Formation Festival: Mr & Mrs She (7-8 July)

“Pleasingly disquieting”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

It’s not often I’m lost for words when coming out of the theatre, but Mr & Mrs She is one of the most bizarre plays I’ve ever seen. Yet, while its incomprehensibility may be perceived as a negative, there’s something to be said for a play whose questions stay with you for many hours – even days – afterwards.

The show opens with what appears to be a fairly stereotypical wealthy couple enjoying a generous amount of their favourite tipple and getting rather merry. Cue the entry their very eager-to-please staff, a comment about enjoying oneself too much before breakfast, and suddenly the play takes a much darker turn.

Hollie Glossop’s script may well be abstract, but there’s something gripping about the subversion of power from these seemingly stock characters that becomes pleasingly disquieting. The level of detail and pace at which the action develops is masterful, and while I would prefer a greater sense of grounding and cohesion to be able to connect more with the action, Glossop has created a world that begs to be explored further.

Sofia Nakou’s direction embraces and extends the quirkiness with intelligent physicality and proxemics, making the most of the large performance area to highlight the power struggle between each character and the vast emptiness each one is in. As the action creeps closer to the audience, the level of discomfort rises on all fronts and it’s impossible to predict what will happen next, or how you should feel about it.

Kudos to all of the young company performing this work, embracing its weirdness and committing to their roles in it. David Llewellyn in particular demonstrates fantastic range and risk-taking throughout his demise, while Grant Jamieson is suitably sinister as his butler.

It would be fantastic to see this show developed further – it has the makings of a truly memorable piece of theatre. That being said, it seems somewhat unfair to attribute a star-rating to a piece like this, which might easily alienate some audiences while titillating others. Either way, if you’re on the lookout for something different that will leave you with many unanswered questions to debate afterwards, this may well be for you.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 July)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

EIFF: “Piercing” (30 June ’18)

“A trippy, entertaining, & masterfully nightmarish romp.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

For a completely bonkers, aesthetically anarchic, sonically and visually unnerving nightmare thrill ride, Piercing has a lot of humor, heart, and fabulous artistry beneath its hood. The film is directed by Nicolas Pesce, creator of well-liked arthouse horror The Eyes of My Mother, and based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, the mind behind some of Japanese cinema’s most twisted and depraved screenplays. This film is very much in the same vein, but swaps its Japanese influences for Italian Giallo and a charming 70s setting. While it is revoltingly violent and demented, somehow everything in Pesce’s film just works, and it is a truly outstanding genre film.

Piercing continues a pleasing trend in many of the films this year: performers who traditionally fill supporting roles getting a shot at the lead. Take, for example, Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, Natalie Dormer in In Darkness, Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud, Rob Brydon in Swimming With Men, Steven Ogg in Solis. And now, Christopher Abbott as Reed, the enigmatic, bizarre focus of Pesce’s surreal tale. Abbott has turned in fascinating, unsettling, always capable performances in films like Sweet Virginia and Tyrel, (plus his lead role in the small James White), and it is lovely to see him stretch out as the protagonist in a film so odd. He is joined by the always entertaining Mia Wasikowska, and the charming Laia Costa, all of whom get their share of fascinating chances to shine and bend the audience’s minds.

The film follows Reed as he decides to take some time away from his wife (Costa) and child, so he can indulge his twisted murderous fantasies. He meticulously plans to lure and dispatch an unsuspecting prostitute, and in true jet-black humor fashion, Pesce has the camera follow Reed around the room he has rented as he walks through the steps of exactly how he will administer the necessary sedatives, do the deed, and dispose of the body. The clincher is, Pesce includes all the implied sound effects of the execution, and as Reed mimes the sawing, hacking, and gruesome handling of the various parts and bits, the squelches and drips are heard in full. This is a stylistic highlight, yet Piercing features many more sequences of filmmaking just as delightfully twisted. 

