Shoreditch Takeover, Shoreditch Town Hall, London

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Shoreditch is the centre of cool in London at the moment, so you would expect its contribution to the Dance Umbrella Festival 2017 to be cutting edge and innovative. On both these counts it certainly delivers. Shoreditch Takeover is made up of four very different pieces, happening in separate spaces within the beautiful old building that is Shoreditch Town Hall. Twenty first century art within nineteenth century architecture.

First is Rays, Sparks and Beating Glows. This is choreographed by Julie Cunningham and is an intense piece, about gender and feminism, for four dancers. It is performed without music, although there is some spoken word towards the end.

Next is Vanessa Kinsuule, who is a wonderful poet. She is, witty, insightful, nostalgic and honest. She has a winning personality, who can really involve an audience and the introductions to the poems are almost as good as the poems themselves.  Her whole set is great and the poem about an evening, dancing at a nightclub, is a highlight.

The third set is Lizbeth Gruwez dances Bob Dylan, a personal interpretation, exploring the edges of dance. For “Knockin’ on Heavens Door”, Lizbeth stands with her back to the audience at the front of the stage and walks, slowly and beautifully, to the back. You haven’t seen minimalism in dance until you have watched this. The Bob Dylan tracks are played on vinyl and are quite scratchy at times, invoking images of drunk and stoned nights in 70’s bedsits.

The final work is a film, The Shadow Drone Project, cleverly filmed from above, where the actual bodies of the dancers can hardly be seen, but instead we watch their shadows interact with each other. Some of this appears choreographed and some not, blurring the line between formal dance and how our brains make patterns.

All in all, a varied and interesting night in a lovely venue, a good addition to the Dance Umbrella Festival 2017.

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The Pass (dir. Ben A. Williams) 2016

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The Pass is a film adaptation of a play that was a big hit when it played at the Royal Court Theatre in 2014. I have to imagine that it comes across better in the intimate surroundings of a small theatre. The premise is good, the timing is right for a movie about a closeted gay footballer, but this is not that movie. Had it been made in the 1970’s or 1980’s it would probably have been ground-breaking and interesting but at this moment we do not need a film about a selfish gay soccer star made bitter by the possibility that he might have missed out on true love.

The film is directed by Ben A. Williams and he sticks rigidly to the three act, three hotel room setting of the play. This increases the impression of it being a filmed version of a theatre play and puts another step between us and the action.

Although there are four characters in this film, two of them are two dimensional ciphers. The lap dancer, Lyndsey,  and the male groupie, Harry, are just there to use and be used. Ade, the player turned plumber, is well acted by Arinze Kene, but this film is ultimately about Jason, who is excellently portrayed by Russell Tovey. He develops into the true antihero, without a single redeeming feature. We watch him go from, a not particularly nice, 17 year old to, a harsh and vitriolic, 28 year old over the course of three acts. That is the real problem with this film, we never really liked him in the first place so we don’t really empathise with him.  He doesn’t care about anybody, he uses his wife, his child, his lap dancer, his fan and ultimately even his mate Ade. He chooses lifestyle over fulfilment, so when he is unfulfilled we aren’t particularly surprised or worried.

I had such high hopes for this film, it had so much going for it, and don’t let me take away from an outstanding performance by Russell Tovey, but so many movies made from the 1930s to the 1990s are full of flawed gay characters whose life is ruined by the fact that they can’t cope with the trauma of being queer, and I had hoped that we had moved on from that.

The Hippopotamus (dir. John Jencks) 2017

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“The Hippopotamus” the novel came out in 1994. At the time the book was mildly shocking, moderately funny and quite witty. Stephen Fry was at the height of his popularity, he was clever, droll and sharp. 23 years later and everything has changed, the storyline is slightly distasteful, the writing seems bland and the dialogue is pompous.

Roger Allam is good as Ted Wallace, a washed up poet who investigates a series of miracles taking place in a country house, but he is just about the only good thing about this film. As a comedy it is remarkably banal, his vicious put downs and arch insights fall flat because everyone in the film has some major character flaw that makes the shot too easy to be funny.

The most interesting thing about this movie was trying to work out what had changed in the intervening years, that made the experience of watching it in 2017 so different to reading it in 1994. In the end, I decided that there was a combination of factors conspiring against it. Watching it over an hour and a half  as opposed to reading it over a few days, intensified the characters, made them less rounded, and as the flaws were the part that was important to the storyline, these were the traits that were magnified.  My taste has changed, and although I still enjoy a barbed riposte, I prefer it when both sides have the wit to take part. Sitting ducks make unexciting targets. Attitudes have changed in the last 23 years too, and the story that was shocking, but quite funny in 1994, appears borderline abusive now in 2017.

