Thursday, 23 June 2016

John Grant, French Cancan, and Making America Great Again not being that good – Reviews #242

LIVE


Pic from here.

John Grant at the Royal Albert Hall (15 June 2016) – Not the loud, sweaty, hyper-intensive show we got at Hammersmith Apollo in November, but no less memorable a night, with Grant in balladic, hypnotic and rhapsodic mood. He kicked off with a breathtakingly cathartic 'Geraldine' – “We’re not like them, we’re not that strong/At least that’s what they’ve been telling us all along – and invited Kylie on for a breathtaking, triumphant 'Glacier' duet that should perhaps have closed the show (but was merely the first of five songs in an extended encore), and in between offered a gallery of highlights drawn from each of his three stunning solo records – and then far beyond.

There was a surely definitive new arrangement of his most recent title track, 'Grey Tickles, Black Pressure', a heartstopping version of Mary MacGregor’s 'Torn Between Two Lovers' (co-written by Peter Yarrow), featuring Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon on lead vocals, and outings for just about every song of real note that he’s recorded: a blistering, euphoric No More Tangles for which he knocked the lid of his sensational baritone voice, recent single 'Disappointing' – with wah-wah guitar from Richard Hawley – and an uber-cool 'Black Belt', a track that showcasing every bit of his wit, sardonism and impeccable rhythm, but never quite moved like this.

There was the simple, simply wonderful love song, Outer Space; the discordant beast of a freak-out that his near-legendary 'Queen of Denmark' has now become (like Dylan doing Hendrix’s 'All Along the Watchtower', it’s closer to Sinead O’Connor cover than Grant’s original); the timely 'Jesus Hates Faggots' – now back on his regular setlist – and of course his anthemic GMF, introduced in his typically knowing, offhand manner, which can’t quite disguise that the song is about how motherfucking great he is. Throw out the risible 'Snug Slacks' (a hymn to seeing men’s penises in their tracksuit bottoms) and bring in 'You Don’t Have To', and we’d have had something like the definitive Grant show: overwhelming ‘70s-style balladeering and challenging but danceable contemporary electronica, all apparently adapted for the venue so that it all chimed with the opulence of the arena, rather than blasting the roof off the place. On any terms, though, an incredible evening. (4)

I also met him, as we were doing some filming for a work project, look.


This is a different gig. You can't see his surprisingly muscular arms.

COMEDY: David Cross: Making America Great Again at the O2 Forum (Sun 19 June) – I’m not sure quite the point of this was: an evening of Arrested Development star David Cross telling a bunch of liberal Londoners about the evils of Donald Trump, gun ownership and Catholicism. With a big grey beard and wearing an eye-grabbing Stars-and-Stripes cap that blazed in the lights, he delivered a set that kept threatening to go somewhere important, but ultimately settled for preaching to the converted, while occasionally shocking them with rape jokes. There are a few nice bits – routines about a shop boasting of its “get what you get” tattoo, the logic behind selling suitcases in an airport, and a guy who thought the notorious phrase was “Hi Hitler” – but he doesn’t seem to have the equipment to take these somewhere painfully, breathlessly funny: too many jokes are either blindingly obvious or fall well short of where they should land.

A new bit about Jo Cox’s alleged murderer finds the essential absurdity of the name he provided in court, then uses it for a lame Starbucks gag. And more often than not he simply went for the lazy shock option, with innumerable jokes about raping or killing children. He threw in one about cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad too, perhaps to balance the scales before a prolonged routine about transubstantiation that could have been written 600 years ago, suggesting that it would be fine to get a tattoo of him if it was on a milk carton, followed by a sequence in which he tried to explain the joke whilst being murdered. It kind of summed up the evening: a provocative theme, a flash of intelligence, then a cartoonish, unsatisfying denouement. (2)



THEATRE: The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre) – By far the best thing I’ve seen at the National since coming to London: a lewd, sharp and sordid version of Brecht and Weill’s classic musical that provides deliciously amoral fun while doubling as a critique of establishment hypocrisy – and perhaps humanity itself. Rory Kinnear is Mack the Knife, the womanising career criminal whose fucking and fighting may be coming to an end after he alienates his confidantes, his lovers and his police protector, then goes to a brothel when he’s supposed to be fleeing town.

