Archive | February 2020

Rich Pickings on Little Joe

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In Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe Emily Beecham plays Alice, a scientist with a speciality in plant breeding. She names her new project Little Joe after her son, and even sneaks a sample plant back home for him.

The basic premise is that the new breed is more of a pet than a plant, responding to the human voice and emitting a happiness-inducing fragrance. Hausner builds up the tension with clue after clue leading to the suspicion that the plant is evil and affecting humans detrimentally.

Kit Connor is a revelation as Joe who becomes sultry, antagonistic and just generally weird after contact with the flower’s pollen. Alice menawhile is in therapy and begins to realise something is very wrong – or is this just a trick of the mind?

There is some great work by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht who frames the action with a clinical precision. The film also benefits from a Japanese score which adds to the tension and otherworldliness. The general paranoia is heightened when Alice’s colleague Bella goes off the rails, having her dog put down due to its strangeness. And Bella herself meets a sticky end.

Overall this is an intriguing film which keeps us guessing till the end and even then leaves the verdict open. Beecham carries the narrative well and Ben Whishaw as love interest Chris adds to the mix also.

A claustrophobic and intense experience that raises ethical questions about genetic engineering as well as other moral considerations. But you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy it as its suspense and intrigue will carry you through this taut tale.

Reviewed on 26 February by Rich Jevons. Runs at Pictureville Cinema, Bradford until 27 February. See imdb.com for a showtime near you.

Rich Pickings on Emma

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In her debut as director Autumn de Wilde contributes the fourth big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic rom-com to come top of the pile. The film benefits from a simply brilliant and complex character study of the title role by Anya Taylor-Joy. Another great performance as her father also sees Bill Nighy on fine form.

One of the subjects of Emma’s misguided matchmaking is the apparently orphaned Harriet played with demure clumsiness by Mia Goth. She has many crushes, starting with widowed farmer Mr Martin (Connor Swindells), but Emma’s interfering often backfires. Then there is Mr Elton, a vicar who embarrassingly falls for Emma rather than Harriet, to the former’s disdain of course.

Despite his absence Emma secretly wants Frank Churchill in her life but he is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax. So Emma continues as a charming and endearing but solitary figure. Despite the plot’s complexity Eleanor Catton’s script is seriously funny and the eye candy is heightened by the lavish and luscious costumes by Alexandra Byrne.

And although argumentative with Emma Mr Knightley comes across as refined and intelligent, especially on all things romantic. While being faithful to the original Austen novel the film is still well-paced and boasts a finely atmospheric score by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge. And perhaps the clinching selling point is the decadent surroundings of the stately homes and parks under the scrutiny of Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography. A beautiful and greatly successful costume drama with action that flows gently through the narrative with assured style and irreverent wit.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 25 February 2020. Showing at Vue Leeds Kirkstall Road until 27 February. See imdb.com for showtimes near you.

 

Rich Pickings on The Gentlemen

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Director Guy Ritchie’s crime caper flick sees private detective Fletcher (Hugh Grant) dishing the dirt on a huge cannabis factory operation. At the head of this Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) grows vast quantities of bush in the safe haven of his stately-home-owning aristocratic friends.

On Mickey’s retirement there are two rival buyers for the outfit: American Jewish billionaire (Jeremy Strong) and Chinese-Cockney gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding). Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dochery plays Mickey’s wife Roz with feisty feminism throughout. While Colin Farrell appears as a boxing coach caught up on his cohort’s petty crime.

There is a film-within-a-film with Fletcher pitching a screenplay based on the drug baron and his sidekicks. This comes replete with flashbacks and allows Ritchie to make us question whether this is fantasy or reality (the dope plants look real enough!) So this is not an inyerface gangster flick – far more subtle than that.

It has been criticised for not having enough pace but I found the slow revealing of the masterful plot quite apt. And it in no way glorifies the drug world or the violent crime that comes with it. Ultimately Grant carries it through quite skilfully and leaves us asking as many questions as the film answers.

Reviewed on 24 February 2020, playing at Vue Kirkstall Road, Leeds 25 and 27 February. See imdb.com for showtimes near you.

