Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review: Performance

Another busy year this year. In 2008 I attended 88 live performances; in 2009, I saw 102 live performances, including comedy, dance, circus and theatre. And better yet, I saw a hell of a lot that I liked.

I was, to be honest, fairly discerning this year, and consequently didn't see a lot at the MTC, as I was fairly certain that there weren't a great many of their productions this year that would appeal to me. Reading reviews by my fellow Melbourne arts bloggers, nine times out of ten it seemed I was right. On a more positive note, there are several productions in the company's 2010 season which already look interesting, so I hope to have some positive reviews to post in the coming months.

I also missed quite a few shows I actually wanted to see due to increased Board commitments this year (as well as continuing as Chair of Melbourne Fringe, I also joined the Boards of The Store Room Theatre and BalletLab this year, but more of that in the next post), including several shows at the Malthouse and Red Stitch. Such is life.

But here are some hastily written summaries of my favourite shows (not necessarily 'the best' per se, but those I most engaged with and responded to) for 2009:

Part One: Comedy

The List Operators: This wonderfully madcap duo (pictured above) re-mounted their 2008 Fringe show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year, and gods it was good! Never have simple lists been so much fun. I very much look forward to following Richard and Matt's comedic careers in years to come.

Tom Ballard Is What He Is: Coming out as a gay teenager was never funnier than in this autobiographical debut solo stand-up show by Warnambool's Tom Ballard, which I saw in a draft version at St Kilda Laughs, and again, re-tuned and streamlined, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Eric: The One Man Sketch Comedy Show: I'm not a huge fan of sketch comedy, but when it's done as brilliantly as this show, with sketches written by some of Melbourne's most exciting writers including Lally Katz, Adam J. Cass and Robert Reid, directed by Scott Brennan and performed by Scott Gooding, what's not to like?

Monster of the Deep 3D: A solo show written and performed by Sydney's Claudia O'Doherty (of comedy troupe Pig Island), this was my stand-out show at the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival. Quite simply brilliant. I believe it's returning to Melbourne in April for the Comedy Festival, so don't miss it!

The Bedroom Philosopher: Songs from the 86 Tram: The tram trip from Bundoora to Docklands in song, performed by the remarkable and wonderful Justin Heazlewood, aka The Bedroom Philosopher. Brilliant at the Comedy Festival, but lost some of its impact when performed in a much larger venue at Fringe. Nonetheless, memorable, wonderful and hilarious.

Dishonourable Mention: The Colours' Interactive Comedy Show; All The Single Ladies.

Part Two: Circus

The 7 Fingers - Traces: I saw some great circus this year thanks to the National Institute of Circus Arts (NIDA), Circus Oz and some of the shows at the Melbourne Fringe, but my stand-out circus show of the year was this simply stunning work by Canadian troupe The 7 Fingers. An exciting blend of contemporary circus arts, street skills and parkour set to a thumping soundtrack ranging from rock to drum'n'bass, and performed by a dazzling young troupe. Not just the best circus show of the year, but one of the best circus shows I've ever seen. Simply remarkable.

Dishonourable Mention: Cirque du Soleil's Dralion - bloated, pompous and affected cross-cultural stodge.

Part Three: Theatre

The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm's GLASOON! This insane, abject and wonderful exploration of masculinity, religion and Oedipal urges was a total headfuck, and the single most breathtaking and brilliant theatre production I saw this year.

Red Stitch's Red Sky Morning: I missed the original production of this lyrical exploration of depression by Tasmanian playwright Tom Holloway in 2008, so leaped at the chance to see it re-staged by the Arts Centre's Full Tilt program this year. My god. What a stunning piece of work it is. The venue didn't quite do the work justice, but nor did it detract from the sheer power of this moving and memorable piece of text-based theatre.

White Whale Theatre's Melburnalia II: Five short plays by five writers, performed by an ensemble cast. Not every play was great (Danny Katz, I'm looking at you) but the standout works, Andrea James' Birrarung (in which an Aboriginal warrior wreaked havoc on a trio of Yarra Tram ticket inspectors) and Aidan Fennessy's beautiful Mentone (inspired by Under Milk Wood, and cleverly incorporating part of the poem into its text) were riveting and unmissable.

Highly Commended: Africa by My Darling Patricia at The Malthouse; Attract/Repel by The Melbourne Town Players at The Store Room; Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd by Stuck Pigs Squealing at The Malthouse.

Dishonourable Mention: Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy at The Arts Centre, a tedious puppet show by and about an egocentric with very limited range; Chicago, a stiff and dated production of the stage musical.

Part Four: Dance

BalletLab's Miracle: I wasn't a BalletLab board member when I saw this show so I don't feel like it's a conflict of interest to list it as one of my stand-out shows for the year. Confronting, vivid, haunting and memorable, this assaulting exploration of religion and fanaticism completely polarised its audiences. Me, I loved it.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Fire: A Retrospective. This stunning show was a seamless selection of highlights from Bangarra's numerous works over 20 years. Visceral and beautiful, and a striking blend of contemporary and traditional dance styles.

