Saturday, 1 July 2017

TELEVISION: GLASTONBURY 2017

ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
By popular demand (and only a week late), here's my latest Glastonbury Festival, experienced via the BBC.


Wake up and praise The National. (Image copyright: BBC)













It’s that time of year again, when a middle-aged man is alternatively confused or entertained by popular music old and new from the comfort of his sofa. I was only able to devote viewing time to Saturday’s fare, so here goes…

BBC2’s coverage began with a lively montage of footage featuring Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Kris Kristofferson (honorary rock gods if ever there were any), as well as Radiohead, the Friday night headliners. Not surprisingly, presenters Lauren Laverne and Nick Grimshaw jubilantly celebrated “a welly-free Glastonbury” before introducing…

Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, featuring Ruby Turner She has a large voice and a large talent, belting out ‘Let the Good Times Roll’. Backed by the ever-reliable Holland’s outfit, they’re the perfect act for a blissed out, sunny afternoon. The follow up song, the gospel standard ‘Peace in the Valley’, gets an even better response, initiating a sing and clapalong.

Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook The engine room of evergreen New Wavers Squeeze, Difford and Tilbrook are one of the acts who deliver an acoustic performance for the BBC. Their choice is ‘Up the Junction’, a wonderful, bitter-sweet, kitchen sink ballad from my youth played on dual acoustic guitars. In one of those surreal moments that can only happen at Glastonbury, they’re joined by Masters of the Kazooniverse, a primary coloured platoon of kazoo-blowing majorettes, for the instrumental finish to the song. Curiously, it works.

Craig David Not my cup of tea, but Mr. Loverman has a great voice, and ‘7 Days’ has clever lyrics.

Thundercats 
Bassy funk played by a man who pulls off looking cool with pink a combination of straggly hair, skeleton-patterned leggings and a ring in his nose. In the middle of ‘Them Changes’ he goes into a bit of a twiddly-widdly jazz odyssey, which rather ruins the song. Still.

Kaiser Chiefs Ricky Wilson’s anthemic troupe are the perfect band for a festival, and the camera cuts in as the singer is, typically, leading some synchronised arm-waving. On ‘Coming Home’ he delivers a spirited performance, dodging between the cameras filming him from either side of the stage, singing intensely down their lenses and into your living room to make a moving song even more affecting. ‘I Predict a Riot’ is the perfect song for a festival, and as the audience sings it back to him, Wilson’s grin nearly splits his face in half.

Lorde She’s “awesome” (c.f. Grimshaw), apparently, and from New Zealand, cutting a distinctive figure in a flower-patterned cat suit. Her stage set, centred on a huge glass case hung above the stage that hosts a variety of different people doing different things, is impressively original; mind you, the young woman in it blowing on the glass during the song the BBC shows seems to have very little to do with the actual lyrics. Typing this up two days later, I remember the stage set but not Lorde’s music. Significant?

Ray Blk Another acoustic performance, of a life-affirming song called ‘Doing Me’. Pleasantly reggae-ish.

The Amazons From the John Peel stage, this noisy lot are dressed in black leather and black denim. ‘In My Mind’ sounds like a goth Kings of Leon.

British Sea Power Everyone’s favourite indie band look like they have the actor John Simm singing lead vocals (and he could do it). ‘Keep on Trying’ is made even better by the addition of someone in a polar bear costume dancing around at the back of the stage.

Young Unknown Female Artist I missed who this was, but she bounds around the stage in red trousers, looks about 12 and has a great voice and an excellent song. As the presenters said, there was a lot of breakthrough talent on display this year.

Shaker maker. (Image copyright: BBC)
Liam Gallagher Well now. Liam (left) and his new band sound like a ropey Oasis covers band on the opening ‘Rock and Roll Star’, but as soon as they hit his own, new and very good material – ‘Wall of Glass’, ‘Bold’ – the backing group gels and Liam’s voice gets stronger as the set goes on. By ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’ and ‘Slide Away’ they’ve hit a peak. The two Oasis standards are only bettered by Liam’s moving acapella version of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, dedicated to the victims of the recent terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire: the audience do as they’re told and passionately sing the chorus. Liam may have been a gobby knob in the past, by no one can fault his sincerity here.

