasing coldness from her husband, she fell first for Wagner’s music, and then him, having met when the Von Bulows stayed with Wagner for the weekend.  There followed a long term affair siring three children out of wedlock before Von Bulow relented and the couple married.

At the time of writing Siegfried Idyll in what has to be the ultimate birthday present, the musicians settled on the stair that led up to his wife’s bedroom inside their Swiss villa on the birthday morn so they could perform a symphonic poem that Wagner had written as a celebration of her birthday as well as to mark the joyous occasion of the birth of their son Siegfried the year before.  Cosima awoke to the sound of music wafting into her bedroom and at first she thought she was dreaming. Beats being woken up by the radio alarm, doesn’t it?

Why I had always thought this story improbable is that most people hear the work played by a full orchestra of a hundred or so players,or at least a full string orchestra.  How could they all fit on the stairs? Much revised, the version was originally written for an ensemble of fifteen as we heard it tonight (albeit 13 desks, close enough), so the story begins to ring true.  For proof, read Cosima’s diaries.

I tried to get all this into my head when listening to our band this evening, Ensemble 1880.  On paper a supergroup with several principals and past principals of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, this particular band has an esoteric approach to the music, neither contemporary nor original instruments, but trying to approximate the sound at the time of early recorded music.  One really has to question this approach; while period instruments and arrangements have their place, who is interested in early recordings with all its sonic limitations, especially in this day of remastering? Moreover, Siegried Idyll was first performed in 1870 and Brahms Serenade No 1 in 1858.  Director Alec Frank-Gemmill explained this approach while showing us his 1920 horn.  The first shellac disc came out in 1895. Is this not all a faux concept?

The reversal of playing order should have been a signal.  Everybody had come to hear the Wagner, hence it was originally put on last.  We were told we were to hear it first. It was thoroughly disappointing and under rehearsed.  Individual playing was competent, but there was no feeling of ensemble, a complete absence of legato with wind and brass in particular failing to gel.  The two horns struggled to hit the note first time, oboe jerky, and the patient trumpet who had to sit there for the first fifteen minutes was too loud when he did make his entrance.  Too much of the heavy lifting of the theme was taken by the first violin, using inappropriate glissando. Only in the closing two minutes of the piece did we get an idea of what this group was capable of.  With the end in sight they relaxed and played in a smooth, together style which one had wished we had experienced from the start.

Had there been an interval I would have left, but I was glad I didn’t.  Now a nonet to reflect the original scoring of the work, the ensemble gave a superb, confident nay exemplary performance of the Brahms Serenade No 1 with some frankly virtuoso playing in particular by Alec Frank-Gemmill on horn and Georgia Browne mastering the tricky wooden flute.  The strings played together like they did every day. Forty minutes of joy.

Such is the nature of live music, a fickle creature.  Something wasn’t working even in rehearsal in the Wagner, I suspect, hence the playing order swap and the look of restrained relief on the players’ faces when it was over and somewhat brief muted applause from the audience.  By the end of the evening the smiles were huge, the applause loud, and happiness was in the air.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: †Charles Stokes (Seen 13 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Seven Second Theory (TheSpace on North Bridge : Aug 8-10, 12-17: 12:30 : 1hr)

“A highly creative and well acted piece.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad 

Outside of automobile tragedies and prom night, there’s not a huge amount you can do in seven seconds. You can run until you’re nearby rather than right here, and if you’re fast you can even stretch it to just over there. You can half unbutton a coat, and, if you’re anything like me, you can get 1/75 of the way towards choosing which brand of soda to buy.

Or, if you’re rapidly leaving the breathing population, you can relive all the mistakes you’ve made. So that’s a comforting thought.

The Seven Second Theory is an interesting but fairly self-explanatory premise: a man named John Doe (Theo Antonov) is about to have his life support switched off, and goes on a journey through his own memories in the brief seven seconds before brain death. His memories include those of his best friends Aaron (Joe Davidson) the infuriatingly spelt Jenni (Megan Good), as well as the love of his life, Katherine (Sophie Hill).

