Monday, 22 February 2016

Dead funny, smart-ass fun as Deadpool comes to town

For sheer sassy, smart-assy fun, it’s hard to imagine that anything is going to beat Deadpool – this year at least.

The latest big-screen outing for a Marvel character, Deadpool originally appeared in comic form in 1991, starting out as a supervillain before morphing into an anti-hero.

His big-screen debut arrived in the 2009 film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, when Ryan Reynolds wielded the katanas for the first time.

But the ‘Merc with a Mouth’ has now got his own movie, and it’s a cracking piece of entertainment.

After small-time and essentially good-hearted mercenary Wade Wilson is diagnosed with multiple cancers, he’s offered the chance of a cure – a cure that will also bestow on him incredible powers.

Unfortunately, there turns out to be a rather unexpected side effect and, after christening himself Deadpool, Wilson sets off to exact revenge on those who put him into that position.

There’s no shortage of violence – but unlike many comic book stories, the violence here has consequences.

In that sense, together with the humour, it’s reminiscent of Tarantino. But what we also get here is the breaking of the fourth wall, as Deadpool speaks directly to the audience throughout the film.

The character is amoral, bisexual, camp, gobby, violent and a Wham! fan, with a self-awareness and fuck-this attitude that reminds me of Hellboy.

Indeed, the Wham! thing brought to mind Hellboy and Abe Sapien’s drunken duet of Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You in Hellboy II.

The jokes come thick and fast – the excellent script from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick never lets the pace drop – and the action sequences are top notch.

Returning as the eponymous antihero, Reynolds is superb, while Ed Skrein makes a strong – British, of course! – villain, Ajax.

However much you might expect this to be very much a bloke film, there’s a love story that could broaden the audience, and four very strong female characters in Morena Baccarin as Deadpool’s girlfriend Vanessa; Gina Carano as Angel, a superhuman, mutated member of Ajax’s team; Brianna Hildebrand as teenage X-Men trainee Negasonic Teenage Warhead, and Leslie Uggams as Blind Al, a sassy elderly woman with a penchant for cocaine who is Deadpool’s roommate.

And while he cannot actually claim the credit for creating the character of Deadpool, X-Men co-creator and Marvel’s answer to the All Father and the Godfather combined (if you were to believe his own hype), Stan Lee manages to shoehorn himself into a brief cameo.

If you’re looking for philosophy, then Deadpool is probably not going to be the movie for you – although I will point out that slavery in exchange for effective medical treatment could be viewed as a comment on a society where many workers cannot afford to dissent as it’s their boss who pays their medical insurance.

But hey, that’s really not the most important thing here.

First and foremost, this is a thoroughly entertaining romp that sees Marvel itself actually give the entire rather po-faced superhero genre a massive slap. Fab stuff.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Painted gardens prove a peaceful tonic to modern life

Water Lillies (1916-26) Monet
Picasso observed that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” so what better way to start a weekend than to spend time in a gallery?

And even more than that, how therapeutic would that art be if it was to be about gardens?
The announcement of London’s first art blockbuster of 2016 was met by much muttering that the Royal Academy was merely chasing after the money of a sort of art show dilettante.

There seemed to be a suggestion that Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse was not quite ‘serious,’ as art goes.

The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres, Caillebotte
Even the Daily Mail got in on the act with a sneery piece about ‘Monet mania’.

But none of that was going to put off someone who has, in recent years, experienced Damascene moments when it comes to both of those named artists.

So a week ago, after work, The Other Half and I toddled along to Piccadilly.

It must be said that, in terms of the Matisse element of the exhibition, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Organised in conjunction with the Cleveland Museum of Art, some paintings are being seen in London but not in the States and visa versa.

Woman and Child in a Meadow at Bougival, Morisot
In the US, according to the catalogue (which is rather poorly printed in terms of colour reproduction, by the way), there will be three Matisse’s on view that are not to be found in London.

The two here are not his finest, although Rose Marble Table (1917), on a second look, does generate light, even though, by Matisse’s standards, the background is downright muddy. Bloody geniuses.

But that’s being picky. There are fascinating works here by myriad other painters – some of whom were new or little-known to us – and then there are the works by Monet.

The exhibition opens with two fascinating pairings: first, of flower pictures by Renoir and Monet and then, Renoir’s Monet Painting In His Garden At Argenteuil together with the painting that Monet is shown working on, The Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil (A Corner of the Garden with Dahlias), from 1873.

View of a Garden, Linköping, Johan Fredrick Krouthén
The first duo are highly conventional still life paintings; the second sees both artists moving toward what we recognise today as an Impressionist approach.

The exhibition makes much of the rise of recreational gardening among the growing middle class and its influence on artists, although some painters continued to be inspired by their own preference for rather more traditional vegetable gardening – a group that included Camille Pissarro, who painted his kitchen garden.

And indeed, Gustave Caillebotte did the same, with The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres (1877) proving a rare pastel work in such exhibitions, and very modern, with its stark geometry.

The Terrace at Méric, Bazille
In making sure that the link between recreational gardening and painting is clear, there are exhibits of seed catalogues, magazines and other gardening materials, plus a rather marvelous film of Monet painting.

There are painters represented from around the world, including the likes of Joaquin Sorolla, with his Spanish courtyard gardens dripping in heat and the cool of shade.

In such terms, Frédéric Bazille’s The Terrace at Méric (1867), though unfinished, reeks of the warmth and light of the south.

The Birch Avenue in the Garden of Wannsee ... Libermann
We have the chance to meet up again with other artists, including Berthe Morisot, whose beautiful Woman and Child in a Meadow at Bougival from 1882 is on display, while there are the joys on a single Manet in Young Women Among Flowers from 1879.

