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Monday, 29 April 2013


Opera is a parallel universe. Any expectations of realism have to be left at the door. It is fundamentally a fantasy world where normal rules do not apply.

Apart from the fact that characters on stage semi-sing their lines, and then break out into full song every five or ten minutes, there are a multitude of things that are difficult to take seriously. The forty or fifty year old soprano playing a young princess, the terrible stunts and fight scenes, the dodgy acting and the fluid gender roles.

In this opera, Handel's Giulio Cesare, (Julius Caesar), the genders are all over the place. Sesto, Pompey's son, is a trouser role, and so a female mezzo-soprano plays the male role.

Also, the parts of Caesar and Tolomeo were originally written for castrati. Handel used a lot of these singers - who had been castrated before puberty and so who had kept their boyish high voices - in the eighteenth century when there were a lot available. Now there are no more castrati, of course, and so these roles are normally taken by counter-tenors.

Counter-tenors are male singers who sing in a range equivalent to a mezzo-soprano. In other words, when they sing they sound a little like a woman.

So we have the sight of Caesar, played by David Daniels, a large, tall, bearded man, producing a sound more commonly formed by singers in dresses. Caesar, conqueror of Rome, Europe and Egypt, emperor of Rome, lover of many women, sings in a falsetto.

This just adds to the sense of strangeness of the whole experience. I recently saw the Met Live production of the opera, performed in The Metropolitan Opera House in New York and beamed live to cinemas world wide.

The director, David McVicar, chose to play with the setting of the opera. The story is based in Egypt, when Julius Caesar goes there to defeat his enemy, Pompey. Yet in this production the Romans are dressed as British colonial soldiers, in kilts and red great coats, and there is a sense of the 1920s about the whole thing, with Cleopatra and her entourage dressing as flappers, doing the Charleston.

Some opera directors do this, play with the setting and chronology of works, as a matter of course, they feel that they have to do something to spice up the repertoire. But here to me it felt unnecessary, the whole clash between Romans and Egyptians is interesting enough already, with enough scope for innovation of costume and design. The transplanting of the story to the early twentieth century seemed to be a little pointless.

What does work a little better though, is that the production is played for laughs. Opera is fundamentally ridiculous anyway, and so any production that manages not to take itself too seriously is liable to work better than those po-faced performances.

The action alternates between high drama and tragedy on the one hand, and hilarity and slapstick on the other. Somehow the humour manages to dilute the self-importance that can often invade opera productions, and so stops it becoming over-earnest.

Natalie Dessay plays Cleopatra. I wasn't convinced by her initially, there was something too watered down with her, something missing. I had seen Giulio Cesare before, with Daniele di Niese in the role of Cleopatra, and she had all the sensuality and seductiveness you would expect from a queen, and goddess, of ancient Egypt.

Natalie Dessay lacks this sensuality, but does put her own stamp on the role. She won me over. As mentioned above, she plays it for laughs, dances, has fun with the character. And her voice is impeccable, pure, sweet, flawless.

And in the end it is the music that is the reason to see opera. Handel's music is irresistible, the melodies are gorgeous and the sound from the orchestra dense and pure. It is joyous in parts, it makes you feel good.

The opera lasts - with two intervals - almost five hours. A lot of this is down to the interminable arias that go on and on and on, five, ten minutes, maybe more, a trademark of Handel. Yet the time doesn't drag, the action and the music and song, and the whole atmosphere of the piece are so enjoyable that there is no sense of attending some kind of massive, Wagner-like epic.

If you are prepared to buy into the strangeness of the whole operatic project, then Giulio Cesare is impossible to dislike. 

Friday, 26 April 2013


Terri Hooley was, and is, a unique character in the history of Northern Ireland. While everyone else in the North was closing down shops and businesses in the middle of the horror of the Troubles in the 1970s, Hooley decided to open up first a record shop and then a record label.

He discovered The Undertones and other punk bands at the time, and was at the centre of the punk scene of Belfast, in the late seventies.

This film is basically a biopic of Terri Hooley. He is a likable, energetic visionary, who manages to get things done with his charm and the force of his personality. He is also, however, impractical, disorganised, and liable to prioritise his business over his pregnant wife.

At one stage one of the other characters says to Hooley, "You can't just go charging into things like that." And yet that is exactly what he does, he goes head first into situations without thinking about them or planning them.

The sections dealing with the bands and the label are vibrant, full of music and booze and fun and energy. The second most joyous moment in film in the last twelve months (the first is the dance contest in Silver Linings) is when renowned DJ John Peel finally plays Teenage Kicks on his radio show, and Terri and his wife, and then the whole neighbourhood, dance in the street. It is impossible not to smile at their sense of a rare, undiluted triumph, something to celebrate, for once.

