The Hobbit – An unexpected disappointment

ImageWell was The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey really going to be as good as any of the Lord of the Rings films? But it is testament to how good those films are that this feels sadly underwhelming.

Because this is visually spectacular stuff. Stunning in fact. And just because we expect no-less than this should not mean that we take it for granted, for this is mostly an entertaining, amazingly well produced epic film. But…………..

It opens extremely well with a prologue set in the dwarf mountain home of Erebor, a location expertly realised for the screen with the type of visionary imagination that movie-making of this type is surely all about.

We first meet the title character, Bilbo Baggins, as his elder self, played wonderfully by Ian Holm reprising the role from the Rings films. The Celtic score and the set of the Hobbit’s home, the Shire, are all welcomingly familiar from those films and it is a joy to see Elijah Wood in a brief scene as Frodo. It feels good to be back here in this wonderful world with these wonderful characters.

But that perhaps is the problem. The best bits about The Hobbit are all the things we have seen in the Rings films. Nothing here is new. Nothing at all. And the great things that are repeated from the Rings trilogy, including jaw dropping battle scenes and otherworldly locations, are not bettered in this film.

The central story is thin too. The three Rings films are from three books. The Hobbit is one book, with three films being drawn from it, and although I haven’t read the book, this opening film feels drawn out.Image

In fact there barely is a story. A small band of dwarves want to take back their home of Erebor (and all the gold in it) that a dragon has taken from them. So with the help of wizard Gandalf and Hobbit Bilbo they begin a journey across Middle Earth to their home. That is it.

It is a far less noble cause than the protagonists in the first Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, are pursuing. Yet the main quest of the Hobbit sees the characters in almost exactly the same type of voyage as we have seen in Fellowship. They travel across sweeping plains, along narrow dangerous mountain passes, through a mountain (with a bizarre and misguided musical number by the supposedly fearsome Orcs who look far more plasticky in the Hobbit), all in order to reach a mountain. Sound familiar?

The only interesting story elements are the hints along the way of darker things stirring in Middle Earth, which are clearly the preludes to the much more significant end-of-the-world issues faced in the Rings films.

Unfortunately therefore the main story just doesn’t engage. And this is not helped by pretty poor action sequences.

I know you have to suspend disbelief when watching fantasy movies, but the Troll scene and that scene in the Orc mountain lair just do not convince at all. Both feel childish. And remarkable in the fact that in the former the dwarves are foiled by dull-witted oaths, while in the second they beat an entire army.

This mountain lair scene also feels so done before…. A chase across wooden bridges in a sort of mountain mine….. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? The Goonies? And what’s more it looks like a video game, with no sense of danger or excitement.

Returning characters do nothing they didn’t do in the Rings films, including Gandalf, Saruman (what makes him a great wizard is now even more of a mystery) and the elves of Rivendell, though a scene with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel (the sole female character in the film and only in it for about five minutes) is the warmest of the movie.

But what about Martin Freeman’s leading role as Bilbo? Although I found it hard at times to accept him as a Hobbit, with his face too worldly for the fresh-faced innocence the rest of that race seem to embody, at other times he was very convincing and moving.

But Bilbo is not really the leading character. In fact it is not really clear why he is there. And after his initial bumbling reluctance at leaving his comfortable home, he seems to deal with the perils the gang face with remarkable acceptance and skill.

And then there is the script. I hate to complain more, but I have to mention this. Because like the characterisation, the script feels like it has been rushed out with nowhere near the care taken over it that the film deserves (or that has been taken in the set productions).

It may be clever to have Director Peter Jackson speaking directly to his audience through Gandalf when the wizard says near the start “All good stories deserve embellishment.” Or to have characters speak chapter headings of Tolkein’s original book. But no matter how gravely “Out of the fire, into the frying pan” is said, it sounds awfully clichéd and lazy.

ImageBut am I being too harsh? I mean as I said, this film looks great (using a pioneering double shooting speed) even if the 3D as per usual seems wasted.

