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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T2: Trainspotting – film review

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If you’re in your 40s, it’s a pretty safe bet that, about 20 years ago, either you or someone you know will have had a Trainspotting poster on their wall. And owned the soundtrack. And, of course, went to see Danny Boyle’s second film, based on Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, that became a phenomena long before Boyle enjoyed a second lease of creative life as the mastermind behind the brilliant London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

The original Trainspotting captured the zeitgeist. Ewan McGregor’s opening Choose Life monologue, delivered over the unmistakable tones of Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, captured the imagination of a generation. It propelled Boyle into the big league, showcasing his Scorsese-way with a camera and his keen eye for a set-piece. It also turned Ewan McGregor, then best known for the lead in Dennis Potter’s Channel 4 drama Lipstick On Your Collar, into an international superstar.

I was a bit worried when I heard that Boyle had got the old gang back together for a Trainspotting sequel. I’d read Welsh’s follow-up novel Porno and, while enjoyable (in the usual sleazy, slightly mucky way that you enjoy an Irvine Welsh book), couldn’t imagine it being turned into a film that would stand side by side with the original.

I need not have worried – Boyle has produced another masterpiece. In many ways, it’s the perfect sequel. It’s a different type of film from Trainspotting: the rush and dirty glamour of the ’90s has been replaced by an appropriately mournful and regretful tone. The characters have been knocked about by life, and you can almost feel the pain and sorrow statementing from the screen.

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What’s brilliant about T2 is how Boyle links it back to the original – there are several explicit nods where actual clips from the first film are used, and then are little references such as Renton leaning on a car bonnet and grinning at the driver, or Spud’s opening monologue which recalls his speed-fuelled job interview in the first film.

T2 is as much a film about the power of friendship as it is about the power of drugs. These people, so seemingly close-knit in their mid-20s, have lost touch and are only just reuniting, but you can still sense the bond there, the sense of shared history. Ewan Bremner as Spud has many of the most touching moments: there’s a scene where he walks around Edinburgh, and the ghosts of Sick Boy and Renton run around him. The look of sadness on his face as he ponders what’s become of his life is a haunting one.

As with the original, Boyle’s soundtrack is perfect – new versions of the classic songs by Iggy and Underworld, together with some newer names like Wolf Alice and Young Fathers who fit into this universe like a glove. And, as you’d expect, he directs like a master – freeze-frames, voiceovers, flashy ‘text on screen’ scenes: all are delivered with aplomb.

There’s the odd bit that feels forced: Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ monologue is updated to take into the changes in society over the last 20 years (‘choose Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, choose slut shaming, choose revenge porn etc) but it feels a bit shoe-horned in. Overall though, it’s an absolute triumph, and really does feel like catching up with some old friends (even if those friends are wrong ‘uns!) after many years away.

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Album reviews: Minor Victories & The Dears

There’s a couple of new album reviews over on musicOMH

Minor Victories – Orchestral Variations

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Minor Victories are  an indie ‘supergroup’ consisting of Rachel Goswell (Slowdive), Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai), Justin Lockey (Editors) and his brother James (of Hand Held Club). Last year, they released a pretty great album which sounded exactly what you may imagine a record made by Slowdive, Mogwai and Editors would sound like.

This new album is a re-recording of the songs on that debut, but stripped of all vocals and mostly performed on piano and strings. It’s lovely in parts but I miss the power of the original and Goswell’s vocals. Read the full review over here.

The Dears – Times Infinity Volume One

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The Dears have been going for over 20 years now, but never really received the recognition they deserved. Their 2003 No Cities Left was a real classic, but their albums since have fallen into the ‘critically adored but low selling’ category. This new one will probably do the same, but it doesn’t make it any less wonderful. There’s a track called To Hold And Have which is one of my favourite tracks of the year already, and the interplay between lead singer Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchuk is always good to hear. Read the full over here, which it turns out, The Dears themselves totally approved of.

 

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