Selah and the Spades – Amazon Prime

Written & Directed by Tayarisha Poe

USA/ 2019/ 97 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Whether you’re a prefect, a drama bobby, or a ‘skin’, everyone struggles to find a place at school and, if cinema is to be believed, especially in America. Set against the soft, rolling green mounds of a Pennsylvania boarding school, Selah and the Spades attempts to decipher the inner workings of student hierarchy through Selah, a graduating seventeen-year-old, under her mother’s scorn and the weight of the school’s underground activities as the leader of the Spades. Could someone maintain the Spades’ influence after she leaves, or will one faction or another assert dominance?

Things don’t start well, with shoddy camera work attempting to emulate intricate angles, resulting in awkward shots cutting off characters and leaving vast empty frames. Cliques within the school dynamic is an age-old trope. Utilising this correctly can result in culturally significant movies. Do it wrong, and you end up with tepid, unfocused, and pale imitations of those movies. Selah and The Spades itself falls into the latter category.

Leader of the Spades and de facto controller of the student body, Selah is thoroughly unlikeable – still not a great start. Tayarisha Poe’s script talks of the importance of passing the torch, and the weight placed on Selah’s shoulders, but we don’t experience this gravity. Her ‘pushy’ mother is a one-note role from Gina Torres, with a monotone delivery; but this is likely out of directional choice and not performance. In only one direct instance, where Selah speaks directly to the audience (in another of Jomo Fray‘s peculiar designs in the cinematography), are the expectations placed on young women addressed. How men want them to look ‘impossible’, and how the faculty wish to control their bodies. A sensational, true, and persistent issue, but this isn’t demonstrated in the film. Lovie Simone and others are capable performers, but the characters have zero accountability or problems with authority, regularly wearing whatever they please, doing whatever they want, and suffering zero consequences, causing a detachment from the audience to these characters.

The exception is Celeste O’Connor. While performances range from deadpan to noticeably lacking and seldom engaging, O’Connor’s place as the new blood, the potential successor, and Selah’s new plaything is the audience’s way into the story. Unsure of what precisely is going on, but with chemistry with Simone, O’Connor has an authentic presence, a likeability, and tenderness which, when pushed, makes for the only significantly genuine arc across the film.

Complaining of a lack in control, but seemingly answering to no one regarding Selah’s extensive drug trafficking and manipulation, Poe’s script is a hot mess of ideas that smash into one another. Had the narrative attempted to expand this psychological power play to maintain the only control Selah possesses, Selah and the Spades may have stepped forward as an exceptionally detailed account of a young woman projecting her lack of control onto the outside world. Instead, with the peculiar choices to downplay violent or potentially gritty aspects in catering to a teen-drama, Poe waters down her script to an unengaging level.

This lack of direction skewers the film at various intervals, entirely uncomfortable with sticking to the confines of one or two storytelling mechanics. The cinematography is uncomfortable, unable to settle on a shop, focusing attention away from point of action. Aesthetically, the film has some design, but poor lighting casts characters in blocking shadows, which removes the ability to gauge expression. Poe’s writing has nuances of an adroit script, weaving sexuality and even aspects of asexual nature surprisingly delicately into the backgrounds. These aspects mean Selah and the Spades has wasted potential; a coming-of-age narrative with no one at the helm to charter the course, causing the focus to drift all over the place. 

Available to stream on Amazon Prime now

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/selah-and-the-spades/

Nixon in China – Festival Theatre

Opera by John Adams, Liberetto by Alice Goodman

Directed by John Fulljames

Gorbachev & Reegan, Putin & al Assad, Blair & Bush, Johnston & the highest bidder – throughout history, politicians have had their images emblazoned with that of another. None quite so unexpected as Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the Communist Party of China. An event the world never thought they would see, the President of the US stepping foot into China. Was it an act of peace, a way forward with the Soviet Union, or just a smokescreen to improve Nixon’s plummet in opinion? The face of Mao Tse-tung still reverberates in China, though his symbolic presence seems to wane. Nixon, scarred by the marks of corruption, would find at least another place in histories lexicon as the man who would pave the future for other presidents.

