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.

Maui (Pacific Dance Festival)

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Maui is a dance, music, and physical theatre work that has many elements woven together to tell the story of the Pacific legend. Each element has its own chance in the spotlight, allowing us to view the demigod in his many versions. Portrayed in this story as a normal man, how he loved, persisted, celebrated, and his heroism of fishing up the Island.

A live band sits downstage left playing smooth tones as we take our seats. Tony O’Rourke and Gibson Harris are our musicians for the night, mixing live music in with a soundtrack of cultural, modern, instrumental, and hip-hop beats, the music driving the style of movement and forcing us into the emotions of each section. This is also fuelled by the use of recorded dialogue and projections. The projector reminds us of the images we already know of Maui in a traditional, cultural way, but also depicts the hero as if he were alive today with the use of cityscapes and modern environments.

Before saying anything further about the content, I’d like to celebrate the performers. Everyone performed with conviction and energy, seamlessly jumping into different styles and energies, from contemporary, hip-hop, krump, cultural, and song. I loved that there were many body types and sizes represented. No one looked out of place and I commend the ensemble for dancing their hearts out. I felt their passion and love for what they do, and thank them for sharing it with us.

Hadleigh Pouesi and Christopher Ofanoa’s clever choreography showcased the versatilities of their dancers and talents as choreographers. Highlights included the ensemble acting as waves, a simple but effective movement that was symbolic. The “heated lava”, translated into a krump set was vibrant and energetic. An extremely powerful haka and waiata both performed with truth and gusto. And the contemporary solo from Chris Ofanoa displayed grace, strength, and connected flow. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this number. The whole show was highly entertaining and engaging, and I was left both satisfied and uplifted.

I believe there is much-needed space for productions and companies such as this one. Hadleigh is the Director of Freshmans Dance Crew and Maui, and by using both professionals, students, and crew dancers, he has created a community, bridging the gap between the elite professionals and community dance. I look forward to seeing how this company grows and excels on and beyond this platform.

We can all find similarities in these stories and ourselves, it’s a reminder that we are all Maui, we all possess the same attributes, and if we put them to use, we can also be legends standing together as proudly as Pacific Island people.

Moana Showcase & Triple Bill (Pacific Dance Festival)

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The Pacific Dance Festival programmed two similar shows, Moana Showcase and Triple Bill, that allowed Pacific Island artists, choreographers, and performers to showcase their works at the Mangere Arts Centre. Moana Showcase presented six separate works, while Triple Bill (the title suggesting three performances) consisted of four separate works and three different video performances. It was a shame that one of the works and the videos performed in Triple Bill weren’t acknowledged in the programme. I wanted to know more about them, who the dancers were, who created them, and any possible themes and ideas behind them. Although they were given a platform to present works, they were not recognised by the festival and trying to find information was difficult. It’s a shame to those who spent time on their craft and presented works that did not get recognition. A festival that showcases cultural works is important, but wouldn’t it be nice to have the same platforms as everyone else? 

The video with crafted masked dancer intrigued me. Filmed at night around small cliff rocks, dry white sand, with effective lighting of the surrounding environment. I did not know its reference yet I enjoyed it for what it was.

Some performances shone brightly for their initiative, engagement and artistic beauty, while others fell short of their own written expectations. Stolen Stories performed in Moana Showcase had engaging projections and a beautifully detailed write-up, but the physical follow-through feeling like an afterthought. Distant and un-ironed. 

Two different self-discovery pieces, Our Shadows and Resurrect Me, from students in their third year at the New Zealand School of Dance created beautiful shapes with solid technique. While neither’s choreography showed huge variety, the use of motifs connected us to their journeys in a caring way. Our Shadows’ light design was effective with its yellow wash and dark blue downwards lights, though I missed some dialogue at the beginning due to the under music being too loud. Trip performed in Triple Bill felt like watching a video clip. A mostly polished performance, with strong female presence and cleverly edited video projection. However, I didn’t quite grasp what the four dancers were portraying. “Me Vs the World? Or me vs me?” as displayed in their write up suggest ideas of exploration and discovery, but seemed to lack the follow through in finer details.

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Fonua from Moana Showcase jumped us into life as the music and lights blared, making me want to join the dancers on stage. Sometimes it's nice to remember that dance can just be fun and vibrant. I enjoyed being in ‘their world’ and watching their energy take over the stage. The dancers from Charged also had immense energy, although, performed in a calmer way, the group of third-year students also from the New Zealand School of Dance displayed their athleticism and grace in an intricately choreographed piece by Cheyanne Teka. Fresh dancers that are definitely going to make a mark on the New Zealand dance scene very soon.

