EIFF: “The Most Assassinated Woman in the World” (25 June ’18)

“Captivating aesthetics and a genuinely meaty setting.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Behind the most elaborate facades, there must lie an even more fascinating true story — or so director Franck Ribière must believe. In this case, the first-time French writer/director takes on the larger-than-life tale of the Grand Guignol, and specifically its captivating real-life star, Paula Maxa, who is estimated to have been ‘murdered’ onstage more than 10,000 times in her two-decade career. Fortunately, Ribière seems to understand the sinister yet irresistible allure of the horrific goings-on within the infamous Parisian theatre, which specialized in naturalistic body-horror pieces which shocked and revolted adoring audiences. His film is chock full of gory, tasteless grisliness worthy of the Guignol stage through and through. Unfortunately, where the onstage gore ends and the ‘real-life’ fictionalized plot of The Most Assassinated Woman in the World begins, it all just becomes a big mess. 

The film is set in 1932 Paris, at the height of the Grand Guignol’s notoriety. While protestors scream until they are blue in the face with evangelical rage at the sinful delights going on inside, the detractors are overshadowed by the almost sycophantic devotees of the theatre, particularly the men so enraptured by Paula Maxa (Anna Mouglalis) that they wait outside the theatre just to hear her scream. While the film certainly talks a big game at how many mortals long to fall at Maxa’s feet every night, there is more telling than showing in this regard, and Maxa is, more often than not, seen gliding about alone. That is, until plucky reporter Jean (Niels Schneider) decides to get involved with ‘helping’ her, initially for a story but eventually as a partner. As a real-life murderer begins savaging women across the city — all of whom look suspiciously reminiscent of Maxa’s general aesthetic — Maxa and Jean engage in varying methods of self-preservation and digging down to the truth. 

This film has a lot going for it. Underneath all the eyesore viscera, the oddly 80s-like pulsing score (which is a great score, don’t get me wrong), and the somewhat staid cinematography, there is a bona fide neo-noir begging to be let out. Mouglalis is quite good as the mysterious, capable, yet troubled Paula, and supporting cast members such as Eric Godon, Michel Fau, and Constance Dollé imbue their moments onscreen with palpable emotion, while the story itself could approach some genre classics with its haunting twists and turns. But Ribière seems to have skipped a lot of steps when plotting, and for the last hour the story is one long meander, needlessly twisty — not helped by the fact that a good number of the actors look exactly the same under all those shadows. 

Not to mention – and gosh I had not realized how much this device irritates me until I saw this film! — it can be hard at times, when watching The Most Assassinated Woman in the World, to properly deduce who is an apparition, and who is not. There are so many hallucinated people in rooms, meant to denote a haunting memory, or even a spectral suggestion, that the effect just gets maddening with its repetitiveness. Suddenly all sorts of deceased loved ones are appearing in bathtubs and behind closet doors to remind the audience that the hallucinator is ‘troubled,’ but they add nothing after the first couple of times. Overall, Ribière’s film has some captivating aesthetics and a genuinely meaty setting, yet one wishes the content was leaner, clearer, and simply more fun by the final curtain.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to The Most Assassinated Woman in the World at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Calibre” (Cineworld, 22 June ’18)

Image: British Council.

“Notable style.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Writer-director Matt Palmer’s depiction of a rural Highland town and its inhabitants is not doing the Scottish tourism board any favours. His new film, Calibre, out on Netflix in a week, walks the line between outright horror and pulse-pounding masculine drama with notable style, and gives rising star Jack Lowden some seriously grisly meat to chew on. Overall, however, this tidy, affecting morality play with an impressive cast and excellent sound work cannot escape some garishly ill-devised plotting, a tiresome amount of doom and gloom, and a seriously terrible haircut. 

The fun begins in Edinburgh, as Vaughn (Lowden), kisses his pregnant wife goodbye for a weekend hunting in the Highlands with his lifelong friend Marcus (Martin McCann). Upon their arrival in the rural town, they cross paths with aggressive locals, dangerous women, and some surprisingly friendly contacts. Palmer builds a commendably unnerving sense of dread as every craggy corner in this middle-of-nowhere locale seems to possess some unseen malice, and the director’s horror influences are well-established early on. At times one expects some glowing eyes or demonic cackle to make an appearance but Palmer’s film avoids the supernatural in favor of the more horrifying type of evil: the one within man himself.

If that last line struck you as a bit much, take it as a test. If that sort of melodramatic meditation on evil! and honor! and truth! and shame! strikes you as a fun time, maybe you’d love Calibre. If the line “This can only be paid for in blood” doesn’t strike you as laughable, by all means get on Netflix on June 29th and stream this thing. 

