Category Archives: Reviews

My top three Christmas Films

love actuallyThe internet has been getting its knickers in a twist over what constitutes a “Christmas Film“. Does a film need something more than simply being set over the Christmas period to be a Christmas film? The particular focus of the controversy in the article is Die Hard. Set on Christmas Eve it is a classic, all-action, shoot-em-up with a shoeless, bare-chested Bruce Willis single-handedly outwitting the evil gang led by Alan Rickman and saving the hapless hostages, including his wife. Declaration of interest : I love Die Hard and I have no doubt whatsoever that it qualifies as a Christmas film. However, it doesn’t make it into my top three favourites.

For me, number 1 must be Love Actually, the Richard Curtis rom-com that includes practically every half-famous British actor of the past 25 years (including the much-missed Rickman). Tracking the intertwined lives and loves of a group of London residents in the month leading up to the festive season, it always makes me laugh and cry. And its got Keira Knightley in it, so, you know.

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Just behind Love Actually, my second favourite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life. This classic, starring James Stewart and produced and directed by Frank Capra, is everything that a Christmas film should be. It recounts the tale of a trainee angel sent to earth on a mission to show a local building society owner facing ruin as a result of the accidental loss of depositors’ money, that his worth is greater than any bank balance. It’s the ultimate feel-good movie and generates all the same feelings of warmth and faith in human nature that must surely be essential prerequisites for a Christmas film.

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Finally, my number 3 on the list. It can only be The Muppets Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge, the wizened money-lender who completely reviews his priorities following visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmases yet to come, one fateful Christmas Eve. And all told through the uniquely, Muppet-focused eyes of Gonzo, assisted by Rizzo the Rat. When a cold wind blows, it chills you, chills you to the bone, but there’s nothing in nature that makes you feel better than a Muppet re-telling of a Christmas classic.

So – there’s my top three. Do you agree? What films would you have on your list? I look forward to hearing from you!die hard

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God save the Queen, but not as we know it!

Manchester University Wind Orchestra’s (MUWO) latest concert was held on Saturday 25th November 2017 in the wonderful Cosmo Rodewald hall in the university’s Music School. MUWO is one of a number of ensembles managed under the banner of the University’s Music Society. Musicians, conductors, orchestra managers and front of house staff are all drawn from the student body and learn a whole set of transferable skills from their involvement. Players gain performance experience under a range of different conductors and conducting styles; conductors have the chance to hone their skills with ensembles that may be new to the music being performed; and ensemble managers and front of house staff pick up all sorts of organization and management skills that are highly transferable into almost any workplace post-graduation.

The concert on Saturday featured three American composers, and one Englishman whose inspiration came from the east coast of the US, whose works spanned the whole of the 20th century. The opening piece “Watchman, Tell us of the Night” by Mark Camphouse is a tribute to the survivors of child abuse, and fluctuates between the frailty and discordance of the survivors stories, and the soaring, harmonious themes of hope and future possibilities.

Nigel Hess took the geography and people of the US east coast as the inspiration for his East Coast Pictures. On Saturday, MUWO performed the Pictures beautifully, effortlessly capturing the coastal solitude of Shelter Island, the grandeur of the soaring Catskills Mountains, and the vibrant energy of Manhattan.

Charles Ives “Variations on America” was a tour de force. Written in 1891 and based on the then popular American tune “My country, tis of thee”, it is more popularly known in the UK as the melody for the UK national anthem, “God Save the Queen”. There was something almost prophetic in the way that the melody was set to some deep south, New Orleans-style orchestration that conjured an image of a jazz funeral procession. Somehow, the image of the UK’s funeral being played out in a US jazz style seemed entirely appropriate in these days of Brexit and Trump! Have a listen to a version of the piece here and see what you think.

Eric Whitacre’s piece Cloudburst was originally written for voices, but was later transposed for performance by wind orchestra. It charts the development and climax of a mid-western storm, including audience participation involving random finger clicking in the final movement to replicate the sound of the falling rain.

The concert finished (as all wind orchestra concerts focusing on American and America-themed music must) with a piece by Bernstein. This series of excerpts from On the Town gave each section of the orchestra the chance to show their virtuosity, and they didn’t disappoint. The little girl sat just in front of us, who danced all the way through, was the litmus test to how enjoyable this piece (and indeed the whole concert) was.

Well done to everybody involved. I can only hope that you enjoyed being part of it as much as I enjoyed listening.