The main cast are undoubtedly talented performers. Antonov makes the feat of being onstage for the show’s duration look (almost) effortless, and his machine-gun delivery adds a facet of charm and vitality to his John Doe. Good, pulling double duty as writer and actress, creates a highly empathetic and relatably charming stage presence as Jenni, layering a good heart with a layer of acid which is hard not to be charmed by. Sophie Hill, despite the occasional lull in physical engagement with the scene, does an excellent job at portraying the struggles of success, embodying the constantly-working Russel Group brainchild to a tee. My standout, however, is Davidson: constantly empathetic, always reacting in the background, and all-around a rippingly strong portrayal of a character who is stung by despair amidst joy.

Supporting characters rotated amongst a chorus (Sabrina Miller, Emma Rogerson and Charlie Graff), who were simply delightful. Despite a few quick character vignettes which, forgivably, seemed underdeveloped, they make a wonderful team. Many of the show’s best lines come from their corner of the acting ring, and their range is something to be respected.

With the above in mind, I remind you that The Seven Second Theory is a comedy. Blacker than black, but comedy nonetheless – and for the most part, the show quite handily succeeds in that regard. Most of the jokes are dropped with precise and well-rehearsed timing, with just enough punch behind them to punctuate the scene. The material isn’t particularly groundbreaking stuff as far as the general regrets of mortality are concerned, but it’s certainly enough keep you waiting for the next one liner. Antonov in particular is sharp as a pin, though every cast member shines.

As for the narrative, without giving too much away, it’s the same story as the above. The framing device is dramatically succinct, the banter and conversations sounds realistic and endearing, and each scene beat feels exactly in its place. However, don’t come in looking for surprises: much like its comedic material, the messages and narrative themes (whilst undoubtedly well executed and well conceived) remain fairly pedestrian. The Seven Second Theory has some really interesting stuff to say about the foibles of human want, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect to hear.

And whilst its separate components of comedy and tragedy work well enough on their own, The Seven Second Theory seems to have real difficulty in the switch-between. In trying to cram so many different emotional beats into what is a fairly modest runtime, what emerges is a kind of tonal soup. There is no spared moment to settle into the despair, to come down from the laughs. This is a show that would greatly benefit from slowing itself down, and learning not to fear silence.

The great tragedy of these tonal problems is that, coupled with an unfortunate case of “shouting means drama” syndrome, when emotional pay-off arrives it can come off as mawkish or forced. As a production that relies so much on the internal lives of its main characters, this seriously undercuts the comedy’s dramatic counterweight.

To end positively, though, a place where The Seven Second Theory shines (literally) is in its stage design. I am enamoured with it: dramatic, effective and imaginative. The use of lanterns both as a light source and guiding prop is inspired, and goes a long way in giving the minimalist set design a real feeling of boundary and weight. Their use and presentation in the show elevates the sense of magical-realism which is always gnawing at the sides of the narrative, and lends it an appropriately dream-like atmosphere.

The Seven Second Theory is a highly creative and well acted piece, held back by elements of its direction and themes. For better and for worse, it’s a show that leaves you wanting more. Is it worth your time? Entirely, but it won’t change your life. The process of staging new writing is constantly transformative, and this is no exception – with revisions, Megan Good’s work could be something truly special.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 August)

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EIFF: “She’s Missing”

“A captivating tale.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The American southwest clearly possesses an almost mystical charm that has again and again proven magnificently well-suited to the film medium. From Wim Wenders to David Lynch to Tarantino and beyond, filmmakers have been venturing down south and to the left to capture the inimitable feeling of the region for many years, to fabulous results. Now, with She’s Missing, Alexandra McGuinness adds another entry into the southwest canon, with a film that pays dutiful tribute to this tradition while spinning a rather captivating tale in the process. 

One might expect, from the bluntness of the title, a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery that rests more on its leading performances rather than its writing. The missing-woman narrative has not only been done countless times before, but is indeed a theme in a number of the films in this very festival, and promises few exciting possibilities without something particularly inventive thrown in. Thankfully, McGuinness does have a wild card to play, in her selection of leads; Lucy Fry, as the shy wallflower Heidi, and Eisa González (instantly memorable from her standout turn in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) as the much bolder, more ambitious, and more striking Jane. 

