Sunday, 21 July 2019

A lion king of a film

I have upset my niece. Rather assuming she’d be amused more than anything, I texted her to say I’d just seen the new version of The Lion King, having not seen the original.

The response was cutting, if not meant to be as such: she was dismayed that I “haven’t seen the original, because it was the least twee Disney out out there and really worth watching.”


Memories of things we experience in childhood have very, very long roots.

As it happens, I understand fully what she means. Back in 2016, The Other Half and I ventured into a cinema to see the new Disney Jungle Book. The trailers looked fabulous, but I was torn. For me, Jungle Book, the 1967 cartoon, was incredibly important.

Goodness – as a child, it was the only film I saw at the cinema twice. Taken first by my parents and then by my beloved Auntie Doll.

I still have the souvenir brochure somewhere and the soundtrack album. I can sing almost every word of the songs, even at the advanced age of 56. In my memory – the cultural part of my personal history – that cartoon remains important.

But that doesn’t mean that the new version was not utterly superb.

I came out of cinema at the time really pleasantly surprised.

So, fast forward three years.

The original Lion King came out when I wasn’t going to the cinema and was part of a Disney era with which, for some reason I cannot recall, I have never engaged. Disney/Pixar is quite another matter, but that’s a different thing.

The Other Half and I booked tickets for this incarnation of The Lion King on the basis of the trailers: it looked superb.

It is.

The 2016 Jungle Book was stunning. This develops on the technical achievement of that. There were moments when I found myself almost crying at the sheer quality of what was on screen. You could be watching a documentary. All that’s missing is a David Attenborough voiceover.

The Jungle Book did it in 2016. This redefines animation. Again.

Some reviews have suggested it has a lack of “heart”.

I can’t see it myself. Arguably, I went to watch it for the animation, but ended up loving the story, the characters, the songs etc: engaged by the whole package.

The technical achievement is simply second to none. This will – rightly – win Oscars.

We saw this less than a week after seeing Jon Favreau play Happy In Spider-Mad: Far From Home. He directed both that 2016 Jungle Book and this. A stunningly talented guy.

There’s a great voice cast here too. Keeping James Earl Jones as Mufasa lends such gravitas (note the joke of his telling his son about “your destiny”), while Donald Glover is excellent as the grown Simba (and a special note for JD McCary as the cub Simba). 

Seth Rogan as Pumbaa, John Oliver as Zazu and Billy Eichner as Timon are all equally excellent.

Beyoncé puts in a fine turn as Nala, while John Kani as Rafiki is … well, this is Kani, so what do you expect? These days, he’s the wise, elderly African go-to actor for Hollywood (and the OH assured me that he got to speak a bit of Xhosa at one point).

But in many ways, perhaps the star performance in voice terms is that of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar: so calmly and understatedly sinister.

What we do get here that I sense was not as obvious with the original is the idea, for instance, of Scar as grooming Simba; of the latter’s trauma and of the general environmental questions.

For me, this was superb. Some critics have suggested that the technical achievement comes at the cost of heart.

I can’t see that, personally. The OH and I were in a large audience – mostly adult and one that was presumably more familiar with the original than we were.

When Simba the cub is raised to the crowd in the opening scenes and when we see Pumbaa as a baby warthog, the cinema was filled by the sound of people going: ‘ahhhhh’.

There were hints of attempts at singalongs. At the end, there was widespread applause.

Put aside your doubts: this is very, very good.

It amuses me even more to think that Walt would be spinning in his grave over how utterly cool Disney has become in social terms.

PS #1: I would actually say that the best Disney live-action remake yet is Petes Dragon, because although I saw the original in the cinema with my family, it was really, really poor. And the remake is really, really good.

PS #2: my review of the 2016 Jungle Book is here.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Haring exhibition shows what 'pop art' can be

Untitled (Apartheid) 1984
It’s not uncommon to visit an exhibition and find something that you didn’t expect. More rarely, though, is visiting an exhibition that goes way beyond the unexpected and offers something revelatory.

The Keith Haring exhibition, which opened last month at Tate Liverpool, is in the latter category.

Knowing I would be in Liverpool for a week for work, I’d done my usual and checked what was on art wise in the city.

There was an exhibition of Charles Rennie MacIntosh at the Walker (on until 26 August), but it’s a push to get the time, during a particularly intense working week, to get that ‘far’ from the conference centre.

Mickey Mouse eyes
However, the Haring exhibition was scheduled to have just opened at the Tate, which is only a short walk away from where I would be working, so it was a simple matter of remembering to pack my Tate membership card.

