Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966) [Film Journal 2017 #2]

A film about an abused donkey in small town France, leading a saintly life that parallels that of it’s young owner Marie. An intriguing plot synopsis, one so specific that it could probably only be attempted by a master filmmaker. Bresson’ is a master indeed, expanding upon Eisenstein-esque montage theories to produce a uniquely film language, implying plot events with poetic edit choices and manipulating his untrained actors to be the conveyor of emotions for audiences to place themselves within, rather than forcing emotional performances onto audiences. His is an incredibly refined and deliberate style, one that screams to be studied by students and critics, and it’s probably unsurprising that he’s a favourite of film school courses worldwide. Also being one of the key influences on French New Wave filmmakers and subsequent followers such as Martin Scorsese or Terrance Malick, Bresson’s films deserve to be discovered by a wider audience – outside of just the elitist art house clique.

This is the 3rd Bresson film I’ve seen, and I’ve been lucky enough to have seen each of his on the big screen. The first being the prison break film A Man Escaped (1956), screened in Film Studies 101 in my first year of a Film and Media Studies degree as an example of a filmmaker using diegetic sound and uncommon camera framing devices to tell a narrative. Bresson spent over a year in a prison camp in WWII which gave him an experts knowledge to tell such a story. A Man Escaped is the most accessible and straight-forwardly entertaining I’ve seen of his and would be a good entry point. Diary Of A Country Priest (1951) was screened during a spirituality in film paper as an example of transcendent cinema. Transcendence being something above a normal earthly or physical level. The country priest of the title, known just as the Priest of Ambricourt, is a sickly man who struggles with his parish duties and become increasingly unwell throughout the film. His faith being tested, he receives no respite, and experiences a journey comparable to that of Christ. In his suffering Bresson insinuates he experiences transcendence of a sort.

I don’t know if the experience of watching a film can truly be said to be a transcendent experience – but this is something frequently stated about Bresson’s best films and their effect on the audience, and many critics state Au Hasard Balthazar as his best. Andrew Sarris exaggeratedly said of the film in 1970 – “No film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being … It stands by itself as one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realized emotional experience.” Perhaps praising a film to that extent help to justify film as a serious art-form at a time when it’s reputation was still being solidified. But for a reknown critic and academic to be that passionate is perhaps a hint as to it’s place in the canon of classic cinema.

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Marie rejecting the affections of the earnest (or perhaps boring) Jacques

All of Bresson’s stylistic signatures are present in this film and perhaps mastered, but does that make the film groundbreaking or entertaining for a modern audience? In some ways yes, although research into the tools Bresson is using and his place in film history significantly increases an appreciation of the film, beyond a surface level. The use of untrained actors and the way in which Bresson directs he cast, filming take after take until the performance is diluted to it’s subconscious essence is in theory genius – rather than treating actors like stars, he uses them like a substance is diluted in homeopathy. During my initial viewing of Balthazar I could enjoy the performances as very naturalistic, documentary-like (neorealist perhaps) and understated. A character might say something dramatic, such as Marie refusing the love of her returning childhood sweetheart Jacques – but the lead actor Anne Wiazemsky talks as if she was hypnotized. As fascinating as this is, I would not have known the craft behind the performances without the research after watching the film.

As mentioned, the core narrative of the film concerns the saintly life of the donkey Balthazar, who suffers a life of servitude at the hands of it’s human masters, sometimes receiving kindness and sometimes abuse. Marie takes a shining to Balthazar and their lives are compared to each other, with the donkey’s life of abuse and mistreatment being paralleled by the somewhat tragic fate of Marie. The key sections of their lives are presented in separate segments almost like an anthology film. Within these segments, montage is used to imply meaning – to provide an example, a town drunk Arnold at one point takes owner ship of Balthazar. In one shot he says how he is going to quit drinking. The next shot is a close up on his hand holding a glass at a bar, the glass being filled with spirits. Such a cut caused laughter to erupt around the theater, showing that Bresson had a deft comic touch that is rarely noted.

