Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Craig Raine

Sophie Turton hides in the ladies' room while Craig Raine entertains the audience at Zest.

An Epic Disaster?

‘Poetry reading with Craig Raine,’ the posters promised. An evening listening to the quasi-amusing writer of ‘A Martian Sends A Post Card Home’, within the walls of the ambient, Algerian café-bar Zest, sounded interesting, if not exactly appealing. Unfortunately what we received was not poetry but rather a poem; one epic, rambling, forty-five minute piece that had been scribbled down by Raine one summers day and had not been picked up since. The sheer arrogance and pretension surrounding this man was astonishing, as he laughingly admitted that not only was this poem unedited and unrevised, but also had ‘boring bits that need cutting.’ If he was trying to entice the newer generation into the world of poetry he very much missed the mark, as not only was his performance insulting, it also encapsulated the pompous stereotype that some attribute to poets. Perhaps this is where my main problem lies. The English department puts a clear effort into arranging poetry readings and on previous evenings poets have put forth their work in a way that engages the audience rather than alienating it. In return not only did Craig Raine not make an effort, but he instead appeared to do the very opposite. It is a struggle to understand why he did not just read a few of his respected poems, maybe giving us a bit of insight into the intensions within them as a little extra reward for coming out of our houses on a rainy evening.

The poem itself had no real rhythm, having been written in free verse, making it hard to follow and, with the exception of sporadic voice characterisation, boring to listen to. After about twenty-five minutes I made a hasty retreat to the toilet in the hope that he would have either moved on or shut up by the time I returned. On return, however, my heart sunk to hear him repeat the name ‘Angelica’, the only indication that he had not yet concluded his ramblings. Needless to say, the exact topic of the poem has never been known to me, due to concentration being almost impossible to maintain and the fact that we were sitting a fair distance from the stage. As you may expect if you were to embark on a forty-five minute unrevised reading, Raine made quite a few mistakes, bumbling over certain words, further adding to the poems disjointed rhythm.

When introducing the poem Raine proudly told his audience that he was about to read something, ‘a little bit dirty’. Raine is known for his vulgar language, an example being with one of his most famous poems ‘Arse Hole’. This may be effective on paper, but hearing an aging, balding man talk about ‘masturbating the spoon clean’ was simply grotesque, and one had to wonder how necessary that level of rudeness really was. Once the poem had ended I was left with a bizarre mix of relief and indignation. Craig Raine owed me forty-five minutes of my life.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Lions for Lambs

Laura Pugh writes about Lions for Lambs.

Lions for Lambs takes place six years after America went to war with Iraq. The film itself is in three parts, which is slightly annoying to get into, but after a while it becomes necessary to the plot, allowing us to witness the same event through the eyes of the government, the media and the individual soldier.
Despite his age, Tom Cruise plays senator Jasper Irving successfully as a political figure who has an ultimate plan to target Al Quieda and the Taliban and bring an end to terrorism. Starring opposite him, award winning Merly Streep plays the only female eye candy in the film as journalist Janine Roth. Streep is convincing as a journalist with a heart who interviews Cruise throughout the film. In doing this she unveils the shocking truth that the American government will do ‘whatever it takes’ to win the war, regardless of the lives that will be lost; of course, her version of events will never go to print, and an edited version will spread across the World like wildfire. Director Robert Redford, who also plays Professor Stephen Malley in the film makes us the question the reliability of the media in our society; do we really know what’s going on, or do we simply believe what we are told anyway?
Redford’s character plays against Todd Hayes, actor Andrew Garfield, in the second section of this episodic film, trying to persuade the political science student to see out University. More importantly, her tells Todd about two inspirational students he taught who went to be soldiers; these are the two soldiers the story focuses on in the third snapshot of the film, when they are separated from their patrol. These characters, Ernest Rodriguez and Adrian Finch, are played by Michael Pena and Derek Luke, who give heart warming performances throughout the film playing American heroes. Redfords presentation of the film makes us think of them not only as soldiers, but as university students with a future, young men, and ultimately, numbers on a piece of paper. A very thought provoking film.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007


Ledhead Will Harris reviews Mothership.

Landing in at number four on the UK Top 40 in its week of release, "Mothership", Led Zeppelin’s most recent greatest hits album, is a 24-track collection of songs spanning the career of the band, and its high first entry in the charts showing that the mighty blimp of heavy metal still has a huge and most likely ever-increasing fan base. Indeed, the number of people from around the world who registered their names to win tickets for their one-off reunion show estimated to over one million, and doing a little research myself managed to find some of those tickets being auctioned off on the internet for well over a thousand pounds. Perhaps Jimmy Page was just being modest when he said he “hadn’t expected that sort of overwhelming demand”, but the point remains that this band has firmly cemented itself in the history of rock and roll, and, without undue exaggeration I think, the history of music as a whole. The sticker on the front of the case for "Mothership" reads: “The very best of Led Zeppelin remastered on 2 CDs”, and, sure enough, this is an ample collection of tracks for the fair-weather fan of Zeppelin, and if you’re not planning on becoming a die-hard Ledhead anytime soon (although I strongly recommend it) you can go no wrong with this. However, speaking as a Ledhead myself, there are some issues concerning this album that I would like to draw attention to. Firstly, "Mothership" is not the first album in the band’s catalogue to contain “the very best of Led Zeppelin”. The songs found on this album very closely mirror those of the joint albums “Early Days… the best of Led Zeppelin Vol. 1” (1999) and “Latter Days… the best of Vol. 2” (2000), and the track listings of those two albums incredibly resemble those of 1990’s Remasters double-CD set. Somewhere I can hear Mr Page’s eyes rolling back into dollar signs, accompanied by the faint sound of “ker-ching!” My other qualm is the use of the word ‘remastered’. Owning all of the original studio albums on CD - which are said to be digital remasters of the original vinyl editions themselves - I can find little sonic difference between the tracks on the original CD pressings and those on the greatest hits release. In fact, if anything has actually been done in relation to the mixing or production of these songs, I think it would only be Page himself who would be able to point out the issues, with the usual perfectionist musician’s pedantry. The songs themselves, though, are precious gems of rock and roll history. Not one of them would ever be omitted from any Zeppelin fan’s own personal canon of favourites, and the two CDs feature a good range of the band’s works, from the traditional hard rock of “Communication Breakdown” and “Rock And Roll”, to the bluest of blues found in tracks such as “Dazed And Confused” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, to the A-minor sensitivity of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Stairway to Heaven”. So to treat this album with the appropriate respect and honesty, "Mothership" offers little to long-time fans of Led Zeppelin, unless you happen to be one of the die-hards who absolutely must own every official release. However for those who are yet to fully embrace the delights of Robert Plant’s screams and moans, to the backing track of Page’s undeniably fabulous six-string virtuosity, John Paul Jones’ understated bass playing, and John Bonham’s powerful triplets and splashy rhythms, go buy this album, and let "Mothership" shine in your CD collection as patronage to one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

Iain Banks

Tom Moody reviews Iain Banks' Dead Air.

