Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Directed by Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

New Zealand/ 2019/ 103 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We’re halfway through 2020, a peculiar pandemic year which hosts a variety of elections, consequences, narcissistic reaches, and exposure of the toxic systems in place in a way which bathes inequalities – particularly economic – in a floodlight. As the first generation projected to earn less than their parents since the second world war, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century encompasses everything you claimed to know on Twitter into a malleable chunk of text. Now, Justin Pemberton has re-parcelled Piketty’s book into a documentary which shows how the world has been shaped, and that how if we fail to strike a balance we are, in the politest way possible, screwed.

From French 18th century aristocracy, to the English gentry’s modern-day reproduction of wealth into the UK’s 1%, and the inherited privilege of the “rich kids” of Asia or the US, Pemberton plunges into the depths of commerce, and how capital(ism) has donned various visages over the decades. But it equally recognises the naivety of revolution or forced change and the necessity for organised institutions of education, business and yes, even government. Remarkably, in an era of cancel culture and the tantalising ease of drawing in a radical crowd, hungry to tear down a faceless giant of multinational conglomerations, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tries to present history. The fact is, as much as some regret to admit, the system is flawed, but not quite as those who circumvent it to their selfish gains.

Less a procedural expansion, more an entry point into the powerhouse, influential book, this documentary supplement to the mammoth literary counterpart condenses the source material, and offers ease of access to a wider range for those curious about the behemoth that is capitalism’s secrets. For those who prefer side-cuts and cultural references to embellish their exposition, enter director Justin Pemberton who portions the timescale into landmark film examples. From an explanation of the reality of capital’s foundations in landownership and commerce, and our acceptance of this using Pride & Prejudice, to a wider analogy with Elysium or A Tale of Two Cities, or a trivialisation, such as the French Revolution’s (attempted) abolishment of the aristocracy being boiled down to Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.

Stepping beyond the works of Austen, much of Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s ease of access is down to its aesthetic structure, with both academics who are not only well versed in their respective fields but equally capable on camera, and enjoyable bite-sized chunks of animation and graphics. With on the nose introductions to the film with Lorde’s ‘Royals’, Pemberton again infuses the importance of cultural substances into how regularly changes or tactics in capitalism are imposed on a general populace.

Tying the knots together, albeit loosely, the documentary takes on an obvious form of narrative as we enter a present era. There’s a horrific harkening to the downtrodden who are vulnerable to the rise of fascism, racism or inward hatred of immigration similar, to the delusional influence of nationalism and prejudice in the spark of the second world war. Sound familiar yet? And while the empty, spiteful tones of Trump and Farage are only heard briefly, Pemberton designs the film in such a way as to allow the audience the grace of beating him to the punch.

Sadistically affable and engaging, though expectedly irksome, Pemberton finds no solution – but did we expect one? The answer to the world’s financial inequalities and wealth distribution will likely not come from the hands of filmmakers. But frustratingly, rather than questioning options or attempts, Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s focus lies squarely on the ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, yet isn’t keen on investigating the ‘what now?’. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Celtic Tiger – The Show Must Go On

Directed and Choreography Michael Flatley

Rating: 2 out of 5.

With no ill intent, Americans will love this. Which will probably answer any questions for anyone watching Celtic Tiger. Lord of the Dance, the flashiest of toe-tappers and a bonified Irishman performer, Michael Flatley has an exceptionally acute sense of over-the-top style, panache and gusto when it comes to dance for the masses, and those families who are 100% certain they have Scottish or Irish heritage. Claiming to be his most ambitious piece to date, there is no denial about the bloated excesses of Celtic Tiger – a production which seeks to promote a sense of spiritual awakening and a fight for freedom.

When first hearing Michael Flatley, initial thoughts are of hideous emerald leotards, legs akimbo and Flatley at the head parading topless, for some reason. But it’s oh so much worse than this. Often insulting, more often confusing, Celtic Tiger tackles ballet, salsa, cheerleading and yes, Riverdance, amidst a myriad of tacky, gormless strutting.

From highland clearances, Bloody Sunday (no, seriously) and Al Capone, to Flatley single-handedly defeating the English Redcoats – Celtic Tiger feels like a mid-life crisis on overdrive. Raunchy strip-teases sit in the same category as ‘tributes’ to the Irish struggles and unrest. Marvellous choreography from the industry’s finest professionals, with some world-class string instrumentals and live bands, are upstaged by bikinis and fireworks. Little makes sense in Flatley’s direction of the production, nor does David Malley’s direction of the camerawork.

A particular issue is that it’s too cinematic, there’s an edit every few seconds which distract immeasurably from the snippets of genuine talent, the training, precision, and effort. These dancers are extraordinary, and the framing fails to allow this to be the focus – instead, drawing our eye to what else? Flesh. Flesh, glitter, and banners. Occasionally the camera-crew realise a necessity of Irish stepdance is to allow the audience to witness the mesmeric speed and articulation of footwork, but it’s usually for a moment before cascading back down the neckline of a young dancer.

Throughout ravaging Celtic history, with dashes of obtuse stereotypes, something mind-boggling beautiful happens. Twice, in fact, for as talented as the dancers can be, two vocal performances halt any snorts of derision. Irish singer Paul Harrington performs Four Green Fields, with control and impact which silences the riled-up audience, who have their fieriness doused with Harrington’s glorious rendition, sublimely sung with no distraction. Similarly, Una Gibney’s solo rendition of the Banshee’s Cry, a haunting melody of pitch-perfect tonal proportions is a set which stands out from the rest of the scattered production.

