Ghost Trees

Gary Stalker

Gary Stalker

The relationship between man and nature has inspired playwrights since the birth of theatre. From Sophocles to Shakespeare, the agonists of the stage have never been able to escape their fate. Try as they might, there will always be a natural order. Natural order, however, is a somewhat contradictory term when one considers what appears to be – from our perspective – the chaos of it all. Death, for example, while inevitable, can be so seemingly random. As random as human behaviour.

In a small room of the Arataki Visitor Centre, playwright Gary Stalker performs his solo work, Ghost Trees. It’s an apt setting for the piece, which weaves the story of Kauri dieback with the loss of the narrator’s wife to cancer, not only because of the fauna surrounding the venue, but of the lecture-like layout of the room in which it’s performed. I say narrator, because it’s never quite clear who Stalker is portraying in his recitation.

There’s always a risk when a writer performs their own work that the performance will never truly be one of discovery through the text, because the actor brain already knows what the writer brain wants to say. And in this instance, the didactic drive feels more like a TED Talk than a theatre piece. That’s not to say that Stalker’s writing is not worthy as a theatrical work. Far from it. The images Stalker seeds, aided by an evocative soundscape from Jude Robertson, is an excellent balance between the simple beauty of both science and nature. However, while there is a certain wild animation in Stalker’s eyes as he performs, it quickly becomes clear that between the beats, which director Paul Gittins masterfully orchestrates, Stalker is searching for his lines. What was a sense of excitement, quickly becomes one of danger, and not the good kind.

While billed as a one-man show, there is a significant amount of dialogue provided by Elizabeth Hawthorne, who imbues every line with life as if it’s being spoken for the first time, which begs the question as to why a decision wasn’t made to either include the actress on stage or cut the role completely. There’s also the fact that being spoken in the past tense means that we can’t invest in the remission storyline, because we know Kate is dead from the near beginning. Which is the central issue with Ghost Trees. We don’t really care. Stalker shows little to no emotion, and speaks tripplingly through the text, so while the Platonic “dialogue” is there, any catharsis is absent. If the script were to be performed by another actor (Gittins perhaps?), the chance for a more full and rich character could lift Ghost Trees to a higher branch.

Coral

Emma Newborn

Emma Newborn

Anyone who’s spent time answering phones in office administration will know the mind-numbingly repetitive nature of the job. So when 90% of the dialogue for the first-third of a one-woman show is the same line over and over, but elicits laughs every time, you know you’re in good hands. After a sell-out two-night season at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, writer and performer Emma Newborn returns to the Basement Studio with a delightful comedy that shows just how impressive the most unsuspecting can be.

A loyal employee, we begin to see exactly why that is as Coral awaits the return of her boss, Brian, who has a big presentation to deliver. It’s a simple premise, and works perfectly in allowing Newborn to show us who Coral is through what she does. Structurally, however, the show does work against itself, though the components are all there. The big presentation is the moment we’re all waiting for, so once we get past that point, the momentum wanes. The last third of the show provides plenty of dramatic content, but needs to be seeded earlier to heighten the tragic-comedy of the piece and allow the epilogue to wrap things up more quickly and concisely.

Fortunately, Newborn is an incredibly charismatic performer and drives the show with great ease. But not only is Coral a quaint show, it’s also an excellent metaphor. The coral reef narration (voiced by Edward Newborn) is a reminder that sometimes, in order to help, we need to step back and allow things to flourish on their own. At a time when climate change threatens our very future, Coral is a 50-minute reprieve that is sure to make you laugh, smile, and maybe think a little bit differently at the person on the other end of the line.

Mr Red Light

Jennifer Ludlam, Trygve Wakenshaw, Jess Sayer, and Richard Te Are. Photo by    Andi Crown   .

Jennifer Ludlam, Trygve Wakenshaw, Jess Sayer, and Richard Te Are. Photo by Andi Crown.

Connections. They can be lost as easily as they’re made. They can be serendipitous, forced upon us, and taken away against our will. But they’re all we have. My greatest (and most irrational) fear is that at any moment I’ll be snapped into another version of my life, somewhere within the infinite multiverse, and the connections I have now will cease to exist – less than the memory of a memory. But we can’t let fear incapacitate us. Carl Bland won’t allow it. Something as insignificant as a red light isn’t going stop him. He’s moving forward, and we need to keep up. Bland has been working with the director of Nightsong’s productions, Ben Crowder, since 1999, and the trust invested in the collaborative relationship shows. There is no limit to the extent Bland pushes the boundaries of the worlds he creates, because Crowder makes the impossible possible.

Upon entering the Herald Theatre, one would be forgiven for thinking they had mistakenly entered a fully-functioning pie shop, such is the impeccable detail in Andrew Foster’s set design. Stuck behind the counter, reading a John Grisham novel (?), Richard Te Are does his best work as Joker when not talking. Diction is key, especially in the Herald, but his over-articulation causes odd plosives which break the rhythm of his dialogue. It’s incredibly jarring, and a complete contrast to Jess Sayer as Chrys, the object of unwanted attention from Joker, who wraps him up in words and witticisms, driving their scenes while simultaneously saying no. And while Chrys has the power, it’s still an awkward several minutes of a man talking to a woman who doesn’t want to be spoken to. Fortunately, Jennifer Ludlam, in a subtle yet powerful performance as Eva, is there to interrupt, but even she can only do so much. Cue Trygve Wakenshaw as the titular Mr Red Light.

Wakenshaw is New Zealand’s most successful clowning export, and while his physical expertise is incredible to watch, his vocal work is rather one-noted. The result is that without any subversive balance, the only sense of danger comes from the sound of the next gunshot, as opposed to the gunmen himself. Completing the cast is the whimsical and versatile Simon Ferry, playing a garrulous negotiator, a commedia-inspired Italian soldier, an existential ant, and the hapless, scene-stealing Alan. Acknowledgement must also go to Ferry’s backstage work, along with stage manager and assistant stage manager Sami Vance and Eleanor Swyer respectively, without whom the world of the play simply could not come to life. A world so specifically semiotic in its storytelling – right down to Charles Draper’s intuitive video design.

Bland is a beautiful writer. There is a poeticism to his dialogue and surrealism to his story-telling that is unparalleled in New Zealand playwriting. It is a delicate balance of child-like wonder and life-long wisdom that when reduced to words seems so simple. Simple, but not easy. While Bland doesn’t negate narrative structure, the units and beats in the script are capricious, often lacking consequential logic. The result is that a huge amount of heavy lifting through internal processing is required by the cast, and while both Sayer and Ludlam play the given circumstances and provide the emotional depth to ground their respective journeys, neither Te Are nor Wakenshaw work beyond the words, though the latter’s performance is absurd enough to keep us engaged.

Theatre critic Mark Fisher once said that trying to review a show is like trying to articulate a dream, which is the best way to explain the experience of watching a Nightsong production. The spectacle components that Crowder brings to life is theatricality at its finest, because it uses illusion to reveal truth. It’s the kind of theatre that makes film look boring, and turns first-time punters into lifelong patrons. Such magic is rare and requires a huge amount of financial support, and after a devastating blow to their funding, Nightsong have launched an SOS Boosted campaign to which I implore all donate. Better yet, buy a ticket to Mr Red Light. You may find a connection when you need it most.

Midsommar

The second feature film from writer/director Ari Aster, Midsommar has been getting a lot of buzz as one of the best horror films of the past few years – and I think such praise is well deserved. If you like horror, and especially if you’re looking for something different and unique, I advise you stop reading right now and see it when you can. As always, I recommend going in as blind as possible. If you still need convincing, read on.

Midsommar is a folk horror, and has a style and tone that is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. I often want to like horror – I love dark themes and mystical, supernatural scary shit, but so many are hampered by the unfortunate clichés and tropes of the genre; low budgets, subpar performances, and annoying character decisions (“The killer’s out there! Let’s split up!”). Fortunately, Midsommar manages to avoid most of these pitfalls and is instead refreshingly new, while still being intensely unsettling and genuinely frightening.

