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Monday, 31 January 2011

Film - Biutiful - directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Star rating – 7/10

This is one film about Barcelona that won’t have the tourist authorities there rubbing their hands in glee. Despite its title, instead of being set in the beautiful and exciting city that Gaudi helped to make so famous, it is set in the other Barcelona, in the seedy underbelly of crime, poverty, and illegal immigrants. In fact we only get to see glimpses of the awe inspiring Sagrada Familia cathedral in the distance, surrounded by cranes, and the Ramblas is featured only in a police chase.

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose previous work includes ‘Amores Perros’, this hot tip for the best foreign film Oscar in a few weeks stars the wonderful Javier Bardem, who shines when acting in his native Spanish tongue, just as brightly as when he features in Hollywood blockbusters. In fact if anything the performance he gives here as Uxbal, a man struggling to come to terms with his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer, whilst dealing with his troubled relationship with his bi-polar ex wife, and desperate to protect his two young children from the gravity of his situation.

But Uxbal is not a straightforward character, he is no heroic Hollywood single parent fighting valiantly against the odds. No, this man is much more complex. He is helping to run an illegal immigrant operation, and in league with Chinese gang masters, whose disregard for the basic of human rights has tragic if inevitable consequences. And he also possesses special powers as a psychic, able to communicate with the dead to reassure their loved ones left behind that they are at peace. And if you are wondering how all the strands of this complicated plot hang together, the answer is that they don’t very well at all. It is an overcrowded narrative, which suffers very much because of it.

This is a real shame as the acting of Bardem is truly brilliant and moving, despite the obvious flaws in his morals and lifestyle. Mention must also be made of Maricel Alvarez, who as his ex wife Marambra manages to play each of the differing extreme moods associated with her mental state with absolute conviction. The film is beautifully shot, and a master class in acting by Bardem. It is just unfortunate that the crowded plot does not really hold its own. So fantastic performances in an interesting and good, but by no means great film.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Exhibitions - Gabriel Orozco - Tate Modern

Star rating – 8/10

I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to art, and I am usually a bit suspicious of modern art that looks like anyone could have produced it (‘yes, but they didn’t’ I hear the familiar response echoing). Whilst Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, with his new exhibition at Tate Modern, likes to create pieces that he claims are not very complicated to make, the impact that they have on the viewer is anything but minimal. This show outlines what an eclectic talent he is, with his photography, sculpture, and installation pieces showing the range of his work to great effect. He claims it’s because he gets bored easily and likes to move onto something new.

Orozco plays with form and with our expectations with startling results. His most famous piece is perhaps ‘La DS’ where he has taken an old Citroën DS from a scrap yard, and used his to fulfil his boyhood dreams of driving an aerodynamic Formula 1 racing car. The car he creates is the result of him cutting the car into three pieces and then removing the central line to produce a very streamlined car indeed. It is witty and clever, and explores the notion of symmetry in a very practical way.

His photographs are a peek at everyday life, whilst seeking out interesting nuances that make them far from banal. Whilst he lived in Berlin he owned a yellow scooter, and as there were not many of them around, he took a photo of his beside every other one that he spotted around the city.

Some pieces are light hearted, with a strong sporting theme, such as ‘Carombole with Pendulum’ which is an oval billiard table with no pockets, where a red ball is suspended on a wire slightly above the table, and the player has to use it to hit the two white balls on the table. Difficult but not impossible, if a little frustrating. But that is Orozco’s aim here. He is playing with the player.

He has collected broken tyres from motorways in Mexico, and they are laid out in ‘Chicotes’ across the floor of a room, with melted metal arranged around them. It reminded me of a nuclear winter scene, or dangerous serpents strewn across the path.

Lots of his art uses the form of the circle in one way or another, and he is fascinated by the planets. I am sure that Don Goodman, the former veteran Wolves striker, would be surprised to find himself in this exhibition with circles drawn around him. There are lots of other great pieces here too that are interesting, enjoyable, and thought provoking. There is an oversized chess board with only knights on it; and ‘Black Kites’, a fabulous human skull that the artist has carefully pencilled on squares to follow the contour of the bone. Orozco is clever, different and intelligent, and obviously does not take all his work very seriously. Fascinating and refreshing stuff.

Gigs - I Am Kloot - Shepherds Bush Empire

Star rating – 9/10

This was another fantastic live gig from I Am Kloot tonight, this time with the Londoners at Shepherds Bush. And John Bramwell made the same comment to the crowd as he did in Bristol last year, that he thought they were weird here. Maybe the Mancunian musical maestro he thinks that about all southerners, and fair enough if he does I say….

