Tag Archives: Review

Critics and the Theatre Industry

2 Mar
Photo by Horia Varlan, shared under a Creative Commons licence

Photo by Horia Varlan, shared under a Creative Commons licence

The thing about being a theatre critic, or a critic of any art form, is that you can often feel like you’re standing in front of a locked door,  trying to find a way to get in. For example, you may give a show a very positive review only to have your work ignored by the PR team, who choose reviews from a bigger publication over yours. When you write for a smaller, or less established publication, you are the smallest fish in the biggest pond, a pond that only becomes more vast when thoughtless PRs make comments like: “Oh, glad you’re all here, but just to let you know we were really hoping for FAMOUS SUCCESSFUL CRITIC to come along.” And yes, this did happen to a friend of mine as they stood in the foyer of a theatre, with other local critics waiting to review a show.

Sometimes you’re popular; the phone never stops ringing, the emails never stop dropping into your inbox, and these emails are quickly joined by follow-up emails, checking that you received the first email. Sometimes your website crashes because of the sheer number of people trying to get on it to read reviews and get your email address to tell you about another show that you have to review. Other times, friends you haven’t seen or heard from for a while will leap out of the ether, inviting you to review their new show, saying, ” We must catch up, it’s been too long!” only for your enthusiastic response to go unnoticed; calls are missed, texts are forgotten, and back into the ether they go. You have no idea how much we critics suffer, I mean, really.

I’m being dramatic here, but the truth is, that being a critic can be a lonely existence sometimes; spending long nights in front of the computer, trying to write your seventh review of the day, is necessary, it’s what we signed up for when we took the first step on the broken cobbled road that leads to becoming a critic. But that doesn’t mean that these nights are easy, or enjoyable, and sometimes they can be pretty isolating – have you ever stayed up so late that nobody else seems to be on Twitter? It’s very odd.

While I can’t speak for other critics, I put everything I have at that moment into my reviews, but even then, I have off days. I’ve had days where summing up a simple synopsis takes too long, and days when my writing is so poor, and so utterly unreadable that I’m begging my editor for a late pass so I can attempt to completely rewrite the piece. I’ve had weeks when the prospect of writing another review fills me with dread, when writer’s block has had me staring at a blank word document wondering what the Hell I am doing and why on earth I keep doing this to myself.

I’ve had days when comments on my work have made me glad I chose this path, and days when a simple error on a review, or an omitted piece of information has The Reader completely doubting me, my work and my reasons for reviewing. As a reviewer you get used to the angry commenter’s cry of, “Oh, what do you know, you’re just a failed and bitter director/actor/producer/playwright.” Although, from experience, I’ve found the commenters that are the most vicious and the most personal in their insults of a critic are usually connected to the show that I’ve reviewed – whether they are directly involved with the show in some way, or they are related to someone in the production.

That is not to say critics are infallible, because no one is. It’s impossible to never make mistakes. Errors can range from spelling and grammatical errors, to factual howlers and even, wait for it, a lack of writing talent. Every critic has a different style; you get the A.A. Gills of the world who seem to delight taking cruel swipes at those in the spotlight (remember what he said about Professor Mary Beard?) There are others who specialise in schmoozing; the ‘Star Fuckers’, who slither up to actors and directors to tell them facetiously how wonderful they are, and how much they enjoyed their work, before desperately attempting to become part of their entourage. One of my biggest pet peeves is the critic who just wants to see shows for free, because for these critics, their writing is just an afterthought – these are the critics that give the rest of us a bad name. The ones that don’t fact check, make sweeping statements, offend the director and the actors with their poor words, the ones that arrive late to shows, the ones that are rude to press officers, PRs and FOH staff. I have no time for these people, and frankly, neither should anyone in the industry, this is not the way to move criticism forward.

So, this morning, I read, with interest, Jethro Compton’s Angry Young Man blog post, in which he argued passionately that the relationship between the media and the theatre industry must change, and I whole-heartedly agree. Although I believe that when Mr Compton refers to ‘Edinburgh’ in the post he means the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and not just the city itself, and that being an unprofessional writer doesn’t automatically mean that you are a bad writer. I could be defined as not being professional, simply because I don’t get a regular income from my writing, something which my bank account likes to remind me. Yet, I would say that my writing style is more professional than amateur.

The theatre industry critics need each other in order to survive, and as a new generation of theatre makers and arts journalists are swelling the ranks on either side, we must come to a mutual understanding of our intertwined industries. Criticism, for me, comes out of my respect and love of the arts; I don’t want to see anyone fail, I simply want to see them creating pieces that they, and by extension, I, can be proud of.

