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Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 Annual Cultural Tales of Two Cities Awards

Best Film

Hurt Locker - directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Best film about the Iraq war I have seen - edge of seat action all the way but from the soldiers' perspective.

Runners up

Mesrine - Killer Instinct - directed by Jean-Francois Richet
Stylish and charismatic French baddie - what more could you want?

In The Loop - directed by Armando Iannucci
Funniest film of the year. So it couldn't possibly be true could it? And with the wonderful Peter Capaldi as the evil one.

Best Play

Julius Caesar - RSC, Stratford
Impressive staging of the bard's political murder tale.

Runners up

Life Is a Dream, The Donmar Warehouse
Classical Spanish tragedy from Pedro Calderón de la Barca with the superb Dominic West.

Punk Rock, The Royal Exchange
Simon Stephens' powerful teen school drama.

Best Exhibition

The Sacred Made Real, National Gallery
Moving and spiritual Spanish religious icons.

Runners Up

Angels of Anarchy, Manchester Art Gallery
Work from little acknowledged women surrealist artists.

Anish Kapoor, Royal Academy of Arts
Big scale sculpture to amaze and challenge the senses.

Best Book

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Stieg Larsson
Last of the gripping and highly original Millennium trilogy. Salander rocks!

Runners Up

Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
Weaving the stories of lonely people cleverly around the 70’s Twin Towers high wire feat.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel – Andrew Graham-Dixon
Fabulously readable book letting us see the famous masterpiece from a different angle

Best Gig

Take That – the Circus Tour, Coventry
The fab four entertaining admirers new and old – oh what a circus, oh what a show….

Ray Lamontagne – Lowry and Bridgewater Hall
Wonderfully moving sets from the bearded shy one.

Rufus Wainwright, Manchester International Festival
Ok so this is cheating a bit as it was an exclusive invite only intimate gig but Mr Wainwright was very wonderful.

Thanks for reading my blog in 2009 – it can only get better in 2010!
For all those who disagree with my views – get your own blog!!
Happy New Year......

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Theatre – Grimm Tales – Library Theatre, Manchester

Star rating – 8/10

If you like your Christmas family entertainment without the corny jokes and saccharine sweet content, then this just might be the show for you. It is a modern reworking of some of the well known, and not so well known, tales from the brothers Grimm, by Manchester’s own current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

The pieces are played by an ensemble cast of eight musician/actors in an extremely energetic and lively style. There are delightful twists on classic tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and the Golden Goose. And there are also some lesser known but equally entertaining stories including Iron Hans; and the Bird the Mouse and the Sausage.

The acting is first class, with no-one really standing out amongst the excellent cast, but with each giving their all to the multitude of parts with great gusto. The stories are not dumbed down for the younger members of the audience. Duffy leaves all the gory bits in, including death, abandonment and cruelty to the children in the playlets. The set too is worthy of mention, with Gary McCann’s clever use of perspective and to convey the murky forest beyond.

The audience, young and old, are challenged by director Rachel O’Riordan to make great use of their imaginations, with little use of props to tell the rich stories, except most notably in the Golden Goose, where dolls are very cleverly used to get a few necessary extra cast members. The action is fast paced and the audience are kept well entertained. Particularly of note is the Little Red Riding Hood story, here called Little Red Cap, where the four male members of the acting cast have the audience in stitches with their renditions of the wolf and the grandmother alike.

This is a thoroughly recommended Christmas package for those seeking a bit of solace from turkey and the sales. And most importantly, it treats both adults and children with respect instead of pandering to the worst excesses of the season.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Film – Nowhere Boy – directed by Sam Taylor-Wood

Star rating 8/10

This debut feature film by artist Sam Taylor-Wood is the story of John Lennon’s early years, and more especially the two women who were the dominant forces in his life - one by her presence, and the other by her absence. The acting is superb, especially by the leads Kristin Scott Thomas (Aunt Mimi); Aaron Johnson (Lennon); and Ann-Marie Duff (his mother Julia).