Florence Pugh plays our heroine Dani – and she’s excellent. The film starts with her experiencing some real-world horror that, in a way, dwarfs everything else in the film. The kind of nightmarish experience that would shatter your entire world. The reveal of this is slow, deliberate, and incredibly effective. To try to cope with the trauma of this event, Dani is reluctantly invited to join her slightly goofy, bumbling boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends on a trip to Sweden to attend a small festival in the cosy rural commune where their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up. Joining them are Josh (William Jackson Harper), a university student working on a thesis about ancient rituals and traditions, and Mark (Will Pouter), a randy young man only interested in the bevy of blonde Swedes that are bound to be there.

Soon enough, we’re in the sun-drenched Sweden summer as Pelle leads the characters to the remote communal village. They arrive to beautiful rolling hills, fields full of flowers and many smiling, friendly faces. It’s all impossibly idyllic. They’re also very quickly given doses of psychedelic mushrooms. Dani initially resists – someone in the throws of grief in a strange new land is probably not the best candidate for a mushroom trip, but she acquiesces to avoid conflict in the group. As the drugs take hold, Midsommar delivers the most convincing portrayal of psychedelic experience that I’ve seen in cinema. CGI is used sparingly to warp and distort images – almost imperceptibly at times. The edges of frames expand and shrink like the image itself is breathing. Characters’ faces shift and swirl, but in a way that you can never quite pin down. There’s a lot of “Wait… were those eyes a weird size or did I just imagine it?” Already, Midsommar is messing with your perception.

Then come the rituals. Our group of plucky psychedelic adventurers are decidedly in the dark about what’s going to happen at this festival, and while all the members of the commune are full of smiles and love, things get very dark, very quickly. And I mean that thematically, not literally, because Midsommar is set in the middle of a Swedish summer, when daylight hours last for most of the day, and nearly every scene is bathed in a warm, golden light. This is possibly the visually brightest horror film I’ve ever seen. For a genre which so often relies on darkness to evoke its atmosphere, the constant bright visuals are a great point of difference and felt genuinely refreshing.

Also refreshing is the lack of a central villain. Or any villain at all really. The enemy in Midsommar is not some psychopath, or evil creature, but instead the long-held traditions and arcane rituals of a secluded commune of well-meaning individuals. In many ways I find that more terrifying, and real, than any individual threat so typical of the genre. We join the characters in being lulled into a false sense of safety and security. Despite an overall air of unease, things never get to a point where the characters feel in genuine danger, so their relative inaction is entirely believable, before they reach a point where nothing can be done.

Helping us along on the journey are a strong core of performances from the leads, and the supporting characters in the village for that matter, although the village acts more as a chorus rather than having any stand out member. While Florence Pugh is, as previously mentioned, a particular stand out, the entire cast carry themselves well. The only complaint I have, if you could even call it that, is that Jack Reynor’s Christian carries a certain Chris Pratt-ness, charming, and very funny, but unfortunately eliciting laughs during some of the creepiest climactic moments when comedy was probably not what the director intended. Although my subjective interpretation could be entirely wrong and simply a result of discomfort relieved through laughter.

Midsommar is a film full of mythic, mystic rituals and symbols, in a world that feels genuinely real and believable. Deeply unsettling, it tapped into a deeper part of my subconscious in a way that I think only truly great horror can. If you’re a horror fan, I can’t recommend Midsommar enough. It’s a very, very good example of psychological horror that doesn’t rely on jump scares and gore to create its intensely unnerving mood. However, even if you’re not a particular fan of the genre, but appreciate good filmmaking, and are interested in something darker and more provocative than the usual film festival fare, then I’d strongly suggest giving Midsommar a watch.

The Blind Date Project

Natalie Medlock

Natalie Medlock

Five years later and serial-dater Anna is back in the game. App dating hasn’t really changed since then, nor since its boom in 2012, but that doesn’t mean there are any fewer suitors or potential theatrics since Silo Theatre first presented the show. Created by AFI award-winner Bojana Novakovic, who has played the role in Sydney, New York, and Los Angeles, the gimmick of The Blind Date Project, in that neither the actress nor the audience have any idea who the former’s co-star will be for the evening, is one that not only encourages multiple viewings, but also brings with it high risk. Anticipation. Failure. Success. Fear. But that’s what dating’s all about, right?

Perched on a stool in yet another karaoke dive bar, actress Natalie Medlock awaits her guest for the night. Inspired by the neon chic of the heyday of queer nightclubs, Michael McCabe’s “Locket” is an authentic and fully functioning bar operating in the Q Theatre Loft. As patrons purchase last-minute drinks before taking their seats at cabaret-style tables or the rear seating block, Rachel Marlowe’s lighting draws us in, while maintaining a theatrical objectivity. We’re voyeurs as much as spectators. People watchers and participants.

Entering with skateboard, helmet, and hi-vis, Anna’s date on opening night is Carol, played by actress, comedian, and television host, Hayley Sproull. Carol is a pharmacist from Glenn Innes, who’s been demoted to the Greenlane Countdown due to a penchant for “all of the pams”. It turns out she also has a boyfriend of 14 years back at home. It’s a backstory with plenty to play, but the drugs never take hold and the double-seven-year-itch doesn’t give Sproull a strong enough objective to play.

Both Medlock and her respective date receive direction via texts and phone calls, and while the Auckland premiere in 2014 was directed by Novakovic herself, this year, Artistic Director Sophie Roberts is at the other end of the line. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, co-creator and director Mark Winter says that he watches what emerges organically, and then tries to heighten it. “I try to give them obstacles to overcome so there is that tension between them. That is when they start to test each other’s personalities.”

This test, this tension, never really arises on opening night. There is plenty of play between Carol and Anna as they discuss sex and drugs, and sing rock ‘n’ roll and pop songs, and while it all reads truthfully, with laugh-a-minute hilarity thanks to both Medlock and Sproull’s comedic wit and timing, both the internal and external obstacles make no influence on either character until the very end, especially Anna’s more-often-than-not ill-fitting secret, which feels forced both narratively and emotionally. It’s also difficult to hear at times, specifically Yvette Parson’s bartender, Lucy.

While Auckland audiences may not be graced with the presence of Margot Robbie or David Harbour as other productions have, there are plenty of guests for whom I would return to see. There are even different versions of Anna which Medlock can play on any given night. As with any blind date, this show takes guts. You can be as prepared as you want to be, but you’ll never know what to expect. It requires a huge amount of courage, but also malleability. It is a show that is absolutely worth seeing in terms of the potential game that can be played. Whether the guest steps, however, is another question. Besides that, when was the last time you took a risk?

We Will Rock You

Willian Deane and Bridie Dixon. Photo by SomeBizarreMonkey.

Willian Deane and Bridie Dixon. Photo by SomeBizarreMonkey.

There’s a fine line between genius and madness. I’m not sure on which side of the line Freddie Mercury stood, but I have no doubt that his typically flamboyant persona would have been confounded to silence by the senselessly slaughtered carcass of a cash-cow that is We Will Rock You the musical. The show was panned by critics when it premiered in 2002, but audiences lapped it up and it became the fifteenth longest-running musical in the West End. The show has been updated in recent years (Planet Mall is now iPlanet), but not enough to address its incomprehensibility or inherent misogyny. It may be set in the year 3,000, but 1980s’ values are alive and well.

Galileo Figaro is a prophet. No reason. He just is. Deal with it. He doesn’t understand the words that pop out of his mouth like a Tourette’s episode, but we do – WINK WINK. He and Scaramouche, who literally does not have a name until he gives her one, are both anomalies in a generation of conformity. They’re arrested by Khashoggi, the police commander of the Orwellian state, and then just kind of escape. They meet some bohemians and search for an axe (that’s guitar for all you idiots out there), while being pursued by Killer Queen who spends a lot of time not moving. Do they find the axe? Do they fall in love? Does Khashoggi ever take off his sunglasses? Couldn’t care less. I give up on the narrative and deducing any dramaturgical logic after the first scene. It’s all about the music now.

And that’s the issue. The most common problem with jukebox musicals is that they work backwards. They start with songs spread across multiple albums that have no correlation other than the artists that produced them, and then attempt, often perfunctorily, to form some sort of cohesive narrative. Lyrics are forced into dialogue against their will, like male genitals into leather pants, and songs occur because the character has to sing not out of an internal, emotional necessity, but because the plot makes them. As a writer, I love wordplay, but after over two hours of dialogue that plays out like an extended Song Titles game from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, I began to see how others have viewed my puns as a neurological disorder. And as I wonder if the entire audience is suffering from Witzelsucht, I also wonder why if Galileo is the prophet, everyone else can speak Queen lyrics, and why they are unable to pronounce ancient words that were part of their current lexicon. Fortunately, the music of Queen, under the musical direction of Mark Bradley and Edwin Randall, is in good hands, with vocal performances offering a slight personal signature while staying true to the originals.