A creative concept delivered from Melville Place performed in Triple Bill, I couldn’t understand the dialogue that was performed towards the end of the piece, so it was handy that I could find the spoken words written in the programme. An air of feral creatures highlighted by an exuberant soundtrack of animal sounds and roars. For me, the dances didn’t seem connected the whole way through and prolonged thoughts didn’t feel explored completely. At times I felt uncomfortable, but I wasn’t aware of why. The first unmentioned piece from Triple Bill reminded me of Queen’s famous Bohemian Rhapsody album cover, with the four dancers creating the powerful iconic image at the beginning and end. I like the musicality of the choreography and movement, great music and lighting choices that enhanced the strength of the work. 

The stand out performance over the two nights was definitely Lalo from Moana Showcase. Watching eight beautiful, technical, strong male dancers express the themes of forgiveness from a Samoan perspective was magnificent. Where have these dancers been hiding? Ankaramy Fepuleai created symbolic, dynamic choreography performed with such presence that it commanded the whole theatre. The male dancer with two black straps around his wrists had another level of X-factor. I enjoyed watching him move in and out of the floor and was drawn to his movements no matter where he was on the stage. From start to finish, I was mesmerised by this piece. 

A special mention to A’fekfek by Rako. Emily Marie, Iane Tavo, and Samuela Taukave, who were the artists in residence from Fiji, participating in workshops and a part of the Festival showcasing their work. I hope their time here allowed the company to grow, learn, share, and connect with other Pacific cultures and companies. And that this platform within and outside of this festival continues to grow for artists, choreographers, and performers to showcase, create, and explore their works.

Kapu Akari (Pacific Dance Festival)

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The audience enters and awaiting our arrival are 10 performers in a meditative state, dressed in white, high-waisted, long skirts and neutral turtle necks. Stage right, mustard cloths tied together are hanging from the ceiling and reaching the floor into a kava bowl. The audience, respectfully, wait for the piece to begin. I’m transfixed listening to the slow, idling sounds that pulse from the speakers. I’m aware of everyone in this space, not saying a word, breathing and listening to what’s happening around us. It doesn’t feel awkward, it feels like now is the only time and I’m in the right place. A beautiful start to the show. The music changes gear as the house lights transition and suddenly we are watching a woman move.

The first section of the piece seems to take a while to get somewhere, with each cast member repeating a slight variation of the gestural choreography. Swiping away from themselves with their hands and making sound through their teeth. The transition to reveal a man centre stage was surprising and very well executed. The lights change red and we are able to see some bigger movements and sequences begin. The lighting throughout the show was seamless and effective, often throwing our attention to specific lines and shapes. Like the single sectioned squares created on the floor, I enjoyed how this was used to help represent the idea of death to us. The soundtrack was dynamic, mixing vocal sections, soundscape, cultural rhythms, and uplifting beats. I didn’t find my attention wavering too many times, I was engaged, however, I wasn’t immersed in the world of the piece. I was aware that I was watching people on stage move. I feel the use of voice in different sections aided in this idea. Yes, we were watching stories be told through movement but they also had a voice to tell these stories too, it was a nice detail.

While I could follow and appreciate some aspects and ideas of Kapu Akari and its multitude of cultural meanings and representations (tradition, rituals, Created from), I found there were too many different thoughts to be able to follow cohesively. Each progressing section seemed to explore something different, but I wasn’t able to really connect with it, other than to appreciate the pleasing aesthetics that were created and being displayed. Maybe that is my own naivety or maybe this is because I wasn’t convinced by each performer. Unfortunately, in pockets, the performers seemed to lack the strength to finish movements convincingly. Two performers did stand out for me though and I am unable to identify them from the programme. I use my description as, the young female dancer with two Dutch braids and a fringe, and the young male performer. Both had something extra that my eye was drawn to; crisp in their movements and fluid when necessary. In particular, the young male’s solo, while the women sat watching at his feet, was lovely to experience. I look forward to seeing where this dancer goes next. I also enjoyed the two women who performed a Cook Island dance before being derobed.

I understand how many hours go into making a work like this. Endless, endless hours. But I’m hesitant to say that this was a brilliant show. I did enjoy watching it, but I wasn’t wowed, nor could I find an overall X-factor quality. Yet I would happily attend another showing of Kapu Akari, to see if and how the ideas and processes may change.

