Saturday, 17 March 2018

Peter Rabbit – laughs aplenty, but no Paddington

Take a beloved, anthropomorphised children’s character, add in top-notch animation, give it a bit of modern attitude and pow! you have a bona fide cinematic hit.

This seems to the thinking behind Peter Rabbit, Will Gluck’s new film, which is based on the stories of Beatrix Potter.

It’s entirely possible that Sony and co also thought that they could emulate Paddington, the first film of which was released in 2014, to almost universal acclaim. News of Gluck’s project first surfaced in April 2015.

It has already proved a success at the box office (it’s taken $123.6m against a budget of $50m at the time of writing), if not so much critically.

It’s been suggested that Potter would be rolling in her grave. Now it’s difficult to believe that, if you took the Tardis and visited her at her farm, sometime before her death in 1943, and showed her this film, she would be enraptured. Because this really is a different time.

Indeed, in 1938, Potter turned down a plan from Disney to film the story. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “I am not very hopeful about the result. They propose to use cartoons; it seems that a succession of figures can be joggled together to give an impression of motion. I don’t think the pictures would be satisfactory ... I am not troubling myself about it!”

If we want to continue the comparisons, Paddington creator Michael Bond was writing a lot more recently, so his stories are far less difficult to update – indeed, he even appeared in the first film, so it’s safe to assume his approval.

This Peter Rabbit retains nothing of the late-Victorian gentility and pastoral quality of Potter’s original tale (written in 1893 and first published nine years later), even though the creative team includes a number of her original illustrations, supposedly painted here by struggling artist Bea, one of the two main human characters.

The plot is simple and continues the scenario set up but Potter: the ongoing struggle between Mr McGregor and the rabbits over the produce in the former’s garden – a struggle that we know claimed Peter’s father in days gone by.

Here, when the old man’s heart gives out in the middle of a particularly tough battle, the rabbits and their friends believe they have ensured the garden is theirs for ever, along with the house.

But that’s before McGregor’s fastidious nephew Thomas arrives – initially to sell his inherited property, before becoming smitten by near neighbour and rabbit lover Bea.

Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson turn in sound performances as Bea and Thomas, but at the end of the day, this is mostly about the animals.

The animation is simply outstanding. Much of the voice characterisation is fine, but while James Corden as Peter is nowhere near as irritating as he can be, he’s also too old and too knowing to really make it work.

Indeed, that knowing quality is something that the film seems set on – perhaps in an effort to distance itself from the charm of Paddington even at the same time as time as trying to hitch itself to the same wagon. If there is a sense that it doesn’t entirely know what it wants to be, then perhaps that’s not surprising.

It was mostly filmed in Australia, which probably explains why it rarely manages to actually look like the English Lakes and why there is nothing even remotely like a Cumbrian accent to be heard.

There are, however, plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (the children in the cinema clearly loved it) and the animation really is excellent – and for a post-work, Friday evening trip to the movies, that’s not to be sniffed at.

Then again, perhaps in 25 years, it’ll have attained cult status, where showings are attended by furries, who pelt the screen with blackberries at the appropriate moment. Stranger things have happened …

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Is it any good? I should Coco!

A couple of Oscars, a Bafta, a Golden Globe and more down the line, and in my continuing quest to see more Oscar-winning films before (or only very shortly thereafter) the awards than I’ve ever done before, I finally got around to seeing Coco, which won best animated feature and best original song when the Academy announced handed out the gongs at last Sunday’s jamboree.

A Disney-Pixar production, directed by Lee Unkrich and with a screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, it’s been hailed since opening – and not least for the respect the film shows to Mexican culture.

Premiering in Mexico at the Morelia International Film Festival last October, it opened in in the country a few days later, the weekend before Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead).

Ninety-six years before the main action takes place, Imelda Rivera, the wife of a musician and with a three-year-old daughter, Coco, is left at home by her husband, who is pursuing his musical dreams. When he doesn’t return, she starts a shoemaking business that, almost a century later, has become a thriving family business.