I am a long-standing admirer of Iain Banks' science-fiction novels, (published under the name of Iain M. Banks) and was interested to see what I would make of one of his mainstream works of fiction. While his science-fiction efforts whisk you away to some unfathomably richly imagined and compelling corner of the galaxy, this novel takes place in a far more domestic setting: post 9/11 London. Banks uses the events of that fateful date as a canvas over which to paint his tale. The opening chapter takes place during a drug-fuelled party, where the central Character Ken Nott, a popular shock-jock, is having a great time chucking various items off his friend's balcony whilst cavorting with like-minded media-type-people. The festivities are abruptly brought to a halt when the party-goers start receiving calls on their mobiles: apparently something has just taken place in Manhattan involving planes and skyscrapers. 9/11 is seldom referred to after this opening chapter, and does not influence the plot in any direct way. We follow Ken as he goes about the normal business of his life, and Banks represents him as a not particularly likeable, but very believable protagonist. He becomes romantically involved with several women at the same time, recalls once having slept with his best friend's wife, and very nearly repeats the offence with the daughter. All the while, our hero cannot seem to stop himself from embarking on highly opinionated, idealistic political rants, not just on his radio show but in general discussion with his various friends and romantic interests, the most alluring and potentially dangerous of which is Celia, the exotic wife of a renowned gangster. hundreds of pages in, all that seems to have been accomplished is a number of mildly entertaining sub-plots detailing Ken's various attempts to achieve satisfaction in his love life, and to arrogantly force his oh-so-important political views onto as many people as possible; one particularly audacious stunt involving attacking a holocaust-denier on live television. But, thankfully, the consequences of his actions kick in just in time. He receives a number of violent threats and the sense of anxiety and danger is gradually and expertly notched up, until our man works himself into a nervous wreck and eventually gets himself into a real life-or-death scenario by making such a spectacularly stupid mistake that you really wonder if he deserves our sympathy in the climatic chapters. Despite the less-than-endearing and frequently idiotic nature of Ken Nott, 'Dead Air' is nonetheless a consistently gripping read; I couldn't wait to see how he would squirm his way out of his next increasingly disastrous predicament.

Upon its release in 2002, this novel was criticised for not dealing directly enough with the events of 9/11. Indeed, it can seem superficially that Banks has simply used the theme as a gimmicky selling point for the novel, which is, at its heart, a compulsively readable and intelligent thriller, though not one which has any powerful political message. However, Banks does a fantastic job of subtly conveying a convincing sense of post-9/11 angst in 'Dead Air', and tactfully uses his protagonist's opinions, and the periphery character's responses to them, as a way to engage in political discourse without too obviously putting over his own agenda. This, in hindsight, could be more effective and future-proof than expressing an overt gut-reaction. When compared to Bank's science-fiction works, though, of which 'Excession' and 'Look to Windward' are, in particular, two of the best books I have ever read, 'Dead Air' was a disappointment. It was not as creative, nowhere near as inspiring, and did not even serve as an equally powerful or relevant social commentary. Banks works at his best when given a blank and infinitely vast canvas for his imagination to work with, not when restricted to the reality of modern life

Plant and Krauss

Martin Hall admires the new Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album.

Why is it that when an artist releases something new, regardless to how phenomenal, gifted, or influential he or she may be; regardless to how inspirational, passionate and down right remarkable his or her back catalogue may be; why is it that artists’ new works are always judged against their previous masterpieces!?
As said on BBC Radio 2, ‘isn’t it strange that Robert Plant is releasing this album at the same times as he’s doing the Led Zeppelin stuff, it’s so different?’ I am afraid MR Radcliffe and, or Maconie, it is not a Led Zeppelin piece. Plant is an artist, a first-rate one at that, Robert Plant is not Led Zeppelin.

Plant’s latest album, a collaboration with Allison Krauss, blue grass fiddle player and singer extraordinaire, is awe-inspiring. These two artists, although a world apart in style, synthesize so exceptionally well together creating an unusual yet addictive and captivating sound.
‘Raising Sand’ hears Plant and Krauss, produced by T Bone Burnett, reworking and interpreting some of the best blues and blue grass songs of the 20th Century. We hear songs from such greats as Sam Phillips, Naomi Neville and the released single ‘Gone Gone Gone’ written by Phil and Don Everly.
Plant and Krauss’ current single ‘Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)’ is a powerful blues/rock interpretation of the Everly Brothers’ impressive track. It is a fantastic example of the strength in the combination of these two magnificent voices: Plant’s commanding and bold tone perfectly compliments Krauss’ soft and warm voice. The band really excels on this track creating a driving and controlling rhythm you will find it hard not to move to.
This album contains a host of what promises to be incredibly memorable music. ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’, a haunting and enchanting song, is one of the great gems of this album. It’s sinister and circus-esque tones are wonderful; this song creates a world in which you can disappear, evoking images and emotions abound.
‘Please Read the Letter’ is a reworking of Page and Pant’s song from their 1998 album ‘Walking into Clarksdale’. This song is beautifully sung once again yet comes with an extra something special in Krauss’ masterful touches of harmony.
A song which is an assured success, ‘Fortune Teller’ holds its own on this album, protruding as the most profound work here. Lyrically, Naomi Neville’s song is unparalleled; masterfully re-worked by Plant’s phenomenal voice this song stands out as one of the best I have heard in a very long time.
Unfortunately, every family has its Black Sheep, 'Through the Morning, Through the Night' claiming this title. This song simply does not belong on this album. If I was driving my pickup through the Bible belt, the red of my neck more sore than ever, looking longingly towards the evening's road kill supper, my track of choice may possibly evolve into said black sheep. However, this being said, the rest of the album then would not have been to my taste and I would have used the disk to frisbee at a nearby squirrel.

Nonetheless, the rest of the album in keeping with the success of the single, it certainly promises to please. This album is none too distant in sound from Plant’s previous work ‘Mighty Rearranger’ with his band Strange Sensation; drawing on Plant’s plentiful World Music influences, combined with a blues, blue grass streak to create a sound unlike any heard before: a blend of the modern and the worldly so expertly and successfully executed.

Long Way Down

Martin Hall reviews Long Way Down

As someone who was inspired by these explorers to raise some money for charity through expeditions myself, I can say that this book is not only a phenomenal read but a magnificent motivational tool making waves for Unicef, Riders for Health, the Children’s Hospice Association of Scotland and charities alike.

McGregor and Boorman’s latest adventure sees the two travel from John O’Groats, the northern most tip of Scotland to Cape Town, the southern most tip of South Africa.
Two men riding huge BMW R1200 GS Adventure motor bikes laden up to the gunwales followed by two Nissan 3.0 Litre Turbo Diesel Patrols across some of the most rugged and temperate terrain through the African continent; a book for the most intrepid of armchair explorers.
This thrilling and at times hilarious account of the pair’s travels is a heartfelt and touching piece commenting on the terrors of ex Child soldiers in Uganda, Mine Victims in Ethiopia and the Aids epidemic evident throughout Africa.

Social comment aside this is an extremely entertaining book. With Charley being pulled of a plane as a terrorist threat, Ewan barely making the trip altogether, being stoned by children throughout the African continent and almost being trampled by elephants, the Long Way Down is an encompassing book.

A shorter journey than their first, the Long Way Round, this book is every bit as exciting and more thrilling still, as the tag line proves to be true: Eighteen countries. Five shock absorbers. Two bikes. One amazing adventure...

Disappointingly, the book, as fantastic as it is, is somewhat ruined by the accompanying T.V series. For the Long Way Round I was an avid watcher, and consequently collector in buying the DVD. However, for the Long Way Down, the pair appear to have brought along the nanny crew. The mammoth 4X4s, never too far behind the bikes, have become a home base for the pair, carrying with them enough supplies to restock a large camping shop. This serves to utterly destroy the illusion that these two best friends are adventurous in any way. Ewan, accompanied by a member of his close family at most points throughout the trip even brings along his wife to slow down progress, drop her bike and wholly negate the whole concept of Two bikes. One amazing adventure...