Bramwell was not in a particularly talkative mood tonight, possibly a bit cheesed off with the persistent chatter from a small section of the crowd throughout the sublime set. But letting his music do the talking is no bad thing when you are such an amazingly talented wordsmith and songwriter as Johnny Bramwell is. The crowd were treated from gems old and new, from the Kloot back catalogue, and from the brilliant latest CD ‘Sky At Night’. Particular newer favourites of mine, although it seems churlish to pick them out as the whole set was outstanding, were ‘To The Brink’; ‘Fingerprints’; and ‘It’s Just the Night’. From their brilliant back catalogue ‘Someone Like You’; and ‘From Your Favourite Sky’ were superb. The Kloot were again backed, as they have been all tour, but a three piece string section, and some talented brass players that set their songs off wonderfully.

Bramwell did a couple of beautiful and exposing mid set solo acoustic numbers, Fear of Falling and The Sea. They did the usual crowd favourites like ‘Twist’ and of course the song that has become a bit of a ritual but great sing along, ‘Proof’. The set lasted for just short of two hours, and the band gave it their all. They were back on top form tonight after a slightly fractious night at Manchester Cathedral before Christmas.

If you love songs about drinking, disaster, and the odd bit of mental illness thrown in for good measure, then you need to catch I am Kloot if you can. Believe me it is a truly uplifting experience.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Theatre - Tiger Country - Hampstead Theatre

Star rating – 8/10

Imagine a really good hospital drama – so we are talking more like vintage ER than Holby City or Casualty – put all that frenetic activity on a London stage, and you have roughly got Nina Raine’s new play ‘Tiger Country’. But at the time of the most radical shake up of our health services since they were created, this is not really a political play, except for the internal politics of any large hospital. In fact it could really be about any organisation, anywhere, with tales of personal relationships at work; bureaucracy, hierarchies and the very poor work life balance of some of the more committed staff.

And Raine has certainly done her homework. She spent three months inside NHS hospitals as research, and it shows in the meticulous details of the production which have a genuine air of authenticity about them. With her twin roles as writer and also director of this piece, she has got the frenzied pace of the activity which goes on inside a hospital off to a tee.

There are a few story lines going on throughout the play, in amongst the cameos of patients passing through the busy A&E department of a London hospital, and the staff who do their best to care for them. One is about a senior doctor who is trying to shake off her extremely rough edges and to try to care a little more about both patients and colleagues; and the other is of a new junior staff member who needs to try to distance herself from her work a little more and care a little less, for the sake of her health and sanity. Thusitha Jayasundera is excellent as the first character, Vashti, the tough Indian doctor whose harsh exterior hides a lot more going on underneath. And the latter Emily is played, again very adeptly, by Ruth Everett. Ironically, neither women are particularly liked by their colleagues, who prefer team players who don’t stand out from the crowd in either a positive or negative manner.

The play involves a very large cast, and an even larger array of props, both used very effectively with precision timing. The set design is also clever, making use of projected images of inside an operation, and of x-rays to get the audience close up to the action. It moves along very quickly, is very engaging, well observed, and a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the title of the play refers when a surgeon has to stick a knife into a patient really close to their artery – then they are in Tiger Country.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Books - The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahmi

Star rating 7/10

Atiq Rahimi takes on an ambitious project in his new book ‘The Patience Stone’ – he speaks as a male author in the voice of a young Afghani woman whose terrible situation brings about a rude awakening in her indeed. It is a very slim volume, at under 150 pages reading more like a play or film script than a novel (and I am sure that it will be translated into these other mediums in due course). And although it is a short read in its length and in the page turning quality it produces, it is far from an easy read.

The young unnamed woman is tending to her husband, a jihadist soldier who has been shot weeks before and is lying in their room in a coma. At first she is enveloped by this tragedy, caring for both his needs, and those of their two young daughters as best she can in their war torn home. She reads passages from the Koran, and prays for his recovery. But her mood and thoughts soon change in a radical way as she starts to ponder on their relationship and the way he treated her during their ten year marriage, only three of which they actually shared as he was away fighting so much.

She starts to get very angry about her situation and the way her society, and in particular the men in it, devalue women, treating them in turns as unclean lepers then objects for their gratification. And she starts to wish her husband would die, but not before she starts to pour out some of her innermost shocking secrets to him, hoping he will somehow hear in his comatose state. And this process leads to a need in her for him to hear, so she starts to hope he will survive, as a patience stone for her to confide in, that allows her to open up and finally express herself, albeit in a frenzied manner.

