Wednesday, 31 May 2017

REVIEW: Seu Jorge at Royal Albert Hall

Tuesday 30 May, 2017

‘Intimate, conversational, just about perfect’ – Seu Jorge headlines the Royal Albert Hall with sensational Bowie tribute show



Brazilian guitarist Seu Jorge brought his Life Aquatic show to Europe for the first time last night, paying tribute to David Bowie, his father, and the victims of the Manchester attack during a moving and memorable evening.

2003. Seu Jorge was in his flat in Rio when the phone rang. “I was playing PlayStation, so I ignored it. It carried on ringing. My ex-wife said: ‘Aren’t you going to answer it, you lazy…’ – in the end she picked it up herself. She passed it to me: ‘Someone in America is making a movie and they want to know if you would play Pelé.’ I said: ‘I can’t play soccer.’ I’m Brazilian, but I was never any good, except on PlayStation.”

That ‘someone’ was Wes Anderson, and the ‘Pelé’ he wanted Seu to play was not the three-times World Cup-winner, but a maritime safety expert and guitarist in the indie filmmaker’s upcoming movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The catch: the character’s main role is as an on-screen troubadour, crooning David Bowie covers. “At the time I only knew two Bowie songs – I was a black kid from a favela, we didn’t hear rock and roll – but I fell in love with him.” The film became a cult favourite and Seu released an album of his solo, acoustic, Portuguese-language Bowie covers the following year – but he had never played them live in Europe until this month.



The compère introduces the show as “a concert from two artists: one in person and one in spirit” and then Seu strides on, dressed in the Team Zissou outfit of red beanie heat and ice-blue short-sleeved shirt and trousers, looking like he’s just got off the boat. The atmosphere is intimate and conversational: it’s just him and his guitar on a little square platform ringed with fairy lights that masquerade as candles, two small piles of seafaring paraphernalia either side, the songs alternating with stories about his life, his Life Aquatic and his relationship with Bowie’s music.

The highlights are legion, and there’s vast variety in Seu’s approach, which takes counter-intuition to a new level, his deep, soulful voice the only constant. ‘Changes’ is sadder than Bowie’s original, though with the same cathartic sense of release. The slutty glam-rock of ‘Suffragette City’ is subsumed by tenderness in a gentle, finger-picked version. ‘Five Years’ is transformed from a claustrophobic, piano-led indictment of groupthink into an insistent, anthemic lament, while ‘Space Oddity’ - which gets the biggest cheer of the night – would be a sing-along if we could only speak Portuguese.


Space Oddity

Other songs are introduced with reminiscences. The bossa nova take on ‘Rebel Rebel’ was improvised on the spot on the first day of filming (“There were two or three songs I hadn’t learned properly. Wes Anderson said to me: ‘We’d love to do one of your songs today, how about ‘Rebel Rebel’? And I was like ‘Haha, yes, of course… Holy s***!’ I looked up to the sky: ‘Please God, give me inspiration’, and what I came up with was this…”), ‘Lady Stardust’ – which emerges as a hymn to women – was inspired by watching Cate Blanchett working relentlessly on-board the set, four months pregnant. He dedicates a show-stopping ‘Life on Mars?’ to “you, the people of Manchester, Bowie and my father” – his dad, “who made me what I am”, having passed away just three days after the Thin White Duke.

It’s a beautiful evening. Uplifting, unique, but deeply moving too: speaking very personally to the sell-out crowd, many of them sporting those iconic red beanies. “I am glad to see so many members of Zissou Team here,” says Seu. (A Team Zissou member calling Team Zissou 'Zissou Team” is the most Team Zissou thing ever). As he leaves the stage, holding up his guitar like the spoils of battle – or as if it has done all the work – the audience rises to its feet. And then a hidden screen comes down and, when he returns for an encore, his backdrop is The Life Aquatic and you realise that though it’s only 13 years, it’s already 13 years, and that the passing of time set to music is a rhapsodically poignant thing (think of Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ or Terence Davies).

Seu takes the word ‘encore’ delightfully literally, performing ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ for a second time, then closes with a lengthy, mesmerising ‘Queen Bitch’ that prompts another standing ovation. He yells a final: “Thank you, London!” into the mic.

It’s been joyous and enrapturing, but with an undertow of poignancy that constantly tugs at Seu and at us. It’s been just about perfect. Thank goodness his wife picked up that phone. (4)



Setlist:

Ziggy Stardust
Changes
Oh! You Pretty Things
Rebel Rebel
Starman
Lady Stardust
Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
Suffragette City
Quicksand
Space Oddity
Five Years
Life on Mars?
When I Live My Dream

Encore:
Rebel Rebel
Oh! You Pretty Things
Queen Bitch

***

I wrote that for the Royal Albert Hall blog (it's accompanied by some shots from acclaimed rock-and-pop photographer, Christie Goodwin). I've added a few personal thoughts here, as I didn't want to bore the hell out of our visitors (but you are my people):

The 50th anniversary release of Sergeant Pepper is just landing on doorsteps as I write this, a cover sticker informing purchasers that this is “Sergeant Pepper as you’ve never heard it before”, as it is has been “remixed from the original tapes”. Excuse me while I take a seat. Remixed, you say? From the original tapes?! Now call me Philistine McGrumpy, but I fear we’re in danger of making “as you’ve never heard it before” lose its currency. But when you apply it to Seu’s Bowie covers, it’s utterly true, and in the finest possible sense of the phrase. The old adage with cover versions was always “either do it different or do it better”. By doing the first so committedly, he makes the second almost impossible to judge, but it’s these versions I’m more likely to pop on in the flat.

For me, Seu’s music is one of The Life Aquatic’s most apposite idiosyncracies, and one of its great virtues. What sounds hipsterish and gimmicky on paper becomes utterly genuine – and devastatingly, quietly effective – in the hands of Jorge and his director. The offbeat beauty and deceptive humanity present in this music, and the way it’s employed as an on-screen soundtrack, is the key to Wes Anderson’s films, which are often celebrated – or derided – for their micro-managed compositions and impeccable, much-parodied stylistisation. Critics rage at how mannered and self-satisfied his films feel, missing the point that many of us keep returning not for the outfits and tracking shots, but for the movies’ quiet, straightforward sincerity and unique sense of humour.



My relationship with the film is intensely personal, all tied up with my life and the relationship I was just starting when I saw it. The imperfect film you see, with those mundane, prosaic failings, isn’t the same as my Life Aquatic, which is a bigger, greater, more sprawling thing: a series of elements that transcend celluloid and have flooded into my own life, into my vernacular, my image-bank (the second death scene, the stop-motion sea dragon) and even my character. If I’d thought, as a 20-year-old discovering this film, that one day I’d be running the press office at the Royal Albert Hall, as Seu Jorge – in full costume – played these beautiful songs to 5,000 people, it would have blown my tiny undergraduate mind.