Yet there are strange lulls in the energy in this film that undercut the drive of the narrative. The film slows down a lot when we see Terri struggling with the paperwork of his business, or the conflicts with his wife, or his slightly unbelievable encounters with the paramilitaries on both sides who he convinces not to kill him. The pace is very uneven, joyous and manic, then slow and mundane.

Yet in general it is a very likable movie. It portrays Hooley as someone who, during the bloody years of the seventies, provided the youth of Belfast with a sense of pride, and something to hope for, in contrast to the mayhem that was going on around. He wasn't political in any way, but his was a voice that - by simple virtue of bringing people together in a love of music - opposed the accepted divisions in society, and gave an alternative vision to the people of his city. And despite the parts where the film drags, it at least succeeds in showing that, just by his very normality, Hooley was a force for good in a Northern Ireland that had forgotten what normal life was like.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013


There is a lot to be annoyed by in Tom Cruise's latest film, Oblivion.

To begin with, the script is flat and drained of any kind of humour or fizz. The dialogue is dead, and the characterisation is less than minimal.

It is also corny and cheesy and America-centric. Even in a world that has been destroyed by nuclear war, where countries and states no longer exist, it is still all about the USA. Somehow the last Superbowl ever played becomes a reference point for the end of humanity.

The story and style is derivative, and reminiscent of a hundred science-fiction films that came before it, including Alien, Prometheus, Mad Max, Planet of the Apes. Everything you see and hear reminds you - if you've watched enough sci-fi - of something else. There are few original ideas here.

And yet, the film has something. It looks fantastic, the CGI is effective and seamless, and gives a sense of the scale of the devastated planet. And the design of the spacecraft and all the tech devices on earth is convincing and impressive.

Also, the way that the story is revealed keeps you wanting to know more. We are introduced to a world that has been ruined by a nuclear war that humanity had to fight against the evil Scavengers, an alien race that invaded Earth. Humanity won, but lost their home planet, and now have to emigrate to one of Saturn's moons.

Yet things are not as they seem, and the strongest aspect of the movie is how we the viewers are given little pieces of information to tease us with pieces of the truth, without the whole story being revealed.

And somehow near the end I began to buy it, despite the unlikely coincidences, the improbable plot turns, the lack of clear explanations. The film pulled me in, and made me root for humanity in its battle for survival. It had enough invention and power in the story to hold my interest.

The end is corny too, but there is something seductive about the film as a whole. The views of an empty wasteland, the beautiful shots of light and dark and the clash between the two (filmed by the cinematographer that made Life ofPi), contribute to this seduction.

And Tom Cruise gives a relatively restrained performance. No-one else in the film really gets a look in, not even Morgan Freeman, but Cruise doesn't abuse all the focus on him and is relatively restrained, even subtle at times.

If you can suspend disbelief, and let go of the annoyance at the damp script and the derivative nature of the plot, then this is actually quite enjoyable. It is kind of preposterous, doesn't make a huge amount of sense, and it is a bit cheesy, yet there is still something here worth seeing.

Sunday, 14 April 2013


This is an intriguing book. The main source of fascination is the way that the story is told.

There are thirteen separate narratives, almost short stories, that feature a cast of about ten central figures who move into and out of each other's lives over the span of about four decades.

Sasha is one of the main characters. She is an assistant to a music producer, Bennie. Bennie's ex-wife, Stephanie, has a mentally disturbed brother, Jules, who once attacked a movie star, Kitty. Kitty worked with Dolly, a PR consultant whose daughter, Lulu, reappears in the end of the novel as Bennie's new assistant, when they are both working with an old boyfriend of Sasha's, Alex.

And on and on and on. Connection after connection between the stories, probably too many to count. The effect is to slowly and subtly create a view of a whole universe spanning decades, a universe with depth and breadth.

The second interesting aspect of the narrative is that the chronology slips and slides all over the place.

We go from the two thousands, to the eighties, to the nineties, back to the seventies, and then forward into the future, to 2022. The story is like a snake, weaving and twisting its way over and back, forward and sideways and backwards.

It should feel disorienting, all this chopping and changing, these new characters appearing all the time, but the individual stories are told so well that the reader doesn't have the chance to get bored or annoyed. The style and power of each story hold our attention.

It does, however, feel a little gimmicky at times, like a writing exercise. One story is told entirely on slides, as in a Powerpoint presentation on a computer, which is fun, but also feels a little forced. As if the writer was just showing off.