Lucy Guerin Inc's Structure and Sadness: I've never responded so emotionally to a dance work as I did to this piece about the 1970 collapse of the West Gate Bridge, which claimed 35 lives. Originally presented at the 2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival, and re-staged at the Malthouse in November this year, Structure and Sadness is a stirring and captivating piece of dance theatre.

The Hofesh Shechter Company's Uprising/In Your Rooms: My favourite event at this year's Melbourne International Arts Festival was this double bill by the UK-based Hofesh Shechter Company. The first piece, Uprising, was a gloriously masculine work of athletically aggressive choreography; while In Your Rooms was more subtle but no less breathtaking, imaginative and reflective.

2009 in review: Cinema

I've been meaning to get around to blogging for more than a month, but time has continued to slip away from me for a variety of reasons. It's only now, on the last day of 2009, that I've finally found the time - and the motivation - to post a few catch-up comments.

I figure I'll approach my review of the year in three parts: film, performance and personal stuff. Let's start with cinema, shall we?

Compared to 2008, in which I only saw 33 feature films at the cinema, this year I had a much better year, seeing a grand total of 77 new release features, as well as a few good shorts. Given my diverse tastes, it's no surprise that I took in everything from homegrown arthouse treats to big budget blockbusters, and everything in between.

Overall it's been a pretty good year, especially Australian films, as various pundits have been discussing at length over the last few weeks. But who cares what they think? This is all about what I think, isn't it?

So, in no particular order, here's a (very subjective) list of some of my favourite and most memorable films of 2009:

MILK (dir. Gus Van Sant). One of the most satisfying biopics I've ever seen, with brilliant performances from Sean Penn as gay rights activist Harvey Milk, James Franco as his lover Scott Smith, and a mesmerising turn by Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk's killer. Archival and contemporary footage are perfectly blended in this outstanding, moving and deeply relevant movie.

(dir. Adam Elliot). In a year of great Australian films, this was one of the best: a claymation story of trans-continental friendship, a wonky paean to being an outsider, and a gloriously realised homage to suburbia.

(dir. J.J. Abrams). Vividly re-imagined, this re-boot of the Star Trek series was deeply satisfying for fans and non-fans (such as me) alike. An exuberant, energetic and breath-taking re-working of a sci-fi classic.

(dir. Lance Daly). At the opposite end of the spectrum from Star Trek was this lo-fi, low budget, and small scale Irish charmer about two pre-teens running away from their grim estate homes to the bright lights of Dublin. Simple, sublime and deeply engaging (and one of 29 films I saw at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival).

QUEMAR LAS NAVES aka 'BURN THE BRIDGES' (dir. Francisco Franco Alba). One of the highlights of this year's Melbourne Queer Film Festival, this stunning example of Mexican Gothic featured an abundance of baroque elements - a decaying family home, a dying mother, a poisonously close relationship between a brother and sister, Catholicism, tortured homoeroticism and adolescent longing. It could have been a mess, especially as it was the director's debut feature; instead, it was remarkable.

LOOKING FOR ERIC (dir. Ken Loach). A comedy from the master of kitchen sink miserablism? Yes, and a fantastic one at that, which was nonetheless also a quintessentially Ken Loach film. A memorable and moving story of hope, love, family life and redemption, with a dash of magic realism, and a hefty dose of football superstar Eric Cantona.

THE MAN WHO LOVED YNGVE (dir. Stian Kristiansen). One of the freshest, most memorable 'coming out' films I've ever seen, set in Norway in the 1980s and peppered with tracks from such bands as The Cure, REM and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Honourable mentions go to:

  • T is for Teacher (a great doco about trans teachers by Melbourne director Rohan Spong).
  • The powerful expose of Indonesian culpability, Balibo (dir. Robert Connolly).
  • The much-lauded Samson and Delilah (dir. Warwick Thornton).
  • The stunning and provocative doco The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos).
  • Brendan and the Secret of Kells (a beautiful animated kids flick from Ireland co-directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey).
  • The poetically gut-wrenching Van Diemen's Land (dir. Jonathan auf der Heide).
  • And from New Zealand, the life-affirming and lovely doco, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (dir. Leanne Pooley).
And the worst films of 2009? Just briefly, they included:

  • Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (dir. Patrick Tatupoulos). Turgid, wooden and lacking both terror and imagination.
  • All About Steve (dir. Phil Traill). An excruiciatingly unfunny 'comedy' starring Sandra Bullock.
  • Blessed (dir. Ana Kokkinos). Ugh. Don't get me started.
  • Humpday (dir. Lynn Shelton). Inane, meandering and sucked all the drama out of a potentially fascinating subject.
  • Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (dir. David Yates). Not so much bad as boring and disappointing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Did you take this photo?

I've had a Fairfax journo call me asking permission to reprint a photo from the Melbourne Zombie Shuffle, but they need a hi-res version of it ASAP, and would also like to credit the photographer responsible. If you took it, could you please drop me a line ASAP? My email is burntime (at)