RSNO: Sondergard, Piemontesi (Usher Hall: 5 Oct. ’18)

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)

“The RSNO just gets better and better”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:Outstanding

 

The RSNO Supporters’ Hospitality Suite was packed, the dress code considerably upscale, the auditorium full, save a few seats in the very furthest reaches of The Gods. It was opening night in Edinburgh for the RSNO 2018/19 season, and the induction of long time Principal Guest Conductor, 49 year old Dane Thomas Sondergard, as Music Director, who had celebrated his birthday the previous evening with this same programme in the Caird Hall, Dundee.

 

Expectations were clearly high and were not disappointed. We experienced an evening of real musical craftsmanship, the thoroughness, depth and preparation of the music expressed though a mixture of strong technical accomplishment accompanied by restrained, contained emotion which in this age of hyperbole made it all the more effective. Not so much “Less is More”, for there was plenty, but “thoroughness is all” rather than showmanship, particularly in the Mahler, where hearts were not worn on sleeves, but beat resonantly from within.

 

As is the RSNO’s habit, we were welcomed with a few words by a member of the string section, which in my mind achieves a helpful bond between players and audience.

 

We started the evening with a warm up, Lotta Wennakoski’s aptly named Flounce, a five-minute escapade that reminded me of a fairground ride and premiered at last year’s Proms under the baton of fellow Finn Sakari Oramo. Result? Good mood all round.

 

Piano already in situ so no delay for the next piece, except for a brief address from Sondergard himself, full of Scandinavian modesty as he spoke of his pride at becoming Musical Director after those seven years as Principal Guest Conductor.

 

Our soloist on the night was Francesco Piemontesi, perhaps best known as a proponent of Mozart and so, given the Mozartian nature of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos, and also his first two symphonies, was a profoundly logical choice.

 

As in many of his concertos, in his Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major Beethoven keeps you waiting for the soloist’s entry with a long introduction. When Piemontesi came in, it was a natural segue rather than grand opening, emphasising the synergy between soloist and orchestra that marks the best played concertos. With very strong cadenzas Piemontesi brought verve and precision to the music with the band in taut and timely response. There was a collective (but just about silent) “… aah” from the audience as the familiar third movement Molto Allegro brought us to the work’s conclusion. I would describe this performance as perfect.

 

We were treated to a thoughtful, unexaggerated interpretation of the well known Schubert Impromptu in A flat major before retiring for the interval, a work I suspect many of us have played in our time, but nowhere near as well as this.

 

The Mahler Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor was the work we had all been waiting for, a seventy-minute epic. And it was. One’s heart went out to the trumpet soloist opening the work whose first note had just a trace of uncertainty in its first moments but then delivered a masterly performance throughout the work. I suspect few noticed, and none cared, I certainly didn’t. This is all part of the bargain of live music. In fact the orchestra’s playing throughout this very long, demanding work, was exemplary. Huge contrasts in dynamics, avoidance of sensationalism (“It’s not as loud as you play it on the HiFi” my wife remarked), brilliant pianissimi between timpani and basses, joyous chucking of the theme from strings to brass, the orchestra never tiring through this musical and emotional marathon.

 

The fourth movement Adagiotto. Sehr langsam more commonly known as “The Adagio from Mahler’s Fifth” or, worse, “Theme from Death In Venice” deserves a paragraph to itself. It was a textbook example of how this movement should be played. First, it is an Adagietto, which means very slowly, and it was at a very slow pace –  indeed, the slowest I have heard – that Thomas Sondergard guided his players through an incredibly exposed piece of scoring, in which bow and breath control, depending on the instrument, are stretched to their physical limits. Abbado does it all in a couple of seconds over nine minutes, Rattle in nine and a half. I reckon Sondergard took us to nearer ten. The result was an achingly poignant, again understated but utterly compelling interpretation of this famous musical sketch.

 

The RSNO just gets better and better. If tonight is an example of what is in store for us in the coming winter and spring, we are in for a series of real treats.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 5 October)

Visit the RSNO, Scotland’s national orchestra, here.