Rich Pickings on The Turn of the Screw

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Photo: Tristram Kenton

As a child I was brought up with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, being able to name each instrument as it comes in. Then when Derek Jarman made the film War Requiem Britten’s work became even close to my heart. So it was with great joy that I heard that Opera North (who I have described as ‘a jewel in Leeds’ cultural crown’) were to revive their 2010 production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.

Myfanwy Piper’s magical libretto is adapted from the story by Henry James and creates a narrative that has the psychological tenseness of any good ghost story. Here there are two ghosts: Peter Quint, which sees Nicholas Watts stepping into the shoes once worn by Britten’s creative partner Peter Pears; and Miss Jessel, played with otherworldly veracity by Eleanor Dennis.

It tells the tale of a governess called to take charge of two practically orphaned children, Flora and Miles. The only other living soul in their house is housekeeper Mrs Grose. But Quint and Jessel remain there too and we are never sure whether they return from Hades to torment or exist only in the minds of the house’s inhabitants.

The way director Alessandro Talevi tackles the difficulty of having an onstage ghost singing is a lot to do with Matthew Haskins magnificent lighting. Haskins dims the stage and highlights the ghosts’ otherness with a subtle spotlight. Much also has to be put down to Madeleine Boyd’s atmospheric yet functional set. It includes a frosted large window at which Quint appears and by which the young Miles sits in anticipation of the spirit’s apparition.

Britten’s music, of course, plays a large part too, beautifully presented by conductor of the Orchestra of Opera North, Leo McFall. The orchestra lives up to it’s incredibly high standards and the score contains a leitmotiv for the scenes with either Quint or Jessel. Boyd’s costumes are quite a wonder too, emphasising the formality of the action’s setting.

Tim Gasiorek is a revelation as Miles; Jennifer Clark also as Flora; while Sarah Tynan’s Governess is simply sublime, pitch perfect, sweet and sonorous. This is matched skillfully by Heather Shipp as Mrs Grose. And on the occasions they duet together something very fine indeed happens. But Watts’ Quint really does steal the show, amazingly conjuring up the ‘devil’ in his character that torments all he crosses.

This is Opera North at their very best: accessible yet still complex; experimental but ever true to the original at heart. Another resounding tour de force for a company that continue to both entertain and enlighten.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 21 February at Leeds Grand Theatre. See Opera North website for tour dates and times.

Rich Pickings on Quality Street

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Jessica Baglow as Phoebe. Photo: Sam Taylor

In his first production as Artistic Director Laurie Sansom has taken on a relatively unknown play by Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie. Phoebe and Susan Throssel are introduced as the two old maids of Quality Street with some important news in the offing. This plotline is sidetracked when a Recruiting Sergeant comes to call with classified information of a certain gentleman who has joined up.

This is intended to display to the lower echelons the importance of patriotism during the Napoleonic War. Another diversion is that they have lost out in an investment leaving them only £60 a year to live off. They are then visited by sometime companion Valentine Brown and both sisters expect him to propose to Phoebe. Instead it turns out that he is the very gentleman who has recruited. “I am your big brother,” he announces, much to their disappointment.

In a very clever move director Laurie Sansom has Macintosh workers (Quality Street, geddit?!) commenting on the play as it proceeds. So the sisters are forced into opening a school to make ends meet. Quite charmingly the children are played by puppets to much hilarity and light relief from the more serious side of the Throssels lives.

So we have stepped forward ten years when Mr Brown returns as a Captain and finds Phoebe as an old school ma’am, which he insolently observes. In a reaction to this Phoebe dons a gorgeous robe (in Jessica Worrall’s wondrous design) and takes on the ruse of impersonating her (non-existent) niece. Phoebe declares herself “tired of being lady-like” and the false role allows her to live out all the naughtiness she has missed out on grafting teaching.

So the second act features a decadent ball where the persona of Libby (Phoebe in disguise) is making a storm with the returning soldiers. In a speech on men J.M. Barrie puts in a radical feminist outlook for its time and this makes Captain Brown most distraught. So Brown soon tires of Libby and seeks the hand in marriage of Phoebe. No spoilers here but suffice to say after much subterfuge there is an ending that suits the observing factory workers to the ground.

