Sahara Beck @ The Triffid

Bringing her Panacea album tour to the The Triffid on Saturday night (May 27), Sahara Beck captivated the crowd with a powerhouse performance of material new and old. Complete with 7-piece backing band, Beck delivered a set of tunes that incorporated elements of blues, jazz, soul and pop, exuding the maturity and confidence of the seasoned performer she has already become at just 19 years of age.

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Photos from the show are now available for viewing in the gallery.

I Smile Back

It is so infuriating to hear I Smile Back labelled as an ‘addiction drama’ because that utterly misrepresents this bleak but honest exploration of Depression and mental illness. Yes, New Jersey housewife Laney Brooks has a dependency on alcohol and drugs, but these are a symptom, rather than a cause, of the anguish that she experiences every day. Despite an obvious love for her husband and two children, Laney is crippled by Depression and finds little joy in her day-to-day existence. As is so often the case for those suffering from this most debilitating illness, Laney engages in all manner of self-destructive behaviours – from substances to sex – unable to prevent herself form jeopardising everything she holds dear. As Laney, Sarah Silverman delivers a remarkable performance devoid of pretence and brimming with authenticity. It is easy to imagine that for anybody who has not experienced the psychologically destructive nature of Depression – either personally or vicariously – or those who simply refuse to accept that it as a legitimate ailment, Laney presents as a selfish, somewhat pathetic figure. However, her behaviour and the treatment of those around her are driven by a desire to inflict the misery upon herself that she believes she deserves. One of many humiliations sees Laney antagonising a man she is having sex with in the back room of a bar, goading him to hurt her.

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Adapted from a novel by Amy Koppelman, which was based on her battles with Depression and self-loathing, I Smile Back is at times difficult to watch as Laney battles to keep control of the psychological demons that want to destroy her. She is mired in a fog of Depression that she cannot shake, despite a stint in rehab and her daily dose of medication. The film is remarkably accurate in its portrayal of the way in which this affliction can take control of your behaviour with no regard for the impact on those around you. Silverman’s performance is more than attention-getting awards bait – as anybody familiar with her portrayal of a similarly damaged character in Take This Waltz can testify — and it is probably safe to assume that her performance is influenced significantly by her own battles with Depression. Silverman’s Laney embodies the self-abuse, recklessness and public humiliation of somebody for whom each day is filled with anguish and a sense of hopelessness. In the opening moments, it is easy to think that perhaps Laney is simply dissatisfied with her role as a wife and mother, but we soon realise that her misery is far more deep seeded than that.

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Wisely, director Adam Salky never attempts to offer any definitive cause of Laney’s affliction because it is impossible to know for sure given the myriad theories that surround depressive disorders. Certainly, there are those things that exacerbate her condition, such as the resentment she feels towards the father (Chris Sarandon) who walked out on his family, but Laney’s despondency and despair extends far beyond her abandonment issues. Laney’s insurance-salesman husband Bruce (Josh Charles) is a pompous, wannabe self-help guru whose unctuous efforts to lure clients are often undermined by Laney’s acerbic barbs. He professes his love for Laney and, initially at least, he does all the right things to help her, but when he tells her “I just want you to be happy, like you used to be” the subtext is clear; he is sick of having to deal with the fallout from her behaviour, effectively delivering an ultimatum that she has to get better or else, as if there is some magic switch that can suddenly make years and years of self-loathing disappear.

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More so than any other film I can recall, I Smile Back delivers genuine insight into the difficulties of living with Depression, delivering an acute understanding of the torment and tumult experienced by those helpless to eradicate the urges that compel their self-destructive tendencies. Silverman’s performance is something quite special in a film that really needs to be seen. At a time when Depression, mental illness and suicide are at an all-time high, these are the types of stories that can help to bring the issue even more into the public consciousness. Confronting and heartbreaking at times, many will find this a hard slog and there is certainly no shiny, happy pay-off at the end, but I Smile Back might just be one of the most important films of the year; and one of the best.

