Saturday, 20 April 2019

Subversive Faustian stuff

It’s four and a half years since The Other Half and I started going to the Royal Opera House fairly regularly. We’d been to the English National Opera on a handful of occasions – triggered by being able to get into Terry Gillian’s Damnation of Faust – but nursed a view that we’d ideally like to see operas in their original languages.

Since we started doing just that, one of the things I’ve learned is that it wasn’t just Wagner and Verdi who wrote long operas.

And one of the conundrums I’ve faced is how I can love opera so much when so many of the characters – not least from 19th and early 20th century works – are so unsympathetic.

Last Thursday was a perfect illustration of both points: to start the Easter weekend, we’d got tickets for Gounod’s Faust – a work that neither of us was familiar with, although both of us know the general Faust legend.

Obviously Goethe didn’t have a monopoly on telling the story and indeed, Gounod’s version takes only that which would suit a sentimental French audience, according to Rupert Christiansen in the Faber Pocket Guide to Opera.

Faust is an elderly scholar realising that his dedication to the job has cost him happiness and love (and coded within that, lust). He’s full of regret. Méphistophélès appears and offers him a second chance – if he’ll subsequently serve Méphistophélès in hell. Faust agrees.

Faust sees Marguerite, whose brother, Valentin, has just left for war. He falls in love/lust and is helped to win the virginal naif by Méphistophélès.

Then, after Faust has seemingly abandoned his pregnant love, Valentin arrives home home from war, wanting only to tell everyone about it. He learns what’s happened to Marguerite and challenges her lover. Faust, with help from Méphistophélès, kills him. As Valentin dies, he curses … Marguerite.

The pregnant Marguerite – gone bonkers in her abandonment – gives birth, kills the child and awaits the guillotine. Méphistophélès teases Faust, but then helps him enter her cell, with the possibility of aiding her escape. Marguerite remembers her love for him and decides not to flee. Faust sees her soul ascend to heaven. He, meanwhile, is abandoned by Méphistophélès.

Point one – it’s overlong. The third act in particular is self-indulgent – which is not to say that the music is bad, because it isn’t. It’s just too long. We reach a point where Gounod is simply repeating himself: albeit tunefully.

Point two – Marguerite has little real depth as a character, but in terms of our sympathy, she’s a victim of a patriarchal situation that says how she must behave. Interestingly, her neighbour Marthe is an older woman and a widow, and seems to be able to be as sexual as she likes without anyone going dotty, which suggests that sexual mores are not fixed simply in that society.

Clearly, Marguerite is the victim here and we sympathise with her – as much as her rather one-dimensional character allows.

Next up – Valentin. Well, what an arse. Comes home from war, full of himself, and then blames his sister because she took a lover and he cannot control his jealousy.

Okay: I do actually know that this was penned in the late 19th century, but he’s still a tit. He probably killed people, yet he’s offended that his sister has had a lover and got knocked up. And when his own impetuous stupidity leads to his death, he blames her!

So: not a shred of sympathy there.

For Faust, I can have a modicum of sympathy. In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann rather more adroitly explores the idea of a life spent in dedicated work and the regret it creates, but without creating victims. Here, while one can sympathise with that aspect of Faust’s situation, one cannot sympathise with is his subsequent decision to abandon Marguerite.

Which brings us to Méphistophélès.

Frankly, I’m in love (lust) with Méphistophélès. No crap ‘morals’. No hypocrisy. Since my own faith fled – late, unexpectedly and without any real challenge, I have found myself considering the idiocy of putting the issue of who and how you shag (assuming consenting adults) over whether you lie, con, cheat etc.

I know which I consider to be what morality is about.

I would also suggest that, if god really does exist, then the devil – Méphistophélès – is going to have the best parties and the best discussions.

The ROH has assembled a magnificent cast for the fifth reveal of David McVicar’s production, which is set on the even of the Franco-Prussian War.

Michael Fabiano is a wonderful Faust, while Irina Lungo wrings as much from Marguerite as I suspect is possible. Stéphane Degout is as good as Valentin can be and Carole Wilson deserves praise for her earthy Marthe.

But what made my evening was Erwin Schrott’s Méphistophélès. A deliciously naughty, witty, sexy performance – not least in the penultimate act, when McVicar has Méphistophélès appear as a queen; in full drag.

Even in 2019, it is a fabulously subversive moment that sums up why, given the choice, I’d opt for Méphistophélès every time. And Schrott is not only a superb bass-baritone, but also a wonderful actor, who makes his role every bit as dangerous and as enticing as Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Show.

And that, my friends, is why this is such fantastic stuff.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Us is a creepfest to exercise the mind

There are movies you see that you can assess quickly and easily: a dose of pure entertainment – great, good, bad or indifferent, but presenting no major demands on the mind.

And then there are films that stay with you, nagging away at the grey matter and demanding you try to get your head around them.

Us is very definitely in the latter category.

Written and directed by Jordon Peele, whose solo directed debut, Get Out, was a 2017 critical success, on one level this is a straightforward take on the home invasion genre.