These things go in cycles, and although Stephen Fry’s star is on the wane currently, in the future he may again be recognised as a major talent. However, at the moment there is not much to recommend this film – save it to watch in 2040.

 

 

 

God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee) 2017

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God’s own Country is a simple love story. A gritty, realistic, unsentimental love story. It is set in surroundings that are bleak and that sometimes seem hopeless. It is peopled with characters whose lives reflect that environment.

It is not an easy watch, Francis Lee, the director, has chosen not to airbrush the harsh realities of farm life on the Yorkshire moors, so there are scenes of birth, death, blood and gore. The characters, too, are depicted in a brutally honest way. They do not talk a great deal and when they do they are often spikey and abrasive. However, the occasional tenderness displayed seems highlighted because of this.

The four main actors are all great, both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe appear to bare their soul for the camera and Gemma Jones is great as Nan. Ian Hart is outstanding, with a beautifully nuanced performance as Johnny’s Dad, Martin. He can be harsh and  blunt, but beneath it all what he wants is his son’s happiness.

This is a film that is defined by the place in which it is set. Not only is this a very British film, it is a northern film, in much the same way that the band, The Smiths, were, when they were at their best. Sometimes the diamond shines all the brighter for being in a rougher environment, and that is certainly the case here. It is a very simple love story made sweeter by being found in such a hopeless place.

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) 2016

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I enjoyed Arrival, it has a lot of interesting ideas. It took me a little while to adjust, because, having seen the posters of huge alien space ships hovering over major cities,  I went in expecting a Hollywood sci-fi special effects blockbuster. This is more of an indie film given a larger than usual budget. Once I had realised that and changed my expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The story is good, both thought provoking and positive. Normally, I like linear narrative, but on this occasion the oblique storytelling suited the tale and the mood of the movie. The lead character is a little two dimensional, but beautifully acted by Amy Adams. The direction is fantastic, Denis Villeneuve has the confidence to make it very slow and deliberate, unusual in the sci-fi genre. He also had the bravery to open himself to the possibility of ridicule, by showing us the alien ships, showing us the aliens, defining their method of communication. This could have seemed preposterous, but in the end, they seemed believable and, particularly in the case of the writing, even beautiful.

The cinematography is lovely, very clever juxtaposition between the wide open spaces of Montana and the cramped confines of their camp. The soundtrack is exceptional, worthy of listening to even without the accompanying film. Everything about this film is high quality, however, the bang that you get for your buck is much more cerebral than is usual in a Hollywood Sci-fi blockbuster, and you should be aware of that before you decide to go.

Arrival was nominated for 8 Oscars at the 2017 Academy Awards, including best movie, but the only one it won was for achievement in sound editing.  It appears in many best of year lists for 2016, topping some of them.

The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 1938

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The Lady Vanishes is a 1938 comedy/thriller classic of the British Film Industry. It was Hitchcock’s breakout success and convinced David O. Selznick to offer him a seven feature deal in Hollywood. It was Michael Redgrave’s first movie part. Margaret Lockwood was already a leading lady, but this was her biggest film to date. It is also notable for being the first appearance of Charters and Caldicott a cricket obsessed comedy duo who were very famous throughout the 1940s.

The film was a huge hit, not only in the UK but also in the US, where it won the New York Times award for best film of 1938. The crime/suspense element of the film is very good with a very clever intricate story. The comedy is genuinely funny, the leading couple have great chemistry and their bickering is arch and witty. The supporting characters add to the entertainment, whether its the whimsical humour of Wayne and Radford as Charters and Caldicott, the slapstick of  Emile Boreo as the Hotel Manager, or even the awkward situational comedy of “Mr and Mrs” Todhunter.

This movie is almost 80 years old, so there are parts which seem unsophisticated from a modern perspective, but for me, this adds to its charm. I love the opening scene, where the avalanche has delayed the train. To our refined eye, it is patently a set up model, but although we know this, it works perfectly well and sets the stage to start the story.

It is one of the films that contains the traditional Hitchcock cameo, very near the end of the film, he appears on Victoria station. Although he was nominated at the Academy awards, as best director, five times, he never won any of them. So this movie was his only award for best director, he won the New York Times award in 1939. This film is a significant piece of British cinema history as well as being a very enjoyable watch.

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Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

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Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale.  It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.

It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.

 

Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.

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This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner.  It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.

While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making.  Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.

Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!