Town drunk Arnold with Balthazar

 

Recovery not an option for Arnold is spite of his declarations

Recovery not an option for Arnold is spite of his declarations

Marie lives on a farm with her father and mother, known not by name, but they don’t own the farm. The farm-owners daughter dies in the opening sequence of the film, leading the family of the owner to leave the farm, which ends the brief childhood romance of Marie and Jacques (Jacques who is the son of the farms owner). Marie’s Dad is given responsibility over the farm and entitlement to the profits, yet the town bank enforces taking payments from the father which leaves the family in a state of destitution. A trouble-making gang of youths, led by Gerard (Francois Lafarge) soon enter Marie’s life, torturing Balthazar by tying fireworks to his tale, of which Marie does nothing to deter. Gerard seduces Marie, which is implied through his point of view gaze on her skirt, and a montage cut to blowing on a small horn in triumph, implying a successful conquest. Marie’s life becomes increasingly entangled with Gerard, which her family disapproves of yet is unable to dissuade. Gerard uses Balthazar for sometime, taking him from the family just as Gerard takes Marie.

Many crimes are caused by Gerard, and his at one point accused of a murder, yet this plot thread remains inconclusive. Arnold, the town drunk is also tormented by Gerard, yet later in the film Arnold surprisingly comes upon a fortune due to the death of an uncle. Gerard takes this opportunity to cause destruction to a bar, smashing mirrors and the entire collection of glass bottles, knowing Arnold will use his inheritance to pay for the bill. The scene of Gerard destroying the bar is one of the oddest of the film. The destruction is quite complete, and takes place around dancing townspeople. None of the extras dancing react at all to Gerard’s needless destruction. They have been directed not to show any awareness of it. Touches like this contribute to the dream or fantasy mood that Bresson conjures. Dramatic scenes occur, yet they do not occur as in real life, they take on more of a metaphorical role and therefore are more powerful, yet at the same time from a modern audiences perspective, are somewhat difficult to initially understand.

Balthazar at one point is sold to a local circus. He has a brief and seemingly successful career as an entertainer, and encounters other persecuted and subjegated circus animals – the eyes of an Elephant, Tiger and Chimpanzee staring mournfully back at Balthazar. Bresson apparently cared about the rights and lives of animals, sensibilities which fellow master director Ingmar Bergman apparently didn’t share. He famously said of Balthazar; “this Balthazar, I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring… A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting.”

Brutal words, which serve to split Bresson and Bergman fans. Bresson ends the film with the saintly death of Balthazar, who expires surrounded by sheep, having been stolen by Gerard to steal goods – Balthazar’s demise occuring after being exploited one last time by the human’s who care not for his well-being. Marie’s narrative is left open, she at the very least escapes the village, but we are not if this is due to death or her own choice. The cruel characters of the film, notably Gerard never receive punishment for their deeds.

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Is it a film that will still be regarded as a classic in 50 years time? That remains to be seen. It’s certainly an intriguing and well-executed premise featuring Bresson’s master touches in terms of cinematography, acting, editing and sound design. But it is very much a melodrama and the moments of comedy are overshadowed the main tragic plot of girl and donkey. It is perhaps most entertaining as a snapshot of life in mid-20th century small town France, with traditional village life ontrasted with growing modernity (such as Gerard carrying around his portable radio, playing Rock n Roll in an imitation of an american bad-boy like James Dean). It may be dated, but if you’re willing to invest in the film some time, you’ll find a more rewarding watch than just about everything else currently being produced for celluloid.

9/10

 

Film Review: The Green Inferno (Eli Roth, 2015) – [i watched it so you won’t have to]

I wish I wasn’t reviewing this movie. There are so many better films out there I could be talking about. Why haven’t  I seen The Revenant yet? Or Spotlight? Even The Hateful Eight? None of these I’ve yet had the opportunity to view. I could even make an attempt to be relevant and discuss Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the most famous big terrible film out there at the present time. But instead, I’m going to talk about Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno.

Why, you might ask, do I choose to review this film, when I rarely do film reviews? It probably has something to do with my old obsession with horror films (which occurred around the same time as my teenage metal phase, which I wrote about in my last blog). I had been watched horror since the age of 11, and as my tastes expanded to ever more gory and shocking entries, it was only a matter of time before I discovered the cannibal film. A particularly un-politically correct sub-genre kicked off by Italian exploitation directors in the mid-70s, cannibal films are usually set in the jungle, often feature real animal murders, extreme gore (at the hands of westerners and depicted indigenous people) and content influenced by Italian shock-documentaries (mondo films) and neo-realism techniques. I would eventually write by Film Studies honours dissertation on the pinnacle of the genre (and a high/low point of extreme horror), Cannibal Holocaust. Needless to say, with a topic like that, my dissertation was doomed from the very start.