We open in 1986, when young Adelaide Thomas is on vacation with her parents in Santa Cruz. At the beach, shewanders off and finds herself in a hall of mirrors, where an encounter with a doppelganger leaves the child with a serious case of traumatic stress.

Fast forward to the present day, where the adult Adelaide (now Wilson) is on her way to Santa Cruz with her own family – husband Gabe, daughter Zora and son Jason. She is nervous about the trip, but Gabe brushes off her worries, having bought a small boat as he tries to play keeping-up-with-the-Joneses with their far wealthier friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler.

It doesn’t take long before her fears are realised, as the family is attacked by a red-clad, scissor-wielding family of doppelgangers.

For Adelaide, there’s Red; Gabe’s mirror is Abraham; for Zora it’s Umbrae and for Jason, Pluto.

Freed from years of imprisonment below the ground, these shadow people all want Adelaide and family dead: slowly.

But is this just about Adelaide and her family – or is it wider?

Us is violent, funny in places and manages a pretty high level of tension and twists.

But it also leaves loads of questions – many prompted by the constant reminders of a Bible text, first seen on a handwritten placard in the 1986 segment.

Warning of the impending destruction of Jerusalem for the worship of false idols, Jeremiah 11:11 declares: “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them’.” (New International Version).

What could be the false idols here? Hints at the ‘worship’ of technology and social media? Gabe’s attempts to compete materially with the Tylers?

The film could be ‘about’ succeeding – and then pulling the ladder up behind you. It could be about the huge chasms that exist in US society (and elsewhere). It could be about humans being their own worst enemies – and being disturbed and conflicted by modern life.

Peele’s writing and direction are intelligent and clever and this ebb and flow of (possible) subtexts makes it so satisfying. The score, by Michael Abels, is a really intriguing mix (and very effective in helping create the mood).

As to the cast, it’s excellent. Lupita Nyong’o is superb as Adelaide/Red and she seriously owns the piece.

But she gets fantastic support from Winston Duke as Gabe/Abraham, while the two youngsters – Shjahadi Wright Joseph as Zora/Umbrae and Evan Alex as Jason/Pluto – do remarkably well.

Elizabeth Moss as Kitty/Dahlia and Tim Heidecker as Josh/Tex also add clout to the whole.

It’s a bit weird watching a horror flick with an audience that produces a lot of laughs (nervous, shocked ones, presumably), but Us is a very successful creepfest that goes way beyond the much of the genre and will live long in the mind and is the sort of film that you can well imagine wanting to watch again.

Friday, 12 April 2019

A hell of a superhero romp

Boy, oh boy – the new Hellboy film has taken a critical panning. Before even reaching its first weekend, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes had pelted it with an approval rating of just 12%, based on 97 reviews.

Surely it can’t be that bad?

Well, sure enough, it isn’t.

Let’s be clear – it isn’t Guillermo del Toro and isn’t Ron Perlman. The 2004 and 2008 films that the director and actor collaborated on are huge fun and the latter turned in a pair of iconic performances. I cant stop smiling at the scene in the second film where lovelorn Hellboy and Abe Sapien drunkenly sing along to Barry Manilow.

But lets also be clear – in a lot of ways, this screen reboot is actually closer to the look and feel of Mike Mignola’s original Hellboy comics – and I have loved those for years.

Here, we get the requisite origin reminder: demon baby Hellboy, summoned up by Rasputin for the Nazis in a last-ditch effort to win the war (and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl), but saved and adopted by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, founder of The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a joint UK-US body.

The key plot here centres on an ancient sorceress, Nimue, The Blood Queen (Lady of the Lake), defeated centuries earlier by King Arthur, but now back with a vengeance and planning to wipe out humanity so that ‘monsters’ can live un-threatened in a new Eden.

No spoilers from me on the plot. But it is entirely in keeping with Mignola’s originals, which weave the modern with folklore and fairytale. Indeed, the comics were where I first learned of Baba Yaga (who crops up here too, in a seriously creepy piece of CGI work).

It’s violent – as are the comics – and indeed, the fight scenes capture the gravity-defying sense of action (and incredible composition) in Mignola’s original drawings (see left).

I’ve seen the film described as a bit all over the place, but I can’t see that. Perhaps not as tight as it could be, but it didn’t lag for me.

David Harbour as the eponymous hero seems to be feeling his way into the character: some early method mumbling doesn’t help, but by the second half of the film, when he’s getting sterling support from Sasha Lane as Alice Monaghan, a young woman with supernatural abilities, and Daniel Dae Kin as BPRD veteran Ben Daimio, he seems much more comfortable.

There’s sardonic humour, badass monsters and fight scenes aplenty, and a straight-up Mignola mash-up of folklore and mythology.

Ian McShane adds to all this as Bruttenholm, Hellboy’s daddy, while Milla Jovovich provides scary, sexy class as Nimue. 

It’s not perfect, but it’s also light years away from Marvel ands light years better than most of what DC has done in recent years. For me, as a long-time Hellboy fan, Neil Marshall’s film is a rollicking romp in the Hellboy universe and I hope we’ll see more.

After all – they can’t leave things just as the new team discovers Abe Sapien!