WWRY relies predominantly on vocal strength, which William Deane, Bridie Dixon, Caleb Muller and Rebecca Wright each have to glorious degrees. Telling the story of the song, however, is where things begin to falter. While Dixon fights back with warrant at everything in the script working against her in portraying a three-dimensional character, Deane reverts to the most common and unattractive action of whining. This lack of character depth in Emma Carr’s direction is seen most evidently in David Mackie’s rendition of These Are The Days of Our Lives, which is clouded with superfluous stage direction and gesturing, and Muller and Wright’s reduction to farcical caricatures, which they admirably wholly embrace. Meanwhile, ticket-selling Annie Crummer chews the scenery as if she hasn’t eaten since her original performance in 2003.

WWRY is not an easy show. It’s a ridiculous one. And while Theatre Co. have presented it with all the necessary bells and whistles to detract from the nonsensical narrative, there is one central component which the production ultimately lacks. While executed with professional flair, the soul of rock is as cold as Freddie’s effigy. The cast have an excellent band supporting them, and Rebekkah Schoonbeek-Berridge’s choreography gives the show a momentum it otherwise lacks. But other than Dixon and Wright (and Kristin Paulse, who looks like the only cast member who has ever been in a mosh pit), there is none of the hedonistic freedom that rock offers to lift the show beyond its technical aspects. But when you have to prompt the audience with surtitles for the most well-known song as an encore, you’re already working against this freedom. You could pay $60 to see the show, but you could also pay less to smoke a joint and sing along to your favourite Queen album at home.

Soft 'n' Hard

Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson

Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson

In Games People Play, by Eric Berne, the author postulates on the negative behaviours associated with the three ego states in which we interact, the Parent, the Adult, and the Child. The emergence of these states, which are developed over a lifetime and unconsciously adopted, are not always the ones you’d expect to arise in any given circumstance. Romantic relationships, friendships, and even colleague dynamics, are often susceptible to the infantilising of one party or the other as we play out our roles as Parents and Children – as much as we’d like to think we’re all Adults. I mention this not as psycho-analysis of husband-and-wife Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson’s marriage, or of their working relationship as two of New Zealand’s most radical and hilarious theatre makers, but in regards to my recognition of my own Child in the misplaced anger and crippled emotional expression of LaHood’s character.

Soft ‘n’ Hard is the inevitable happening between two practitioners who share not only their practice, but also their home lives. While each working on a solo show, and acting as unofficial dramaturg on the other, they came to the conclusion that both their thematic territory and theatrical languages were complementary. Randerson was investigating how women have to hold themselves to accommodate others, while LaHood was exploring men’s relationship with emotional labour. The result is a hilarious hour of gender-role exploration, from internal desires to external expectations, by two of New Zealand’s top clowns.

Randerson mentions that after a showing of their solo works, “some of the male responders present felt they couldn’t comment on my show, that it wasn’t their place, that it ‘wasn’t about them’.” Ironically, by intertwining the content of their individual works, the final message seems to be that men should simply shut up. And we should. In certain circumstances. Women continue to fight tooth and nail for spaces and platforms with which to use their voice, and the wave of feminist theatre works in New Zealand over the past few years has been a welcome shift in our theatrical landscape. However, in this particular instance, it feels Randerson’s platform has come at the cost of LaHood’s. We spend a significant amount more time with the former, which is no complaint thanks to her ability to hold an audience with nothing more than a sigh, but once the turning point, which feels forced, hits, and the dialogue begins, LaHood becomes little more than a device to serve Randerson’s story. This is fine if it’s indeed the intent of the show, but it comes at the cost of losing the intent LaHood may have had in his own.

Such content is never easy to navigate, for either audience or performer. Fortunately, Randerson and LaHood present images, objects, bodies, and sounds that are not only both incredibly vivid and evocative, but also free of semiotic confusion, allowing the audience to project themselves into the scenes. It is the epitome of complexity through simplicity. This is heavily supported by Owen McCarthy and Poppy Serano’s pastel-coloured design – an innocent façade that hides the set’s theatrical magic. Sound design by Waylon Edwards along with love ballads through the decades complete the spectacle, as director Isobel Mackinnon orchestrates Randerson and LaHood through the narrative with just the right amount of push and pull to excite, fulfil, and surprise.

As disruptors, Randerson and LaHood are no doubt open to the discussions their works provoke, and in response to art, criticism is simply the first word, not the last. Had this review been written immediately after viewing the show, you would be reading a Child’s words – you most likely still are, to a degree. But upon further reflection, hopefully as the rational Adult, the discomfort which the show evoked can be seen as a sign of the work that both men and women must continue to do in order to develop healthier and happier relationships with not only one another, but also themselves. While the show may not have explored the greater effects of men’s relationship with emotional labour, it does offer a starting point for the conversation. I just wish we had more time.

Mope - NZIFF

I’m in a bit of predicament. I loved Mope. I think. However, I can’t just straight up recommend it, because Mope is NOT a film for everyone. It is batshit insane. If I just tell everyone I know to go see it without telling them what it’s about and what kind of film it is, I’m liable to lose friendships. But I also think that if you are going to see it, it’s best to go in blind, knowing as little as possible.

So, what do I do?

Mope is about Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarret) and Tom Dong (Kelly Sry), two absolute bottom of the barrel, lowest budget possible, fetish porn actors (a.k.a. “mopes”). The film opens on a group of a dozen or more men in a small room, wearing only underwear, bathed in red light. Most of the men have their hands down their pants, rubbing themselves, and it soon becomes clear that they’re there to film a bukkake scene. If you don’t know what that means, perhaps this film is not for you. Or maybe it is? I don’t know. Google at your own risk. If you do know what ‘bukkake’ means, you know what kind of film you’re in for. This is where the film starts - and it only gets crazier from there. It’s raw, filthy, at times hilarious, at times horrific. A film full of sex, sweat, and insanity.

Oh, and it’s a true story.

If you like your films to have the darkest of black comedy, filmed in bold, stylized ways, feature strange characters and situations, and you’re ok with a film taking you to a legitimately disturbing place, then stop reading and go see Mope. It’s a wild ride and going in as blind as possible will make that ride all the wilder. If you’d like to know more before you decide if you want to take the ride, read on.

Mope is Lucas Heyne’s directorial debut and he spent over five years working on the movie, including two years of researching not only the true events the film is based on, but the wider world of mopes. He visited many porn sets and met a lot of people who knew the real Steve and Tom, many of whom appear in the movie as versions of themselves. Heyne got a wealth of material from Steve’s father, including thousands of emails between the two of them. All this research was put in to the film. Sometimes literally. A lot of the dialogue in the film is lifted directly from Heyne’s research.

The filmmaking itself is rough and raw. Mope manages to feel like what you would expect a low rent fetish porn set would feel like. Grimy. Sticky. Gross. The cinematography, production design, sound, it all adds to the filthy feeling that permeates the film. You can almost smell it. And Heyne does not shy away from any of it. His camera is right there, watching everything in a handheld style that sometimes feels almost documentary like, at other times like some insane fever dream using vivid, bold colours.

The one thing that Heyne does leave out is full frontal male nudity. At first, I found this a bit conspicuous. For a film about porn, and so brutally honest in so many ways, it was a strange omission. But after some thought I realised that showing full frontal male nudity in a film about porn would quickly raise some problems, excuse the pun. Not only physical, but obvious ethical questions abound. After all, at what point does this film about porn, just become porn itself? And what actors are going to want to be in this film?

Heyne gets around this problem by filming a lot of the sex scenes in very uncomfortable close ups. There is a very intense sex scene towards the end of the film that is told entirely in close ups and it’s among the most devastating scenes I’ve seen in a while.

The film is centered around Stewart-Jarret and Sry’s performances, with Brian Husky third on the bill as sleazy head of the ‘studio’, Eric, but to be honest trying to appraise the performances in this film is tricky. They’re all good… I think. The film, and the performances, start out as this bizarre, black comedy, outrageously in your face. But then it transitions in to something far darker and more disturbing, and I was so consumed with thoughts of “What the fuck?!” that it was hard to judge whether the performances were “good” or not. I think they were. Tonya Cornelisse definitely deserves praise. She has a small role, but it’s basically the largest female role in the film. She’s outstanding.