But Imelda also laid down an edict, stringently enforced all these decades later by her own granddaughter, Elena, to ban music from the home.

Yet for all her efforts, Elena’s own grandson, 12-year-old Miguel, dreams of becoming a musician and has secretly taught himself to play a guitar from old black and white film footage of his idol, Ernesto.

On Día de Muertos, the boy uncovers an old picture that convinces him that Ernesto was actually his own great-great-grandfather. After Imelda destroys his own hand-made guitar, Miguel heads to the cemetery to see if he can steal the guitar from Ernesto’s mausoleum so that he can compete in a festive talent contest. But his attempt renders him invisible to everyone, except his street dog friend Dante and his own skeletal dead relatives, who take him to the Land of the Dead.

How can he get home and will he be banned from playing music or not?

Sumptuous to look at – and at times it’s actually difficult to remember this is not live action – Coco works on so many levels. Obviously primarily aimed at children, it’s a sensitive way of introducing themes of death and memory. Yet there is plenty to keep the grown-ups fully engaged.

It never falls into sentimentality, though is genuinely moving. The voice performances are excellent – not least Anthony Gonzalez, the 13-year-old playing Miguel. And it’s worth noting that the cast, barring one small character, all hail from Latin, indigenous or mixed backgrounds.

Coco is a joy – close, if not an equal to Pixar’s wonderful Up! and, despite it’s subject matter, every bit as life affirming.

And there is certain piquancy to the fact that, at a time when the resident of the White House behaves in such an undiplomatic, aggressive and arrogant way towards the USA’s southern neighbour, a film created in the US, showing great respect for Mexican culture, has become that country’s biggest-grossing picture ever. Perhaps 45 could learn something from that.

Friday, 9 March 2018

A Carmen foundering in a sea of confusion

It’s sometimes easy to forget, when theatrical productions cause outrage and shock, that such outrage has a long history. It’s also easy to make the mistake of imagining that a present-day audience is probably beyond shock.

Just taking London’s Royal Opera House as a single example, the last three years have seen outrage and upset at Rossini’s William Tell (a rape scene in a 2015 production), while Katie Mitchell’s 2016 production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor included a miscarriage on stage and was booed enough to be reported by a faux-scandalised general media.

Since the latter is, of it’s very nature, a dark and violent story, one wonders whether some of this outrage is not because some in an audience do not expect art to challenge them, but to perform a service of being comfortable.

Back in November, The Other Half and I saw Salome at the Staatsoper in Vienna. Written by Richard Strauss, it premiered in 1905 in Dresden, since the Vienna censor would not allow Gustav Mahler to stage it there (in London, it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain and only produced at Covent Garden in 1910 – on condition it did not show the Baptist’s severed head). For all that it relates a Biblical story, this psychologically dark work is completely a product of fin de siècle Vienna, where the art of the likes of Klimt and Schiele mixed with the beginnings of Freudian psychoanalysis and the late Romantic music of Strauss, Mahler and others to create a cauldron of revolutionary intellectual and cultural activity.

The Vienna production of this one-act work opens on a set that glows with a palette straight from Klimt, but is essentially a very traditional one. We thoroughly enjoyed it (Lise Lindstrom in the title role was particularly wonderful). And indeed, we enjoyed the piece itself so much that we leapt at the opportunity to see it again, at the Royal Opera House in late January.

Directed by David McVicar, with the excellent Malin Byström in the lead, this production originally saw the light of day in 2008. Influenced by Pasolini’s Saló – itself a version of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom – it is set in the basement of a 1930s house, with evidence of debauchery and hints toward violence always evident and a design that clearly nods toward a pre-war Nazi Germany.

It has some really radical departures from tradition – not least in the Dance of the Seven Veils, which doesn’t see Salome’s flesh revealed, but moves through a series of rooms to reveal the sexual longings for her of Herod, her step father. 