The songs, the ensemble, the post-modern staging on a revolving stage – everything works. In order for it to do so, Kinnear has both to vocalise persuasively and radiate a brusque, sensual charisma that I didn’t imagine him capable of, and he does with ease, while there’s superb work in support from Rosalie Craig, Hayden Gwynne and particularly Nick Holder as Mack’s roly-poly nemesis, Peachum, a fey, flabby, curiously refined villain in the Sydney Greenstreet/Robert Morley/Francis Sullivan mold. It’s vividly, bawdily and joyously done, and yet underneath it all there’s malevolence and malaise.

While the barbs at bankers throb with malice, and the violent misogny makes you nauseous, it’s Scene 7 that knocked me sideways. Seeing the play the day after Jo Cox’s murder, the brooding, putrid patriotism that infests the characters – sprawled beneath a gargantuan St George’s flag – cast a pall over the theatre: one of those moments when great art captures the national mood almost through chance. (4)

***

TV



Life on Mars (Series 1, 2006)
– I finally caught up with this, a decade on. It’s a remarkable piece of television that plays into my own nostalgia, complicated relationship with the passing of time, and predilection for picking holes in our sincere but synthetic liberality – there’s something guiltily pleasurable about seeing a copper just thumping an apparent criminal, then alarm bells go off and you realise that you’re adrift in a moral morass and that whatever the temptation is to whack seven bells out of someone, it’s humanity, due process and a certain hand-wringing that represent the best of us, if not always the best chance of a conviction. Somewhere in my subconscious, I always think I’ll go back to a time before things went wrong. A Britain of easier choices and starker lines, of football as a working-class sport (as it was when my dad first took me in 1990), a country that looked like it did in those photo albums in the front room, from the billboards to the faces to the cars on the street.

Life on Mars pushes all those buttons, and though the dialogue sometimes slips into the obvious or the cartoonish, the programme’s essential eerieness, its dislocating iconography (special mention for the Test Card Girl) and mind-bending time-bending makes it a show like no other: not necessarily enjoyable a lot of the time, but unmissable and vital, dragging you into its vividly-realised world: part social experiment, part cop show, part flashback and part dizzying head-fuck.

As you’ll know because you saw it a decade ago, John Simm is Sam Tyler, a 21st century cop who gets hits by a car and wakes up in 1973, where he clashes heads with boozy, violent, chauvinistic alpha male Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), while dealing with the fact that he appears to be in a coma, sounds from the real world bleeding into this one, in the shape of wild, terrifying hallucinations and ultimata. Each hour delivers a self-contained mystery – dealing with themes like football hooliganism, police brutality and pimping – before an absolute knockout of a final episode that ups the ante in every way imaginable, though particularly emotionally.

The details are just right (as in that gem of a sequence where Sam wonders how he could be imagining something this complete), Glenister is perfectly cast – and mostly convincing – and Simm delivers arguably the best performance of a career that began a little inauspiciously (erm, Human Traffic), vibrating with angst, confusion, compassion and a certain arrogance as he’s tipped into a never-ending nightmare that most of the time he seems to be quite enjoying. There’s a really nice turn too from Liz White as Simm’s confidante and potential girlfriend, a WPC with a philosophy degree, while Dean Andrews makes for a pitch-perfect heavy and adversary.

Sometimes the show goes for the easy gag or the predictable twist ending, but taken as a whole it’s a remarkable, ground-breaking piece of television that discombobulates, confounds and enthralls, especially when drawing us into Simm’s childhood, a seductive proposition symbolised by Joanne Froggatt’s heartbreaking characterisation as his strong, proud and independent mother, a character I’ve met a dozen times before, and who reminds me a great deal of my late nanna. (4)

See also: Simm and Glenister had previously appeared together in State of Play.

***

FILMS


No, honestly, this is a great film.

CINEMA: French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1954) – Renoir's whimsical, beautiful film about the birth of the Moulin Rouge is handled largely with the lightest of touches, reaching eternal truths along the way, before exploding into an ecstasy of music, dance and colour.