Go to Edinburgh49‘s Usher Hall archive.

Freeman (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Freeman is stuffed with brilliant ideas; it fires on all cylinders, incorporating hypnotic physical choreography with breathtaking performances and devastating portrayals of harrowing true stories. The performers of Strictly Arts Theatre Company produce deeply affecting characterisations and movements, breathing life into Camilla Whitehall’s tapestry of compelling episodes from history that truly deserve a closer look from today’s civilisation. The final result, as directed by Danièle Sanderson, is brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive, though its most affecting methods are so raucously intense, the outcome is more chilling than perhaps was intended.

The narrative is principally anchored in the mid-nineteenth century story of William Freeman, a New York man treated in horrifically unjust way by the ‘justice’ system he moved in, and whose story intertwines with both the histories of institutional racial prejudice and the varied legal interpretations of mental conditions. Through this story and five similarly gripping tales, this production raises a profound and chilling question: How do we shape narratives when we bring up mental health? When has it helped? When has it made things worse?

Strictly Arts has adopted a fascinating approach to exploring these themes: after a lengthy yet graceful physical sequence set to trance-like music, the show opens in a setting recalling purgatory. Six souls regard each other in confusion, yet seem to understand they need to ‘tell their story’ so that they can all move on to whatever lies beyond. And so each illustrates their tale, as the other company members provide gorgeously crafted support to each respective retelling. They contort and combine their bodies in various shapes and figures to augment the narratives, which are both impressive and thrillingly creative each time they appear. Their recreations of a horse for William Freeman to ride, and a car during the dramatisation of Sandra Bland’s arrest are particularly riveting — and yes, Sandra Bland’s story is in this show. The stories stretch as far as 1840s Scotland, 2015 Texas, 1949 Leeds, and 2016 London, which combine for a bone-chillingly convincing assertion: when it comes to racial injustice and the horrific unfairness that non-white individuals have to face — particularly when it comes to appreciating their mental health — “nothing has changed.”

Perhaps the greatest aspect of Freeman’s 60 minutes, however, is the as-yet unparalleled talent of this acting ensemble. They are a genuinely captivating bunch, and credit must go to both Sanderson and Strictly Arts Artistic Director Corey Campbell for instilling this cast with a monumental cohesion onstage. Campbell himself brings William Freeman to life in an unforgettable performance, and he is not let down in the slightest by the surrounding cast members. In particular, Marcel White as Nigerian immigrant David Oluwale and Kimisha Lewis as Bland provide breathtaking characterisations. White delivers a compelling and heartbreaking turn as he charts Oluwale’s descent from optimism and ambition into desperation and bewilderment, made all the more tragic as the darkness of his story directly follows a sudden and joyous dance interlude set to Little Richard. Lewis’ portrayal of Bland’s doomed encounter with a fascist Texas police officer is played as a truly horrifying sequence where the remaining cast evoke the terror and pain of the thousands of Black individuals mistreated by law enforcement — this is without a doubt the most heart-wrenching moment I have experienced at the 2018 Fringe Festival. 

Yet the immense impact of this sequence and moments like it result in disorientation from scene to scene. While the show seems frenetic to the point of being intentionally jarring to experience, this becomes at times unfortunately inconclusive, and certain twists and wrenches of the narrative evoke hopelessness and confusion perhaps more than they ought to. The dance sequence that introduces Oluwale’s segment, for example, is so rich that the brutal physical violence that follows it feels garish, and somewhat cheaply vicious. Of course, these are true stories that evoke genuine anguish, so this is less a criticism of the narrative than a comment on the chilling effect on the viewer — Freeman includes lighter moments where we are given a moment to catch our breath, but in an odd and perhaps slightly misjudged order, such as early in the production, when the story of Daniel M’naghten is interrupted for some cacophonous silliness. 