The series reveals this mock ‘adventure’ to actually be, four bikes, two enormous mothering support crews, fifteen million camera men, enough electronics to fill Comet and enough camping equipment to form an elaborate palace of tented dwellings, running water and all; all falsely held together under the illusory concept of ‘adventure’.
Read the book, at least the truth is well veiled under well written prose. The T.V show however, serves merely as a break in the evening in which to make a sandwich.

L.A. Confidential

Martin Hall goes all noir on us with a piece about L.A. Confidential.

For decades, audiences have swarmed to the big screen to view these shadowy masterpieces. Creating careers for such greats as Cagney, Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Bacall and more, these films have now evolved into Neo-Noirs spawning the newly released L.A. Confidential (1997). But why is it that we still love these films after nearly 70 years in evolution?

Film Noir is not an easily definable genre as such. It is more a matter of tone and mood being generally pessimistic in and tone reflective in mood; A genre which works around a myriad of frameworks such as Docu Noir (The Enforcer 1976), Heist Noir (The Asphalt Jungle 1950), Amnesia Noir (The Long Wait 1954), Gangster Noir (High Sierra 1941), Woman-in-distress Noir (My Name Is Julia Ross 1945), and runaway Noir (You Only Live Once 1937) to name but a few. These numerous frameworks work around a similar character structure and cinematography making Film Noir more of an umbrella term than a specific genre description.

Conventionally, in a Film Noir the male character must choose between two women. The first, a devoted woman who is loyal and in love with him, the second the Femme Fatale. This Femme Fatale will use the male character for personal gain to help her achieve money or power.
Film Noirs make use of dark sets, single source lighting with copious shadows and the effective use of chiaroscuro. Single source lighting was preferred as a result of necessity as during WWII, film production was massively reduced and there was little finance within the Hollywood film industry to pay for equipment. And so in an attempt to reduce costing within the industry only one light source was used; this also hid the fact that a full set was not always constructed, another budgetary flaw.
Night scenes, which were hugely popular during the silent-era of film making, were impossible to effect due to the noisy and bulky equipment required. However, as technology advanced, it brought lighter cameras and greater creative possibilities for cinematographers.

The stylistics of Film Noir features was directly influenced by German expressionist cinema of the 20s and 30s. Characteristics such as montage, surreal settings, cantered camera angles and inventive cinematography were directly influenced by this movement. German films emphasised a character’s psychology and analysed their actions, looking more at what they were thinking such as in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). This expressionist approach to film making inaugurated the ‘Black’ style utilised by directors of the time and created a model for the coming Film Noir genre.

The majority of Film Noir motifs such as criminal content, tough male characters, costume and period echo the Hollywood gangster. It was during America’s post 1929 Depression – era in which most gangster Noirs were spawned, such as Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931). These films reflected the attitudes and trends of America and encompassed themes of the period at hand, organised crime, murder and corruption. Filmmakers presented contemporaneous themes within their films. As events such as Prohibition, Depression in America and eventually War were what were happening during the birth of this genre, the attitude of Film Noir became a sombre and pessimistic one.

With this influx of Gangster Noirs, there was an outcry from the Legion of Decency that the placing of this criminal iconography in the forefront of the public conscience was corruptive and would cause imitation. This led the evolution of Gangster Noirs in which actors typecast as gangsters reversed roles and portrayed the side of good. This is evident in ‘G’ Men (1935) for example, in which James Cagney plays the government official and not, as expected, the gangster.

During the 60s and 70’s there was a substantial decrease in the number of Film Noirs released due to the changing attitudes in film making. However, during the mid 80s, the early Noir Fiction novels were republished causing an eruption in the creation of modern Film Noirs known as Neo – Noirs. Thus films such as The Big Easy (1987) and Blood Simple (1985) were created. Some of these, such as L.A Confidential, retained the on-screen time period whereas most updated the genre and placed the film within modern day society. For example, Dirty Harry (1971), Clint Eastwood as a hardened cop in 1970’s America, nonetheless this is most certainly a Film Noir as it exhibits a degree of cynicism and pessimism and classic Gangster and Runaway Noir narrative characteristics.

So now, with our optimistic lifestyles and bright futures, why do we hark back to the past and look to crime for entertainment? Unlike the by gone days of classic Film Noirs, film makers today have no political view or standpoint but appear to be concerned with style and content. The Film Noir offers filmmakers a huge creative canvass upon which to paint their masterpiece. With its shady sets, expressionistic lighting and a 1950s’ aesthetic, L.A. Confidential is a smash. With a story line to match and a list of stars to impress, L.A Confidential promises to be a huge success.

The Film Noir genre is one, which has been pastiched and parodied myriad times over the years such as in Blade Runner (1982), an eclectic film drawing tremendously from Film Noir. This pastiche draws from the paradigms of Amnesia Noir and Runaway Noir but relies heavily also upon the conventions of Sci-Fi. Films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) successfully parodied Film Noir as Bob Hoskins and the comic character Roger made fun of its conventions.
With modern writers such as James Ellroy and Edward Bunker (Straight Time 1978) having their novels adapted for the screen, Film Noir, hosting a stylistic and thematic legacy, will continue to visit our screens for a long time to come.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Paul Reid

Helen Thomson goes retro with the painting of Paul Reid. And before you mention it, yes I know that isn't the painting she's talking about. But there isn't a picture of that one online.

Odysseus on the Island of Circe

Oil on Canvas, 2007

Retrospective Exhibition

Hull University Art Gallery 9th Nov- 7th Dec 2007

Paul Reid is without doubt one of the most talented artists to emerge out of Scotland in recent years. He deals with Greek myths as subjects and interprets them in a distinctly neo-classicist style, a style which, no doubt, many people will deem redundant. And although this style did die out for the most part towards the end of the 19th century, it doesn’t stop Reid’s work from being brilliant.

Odysseus on the Island of Circe forms the centrepiece to the current exhibition at Hull University Art Gallery, and an eye-catching centre it is. The composition immediately draws your attention, the sumptuous richness of the whole ensemble demonstrates the artists affinity for oil paints. The colours have a subtlety and strength not often combined in modern painting, with its tendency to over-simplify. The skin tone in particular, perhaps the most difficult thing to capture, is made up of hundreds of shades with often only minute differences between them. This attention to detail defines the muscles, the ribs and the veins of Odysseus and his men. The broad brush strokes give the bodies a smoothness and sheen that is very realistic, while the short strokes used for the fur of the lion’s mane makes it look practicably strokable.

The composition of this painting shows a group of characters mid-way through action, freeze-framed as it were. It is at once natural and contrived, with the figures laid out just slightly too conveniently, in order to suit the purpose of the painting. Yet the painting has the look of a photo, so as to feel the characters could start moving again if only you stand watching them for long enough.

It is not only the characters in the foreground that are magnificently depicted, but there is incredible attention to detail in the background. The props lying around the characters get as much attention as Odysseus and his men, resulting in fruit lying on the floor that looks edible, clothing, discarded by the now nude half-animals, lying creased and crumpled on the ground, a sword leant against a rock that glints with the polish of real metal. The foliage surrounding the scene is scarcely less perfect. The trees are depicted even down to the smallest branch, the leaves can be more or less distinguished from one another even far into the distance. Without a doubt Reid harks back to all that was best in neo-classical style.

There are very few points, really, on which I can criticise this painting. There was a slight problem that I noticed with Odysseus’ foot and lower right leg, but if I have to be that pedantic then he obviously hasn’t gone that far wrong. He shows remarkable skill in his painting, a skill that is not often exhibited in this world of modern art. To deem his style of painting redundant, as some have done, is grossly unfair. Surely, given the public’s love for things made in a style that went out years ago, it should be deemed retro.

