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?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Deadpool's back – and this sassy sequel is the tops

The 2016 Marvel smash hit, Deadpool – $783.1m at the box office for a budget of $58m – always had the feeling that it might be a one-off. Could the Merc with the Mouth really pull it off again?

But the arrival of Deadpool 2 makes it clear that this was no blip: if anything, the new film is even better than the initial outing.

It says something about Marvel that, on the one hand, it can be producing the rather more ‘serious’ superhero films such as Avengers: Infinity War at the same time as having an anti-hero like Deadpool take the proverbial out of just that. In fact, it probably says most of why DC are struggling so much in the film stakes.

Personally, I can enjoy both sort of superhero outing, but this latest instalment of a character who was initially introduced to comics as a villain has something extra and David Leitch’s film develops that brilliantly.

Two years after Wade Wilson/Deadpool has become a mercenary, he just misses killing a drug dealer, who then murders his beloved Vanessa on the night of their anniversary, just after they’ve agreed to start a family.

Deadpool is distraught and tries to kill himself, but since his super power is regeneration/healing, this isn’t very effective.

Things take a new direction, though, when a mutant teenager at an orphanage, Russell ‘Firefist’ Collins, explodes with rage. Deadpool is drawn into the situation – just as cybernetic warrior Cable arrives from the future on a mission to kill the boy.

That’s it – no further spoilers.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the film, though, is that for all Deadpool’s wisecracking (and there’s plenty of that), it suddenly jolts to moments that are moving, in a story that has a philosophical and emotional complexity that belies the usual ‘comic book’ stereotype.

Of course, the shattered broken fourth wall, the gags about Marvel (and DC) and the self deprecation all help to give the audience a greater sense of human connection to Wade than it would to a brooding bat-type character, for instance. And that’s without mentioning the constant flow of references to other films, comics and much, much more.

The supporting cast has become stronger – Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) return, with a chance for some character development, while Domino (Zazie Beetz) and Josh Brolin as Cable add new energy from the sidelines.

Leslie Uggams and Karan Soni are also back as Deadpool’s elderly roommate Blind Al and the taxi driver, Dopinder, while Julian Dennison does a remarkable job as a Collins.

Ultimatel though, this is Deadpool’s film and Ryan Reynolds does not disappoint.
 It was suggested two years ago that this would be a career-defining role, and that becomes ever clearer. 

Sassy, sexy, arch, violent, rude – and enormous fun, it can only be hoped that this will not be the final outing for him and his developing family.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Isle of Dogs provides a cracking return to the cinema

Sixteen years I stayed away from the cinema – now, a few weeks feels extreme. 

There are so many new releases coming up in the coming weeks that the want-to-see list is taking on a level that will extend movie going beyond the twice a month that characterised the first part of the year.

But a combination of a short trip away, a family death and then major surgery has left me facing catch up, so to start that process, The Other Half and I opted to see Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs before anything else.

Set in a dystopian near-future Japan, it tells the story of a corrupt mayor who whips up fear and hatred of dogs to help retain power. The canine-hating official then manages to have all dogs banished to the nearby Trash Island – beginning with Spots, the dog who guards his 12-year-old ward, Atari.

But Atari refuses to accept this lying down, and flies out to the island to find his beloved dog. Helped in his quest by a group of five dogs, led by Chief, a stray who is determined never to yield to a human ‘master’.

An attempt to ‘rescue’ the child goes awry – and with an election nearing, Mayor Kobayashi sees an opportunity to kill off all the dogs for once and for all.

It’s as quirky and offbeat as you would expect of Anderson. The stop-mo animation style works wonderfully: visually, it’s a superb look, with countless moments that you see again.

The plot is coherent, but it’s also a deluge of ideas: there are themes and nods here about the environment, about animal experimentation, about politicians whipping up hatred – and such hatred leading to death camps. It’s ‘about’ our relationship with the non-human animals in our lives, but also therefore about what it means to be human.

There’s another excellent score from this year’s Oscar winner, Alexandre Desplat, and a voice cast of stars that says everything about Anderson’s reputation and concomitant pulling power these days.