And all of this against Strauss’s wonderful music. The entire London production is filled with danger: it is very, very clever, but it works and is very, very satisfying.

About a year ago, The Other Half and I made our first visit to an opera house outside the UK – to La Fenice in Venice, where we saw Carmen. This was Calixto Bieito’s 1999 version of Bizet’s work. The Catalan’s work is considered so shocking that, according to the LA Times, his “scandalous productions are regularly seen in Europe's major opera houses but are generally thought too risqué for American audiences”.

From our perspective, it was not difficult to see why it was controversial, but finding some YouTube footage from last year’s La Fenice run and watching it again today, we have found our conclusion remains the same: it was very good.

Yes, there are changes from Bizet’s original; yes, it has been set in the second half of the 20th century; yes, there’s a tiny bit of (male) nudity and there’s violence (how do you imagine Carmen without violence?) and yes, there’s lots of on-stage business.

But let’s fast forward to this year and the first staging at the Royal Opera House of Barrie Kosky’s 2016 Carmen.

Kosky has decided to stage it on a towering staircase that could be anything from sporting bleachers to a Ziegfeldian theatre set to an amphitheatre to a bull ring – whatever takes off in your own mind, really.

There’s potential here, but also the core of the problem: instead of directing for the audience, the director is directing only for himself and his own vision. Everything is open to whatever interpretation that each member of the audience puts on it, based on their individual responses, ideologies, prejudices, experiences and so forth.

The programme essays – ROH programmes are expensive by West End standards, but contain more serious content than any other programmes I’ve ever bought – reveal the influences behind the production as ranging from Brechtian alienation, through Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Chicago and The Scottsboro Boys.

Into that mix, add in ‘bricolage’ – the incorporation of themes, references and ideas from popular culture. Or ‘cultural mash up’, as we might say if we were not so eager to make it sound intellectually posher than it might be. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! did this well … in an original, deliberately playful work. T-shirts in my wardrobe that combine the minions with Doctor Who or The Big Bang Theory do it well too. Such mash-ups can be enormous fun. Indeed, the current TV incarnation of Doctor Who uses such an approach a lot – in something that is an ongoing original work that has been evolving down the decades.

In other words, these are not attempting to foist a new approach onto an established work. Or to be even more specific: are not attempting to foist a search for meaning onto a work that was never created with such a thing in mind.

Bieito’s Carmen maintained the heart of the piece: whatever he did with it, he did not try to make it something that it is not.

McVicar’s Salome does throw ideas into the mix – but this is a work that has always had philosophical and psychological depths to it, thus offering a greater opportunity for serious consideration.

Carmen is essentially a potboiler. What makes it so special is the music – but that’s true of a great deal of opera. As someone once commented to me, it’s the music that gives opera it’s great sense of emotional truth.

There are operas that offer a more philosophical and intellectually challenging basis for productions: perhaps exactly why Wagner has been subjected to some really barking interpretations.

But in some ways, rather that – and even rather this Kosky production – than lazy repetition and stagnation. Coming away from Covent Garden last night, the OH and I discussed at length why we didn’t like it and have continued the same dialogue today.

It’s important to note that Kosky is hardly alone in such a postmodern approach – and that the OH and I thoroughly enjoyed his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the ROH a couple of years ago; evidence that this approach can work … in the right circumstances.

Here, there are elements that do work: some of the pre-recorded voiceovers really add to the story (but other do not). Some of the costuming of Carmen is excellent – the initial matador costume manages to see her fully covered in clothing that traditionally male, yet utterly sexual. Think Dietrich making a top hat and tails look fabulously sexy.

French mezzo Gaëlle Arquez, as the eponymous femme fatale on the night we saw it, is a fabulous talent of whom I very much want to hear more.

The parameters set out by her opening recorded dialogue about Spanish words and ideas to describe the physically perfect woman make it clear why the make-up of much of the female chorus is the way it is.