I am an Angry Young Woman, and critics and theatre practitioners both work in industries where our errors, failures and other issues are played out in public, so let’s break down the barriers and smash open the locked doors that sit between us and let’s get the theatre industry and the press working together, so that we can all start yelling, and yelling together about the ongoing issues that affect the media and the arts.

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Trash Interviews James Isherwood

12 Nov
Until last week, I hadn’t heard of the food blogger, James Isherwood. But after he published an average review of Claude Bosi’s restaurant Hibiscus, he fell foul of a number of chefs on Twitter. Bosi, and some other leading chefs disagreed with the review, and tweeted their anger at James’ star rating and wording . These tweets were verbally abusive and highly critical of James and his blog, Dining With James, which led him to deactivate his Twitter account for a short time.
After he returned to Twitter, and following my own experience of dealing with a rather disgruntled theatre company, I asked James if he’d like to do an email interview about the situation. He agreed, and here is the interview, republished in full.
Tell me a little bit about yourself – your background, why you decided to start writing about your restaurant experiences, and what kind of criticism you like to read (if any).

It was after I had a fairly poor meal in a London restaurant. I’d started to write the review in my mind and just had to get it all out when I got home.

Why did you begin writing your blog, Dining With James?

I wanted somewhere I could tweet my reviews, I post on Trip Advisor too. I know it’s not really popular, but my own personal blog felt more intimate. It’s also where I could do short interviews with a few chefs.

Your recent review of Hibiscus caused some extreme reactions from well-known chefs – what did you make of their reactions?

It’s odd! So I didn’t like the starter? I gave the rest of the meal a glowing report. The main problem was saying I had enjoyed it to Claude Bosi, but then writing a slightly negative review. How many of us say yes I loved it at the time? Then, of course, all the other chefs joined in. Which has done nothing for their reputation. A lot of people have gone off these chefs. Rightly so. If I had slated the restaurant and called his granny a whore, then I could understand it!

The fallout from the review caused you to leave Twitter very briefly, why did you decide to leave and then reactivate your account?

On day one it [was] just people against me…constantly. I had no support and I was being bad mouthed, so thought I don’t need it and closed my account. Then someone left me a comment saying I should come back and that’s when I started to get some support.

Aside from the chefs’ reactions, what’s been the most memorable reaction you’ve had to the review?

Findus crispy pancakes is something I don’t think I’ll ever escape from!

What do you think Claude Bosi’s problem with the review was? Was it the star rating? Or was it your description of the starter as average?
Probably saying it was average. Don’t get me wrong, if I cook and someone doesn’t like it, I feel bad. 3/5 is not too bad. There have been plenty of other reviewers who have slated the whole restaurant, but because the chef knows me on Twitter he could find me.
Are you going to continue blogging? Has this experience made you wary of restaurant criticism?

It’s certainly made me think about writing a better blog, I just type what I feel at the time, but no, people have to be truthful about how they feel about restaurants.

What advice would you have to any young, or up-and-coming food critics?

Speak the truth! Don’t let loud mouthed, bully boy chefs intimidate you into giving a good review.

Have you had an apology from Bosi or any other chefs who harassed you? Would you want or accept an apology from them?

No not one single apology, If they did give me an apology I’d gladly accept.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Some people are saying I called Tom kerridge a fat ****. But that was directed to someone else who called me an equally unpleasant name. I think after being called every name under the sun, I was allowed to reply back. It just got to me after a while. Others are RT’ing when I said my date and myself had a lovely time at Hibiscus. That was me being polite, the fact I didn’t like my starter had never entered my head when I said that!

Of Pen Names and Pseudonyms

28 Sep

In the age of new media, how do we value anonymity? Does using a pen name devalue journalism? The recent publication of a review written by a critic using a pen name ignited a debate between critics and performers on the need for pseudonyms in criticism. Some said that anonymous reviews “…completely negate the credibility of your magazine”, whilst others dismissed the practice as “cowardly”.

So, are anonymous reviews ever okay? Yes. I believe that using a false name does not mean a writer is peddling false information or an untruthful review, and using an assumed name doesn’t mean that a writer doesn’t stand by their work. In fact, I have two writers that use pen names as a way to separate their reviewing lives from their everyday lives and future careers. I understand why they do this, and I’ve always been very open with venues and editors about their assumed names.