Considerably shrouded, Nixon’s visit to China with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger is an effective time-period to transcribe into opera. A mere decade later John Adams, with libretto from poet Alice Goodman, would craft an opera which would open as much a path as Nixon’s visit had done, this time for the synthetic manipulation of sound for ‘mainstream’ libretto’s. Chartering their time from Air-Force One’s landing to a profoundly intimate epilogue on the people behind the parties Nixon in China, in the hands of Scottish Opera, is a powerhouse of aria, composition and powerplay.

Taking their first foray into Scottish opera’ clan, American baritone Eric Greene champions the part of Richard Nixon, refraining from the cheap characteristics of trademarks. Commanding, while conveying an endearing attraction of presence, it’s difficult not to see the President who would hoodwink many. As Henry Kissinger, David Stout captures a far more playful perspective, which exudes an animated characterisation as the narrative advances. Opening with the meeting of Nixon and Chou En-lai, China’s Premier, the men soon sit with a rapidly ageing Mao Tse-tung, more a philosopher than he was a Politian. Equally as compelling, Mark Le Brocq has a ghostly presence, with a voice harmonising the growing frustrations and deafening silences as the two world leaders talk.

At what may first seem a man’s opera, Nixon in China begins to centre around the women, not behind, but besides these men. Transitioning into an avant-garde piece, Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-Tung) Carneiro squarely frames these women in the dynamic they exude. Julia Sporsén spends much of the first act in the presence of her husband, which starkly alters as we enter act two, where from now on the production’s focus is away from the camera’s point of view and to a personal voyage. 

Sporsén’s control of her emotive range, beyond pure sensational sound, is world-class. Particularly for opera in the audience’s home language, here English, it’s easy to detach from the annunciating break in emotion, words we use daily drawn out. Obvious to this, Fulljames direction tethers Goodman’s poetry to the performers. Greene plays with this immeasurably, his charming, disingenuously schmoozy Nixon toying with the crowd.

Sporsén’s role contrasts Greene as the politician, though both reflected sympathetically. Bestowing kindness across histories image, geopolitics is but a framework, accurate, but not incorporated to align allegiance or point blame. Madame Mao Tse-tung (Hye-Youn Lee) an equally, inequitably powerful woman in her own right, stands polar to Pat Nixon, an intimidating, shrieking performance which dominates. Mesmeric in attitude, almost archaic in her sinister prowls, Hye-Youn Lee’s coloratura aria haunts with a vision untouchable by mortal means. Chiang Ch’ing’s position within the opera may serve to reinforce the relationship of the Nixon’s, as well as an accessible look into the often unknown life of Mao Tse-tung, but her inclusion shakes the dynamic enough, encompassing the production’s more creative, bespoke acts.

Initially reflective of the onerous tempo of the piece, Carneiro’s conduction takes time to build from the gravity laden slowness into the energetic rhythms in a more subdued manner than one expects. Further diverse than first appearances, Nixon in China refrains from the confines of expectation, carving its path alongside Goodman’s libretto. Adam’s infusion of heavy brass elements with Stravinskian neoclassicism, injecting a heaping os saxophone jazz to reflect Nixon’s youth. Leaping into a softer palette accompanying traditional dance of the nation builds in a prolonged resolution, which returns to the classical roots of the genre. John Ross’ original choreography manipulates this production into a piece of movement. Intense, reflective but all the while subverting expectation, the Scottish Opera orchestra champion the onstage vocals sensationally.

And it takes a voice to stand-out on this stage, a design which defines the term ‘epic’ in droves of creativity, integrating into the narrative mechanics, as opposed to flashy or gimmicky. Exploring the past, delving into the personal story, much of Nixon in China may present itself as a live unfolding of events, but truly this is a rich archive of investigation. Still photos under the spot lamps, raw video footages, crates groaning with historical artefacts and Deliveroo for the hungry archivists. John Adams opera has been remodelled by Scottish Opera, utilising their talent for perfecting an already genre-defining piece. Here the meta-narrative slashes down myth, the sepia-tints of history sift away before us in fluid space, examining the bones rather than the legend.