 

 

Stop the world…

… I want to get off! There’s a definite sense of this being the Monday after the weekend before. In a moment of madness, I took the day off on Friday and had almost three clear days of no work (barring a couple of phone calls early on Sunday morning). It was really nice to spend some time just pleasing myself. On Saturday evening, I sat down with C. and J. and we watched the film “Hampstead”. It’s a lovely, gentle film in the mould of Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral, that captures the idiosyncrasies of suburban English life through the eyes of an American widow and an Irish recluse who share an interest in a small patch of Hampstead Heath in North London. Brendan Gleeson plays the Irishman who has effectively dropped out of mainstream society to live a largely self-sufficient life on the edge of the Heath in the grounds of a former hospital. It’s a simple, self-contained way of life that depends on no-one and makes no demands of anyone. When his way of life is threatened by developers looking to convert the site into luxury apartments, Diane Keaton’s character (the US widow) takes him on as a cause celebre. One is left with the sense that her interest is at least in part an attempt to escape from the reality of her own financial crisis that threatens her continued ownership of the large apartment across the road from the Heath. Inevitably, things work out for the best for all concerned in the end, although there are a number of twists and turns along the way. I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who might want to watch the film for themselves, but it’s a definite feel-good ending!

After the day I’ve had today back in the office, a simple life on the edge of a Heath, growing my own vegetables and pleasing myself, looks like a very good career option!

Retour a Bordeaux

I first visited Bordeaux last summer to watch Wales playing football at the Euro 2016 tournament. You can read my blogs from that trip here and here. It’s fair to say that Dan and I had a fantastic time in this south west corner of France; but to be honest, I didn’t really get much of a chance to look around the city itself. When C. and I were thinking about places to go to help celebrate a significant birthday for C. therefore, a return to Bordeaux in September 2017 seemed an ideal choice (and not only because the flights from Bristol were astonishingly cheap!).

Having stayed in what was effectively a glorified youth hostel for the football trip, our first task was to find a hotel that was more typically French and accessible to the city centre. This is where we really fell on our feet. The Hotel Au Coeur de Bordeaux is so quintessentially French that its only a bike, beret and onions away from being a pastiche. From the moment you enter the downstairs reception/dining space, to the point where you ascend the spiral stone stairs to a room dominated by ceiling to floor French doors and a Juliet balcony, there is no doubt about the country that you are staying in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe staff at the Hotel were excellent hosts, happy to help out with restaurant recommendations and hints and tips on places to visit and things to look out for. The breakfast that was included in the room rate was excellent – a choice of cereals, yoghurt and fresh fruit, cold meats and cheese, and (of course) croissant, pain au chocolat and baguette – all washed down with coffee or hot chocolate.

Bordeaux itself is at the heart of the great claret vineyards. Incidentally, ‘claret’ derives from a period in the 17th Century when wines exported from the region were much lighter (clearer) than those from other regions. Marking this heritage, La Cite du Vin is a modern, fully interactive and (frankly) enormous celebration of all things wine and wine-related, drawing inspiration from all four corners of the globe, and across the past 3,000 years of history. The building itself is unashamedly modern in appearance, and whilst the entrance area and ticket hall are perhaps a little austere, don’t let that put you off. This is a place that is well worth a visit, and devoting some proper time to. Included in the admission price is a complimentary glass of wine from a wide selection, served in the top floor viewing gallery of the building. Sommeliers will guide you through the choices on offer, helping you to select the perfect choice for you, before you wander around the building taking in the panoramic views of the city.

Bordeaux owes its city status to its strategically important location on the river Garonne, with excellent access to the sea. Historically, ties between the region and England and Scotland in particular have been strong, and even at times of ‘official’ war between France and England, claret was still available via the merchants in London and English provincial cities. This trade generated significant wealth for Aquitaine families, which was invested in impressive buildings around the city.

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Palais Rohan, reflected in the water mirror on the quayside opposite

One of the paradoxes of Bordeaux as a city (similar to both Cardiff and Bristol in many ways) is that it is small enough to easily walk around, but big enough to offer all manner of museums, galleries, shops, bars, theatres and places of interest. The problem with walking everywhere, though, is that you inevitably end up finding delightful places to stop for coffee or (after 11.30am of course) a glass of wine! Thus it was, that on several occasions we set off with the clear intent of visiting such and such a church or museum, and then ended up whiling away a very pleasant hour in a pavement café watching the world go by.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne place we did make it to, however, was the roof-top spa at the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. This was undoubtedly the most luxurious and relaxing part of the whole trip. There is nothing quite so satisfying as sitting in a hot tub on the roof of a 5* hotel overlooking the main square of a busy city on a working day. Especially as the sun was shining and the sky was a near cloudless, azure blue. It was very nearly heaven.