Perhaps mainstream American filmmakers like Eli Roth should start pointing their cameras towards the horrors taking place within their own country, of which there are plenty – rather than regressively projecting xenophobic fears onto invented demons in faraway places

 

You can understand then, my interest when I heard that Eli Roth was re-imagining the cannibal genre for modern audiences with The Green Inferno. The title itself is a reference to a scene within Cannibal Holocaust, so I knew this would be a film I would eventually, if reluctantly have to see. It took me a while but last night I finally gave this modern cannibal retelling a spin. Eli Roth isn’t known for subtlety, the Hostel series being the crown of his filmography so far (or arguably Cabin Fever), and staying true to form, you’ll find nothing subtle here. The start of the film is not completely terrible, framing itself as an American college comedy with a bit of an ecological thriller edge. A college ‘freshmen’, Justine (Lorenza Izzo), daughter of a United Nations attorney becomes interested in a social activism group, who led by a shady but charismatic student named Alejandro (Ariel Levy) take a trip to the amazon rain-forest to film logging operations which are obliterating local tribes. This ecological thriller plot I felt could have actually been an interesting. There are a few good characters here, such as a kindly ecological protester Jonah (Aaron Burns), who has a wee crush on Justine. He is also the first to be dismembered when the cannibals arrive (each limb chopped off one by one, and his head removed – such savage indigenous folk they are). Sky Ferreira is the best known actor in the film, although she stays behind in New York, and thus lives, having been a major character for the first 30 minutes, only to decide the mission to the amazon is a ‘lame idea’. Or perhaps her management had second thoughts on the films content.

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Alejandro, turns out to be selfish and evil, happy to let Justine nearly be shot by the tree loggers, after the group of activists chain themselves to the fowled trees 30 minutes in. They survive however, having succeeded in filming on their smartphones the event of the loggers holding them at gunpoint. Their plane sadly crashes back into the jungle, and this is when the film moves from teen comedy/drama hybrid with some ecological themes, into a straight up classic cannibal gore-fest.

I was wondering how the film would tackle indigenous subject matter, and whether it would be respectful to real cultural practices. After all, cannibal films were ethically dodgy enough in the 1970s, let alone nowadays. It turns out not, and Roth’s depiction of the savage natives is as cartoon-ish as could possibly be. This is very much a case of foreign people being envisioned as the terrifying other, proving that racial terror is deep enough an American interest to be mined for cash decades after one would assume it was too offensive to do so.  At least Cannibal Holocaust gave a understandable reason for the indigenous Amazon tribes-people to be cannibalizing the westerners – that the western documentary-makers had been inflicting horrors upon them. So it was revenge cannibalism. I guess the habitat destroying of the tree loggers in The Green Inferno could be one possible reason for the indigenous people’s  violence against their captive Americans – and the American teens are shown to be shallow in their desire to gain shares and views for their smartphone slacktivism, but these are themes that are only weakly address. Instead, the tribes people are like demons, brutally murdering our western protagonists in a variety of gory but not particularly interesting ways. There is some commentary on ancient female circumcision practices, but mostly it’s all schlock violence. Towards the end of the film the loggers even appear, hacking down the tribes people in a torrent of bullet fire, thus saving our final girl Jan. Therefore everyone in this film is bad. The loggers, the arrogant westerners, the cannibalistic prehistoric indigenous people of the Amazon – all evil, all corrupt. It all adds up to one boring, meaningless, stylized mess.

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If this was a smarter film, the indigenous people of the amazon would still be allowed to scare you – perhaps through ancient ritualistic sacrifice practices against our western protagonists, yet they wouldn’t be so completely demonized as they are in Eli Roth’s depiction. Painting them red, overdoing the make-up on the tribal leaders, and giving no reason for their savagery. At one stage, our protagonist’s force a bag of marijuana down the throat of their friends’ corpse. The natives then cook and eat this corpse, and in doing so become high. Queue a joke about the indigenous people having the munchies, which involves them suddenly becoming zombies and eating one of our westerners alive. In some sense, I guess this is an inventive way to combine between a teen-stoner comedy gag and a cannibal horror scene. Mostly, it’s mind-numbingly stupid, and undermines any attempts the filmmakers had made earlier to give any insight and backstory into real amazonian tribal practices. I hate to be a stickler for details, this is a schlocky teen horror after all – but the level of crassness in Roth’s scriptwriting made me miss the golden age of 1970s b-movies of which this film is indebted to even more. At least back then, the influential wave of Italian filmmakers such as Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi put some effort into realistically depicting the indigenous people in their notorious horror creations.