The film beautifully evokes the 1950s feeling, where the advent of rock and roll after the austere war years is a cataclysmic event. Lennon lived with his aunt from the age of 5 after his mother abandoned him. Scott Thomas is excellent as the respectable Mimi, who listens to classical music on the radio whilst reading novels. ‘We don’t turn Tchaikovsky over here John’, she says when he wants to try out the new radio speakers his uncle has rigged up in his bedroom. She is very stiff upper lip, and tries to encourage John to be the same, as the moving scene after the death of her husband, his uncle, shows. He wants to hug her in grief but she cannot show such emotion so easily.

Such a contrast to his younger, exciting mother Julia, who he finds out has been living only a few streets away all the time with a new family. Mimi is worried that Julia will hurt John again, which she inevitably does, but they have a lot of fun along the way. She is a free, if fragile, spirit and loves the rock and roll music that John is discovering. She gleefully tells him that rock and roll stands for sex, and indeed their burgeoning relationship seems uncomfortably flirtatious for her son at times. The laughter turns to tears when she is knocked over by a car and killed. But not before John has taken his pent up anger out on her for leaving him as a child.

The music is fabulous, but is almost a backdrop to the story of John, Julia and Mimi. The band are shown in their infancy as they discover how to play their instruments and get to the famous line up that would go on to conquer the world. Lennon’s passion, arrogance and spirit are clear to see. And the 19 year old Aaron Johnson gives a convincing performance, even if his scouse accent is not as strong as it might be.

A great first feature for Taylor-Wood, told with a straight bat. It is a moving portrayal of these formative relationships in Lennon’s life. It is the story of love, loss and abandonment; as well as devotion and passion. But it is also a powerful period piece – well worth catching.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Books – Rosanna – The Martin Beck Series – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Star rating – 8/10

In my current mourning for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy phase, having recently devoured all three Lisbeth Salander adventures, and wanting to sample some more Swedish crime writing, I was happy to come across a series that is not new but that I had never encountered before. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo were a creative husband and wife writing partnership, taking turns at each chapter, who started off this ten book series about Detective Inspector Martin Beck in 1965.

Beck shows the ineptitude for family life and personal relationships, and the not unrelated inability to switch off from work that crime aficionados like myself love so much in our detectives. The pace of this investigation into the murder of a young woman dredged from a lake is refreshingly of its time, with the investigation delayed until telegrams can be sent and received and photos mailed.

The investigation really gets under Beck’s skin, and with hardly any leads to go on, he is reluctant to give up on the victim. With his dogged determination, and a few lucky breaks along the way, progress is slowly made, and the sharply written story is very readable and enjoyable.

Not quite up to the standard of Larsson (will anything ever be again?) this first in the series definitely left me wanting to read more, and to get to know the deep thinking and obviously complex Beck more through the following instalments.

Exhibitions – The Sacred Made Real – National Gallery

Star rating – 10/10

Anything that has the honour of being Andrew Graham-Dixon’s exhibition of the year has got to be worth a visit in my book. And this exhibition of Spanish painting and sculpture from the seventeenth century is an amazing experience. For these are not works of art that are usually on display in a gallery – these are sacred statues and pictures more usually used for veneration and worship by Spanish Catholics. And for believers like myself the experience was a truly moving and deep one, but I know of non believers who have been similarly moved by its beauty and awe inspiring detail.

The decapitated head of John the Baptist from the Cathedral in Seville starts the proceedings, and is gruesome in the extreme, with its graphic detail of his severed windpipe. The rich golden detail on the gilding of the gown of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception is amazing. This sculpture from 1628 is by Juan Martinez Montanes, but these sculptors were not allowed to paint their works due to the strict guild system in place in Spain at that time. That could only be completed by members of the guild of painters.