Okay, it would have been nice not to have had to have a non-Japanese character as provide the human rallying call late on, but in general, the film has a feeling of homage to Japanese culture. Indeed, this is very much supported by the way that culture is featured throughout, from the creation of sushi to the drumming and the Kabuki theatre, all of which create a sense of authenticity and respect.

The script is dry as a bone – in places very funny.

It’s difficult to think of anything that you could compare it to, so I won’t bother. So suffice it to say that it’s just a total delight.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Modigliani – bohemianism's poster boy

Nude, 1917
Modigliani was just 35 when he died in Paris, in 1920, of tuberculosis exacerbated by alcohol and drugs. Just after his funeral, Jeanne Hébuterne, eight months pregnant with the couple’s second child, threw herself out of a fifth-floor window.

He’d had just one solo exhibition (closed by the Parisian police after a day because of its ‘shocking’ nudes), sold only a few works – for little money – and died destitute.

If the stereotype of the self-destructive bohemian artist needed a poster boy, Modigliani would be a prime contender.

Young Gypsy, 1909
It’s fitting too that, like van Gogh, his work would only become appreciated and valued in the years after his death.

Tate Modern in London has been hosting a major Modigliani exhibition since November – it closes on 2 April – and after various false starts, The Other Half and I finally caught it, just before seeing the new Picasso exhibition in the same gallery.

The two men knew each other – but what strikes one most when seeing these two exhibitions so close together is the ferocity of their working: Modigliani over the latter part of his short career (he destroyed most of his early work) and Picasso particularly in the single year that the new exhibition seeks to shine a light on.

Both exhibitions also include works that are not the artist’s best, but which provide a deeper context for visitors.

The earliest of Modigliani’s works shown here reveal the influence of Cézanne – not least in the palette – before we reach the elongated figures that are instantly recognisable.

But one of the first exhibits, The Young Gypsy from 1909 tells us straight away where were headed, with its accentuated cheekbones, puckered lips and almondised eyes.

Portrait of Léopold Survage, 1918
There are plenty of these here – both nudes and portraits. In some, the line is exquisite – in others, less so, while there can be an archness in some of the portraits that helps to embed them firmly in your mind – the 1915 portrait of art dealer Paul Guillaume is a perfect example.

On a personal level, I was delighted to see that the curators had included his portrait of Leopold Survage, a fascinating artist who studied briefly under Matisse in 1905 and later followed in his footsteps to Collioure.

It’s impossible to know whether – and how – Modigliani would have developed were it not for his early death. Some art historians believe he would have gone on to much greater things, but his creativity was such that his work stays long in the mind – perhaps not least because he is pretty much impossible to categorise in terms of labels of any school or style. There is simply Modigliani.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Bogged down by it's own worthiness

You want to love A Wrinkle in Time. You really do. And in really good ways. There’s not a message in it that most people would disagree with. It has a fabulous line for young viewers about actually liking yourself – not dieting to extremes, for instance, not hating yourself and oh, so much more. It’s incredibly ethnically diverse.

All of this is good.

And yet …

Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel has now been adapted twice by Disney – in 2003, as a TV film and now in a big-screen version, directed by Ava DuVernay.

It tells the story of Meg Murry, a 13-year-old who has struggled to deal with the sudden and unexplained disappearance of her father, an astrophysicist, four years earlier.

But then her five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, welcomes an eccentric stranger into the home, who introduces herself as Mrs Whatsit and mentions the tesseract, a form of space travel that their father had been experimenting with.

Before they know it, the two children – together with Calvin O’Keefe, a schoolmate of Meg’s – are tesseracted away by Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which (a trio of guardian angel figures) to search for the missing Alex Murry.

Parts of the film look sumptuous – the planet Uriel, for instance, seems to have been visualised via the artwork of Roger Dean and Chris Foss – but for too much of its 109 minutes, it plods rather than sparkles.

The three children are exceptionally well played by Storm Reid as Meg, Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace and Levi Miller as Calvin, but too often it feels as though Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell’s screenplay acts like concrete shoes.

There are some funny moments with the three Mrs – particularly Reese Witherspoon’s Mrs Whatsit, but Oprah Winfrey’s Mrs Which is all too reminiscent of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz, a film that this seems desperate to emulate.

