Saturday, 24 August 2013

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Taking Bond to new heights...

Sure-fire hit: Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Ballsy, brainy and brilliant.  Those three words could easily be attributed to the new James Bond movie Skyfall and leading man Daniel Craig, whose third outing as the super-spy is arguably his most impressive yet.  However, they are in fact referring to Judi Dench’s superb portrayal of MI6 boss, M.  At 77, she’s still a force to be reckoned with
 – providing humour, charm, pathos and a nail-biting slice of the action.

Skyfall hinges on the relationship between 007 and M, which is put to the test when a figure from her past comes back for revenge.  This gives the film an emotional grounding – something we’re not used to seeing in a Bond movie.  There are all the familiar  components: the girls, the gadgets, and the cars.  Yet these are given a modern twist, as director Sam Mendes gives a wink and a nod to some well-loved parts of the Bond canon.

Running at over two hours, Skyfall maintains a thrilling pace and beautiful vision right from the opening credits to the revelatory ending.  It is only the product placement that momentarily takes you out of the experience.  Overall, Mendes has created the Bond movie everyone wanted.  Daniel Craig is back on form (and has regained his sense humour), Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw bring wit and warmth to their parts, and Javier Bardem delivers a deliciously wicked performance as the villain.  It is Judi Dench, however, who quietly steals the show.

INTERESTING FACT:  Bond needed the Stig for some of his action sequences - former Top Gear star Ben Collins was enlisted to help with the driving stunts.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Top of their game...

Maestro at work: Simon Rattle & the Berlin Phil


Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle
BBC Proms, 30 August 2012

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are always a big draw when they're in London, and this concert was certainly no different.  Tickets were speedily snapped up and prommers queued for hours outside the Royal Albert Hall to experience the acclaimed conductor in action.

The audience were jostling with nervous excitement as the orchestra stepped on stage, but a calmness fell as the first notes of Ligeti's Atmosphères reverberated around the huge hall.  It is a piece which evolves through a series of shifting sound clusters, giving the impression of simultaneously moving forward and staying still.  The tones and timbres melted into one another beautifully, making for a wonderful listening experience.  That feeling was conveyed into the next piece, the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's romantic opera Lohengrin, as Rattle moved seamlessly between works, without stopping for applause.  The orchestra radiated a real warmth throughout, especially from the strings and horns.

Next up was Sibelius' Symphony No. 4 — an unconventional interpretation of the traditional four-movement structure, which was written in 1910/11 as the threat of war loomed over Europe.  Although this is regarded by some as Sibelius' greatest work, it isn't as popular in the concert hall, and it soon becomes clear why.  The music has a darkness about it and even though it was played brilliantly, a sense of melancholy lingered in the air.

The mood changed after the interval, as the Berlin Phil returned with some lively French music, starting with Jeux (Games) — Debussy's last orchestral work, originally intended to accompany a ballet.  Rattle appeared entirely comfortable, conducting from memory, and the players responded by bringing out the piece's playful nature.

However, they saved the best until last with Ravel's ballet music Daphnis et Chloe (Suite No. 2).  Rattle seemed to glide over the orchestra, arms outstretched, as the fiendish wind parts rippled over the top of rich harmonies. The piece showcased the abilities of both orchestra and conductor, making it easy to understand why they are lauded the world over — together, they are mesmerising.

INTERESTING FACT: Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, with Rowan Atkinson on the keyboard as his comedy alter-ego, Mr. Bean.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

A Rêvelation...

Nocturnal magic: The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

"The circus arrives without warning... It is simply there, when yesterday it was not."

There is something alluring about the idea of a circus which pops up out of nowhere and opens its gates once everyone else has gone to bed.  Add in some magic, two star-crossed lovers, a deadly duel and some Victorian charm and you'll have some idea just how bewitching The Night Circus is.

Set in the late 19th century, Le Cirque des Rêves (the Circus of Dreams) brings together two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who must compete against each other in a mysterious challenge, which uses the circus as its setting.  There are a series of black and white tents, each home to dazzling exhibits and extraordinary acts (and not a clown in sight).  But as the contest plays out, the fate of circus and its inhabitants becomes increasingly precarious, building up to a dramatic showdown.

The story jumps around between different times and characters, but the sections are cleverly punctuated by short chapters where you feel like you are in the circus yourself - witnessing the contortionist's astonishing feats, getting lost in the hall of mirrors, watching kittens doing tricks and smelling the delicious scent of caramel.  It puts you right at the heart of the action.