X-Men Apocalypse

In keeping with the 2016 tradition of comic book superheroes turning on each other, this X-Men escapade sees various mutants facing off in a battle to determine the fate of the planet (of course). The problem is that because this story is set in the 1980’s – between X-Men First Class (the fourth movie in the series but the first chronologically) and the first three films in the franchise – there are few surprises to be found in how the story unfolds with regard to the fate of the planet and the various combatants. Even with Bryan Singer in the director’s chair once again, X-Men Apocalypse offers nothing to the wider conversation about xenophobia, mutants as a minority and the politics of fear that has made the X-Men movies, for the most part, a cut above other comic book adaptations. Instead, Singer (who helmed X-Men, X2 and Days of Future Past) has opted for a more insular story in which the conflict is derived purely from the pursuit of power within the mutant world, rather than between mutants and the human population. Sure, mutants have been at loggerheads before, but there has always been an overarching narrative of tension, distrust and hostility between humans and mutants.

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After a pre-titles sequence set in ancient Egypt in which Apocalypse – the first and most powerful mutant – is entombed beneath the rubble of a pyramid destroyed by those who, even at this point in history, wanted to see mutants eradicated, the story kicks into gear when Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) awakens thousands of years later in 1983. Having amassed the powers of many other mutants, Apocalypse is seemingly invincible and, disillusioned by the state of the planet, he sets out to create a new world order over which he will reign. Supported by a gang of four comprising Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Apocalypse seeks out Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to serve as the conduit through which he will deliver his doomsday agenda. Xavier gathers a group of allies – Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and CIA operative Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) to bring down Apocalypse and save the planet.

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There are a few rapid-fire scenes to introduce the new faces and get you caught up on the returning characters, and a couple of these featuring the cocky Quicksilver are, even in slow motion, perhaps the best action scenes in the film. They are certainly the funniest bits in a film that seems to be skewered towards an older audience, perhaps hoping to satisfy those who have followed the series from the beginning rather than focussing so much on satiating a younger demographic. Whilst all of the characters are earlier incarnations of those who featured in the first few films, there has been 10 years pass since the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past and yet some characters (such as Magneto) have not aged at all, even though we know they are not immune to aging, unlike Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who appears briefly in a wordless cameo, slicing up a few people before disappearing into the wilderness.

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Singer has been responsible for the best three X-Men movies, which makes it a surprise that X-Men Apocalypse flounders somewhat for much of its running time. The intra-species conflict is nowhere near as interesting as the allegorical nature of previous stories and the action is largely reserved for the final sequence when the various mutants unleash the full brunt of their powers on Apocalypse and/or each other. It does offer some insight into the back stories of some characters which help us understand their subsequent actions and the quality cast (which includes Breakfast Club member Ally Sheedy as – somewhat ironically perhaps – a school teacher) do the best they can with the material, but in the end it is the production designers, visual effects artists and editors who are the real standouts.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The biggest failing of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the fact that it never really seems to know what it wants to be. Is it comedy or is it drama? With Tina Fey on board in the lead role and as a producer, along with Saturday Night Live head honcho Lorne Michaels, it seems reasonable to expect a laugh-a-minute skewering of America’s efforts in Afghanistan in the first years of the new millennium. However, whilst there are a few moments of mirth, the humour takes a backseat for the most part in this story of journalist Kim Baker (Fey) who is thrust into a combat zone as the correspondent for a television news network. It is also hard to grasp exactly who co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa  are aiming the film at because the violence is relatively mild and there is no sex to speak of (well, actually they do speak about it and that’s it), which is fine if you are looking to lure a younger audience with the hope of raising their awareness about this particular period in history, but there is an abundance of swearing that, whilst no doubt representative of the way these characters might speak, only serves to push the movie into a higher classification than it otherwise might be and potentially out of reach for such an audience. There is nothing wrong with swearing at all in contexts such as this, the problem is that it seems out of step with the softly-softly approach the filmmakers have taken in those other areas, as if they can’t decide whether they want gritty and realistic or something altogether more palatable for the more sensitive cinemagoer.

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That is not so say there are not some good moments to be had with Fey, who is a gifted comedy writer and performer, joining a growing list of comedians in making a move to more serious material. Based on real events and adapted from the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot brings some insight into the plight of journalists on the front line of the so-called war on terror. Initially out of her depth, Kim soon becomes entrenched in this exciting new world, spending her days embedded with soldiers as they battle boredom and the indifference of those they are trying to help, while her nights are filled partying with fellow journalists at the secure accommodation compound they share. Kim’s forays into the field are punctuated by moments of action that emphasise just how quickly things can escalate and the inherent risks associated with their mission.