And this is the definitive issue with Celtic Tiger, its ambition is a killer. The production has such a gluttonous need to cover a vast array of genres and methods that it completely misses the mark on what Flatley has always been known for. When taking a moment to reflect, there is an ignition of brilliance. Take the Highland Clearances, the brutality of the redcoats as the flaming buildings unearth dancers, smoked out and wrought with emotion. The tremendous potential is then oversaturated with crocodile tears by a director who sees the faux-emotion, but not the significance.

Repugnantly, this is a five-star extravaganza of variety and movement – reduced to nothing but a pandering mess of cultural appropriation, mickey-mouse history and chauvinistic showboating. Elements of genuine Celtic mythos or haunting aspects of modern Irish history are painted over, glammed up and slapped into the gaping maws of a hungry audience who want their quality technique smothered in Hollywood schlock.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Hamilton – Disney +

Directed by Thomas Kail

Book, Music & Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Rating: 5 out of 5.

For people who never understood, indeed resented, the attention and proclaimed brilliance of Hamilton – this is the opportunity to witness the phenomenon which has, and continues to, challenge the face of theatrical culture and historical perception. The American founding fathers, among the hundreds of names left out of their rise to glory, one individual sits overcast throughout history – Alexander Hamilton. A man who, before Lin-Manuel Miranda, the majority of us had perhaps heard of, but knew nothing about.

Sly, charming to a dysfunctional level, Miranda may be the father of Hamilton, but this production is by no means dominated by his exceptional ability or presence. There isn’t a character or moment of the production which feels bereft of wit, emotion or intention. Continuing the spark ideas of intrigue, or conjure debates which, somehow, a mere two centuries later we still seem to be having, Miranda’s Hamilton is both a product of the original century, an immigrant getting the job done, but is also a contemporary figure, a man who cries of the inequality and obstacles many continue to unjustly face.

And in this battle to free a nation, Hamilton is aided by a troupe of ambitious men and surrounds himself in a supportive network of influential women. From Daveed Diggs’s Marquis de Lafayette or his hypnotic Jefferson to the wonderment which is Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo as Angelica and Eliza Schulyer, two of three sisters who Hamilton finds an opportunity to climb the ranks, but ends up in a triangle of love and adoration he will never emerge from. Facing adversity from near and afar, from his former equal Aaron Burr, and across the sea from the Mad King George, performed sinfully by the eminent Jonathon Groff. Under the command of George Washington, Hamilton and this new generation of thinkers, writers and fighters seek to wash out the British and start anew.

Similarly, a rising tide of youth against a sea of tyranny, written from the hand of a man who has stepped forward, challenging a defiant series of expectations and prejudice, seems to have brewed a perfect storm which is now, as viable and potent as ever. Originally debuting in the Obama era – the first black president, to this modern re-framing in the wall-building Trump era. A production which catapults Black, Hispanic and Asian men and women into the roles of the founding fathers and other significant white historical figures is still met with futile resistance. Hamilton has perhaps, accepting idiom, never been more vital to grasping the attention of the people, and blazing a rallying song of the masses.

And what an album of the people, where any individual number can be illuminated for its merit. An infusion of Hip-Hop, Jazz and R&B collie with Broadway belts in a manner in which could crash and smoulder, but Miranda changes the game to his rules. Miranda’s lyrical scripture is magnificent in wit, humour and potency – infusing vast genres into a harmonised balance of wonder. The original cast perhaps demonstrates the flexibility and enthusiasm of the soundtrack, from the venomous energy Leslie Odom Jr. infuses Burr throughout The Room Where It Happened to the silencing tormented emotion of Who lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story. The equally powerful Wait For It, as Odom Jnr’s descent into vendetta is bathed in the midnight brilliance of Howard Binkley’s colossal lighting. Where Hamilton perhaps cements itself as not only a piece of theatre but stunning filmmaking is with Satisfied, Goldberry’s signature moment and a defining moment for the first act. 

This cinematography, from legendary filmmaker Declan Quinn, understands marrying the two mediums in synchronised perfection. If you’ve experience Hamilton from the ‘cheap seats’ in the Gods, you were stunned by the stage and the composition. Now, live from home, you can see the detail, the brass buttons and flickers of emotion in the faces of remarkable performances. Slow tracking shots, following the direction, allows focus and clarity with little to no direct cuts or edits, emulating a one-take aesthetic. Further, the tilts in camera angles serve as enforcers – Quinn’s decision to plummet the camera commands a sense of status from key cast members Washington (Christopher Jackson) or gradually spinning for dear ol’ King George III as his seething fury and madness rises, his competency dying out, his frabjous glee descending.

Where the camera has an edge on the stage, is bringing life to Blankenbuehler’s choreography, an overlooked aspect for Hamilton. A spirituous heavy-footed show, with plenty of revolutionary speeches and thundering stomps courtesy of Yorktown, the footwork is elegant on occasion, and no movement is without design. Orchestrating the movement of often busy stages is a difficult feat, but returning to Satisfied, if it’s possible to resign yourself from the erupting sentiment, observe the intricacy of arranging the cast around a solitary figure, catapulting back in time, and how accomplished this cast is.

So, from a Brit to the Yanks on this 4th of July – embrace history, do not spurn or alter its truth – confront the atrocity, reflect on it and represent it in all of the glorious diversity one can muster. The sons and daughters of bastards, and the immigrants who founded and freed nations are still breathing, still fighting, and still suffering. And if you can, parcel history in all of musical theatre’s majesty. The, well, you may just have taken your shot and forged a piece of cultural significance which will defy expectations, and deservedly strides forth as the par excellence which is Hamilton.

Hamilton is available to stream from Disney+