Otherwise, take my word for it, this film is poorly measured. Lowden turns in another commendable performance as Vaughn, who commits a horrendous act completely by accident, which is so genuinely shocking that I won’t dare ruin the surprise when it comes. McCann is impressive as the cunning and duplicitous Marcus, who is unnervingly good at covering their tracks after the act, which implicates both of them in heinous wrongdoing and will completely destroy both their lives if discovered. Also delivering the goods is Tony Curran, a reliable presence on screen, who gives great depth to local leader Logan, who keeps the most brick-headed townsfolk from tearing the city boys to shreds just for being outsiders. 

Indeed, though most of the narrative follows the young men as they try to evade discovery, Calibre also has a lot to say about the relationship between rural and urban, rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, strong and weak. Yet as the tension rises and the plot twists and yanks itself around, most of these ‘insights’ are either screamed at a frenzy worthy of Nicolas Cage’s choicest meltdowns, or growled with such Straw Dogs-esque menace, turned up to 11, that it comes off as silly rather than terrifying. This all culminates in a climactic setup so dour, so tastelessly brutal, that one cannot help but feel like they are watching Saw: Highlands Edition rather than the Hitchcockian crime thriller it packages itself as. Calibre does not ultimately earn its dourness, but rather just piles it on, in the hopes that grisliness will make up for lack of direction. (Not to mention, it is hard to have much sympathy for Vaughn when all his weeping and moaning is done while sporting such a revolting hairdo. But that might just be me.)

Palmer clearly has a nice grasp on how to build tension, and he is particularly impressive in his use of sound to set a scene. But Calibre would be vastly better if it knew how to release that tension in its final act without lazing into tasteless impulses. Skip it, I reckon.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 21 June)

Go to Edinburgh International Film Festival here

(Calibre is showing today, Saturday 23 June & on Saturday 30 June. See EIFF programme for venues.)

 

EIFF: “Puzzle” (Festival Theatre: 20 June’18)

“Genuinely affecting moments of liberation and subtle defiance.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Our first coverage of the film festival. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller will keep them rolling.

As she addressed the gathered public at the opening screening of the 72nd Edinburgh International Film Festival on Wednesday, Kelly Macdonald expressed both gratitude — that her new film, Puzzle, directed by former producer Marc Turtletaub, was opening Scotland’s foremost film festival — and amusement that in it the Glasgow-born actress was playing an American. “I’m in nearly every frame of the film,” Macdonald continued, “so I’m sorry! But you’re in your seats and the doors are locked so you can’t leave now!”

From that introduction, one might expect Puzzle to be a point of embarrassment for the experienced actress. Macdonald has worked with talent as renowned as the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men), Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), and Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, T2), yet Puzzle marks her first prominent, meaty leading role. Macdonald oughtn’t be embarrassed by her work in Turtletaub’s film, however, quite the opposite; yet by the time the credits roll, one is left wishing she was given more to do within all those frames. 

This, Turtletaub’s directorial debut, is a remake of Argentinian film Rompecabezas, directed by Natalia Smirnoff in 2009, and follows shrinking violet suburban housewife Agnes (Macdonald) as she gradually sheds the suffocating monotony of her daily life caring for her boorish husband (David Denman) and two insufferable teenage sons. In the film’s opening sequence, a stylistic high point in an otherwise unremarkable storytelling strategy, Agnes diligently weaves through a house party, existing in the background as her guests make a mess and ignore her. After a few minutes of watching her scrub and kowtow, Agnes reveals an impressive birthday cake, and the guests sing Happy Birthday to … her. Her servile existence at her own birthday celebration presents a perfect introduction to the character as a product of circumstance. As Agnes unwraps her presents, she finds a 1,000-piece puzzle, which, although average citizens remark it will take days to complete, she finishes within half an afternoon. Soon, she seeks out more puzzles, and through them, more control, more exploration, and more freedom, assisted along the way by her serendipitously-met “puzzle partner” Robert (Irrfan Khan). To its credit, though the initial setup of a film based entirely on one person’s self-discovery through 1,000-piece puzzles seems like an aggressively dull use of 103 minutes, the film manages to achieve some genuinely affecting moments of liberation and subtle defiance that avoid total insignificance. 

