Saturday, 28 May 2016

Through the Looking Glass: we're not really in wonderland any more

Alice In Wonderland, Tim Burton’s 2010 take on Lewis Carroll’s 19th-century surreal classic, was generally given the thumbs down by the critics, but a global box office take of $1.025bm for Disney, for an outlay of around $200m, ensured that it was a success – and that a sequel was likely. 

Now, in Alice Through the Looking Glass, Burton has returned to Carroll. This time, though, he’s one of the producers, with the directing reins handed to James Bobin and Linda Woolverton returning for scriptwriting duties. 

The first film was messy, but still fun.

This is messier still and has been roundly trashed by the critics, but still has merits – although they’re perhaps harder to find.

Like the first film, it’s “based on” Carroll’s characters, with Alice as an adult.

It opens three years after the last film, with Alice – now the captain of her late father’s ship – steering it away from Chinese pirates and back home to Blighty after a three-year voyage.

This fantastic escape gives time to re-establish that she has lost none of her feistiness or bravery, and that ‘impossible’ remains, for Alice, a dirty word.

But once back at home, all is not well, and she finds herself plunged back into a fight to retain her chance for adventure and wonder against conventional expectations and pressures.



Just in time, Absolem the butterfly (formerly the caterpillar), reappears and leads her to the mirror that offers a door back to Wonderland.



And once there, Alice discovers that the Hatter is dying – and that only she can help.



Absolem is, once again, voiced by Alan Rickman – his last performance before his untimely death at the beginning of this year, and it brings a lump to the throat to hear his voice.



At the heart of this film is the idea of time – you can’t get it back – and how you must live every day to its fullest extent and make sure you never live to regret any bad relationships with your loved ones.



And if that sounds clunky, it’s because it is: twee, sentimental and hamfisted.



Keeping the world running
Some of it – perhaps especially not being able to tamper with time and the dangers if you do – are laid on with a JCB: and for goodness sake, do the writers think none of us have ever seen Star Trek?



I love the characters and I loved how the first film developed them. But even though it’s good to see so many of these cinematic friends again, it’s hard to care much about what happens to them – especially as the bulk of the film drags.



We get backplots aplenty, explaining how the Red Queen became the nasty character we’re familiar with (and how she got her big head) and how the Hatter became, well ... the Hatter.



Dysfunctional families, eh?



And there is Time himself, in the persona of Sacha Baron Cohen, trying to prevent Alice from breaking time itself.



Now, as I said, there are compensations.



In the last quarter, it eventually gains real pace and a sense of tension and even passion. Finally, you are drawn into caring what happens. But it takes a long, long time.



If there is a sense that Johnny Depp is pretty much treading water as the Hatter, Mia Wasikowska turns in another enjoyable and solid (if not Earth-shattering) performance as Alice.



Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is as vague as before, but as we start to understand the reasons for the relationship breakdown between her and her sister, the Red Queen, the contrast becomes more understandable.



As for the Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter returns and adds some much-needed energy to proceedings.



Baron Cohen, once over an initial bit of clowning, is actually very good.



Incidentally, how many times in mainstream Western cinema has a scene been played between actors with three names each – Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen?

We get a brief cameo from Sherlocks Moriarty, Andrew Scott, who seems to have cast in order to bring that character to this film.



Wilkins tries to work out how to make things right
And I did like Wilkins, Time’s long-suffering, robotic butler – played by Muppets puppeteer Matt Vogel, with Toby Jones voicing, although why a character with such an English name should look and sound German is a mystery.



The biggest compensation is that it is visually superb – dazzling in places, not least in the time-travel shots and in Time’s castle, where there is also a rich, blue and gold palette that brings to mind Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.



And the visuals are not harmed by being viewed in 3D: having only seen my first 3D film 10 months ago, I’m certainly getting value from those glasses!



Alice Through the Looking Glass is ultimately disappointing. In some ways, having Burton’s name attached actually adds to the disappointment, because we expect such great things from him – and for a reason. But then again, whatever you may read or hear from the critics, it isn't some sort of cinematic version of the Titanic either.

And like its predecessor, it’s probably a fair prediction to say that its hardly likely to be flop.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

Forget the snobbery: comics are no con

If you cant choose one, get the set
There’s little as irritating as snobbery – in oh so many walks of life.

Now to be absolutely fair, there’s also a form of reverse snobbery – or relativism, as it’s known – that asserts, for instance, that EastEnders is just as good as Shakespeare, NWA are genuinely the equal of Wagner, and Minions is as good a film as The Enigma of Kasper Hauser.

Now: time for the declaration.