It becomes rather clear early on that while the narrative of She’s Missing begins trawling in unfortunately low-energy subject matter, the leading actresses are simply too good to let the film slip into mediocrity. González does very well in only a few initial scenes to establish her character’s magnetism, unpredictability, and indisputable dominance over the more accommodating Heidi, while Fry imbues Heidi with a curious devotion to Jane that oscillates between gentle, amicable affection and outright servitude. McGuinness, who wrote and directed the film, intelligently sets up their dynamics with a series of impressive show-don’t-tell choices, principally within scenes in which Heidi defers to Jane obediently, while Jane sees herself as generously guiding Heidi through a dangerous world. The opening shot, in particular, really tells us all we need to know, as Jane regally rides through the New Mexico desert astride a tall horse, and Heidi walks on foot beside them, leading the horse and doing most of the work, both seeming content with Heidi filling the more submissive role. In a prepared statement issued before the film, McGuinness suggested that to her, the film explores the complexities and toxicities of female relationships, and on that front, She’s Missing certainly accomplishes just that. 

Well, it does until the plot kicks in. As the title so unsubtly suggests, one of these ladies goes missing. It is not hard to spot early on which one it will be, and which will devotedly take it upon herself to drop everything and find her friend. When the investigation gets underway, however, the film becomes unfortunately stagnant and unfocused, with various intriguing but irrelevant subplots popping up and disappearing without much justification. One in particular, in which a somewhat suspicious cowboy type (Christian Camargo) romances Heidi with a mixture of pushiness and genuine charm, is certainly layered and results in some solid observations, yet fades away without having much to contribute to the established storyline beyond pithy insights into the complexities of the American southwest and southern male masculinity.

In this regard, notably, McGuinness deserves credit for portraying this American tale without lazy finger-pointing and condemnations; various Americana is portrayed with a refreshing nuance, as McGuinness’ camera explores local rodeos, gun stores, attitudes towards the Mexican border, southern music, and the ever-present mysticism of the desert with aplomb. To be clear, the cowboy adds a commendable layer of detail to the portrayal of the region, but nevertheless seems added in to let McGuinness make a legitimate but somewhat superfluous series of points given the film’s prevailing narrative. 

The major issue, again, comes when the aesthetics cannot make up for a rather limp plotline. Nothing really comes of the central story after the midway point, except some unearned leaps in narrative that introduce some quirky characters (including an entertaining turn from Josh Hartnett) but nothing particularly memorable or inventive. She’s Missing becomes rather easily divisible into three parts; the first, rich in aesthetic and narrative craft, the second, still striking a well-crafted mood but becoming less compelling, and the third, slipping away into the unshakeable feeling that McGuinness didn’t know how to end her ultimately unremarkable storyline. 

Perhaps the film’s original title, Highway, would set us up for a more realistic expectation of what the film offers: a sense of a region and set of characters in transit and transition, with interesting oddities flashing by but never lingering on any to great effect. Thankfully, Fry and González are with us for most of the film, so the ride is enjoyable essentially from start to finish, even if the attractions become conspicuously less inspired down the road. 

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “The Souvenir”

“A rich and layered portrait.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

The agony involved in being privileged is a frequent subject for films like The Souvenir. And like the existing canon of sad-little-rich-girl narratives, moments in it are irritatingly haughty in style and substance. Yet the familiarity of its achingly austere production design and composition are set apart in some manner by the film’s insistence that it knows this luxuriousness is all a bit much. Unfortunately, one is left without enough weight to the film to decide whether the approach was all worth it. 

Protagonist Julie (Hope Swinton Byrne) is hoping to direct her first feature film, a Truffaut-reminiscent poverty drama that equates a young boy’s love for his doomed mother with the lamentable decline of Sunderland. The proposition, as her film school professors remind her often, is a clear departure from her lived experience as an awfully wealthy young woman from London, and in serious danger of becoming a regrettably opaque view of something she does not understand.