Unfortunately, I would not blame viewers for tuning out before these moments are reached, for despite that beginning, Puzzle begins to lose its grasp over its plot’s moving pieces quite quickly. Turtletaub, though partially responsible in his role as a producer on films such as Little Miss Sunshine and Loving for some of the more compelling family-based stories of the 21st century, can’t quite master the art of keeping the story fresh and maintaining depth. Too often, the dialogue between Agnes and her family lists into high-school-play levels of one-dimensionality, with displeasing references to veganism, Buddhism, and masculinity in “today’s youth” that come off as tone-deaf. Nearly every stereotypical “overdramatic indie film” line you can imagine is somewhere to be found in here, which becomes frustrating — not to mention its lamentably obvious central metaphor. In case you hadn’t guessed, the eponymous activity comes to represent the unsolvable puzzles in Agnes’s own life, and yes, there is a dramatic monologue about the cosmic connection between solving a particularly hard 1,000-piecer and solving yourself. (Though, to be fair, it is delivered by Mr. Khan, who continues to elevate uninteresting Hollywood ideas with his undeniable charm and masterful delivery — though the words he recites are unoriginal and formulaic, his performance of them is everything but.)

Overall, Puzzle does a lot more telling than it does showing. It is less a film than an overlong Hallmark ad, with a semi-profound lesson in there somewhere that is often overlooked in favor of ‘family drama’ beats that we have all seen before, repeatedly. If you are looking for bombast, style, or cutting-edge storytelling, all of which this year’s EIFF promises to offer by measure over the next two weeks, Turtletaub’s film is not for you. Yet, though such a clichéd film is a puzzling choice to open such a dynamic festival, as a calm, pensive look at a chronically overlooked type of person, this film fits well. 

 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 20 June)

Go to Edinburgh International Film Festival here

 

Gut (Traverse: 20 April – 12 May ’18)

Kirsty Stuart and Peter Collins.
Photos. Mihaela Bodlovic.

‘Feel it!’

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

Turning over a toy box can be messy but upending the presumption of innocence is in an altogether different ballpark. What happens when a nice kind man in the queue at a place to eat helps grandma out and takes your three old to the toilet? You’re allowed a gut feeling about this one and it’s probably the right one? But are you sure, really, really sure?

OK, it’s not The Place to Eat up in John Lewis’ – writer Frances Poet can only go so far – but it might just as well be. As it is, Fisher-Price’s Laugh and Learn puppy takes the biscuit for product placement. Dad, Rory, another nice bloke, hasn’t found puppy’s On-Off switch and its happy-happy tune is doing his head in. It is not so funny for Mum, Maddy; not funny at all, for where there’s an edge in this ninety minute drama she is well and truly over it. And there’s no soft play area on the other side. Is it The Stranger who pushed her or did she do it all by herself?

It could not happen to a more ordinary, youngish, couple, which is precisely the point. We even have a Glasgow address: 65 Kelvindale Road – and Joshua (3) goes to Nursery and Granny Morven (Rory’s mother) helps out a lot, to begin with. First it’s the baby monitor and then it all goes wrong, which is where is the creative team get it just right. There’s a broad set, minimally dressed: a table and three chairs stage left, and a garden swing stage right; large rectangular panels, one of gauze, at the back. Colours are muted, contemporary greys and creams. The exceptional lighting design by Kai Fischer marks off areas that quickly isolate and focus attention. Various Strangers cast shadows, open to frightening doubt, that contrast with the chilling white of Maddy’s psychiatric stay. Michael John McCarthy’s music is spare and quietly ominous while Zinnie Harris’ direction is one keen judgement call after another. The overall effect is a silent ‘House’ in the grip of a familiar, media churned nightmare that cannot be shaken off.

George Anton and Kirsty Stuart.

The script is conversational, inviting immediate and natural responses that seem at odds with the enveloping paranoia. Kirsty Stuart as Maddy is never more convincing as a loving mother than when she details her appalling behaviour. Rory (Peter Collins), who loves her to bits, can sort out toy trucks forever and still not get close to her. His mother, Morven (so believable by Lorraine McIntosh) can only be bewildered and hurt. George Anton is seven different Strangers, sympathetic in one light, scary in another. Presence is all and Anton delivers each time. The impassive concern of his police officer is especially alarming.

The initial setup is a little shaky, rather plastic. Can Maddy be that brittle? But if that’s a weakness the stage work carries it all the way. Gut succeeds in demonstrating that once parenting turns into child protection then it is a nervy, mind shredding issue. Feel it! Stand behind a swing and you risk getting your teeth knocked out but you can get thrown off a see-saw and bang your head just as easily. That, for me, is the audience’s experience. Up and down, up and down, see the Stranger, and then it’s touch-and-go (so to speak) whether it’s playtime or, ‘Wallop!’ “Mum’s out of it”.

