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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Books – August Heat by Andrea Camilleri

Star rating – 8/10

This is the 10th novel in the Inspector Montalbano crime series. For those who have grown to know and love, and at times get infuriated with, the Sicilian Inspector over the past fifteen years, then this latest offering does not disappoint. This time however, the suave and renegade policeman is showing his age somewhat. His hearing is started to worsen, and his attraction to a beautiful girl young enough to be his daughter leaves him in a moral dilemma. But even in his middle age he is still an attractive man, and Camilleri reminds us that ‘he looked exactly like Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace’.

All the usual elements of the series are here. There is his explosive relationship with his girlfriend Livia, who lives in a different town, and whom he seems to disappoint on a very regular basis without even really trying to. He always seems happier on is own than when she is around. And that certainly suits his long serving housekeeper Adelina, who cannot stand Livia and will not even come to the house when she is around. Adelina prepares an endless supply of delicious meals for Montalbano (and his readers) to salivate over:

‘Adelina had made a pappanozza for him. Onions and potatoes boiled for a long time and mashed with the back of a fork until they blended together. For seasoning: olive oil, a hint of vinegar, salt and freshly ground black pepper.’

And when he is not sampling the delights of Adelina’s cooking, he is usually to be found at his favourite local trattoria, Enzo’s, where he gets special treatment whatever hour of the day he visits.

Camilleri is not afraid of expressing political and moral views via his inspector. He reads a detective novel by two Swedish authors ‘in which there wasn’t a page without a ferocious attack on social democracy and the government. In his mind Montalbano dedicated the book to those who did not deign to read mystery novels because, in their opinion, they were only entertaining puzzles.’ The mafia, for example, come under fire as being ‘like an obscene ballet’.

And so what of the crime that unfolds in the sweltering Sicilian heat? As usual, the crime is really just the framework on which to hang the well observed machinations of Montalbano. He has to fight his colleagues and the criminals of the island alike to solve his mysteries. But he is dedicated to his job day and night. This is a familiar yet very welcome addition to the series. Camilleri manages to keep us interested in and on the side of Montalbano. These are gentle crime stories alongside many others in the genre, but nonetheless extremely they are enjoyable all the same, and not afraid to place then in a solid moral and political framework.

Exhibition – Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Star rating – 8/10

Ok – so what is all the fuss about was pretty much my mindset on visiting the latest exhibition by sculptor Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy. And now I know. These sculptures are pretty wonderful. From the moment you enter the courtyard of the building you are met by a giant sculpture of shiny silver balls piling high into the sky on top of one another. The balls reflect the buildings around them and defy gravity as they perch marvellously on top of each other.

Inside the gallery and everything is big and bold and often shiny. The ‘Shooting into the Corner’ display is a giant cannon which fires crimson wax into a smaller anteroom every 20 minutes, presumably to build up a veritable wall of wax by the time the exhibition closes in December. So this is what the signs as you enter the exhibition warn you about – beware as the exhibits may ruin your clothes! Not mine though…

Going further through the rooms and there is a magnificent yellow convex sculpture on one wall, suitably entitled ‘Yellow’ As you approach this sculpture, it becomes apparent that it is actually concave and not convex. Similar tricks are played on the senses in the hall full of the giant concave mirrors of many shapes. Again it is partly the sheer size of these installations that is amazing and intriguing.

The centre piece of the exhibition is entitled ‘Svayambh’ and is a vast red wax block that moves slowly and inexorably through three rooms and back again, leaving a trail of wax as it goes. Also worth a mention is the highly suggestive and sensual ‘Slug’ (pictured here). Kapoor obviously likes things crimson red – and I have to agree.

So a highly thought provoking exhibition which is nothing less than an assault on the senses – in the nicest possible way. So that is what all the fuss is about.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Film – Creation – directed by Jon Amiel

Star rating – 6/10

This beautifully shot film about tells how Charles Darwin’s grief at the loss of his beloved daughter Annie at the age of 10 inspired him to write his masterpiece ‘On the Origin of Species’. Paul Bettany is very impressive as the troubled and grieving Darwin, and his wife Emma is also sensitively played by Bettany’s real life wife Jennifer Connolly. We learn a lot about how tortured Darwin was about his scientific research, which put him into direct conflict not only with the beliefs of the society around him, but put him at odds with the deeply held religious views of his own wife.