The handling of the film footage is a little mystifying – with irrelevant, ‘trippy’ effects, bad drawings of crabs and a decision to screen part of the credits through a mock porthole, so you can only read half of the words – but the weight of the footage, the 46-year-old Seu sitting in front of the 33-year-old one, snapshotted as a person who never existed, but feels a part of my life, is unconquerable.

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Allan Ahlberg, High Fidelity, and a bundle of old things – Reviews #266

Three all-new reviews, and a few I've had lying around since last year.

FILM:


O.J. "in full Naked Gun mode", as the film so superbly and disgustedly puts it

O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016) – While the montaged credits and eerie theme tune suggest that this got green-lit because ESPN wanted the closest thing they could find to Making a Murderer, this complex, even-handed and multi-faceted five-part documentary portrait of O. J. Simpson is really an exceptional addition to the recent spate of documentaries about African-American history (The 13th, I Am Not Your Negro), viewing his remarkable story – quite reasonably – through the prism of race.

It’s all here: exhilarating footage of Simpson at his athletic zenith, the Hertz ads (“Go, O. J., go!”), the Naked Gun years, the Bronco, the trial, the glove and the acquittal – which the film convincingly argues only makes sense in the context of post-Rodney King L. A. The narrative of his football career could be neater, and the convoluted Las Vegas debacle doesn’t exactly emerge in crystal clarity here, but the crux of the series – his abuse of his wife, the subsequent double-murder and the trial – is simply hypnotic*: brought to life through recordings, court footage, rare documents, news reports and a brilliant selection of interviewees from jurors to laywers to journalists and preachers (Jeffrey Toobin and Rev Mark Whitlock are my MVPs), who don’t just contextualise the trial, but seem to embody the very viewpoints they’re espousing.

It remains a heartbreaking indictment of America that the only black man to benefit from its justice system was a multi-millionaire who had refused to engage with the civil rights movement, purposefully become an honorary white and only reconnected with his proud heritage to avoid being convicted of murdering his wife. His acting, cunning and cultivation of distinct, useful personas is chilling and extraordinary. Did I mention that he is an absolute piece of shit? And his nickname’s rubbish. I only learned recently that he’s called ‘The Juice’ not because of his stamina and speed on the football field, but because in America they call orange juice ‘OJ’. Also lol at the court clerk fluffing her one line, that gets me every time.

*especially for a legal or quasi-legal nut like me: I love courtroom dramas, have been obsessed with HUAC for years and did my undergrad dissertation on Stalin’s show trials

***

BOOKS:



High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)
– “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Rob Fleming is a 34-year-old North London record store owner whose life is dominated by rejection, top 5 lists and music: pop, rock, Motown, STAX, oddities, dance numbers, floor-fillers and melancholy, idealistic, shimmeringly beautiful songs that have given him some unrealistic ideas about love, lust and break-ups. Unceremoniously dumped by girlfriend Laura, a former human rights lawyer who has grown out her spiky hair and moved into corporate work, he muses about men, women and relationships, while hanging out with exes, prospects and the two losers who work in his shop.

Hornby’s neatly-titled 1995 novel – made into a Hollywood film starring John Cusack four years later – is remarkably incisive, insightful and honest, in a way that makes me wish I’d read it 10 years ago and not turned my personal life into a binfire… and then makes me realise that basing our life choices on popular culture is exactly what this book is guarding against. It’s very 1990s – with a Harry Enfield cover quote and a left-leaning hero who’s unapologetic in his maleness, rather than drowning in self-loathing like the contemporary equivalent – and Hornby’s irritating, pedantic riffing on familiar phrases is a stylistic shortcoming (that “negative interest scenario” passage), but High Fidelity is also fast and funny and subversive, breaking the fourth wall while allowing us to judge the selfish, self-justifying Rob, and stripped of extraneous elements like lengthy scene-setting or laborious description.

I expected it to be funny and accessible (and London-centric and nerdy about music), but its concentration of hard-earned wisdom took me completely aback. (3.5)

***



The Bear Nobody Wanted by Allan Ahlberg (1992) – This children’s classic concerns a nameless bear who arrives off the production line feeling smug and superior – after all, a bear’s character is defined by his facial features – only to be tossed in a bin, rescued, rejected, burnt, used as a duster, savaged by a dog, repaired, briefly welcomed, relegated, forgotten, lonely, nameless, catatonic and bombed by the Nazis, on the way to a cathartic and happy ending. Telling the story in the third person but from the bear’s perspective, Ahlberg’s prose is beautiful, witty and whimsical, offering a lesson in humility and empathy, and peppered with memorable, perfectly-sketched characters and bits of human (or bearish) warmth – even as the story becomes perilously melancholy and dark.

It also economically evokes the vanished Britain of the author’s childhood: that world of smoking chimneys, cobbled streets and poky working-class houses which he wrote about so memorably in his great memoir, The Boyhood of Burglar Bill (and its sister title, My Brother’s Ghost), while ushering in a little of the timeless warmth of contemporary popular song, from 'My Blue Heaven' to 'Look for the Silver Lining'. It’s an offbeat, timeless and chokingly poignant book, and the line drawings by Janet Ahlberg (Handsome bears staring out of giant windows? Check. Chubby women with chubby sock noses? Check) are the perfect accompaniment. (4)

***

OLD REVIEWS COVERED IN COBWEBS

And now some odds and ends I saw or read last year, but never wrote about, because I was citing the books in the pitching of my novel, because the films were presents and I felt bad for criticising them, and because I forgot I'd written the one about the McGarrigles DVD.

FILMS


When you're playing an impoverished Irish waif but you're a star in 1930s Hollywood.


The Plough and the Stars (John Ford, 1936) - An abrasive, tone-deaf and dreadfully conceived film about the Easter Rising, which condenses Sean O'Casey's four-act play into just over an hour of shouting. There are a few passages of quiet lyricism, one memorably utilising the beautiful old Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen and another trading on Barbara Stanwyck's miraculous sensitivity, but for the most part it's loud, unconvincing and ugly: where badly framed bombs meet bombastic Blarney. (1.5)



Frontier Blues (Babak Jalali, 2009) - Proof that you can make any old shit and if it's in a foreign language it'll find an arthouse audience (1.5)

***

DVD



A Not So Silent Night (Gerard Schmidt, 2009) - Well that was extremely disappointing. I had high hopes for this December 2008 Christmas concert from the McGarrigle clan – Kate, her sister Anna, her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and assorted relatives – but it’s just completely shambolic: not in the charming, ramshackle manner it might have been, but in a crowded-stage, everyone-singing-from-sheet-music, Anna’s-lost-her-voice, tons-of-tuneless-guest-stars kind of way. Occasionally it does spark into life, with Lily Lanken kicking arse on 'Cherry Tree Carol', Rufus doing a heartbreaking 'What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve', and Martha singing 'I’ll Be Home for Christmas' with a crack in her voice, before a storming, punk-inflected Christmas Wrapping (the effect is of Greta Gerwig playing Patti Smith and just as wonderful as that sounds), but four songs out of 24 isn’t a great success rate, and the direction is lifeless and witless, fading out between songs to ensure that we don’t hear any cheering or really feel like we’re there. (2)

See also: I wrote about the obscure McGarrigles documentary from 1982 here.

