Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The pets return with another fun outing

It wasn’t necessarily the best weekend to open any film that wasn’t Disney’s live-action Aladdin, but The Secret Life of Pets 2 also landed in UK cinemas on Friday and has been enjoying positive reviews.

It’s not difficult to see why. The first film was a thoroughly enjoyable, breakneck romp, but while slowing the pace (a little), this revisit allows for some character development, with the question now less one of ‘what do your animal friends get up to when youre out and more one of their emotional development.

Max, the terrier at the centre of the first film, finds his life turned upside down when his human, Katie, falls in love, marries and has a baby.

Stressing out at the thought of all the bad things that could affect the tot, Max has to find a way through his fear. Fortunately, on a family trip to the countryside, an old, wise sheepdog is on hand.

Meanwhile, Gidgit the Pomeranian and Snowball the rabbit embark on very different rescue missions.

In preparing for her mission, Gidget being taught ‘to cat’ by Chloe is a particular hoot. And no spoilers, but the ‘crazy cat lady’ stuff is very funny too. And of course there has to be a Cone of Shame episode too.

The voice talent is as good as ever – particular nods for Patton Oswalt as Max, Kevin Hart as Snowball, Jenny Slate as Gidgit, Lake Bell as Chloe, Tiffany Haddish as Daisy and Harrison Ford, in his first voice performance, as sheepdog Rooster – a reference to True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn, perhaps?

The bright, glossy Illumination backgrounds are here again, but during a countryside sequence the realism of the mountains and woods is a reminder of the extraordinary quality of background painting in the early Disney era (think Snow White in particular).

Chris Renaud takes the directing helm once again, with a script from Brian Lynch that provides plenty for all the family.

One of the comments I’ve seen about Illumination is that is isn’t Disney/Pixar. I can understand why you’d want to be Disney/Pixar, but there’s not really a lot of point given that Disney/Pixar already exists.

In which case, if you can’t be Disney/Pixar, then be yourself – and that’s exactly what Illumination is doing and to a consistently high standard.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Life and lunch in Italy

Wednesday in Sorrento; overcast and with rain in the air. In discovering an Italy outside Venice, The Other Half and I realised that far better planning is needed if we were not to find that all our boats (to the Amafi villages) had sailed by the middle of the morning and left us wondering what to do with the rest of the day.

That I was not sure where my purse is did not help. I was fairly certain it was in our room at the hotel, because I am good about this sort of thing. But nervousness hovered.

Sipping cappuccinos by the marina, we contemplated what to do. In the event, we decided to see if there was any of Sorrento’s old town – at least the shopping bit of it – that we had not checked out two days earlier.

It turns out that we had not seen everything – even in tourist shopping terms. We had not, for instance, seen any of the shops selling the cameos that feature highly in guide books for the town.

Our first encounter was in a shop where a craftsman sat at the front, crafting a cameo on shell, while completed works were on display in cabinets around him. An assistant hovered, ready to take cash or card.

There were some interesting pieces. They took conventional cameo style and used it in a more modern way: some of them quite Goth.

There were works in coral as well as shell.

Climbing the steep street we discovered further shops selling cameos, but none as good and none with someone inside the front window showing how it’s done.

After filling time in such a way, what about lunch? The Other Half asked the question. I didn’t know what I was in the mood for, but shortly after, spotted a sign to an eatery that was off the street. No waiters – the new mermaids – were trying to lure us in, so that was a recommendation.

We found a table under plastic cover, in a garden. To my right, with a table between us, sat a middle-aged American couple. They had come from the vast cruise ship moored just outside Sorrento’s marina.

The experience of the cruise was telling and husband was musing to wife that what he was seeing and experiencing in Europe was showing him that actually, it was the US that had vast problems.

But his philosophising was a cut short as another couple took this table between us.

The new couple were also American. In this case, just married.

The OH's salt-baed fish, about to be served
The younger woman was Barbie in a pink, belted tunic coat, over pale, flowered leggings and with large, looped earrings covered in glimmering stones, impossibly smooth foundation and huge eyelashes.