Beyond the Paintbrush – John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Paintings Ophelia (1851-2) and Bubbles (1886).

Kate Harker wades into the duckpond of Millais's Ophelia.

Both Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionism are my favourite styles of art. I prefer realistic scenes and subjects and particularly with John Everett Millais Ophelia, there is an ethereal quality evident that works well with the realism.

Even though people may not recognise or heard of the artist, they may well recognise another work of his originally entitled A Childs World, more famously known as Bubbles . Like many artists Millais’ paintings were not fully appreciated until after his death in 1896.

If asked why I liked Ophelia I would probably say because there is more to it than meets the eye. If art is to make an impression on the viewer, it has to mean something; the viewer has to relate to it in some way. It has to cause a reaction – even if it is controversial.

Ophelia was seen to have captured the very essence of what Pre-Raphaelitism stood for, its motto being that art should be as true to nature as possible. Hence, Millais spent many hours getting the surroundings just right on canvas, making it look as natural as possible. Even the flowers had symbolic meaning, for example, the red poppy representing sleep and death.

Even if I was not aware of, or had read the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I would have been interested to know about the subject in the painting and the story behind this somewhat slightly morbid but peaceful scene. During the time that this was painted, the character of Ophelia was a popular subject for British artists, as Hamlet was considered to be the best of the tragedies. It fitted in well with the Romantic period and the ideas of spurned love, transgression and fallen women were popular in both literature and art. Millais portrayal of Ophelia however, was unconventional for the time.

Later in his career, Millais concentrated on children as subjects for his work. Bubbles was originally painted for his own pleasure and a lot of his work was copied for the increasingly popular fine art print market. He reluctantly sold the rights for this work and it became the focus of the Pears soap advertising campaign that it is now best known for.

Following this, Millais had to defend himself against the barrage of disapproval from art critics. It was thought that to front popular culture in order to be appreciated by the mass public, was to degrade oneself, to degrade art and would prevent Millais from being recognised along with the other distinguished artists of the time.

I particularly like Bubbles in that it captures the spirit and the time of being a child perfectly – the innocence, the blissful ignorance of life, yet an inquisitiveness to learn more about it. The colours used in the clothing and the background are dark so that the viewer is drawn more to the pale face and those curious dark eyes.

Such paintings as these and others by the Pre-Raphaelite artists capture life as it was. Even though Millais was reluctant and criticised for letting his work be used as a mass media piece, through it, it has reached a much wider audience than it may have otherwise done. Looking beyond the paintbrush and paintings themselves can reveal so much more about the artists and the times they lived in.

In tying Millais rather unconventional portrayal of Ophelia in connection with Von Hagens modern art form, I consider both to be intriguing, in different ways. Not to go against my previous words about this art form, I find Von Hagens technique is original and the controversy surrounding the whole technique is sure to keep it in the public eye for some time. Hence it has achieved its purpose. However, I find preserving ‘life’ through art in the more traditional way on canvas, more pleasing to the eye. Call me old fashioned but having seen the original Ophelia in the Tate gallery, give me a paintbrush over plastination any day.

Completed with reference to the text by Riding C, John Everett Millais. London: Tate 2006.

The Welly

Lauren Kendrick goes on the town at the Welly Nightclub.

The Welly nightclub is situated on Beverly road, near to the heart of Hull university student area. Boasting on it’s website as being ‘East Yorkshire number one night club and venue’. The equipment they have is top quality, not only a 32k sound in Welly 1 (a downstairs room), as well as a D and B festival set up in Welly 2 (an upstairs room), and if that wasn’t enough to fill your ears then they also have a separate Dj lounge which they claim as an intimate space with a premium bar. This sounds like a brilliant club, not only do they have a variety of rooms to explore, they have spent a lot of money to ensure a high quality of the sound. The line up of acts that they book range from well known established djs such as 'Dj Hype' to alternative bands like 'The Futureheads'. Those who do not know this club or come from a town without a venue to see live popular acts may think that I do not realise how lucky I am to have the opportunity to see these sorts of acts. I am not contesting their ability to draw in some big names in the music industry, or that their systems could be any better. My comment is on the club, the atmosphere and the crowd, which really should be part of the determination of whether a club is as good as it claims. This club on paper sounds amazing, but personally I don’t want to see an act under a dictatorship and scummy surroundings which stops you from enjoying your night.
The evening in which my contempt for this club grew to complete disgust was the night of the 15th November. Headliners for this night were Pendulum. Loving their music, but disliking Welly due to the prejudice Indie clientele mostly seen here, I decided to swallow my pride as surely their usual bigoted indie crowd would not come to a drum and base night? The ticket was an extortionate £15, compared to many of their nights being below £10. But Pendulum are very well known now and what more did I expect from this capitalist venue?
Pendulum were due on stage at 10pm, though due to unforeseen personal circumstances that day I was not able to get to Welly until 11pm. There was no sign on the ticket to suggest that late-comers would turned away, I would be able to see at least half an hour of their set. What a fool I was. There was a queue of about fifteen people when I arrived at the gates which seemed slightly odd. Surely they should have got all of the people inside by now? Like true English at first we just joined the queue unquestioningly. After about ten minutes of waiting with the only movement from people giving up hope and jumping in taxis. It was time to find out what on earth was going on. Walking to front of the queue to enquire to the bouncer what the situation was, the only response I got was that I would have to wait with everyone else. But I have a ticket!? ‘You will have to wait till the back room clears.’ He turned away from me at this point showing there was no debating this. I walked back to my place in the queue. Why should I have to wait till the back room clears? I had paid for my position in that room.

Returning to the queue there were people behind us who had also bought tickets and were wondering what was going on. As time went by the queue started to grow bigger and bigger and filled out with people without tickets. What on earth was going on here? Behind us now were a large group of people who were loud, and were trying everything they could to get ahead of us (they didn’t have tickets ). So not only was I not allowed in to enjoy what I had paid for, I was also having to fight for my position in the queue with people who were not even there to see Pendulum. As time went by we waited for another half an hour, to add frostbite to our freezing bodies we had to watch those who had seen Pendulum come out, even out of the iron gates to have a cigarette as there was no room in the smoking area for them all. By now the queue was surrounding me, as well as the gates and tailing off down the road. Not only were we squashed, our place in the queue was irrelevant to what order we would get in now. Seeing a gap in the queue I squeezed out to inquire what was going on what. Surely they would do something about this shambles of a queue after some of us had been waiting so long? Once again I was let down by thinking that this club actually cared about the people. The bouncer once again gave me a very dismissive answer, ‘My concern is within these gates, what do you expect me to do?’ Before I could respond to this question I was moved once again by the surge of the crowd. If his responsibility was within the gates, why were people allowed out of them for a cigarette causing more pandemonium outside? I have been to see many bands at different venues and I have never been made to feel so helpless and like my custom was not valuable. What I expected him to do was to ensure that this crowd did not get out of hand, which it obviously had, the surges in the crowd made it difficult to not only breathe but to keep your footing.

So maybe the way he got us in would be organised? No, when the gates were opened everyone just ran to the door and moved into a queue here. This really was ridiculous. I had waited over an hour and a half in the freezing cold just to then be asked for another £3 to come in! They did just accept my admission with this ticket after asking a superior. Though the people I had been queuing with only had to pay £3 to come in. How on earth was this rationalised? Well as Pendulum had only been on till 11.30 they decided to open the club for their normal customers and have an Indie night. This was a D’n’b night, I thought I had paid £15 in order to hear this not to have just half the club (well the room upstairs).