A professional writer’s reasons for choosing anonymity over a recognisable byline aren’t due to nefarious reasons or ulterior motives. Pen names have long been part of the journalism industry; in the 18th and 19th century, it was very common for journalists to produce pieces under a different name. In fact, George Bernard Shaw began his career working as a music critic for The Star, using the pseudonym, Corno di Bassetto. Similarly, as a young student, Arthur Miller wrote criticism under the name Matt Wayne and Anthony Burgess was a pseudonym based on the writer’s birth name, John Anthony Burgess Wilson.

Obviously the growth of the internet has made anonymous critics, whether they are existing critics or the public, commonplace However, those that choose not to reveal their names when writing reviews aren’t trolling. Their lack of identity doesn’t mean that they lack morals or basic journalism training; their reasons for staying anonymous are many and are often very personal.

For example, a writer might choose to write under another name because an established journalist already uses their name. I’ve never used a pen name, however, in the future, I might have to use one, because there is already a journalist called Amy Taylor, and using another name, or simply using my initials might end any confusion between the two of us.

Another reason would be that the writer has a name that is hard to pronounce or spell, so simplifying it would make them easier to search for online, and also make their name much easier for editors and readers alike to remember. Or a writer may want to give themselves a new name in order to improve or make their birth name more suitable to their vocation. After all, would you rather read an essay by an author called Thomas Lanier Williams III or Tennessee Williams?

Some writers choose a pen name to end the limitations of their name, or begin to write pieces in a different style, or about a different subject. In 1977, Steven King, fearing he would oversaturate the horror novel market by publishing too many books in one year, began writing  under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. His alter ego was ‘killed off’ very suddenly in 1985, when an intrepid book store clerk uncovered Bachman’s real identity.

Similarly, Iain Banks, who wrote the horror novels The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, uses the name Iain M. Banks for his science fiction novels, in order to define his separate writing identities.

Anonymity might be part of their work, such as if the writer regularly writes about real life stories. For example, Gizmodo UK’s police blogger uses the pseudonym Matt Delito when writing about his job in the police force. While he never names his colleagues or the people he arrests in his work, his position has to be anonymous in order to protect him and the cases he works on. If he were to be ‘unmasked’ his job, his livelihood, his cases and perhaps even his life could be put in danger. Gizmodo informs the reader that Delito is a pseudonym via a disclaimer, as do most publications that carry this type of content.

In the world of criticism, content is king. But are we putting too much emphasis on bylines? Are we putting author credit above the quality of our own content? Producing a review that is rich, readable and above all authoritative, is what every critic strives for, and indeed, it’s what every reader wants to see. Consistency, like writing high-quality and engaging content is also vital. If a writer uses just one pseudonym regularly throughout their career, their pen name will be established, and that name will become a familiar feature in the industry that they write about.

Some writers choose to be transparent about their pen names, such as the novelist Nora Roberts, has also written novels under the name J.D. Robb. Her tactic of being open about her pen name makes her seem more versatile to her readers. But for some critics and other writers, transparency is not something that they can commit to, for various reasons. Anonymity can be and is a very valuable tool for some critics, for some it is a way of getting noticed, and for others, it’s simply a way of keeping a part of their lives personal.

So do anonymous reviews ruin a magazine’s reputation? It depends on the content, and the writer’s reasons for being anonymous. But in terms of theatre criticism, it would take a very, very poorly written review written by a critic under a pseudonym to do that. As for them being cowardly, with journalism becoming tougher to get into, more and more writers may take on part-time, or perhaps even full-time work in order to make ends meet. Are they cowardly, or a fact of life as a writer? Are writers truly aware of how prevalent pen names are in the creative industries? Perhaps we should all start being more transparent about the use of pen names in journalism, in order to end the stigma that seems to surround them in the 21st century? We are, as a species, naturally suspicious of secrecy, but we need to embrace the pseudonym once again, especially in journalism, because pen names aren’t just part of the industry, they’re one of the many reasons that journalism has thrived.

Trash and The Libel Case Or, How to Piss Off a Theatre Critic

9 Sep

I updated this blog for the first time in nearly three months last week, but I couldn’t update again without discussing the tale of my recent experience of dealing with a very difficult company at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This encounter was very unpleasant, stressful and infuriating. Despite my anger, I’ve decided not to name the company involved, but for the purposes of this blog I will refer to them as Sunshine Inc.