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Fey is effective enough for most of the film, but there are a couple of bedroom interludes so awkward they are reminiscent of Fey’s neurotic sex-averse 30 Rock character Liz Lemon and render the whole romantic sub-plot as excruciating and unconvincing and perhaps better left on the cutting room floor. Martin Freeman plays Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie, a hard drinking, womanising cliché, while  Margot Robbie is good fun as Tanya Vanderpoel, the attractive, bullish British journalist who takes Kim under her wing. However, the less said about the performance of fellow Aussie Stephen Peacocke as Kim’s bodyguard the better. The film has attracted some criticism for its white-washing of two key Afghani characters and there is some merit in such protestations, although Christopher Abbott (Martha Marcy May Marlene) delivers an earnest, respectful and, dare I say, authentic portrayal as Kim’s translator/driver Fahim. In fact, Abbott and Fey share some of the best moments in the film. At the other end of the spectrum, Alfred Molina presents political figure Ali Massoud as a bumbling lecherous buffoon, resplendent with a dodgy beard and an equally dubious accent. Billy Bob Thornton rarely disappoints and he is fine as General Hollanek, with Evan Jonigkeit also shining as Coughlin, a young Marine who pays a high price for his service.

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Whilst a long way from the quality of something such as M*A*S*H, like the Korean War-set comedy there is also potential for this story to be explored with greater depth and insight as a television series. The events of the film take place over several years and the necessarily limiting scope of a two-hour film does prove problematic in trying to give the various characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves the narrative heft they deserve. With a soft spot for Tina Fey, I am probably more partial to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot than I ought to be but it does boast numerous enjoyable sequences and explores a number of issues – such as the plight of a woman working within the male-dominated worlds of the media, the military and Islamic culture – but the various story arcs never come together to form a wholly satisfying whole.

 

Captain America: Civil War

This latest addition to the Marvel perpetual movie franchising machine is actually a better movie than the last Avengers outing and I can’t help but wonder if the absence of both Thor and The Hulk – two of the more ludicrous Marvel characters – has something to do with it. Notwithstanding these absences, Captain America: Civil War is, in every other way, an Avengers movie. In fact, the whole movie is about the Avengers as a collective, the collateral damage that resulted from the events that played out in previous Avengers films and moves by the authorities to make the group accountable for their actions and answerable to a higher authority. A battle of egos ensues, with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) adamant that they should remain completely independent, while Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr) sees merit in the proposal to operate under the auspices of an international accord ratified by more than 100 countries. It sounds very highfalutin for a superhero action film, but rest assured that the political and philosophical elements take a back seat to the action.

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Following a showdown in Lagos, Nigeria that resulted in the deaths of eleven people, the Avengers (well most of them anyway) are summoned by Stark to a meeting with Secretary of State Thaddeous Ross (William Hurt), who delivers the ultimatum that divides the group. When an explosion rips through a meeting of world leaders gathered to sign the accord, Bucky Barnes (aka Winter Soldier) – is implicated and Captain America doggedly sets forth on a mission to exonerate his friend. Tensions between the two sides – Iron Man, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Spiderman (Tom Holland), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and newbie Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) on one side, with Captain America, Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) on the other – culminate in a showdown at an airport that, whilst ludicrous in the extreme, is still far more restrained than some of the scenarios in previous films.

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Amidst the chaos there are moments of humour, with the sardonic Stark leading the way, his visit to the home of Peter Parker/Spiderman one of the more amusing moments, even though Marisa Tomei is reduced to nothing more than Parker’s ‘hot’ Aunt May (a far cry from the more homely take on the character from the likes of Rosemary Harris and Sally Field) in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her moment. It is always disconcerting to see quality performers is such insignificant roles, with the likes of Martin Freeman, John Slattery, Hope Davis and Alfre Woodard amongst those who flitter into the narrative with very little to do. Emily VanCamp fares a little better with a more substantial part as Sharon Carter (her surname is significant), with German actor Daniel Bruhl (Rush, Woman in Gold) as Zemo, the obligatory foreign bad guy.