And there are obvious influences reflected in the novel. All the different viewpoints and the messing about with chronology is reminiscent of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. One story sounds exactly like Brett Easton Ellis and another employs the habit of putting asides, observations and extra information in long footnotes, a la David Foster Wallace.

Yet none of this detracts from the success of A Visit From the Goon Squad. We do manage to feel like we are reading about one whole universe, despite the thirteen disparate narratives. One character will be mentioned in passing in one section, and will then be the central figure in the next one. We slowly build up a picture of the insecure, fleeting, vibrant lives of the people who inhabit the novel, most of them involved in PR, the music business, academia, travel.

We see Sasha, and Benny and Alex and Scotty at different points in their lives. We are taken through their crises and triumphs, and given snapshots of a day or two at a time that tells us all we need to know. Some characters are central, some are bit-players, but all are rounded and given depth, and brought alive.

And in the end the fact that there are thirteen stories is a strength. It is obvious why it won the Pulitzer Prize. There is a variety of perspective and style and tone that makes the novel rich and deep and compelling.

Monday, 8 April 2013


What? That was my immediate reaction when this little mess of a film ended. It starts with such potential and yet disintegrates quickly in the second half. You keep waiting for things to come together and for the story to make sense, but by the end you are still waiting.

The film is about the robbery of a work of art - Goya's The Flying Witches -  and so, fittingly, there is something painterly about the construction of shots, about the use of colour, about the whole look of the film. It is immensely stylish, but fundamentally empty.

James McAvoy plays Simon, an employee of the auction house who gets involved with a group of criminals, headed by Vincent Cassel. The set up is intriguing, and gets even more interesting when Elizabeth, a hypnotist, comes on to the scene.

Then, about half way through, the story starts to unravel. The hypnotist - Rosario Dawson - who is treating James McAvoy's character to try and help him recover memories he has lost after suffering amnesia, becomes more of a central figure.  Somehow she has the power to induce these kinds of hallucinations, and the viewer has to spend much of the second half of the film working out whether what we are watching is real or imagined.

There are romantic entanglements, murders that may or may not be murders, betrayals and double-crosses, and twists that may be significant or may just be another red herring. The movie had potential, it should have been clearer, and less busy, and less obsessed with appearing terribly clever, but it isn't any of those things. It descends into a visually stunning but confused and badly told story of love, betrayal and hypnotically induced visions. In the end it is fundamentally silly.

Friday, 5 April 2013


This film feels like Pedro Almódovar, the director, got a little worn out from making movies that have something serious to say, and decided to just let loose with all his baser, more vulgar instincts. And this is not necessarily a criticism, because I'm So Excited is at times hilarious. But it also feels like Almódovar on autopilot.

'Autopilot' is apt here as most of the film is set on an airplane that is circling the airspace around Madrid waiting for a runway to open up for an emergency landing. There is a technical fault with the plane and so they need to land immediately rather than continue to Mexico, their original destination. 

In Spanish the title is a play on words. "Pasajeros" can mean "passengers" but also "fleeting, short-lived". So "Los Amantes Pasajeros" could be translated as "The Fleeting Lovers", with a hint to the idea that all the characters are passengers on an airplane.

The title in English, however, comes from the Pointer Sisters' song that the three air stewards perform to entertain the passengers. The song, and the performance, are fitting in their campness. It is a very camp film, epitomised by the three air stewards who are the centre of the film, and the key to the comedy, filthy and explicit and direct as it is. Javier Cámara - who starred in Almodóvar's earlier film Talk to Her - is especially good as the head steward who is incapable of not telling the truth.  

It is useful to note that the beginning of the film is totally deceptive. The first scene shows us some of the airport crew failing to perform basic maintenance, thus explaining the technical problems later experienced by the plane. Two of this ground crew are played by Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas. After this scene they disappear and are never seen again, each appearing for a total of about three minutes. 

For fans of Almodóvar, this film is like a snack, while they are waiting for a real meal. It is a bawdy, juvenile, colourful, chaotic, vivid, hilarious, lazy farce. It is worth seeing if you want to laugh a lot and are not easily shocked, but you need to know what you're letting yourself in for. 

Thursday, 4 April 2013


Treme is, like it's predecessor, a portrait of a city. The predecessor I am talking about, of course, is The Wire, also written and produced by David Simon. The Wire was about many things, but above all it was an exploration of Baltimore, the previously anonymous city near to Washington DC. And now comes Treme, a love letter to New Orleans.

Of course New Orleans - pronounced "N'orlins" by the residents -  like Baltimore, is far from a model city. Treme is set in the years after Hurricane Katrina, in the mid 2000s, when the city was devastated and attempting to pull itself back together. Like Baltimore it has a questionable police force that lacks the confidence of the populace, and insidious corruption in local government that allows police brutality, developers with connections to get paid for contracts that they never fulfill, and crimes to go unpunished.