I watch no soaps. I love Bill the Bard. I do listen to and enjoy some ‘popular’ music – but not NWA. I increasingly believe that Wagner wrote the most stunning music ever. I love Minions – AND I love The Enigma of Kasper Hauser.

Both are possible, without my remotely pretending that that means that the former is equal to the latter in critical terms.
 
I also like comics. And Thomas Mann. (And Günter Grass. And Gabriel García Márquez). 

That doesn’t mean a Superman story is the same as a Thomas Mann novella. But then again, what is? And indeed, few comics (well, certainly not the ones I read) are like a Superman story.

My introduction to comics as an adult came in 1990, when I was handed a copy of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta to review, and had my mind well and truly blown.



There have been graphic novels on my shelves ever since.

Anyway, this weekend has been special: because yesterday morning, the first issue of William’s Gibson’s first ever comic slid through my letter box.

And Archangel is every bit as slyly engaging as you would expect from the founding father of cuberpunk.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Gibson is a superb and very grow-up sci-fi writer, whose dystopian novels gave rise to the label of ‘cyberpunk’. They’re literate and philosophically interesting.

So, what do we get from issue one of Archangel? Twenty pages in, I’m fully engaged. We have a tale of scientists from a dying 2016 Earth attempting to change history by sending people back to 1945.

I really want to know what happens next, complaining loudly upon reaching the end of the story after 20 pages. This is actually what you’d expect – and largely why the majority of my comic reading is done from trades (collections of several individual issues).

But then this is a comic Event.

Of course, as with Gibson’s novels, there’s far more subtlety involved than such bare phrases suggest. The characters are already clearly beyond mere symbols.

The art – by Butch Guice – is seriously good. Plus there’s a choice of covers for the first issue, just to increase the pleasure (and possible torture) for collectors.



A page of Jaques Tardi's work
And that’s all I can really tell you at this point. But beyond the opening of the actual story, the first issue has much to offer, with sketchbook pages of character development, as well as pages through the processes (both fascinating) and notes from Gibson himself.

That’s not, however, the end of this review. 

In recent weeks, my comic reading has also included the newly-published second volume of the trade of Descender by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen.

This is good stuff, taking us forward in a story about a sentient robot child, Tim, who is struggling to stay alive in a world where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters are constantly hunting for them.

It was pre-ordered for the simple reason that the first volume made me care about Tim, while Nguyen’s unusual (for a comic) art is also hugely appealing.



Also entered into the recently-read list is the first part of Jaques Tardi’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-SecPterror Over Paris (which forms the basis of a Luc Besson film, in French with English subtitles, which is also worth watching).

Featuring the eponymous heroine – an archeologist and feisty creation of delightfully dubious morality – there are currently four stories available in English, so these are rare and great fun. 

Its always worth pointing out to any snobs that the French regard comic books as the ninth art. 

Trees, by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard is another trade first volume (the second is out this summer), and is a complex interweaving of different stories from across the world, a decade after vast, alien ‘trees’ suddenly arrived and ‘planted’ themselves across the Earth – and then did nothing.

Another fascinating story that gives few clues as to where it is going to go, Ellis’s character and plot development are strong and the art from Howard is equally memorable.



A page from Fables 2
Rather older is Fables, a long series by Bill Willingham, working with various artists.

The overarching story deals with characters from myth, folktale, fairytale and fantasy literature, who are driven from their home lands by the violent Adversary and become refugees in New York, staying hidden from humans and running their own society.

The second issue, Animal Farm, with art by Mark Buckingham, Steve Leiloha and Daniel Vozzo, largely takes place in the community’s out-of-town hideaway for those who cannot maintain a human form or otherwise pass unnoticed among humankind.

And yes, those familiar with George Orwell’s novel of the same name will find links between the plots and ideas.

With an approach that owes more to the darker origins of folk and fairytales than Disney, Willingham’s series is a good illustration of just how grown-up comics can be and would be a candidate for any list of best graphic novel reads.



Volume one of The Autumnlands, by Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey, is another rollicking read: a brilliantly envisaged anthropomorphic world where magic is dying and the elite are trying to save their society.

Unfortunately for them, the secret efforts of a group of wizards to save the situation plunges them all – literally – into serious danger.

Another that’s rated ‘M’ for ‘mature’, Busiek’s story unfolds darkly and brutally. Dewey’s artwork is simply brilliant.

I have no personal axe to grind about comicbook superheroes – I’m rather fond of Wonder Woman – but if you believe that the worlds of Marvel and DC are the only ones in the comic universe, then think again. 

• Archangel issue 1 is out now from idwpublishing.com. 