On the positives, the practical effects are good and the acting was pretty reasonable. Production values were slick, and it was nice to see the jungle back on screen. Roth obviously knows his horror, and the references to Cannibal Holocaust and Ferox were appreciated. I guess I’m just disappointed.  I know that a contemporary cannibal film could be better – more realistic in it’s depiction of indigenous people, more detailed in it’s handling of current ecological issues of the amazon, less campy and less-reliant on American teen movie tropes. Perhaps what I wanted was a Werner Herzog cannibal film, and even though Roth used Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath Of God as a reference, he didn’t make it anywhere near that films daring guerrilla audacity. Perhaps mainstream American filmmakers like Eli Roth should start pointing their cameras towards the horrors taking place within their own country, of which there are plenty – rather than regressively projecting xenophobic fears onto invented demons in faraway places – all for the sake of another cheap, sex and death, teen trash money-maker.

 

 

 

Review: Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo

There’s a lot of noise right now surrounding Kanye West, which seems to be the case whenever the man drops a new album. West is a master of the “any publicity is good publicity” promotion technique as we all know, even if it isn’t always intentional. Hatred of this rapper has magnified over the years, perhaps originating particularly with the Taylor Swift-Grammy’s incident of 2008. That’s been covered elsewhere so I’ll refrain from discussing in depth here. But since then, Kanye fans have had to increasingly find ways to defend their idol, with most months bringing another scandal or ludicrous (but quotable) remark. The press, and social media opinion are divided – there’s enough hatred in the comments thread of any Kanye related Facebook post to suggest that many people think West is not as groundbreaking, trendsetting or influential as he thinks he is. But his albums continue to sell well and garner near unanimous positive reviews – which can’t be said for many artists seven (or eight if you include Watch The Throne), into their solo careers.

Even if piracy has caused enormous effect to the actual physical sales of The Life Of Pablo – or rather, Tidal subscriptions it was intended to generate, being exclusively released in this platform – just the breaking of piracy records speaks of the interest in West’s music. So is it really deserving of all the positive reviews, or has Kanye’s creative ambitions begun to outweigh his actual musical output? Having now listened to it for over a week, I’m able to somewhat have an informed opinion. I attended the theater streaming of the TLOP album release at Madison Square Garden, and at that first listening I was pleased with what I heard. The solid but perhaps short album of the MSG premiere, that seemed to echo Yeezus’ sequencing, was satisfying but did not appear classic in the way Dark Fantasy nearly immediately did. It was hard to say at this stage whether it was really one of the greatest albums of all time, as West had tweeted. Now that the album has been released for real, it’s probably clear the claim is indeed a stretch to far. The actual release is a longer, denser and more unfocused product. The additions since MSG (Facts, 30 Hours, the return of No Party’s In L.A.) were welcome, as these are good songs, but they’re messily placed at the end of the album breaking from West’s usual skillful sequencing ability. They could be bonus tracks – perhaps the album truly ends with the haunting Wolves. But this is left unclear.

So while the sequencing could me Kanye’s most sprawling and mixtape-esque yet, this is not in-of-itself a sign that West has jumped the shark. Looking at the songs themselves, there is still a great deal of inspired moments, up there with Kanye’s previous best. Ultralight Beam continues his run of brilliant opening tracks, and is as startling a beginning as On Sight’s harsh electronics three years ago. Beam could be Kanye’s most obvious gospel moment yet, a tribute to his faith, but still heavy and experimental in production. The space between the choir vocals makes each lyric hit harder, and there is a haunting quality added by the backwards synths. Kanye introduces the track, but then lets Chance The Rapper spit the longest verse. It could be the best verse on the album, which perhaps speaks of Kanye’s somewhat diminishing lyrical ability – even though his productions still shine.

Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 reunites West with previous collaborator Kid Cudi over a brilliant soul beat that could have featured on The Collage Dropout. Kanye’s opening lyrics are unfortunate (rhyming asshole with asshole), yet speak of a continued theme from Yeezus – that of a man torn between the sex-party bachelor life of old and the responsibilities of being a parent. Other controversial lyrics through-out the album, such as the much discussed – “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex, why? I made that bitch famous” – on Famous,  adhere to this theme (albeit in that case, loosely). It is easy on the basis of these lyrics to state that Kanye’s wit has declined somewhat, but an argument could be made that he is still as comic and witty as ever – his comedic skills are now just being overlooked (justifiably due to his ego). One of my favorite moments is in the aptly titled Highlights, which incidentally is one of the catchiest on the album and features the best use of ‘gopro’ in a rhyme I could possible imagine. Even the interlude Freestyle 4 works. It’s another musing on sex in a club, but manages humour and darkness in equal terms. These moments seem casual – although the album has

Other musical highlights include Feedback, a great beat perhaps not backed up by as strong lyrics and Waves, where a Chris Brown hook is used in a surprisingly not so nauseating way. When the album goes dark, in remains effective, as on the introspective Real Friends, one of the albums most sincere lyrical moments, analyzing the difficulty of staying a true friend even when we try. FML, featuring The Weeknd returns to the theme of draw of lust and it’s negative effects, which shares more sonic and lyrical similarities with Yeezus moments like Hold My Liquor. Perhaps not as successfully though.