Whilst all this is going on the war rages around them, and various armed men happen upon their scene, with some frightening results. It is a revealing and shocking book. It does feel slightly contrived when the man is referred to throughout as 'her man' which sounds a little too Tammy Wynette for this situation, and not really how she would be feeling towards her husband. However, it is beautifully written, tragic, and deserves to be read widely, and if it also helps to open up the debate and understanding about what the situation of Afghani women really is, then so much the better.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Film - Black Swan - directed by Darren Aronofsky

Star rating – 7/10

It’s official – ballet is bad for you, or so you would definitely feel after experiencing the gothic horror of Darren Aronofsky’s latest tale of human suffering for sport/art in ‘Black Swan’. Here the fine art gets the same treatment as he gave to his much lauded treatment of wrestling with Mickey Rourke. This time it is Natalie Portman who gives a stunning display of dedication to her craft as the young woman struggling to make it in the tough world of the ballet company. And the physical pain is only the tip of this particular iceberg – it is really the emotional and mental strain that is the shocker.

It is a truly scary film from start to finish, with the beautiful music of Swan Lake being blasted at the audience in ear shattering volume levels almost throughout. There is no denying that Portman is brilliant in the role of Nina. She reportedly had to practice for five hours every day for 12 months before taking on the role – so that’s some endurance test. True, she obviously does not perform all the ballet moves, stunning as they are, they could only have been done by a professional ballerina, and her head is imposed via CGI trickery in places, although to be honest you can’t see the joins, so well is this film technically put together.

The vulnerable and brittle Nina is subjected to horrific control and abuse, starting with her mother, excellently played by Barbara Hershey, who is living her own failed dancing dreams through her daughter, who she tries to keep in a childlike state by creating a perfect pink princess world of cuddly toys and musical boxes. And then there is the ever fantastic Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy the abusive and manipulative ballet director, using the oldest tricks in the book to get his young stars to bend to his will, who puts Nina at centre stage of the new production of Swan Lake as the Swan Queen. And although she has the white swan role off to a tee, it is the darker, more sinister twin role of the black swan that she is struggling with. Her hallucinatory state has devastating consequences as she has to deal with her demons, her rival dancers, her quest for dance perfection, and the gruelling schedule.

But Aronofsky’s dream world is a little too preposterous for my tastes. Yes Black Swan is beautiful to watch, and chilling in its violence. It is a gothic ballet tale with no equal – I guess you really have to like that sort of thing. There is no denying the brilliance of Portman in the central role, but the overall brutality of the ballet world, as portrayed here, and the over the top quality of the storyline, was just too hard to watch to make it an enjoyable night’s relaxation.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Books - Catherine of Aragon - Henry's Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett

Star rating – 8/10

It has not really ever been fashionable to linger over Catherine of Aragon for too long. Instead we all know the exciting and tragic story of Henry’s love and lust for Anne Boleyn, the wily and charming usurper of the Queen who came to a sticky end, from every other conceivable point of view via plays, novels, and history books. And the image that we usually have of Catherine is of a pious and stubborn woman who could not accept defeat to a younger, more beautiful woman. But Catherine was a much more complex and interesting character than that, and she deserves to have her story told – as Giles Tremlett has now done in fascinating detail in a new biography, which is amazingly the first dedicated biography of this woman for over 40 years.

Before coming to live in England as the fiancé of the heir to the throne, Arthur, Prince of Wales, she lived in the beautiful, magical Moorish heaven of the Alhambra palace in Granada. This was a far cry from cold damp austere Ludlow Castle, where she ended up with Arthur before his death after the briefest of marriages, lasting just five months.

Catherine was a pawn in a diplomatic game, both before and after her marriage to Arthur. His father, the ambitious Henry VII who was eager to cement his newly created Tudor dynasty by alliances with strong rulers in Europe such as her Spanish parents, even considered marrying her himself after the death of his wife Queen Elizabeth of York. But after years of waiting for her fate to be decided, it was to Arthur’s younger brother Henry that she was betrothed. And this was a love story, make no mistake about that, with Henry dedicating tournaments to his young, beautiful bride, and openly showing his great affection for her in public. Tremlett reveals touching details of their early marriage, (even though Henry had mistresses within a year of their marriage – the done thing at the time for a Tudor King).

Catherine was clever, strong and brave like her mother Isabella of Castile, who was a ruler in her own right. She came from a strong tradition of women rulers, and ironically gave Henry a daughter who would herself become sovereign of England, at a time when it was not considered preferable at all to have a women in such a lofty position. She was also young and innocent when she married Henry. And very popular with ordinary people, to whom she took great pains to give copious alms and attention. This would stand her in great stead in the battles to come with her errant husband.

Tremlett really brings Catherine’s character, and predicament, to life in this fascinating book. The familiar story of how she suffered the tragedy of numerous failed pregnancies and was then only able to produce a daughter, Mary, is recounted from Catherine’s point of view. She tried to stay loyal to her husband, even when he openly cavorted with Anne Boleyn and wanted Catherine to renounce her position as queen by saying that she was not a virgin when she married Henry. Obviously this would have put both Catherine’s and Mary’s positions in great jeopardy, and Catherine stubbornly refused to do so.