***

BOOKS

I was reading lots of kids' books to help me pitch my own novel for eight to 12-year-olds (no, nothing yet, though Miranda Hart has a book deal).



Timecatcher by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick (2010) - An enjoyable, flavourful children's book, set in a Dublin-button-factory-turned-detective-agency, about a lonely girl who becomes involved with ghosts and a time travel portal. The writing is mediocre, relying on cliché and with a dubious understanding of how modern children talk, but the plot is exceptional, with a succession of brilliant twists and a most satisfying conclusion. (3)



Dead Man's Cove by Lauren St John (2010) - A magical detective story with a rich sea-swept atmosphere, in which 11-year-old heroine Laura Marlin finds her first permanent home − in St Ives, with a mysterious, brooding uncle − while pursuing a mystery just as dark and fascinating as the novels that have given her such welcome escape. It was sold with Blyton comparisons but aside from the title, a couple of minor plot elements and a helpful canine companion, it's not very similar and indeed dynamically subverts such expectations, while creating a gripping plot, an endearingly imperfect protagonist and the welcome promise of much more to come. There's one development near the close that I found simply too twee and clichéd, but for the most part it's an absolute winner. (3.5)



Kidnap in the Caribbean by Lauren St John (2011) - A dire sequel to the delightful Dead Man's Cove, which seems to have been written in one hell of a hurry. Laura Marlin is tricked into attending a pleasure cruise to Antigua, and from there on in it's all predictable plot-twists, painful expository dialogue and interminable polemicising about why we should protect sealife. Don't get me wrong, we should, but not like this. (1.5)



Skellig by David Almond (1998) - This short, simply-plotted story about a boy who finds a mysterious, winged man in his garage has a deceptive emotional impact. Some of that's down to Almond putting a seriously ill baby in the centre of his story - not perhaps the most subtle way of pulling at our heartstrings - but even if I'm not quite sure that Skellig is the unassailable, timeless classic it's often painted as, there's something special about it, in its intuitive understanding of childhood emotion, the author's graceful, spare and precise prose (when it isn't just going on about dead bluebottles again), and an agreeable lack of sentiment in its treatment of the titular character. (3)



Magyk by Angie Sage (2005) - A long, richly-textured book - attractively written and gorgeously designed - about a 10-year-old princess and the family of wizards who raised her and are now trying to keep her alive in the face of deathly danger, with the help of a ghost, an arrogant ExtraOrdinary Wizard in snakeskin boots, and a brainwashed former army cadet called Boy 412. Its big reveal is obvious, its villain is cliched and it sometimes feels as if Sage is making up the rules as she goes along, but its world is a fun place to visit, it's stuffed with incident and there's a pleasant unsentimentality about the book's emotional subtext, which manages to move you without being maudlin or mawkish. Sage also makes the most of the endless possibilities of writing, with an extremely ambitious action climax that comes off fairly well. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Next time: Line of Duty: Series 1 (I'm diving in at last), and a book by an LAPD detective who is convinced his dad committed the perhaps most notorious unsolved murder in American history.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

REVIEW: Angel Olsen at the Roundhouse

Wednesday 24 May, 2017



I thought the communality and specificity of a gig, coupled with a visit from teary-voiced alt-troubadour Angel Olsen was what we needed to heal the pain, but it all felt amiss. She got the tone wrong from the start. There was no reference to the victims in Manchester, no acknowledgement of how people were feeling, no ‘thank you for still coming out’ – though a lot of ticket-holders hadn’t turned up due to unease or fear or a feeling that a gig wasn’t where they wanted to be. In fact, Angel’s only veiled nod to the tragic events of Monday was that the world’s scariness “makes me realise what I have”, which is a commendable attitude but seemed myopic and self-centred, just as her banter with her guitarist came off as irritatingly trivial and irrelevant.



I appreciate that it can be hard to gauge the atmosphere in a foreign country, that my self-righteousness can be unbearable, and that one might not know quite how to navigate the aftermath of a tragedy, but for me the omission started to sour the experience, coupled with some more prosaic failings. For an hour this much-anticipated gig was largely a slog: the sound was muddy and Angel looked bored, not to mention confused by the dazed audience, who didn’t appear to want to be here (as I said, I was having second thoughts myself). There was no gentle balladeering to soothe the soul, or an opening blast of sound to wash the pain away: instead she started with a plodding, 10-minute version of ‘Heart-Shaped Face’, which is the worst idea an Angel’s had since getting kicked out of Heaven.



Angel has a fair stab at her most popular track, ‘Shut Up, Kiss Me’, murmuring “Well that’s out of the way” as soon as it’s over (partly in jest), lashes out the stabbing, relentless climax of ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ with real anguish and intent, and ends with a scintillating, sexy version of ‘Total Control’ by The Motels, sitting on the drum platform with legs apart as she delivers the vocal in this fabulously offhand, conversational but compelling way, then breaks out into a joyous keyboard duet with her backing vocalist. But the rest of it’s mostly monotonous, and Angel largely inert: standing out front with a guitar, occasionally sinking to her knees behind the keyboard stand when lead guitarist Paulie takes over (he’s an exceptional musician, and the star of the light blue-suited, string-tied backing band, who are ultimately more like an ensemble). The audience emit embarrassed lone whoops fading to nothing and, perhaps as a result, the set is flat, a disappointment… and such small portions too, wrapping up in just 55 minutes.



But then she’s back, for a five-song encore that just about drags it out of the bag. Angel’s alone on stage for a long, heartbreaking ’Lonely Universe’, before the band join her – backing vocalist first, the others quickly materialising – midway through ‘Unfucktheworld’, her signature song sounding stark and acidic and arresting. ‘Fly’ is mediocre, but next she breaks out ‘Tiniest Seed’ – my absolute favourite, from her 2012 debut – refashioned from a plaintive folk lament into a hard-edged, Nashville-tinged thing with echoes of Emmylou Harris (or Lucinda Williams with less throatily objectionable vocals). I enjoy that more than many, but everyone loves the closer: a sultry, exuberant ‘The Waiting’, Olsen walking around, mic-in-hand, bellowing: “I want to be the one who knows the best way.” It doesn’t seem like she does, quite, but on another day in another city I suppose this might all have worked. At least she got halfway there in the end. (2.5)

***

Absolutely terrible photographs by me. Thanks for reading.