The album is in parts a sequel to the dark and sparse introspection of Yeezus and in parts a return to the more upbeat and sprawling early albums. Kanye acknowledges his own transformation between these eras on the I Love Kanye acapella (which once had beat – the leaked OG version of the album revealed) – another apparently controversial moment that’s being discussed more than the actual music. TLOP is not as focused as Yeezus, and the songwriting and lyrics not to the standard of what I consider to be his best album and artistic peak, My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy. But there are enough great moments on the album to prove that Kanye hasn’t yet lost his midus touch, even if this is an album to pick and chose from, rather than play from start to finish. So if the detractors want another reason why the fans stick to their hero in spite of any shortcomings – TLOP proves, the music remains enough.

Live Review: Peaches (Electric Ballroom, London, 2015)

Last Sunday night in Camden Town, London, Merrill Nisker brought the Teaches of Peaches and schooled us in how to perfect a solo club show.

On this later tour, Nisker has returned to a minimal approach to Peaches as a live act, similar her Berlin club beginnings, or early festival shows promoting The Teaches Of Peaches and follow up Fatherfucker. Eschewing the band show she had developed to much acclaim during tours for Impeach My Bush and I Feel Cream, the focus of the show was the energy and performance of Peaches herself, backed by a couple of dancers and some very entertaining visual surprises throughout. I had doubted that as a solo show, this would be as excited as the Peaches band set-up I’d seen years earlier. But Nisker had the audacity to pull this off, proving why she is the queen of electroclash – and why she is a true classic live performer.

peaches electric ballroom

No time was wasted as the lights quickly dimmed and Nisker appeared on stage in a ridiculous cartoon-cyberpunk outfit, like something from an anime version of Dune. Opening track and title track off the new album, Rub, seemed nothing too special on recording, but lines such as “can’t talk right now, this chicks dick is in my mouth”, came across with hilarity and set the tone for the rest of the night. The sold out crowd was heaving, jumping, dancing, screaming (and cracking up) as she projected her sexual electro punk classics on to us all. Nisker was the MC and the DJ, as she queued each track up on a set of CD-J’s and a mixer placed on a riser in front of her rock show light rig. Proving charismatic enough to own the stage on her own through-out Fatherfucker favourite Operate, she returned to the new material with Vaginaplasty, bring out her two person dance crew to help out. Dressed in giant vagina outfits, complete with over-sized clitoris’, the dancers helped add visual flair to the proceedings. The male and female dancers I felt had a particularly mainstream look to them, which gave the ridiculous content (and dance ideas) an accessibility. They seemed like regularly people, not flamboyant performers or drag artists (like many that appear in her videos) and I couldn’t help think her choice of backup dancers perhaps spoke to the sexually repressed among her audience. It was as if to say, if this common looking couple can get freaky to the suggestion of Peaches, so can you.

peaches live 2015

Nisker kept the energy up, soon walking over the hands of the audience and right to the middle of the venue during I Feel Cream. Talk To Me and Boys Wanna Be Her proved two of the most popular of the set judging by audience reaction, but she wasn’t only playing the hits, drawing deep into her catalouge for standalone single Burst! and Teaches Of Peaches deep-cut Lovertits. The most outrageous prop of the night was to come during Dick In The Air. With a great trap beat, and some of Peaches funniest lyrics off the new album, I had anticipated this song being one of my highlights. Not content with just bringing a blow up penis (which would have illustrated the songs content just fine), the stage crew proceeded to inflate a giant see-through plastic shaft, which spread out across the audience. The tracks deep baseline kicked in, and Peaches delivered the first verse before entering the giant shaft and walking across the audience. I had expected perhaps a dick to be raised to the air during this song in some form, I hadn’t expected a penis shaped shaft to be inflated over the audience with Peaches dancing and rapping within it. I true moment of stage-craft genius if there ever was one.

