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Reviews

The United States vs. Billie Holiday | Regional News

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

(R16)

131 Mins

(2 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a movie full of moments. While it makes powerful use of Billie Holiday’s signature tunes and Andra Day delivers a Herculean performance in the titular role, jarring visual inconsistencies and a supreme lack of structure make the troubles of one of the most important figures in American music feel superficial.

Billie Holiday, one of the world’s most highly regarded jazz singers, spends her life battling the trauma of abuse and drug addiction. Her refusal to let racial inequality go unaddressed leaves her stalked by the FBI, who would rather put her behind bars than ever hear another performance of Strange Fruit, the heart-wrenching and provocative ballad that has since cemented her legacy.

The use of a sit-down interview with an eccentrically ignorant reporter as a framing device leaves me trepid just minutes into the film. Strangely, this is drawn back to so infrequently it seems utterly pointless, a mere excuse for the story to jump around without aim. While Day’s Holiday is transfixing from the word go, the world and characters around her feel skin deep, the blame for which falls squarely on director Lee Daniels.

If there was ever an artist full of complexities it was surely Billie Holiday. Daniel’s direction makes her problems seem trivial. Narratively, the film doesn’t so much shift gear from scene to scene as crash land in a new environment and atmosphere and burst into flames at a moment’s notice. Visually, we might go from watching a fluid and cinematic performance to an overly stylised documentary-like scene transition, for seemingly no justifiable reason. This cheapens the experience and makes the stories of supporting characters feel disconnected.

The film builds towards a performance of Strange Fruit, which is truly magical. It’s about the only scene in the film that strives for any kind of subtlety. The United States vs. Billie Holiday suffers from a director’s desire to cram everything in, but what is the focus here? Sadly, I never find out.

Reach Beyond Your Horizons | Regional News

Reach Beyond Your Horizons

The t-Lounge by Dilmah, 16th Apr 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Newlands College student Josh Neilson has been learning the drums for the past year with his teacher and friend Senuka Sudusinghe, front of house host and tea mixologist at the t-Lounge by Dilmah. Josh was diagnosed with autism as a baby and has an ultimate goal of drumming in a band one day. In Reach Beyond Your Horizons, he performed to an audience to help him on the way to that dream. Patrons also enjoyed a Dilmah tea and Meyer cheese pairing, a three-course meal, and speeches aimed at celebrating neurodiversity in our community, with 20 percent of the proceeds from the event going to Autism NZ.

Playing songs like We Will Rock You by Queen and Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, Josh’s passion, enthusiasm, and joyful spirit shone through. My concert favourites were the Drum Dialog between Josh and Senuka, where their connection and friendship resonated louder than the boom from the bass drum, and the fusion drum recital East Meets West, a fitting finale that saw Josh playing along to Sri Lankan drumming. 

The food was exceptional. The entrée was a beautiful mushroom cappuccino with a lentil bite (think a shot of cream of mushroom soup with a kick). Next we had a Ceylon spiced chicken taco, boasting perfectly balanced flavours tied together with a spicy chilli mayo. A vegetarian option of jackfruit was available too. Amma’s deliciously decadent chocolate cake followed with a choice of matcha, chai, or earl grey gelato – a special tea-infused treat. Of course the tea was a standout, with the lychee, rose, and almond with lemon nitro tea the most refreshing welcoming drink I think I’ve ever had.  

I was honoured to be invited to Reach Beyond Your Horizons, where the love Josh’s friends and family felt for him filled the room like steam from a hot cuppa on a cold night. It felt special to be part of a moment so important in a young man’s life, and what an upstanding man Josh clearly is.

Firebird | Regional News

Firebird

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, 8th Apr 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

In a marked contrast to the clarity and purpose of Carnival, Firebird, on two weeks later, was a confused experience. Thursday night’s programme was a jarring mix of styles and orchestration.

The opening piece was hard to enjoy. Juliet Palmer’s Buzzard was intended to support the bird theme, but I could not bring to mind anything relevant to the idea. The rhythms and intonation challenged the orchestra too, who looked and sounded tense and tested.