Friday, 19 May 2017

REVIEW: An evening down the culture wars

The Girls (Phoenix Theatre)
Thursday 18 May, 2017



This is so, so Brexit. Gary Barlow’s musical version of Calendar Girls is fine-tuned to within an inch of its life, evoking a world and espousing a worldview that’s both seductive and abhorrent. It’s a hymn to a vanishing Britain – rural and nostalgic, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone is white – but it lacks the poetry or radicalism of the pastoral: it’s cloying and self-involved and almost context-free, lacking in proper principles beyond the ones you might find in the Conservative Party manifesto, and with a sense of community where there used to be a sense of society (cast member James Gaddas was a Tory PPC in 2005, so he should know all about it). The Girls is like Brassed Off for Leave voters: a safe, convivial, reassuring evening’s entertainment for people who look like the characters and think alcoholism is funny, and an ode to the crushing mediocrity rapidly consuming British culture, in both its music and its broad, blunt, saucy-seaside-postcard sense of humour. These characters aren’t really interested in politics, but they’ll vote Tory because they always have, and because you know where you stand with the Tories, and they’ve always done alright by us, and didn’t Corbyn say something about the IRA and wasn't that was dreadful, because I was around then and I remember what it was like. It’s a show of girl jobs and boy jobs, where hospitals should be paid for by charity, and the score is written by a tax avoider.

And yet, after 20 minutes of hating it, I began to come around, at least a little. From the moment that Claire Machin disappeared into her skirt for an exceptional piece of clowning on the knockout number ‘Who Wants a Silent Night?’, I started to forget that we’re in the middle of a culture war, and remembered that I was allowed to have a nice time, and a break from a hectic week at work. Having said that, the part of the show that really works is the hard part. The heartbreaking part. Torn from real life. Annie (Joanna Riding) loses her husband, Clarkey (Steve Giles) to cancer, and the play makes you feel the weight and the sorrow and the injustice of it. The way it's realised is very middle England, the lyrics evoking a world of duvets, margarine and Tesco trips that’s more Daily Mail than Ray Davies, but it's also moving and genuine and wonderfully played, with the two actors effortlessly stealing the show. That sincerity and emotion should, in principle, juxtapose perfectly with the humorous sequences that rub up alongside it. But they don’t. There are a handful of very funny moments, largely from Machin and young cast members Ben Hunter and Josh Benson, but most of the humour is really loud: inane, broad-brush joshing – the kind of thing you see on Loose Women or in an above-par Carry On… film, or when a hen party is on your train.


Chloe May Jackson, Ben Hunter and Josh Benson, the latter two providing many of the funny bits.

As you may know, Annie – encouraged by her free-spirited friend Chris (Claire Moore) – decides to make a nude calendar with her friends in the Women’s Institute, to raise money for a new sofa at the hospital where her husband died (I presume it hadn’t been replaced for several years due to 18 years of chronic underfunding of the health service by successive Tory governments). Along the way, they fight, squabble, banter and heal, while facing a cartoon baddie (Marion McLaughlin), assorted familial troubles and the personal demons of their WI friends. And we get a succession of Gary Barlow tunes – with pleasant if uninspired melodies, and wildly variable Tim Firth lyrics – before plot threads are tied and the cast take their clothes off behind pianos, flowers and currant buns, and the audience whoops and hollers, and a standing ovation breaks out. And in the end I kind of enjoyed it, because I like the theatre, and there were just about enough hummable songs and incidental funny bits, and Riding was very good, and her scenes with Clarkey stick in my mind because they brought a lump to my throat, and the second half was much more entertaining than the last act of King Lear at The Old Vic last year, which troubles me immensely. And though it’s set in a Paul Dacre wet dream of a small-town idyll, and the characters are cartoon Yorkshire people, and they’re the kind of cartoon Yorkshire people who actually exist, because they find the stereotype so alluring, and I’m going to have the burn the book to this show once the culture war hots up, it was a hell of a lot more enjoyable than I expected after those first, joyless 20 minutes, when I’d begun to question many of the life choices that had brought me to this point.

Having said all that, think how many hospital wings we could build if Gary Barlow just paid his taxes. (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

REVIEWS: Yasmine Hamdan at Scala; John Grant at Union Chapel

Sometimes my life is really nice.



Yasmine Hamdan at Scala
Monday 15 May, 2017

One of the world's most singular, sensual and explosive performers is back in London, turning the sweaty, claustrophobic Scala near King's Cross from a dive into a dive faintly reminiscent of a bazaar, as she performs before a backdrop of white linen, and shifts between Lebanese metal, suggestive, seductive and erotic bedouin songs, and the kind of spellbinding electronica with which she made her name in cult band SoapKills, taking in both pulse-driven dance music and wails of futuristic despond.

Yasmine's presence – and sound – simply grabbed me by the throat when I first saw her live in 2014, though she delivered a different sort of show the following year: more muted and relaxed, the last of her lengthy Ya Nass tour. Here she's rediscovered her range – a range that simply doesn't transmit on her records, which are exotic and evocative but hardly arresting – the grungier sections rising into a cacophonous racket topped by her overpowering, startlingly committed vocals. At other times she's flirtatious, plaintive, erotic. "You didn't tell me she was sexy," challenged my friend Jess, when Yasmine walked on barefoot and launched into the first number, breaking into a slow grind.

Most of the dozen or so songs (she doesn't play long shows) are from her new record, Al Jamirat, which isn't the departure from Ya Nass she had promised or envisaged, at least musically (as she sings in Arabic, doesn't publish her lyrics and has dispensed with contextualising her songs live at all, themes are harder to discern), but then I don't think it needs to be. She has already cut out a unique place for herself, and exploring it gradually: brushing away the sand and gently splitting the concrete, sounds as worthwhile as just wandering off elsewhere. She does do two numbers from that 2013 record, though: 'Hal' (her best-known song in the West, due to its appearance in Jim Jarmusch's risible vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive) and the beautiful 'Beirut', that breathtaking paean to her home city. The other old track is one I can't find on any record, but which she's done live each time I've seen her: Hamdan toying with the audience, and her own persona, as she plays both a lustful scoundrel and the nervous young virgin he's trying to bring back to his tent.

The night wasn't a total success, Yasmine has forgotten who I am, an annoying adorable new couple kept getting in the way, and we suffered the worst audience farts since the Manics at the Roundhouse in 2014, but Hamdan can't be held accountable for any of that (except the first bit, which is dreadful – I am highly memorable, if only memorably irritating), and in this spellbinding show she showed why she's one of the best live acts on the planet, intoxicating us with her mega-watt charisma, and drowning us in that extraordinary sound. (4)

***



John Grant at Union Chapel
Tuesday 2 May, 2017

A mesmeric evening in the company of electro-balladeer John Grant, who staged this one-off show in one of Britain’s most distinctive, beautiful venues to raise money for his Russian mate Oleg’s kidney transplant.