She had a few loyal friends, but many enemies at court, as Henry threatened all in his wake, including the pope, to get what he wanted. But in the end nearly all around Henry perished. Catherine was denied access to her beloved daughter, but at least she was not executed by him like so many others. She remained true to herself, to her daughter and her principles to the end. This book is well worth reading to discover the other side of this well told tale, and to see Catherine in a more rounded and sympathetic light

Films - Blue Valentine - directed by Derek Cianfrance

Star rating – 10/10

It feels a little early, just over halfway through January as we are, to be predicting my film of 2011, but I will be very surprised if Blue Valentine is not it, or at least an extremely strong contender. It is a heartbreakingly, achingly sad story of a marriage which has failed. It is beautifully crafted, astonishingly well acted, and technically very interesting.

The story of the doomed relationship between young lovers Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) is told partly in flashback to the heady, romantic, butterflies in stomachs, time when the couple first met; and partly as their marriage is disintegrating before them. We do not get to find out what happened in the middle, but are left only to speculate. It is brave and refreshing of director Derek Cianfrance to treat his audience as intelligent, thinking beings, rather than fodder to be crammed into the cinema and spoon fed. This is also a very interesting way to make the movie hang together, the timeline is not sequenced in order, and the significant events are not signposted.

The haunting, impossibly convincing central performances from both Williams and Gosling are also what makes this film an absolute masterpiece. We are not told who is the good guy and the bad in the relationship, indeed, there is really neither, and consequently the sympathies of the viewer oscillate between the two as they fall madly, quickly and very rashly and incompatibly in love, then get dragged out of love by circumstance and inevitability.

It apparently took 11 years to bring this film to the screen, and it is clearly a labour of love. Cianfrance used method acting to create the intensity of feeling between Cindy and Dean that he needed. He shot the falling in love scenes first, then got Williams and Gosling to actually live together for a month, to get to know each others annoying habits presumably, then shot the ending of the marriage scenes.

These are ordinary people from working class neighbourhoods who meet by chance as he is working for a removal company and she is visiting her grandma in an old people’s home. He is a dreamy romantic who wants desperately to believe in love at first sight. She is a clever girl who would love to be a doctor but settles for early motherhood after her no good boyfriend gets her pregnant then beats up her new friend Dean. The scenes when she decides not to have an abortion, with Dean waiting outside to support her, then immediately offering to marry her and create a family of their own are tender and sensitively shot. They both, in very different ways, are craving to create a loving family that they were each denied.

And why does it all go so badly wrong? Well that’s the million dollar question. Who ever knows exactly why some relationships fail. This film is not trying to make a particular statement about that, just powerfully and honestly portraying this one relationship, and doing it wonderfully and tenderly. An absolute classic, this will be very hard to beat.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Gigs - Justin Townes Earle - Deaf Institute

Star rating – 9/10

Don’t you just love those evenings when you take a bit of a punt on a gig and hope it will be good and it turns out to be a totally fantastic and uplifting experience? Well Justin Townes Earle’s gig at the Deaf Institute turns out to be just one of those special nights. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the off – seemingly gazing into everyone’s eyes in an intense but very charming way. It must be a hell of a hard thing to live up to, being the country legend Steve Earle’s son, but Justin TE manages to transcend this and produce his own very special brand of country magic.

He is a born entertainer, and his honesty, openness, and humour about his own particular demons, namely drink and drugs was particularly refreshing. He entertained the packed audience in between each song with a ‘Now Ladies and Gentlemen...’ opening, then an amusing anecdote that made his songs truly come to life. He revealed how his favourite two things are young ladies and fried chicken; how he ended one love affair, admittedly with a slight overlap, then went straight onto his next romantic disaster; (Someday I’ll be Forgiven for This) and how his mother was a formidable character who had managed to detach his father’s retina on one occasion (Mama’s Eyes). He is a total crowd pleaser.

But amusing anecdotes aside, it was his music that blew me away. With lots of numbers from his latest fabulous CD ‘Harlem River Blues’, like the title song itself; ‘Christchurch Woman’ and ‘Wanderin’’, which he managed to make sound just as fantastic on his own up there on stage as it does with his full backing band on record. Like all true country artists, JTE is a tortured soul, with a chequered past – bad for someone personally, but an absolute prerequisite for a successful country career. He also treated us to pearls from his first CD ‘Midnight at the Movies’, which is equally impressive.

His voice is fantastic but his guitar playing is particularly impressive. Even to an untutored person such as me, I could tell his skills were something special – managing to make it sound as if there must of been more musicians hiding in the wings. But this was one hundred per cent Justin Townes Earle. It felt like it must have to watch the early Patsy Cline. He didn’t really want to leave the stage – and looked as if he had the energy to go on all night. He is really something special. You have been told.