There are several fine works by John Singer Sargent, and then there are the Scandinavians, Karl Nordström, Laurits Tuxen and Peder Krøyer.

For me, Johan Fredrik Krouthén’s View of a Garden, Linköping (1887-88), stood out from these works.

Murnau II, Kandinsky
Light-dappled paths leading through tree-filled gardens are a particularly successful recurring theme – Max Libermann’s The Birch Avenue in the Garden of Wannsee Looking West (1918) is just one excellent example.  

Setting aside the fact that whoever named the next part of the exhibition ‘Avant Gardens’ (hohoho) should be given a serious seeing to (fnar fnar), we then move into an explosion of colour. 

And what is very clear is that the artistic leap forward from red and white borders to riots of colour was made possible, in part at least, by improvements in botanical science. 

Emil Nolde’s canvases of flowers bring extra vivacity to the exhibition, as does Kandinsky’s wonderful Murnau II. 

Munch’s Apple Tree in a Garden (1932-42) is a revelation if one is primarily only familiar with The Scream. 

Rose Marble Table, Matisse
We are even treated to three fascinating small pieces by Klee, while Klimt’s Cottage Garden from 1905-07 is unmistakable and Santiago Rusiñol’s Gardens of Monforte (1917) has wonderful light.

But then, as throughout this exhibition, is Monet – taking an extraordinary artistic journey in one lifetime.

And the three vast Water Lillies canvases, from 1915-26, 1916-26 and 1915-26 (left to right as they are hung) are staggering. Now all hanging in different US galleries, they are reunited here, in Europe, for the first time in the best part of a century.

Like the paintings at the Orangerie in Paris, they have the power to evoke a sublime, almost spiritual response. Their apparent simplicity belies their power and their beauty.

So forget the cynics and the snide snobs. Quite simply, time spent contemplating these works is worth the admission price alone.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Who do you think you're kidding, all you cynics?

It might be a matter of perception, but the new Dad’s Army film seems to be dividing viewers and reviewers along far deeper lines than most film releases.

For many of us over a certain age, Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s series was a highlight of the 1970s TV schedules and deservedly retains the status of national treasure.

Reruns have ensured that it has never dropped out of the public consciousness and continues to gain a new audience, and it has consistently been voted as one of the best examples of British TV and, specifically, sitcoms.

For me, there’s the added little point that my paternal grandfather was seriously myopic (thanks, Grandpop) and thus did his WWII service in the Cornish Home Guard. Decades later, he’d chuckle at the series and note that it was very true to life.

When the film was first announced, I suffered a fit of apoplexy. How could they? The original is sacrosanct and should not be tampered with.

Then I saw the casting. Goodness, the casting of this film is genius. And I started wanting it to be okay.

There were other worries, though. I originally heard that the script was to be written by those responsible for the St Trinian’s reboot, but it turned out to be by Hamish McColl, who previously penned 2014’s utterly delightful Paddington.

After seeing the trailers, I decided to make it another cinema visit and, by coincidence as much as anything, The Other Half and I saw it on the opening day, last week.

There will be no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the film sags in the second half.

Parade time in Walmington-on-Sea (Bridlington)
However, the idea that it’s rubbish is difficult to grasp. The script is more than mere pastiche. There are innuendos and physical comedy, certainly – both of which existed in the original series and are staples of British comedy – but also layers of far subtler stuff.

It has the thread of class running through it, as did the original series – a subject that is every bit as relevant today.

The catchphrases are used with care. Charlie Mole’s score is clever, with all sorts of subtle references within it both to the original theme and assorted songs from WWII (and even, I thought, James Bond).

The cast is wonderful and don’t make the mistake of trying to impersonate the actors who made their characters famous. Particular mentions will go here to Toby Jones, who is wonderful as Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as Wilson and Michael ‘The Great’ Gambon as Godfrey.

It was also delightful to see the two remaining original cast members appear, including Frank Williams reprising his role as the vicar.

The women in the film are not, as one or two have alleged, shoehorned in in the interests of some sort of political correctness, but are worthy characters in their own right – and for goodness sake, it was hardly as if WWII excluded women.

In a role that could, given the original series, have been awkward, Felicity Montagu makes an admirable Mrs Mainwaring.

I had a worry, about half way through the film, that many of the core characters were making fools of themselves, and that what I couldn’t cope with was it being left in that way.

The denouement, though, is surprisingly tense and solves this question in fine fashion.

This is not, of course, the first Dad’s Army film, but 1971’s effort was not good, suffering from the inability to transfer a small-screen series to the big screen (and the same can be said of other British sit coms).

This is far better.

Mrs Mainwaring leads the women
Nor was I alone in my enjoyment: before the film started, The Other Half whispered that, at just gone 56, he didn’t expect to be one of the youngest members of any audience.

There was a ripple of applause during the film at one catchphrase and another at the end.

I shall assume that these were not, in some way, sarcastic.

Of course, it offers the chance to consider the issue of ‘ownage’ of characters and, indeed, dramatic works.

What this film of Dad’s Army illustrated for me was the quality of the original writing and creation of character. In recent years, I’ve been appalled on occasion when certain remakes have been announced.

But great stories and great characters can have a life of their own: would anyone suggest that there should never have been any film adaptations of Sherlock Holmes after, say, those with Basil Rathbone? Were that the case, we’d never have enjoyed Jeremy Brett. And if it had stopped there, we’d not have Benedict Cumberbatch.

What, in this case, does such a reboot give us?

Well, I think it’s a nice reminder of people who, however daft they could be in certain circumstances, they also did the right thing when the chips were down.

It’s a please, in such cynical times, to see something that is essentially uncynical.

I left the cinema with a broad smile on my face. And while it most certainly not the best film ever made, I cared about the characters once more and certainly wouldn’t object to watching it again.