Kerr Brief snatch of an indie outfit, distinguished by a young and gifted soul singer who has confidence and presence. He’ll go far; they might not.

The National Never heard of this band before – or rather, I’ve heard of them but never heard anything by them. They’re the first real eye-opener of the day. Their loud, varied and anthemic compositions call to mind REM, Flaming Lips, Elbow and psychedelic garage bands in general; there’s probably a bit of Mercury Rev in there, too. 

They look like a bunch of academics, led by a dude in a black suit, whose stage movements bring to mind a bearded Jarvis Cocker.

Katy Perry In the middle of The Natonal’s set, I flip channels to catch a bit of American songstress-of-the-moment Katy Perry’s set. It’s an eye-opener of a different kind as she performs her set in a tight fitting catsuit covered in sequins. The overall feeling of extravagance and flamboyance continues into her band – dressed in black and glittering silver – and her stage set, dominated by a silver giant eye that reflects the symbol on the front of Ms Perry’s costume. The vaguely Masonic vibe is very well done, but the music doesn’t do much for me.

The National (continued) … in contrast to this lot. I’ve started writing down titles because I’m so impressed with them. The stand outs are ‘Guilty Party’, ‘The Day I Die’ and ‘I Need My Girl’. Despite the American indie stylings, every song is melodic, accessible and builds like a mini epic.  Their lyrics are often poetic, such as this wonderful line from ‘Terrible Love’: “It takes an ocean not to break.”

Foo Fighters The Saturday headliners are ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s hard indie rock outfit, who finally claim the Pyramid Stage after cancelling two years ago when Grohl broke his leg. They more than make up for their delayed performance, breaking the swearing record on the BBC’s coverage – previously held by Adele, oddly – and promising to “play all fucking night” (they don’t – bless).

There’s no denying the Foos ability to rock and Grohl is a terrific frontman, keeping the energy levels high and pacing their set immaculately. After an hour or so of thrashing blockbusters, though, I did start to wonder how much Foos you actually need. ‘My Hero’ and ‘This Is a Call’ are great songs but if, as Grohl said, they played a set from all of their nine album  the latest is imminent  there hasn’t been a great deal of progression in style or structure since the first. I much prefer the arcane artiness of The National, who can still rock out as well as Grohl’s outfit.

It says a lot that the bit of the Foos’ set I enjoyed the most was when the drummer and bassist went into Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’.

So that’s it for two years. Only one day this time, but what was on display was varied enough for me to keep the faith with popular music. For all the blandness, for all the heritage and dinosaur acts doing the rounds, there’ll still be something that’ll make me sit up and take notice. This year I can add The National to my distinguished list of "must listen to more of."

Monday, 8 May 2017

FILM: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 review

SPIRIT IN THE SKY
The Guardians are back: as bold, as funny and as spectacular as before, with added Kurt Russell.


Everybody wants to be in the last gang in town.
(
Image copyright: Marvel Studios)



















As I said on Facebook, I was a latecomer to the joys of Guardians of the Galaxy. With no knowledge of the Marvel comic series, my first exposure was the sci-fantasy rough and tumble of the 2014 film. I’ve never been a fan of Star Wars, so seeing the rag-tag band of Peter Quill, a.k.a. ‘Star Lord’ (Chris Pratt), the sleekly lethal Gamora (Zoe Saldana), amusingly grumpy strong man Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), bitching, quipping and punching their way across the screen, made a refreshing change from the anodyne George Lucas universe. They were backed up by the wry, Bradley Cooper-voiced raccoon-alike Rocket and the scene-stealing, living twig Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel (the easiest pay day he’s ever had, I imagine: all he had to say were tonal and emotional variations on “I am Groot”.)

Also in the mix were an unrecognisable Karen Gillan as the nearly-all-robot Nebula, gunning for Gamora, and a mechanical-mohicaned Michael Rooker (late of The Walking Dead) as Quill’s nemesis/former comrade Yondu Udonta. Thanks to James Gunn’s frenetic direction, it was all fast and funny, with four of the misfits bonding together to become the Guardians of the Galaxy and – the fairly obvious but heartfelt subtext suggested – a surrogate family.