And of course there is Gollum. He is only in one scene, but it and he is magnificent. And while perhaps again, offering us nothing new, in this case it doesn’t matter. Gollum has to be one of the best movie characters ever created. He is scary, funny, sad and utterly fascinating.

So, full of disappointments, but still impressive, and precious, film making!


La Boheme – An unnatural taste worth acquiring

Extra La Boheme PFPWhat do I know about opera? Well pretty much nothing. I saw Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall years ago and wasn’t sure at all what I thought of it.

And that was my only experience…. until seeing the sort of mini opera La Boheme by the Opera Up Close company at the small Charing Cross theatre this week, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Opera, I think, is like olives. It is a very unusual taste which needs to be acquired before it can really be enjoyed (I put seafood and modern art in the same categories).

And as it turns out, this version of La Boheme, makes a pretty good place to start one’s initiation. It almost feels like opera for beginners.

For starters it costs considerably less than the full-blown productions at the Royal Opera House. It is also short (2 hours, with two intervals).

But the main attraction for the beginner is that lyrics are sung in English. This makes it completely understandable and relatively easy to follow.

The story (which though set in modern times seems to closely follow Puccini’s original) is a straightforward tragic love story. It begins with four artist friends in the hip East London area of Dalston, fooling about in their flat on Christmas Eve before heading down the pub. One, a struggling writer, meets and falls in love with his frail neighbour.

Unused to operatic singing, I was somewhat bemused by the opening, where the characters sing about David Cameron, their laptops and multi-tasking! But soon the incongruity of the style and the subject became amusing and almost seemed like an affectionate satire on opera’s over the topness.

This light and amusing first act is followed by an interval during which the audience are encouraged by actors dotted about the theatre to get up and wander around and head to the bar at the back.

The action starts up again in a wonderful second act with the audience now spread all over the place – sitting or standing in the aisles – as the opera takes place across the whole theatre in a raucous Christmas eve pub scene. At one point one of the main characters was stood right next to me singing her lungs out to the other characters on the other side of the room. Quite an experience.

The third act takes place several months later with the relationship of the two central lovers now fraught and heading towards tragedy. Enhanced by the intimacy of the theatre, the final act is extremely moving and beautiful.

Although not an opera aficionado I do like musicals. And I have wanted to see La Boheme since seeing and loving the musical Rent years ago (as well as its hysterical parody in Team America).

Rent of course is based on La Boheme and the story, and even particular scenes, are remarkably similar as well as the main musical theme which runs throughout both the musical and the opera.

I hear a lot of people complain that they don’t like musicals because they are sentimental and melodramatic with overly mannered or fake performances and singing.

I don’t necessary disagree with this, but I quite like it none the less. But so far, opera seems to me equally sentimental and melodramatic.

A big difference is clearly the music, with musicals using popular music with melodies and rhyme which are totally familiar and therefore accessible.

Opera on the other hand, like classical music generally, has very complex musical arrangements with few hooks or motifs to latch onto.

But if people think singing in musicals is over the top, well, operatic singing seems to me a completely bizarre and ridiculously mannered style. It is positively unnatural! Although during La Boheme I did get used to it.

Regarding the music, I found La Boheme a little un-engaging. Maybe, as this feels like a mini opera with the musical accompaniment being provided by a sole pianist (who plays impressively non-stop throughout), this version is not representative. And my non-appreciation of the music may be more about my own unfamiliarity with the style more than anything else.

None the less this was completely engaging theatre. Extremely entertaining, clever and ultimately very moving. I am still not sure exactly what I think about opera, but after seeing this show, I am sure that it is a taste that, like olives and seafood, will be well worth acquiring.


Sightseers – Shocking and funny


Sightseers is an unusual film. But a very funny, shocking and entertaining one – though best avoided by Daily Mail readers.

It’s pretty hard to say what kind of film it is. Part Mike Leigh (especially the opening scenes), part shock-horror – with some very graphic gory and bloody scenes, part road-movie, part state of the nation commentary and part Carry on Camping!

This eclectic mix however, works, and gives the film an impressive sense of originality.