I could write many more words about the excellent food and wines that we enjoyed from an ecelectic mix of traditional and modern restaurants around the city; the wonderful range of shops (from outlets of Paris boutiques to local independents), and the beautiful gardens and squares that bring space, colour and nature right into the heart of the city. However, what I will say is simply this : if you get the chance to visit this wonderful place, don’t think twice. You won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kooky, creepy, and totally brilliant

The Addams Family Musical (Cardiff Millennium Centre until 12th August 2017) is a clever, funny, and highly entertaining musical take on the franchise that started as a series of magazine cartoons before progressing to TV series and films. Originally launched on Broadway in 2010, the UK touring production opened in Edinburgh in April 2017. The musical opens with the annual gathering of the Addams Family (those alive, those dead, and those still undecided) at the family vault in a cemetery near the family home in Central Park, New York. We learn that Wednesday Addams, the (original emo child) has fallen in love with an all-American guy from the mid-west. Wednesday has invited her beau and his parents to dinner at the Addams Mansion that evening, and implores her parents to just be ‘normal’ for the evening. Wednesday emphasises the extent of the gulf between her family’s love of the ghoulish and macabre, and her boyfriends more traditional family values with the line : “We are what we are, and they’re from Ohio!” The rest of the plot plays out in a series of increasingly funny scenes as the two families become acquainted and as each learns a lot from the other about the true values of honesty, love, and the changes that come as children become adults and forge their own paths.

The casting for this UK touring production is excellent. Carrie Hope Fletcher gives a wonderful performance as Wednesday Addams, neatly capturing a young woman struggling with the emergence from sulky adolescence into womanhood. Samantha Womack* is stunning as Morticia Addams – all moody darkness and brooding suspicion. Les Dennis is literally unrecognisable as Uncle Fester – and effectively acts as narrator for the piece, neatly linking scenes and acts and generally gluing the whole plot together. Oliver Ormson neatly encapsulates just the right amount of ‘cool’ and gormless as Lucas Beineke, the boy who has stolen Wednesday’s heart; and Grant McIntyre (Pugsley Addams) is perfect as the irritating younger brother who does everything in his power to break up the relationship between Lucas and Wednesday – fearing that the ‘loss’ of his older sister to this interloper will leave him abandoned and with no-one to torture him! Charlotte Page (Alice Beineke) is arguably the most accomplished vocalist in the show, and gives a great performance as a the strait-laced, greetings-card verse mid-west mother, whose repression and frustration is only fully revealed when she accidentally drinks a potion intended for Wednesday that takes down all her inhibitions.

However, the real stars of the show (for this 50-something father at least) were the two fathers : Cameron Blakely (Gomez Adams) and Dale Rapley (Mal Beineke). I’m definitely biased, but their differing portrayals of 21st century men, husbands and fathers, caught in the competing challenges that each of those roles brings; struggling and (despite everything) managing to make a mess of most of it, resonated strongly! It’s fair to say, though, that Gomez also gets all the best lines, including my favourite : “What I lack in depth I make up for in shallowness!”. I’m stealing that as my personal tagline.

Finally, a word for the musicians. The music throughout the show is uniformly outstanding, made all the more so by the fact that there is a full, live orchestra. In a world where digital recordings are increasingly the norm for touring productions, it was a pleasure to hear live music – and to hear it played so well.

 

* declaration of interest : I have been completely in love with Samantha Womack since her selection to represent the UK at Eurovision in 1991 – views expressed here may, therefore, not be entirely objective!

Passchendaele, Hedd Wyn, and enduring beauty

The centenary of the start of the battle at Passchendaele carries a particular poignancy in Wales. Amongst the first wave of casualties was Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer from Trawsfynydd in the foothills of Snowdonia, who wrote poetry as Hedd Wyn, and whose poem “Yr Arwr” – “The Hero”, would have seen him receive the Bardic Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Ironically Hedd Wyn translates as Blessed Peace, but it is clear that the reluctant soldier found little peace or blessing amidst the mud and squalor of First World War Belgium.

There is, however, an enduring and heart-rending beauty in the poetry that Evans left behind, and which is exemplified in his poem titled “War” (this translation by Louis Flint Ceci) :

Alas, this is an age so mean
That everyman is made a Lord,
For all authority’s absurd
When God himself fades from the scene.

As quick as God is shown the door
Out come the cannons and the sword:
Hate on hate on brother poured
And scored the deepest on the poor.