I honestly still don’t quite know how I feel about Mope. I know it caused a reaction in me. A strong one. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. But is it a good film? Is it a brutally honest and confronting profile of a seedy part of society? A look in to the mindset of the seriously mentally ill and the fine line between dreams and delusions? Or is it just exploitative shock cinema? I think the director had honest intentions; you don’t just put five years of your life in to a piece of sensationalist shock cinema. But intention doesn’t really matter as much as what you actually end up making.

It was just so insane that I don’t know what to make of it.

Ngā Puke

Kimo Houltham and Simone Walker

Kimo Houltham and Simone Walker

Ngā Puke hadn’t been performed professionally for 20 years before Cian Elyse White made her directorial debut with the 2015 production at Te Pou. A simple two-hander, it’s an appropriate vehicle for a new director, and a story with which White clearly connects, “It’s a beautiful story about the power of love and the pull of the land.” However, set in the late 30s and early 40s, and written by John Broughton in the late 80s, it appears White has not been able to present Ngā Puke with much of a theatrical language beyond either of these eras.

Movement in the transitional sequences works beautifully, however, the Herald is a notoriously difficult space to fill, and that doesn’t mean actors should omit their characters’ internal drive for the sake of gesture, superfluous blocking, and miming with dialogue. It harks back to a time of highly dramatic performances, where everything is an exclamation and the comedy is played so hard one can almost hear the slide whistle. The result is that Kimo Houltham and Simone Walker don’t draw us into the world which Waru and Angie inhabit. Instead, they attempt to create a nostalgic idea of a generation that turn them into caricatures.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the play avoided painting a romantic hue between its lead characters, and focussed on the text’s strength, but it never seems sure as to whether the relationship between Waru, the proud and naïve sheep farmer, and Angie, the educated and capricious artist, is a romantic or platonic one. While Auckland Live correctly label it a “beautiful friendship”, Broughton’s script and White’s direction certainly push for the former, with sudden jumps to a confession of love and a request for marriage, but there is no chemistry between Waru and Angie, or Houltham and Walker, to justify the shoe-horned and unnecessary girl-meets-boy trope.

As an artist, whakapapa can be a powerful influence on one’s work. As White says herself, “my lineage is my inspiration… my whakapapa makes me who I am.” However, as artists, we must work beyond influence and inspiration, and make the personal universal. When we do, we allow audiences to reflect the art we present them onto their own lives. Few have come close to losing someone they care about in a hospital bed in Crete in 1941, but that doesn’t mean the scene cannot resonate if the work taps into the universal sense of loss. And while plenty will undoubtedly stifle sniffles, as they did on opening night, I’m left cold by Walker’s crocodile tears.

It is this lack of truth that ultimately fails Ngā Puke. There is, however, one redeeming quality. The story of the land. There is no question that Broughton, who has also worked extensively in Māori and indigenous health, has imbued his script with fierce wonderment of the tangata whenua, and in that regard, Houltham, as directed by White, meets the play in a performative sense. Unfortunately, it is only one section of a show that otherwise presents a story trapped in the theatrical era in which it is set.

World Press Photography Exhibition 2019

Brendan Smialowski

Brendan Smialowski

From General News and Contemporary Issues to Nature and Environment, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition presents a collection of the most prestigious journalistic photography that captures the current affairs and zeitgeist of the year. Hosted at Smith & Caughey’s in the CBD, with proceeds donated to rotary club of Auckland charities, one’s experience of the 2019 exhibition is, as with any, highly dictated by the order in which it’s taken.

While the sixth floor windows of the gallery entry would be advantageous in daylight, evening patrons are best to begin here, before adjusting to the harsher fluorescent lights in the main gallery. It’s also comparatively lighter subject matter, Sports and Portraits, which, while equally visceral, are too easily dismissed after more confronting imagery.

Lorenzo Tugnoli

Lorenzo Tugnoli

General News feels anything but, with a series of haunting shadows signalling the trauma in John Wessels (South Africa) and Lorenzo Tugnolis (Italy) third and first prize stories on the destabilising effects of health in South Africa and Yemen respectively. And with nothing more than framing, Brendan Smialowski (United States) skews Donald Trump and his withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran during Emmanuel Macron’s three-day visit to the United States.

Spot News pushes further with even harsher lighter and heavier compositions, evoking the chaos of war in Afghanistan (Andrew Quilty) and the Syrian conflict (Mohammed Badra), and the juxtaposition between life and death in Long-Term Projects from Venezuela. This extreme content is brought closer to the Western political world, reiterated by Enayat Asadi (Iran), Pedro Pardo (Mexico), and John Moore (United States), in framing the solidarity and tension of their subjects’ bodies at various stages of Central American migration.

Ingo Arndt

Ingo Arndt

And then, a significant shift. People, and even stunning archival architectural projections by Thomas P. Peschak (Germany/South Africa) are no longer the focus. As we, humanity, leave the Environment, definition becomes more prominent, and Nature, in all its colour, reminds us of the beauty that still exists, from pumas in the Canadian Yukon by Ingo Arndt (Germany) and Caribbean flamingos by Jasper Doest (Netherlands), to winged comb jelly by Angel Fitor (Spain) and falcons by Brent Stirton (South Africa).

Beginning in 1955 with a group of Dutch photographers, the intent of the exhibition was to expose their work to global audiences. Touring more than 45 countries and 100 cities, development programs run by the foundation aim to encourage diverse accounts of the world, but what do the exhibitions, competitions, and programs say about us when the majority of those perspectives point to the same inevitable truth? If they are unfiltered snapshots of the world today, they are, unfortunately, predominantly pessimistic. However, if we are to consider art, as Alain de Botton suggests in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, as “anything which pushes our thoughts in important yet neglected directions”, then the 2019 World Press Photo Exhibition, is the definition of the word, and an experience which, if we want to survive, should not be ignored.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

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When you’re watching a film, how often do you think about the sound design? Unless you’re intimately involved in film production, I’d be willing to wager it’s basically never. Have you ever really thought about how they made the dinosaur sounds in Jurassic Park? I mean, obviously, we all know they didn’t go out and just record dinosaur noises, but I’d never once thought about it. I just thought, “Yup, that’s what a T-Rex sounds like.” But of course, someone had to create that sound from scratch. What about R2D2’s “voice”? Have you ever once considered it could be anything other than what it is? I know I hadn’t. Sound is so integral to film, and yet if it does its job properly, it’s barely consciously noticed.

This is where Midge Costin comes in. Her directorial debut after working for over 20 years as, you guessed it, a sound editor, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound  is a love letter to the people responsible for the sounds of all the films you love. For the most part it’s an informative, entertaining, and well-made film, although it occasionally veers in to hero worship. But to be honest, considering the contributions made to film history by some of the people featured and their relative anonymity, maybe a bit of hero worship wouldn’t go amiss.

Essentially split in to two halves, the first gives audiences a tour through cinematic sound history. From the first moments sound entered cinema, through to stereo sound, to the full six-speaker set up we use today, we follow the technological advancements made and how they affected films and the audiences who watched them. In the second, we’re walked through all the various aspects of modern sound design. From on-set recording, to digital sound editing, foley artistry, and the creation of sound effects and musical scores. Interspersed throughout are interviews with some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, with smaller sections of the film devoted to three giants of the industry, collectively responsible for some of the most iconic movies of the past half century; Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom. Walter Murch was responsible for the sound design of Apocalypse Now, which was the very first film to use the six-speaker set up that is now the industry standard. Ben Burtt was the sound designer on all the Star Wars films, inventing the unmistakable light saber sound. And R2D2. And Wookies. He also worked on Indiana Jones, ET, and more. Gary Rydstrom was the sound designer for Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan, which Making Waves goes in to great detail as to how he and Steven Spielberg created the sound for the absolutely iconic opening battle scene.

The only real misstep in Making Waves are a few small segments toward the end of the film that are tonally off and out of place. One segment with female sound designers talking about sexist opinions they’ve faced comes out of and ultimately goes nowhere, and another about how much sound designers love their job, but often work too hard. There’s nothing wrong with either segment per se, they just felt out of place and unnecessary. Ultimately it’s a very small complaint, and neither sequence really distracts from the films strengths.