Understanding those oddities of the production, this is nevertheless a fabulous piece of theatre, with unique points to make. M’naghten’s scene, in fact, contains a profoundly venerable commentary, delivered beautifully by Campbell as Freeman himself. M’naghten, played commendably by Pip Barclay, was a Scottish white man and the first person defended in court by the insanity defence; when it is his turn to tell his story, he refuses to take the exercise seriously, and decides to play around instead, until Freeman explains that while he can mess around and not care about these stories of racial disharmony, as they did not affect him, the rest of the characters, all black, are required to listen to white stories like his in order to be given a platform to tell theirs. It is a graceful, nuanced moment for which Sanderson, Campbell, and the entire company deserve immense credit for crafting so beautifully. 

Keiren Amos and Aimee Powell also deliver layered, compelling turns, as tragically-fated Michael Bailey and uncomfortably recently deceased Sarah Reed, respectively, both of whom were treated incompetently by the British justice system due to their mental health conditions. Their chapters are more factual than artistic, mostly, yet they are valuable additions to the narrative, and both Amos and Powell deserve credit for their resonantly realistic performances. 

This show is deeply important, strangely complex, and disorienting at times. But it is a vibrant and graceful hour, with a commendable amount of nuance, structure, and deep intelligence. This deserves its standout status at this year’s Fringe, and I would highly recommend it, possibly above all others, as the show not to miss, despite the thousand-yard-stare you will most likely be left with. Bravo to Strictly Arts.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Daliso Chaponda: What The African Said (Gilded Balloon at the Museum: 19-26 Aug: 19:30: 60 mins)

“This is must-see standup.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

A hilarious, hilarious show. After rising to prominence on Britain’s Got Talent and touring various parts of the globe, Daliso Chaponda performs eight nights at Gilded Balloon’s Museum auditorium space, and take it from me, this is must-see standup. The comedy is clever and uproariously funny, the persona is both charming and caustic, and the hour is so packed with brilliant setups and payoffs that at only 60 minutes it feels altogether too short. 

Topics range from his road to standup, to his childhood, to his nationality, to newfound success, and other well-trodden ground for standup comedians — especially ones at the Fringe. Yet What The African Said never feels lazy or recycled; though these topics are not new subjects on the comedy stage, here they are spun with Chaponda’s unique charm and dexterity, so even an early-on Brexit joke provokes a much more appreciative giggle than 99% of the bone-tired political material bouncing around microphones all over the city.

Of course, he also ventures into fresh, intriguing territory, such as riveting takes on racism online and in person, European arrogance in education, and the hairpin tendencies of so many to take offence at so much. Some of his most delightful and arresting material takes aim at racial difference and touchiness, yet with exceeding grace and humility — it is telling that even as he acknowledged an upcoming one-liner caused (dubiously sensible) widespread offence and alarm, the audience felt prepared for a clever and commendable jab regardless of more sensitive reactions. Needless to say, the line in question is spectacularly funny and had me smiling hours after the performance; it boggles the mind that certain audiences did not feel the same. This is a man who knows how to write a joke.

Chaponda could be said to walk the fine line between probing race and racism and toying with it, yet he speaks and jokes with such confidence and wit that even his incisive commentaries are accompanied with a genuine laugh alongside them. On that topic, there is no shortage of incisive commentaries in this show; Chaponda’s comedy is matched with an impressive back catalogue of information and knowledge, which embeds his witticisms with a well-earned sense of genuine understanding, rather than flippant mockery. On top of that, the Malawi-born comedian includes some affectingly personal undercurrents to his material — not in the way so many other Fringe comedians work in an ‘emotional side’ to their standup, which has practically become clichéd by now — but again in a commendably honest and somehow quite fun aside to his more ribald suggestions.

Overall, this is a practically perfect hour of comedy, and one of the most enjoyable and rich standup performances I have experienced this year. Go and see it.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)

 

I Love You Mum… I Promise I Won’t Die (theSpace @ Venue 45: 20-25th Aug: 15:40: 70 mins)

“The finest production I’ve seen this year”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Death and grief are difficult topics to get right in the theatre – even more so for a young company who are not likely to have experienced much of either. Lloyd Theatre Arts (most of whom are aged 14-17), however, demonstrate maturity and sensitivity well beyond their years in this powerful life lesson.