The floors were soaked and sticky, causing me to nearly slip over numerous times, in the main ladies toilet only one cubical had toilet roll and by the end of the night that was out as well. Many left due to the fact that the upstairs room was not opened for a while after pendulum had gone, and the only music available was the alternative downstairs. The buzz of Pendulum being here had almost completely died.

How can this be East Yorkshires number one club and venue? They are unable to sustain a charged atmosphere or standard of cleanliness and only think of maximising their revenue rather than the organisation that a night like this demands. I will not be wasting my money on this shambles of a club ever again.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Britney Spears

Unscathed from her experience with Melissa Etheridge, Victoria Gacek is back for more, this time on Britney Spears, seen here in Basil Fawlty car-attacking tribute mode.

There are some things in life that you wish once you got rid off they would never come back, such as: verrucas, genital warts and Britney Spears. Personally I would have remained happy just seeing Britney grace the tabloid headlines for another embarrassing incident where she was stoned, or had run someone over or just generally failed at life. But no, after a four year break from the music industry; our ear drums are to be polluted by her latest single release ‘Gimmie More’; the first track off of her new album: ‘Blackout’.

The album title must have been inspired from one of Spears’ own highly documented paralytic blackouts. It wouldn’t be farfetched to suggest the album title was a result of an alcohol and drug and binge, but, unfortunately for us the blackout obviously wasn’t severe enough to put her in a permanent coma. Instead, this former Disney Channel entertainer has shed almost all her clothing and lost all her dignity in the release of the sluttiest single of her career.

The video for ‘Gimmie More’ is cheap, tacky and fake, just like her hair. It appears to imitate a drug induced trip, with the occasional violet strobe lighting penetrating the dark nightclub, where Britney wearing a black wig gyrates against a pole (they must have used an ample amount of super glue to keep that wig on), what a classy girl. The pole seems an obvious choice to replace the men she usually grinds against; her reputation seems to have scared them all away. Or maybe it’s her appearance, Britney is clothed only in her underwear and fish nets stockings, which makes her look like a hooker on E, who wouldn’t be out of place walking around the streets of Brooklyn.

The only man in the video is sat down, with a drink, minding his own business. The last thing he wants is Britney Spears shaking her arse in his face. If he’s not careful she might start: ‘licking [him] down like there’s no-one around’ as the vile lyrics state, which should hopefully get her arrested for sexual harassment. My advice to him is if he’s not too blind drunk, just put the drink down and get out of there as fast as you can, because before you know it, you’ll both be hitched, and as soon as your sober enough to remember the night before, you’ll be on your phone, asking your lawyer for an annulment, and all this will happen quicker than you can say K Fed.

The lyrics are even worse than the video; you know the song is going to be abominable when it opens with: ‘It’s Britney, bitch’. The worst phrase she could have possibly created, which makes her comeback as laughable as her private life. She insults us listeners, by calling us bitches, could this be Britney’s red-neck attempt at calling us her ‘homeboy’. Whatever the case, I do not want my seven year old niece (a fan of the cheesy pop that is currently gracing the charts); to be repeating one of the most negative taboo words in the English language, because her idol Britney needs her mouth washing out. What an excellent role model and mother Ms. Spears makes. The only positive about this track is that she didn’t fart and burp all the way through it.

Britney’s first live performance of ‘Gimmie More’, was at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards (VMA), and it was appalling. She forgets to lip-sync several times, and during the performance she stumbles around the stage worse than your drunken Uncle on Christmas Day. Miming and dancing at the same time must be too difficult for her pea sized brain. The only active brain cell she has left, after the drugs and booze must have had to work overtime just to keep her upright. The VMA performance was so terrible that Spears ran off stage crying at the end of the song; don’t worry Britney that was my initial reaction to the song too. No one expected her to sing live, but if that was the best she could do, I can’t wait for the tour. Maybe for the opening act she’ll come out and slit her wrists.

The video is like a low-budget porno, and the song lyrics just reiterate that image. Britney’s attempt at being sexy fails; instead she earns the title as the Queen of slease. Just put some clothes on and get out of our lives and if we’re lucky she will not attempt at making music again. The person I feel most sorry for in regards to the video of ‘Gimmie More’ is the camera-man; if he was any further up Britney’s ass we’d see the shit.

Friday, 9 November 2007


Emily Bray is back for more with a review of Dreamgirls.

Why Bill Condon’s latest offer really is a Dream.

When you think of great Move Musicals, you’ll probably cast your mind back to Julie Andrews and the singing nuns of The Sound Of Music, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta as the love-sick school kids of Grease, or a stony faced Madonna as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. There have been few successful musicals on the big screen in recent years, in fact the world of musicals in general has suffered from a decline in public interest. The film version of The Phantom of The Opera was indeed a much publicised release, and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge caused rather a stir when it broke on the scene in 2001; but apart from a few such exceptions, the world of film seems to have turned it’s back on it’s musical kinsman.

February 2007, however, saw the DVD release of Dreamgirls, a descendant of the Movie Musical. The film combines some of today’s greatest pop talent with the sounds of the 60s. Interestingly, the film has not been marketed as a conventional musical. There is not a hint of the campness found in the likes of Moulin Rouge and The Producers, and though music plays a key role, it is does not engulf the film in the same way as in The Phantom of the Opera. It is perhaps closest to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, the music blending seamlessly and functionally into a strong, well acted, and all too human plotline.

The plot is based around the life story of Diana Ross; in the film, named Deena Jones (played by Beyoncé Knowles). In many ways the young, hip Beyoncé shares many similarities with her predecessor and is rather too obvious a casting choice. She gives a very commanding and in places very mature portrayal, capturing the change from an innocent young girl, to an independent, deep young woman. There is, however, a naivety in her performance, and perhaps a little too much Beyonce and too little Deena in some places. Her finest scene in the film comes after an argument with her manager and husband Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx), where she sings the emotionally charged ballad Listen, a performance visually and vocally powerful enough to make the audience do just that.

A more surprising choice is 2004 American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson in the role of the diva, Effie White. Hudson completely steals the stage in a phenomenal performance, with numbers like And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, I Am Changing and One Night Only. Her intelligent and perceptive portrayal oozes emotion and soul, so much it earned her an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role as well as awards from the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes to name just a few. This film is worth watching purely for her stunning performance.

The leading men in the film are no less outstanding. Jamie Foxx’s depiction of Deena’s
ambitious, dominating and sometimes ruthless husband and manager is skilfully and truthfully acted, if in a more subtle way than the female leads. He has the great ability to express emotion with seemingly insignificant changes in voice and expression, which is picked up in fine detail by the camera. Even the most simple of scenes become loaded with significance. Eddie Murphy changes from the comic to the serious, as the tragic figure of James ’Thunder’ Early (Jimmy), a struggling singer, who’s life of drink, drugs and women drives him to despair and eventual suicide. Though there are refreshingly comic moments within his performance, they are executed in such a way that they are a result of his character and not an addition to it. He has some striking scenes throughout the film, but one of the most moving is on the night before his suicide when he finally is brought to face everything he’s lost.

The supporting cast all deliver strong, credible performances. Anika Noni Rose and Sharron Leal as the other two Dreamgirls are commanding in their subplots, with Danny Glover and Keith Robinson appearing competently and with great sincerity as the frustrated manager and songwriter. Commendations should also go to the young Mariah Wilson for a small but touching appearance as Effie’s daughter, Magic.