I was familiar with Haring’s simple figures – pop art’s answer to Lowry’s stick figures. In the 1980s, you couldn’t miss them – they were ubiquitous.

But context can make all the difference.

Here, we see works from the very beginning of Haring’s all-too-short career: the early Mickey Mouse cartoon eyes and examples of the drawings that Haring, with a deep belief in art being for everyone, executed on paper stuck up in New York Metro stations.

On a personal note – God, I remember drawing those eyes myself. Since, I’ve remembered how I drew and then drew again Mickey Mouse and more off the Disney icons.

But setting such personal memories aside, these are interesting enough and show his style evolving, but what really starts to resonate is later works.

Silence = Death
Haring rarely titled his works, so the only guideline to what he wanted to say is mostly on the surface he worked on – and his ‘canvases’ ranged from the yellow hood of a New York taxi to squares of tarpaulin.

While I knew that Haring had died of AIDS-related causes – and had, late in his life, campaigned around HIV/AIDS – I had not been aware that his political awareness had begun far earlier and went far beyond that.

Perhaps the best example of the HIV/AIDS works is 1989’s Silence = Death, a moving combination of the pink triangle and the idea of ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’.

But in terms of wider political awareness, there are works here that specifically speak out against apartheid in South Africa, while others examine the links between money and war.

An A5 page of my studies from The Matrix
Even more fascinating – and complex – are Haring’s works exploring new technologies. Intrigued by the possibilities offered by growing computerisation, the artist was also aware that there could be downsides.

It’s been suggested that Haring’s line can be compared to Picasso’s, but in its effortless, it reminds me more of Matisse – and indeed, many of the later works have a decorative quality, created out of densely-packed glyphs, that is pure Matisse too.

And as glyphs, they also have a sense of continuing a form of human expression that is millennia old.

The vast (and unusually titled) The Matrix, from 1983, seems at first almost abstract: it needs attention to understand anything it, so densely is it packed with ideas.

A day after my visit I returned in a lunch break, complete with sketchbook and pens. Trying to replicate some of the figures is a great way to more fully appreciate the sureness of Haring’s line.

Untitled, 1983
But back to the complexity of technology. Could aliens save us – or slaughter us? Will technology enslave us? Will we end up fucking computers or being fucked by them?

Things here are not necessarily as obvious as they seem. The last works displayed are Boschian in their nightmare view.

Equally interesting are works such as No Sin ... run off on printers, yet interestingly designed and with an eye to mass communication of an idea. 

This is the first exhibition of Haring’s work in the UK.

It’s a revelatory experience: work that built upon pop culture and pop art – Haring might have been the successor to Warhol and Lichtenstein, but he was far more grounded in the community in which he lived and worked, and in political struggle, while he also believed in art for all.

Untitled, 1984 –  no doubt a Boschian hell, though
While I have seen little Warhol and only a small Lichtenstein exhibition (ironically, at Tate Liverpool a year or so ago), I would suggest that Haring was streets above both of them.

In his work, there are what now seem prophetic questions about the nature of technology.

While the last stage of his career was bound up with his own struggle with HIV/AIDS, there is no self-pity and no mawkishness anywhere, but a boisterous sense of joy that is present in every line he executed.

In his work, Haring often dealt with death and the means – or potential means of it. Yet ultimately, this is a life-affirming journey: his work bows to nobody and no god. It is out, it is not ashamed and it is most avowedly concerned with equality for all

It is on until November and is well worth a visit.

Keith Haring is on at Tate Liverpool until 10 November. Find out more here.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Walks of witness, steps free of shame

Placard protesting against the homophobic laws of the
Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, who, in true
Freudian style, has ‘anal’ as part of his name
Last Friday was Whit Friday – a day that means little throughout most of the UK but which, in parts of the North West of England, has great cultural significance.

In the morning, members of local Christian churches march through their town in a walk of witness, usually with banners for each church (think a religious version of trade union banners) and sometimes with a brass band from, say, a local school.

In the afternoon – in Mossley at least – there’d be games at the local football ground. In the evening, there’d be the band contests, where brass bands would travel from town to town, à la Brassed Off, competing in each contest before travelling to the next one.

For eight years, when my family lived in the Tameside region, I would have the day off school. I’d march with my father’s church, enjoy the games and then hang around outside the church itself while the bands marched in and out of St Joseph’s school yard to perform.

Eight years was the longest we spent anywhere when I was growing up: the sound of brass bands is woven into my being.