The inevitable mass crowd-singalong to Fuck The Pain Away occurred, before Peaches left the stage, taking a suitcase with her to the tune of The Warriors theme. I wasn’t sure if she would be one to return and encore, but she soon did, this time topless (although tastefully so – skin coloured nipple covers and a new costume). She chose perhaps the best song off the new album to open this encore, Dumb Fuck, with her backup dancers returning also for one last routine, this time creatively involving hair dryers. AA XXX gave us all one last time to shout along with her brilliant punk poetry, before she exited the stage once again. It was not over yet however, as she graced this Camden stage one more time for Light In Places. A hexagon shaped swing was unfurled from the lighting rig, and if you’ve seen the video, I think you can guess what came next. We were basically treated to a cirque-du-solei show, as Peaches was joined by aerial performance Empress Stah, who took to the swing to demonstrate some amazing acrobatic abilities. All with a lighting device placed just about on her butt. I’d never been so happy to have an ass shine over me. It was quite the performance, and not one I’ll forget any time – especially impressive if that was a butt-plug creating those lights.

peaches live buttplug ass

After two encores and a show full of high energy set pieces and a large setlist of new and old songs, I doubt there was an unsatisfied fan in the room. Nisker took the time to sign records and meet the fans straight after the show, showing her humble nature. I took the opportunity to talk to her again, having met her briefly as a wide-eyed 17 year old at the Big Day Out 2007. It is somewhat comforting to know that in that time since, Nisker has been able to maintain her career, stay relevant, and arguably become an even better live performer. What she gave us at the Electric Ballroom was one part insane party and another part punk political statement, and with her career of fearlessness and confrontation – to gender norms and repressed sexuality – it must be a vindication of her continued efforts to see the frenzied fun she inspires within a club setting such as this.

peaches rub signed

Film Review: Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)

The latest Bond film features all the hallmarks of the beloved franchise – international locals, elaborately staged espionage action sequences, a Bond girl or two, a menacing foreign-accented villain and a plot to end world safety plucked straight from contemporary headlines. Being a product of both the age of terror and mass-surveillance, the scriptwriters deftly manage to include strands of both within the films surprisingly entertaining narrative. I say surprising, as many of the reviews I’d read prior to seeing the film had had me expecting a much more derivative Bond entry. The core Bond-formula elements are all there, but returning director Sam Mendes executes them with style, wrapping up the Craig-era Bond films in a satisfying way, while leaving room for more.

It has apparently been a while since watching early Bond, as I had forgotten all about Spectre and their role and their role as being the main bad guys back in the Connery-era films. It was perhaps rather naive that I realised mid-way through this film that I was watching both a reboot and an origins story. Blofeld is back, and Christopher Waltz puts his signature twisted spin on the character, largely over-shadowing earlier versions. The classic villain has been given an expanded back story, providing more depth to his villainous motivation. Of the returning characters, Ben Wishaw is back at Q, and is given his own share of action time – a worthy successor to Ben Whishaw. Roy Kinnear is back as the of Mi6 and Judi Dench obviously exited in the last entry, but the scriptwriters have chosen to have her shadow hang over this narratives events.

The bond girl this time around is Lea Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swan, a daughter of a Spectre member living in hiding. Following on from strong female action characters of recent times such as Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, she is not just eye candy for Bond to save, but does much of the saving herself. Seydoux and Craig have chemistry, and their relationship has the usual amount of Bond-style twists and turns. In spite of the attempts to have a strong female co-star, I feel her character is at times a bit predictable and feels one of the least daring elements of the narrative.

Sometimes it’s not entirely apparently how the films enormous budget, one of the largest in history at $245 million, was put to use. Perhaps marketing and actors fees account for a large proportion of this, but one area where the money was apparent was in the use of major international locations. The opening sequence set during Mexico Cities’ Dia de los Muertos kicks things off with an ambitious single take shot, including a large amount of extras (many probably digital). Later, Bond speeds through the narrow medieval streets of Rome in a thrilling chase sequence that rivals the best of them. Things later return to London, and I was happy to see many familiar landmarks make an appearance. I’m assuming it wasn’t cheap to stage action sequences around Trafalgar Square. The action scenes are entertaining, the explosives well executed, if the violence a little less frequent as the last three Craig entries.

