Archives for June 2013

Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” a Classic Romantic Comedy.

Much Ado About Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing.

After they’d finished principal photography on Avengers Assemble, its director Joss Whedon was told that he was contractually obliged to take a week off before they could begin editing it. This is what he did with his week off.

Avengers Assemble, which I reviewed earlier here, went on to become the biggest box office success ever. So it’s easy to understand the attraction of something like this for someone as creatively sophisticated as Whedon. Essentially, it’s the exact opposite.

Shot over 12 days with a bunch of friends on location at his house in the Hollywood hills, Much Ado About Nothing is as light and frothy as strawberry frappé. In other words, it’s the sort of thing that so many people get horribly wrong.

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting.

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting.

Romantic comedies are just that, romances first, and comedies second. As such, they rise or fall on the chemistry between their leads. And Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof sparkle. Though the film is somewhat stolen from under their noses by the comic pairing of Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as the magnificently hapless cops. The former pair will be recognized (just about) by fans of Angel, and the latter from the outrageously overlooked Serenity.

Perhaps not quite up there with Smiles Of A Summer Night, or that justly famous episode of Moonlighting, it’s a wonderfully deft adaptation of one of Shakespeare‘s trickier comedies. And it’s only when you think of the many, many dreadful attempts at romantic comedy that you can luxuriate in its casual charm. You can see Much Ado About Nothing’s trailer here.

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Debut Album from Savages Justifies All The Noise.

David Bowie.

David Bowie.

The latest nextbigthing from Britain are Savages, and their much vaunted debut album, Silence Yourself has just hit the shelves. And they’re this close to being faintly ridiculous.

They’re a four piece all girl retro post punk combo, and they take themselves terribly seriously.

Perhaps it’s unfair to castigate them for that. All they’re doing is taking their cue from Roxy and Bowie and their attitude at the onset of the 70s.

If you don’t take yourself and what you do seriously how can you expect anyone else to? And not just the music. Everything.

The debut album from Savages.

The debut album from Savages.

But with Bowie and Roxy it was so much more colourful. And fun. Everything’s so black and white with Savages. A bit of rouge could really brighten them up. If it weren’t for the actual music, the whole thing would be ever so slightly risible.

Happily though, Silence Yourself really is an arresting album.

Lead singer Jehnny Beth is openly channelling Patti Smith via Siouxsie Sioux. But although they sound every bit as feral as the Banshees, it’s all produced in a much more planned and practiced way.

They are coming at it from the same place as Canadian noise maestros Metz, reviewed by me earlier here.

Roxy circa '72

Roxy circa ’72

It might initially appear like a wall of industrial noise made up of layers of dissonant feedback, but it soon reveals itself as a carefully crafted and patiently practiced collection of meticulously structured songs.

Which will probably annoy some. Punk wasn’t supposed to be practiced. But all it really means is that Savages and Metz are much better at it than most of those who went before.

The boys from Pitchfork gave them an 8.7 here, and you can see them perform their single Husbands on the Jools Holland Show here.

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French Television Comes of Age with Beguiling “The Returned”.

The Returned.

The Returned.

One of the things that the French critic Roland Barthes was referring to in his Mythologies (1957) was the assumption that going to theatre was better for you than going to the cinema. And that best of all was reading a book. The myth being, that some things are necessarily better for you than others.

It was in France that Le Cahiers du Cinéma was launched as a reaction to that. And from there, the French New Wave of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Demy and Chabrol emerged.

Hotel Costes.

Hotel Costes.

Equally, they refused to snigger at pop music.  From Serge Gainsbourg and Francoise Hardy to Daft Punk and Stéphane Pompougnac – and if you’ve yet to discover the laidback seductively louche lounge world of Hôtel Costes, then lucky you. It awaits. You can begin here with this video from Hôtel Costes 15.

But for whatever reason, the French have always refused to look at television other than from a lofty, disdainful height. Ironically, they’ve always viewed it in much the same way that the rest of the world used to regard cinema. So The Returned is a welcome corrective to an uncharacteristic prejudice.

The series revolves around a school bus that has crashed over a cliff and the stories that emerge as the dead children re-surface as if nothing had happened. The reason that it all works so well is that everything is played absolutely straight.

It’s a million miles away from any of the horror genre gore and blood fests that have slipped into vogue of late. What it’s closest to is probably Breaking Bad’s first two and best series’. But without any of the thriller elements that came alas to dominate the latter’s later episodes.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Like Breaking Bad, it asks what would you do if your dead daughter suddenly turned up four years after her death? Really. How would you react?