Yet there is far, far too much ‘business’. In Bieito’s take, there is stage business – yet it all helps to establish what’s going on. Here, some of it simply business for the sake of business – and it distracts from the whole, while that set adds nothing obvious.

The choruses in Bizet’s work are important, but if they’re on stage so much, as here, it diminishes their impact.

What particular irked me – by the interval, it had become actively annoying – is the small troupe of dancers, who gurn and cavort, with stylistic nods to Bob Fosse, but add absolutely nothing that I can discern to the story or my ability to understand or interpret it.

Of course, I could suggest that life is a cabaret, old chum, and that their mugging simply emphasis that, but if the viewer has to search for any old reason to explain something, even when it adds nothing to the whole, then that is part of the problem. This production also blends the episodes in the three acts into something far less distinct than usual, with a result that is, in terms of the story, more confusing than one would wish for.

Radical and controversial can be inspired. But radical and controversial for the sake of see only disappointment and frustration looming large. And it is impossible to think that this production is anything but the latter.

ENOs Tristan strikes the wrong chord (June 2016)

A Catalan Carmen casts off any staleness (March 2017)

Monday, 26 February 2018

Who is really the bird brain?

It was nine years ago when I first looked at a bird with anything more than passing interest.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like our feathered friends – rather that I hadn’t really expended enough mental energy to regard them as anything other than feather brained.

But in 2009, The Other Half and I were in Berlin and decided to take in the city’s zoo. In the event, our visit was cut short by a storm, but we were impressed enough that we returned before our week was out.

Aviaries are the sort of places I would previously have skipped, but with a quality camera around my neck, what stopped me in my tracks was a king vulture.

A family nearby was trying to attract its attention through the fence, but it maintained a regal sense of aloofness – ignoring them completely and opting instead to stare me down. That bird had attitude. And I got great pictures.

Since then, I have looked out for birds – and always make a beeline for any vultures. Ive have even been able to identify one in the wild, flying above a Pyrenean town – a lammergeier.

Anyway, fast forward to last autumn and a lunchtime browse in the shop at the near-to-work British Library. Such visits have to be strictly rationed, since it’s well nigh impossible to walk out without having added to our own already creaking shelves.

On this occasion, I picked up a 2017 paperback version of The Genius of Birds.

By this stage, it was some time after my ‘ravens rock’ thing had first blossomed, but the initial enticement to Jennifer Ackerman’s book was a rapid flick through the index to see if ravens merited a mention.

Standing in the shop reading a brief section on how researchers had been on the receiving end of a pair of ravens using weapons against them (dug-up stones) was all it took. I bought the book.

A few weeks ago, waiting for something else to arrive, I plucked it down from the shelf and started to read. Nothing had suggested just how compulsive I’d find it.

Every time I visit the hospital my father now frequents regularly, I talk to the crows that rule the roost on the recreation ground opposite – we know each other well – so it delights me that corvids rate very highly in the avian intelligence stakes.

The early part of the book includes fascinating information about the tool use of New Caledonian crows, the Einsteins of the bird world, but other corvids feature too.

However, there was a whole world of bird brains to discover.

The chickadee, for instance, with it’s astonishingly varied call that can be used to warn its community of a nearby predator and even how threatening that predator is.

We can read about the architectural and aesthetic works of bowerbirds and learn about the astonishing capacity that pigeons have for navigation. It’ll never be so easy to simply dismiss them as ‘rats with wings’ after reading this.

King vulture with attitude, Berlin 2009
In a German experiment, it was found that homing pigeons that were allowed to fly around outside their loft and get to know its surrounds, and then participate in races of up to 175 miles, had hippocampi that were 10% larger than homing pigeons that had not been allowed outside a spacious loft/aviary.

Here, Ackerman adds a fascinating note on research done with humans, showing that experienced black cab drivers in London have more “grey matter” in the rear of their hippocampus than bus drivers or new cabbies.
Which begs the question of whether navigational tech such as GPS is damaging to human intelligence.