It was a proper fans’ gig, with no sign of his signature tune, 'GMF', but rare airings of 'Magma Arrives' (the first since 2015) and a pair of my favourites: the elegantly foul-mouthed, cataclysmic slump into depression that is 'You Don’t Have To' – with Grant delivering a vocal that rendered him lost and bewildered, offset by sonic squalls and squelches via the synth – and 'Global Warming', a piece of subtly, seductively rhythmic self-mockery that moves like a rap record, its passages of blissful audial catharsis at odds with the alarm of approaching Armageddon papered over with lust and vanity.

Other highlights included the title track of his most recent album – 'Grey Tickles, Black Pressure' – now a reliable blast of baritone misery – a thawing then roaring 'Where Dreams Go to Die' (of the 16 songs he plays, half are from his first solo record), and the greatest 'Glacier' I’ve ever heard (and I’ve now heard it live three times, and perhaps a dozen times elsewhere), Grant swaggering with intent, coalescing and convalescing with saw-player Mara Carlyle, and then ripping the lid of that unmatchable voice. It is, simply, great. (4)

See also: I saw John Grant at Hammersmith Apollo in 2015 (my second favourite show of the year), then at my office in 2016.

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Folk music, The Apartment, and the other Elizabeth Taylor – Reviews #265

Behold such riches as have rarely been seen on Advice to the Lovelorn: one of my favourite 20 movies, two fantastic books, and the amazing psychedelic folk records that one of them has turned me onto. I also enjoyed a phenomenally intense Yasmine Hamdan performance at London's sweaty, sensational Scala, and saw the Moomin exhibition at the Southbank and the sensational butterflies at the Natural History Museum. Those sojourns will turn up in my review of the year, but for now let's talk films, books and music:



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
– I will never get over how much I love this movie: a film about unrequited love, with Jack Lemmon taking a verbal and physical pummeling to protect the elevator girl he loves, the beautiful Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).

She's the one left holding the sleeping pills after his spineless corporate climbing – achieved by leasing the titular abode to horny company executives – and her naïve romanticism bring them into the circle of all-time business shitweasel, Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, cast brilliantly against type). Recovering in Lemmon's apartment, MacLaine begins to fall for the poor fool, but damn it if he can't quite untangle himself from acquiescence, subversience and the hollow, ill-gotten glories of corporate success, and become a mensch.

The greatest of Wilder's many masterpieces (I'd say he made nine), it's a perfect marriage of cynicism and innocence, with Lemmon perfectly balancing his character's myriad complexities, making us feel sorry for a fawning, amoral and (admittedly) piteous schmuck for 20 minutes, transmitting his character's innate sensitivity and subsequent moral awakening – inspired by his beautifully unselfish love for the bob-cutted, pixie-ish Miss Kubelik – and negotiating the frustration of a hero who'll try to set up the love of his life with his arsehole boss out of pure selflessness, then enjoy the societal and financial rewards. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Lemmon needed a tight rein on him or it was all overbearing humming and unbearable mugging. Here he does a little of that, but it's part of the densely-packed mesh of a believable, human character.

MacMurray too is superb as the evil, ageing twin of his character in Remember the Night (my favourite film), who abandons his suicidal mistress on Christmas Day and tries to fuck her on New Year's Eve. Best of all is MacLaine's performance, which she has never come close to approaching, despite decades of fine work. Her haircut might be pure MPDG, but she's a real woman, with real difficulties, delusions and selfish impulses, real pain and anger shining from those eyes, and a real, rewarding sweetness, tenderness and humanity.

In its gorgeous widescreen, monochrome, city-based cinematography and perfectly-timed blasts of melodic jazz, it anticipates Woody Allen's Manhattan, and its ending has the same joyous dash towards romance, the same profoundly understated, compassionate, off-kilter pay-off. (It's in a constant conversation with cinema too, being inspired by an incidental element of Brief Encounter and explicitly referencing MGM's all-star 1932 movie, Grand Hotel and the westerns of John Ford.) This whole film feels like perfection, but its last 10 minutes especially so, as every seed that Wilder has sown throughout the past 115 bursts into bloom, as MacLaine sprints through the streets, a crown on her head, the camera shaking as it struggles to keep up. A mention too for the scene with Lemmon, MacLaine and the broken mirror, in which every element is so perfectly integrated, from language to image to performance. I'd die happy if I could ever write something just a tenth as good.

It's a film about gentlessness, stoicism and the need to tell power to take a running jump. My film. And as good as it gets, cinema-wise. (4)

This was #19 on that all-time top 100 I put together last year.

***



Awakenings (Penny Marshall, 1990) – An effective, sentimental story about awkward, passionate doctor Robin Williams getting a job in a chronic hospital in the Bronx, and realising that the supposed vegetables peopling the ward – including former encephalitis patient Robert De Niro – might be alive in there after all.

For more than an hour it's like a lighter, extremely entertaining variation on One Flew Over, as Williams fights the authorities for the right to administer untested medication in an attempt to “awaken” these trapped souls, and modern-day miracles begin to happen. Then the movie becomes darker and more troubling, making it a richer, more human and more profound film, but notably less comfortable viewing.

Williams' closing speech is the kind of vague, wooly, catch-all bollocks I can't stand (who, precisely, has forgotten “work, play, friendship, family”?! Even Hitler was a fan of all four), but the rest of the film is extremely well done, with strong performances, a familiar but slick script, and some thoughtful direction, Marshall's Hollywood instincts and visual shadowing of moods augmented by some artistic touches, including fine, subtle use of handheld camera.

Its overall presentation is none-more-1990, with some of the broad strokes (and subsequent distancing) you’d expect, but also the attendant entertainment value, as the film’s edge, basic commitment to the facts and underlying sincerity begins to work away at you. (3.5)

(This viewing was in the annual pre-Eurovision slot, with my friend Vicky, following last year's acclaimed screening of We Bought a Zoo.)

***



CINEMA: Adam & Paul (Lenny Abrahamson, 2004) – Michael Smiley introduced this at the BFI, saying it was a film that gave him a funny feeling inside, and a movie he’d shared with friends, always asking them to pass the DVD on, rather than giving it back. Justin Johnson, chief programmer at the BFI, said people could regard it as the most hilarious film ever made, or the most heartbreaking. For me it’s not quite either, though it does have a special something about it.

It’s essentially Waiting for Godot relocated to junkie Dublin, as two addicts who’ve been missing for a month wander the streets looking for their next hit. They are gentle, meek, apologetic Paul (Tom Murphy) and the taller, quieter, grumpier Paul (Mark O'Halloran, who wrote it), and the day we spend with them is poignant and troubling and sometimes hysterically funny. The leads aren’t unfailingly convincing, but they have just the right mix of sensitivity and selfishness, as O’Halloran’s script traverses comfortable ground, then expects us to navigate abrupt, discomforting developments, like the pitiful, pitiless mugging of a kid with Down syndrome). Adam and Paul are loveable in their innocent, Laurel and Hardy-ish way, but that scene reveals a cruelty born of desperation just beneath the surface.