Wasikowska plays Jackie, the prostitute he eventually lures into his plan, but needless to say it does not go according to plan. The story twists and turns with gleeful insanity, with Reed and Jackie taking it in turns to torment the other with horrifying weapons and substances. It all spirals into hallucinogenic madness, perfectly contrasted against remarkable production design and music. Delirious grotesqueries are frequently performed on and around plush 70s interior design, while stupendously odd themes from classic Giallo films play above them. The film intermittently cuts to an uncanny miniature set meant to evoke the heights and depths of the New York City skyline, evoking a maze or a puzzle akin to the disorienting content of Reed’s story. 

It’s a trippy, entertaining, masterfully nightmarish romp, with an unlikely balance of class and cruelty, harrowing scenes and hilarious horror, and a hellishly sadomasochistic partnership for the ages in Abbott and Wasikowska’s characters. If you enjoy stylish craftiness and chills down the spine, plus some captivating costume work and musical dexterity, pick Piercing, and have fun with it.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Piercing at the EIFF

 

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: “Flammable Children” (25 June ’18)

“A delight, if you can stomach it.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

What a ride! Rarely does a ‘family comedy’ pack this much bite and savagery, yet complement them so well with side-splitting dialogue and visual bedlam to boot. But the latest from Stephen Elliott does not beat around the bush — it is not for the whole family, it is about the whole family, and how depraved, classless and outrageous three families become during a period of adult idiocy, adolescent recklessness, and young love in 1970s Wallaroo, Australia. The film is a delight, if you can stomach it, but so heinous at times that I would not blame you if you can’t.

Elliott’s film is variably titled Flammable Children and Swinging Safari, depending on its different releases, but in this reviewer’s opinion the former is far better suited to its tone. At the core of the ensemble piece are Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb) and Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson), the only two kids in this massive group that seem to have any morals — they are sort of in love, sort of best friends, sort of just clinging onto each other to keep themselves sane, and due to a freak accident when they were young, involving a match and their synthetic 1970s clothing, they are known as the ‘flammable children.’ The grown-up Marsh narrates the story, which is mainly led and constantly derailed by the parents on the block, played with breathless energy by a delightful lineup of Aussie icons. Proving once again that he is no one trick pony, Guy Pearce delivers in an off-the-wall turn as sunburnt but jacked encyclopedia salesman Keith Hall, patriarch of the Hall family, married to Kaye Hall, played by none other than Kylie Minogue herself. The Jones family is led by evil-grin expert Julian McMahon and catlike Radha Mitchell as Jo, whose motto for their sizable clan, much to the chagrin of neighboring kids/victims, is “If they’re going to experiment, they should do it at home!” Completing the unholy trinity is the Marsh family itself, led by lovable Jeremy Sims as Bob and hilarious Asher Keddie as Gale. As they intertwine and spar intermittently over the course of Flammable Children, the film makes amusingly and dishearteningly clear that people like this just should not be parents. 

If you are wondering just why the film deserves its ribald reputation, observe a brief summary of the goings-on within these 97 minutes: there’s an attempted orgy, infidelity, aggressive urination (albeit after a jellyfish sting), animal abuse, child neglect, child smoking, child drinking, underage sex, violence, partial immolation, and a phenomenally gory finale that I will not dare spoil. Despite what you might be thinking, it’s all just a blast. The film is ruthless with its humour, be warned, and surely depraved, but it somehow avoids being outright tasteless and having a good time above all — or perhaps it is tasteless, but in all the right ways. When Rick tells his daughter to “go play in traffic,” or Gale holds down Kaye’s daughter to pee on her, or when the titular burning episode happens and the parents seem more interested in finishing their card game than putting out their kids, the horrifying misbehavior is somehow far funnier than it is upsetting.

All the insanity is helped along enormously by the natural ridiculousness of the 1970s setting. As Jeff’s early narration quips, a small Australian town like Wallarroo is a town that “time, and taste, forgot,” yet it seems to fit right in with the cacophonous consumerism and colorful grandeur of the 70s aesthetic, and the grainy film stock look that Elliott has used fits the remarkable amorality quite well somehow. Not to mention, the natural beauty of the Australian coast is presented in gorgeous vintage tones, and even the shots of the rotting blue whale carcass that washes up on the local beach are aesthetically pleasing. 