I like to think of myself as a well-educated film fan, and yet before watching Making Waves I’d only heard of one of the three legends mentioned earlier (Walter Murch, for those interested). And even if that was all I managed to glean from the film, it’d make a more than worthwhile watch. Luckily there was plenty more to enjoy. Making Waves shines a light on a very important aspect of film-making that seldom gets the love it so richly deserves.

One Child Nation - NZIFF

I was not ready for this.

Sitting down in the cosy Academy cinema on a Friday afternoon to watch One Child Nation, a documentary about China’s infamous one-child policy, the woman next to me struck up a conversation. I admitted that I had considered not attending the film, because it didn’t particularly grab my attention. However, I realised I’d always heard about China’s one-child policy, but knew essentially nothing about it. I told her that my level of knowledge was simply that the policy exists and that it had some unfortunate consequences. Turns out saying it had “some unfortunate consequences” is possibly the biggest understatement to ever escape my lips. If a documentary intends to educate, One Child Nation taught me that China’s one-child policy was akin to a self-inflicted holocaust – and I do not use those words lightly.

Directed by Chinese-born, US-based Nanfu Wang, and Jialing Zhang, it is Wang who is most prominently a part of the film, acting as narrator and interviewer. She spent the first 27 years of her life in China, but relocated to the states as an adult. She recently had her first child, which got her thinking about the one-child policy and how it affected those around her. She begins by asking here parents, who named her Nanfu before she was born, about it. Nanfu translates to “Man” or “Pillar”, meaning her parents were desperately hoping for a son to build the family around. Sons are far more valuable than daughters, who will inevitably just get married off to another family. When she was born a girl, they decided to name her Nanfu anyway, hoping she would develop to be strong, like a man. It’s the first example we get of the pervasive way the one-child policy has shaped the culture and the minds of the people of China, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg.

We spend the first part of the film getting a general introduction to the policy. In 1979, China was facing a population crisis and experts were predicting the complete collapse of the country. Something had to be done. The one-child policy was that something. It was in operation for 30 years, finally coming to a stop in 2015. It was hailed by the Chinese government as a wild success and the reason for the country’s current prosperity.

So far, nothing too outrageous.

Then One Child Nation quickly starts to deliver some eyebrow raising facts, followed by literally jaw dropping and stomach-churning interviews. Stories of abortions and sterilizations – voluntary and otherwise. We meet an old village chief who talks about how some women would try to run, so they had to chase them down and “force” the sterilizations on them. He felt that was too much, so he didn’t get involved. He just watched. Then we meet the 84-year-old midwife. She has no idea how many babies she delivered through her career. But she is keenly aware of the number of sterilizations and abortions. Between 50,000–60,000. Sometimes 20 a day. Many at eight or nine months. Sometimes she would induce the birth, then kill the child. Another woman almost proudly claims that the policy prevented over 300 million births.

But the horror doesn’t stop there. More numbers come at you. More horrific stories. Nanfu Wang learns about her aunts and uncles having to abandon babies. Her younger brother (some rural families could have two children, if they were at least five years apart) has since learned that if he had been born a girl, he would’ve been left in a basket on the street.

This film brings to mind two things. First, the infamous Milgram Shock Experiments, which demonstrated humanity’s ability to commit horrific acts if the blame could be placed in the hands of an authority figure. Second, the horrific documentary The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, which features interviews with the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66. The men in that film proudly describe their acts of horrific violence. In One Child Nation, however, no one seems proud of what they’ve done, but nearly all of them say the same thing; “It was the policy. I had no choice.” All except the 84-year-old midwife, who “retired” from abortions 27 years ago and now devotes herself to helping infertile couples conceive. She has rooms of mementos sent to her from thankful parents, but no illusions about what she has done. Yes, it was the policy, but it was still her that killed all those babies. Her honesty is disturbing, yet refreshing, for lack of a better word.

The rest of the people featured in interviews, however, are the victims of decades of constant and unerring propaganda, so pervasive that I’m sure it’s effectively inescapable. There are billboards and slogans painted everywhere. The government organized touring operas and dances promoting it. They created children’s songs. To most of the citizens there, they simply believed that is was necessary, as horrific as it may have been. I got the impression that this attitude is as much a result of the self-preservation instinct as it is the propaganda. It’s psychologically much easier to deflect the blame on the policy, rather than truly face what you’ve done. One Child Nation is one of the most powerful and shocking films I’ve ever seen, and continues the documentary tradition that truth is often much stranger, and more horrific, than fiction.

Power

Talia Carlisle, Emma Maguire, Sara Cowdell, and Elizabeth Connor.

Talia Carlisle, Emma Maguire, Sara Cowdell, and Elizabeth Connor.

What does power look like? For some, it’s dominance over others, for others, it’s autonomy over one’s own body. Whichever way you perceive it, the concept of power has, rightly or wrongly, been integral to societal development, for both those who have it, and those who are suppressed by it. But what happens when the latter subvert it, change it, use it against their suppressors?

Created and directed by Sara Cowdell, POWER is “a tribute to UK pop sensation Little Mix”, interspersed with personal “stories of heartbreak, frustration, and the ongoing struggles of living in this patriarchal weirdo world.” This dichotomy between movement and word is strictly adhered to, but never feels jarring or incongruous with the piece as a whole. Dance. Speak. It’s a simple yet effective premise, and one which provides a structure and rhythm which resonates well. This is especially noticeable with Elizabeth Connor’s text, which often ends in devastatingly simple words that silence the audience.

From witches and the Celtic Goddess Sheela na gig, to aging and doxing, the content is indeed unapologetically honest. At times at length, at others with a few short words, performers Talia Carlisle, Emma Maguire, Cowdell, and Connor take turns musing on events in their lives that highlighted these various moments for them. Moments of acceptance, confusion, and abuse. Each one feeding the audience with joy or sorrow. A man two rows ahead of me lowers his head. A woman in the front row finger snaps.

Lighting design by Tony Black makes excellent use of the traverse Basement theatre, juxtaposing cool side and warm top lighting which provides depth and atmosphere respectively. Pulsing back lights illuminate the audience, but it never feels confronting, as the cast perform with an open yet non-confrontational demeanour. Which is where POWER lacks a punch. If you can’t express righteous anger in the theatre, where can you express it?

In terms of execution, the cast don’t come across as dancers or actors, however, that’s also exactly what makes the piece. While Joanne Hobern’s choreography is not quite synchronised, and the feminist rants subdued with emotional control, POWER is not about professional performance perfection, it’s about performers using their bodies and voices to own a space in which they can speak, dance, and even flash their stories. In that way, it’s almost a proto-performance of the works that are currently being presented by the next generation of New Zealand’s female theatre-makers, and, ironically, one of the most theatrical shows in our feminist catalogue.

La Belle Époque - NZIFF

Written and directed by Nicolas Bedos, La Belle Époque is soaked in the bitter sweetness of nostalgia. The joy of reliving fond memories, and the pain of knowing that those times are gone. Witty and clever, Bedos’ script delivers regular laughs while simultaneously drip feeding you information at the perfect time. Antoine (Guillaume Canet) runs a company that uses elaborate theatrical methods to recreate any period in history. Clients hire them so they can attend elaborate dinner parties, drink with Hemingway, or get the chance to finally say what they’d always wanted to dead relatives. Antoine and co build sets, make costumes, hire actors, rehearse the scenarios, recreating everything as faithfully as possible, and then insert you in to it. It all runs like an intricate theatre piece, with Antoine directing the whole thing live from behind the scenes.

Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is an aging cartoonist lost in a world he no longer recognizes. The digital revolution has left him feeling disconnected. He doesn’t understand any of it and doesn’t want to. He feels like all these gadgets are getting in the way of his life. His wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant), however, thinks that the digital world is not the problem. The problem is Victor. So, during an argument, she kicks him out.

After Victor’s life is turned upside down, he is offered a gift. Antoine happens to be an old childhood friend of Victor’s son, and Antoine says that Victor had a huge influence on him as a young man and wants to repay him. When Antoine offers Victor one free day in any era he likes, Victor accepts and decides to revisit a night from his own life, in May 1974. Bedos has a lot of fun with those historical recreations, treating the productions incredibly realistically, and it’s often hilarious watching Antoine having to deal with underperforming extras, last minute cast changes, the limitations of the set, and more.

