Friday, 10 May 2019

Of Brexit and a tin-pot Mussolini

This week has seen two election communications land on our door mat. One arrived from one of the country’s two main political parties, unaddressed. The other was specifically addressed to The Other Half. Lucky him.

It was a folded leaflet for The Brexit Party, Nigel Farage’s latest political project.

After failing to persuade more than a few dozen people to march (part of the way) to London in support of Brexit (without him, himself), Farage has somehow found the money needed to launch such a publicity campaign.

Not that he’s saying where that cash has come from – or at least, not the one big donation that has (apparently) been received, even though election rules say such things must be revealed. Maybe he'll let on later. But not now.

The rest is all from individual supporters, all paying small enough amounts that these do not need to be declared. You can’t join The Brexit Party – you can only “register as a supporter”. This is not, in other words, a democratic political organisation. There is no mechanism for any internal democracy to elect any official within it or to decide any policy.

But then again, when you only have one policy, who needs discussion and debate?

And given that situation, what on earth do you fill an expensive election communication with?

The main meat, if you will, is a statement from Farage, dramatically headlined “We must leave the EU”. The key reason given is that, in “June 2016, 17.m voted to leave the EU – the biggest democratic mandate in British history”.

This is arrant nonsense. It would only be the “biggest democratic mandate in British history” if the margin had been the biggest margin in British history. It was not a massive margin. It was a very, very slender margin.

Indeed, it was precisely the margin that, a short while before the referendum, Farage himself told the Mirror that, were the vote to be 52% to 48% in favour of remaining in the EU, he would start campaigning for a re-run.

Not that I'm suggesting that Farage is a hypocrite. Obviously not.

There is familiar stuff in the leaflet about how MPs “have betrayed Brexit”. Apparently, “our great nation” is now being “humiliated” and we must “fight back against our failing MPs who have defied 17.4m of us”.

Unlike Farage, I can only speak for myself. But personally, I don’t feel “humiliated”. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments when I feel myself to be in a permanent state of face-palm frustration and bemusement – and possibly even some embarrassment – but I haven’t spotted any personal sense of “humiliation” yet.

Farage also seems not to have noticed that, among the MPs per se that he condemns in the leaflet, there are quite a number that support Brexit – and in several cases, they fancy the harder Brexit the better. That group would include former Trotskyist Unionist Kate Hoey, who did a Titanic routine with Farage himself on a boat on Thames and appeared with him at the start of the Great Brexit March.

Or, more to the point, Farage has condemned an entire group because the people he is trying to appeal to will swallow the simplest messages and not bother with the facts.

It’s all rhetoric – empty rhetoric. The rest of this leaflet is no better. Candidates for our region are quoted as saying that “we need to keep our democracy intact for future generations”. Joel Chilaka – medical student. What does that even mean?

“We must take our waters back and restore our costal communities.” June Mummery – “fishing industry”. One wonders if she’s asked Farage why he attended so few meetings of the EU fisheries committee, when he could have actually done some work on this very issue.

“Left-wing democrats should vote to deliver the referendum result” – this from former Trotskyist Claire Fox, the individual who still believes that IRA bombings were okay and (allegedly) that viewing images of paedophile abuse should not be illegal. Shes on the ticket locally because, presumably, any leftie will automatically be convinced to vote for her like.

“I do deals for a living. Taking ‘no deal’ off the table is bonkers.” Ben Habib – boss of First Property PLC, who clearly doesn’t actually understand what ‘no deal’ would do to the country or doesn’t care.

“Our country deserves better leadership.” This is Richard James Sunley Tice: private school educated ‘man of the people’. Oh – and Brexit Party chairman.

“The Conservative Party has failed to deliver Brexit and damaged trust in our democracy.” And so declares Annunziata Rees-Mogg – journalist and intellectual prodigy, who claims to have joined the Conservative Party at the age of five and, three years later, been out “canvassing, proudly wearing my rosette.”

“I fought for our country. I’m not prepared to see it humiliated.” James Glancy CGC – decorated Royal Marine.