The author is always careful not to over-egg any puddings by anthropomorphising avian intelligence, but that works both ways, as she urges us not to consider ‘intelligence’ only in human terms, even where intelligence does not easily correspond with the human understanding of the word.

And at the end of a book that constantly makes you go ‘wow’, Ackerman brings everything together within the context of climate change and what that might mean for birds.

This is popular science, but don’t let that suggest that it’s sloppy. There’s plenty of science here and that can take some serious reading attention. But from start to finish, it’s also an absolute joy. I’ll never again consider birds to be rather boring.

• The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman is published by Corsair and available in a variety of formats.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Del Toro's Shape of Water is the shape of magic

It’s rather amusing to consider that the founders of the Academy Awards, which will be handed out this year in LA on 4 March, would probably never have imagined that the film with the most nominations this year would include scenes of female masturbation and human/monster sex.

Ninety years after the first gold statuettes were handed out, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is up for 13 gongs. Though Dunkirk has eight nominations, its main competition in the really big categories is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with seven overall.

But let’s set that aside for the moment.

The plot of The Shape of Water is, on the surface of it, very simple.

Mute cleaner Elisa Esposito works at a secret US government facility in Baltimore in 1962. Her best friends are her neighbour Giles, a late-middle aged illustrator who has (probably) been forced out of contracted work because he’s gay, and a fellow cleaner, Zelda, a black woman with a problematic husband, who defends Elisa against bullying colleagues.

But Elisa dreams of something beyond mopping the labs and, when a strange water creature – The Asset – is brought to the facility in the hope that it will help the US side of the Cold War space race, she is the first person to realise that the monster is not … well, quite the monster he initially seems.

However, just as their relationship is developing, it becomes clear that the brutal Colonel Richard Strickland and the US military want to vivisect the creature.

In terms of this film, the words ‘fairy tale’ have been mentioned plenty of times, And it’s absolutely true. Because del Toro has created something that is just that – which is precisely why it is so powerful.

Some have claimed that the plot is simplistic – fairy tale plots are.

Some have suggested that the characters are not fully developed – just as in fairy tales.

Fairy tales are simple and full of ciphers. And they stay with us – just like folklore and mythology – down the generations.

The Shape of Water is full of shallow characters – but only if you are not willing or able to look slightly deeper. Even Strickland has a lot more to say to us if we listen properly (further clues here would represent spoilers).

Indeed, this is an extraordinarily intellectually complex film: simple only on the surface: if you’re prepared to look deeper, then it has many, many rewards.

It is also a generous emotional experience – never lapsing into lazy sentimentality – with a number of moments of utter joy. And those include Elisa using sign language to tell Strickland to ‘fuck you’, which he can only guess at in utter frustration: the look on her face is simply sublime.

Sally Hawkins as Elisa is just wonderful – can’t she and Frances McDormand share the best actress Oscar this year? Indeed, as gutsy, feisty women, they make a wonderful pair of contrasting characters. Hawkins conveys such a purity and yet such a hunger, such a passion and such a moral strength – and all without speaking.

Ophelia Spencer as Zelda is wonderful. Michael Shannon as Strickland is really nasty – yet also has those depths that should make us think – while Michael Stuhlbarg as one of the scientists is equally excellent.

Doug Jones – the amphibian Abe Sapien in both del Toro Hellboy movies – does wonders in the fish skin, making the ‘monster’ a believable yet utterly strange being, while Richard Jenkins as Giles (justifiably up for a supporting actor Oscar) really does turn in the performance of his career.

The design is almost pure graphic novel, with a gorgeous colour palette of blue-greens and a retro sense of the future that really helps draw you in. 

Alexandre Desplat’s score is one of the few I will bother to buy to listen to. Eerie – and, in this centenary of Debussy’s death – it has the shimmering ‘watery’ quality of some of that composer’s watery-themed works.