This potentially very interesting tale is, however, somewhat spoilt here by an overly sentimental telling of it. The treatment of Annie’s deathbed scene, and the way she reveals herself as a ghost to her father felt a little too mawkish and unnecessary.

But the on screen chemistry between Charles and Emma is touching, as is the confident and commanding portrayal of their daughter Annie, played here by Martha West, daughter of Dominic. The film features beautiful autumn scenes and creative shots of fauna and flora. But it does not really major on what could have been a more interesting central theme enough – the research of Darwin itself. It is moving in parts but could have been even more moving if it had not tried so hard to be in keeping with the Victorian over sentimentality which it reflects.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Exhibition – Angels of Anarchy – Women Artists and Surrealism – Manchester Art Gallery

Star rating – 8/10

This wonderful new exhibition brings together the important women artists who formed part of the Surrealist movement, even though at the time many were neglected by both their male surrealist counterparts, and by the art world in general.

Angels of Anarchy brings together paintings, sculpture, photographs and other objects that were created from the 1930’s onwards. Much of the exhibits have languished in the storerooms of galleries for decades – not considered important enough to display.

Of the women artists featured here, possibly the most famous is Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who is best known for her pain, suffering, monobrow, and marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera. Khalo’s painting set in a heart shaped shell frame is one of the highlights of the exhibition. It is called ‘Diego y Frida 1929 – 1944’ and she created it to celebrate their 15th anniversary. The faces of herself and her husband merge beautifully in the midst of heart capillary vessels. It is a work of love and beauty.

Another self portrait featured here is one by Leonora Carrington from 1937-38. In it she uses images of herself in a room with a rocking horse, contrasting with the image of a wild and free white horse outside, to symbolise the story of her escape from her domineering father.

There are very striking photographs included, such as ‘On Being an Angel # 1’ by Francesca Woodman from 1977; and the self portrait with sphinxes by Lee Miller from 1940. The photos of Frida Kahlo herself, taken by her friend Lola Alvarez Bravo, show her in a new light – as a strong, beautiful and confident woman, rather than a tortured pain racked soul as she is often perceived.

The painting of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ by Dorothea Tanning from 1943 has a wonderful Alice in Wonderland feel to it as it portrays a gothic, oppressive home environment for the little girls featured in it.

Angels, sphinxes, and the objectification of women are central themes running through much of this work. My favourite exhibit was possibly the ‘Maitresse’ whip by Mimi Parent. She apparently cut off her hair on discovering the infidelity of her husband, the artist Jean Benoit. She created a whip out of these two golden plaits – sort of Rapunzel meets the Marquis de Sade.

So full marks to Manchester Art Gallery for displaying this wonderful work by these gifted and important women. It is not the usual surrealist fare – but they give it a feel all of its own, and bring a fresh vibrancy to this view of the world to rank alongside any of their male contemporaries. Come on the girls!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Books – All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell

Star rating – 6/10

They say that everyone has a novel in them – and fair play to Joan Bakewell for publishing her first at the age of 74. Cards on the table – I really admire her as a broadcaster; cultural and ethical commentator; and as a woman. I have recently read her excellent autobiography ‘The Centre of the Bed’, and enjoyed it immensely. I have enormous respect for her.

So I wanted to really enjoy this Second World War romance – and I did enjoy it. I read it in a couple of days – eager to find out what happened. But it would not be honest of me to say that I found it without fault. Maybe because I was so recently acquainted with some of the details of her own wartime story, the parallels with her own experiences were a bit obvious for me. The imaginary town of Staveley, positioned between Manchester and Liverpool , is a device which seems to be a bit clunky here.

The novel tells the story of a girls’ grammar school adopting a ship during the war, and of the relationships which develop between both the school as a whole, and in particular the romances that blossom between two of the pupils; their head mistress and three of the crew. There are some very touching moments in these stories, and Bakewell does bring to life the morals and values of the time, and how they stifled both women and girls, especially those who openly challenged social mores. She deals with real issues such as pregnancy outside marriage; adultery and adolescent sexuality well before the sexual revolution that was to follow in the 60’s.