Jean Gabin - more often seen as a laconic fall guy in poetic realist pictures - is a silver fox with ineffable charm but no money, who hatches upon an idea for a new club selling slick, sexy slumming to millionaires. He also finds the girl to put it across (Françoise Arnaul): a laundry worker with the talent and drive to lead the line in the new 'French Cancan'.

There's some questionable melodrama in the story, and a bit of weak slapstick, but Renoir evokes a remarkable, singular atmosphere, through sumptuous Montmartre studio sets, Arnaul's beguiling but completely unsentimental characterisation, and a stunning sense of composition: like a broken-hearted loner stuck unmoving in a chair, as the bright, tactile bustle of a chorus line snakes around and away from him, leaving him utterly alone.

There's glorious music too - some from the rehearsals, some from thin air, some from a montaged medley featuring Edith Piaf! - before a climactic show featuring a fast-talking cabaret performer, a mellifulous whistler, chanteuse Jean Raymond's beguiling 'La sérénade du pavé', and a sort of belly-dancing Janis Paige substitute (Arnaul's chief antagonist, María Félix). Nothing, though, quite prepares you for that completely overwhelming feel-good finale: the immersive, wordless and flawlessly edited "pure cinema" of which Truffaut often spoke.

Taken minute-by-minute, it's not a faultless film, but it's a heart-melting, uniquely textured and utterly rousing experience, with just the right undertug of melancholy and sacrifice, as Renoir suggests that a great creative life means no other life at all, but that the ultimate creation makes everything else pale into nothing. On this evidence, you can see his point. (4)

(I saw this at the BFI as part of their Big Screen Classics strand.)



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Woman Next Door (Francois Truffaut, 1981)
– A completely effortless Truffaut movie: easily the best of his later films, playfully told yet with the stifling feel of a '40s Hollywood melodrama, as married man Gerard Depardieu discovers that his new neighbour is ex-lover Fanny Ardant – and that the flame never really went out.

It’s beset with an unconvincing fatalism that Truffaut fairly crowbarred into his heavier dramas, as if tragedy and its foreshadowing lent a credibility that less incongruously tragic, violent stories lacked, but it's also brilliantly-directed from that opening fourth-wall-break onwards, with a restless, endlessly inquisitive camera, and a peerless understanding of the grammar of cinema that allows him to give every scene its due (with scarcely a wasted moment), and conjure up suspense from thin air, as well as including fun visual nods to landmarks in American golden age cinema, like Double Indemnity and The Searchers.

The characterisation is also superb, with outwardly arbitrary swings into action that we – as the characters’ co-conspirators – understand implicitly, and which enliven a potentially over-familiar story, as do a deftly-judged subplot concerning the narrator, and some glorious grace notes with the children, which you could watch by themselves and still know who directed them. Truffaut never quite matched his first two films, Les 400 Coups and Shoot the Pianist, getting sidetracked by gloomy adaptations of old novels and unambitious comedies about sex, but The Woman Next Door shows a filmmaker in complete control of his genius, even if the material he’s bringing to screen isn’t quite as good – or as sustained – as it might be. (3)



Spy (Paul Feig, 2015) – Director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy followed up Bridesmaids and their superb cop-comedy, The Heat, with this rather over-cooked offering. She’s a desk-bound CIA agent, but if you thought that this was going to be a great, cleverly moderated change-of-pace, a la Will Ferrell in The Other Guys, I’m afraid you’re wrong – she’s quickly back to doing exactly the same thing as normal (mostly yelling), pitched into the field after superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) unfortunately gets extremely shot.

McCarthy’s schtick is fine in small doses, or opposite a collaborative comedian as good as Sandra Bullock, but not so effective when she’s mostly with Rose Byrne – even if Byrne is a little less crushingly banal than usual. There are some really great jokes in here – the microphone gag, the Face/Off bit, McCarthy looking like a “homophobic aunt” – and a somewhat underused Jason Statham delivers in a specially-written part, but Miranda Hart is poor as McCarthy’s best friend, the non-sequitur sequences fall flat (hello 50 Cent) and the film ultimately runs out of steam with a good half hour to go.

It’s worth seeing once, for Feig’s usual offbeat comic sensibility, but those expecting something to rival The Heat should probably adjust their expectations. It’s also weirdly, gruesomely and excessively violent. (2.5)

***

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