I wonder, with the budget being used in reasonably subtle ways (for a Bond film), are pretty locals are not enough to win over modern audiences. While the action sequences are flashy, they are not nearly as frequent as a Joss Weadon or Michael Bay action film. The ambivalent reactions toward Spectre makes me wonder if the entry is too nuanced for a modern audience, who are increasingly used to action sequences filmed like first person shooter games, and narratives with the simplest of good-bad dichotomies (every Marvel film for example). Although the narrative had it’s share of flaws, the scriptwriters usage of contemporary issues as plot devices was much more intelligent and subtle than the usual distorted cinematic propoganda (such as that of the cold war era Bonds). The film explored the connection between terrorist acts and the profit gained from private companies selling mass-surveilance to fairful governments and their people. In one scene, after South Africa remains the only country adverse to joining the fictionalized ‘9 eyes’ intellegence network, we later see a headline reporting a terrorist act taking place within Cape Town. Spectre are of course behind and profiting from all this, and their motives are not fully explained, but the subtle use of relevant issues is a welcome touch.

Mendes has given the Craig-era bond films their own continuity with this entry, and they now stand-out especially from the rest of the franchise. By revisiting and re imagining such iconic moments of Bond history as Spectre and Blofeld, Mendes manages to pay homage to the series while further drawing a line in the sand regarding the place of the Craig-era films. The Craig films have seemed a new beginning ever since Casino Royale, but now more than ever they have their own continuity and connecting themes, inspired by the old books and films, but given a slick new polish for a modern generation. Unlikely as it seems, more than ever the Bond series appears to be one with legs to continue to future generations. I hope that Craig at least gets one more, but if this is the end to his Bond career, it’s a fitting finale.

 spectre2

Theatre Review: Everyman – National Theatre, London

Sometimes you’re drawn towards a piece of art because of it’s themes. Perhaps the topic of the artwork speaks to something that’s been on your mind at that point. Art, after all, is not just escapism but a way to learn about the world from different perspective. Or it is a medium of conversation, to discuss themes and transmit ideas in a way that would not be possible through everyday conversation. I felt drawn to the National Theatre’s staging of Everyman, not just because stars Chiwrtel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave fame – although I admit that was a part – but also because of the literalization of the theme of man’s confrontation with Death. With Everyman being based on a 15th century morality tale, it felt almost like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal brought to the stage, yet subverting religious themes within the original text to become a modern criticism of the vacant materialism of modern lives. The subject of death is a fun one to ruminate on, and although it might sound heady, a contemporary update of a church morality tale is something worth venturing out to see.

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In this version, Death arrives to interrupt the Everyman at the height of his success, just as Death came to the plague-era knight in The Seventh Seal. Chiwrtel Ejiofor’s Everyman character is not so cunning as Max Von Sydon’s Knight however, and is a much more of a jaded, pleasure seeking, ambitious modern man. The figure of Death here is portrayed as a wisecracking working class salesman, a subversion of the expected stereotype. Our narrator likewise is a figure taking the place of God, who here is cast as a cleaning lady with a wise mind. The Everyman, having not had time for his family for years, and surrounding himself with shallow friendships based on wealth and decadence – now finds himself with no one to testify in support of his character, in the face of death. These universal themes are boldly presented by writer Carol Anne Duffy and director Rufus Norris, who have pieced together a strong cast, backed up with original visual and aural cues. Spectacle is there right from the first act – such as Ejiofor descending from the roof on wire, simulating perhaps his suicide. A video wall is then used to enhance settings – and a hurricane, metaphor for man’s uncaring attitude to his earth, is simulated midway through. These tricks are impressive but not distracting. The acting and polish of the script is what shines through, with traditional dialogue sitting side by side with modern colloquialisms. Other notable strong performances include the Everyman’s parents, both of declining health, with a family dynamic many will able to relate to – with one sibling doing most of the caregiving while the other pursues more selfish ambitions. Ejiofor largely steals the show however, with a hugely expressive performance loud enough to reach to the back of the theatre, yet nuanced enough to effectively carry the emotion of the story.

It all builds towards a touching climax, where man comes face to face with his child self. I felt the director, writer and actors hit allusive grace note with the execution of the ending. We all have days where we sit around and ponder what could have been. Or other days where we hear the news and think of the destruction man is causing and whether the world is truely being affected by this. The play takes these emotions and deals with them in a way that is not forced, but instead sublimely executed. As my first time in the National Theatre and my first time seeing a major contemporary theatre piece in a British Theatre, I was perhaps always going to be impressed. Especially a performance which featured a major international actor who only recently was nominated for an Oscar for one of my favourite films of the last few years. But I will say I’ll just say – if in the mood for contemplating mortality, I suggest you head along to the National Theatre before 30th August.