The sculpture of the head of St John of God, an important local saint of Granada, shows a beautiful young man who has an aura of sensitivity and humility. This artist, Alonso Cano, broke the rules of the guild system as he both sculpted and painted this piece himself. There are also many beautiful images of monks and nuns, such as Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zubaran. Saint Francis of Assisi was one of the most revered saints in seventeenth century Spain. Here we see dramatic pictures of him using shadow to depict him at prayer.

The sculpture of Cristo de los Desamparados (Christ of the Helpless) by Montanes is beautiful, moving and gruesome at the same time. It is 400 years old and still an object of veneration in its home in a Seville church. The bodily detail depicted here is appallingly accurate in showing his suffering. Pedro de Mena’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene meditating on the crucifixion, and how the greatest sacrifice was made for her's and the whole world’s sins, is magnificent in the facial expression of empathy and love that is achieved. The beautiful head of the Virgin of Sorrows, again by Mena, shows the grieving mother of Christ with red eyes and crystal tears for her beloved son.

But there are two stand out pieces for me from the rest of this excellent exhibition. One is a painting – Christ on the Cross – by Zubaran from 1627, although the detail and technique used is such that it almost looks like a sculpture. The staggeringly realistic image of the crucified Lord is painted on a black background to give it an even greater impact, and to allow us to appreciate his full suffering. And the other is a sculpture by Gregorio Fernandez of the Dead Christ, showing him laid out immediately after his crucifixion The details shown here are amazing. It is as if he has just been laid out and is not yet cold. The wounds on his hands, feet and side almost glisten with half congealed blood. The glass eyes and ivory teeth add to the effect. It is stunning, and awe inspiring and almost moved me to tears. And that is an experience that I have never before had in an art gallery. A fantastic exhibition which stirs up a real mix of emotions - between appreciation for the beauty of the art, and admiration for and veneration of its subject matter.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Film – The Limits of Control – directed by Jim Jarmusch

Star rating 6/10

This was my first experience of a Jim Jarmusch film, and after reading several reviews which were, let us say, very much less than complementary, my expectations were not too great. And I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. I was intrigued, and taken along some sort of journey, although I could not exactly pinpoint where it went, how it ended up there, or indeed why.

Isaach De Bankolé is extremely enigmatic as the unnamed lone hit man who travels around Spain encountering various characters who each give him more information towards the puzzle which seems to be his mission. And he is definitely the strong, silent type – having very few words of dialogue for the entire film, preferring instead to observe, size the situation up, and wash it all down with two single espressos at frequent intervals along the way.

The minor characters whom he encounters to help with his mission are played by cinematic big hitters John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Gael Garcia Bernal. Hurt is especially good in his brief appearance. But we are not really told who they are, why they are involved, or what the mission is. All we know is that the man is initially dispatched on the mission by two Frenchmen who use certain phrases that become code words used during the later encounters – ‘You don’t speak Spanish – right?’.

The action, such as it is, is enough to keep the audience engaged, if a little frustrated. The cinematography is stunning – sweeping from Madrid, Seville and onto the beautiful rural and barren parts of Spain that are seldom showcased. The lone man is certainly into control in a big way, such as in his ability to resist the lure of a beautiful young woman who stays with him at one point in the story.

So there is control in that sense, and also the control the Jarmusch is exerting over the audience, just hinting at possible explanations but never spelling them out. A thought provoking film that will split audiences, as it did with myself and my companions, but a hauntingly beautiful one that will stay with me after the final credits have rolled.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Books – Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry – Leanne Shapton

Star rating 7/10

This is by far the most original novel, if indeed that is what it can be called, that I have read this year. I am struggling with the classification, as what Leanne Shapton has created here is the story of a relationship, told via an auction catalogue containing various bits of material evidence of that relationship, and the possessions that chart its ebbs and flows.

It is told via the black and white photographs in the catalogue that begin with the meeting of Lenore and Harold, affectionately know as Hal and 'Buttertart', at a friend’s Halloween party and tracking their relationship in a very revealing, intimate and entirely original way. Indeed it is so obvious that it’s a wonder no-one thought if it before. We all do it (or maybe that’s just the females of the species). We keep mementos of our lovers in the form of cards received, tickets from events we have attended together, e mails we have exchanged, gifts we have given, and photographs that chart this all this so lovingly.