The high-energy, evocative music combines with effective camera work and costume, to make this a highly entertaining and deeply moving film. There is none of the typical fluffiness of some musicals, and the story and characters are firmly grounded in real life, with enough grit to make them entirely believable. Even for those a little sceptical about the whole ‘musical thing’ the film offers an example of how every note sung (an played) can be used to great effect and power.

Kate Royal

Emily Bray looks at the world of opera.

Princess Regent
Kate Royal: The Young Soprano’s Rise to Fame

This season she may be starring in ENO’s* production of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, but young English soprano Kate Royal is also enjoying being crowned a potential singing sensation. She is, however, no amateur. Her trophy cabinet already boasts a healthy number of prestigious awards. The 2004 winner of both the Kathleen Ferrier and the John Christie Awards, and the 2007 recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artists Award, she has taken leading roles in major opera companies both in the UK and abroad. She also has the claim of being Sir Paul McCartney’s soprano of choice for his recent classical cantata Ecce Cor Meum, as well as appearing for the BBC Proms.

Her self-titled debut album from EMI classics presents her credentials in 19 beautifully executed tracks, ranging from Orff’s Carmina Burana to Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress. Conducted by a youthful Edward Gardner, and accompanied by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, this recording brings together some of England’s most illustrious performers. The result is a feast of colour and intensity which displays the beauty and imagination of some seldom recorded pieces.

The disc opens with the much abandoned Lia’s Aria from Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son). From the first two glorious notes, Royal shows a masterful control and craftsmanship, tackling the trickier melodic phrases with feeling and with ease. An interesting choice for the first track of a debut album, the complex and often sparse texture could have been a bit of a gamble. There is no weakness here, however, as the unobtrusive orchestral arrangement serves only to highlight the beauty and purity of the voice.

Passion follows tenderness with Delibes’ Les Filles de Cadiz, a 19c French imitation of the Spanish Bolero. Like the famous Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen, strong, dance like rhythms underpin the folky, fiery and yet playful vocal, which glides effortlessly over the orchestra’s vibrant playing. Rubato, portemento and vibrato are all used skilfully in the interpretation of a fairly repetitious melodic line. In a performance nothing short of explosive, Royal shows her ability to tackle intensity both in the bareness and emotional tension of the previous track and the passion and vivacity of track 2.

The technical brilliance and difficulty of the first two pieces are contrasted with several gentler, understated pieces; the Bailero from Canteloube’s folk songs, In trutina from Orff’s Carmina Burana and a serene, dreamy rendition of Strauss’ Wiegenlied. Though less dexterity is required for these performances, they are implemented with musically aware self-control and skill, avoiding the trap of becoming too weighty and over-sentimental. The vocal tone remains even throughout, and the simple beauty of the melody is allowed to sing through, enveloping the listener in a haze of sound.

The bulk of the final half of the disk is devoted to Spanish songs, by Granados and Rodrigo. It is really very difficult to find anything at all at fault with this album; but if there is one thing, it is the similarity of the songs in this section. Quejas, o la maja y el ruisenõr, ?Con qué la lavaré? and Vos me matasteis are charmingly and proficiently sung, but are a little too similar when followed one by the other.

The last two short songs in this section ?De dónde venís, amore? and De los álamos vengo, madre raise the tempo sufficiently to provide a high-spirited and once again excellently executed climax before the album closes with the anonymous folk song The Sprig of Thyme. The acapella beginning perfectly reflects the origins of the song, and the combination of orchestral and simple harp accompaniment blend together to create a blissful texture, under, of course, another beautiful vocal interpretation.

Kate Royal’s greatest strength is the ability to produce a warm, sweet, effortless sound even in the extremities of her register, with an impressively even tone throughout. There is also a sense of the dramatic in her voice, but it is complemented by a sincerity which makes you believe everything you hear.

This album is definitely a must have for those with an interest in Classical, and particularly Operatic singing. With not a trace of crossover in sight, she gives a timeless interpretation, supported and enhanced by a perceptive accompaniment. But this release is not simply for the classical purist. Her vocal beauty and skill will appeal to listeners from across genres, and those who have yet to be won over to Classical repertoire may find themselves pleasantly surprised.
*English National Opera

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Sigur Ros

Heather Cairns goes all Icelandic on us with a review of the new Sigur Ros album.

The new offering from Iceland's Sigur Rós, Hvarf-Heim opens with the familiar and beautifully simple music we are used to hearing on television programmes and adverts. The music of this album was written to accompany a film which has been shot by the band in Iceland. It is astonishing that a film has not been made by the band before, considering the visual power of their live performances.

The music of Sigur Rós has always been both melancholy and inspiring. It is calm and lucid without being depressing or desperate. Many of Hvraf-Heim's songs are re-workings from the albums Von, Ágætis Byrjun,( ) and Takk. This does not mean that you shouldn't buy this album if you already own the bulk of Sigur Rós's previous work. Not only are there three newly released tracks, Salka, Hljómalind and Í Gær, but the originals have been stripped down, built up, tweaked and reincarnated.

The newly re-worked version of Starálfur begins with only a small strings section and a piano. Simple. Jónsi's voice enters the music so subtly that it is easy to confuse him with an obscure and newly invented musical instrument.

The title track of the band's 1999 album, Ágætis Byrjun (which translates as 'an alright start') is also treated to a more acoustic and simple sound. The piano is more powerful than the original version, which gives the song more of an uplifting edge without removing any of the atmospheric qualities. It must be noted that sometimes the music of Sigur Rós can give the listener a cold and distant feeling, but the album as a whole, particularly this song, gives the image of a group of musicians sitting in a room playing music just for the fun of it. The sound is much warmer but every bit as delicate.

Heysátan, originally the closing track from 2005's Takk, is also the closing track of this album. Bird noises and layers of instruments build the song up into a simple and very charming way to end yet another masterpiece. The passion in Jónsi's voice and the timing of this song give a feeling of triumph and achievement. The tone is similar to Kate Bush's album Aerial which revels and indulges in the roots of nature and the serenity which is rarely found in this world.

Í Gær begins like a child's lullaby. The music builds subtly to create a magical, mischievous and playful sound which is not unlike The Cakewalk by Claude Debussy. This child-like music is short lived. It is brashly and brilliantly interrupted by a crescendo of distorted guitars and open hi-hats; but still the lullaby continues. This is one of the greatest moments of the album; it is epic and apocalyptic, but extremely controlled and delicate.

Overall, the album is classic Sigur Rós with a twist. Vaka and Samskeyti do the ( ) album perfect justice without simply repeating and reproducing the music. How a band can play the same songs with only subtle differences, but still make the entire work an exciting and refreshing masterpiece is a mystery to me. Perhaps only a band as clever and crafty as Sigur Rós could pull it off. This is more than just 'an alright start'- it is stunning.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Fashion Rocks. Or Not.

Catherine Groom writes about fashion.

Swarovski Fashion Rocks for the Princes Trust
Channel 4, 20th October, 10.30pm.