Of course, legend has a place in Dick Bird’s design work – his unfolding scenes echo an almost story-book transition. With live theatre, within the production, being staged for the ‘pleasure’ of the visiting American’s, Bird’s design plays heavily with a dream-scale of colours, palette and lighting. Notably a tricolour of women, Chinese performers forging a connection with Pat Nixon, where opera marries as close as possible with dance, poetry and theatre. The revolving stage, vintage projectors capturing the moment on film, all confined to a warehouse of hundreds of boxes, each containing a treasured memory or revelation of the political meeting of the century.

Revolutionising the spirit of Opera, staying authentic to its roots, but lifting the visage of this artform to stellar heights – Scottish Opera achieves a starkly modern, edgy production with a pulsing beat of classical direction and inspiration. A decisive moment of modern history, it’s explosive reverberations clenched tightly within three-hours of lyrical majesty.

Touring information can be found at: https://www.scottishopera.org.uk/shows/nixon-in-china/

Photo credit: James Glossop

Hitch Hike to Hell

Written by John Buckley

Directed by Irvine Berwick

Ah, the exploitation genre of cinema. A bounty of films which attempt success, or creativity, through touchy, niche or even lurid events and narratives. They often range from B-movie schlock to the entertaining and even impressive in design, to the downright absurdly offensive in how little hindsight the filmmakers take into consideration. Then there are these middle-ground ones; the attempted video nasties which can’t even get their hands dirty.

Borrowing heavily, chiefly from the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, and of course, notorious pieces of rape-revenge and hitchhiking sub-genres (The Last House on the Left, The Hitch-HikerIrvin Berwick and John Buckley had an image for Hitchhike to Hell, an exploitative movie depicting the rape and murder of women who run away from home. Guising it with the ‘moral’ compass circulating in America at the time, of young girls leaving conservative (even abusive) homes and finding themselves assaulted by men on the highways.

After his sister flees the family home, devastating his mother, Howard cannot comprehend why anyone would choose to run away from home and ‘hurt’ their parents. This includes those leaving genuine life-threatening, abusive homes, and in the film’s most teeth-gritting scene, a fourteen-year-old runaway. Working as a laundromat deliveryman, Howard begins a life of picking up hitchhikers, and ‘punishing’ them for their cruel actions.

Arrow Film’s dedication to re-releasing films is a triumph, with successes in bringing treasures to the public and breathing fresh life into undead classics. Here though, they’ve managed an impressive feat – producing a 30-minute documentary extra and further piece, Road to Nowhere: Hitchhiking Culture Goes to Hell by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas which far exceed the film in terms of production, intent and even lampoon Buckley’s flaccid attempt at concealing his bias towards women.

Even more staggering is that while Harold’s overall performance redeems paint drying, the writing behind this Bates-light character contains relative decency with a slow, categorical depiction of a suffocating mother-son relationship, at least substantially for films of this ilk. Robert Gribbin’s Howard, who flips so frequently from good Samaritan to serial killer in the mere mention of family problems encroaches on ludicrous in depiction. Whereas the amateur performances from the women he abducts make for an unsettling realness to the crimes, Gribbin’s ‘turmoil’ at his actions and his love for his ‘Mamma’ feels hollow. By no means, in-depth, or even redemptive, Berwick’s direction at least seems to attempt multiple dimensions to the narrative, with Russel Johnson turning in the only decent performance as Captain J.W. Shaw.

Hitchhike to Hell fails to delve into the depravity others within the genre submerge themselves. Is this a positive? Not necessarily. While it means we thankfully abstain from morose depictions of sexual violence, it trivialises the matter with how little care is taken. The depictions of rape, set to hideously inappropriate music, become comedic in poor acting and tone, and this isn’t A Clockwork Orange, these score choices are not the decisions made for shock or atmospheric tone, there’s just no thought process here at all. 

Hitchhike to Hell tries capitalising on the exploitation genre it so desperately wants to be a part of but fails to be, and in failure brands itself as even worse a film by its inability to go that extra mile, to be creative or obscene. It commits a cardinal sin of any exploitation film – it’s dull – and for all the things of which it could have been guilty, this is perhaps the worst. While Arrow has once more released a well-maintained cut of the film, keeping the scratches, grit and grime of the film’s footage, it’s one of the video ‘nasties’ which should have been left at the roadside.

Available on Blu-ray now.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/hitch-hike-to-hell/