Considering this is Erin Morgenstern's first novel, her writing style feels well-established and the world she's created is described in vivid detail.  You'll be dreaming of striped tents and caramel apples long after you've turned the final page.

INTERESTING FACT:  Erin Morgenstern is also a talented artist and has spent the past few years painting a black and white tarot deck.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Superhero supernova...

Spot the superhero: I gatecrash the Avengers party...

For a while now, Marvel Studios have been carefully building towards their star-studded superhero film, The Avengers (retitled Avengers Assemble in the UK, presumably so Brits don't get confused with the 60s TV show).  It draws together characters from across the Marvel comic-book universe, many of whom already have their own individual movie franchises - most notably, Iron Man (which is returning for a third instalment in May 2013).

A lot is riding on this project - not only financially, but also in terms of credibility.  It has to satisfy hardcore fans without alienating newcomers.  Thankfully, it does this - and much more besides.  Co-writer and director Joss Whedon has managed to bring together all the individual characters, without losing their identities in a melee of superhero action:  Iron Man is still brilliantly egotistical, Thor remains thunderously God-like, the Hulk is wonderfully volatile, Captain America is sensitive and sensible, while Black Widow remains dangerously seductive, and Hawkeye is intensely focussed.  They are forced to unite on screen to defeat a common enemy (in the form of Thor's power-hungry brother Loki) and in doing so, their personalities clash to delightful comic effect.

While Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and the rest of the cast play their super-human roles with confidence and charm, the real superhero of this film is surely Joss Whedon, who has cleverly combined huge set pieces with intricate CGI, wickedly funny banter and a cast of A-listers - ensuring viewers have a rollicking good time, whether they're a fan or not.

INTERESTING FACT:  Mark Ruffalo dedicated his performance as the Hulk to his ten-year-old son, whose childhood tantrums inspired him.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Russian reverence...

Scarily good: Valery Gergiev

LSO, Valery Gergiev
Barbican, 27 November 2011

It is always a pleasure to see Valery Gergiev returning to his roots with an all-Russian programme.  This time, he was conducting Sofia Gubaidulina's In tempus praesens (In the present time) and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10.

Anne-Sophie Mutter looked radiant as she took to the stage for In tempus praesens – Gubaidulina's second violin concerto, dedicated to Mutter.  The 30-minute single-movement work presents the audience with an extraordinary sound world: an orchestra devoid of violins (except the soloist) yet enhanced by a harpsichord and a variety of percussion instruments - including a giant gong, which leaves your ears ringing every time it's struck.  Mutter showed skill and dexterity, particularly in the cadenza, which was played magnificently.

Gergiev and the orchestra really seemed in their element in the second half.  The first movement of Shostakovich 10 was filled with passion and pathos, while the fiery second movement was never in danger of rushing with Gergiev on the podium.  The brass section were on fine form throughout the work and there were some achingly beautiful solos from the woodwind (including a brilliant piccolo duet).  The piece built in dramatic tension through the eerily upbeat third movement to a breathtaking finish at the end of the fourth.  A masterful performance from Gergiev and the LSO.

INTERESTING FACT:  Shostakovich was a football fanatic.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Lunar literature...

Bearded brilliance: Wilkie Collins
by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone is thought to be one of the first detective novels ever written in English.  So without dear old Wilkie Collins we might not have had Sherlock, Marple or Poirot.  However the genre is a familiar to us nowadays - we are not surprised by the long list of suspects, the red herrings or the celebrated investigator.  Yet reading The Moonstone, almost 150 years after it was written, it still feels fresh.

The book revolves around the theft of an Indian diamond called the Moonstone.  The story is told by different narrators (a method also used in his earlier novel, The Woman in White) all telling the tale from their own unique point of view.  This clever plot device stems from Collins' legal background – in court, various witnesses are called to shed light on a crime.

Collins also drew on his personal experience of opium addiction when creating the character of Ezra Jennings – a doctor's assistant who's got an unusual looks and suffers from an incurable illness.  He takes opium to help control the pain, just like Collins did to relieve his arthritis.

The flowery 19th century language used in The Moonstone can feel long-winded at times, but it never feels tiresome.  Beautiful and humourous descriptions really enhance this book and make you increasingly eager to find out who the culprit was.  Naturally, Collins keeps you hanging right until the last few pages!

INTERESTING FACT:  Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were life-long friends.