In fact, Guardians felt like it was being deliberately anti-Star Wars – which, at its worst, can be so straight-faced it must hurt the actors – particularly as it was topped off by kidnapped Earthman Quill’s choice mix tape which he was always playing on his Walkman, and which also soundtracked the action (look it up if you don’t know what a Walkman is). Commendably, a lot of research had gone it the choice of music, ranging from obvious contenders like ‘Moonage Daydream’ by Bowie to The Runaways’ more obscure but equally fine ‘Cherry Bomb’.

I thought that Guardians had the feel of one of those 1980s fantasy action films you’d see Kurt Russell in, so roll round to 2017 and it was pleasing to see the real thing in the early scenes of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This was after a belter of a sequence that nails the appeal of the films: where three superheroes fighting a giant squid-like monster would normally be to the forefront of the screen action, here it’s backgrounded as the newly-growing, midget Groot throws shapes to the Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, narrowly missing flailing tentacles and tumbling bodies. The scene is funny, intelligent and inventive, the perfect set up for the film that follows.

There are plenty of set-pieces to enjoy, equally as good as anything in the first film: Quill and crew outwitting a pursuing space fleet, Rocket single-handedly and amusingly taking out Yondo Udonta’s crew, a homicidal Nebula crashing a spaceship into a cave in pursuit of Gamora…

Where this film scores over the first, though, is in the role the aforementioned Kurt Russell plays. He’s been searching the universe for Quill, as it turns out he’s his father; with a name like Ego, though, the Guardians should have been hip to something not being quite right. For all the characters, this more developed theme of what constitutes family spins out into their relationships with each other. Without in any way compromising the film’s anarchic style, this approach adds depth to the movie and is, in a number of scenes, very moving.

Russell is as good as ever, as are the regulars, with Karen Gillan allowed to give some background to Nebula’s motivation. Of the new recruits, the unlikely named Pom Klementieff shines as a na├»ve empath and there’s a surprisingly welcome cameo from Russell’s old ‘80s mucker Sylvester Stallone.

If anything, the film is slightly too long; the Quill/Ego storyline just keeps on going, but I guess with any sequel, the temptation is always to go bigger and better. That said, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is as refreshing, witty and entertaining as its predecessor, with the addition of some heart-warming sentiments and sensitive character moments.

How long ‘til Vol.3?

Sunday, 30 April 2017

TELEVISION: LEGION review (2017)

WHERE IS MY MIND?
If pop psychology, safari-suited hipsters and mind-swapping is your thing, Marvel's Legion is the show for you.


We've all felt like this from time to time.
(Image copyright: 26 Keys Productions).


















It’s not that often a TV series comes along that you feel compelled to praise very loudly from the rooftops, grab people by the lapels and enthuse wildly to, or go online and clog up social media with superlatives. Legion, the latest offering from the Marvel TV stable, is one such glittering example.

The thing is, you wouldn’t know it was a Marvel series. It’s one of the most stylised, surreal, psychologically playful and insightful, not to mention just plain stylish, series ever to have graced the small screen. That’s because Legion’s visuals are filtered through the unreliable worldview of David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, playing very convincingly with an American accent and attitude), a schizophrenic we first meet in a mental hospital. He’s been struggling with mental illness all his life, so by the time he reaches his thirties and has been sectioned, he’s not sure if anything that happens to him is, in fact, real. (This uncertainty in his perceptions leads to a corker of a cliffhanger at the end of episode four).

You’d never know Legion is a spin-off from the X-Men comics, in much the same way you be hard pressed to say Patrick McGoohan’s personal tour de force The Prisoner (1967-68) was basically a spy series. Legion’s Wikipedia entry describes the series as ‘psychological thriller/psychological horror/drama/superhero fiction’, which is another way of saying that, like The Prisoner, Legion is a gleeful, freewheeling mixture of, and breaking down of, different genres.

It really is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The super hero angle – Haller’s schizophrenia is really a major superpower, incorporating telepathy and telekinesis, that a group led by psychiatric therapist Melanie Bird (Jean Smart, oozing authority) wants to develop and a rival, paramilitary group want to destroy – is filtered through David’s attempts to work out who he really is after years of mental illness and drug addiction.