 

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 April)

Go to Gut at the Traverse

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Bedfest 2018: Scotland the Bollocks (Bedlam: 23rd Jan.’18)

Design: EUTC.

If all history lessons were like this, I would know and understand a lot more of my country’s story

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 
 To explore the EUTC’s Bedlam Festival 2018, ‘BedFest‘, we decided to go along to see Ross Baillie’s stand-up routine Scotland the Bollocks, an enthusiastic rendition of stories (in)famous in Scottish history. 

Straight from the word go Baillie is genuine and entertaining, if slightly unorganized at times. He is alone on stage, although he always has his stage manager Huw Jones at hand to help him via a screen in the backgroundWhen Baillie gets a little confused or forgets what he is talking about next, Jones is quick to provide funny pictures, anecdotes and explanations.  

The atmosphere remained relaxed throughout as Baillie told exciting stories of Mary Queen of Scots and ….. of the Bank of England. He engaged with an audience that seemed shocked yet highly amused by his hilariously sarcastic outbursts and at times slightly inappropriate sense of humourI was quite happy as I was not sitting in the front row.  

Baillie questions our national identity as he explores the mishaps and (if this is what we can call it) the ‘series’ of very unfortunate events which have fallen upon Scotland since the beginning of history as we know it. His show is almost a mock Horrible History lesson mixed in with some modern jokes about Trump and Brexit. One of my favourite moments was a make-believe Twitter argument between famous people from the 18th century.  

At times I was unsure if Baillie was genuinely confused or if his disorganisation was indeed part of the act –  either way, although his performance could have been a little more polished, the show worked really well. If all history lessons were like this, I would know and understand a lot more of my country’s story.

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

Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 24 January)

 Go to EUTC, the Ediinburgh University Theatre Company

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Edinburgh Quartet: Queen’s Hall (12 Nov.’17)

Image result for kamila stosslova

Janacek’s “Intimate Letters’  to Kamila Stosslova

“The Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have not reviewed the Edinburgh Quartet since March when they played a combination of Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich as part of their “Revolution” series. They have been busy since, including a fascinating mixed media “Dance” performance reviewed in June by my colleague Steve Griffin. The Quartet are not a conventional, formal concert giving band, and have a clear market and music focus: different themes for every season, and outreach to the local community, including incorporating artists, makars, dancers, and, tonight, student musicians. Sunday’s 3pm matinee was one of only a few conventional concert hall offerings this season. Otherwise there are rush hour concerts, lunchtime concerts, free concerts and concerts all over Scotland including as far afield as Lerwick. It is almost as if ‘Edinburgh’ is a misnomer. Their publicity rightly states that “the Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”.  They are a quartet for the nation.

With this creative and outward looking disrespect for inertia we also have had change in the line up almost to the point of it being a band of session musicians, Mark Bailey on cello apart. This does not trouble the band, and nor should it us. The vacant seats give an opportunity for up and coming musicians to try out their playing in a quartet as opposed to an orchestra or solo role, and it brings something new for each concert, where all the different line-ups I have reviewed deliver a surprising homogeneity.

Yet the move from homogeneity to synergy requires players in total empathy with one another and second guessing them, often for years, which is why great quartets are always better than star studded put-together ensembles.  Only the first violin seat remains to be filled, probably, I understand in the New Year. On balance, this is to be welcomed.

The programme took us from Haydn, through Tchaikovsky and Janacek to a new work by Scottish composer Tom Harrold.

Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op 20 No5 is part of his ‘Sun’ series, but this stupid name, based on a cover illustration, belies an austere work that is satisfying rather than uplifting. It was competently and confidently played.

The Janacek String Quartet No 2 “Intimate Letters’ was written 150 years later (1772, 1927 respectively) and in style probably quite demanding for the largely elderly Sunday afternoon audience. Written in the last year of Janacek’s life it reflects upon the woman for whom he fell head over heels, Kamila Stosslova, nearly 40 years his junior and to whom he wrote over 1000 letters, 300 in his last eighteen months*.   Certainly all manner of feeling was in this work, amounting to a conviction piece that, while not easy listening by any stretch, was as rewarding as it was demanding. That the relationship was reciprocated only platonically no doubt contributed to his and the music’s angst. The Quartet despatched its considerable demands with ease. So much so that when the work stopped in order for second violin Tom Hankey to return to the anteroom to pick up the rest of his music nobody minded, such is the quartet’s informal rapport with their audience.