Descender, Trees and The Autumnlands are all from imagecomics.com. 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec is published by Fantagraphics Books. 

Fables is available from vertigocomics.com.


Saturday, 14 May 2016

Wagner's Tannhäuser brings tears to the eyes

It might nearly be time for the Eurovision jamboree, but the only Wagner I was interested in on Thursday night was no inflated, blingy joke, but the real musical deal – even with a work that is far from perfect.

The Royal Opera House’s 2010 Tim Albery production of Tannhäuser is just enjoying its first revival – and if it’s flawed, then that’s little surprise, since the opera itself has serious problems. Yet for all its issues, the music is sublime – and this production has moments that made me feel as though I were having a religious experience.

First though, a very brief outline of the plot.

Tannhäuser is lured to Venusburg by the goddess Venus for a good time. However, he eventually gets bored and leaves for the real world and Wurtzburg, in spite of the protestations of the goddess.

Once there, he’s recognised by old friends, who tell him that his old love, Elisabeth, has effectively cut herself off from society since he left suddenly and inexplicably.

He agrees to compete in a singing contest – since he often won in the past and Elisabeth loved the contests before his sudden departure.

However, nobody knows where’s he’s spent the intervening time – and when they find out, through the singing contest, they denounce him as a blasphemer and threaten to kill him.

Though Elisabeth is devastated, she pleads to save his life, and instead of death, he goes with a group to Rome on a pilgrimage to seek salvation.

On the pilgrims’ return, Elisabeth cannot find him and dies of a broken heart. Tannhäuser then turns up, explaining that the Pope rejected his penance, and saying he’s going back to Venus. However, now in heaven, Elisabeth has pleaded for his soul and her pleas have been answered.

Okay – set aside the plot. Wagner himself made it quite clear that he did not mean it to be taken literally in a religious sense, but that it simply reflected his own despair with the (then) modern world of the 1840s.

If only he’d known the joys of social media and reality TV ...

Anyway, if the plot is not divine, the music is. It almost certainly includes the best music for choruses that he ever wrote. There are some stunning arias here too, with plenty of evidence (it it’s needed) that he did NOT just write ‘shouty’ stuff.

So what’s wrong with this production?

It's all about the sex – Venusburg
Albery decided to incorporate a ballet into the overture – a choreographed orgy.

Now it’s important to note that it isn’t actually completely out of place.

For the Paris version of the opera in 1861, Wagner was asked to revise it and agreed, on the grounds that he believed that success at the Paris Opéra was important for his career. The requirements included having a ballet, as was the tradition of the house.

However, Wagner being Wagner, rather than place it, as per convention, in the second act, he put it in the first, where it made some sense in the sensual world of Venus. And it was, in fact, a bacchanale.

It caused problems, though, since the moneyed members of the Jockey Club, who expected to turn up late, see the ballet (they were often dating dancers) and then bugger off, were peeved that they would either have to change their habits or miss it.

Thus they organised a barracking from the audience. At the third performance, the uproar caused a 15-minute hiatus. Wagner withdrew the opera and it marked the end of his hopes of acclaim at the centre of the operatic world.

He made further changes to the version that was performed in Vienna in 1875 – and it’s this version that is most often used today, albeit with the reinstatement of Walther’s solo from the second act.

Wagner was never completely happy with the work: he tinkered with it for the rest of his life, and just three weeks before his death in 1883, his wife Cosima noted in her diary that he was saying that he “owes the world Tannhäuser”.

But all of this said, I do not believe that the ballet works.

First, because the overture is beautiful and the dance interrupts it.

And second, because in emphasising sex over anything else, it also ignores what Venus makes quite clear is the other gift that she has given Tannhäuser – godhood.

Not only is sinful – it is downright blasphemous.

And at the same time, it is also a reflection of the nature of the artist.

Artists create – and within orthodox religion, an act of creation by anyone other than the Judeo-Christian God is heresy.

There are reasons that artists have long been outlaws in ‘civilised’ Western society.

Christian Geherer as Wolfram
Wagner himself has been mistrusted from his own lifetime on by people who realised that he created music that gave people an almost religious experience – people who believed that that was close to daemonic.

I had that in my mind as I watched, plus the obvious profane v purity theme, plus the duality of human experience, plus the entire idea of setting up paganism (Venus) against Christianity (Elisabeth is arguably a Mary substitute).

So there’s a bit of context – and also offers just one illustration of why a Wagner opera can be such an intellectually stimulating experience.

To add to the drama of our visit, though, our eponymous tragic hero was Peter Seiffert, a globally-celebrated Wagner tenor who recorded the role on a Grammy-winning version with Daniel Barenboim.