Dear Christ. My mother only sent me out delivering Christian Aid and NCH (as it was then) envelopes shortly before I was in my teens. Should I have to bow before Annunziata's genius? Or indeed, is she really such a genius – or just an entitled brat?

Any meat on the bones? Any policies? Nope. Not a one.

But there is more.

“83% of Labour MPs back a second referendum.”

Because the democracy they’re whinging about being under threat or broken would be further underminded by, err, voting.

“92% of Brexit voters feel betrayed.” This apparently appeared in the Sun, which is hardly a trustworthy organ. However, since polling in recent months has increasingly suggested that support for Brexit is no longer a (small) majority position, this could mean that those Brexit voters feel ‘betrayed’ when realising how many lies they were fed by Farage and others.

“498 MPs promised to honour the result.”

We live in a representative democracy. It is not the job of MPs to push ahead with policies that will damage their constituents and the wider country. Jobs have already been lost as a consequence of the vote – even before we leave the EU. The cost of living has gone up as sterling has gone down – again, as a direct consequence of the vote itself and then as a result of the prime minister setting in motion Article 50.

But of course: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it for good.”

Yes – our political situation is a mess: our political (and public) discourse is a mess. Neither have been helped by liars and spivs like Farage and his fellow Brexit high priests – or David Cameron.

But change it for who’s “good”? For what “good”? Indeed, does “good” here mean ‘permanently’ – potentially then suggesting something anti-democratic – or for ‘better’?

And there you have it. Brexit is Brexit is Brexit. There is only one Brexit (actually, there are probably as many Brexits as people who voted for it). Nothing else matters. There is no degree of Brexit. Only Brexit.

It’s just a case of ‘get Brexit done – whatevs!’

Farage and Tice give no indication of how leaving the EU will benefit the majority of ordinary working people.

That’s because neither of them care about British working people, per se.

They are on the economic right – and harness the social right to support it. They are disaster capitalists who believe that profit has no downsides and that those on the receiving end of profiteering corporates are acceptable collateral damage.

It’s worth remembering that Rees-Mogg’s dad wrote the text book on disaster capitalism.

The Brexit Party is an organisation that nobody can join, that has no manifesto, no policies, no internal democracy and no transparency about where it gets its money from.

It is facile and wrong to label all those who voted for Brexit as intellectually challenged. But if The Brexit Party’s empty election literature convinces you that it is the answer to anything, then you really are probably too foolish to have understood the question.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

An Engame that sets us up nicely for the future

Just under a year ago, reviewing Avengers: Infinity War, I described it as “over-hyped and flawed, but still an enjoyable romp”.

Having seen it again on TV, there’s no mind-changing going on here.

But 11 months on and Marvel/Disney have given us part two: Avengers: Endgame. And its fair to say that, while the hype has been even greater, the reality is streets ahead of its predecessor.

Rolling in at another whopping three hours, this picks up where Infinity War left off, with the remaining Avengers searching for a way to undo what Thanos had unleashed.

It’s giving away little to say that time travel is involved but, as the film explains, not like in any other movie you’ve seen – basically, even "Back to the Futures a bunch of bullshit"!

You can make a case that the Russo brothers engage in about 30 minutes of indulgence in the later stages of this film, but they get away with it. Why? Because it’s the end of an era and that deserves respect and care. Yet Endgame never feels as though it drags in places, as its predecessor did. This is a more emotionally engaging movie.

There’s character development – even Steve Rogers/Captain America gets to show a spot of humour – while Mark Ruffalo has an absolute ball as Bruce Banner/Hulk. It is, indeed, the first time I’ve really felt engaged by the latter – and Ive been watching that character from TV’s Lou Ferrigno on.

In the massive – and impressive – ensemble cast, Josh Brolin gets to deliver another creepy Thanos performance. Indeed, this quiet-spoken tyrant with a god complex gets one particularly skin-crawling speech.

Karen Gillan is superb as Nebula, Rene Russo gets a great brief turn as Frigga and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie leaves you wanting to see her get the chance to develop the character further.

Then there are characters that, for me personally, I had not really noticed before, but did here and felt that they worked well: I see you, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Paul Rudd as Ant Man.