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A Season Of Firsts part V: First day in London and it’s a toilet-less Blur

The ‘A Season Of Firsts’ series of blogs is me accounting my experience of relocating from New Zealand to the United Kingdom to work and travel.

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Unwrapping the bags at Gatwick

On the 20th of June, 7am in the morning, I arrived in London. That’s over a month ago, so any thoughts I’ll be sharing on this iconic city will be from the mindset of the jaded recent arrival, rather than the completely naive and fresh London immigrant.

London has very few public toilets. This was my first major revelation about the place, and one that would strongly taint my initial first impressions of the city. Making my way from Gatwick to a hostel in a suburb I had no idea about, dealing with the underground for the first time, trying to use Google Maps and orientate myself with a 24 KG pack on my back; this was all hard enough. Let alone with a full bladder, and seemingly no way of emptying it. I skipped the toilets at Gatwick assuming I would easily be able to find one on the way. This is one of the largest cities in the world after all. The only one to be found at London Bridge Underground Station required coins, and I didn’t yet have any Great Britain Pounds to my name. There was none to be found at my next stop of Rotherhithe either. This is now a good hour and a half after I boarded the express train from Gatwick into the city. London looked nice, but I’d not yet seen any major landmarks yet, just suburbs of brick houses and a grey-ish sky. It was beginning to seem a particularly anti-climatic entrance to the city, but one that in it’s own way was quintessentially London.

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My introduction to London

I didn’t make it all the way to the Hostel, I had to dive into the first bushy area I could find and illegally relieve myself, making the most of the one of the conveniences of the male gender. Now able to think straight, I soon found my hostel and proceeded to the next mission of getting some Pounds in hand. Turns out withdrawing money from a New Zealand Debit Card was an equally frustrating endeavor, with the ATM in the hostel spitting my card back at me without handing over any paper. Off I went to find the nearest Barclay’s which were apparently fee-less. I got lost, ended up at a small Thameside mall, and gave in to the first ATM I saw. I would soon find out that there was no avoiding bank charges when withdrawing from an overseas account in the UK. So advice for anyone traveling soon; take all the cash with you.

My first day in London was therefore suitable un-restful. That afternoon, on my return to the hostel I would receive a message from a friend. Blur were playing Hyde Park that afternoon, so it was off to that. Being unaware of the time it takes to travel throughout London, and lacking in any sense of direction I gave up on trying to navigate the tubes and instead booked an Uber. Probably the best decision I made my first day in London, as the Uber got me right to Bethnal Green Station early. I met up with my friends and was able to head to Hyde Park together, right on time to see all the support acts. I wasn’t too tired at this stage; I had slept enough on the plane from Dubai to London, but I was completely overwhelmed by having finally made it to the British metropolis I had been anticipating for sometime. Being overwhelmed I was unable to truly appreciate seeing Blur live, or appreciate what it was like to actually be standing in Hyde Park. In fact, it didn’t seem that special. Turns out Hyde Park is just another park, which happened to have a large stage situated upon in, and a lot of people milling around listening to music.

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We’ve made it to a concert

It may not have the wisest idea to go to a large music festival the day of arrival in a completely foreign city twenty four hours from home. But regardless, Blur were amazing, and maybe one day I’ll see them when I’m not confused – and truth be told, slightly drunk. The ciders were flowing, the exchanging of dollars for pounds were taking place, and my slightly hedonistic first Great Britain summer was had begun. How else do you spend your time in London, then spend all your money on music, arts, performances and substances? I should add, before I sound too jaded, that Blur at Hyde Park was a great concert that well lived up to expectations. The set-list was huge, the new songs sounded great side by side with the old classics and they even made time for fan favorites like Stereotypes. But the whole thing was a bit of a.. fog. Too much entertainment, too soon.

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It was all a Blur

It would not be long until I would have a job yet again. Applying for positions before arrival turned out to be a wise option, and within days of touching down I would have my first interview. Finding a flat was not easy, and for someone looking to keep costs to a minimum I soon learned I would have to settle. London is no place for indecision and my problem solving skills were immediately tested. Savings would not last long, and as I sit writing this, I’m wracked with doubt about how I’m going to avoid expensive meals and drinking sessions yet still remain social. Still another month to go until that first paycheck comes.

If you take anything from my experience, it’s to be prepared. For the bank charges and for the lack of toilets. Learn from my mistakes – use the Airport toilet before you hop on the train to the city. London is a hard enough city without having to deal with a bursting bladder and no options to empty it.

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Disregarding the puns – Blur are awesome