The women talked as though the US is a tiny island and they’ve known each other for years. They discussed fashion across the tables. The older woman then asked how you got to Sorrento if not from the sea, astonished that this part of the world can be traversed by train.

The newly married couple shared oysters with a sense of intimate theatre. They were also ‘experimenting’ with different wines, so depending how much they got through, the oysters may have been rendered useless.

He wore a cream, soft leather jacket that screamed a high price tag and was probably bought locally.

As the older couple, who were from Arizona, departed, the woman told their lunch acquaintances: “Just keep saying ‘I love you’ – that’s something I learned early.”

Once they’d gone, it was clear he was already learning to love conversation about shopping.

For their second course, she had a plate of spaghetti with black truffle; he, a lobster with ravioli. After a few bites, they exchanged plates.

Terrific turbot
Compared to young, female diners seen elsewhere, terrified of the calorific content of half a bowl of leaves, she was trying an interesting and sensual tack – relishing her food with ‘hmms’ and ‘ahhs’: there was even a breathy sigh that is all polite orgasm. How long can this last?

Her conversation quickened with the wine.

At one point, shaking her head and fluttering her eyelashes at the same time, she gazed across the table and said: “Amazing!” Shortly after came a whispered ‘wow!’

When he went to find the rest room, she Instagramed her food through a filter.

On the other side of us sat a multi-race British couple in late middle age. He was hoping for onion in his salad, but had no luck when he asked the waiter if this was possible. Both had lobster.

He and the boiled crustacean shared a complexion. In his case, this was in contrast with white hair cut short in a fashion that seemed almost military: a pink polo shirt, a navy sweater and a beige gillet. She sported an elegant scarf in blue and white over a sea green top and seemed to take her husband’s worries about the importance of onion as a salad ingredient with good grace.

They worked at the lobster with quiet pleasure. In the event, the lack of allium amid the leaves did not seem to be such a major problem.

Nearby, a French couple dined; he swirled a glass of wine and then tasted it with a certain disdain.

I had turbot in a lemon cream sauce that supported the view, discovered online, that this restaurant is really very good. I’d say it was the best turbot Ive had. The Other Half had salt-baked bream. It produced theatre, followed by good eating.

This is life and lunch in Italy.

Oh: and my purse was back in the room, in a bag. So much for the panic.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Of Brexit and a tin-pot Mussolini

This week has seen two election communications land on our door mat. One arrived from one of the country’s two main political parties, unaddressed. The other was specifically addressed to The Other Half. Lucky him.

It was a folded leaflet for The Brexit Party, Nigel Farage’s latest political project.

After failing to persuade more than a few dozen people to march (part of the way) to London in support of Brexit (without him, himself), Farage has somehow found the money needed to launch such a publicity campaign.

Not that he’s saying where that cash has come from – or at least, not the one big donation that has (apparently) been received, even though election rules say such things must be revealed. Maybe he'll let on later. But not now.

The rest is all from individual supporters, all paying small enough amounts that these do not need to be declared. You can’t join The Brexit Party – you can only “register as a supporter”. This is not, in other words, a democratic political organisation. There is no mechanism for any internal democracy to elect any official within it or to decide any policy.

But then again, when you only have one policy, who needs discussion and debate?

And given that situation, what on earth do you fill an expensive election communication with?

The main meat, if you will, is a statement from Farage, dramatically headlined “We must leave the EU”. The key reason given is that, in “June 2016, 17.m voted to leave the EU – the biggest democratic mandate in British history”.

This is arrant nonsense. It would only be the “biggest democratic mandate in British history” if the margin had been the biggest margin in British history. It was not a massive margin. It was a very, very slender margin.

Indeed, it was precisely the margin that, a short while before the referendum, Farage himself told the Mirror that, were the vote to be 52% to 48% in favour of remaining in the EU, he would start campaigning for a re-run.

Not that I'm suggesting that Farage is a hypocrite. Obviously not.

There is familiar stuff in the leaflet about how MPs “have betrayed Brexit”. Apparently, “our great nation” is now being “humiliated” and we must “fight back against our failing MPs who have defied 17.4m of us”.