Following the interval the quartet was joined with a “shadow” quartet of students from St Mary’s Music School: Briona Mannion and Marie-Sophie Baumgartner on violin, Rachel Spence and Finn Mannion on viola and cello respectively. They were playing the world premiere of Tom Harrold’s short piece “Elegy”. Harrold described the work as simple but the timings were very difficult (and which the shadow quartet managed very well) and there was a considerable amount of pizzicato to handle. Intensely quiet at the opening the piece developed into a pleasing, romantic work in the modern vein.

The evening ended with Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 2 in F, Op 22, a great, classical work relatively unknown outside of the musical world, for being within the chamber music genre, I suspect. Contrast it with the hugely popular Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23. Both have the honour of being dismissed by Rubenstein: the Quartet “not really chamber music”, and the “Concerto “unplayable” It took considerable reserves of energy and musicality to deliver a work of this substance at the end of a long but engrossing Sunday afternoon. The elusive first violin seat was on this night guested by Nicolas Dupont from Belgium. He had most of the heavy lifting to do, ably supported by his colleagues. Whoever takes the first violin seat permanently has a lot to live up to.

 

***********

 * For those who want to know more about this extraordinary 11 year ‘non romance’ I recommend “Notes for a Hausfrau: Intimate Letters: Leos Janacek to Kamila Stosslova”, edited and translated by John Tyrell and published by Faber in 1994 at £25.  It may be out of print, so go to the excellent review in the Independent by Michael White that gives the gist of this extraordinary muse:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-notes-fof-a-hausfrau-intimaye-letters-leos-janacek-to-kamila-stooslove-ed-trs-hohn-1410383.html

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 November)

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RSNO: Oundijan; Vogler; Wang. Usher Hall. 3 Nov.’17

Related image

Jan Vogler

“Great if you like twelve-tone. Not so great if you don’t”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

 

Combined concerti for violin and cello are relatively rare, and on Friday at the Usher Hall we got two, separated in composition by 128 years. Such was the nature of the new work, however, that it was more like a comparison of the Viennese Salon of the 1890s and the 1930s’ Second Viennese School.

 

As is his custom, conductor and Director of Music Peter Oundjian gave us an introductory talk alongside cello soloist and this year’s Artist in Residence Jan Vogler. Not unreasonably, the majority of the talk was about the UK premiered work Duo Concerto by Wolfgang Rihm. Rihm was born in 1952 in Karlsruhe and is a professor of composition at the University of Music there. The work was commissioned by the Friends of Dresden Music Foundation to celebrate ten years since the reopening of the Frauenkirche and received its world premiere in Purchase, NY and in Europe in Dresden in 2015. It was written for performance by Vogler and tonight’s violin soloist, Mira Wang. Vogel’s association with the work, and his being the orchestra’s Artist In Residence, explains its choice on tonight’s programme in addition to its legitimacy as a composition.

 

The work lasts for 25 minutes in one movement. The soloists are in play almost the entire time, and the work has a heavy texture and is written in the twelve-tone technique. “Great if you like twelve-tone”, said Vogler. “Not so great if you don’t”. The work in fact had momentum, good orchestration, and a particularly demanding part for violin soloist Mira Wang. It was, perhaps, down to the limitations of twelve tone that it sounded remarkably similar to Schoenberg albeit composed seventy years later.

 

Our hardworking soloists carried straight on into the Brahms Double Concerto in A minor. Brahms is the master of melody, and we were into a glorious cello theme just four bars in. Whereas Wang did most of the heavy lifting in the Rihm, this work was Vogel’s and in fact a case could be made for writing out the violin part altogether, taking nothing away from Wang’s fine playing and   interplaying with Vogel beautifully when the score allowed it. The orchestra played with excellent phrasing and balance and were clearly very comfortable in their skin, supporting the soloists with all effortlessly harmonised under Oundjian’s baton.

 

After the interval we returned for Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 in F major, the ‘Pastoral’. What can a music writer add to the reams that have already been written about this glorious work? Well, you could feel the hall relax as we snuggled into this closing number, the orchestra were on top form, fully rehearsed and sure of foot, and familiarity did not disappoint. One notable difference in interpretation were the strings playing of the first subject in the final movement (Shepherd’s Song), Oundjian holding them back just a little so we could hear more of the supporting wind. He bought them back to the fore before the finale.

 

And did you know the Shepherd’s Song was used as music in the TV commercial for Lentheric’s Tweed fragrance in the 1960s? Now, you will find that degree of historical research only in Edinburgh49.

 

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

Reviewd by Charles Stokes (Seen 3 November)

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