Lenore is a Canadian living in New York who is starting out on her career as a food writer with an occasional newspaper column about cake. Fellow New Yorker Hal is a British slightly older man whose career as a photographer frequently takes him away from his girlfriend. The way is which this book takes us right to the heart of the intimate little exchanges between this couple feels almost indecent.

And we see the relationship blossom, flounder, and unravel before our eyes. He is a bit of a commitment phobe who also needs a psychiatrist. She is a lively cake creator who catalogues the minutiae of their partnership in a borderline obsessive manner.

Shapton makes us like these characters, and really feel for them as we take the journey with them. The only words are the descriptions of each catalogue entry, but it feels as if we have lived each intimate and argument moment with them. A very original and creative idea which is very well executed and enjoyable, if a little sad in its seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Books – The Rector’s Daughter – Flora Macdonald Mayor

Star rating – 7/10

This book was first published in 1924, but deserves a review from yours truly after featuring on Radio 4’s ‘Forgotten Classics’ series from Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book programme earlier this year.

It is the moving and sad tale of frustrated and unfulfilled love. It is also a telling reflection of the duty bound devotion of a daughter to her widowed father. Mary is the rector’s daughter of the title, who lives alone with her father after the death of her mother when she is little girl, and later the death of her only sister. Even as a child Mary finds little solace in human relationships, her father retreating into his academic studies, and so Mary ‘retired within herself, and fell in love instead with Mr. Rochester, Hamlet, and Dr. Johnson.’

She lives in the village of Dedmayne, which to modern eyes seems deadly dull and unfulfilling. But Mary lives a happy life, devoted to and much loved by the parishioners, seemingly quite happy in her quiet existence. Happy that is until into her life appears Mr. Robert Herbert, son of a neighbouring clergyman, who befriends her father and so comes into contact with Mary, and awakens something deep inside her.

Slowly but surely Mary falls in love with him, and he with her. But fate intervenes, and the most they exchange in terms of passion in any material sense is one single kiss, and that only after he has married another woman. The author wants us to believe in theirs is a ‘once in a lifetime love’, and wants the reader to suffer as they do in its ultimately doomed conclusion. And indeed love is surely the greatest human emotion.

But to these present day hopefully slightly more emancipated female eyes, Mary’s tale is frustrating and a tad infuriating. She waits for years as a bystander as Robert finds happiness in an initially unhappy but later on a slightly more fulfilling marriage. Mary also yearns for love and affirmation from her father, but gets precious little of either, as he is incapable of expressing what little repressed feelings he has.

One kiss unleashes a great passion in Mary. She imagines that everyone else is capable of such stirring emotions too. ‘When she saw the village boys and girls together, she thought of the nerve- wracking rapture they were experiencing. She did not realise that perhaps one in a thousand feels as strongly as she did.’ Poor Mary – one kiss and still so much more to give.

If ever there was a case for giving up on a man who proved so undeserving of the devotion of a passionate woman, and who so deserved the mediocrity of a marriage he found himself to occupy, then this is surely it. Mary is a passionate and intelligent woman – but she needs shaking into the realisation that she has so much to give to someone who deserves it so much more.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Film – Where the Wild Things Are – directed by Spike Jonze

Star rating – 7/10

Let me first admit my vested interest in loving this film – this is one of my favourite all time books, not just children’s books. It is a fabulous story that I inflicted upon my own children, and still do happily inflict upon any passing children who will spare me the time, at every opportunity. Those wonderful opening lines just to remind you are:

‘The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another, his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.’

And if you have never read this 1963 classic – what have you been doing? Go out immediately and beg steal or borrow a copy….