Unlike Farage, I can only speak for myself. But personally, I don’t feel “humiliated”. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments when I feel myself to be in a permanent state of face-palm frustration and bemusement – and possibly even some embarrassment – but I haven’t spotted any personal sense of “humiliation” yet.

Farage also seems not to have noticed that, among the MPs per se that he condemns in the leaflet, there are quite a number that support Brexit – and in several cases, they fancy the harder Brexit the better. That group would include former Trotskyist Unionist Kate Hoey, who did a Titanic routine with Farage himself on a boat on Thames and appeared with him at the start of the Great Brexit March.

Or, more to the point, Farage has condemned an entire group because the people he is trying to appeal to will swallow the simplest messages and not bother with the facts.

It’s all rhetoric – empty rhetoric. The rest of this leaflet is no better. Candidates for our region are quoted as saying that “we need to keep our democracy intact for future generations”. Joel Chilaka – medical student. What does that even mean?

“We must take our waters back and restore our costal communities.” June Mummery – “fishing industry”. One wonders if she’s asked Farage why he attended so few meetings of the EU fisheries committee, when he could have actually done some work on this very issue.

“Left-wing democrats should vote to deliver the referendum result” – this from former Trotskyist Claire Fox, the individual who still believes that IRA bombings were okay and (allegedly) that viewing images of paedophile abuse should not be illegal. Shes on the ticket locally because, presumably, any leftie will automatically be convinced to vote for her like.

“I do deals for a living. Taking ‘no deal’ off the table is bonkers.” Ben Habib – boss of First Property PLC, who clearly doesn’t actually understand what ‘no deal’ would do to the country or doesn’t care.

“Our country deserves better leadership.” This is Richard James Sunley Tice: private school educated ‘man of the people’. Oh – and Brexit Party chairman.

“The Conservative Party has failed to deliver Brexit and damaged trust in our democracy.” And so declares Annunziata Rees-Mogg – journalist and intellectual prodigy, who claims to have joined the Conservative Party at the age of five and, three years later, been out “canvassing, proudly wearing my rosette.”

“I fought for our country. I’m not prepared to see it humiliated.” James Glancy CGC – decorated Royal Marine.

Dear Christ. My mother only sent me out delivering Christian Aid and NCH (as it was then) envelopes shortly before I was in my teens. Should I have to bow before Annunziata's genius? Or indeed, is she really such a genius – or just an entitled brat?

Any meat on the bones? Any policies? Nope. Not a one.

But there is more.

“83% of Labour MPs back a second referendum.”

Because the democracy they’re whinging about being under threat or broken would be further underminded by, err, voting.

“92% of Brexit voters feel betrayed.” This apparently appeared in the Sun, which is hardly a trustworthy organ. However, since polling in recent months has increasingly suggested that support for Brexit is no longer a (small) majority position, this could mean that those Brexit voters feel ‘betrayed’ when realising how many lies they were fed by Farage and others.

“498 MPs promised to honour the result.”

We live in a representative democracy. It is not the job of MPs to push ahead with policies that will damage their constituents and the wider country. Jobs have already been lost as a consequence of the vote – even before we leave the EU. The cost of living has gone up as sterling has gone down – again, as a direct consequence of the vote itself and then as a result of the prime minister setting in motion Article 50.

But of course: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it for good.”

Yes – our political situation is a mess: our political (and public) discourse is a mess. Neither have been helped by liars and spivs like Farage and his fellow Brexit high priests – or David Cameron.

But change it for who’s “good”? For what “good”? Indeed, does “good” here mean ‘permanently’ – potentially then suggesting something anti-democratic – or for ‘better’?

And there you have it. Brexit is Brexit is Brexit. There is only one Brexit (actually, there are probably as many Brexits as people who voted for it). Nothing else matters. There is no degree of Brexit. Only Brexit.

It’s just a case of ‘get Brexit done – whatevs!’

Farage and Tice give no indication of how leaving the EU will benefit the majority of ordinary working people.

That’s because neither of them care about British working people, per se.

They are on the economic right – and harness the social right to support it. They are disaster capitalists who believe that profit has no downsides and that those on the receiving end of profiteering corporates are acceptable collateral damage.