In January 2014, 16-year-old- Daniel Spargo-Mabbs died as a result of a drug overdose at an illegal rave. I Love You Mum… I Promise I Won’t Die is a verbatim response to that tragedy, using only the words of his friends and family to tell the story of what happened. Mark Wheeller’s script, which interweaves responses from those close to Daniel, is a galling and frank account of his final few days and their immediate aftermath. Grab the tissues.

What’s most moving about this show is the painful honesty of it: the script contains all the teenage awkwardness you would expect from verbatim responses, and to their credit, the company capture this in the integrity of their performance. Some perspectives indicate a knowledge of what happened that night, some a blissful naivety, and not everyone is shown in a positive light, making it an insightful and thorough, unglossed story.

The action is also interspersed with choreographic sequences to reflect or highlight specific feelings that words alone can’t convey. Counter-balance and counter-tension are common motifs to demonstrate how much the individuals in the story relied on each other to get through the days, and these are intelligent and polished moments which show a fantastic creative engagement with the piece, as well as an emotional one. Indeed, the slickness, energy and connection throughout this performance from the whole company are indicative of hours of hard work and dedication to their craft, and the result is absolutely astonishing.

The second half of this production (which focuses more on the perspective of his family and girlfriend covering the same events) does drag somewhat, as there is little in the way of new narrative content, making it feel quite repetitive and static. Further editing to combine the two halves would help make this a more cohesive and gripping piece, but even in this state, it’s the finest production I’ve seen so far this year.

The performance quality of this production from both the young people, and the actors playing Daniel’s parents, really is first class – I genuinely thought I was watching Daniel’s friends and family tell this emotive and important story themselves. Take your children. Take your parents. And take care of yourselves.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

One-Man Pride and Prejudice (Assembly Studios: 2-12 Aug (even dates only): 15:50: 60 mins)

“Intelligent, funny… solicit this production for your next dance”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

It takes real bravery to present an hour-long version of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice – condensing the numerous scenes and chapters into a cohesive highlights reel – yet even more to do so as a one-man show. Madness, perhaps? Fortunately, in this instance it’s a stoke of genius. Perennial Fringe favourite Charles Ross (best known for his One-Man Star Wars™ Trilogy in recent years), is at the helm with this adaptation based on Andrew Davies’ 1995 television series.

The script for this venture has been developed by Ross and his wife Lisa Hebden, and while early on it feels rather too whistle-stop in how quickly the story is told, the final result feels like a fair overview, keeping all the major plot points, with a pocketful of laughs scattered along the way. One can only imagine how much editing went in to ensuring this rip-rollicking performance lasts exactly one hour, but credit to both for achieving it.

As well as being a proficient dramaturg, Ross shows himself as an adept performer in taking on almost every character in the book without ever venturing into farce, or needing props and costume. The whole piece pleasingly embodies a fitting controlled and restrained Georgian air, though a few modern quips are very well received. Odd moments of improvisation are handled with verve, and internal monologues and animalistic interpretations of some of the smaller characters bring much merriment. Overall, this production just oozes confidence in the base material and mastery in performance.

The only slight downfall is that you’ll need to be fairly familiar with either the book or televised adaptation to really appreciate the many witticisms and character interpretations on display – it won’t be particularly accessible for any ignorant plus-one you might want to drag along, even though the craftmanship of the performance itself would still be impressive to an Austen novice. With some scenes reduced to just a line or two and so many characters to follow, there’s a lot to keep up with, but for those in the know this really is a treat.

This is an intelligent, funny, and professionally delivered show that scores top marks with me. Take the opportunity while you can of soliciting this production, reader, for your next dance.

 

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Battle of Frogs and Mice (Assembly Roxy: 12-19 Aug: 16:10: 60 mins)

“Appease the Gods and pay homage at the earliest possible moment to this crowning achievement of the dramatic arts.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It’s the late afternoon. Daughter 1.0 and I are standing outside Assembly Roxy waiting for our third show of the day. Neither of us have had naps and one of us didn’t like the lunch they were offered and only ate half. Our energy levels are being sustained solely by caffeine (me) and a the memory of a large chocolate cupcake (her). We’re both more tired than we care to admit and it’s odds on that one of us will go bang in the not too distant. I want the next show to be good. I need the next show to be good.