This was my fourth year of reviewing during the Fringe and my first experience of being a Fringe editor, as I took up the post of Scotland Editor at The Public Reviews in May. In the midst of sorting through the thousands of Edinburgh Fringe PRs I received, my editor, John, forwarded me a PR for a Fringe show, suggesting that we book tickets and make a fun evening of it. The show was being performed by Sunshine Inc, and was presented as a two-hour long interactive comedy show, that involved actors impersonating characters from a famous TV comedy.

I booked the tickets for the show through their internal PR contact, a woman I’ll call Melina, who, I have to stress was very polite, helpful and friendly at the beginning. I did have to move the tickets by one day because of a scheduling clash, but again, Melina was very accommodating, and both myself and John were very much looking forward to the evening.

The show, however, was not like we expected, and we quickly realised that while the characters in the piece were designed to look and sound like the TV characters – they dressed similarly, and they even used their famous one-liners – this was where the similarities to the TV show ended. The evening consisted of these actors using new and ‘original’ content instead of established sketches from the TV programme, which wasn’t what I was expecting. Suffice to say, I didn’t enjoy Sunshine Inc’s offering, and I wrote what was I felt was a negative, yet honest and fair review, which was published on The Public Reviews website shortly after. In my review, I stated that the show was “unauthorised” as when I researched the show, I found a number of articles and quotes from the makers of the TV show saying that the show had not been authorised by them. Quotes from Sunshine Inc’s Managing Director, Francis, revealed that he hadn’t contacted the makers of TV programme to ask for permission to use the characters. Furthermore, on Sunshine Inc’s website they stated in the small print that their work had no association with the makers of the original TV show. So, with this information to hand, I mentioned in the review that the show was unauthorised.

A few days after the review was published, Melina emailed me to ask if we had any feedback on the show, and I replied with a link to the review, along with a brief response explaining that I hadn’t enjoyed the evening, but thanking her for inviting me and John along.

Melina’s response was interesting, to say the least; she emailed me back almost immediately and asked for the details of our “Managing Director” stating that there were points in my review that were of “great concern”. I responded, explaining that John, my editor, was the best person to contact and included his email address.

However, Melina emailed me again to ask for John’s mobile number, but because John was reviewing throughout the day, I was unwilling to share his phone number without his consent, or without him knowing what was going on. I decided not to respond to her email immediately, and concentrated on getting in touch with John to explain the situation.

As I tried to get hold of John, however, Melina continued emailing me demanding John’s phone number, saying that Sunshine Inc’s managing director, Francis, wanted to speak to him. Again I didn’t reply to her emails as I was concentrating on getting in touch with John. However, Milena’s emails continued, and she then began demanding that I remove the review from the website “immediately”. She also claimed that the show was authorised, yet didn’t say by who, and didn’t produce any evidence of this authorisation. When that failed to elicit a response from me, she further claimed that my review was “lies” and was therefore “libel” and again demanded I take the review down “immediately”, or they “would take legal action'”.

After reading these emails, John asked Milena to send him an email detailing her concerns, and to also highlight what parts of the review that she and Francis believed to be libellous. He further asked her to include the evidence of their authorisation so that we could address their concerns. Milena, however, ignored this, and emailed me again, telling me to take down the review before they took legal action. I replied, repeating what John had said, and also stressing that we couldn’t help them until they told us what issues they had with my review. I also asked her to send me evidence of authorisation, and asked for specifics, including the details of who exactly had authorised the show, such as the TV channel, the production company or the show’s writers.

Milena responded, ignoring my request, offering no evidence of authorisation, and further accusing me of trying to discredit the company, alleging that I had something against Sunshine Inc. This is untrue; I had never heard of Sunshine Inc until John forwarded me their Fringe PR in May. After reading this email, and following legal advice, I was told not to respond to any further emails from either Milena, Francis or any other representative of Sunshine Inc, as they had stated they were taking legal action, and could use our emails against us in the future. The lawyer also assured us that if they really were taking legal action, we’d be hearing from their lawyer, and not them, as they would also be told not to contact us for the same reasons.

However, despite my silence, Milena continued to email me throughout the day, and her emails became steadily more aggressive and more bizarre. John even forwarded me an email that Milena had sent to him, alleging that I was involved with a rival theatre company, naming the founder of that company, a woman I shall call Julie, and stating that this company had a “history of malicious intent” against Sunshine Inc. Incidentally, when Milena emailed John with this allegation, she inadvertently libelled me and Julie by alleging we were working together. These emails culminated in Milena taking a screenshot of my Twitter account, stating that the nature of my tweets regarding their show, which had been written after the review had been published, showed my negative review had been “premeditated” and that they were “taking further action”. They further accused me of “gross unprofessionalism”.