Jessica Baglow and Louisa-May Parker as Phoebe and Susan make compelling viewing and hold the stage with heightened anticipation. Phoebe’s transformation into Libby is simply sublime in Baglow’s hands and Parker’s general confusion and shyness as Susan is well played too. Dario Coates’ Brown is completely masterful even when at the jest of the others. And the supporting cast, especially Jim English’s drag act as Fanny, are completely charming and wonderful.

Sansom’s direction keeps us alert at all times for shifts in mood and twists in the plot and the show benefits from Nick Sagar’s music for the ball, Beka Haigh’s puppets for the schoolkids and Ben Wright’s choreography for the dancing.

Rich Pickings does not give star ratings but if we did this would be a full five-star production. Once more Northern Broadsides have found an excellent text to Broadside (Yorkshire accents throughout) with a complex mix of emotions and wicked sense of fun.

Reviewed on 19 February 2020 by Rich Jevons at Viaduct Theatre, Halifax where it runs till 22 February and touring until 13 June, see Northern Broadsides‘ website.

Rich Pickings on Little Women

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Writer-director Greta Gerwig puts her auteur stamp on this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century coming-of-age novel. It benefits from a superb ensemble performance. The four March sisters and their parents are depicted with verve and veracity and we are rooting for their freedom and happiness throughout. The feisty sisters are a breath of fresh air when some period dramas make their heroines out to be helpless and frail.

So we have Saoirse Ronan as the tomboy Jo who we see initially as a writer in New York getting her first big break from a pig-headed editor (played cynically by Tracy Letts). While Florence Pugh’s Amy is introduced to us as a painter in gay Paris. Their sister Meg (Emma Watson at her best) is a theatrical type; while Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a fine musician, if too modest to admit it.

Their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away in the Civil War so it is up to mother (Laura Dern) to run the household. Meryl Streep puts in a charming performance as the wealthy Aunt March who tries to instill the notion of marriage as a financial transaction to all four sisters. Love interest comes in the form of Laurie (or Teddy as he is affectionately known) in a key role played by Timothée Chalamet.

As you can imagine this adaptation demands brilliant production design and Jess Gonchor fits the bill exactly. While Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are simply to die for and add to the authenticity of the piece. Gluing all this together is a gorgeous soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat that combines classical and more ambient sounds.

Also the Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is second to none with some beautiful set pieces and lots to please the eye. Gerwig prefers a non-linear structure with flashbacks and forwards, testing the talents of Tracy Letts’ editing.

This is a fabulous film that combines feminist themes with a great narrative that is both faithful to the novel whilst being inventive too.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Runs at The Vue cinema in The Light Leeds until 27 February.

Rich Pickings on Mr Jones

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With masterful direction by Agnieszka Holland and a brilliant script by Andrea Chalupa this historical biopic is a very fine work of art. It features a bravado performance by James Norton as Gareth Jones, a Welsh wannabe journalist who seeks to find out the truth about Stalin’s Soviet Union.

As Jones’ sometime boss Kenneth Cranham puts in a convincing act as PM Lloyd George who is being duped by his advisers. While Joseph Mawle is seen as George Orwell writing Animal Farm, a satire on Stalinism with its own Mr Jones too.

Once in Moscow he is taken under the wing of Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), the Pulitzer prize-winning journo known as New York Times’ ‘man in Moscow’. His is a world of decadence and depravity which the movie shows with verve and veracity.

But rather than Duranty’s junkie whores Jones’ love interest is Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a reporter in Moscow. She has witnessed first-hand the oppression of the Soviet state with the government’s murder of lover and fellow writer Paul Kleb.

Some of the most powerful scenes of the film are when Jones visits Ukraine, having shaken off his Communist Party companion. In the snow-covered barren landscapes there are millions starving or already dead and the film treats this in an unflinching manner.

What makes Holland’s work even more incredible is that this is largely a true life story but no spoilers here as to Jones’ fate having filed his anti-Stalinist report. A magnificent piece of period drama that carries a powerful message: to tell the truth as a journalist comes before any other considerations and whatever the consequences.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Playing at Pictureville, Bradford from 17 to 19 February.