Welcoming applause for pianist Diedre Irons showed the house included many who had come to hear her play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. It was an odd choice to follow Buzzard and the abrupt change of style took a while to settle in my ear, but the orchestra relaxed and Irons gave us the highly capable and competent performance we know we can rely on from her. The second movement, Adagio, opened beautifully on piano and then swelled, receded, and flowed between the piano and orchestra through to a neatly played final movement, rewarded with long applause from the audience.

I have a new love for Stravinsky. After Petrushka in Carnival and this performance of Firebird I am left wondering why I haven’t felt this love before now. The answer must surely be the combination of Hamish McKeich’s direction and the individual and collective performances of the NZSO. Firebird was another dazzling combination of tone, depth, emotion, and imagery. The music shimmered and swirled, was bright and light, dark and menacing, contrasting chromatic notes with particular scales and harmonies, cleverly directed changes in volume and pace evoking dreamlike states and passages of high energy and urgency, culminating in a spectacularly energetic finale. It is near impossible to find a standout from so many excellent performances, but I loved the viola passages above all, and they are still ringing in my ears. Accolades for everyone, including Stravinsky.

Nobody | Regional News

Nobody

(R16)

92 Mins

(3 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Those looking for a ground-breaking adventure won’t find it in Nobody. What they will get is an absurd, unapologetically violent action romp led by the ever-watchable Bob Odenkirk. Though it teases an emotional arc that quickly goes walkabout, the adrenaline surging through the film’s final act leaves me smiling in the name of sheer excitement.

Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) defines the word ordinary: he’s married with two kids, works nine to five at a steel company, and otherwise largely keeps to himself. Following a home invasion where little is stolen (besides his daughter’s precious kitty cat bracelet), a long-dormant side of Hutch is awoken – the side that was once an assassin for intelligence agencies.

It was proudly splashed across the promo material for the film that Nobody comes from the same mind as the John Wick series (writer Derek Kolstad). This forces us to compare the two, a tough mountain for any action flick to climb, and sadly, Nobody doesn’t quite reach the summit. However, this doesn’t mean it has nothing going for it. First and foremost, it has Bob Odenkirk.

Odenkirk is a ludicrously likeable guy on screen. Even in his famous turn as greasy attorney Saul Goodman (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), we love to root for him. Director Ilya Naishuller sets the actor a challenge in going this savage, and he carries it off effortlessly while never losing his relatability.

The hand-to-hand combat is shown in its full force. There’s no hiding behind rapid editing or the careful placement of the back of a stunt double’s head. We follow every punch and understand how one leads to the next.

Nobody is not for everyone, though there are some out there who will be all about it. The brutality on display, and the noirish way it is captured, will make this movie a standout for many. The family drama that is incorporated only goes surface deep, and the squeamish among us may spend much of the runtime facing the back of the theatre. Decide which camp you’re part of and enter at your own risk.

The Wellington Comedy Club with Chris Parker | Regional News

The Wellington Comedy Club with Chris Parker

San Fran, 1st Apr 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

It’s a blustery Thursday night in Wellington, and San Fran is packed to the brim with punters hoping for the kind of belly laughs that can make the outside world disappear. That’s exactly what we get thanks to the Wellington Comedy Club. These regular stand-up shows always attract impressive line-ups of top local and national comedians, and tonight is no exception, with Funny Girls actor Chris Parker emceeing alongside headliner Sera Devcich. Supporting them is Shannon Basso Gaule, Ryan McGhee, and Lesa Macleod-Whiting.

Parker bursts onto the stage with an alarming energy that makes me like him immediately. A self-professed extrovert, his comedy is fast and frenzied but clearly constructed with care. He’s animated and personable, punctuating clever jokes with wild gesticulations (I can still see him screaming for Janet in the back room in my mind’s eye) and serving as the perfect host for the evening.

Next we have Basso Gaule, who is equally proud and embarrassed of the fashion choice he made in purchasing, then wearing, quite green trackpants. He makes a few great jokes about “fully furnished” flats in Wellington, then disenchants by being so ‘meh’ about his fiancée it’s borderline mean. Maybe they’ve broken up and I missed it?