Daughter 1.0 (aged 3 going on 14) picked out our first shows, Finding Peter and Paddington Bear’s First Concert. I chose The Battle of Frogs and Mice because I’m more of a philhellene than Lord Byron dancing in a bucket of equal parts taramasalata and hummus singing The Hymn To Liberty. Frogs and Mice was the original introduction to epic poetry used by ancient parents to clear their progeny a path to The Iliad and The Odyssey. An improvised epic poem after a long day, with a tired 3 year old. Hubris. Now for Nemesis. I feel like Dedalus when he first sniffed the melting beeswax from the emptying airspace above. This could all come crashing down. Oh Dionysios hear my prayer.

3 actors and 3 musicians set out to tell the tale of the enmity that grew up between frogs and mice. Of how that enmity turned violent, and how (finally) peace was restored. Puppets, movement, visual gags, and amphorae of audience participation transform the Snug Bar at Assembly Roxy into a bubbling cauldron of noise and excitement. Director Hayley Russell orchestrates 60 minutes of genuine improvisation which maintains a graceful pace and flow while enabling the kids to really feel control and ownership over the narrative’s twists and turns.

“Dad, I thought you said this was going to be educational!” laughs a boy in the row behind confident that, once again, he has outsmarted his old man just like when Odysseus convinced Laertes to buy a puppy, “so we can name him Argos and everyone will remember that you were a brave and fierce Argonaut.”

The performances are some of the strongest I can recall at any Fringe. Individually they are strong, powerful enough to complete the heavy lifting demanded by Caspar Cech-Lucas’ bold dramaturgy. In combination both the actors and musicians generate a pulsing rhythm that never once lets up, soaring on the updrafts of the combatants’ jingoism then plunging down when it turns out that war is good for absolutely nothing.

Daughter 1.0 is dancing on stage, hurling ping-pong balls during the volley of arrows loosed by the mice against the frogs, keeping the mouse princess stuffed toy so safe and quiet that everyone forgets about the regal rodent and she isn’t included in that day’s telling of the tale.

The Gods of the ancient world had punishments both cruel and unusual for those headstrong mortals who displeased them. Why take the risk of incurring the wrath of a petulant Fringe deity? Why risk spending eternity drinking from an endless glass of G&T that contains no gin, or constantly eating artisanal honey that’s actually made by wasps? Appease the Gods and pay homage at the earliest possible moment to this crowning achievement of the dramatic arts.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 August 2018)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Kate Berlant: CommuniKate (Assembly Studios: 1-26 Aug: 21:15: 60 mins)

“It has been a long time since I experienced a set as effectively hilarious.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

The nicest thing about watching Kate Berlant’s Fringe debut CommuniKate is that you can rest assured you will find something to laugh about for just about every minute of the show. No disrespect to the more serious-minded comedy offerings that speckle a great deal of the Fringe’s stand-up lineups, but judging by pound-for-pound side-splitting material, it has been a long time since I experienced a set as effectively hilarious as Berlant’s. 

The most difficult thing about the show is how remarkably hard it is to explain to the unconverted. Berlant’s entire persona — even onscreen, in brilliant comedies such as Search Party and Sorry To Bother You — is very, very specific, even verging on one-note. She is obnoxious, endlessly, obliviously egocentric, and a perfect manifestation of just about everything older generations seem to disrespect about “millenials,” whatever that means. She claims she is brilliant, gifted, destined for greatness, artistically burdened by her loving upbringing and uncomplicated life, and here to better us with her presence. But somehow, the overwhelming egocentrism is delivered with note-perfect confidence and consistency that it all results in deliriously fun. 