Of course New Orleans has the music, and that is at the heart of the show. The Treme (pronounced "Treh-may") of the title is the area of New Orleans that is most associated with the music and musicians of the city. Blues, R&B, Jazz, Bluegrass, these are the soundtrack to the series, there are live performances, street performers, marching bands, "second lines", in fact the only music that we hear in the show is live. There are cameos from the great and the good of New Orleans music, names that most people won't have heard of but who are legends in their own milieu. Music suffuses the series, and almost every character of note is a musician or has a strong connection to one.

Treme needs time and patience, with it's sprawling cast and intricate storylines, but it is really worth it. Series three has just completed, and for me it has gotten better and better. It shares with The Wire this style of sketching multiple narratives, with multiple characters, some interlinking, the stories criss-crossing, the main characters coming into and out of each others' lives, providing layer after layer of story that builds like a complex network into a view of the city in all its aspects. It is not a show that you can dip into and out of, you need to follow it. It is perfect for a box-set, and requires - again like The Wire - some effort and commitment from its viewers.

And when it comes together, it is truly magnificent. It is the accumulation of detail, the layer after layer of story and character, the examination of important issues, the humour, the likable personalities that inhabit the city, the bad guys, the good guys, the ability to deal with complexity without having to reach for cliché and easy answers, the subtle brilliance of the writing. For fans of The Wire it takes some getting used to, but Treme retains a lot of the genius of the previous show and is worth committing to. And of course it marks the return to TV of Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters, the actors who played Bunk Moreland and Lester Freamon, two of the most loved inhabitants of The Wire universe.

The show also has a strong social conscience. Series three revolves around, for one thing, attempts by journalists and lawyers to get justice for people mistreated by the infamous NOPD. They in turn are victimised by the police force. It is a vision of those in power who frequently seem to be opposed to those they are supposed to represent.

Treme, in its intricate exploration of a city at a particular time in its history, and its perfect blending of the personal and the political, is massively intelligent, subtle, impressive and compelling. The best written show on TV at the moment.

Monday, 1 April 2013


Reading Philip Roth is a pleasure. He has been doing this so long now, writing intricate, beautiful stories, he could probably do it in his sleep. He is an effortlessly poetic writer, gets directly to the core of characters' motivations and feelings, and draws you in and in to his narratives without you even realizing it.    

Roth was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, and many of his novels, including this one, Nemesis, are set there. This story returns to the Newark of Roth's youth, like The Plot Against America, his novel from 2004.

The action revolves around the polio epidemic that swept through the north-eastern United States in the forties. We learn about the progression of the disease, from a few isolated cases, to tens, then hundreds of effected. At this time there was no clear idea why or how polio spread, and its progression seemed to be simply random, though it did mainly attack children.

The action takes place during the summer, a sweltering, boiling one in Newark. This is one of the novel's strengths, you can almost feel the heat, it practically comes up off the page as Roth describes the heatwave, the constant sweating, the oppressive sun, the massive desire to escape. "The sun was so hot," Roth writes, "that you would think that rather than darkening your bare skin it would bleach you of all color before cremating you on the spot."

In the midst of this inferno, we meet the central character, Bucky Cantor, a teacher and playground coordinator, who knows many of the children who are afflicted by the dreaded polio. It is through his eyes that we experience the stifling summer and then the epidemic as it sweeps through the Jewish community of Newark, killing and paralysing kids as it goes, as devastating in its own way as the World War that is going on at the same time.

The novel is in large part a character study of Bucky. The fact that his father was convicted of fraud when Bucky was young makes him into a person who strives for the opposite, someone who demands integrity and honour from himself in everything. Bucky has an exaggerated sense of duty, and this is key as the epidemic grows worse and he escapes Newark by going to work in a summer camp, where the heat is much less than in the city, and the pristine landscape is polio-free.

The novel then moves towards a kind of climax, and it is sickening in its horrible inevitability. The end is devastating, like a smack in the face. There is a clash between Bucky's view of the world, his instinct is to see an agent or perpetrator behind the epidemic - his bitterness at God, who he blames - and the view of the narrator. This narrator - who, it turns out, is one of the kids, now grown, who was hit by polio in Newark - prefers to emphasize the role of blind, meaningless chance for how our lives turn out. And we see that this is clearly true, there is no rhyme or reason to the progression of the disease, it takes fit and healthy people as much as the young or weak.

This is a wonderful, affecting, powerful book. It is Philip Roth at his best.