Set Mo: Surrender Tour

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On the back of a successful Australian summer, Set Mo, already a dancefloor favourite at home in Sydney, arrived with infectious energy to a dizzily committed fan base at Studio The Venue, where the deliciously hip duo, Nick Drabble and Stu Turner, offered the Friday night crowd an opportunity to lose themselves in a gloriously trippy disco of brilliantly happy beats.

Opening with their debut album title track and some fine lighting cues, the audience was captivated by tales of travel and discovery within minutes, with Set Mo taking us on a journey as if we were rolling, roof down, past hills along a coastal highway.

The technically beautiful “Bergamot” surrounds the Studio with a flurry of percussion and elegantly intertwined beats against birdsong, creating an intoxicatingly playful track wrapped in more layers than one could wear on a cool Auckland night.

Harmonies of urgency throughout “Fault Lines”, juxtaposed with the depth of its baseline, remind you of a certain dark place in time where everything felt a little heavy, while still offering a tangled toe tapping sense of hope.

Swiftly brought back into the light through ecstatic positivity, the upbeat “Communicate” is a track that brings out all those euphoric feelings of being kissed by your lover or hugged by your mother, frolicking freely in a field of daffodils drenched in sunshine, while a similar depth of emotion is evoked in “White Dress” and “Near”.

At times, the lads were accompanied by vocalists Chris Sebastian and Sayah, and while enjoying the variety within the set, it appeared that the performers lost personal connection on stage, sometimes falling a little flat, where as the moments left exclusively to Drabble and Turner fired with much more heat.

Unfortunately lost on young ears, there was a short lull towards the centre of the set where the thousand strong crowd started slipping away during “Counter Human Emotion”, one of their most technically layered and poetic tracks. An angelic soliloquy with a pulse pumping heartbeat.

But the young and buzzy crowd triumphantly reappeared during “Wish You Were Here”, perhaps the evenings hero track, a moment somewhat reminiscent of Odessza playing “Across the Room” at Brixton Academy back in February. With tracks like these Set Mo could certainly fill that South London dancefloor comfortably.

Set Mo’s lyrics include a monologue from Brian Eno, offering all ears to take the opportunity to lose themselves, “One of the things I want music to do is to offer people the chance to surrender”.

And surrender they did.

The Wolves

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A common misconception, the lone wolf is not always one which prefers a life of solitude. Traditionally a pack animal, what the independent seeks, more often than not, is a partner, and a new pack. As for many animals, tribes are integral to our behavioural development, and the social network of sports is one of the most common methods used. But for every eleven pairs of studded boots that tear divots on a Saturday morning, there are silent lips reciting Caryl Churchill or Sarah Kane, waiting for their chance to speak aloud. It’s not often that a prominent theatre company presents a work aimed at giving space to young women, or when it is, it’s often lip service at best. By earnestly engaging in this practice, Silo Theatre has not only struck gold, but also proven the attention deserved and artistic merit of our younger practitioners through a cast of nine exceptional actresses.

For all but two, The Wolves marks their professional stage debut, but you wouldn’t know that based on their performances. There are actors who have worked on stage for decades and not reached this level of authenticity, but to suggest the cast are only succeeding in their craft at a level beyond their years would be to insult that they are also quite simply bringing all that they are to these roles. This is the fundamental reason why The Wolves is such an important work. It allows women to be women.

This aforementioned authenticity begins, as it always does, with playwright Sarah DeLappe’s text. Writing nine voices is no mean feat, and the multiple and honest perspectives DeLappe provides allows the cast to construct their characters, not only from the words they say, but the topics they discuss. There is no stereotypical reduction to boys and periods (though these subjects do arise). Instead, we hear young women philosophising on politics, from genocide to immigration, as they navigate the dynamics of their relationships. The result is that the audience are presented with fully-formed characters and motivations that are deeply layered. Not even small talk is off the cuff, because every line tells us something about someone.

But to simply say words on stage does not an actor make, and while there is some inconsistency in the evocation of delivery, this is a minor and singular discrepancy in an otherwise flawless set of performances. This is because what director Sophie Roberts has imbued in her cast, more importantly, is an acute sense of the use of space and the temporality of the characters’ respective and collective journeys, which, in addition to Christopher Stratton’s costume design, allows them to present these characters with lives that exist both on and off the stage. And each of these young actresses absolutely owns them. I simply cannot imagine anyone other in any of these roles.