McGhee is a softly spoken Scotsman with a twinkle in his eye. Cool, calm, and collected, he handles an infuriating heckler graciously and delivers my line of the night about coming out with choreography.

Macleod-Whiting shares meaningful stories of sexism and motherhood, galloping about the stage to act out ridiculous situations (like speed racing a car full of catcallers) with effortless effervescence. I would have named her Best Newcomer at the 2020 Wellington Comedy Awards too!

Sassy, sharp, and hilariously stroppy, Devcich creates a captive audience every second she’s onstage. From tampons in corpses to spoons covered in you-know-what, this is unapologetically rude comedy. Her easy, understated delivery means punchlines creep up on the crowd, causing collective cackling (and shrieking!) and bringing the house down.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin | Regional News

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Adapted by: Rona Munro

Directed by: Ewen Coleman and Stanford Reynolds

Gryphon Theatre, 31st Mar 2021

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

A truly charming rendition of Louis de Bernières’ novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is well worth a watch. The show hits the mark and skillfully paints the story of star-crossed lovers Antonio Corelli (Jonny Marshall) and Pelagia (Ava Wiszniewska) amid a war-stricken community, ravaged but not destroyed.

The entire cast is extremely talented, navigating Greek, Italian, and German accents and language with great professionalism. Emotions are raw and heavy, especially for Wiszniewska and Richard Corney (playing Mandras), who navigate the tragedy of war as well as first love with expert balance. Georgia Davenport (the goat) and Gilbert Levack (Psipsina the pine marten) brilliantly add a second layer of humanity, suspending disbelief of their real human form and becoming their animal counterparts. Alister Williams (Iannis), however, steals the show. As father, doctor, and romantic, Williams’ performance shows true experience, authenticity, tenderness, and genuine love for his daughter, his community, and his beloved Cephalonia.

The show has a complex timeline and geography, spanning over 50 years and multiple countries. Theo Wijnsma’s minimal set masterfully brings Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to life, each location distinct yet ultimately connected. The backdrop consists of three staired levels which span the length of the stage, moulding mountains, battles, cliff faces, bramble patches, town squares, and barracks. These stairs are also mobile, enabling an extremely convincing earthquake effect. Downstage left sits Iannis and Pelagia’s front stoop and kitchen table, ever-present throughout the story, making the world of Cephalonia titular and stable despite the constant changes around it.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a beautiful and complex novel, and no small feat to bring to the stage. Wellington Repertory Theatre’s rendition expertly captures the story’s essence, sincerely portraying many forms of love and relationships against the backdrop of war and tragedy. In a world with so much human cruelty and horror, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin shows that beside, or perhaps behind it, will always flourish human love.

Carnival | Regional News

Carnival

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestr

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, 26th Mar 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Carnival was an apt title for this programme. Opening a busy weekend of festivals – CubaDupa, the culmination of Wellington Pride, and the NZSO’s 2021 Podium Series – there was an enthusiastic almost full house for this lively and bold performance, full of energy, colour, and glorious sound. It was also a great send-off for second violin Dean Major, retiring after 46 years.

Ravel originally wrote La Valse as ballet music. From deep in the lower registers the music grows in volume, complexity, and pace. Skilful musicianship created a sense of someone wading through deep water, emerging on the shore to dance, ultimately, with abandon. Hardly a Viennese waltz but definitely in the carnival theme.

Stephen De Pledge took his seat for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. Written in about 1930, Ravel traverses Basque folk music and jazz (a definite echo of Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue) in three classically proportioned movements. De Pledge was enjoying himself at the keyboard, ably supported and very well matched by the orchestra. The third movement felt especially playful and enchanting and his encore of Couperin’s La Basque was executed perfectly.

The carnival atmosphere stepped up a notch with Anna Clyne’s Masquerade. Commissioned for the Last Night of the Proms in 2013, this deliberately exuberant piece was a perfect choice for this programme. Starting with a big bang, then strings sounding like electronica, next bringing to mind the desert scene in Lawrence of Arabia, followed by heavy bass brass, syncopated rhythms, and so much going on, it was hard to keep up before the big brass finale.

