The Breakdown on SheffieldLive

I made one of my occasional appearances on SheffieldLive’s Breakdown show yesterday afternoon.

It’s 2 hours worth of the best new alternative music, and it’s a really good listen (not just saying that because I’m on it, I genuinely listen every week).

Here’s the podcast link if you’d like to listen https://www.mixcloud.com/thebreakdooown/the-breakdown-180317/

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Hidden Figures – Film Review

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Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three African American female mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who worked at NASA in the 1960s. Given the racism and sexism of the time, this was an achievement in itself, but these three woman really did smash the glass ceiling and played a pivotal role in how the space race developed.

Like the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Hidden Figures was another film with a predominately black cast to be nominated for several Academy Awards. Unlike Moonlight, it didn’t actually win anything, which is a bit of a surprise. Whereas Moonlight is uncompromisingly ‘arty’, downbeat and contemplative, Hidden Figures is far more of a feel-good audience pleaser. There are inspirational speeches from our trio of heroines, some heart-tugging moments and a decent soundtrack of ’60s soul classics.

However, it can be, at times, ever so slightly dull. There are only so many times you can watch complex mathematical equations being scribbled on a blackboard, and you’d have to be really into space and know about the global politics of the 1960s to be truly captivated by the story. The way racism is depicted though is very well done – the coffee pot with ‘coloureds’ scrawled on it, and the fact that Katherine had a 40 minute round trip to find a ‘couloured persons’ bathroom is shocking.

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Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae (in her second Oscar-nominated film of the year, following Moonlight) are all engaging and magnetic performers, and Henson in particular has one of the best scenes of the film when she eventually loses her cool about the racial segregation she’s put through. Kevin Costner is as reliably gruff as ever as her supervisor (actually a composite of different real-life figures) and Jim Parsons plays a slightly less abrasive version of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.

There are moments in Hidden Figures that you can imagine have been dreamed up by Hollywood to make it more palatable for a white audience. The scene where Costner takes a sledgehammer to the ‘coloured bathroom’ sign never actually happened in reality and seems to have been written just so Costner can take the ‘white saviour’ role. Similarly, there’s one too many montages of Katherine running for the bathroom. In these instances, less would probably be more.

Yet despite its flaws, I found Hidden Figures to be an enjoyable and thoughtful tale, and by the time the credits roll around, showing the real photos of the three woman we’ve been watching, with a list of their many achievements, you can’t help but feel in awe of them.

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Moonlight – film review

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Last weekend, Moonlight made Oscar to history by becoming the first film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture, the first LGBT-themed themed film to win Best Picture and only the second film (behind Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave) to be directed by a black man and win Best Picture.

Sadly, Moonlight’s historic triumph was overlooked by a moment of farce in which La La Land was mistakenly awarded the statue, only for this to be rectified in the middle of the speeches. It would be a shame if this mix-up is how Moonlight is to be remembered, for it is a hugely deserved winner.

This is only Barry Jenkins’ second film as a director, but its an astonishingly confident one. Jenkins use of colour, choice of music and most of all his camera style – lots of long-held close-ups of people’s faces, long tracking shots and snappy editing – marks himout as a truly talented director.

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Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, who we first meet as a scared, bullied child with a crack addict for a mother. He’s taken under the wing of Juan, a local drug dealer and his partner Theresa, who act as surrogate parents for Chiron. The scenes of bullying and abuse can be hard to watch at times, but they lead into the second part of the film, where Chiron has now become a teenager. He’s still being bullied, and also discovering his identity and sexuality. The actions that Chiron takes during this period make him the man he becomes in the third section, where he’s moved to Atlanta, but the ghosts of his past still haunt him.

Three separate actors play Chiron, and all are equally effective. Alex Hibbert is 9 year old Chiron, and his mannerisms and guarded personality are continued by Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron. By the time Trevante Rhodes appears as the adult Chiron, you’ve almost forgotten that these are 3 separate actors. It’s almost as if Jenkins had done something similar that Richard Linklater did for Boyhood and just spent 20 years filming the same person growing up.

