Sunday, 31 December 2017

Star Wars sees Leia remind us to keep on fighting

Star Wars is Star Wars is Star Wars. Some may deride such a suggestion, but while it’s an oversimplification, it also contains more than a grain of truth. After all, the second trilogy pushed many of the original fans away from the initial trio of movies precisely because, however much George Lucas wanted to explore trade wars in those outings, that was not what fans felt was ‘real’ Star Wars. Jar Jar Binks was simply the sickly icing on an unappetising cake.

Two years ago, I came out of a cinema and said – after I’d stopped shaking – that JJ Abrams had ‘given us back Star Wars’.

However much The Force Awakens was effectively a remake of 1977’s A New Hope, the utterly vital thing was that it contained the spirit of Star Wars that fans recognised from the first movies, wanted again and instantly warmed to, as opposed to soul-sapping tedium of the second trilogy. It really was a ‘new hope’.

Last year’s Rogue One was still recognisably Star Wars, but with added grittiness.

And so we arrive at at the tail end of 2017 and The Last Jedi – the sequel to The Force Awakens.

If I don’t feel as overtly euphoric as I did when exiting the Waterloo IMAX two years ago, it’s because my expectations have already moved way beyond fearing the worst.

As Rey seeks the help of Luke Skywalker, the Resistance is close to being wiped out by the First Order.

But Luke, who has been in self-imposed exile on the craggy island of Ahch-To, has no intention of returning or of helping Rey learn how to use the Force that has stirred in her.

Writer and director Rian Johnson has done a top job here, creating a tense roller-coaster of a cinematic ride that allows for many things.

It all has an added gravity – and poignancy – with every sight of the late Carrie Fisher, to whom the film is dedicated.

But while it absolutely has the ‘feel’ of true Star Wars, there are also differences.

There is a darker mood and even a (slightly) more philosophical one, with many of the actors having the opportunity to explore more nuanced aspects of their characters.

Of course, while the Empire has always been fascistic, current events give this aspect of the films a certain increased power. 

But have no fear, there are lighter moments.

These include Chewbacca and the porgs – small birds on Ahch-To. If they remind you a tad of puffins, that’s because they are. Filming on Skellig Michael, the crew was faced with a plethora of the birds and, since it’s a World Heritage Site and they’re protected, it was decided that the best way to deal with this was to use CGI to turn them into part of the film.

I really do want a vulptex – a crystal snow fox (Swarovski could make billions) and the space horses (fathiers) manage to be cute without that being a distraction.

It hit me, while watching, that I cannot recall an action film with so many female characters. But what’s important here is that, in general, these are not specifically male or female roles, so it really makes no difference.

Points are suggested about gender – the macho approach of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) versus Leia and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo’s more considered one – but this is just divas on the right side of being overplayed.

And besides, it has triggered further fits in those whose very sense of masculinity is so fragile that it shatters at the mere sight of a few more women in a few more roles in a few more films.

Of the cast, Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn grow further into their roles, while Mark Hamill’s acting range seems to have broadened. 

Supreme Leader Snoke gives Andy Serkis, Hollywood’s go-to performance capture expert, another chance to strut his stuff.

Adam Driver is definitely making Kylo Ren more interesting and slightly less than a spoilt brat, while Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a Resistance maintenance worker, and Laura Dern as Holdo give solid supporting performances.

Make no mistake – this is Star Wars. And this is Leia’s film. It was a shock last year when she died and it was a surprise to realise how much it upset me personally. Seeing her on screen here is particularly moving.

This is not the greatest film ever made. But in this final performance, Fisher reminds us to leave the sentiment until after the enemy is defeated.

How very apt that feels. And it packs a powerful punch too.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

A tin drum signifying nothing very much

Günter Grass’s Nobel-cited 1959 debut novel, The Tin Drum, is a sprawling monster of a book – published as three books in one and in reality, pretty much two books. By turns epic, tragic and comic, disturbing and fantastical, anyone hoping to stage something under its name will have their work cut out.

Carl Grose decided to attempt precisely that for Cornish theatre company, Kneehigh. Staged in conjunction with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Liverpool’s Everyman, it has been touring since October and, on the final leg of that tour, is playing at Shoreditch Town Hall in Hackney until this Saturday.

It would be as absurd to imagine that anyone could cram the entire book into a show of under three hours as to expect to see a literalist interpretation. It’s easy to realise that a range of performance styles – puppetry, song, dance, burlesqueue, cabaret etc – could be employed in such an Herculean task.

Perhaps precisely because one can see the potential, it’s particularly disappointing that this misses the mark by some considerable way.

The obvious problems are clear – and have been evident (and noted) since it opened in a different venue, but have not apparently taken on board. Many of the lyrics cannot be heard because the music is far too loud – it’s amped up to a ridiculous level. And since there so much ‘music,’ it would have been nice if Charles Hazlewood’s score had at least some variety or discernible quality. As things stand, it is largely an exercise in homogenised noise with a thumping bass.

The puppet Oskar has much going for it – an eerie quality, certainly – but the use of different actors to voice the boy who won’t grow up, miked and often from quite a physical distance, doesn’t help. This also ensures that he comes across as a sort of demon child who is utterly unsympathetic. But being able to have sympathy with Oskar is important, because it draws us in. It is part of showing us how easy it is to fall for the extremism – how easy it is to become complicit – and how we must take responsibility.

