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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.

Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic | Regional News

Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic

The Opera House, 18th Apr 2021

Reviewed by: Graeme King

“Are we gonna have fun tonight Wellington?” shouts Freddie Mercury (Dominic Warren) during the concert starter A Kind Of Magic, and it’s obvious the audience is in for an interactive experience.

“This is a rock ‘n’ roll gig so we’re gonna treat it as a stadium – on your feet!” This at the start of the second track Radio Ga Ga, and we are up dancing!

This concert is a recreation of the 1986 World Tour – and a lot of attention has been paid to ensure the authenticity of the costumes, instruments and equipment, background videos, stunning lightshow, and state-of-the-art sound system.  

All their biggest hits follow: Another One Bites the Dust, featuring the solid bass guitar of John Deacon (Nigel Walker), Play The Game and Killer Queen, with Brian May (Luke Wyngaard) exquisitely playing the famous guitar riffs, Fat Bottomed Girls and Tie Your Mother Down featuring a thunderous but impeccable drum solo by Roger Taylor (Michael Dickens). Bicycle Race, Save Me, Don’t Stop Me Now – after which Freddie asks for a selfie with the band, and for the audience to stand and raise their hands, with Crazy Little Thing Called Love closing the first half.

A frenetic I Want It All starts the second set, with It’s A Hard Life segueing effortlessly into You’re My Best Friend. A superb guitar solo by Brian May is followed by I Want To Break Free, whereupon Freddie (in drag) comes down into the first few rows to sit on a few male laps – rubbing some with his feather boa!

The hits keep coming – Hammer To Fall, Under Pressure, Somebody To Love, We Are The Champions – with the last song of the set the anthemic We Will Rock You.

The encore starts with Love Of My Life featuring Brian May’s sublime acoustic guitar playing and gorgeous vocals by Freddie, finishing with a climactic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Overall a clever, well-spaced production that, with the strong vocal harmonies and musicianship of the band together with Freddie’s powerful vocals and stage presence, creates an enjoyable Queen experience.

Tale of a Dog  | Regional News

Tale of a Dog

Written by: Peter Wilson

Directed by: Fraser Hooper and Amalia Calder

Tararua Tramping Club Clubrooms, 17th Apr 2021

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

Presented by KidzStuff Theatre, Tale of a Dog tells the tale of Dog, the ‘trickiest of tricksters’ and last remaining performing dog in the circus. After 30 years of the same old tricks, Dog, wonderfully brought to life by David Ladderman, wants to try new things.

Fergus Aitken, larger than life as Ringmaster and Narrator, is blind to Dog’s talents and is a stickler for things remaining the same. He strategically places a ‘vacancy’ sign on Dog’s colourful tent home. With no takers for the job, he steps in rather haphazardly as a replacement for Dog, confident he can fill the void. His attempt is pitiful at best. Dog’s unique talents are not easily replaced.

“Bring back dog!” echoes through the audience captivated in the front row.

Dog agrees to come back on three conditions: he has a piano, he has bones (lots of really big bones), and he and the Ringmaster perform together. What ensues is a new circus where Dog’s talents now surprise and delight. Some rather impressive juggling between Ringmaster and Dog brings a smile to many a young face, including my eight-year-old.

With his paw-by-paw rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle on his tiny piano, Dog appears coattails and all, and the Ringmaster is as wowed and awed as his audience. One keen observer from the audience is quick to admonish the ringmaster with an incredulous “did you not see him playing in the beginning?”

Tale of a Dog is just right for the four to seven age group. It’s a great opportunity to cultivate a love of theatre in the young, with comedy, suspense, and a little slapstick in between. On a deeper level, Tale of a Dog is a lasting legacy of late writer Peter Wilson about learning to appreciate each other’s unique differences. With perseverance and by staying true to yourself, you can achieve great things.

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.

Wow | Regional News

Wow

Written by: Bill Manhire

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ollie Kavanagh Penno

“I wanted life to be useful
like a piece of furniture that accurately
describes itself. I had this thought, you see,
and I wanted to write it down.”

Writing a short book review can become a procedural exercise if you let it. First, introducing the author – their name, accomplishments, previous works. Then, reducing the work to its qualities that interest you most, pasting some quotes in there to say, “see what I mean?”