The supposed ‘hook’ of the show, though only introduced halfway through the set, is that Berlant is psychic, and can effortlessly sense facts and details about the audience at will. This leads to some delightfully specific premonitions about the assembled crowd, which are sure to elicit reliably amusing results every night, making this approach a fruitful and clever Fringe offering. 

Outside of the supernatural, Berlant mainly hopscotches around from topic to topic, delivering so many great punchlines and character ticks that it can be hard to keep up with this egomaniac’s self-obsession and sickening self-assuredness, but the whirlwind miscellanea is all part of the act. For those who prefer their comedians humble, perhaps look elsewhere, but for those who appreciate a vicious lambasting of the “I can do anything”-ness of certain members of society, perhaps you might appreciate Berlant’s thorough bollocking of the art of overconfidence. (At times, however, I must admit, as a deep fan of Search Party myself, Berlant’s schtick veers questionably close to comedian John Early’s general vibe, yet at the risk of comparing comedic methods unnecessarily, let’s leave that line of questioning there.)

Even the way Berlant says the word “bread” is funny. Odds are you will leave CommuniKate having laughed at quips, jabs, and ruminations you never thought could be remotely amusing, but as the Fringe is a hub and a home for comedy that finds hilarity in the strangest approaches, Berlant’s show fits right in and excels commendably. It might inflate the onstage ego more than ever, but bravo on this one, it’s a great show. 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 7 August)

 

EIFF: “The Gospel According to André” (27 June ’18)

Gospel according to andre

“A captivating, unique form of ‘The American Dream’ that is both inspiring and honest.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

I don’t think biographical documentaries get any more delightful than this. The latest unsung cultural icon to get the documentary treatment is gentle giant and “Black superhero” André Leon Talley, a true larger-than-life figure. Director Kate Novack has wisely just let Talley’s remarkable story tell itself, through a combination of interviews with the man, his friends, and his colleagues, and a period of simply following him around his daily life over 2016 and 2017. Along the way, The Gospel According to André reveals a captivating, unique form of ‘The American Dream’ that is both inspiring and honest, and not afraid to examine the darker, crueler sides of fame, success, fashion, and race. 

Talley is known the world over as a fashion writer with a flamboyant pen and a deeply knowledgable eye. He rose high in the ranks of Vogue magazine, at one point leading its Paris edition, and has in many ways come to represent the diverse possibilities of the fashion world. Talley is a tall, wide Black man from Durham, North Carolina, raised in a conservative household by his loving but stern grandmother. From an early age he was fascinated by accounts of the fashion world, such as John Fairchild’s novel The Fashionable Savages, and of course, the covers and contents of Vogue and its ilk. From there, his story just grows more and more awe-inspiring, as he climbed higher and higher in the fashion industry through his unique eye and captivating personality. Editor-and-chief of Vogue at the time, Diana Vreeland, took one look at the way he had assembled a vintage Hollywood costume for an exhibition and selected him to be her right-hand-man on the spot. He worked with Warhol at Interview Magazine, he befriended Karl Lagerfeld and just about every other designer and model since the early 70s with ease and charm. The film captures all this miraculous story with clever montages of clips, magazine pages, archival footage, and, best of all, long stretches where the film just lets the inimitable Talley talk. 

 

And talk he does. This may go down as one of the best individual-focused documentaries where the individual in focus tells their own story. Unlike the recent head-in-hands bore that was Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, Novack’s film does not resort to hagiographic worship of the protagonist as if the viewers are automatically joining in from the off, but instead convinces you, remarkably quickly, that Talley is a figure worth exploring, understanding, and uplifting. The murderer’s row of stylish interviewees seem to agree: everyone from Anna Wintour to Marc Jacobs to Tom Ford to Fran Lebowitz to Whoopi Goldberg has something lovely to say about Mr. Talley, both about his work and his character – and his importance. These interviews and Novack’s framing, in a way that reminded me subtly of Mark Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles, turns the spotlight on the societal implications of the subject’s life and work, and leans heavily into Talley’s groundbreaking achievement as a large, verbose, delightfully charming Black man who became widely beloved and respected by the usually homogeneous, cold fashion world. Though brief, the film’s revisiting of Talley’s progressive work within the pages of Vogue is utterly fascinating — I instantly made a note to look up his “Scarlett in the Hood” series from the 1990s, starring Naomi Campbell as Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara, which is brilliant and brave in multiple ways. 