The core of the film follows two relationships; the disintegrating marriage between Victor and Marianne, and the tumultuous love between perfectionist director, Antoine, and his leading lady to the historical recreations, Margot (Doria Tillier). Auteuil and Ardant deliver masterful performances, hilarious while remaining understated and seemingly effortless. Much like the film itself, they have a very light touch, but there is a lot of complexity under the surface, and in the climactic moments deliver one of the more perfectly performed scenes I’ve seen in years.

Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography is excellent, cold and precise in the modern age, then bathing everything in a warm, hazy glow during our trips back to the seventies. Production designer Stéphane Rozenbaum and costume designer Emmanuelle Youchnovski work in tandem with Bolduc, crafting an alienating modern world, but recreating the seventies in a way that made me feel nostalgic, despite never actually living through that period.

Utterly charming and fascinating, La Belle Époque is definitely a crowd pleaser, eliciting many laughs from the audience. But it’s also an emotionally and intellectually complex film, with an inventive and fun premise and script. Full of joyful nostalgia, there was a smile across my face for most of the film, only fading because of the more dramatic moments. I may have been smiling during that climactic scene, but it was with tears in my eyes. An immensely enjoyable way to kick off the 2019 New Zealand International Film Festival, I left the theatre feeling more alive than when I entered. In a way, I can’t think of higher praise.

Matariki for Tamariki

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Filling the Bruce Mason Centre with joy, laughter, and intrigue, Matariki for Tamariki presents the stories and celebrations behind our Matariki Stars. Presented by The New Zealand Dance Company, consisting of some of the top contemporary dancers in the country, whose grace on stage is always stunning and whose technique, flow, and lines admirable, choreographer Sean MacDonald has created a beautiful piece aimed at both educating and entertaining our tamariki. A sophisticated approach, amidst plenty of laughter (from both children and adults) as dancers pop in and out of their comedic roles, at times, the content does feel a little over one’s head.

Entertaining us all before the show, in a series of rhythm, coordination and comedy bits, the entire audience are particularly responsive to the charm and wit of Carl Tolentino. A smart move to get the kids engaged and invested with the performer before jumping into the show. The showcase of the NZDC youth workshop at the beginning was a treat, engrossing us with a piece they had workshopped that week along with the company and faculty. An amazing opportunity for youth to be able to perform alongside such professionals.

Designer Rona Ngahuia Osborne equips the performance in a fun and playful way, with set and props mostly made out of cardboard and coloured with paints, and props given larger than life details. Simple, yet effective. Sound design by Alistair Deverick mixes sounds with dialogued text to help convey the images and story of Matariki, at times the soundtrack fading into the background, allowing the driving force of the dance to take focus.

While the section on Tāwhirimātea (god of the winds), with exaggerated eyes turning into confetti, executed by dancer Eddie Elliott, was clear, the following are less so, feeling under-explored with less depth and clarity. Still engaged by beautiful choreography and dancers, I found myself and the tamariki becoming restless. Perhaps a one-hour show with no interval is a bit much for some. Fortunately, the comedic sections scattered throughout did bring them back, though perhaps some of the teachings of Matariki lost, and while I was had a beautifully designed program, outlining the ides and story in greater detail, the children did not.

An interactive butterfly screen in the foyer had many engaged and joining in, and the tamariki that still had energy could be found dancing around after the show. With plenty of smiles all round, I’d say that makes the show a success. Most contemporary dance is seen as an abstract art form that only a few get, which has a handful of truth, but how often do we get to see professional dancers and dance companies creating works for our young? Take your kids, nieces, nephews, cousins and join in the world of dance and all it can offer. Matariki for Tamariki is a chance for them to get involved in the arts, and there are still three shows left for them to do at the Mangere Arts Centre this weekend.

Chef & The Chef Show

John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Jon Favreau.

John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Jon Favreau.

Chef, written, directed, produced, and starring Jon Favreau is a good film. It’s not a great film, but it is a good one. It’s very simple, certainly not a film concerned with fancy techniques or genre changing innovation, but it’s charming in its own way. However, its purpose becomes much clearer once you’ve watched it’s companion piece, The Chef Show, a small documentary series made by Favreau and his friend/tutor/chef Roy Choi.

Favreau first gained attention as an actor and screenwriter in the 1990s, but has become more recently known for his work on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kicking the whole thing off with his directorial work on the first Iron Man and subsequently working in various capacities on many of the biggest films in the franchise. All of this work has no doubt bought Favreau the freedom to pursue the projects that he really wants to, and Chef definitely falls into that category. It’s not quite a passion project for Favreau, but it’s not quite a vanity project either. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle - a “Because-I-Can Project”. Wish-fulfilment and a film of fantasy.

In a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert, Alfred Hitchcock said that “a story is simply a motif, just as a painter might paint a bowl of fruit just to give him something to be painting,” and that certainly feels like the case with Chef. The plot really is pretty basic and paint-by-numbers. A chef at a high-end restaurant in LA becomes burnt out and disenchanted with the creatively stifling, restrained nature of the restaurant scene and decides to go out on his own, starting up a food truck. There’s an autobiographical slant to all of this. Favreau has said that he felt similarly after working on so many big budget blockbusters for Marvel, wanting to scale down and make something more akin to an indie film. He also just wanted to be a chef for a while.

Favreau trained at a culinary school, and even worked briefly as a line cook as research and preparation for the film. Roy Choi, a chef who established his own food truck company, Kogi Korean BBQ, was brought on as a consultant and eventually upgraded to the role of producer. Choi was responsible for keeping the film “real” when it came to the food, and oversaw the preparation and cooking of all the food seen on screen.

The rest of the cast are all clearly having a great time, with many being Favreau’s friends in real life. And that’s certainly the vibe you get while watching. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale are great as a comic duo of cooks working under Favreau’s Carl Casper. But it’s the father/son dynamic that is the core and heart of the film, and both Favreau and Emjay Anthony, in a commendable performance, create a convincing and affecting relationship.

Emjay Anthony & Jon Favreau.

Emjay Anthony & Jon Favreau.

Cameo’s from Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr are a lot of fun, and Oliver Platt does a great job of being a pompous food critic. Sofia Vergara is her usual enticing, voluptuous self as Favreau’s ex-wife, which is one of the main sticking points for me, and the only clear case of vanity in the project; the fact that Favreau’s characters romantic interests are two of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols, while Favreau is certainly not. It’s not a film breaking decision, but it is jarring to see, as neither coupling feels genuine. The film seems to strive for a sense of reality, but those two key romantic relationships couldn’t be more Hollywood if they tried.

While Chef doesn’t do anything truly new or take any big risks, it doesn’t make too many missteps either. It’s generally well-balanced and fun, with moments of affecting emotion sprinkled through, although the end was unfortunately a bit too sweet for me. But much like a food truck, it’s aims to be a simple crowd pleaser and, in that regard, it succeeds.

The true success of Chef, however, is the spawning of The Chef Show, a documentary-style Netflix spin-off. Produced again by Favreau and Choi, it’s another example of the former just wanting to play chef again, but with even less pretence of anything else. He doesn’t bother writing a film in which to couch his desires. He just gets Choi, a camera, some ingredients and some guests, and gets cooking.

Favreaus says as much in the first episode. When Chef finished filming, he could no longer follow Choi around and continue learning how to cook, describing the end of the experience as akin to a breakup. And so, with no real plan on what he was actually doing, Favreau organised The Chef Show and started filming. It’s a rambling, paired back show, and it’s utterly endearing. It’s fascinating to watch Favreau and Choi shamble around, finding out what the show is as they make it. They start off with celebrity guests (Gwyneth Paltrow and comedian Bill Burr), but it quickly becomes clear that it’s not that kind of show. Or is it? Favreau and Choi don’t know. They just want to cook some food.

Roy Choi & Jon Favreau.

Roy Choi & Jon Favreau.