At the top of this review, I mentioned the bath time masturbation scenes: they come into their own when you realise that they ensure that Elisa cannot be viewed as a naive, ‘disabled’ victim and therefore exploited – indeed, most of the film’s strength comes because she is the absolute opposite of that: it’s her incredible strength that inspires the others around her.

There are so many themes here: loneliness; the sense of being ‘apart’ – not part of society’s most accepted class/es. There are environmental themes too and political ones. And one of the most telling points is that, when the ‘monster and Elisa come together, it feels proper and apt and tender and convincing – just as such things have in myth down the centuries.

So, simple on the surface perhaps. But dip below that surface and you’ll see why del Toro’s latest work might well be his very best yet. This is cinematic magic. Go and catch it.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Black Panther leaps onto screens with style and depth

Marvel’s growth as a cinema brand was always set to continue this year, with Avengers Infinity War due out in the spring, Deadpool 2 shortly after that and Ant-Man and the Wasp in mid summer, but for a whole bag of reasons, Black Panther is arguably the biggest release of them all.

Sitting in a packed cinema on opening day, with one of the most mixed audiences imaginable, it was impossible to miss the expectation, just as it’s impossible not to be aware of the film’s cultural importance.

The eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s based on the superhero comics series that was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966.

The film gives us a basic backstory about the creation of a fictional east African nation made up of five tribes that are united as Wakanda under the first Black Panther. Once established, Wakanda develops extraordinarily advanced technology, that – among other things – enables it to hide itself from the rest of the world by appearing to be a poor Third World country.

Fast forward to Oakland, California, in 1992, where a Wakandan prince has become convinced that isolationism is wrong and that the country should share its technology with people of African descent around the world to help them defeat their oppressors.

Fast forward once more to the present, just after King T’Chaka’s death and the accession of his son, T’Challa, to the throne. But before hes got time to properly get his feet under the royal table, faces from the past reappear, determined to exploit the change of monarch for their own ends.

This is a cracking Marvel romp, but with enough of a philosophical edge around the issue of isolationism – and the legacies of colonialism that the film also makes clear, open references to – to illustrate (were it needed) that comics and the films based on them don’t have to be vapid.

Scripted by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and directed by the former, the film also benefits from excellent production design by Hannah Beachler, who creates a visually convincing Wakanda that melds the advanced technology with a vivid sense of actual African cultures.

The cast too is uniformally excellent – starting with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (channeling Mandela a tad, but why not?). This is a character who’s dignified, brave and morally intelligent – and fortunately Boseman ensures that hes sexy and complex too, avoiding that oh-so-serious quality some Marvel superheroes have.

Michael B Jordan as Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens is another who adds a pleasing level of complexity to his role, while Lupita Nyong’o as undercover Wakandan spy Nakia, Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s teenage sister and the nation’s tech genius, Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of the country’s all-female special forces and royal bodyguard the Dora Milaje, Florence Kasumba as Dora Milaje member Ayo and Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, give the audience more really strong impressive female characters in one film than anyone would usually expect.

And not to forget Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder statesman Zuri, Andy Serkis – appearing almost without CGI! – as South African black-market arms dealer, smuggler and gangster Ulysses Klaus, Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K Ross and South African acting legend John Kani as T’Chaka and there’s not much chance things are going to slip in the acting department.

The action sequences are as good as you’d expect; the whole thing looks superb and some of the mythical/ancestral plane sequences are really beautiful. Indeed, the sense of the mythological in the film is part of why its so successful: it has a feeling of a story that really does go back into the mists of time.

Irrespective of the expectation, Black Panther is a top-notch entry into the Marvel film universe.

Of that expectation – no film is going to spark a revolution, but it has gone way beyond simply avoiding being ‘not disappointing’. It offers black audiences – actually, all audiences – a whole raft of positive black characters and a positive black/African world.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what might be inspired by that.