The parallel modern day story she tells of the daughter of one of these women, who gradually uncovers hitherto secret elements of her own personal history, does not work quite so well. Bakewell also seems to be packing a lot of social history into the tale – almost making it feel like a visit to the Imperial War Museum.

But it is a good story, told with feeling and with honesty, and I did maintain an eagerness to find out what happened to the main characters. It might have been better to stick to the telling of these tales via a more detailed autobiography. Bakewell has written her novel. It is good - but not great. But she is still a great role model for any young girl.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Gigs – Ray Lamontagne at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Star rating – 9/10

Ray Lamontagne is famously shy on stage, and so was true to form tonight. But honestly, who needs spoken words when he sings so beautifully, and with searing honesty, about his passions and pain (but mostly his pain). His set tonight opened with ‘Empty’, one of the strongest tracks from his second and arguably his best album, ‘When the Sun Turns Black’, and he worked his way through highlights from all three albums.

There was a moment of bizarreness when a woman jumped onto the stage in a very short dress, and was quickly escorted off it. When an audience member asked him if he had enjoyed that, Ray answered ‘Not particularly no’ – which I thought was a fair enough reply under the circumstances. He did helpfully inform us that ‘Hey Me, Hey Mamma’ was about Nebraska. As he said, we would not have known that ‘from the melody, the lyrics or the title’ so he thought he would tell us. Again, fair enough.

I am quite happy for him to let his wonderful singing voice and powerful and soul stripped bare lyrics do the talking for him. And as usual he was generous and supportive to his two support acts Ethan Johns (the producer of all his albums); and the very promising Josh Ritter; who both joined him on ‘Hey Me, Hey Mamma’.

He did some of more rocky numbers, such as ‘Three More Days’ and ‘Meg White’, but it his soulful ballads that shine out. We were treated to ‘Trouble’, ‘Shelter’, ‘Hold Me in Your Arms’, and ‘Let it be Me’ to name but a few. He finished his encore with a beautiful rendition of the haunting and wonderful ‘Jolene’. He still may not know what love means but he sure can sing about it.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Books – Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Star rating - 9/10

The theme that runs through this original and spellbinding book in the daring wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York in 1974. But it is about so much more than that. It is an interweaving of lonely characters that leaves a lasting imprint.

Emptiness and loss in very different senses are at the heart of these most moving stories that are very cleverly and seamlessly interlinked. Claudia, a wealthy resident of the well heeled Upper East Side is trying to come to terms with the loss of her son in Vietnam. So desperate that she even tried to pay one of friends to stay with her for a few hours. Corrigan is escaping childhood hurt in Ireland by befriending prostitutes and trying to stay true to his religious order. Tillie, herself a prostitute, imbues her desperate situation with humour:

‘I used to love the joke where the last line was: Your Honor, I was armed with nothing more than a piece of fried chicken.’

McCann tells these stories, and many others, in a vivid and deeply compassionate way. He seems to be spinning a web of loss, and even with backgrounds that are not steeped in sadness, it seems he sees trouble ahead. As one of his characters remarks:

‘I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin because sometimes it’s just so comfortable you don’t want to have to develop your own.’

The New York he brings to life so skillfully is the dangerous 1970’s city of violence and malevolence – not the current cleaned up version. This is a book that is haunted by the spectre of both the wire walk, and by the 9/11 tragedy that we know all too well that will come, but that is not referred to here.

But the book is also one of hope, and the wire walk is used to pull all the stories together and lift them out of the depths. Most of the references to it are about other people’s reactions to the amazing feat. But in the middle of the book, at its taut centre, McCann explains that:

‘The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.’

And McCann certainly takes the form of novel to new places in this brilliant book. It is sad, beautifully balanced, and very moving. A haunting work indeed.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Film – District 9 directed by Neill Blomkamp

Star rating - 7/10

This slick sci-fi adventure thriller does more than live up to its billing. A strange but brilliant mix of politics and aliens, it is set in Johannesburg where an enormous alien space ship has been hovering over the city for the past two decades, with no sign of life at all.