Not so for director Joanna Hogg, whose delicate touches imbue The Souvenir with an undeniable sense that she understands her subjects deeply and affectionately. With the help of a memorable performance by Tom Burke as Julie’s occasionally charming, occasionally insufferable lover Antony, this film depicts a rich (both literally and figuratively) and layered portrait of high-class ennui and unrest. To call it intimate, however, would be a stretch. Hogg employs a pale, muted color palette, and an unobtrusive, still visual approach, which result in some deeply pleasant aesthetics but a dour sense of distance from the goings-on. 

As for the goings-on, there are not terribly many. This is not a problem in itself — of course a film can be intriguing without much plot or action — but The Souvenir opts to show the bare minimum of conflicts, confrontations, and even conversations that cause shifts and developments in Julie and Antony’s lives. In a trite but informative scene during one of Julie’s film school lectures, she and her professor excitedly discuss the visual trickery and intelligence involved in Hitchcock’s Psycho — with particular enthusiasm for his choice to leave all the “action” offscreen, and simply display “the results.” It was not immediately clear that this was meant to serve as a treatise on this film’s own approach, until a number of narrative leaps occur in its second half that are almost completely left off-camera, and to our imagination. Unfortunately, the power Hitchcock was able to find in the offscreen twists of Psycho is not replicated by Hogg; few moments in the dramatic developments of The Souvenir demand much emotional response, and ‘the results’ are more often twee than they are intriguing.

That is not to say the film fails to elicit any reactions. Some lines, in particular ones Burke delivers with his almost amphibian inflection, are not only funny but very interesting, achieving a rare sort of dialogue that is both familiar and excitingly creative. The most involving scene by far, however, is stolen completely by the already-renowned Richard Ayoade, who cameos as a contrived artisan friend of Antony’s who waxes on about film as lifeblood and nosily picks apart Julie’s personality with armchair philosophy. Ayoade is not only a master of tone and delivery in this scene, but a remarkably grounding presence, as at that point the film is somewhat in danger of listing into monotonous luxury — Ayoade’s chain-smoking jerk in a furry leopard-print coat is a most welcome disruption, even for only a few minutes. 

Similar interruptions of the austerity are charming and well-crafted. The musical selections are both fun and informative of character. Julie seems content to put on The Psychedelic Furs or Joe Jackson as much as she is to listen to Antony’s selections of opera or her mother’s beloved record of “Moonlight Serenade.” Many details shine brightly; the specificity of Julie’s parents country home, and their references to political and interpersonal realities and expectations in the film’s early-1980’s setting, are intriguing in many ways. The biggest name involved, Tilda Swinton, adds many tics and layers to her character of Julie’s mother that remind one what a gifted actress she is. She plays Julie’s mother with masterful grace and graciousness — though perhaps it is not surprising their onscreen relationship works so well, Tilda being Hope’s real-life mother. 

The headlining trio of Swinton Byrne, Swinton, and Burke are all clearly impressive actors. The attention to detail and consistency of aesthetics are also, undoubtedly, impressive. What is less impressive is the difficulty the film has maintaining its relevance. The film lists between ideas, likely an intentional reflection of Julie’s own inability to get the ball rolling on her projects, but nevertheless a needlessly languid approach that feels drawn out too far. One minute Julie is the focus, then Antony, then Antony’s vices, then Julie’s muted reactions to those vices, then her film school experience, then privilege, family, money, terrorism, Venice, the nature of art, and more assorted topics one might find discussed over a wine-drunk meal in Knightsbridge (of which there are many in this script). Again, the variety of topics is not an issue, but the lack of depth, to most of them, is. In particular, the topic of Julie’s privilege is discussed only twice, early in the film, very explicitly, then never revisited at all. One might almost think Hogg believed if she straightforwardly acknowledged, early on, that this is a film about rich, perplexingly discontent young people — who are mostly causing their own problems — and get that out of the way, it would assuage any reservations about the topic and let her ignore the complexities of privilege from then on. 

In a way, this is successful; it was not until the film ended that I felt a creeping unease with the unapologetic snootiness of it all. But looking back, there seems little reason to keep it all so uptight. Hogg’s film is sure to please those with an affection for austere glamour, but will likely repel those who find the issues on display middling and dull, and who find films like these more arrogant than artistic.

 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller