Sunday, 21 October 2018

A very, very, very dark – but funny – matter

Copenhagen, the 19th century: Danish celebrity author Hans Christian Anderson is regaling an audience with his latest fairy tale, The Little Mermaid.

There are celebratory fireworks and showers of admiration for the writer, but there are also ghostly figures.

And when Anderson returns home, climbing to the attic of his house, it is to discuss these ghosts with Marjory, a disabled Congolese pygmy, who he keeps in a box and who writes the stories for him.

But why doesn’t she try to escape; is she and her situation unique and what does Charles Dickens have to do with it all?

Martin McDonagh’s latest play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, is going to upset people. Though to be strictly accurate, it’s still previewing until 24 October and it’s already provoked Indignant of Islington and Vexed of Vauxhall to express their horror online.

One can imagine this work will trigger an orgy of offence.

Taken at the most simple face value, the play laughs at colonialism and thumbs its nose at the crimes of empires. And because McDonagh has written a funny play, the audience laughs along and, therefore, becomes complicit.

Except that this is not supposed to be taken at face value, and only a monumental naïf or someone utterly dedicated to a peacock-like display of their social justice warrior credentials would not understand or would pretend not to understand what McDonagh is doing.

And incidentally, if you push that idea that he’s genuinely laughing at the crimes of imperialism, then you’re saying that the black cast members are Uncle Toms, and I would suggest people don’t go down that route.

There isn’t much of a plot, as such. Like Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, this is more of a meditation on a number of themes.

Not least among these is the trivialising of the treatment of the crimes of colonialism – an attitude that has reared its head again in recent years, with continuing exceptionalism and the concomitant belief of some Brexiteers that, once free from the EU, the UK can build Empire II and indeed, the rest of the world is ready to rush into our arms to give us the bestest ever trade deals with only five minutes discussion needed. Because we’re Britain, doncha know.

Of course, the same can be said of the Trump-era US too, with the crude and fact-free racism of the MAGA crowd, convincing itself that ‘true America’ is WASP America.

Such attitudes never went away, but increased nationalism elsewhere around the globe means they’re re-emerging. And therefore, it is important to remind people of just what nationalism and colonialism means in reality.

McDonagh – a writer in whom the Irish gothic tradition meets London-Irish experience, with punk mixed in (as Fintan O’Toole’s excellent programme essay notes) – is ideally suited to push boundaries so that, while A Very Very Very Dark Matter is very funny, it isn’t what you’d describe as ‘comfortable’.

In concentrating on Belgian imperialism – and the genocide in what was the Congo – the play raises what will, for many, be history that they are not familiar with. In pointing up the rape of the region for resources, he even manages a sideswipe at environmentally-holier-than-thou cyclists, noting that while Leopold II’s publicly-stated intention (as with other countries) was to ‘civilise’ and Christianise, the less public one was the desire for ivory and rubber – here, with the latter used for bicycle tires.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is probably not for the faint-hearted or those who get upset by ‘bad language’ – it’s gloriously sweary in a very Irish way.

It’s short – 90 minutes with no interval – angry and funny at the same time, and defies easy labels.

Director Matthew Dunster has done an excellent job and Anna Fleische’s design is superb.

As Marjory, Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, on her debut, is simply outstanding and more than holds her own with her massively experienced co-star.

Jim Broadbent as Anderson is a delight as the bumbling, eccentric and crass writer, living off Marjory’s talent and, all the while, pleading with her that *his* colonial crimes aren’t as bad as those of others. And his swearing is a glory.

Phil Daniels as “Charles FUCKING DICKENS!” is a hoot too, and getting Tom Waits to record the role of narrator adds both to the fairy-tale aspect of the piece, as well as the sinister and eerie nature of it.

Bloody brilliant.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, is at London’s until 6 January 2019.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

A label-defying film that offers up abundant treats

If films deserved plaudits for defying labelling, then Bad Times at the El Royale, would be winning them by the bucketload. But as if to illustrate the degree to which some people really need a label, it has received a decidedly mixed reception from reviewers and viewers.

It’s 1969 and the setting is the fading hotel of the title, which bridges the state line between California and Nevada. Here, half a dozen strangers converge, all bearing secrets.

First come guests Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), struggling soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), to be met by Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the hotel’s sole employee.

In the background of the eerily quiet reception area and lounge, news footage shows police investigating a Malibu murder spree.

As each guest locks themselves into their room for the night, what drama could possibly play out?

By the time the sixth protagonist, Chris Hemsworth’s cult leader, arrives in the final third of the film, there have been plenty of twists and turns – and there are plenty more to come.

One of the prime complaints about Drew Goddard’s film is the length – it rolls in at 141 minutes. But length is only a problem if you’re sat in the cinema feeling uninvolved and wondering how much longer it’s going to drag on.

This, on the other hand, is incredibly inventive and engrossing: scenes unfold to explain the backstories of the main characters – and then unfold again, told from another character’s perspective. The characters themselves are far from simplistic and it's pretty pointless trying to guess their stories.

There is violence, but it’s used sparingly although, when it happens, it is genuinely shocking, even if Goddard doesn’t indulge in masses of gore. He doesn’t need to. Frankly, it’s difficult to think of a film that ratchets the tension up to the level that this does.

And thinking about that, 24 hours later, I realise that the last time I sat in a cinema and saw such a gore-free yet violent film, that built tension in other ways, was The Silence of the Lambs. And that was 1991.

Here, among the many things to admire, there is a tracking shot in the first part of the film – no spoliers here, but if you see the movie itself, you’ll know the scene when it comes up – that is simply stunning.

There have been comments that the film as a whole is ‘sub-Tarantino’, but since it never pretends to be anything like a Tarantino film, this is simply illustrative of how desperate needily some people need to find and attach labels.

Part of that is about being able to understand what youre seeing/have seen by categorising it.

The Other Half and I knew little about the film, having seen the trailer on TV (and then in the cinema) and concluding that it looked interesting, amusing and possibly a bit of a caper movie.

‘Psychological thriller’ probably describes it as a well as any label, yet looking back on it, you can’t help feeling that it’s something else. Not something else besides, but something else entirely. There are elements of Noir; it’s got a brilliant retro look, feel and sound; there are one or two funny moments, but … it doesn’t fit any obvious mould.

The performances are universally excellent. Yet even then, British actor Erivo, in her first film to be released (the first to be filmed, Widows, opens next month), stands out. To say she can act and she can sing is an understatement. And it’s really not stretching anything to think that she should be in the reckoning early next year come the Oscar nominations.

L-R: Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo
Bridges is brilliant too – and so is Pullman, in only his second released film role. The latters performance is a revelation. For most of the film, we see him as pathetic. Only when we catch his backstory, late on, do we understand why he is what he is, and that he not pathetic.

This is a film where the characters are crafted so that we really care about them.

It's a film about all sorts of things: there is social commentary, though very subtly. Its about redemption – though not in a conventional way. Its about hagiographies and reputations and political legacies – its about how the state protects (or otherwise) those things. And all of it is razor-sharp relevant.

To add – Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is just another of the joys that this film has.

Bursting with ideas and subtle comments about contemporary America (and the rest of the world), Bad Times at the El Royale is a genre-buster. And if you’re going bust genres, then this is the way to do it.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Ravens to rave about

It was early 2016, on a chilly Saturday morning, that I set off for the Tower of London, with the explicit aim of being one of the first visitors through the gates and of heading straight to find the ravens before crowds clustered around them.

I  can’t put a finger on precisely when I’d started to become fascinated by these particular birds, but by the time of my Tower trip, I was part of the way through having a tattoo of Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin, done. The Other Half was away for work and I wanted to see the reality behind the myriad wonderful tales.

Two years later and pre-ordering a memoir by Ravenmaster Chris Skaife was a no-brainer. On Friday, I got my hands on it – I read the final page this afternoon.

The Ravenmaster: My life with the ravens of the Tower of London is as light a read as you could hope for: the Yeomen Warders of the Tower act as guides to all many visitors that pour through the gates every year, and this reads as though you were on a particularly special tour.

Skaife writes with a lovely, light tone, full of humour – not least the self-deprecating variety – and a very great sense of love and respect for his charges.

There is an autobiographical element to the book: all Yeoman Warders have to have given over 20 years of unblemished service in the military before they’re eligible to apply to become a Beefeater, but the Ravenmaster makes light work of this, sketching in his own background, as the real stars here are the ravens.

The one and only Merlina
And of course, the biggest star of all, as anyone who follows the Ravenmaster on social media knows, is Merlina.

But while it’s a light book, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also chock full of fascinating observations and facts about these extraordinary members of the corvid family.

A late chapter, describing the responses of two ravens to losing their partners/mates is utterly incredible and very moving.

Skaife is a delightful storyteller, but the success of this book really rests on his attitude toward the birds in his care. His determination to give them the best life possible – to constantly improve their care – is wonderful. And that attitude extends to the foxes who have, over the years, proved a threat to the birds.

Instead of seeing them as pests to be exterminated, he has used his background to work out how to keep them away from his charges – by providing food for them, away from the ravens’ enclosure, believing that they have as much right to be there as the warders, visitors and ravens.

He makes it quite clear in the opening pages that he is no ornithologist: that too is part of the book’s charm. His knowledge of the ravens is not book-learned (though he has read widely on the subject since taking the job and there’s a great suggested reading list at the end), but is predominantly based on the keen observational training of a former infantryman

There is, however, biology here as well as mythology and history, and every bit of it is fascinating.

Back in March 2016, I got really close to Merlina and managed to get several great photographs of her. I saw her hopping on a bench because there were crisps in evidence – and terrifying a young woman in the process.
'She had crisps'

Right next to me as I sat on a bench, she rooted in a bin and, finding a piece of banana, took it to a nearby puddle on Tower Green to wash it.

This sort of behaviour by the bird that is closest to Skaife is chronicled in the book – along with much more.

It gave me a special glow to realise, reading the pages, that I had probably got those shots because, without really thinking about it, I’d behaved in the right way: quietly, not moving too fast and not being remotely scared.

Since then, I’ve seen ravens in the wild in Germany. On one occasion, gliding around a medieval tower on the first warm day of spring. In April this year, a vast one few past The Other Half and I at the top of Tegelberg in the Bavarian Alps, as we sat chilling with two Alpine choughs – other members of the corvid family.

This delightful book makes me realise that it’s time for another trip to the Tower. Perhaps I should take a tube of Pringles and see how long it takes Merlina to spot them?

The Ravenmaster: My life with the ravens of the Tower of London, by Christopher Skaife, is available now from 4th Estate.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Venomously underwhelming, but just perhaps ...?

Marvel Studies can do little wrong these days, but while they make it look easy to produce big, brash and fun films, Venom is a reminder of just how cleverly they do it.

Intended as the first offering in a Sony Marvel universe, Marvel Studios were not involved in the film – although Stan Lee is credited as an executive producer and, almost inevitably, has one of his Hitchcockian cameos.

In many ways, this is a mess. Apparently, Tom Hardy stormed off the set at one point, furious with his dialogue. The first half of the film lacks pace as it sets up the basic premise of how Hardy’s investigative journalist Eddie Brock become host to alien lifeform Venom, which is on Earth courtesy of the Elon Musk-like Carlton Drake, a filthy-rich, techy entrepreneur with a messiah complex.

Brock has already pissed off Drake by challenging his ethics and, as a result, lost both his career and his fiancé Anne (Michelle Williams).

If not quite yawn-inducing, this set up does nothing to set the pulse racing. However – thank goodness! – when Venom and Brock become one, everything lifts. It could almost be a sexual union in terms of the energy it injects into the film.

This is not to say that everything is suddenly fab, but apart from anything else, it does create a sense of fun in the banter between Brock and Venom (the latter voiced by Hardy), which is as effective as a celluloid snort of cocaine.

Suddenly it become clear that, with more attention to the script, Venom could be more than a very, very very, very poor man’s Deadpool.

Some of the CGI is too fast – there’s a late fight scene, for instance that leaves you wondering what is actually happening on screen – but you make it to the end and find that, ultimately, it’s been measurably closer to being fun than to simply being a snore-a-thon.

Hardy grows into the role too, seeming uncomfortable early on, but developing as he gets to unite with Venom.

Williams is feisty and (like Brock) becomes less one-dimensional as the film develops.

Riz Ahmed turns in a nice performance as Drake, catching a really good tone of barking, amoral genius with far more subtlety than one might expect from a villain in the cinematic incarnation of a comic.

Hardy has signed to make two more Venom films: there was just enough here to suggest that this could be a good move. But this is far from a A-plus: Sony has some work to do.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Eagle eyes view the English capital

Red House, by Marc Gooderham
You could be forgiven for thinking that developers in London today have fetishised both height and a desire to build the oddest shapes possible, which then demand to be nicknamed.

Not everything created from such a base is bad. ‘The Gherkin’ remains an elegant addition to the City, while the Tate Modern extension is appropriate. But some are simply dire, with particularly dishonourable mentions for One Blackfriars – ‘The Vase’ – and 20 Fenchurch Street – ‘The Walkie-Talkie’. And let’s not mention the thrusting inelegance of ‘The Shard’.

Sadly, chunks of a more human-scale London are being torn away in the name of … well, in the name of corporate profits. Character replaced by a forest of largely characterless glass and steel.

In such times then, it is a particular pleasure to see an exhibition such as London Eye 2 at The Millinery Works in Islington.

Works by 15n artists are on display, all available to buy. The creative talents behind the works span generations and include Sir Peter Blake, the British pop artist still best known for his iconic Beatles Sgt Pepper album cover.

Camden Town Tube, by James McKinnon
Here there are a number of limited edition prints in his distinctive collage style and love of pop culture, including Piccadilly Circus, the Convention of Comic Book Characters, and River Thames, Regatta, with its nod toward a steampunk sensibility.

Several of the artists turn their gaze reflectively on a London that is fast disappearing; in some cases, derelict or covered in graffiti.

This is a large part of Marc Gooderham’s practice. Here, he has five works on display. Acrylic painting Waiting for You and Fill Your Heart (pastel on black paper) both convey a sense of the slightly shabby, while The Rio Cinema, Dalston and The Vogue Cinema (both pastels on black paper) convey dusk and night time scenes devoid of humanity, with a deep sense of loneliness.

Yet in The Red House (pastel on black paper), he also gives us a bright blue sky and a burst of glorious colour. Mounted and framed in black, this is a work that adds light to the room.

If the exhibition as a whole gives us a sense of London on a human scale, Marc is not the only artist whose work conveys a sense of loneliness. We can see it too in the deserted station of Camden Town Tube and the deserted street of Back Lane Hampstead, both by James MacKinnon.

Eric Rimmington’s Above Ground conveys the same sort of mood – and even his Lunchtime, with sunbathers sitting in isolation, has something of the same atmosphere.

Butler's Wharf, Shad Thames
Terry Scales’s Butler’s Wharf, Shad Thames features the striking bridges between wharf buildings near Tower Bridge – again, the absence of people lends a haunting quality.

Giles Winter’s works – four of which show residential streets at dusk, with corners of lit rooms visible, but nobody present, take us in the same direction.

Just one – The Noctambulist – has a solitary, hat-and-coated figure walking away from the viewer, almost out of the canvas, giving us something incredibly Hopperesque. His other work here, Bus Shelter, is an incredible take on rain in the city, brilliantly executed.

Peta Bridle’s etchings continue the decaying, lonely idea, So too, do Eleanor Crow’s human-devoid paintings, though the likes of Near London Fields, Early Afternoon (Deriocte Street, just south of London Fields) to Mornington Terrace, May Evening, 2018.

For me, two artists stand alone in presenting a different view: Nessie Ramm’s The Parakeets of Richmond Park celebrates the spread of ring-necked parakeets across the city, framing them in an antique Victorian frame, against a subdued background of all those towers. It’s clever and charming.

But personally, I admit taking a special delight in Melissa Scott-Miller’s work.

Islington Front Steps is so bright but spot on, and the same can be said of the fabulous Islington Back Gardens in a Heatwave (left). Both are glorious oils that will add light to any room in which they hang.

Back in the early 1970s, I lived in west London, in a fairly typical London town house.

As such, these works by Scott-Miller have a real resonance. They might not portray something I actually saw, but looking at them, I genuinely see something that I recognise.

All in all, this is a superb exhibition. Whether you can buy or not, I seriously recommend it.

Find out more at via @MillineryWorks.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Rattle on fire, even if you can't hum Bruckner

British concertgoers had the chance, earlier this week, to bid farewell to the partnership between the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and it’s conductor since 1999, Sir Simon Rattle.

Two concerts at the Southbank Centre over two nights offered the hallmarks of Rattle’s tenure in the German capital – programmes combining classic works and new ones. The Other Half and I were fortunate enough to have been able to book decently-priced tickets just a few days earlier, having struggled to find anything that seemed affordable some months earlier.

The first concert saw the UK premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, followed by Bruckner’s ninth symphony.

The former was really short, but fascinating. The composer was influenced by Steve Reich in particular, and it certainly reflects such minimalism, while also involving incredibly complex rhythms – particularly in the third piece.

Understated in so many ways, it was a fascinating piece – and one that will make me look up the composer.

Bruckner’s ninth is … well, it was unfinished and it is big (arguably overlong) and is loud. Those were my impressions last year when we saw/heard Bernard Haitink conduct the LSO at the Barbican in the same work. Context: oddly (or perhaps not) that was just after my mother’s funeral. This concert came as I am arranging my father’s funeral. Which will doubtless ensure that it sticks in my mind in terms of this music.

Last year was a performance that seemed merely loud. This had far, far more nuance – though it’s still overlong as piece. I am not knowledgable about relative acoustics, so I cannot know whether those of the Royal Festival Hall or the Barbican are better.

But one thing was clear, though – the orchestra’s sound.

On both the contemporary and the Romantic, the Berlin’s sound was simply superb. British orchestras have historically been let down by the string playing, but have improved greatly in recent years. Yet when you hear a band like this, you experience something that is a step into something special. And shimmering strings are an enormously important way to judge an orchestra.

Rattle’s German years come with mixed results – his recording with the Berlin of Orff’s Carmina Burana is pretty dreadful – but he is happy to experiment with new music and with the interpretation of less-new music.

Classical music should not be an ant encased in amber – it needs the likes of Rattle to make it live in the here and now, so personally, I’m ready to deal with the negative results of that.

This Bruckner gave me a sense of the piece being worth the effort. It was also a good moment to remember that Rattle had, as a precondition of his appointment, ensured that all the musicians got a wage rise after years of declining pay; that he took the band into schools and that he gurned it into a foundation, to remove it from all political control.

Rattle might not be a Karajan (who could be?), but his legacy in Berlin will be a very long and important one. The English in particular might have a suspicion of anything intellectual/high cultural, but Rattle is someone we should celebrate and hopefully, his tenure at the LSO will help further boost classical music on this side of the Channel.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Over-hyped and flawed, but still an enjoyable romp

In terms of sheer hype and expectation, Avengers: Infinity War must be near the pinnacle of Hollywood frenzy. One of the most expensive films ever made, with an estimated budget of $316–400 million, it achieved massive pre-release ticket sales and, by 26 May, had pulled in $1.849 billion at the box office.

Bringing together various strands of the Marvel universe, it centres on the acquisition by Thanos of all the infinity stones, rendering him pretty much invincible.

Various superheroes try to stop the genocidal lunatic, but all fail.

This provides the core idea that many fans have hailed – that supposed superheroes are not that super and can end up doubting their own abilities etc. None of this is, however, new.

There are a lot of things here that work – and when they do work, they work very, very well: the banter between Tony Stark and Dr Strange and their relationship with Spider-Man offers much fun. After all, when you get Robert Downey Jnr and Benedict Cumberbatch firing off each other, it’s likely to be worth watching, while Tom Holland is very good as a the teen among them.

The Guardians of the Galaxy crew are just great – not least the part of the team (Rocket and Groot) that splits off with Thor. Honestly: I possibly need to buy this film on some format just to rewatch (and rewatch and rewatch) Chris Hemsworth’s Asgardian god repeatedly describing Rocket as a “rabbit” and later, Groot as “Tree”. This is comic genius and probably worth the admission price alone.

Josh Brolin’s Thanos is actually very good. He brings to the role a sense of a warped intelligence that has begun from a genuine concern at what causes poverty to one that allows himself the power to solve it by wiping out half the population of every planet that he visits – and then convincing himself that, as a result of his decision, everyone lives happily ever after.

Indeed, the character itself and the question that he addresses lends a philosophical element to the film that is welcome.

But unfortunately, the whole also suffered from being overlong and, by the end, rather repetitive: ‘how many times have we seen this fight?’

It also shows us how out of date Captain America is: more modern superheroes are much savvier and funnier. Steve Rogers is past his sell-by date and it shows. Interestingly, it also illustrates the yawning gulf between Marvel and DC, the latter of which continues to plough forward with a batch of dated characters, with only Wonder Woman really suggesting a sense of a really new life through comics and film.

There’s lots to like here, but it’s already a long way from being the best Marvel film released this tear: Black Panther and Deadpool 2 leave it standing.

But doesn’t this also all tell you the level of expectation that now awaits every Marvel release? And what will it be like by the release of the second part of this story, slated for 3 May next year?