The rest of the cast flesh out the story well – Mahershala Ali (so good in Netflix’s Luke Cage last year) is a well deserved Oscar winner as Chiron’s would-be father, while Janelle Monae is almost unrecognisable from the tuxedo clad figure who shuffled and danced across David Letterman’s stage a few years ago. Naomie Harris is also her usual brilliant self as Chiron’s mother, struggling with drug addiction.

Moonlight is a slow, thoughtful, almost ponderous film. Many people who go just to see what all the hype is about may leave disappointed. But it would be a mistake to write it off as purely a ‘black’ film or a ‘gay’ film. Although I had little in common with Chiron, it’s easy to identify with anyone who feels alone, or lacking any kind of emotional connection to someone. Although the film doesn’t end with any easy resolutions (rather like its fellow Oscar nominee Manchester By The Sea), you root for Chiron and want him to find happiness.

Moonlight is a film that will bounce around your head for days, even weeks, after watching it. It’s both startlingly intimate and wildly ambitious, sad and poignant yet hugely inspiring and uplifting. Oscar, you’ve chosen well this year.

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A Passionate Woman – theatre review

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Kay Mellor is probably best known for her successful TV shows, such as Band of Gold, Fat Friends and Playing The Field. However, in 1992 she also wrote A Passionate Woman for the stage (also turned into a TV show in 2010 starring Billie Piper and Sue Johnston). This revival was meant to appear in Sheffield a couple of years ago, but the lead actress Lynda Bellingham tragically died of cancer before production got off the ground.

Now it’s on tour, with Liza Goddard in the role of Betty. It’s a play that blends both comedy and drama, and sometimes it struggles to find the right tone. It’s certainly gentle humour, with Goddard often addressing the audience and telling them wry, witty details about her life. The play is set in the attic of Betty’s family home, on the day her only son gets married. It’s a bittersweet day for Betty, as we learn that she’s not entirely happy in her marriage, and sees her son as the only good thing that’s ever come out of it – therefore, she can’t bear to see him move on.

So, it’s a play about lost love, regret, missed chances and whether you should settle for second best rather than be alone. Yet to stop it becoming too depressing, there’s moments of broad humour, and there’s also a device which some people may find endearing and others may find infuriating. If you don’t want to know, look away now, as some spoilers will follow.

We discover that Betty is still pining for her lover with whom she had an affair with in the ’70s. This lover, a Polish neighbour called Craze appears as a ghost (only seen by Betty) and they discuss their time together. Sometimes it’s unclear whether this ghost is calling Betty over to the ‘other side’ or whether it’s just a device to make her leave her rather hapless husband Donald.

The second half is just half an hour long, and seems to wrap everything up rather too quickly to be honest – it’s as if Mellor wasn’t entirely sure how to end proceedings and so goes for the slightly surreal. Yet it’s a solid family comedy-drama, with a decent cast (Anthony Eden is particularly good as Betty’s exasperated son Mark) and fans of Alan Ayckbourn and Alan Bennett will certainly enjoy the well observed lines about disaffected family life.

A Passionate Woman is at Sheffield Lyceum until 4 March, then touring until 8 April. For dates, refer to http://www.uktw.co.uk/Tour/Play/A-Passionate-Woman/T1174216364/

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Lion: Film Review

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(Includes some spoilers)

Lion is a film that I went into with few expectations. I didn’t know too much about the story, except that it involved Dev Patel’s character losing touch with his family and then tracing them through Google Earth. 2 hours of Anwar from Skins looking at an iPad then? Not exactly…

Lion is the incredible true story of Saroo Brierley – if you don’t want to know what happens to Saroo until you’ve seen the film, look away now. Saroo and his brother spend their time stealing coal from freight trains in order to afford milk and food for their poor family. One night, Saroo follows his brother to a job away from home, and waits at the train station for his return. When his brother fails to return, Saroo clambers onto a empty train, which embarks with him still on board. Two days later, he arrives in Calcutta….

The first half of the film follows Saroo’s journey in Calcutta, dodging police, (presumed) sex traffickers and so on. Eventually he ends up in an orphanage, where he’s adopted by a kind-hearted Australian couple and goes to live in Tasmania. Twenty years later, he’s grown up, is studying in Melbourne, is in a relationship with an American student, but the pain of his past still haunts him.