Yours Truly
My last Whit walk was 40 years years ago on Friday 8 June, 1979.

This year, on 6 June, I took part in what was, in many ways, another walk of witness and my first such one: London Pride.

I’d thought about going to Pride before – only as a member of the crowd, mind – but then somehow just never got around to it.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think that I was afraid of being outed to the only two people I was in contact with whom I wasn’t out – my parents. My father had, back in those Mossley days, carefully nurtured an awareness in me that people who knew him would see me doing things and report.

Trafalgar Square
It happened at least once that I can specifically remember now, about something ridiculously innocuous, but it was an idea that lingered. I don’t think that such things leave you easily, even if you cease to be consciously aware of them.

I never told Mother and Dad that I was bisexual: by the time I’d come out to myself, I wondered what the point would be: wouldn’t it just risk seriously upsetting them, given their attitudes toward sexuality – and sin?

A few days before this year’s Pride, a work email newsletter arrived in my inbox, announcing that there were spare places with our organisation’s contingent for the parade itself. I took the opportunity. It seemed an apt moment too, as I work through some of the things that have risen to the surface in the tumult of dealing with both parents’ deaths since 2017, plus my own cancer diagnosis last year.

The day of Pride, I got to Portland Place in good time, but realising that, in olive linen trousers, walking shoes and a branded UNISON t-shirt, I was woefully underdressed. So I picked up a little rainbow clip-on bow tie. I was still underdressed, but not quite as much so.

Steampunky Gothy greetings
The atmosphere was almost overwhelming. As an old friend noted to me later on Facebook, you feel surrounded by warmth and good feelings. I have never experienced anything like it. It was extraordinary to have people reach out from the massive crowd (an estimated 1.5 million on the streets of London) to high five as they wished you the best.

There was plenty of outré behaviour and attire – and I like that: I adore the transgressive nature of drag, for instance.

And off course, it was less than a week into my One Million Steps Challenge, so perfectly suited.

Perfectly suited too, for being not simply a utilitarian walk.

Some ask why Pride is needed these days. Well, when you hear and read of rising homophobic and transphobic attacks, you realise why.

When you read of the protests against the No Outsiders programme being taught in Birmingham schools, you understand why Pride is necessary.

Indeed, just today, it’s been reported that the government has been accused of being “too slow” to tackle the issue – and support the school: accused by the woman tasked with tackling extremism.

‘God is love’
But now, it seems that the protests by some Muslim parents, on the grounds of their religious beliefs, against teaching children that all people are equal, are encouraging others.

According to this report, a group called Catholic Family Voice has been set up near Glasgow by a woman who describes herself as “excited” by what’s been happening in Birmingham. Another woman has been individually leafleting schools on the issue, aiming to disrupt, essentially, while the founder of The Values Foundation makes it clear that she doesn’t ‘value’ equality.

There’s no way that people of faith will teach it’s OK to be gay,” she said. “They won’t because the Bible tells us it isn’t OK to be gay.”

Yes. And the Bible tells us that we should do an awful lot of things that these people would not remotely suggest were appropriate these days.

It’s also worth noting at this juncture, that plenty of people of faith have no problem with the spectrum of sexuality, just as plenty of people of faith acknowledge that evolution is real.

But that’s as maybe. The point here is simple: it might seem that LGBT+ people have equality – in law, at least. But while they continue to be attacked, simply for being who they are and loving who they love, then the struggle is far from over.

I‘ll go with this
In many ways, in terms of a practical, day-to-day level, it’s not been particularly difficult for me: despite being out to people in my daily life, I’ve been in a relationship with a straight, male Other Half for 30 years (he knew before I recognised it myself), so people comfortably make assumptions and frankly, I’ve no interest in making my sexuality the subject of every first conversation with someone.

But almost four decades to the day since I last took a walk of witness – and now, not because I had no choice, but because I wanted to – I walked again.

In times like these, with the rise of the far-right revealing again the attitudes that gave rise to the pink triangle – the symbol stitched onto the concentration camp uniforms of LGBT+ inmates in Nazi Germany – witness is vital.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, with all that began. Our history is important.

So too is showing solidarity with those still being persecuted and even being killed: four LGBT refugees from Syria had finally arrived in the UK a couple of days before Pride. Finally, they could experience what it means to be out.

And it is also vital to say, as MP Angela Eagle recently did in a speech about the Birmingham schools protests: “We aren’t getting back in the closet”.