The film achieves real gravity at times, in between the celebrations. Aside from the (slightly extraneous) discussions of the 2016 election, as Novack happened to be filming during the lead-up to it and its aftermath, many of the serious aspects are deeply, movingly personal. Talley has moments of great reflection and sombre reckonings with treatment he suffered in his life, from outright racism lobbed at him from ‘dear friends’ in the fashion world, to the overarching question of whether he was so successful simply because of his talent, or possibly because he was considered an ‘exotic’ ornament to keep around for amusement. Talley himself suggests this and more heartbreaking ideas that he has had to grapple with over the course of this remarkable journey, and he deserves immense credit for his honesty and heart.

It is clear that the filmmakers, the assembled guests, his legions of fans, and the majority of the fashion world absolutely love Mr. Talley, and by the end of this film, I expect you will too. See this film as soon as possible. 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 27 June)

Go to The Gospel According to Andre at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “The Eyes of Orson Welles” (24 June ’18)

“A gem of cineast cinema.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

If you have ever wondered whether Orson Welles’ larger-than-life persona could get any more layered with creativity, Mark Cousins has delivered the answer: more than most would imagine. With The Eyes of Orson Welles, Cousins has produced a gem of cineast cinema: a story of a filmmaker, told masterfully through the medium Welles dominated so masterfully himself, which illuminates forgotten tales of history with striking relevance and a remarkable amount of fun. It’s great. 

The documentary builds its approach from a literal treasure trove of artworks big and small, all hand-made by Welles himself, who produced over 1,000 drawings, paintings, sketches, and the like — many of which directly influenced his designs for films and documentaries of his own. It is structured in numerous parts, with the overarching hook that they are meant as a letter directly to Welles, delivered by Cousins in a second-person voiceover. The narration produces a fascinating narrative; the drawings function as pictorial evidence of Welles’ immense creativity and eye for visual complexity, while the shots by Cousins and his team breathe life into the diverse settings and characters within the brushstrokes. From Ireland to Morocco, from New York City to his western later-life abode, Cousins follows Welles’ travels and matches them flawlessly with the art he created in those spaces, partially with the help of his third daughter, Beatrice Welles, who offers priceless information and first-hand takes on how his personality influenced his artwork, and vice versa. 

The chapter-based structure works excellently, as Welles was such a complicated figure, both as a creative and simply as a man, that every side of him could warrant its own documentary. Most captivating is the chapter that Cousins wisely positions first in the progression, regarding Welles’  unfailing pursuit of social justice. There are some truly moving examples of his feelings towards the powerful, the powerless, and the power-hungry, especially along racial lines. For the detailed and remarkable story of Welles’ ‘Officer X’ broadcasts alone, this film ought to be seen the world over, especially anyone debating the relationship between art and social justice. When done well, this film suggests, one complements the other. Later chapters on his romantic entanglements and approach to film as art are just as immaculately well-measured, yet perhaps strain the runtime a tad. That is, until a delightfully surreal turn late in the film, which offers yet another reason why Cousins has made a fabulous choice of subject, and approach. 

Intriguingly, Cousins’ film offers a pleasant, optimistic take on the relationship between past and present, history and future, of talent then and of talent now. Welles’ astonishing creativity, and perhaps even genius, are not presented nostalgically, as if we will never see another like him and we should all give up now (a conclusion to which numerous reverent biographies unfortunately default), but rather as a beacon of inspiration for all who share his outlook on justice and the power of art as a healer and an educator. We should not give up, it seems to say, but rather take a cue from creators as wonderful as this. 

Helped along by a buoyant score by Matt Regan and splendid animation by Danny Carr, The Eyes of Orson Welles is a stupendously well-conceived and well-made presentation, and worthy of its multifaceted subject’s legacy. 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 June)

See The Eyes of Orson Welles at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Cold War”, UK Premiere, 21 June ’18.