I contacted the Fringe Media Office to ask for advice about the situation. To my surprise, they told me that they were aware of what was happening, as Sunshine Inc had contacted them earlier that day. They told me that in a phone call that lasted around an hour, both Milena and Francis had spoken to Fringe media officers, demanding that the Fringe use their “considerable power” to force John and me to remove the review from The Public Reviews. The Fringe Media Office refused, as they don’t possess that power, nor do they want to.

A few days later, someone from Sunshine Inc called my mobile, but I let the call go straight to answer phone. They didn’t leave a message, and luckily, they haven’t tried to phone me since. Their emails, however, continued until the end of the Fringe, as they emailed John on several occasions to ask for the details of our “Managing Director” and for an address, so they could send an “official letter of complaint.” Eventually, John emailed them back, explaining that we had no managing director, we had no official address as we are online media, and that the best way to get in touch was to email him with specific concerns. Which, irritatingly enough, was what we asked them to do weeks earlier, when they had first made legal threats. They responded, asking “Who owns and runs The Public Reviews?” To which John explained that he did, and we haven’t heard from them since.

This happened during the second week of the Fringe, and while I like to consider myself as an experienced and confident reviewer, this incident shook me to the core. It made me question myself, my writing, my abilities and my voice, and was an extra stress during an already incredibly stressful time. I trained in art journalism for two years at university, and I have worked hard for the last three years since graduating to establish myself as an honest, objective and constructive critic. While I have had my fair share of abuse because of my reviews, this is the first time that I have been threatened with legal action for what I have written. I researched the piece thoroughly, as I do with every review I write, and I wrote a truthful and accurate review.

What’s very interesting, however, is that Sunshine Inc had one other reviewer attend the show, who also gave them a negative review. I have spoken to the editor of that publication, and they have not been contacted by anyone from Sunshine Inc. Recently, I made contact with one of the writers of the TV show, who confirmed that Sunshine Inc had never received authorisation from him to use his characters in their show.

Reviews are, essentially, the reviewer’s opinion, and as with any thing else in life, opinions will differ on almost many subjects, especially when it comes to performance. People are entitled to disagree with critical opinion, just as they are entitled to disagree with popular opinion. However, threats of legal action, and the intimidation, bullying and harassment of journalists simply because someone disagrees with what they have written, are immoral, unethical and odious. I cannot and will not be treated this way, by a company that are so desperate to undermine my authority and my review that they are prepared to not only accuse me of libel, but also in turn, libel both me and Julie in email correspondence. I have no idea if Milena and Francis have threatened journalists before, but judging by how quickly they threatened me with legal action, I would hazard a guess that this probably isn’t the first time that they’ve done this.

My advice to any company that is disappointed with a review is to see what they can take from it. If the review is constructive, then there will be something positive in there that you can learn from. If the reviewer has made an error, such as a spelling error, or got the name of an actor wrong, then feel free to contact them and tell them. Journalists, like all human beings, are fallible, and often work to very tight deadlines, especially during Fringe time. Tight deadlines, full schedules and many, many sleepless nights can lead to mistakes in copy. Editors are often very happy to correct inaccuracies when contacted.

However, a difference in opinion is simply a difference in opinion. Libel law exists to protect people who have been libelled and who have had very unfair things said about them in print. It does not exist to prosecute journalists who give a show a negative review, and it most certainly was not created to be used as a threat designed to intimidate journalists, editors and bloggers. Libel is a very, very damaging word and process, it comes with responsibility and should only be used if there is an actual case for libel proceedings. Journalists are busy people. Journalists are especially busy during the Fringe; we don’t even have the time to respond to the most basic emails during August, let alone waste precious hours and even days, dealing with baseless and utterly false allegations against us. I am very angry that I had to devote what little time I had during the Fringe to Sunshine Inc, because it cut into my reviewing schedule, which meant that I couldn’t attend the shows that I really, really wanted to review.

So to all journalists and bloggers: familiarise yourself with UK media law; study it until you can recite it. Join the NUJ – they have lots of lawyers who can deal with threats like this on your behalf. Stand your ground, don’t give into intimidation, bullying and aggressive, underhand tactics by “companies” like Sunshine Inc.

To all the people who supported me during this difficult time, including John and Glen at The Public Reviews, my close friends and family, the Fringe Media Office, Liam Rudden of The Edinburgh Evening News, Nick Awde of The Stage, and the CATS panel, including Michael Cox, Joyce McMillan, Mary Brennan, Allan Radcliffe, Mark Brown, Neil Cooper, Mark Fisher, Thom Dibdin and Gareth K. Vile: thank you. Your words and advice were of great comfort, and I’m so glad that you took the time to listen to me and support me last month.