It’s worth remembering that Rees-Mogg’s dad wrote the text book on disaster capitalism.

The Brexit Party is an organisation that nobody can join, that has no manifesto, no policies, no internal democracy and no transparency about where it gets its money from.

It is facile and wrong to label all those who voted for Brexit as intellectually challenged. But if The Brexit Party’s empty election literature convinces you that it is the answer to anything, then you really are probably too foolish to have understood the question.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

An Engame that sets us up nicely for the future

Just under a year ago, reviewing Avengers: Infinity War, I described it as “over-hyped and flawed, but still an enjoyable romp”.

Having seen it again on TV, there’s no mind-changing going on here.

But 11 months on and Marvel/Disney have given us part two: Avengers: Endgame. And its fair to say that, while the hype has been even greater, the reality is streets ahead of its predecessor.

Rolling in at another whopping three hours, this picks up where Infinity War left off, with the remaining Avengers searching for a way to undo what Thanos had unleashed.

It’s giving away little to say that time travel is involved but, as the film explains, not like in any other movie you’ve seen – basically, even "Back to the Futures a bunch of bullshit"!

You can make a case that the Russo brothers engage in about 30 minutes of indulgence in the later stages of this film, but they get away with it. Why? Because it’s the end of an era and that deserves respect and care. Yet Endgame never feels as though it drags in places, as its predecessor did. This is a more emotionally engaging movie.

There’s character development – even Steve Rogers/Captain America gets to show a spot of humour – while Mark Ruffalo has an absolute ball as Bruce Banner/Hulk. It is, indeed, the first time I’ve really felt engaged by the latter – and Ive been watching that character from TV’s Lou Ferrigno on.

In the massive – and impressive – ensemble cast, Josh Brolin gets to deliver another creepy Thanos performance. Indeed, this quiet-spoken tyrant with a god complex gets one particularly skin-crawling speech.

Karen Gillan is superb as Nebula, Rene Russo gets a great brief turn as Frigga and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie leaves you wanting to see her get the chance to develop the character further.

Then there are characters that, for me personally, I had not really noticed before, but did here and felt that they worked well: I see you, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Paul Rudd as Ant Man.

All of this is without mentioning the Marvel icon that is Iron Man, in the person of Robert Downey Jnr – a character that helped get me into Marvel superhero movies in the first place, precisely because he wasn't a boring, bland fart.

Endgame has plenty of moments that provide real surprises. The fight sequences work, without dominating everything else. It has humour aplenty – more than last year’s offering. 

In other words, it’s cracking entertainment.

There are loads of potential set ups for future, post-Avengers development – and given the money these films are raking in, it’s a safe assumption that there are plenty of things already in development.

Given the Sony-Marvel set up – plus Deadpool over at Fox –one can only muse on what it would be like if any one studio pulled all these threads together. 

I kid you not: I’m salivating at the thought.

Oh. And in case you are wondering, there is one (last?) Stan Lee cameo.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A Man of Good Hope that ultimately conveys hope

A Man of Good Hope, which has just finished a run at the Royal Opera House’s new Linbury Theatre is an extraordinary work: at once exhilarating and uplifting, yet also a deeply serious piece about violence, war, colonialism, racism and xenophobia.

Adapted by the Isango Ensemble from a 2015 book of the same name by Jonny Sternberg, it tells the true story of Asad Abdullahi.

In 1991, when civil war came to Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, two-thirds of the city's population fled. Among them was eight-year-old Asad, after his mother was murdered by a militia, and with his father somewhere in hiding. He was swept alone into the great wartime migration that scattered the Somali people throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the world.

Over the years, that migration takes Asad to South Africa, through refugee camps and into townships where xenophobia, hatred, resentment and violence reared their heads.

Somehow never losing his own humanity, Asad refused to give in: even when the odds seemed overwhelming, he continued to believe that, one day, he would be granted permission to go to settle in the global dreamland of the US of A.

Some reviews of A Man of Good Hope have suggested that it is a bit dodgy, since it’s an adaptation of a book by A White Man. Which rather misses the point that the Isango themselves are, y’know, black and African.