The film was directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who’s since gone on to big things with Frank and Room, and while you’d never mistake it for a film with a big budget, its low-rent look and the drab Dublin it presents suit the subject matter. When there is a need to slip into something more cinematic, he really delivers: the mini-flashback (or flash-forward?) in the baby sequence is a jolt of auteuristic brilliance.

Adam & Paul is a little shabby and at times too much a melange of styles (the comic scene at the gas station is superbly done, but out of step with the rest of the picture), but there’s a great feel to it: sad and humanist and quietly absurd, with a cleverly contrarian treatment of tropes: we want these characters to be happy, but their goal is the worst possible thing for them; we want them to have friends, but if they reconnect with Janine (Louise Lewis), the new mum is likely to get hooked on heroin again. That uneasiness, our complicity in it, and the touching (if not entirely original) unspoken bond between Adam and Paul – deep, unconditional, unspoken – may well account for that funny feeling, as I got it too. I suppose I'm one of Smiley's people. (3.5)

I'd also like to mention here that my tweet about the film (and Tim Farron) got RTs from Smiley and O'Halloran. But I won't, that would be both insufferable and pathetic.

***



CINEMA: Chinese Roulette (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976) – All the elements are here for another fine Fassbinder film – an intriguing set-up, an amusingly subversive villain, Anna Karina looking hot in a cool black bandana – but it never quite gets there, and in the meantime it’s all v-e-r-y s—l—o—w.

A married couple (Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen) each take a lover to their country estate, where they’re joined by their malevolent ‘crippled’ daughter, her governess, the housekeeper (Brigitte Mira) and the housekeeper’s son (Volker Spengler), an aspiring author. It sounds fascinating, but it flails impotently for an age, with Fassbinder abandoning his usual precise, methodical approach, taking a stab at a kind of cerebral Godardianism, his portentous, nebulous script directed at a halting face suffused with pregnant pauses.

Its characters are mysterious and craftily unexpected enough for it to gather momentum at times, but its intriguing dynamics and occasional surprises (a brief but brilliant off-the-wall dance sequence underlining its strong use of music; an unforgettable close up on a beaded hair net after an explosive tragedy) are bogged down by a laissez faire approach that obfuscates when it should elucidate, expecting us to basically make up both the story and what all of it means. This is typified by the titular, climactic game, which reaches a fairly worthwhile crescendo but takes an interminable amount of time to get there, forcing us to slog through synthetic dialogue, snail-paced delivery and endless silences.

It is fascinating and eerie to watch Mira standing there as Fassbinder invokes Nazi collaboration, though. The half-Jewish actress was a key performer in Goebbels’ state propaganda series, Liese und Miese, as the ‘bad’ citizen whose behaviour was a cautionary tale for German audiences.

From what I’d read, I was expecting something twisted and refreshing, with the best kid villain since Bonita Granville’s malicious gossip in These Three. What I got was less elusive than illusive, a slip of a film that you can read a lot into, much of it perhaps not really there. (2)

***

BOOKS



Electric Eden by Rob Young (2010)
– This is a rare gem of a book: a beautifully-written, passionately-argued history – and defence – of British folk music from its origins in the pastoral socialism of William Morris and classical composers Holst, Vaughan Williams and Delius, through to Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk in the 1980s. The meat of the book, though, is a conversational, amusing and astute evocation of the British folk boom of 1965-74, with vivid, condensed portraits of the likes of Pentangle, Fairport Convention, John Martyn and the Incredible String Band, their origins, obsessions and place in the canon impeccably but accessibly explained and elucidated, alongside that of an abundance of odd, often forgotten contemporaries, from the bleak and furious art rock of Comus to, erm, a moonlighting Playaway presenter involved in naked pagan rituals (these sequences are occasionally laborious or tenuously linked, but far more often utterly fascinating).

Young does a simply extraordinary job of stripping away decades of murkiness and myth, tracing an elegant through-line from 1890 to the 1980s, and confronting and considering many of the questions and controversies that dog the genre, tackling supposed middle-class hijacking – and Victorian sanitisation – of working class song preserved in the oral tradition, dismantling the associated notions of ‘authenticity’ that dominated folk in the 1960s, and repeatedly defending Morris dancing (he’s a braver man than I). He writes brilliantly about music too. There are a few too many 'tendril's and 'brew's, but his ingenious use of the pastoral vernacular, and his creating of neologisms and metaphors by riffing on album titles, is a joy to read: colourful and ambitious but precise, without the meaningless pretension of, say, '80s NME, or the drab, dryly factual contextualisation which seems to serve as music journalism today. He also takes an enormous gamble (in non-fiction terms) by slipping into allegorical fiction during the Rocket Cottage chapter, a stylistic quirk that is, if not a total success, extremely memorable.

Though a few furious pedants have found errors in the book, I’d argue that it’s better to write a passionate, revelatory book casting extraordinary light on British culture than to not bother because some bores might get cross. And while – due to the subjective nature of music – it inevitably becomes at times a personal history (Young omits June Tabor, has little time for Sandy Denny’s extraordinary second album, and neglects to even mention Fotheringay’s ‘Banks of the Nile’, perhaps the towering achievement of the era), its forays into the wider cultural context are extraordinarily invigorating, with the inclusion of A Canterbury Tale, Bagpuss and the films of Humphrey Jennings – allied to the genre’s root in socialism and a pastoral, nostalgic vision of Albion – suggests that everything I like is in some way related to British folk music.

The greatest joy of this book is the wealth of wonderful music it has inspired me to investigate. Best of the lot is the Incredible String Band, whose outrageously original psychedelic folk is illuminating each walk to and from work. Here's your four-step guide to becoming a fan:

a) Put on 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion
b) Do not turn it off
c) Do it again
d) You are now a fan
(4)

***



Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957) – This impeccably restrained, richly ironic novel is the story of Angel Deverell, a 15-year-old liar and aspirant author who seeks to transcend the pathetic life of servitude mapped out for her, through sheer, incandescent genius. Her genius, though, isn’t for art but for matching the taste of the public, which greets her epic, florid, ‘risqué’, wildly inaccurate tour-de-force, The Lady Irania, with little short of hysteria, catapulting the waspish, selfish and humourless egomaniac into a life of which she has merely dreamt, and yet has dreamt relentlessly.

Taylor’s writing is intoxicatingly crisp and precise, allowing her to define character, invoke laughter or evoke tragedy with a minimum of language or apparent effort, as she traces Angel’s path from the deprivations of working-class Volunteer Street to the peak of renown and ridicule, and then on, towards desire, rot and ruin in a landscape blanched by snow, as lives fester beneath delusion, but compassion flowers from the muck.