And finally, to Sunshine Inc, I will say this: journalists communicate with one another. This means that if you threaten a writer or a publication with legal proceedings, other writers will hear about it. Once others learn about your treatment of journalists, it damages your reputation more than any negative review ever could. Some might say that’s ironic, but to me, that’s poetic justice.

Update: Following a request from Interactive Theatre International (formerly Interactive Theatre Australia) I am happy to confirm that the show and company in this blog have no connection with Interactive Theatre International or their show, Faulty Towers The Dining Experience which was performed at B’est Restaurant at this year’s Fringe.

Killer Joe

27 Jun

William Friedkin/2012/USA/ 103 min

Showing @Festival Theatre, Wed 20 June, 21:30

4 Stars

William Friedkin’s long-awaited Killer Joe, adapted by the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, Tracy Letts from his play of the same name, is this year’s Festival’s Opening Gala film. And while this darkly comic thriller has been the most anticipated film at the festival, they hype is to be believed, as Friedkin, Letts and Matthew McConaughey have committed one of the most inspired and memorable pieces of film committed to celluloid.

When Chris (Emile Hersch) needs $6,000 to pay off a debt, he and his family (Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church) decides to hire ‘Killer Joe’ (McConaughey) to kill his estranged mother in order to get at her $50,000 life insurance policy, which will be paid out to his younger and very innocent teenage sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). But the lack of a cash deposit for Joe’s services means that he has to take a retainer, in this case, Dottie, before he carries out the murder, which takes Chris and his family into a deadly game of betrayal, violence and degradation. A strong mix of black comedy, thrills and explosions of violence, Killer Joe is a defiant and unapologetic film that explores and questions just what we would do for money by presenting this question in an extreme situation. While the film does leave certain questions unanswered and maintains a certain air of ambiguity throughout, the strength of Friedkin’s piece lies in its ability to not only get under the skin, but also to sink its teeth into your skull. Completely mesmerising and ultimately unforgettable, Killer Joe is an utterly unique and powerful film, that shows how vulnerable we all truly are, and how easily situations can spiral out of control. McConaughey’s turn as the cold, calculating, yet complicated hired killer, is both terrifying and inspiring; his performance is flawless, natural, and completely believable. Perhaps one of the darkest, yet most impressive films on the festival programme this year, Friedkin and Letts have created a simple yet catastrophically effective new piece of cinema that could become a masterpiece.

This review was originally published on Caledonian Mercury

The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus

27 Jun

Alexandre O Phillippe/USA/2012/English, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian Dialogue with English subtitles/72 min

Showing @ Filmhouse Fri 22 June @20:45, @Cineworld Sat 23 June @ 15:05

4 Stars

Returning to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, following the success of his standout documentary, The People Vs George Lucas, director Alexandre O Phillippe, turns his unique style of filmmaking towards the world’s most unlucky football pundit, an octopus named Paul, in this witty, funny and thought-provoking film, The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus.

Beginning with the oddly moving scenes of Paul’s cremation, Phillippe’s film uses interviews with those closest to the mysterious cephalopod to create a portrait that says more about humanity and world culture, than it does about Paul’s infallible legacy. Filmed in locations across the globe, including the UK, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Russia and Paul’s former home at the Sea Life centre in Oberhausen, Germany, and featuring songs, films, animations inspired by Paul, the film delves into a number of issues ranging from the mathematical, the psychological, the philosophical, the mythological and the absurd. Like The People Vs George Lucas, Phillippe’s latest documentary, while impeccably researched and filmed, is very aware of its limitations; after all, just how much can you say about a supposedly psychic octopus? But what Philippe is concerned with is creating a film that presents all the sides of the story of Paul’s unique rise to fame, resulting in a piece that is well-rounded, philosophical, and at points, side achingly funny. From Paul having his own agent, to the ongoing debate about Paul’s official nationality, to a discussion about whether some animals are psychic, this film is as fulfilling as it is entertaining. While Paul’s position as a modern-day animal oracle is argued well, logic and numbers are also at play, as Paul’s chances of correctly guessing eight out of eight games at the 2010 World Cup are revealed to be 256 to one. A highlight of the festival this year, The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus is a surprisingly educational but ultimately cheeky new documentary.

This review was originally published on Caledonian Mercury.

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