The paranormal talents of Smart’s group complement Haller’s distorted worldview: Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), who has “the ability to take people back into their own memories”; Carey Loudermilk (Bill Irwin), a mutant scientist who shares his body with the martial-arts expert Kerry Loudermilk (the improbably named Amber Midthunder), and Sydney ‘Syd’ Barrett (angelic Rachel Keller, and no, the name of her character isn’t a coincidence), who can swap minds with anyone she touches. As well as all these, Dan is plagued by a questioning part of his psyche that appears in the form of his deceased drug and alcohol-addled friend 
Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), killed in the first episode.

Such an off-kilter array of characters and abilities creates opportunities for fantasy and surrealism such as a kitchen erupting its contents in a slow-motion storm around Dan, a groovy, synchronised dance number performed by assorted mental patients and Oliver Bird, Melanie’s comatose husband (Jemaine Clement, late of Flight of the Conchords) a hipster in a safari suit whose mind now lives inside an ice cube, where he grooves along to avant garde music.

This may all sound like a huge mess, but the narrative through-line is always clear so the series never collapses into self-indulgence. It’s a great achievement, a story told wittily and comprehensibly through dream imagery and multiple versions of reality; apart from that, Legion is just plain cool, the performances are a joy and it makes you laugh out loud more than once.

The series is a testament to how comfortable television networks now are with this kind byzantine storytelling. It’s certainly a long way from the days when, in comparison, a mildly surrealistic experiment like The Prisoner confused everyone.

Recommended.

Friday, 28 April 2017

TELEVISION: 24 - LEGACY (2017)

THE NEXT GENERATION
Can 24 work without Jack Bauer and his crew? Judging by this first spin-off, the answer is a qualified 'yes'.














Something a bit more recent today.

In 2014, the indestructible Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), veteran of nine world-threatening and emotionally battering seasons, was last seen in the custody of the FSB being helicoptered to Russia and a very uncertain – and painful – future. Despite this, apparently there was an attempt to lure Sutherland back for an eleventh run at the role. He declined, so the decision was taken to forge ahead without him.

Looking back over the nine seasons of 24, characters in CTU came and went, often from sudden death – it was one of the series’ hallmarks – and the same was true of the compelling ancillary characters who revolved around the elite unit: presidents, their relations, assorted recurring villains and Jack’s nearest and dearest. Conceptually, then, it was a small step from there to replace Jack himself. Would the audience go for it? The first episode of 24: Legacy, screened directly before Super Bowl LI, drew the largest audience in the history of the series, so the answer would seem to be, at least initially, ‘it does’.

Since 24 started the big sea-change in espionage fiction on TV was Homeland, dealing seriously, cynically and messily with the political situation in the Middle East. The new model inherits some of that political zeitgeist, with most men in the Army Ranger unit of the new man Eric Carter (a slow-burning, effective Corey Hawkins), responsible for executing the terrorist leader Ibrahim bin-Khalid, assassinated despite being in a witness protection programme – clearly, there’s (another) traitor at work in the security services. The head of CTU when Carter did the black op was Rebecca Ingram (none cooler under pressure Miranda Otto), now prospective First Lady, handily drawn back into the espionage fray for dialogue between both the command structure of CTU and the corridors of power in the Whitehouse.

The race is on to prevent the terrorists securing a list of sleeper cells that the terrorists have killed their way through the Army Rangers to get. That’s just one of many plot threads; there’s an attack on a school planned by one of the students and her teacher  which, Breaking Bad style, goes spectacularly wrong   and a terrorist cell planning something in the background. New to the mix, because of Carter’s ethnicity, is his background in a black criminal gang before he became a soldier. It’s not long before he’s in a siege in a police station and the intertwined plotting spins on memorably from there.

So what of the action, one of the things that 24 always managed to do amazingly well, cinematically, on a TV budget? The first episode concludes with an innovative sequence where Carter hides behind a huge steel pipe and rolls it over some bad guys, going on to stab one of them with a steel cable. Not bad, and that was the first of many impressive sequences.

There’s the usual political tension between Capitol Hill and CTU, plus a topical look at how soldiers were abandoned to PTSD and homelessness by the US government; understandably, one veteran is so aggrieved he tries to blackmail them. The shadow of Homeland is again felt in an attempt by a rival party to blacken the reputation of an Islamic presidential aide. She might or might not be radicalised, and of all the running storylines, this is handled sensitively and credibly.