All of this is without mentioning the Marvel icon that is Iron Man, in the person of Robert Downey Jnr – a character that helped get me into Marvel superhero movies in the first place, precisely because he wasn't a boring, bland fart.

Endgame has plenty of moments that provide real surprises. The fight sequences work, without dominating everything else. It has humour aplenty – more than last year’s offering. 

In other words, it’s cracking entertainment.

There are loads of potential set ups for future, post-Avengers development – and given the money these films are raking in, it’s a safe assumption that there are plenty of things already in development.

Given the Sony-Marvel set up – plus Deadpool over at Fox –one can only muse on what it would be like if any one studio pulled all these threads together. 

I kid you not: I’m salivating at the thought.

Oh. And in case you are wondering, there is one (last?) Stan Lee cameo.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A Man of Good Hope that ultimately conveys hope

A Man of Good Hope, which has just finished a run at the Royal Opera House’s new Linbury Theatre is an extraordinary work: at once exhilarating and uplifting, yet also a deeply serious piece about violence, war, colonialism, racism and xenophobia.

Adapted by the Isango Ensemble from a 2015 book of the same name by Jonny Sternberg, it tells the true story of Asad Abdullahi.

In 1991, when civil war came to Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, two-thirds of the city's population fled. Among them was eight-year-old Asad, after his mother was murdered by a militia, and with his father somewhere in hiding. He was swept alone into the great wartime migration that scattered the Somali people throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the world.

Over the years, that migration takes Asad to South Africa, through refugee camps and into townships where xenophobia, hatred, resentment and violence reared their heads.

Somehow never losing his own humanity, Asad refused to give in: even when the odds seemed overwhelming, he continued to believe that, one day, he would be granted permission to go to settle in the global dreamland of the US of A.

Some reviews of A Man of Good Hope have suggested that it is a bit dodgy, since it’s an adaptation of a book by A White Man. Which rather misses the point that the Isango themselves are, y’know, black and African.

Indeed, if you want to compete in a competition for patronising white person of the year, you’d struggle to do it better than telling such a group that they’re ‘wrong’. Or that the premise of the US being a haven for refugees is ‘white saviour syndrome’. 

In the latter situation, the production makes absolutely sure you know, from very early on in the piece, that the belief in an America of no violence, no guns, wealth for all etc is a myth. When Asad and others continue to believe it, therefore, it is poignant because we know what a myth that is.

With a mini orchestra of eight marimbas, and a few upturned plastic bins, Isango has taken the story and turned it into an opera/musical: it’s not just national boundaries that are crossed here, but musical ones too, with styles from European classical to a wide variety of African styles.

It’s a serious, thought-provoking piece, yet somehow doesn’t leave one feeling depressed.
Siphosethus Hintsho (pictured above, bottom right) as the child Asad, rather steals the show – this is an exceptionally talented youngster – but Isango is an ensemble and there are no weak spots anywhere on stage. They all act, they all dance, they all sing, they all play instruments. And they all do it very, very well.

It’s difficult not to feel a Brechtian influence, but this is not westernised Africa: this is an African story – and a global one. And yes, given history, it is a predominantly South African way, with western influences. But ultimately, with an unmistakably authentic African voice.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Essential food for the soul from the Belcea Quartet

In a world apparently going – if not having already gone – completely mad, food for the soul is essential to keep one going, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank provided the setting for just that on Tuesday evening.

The Belcea Quartet opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in G, Op33 No5. Sometimes nicknamed How do you do? for the curtseying, four-note opening phrase at the beginning and end of the first movement, it’s a light piece with a sense of wit.

In other words, it's somewhat unexpected if what you're expecting is the polite formality of early Classical chamber music.

But written in 1781, it was one of a series of pieces that Haydn advertised to potential subscribers as being very new. And in breaking that polite formality, they were.

My knowledge of chamber music from the Classical periodc is far, far from being encyclopedic – and certainly not when it comes to the man known as the ‘Father of the Symphony’ and the ‘Father of String Quartet’ – but this was toe-tapping stuff.