“One of the best films of the year. “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Pawel Pawlikowski has crafted a film that breathes life into multiple mid-century time periods and settings with the ease and authority of a master instrumentalist at play. Cold War, though not his first feature, is the Polish director’s second in a row shot in meticulously framed, gorgeously composed Academy-ratio monochrome. This approach began with the immensely celebrated Ida, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015; yet while Ida’s plotting and method achieve their affecting levels of character development and artistic storytelling through a more bleak, distanced tone, Pawlikowski has imbued his latest with a pleasant amount of levity, joy, cinematic tricks, and transcendent musical sequences. It is no understatement to say Cold War ought to be regarded as one of the best films of the year. 

The story follows fifteen years of two parallel paths: that of complicated, tragically-fated lovers Wiktor and Zula, and that of complicated, tragically-fated Poland itself. The first scenes follow Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his team as they traverse the Polish mountain area in 1949, as part of a post-war effort to reinvigorate national pride through revitalizing traditional music. Through their search for singers and dancers for a government-sponsored traveling troupe, Wiktor meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a captivating and immensely talented young woman, whose beauty is complemented well by her snarky wit. (During her singing audition for the troupe, she is told by Wiktor’s colleague that they have heard enough, to which she responds “Just the chorus,” and plows ahead, singing over the ‘Halt’ order — an example of the film’s wry and welcome sense of humour.) Their romance develops as the troupe’s tour radius grows larger and larger, encompassing more and more of the Soviet Union, until they are so well-known that the government decides to use them as a mouthpiece for its propagandic interests. More humour, albeit a darker tone of it, is on display as a government official suggests that they edit the carefree and poetic lyrics of the age-old folk songs the troupe normally sings, to better acquaint the citizenry with the government’s achievements, such as agricultural reform. 

Pawlikowski explores these dichotomous paths — a growing, twisting romance and a gradually  darkening society — in masterful contrast. Stalinism creeps in the edges of the love story with a breathtaking and unnerving progression, at one point literally coming out of nowhere as a massive depiction of Stalin rises above the dancers with nightmarish grandeur in one of their later performances. Most remarkably, the story of Wiktor and Zula becomes intractably interwoven with the imbalanced levels of freedom and artistry inside and out of the Soviet Union, for as Wiktor longs to leave and stay out, so does Zula question where her home truly is, and should be, leading her to some ill-advised returns to hostile territory. The perverted display of the traditional dancers performing Stalinist messages is contrasted with the liberally expressive Parisian musical scene as the action shifts to the mid-fifties, with some pitch-perfect jazz sequences offering some of the most pleasant monochrome pieces of filmmaking in my memory. Whatever possessed Pawlikowski to include so many musical scenes, from the introduction of Paris through a jazz solo to Wiktor’s alarmingly cacophonic piano playing as he experiences great loss, to the magnificent sequence where Zula throws herself around a bar to the tune of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets, and most briefly but beautifully in a romantic moment between the two as they share a dance to “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” this film treats its soundtrack incredibly well.

Credit must also go to the leading couple of Kot and Kulig, who ground the artistry in their compelling faces and physicalities; there are times where entire monologues of meaning are delivered in a silent glance or movement of the face. Also remarkable are the supporting performers, who represent the world outside Wiktor and Zula’s bumpy romance, from the stocky government stooge with a surprising amount of heart, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), to the stern but defiant musical director Irena (Agata Kulesza) to the amusingly pretentious French poetess Juliette (Jeanne Balibar). 

It came as delightful news when Pawlikowski was awarded Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Cold War premiered, and where I first saw the film. At the time, I would have said it was pretty good, maybe a niche art film crowd will like it. But on second viewing, I must say Cold War is much more: just as riveting as it is beautiful, just as musical as it is dramatic, just as prestigious as it is fun. Highly recommended viewing — and an excellent example of last minute scheduling .

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 21 June)

Go to Cold War at the EIFF here