And in that regard, it’s refreshingly irreverent when it comes to the food too. Although perfectly well shot, there are no food-porn cinematography of perfectly plated meals as in the much celebrated Chef’s Table, another Netflix staple. On the flipside, however, there’s no reality TV melodrama that you find in those competitive cooking reality shows. The Chef Show is alternatively very simple and down to earth. Favreau and Choi cook, and then eat it immediately. This is not food as fashion or art. This is food as food. This show, more than any other cooking show, really feels like an authentic glimpse at what a being a chef is actually like. More often than not, it’s about the preparation, the process of cooking. The passion.

And it’s that passion that is most endearing about The Chef Show. Favreau is somewhat of a giant in the film world. He’s played a major role in the most dominating film franchise of a generation. Which makes it all the more fascinating, and quite inspiring, to watch him so eagerly take on the role of student in another field. The dynamic between Favreau and Choi is delightful to watch, with Favreau, like a nervous child, showing his work to Choi, eagerly awaiting his approval or criticisms. His desire to learn is infectious. There’s even something approaching rivalry in some episodes as Favreau starts to cook Choi’s recipes even better than Choi does. Although this often seems to be because Choi, with the confidence of an artist, is constantly tinkering and changing his recipes, searching for something new, while Favreau has been diligently following every word of Choi’s recipes to the letter, not realising a recipe that’s only six months old is now old news to Choi. Even to the point that Choi doesn’t seem to recognize some of his own recipes.

Chef is comfort food and film fantasy. A well-made, but ultimately unsurprising piece of by-the-book filmmaking. But as much as Favreau wanted to shed some of the Hollywood trappings, he can’t avoid cinematic clichés entirely. It strictly follows the recipe for a crowd pleaser, so it pleases, but it doesn’t surprise. Perfectly fine for an enjoyable evening, but I doubt I’ll go back to it.

The Chef Show feels much more like reality. It’s about two friends, bonding together over a love of food. Sometimes a bit messy, and not everything goes to plan, but that’s what makes it interesting and surprising. Truly unpretentious and honest, it’s quickly become a favourite of mine. I really, really hope they make a second season, and if not, I’ll just go back and watch the first season again.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

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Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is an under-appreciated comedy gem that is finally developing the cult classic status it deserves. I’ve been a fan of the film since its release in 2007, but I was inspired to watch it again recently after reading this long-form compilation interview with the film’s creators.

Directed by Jake Kasdan, produced by comedy juggernaut Judd Apatow, and co-written by both, Walk Hard is a musical biopic parody starring John C Reilly as Dewey Cox, musical superstar. Despite parodying the massively successful films Ray and Walk The Line, which were released a few years prior, Walk Hard was a box office flop on release, grossing $20 million on a $35 million budget. There were many reasons for this, partly because it was swallowed up and forgotten in the wake of all the other massive Apatow products of the mid 00’s (Anchorman, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc). However, as time goes by, Walk Hard may prove to be the Apatow project that is remembered most fondly.

Although it shares a lot of the trademarks of an Apatow comedy (including many of the actors commonly seen in his films), Walk Hard sets itself apart with its almost absurd level of attention to detail. Everything in the film is pitch perfect. Musical Director Michael Andrews led a group of musicians and song writers, including John C Reilly, and together they wrote dozens of original songs, spanning a huge array of genres, from sickly sweet 50’s pop songs and Dylan-esque surrealism to 70s era protest folk and punk, and everything in between. 

Reilly was not only involved in the writing of the songs, he performed them too, playing guitar and singing each and every one, and with a versatile singing voice this film really is a showcase for his talents. Not only does he succeed in the musical parts, he also gives a subtly great performance as Dewey Cox. He’s hilarious, but always truthful. Just like the rest of the film, Reilly somehow rides a line that is both earnest and satirical at the same time. If Dewey Cox was a real person, Reilly would be lauded for his ‘method’ approach to playing him. They even took Dewey Cox on a real, seven-city tour to promote the film, Dewey Cox and The Hard Walkers: Cox Across America. It’s a level of dedication that comes through in the film and Reilly’s performance is the pillar that the rest of the film is built upon.

Helping to ground Reilly in the reality of the world was Production Designer Jefferson Sage and Costume Designer Debra McGuire, who both do incredible work. Everything is period specific. No matter which decade the film happens to be flying through in any given scene, the costumes, hairstyles, furniture, it all feels right. As Reilly notes, the film “doesn’t look like a comedy. It looks like a biopic.”

So, in a way, this film takes itself very seriously, but at the same time, it definitely does not. Walk Hard immediately sets its tone when it opens backstage at a venue, as we follow a stagehand desperately searching for the star. “Mr Cox? Mr Cox? Guys, I need Cox!” Yup. A dick joke. Straight out of the gate. It’s all supremely silly. But then Walk Hard quickly shows us just how self-aware it is. The stagehand finally finds his Cox, silhouetted, leaning against a wall, deep in thought. Before the stagehand can get to Cox, he is stopped by a band member, “You’re going to have to give him a moment, son… Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” Cue dramatic music and a flashback to 1946.

From there, the film is a rapid-fire assault on all the clichés that populate musical biopics. From the complications of one actor playing a role that spans a lifetime (Reilly, despite quite clearly being a middle-aged man, first appears when Cox is meant to be 14 years old), lines of dialogue inspiring song lyrics, absurd levels of tragedy following the star through his life, constantly escalating drug use, this film has it all. This attention to detail is both the film’s strength, and its main weakness. While there are plenty of stand-alone moments of humour, much of the comedy revolves around the clichés and tropes of the biopic genre, and if you’re not familiar with them, a lot of the jokes could fly right by you. This a film that requires a certain amount of cinematic literacy to truly enjoy. Even the lighting is hilarious, if you know what to look for. Everything is turned up to 11.

Reading the interview, it becomes very clear that Walk Hard was truly a passion project. Everyone involved gave it everything they had and truly believed they’d created something special. Which is what made its commercial failure such a tragedy. Reilly says that he felt “personally responsible for all the money they didn’t make back”, and it took him a “couple of years to dig out of the sadness of that.” Which is partly why I’m writing a review for a twelve year old film; sometimes fate determines that something truly great is missed and subsequently forgotten. Walk Hard is one of those great things and I really believe that if more people had seen it, it’d be remembered as the classic it quite clearly is.

Randy Writes a Novel

Randy Feltface

Randy Feltface

The medium of comedy allows a performer to play, among other things, either an exaggerated or ruminative version of the themselves. Think the extraverted introvert versus the introverted extravert. How often we hear that a comedian is “nothing like they are on stage as they are in real life”. Through his multi-award winning character Randy Feltface (a.k.a. Randy the Purple Puppet), comedian and puppeteer Heath McIvor is able to incorporate both of these personality types, the former in style and the latter in content. It’s a balance that provides unique range and depth, and a skill that should not be discounted, because you’re never quite sure where one ends and the other begins, allowing McIvor to use artistic illusions to reveal resonant truths.

From divorce and tax fraud to tea totalling and veganism, Randy has spent the past nine years performing on and off with comedic partner Sammy J through a series of life events that no matter how bizarre, are strangely familiar and applicable. Such is the case in Randy Writes a Novel, where the titular comedian allows his observational comedy to distract him from a public reading of his novel “Walking to Skye”. From drink-driving and place-names to blue food and the most entertaining Gumtree purchase anecdote, Randy’s hyperactive yet ever-casual delivery allows for such seeming procrastination and seamless tangents to be subtly layered between an existential narrative drive that equals so much more than the sum of its parts. To delay an important task is nothing new, but to use such universal action (or lack thereof), to produce existential enlightenment is a rarity.

From Harper Lee to Ernest Hemingway, Randy waxes lyrical one minute, then drags you through the mud the next. He can quote Alain de Botton and express concern towards the interpretation of Buddhist philosophy, though it never comes across as supercilious or polemic, before usurping himself by appealing to our baser senses. And whether driving the narrative or expanding on an idea, he finds a joke at every turn, even when engaging with the uncertainty of audience interaction.

The success of comedy can often be judged by how deeply it burrows into your subconscious. Good luck hearing the name Morgan ever again without Randy’s voice in your head. And while it’s true that one can get away with so much more via a puppet, to reduce McIvor’s skill as a comedian to this one factor would be to ignore his flawless narrative, word economy, vocal affectations, timing, and delivery. Randy Writes a Novel is one of the most simple yet complex, hilarious, and profound hours of comedy, and for only $20AUD, it can all be yours.