The foreboding, insistent incidental music, split screen visuals and the inevitable interrogation scenes are all present and correct, and while the real-time narrative structure may seem a little old fashioned by now, there’s enough innovation in the formula to suggest that 24: Legacy could be the start of a new lease of life for the franchise. And if you just want the comfort of watching good old 24 as it was, you won’t be disappointed either. The biggest criticism, as in every season before it, is the complete absence of humour. Come on, guys – we know people make jokes under pressure. (See Homeland again).

As for the new man: Carter might not yet have the grizzled ennui of The Bauer, but the new recruit’s girlfriend thinks he enjoys the adrenalized rush of battle far too much, so it could be the beginning of a thread that memorably unravels in his personal life. We shall see.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

TELEVISION: PENNY DREADFUL Series 3, 2016

SOMETHING TO GET YOUR TEETH INTO
Gothic melodrama Penny Dreadful mastered its grisly stride in its third 
and final series.


Image copyright Showtime/Sky 2016.












“Life, for all its anguish, is ours, Miss Ives.”

Apologies for being a bit behind on this one, but there’s just so much to watch now you’re almost inevitably going to be a few  or several  months behind with some things.

To business: one of the appealing things about John Logan’s horror melodrama Penny Dreadful – that’s gothic horror in the traditions of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose characters the series has cheerfully plundered – is that as well as confronting vampires, witches and other spectral creatures, all the main players – as star Timothy Dalton pointed out at the first series' press conference – battle internal monsters of their own.

Vaness Ives (Eva Green) fights a demon for possession of her body, Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) grapples with his rampant carnal and violent desires, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is a besotted, hopeless drug addict and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) conceals a werewolf beneath his gun-slinging American exterior. Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear, fantastically nuanced and moving) fights his loathing for himself and humankind in equal measure. At the other end of the moral scale, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Frankenstein’s creation Lily (Billie Piper) wallow luxuriously in their own depravity. Such a heady brew places Penny Dreadful firmly in the traditions of Stoker, Shelley et. al, while its painterly, heightened gothic hues – a newly industrialised London is coloured drab, industrial grey, while a disreputable Zanzibar is by turns opulent and murky – elevates the series’ visually melodramatic aesthetic.

Adding to the cinematic palette in this final series, there’s some inspired, panoramic filming on a train and (apparently) the plains of New Mexico. The scenes would have made classic Western director John Ford proud, as Scotland Yard’s finest, the wonderfully named, cool as a cucumber Inspector Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge, immaculate in just about anything), pursues the escaped Chandler, who looked like he’d been rescued by the Wild Bunch.

Adding an interesting twist to the third series is Eva attending treatment sessions by an Alienist, the earliest form of address for a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is developing “a new branch of science.” Intriguingly and with some insight, the Alienist Mrs Clayton tells Eva that her affliction “is a dark root with no name from which grows illness.” That may be true in the majority of cases, but Mrs Clayton is shocked to find out that Vanessa’s demons are in fact real. It’s a clever touch, playing the new rationality of the scientific age off against old superstitions. The writer M.R. James pursued similar themes in his ghost stories, written a few years after the events of Penny Dreadful.
Arguably the stand-out in the ensemble this year is Samuel Barnett’s take on Dracula’s slave Renfield which is every bit as twitchy, obsessive and repressed as you’d expect from the man who nailed a public school take on Dirk Gently. Shazad Latif’s dignified, Anglo-Indian Dr Jekyll runs a close second, with Christian Carmazzo’s two-faced, charismatic Dracula close behind (and I’ll wager it’s the first time the King Vamp has been a fan of Captain Nemo).

There is some truly gruesome stuff this time around that would have scandalised the editors of the original penny dreadfuls. The instance of grand guignol that sticks most in the mind is a very young, very naked woman about to be murdered in front of a circle of paying English gentleman voyeurs.

I’m not a huge fan of horror, but it’s hard to resist this line-up of the gothic greats: Dracula, the werewolf, Frankenstein’s Creature, Dorian Gray and Jekyll, especially when they’re reimagined this well. Penny Dreadful is as far from those cheesy Universal Pictures team-ups House of Frankenstein (1944) House of Dracula (1945) as it’s possible to get (fun though they were). And with quality, predominantly British thesping this good, it’s easy to get lured into a binge watch.

Go for the jugular if you haven't already.