Very little about Fashion Rocks, rocked. Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson read a boring and slow autocue, the former disappearing every so often for no apparent reason and the latter changing outfits with every breath.
All the fashion veterans were there from Dolce and Gabbana to Valentino who was awarded with a giant Swarovski crystal for lifetime achievement as he leaves the fashion scene this year. They turned out the usual show material ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous; Gucci and Christopher Kane produced some particularly beautiful dresses, sharp lines set against flowing skirts being the order of the day. There were also a couple of fairly new fashion faces, namely Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig who appeared to be much better dressed than their models. Their feathery, gold designs had a tendancy to look cheap but somehow seemed a good match for their musical sponsor Shirley Bassey.
Other good matches included Lily Allen who appeared from under the 100ft Swarovski chandelier looking stunning in a blue knee-length Chanel dress, but then she always wears Chanel. Valentino forced Nicole Scherzinger into an attractive purple number, dragging her away from her trampy Pussycat Dolls image for which she felt the need for a vomit-inducing dedication at the end of her whingy new song. For the first time in her life Joss Stone had to think about fashion, shedding her usual hippy rags and appearing for Calvin Klein looking exceedingly uncomfortable in a plain white fitted dress.
The musical acts made some attempt to rock the boat. Iggy Pop opened the night by throwing himself around a lot and actually interacting with the models, much to the apparent horror of several members of the huge Albert Hall audience. New band Shy Child played a brilliant game of musical chairs for Stella McCartney’s models who even appeared to be enjoying themselves. Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell continued his rebellious streak by smoking - or rather holding a lit cigarette - whilst performing. In a public building? Shock horror! In her own political statement Beth Ditto hitched up her skirts to reveal the words ‘BLOOD 4 OIL’ written across her legs before flinging her stilettos into the audience. Perhaps if Dame Edna Everage’s lame cocaine jokes had been true for the musicians as well as the models the evening would have been a little more fun.
The Sugababes attempted to steal the evening with their finale of Lady Marmalade with special guest Pattie La Belle and a bizarre water feature but a distinct lack of fashion.
Oh and the Princes Trust? Barely mentioned. Something to do with helping some guy in prison...

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Melissa Etheridge

Victoria Gacek writes about Melissa Etheridge.

Melissa Etheridge-The Awakening

As far as ageing rock stars go, Melissa Etheridge isn’t doing too badly for herself. Etheridge, a cancer survivor, recently having exchanged vows with Tammy Lynn Michaels must have suddenly decided at the age of 46 to release yet another album. The two Grammies sitting on her mantle piece must be getting a little lonely by now.

Etheridge’s new album, The Awakening (released 25th September), is her ninth studio release and I would say the worst. The whole album is a series of melancholy tracks, which merge into one, leaving the listener lethargic. The passion and fiery edge, of Etheridge’s previous songs has been extinguished; as the only kind of emotion the album awakens in me is boredom. It leaves me wondering if Etheridge abruptly decided to delve into the world of Cliff Richard, releasing an album because she has a supreme status and an army of diehard fans that will gobble the album up and give it praise, despite the fact it is a complete let down.

Etheridge performed in the summer at the United States leg of the Live Earth concert with ‘Imagine That’ and ‘What Happens Tomorrow’, two badly performed tracks from the album. It seems as though it is now fashionable for every solo artist or band to raise awareness about the environment at the expense of a really good set of tracks.

The fact is we are all aware of the global crisis by now; Live Earth did not need to show us what we already knew. Plus, as a result of the festival, yet another part of the polar ice caps will probably have melted. Songs are not going to give listeners an epiphany, to change their lifestyle over night, into a more eco-friendly manner.

The only song worth buying The Awakening for is the catchy pop/rock song ‘Message To Myself’. A semi-auto-biographical song, which highlights Etheridge’s struggle with cancer and the love she now has in her life. But, as the tracks cycle through, wasting electricity, and adding to the already damaged environment, I am left wondering, why the woman who started her career the year I was born (1988) didn’t just hang up her guitar and call it a day.

So as a warning to all the Bono imitating songwriters, please find the time to recycle your climate change song lyrics and write something new; maybe with a little feeling next time.

Monday, 29 October 2007

In Rainbows

Tom Moody writes about the new Radiohead album.

When I heard that Radiohead were releasing their first album in four years as a pick-your-own-price download, I thought it made a lot of sense. Why, indeed, should I have to pay ten pounds for an album from a band which insists on being as artistically erratic as Radiohead? This product could have ranged in quality from the utter genius of 'The Bends' and 'OK computer' to the stubborn, artier-than-thou pretension that was present in 'Kid A' and 'Amnesiac'. For a new album as brilliant as 'OK Computer', I would be prepared to pay, say, £20.00. An album as awful as 'Amnesiac', though, I'd rather avoid completely. Now I'm not a gambling man, so I elected to download the album for exactly £00.00. So, was it worth my time?

In short, yes. More so than any of the band's releases since 'The Bends', this album actually makes me feel happy. It's easy to forget that Radiohead, a band who have come to specialise in alienation, depression and anxiety, do have the ability to make some pretty uplifting and invigorating music. The opening tracks '15 step' and 'Bodysnatchers' are the liveliest, most light-hearted tracks that Radiohead have recorded since 'The Bends', and, while this album is hardly a bunny rabbits and flowers affair, and a more sombre and drawn-out mood prevails during its mid section, I formed the impression throughout that a great pressure has been lifted off Radiohead and that they are finally able to freely express themselves. It sounds as if they have broken free of the suffocating, self-conscious pretension that has bogged down all of their albums post-OK Computer, and that they are now making the music that they really want to play, and that we really want to listen to. All the Radiohead staples from throughout their career are present; the spiky guitar riffs, the mournful piano chords, the ghostly sound effects, and the layered electronic beats. And unlike their previous album, 'Hail to the Thief', which too often felt like a selection of cast-offs from the guitar-based and electro-based eras of the band's history, here all the elements of the music combine with an apparent effortlessness to achieve a fresh, vibrant and frequently hypnotic sound.

This is also Radiohead's most humanly relatable album, as they have abandoned political topics for their lyrics in favour of that more commonly-trodden ground of pop music: relationships and love. Although, this being Radiohead, they approach the territory from a typically twisted and complex angle. 'Weird Fishes' and 'All I Need' deal with similar subjects of infatuation and obsession. In the former Thom York wails; 'I'd be crazy not to follow/ follow where you lead/ your eyes/ they turn me', before drawing comparisons to being devoured by fishes and worms on the ocean floor. And then the album heads into the still darker waters of 'All I Need'. This song contains some of the most powerfully evocative lines that Radiohead have ever dreamt up: 'I'm an animal trapped in your hot car'; 'I'm an insect that just wants to share your light', and ends with an elegantly simplistic way of conveying the confusion of unrequited love: 'It's all wrong/ it's all right/ it's all wrong/ it's all right', repeated over and over, in an emotional release at the crescendo that saves us from a particularly depressing moment in true old-school Radiohead fashion; the effect is similar to that found in 'Exit Music' from 'OK Computer'. 'Faust ARP' depicts a relationship falling apart in a claustrophobic and uninspiring 21st century environment, filled with duplicating and replicating plastic bags. 'Dead from the neck up I guess I'm stuffed, stuffed, stuffed' mutters the singer, before concluding that 'I love you but enough is enough, enough'.

After all this sombre reflexion and frustration, the determined recklessness of 'house of cards' is refreshing; 'I don't want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover, no matter how it ends, no matter how it starts, forget about your house of cards, and I'll do mine'. This direct, what-the-heck attitude sits at odds with the rest of the album and serves as a great way to lyrically break free of the barrage of submissiveness which dominates the previous tracks. Then the penultimate song, 'jigsaw falling into place', at long last brings a more solid and lively beat back into proceedings. One of the most simplistic but powerful songs ever written by Radiohead, it depicts an (apparently) perfect moment shared between the singer and a romantic interest in a club; 'Just as you take my hand, Just as you write my number down, Just as the drinks arrive, Just as they play your favorite song', before he reveals, on reflection, that 'I never really got there, I just pretended that I had'. It's an evocative depiction of the tenuousness of human emotion. The closing track is a beautiful piano ballad about leaving posthumous videotapes for loved ones. Radiohead allow themselves one sentimental moment; 'No matter what happens now, I won't be afraid, because I know today has been, the most perfect day I've ever seen', then an odd clattering noise becomes dominant in the background, and that's you're forty-two glorious minutes of 'In Rainbows' over.