The core story however is not really original at all. The film is about a pair of new lovers, Chris and Tina, in their mid to late 30s, who go on a caravanning holiday around northern England and accidentally embark on a killing spree. This becomes a way of exorcising their frustrations with the people they meet, themselves and each other.

Their murderous ways also become a form of expression for the two very ordinary characters and a way of making their otherwise dull lives extraordinary. These are lonely people from grey suburban England with problem families and no futures.

The echoes of the 1970s American masterpiece Badlands (updated by Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers) are loud and clear.

But the transposition to northern England and its relentless drizzle, with the added very funny and very black humour make this a completely English film.

And a quirky one, with as many celebrations of England as there are criticisms of what has become of the social fabric of the country (is the 80s soundtrack which, although making the film feel dated, there to suggest the time when it all started to go wrong?).

These celebrations, apart from the wonderful scenery of Yorkshire and Cumbria, center on wacky tourist attractions such as the pencil museum and tram museums and geeky caravanning culture. Leading man Chris knows all the best pitches in the caravan parks they visit and is a big fan of England’s cultural heritage in all its bizarre manifestations.

But is this a comment on the need for Chris to substitute his own lack of meaning in life with these banal obsessions, or is it the mocking of such harmless passions by mainstream Britain which pushes Chris over the edge (along with class jealousy and an intolerance to littering)?

Tina’s journey through the film is perhaps the most profound. At first she appears to become a willing murderer simply to please Chris. But the power over others (including Chris) she starts to gain from these actions can almost be read as an expression of her gender related liberation.

It is odd (and very Mike Leigh like) how we become so affectionate towards these two pretty unlikable characters who seem oblivious to the immorality of murdering quite decent people.

And there is little to distinguish them from their victims. Chris in a funny line, claims one of his victims deserved to die for being a Daily Mail reader, but his and Tina’s narrow world view and own selfish priorities seem to be cut from that very rag.

While therefore this feels like a small British film, it clearly it has a lot to it. It is also well acted with very natural performances, tightly scripted and directed and has a great ending.

It is also simply a very funny film (though not for all tastes).


Martha Wainwright – bonkers!

ImageShepherd’s Bush Empire, Sunday, 2 December 2012

Martha Wainwright is hugely talented. As the sister (Rufus’s) and daughter (Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle’s) of hugely talented musicians and songwriters this is no wonder. What is wondrous though is her voice. It is astonishing.

She is also completely bonkers! Delightfully so. Such is her charisma, whether it be her between song chatter or her odd mannerisms, she is a mesmerising presence on stage.

Unfortunately a lot of her own songs, more poppy than those of her folky parents and less melodic than her brother’s, don’t really provide the platform which you feel her talents, notably that voice, need.

Her voice really is something else, and got to soar on the opening two numbers of Sunday night, played by Martha solo with acoustic guitar.

Factory, from her more singer-songwriter sounding debut album of 2005, is one of her best self penned tracks. Always incredibly expressive, on this song her voice also veers from raw and husky to sweetly melodic.

Next up was I am a Diamond, written by her mother, who died in 2010. The Wainwright- McGarrigle family wear their emotions boldly on their sleeves and Martha is no different. You wondered how she would get through the night such was the intensity of emotion in her vocal delivery on this song. “I think I need emotional botox,” she quips after the song, looking mentally exhausted.

Kate, who sang and recorded with her sister Anna, played a very particular type of folk, not always easily accessible. It is ironic that Martha perhaps makes her mother’s work more powerful, while her own songs often lack some oomph.

And so on came the band, with whom Martha performed for most of the night songs predominately from her latest album. These are perfectly acceptable, AOR-pop tracks with often great open and honest mature lyrics, but musically they are really nothing special and just don’t really go where you know that voice can.

The band also seemed rather under-whelmed and underwhelming with a lack of rapport between Martha and the musicians. Bar of course her husband bass player. Dressed in a monk’s habit and black death-mask he must make quite an appropriately quirky addition to Wainwright family gatherings.

Martha though is always a joy to watch. Her left leg kicks out like a prowling horse, as if she Imagehas no control over it at all. Her arms reach upwards and she ferociously massages her hair until you feel it’s gonna fall out.