He was far from bad, but it’s fair to say he is not what he once was – few of us are.

Unfortunately, though, he couldn’t continue after the second act. Luckily, young (in opera terms) heldentenor Neal Cooper (the nephew of legendary boxer Sir Henry, who trod on my foot at a TV do once and was an exemplary gent in apologising) was in the audience with his wife – and stood in for the last act.

Never mind getting your costume and make up on, these singers have to seriously warm up. It must have been chaos backstage.

But he was wonderful, and has a really fine voice – and received a fabulous and completely deserved ovation at the end.

I very much look forward to hearing more of him.

After the orgy ballet, the staging is essentially simple – we have a theatre within a theatre (more to consider philosophically), but by and large, the music is left to speak for itself and that, I think, is really how it should be.

Of the rest of the cast, I thought that both Sophie Koch as Venus and Emma Bell as Elisabeth were superb.

But baritone Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram (who won an Olivier Award for his turn as Wolfram in 2010) was the real highlight – almost certainly the finest individual singing I have ever heard live; a voice of extraordinary clarity and warmth and beauty.

And the chorus – often offstage, giving the music a sense of the ethereal – gave me goosebumps from straight after the overture and were simply superb throughout. But it was at the act three finale that I finally had my first live Wagner religious experience, as my entire insides convulsed and I found the tears unstoppable.

This wasn’t sadness at the plot. It was a response to the extraordinary beauty of the music.

Wagner was a sorcerer. And more than a century and a half on, when it’s done well, his music can still cast a spell that leaves pretty much anything else looking pale by comparison.

So, the 207th performance of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden (the first one was on 6 May 1876) was certainly far from perfect. But as we’ve learned, the work itself is not.

Yet if I were still entertaining any doubts that I really ‘got’ Wagner, they were blown away on Thursday night by a quite wonderful few hours.

And it’s only just over a month until I see and experience more ...

Saturday, 7 May 2016

It's a swinging time with Disney's new Jungle Book

It has been bad enough seeing the current Halifax advert: quite apart from the apparent message that all you need to do in order to get a mortgage is to spin a wide boy tale of suffering and accompany it all with a tear-jerking violin solo, that it has Top Cat selling this new era of banking responsibility really set my teeth on edge.

And when I then saw what they have done to one of my childhood favourites in the forthcoming Top Cat film ... well, lets just say that I’m not a happy bunny.

Like most people, I suspect, I can be more than a tad precious about things that were happy parts of my childhood.

The day we got a colour TV, I walked into the living room after school to find Top Cat playing – and was astonished to discover that he was yellow, with a purple waistcoat.

The disappointment of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy and the subsequent pleasure at the revival of the franchise under JJ Abrams, is testament to just how much the original trio meant to me as a teenager and young adult.

But I can get it very wrong too.

When the BBC premiered Sherlock, I had a grand funk at the mere idea of it being updated, and refused to watch. This was particularly barmy, since I’d originally loved the Basil Rathbone screen incarnation, which included episodes of Holmes v the Nazis (as well as that woefully inaccurate cliché of a dumb Watson).

Rathbone, it’s true, had long been overtaken in my personal pantheon by the wonderful Jeremy Brett, but when I eventually gave in and watched Sherlock, it was to fall completely in love with the updating and Benedict Cumberbatchs performance.

For me, The Jungle Book has probably been my favourite Disney film since childhood, when seeing it with my parents was followed, uniquely, by seeing it again at the cinema with a much-loved great aunt. It is the only classic Disney animated film that I own a copy of.

I have not, until now, had to clarify that by all this, I mean the 1967 Disney cartoon.

On first hearing that Disney was making a new version, I had something approaching another Sherlock-style funk. But then, a few weeks ago, I saw a trailer on the internet and then again on the big screen. It was impossible not to be intrigued.

The discovery that at least some of the original songs were also involved this time around provoked even more interest.

A colleague with whom I’ve been discussing films lately asked whether I was tempted – on the basis that he was, but remained unsure.

The Other Half and I decided that the best way to deal with temptation is to give in to it.

I’m glad we did.

Because the 2016 incarnation of The Jungle Book is an absolute joy.

We saw it in 3D – and that certainly added to the experience.

The CGI is astounding. The animals are staggeringly realistic – they seem to have weight and fullness; they move wonderfully. The jungle itself is also beautifully realised.

Such lushness alone would not be enough to make this the hit that it is, but director Jon Favreau has ensured that it has heart by the bucket load.