They say casting is 90% of a director’s job. If so, Roberts has mined the remaining ten for every decimal. From the moment Sean Lynch’s lights hit Ruby Read’s set, the pace is exquisitely established, and the beats between the scenes and within the units are definitively yet subtlety marked, allowing the moments between both them and the actresses to resonate beyond linguistic restriction. It is the fundamental reason why we see a production rather than simply read the script. Vignettes punctuate the narrative progression, with sound design (also Lynch) evoking a near physical response, as the events of the play, and the characters themselves, slowly begin to unravel.

It is this skill in the art of the reveal that DeLappe, Roberts, and the cast are able to execute, which makes Silo’s production so much more than the sum of its parts. Certain themes and events that plague young women are seeded throughout, yet never directly mentioned, striking deep with minimal force. Every woman should see this show, and every parent of women should take them. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it, because these wolves are out for blood, and their primal howls, which haunt the Q Loft long after the audience have left, will continue to echo through the history of New Zealand theatre.

MANIAC on the Dance Floor

Daedae Tekoronga-Waka

Daedae Tekoronga-Waka

He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. 12 days after the Labour Government announced the 2019 Wellbeing Budget with a four-year $445.1m investment in mental health frontline services, the Basement Theatre, once again, presented a show concerning mental health. With a one-in-five diagnostic rate the issue is prevalent in New Zealand, but while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the issue with a humanity that has disrupted the concept of political action worldwide, our younger playwrights continue to struggle to tell such stories with any theatrical complexity.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Playmarket Playwrights b4 25 Competition, Natasha Lay’s MANIAC on the Dance Floor is not so much an “extravaganza” as it is music-inspired didacticism with a lesson that is never actually learnt. After the apparently mandatory opening number, performer Daedae Tekoronga-Waka introduces themselves as Anna, who, aided by back-up dancers Phillip Good and Adam Rohe (who also directs), is here to teach us about hardship, heartbreak, resilience, and recovery. There are, however, two fundamental problems with this premise as presented: construct and narrative.

Breaking the fourth wall is a perfectly valid convention, but not when it’s used in lieu of theatrical semiotics. If you’re being literal, as Lay’s script often is, you’re not making theatre, you’re on a soapbox. This problem is driven further by the fact that the line between performer and character are blurred due to the text’s inherently biographical and retrospective nature. We’re told where the show will end, so any dramatic irony and, more importantly, accountability, is lost, no matter how far the “unexpected” moments are pushed.

This is not, unfortunately, the worst misuse of metatheatrics. After soliciting an audience member to dance with them, Anna asks, “What do you think is wrong with me?” And with this informal request for a diagnosis, the show turns from a theatre piece to a hostage situation. The device is abused even further, as the audience are asked to read aloud, a line per person, the remainder of the script – much of which goes unheard. Audience interaction is one thing, but to put such onuses on them to drive your message home is not only lazy, but dangerous when considering the material.

Disjointed and jarring, sometimes driven by character, sometimes by time, others by nothing, Lay injects the narrative with adverbs and reactions on preconceived judgements from the audience. One result is that while Tekoronga-Waka moves well, they have no sense of rhythm when it comes to pacing dialogue and weighting the beats in the text. Gulfs of silence through which trains could pass suck the energy out of an already tepid opening night audience thanks to awkward pauses, weak punchlines, and slow musical fades.

The other result is even more problematic. No one likes to think they’re an asshole, but to correlate mental health issues with particular behaviours to which all are susceptible borders on the Marilyn Monroe attributed “If you can’t love me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” quote often seen posted on Facebook by awful people attempting to justify themselves. This is not a misdiagnosis of the legitimate and commonly misconstrued hypomania-associated bipolar grandiosity, but a commentary on narcissistic condemnations, such as that of Good and Rohe, “I only used you because you make me look good”, and the character of James, who’s expression of vulnerability is labelled “emotional manspreading”.

But MANIAC is not entirely without care. Though burdened with a troubling text, Rohe, as both performer and director, orchestrates the tone throughout with a delicate hand as much as it allows. Lighting design by Spencer Earwaker is loud and gaudy, and captures the atmosphere attempted in the text perfectly, but the songs themselves are shoe-horned into the script, not born from the conflict within it. Hayley Robertson’s stretched-lycra set construction appropriately threads the strain of mental health within the piece, and choreography by Marianne Infante is simple yet effective, and uses the Basement Studio space well.