In Angel’s world, horrors are envisaged then never arrived upon, as others emerge from the shadows; no passage goes where you expect it to, or elicits the emotion you anticipated; and Taylor creates not so much a cautionary tale as a devastating character study: the writer as a monster, chained to her art, anti-social and self-obsessed, in communion with herself, and fashioning the world as it should be, not as it is, both on the page and beyond.

It’s exquisitely beautiful, piercingly funny, and segues from brutish to elegiac quite seamlessly, Angel’s story peopled by vividly-realised supporting characters: her protective editor, Theo, with his perfectly-manufactured kid gloves; Nora, whose blinkers are replaced by perpetual martyrdom; lazy, deceptively doting Marvell; and that callow, listless and dissipated prettyboy, Ésme. In tone, style and subject, it’s like nothing else I’ve read. (4)

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

James Baldwin, Absolute Beginners, and Kerouac falling apart – Reviews #'264

Since you've been very good, I've written some reviews for you, taking a look at I Am Not Your Negro, Julien Temple's bizarre, fascinating 1986 musical, a Fassbinder film (he's the subject of a BFI season at the moment, so there are more on the way), and Jack Kerouac's phenomenal follow-up to On the Road, 1962's Big Sur.



CINEMA: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) – A profoundly powerful polemic that forces you to view the African-American experience through the piercing gaze of writer, thinker and activist James Baldwin, who speaks with authority, insightfulness and a broiling anger about the way his people have been exploited, abandoned and killed by their own country.

The script is taken entirely from his unfinished book, Remember This House, which was to explore the history of black America through the murders of community leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Those passages, perfectly performed by Samuel L. Jackson, are mixed with footage of Baldwin in interview or debate (I love his voice), and a wealth of material showing everything from reviled character actors Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best – who epitomised the slurring, slow-witted black American in ‘30s comedies – to public information films, contemporary news reports of police shootings, and clips of Doris Day and Gary Cooper, the paragons of toxic white innocence whom Baldwin draws into his crosshairs.

At times that footage matches, showing the prescience – or more often the enduring relevance – of Baldwin’s words, but director Raoul Peck seems more interested in creating a collage of cumulative effect. In some ways, I do find it difficult that the film goes after RFK – who’s derided for his commitment to pragmatic realpolitik – and John Ford, one of the most thoughtful mainstream directors when it came to race, but that’s kind of Baldwin’s point: black people shouldn’t have to be grateful to the benevolent white man who nobly recognises their worth, they have as much right to their country as the white people who nicked it from the Native Americans.

As filmmaking, it may have rough edges or clumsy segues, but it’s wrenchingly powerful: an extraordinarily rich, humane and unsettling work, dominated by Baldwin’s unique moral and intellectual voice, which it brings to the masses. His polemicising is startlingly clear-sighted and incisive in a way that yanked the scales from my own eyes, and while it’s also wide-ranging and complex – bringing in such relevant but apparently disconnected concerns as the gulf between Americans’ private and public personas – perhaps its purest essence is contained in the speech that closes the film.

There, Baldwin rightly argues that since the grotesque caricature of black men (or of Jews in Nazi Germany or Muslims in Britain and the US today) bears such little relation to reality, it must have another purpose. “What white people have to do,” he says, “is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.” (3.5)

***



Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1986) – Julien Temple's notorious musical is one of the oddest and most perversely interesting British films of its era: a sort of West Side Story for '50s Soho, shot in the fantastical neon style of One From the Heart (or the 'Girl Hunt' ballet in The Band Wagon) and featuring arguably the most peculiar cast of all time. Ever wanted to see David Bowie and Patsy Kensit share the screen? Dying to find a movie where Lionel Blair, Profumo affair luminary Mandy Rice-Davies, and Sade all feature? Searched all your life for a film graced by the talents of Irene Handl, Sylvia Syms, Ray Davies, Edward Tudor Pole, Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, James Fox, and Steven Berkoff as an Oswald Mosley-like fascist hate preacher? Well step right up and enjoy the weirdness.

Kensit is Crepe Suzette, an annoyingly-voiced model and fashion designer whose romance with clean-cut dirty-picture-photographer Colin (Eddie O'Connell) is sacrificed on the altar of career advancement, as London gets ready to erupt into race riots in the boiling summer of 1958. No-one can act and the script is infuriating pretentious rubbish stuffed with shallow sub-and-pseudo beatnik proclamations, but the music's mostly excellent, the energy of the film is thrilling, and it's startlingly directed from start to finish, kicking off with a roaming five-minute tracking shot introducing us to a vividly-realised '50s Soho.

Self-contained scenes like Bowie's 'That's Motivation' and Ray Davies's 'The Quiet Life' aren't just like music videos, they are music videos, a stipulation made by the Americans financiers (who stepped in part-way through and insisted on adding famous names to the cast list). That might have corrupted Temple's original vision, but those set-pieces are a lot better than much of the narrative that surrounds them: while the film's themes of gentrification, racism, and art vs commerce (centring on the idea of 'selling out', an idea that obsessed my adolescent, music-loving mind) are more timely now than at any time since the film was made, the screenplay is enormously irritating, and the leads are risible, especially the squeaky, blank-faced Kensit. For her big number on the catwalk, Temple uses most of the Busby-Berkeley-meets-Baz-Luhrmann tricks in the book to keep it moving, and make it dynamic and convincing, but he can't quite mask her absolutely bloody awful dancing.

The screening at Regent Street Cinema included a Q&A with jazz club owner Chris Sullivan. He appears briefly in the film and supplied most of the extras, who largely wore their own clothes, the late-'50s look being fortuitously in vogue in the London of 1986. He remains keen for Temple to create a director's cut reinstating all the footage that was shot but then junked after the film was taken out of the director's hands following his original editor's death. It's only then, I suppose, that we can see whether Temple's vision was intended to be as divergent from the source novel, and if it would have made a more convincing film overall, with stronger characterisation and a greater consistency of tone than this compromised final cut.

Sullivan also shared some stories about production: the entire cast being off their face on beer, speed or coke, the climactic pitched battles exploding into genuine violence (since none of the non-professional actors were used to faking fight scenes), and a woman having 12 stitches in her bum because − while almost everyone was shagging behind the sets − she was the only one who decided to do it on top of an antique pinball machine with a flimsy glass top.