And then, when she has the songs to fully lose herself in, like the two Edif Piath numbers in the middle of the set (Martha’s third album was an entire collection of Piaf numbers), sung with just piano accompaniment, she paces lion-like round the stage and then falls to the floor as the melody and French passion soar. And of course she sings these songs in a deeply powerful chanteuse voice.

It is mum though who provides Martha with the platform to deliver the most staggering performance of the night.

Proserpina is the last song Kate McGarrigle wrote. Performed by Martha it is amazing. With sparse arrangement, the melody is haunting; the lyrics exude the bitterness of death. The band provide choral harmonies as the song builds to a crescendo with Martha wailing manically yet beautifully, like a woman mourning a loss almost too much to bear. The intensity is heightened by the song’s chorus plea “come home to mother.”

The encore is minus the band and better for it. Husband Brad accompanies Martha on piano for a throaty and raw Stormy Weather before it is Martha again alone with guitar for This Life, another catchy folky highlight from her debut album. Then she’s off, whipping her skirt up for a flash of her knickers as she exists the stage.

Bonkers, hugely entertaining, and that voice! No need for the band next time Martha.


June Tabor and Oysterband – Something so good

ImageAlban Arena – St Albans, 29 November 2012

It wasn’t just because I was out in the provinces that last night felt more like Middle Earth than a Ragged Kingdom (the title of June Tabor and Oysterband’s latest album).

First there was the audience of white-haired, grey bearded, beer bellied folk in a modern civic ensemble of buildings, which felt a long way from the youthful cosmopolitan concert halls of the capital.

Then there was June’s wonderful velvet curtain-like overcoat, complete with tassels, which made her look like some wise woman from the dark ages.

And then there was nothing ragged about this performance. This was polished impeccable playing of traditional songs and inspired modern covers by a totally professional outfit.

ImageJune Tabor, voted folk singer of the year at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk awards is in her mid sixties and has a solo career dating back to the seventies. She looks cool.

The Oysterband look like a bunch of ordinary middle-aged blokes in a village pub. Playing folk and folk-rock also since the mid seventies they are a great bunch of musicians.

But June Tabor and the Oysterband together are something very special. They have made two albums together, Freedom and Rain in 1990 and last year’s Ragged Kingdom which won Best Album at the Radio 2 Folk awards.

The majority of their set at St Alban’s came from these two albums, including the opening song of the night, Mississippi Summer, the opener of Freedom and Rain. While that album almost sounds a bit dated now, the songs from it played here sounded much sharper and more biting.

Second up was the great Fountains Flowing from Ragged Kingdom with its rousing violin melody and gently strummed chorus. These two songs, one about cotton pickers in Mississippi, the other an oh so British folk traditional, based on the hymn To be a Pilgrim, set the standard of variety that was to follow.

This is a band that between British and US traditional numbers comfortably took on the sixties psychedelia of the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow Parties and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, soul classic the Dark End of the Street, and a really rocking version of Pete Seeger’s Bells of Rhymney. The musicians, playing cello, violin, drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitars and accordion were impressive.

The gig though perhaps faltered when one or other of the two lead vocalists was off stage.

Because it is June’s voice, with its crystal clear diction delivered in an austere tone that really bites on certain lines or phrases, combined with the superb harmonies of the Oysterband’s lead singer John Jones that is the key to their collaborative success.

Whether singing to each other on alternate verses, or melding their voices together and finding that mythical third voice in the choruses, June and John’s voices compliment each other superbly.

ImageTheir call and response vocal on the band’s sublime version of Son David (a 1000 year old ballad) sounds delightful and the two singers nodded with pride at each other on its completion.

And then there is their inspired cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear us Apart, with June and John taking turns on each verse until singing the final one together. This, combined with the sparse acoustic arrangement, gives the song a whole new power and emotion and it must now rate as one of the best covers ever.

A cappella songs, with the whole band contributing choral vocals on hymn like songs and the traditional Scottish (When I was No But) Sweet Sixteen were also real highlights.

Nothing ragged then, but some real magical moments in the shire. British folk music as good as it gets.