So, back to this new film version by Spike Jonze. It is not so much a children’s film, as a film for adults like myself who love the book, to enjoy and to take along with them any children they might like to bring along the way. And it has to be said that it is a very dark film. One of my seven year old twin companions on this occasion thought it was a bit too scary to be a PG certificate. Jones brings the story to life by setting poor lonely Max in a family where his big sister and her friends make fun of him and won’t let him join in their fun, and his single parent mother is preoccupied by cuddling up to her new boyfriend with a glass of wine than inspecting Max’s new den. So obviously he gets mad, bites her, and runs away into an adventure with the wild things. Seems quite reasonable under the circumstances.

The adventure itself is also quite dark. The monsters have their own internal wrangling which make the group dynamic difficult to control. But they quickly make the intrepid Max their king and he tries to lead them into peace and harmony, with mixed results it has to be said. Max Records is wonderful as the young Max, and James Gandolfini stars as the voice of one of the main monster characters, Carol.

The film is a bit over long, which makes it more challenging for the young viewers. But the way the much loved and very short story is extrapolated is indeed very good. The wild settings are impressive and slightly futuristic, and the cinematography is wonderful.

So yes, ‘Let the wild rumpus start’, but just make sure you get back home by suppertime.

Theatre – Blithe Sprit – Royal Exchange

Star rating – 8/10

This year’s festive offering from the Royal Exchange is a real delight. The reworking of this hilarious Noel Coward romp will bring cheer and hilarity to those already feeling stressed by the season.

Suranne Jones sparkles and shines in her Royal Exchange debut. She proves her worth as a talented actor – with not a trace of the famous Manc attitude of Karen McDonald, so beloved by ardent Corrie fans like myself. And her elegant costumes are to die for. The play is set in the home of the dapper and suave author Charles Condomine (more about this later) , and his second wife Ruth. The first Mrs Condomine, Elvira, having died some seven years previously of a heart attack whilst recovering from a bout of pneumonia, and being unable to stop laughing at a BBC entertainment show on the radio. You have been warned – laughter can be dangerous. But not in this play.

Elvira’s spirit is conjured up during a séance being held by the true star of the show Madame Arcati. Annette Badland is simply wonderful in this hilarious role. She struts around the stage variously going into trances, and eating as many sandwiches as she possibly can, conjuring up images of Margaret Rutherford in English classic movies. Badland is a superb actress, and will be familiar to many from her TV roles including parts in Dr Who and Bergerac. She has the audience eating out of her hand – nearly literally at one point when a sandwich that she carelessly discarded accidentally hit one of the audience. The whole theatre erupted in spontaneous laughter, as did the cast, it has to be said. And when the sandwich was promptly thrown back she ad libbed brilliantly to add to the fun. But I think this extra frisson was a one night only addition…

The tale unfolds as Ruth is horrified by the sudden appearance of her deceased rival, and accuses her husband of being some sort of ‘astral bigamist’. And the only weak link it has to be said is unfortunately Milo Twomey, who plays the haunted Charles Condomine. He fluffed more lines than I have ever seen at the Royal Exchange – even though this was a preview showing I certainly do expect better. And he shouted his way through the performance, rather than being suave and debonair as the part demands.

That gripe aired then, the rest of the production is stunning and fun filled. And mention must be made of the wonderful set design and special effects, which add to the hilarity.

Bravo then to (almost) all and a very Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Books – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Stieg Larsson

Star rating 9/10

If you haven’t started on the Millennium trilogy by this late Swedish crime genius yet, firstly - where have you been - and secondly - I am jealous of all the hours of reading pleasure you have yet to come. But please be warned, it is a strong willed individual who can resist leaving any time lag at all between devouring the three volumes. I have spent the last three weeks with my head and brain immersed in these superbly thrilling volumes. So get your excuses ready for your boss for unmet deadlines now…

This third volume is really just a continuation of the second Book, ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’, as there is hardly a paper width between the two tales. We are again deep in trouble with the Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist helping the enigma that is Lisbeth Salander – who is facing a murder trial and incarceration for life on the grounds of insanity. This has got to be the biggest potential miscarriage of justice in history. Abused and used since she was a girl, Salander is the fall girl for a massive state cover up involving Soviet defectors, secret police, and reaching its tentacles even into the Swedish Government.