Indeed, if you want to compete in a competition for patronising white person of the year, you’d struggle to do it better than telling such a group that they’re ‘wrong’. Or that the premise of the US being a haven for refugees is ‘white saviour syndrome’. 

In the latter situation, the production makes absolutely sure you know, from very early on in the piece, that the belief in an America of no violence, no guns, wealth for all etc is a myth. When Asad and others continue to believe it, therefore, it is poignant because we know what a myth that is.

With a mini orchestra of eight marimbas, and a few upturned plastic bins, Isango has taken the story and turned it into an opera/musical: it’s not just national boundaries that are crossed here, but musical ones too, with styles from European classical to a wide variety of African styles.

It’s a serious, thought-provoking piece, yet somehow doesn’t leave one feeling depressed.
Siphosethus Hintsho (pictured above, bottom right) as the child Asad, rather steals the show – this is an exceptionally talented youngster – but Isango is an ensemble and there are no weak spots anywhere on stage. They all act, they all dance, they all sing, they all play instruments. And they all do it very, very well.

It’s difficult not to feel a Brechtian influence, but this is not westernised Africa: this is an African story – and a global one. And yes, given history, it is a predominantly South African way, with western influences. But ultimately, with an unmistakably authentic African voice.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Essential food for the soul from the Belcea Quartet

In a world apparently going – if not having already gone – completely mad, food for the soul is essential to keep one going, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank provided the setting for just that on Tuesday evening.

The Belcea Quartet opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in G, Op33 No5. Sometimes nicknamed How do you do? for the curtseying, four-note opening phrase at the beginning and end of the first movement, it’s a light piece with a sense of wit.

In other words, it's somewhat unexpected if what you're expecting is the polite formality of early Classical chamber music.

But written in 1781, it was one of a series of pieces that Haydn advertised to potential subscribers as being very new. And in breaking that polite formality, they were.

My knowledge of chamber music from the Classical periodc is far, far from being encyclopedic – and certainly not when it comes to the man known as the ‘Father of the Symphony’ and the ‘Father of String Quartet’ – but this was toe-tapping stuff.

Indeed, I've arguably avoided Haydn over the years because I find him so formal. It's equally no coincidence that my favourite Classical composer is Beethoven, who heralded in the Romantic era.

The quartet’s repertoire doesn’t often include Haydn: Krzyysztof Chorzelski, the viola player – who had run astonishingly run the London Marathon a couple of days previously for a pancreatic cancer research charity – has said that this is partly because Haydn’s music was never intended for public performance in large concert venues.

With this work, they apparently feel more liberated – and, indeed, it was a wonderful performance, free yet controlled.

Next up was Janáček’s String Quartet No2. This is known as ‘Intimate Letters,’ because of the composer’s passion for Kamila Stösslová, who he met and became besotted with in 1917. The quartet, written in 1928 (the year of his death), enshrines the sentiments of the hundreds of ardent letters and messages he sent her.

Overflowing with a sense of passion, with Romantic passages and the clear influences of folk music, it’s a wondrous piece – light years away from any concept of chamber music as essentially stuffy.

I know very little about Janáček’s music: this made me want to know a lot more.

After the interval, the Belcea were joined on stage by pianist Piotr Anderszewski for Shostakovich’s Quintet in G minor for piano & strings, Op57.

The nods back to Beethoven are clear in the first movement, but elsewhere it is impish, sometimes dark and sometimes light.

I wasn’t familiar any of the works before hearing them live – but what a programme.

The big question is whether to watch the musicians closely or to close your eyes and let the music itself take centre stage. I moved between the two, but the latter has definite advantages: it’s as though the music itself takes on a whole new dimension.

The Belcea are all exceptionally fine musicians: founder and violinist Corina Belcea stands out, as does Antoine Lederlin on the cello. But when the music gives them the opportunity, Chorzelski and Axel Schacher on violin show just how much they can shine too. Anderszewski, too, is a musician of very high calibre.

When you get the chance to hear musicians like this live, the results can be utterly uplifting. Thank goodness that The Other Half had spotted that this concert was on – it was brilliant.

The only surprise was that the hall was barely half full. The audience that was there, however, more than made up for numbers in its appreciation.