Overall, Flammable Children is good fun, and a pleasure to watch, even though it will probably repulse you at least once a minute. Its frenetic editing, the surprisingly beautiful photography, and the crackerjack insane performances make this possibly my Festival top choice for viewers at home — if you are looking for a funny, crazy, unique midnight watch, Elliott has the film for you. 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to Flammable Children at EIFF

 

EIFF: “Solis” (25 June ’18)

“A commendable slice of cosmic panic.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Space survival films are a genre all of their own. From Danny Boyle’s surreal Sunshine, to Daniel Espinosa’s polarizing Life, to the best of the bunch, Alfonso Cuarón’s immaculate Gravity, the film world seems fascinated with throwing interstellar obstacles at terrified protagonists in the deep reaches of space. Carl Strathie’s Solis pays varying levels of homage to not only these films, with its white-knuckle situations and harrowing depictions of the vastness of the cosmos, but also to their headier predecessors, particularly the monumental daring of 2001: A Space Odyssey, through its notable use of imagery and colour. Ultimately, the artistry of Solis, though understandably subtle enough for some to  overlook, elevates the film from what could have been a somewhat staid space flick to a commendable slice of cosmic panic. Plus, a great deal of credit belongs to the captivating lead performance from cult-favorite Steven Ogg, finally given the chance to take the spotlight. 

Ogg, most well-known for his gloriously twisted embodiment of Grand Theft Auto V psycho Trevor Philips, is the sole visible performer in Solis, playing Troy Holloway, an employee of interstellar mining company Orbis. The action begins after a devastating accident onboard the main mining craft, as Holloway awakes in an escape pod hurtling through space, on a crash course towards the sun. While it may seem a tad overdramatic that he is literally going to smash into the sun, Solis keeps its visuals polished and oddly elegant.

The film’s first 2001 reference, of many, arrives as the sun itself is introduced in a manner very reminiscent of the opening chords of Kubrick’s masterpiece. From there, Strathie incorporates a method borrowed from that other space-epic, Star Wars, as Holloway’s minuscule vessel shoots into frame like the Rebel ship, subsequently pursued by a behemoth – in this case a massive cloud of space debris also on a course for the eponymous star. Solis continues its choice aesthetics through its use of colour to augment Holloway’s various attempts to better his situation — blue and orange populate most of the frame during the calmer, more dialogue-heavy interactions, while red creeps in from time to time to signal danger and mortality, to great effect.

As he makes contact with Commander Roberts aboard the main vessel, played by another talented cult favorite, Alice Lowe, Holloway’s fate is considered and reconsidered many times over, as both he and Roberts seem unsure whether his is a lost cause just yet or not. The building sense of doom is well established, again not only in its high order performances but its visual craft. I must specifically mention two particularly unnerving uses of imagery that elevated the experience: the first, a crack in the pod’s window, which progressively grows bigger and bigger, coming to ominously resemble a spider’s web by the climax, effectively reasserting the futility of Holloway’s attempts to escape fate. The second, the more subtle, is the continued return to images of eyes and of spheres resembling eyes, which both recall blips of humanity in the inhumane void, and the stark absence of an over-watching presence in such a vast emptiness. 

In fact, the aesthetics and plotting of Solis seem altogether consumed by the mercilessness of space, which, notably, means the film does not spend much time considering its intriguing potential for beauty, or mystery. This dourness becomes  overbearing at times, as the film seems only to take the most decidedly tragic turns at every corner. The filmmakers do not take their foot off the pedal for long enough to truly empathize with much, and even though Lowe delivers some compelling monologues, and Ogg legitimately carries a great deal of the film with his strenuous energy, its character beats come off as somewhat rushed – as a fan of Ogg’s, I found myself wishing he was given perhaps a few more chances to spread out as a performer.