Indeed, I've arguably avoided Haydn over the years because I find him so formal. It's equally no coincidence that my favourite Classical composer is Beethoven, who heralded in the Romantic era.

The quartet’s repertoire doesn’t often include Haydn: Krzyysztof Chorzelski, the viola player – who had run astonishingly run the London Marathon a couple of days previously for a pancreatic cancer research charity – has said that this is partly because Haydn’s music was never intended for public performance in large concert venues.

With this work, they apparently feel more liberated – and, indeed, it was a wonderful performance, free yet controlled.

Next up was Janáček’s String Quartet No2. This is known as ‘Intimate Letters,’ because of the composer’s passion for Kamila Stösslová, who he met and became besotted with in 1917. The quartet, written in 1928 (the year of his death), enshrines the sentiments of the hundreds of ardent letters and messages he sent her.

Overflowing with a sense of passion, with Romantic passages and the clear influences of folk music, it’s a wondrous piece – light years away from any concept of chamber music as essentially stuffy.

I know very little about Janáček’s music: this made me want to know a lot more.

After the interval, the Belcea were joined on stage by pianist Piotr Anderszewski for Shostakovich’s Quintet in G minor for piano & strings, Op57.

The nods back to Beethoven are clear in the first movement, but elsewhere it is impish, sometimes dark and sometimes light.

I wasn’t familiar any of the works before hearing them live – but what a programme.

The big question is whether to watch the musicians closely or to close your eyes and let the music itself take centre stage. I moved between the two, but the latter has definite advantages: it’s as though the music itself takes on a whole new dimension.

The Belcea are all exceptionally fine musicians: founder and violinist Corina Belcea stands out, as does Antoine Lederlin on the cello. But when the music gives them the opportunity, Chorzelski and Axel Schacher on violin show just how much they can shine too. Anderszewski, too, is a musician of very high calibre.

When you get the chance to hear musicians like this live, the results can be utterly uplifting. Thank goodness that The Other Half had spotted that this concert was on – it was brilliant.

The only surprise was that the hall was barely half full. The audience that was there, however, more than made up for numbers in its appreciation.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Subversive Faustian stuff

It’s four and a half years since The Other Half and I started going to the Royal Opera House fairly regularly. We’d been to the English National Opera on a handful of occasions – triggered by being able to get into Terry Gillian’s Damnation of Faust – but nursed a view that we’d ideally like to see operas in their original languages.

Since we started doing just that, one of the things I’ve learned is that it wasn’t just Wagner and Verdi who wrote long operas.

And one of the conundrums I’ve faced is how I can love opera so much when so many of the characters – not least from 19th and early 20th century works – are so unsympathetic.

Last Thursday was a perfect illustration of both points: to start the Easter weekend, we’d got tickets for Gounod’s Faust – a work that neither of us was familiar with, although both of us know the general Faust legend.

Obviously Goethe didn’t have a monopoly on telling the story and indeed, Gounod’s version takes only that which would suit a sentimental French audience, according to Rupert Christiansen in the Faber Pocket Guide to Opera.

Faust is an elderly scholar realising that his dedication to the job has cost him happiness and love (and coded within that, lust). He’s full of regret. Méphistophélès appears and offers him a second chance – if he’ll subsequently serve Méphistophélès in hell. Faust agrees.

Faust sees Marguerite, whose brother, Valentin, has just left for war. He falls in love/lust and is helped to win the virginal naif by Méphistophélès.

Then, after Faust has seemingly abandoned his pregnant love, Valentin arrives home home from war, wanting only to tell everyone about it. He learns what’s happened to Marguerite and challenges her lover. Faust, with help from Méphistophélès, kills him. As Valentin dies, he curses … Marguerite.

The pregnant Marguerite – gone bonkers in her abandonment – gives birth, kills the child and awaits the guillotine. Méphistophélès teases Faust, but then helps him enter her cell, with the possibility of aiding her escape. Marguerite remembers her love for him and decides not to flee. Faust sees her soul ascend to heaven. He, meanwhile, is abandoned by Méphistophélès.