This is the best Radiohead album since 'Ok Computer'. The band have finally thrown aside the colossal pressure that has been piled on them since the aforementioned album and, instead of searching for something equally groundbreaking, or trying to appeal to fans of the polarizing guitar-based and electro-based eras which they created, have put together their most natural, unpretentious and openly human collection of songs to date. As with all their albums, this takes a good few listens to fully sink in, but trust me; if you do opt to pay for it you won't regret it!

Thursday, 25 October 2007

The Last Legion

Alister Burton's thoughts on what he calls 'The Last Legion (Hopefully)'.

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me, as Kenneth Williams said in Carry On Cleo. All useful comments welcome!

On paper, Doug Lefler seems like a good choice to bring an amalgamation of Roman and Arthurian facts and legends to the silver screen. His CV is a comprehensive list of fantasy and adventure; he has been a storyboard artist on such projects as the 1994 Hercules TV programmes and Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness (1992). Furthermore, he has directed films Dragonheart: A New Beginning (2000) and TV shows, Hercules (as above), Babylon 5 (1998) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1998-99). So why does he make such a mess of the Last Legion? Well, it seems that experience doesn’t count for everything. The problems with this film start when you look at the credits.

Perusing Colin Firth’s acting CV it seems hard – nay impossible – to reason why the producers of The Last Legion would want to cast him as Aurelius, a no-nonsense, battle-hardened Roman soldier. This is the same Colin Firth who stands alongside the perma-grinning Hugh Grant as one of the great English fops; the same Colin firth who has found fame through films like Bridget Jones’ Diary (and the sequel), Nanny Mcphee, Love Actually, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Hope Springs, The Importance of Being Earnest, Shakespeare In Love etcetera etcetera. No one would want Hugh Grant running around in a skirt (and it is a skirt) waving his gladius around, so why is it acceptable for Colin Firth?

In short, it’s not acceptable. Not in the slightest.

Contrary to the horribly miscast Aurelius, Kevin McKidd is fresh from finishing the two-season BBC/HBO TV series Rome, where he plays a no-nonsense, battle-hardened and at times unhinged Roman soldier. It would be easy for McKidd to reprise this role in The Last Legion but, understandably, he would want to avoid falling into the trap of the typecast. So

how could he star in a film about Rome and Roman soldiers now? By starring as a no-nonsense, battle-hardened, and certainly unhinged Germanic Goth barbarian, of course.

It would be easy to spend this whole review condemning the casting choices for this film, in particular Ben Kingsley as Ambrosinus/Merlin, who is in no way magic, this perhaps to protect the film’s supposed historical credibility. But it is that factor – credibility – that this film lacks, chiefly because of the hideously overwritten storyline and the type of GCSE drama class acting that makes you want to vomit into your popcorn.

The film begins with the coronation of Romulus Augustus as a new child Caesar and from there, moves at a pace akin to a horse riding on a jet-powered motorbike, which, incidentally, is akin to how ridiculous this film is. But I digress. Rome at this time has an uneasy alliance with the Germanic Goths that Kevin Mckidd, aka Wulfila, is associated with. This alliance is so uneasy in fact, that it breaks down only five minutes into the film, when the Goths, led by Odoacer (who appears in fact to be Scottish) invade and successfully conquer Rome and capture the newly crowned Caesar, and all in one night!

What follows is an hour of Romans chasing Goths, and Goths chasing Romans, with some double-crossing Byzantines in the mix somewhere too. Along the way, Caesar Augustus finds a “sword of power” after being captured with Ambrosinus on the island of Capri and from here begins the setup of the final Arthurian twist in the film by including some subtle-as-a-brick-in-the-face moments, such as Colin Firth’s arm sweeping from underneath a large body of water clutching his sword. It would seem that director Doug Lefler is in fact out to insult the audience’s intelligence.

Onward then, does Colin Firth prance, over to Brittania, where the last surviving legion of Roman soldiers is hiding. Aurelius arrives at their fort and finds these soldier

saviours of his gone. It’s okay though, they’re not dead, they’ve just been for a walk in the hills and they turn up soon enough. Enter villain #2 who is so enigmatic that the audience gets told nothing about him except his name – Vortgyn - and that he and Ambrosinus/Merlin don’t see eye to eye. Essentially this only serves as a vehicle for the pursuing Goths to gain some extra manpower by promising Vortgyn the sword that Romulus carries.

What follows is a low-budget, uninspiring and badly choreographed battle sequence, between the heroes and villains, with several of the “last legion” seeking refuge outside the walls of their own fort, amid the attacking villains. No, I don’t know why either. The battle concludes with somewhat of a ‘deus ex machina’ but by this point I was too glad it was over to care.

And so to the ending. The tagline to The Last Legion reads, ‘Before King Arthur, there was Excalibur,’ which perhaps suggests that the Roman/Arthurian aspects of the film are quite balanced and complement each other throughout. Not so. Apart from the few not-so-subtle moments as mentioned before, the tying together of the two themes doesn’t come until the last ninety seconds of a long 110 minute film. It is tempting to reveal those final ninety seconds so any reading this can join me in a state of torporific bewilderment, solely inflicted by Doug Lefler grasping at Arthurian themed straws. However I don’t want to be responsible for a mass induced coma, so I’ll leave that to Lefler. Besides, those who haven’t already guessed the films conclusion by now are probably those already comatose and some breeds of dog.

The concept behind this film is tolerable, it’s execution terrible. The whole film has a vagueness to it, which is reflected in the scriptwriting and Colin Firth’s lazy performance – particularly during his combat scenes and “rousing” speech to rally his troops. The sets are

unimaginative at best, some of which look like they have been constructed purely from polystyrene. Behind the film is a concept designed for an adult audience, yet Lefler has watered it down in order to squeeze a 12A certificate out of the BBFC and a few more banknotes into his pocket. The camera suddenly cuts away at the point of any sword/spear/projectile impacting with flesh, and an off-screen grunt or groan informs the audience of that particular character’s doom. There is a vague hint of Aurelius as a father-figure to the young Romulus, which serves only as another setup to the final consolidation of the plot, as does Aurelius’ romance with Byzantine traitor Mira.

Lefler was quoted as saying about The Last Legion, “It was really a director’s dream. All of my cast were so dedicated to this project. In their opinion, it was a very unique experience, because there was not a cynical voice amongst them. Nobody was doing it for a paycheck. Everybody was into it. They would read books about Roman military strategy in their spare time.”[1] Well it certainly doesn’t show, Doug.

[1] Doug Lefler Interview (The Trades, Aug 17, 2007, by Scott Juba)

On the Net

Here are some blogs and other sites I like to read:

Twenty Major is a foul-mouthed Dublin blogger whose posts tend to focus on drinking, descriptions of his poo, and hurling swear words at anyone in sight. He is also very funny.

Ron Silliman writes the most visited literary blog on this, or possibly any other planet. His specialty is avant-garde poetics.

I like how, unlike some newspapers, The Guardian makes all its books and review coverage available freely online.

There's usually something or other that makes me laugh on The Onion.

The above picture is of one of my cats, a ginger killing machine called Sam. There are some pictures of him and other local curiosities on this flickr site.

Last and definitely least is my blog, which I call georgiasam.

Which blogs do you read? All suggestions welcome.