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Director Garth Davis and writer Like Davies (based on Brierley’s autobiography) do a fantastic job of pulling you into this story – the first half, set in India, is filled with almost heart-stopping tension as you will the young Saroo (a remarkable performance by Sunny Pawar) to find safety. The second half is more measured, but is anchored by a brilliant Dev Patel who totally convinces as the easy going young man with a grim past bubbling just under the surface.

Although the script can read a bit like an advert for Google (“hey Saroo, have you heard of this amazing new program called Google Earth?” asks one character), it’s unavoidable when you consider that’s how the real Saroo tracked down his birth mother. The only criticism I’d have is that Saroo seems to stumble a bit too easily on his hometown, but the way that Davis mixes scenes of Google Earth with some spectacular overhead shots of the Indian landscapes is very well done.

There’s good support from Nicole Kidman (boasting a very 80s perm when we first see her) as Saroo’s adoptive mother and Divian Ladwa is impressive as his adoptive brother, who’s a far more mixed-up kid than Saroo.

The ending is an inevitably emotional one, as we see the real people behind the characters, and learn what really happened to these people. The truth behind Saroo’s birth brother’s fate, especially, is something of a gut-punch. Lion is still playing at cinemas around the country (and if it achieves Oscar success next weekend, for a few months yet). It’s a powerful, entertaining and emotional watch which is well worth two hours of your time.

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – theatre review

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Over the last couple of years, Sheffield Theatres have been premiering brand new musicals from British writers. Both This Is My Family and Flowers For Mrs Harris were undoubted successes (with the former touring round the country and restaging at the Sheffield Lyceum), and now Everybody’s Talking About Jamie seems set to repeat the success.

Based on a BBC3 documentary about a 16 year old schoolboy who dreams of becoming a drag queen, Dan Gillespie Sells (lead singer of The Feeling) and Tom MacRae (TV screenwriter for Dr Who and Casualty) have created a feel-good crowd pleaser, full of catchy songs and relatable characters. Personally, I’m not sure if the songs are strong enough to entice neutrals to buy the soundtrack, but certainly fans of Gillespie Sells’ band will find plenty to enjoy.

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The first half is perhaps a bit long, and with such a slight story (basically – schoolboy wants to become a drag queen and dreams of wearing a dress to his prom) there’s a fair bit of padding. And, for some reason, the big emotional pull of the piece (Jamie’s conflict with his dad) never quite feels as powerful as it should. But MacRae’s script is witty and full of characters who are instantly likeable, and he’s canny enough not to let Jamie (who can be a bit overpowering at times) completely dominate proceedings.

John McCrea is excellent as Jamie, and he’s surrounded by both comic stalwarts like Mina Anwar and Charles Dale and a talented young ensemble – Lucie Shorthouse, as Jamie’s best friend Pritti, is certainly a name to watch out for. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is probably not the most challenging night of theatre ever produced, but if you’re looking for an energetic, refreshing musical full of camp comedy, you can’t go wrong.

Read my full review over at Exeunt magazine.

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Album reviews: Allison Crutchfield & Mark Eitzel

This week’s album reviews I’ve written over on musicOMH.com are Allison Crutchfield and Mark Eitzel.

Allison Crutchfield – Tourist In This Town

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Allison Crutchfield is the twin sister of Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, and she fronted her very own indie-pop outfit called Swearin’ up until not that long ago. On Swearin’s demise, she started writing her own solo stuff, and this is her debut. It’s a great album, full of big shiny pop tunes (which may surprise long-term fans of Crutchfield’s more abrasive earlier work), and brings to mind names such as Neko Case, Jenny Lewis and Best Coast. Read the full review here.

Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman

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Eitzel is best known as the voice of American Music Club, the influential cult band from San Francisco active in the late 80s/early 90s. For his latest solo album he’s teamed up with Bernard Butler who produces and plays a whole load of instruments on the album. It’s full of sardonic humour and beautiful lyrical imagery, and is rather more upbeat than previous Eitzel work. Check out the full review here.

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