The characters are not sketches, but are drawn in depth and voiced by a top-notch cast, including Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Bill Murray as Baloo, Christopher Walken as King Louie, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Lupito Nyong’o as Raksha, Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa.

The relationships between all the characters have nuance and subtlety.

The human element relies on Neel Sethi as the man cub – and the youngster turns in a really wonderful performance that is engaging and utterly believable, without ever drifting into annoying screen child syndrome.

I haven’t read Rudyard Kipling’s original stories, but this has a sense of being closer to those than to Hollywood: that the animals have their own ‘laws’ and their own mythology adds to a hint of something mystical.

That we have a back story for both Mowgli and Shere Khan is also a welcome development.

There are laughter and tears, darkness and light here, together with moments that only the adults will spot, such as the intended nod to Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from King Louie, plus reverential nods back to the animated classic.

It can be no surprise that, at the time of writing, The Jungle Book is topping the UK film charts for the third week running.

So, my childhood memories remain unsullied and, on the basis of this, I can now look forward to seeing the new Disney version of Pete’s Dragon (the original was never that great anyway) when it opens later this year.

You can still keep that new Top Cat, though.


Friday, 22 April 2016

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: an American tragedy

It was 27 years ago when the National Theatre last produced August Wilson’s breakthrough play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with Hugh Quarshie wearing tights trousers to strut his stuff on top of a table.
 
I saw it twice: the first time to review, and the second – under the leaking roof of the Hackney Empire, to growl quietly in appreciation at Mr Quarshie.

This new production offered a welcome chance to reappraise it.

It’s Chicago, 1927. A quartet of four musicians meet in a studio for a recording session with Ma Rainey – the ‘Mother of the Blues’ – and, while they wait for the diva to arrive, the good humour of their banter thins to reveal underlying tensions.

The ingredients are simple: four talented men (and one woman) who are of use to white music bosses as long as their music produces cash dividends.

But the three older members of the quartet – bookish pianist Toledo, band leader Cutler and bassist Slow Drag – have all found ways of dealing with their situation as black men in the US.

Trumpeter Levee, however – hardly a boy at 32, but still the youngest of the four – is caught between rage at the situation and an ambition to have his own band and write his own material that sees him act with overt deferentiality toward the studio boss.

While the central theme here is an exploration of the African-American experience, it also does much more.

One of the interesting things here is how stories provide a defence.

Toledo, Cutler and Slow Drag tell stories that, to varying degrees, have an aura of folk tale or myth about them. Religion features, but not simply as comfort (it is the reason why Toledo’s wife left him, for instance) and often bound up with folktales.

When Cutler tells them a Faustian tale from his own home town, Toledo nods vociferously, noting that he’s heard the same thing, hundreds of times.

The stories reflect a shared experience and sense of community – beyond the purely historical, biographical and rational – and they appear central to the men’s sense of self and their ability to weather the indignities that are thrown at them.


Cutler, Toledo, Levee and Slow Drag
Even Toledo’s book-learned philosophy and history add to his defences.

But Levee, however, has no such stories and no such learning.

He joshes at the others until, challenged over his attitudes toward white people, he reveals how, as an eight-year-old child, he had seen his mother gang-raped by white men, and his father was subsequently hung and burned for daring to exact revenge.

There is no mythology here; nothing other than a raw, horrifying description of what a child witnessed; no shield against the weeping sore at the core of Levee’s being. He has no defence against his experiences.

Religion offers no comfort: when a row breaks out over his perceived blasphemy, we discover that his mother cried for divine help as she was raped, so he continues to challenge God to strike him down.

In all that he does, Levee pushes boundaries, as though deliberately daring those around him to respond negatively.

And when the levee eventually – and inevitably – breaks, it is with tragic, if unexpected, consequences.

This is a superb drama – a tragedy that operates on many levels – with dialogue that possesses a music of its own to counterpoint that blues that the characters are together to record.

And the National has – once again – given Wilson’s play the cast and production that it deserves.

Dominic Cooke’s direction never lets it sag. Ultz’s set is pared back and cleverly allows a sense of the liberating nature of the music (in a space that seems never to really end), the claustrophobic nature of the limits placed on black lives, and the social relationship between black and white men.

Title apart, Ma Rainey is not the central character here, but while she is on stage, she needs to exert a big, powerful influence – and Sharon D Clarke is marvelous in the role. Thank goodness too, that she gets one full song to show us what a fantastic voice she has.

Clint Dyer as Cutler, Lucian Msamati as Toledo, Giles Terera as Slow Drag and O-T Fagbenle as Levee all turn in top-notch performances – in terms both of their musicianship as well as acting.

You have until 18 May to catch this. It is very much worth the effort.