The harps that once could help our pain
Hang silent, to the willows pinned.
The cry of battle fills the wind
And blood of lads–it falls like rain.

In common with other First World War poets, Evans struggles to reconcile the peaceful orderliness of the world he has left behind, with the godless devastation of the battlefield. The observation that the suffering and pain of war falls disproportionately heavily on the poor and least powerful, is one that is repeated throughout the poetry of the time (and has been borne out in every conflict to the present day).

The senseless loss that is represented in Passchendaele is perhaps best described by Evans’ cousin, Gerald Williams, who still lives near the Gwynedd farmhouse that Evans’ was forced to leave on conscription : “All the cream of the young men had been killed – a whole generation wiped out – for what? I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense whatsoever. I don’t understand war at all.”

 

Dunkirk : some thoughts

Christopher Nolan has written and directed a thoughtful and visually stunning piece of cinema in “Dunkirk”. In contrast to the graphic and (frankly blood-spattered) portrayals of the second world war in films such as Saving Private Ryan and Fury, Dunkirk focuses not on the physical trauma of the events of May/June 1940, but rather the emotional and psychological impact. The film focuses exclusively on the behavior of allied (mostly British) soldiers and airmen, and the civilians who sailed the flotilla of small craft from the south coast of England to Dunkirk to assist with the evacuation. There is barely sight of a German soldier until the closing frames of the film. The ‘good guy : bad guy’, Allied forces : German forces, narrative that so often permeates film dramatisations of events from this period in history, is therefore noticeably absent from Dunkirk. Instead, the tensions and ethical conflicts are all played out amongst the soldiers and civilians on the British side. Thus, we see French soldiers prevented from embarking onto British ships in the initial stages of the evacuation; and soldiers from different units being turned away from a line waiting to go on board because they aren’t “Grenadiers”. The opportunism (borne out of desperation) that leads two privates to pick up a stretcher and run across the sand to get a casualty on board a hospital ship (hoping that this would be their ticket out) only serves to highlight the ethical and moral compromises that are made in the name of survival. The fact that the two soldiers, having delivered the casualty, are then ordered off the ship and back to the beach seems scant reward for their efforts, until the ship itself is then bombed and sunk while still at the jetty waiting to depart. This is one of a number of episodes in the film that brings into sharp relief the randomness of war and the way that casualties occur. Soldiers who are injured but survive the bombing on the beaches, then drown when their hospital ship is sunk at sea; the only civilian casualty in the film is killed accidentally in a scuffle involving the boat’s owner and a survivor picked up from the sea en route to Dunkirk; a Spitfire pilot shot down over the channel is on the verge of perishing when he is rescued by a passing small boat. To this extent, at least, Nolan captures perfectly the lottery of life and death in the theatre of war.

Similarly, the scene in the Dutch trawler where soldiers who have sensed an opportunity to escape under their own steam, then turn on each other seeking a scapegoat when the trawler becomes target practice for unseen but advancing German troops, demonstrates the all-to-human trait of demonizing the ‘other’ when things go wrong. In this case, the ‘other’ taking the form of a French soldier who has ‘borrowed’ the uniform from a dead British soldier in order to try to get off the beach. Ultimately, the French soldier dies not at the hands of one of the group, but drowning as the trawler sinks under the incoming tide as water pours in through the bullet-ridden hull.

If I have a criticism of the film then it’s around the fact that there is little character development and so it’s actually quite hard to feel any particularly strong sense of emotional attachment to, or even empathy with, the main protagonists. We learn right at the end of the film that the eldest son of the owner of the small boat through whose eyes the account of the evacuation fleet is told, was an RAF pilot who was killed in the early days of the war; and we get some insight into the fears that evacuated soldiers had about their reception back home having retreated in the face of the Germans and needed to be rescued (unfounded fears as it turns out). Beyond that though, we learn little to nothing about the backgrounds of the main characters. That was doubtless deliberate as Nolan sought to focus on the ‘here and now’ of the situation facing the soldiers on the beach; but it did leave me feeling more like I had watched a drama-documentary – engaging me on an intellectual level; rather than a piece of cinema that works both intellectually and emotionally. I was reinforced in my view that war is wholly barbaric and utterly de-humanizing, but I can’t say that I was particularly moved by or sad or even anguished at the plight of any of the individual characters.

Overall, Dunkirk is a good film, succeeding in depicting historical events accurately and immersively, without over-playing things. Perhaps, though, it’s just a little too cerebral to be compelling drama.