Overall, however, Solis is a great way to spend 90 minutes, especially for fans of the space-is-scary approach, and/or fans of Mr. Ogg or Ms. Lowe. What’s more, Strathie must be commended for not only delivering a tale worth telling, with a stellar lead performance, but also for making his yarn as aesthetically captivating as this.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to Solis at 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: “Incredibles 2” (22 June’18)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Everett

“A true standout in action-excitement filmmaking.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There are a lot of superhero movies out there. I don’t need to explain the various cinematic universes that have quite efficiently conquered pop culture the world over in the past fifteen years or so. They are high-budget, immaculately shiny, and absolutely stuffed with characters  – and bombast. Yet despite the immense success of these high-concept sequels, in many ways Pixar’s own superhero sequel, Incredibles 2, leapfrogs way over their heads and delivers one of the most genuinely exciting, eye-popping cape-and-cowl films of them all. (Even though, of course,  there are no capes.)

Brad Bird returns to the director’s chair, fifteen years after creating the widely beloved original, which dropped viewers into a retrofuturistic world where ‘Supers’ are made illegal after a one too many superpowered scuffle totals a great deal of infrastructure. Incredibles 2 picks up seconds after the first one ended, finally letting all of us who wondered just how the titular family would deal with The Underminer, all those years ago, see the fight in full. Of course, even more infrastructure is totaled, so the Supers are run underground yet again. Not long after, a shiny-toothed businessman (Bob Odenkirk) and his mysterious sister (Catherine Keener) join the story and offer to help the family, and all Supers, become legal again and protect the city unrestricted. 

What separates the Incredibles films from others of their genre, in both cases, is the heavy focus on the actual people under the suits. Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), is back and funnier than ever, as this time he is overshadowed by his much more marketable wife, Helen Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). In a quite timely and interesting turn of approach, the business siblings, (and, notably, the film itself) specifically decide to push the female-leadership angle as more compelling to “today’s” audience, and put Elastigirl front and center in most of the film’s breathtaking action set pieces. 

Consequently, the greatest takeaways Incredibles 2 has to offer are indeed these stupendous sequences. One helicopter chase in particular struck me instantly as the most exciting superhero set piece I’ve seen in a while, (and I, unsheepishly, am a die-hard MCU fan). Though Disney had some apologizing to do for not warning patrons of a particularly strobe-lit scene, the scene in question is action film lighting at its absolute best, with the eerie villain textured with an utmost nightmarish quality, producing quite unnerving visuals. The groundbreaking studio’s penchant for industry-best animation is on display yet again; just try not to swoon when a glass of water is placed down, even in the corner of the frame, and the bubbles and minuscule waves in the surface are given every pixel of detail you would see in real life. These details, and the heights the animation can reach, make Incredibles 2 a true standout in action-excitement filmmaking.

On a slightly different note, the other side of the animation and craft being so exemplary is that one notices when the story stalls here and there, which happens more often than not. The plot ‘twists’ are  … predictable! The jokes are mostly recycled from the first film, and though that is for the most part very welcome — for The Incredibles is one of the most daring animated ‘children’s’ films of all time, I’d say — some do make one wonder if Bird and company just forgot to write more material. The ending, in particular, feels like they ran out of time, especially when compared to the layered, satisfying final beats of the first. Plus, I hesitate to mention it, but the ‘Frozone’s hilariously sassy offscreen Black wife’ joke is not only tired, but getting kind of distasteful, and it is no surprise that in this film she is relegated to a quick line, as a callback. (Notably, somehow, though Incredibles 2 introduces a wide array of new Supers big and small, with the exception of the offscreen spouse, there are no Black women in the whole thing. Odd.)

Altogether, however, Incredibles 2 is good fun, and a pleasant continuation of the jauntiness and aesthetics of the brilliant first go round. Michael Giacchino’s score is still excellent, opting for a more noir sheen alongside his memorable and delightful main theme for the fantastic family. Bird has done well, albeit by doing what he already knew. 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 June)

Go to Incredibles 2 at the EIFF