Without that, Grass’s lesson is nowhere near as powerful.

Grose decided to strip the story away from its time and place, telling us at the start that this could be about “any war”. So what is acted out before us could be the Balkans, it could be Syria, it could be Yemen. His text emphasises the idea of tribalism creating conflict and that we’re really all both different and the same – ‘viva complexity’. That’s all well and good, yet in having Sigismund Markus, the kindly Jewish toymaker, be targeted for being a Pole rather than a Jew, he rids what is served up of any specific comment on anti-semitism.

In a world where a far-right poster boy like Nigel Farage can feel confident enough to use his LBC radio show to talk of a “Jewish lobby” in the US, this is not a matter of polite semantics.

When Alfred Matzerath dies, it is no longer by swallowing his Nazi badge in an effort to avoid detection by Soviet troops – as clear a metaphor for falling for extremist rhetoric as anyone could come up with – but in gunfire. 

The Nazis have here become the ‘Order’ and could have dropped straight out of something by Mel Brooks – ‘Hitler’ is a Lady Gagaesque figure whose salute becomes a sort of voguing as she belts out something or other to more of Hazelwood’s monotone faux rock.

Grose was always going to have to substantially trim his source material, but in the context of the apparent aim of highlighting current global tensions and making a general anti-racist statement, his concentration of such a vast amount of stage time on the love triangle that is Oskar’s family background seems oddly unbalanced – not least as decisions noted above mean that the Nazi threat is frankly reduced.

If the music is rather one note, then the pace of the performance feels the same. There are good ideas on display (the chase Oskar’s grandfather leads the police is very clever) and some good performances from the ensemble cast, but greater variety of pace might also help move this from being a whirling – wearying – experience to one that actually engages the emotions.

At the present, it singularly fails to do that. This is a tin drum beating nothing more than sound and fury, signifying nothing very much at all.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Ludwig van offers up a culinary ode to joy

After a difficult year, a pre-Christmas trip to Vienna for some culture and shopping seemed like the perfect way to bring 2017 to a climax.

Food would, of course, feature and, in a perfect example of serendipity, just a few weeks before we flew out, a friend pointed out that Rick Stein’s recent series of food-oriented weekend breaks included the Austrian capital.

Thus, with the aid of iPlayer, we began the trip with culinary expectations that went beyond the iconic Wiener schnitzel and the apple strudel to include such delights as Viennese goulash and tafelspitz – the latter being but one among the many versions of boiled beef in Germanic cuisine.

In the event, our first meal – lunch on a grey, drizzly afternoon, in a café on the legendary Naschmarkt – saw The Other Half try the goulash, while I opted for sliced liver that came in a big, rich gravy and was utterly scrummy.

Goulash followed again during the trip, giving evidence (were it needed) that like so many other dishes, there are as many variations on the way it can be made as there are people who make it. Varying amounts of paprika and little or lots of onion are just two of the possible variables.

But just as we’d settled into such hearty, down-to-earth eating, The Other Half spotted an interesting-looking establishment not far from our hotel.

Ludwig van, we were to learn, only opened its doors in January this year, but it’s already essential to book.

Presumably, our looking genuinely upset at there being no tables available, our instantly asking if we could make a reservation for the following evening (and trying this in German) produced sympathy – and with amazing good fortune, a table in the bar area.

It’s a snug space in an old, old building, with dark wood everywhere and a feeling of being an inn.

Host Oliver Jauk found us a corner and guided us through the menu.

Such was the briefness of what was listed – with so much that tempted – that we both decided to go down the route of the tasting menu.

After gorgeous bread, with the best butter I’ve ever tasted and wafer thin slices of a sausage from a 10-year-old “calf” that were packed with flavor but still tender, our taste buds were further tickled by a tiny dish of kimchee-style vegetables, accompanied by a local wine infused with herbs.

The first of our ‘proper’ courses was salsify, with butternut, parsley and hazelnut. Lovely tastes – the parsley, for instance, was a perfect illustration of being so much more than a garnish, while fresh tomato shot through a light-as-silk sauce.

The bar was set high.

Next up was trout with cauliflower, grapefruit and chervil.

Standards maintained.

Then a dish of oatmeal ‘risotto’, with chanterelle mushrooms, that called up the autumn forest as though by sourcery rather than saucery.

Pike-perch (zander) from Lake Neusiedl followed, perched atop red cabbage, followed by a noisette of calf, with a rich gravy and spinach leaves that burst with flavour.

Elvis van
To finish, we were served ‘Elvis van’ – a dessert that combined banana, a peanut mousse and bacon wafers and somehow worked.

This was simply fabulous food: rich, yet light, with great textures and astounding flavour. Head chef Walter Leidenfrost and sous chef Julia Pimingstorfer are reinventing traditional Austrian cuisine in a thrilling way.

Ludwig van’s ethos means that drinks are sourced from smaller producers who might well be less-known producers and as locally as possible. We enjoyed a variety of white wines – all of which were exemplary, but which displayed an astonishing variety of tastes.

At the end, with most other diners having finished and left, Oliver offered us a choice of schnapps from unlabelled bottles.

We both chose one flavoured with pine: it was a smooth delight – and continued that underlying sense of the forest.

Ludwig van is far from cheap – but it was worth every cent. This place is going to win awards and I wouldn’t hesitate to dine there again – though I’d certainly book well in advance!

Find out more at For information and booking, contact