The other obvious touchstone, as is invariably referenced, is Twin Peaks. Which isn’t terribly fair, as unsurprisingly it is in no way as visually or as sonically daring. But then again, what is?

That caveat aside, there is a similarly eerie air to events here. And it really is an impressively cinematic piece of work.

The Returned.

The Returned.

That it’s not quite sufficiently Lynchian is hardly the most damning thing you could hurl at a director. It’s comfortably the best thing you’ll see on television this year.

The Returned began on Channel 4 last weekend. But don’t worry if you missed the first episode. It won’t make you any the less wiser about what’s going on. And you will regret it if you don’t start tuning in.

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Tony Palmer’s TV Series “Wagner” is Majestic.

Richard Burton in Wagner.

Richard Burton in Wagner.

It’s hard watching Tony Palmer’s magnificent biopic of Wagner to avoid thinking, they don’t make them like they used to. Clocking in at just under eight hours, it was made in 1982 but has been re-mastered and re-released as a 10 part TV series.

Richard Burton finally got given the opportunity to act in something worthy of his prodigal talent. It is as they say the role he was born to play. The natural disdain he had for the whole grubby business of acting is used to perfectly convey the disgust and impatience that Wagner had for the world in general.

And along side him? John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Lawrence Olivier – the only time they shared the screen together –  Vanessa Redgrave, Marthe Kelle, Corin Redgrave, Joan Plowright and Gabriel Byrne.

Last Tango In Paris.

Last Tango In Paris.

The whole thing is shot by the regal Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer on The Conformist, Last Tango In Paris, Apocalypse Now, One Form The Heart and The Last Emperor. It looks ravishing.

And in to all that mix there’s the figure of Wagner himself. Unspeakably arrogant, dizzyingly self-centred, and disgustingly anti-Semitic, he was convinced that he was the best dramatist since Shakespeare and the greatest composer who ever lived.

It’s because he was indeed both that he’s ended up being such a contentious, not to say divisive figure.

In a word; can artistry, any artistry, even that kind of unrivalled genius excuse that sort of unpalatable behaviour? What’s more important, what you do, or what you are?

Richardson, Olivier and Gielgud in Wagner.

Richardson, Olivier and Gielgud in Wagner.

But we’re not here to talk about the man, but about the TV series. And if ever there was music to give an 8 hour TV series weight and grandeur, it’s Wagner’s. And what a life he somehow found time to live.

Wagner had an unrivalled appetite for other people’s money and wives, and a need for love and recognition that can only be described as pathological.

Ludwig's castle at Neuschwanstein.

Ludwig’s castle at Neuschwanstein.

He was a central figure in the revolutions that threatened to sweep through Europe in 1848. After eventually being adopted by the fanatical King Ludwig of Bavaria, he custom built his own opera house  at Bayreuth where he directed (rather than conducted) the premier of his 15 hour plus Ring cycle. The usually dour Schopenhauer scribbled in the margins of the first Act of Siegfried “Finally!”, after brother and sister had eventually kissed.

The opening nights were watched in 1876 by musical titans Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Bruckner, and Grieg as well as his one time friend Nietzsche.

Coppola's One From The Heart.

Coppola’s One From The Heart.

In between all of which, he blithely stole Cosima, the wife of his close friend Claus Von Bulow, and the daughter of his tireless champion, the brilliant piano virtuoso Liszt. And yet both men continued to vigorously support him. And on it goes; betrayal, opulence, vanity, politics, sex and always drama. Perpetual conflict. And all of that incredible music.

To the credit of everyone involved in this landmark series, Wagner neither avoids nor sensationalizes its subject’s contradictions. It has one of his friends sum him up thus:

You take everything from your friends. Their money, their wives, their love.

And without a trace of irony, Burton replies:

What are friends for?

It’s hard not to conclude that an actor (or director) today would feel the need to editorialize a line like that. But Burton refuses to give anything away. He’s perfectly and inscrutably matter of fact.

What’s so wonderful about the series is how comfortable it is with the ambiguous feelings it has for the man himself. Wagner was a monster. But if he had not have been, he never would have had all of that demented passion to funnel into his music. It is precisely his monstrosity that renders his music so intoxicating.

Wagner is on Sky Arts 2 – and they often keep their programmes on a loop. See it.

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