Rich Pickings on Parasite

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Director and co-writer Bong Joon Ho’s Korean comedy sees the unemployed Kim family fleecing the wealthy Park family for all they can get. It starts off with son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) getting a gig as an English teacher to the Park’s daughter Da-hye (the cute Jung Ziso). Then in turn he recommends his sister (although their relationship is unknown to the Parks) as an art therapist, seeing Park So-dam as the crafty Ki-jung. She has to take on the Park’s spoiled brat of a son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) who has an American Indian obsession.

As if that were not enough of a con they then get mum and dad ( Chang Hyae-jin as Chung-sook and Song Kang-ho as Kitaek) as housekeeper and chauffeur. So Mr and Mrs Park (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yo-jeong) are duped into having the entire family on the payroll. The deception seems to have worked until the former housekeeper returns. Then below the post-modern architecture of the Parks’ lovely house it turns out there is a hidden basement. In there is a secret as dark and dank as the space itself.

So while the first half of the film develops characters we care about (rooting for the underdog Kims) the second really turns up the pace. It develops the narrative into a daring denouement which escalates wildly. No spoilers here but suffice to say there is some ultra-violence at the Parks’ garden fete. This is a carefully constructed and very satisfying film which mixes wit and humour with an examination of class division.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Showing at Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds until 20 February 2020 and Pictureville Cinema, Bradford 21 to 27 February. See imdb.com for showtimes near you.

Rich Pickings on Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters

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Two stories inform this world premiere of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters: namely the Zong ship massacre in the late 18th century and 100 years later the incarceration of Indian freedom fighters in the Kala Pani prison. But as choreographer and Artistic Director Sharon Watson explains: “Black Waters is not about recreating these two events through contemporary dance, but is an exploration of place, worth and belonging, which can often be conflicting for people of colour.”

Watson works with Shambik Ghose and Dr Mitul Sengupta to create a compelling and immersive piece. Alongside this trio of choreographers is a creative team par excellence. So Dishari Chakraborty composes the soundtrack that ranges from slow elegiac strings and piano to traditional Indian music and more rhythmic industrial sounds. Emma Louise James designs simple but effective costumes that serve to highlight the oppression and indignity acted out by the dancers. While Kieron Johnson’s lighting is at one time a flood of light, then square boxes indicative of cells, or shafts of light that catch the cast in chiaroscuro.

Initially the entire group sit cross legged only using their arms and upper torso. But this is followed by a pas de deux with frantic and frenetic movement. Their response to the music is incredibly intricate and well-observed and there are many trust exercises which sees the interchange of partners and the raising up of an inert dancer (much harder than it appears). When the soundtrack becomes harsher we see the dancers in a whipping motion, then recumbent.

There is some fascinating rope work, not aerial as is more common, but horizontal and indicating slaves in chains. We see them walk in unison and then chaotically tumbling over one another. Finally, we return to the beginning of the cross-legged posture – perhaps a Buddhistic cycle. This is a thrilling and intense piece of dance theatre which is at once accessible as well as secretive and obscure. Phoenix Dance Theatre are in fine form living up to their reputation as risk-taking producers of cutting edge new work.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 13 February 2020 at Leeds Playhouse. Runs until 15 February.  Tours until 20 June.

Rich Pickings on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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Terry Gilliam’s project based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been in the offing since 1989. The final product stars Adam Driver as director Toby Grisoni who had earlier himself made a student film that used the Don Quixote tale. It is the star of that student effort Javier (Jonathan Pryce) and a young woman Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) that start off a narrative that blend fact with fiction, something Gilliam does so well.

Driver and Pryce put in fabulous performances which give the film wit, irony and style that blended with Gilliam’s magic touch makes for great viewing. The somewhat crazy and off-the-wall plot eventually leads to a castle where past and present meet and the characters come into their own.

The knight errant’s adventures before this are simply magical and amusing but the denouement adds a more profound and serious tone. While Angelica is very seductive early on she reveals she has a tough side too. The resulting melange is often hilarious and always intriguing with Gilliam creating a being that would have suited being a part of the infamous Monty Python movies. A superb slab of po-mo surrealism.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Showing at Pictureville Cinema, Bradford on 27 February.