Point one – it’s overlong. The third act in particular is self-indulgent – which is not to say that the music is bad, because it isn’t. It’s just too long. We reach a point where Gounod is simply repeating himself: albeit tunefully.

Point two – Marguerite has little real depth as a character, but in terms of our sympathy, she’s a victim of a patriarchal situation that says how she must behave. Interestingly, her neighbour Marthe is an older woman and a widow, and seems to be able to be as sexual as she likes without anyone going dotty, which suggests that sexual mores are not fixed simply in that society.

Clearly, Marguerite is the victim here and we sympathise with her – as much as her rather one-dimensional character allows.

Next up – Valentin. Well, what an arse. Comes home from war, full of himself, and then blames his sister because she took a lover and he cannot control his jealousy.

Okay: I do actually know that this was penned in the late 19th century, but he’s still a tit. He probably killed people, yet he’s offended that his sister has had a lover and got knocked up. And when his own impetuous stupidity leads to his death, he blames her!

So: not a shred of sympathy there.

For Faust, I can have a modicum of sympathy. In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann rather more adroitly explores the idea of a life spent in dedicated work and the regret it creates, but without creating victims. Here, while one can sympathise with that aspect of Faust’s situation, one cannot sympathise with is his subsequent decision to abandon Marguerite.

Which brings us to Méphistophélès.

Frankly, I’m in love (lust) with Méphistophélès. No crap ‘morals’. No hypocrisy. Since my own faith fled – late, unexpectedly and without any real challenge, I have found myself considering the idiocy of putting the issue of who and how you shag (assuming consenting adults) over whether you lie, con, cheat etc.

I know which I consider to be what morality is about.

I would also suggest that, if god really does exist, then the devil – Méphistophélès – is going to have the best parties and the best discussions.

The ROH has assembled a magnificent cast for the fifth reveal of David McVicar’s production, which is set on the even of the Franco-Prussian War.

Michael Fabiano is a wonderful Faust, while Irina Lungo wrings as much from Marguerite as I suspect is possible. Stéphane Degout is as good as Valentin can be and Carole Wilson deserves praise for her earthy Marthe.

But what made my evening was Erwin Schrott’s Méphistophélès. A deliciously naughty, witty, sexy performance – not least in the penultimate act, when McVicar has Méphistophélès appear as a queen; in full drag.

Even in 2019, it is a fabulously subversive moment that sums up why, given the choice, I’d opt for Méphistophélès every time. And Schrott is not only a superb bass-baritone, but also a wonderful actor, who makes his role every bit as dangerous and as enticing as Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Show.

And that, my friends, is why this is such fantastic stuff.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Us is a creepfest to exercise the mind

There are movies you see that you can assess quickly and easily: a dose of pure entertainment – great, good, bad or indifferent, but presenting no major demands on the mind.

And then there are films that stay with you, nagging away at the grey matter and demanding you try to get your head around them.

Us is very definitely in the latter category.

Written and directed by Jordon Peele, whose solo directed debut, Get Out, was a 2017 critical success, on one level this is a straightforward take on the home invasion genre.

We open in 1986, when young Adelaide Thomas is on vacation with her parents in Santa Cruz. At the beach, shewanders off and finds herself in a hall of mirrors, where an encounter with a doppelganger leaves the child with a serious case of traumatic stress.

Fast forward to the present day, where the adult Adelaide (now Wilson) is on her way to Santa Cruz with her own family – husband Gabe, daughter Zora and son Jason. She is nervous about the trip, but Gabe brushes off her worries, having bought a small boat as he tries to play keeping-up-with-the-Joneses with their far wealthier friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler.

It doesn’t take long before her fears are realised, as the family is attacked by a red-clad, scissor-wielding family of doppelgangers.

For Adelaide, there’s Red; Gabe’s mirror is Abraham; for Zora it’s Umbrae and for Jason, Pluto.

Freed from years of imprisonment below the ground, these shadow people all want Adelaide and family dead: slowly.

But is this just about Adelaide and her family – or is it wider?

Us is violent, funny in places and manages a pretty high level of tension and twists.

But it also leaves loads of questions – many prompted by the constant reminders of a Bible text, first seen on a handwritten placard in the 1986 segment.