There is no universal remedy for mental health issues. And while community has been proven to have a direct correlation to our wellbeing, to directly advise one’s audience to simply accept help from others is a patronising takeaway, barely a step above the “You just need to get out of bed” and “You should get more exercise” tropes. While the gesture is genuine, and difficulty in doing so is acknowledged, without any theatrical conduit, it’s insulting at best and arrogant at worst, and one would think someone who would have undoubtedly been on the receiving end of such “advice” would have known better. It is not that Lay is wrong in her assertion, it is that she has not used the artistic medium at her disposal to make her point.

Leeches (Pacific Dance Festival)

Aloalii Tapu & Friends

Aloalii Tapu & Friends

The ASB Waterfront theatre foyer is bustling with audience members greeting and embracing each other. I see many performers from both the dance community and other arts communities that have come to support the headlining show of the Pacific Dance Festival. It feels a step in a new direction that a collaborative dance work, under the direction of Aloalii Tapu, has the opportunity to present work at this level. They are not yet an established company, but these professionals have more stories and performances to gift. We usually only see dance in venues such as the ASB Waterfront from established well toured companies and bigger productions. They hold opportunities for bigger audience numbers and bigger production values that can lift a performance in a way that smaller venues can’t. Not to say other venues are inferior, they still hold an important place, but it’s nice to be able to support new choreographers and performers coming through that may not have had the chance to showcase on this level.

There is a new wave of NZ performers shining, their followers, who are evident from the audience, play a huge part in creating and changing our new idols. As recognised in the show, the use of technology has made everything more accessible. Easier to get to know a person, easier to connect, easier to follow in their journeys, and easier to idolise many achievements in people’s lives. We will always have the ones that have come before us, the ones we will always acknowledge for their service to dance, but like anything, things must keep moving forward and new idols, stars, whatever you want to call them, are being created, and we see you.

The show starts with a single dull white light upstage right that shines down as bodies are carried and perfectly placed on stage. They wear hoodies with something on the back of the hood - but from my seat I wasn’t able to find the relevance, as I couldn’t see the pictures. Phrases of movement are repeated and we see a full circle at the end when the same choreography is performed, this time without the hoodies and with broken speech cleverly “tongued” and slotted in by Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala. The spoken word and dialogue aspects gave some clearer and deeper meaning.

A minimal setting with paper floors made for some interesting moments, such as the duo between the Connor ‘Ooshcon’ Masseurs and Elijah Kennar, sans music, so we could hear how the feet and bodies moved across it - very therapeutic to see and hear. Kennar has a comical character, but moves to become the grounding base of the piece. His smallest movements often having the greatest effect on us. But then he jumps, turns, and is so expansive his connection is seamless. I forget how hard it is to actually perform some of those movements. The paper suit and water that is “popped” on him is truly stunning. The unravelling of one’s self or the falling apart of self, culture, society, regardless of the meaning behind it, was mesmerising. Another stand out section was the ensemble moving together, like a Greek chorus, saying “Screw you” for labelling us this way. It was strong, clean, and captivating.

Jo Kilgour’s lightning is designed beautifully and we hardly notice the changes of whites, dull blues, and warmer tones, and I enjoy the way the haze was caught in the beams of light. Sound design by Eden Mullholland plays anonymously in the background in a way that we are able focus on the movement happening before us. A soundscape feeling to the pieces but moments without music held my attention equally.

Tapu’s movement practice of “Lofty Release” seems to condense contemporary, hip-hop, and Pasifika styles all into one move. It’s detailed but has flow, technical but free, easy to watch and follow, but rather hard to do (yes, I attempted it in the privacy of my own room).

While some sections kept my attention and I could feel the energy shift between the dancers, there were small pockets where my attention wavered. It was great to see a supportive audience, and while I can’t critique as to how they should react, at times it may have taken away some of the moments for the performers.

The hard and amazing thing with dance is that everyone will come away with a slightly different version of what they saw. “Paper comes from trees and trees come from me, Tarnz”, plays upon the idea that everything comes from something else, and the stories they tell are passed down and in turn become something new again. A part of someone else’s life and DNA. Do the stories morphing or changing become a bad thing? This is the question that I was left with at the end of the show.

An enjoyable and highly professional performance, this is not just another contemporary show, and I look forward to seeing how both the movement practice and the careers of these performers and choreographers grow. They have more stories to tell us and I’ll be here ready when they do.