Nothing is unique, of course, but influenced by alll manner of things. But theres a scene here, involving a transformed Mrs Whatsit, that seems to have leapt straight out of the final segment of Fantasia 2000, where the green sprite brings life back to the world. Is this a deliberate case of a Disney film referencing a Disney film?

At the end, it manages to generate flickers of genuine emotion, but the fact that it ends up feeling like a morality tale – even though all the morals it espouses are laudable – is indicative of just how much it’s trapped in it’s own worthiness.

Still, itll doubtless upset Christian fundamentalists, as the books continue to do, even though L’Engle was very much trying to create a story that echoed her own liberal, Episcopalian faith.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Picasso 1932: a fascinating insight into the artist's mind

The Dream
For Pablo Picasso, 1932 was a tumultuous year. Famous and wealthy he might have been, but at 50, with his marriage to Olga Khokhlova on the rocks and already in a secret relationship with 22-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, he was also restless.

Playing with surrealism at the same time as trying to best Henri Matisse in the colour stakes, it’s little wonder that his critics were questioning his ability to develop new work.

“The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary,” Picasso was quoted in L’Intransigeant as saying, that June, when his first major retrospective opened.

Tate’s new exhibition, Picasso 1932, takes on this one year in the artist’s life as a way of exploring his evolution as an artist at such a crucial stage of his career.

We begin on Christmas Day 1931. Having spent the day with family and friends at his home in Paris, Picasso completed a small painting – a surrealistic take on Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793), with a woman killing her rival.

Woman with a Dagger
It’s difficult to see Woman with Dagger as one of Picasso’s great works, but like so much that follows it, it offers a fascinating insight into the state of his mind.

Such is the nature of the artist’s work rate that this exhibition cannot hope to include every work from that period, but there is still so much – and of such variety – as to make you wonder at the sheer ferocity of productivity.

It was a year that saw Picasso produce a series of works based on Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion from his Isenheim altarpiece (1510-15), at the same time as he was creating a series of Dionysian paintings of beach scenes. An intriguing juxtaposition of themes.

Nude in a Black Armchair
There are prints here, works using charcoal and works using ink; a piece made with objects stuck into the paint on a canvas – a leaf, a butterfly – together with sculpture and paintings.

The curators have also used one room to partially recreate that first Picasso retrospective, including a 1901 Blue Period self portrait, Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (1918) and Les Trois Danseuses (1925).

But at the heart of the exhibition – as so clearly at the heart of that year in Picasso’s life – is Marie-Thérèse. Initially painted anonymously, his muse becomes less hidden as the days lengthened and warmed.

The Dream may have an oft-remarked phallic side of her head, suggesting she had sex on the brain, but it is a far more tender work than that might suggest. And a series of large canvases painted that spring effectively re-invented the nude.

Marie-Thérèse is seen with pale, lilac skin and blonde hair, arranged in ways that are sensuous and voluptuous, erotic and tender, with a wonderful simplicity of line: Nude in a Black Armchair is a perfect example.

Reclining Nude
Some of these are also interesting for illustrating the influence of Matisse in the use of decoration in the backgrounds.

It’s just one of the one of the points made in Jack Flam’s excellent Matisse and Picasso: The story of their rivalry and friendship, which is very much worth hunting down.

After the success of the June retrospective, Picasso left for the Normandy coast and continued painting his nudes, with some of them appearing to have flippers rather than limbs, as though they were morphing into sea creatures – possibly a reference to the prowess of Marie-Thérèse as a swimmer.

The Rescue
But that prowess nearly produced a tragedy late in the year, when Marie-Thérèse contracted a serious viral infection after swimming in the Marne. 

And so the artist embarked on a new series of works, picturing bathers drowning and bather being rescued. Marie-Thérèse is identifiable in both of these roles.

This was not art for patrons or dealers, but art for the artist. Art as autobiography; as Picasso himself said in the early summer of that year, as a diary.

Sometimes it can feel particularly difficult to get to grips with Picasso, so vast and wide a range of work did he produce over such a long life, that while this is clearly Tate Moderns 2018 blockbuster, it offers a welcome opportunity to focus tighter and understand more clearly.

1932 is known as Picasso’s ‘year of wonders’. And Picasso 1932 is enough to leave a deep and lasting impression on visitors and will certainly merit a return visit.

Picasso 1932 is on at Tate Modern until 9 September.