Once

Adam Ogle and Lisa Crawley

Adam Ogle and Lisa Crawley

The most profound changes in our lives are often inspired by those who arrive most unexpectedly. Winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song, Falling Slowly, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, is a tender yet evocative cry that epitomises the intimacy of such serendipitous connections. Written, composed, and performed for the Irish musical romance, Once, the success of the 2007 film led to a 2011 theatrical adaptation that quickly featured on Broadway and in the West End, as well as in Seoul, Toronto, and of course, Dublin. It’s taken some time to reach Australasia, but Peach Theatre Company has a knack for obtaining the rights and funds to present large scale works on par with (and even beyond) New Zealand’s leading theatre companies.

The decision to cast musicians as opposed to actors worked in favour of the film, given its indie, diegetic style and predicted off-screen romance, but a lack of stagecraft is not something around which a theatre director can edit. While film dictates what we see, theatre exposes a performer, and it is up to the director to ensure their talent has the tools to navigate such territory confidently. While some are loved by the camera, Adam Ogle, making his theatrical debut, has a stage presence and charisma beyond his musical talents (though some support is still required for his upper register). A phenomenal guitarist, Ogle has a quiet yet intense depth to his portrayal of Guy, at one point delivering a nostalgic monologue with simple yet affective phrasing. This instinctive pacing, however, goes against director Jesse Peach’s beats, with the remainder of the show rushed, especially in the apologetic moments of the script.

While Ogle is at home on stage, Lisa Crawley is uncomfortably stiff. Elbows locked at her sides, she gestures on every line and pivots her entire upper body forwards when trying to make a point. Unfortunately, no point is ever made, as Crawley has no variety of notes in her performance. What makes this so egregious is not an unwarranted expectation or even fault on the part of Crawley as an actress, but the lack of such basic stage craft Peach has failed to provide her, and to have done so is, quite simply, contemptible.

Fortunately, Crawley has an incredibly smooth singing voice and nails the direct dry delivery of the Czech Girl, which provides most of the show’s humour (along with Alistair Sewell’s Svec), and while the notorious dark Kiwi vowels flatten certain words, dialect coach Alexandra Whitham keeps the entire cast otherwise in check.

Having won, among other awards, Best Book of a Musical at the 2012 Tonys, Enda Walsh’s adaptation of John Carney’s screenplay is surprisingly problematic. While the translation to a theatrical world is well-plotted, especially thanks to Matt Munford’s inviting design, supporting characters are incapacitated with two-dimensional conflicts that are never satisfyingly resolved. Shop owner Billy (Peter Tait) is egotistical and hypocritically lecherous, charitable only when his base desires are subdued by a reluctant and alcohol-necessitated favour by Priya Sami’s Réza, while Jesse O’Brien and Jared Hill are both forced to manufacture inequitable ends to their stories as Andrej and Bank Manager respectively.

Fortunately, Emily Campbell, as Ex-Girlfriend, manages to imbue her minimal dialogue with an emotional weight that not only evokes the history of an entire relationship, but also reminds us of the variants of love and how they can be both justified and misconstrued.

While the ensemble aren’t provided with fully-realised characters, their pre-show musical entertainment, driven with impeccable comedic timing by Jackie Clarke, sets a juxtaposing upbeat tone to the sombre romantics for the evening, as some mill through and engage with the audience. Jo Kilgour’s lighting design evokes the communal warmth that music brings and the spotlit streets of Dublin, while Arran Eley’s sound design fills the ASB Waterfront Theatre with a wholesome balance. Like attending an album tour concert of your favourite band, experiencing Hansard and Irglová’s music live by an ensemble of exceptional musicians under the precise musical direction of Josh Clark is truly beautiful. And while the theatrical components might not always fit in place, the charm of Once reminds us of the power of music and the connections we can make with it.

Bojack Horseman

Bojack Horseman, a cartoon with a horse for a protagonist, is somehow not only one of the best comedies of this era, but it’s also one of the best dramas. It’s a show that takes an unflinching look at the human experience, tackling subjects like the desire for success, failure, fame, vanity, depression, addiction, trauma, and the eternal search for inner peace. Also, one of its main characters is a Labrador named Mr. Peanutbutter. It’s absolutely nuts and it probably shouldn’t work. But it does. It really does.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show exists in a bizarre alternate reality where humans coexist with anthropomorphic animals. The titular lead character is a horse, but there’s also humans, cats, dogs, mice and many more. But for all intents and purposes all the characters are just people, with many inter-species relationships. One of the strongest compliments you can give the writing is that you quickly stop thinking too much about which character is what species. Despite all their physical differences the characters are all, for lack of a better word, very human.

The story focuses on washed up TV star Bojack Horseman, voiced by Will Arnett. Back in the 90’s, Bojack was the star of a very famous TV show, Horsin’ Around, a squeaky-clean sitcom about a horse who adopts three young human orphans. The show ran for nine seasons and made Bojack a star. But now he’s in his fifties, his fame has faded but his ego hasn’t, he’s horribly depressed and an alcoholic. In the hopes of jump-starting his career, a ghost writer is hired to write a biography of Bojack’s life. A bizarre premise for a quirky comedy. But it quickly becomes clear that this show is going to get as dark as it is weird.

Unlike the 90’s sitcoms that Bojack Horseman lampoons with Horsin’ Around, the consequences in Bojack last from episode to episode. There is a strong sense of continuity through the show, both with long running gags, and multi-episode story arcs and character actions that have impacts several episodes later, if not several seasons later. Even the opening credits sequence reflects the current state of the story, with characters coming and going, or changing appearance. This continuity really helps you feel like you are following Bojack as he tries to stop his career, and life, from just circling down the drain, as you watch Bojack stumble from one regrettable mistake to the next. Substance abuse. Sabotaging personal and professional relationships. Impulsive and destructive choices. He does it all. It gets brutal. The result is that Bojack is one of the most fundamentally flawed and broken lead characters I’ve ever seen. And all the more relatable for it.

Helping tell this story is uniformly fantastic voice acting. Will Arnett is perfect as Bojack. There’s one episode which is literally a monologue and Arnett nails it. Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, and Paul F. Tompkins round out the main cast, and they all shine in their own way. Alison Brie is fantastic as Dianne Nguyen, the ghost writer, constantly trying to do something important, while life gets in the way. Amy Sedaris is excellent as the almost self destructively driven career cat Princess Caroline, Bojack’s agent/manager/sometimes-lover. The writers also seem to love writing extraordinarily convoluted tongue-twister style lines of dialogue, and Sedaris particularly stands out in her ability to make sense of the nonsensical flourishes. Even the characters that may feel somewhat shallow at first glance, like Aaron Paul’s goofy slacker Todd or Paul F. Tompkins endlessly positive Labrador Mr Peanutbutter, all eventually end up involved in truly complex, interesting stories, told in fascinating, risk-taking ways.

The show takes full advantage of it’s animated medium. Bojack is designed by Lisa Hanawalt, an illustrator and cartoonist that series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has known since high school. The characters and world are classically cartoony and there are constant visual gags based on the anthropomorphic animals. Watching a “bird” take off and fly, by flapping its arms while wearing a suit, never gets old for me. I chuckle every time. But the animation, direction, and writing of the show is so good that along side the slapstick are scenes of real dramatic power. The creators of Bojack also experiment with form a lot, like the episodes that jump freely through time, or try to show the experience of a mind degrading, or the episode where the story is told by Bojack’s therapist to a friend, so for anonymity’s sake, all the names and species are mixed around, then animated as such. This show is such a trip.

Bojack has been running on Netflix since 2014 and has had 5 seasons (with a sixth on the way), but I only binge watched over the past few weeks, so I’m relatively late to the party. I’ve had several friends recommend it to me, saying “Just watch it. Trust me.” To which I’d say, “Yup, definitely. I will.” And I didn’t. Just like I don’t with the dozens of other recommendations I get in a week. However, I really, really must insist that you watch Bojack Horseman. I will be rewatching it for sure, and it’s already sneaking pretty high up on my favourite shows of all time list. Of course, nothing is for everyone, and maybe Bojack isn’t for you. After all, humour is probably the most subjective thing there is, and as I said, the show gets very dark and may be too unrelenting for some tastes. But ultimately, there can be no arguing that Bojack is top tier storytelling.

If you like shows with complex characters, deep explorations of the human condition, and funny stuff with animals, you’ll love Bojack.