The sonic dance party continued with Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Ballet music has to tell the story for the dancers to bring to life. Under McKeich’s animated direction, the orchestra did a stunning job of bringing the distinctly modern and disjointed but essential parts together as a hugely engrossing and enjoyable whole.

Raya and the Last Dragon | Regional News

Raya and the Last Dragon

(PG)

107 Mins

(2 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Raya and the Last Dragon is a satisfying Disney romp with a fun cast of characters, but it suffers from a severe lack of originality. While kids will rightfully be engulfed by its tangible world and delightfully strange characters, older Disney fans will sense déjà vu.

Long ago, humans and dragons lived together harmoniously in the land of Kumandra. When monsters attacked, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Centuries later, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior princess charged with protecting the last remaining fragment of dragon life, looks to unite her people by returning the creatures to existence, a quest that truly begins when she finds Sisu (Awkwafina), the last remaining dragon.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the animation is stunning. While Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t take risks with its aesthetic in the way some recent films have – notably, last year’s Soul – the atmosphere of Kumandra is firmly set. From the dusty desserts of Tail to the neon-lit nightlife of Talon and the snow-drenched forests of Spine, each land looks at once distinct from, and uniform with, the world we are being guided through.

While the main crux of the story is fun, it takes too long for the wheels to start turning. By the time we catch up with Raya in the present day, we have blazed past two stories that would probably make for a gripping watch in their own right. Raya is a standard badass warrior, complete with an emotional shortcoming: an inability to trust people. Sadly, all the other characters we are introduced too are more captivating than our lead, particularly Sisu. Yes, she’s no Genie (Aladdin), but Awkwafina is well cast and my eyes open a little wider every time this colourful dragon flies into frame.

The film’s best moments come when we can forget the plot for a second and simply enjoy watching Sisu muck around. She is a surprising character in a film that otherwise lacks surprises, and a great addition to the Disney canon.

IDIOM 002 | Regional News

IDIOM 002

Directed by: Laser Kiwi

Te Auaha, 19th Mar 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Cucumbers! Melons! Grapes! Bring your shades and get your weird on because this deliciously fruity show is so brilliant, it’s dazzling.

From chefs to clowns and looping violinists, IDIOM 002 features a variety of artists at the very top of their game. The acts aren’t all connected but the mood is carefully curated by our hosts, the only but indeed best surreal sketch circus trio in the world, Laser Kiwi. Plus, several cucumbers find their way onto the stage more than once. I don’t know why, but I like it.

The high-energy variety show begins with a rousing medley of artists giving us a small taste of what’s to come. Comedian Sowmya Hiremath then takes the stage, navigating ghost buses (and ghost husbands for that matter) with a relatable and refreshing honesty.

Over the course of the evening we meet aerial hoop artist Sophia O’Connor, whose athleticism astounds; Sharn Te Pou, who does flips and splits in roller skates and can even sing, mesmerising all every moment he’s on stage; chef Jack Shewell, who is really good at chopping and flambéing things; world-renowned circus artist Emma Phillips, who juggles whole tables with her feet and has the audience gasping for breath; and clown Fraser Hooper, who rides a tiny bike and wields giant gloves in a boxing routine for the ages.

Laser Kiwi’s programming of physical and stand-up comedy shows their aptitude for balance, echoed in their inclusion of MOTTE (violinist and composer Anita Clark). MOTTE’s otherworldly, experimental music isn’t upbeat like the other acts but it’s my favourite addition to the show.  

Tying it all together are our hosts Zane Jarvie, Degge Jarvie, and Imogen Stone, who delight the crowd with their rhythmic bobbing and unique brand of Pictionary, sometimes at the same time. Brothers Zane and Degge make quick work of chopping six airborne cucumbers while Stone’s impressive and dexterous candle-lighting act is another show highlight.

It might sound cliché but I truly mean it when I say there is never a dull moment in IDIOM 002.