Salander is that crazy yet appealing mix of vulnerability and feistiness that is so beguiling and intriguing. She is in a hospital bed for a lot of the book, desperately trying to use her amazing IT skills to get her out of a colossal mess, and to help out anyone who she considers to be a loyal friend, which it has to be said is not an extensive group of people. Past experience has taught Salander that it is a mistake to trust - period. And she is no angel for those who do her wrong. I do like a woman who knows how to bear grudges – and boy does she bear them well.

Larsson, who tragically died before these novels became the worldwide publishing phenomenon that they are today (and deservedly so – unlike some others I could mention Mr. Dan Brown), is railing against both state oppression, right wing conspiracies, and violence against women in general. And he makes sure that the women in his novels are not merely victims or bit part players. They are centre stage at the heart of the action. And speaking of action, this final part of the spectacularly wide ranging tale is like a spider’s web – slowly building up the players and the game that they are each playing. It is not just an action packed thriller. There is certainly action but so much more than that. This is a morality tale for our times.

It is just a tragedy that we will not get to hear more of the wonderful Lisbeth Salander – computer hacker extraordinaire, heroine to rival all heroines – just don’t cross her. My kind of woman.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Film – A Serious Man – directed by Ethan & Joel Cohen

Star rating – 5/10

This is a very dark film – no doubt about that. It is the tale of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor in the mid west of America in the 1960s. When we join Larry and his family their world seems to be disintegrating fast. His wife has been having an affair and announces that she wants them to separate. Larry has to move into a motel with his overweight, dysfunctional brother Albert. His son and daughter seem to have no redeeming features to speak of. His son is a TV obsessed dope head, and his daughter is obsessed with washing her hair and planning to have a nose job. And his work at the college is not going swimmingly well either.

The Cohens use a cast of unknowns here, and the acting is top class. Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as the hapless Larry. He seeks guidance from a string of Rabbis – none of whom seem particularly suited to the task. He finds solace in the arms of a sexy neighbour. Still nothing goes right for him.

The film is very bleak, Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do - in a spectacular fashion. It is darker than the Cohen brothers’ earlier offerings. Too dark for me by far. In the end I just didn’t really get the point of the film. And I didn’t get all of the humour. There are a lot of Jewish jokes that totally passed by me, but had some of the audience rolling with laughter. The closing credits assure the audience that ‘No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture’. So that’s a relief. But I was disappointed – not as good as for example ‘Fargo’, or ‘No Country for Old Men’. For my money not one of their best offerings.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Theatre – Annie Get Your Gun – Young Vic

Star rating – 8/10

Irving Berlin’s famous musical is not often revived these days. Possibly something to do with the racist overtones in the original, sidestepped here in this new production by Richard Jones, by leaving out the less PC elements like the ‘I’m an Indian Too’ number. It is also a show without a shred of a feminist leaning, where the moral of the story is for women to be pink and fluffy, and to let their desired man win in any contest in order to win him over.

So, not one for Spare Rib readers then. But having said all that, this production, with the brilliantly versatile Jane Horrocks in the title role, is a bundle of laughs, and irresistible fun. Horrocks again demonstrates her vocal range, as she also did so memorably in ‘Little Voice’. Her target hunk is also played with style, and tongue firmly in cheek by Julian Ovenden, as Frank Butler. There is also a great supporting cast, who in the main only add value to the proceedings, perhaps except for a weak link in Buffalo Bill.

The score is arranged to great effect for four pianists, with heart warming numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’; ‘Anything You Can Do’; and ‘They Say it’s Wonderful’. There is real chemistry between Annie and Frank, and the story of their on/off/on again/off again… love affair is heartening. Even with the anti feminist message of the show, I am still a sucker for a good musical, and this is a great one, with a good modern production and another star turn by the leading gun toting Horrocks.