Bill Manhire poses a significant threat to this order of things. Impossible to summarise in 350 words, Wow is not merely an infantile exclamation, but an appropriate reaction to the words that follow.

“They fell in love between the end of footie season
and the start of shearing. Sheep gazed, bewildered.
The paddocks stretched up into the hills,
mostly scrub and a few old stands of bush.
‘Now listen here,’ he said, and that was it really.”

Among other things, these poems are about the native bird, God, and the peculiar acts that define a regular existence. Manhire’s love for repetition and rhyme persists, and his treatment of the ordinary in Wow lends itself to the surreal. The pull of Manhire’s verse is forceful, as is the ensuing feeling that you too might be living in one of his poems. Bill Manhire is to New Zealand poetry what John Prine is to Chicago folk music.

“I like the cloud at the top of Shingle Road,
the way it makes my feelings settle.
Sheep can still find grass there,
grazing among a thousand stones.
Each stone was once the shadow of a bird.”

See what I mean?

The Passenger: Brazil  | Regional News

The Passenger: Brazil

Europa Editions

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Brazil was a country that cropped up for me when I first started digging deeper into blues music. Part of my research was about slavery after coming across an article that mentioned, in part, that Brazil had imported some four million slaves – or 40 percent of all slaves from Africa compared to America’s 600,000. What struck me, apart from the sheer numbers, was that Brazil has never developed a comparable blues music style. This can also be said of other slave territories in the Caribbean such as Cuba or Haiti.

Quite different from the Lonely Planet books about countries, which tend to look for the positives, this series, which has Japan and Greece in its catalogues, covers the scope of the subject with hard-hitting journalism within the pages.

Of interest to all is the despotic tyrant Jair Bolsonaro, who rules the country with much of the same intolerance that former President Trump displayed. Racist, misogynist, anti-gay, anti-environmentalists, the list goes on. Perhaps his most offensive remark was made to a female MP whom he described as being 'too ugly to rape'.  

The Passenger series’ stance is about exploding myths. An example is the rise of the feminist rap movement funkeiras, the objectivity of which seems to be body slamming anybody shaming overweight women. Their videos are shamelessly sexually provocative. It’s a long way from the Ipanema beach sound of samba and bossa nova.

This is not pretty reading, yet it is essential to understanding deforestation, gang wars, prison, drugs, armed conflict, and the killing or removal of Indigenous tribes. Even the building of the so-called fabled city of Brasilia is an example of city planning gone wrong. I checked out Brasilia on YouTube and was amazed by the brutalist architecture, monstrous concrete piazzas, and lack of trees. The promise of work in Brasilia caused a migration of the poor, leading to more slums.

The Passenger: Brazil should be read by every politician and anyone who cares about the planet.

The Disinvent Movement  | Regional News

The Disinvent Movement

Written by: Susanna Gendall

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

The Disinvent Movement is a captivating novel following a disillusioned Kiwi woman anxiously navigating her way through life. Susanna Gendall explores a woman’s struggle with identity following the end of a violent relationship, the one thing she says she shares with her mother. This unique debut is segmented into 81 short stories, most only a couple of paragraphs long.

Each story follows the protagonist as she questions identity, societal norms, and expectations. It made perfect sense that the protagonist would start to question herself and her surroundings after surviving such a life-altering ordeal. Gendall writes: “Each morning I knew I was closer to leaving. This was not so much about walking out the door as it was about dismantling a whole system of belief.” Later she writes: “How had we all just gone along with this whole thing anyway? Why were we trying so hard to play by the rules?”

The book is riddled with deliberate, short sentences, crafted perfectly for my attention span. These stunted sentences made for easy reading and more importantly offered opportunities for the reader to pause and reflect on the writer’s meanings and intentions.

Initially, I was surprised when the protagonist painted the cars on her street as a form of climate activism. As I read on, I realised this was a fitting action from a woman grappling with how to execute her beliefs in a purposeful way. Life or relationships are not linear, and as we evolve, we naturally disconnect from certain people. Gendall describes this transience concisely when she writes: “Once I was out, I wanted to get in, and once I was in, I wanted out.”

The Dinsinvent Movement emphasises that life is not always a series of choices and we often face problems that call for strength and determination. Although I didn’t necessarily relate to all of the protagonist’s struggles, I am sure there will be women out there who will be comforted and inspired by her stories.

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.