District 9 is the part of the city that has become a colony for the thousands of alien refugees that escaped from the mother ship. The film opens in a mockumentary style, with various figures from the sinister Multi National United (MNU), relating what happened when they were tasked with relocating the aliens to a refugee style camp far away from the city. The actors are relative unknowns, so this does work quite well. It later switches to more of a straight drama style, which is also very effective.

The way that the aliens, commonly referred to in a very disparaging way as ‘prawns’ are treated by the humans is pretty sickening. It conjures up both images of both apartheid South Africa, and also the way asylum seekers are still treated in many Western countries today. They are fed cans of cat food by the humans, which seem to have an effect on them similar to that of crack cocaine. They are exploited by Nigerian gangsters, who believe that alien body parts of lucky talismans. The political message is not a clear one, but then it doesn't have to be.

The fall guy for MNU, who is given the unenviable task of emptying out District 9, is called Wikus van der Merwe (played very believably by Sharlto Copley). He has obviously not been picked for the task due to his leadership skills, but does play the role in an affable way, except when he is tricking the aliens into signing away their rights (do aliens have right?) and homes.

But tragedy strikes for Wikus, as he accidentally sprays himself with a liquid that the aliens have manufactured to enable them to restart their space ship and escape from this alien hell. He starts to mutate into an alien, and is swiftly dropped like a stone by his MNU colleagues and family alike. Some fantastic shoot outs follow – helped by the fact that Wikus can now use the powerful alien weapons with his alien hand/claw. The action is disturbing and thrilling at the same time. He stands up for himself at last as a half man half alien, through a performance that is genuinely moving.

Peter Jackson’s production is familiar from his other work, although none the less very effective here. The digital effects are fantastic. The film raises some very interesting moral and political questions, and not just the obvious issue of apartheid, but it is not really trying to answer them. A very exciting movie which will appeal to many more film lovers than just the standard sci fi thriller audience.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Books: Ground Control – Fear and Happiness in the Twenty First Century by Anna Minton

Star rating - 5/10

This is an interesting and well argued book about how changes in property ownership and control, badged as regeneration, coupled with Government policy on anti social behaviour, have fundamentally affected British society, and not for the better. Well argued – but nevertheless some of the arguments used are unfortunately flawed.

Minton starts off by taking up through the development of faceless privately owned shopping malls in our city centres, and the increase in gated communities and demise of social housing for our homes. She describes how the increase in emphasis on us all having some defensible space around our properties has left us all feeling paranoid and fearful of crime, even when official statistics show this is not matched by reality.

She takes us through the official answer to the blight of low demand in some, mainly northern, cities was answered by the creation of Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders. These HMRPs, she feels, were imposed on local communities, many of whom have battled to stop their terraced homes being demolished on a wholesale basis. Sounds convincing – but the problem with her argument as a general theory here is that many of the areas affected were truly deserted with no one wanting to live there, with only those who had no choice still remaining. Communities had already voted with their feet, rather than being cynically manipulated out of their neighbourhoods by manipulative housing associations and local councils. So rather than being sinister attempts at ‘social cleaning’ as Minton argues, this was the market failing. And it is also too easy just to concentrate on housing policy as this book seems to do – there were other deep seated social and economic factors at play here such as unemployment, crime and changes in the social fabric of our world from when these areas where thriving, healthy communities. Whilst it is a very welcome addition to the debate on our changing world, it is far too simplistic to say that poverty has largely been caused by housing policy as Minton does here.

She goes on to examine the New Labour focus on Respect and anti social behaviour. Whilst I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that the current Government has chopped and changed its direction here, paid lip service to the real issues, and used crime figures for its own ends, again the arguments used are not thorough enough. It is not true to say that anti social behaviour is mainly targeted at the activities of young people. It does not help to achieve clarity by trivialising the serious and necessary work that has been ongoing in Manchester and other places to stop behaviour that amounts to harassment and terrorising from blighting some people’s lives. Yes the Government use all this for their own ends, but that is nothing new. It is also not helpful to ignore the positive work that has been used to incentivise, encourage and reward more positive behaviour that is going on in so many parts of the communities she talks about, by so many different agencies.

Minton feels that we would all be happier if we adopted continental European attitudes to space, planning and control of behaviour. Maybe we would. But it needs to be about more than just housing, planning and the privatisation of our cities. Property developers are evil figures lurking at every corner for Minton, but she is wrong, for example, to blame the redevelopment of the Hacienda, the famous iconic Manchester nightclub, into flats on them. Its demise had more to do with gang and gun related drug crime.