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There are moments when you think that this is going to delve deeply into issues around responsibility and accountability, with the Avengers as a metaphor for those military forces who swoop into various locations around the world, ostensibly in an effort to do good, but whose actions often result in catastrophic consequences for those caught in the crossfire. Unfortunately, directors Anthony and Joe Russo opt to shy away from exploring the issue in any profound way, instead focusing on the frenetic action sequences and revealing the myriad connections between various characters and events of the past, trading on the history built up in previous films. The action scenes are shot in a really exciting way, with innovative camera positioning and movement, impressive effects and imaginative teamwork from the characters. Yes, we get some insight into the personal beliefs and motivations of the characters and their principles of engagement but, when they are unable to communicate these, they beat the living shit out of each other instead, which isn’t a particularly positive message to deliver about dealing with ideological difference. As such, Captain America: Civil War is everything we have come to expect; big dumb fun. Those unfamiliar with the preceding films may lose their way a little in joining all the dots, but everybody else should find this a satisfactory, if somewhat superficial, cinematic experience.

Florence Foster Jenkins

When it comes to films with a lead female character aged 50 or over, it seems as though there is a shortlist of potential actresses that comprises just four names: Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Having worked with both Mirren (The Queen) and Dench (Mrs Henderson Presents, Philomena) in the recent past, British director Stephen Frears teams with Streep on this occasion for a story about a real-life New York socialite whose passion for music and performance is only surpassed by her overwhelming lack of talent. Streep plays the titular Florence, a likeable but apparently self-deluded woman whose infamy stems not from the sheer awfulness of her singing, but from the gusto and sincerity with which it is delivered.

Florence Foster Jenkins

It is somewhat ironic that Florence acquired such a sizeable audience in her time, with celebrities of the day such as Cole Porter and legendary stage actress Tallulah Bankhead amongst the 3000 who attended the one-off Carnegie Hall show in October 1944 that enshrined her in the annals of operatic folklore. Shrouded by her wealth and the determination of doting husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) to protect her from the excruciating realities of her voice, Florence remained delightfully deluded. St Clair would select audiences for her annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and pay critics to be kind, but when Florence insists on playing at Carnegie, he is unable to shield her from the scrutiny from which she has thus far been immune. The concert is, of course, abominable, but Florence convinces herself that the guffawing laughter from the audience is a sign that everybody is enjoying her performance.

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The relationship between Florence and St Clair is an interesting one, their marriage seemingly one of genuine mutual affection, albeit devoid of sex due to Florence being afflicted with syphilis as a result of a short-lived first marriage. However, despite his devotion to Florence, St Clair lives separately in an apartment that he shares with girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). It would be easy to present Florence as a somewhat pathetic figure, but Frears and Streep show great restraint in their depiction of a woman who is perhaps not as naive as she seems on the surface. A generous benefactor to the New York arts community, Florence is eccentric and impulsive and whilst Streep’s previous attempts at comedy (Death Becomes Her, She-Devil) have been awful, she is really good here in balancing the more serious elements of the story with Florence’s flights of fancy.

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As pianist Cosme McMoon, Simon Helberg plays a 1940’s version of his Big Bang Theory character, while Nina Arianda is a scene-stealing delight as a Brooklyn bimbo who becomes Florence’s most unlikely champion. Grant delivers a lively, slick turn as St Clair, a character every bit as compelling as Florence. An actor whose career has stalled, St Clair is equal parts charming and conniving, and it’s hard to know for sure if his doting patronage is borne from love or the privileges it bestows upon him. Either way, his dedication to protecting Florence from the scrutiny of those outside her sycophantic circle is a responsibility he takes seriously. It would have been so easy to make Florence an object of ridicule (as she was for many at the time) and aim for cheap laughs. Yes, we laugh at her, but Frears has taken a more nuanced approach to the material, presenting Florence as somebody whose outlook and attitude is one of positivity and passion.  With Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears has constructed an entertaining examination of an eccentric individual who serves as a reminder that perhaps it is tenacity and temerity, more so than talent, that are the true tests of character.