Warning of the impending destruction of Jerusalem for the worship of false idols, Jeremiah 11:11 declares: “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them’.” (New International Version).

What could be the false idols here? Hints at the ‘worship’ of technology and social media? Gabe’s attempts to compete materially with the Tylers?

The film could be ‘about’ succeeding – and then pulling the ladder up behind you. It could be about the huge chasms that exist in US society (and elsewhere). It could be about humans being their own worst enemies – and being disturbed and conflicted by modern life.

Peele’s writing and direction are intelligent and clever and this ebb and flow of (possible) subtexts makes it so satisfying. The score, by Michael Abels, is a really intriguing mix (and very effective in helping create the mood).

As to the cast, it’s excellent. Lupita Nyong’o is superb as Adelaide/Red and she seriously owns the piece.

But she gets fantastic support from Winston Duke as Gabe/Abraham, while the two youngsters – Shjahadi Wright Joseph as Zora/Umbrae and Evan Alex as Jason/Pluto – do remarkably well.

Elizabeth Moss as Kitty/Dahlia and Tim Heidecker as Josh/Tex also add clout to the whole.

It’s a bit weird watching a horror flick with an audience that produces a lot of laughs (nervous, shocked ones, presumably), but Us is a very successful creepfest that goes way beyond the much of the genre and will live long in the mind and is the sort of film that you can well imagine wanting to watch again.

Friday, 12 April 2019

A hell of a superhero romp

Boy, oh boy – the new Hellboy film has taken a critical panning. Before even reaching its first weekend, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes had pelted it with an approval rating of just 12%, based on 97 reviews.

Surely it can’t be that bad?

Well, sure enough, it isn’t.

Let’s be clear – it isn’t Guillermo del Toro and isn’t Ron Perlman. The 2004 and 2008 films that the director and actor collaborated on are huge fun and the latter turned in a pair of iconic performances. I cant stop smiling at the scene in the second film where lovelorn Hellboy and Abe Sapien drunkenly sing along to Barry Manilow.

But lets also be clear – in a lot of ways, this screen reboot is actually closer to the look and feel of Mike Mignola’s original Hellboy comics – and I have loved those for years.

Here, we get the requisite origin reminder: demon baby Hellboy, summoned up by Rasputin for the Nazis in a last-ditch effort to win the war (and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl), but saved and adopted by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, founder of The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a joint UK-US body.

The key plot here centres on an ancient sorceress, Nimue, The Blood Queen (Lady of the Lake), defeated centuries earlier by King Arthur, but now back with a vengeance and planning to wipe out humanity so that ‘monsters’ can live un-threatened in a new Eden.

No spoilers from me on the plot. But it is entirely in keeping with Mignola’s originals, which weave the modern with folklore and fairytale. Indeed, the comics were where I first learned of Baba Yaga (who crops up here too, in a seriously creepy piece of CGI work).

It’s violent – as are the comics – and indeed, the fight scenes capture the gravity-defying sense of action (and incredible composition) in Mignola’s original drawings (see left).

I’ve seen the film described as a bit all over the place, but I can’t see that. Perhaps not as tight as it could be, but it didn’t lag for me.

David Harbour as the eponymous hero seems to be feeling his way into the character: some early method mumbling doesn’t help, but by the second half of the film, when he’s getting sterling support from Sasha Lane as Alice Monaghan, a young woman with supernatural abilities, and Daniel Dae Kin as BPRD veteran Ben Daimio, he seems much more comfortable.

There’s sardonic humour, badass monsters and fight scenes aplenty, and a straight-up Mignola mash-up of folklore and mythology.

Ian McShane adds to all this as Bruttenholm, Hellboy’s daddy, while Milla Jovovich provides scary, sexy class as Nimue. 

It’s not perfect, but it’s also light years away from Marvel ands light years better than most of what DC has done in recent years. For me, as a long-time Hellboy fan, Neil Marshall’s film is a rollicking romp in the Hellboy universe and I hope we’ll see more.

After all – they can’t leave things just as the new team discovers Abe Sapien!