He didn't have too much to say about the film itself, which is − to pervert the Manics lyrics − "all surface and no feeling", a sumptuous stylistic delight with nothing to it, Temple's 'Carry on Punking' approach to everything rendering its characters and attempts at sincerity visceral, shallow and grotesque. It is a wonder of sound and vision, though, capped by Bowie's theme tune and 'That's Motivation', Sade's 'Killer Blow', the jazz club numbers and Davies's 'The Quiet Life', complete with a Finders Keepers-style cutaway house and unbearable cartoonish shenanigans, while unexpected explosions of movement and music pepper the half-finished, artistically bankrupt script. (2.5)

***



Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, 2013) – When I heard that Michel Gondry was making a phantasmagorical romance starring perhaps my favourite three French stars of recent decades, I was excited, but bad reviews and an inability to find the full-length cut that played to home audiences sapped my appetite, so it took a while.

The film – adapted from a book by singular, surrealistic author Boris Vian – tells the story of rich layabout Colin (Romain Duris), who spends his time in a spectacular, stop-motion apartment, being cooked for by his perma-grinning lawyer, Nicolas (Omar Sy). When Nicolas and his other best friend begin romantic relationships, he realises just what is missing from his life, and begins to court Chloe (Audrey Tautou), a playful, post-modernly joshing young woman he seeks out at a party. On their wedding night, a water-lily begins to grow in her lung, puncturing their perfect existence and sending Colin out into a merciless, absurd and unforgiving world, as his cloistered home descends into rot and ruin.

It begins (at least in this 95-minute version) like a music video stretched well beyond breaking point, coming off as twee and shallow – if fitfully amusing – when its quirks should be shorn of some of their self-consciousness, and rooted in a world both transcendent and idealised. But then, as it slips into prolonged, joyless, existential anguish, its style becomes substance, which is a good job as there's precious little else to cling on to here.

It is Gondryan excess in the service of Vian, with mere silvers of story, and its stars left out in the cold, or deluged by an avalanche of whimsy. Here, Duris has neither the fascinating looks nor the commanding intensity that power his most compelling vehicles, Tautou is thoroughly underused – while the mountain diversion never gives you the epic money-shot of flowers wilting all around her – and Sy comes across as a mere comic adornment, with the script and effects doing all his heavy lifting.

It does draw you in, and by the second half you’re immersed and engaged in its characters’ plight, so arrestingly articulated by the restlessly innovative visuals, leading to a final scene that makes use of one of its calling cards – a mouse realised through in-camera effects and played by a man in a mouse suit – before breaking into a simple and simply beautiful animation.

It lacks the novelty of Eternal Sunshine, which first brought Gondry’s delirious DIY aesthetic to audiences, or the sublime comedy and off-balance emotional centre of The Science of Sleep – easily my favourite of his films – but it’s just about worth seeing if you’re receptive to his preoccupations, and the way he serves them through ostentatious stylistics. (2.5)

See also: Here's one film each that spotlights Gondry (The Science of Sleep), Sy (Chocolat), Tautou (Amélie) and Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), and which I'd really recommend.

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)
– This resonant Fassbinder allegory tells the story of a virile, happy-go-lucky prole (the director) who wins the lottery, then loses his dignity, identity and all his money after falling for a calculating middle-class snob (Peter Chatel).

Its presentation of gay society can feel a little forced and it has moments of woodenness, but the film's combination of fatalistic poise and rough-and-ready spontaneity is pure Fassbinder, while his script blends excoriating satire with human drama and mordant humour.

Fox and His Friends also expands the director's familiar world to incorporate society drawing rooms, Marrakech and the kind of factory office you'd see in a Dardennes film, but doesn't skimp on the trappings you rightly expect from a Fassbinder film: moustaches, dingy bars, brown clothes, trashy '20s cabaret glamour, and squalid flats that stink of fags, booze and stifling urban desperation.

It's also interesting to Karlheinz Böhm, the star of Michael Powell's immortally creepy horror, Peeping Tom, in his more natural habitat. He's initially inscrutable – but unexpectedly suave and well-balanced in an Anthony Andrews vein – as an upper middle class antiques dealer who picks up Fassbender in a public toilet.

From the absurd, witty carnival intro to the pitiful dance of tragic greed that closes the picture, it's a hard-bitten but humane movie which suggests that the world is a terrible, cynical, rapacious place, but there are good people in it. What happens to those people, though, doesn't bear thinking about it, especially if they're from the proletariat and get ideas above their station. (3)

***



"No, I'm not gay!"
"Okay, alright, calm down. Look, this gay panic situation you're having right now, it's coming off a little homophobic."
"What, I'm homophobic because I don't want a penis in my mouth?"
"Exactly. That's exactly what homophobic means."

We're the Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2013) – An above-par comedy, with scuzzy weed dealer Jason Sudeikis moving into smuggling after losing loads of drugs, and recruiting a fake family (stripper neighbour Jennifer Aniston, homeless punk Emma Roberts, all-time dork Will Poulter) to help put the authorities off the scent. It's sensitive more often than sentimental, undercuts some occasional misogyny with clever pay-offs and Aniston's strong female character, and − while at times it's guilty of obviousness or signposting jokes or virulent misanthropy − when it's funny it is very funny. For that, you can forgive its lurches in tone, the clumsy recuts and post-synced dialogue synonymous with a film they thought was in trouble, and Ed Helms offering precisely nothing as Sudeikis's amoral boss. 'Very funny' covers a lot of sins (and how can you dislike a film in which the two main characters love Tom Waits? Shame he doesn't feature on the soundtrack). (2.5)

***

BOOKS



Big Sur by Jack Kerouac (1962)
– Kerouac's follow-up to On the Road finds him retreating from the pressures and moral privations of fame to a lonely cabin in foggy, violent, howling, rocky Big Sur. Between there and the city, alone or with gentle, conspiratorial Cody, ailing George Baso − his slowness and Zen-ness corrupted by illness − with his eternal future bride Evelyn, with Ben Fagan, Monsanto, Dave Wain and the tortured, destructively depressed Billie, he finds only mounting madness, which comes at first in fleeting signs that interrupt his tranquil but restless, probingly creative diversion, then grows in the fertile ground of a wine-soaked mind, until chapters of exhausting, harrowing, unrelenting terror that evoke mental malaise as well as anything I've ever read.

It is a breathtaking work, written in Kerouac's roving, unstinting style, basking in naturalistic, colloquial language, in the juxtapositions of ideas and words, in the unvarnished, unprettified honesty of a man at the end of his tether, who despairs at his lack of 'human beingness' and yet in Big Sur shows the compassion, innate, clear-sighted judgement of character and ruthless, pitiless self-awareness that is being human. It is a book of wisdom, hope and relentless artistic accomplishment, a journal of illness and uncertain, incomplete redemption, haunted by the spectre of insanity and total self-destruction but blessed with the gentleness, empathy, childlike playfulness and richly-textured world of this unique poet: wine bottles, fireplace, old green t-shirt, singing bluejays, rolling mist, sacred burro and all. (4)

***

I also greatly enjoyed Dr Seuss's immortal Oh, the Places You'll Go, which has everything you need to know for a life on earth. See also: Vonnegut's Timequake.

***

Thanks for reading.