So yes let’s by all means have a healthy debate, but let’s look at all the angles. Cities like Manchester are fabulous places to live in. The real problems we need to tackle are about all forms of inequality and not just about who controls the city centres we work and shop in, and the homes we live in.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Theatre – The Miser by Molière at the Royal Exchange, Manchester to 3rd October 2009
Star rating - 8/10

Derek Griffiths simply shines in this outrageously funny adaptation of the French seventeenth century satirical comedy. He plays Harpagon, the tight fisted father who plans to marry both his son and his daughter off for money, rather than letting them follow their hearts’ desires. Elise and Cleante however, have other ideas, and the play follows their hilarious attempts to outwit him.

Helena Kaut-Howson’s production is non stop side splitting action, and Griffiths sparkles in this stand out role, where he has the audience eating out of his hand and holding onto their handbags. It has a pantomime feel in places, as he draws them into his miserly world. Despite being over three hundred years old, the play feels as fresh as a daisy, with very current and relevant references to credit and banks thrown in for good measure.

There is great support from the cast, notably from Danny Lee Wynter as the dandy son Cleante, and Helen Atkinson Wood as the scheming matchmaker Frosine. The costumes are very striking in a Vivienne Westwood sort of way, if a little odd in parts, especially the women’s revealing dresses. The set is up to the usual excellent standard for the Royal Exchange.

Don’t miss this hilarious production, it will have you roaring with laughter, and holding onto your wallets.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Exhibition: JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite
at the Royal Academy of Art, London until 13th September 09

Star rating - 8/10

All things Pre Raphaelite are currently very much in vogue, thanks in no small part to the (over) sexed up drama which has just finished its run on BBC1. We are now all experts in the original Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood of Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais, or so we would like to think. But much less well known is the later work of John William Waterhouse. In fact the current exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy is the first major exhibition of his work in this country since the 1970s.

He was actually painting works inspired by our friends in the PRB a couple of decades after their heyday, although their obvious influence on him is clear to see. Some critics view his works as but a pale imitation of the PRB at their best – a solid craftsman staying with safe subject matters, but these paintings are far from one dimensional pieces.

Drawing on one of his favourite themes, the works of Shakespeare, his ‘Miranda’ from 1875 shows a patient, calm and beautiful girl waiting on a desert island for her lover to come. Waterhouse also used themes from ancient Greek and Roman mythology to inspire many of his works. And his most powerful images are undoubtedly of women.

In ‘Consulting the Oracle’ from 1884, he captures the expressions of the women gathered round brilliantly as ones of terror, and full of tension. In ‘Marianne’ from 1887 he shows how Herod’s beautiful wife looks on defiantly and indignantly as she is condemned to death for an adultery that she did not commit.

But it is for his most famous work, his 1888 ‘The Lady of Shalott’ that he is best known and loved. It is said that this painting was inspired by Millais’ Ophelia, and it is easy to see why the comparisons have often been made. The most powerful part of this image is the desperate expression on his beautiful subject’s face, as she sails away from Lancelot, her love, to her death, unable to beat the curse that lets her see him only in a mirror. As with other of his works, this picture was inspired by the works of Tennyson. The detail in this piece is also striking – the tapestry decorated with chivalrous scenes that hangs from her boat and trails in the water is minute in its detail.

His ‘Circe Poisoning the Sea’ from 1892 shows his clever use of colour as he draws us into the tale with the striking deep lagoon blue shades he uses. His ‘Mermaid’ shows another tragic beauty and again lovely detail on the inside of the shell by her side. His ‘Lamia’ of 1905 shows the snake turned maiden enrapturing the handsome knight Lycius.

But it is for the female beauty that Waterhouse so often portrays that he is so loved. This collection powerfully demonstrates that, far from being the misogynist that he is sometimes labeled as, his appreciation of the female form is awe inspiring’ and he fills his images with admiration, as we are for the painter himself through his works. Yes these works are of the Victorian era, and reflect the tastes of their day, and no they are not really like the works of the PRB – but they are nonetheless still well worth a visit.