A cast to die for as Jarmusch takes on zombie consumerism

It’s not over-hyping things when the tag line for Jim Jarmusch’s latest work, The Dead Don’t Die, says it has the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled, but the question is whether the film itself lives up to that.

Set in small town Centerville, the film opens as police officers Cliff Robertson and Ronnie Peterson confront one Hermit Bob about a missing chicken he’s been accused of stealing by redneck farmer Frank Miller.

As they drive back from the woods, they muse on how things seem strange – it’s light for much longer than it should be, for instance. Speculation is rife that such things, being reported across the world, are because polar fracking has shifted the world off its axis.

And with the moon glimmering in suitably weird colours, so the first re-animated corpses push their way up from their graves in the local cemetery.

What can Cliff and Ronnie do? They have only fellow officer Mindy Morrison to help, together with Zelda Watson, the new owner of the Ever After funeral home, a Scot who, when not making up the corpses in her care like drag queens, wields a katana.

Executed in the most deadpan style imaginable, The Dead Don’t Die has threads all over the place and tries to do myriad things. Possibly too many things – and certainly, not everything comes off. For example, it’s debatable whether breaking the fourth wall adds much – if anything.

But just as you ask yourself that, then you start wondering if if you’ve missed something.

It’s this that is part of what makes The Dead Don’t Die worth the effort: not only comment, but nods to other films – including those of zombie giant George A Romero etc. And it’s pretty certain that’ll miss things.

Then there are the performances from the stellar cast.

Bill Murray and Adam Driver as Cliff and Ronnie are ridiculously funny – in a very dry, slow, understated way.

Steve Buscemi makes for an excellent redneck farmer, complete with he red ‘Make America White Again’ baseball cap. Tom Waits growls his way through the film as Hermit Bob, maintaining an occasional commentary on unfolding events.

Danny Glover as Hank, the hardware store owner, and Chloë Sevigny as Mindy both turn in beautifully nuanced performances.

But the one that will stay in the mind is Tilda Swinton as Zelda, out-wierding everyone else on screen in a way that only she can do.

A special note on the casting of Iggy Pop as a coffee-obsessed zombie – a great touch. Sturgill Simpson’s title track also adds to the plus column.

The main theme is the environmental crisis facing us and its link to zombie consumerism, but there’s much more going on.

The Dead Don’t Die is a lot of hit and a bit of miss, but it kept my attention throughout – and my sense of intrigue – and if one thing is certain, it’s that I want to see Jarmusch’s latest again.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Tessa Thompson soars in the new Men In Black movie

The critics came, the critics saw and the critics panned. The public came, paid $247.1m (to 13 July) to do see and ensured that, given a budget of $94-110m, Men In Black: International is most certainly Movie in Black.

‘Why do it in the first place,’ asked many of the former group? It’s an odd question, given that the same people have been lauding Toy Story 4, which really is pretty much the same plot as in the previous three outings.

Part of the answer is because it’s been some time, because the idea of alien life fascinates no less today and it’s an entertaining concept.

This latest instalment comes seven years after Men in Black 3 in 2012. The first film was released in 1997 and the second in 2002.

But critics and the cinema-going public are different beasts (I’ve been in both camps over the years).

Repetition and familiarity are not always bad – certainly from fans’ perspectives. The Star Wars reboot needed a film that was pretty similar to 1977’s A New Hope to get people excited after George Lucas had, for many people, wrecked his own creation by wanting to take it in a different direction from the first trilogy.

And not everything has to be an art house masterpiece or something that provokes philosophical contemplation.

Against this background, then, is Men In Black: International really such a disaster?

The answer is simple: no, it’s not.

It is not the greatest film ever made – but anyone expecting it to be is a fool. In my not-remotely humble opinion, it lags in the second quarter after a decent opening – but hey, folks ... then it really picks up.

First – the plot: it’s aliens v humans: what else does anyone expect? And see my earlier point about Toy Story 4.

Second, what it absolutely does do is confirm that Tessa Thompson, who plays Molly Wright/Agent M here, has serious star quality and can hold a movie. She has a great co-star in Chris Hemsworth and a fine supporting cast, but this very much feels like Thompson’s film and she does not let the opportunity pass.

The look is good, the new, key villains (or maybe not) aren’t obviously pleasant and neither is another member of the MIB, so one could argue that this is a step toward a more nuanced MIB.

Oh, the hell with it – it’s just fun and if you’re looking for something more, stay away.

And if there's another one – I'll go. Particularly if Thompson is in it.

And Pawny.