1917

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1917

Directed by Sam Mendes

UK, 2019

HOME, 16 January 2020

Long Day’s Journey into Night

An involving, exciting dramatic film though not entirely realistic.

We are in the First World War and two soldiers, Schofield (Andrew Scott) and Blake (Richard Madden), are sent on a mission that has little hope of success. They have to warn that a planned imminent offensive is, in fact, a trap and should be called off. To do this they must trek through a ravaged, desolate landscape of putrid mud and barbed wire, ruined buildings and rotting corpses. Some of the cinematography here (and the whole setting, actually) reminded me very strongly of Stalker, Tarkovsky’s great film. In other respects the story was familiar enough – a tale of derring-do, but undeniably well done.

There are fantastic performances from cast, especially Andrew Scott. The Germans here are wholly without honour, which is surprising: I thought the film would be more even handed. The common British soldiers are thooroughly decent and some of the officers, though not all, are decent chaps too. It was good to see some black faces and a turbaned fellow as well. Certain EU-funded films, above all Frantz, present the First World War as a European war which shows the dangers of nationalism. This way lies the suicide of Europe, all that. Whilst in fact it was a world war and, moreover, a war of empires, not nation states.

A terrific war film, with the odd mythic allusion (to the Lethe, etc.) thrown in.

RNCM Strings Festival 2020: RNCM String Orchestra

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RNCM Strings Festival 2020: RNCM String Orchestra

RNCM Concert Hall

12 January 2020

La Dolce Vita

This was the closing concert of a full programme of scrumptious events at this year’s RNCM Strings Festival

We heard the following fine works:

  • Vivaldi – Cello Concerto in E minor (arr for double bass and strings)
  • Haydn – Cello Concerto in C major
  • Henning Kraggerud – Solens Datter
  • Tchaikovsky – Serenade for Strings in C major

Catherine Yates conducted the Vivaldi, with Božo Paradžik playing double bass. Chris Hoyle did the honours with respect to the Haydn, where we had the great Miklós Perényi playing cello. And, after the interval, Henning Kraggerud introduced his own composition Solens Datter, where he uses Norse myth to address anxieties over climate change, and played on both it and the Tchaikovsky.

Kraggerud told a story about an atom bomb test and Tchaikovsky’s work that I was a little bit uncertain about, though it may well be correct. My understanding, anyway, is that Wernher von Braun invented the countdown protocol after seeing it in Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond (1929). Rocket science imitates cinematic art.

An exhilarating concert all around.

Uncut Gems

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Uncut Gems

Directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie

USA, 2019

HOME, 10 January 2020

Uncut Gems

A ferocious film, featuring a pile-driving performance by Adam Sandler.

Not something I thought I would ever say, but there you go. Anyway, Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a free-wheeling jeweller who also happens to be a compulsive gambler. He is in debt, and a couple of bruisers are chasing him for money. There is one way out, just one: if the rock of opals that he has arranged to smuggle out of Africa gets to him and if it is as good as they say.

What you have is a close-to, wonderfully detailed and intricately textured crime drama, and it is well-nigh perfect how it is done. It reminded me of a George V Higgins novel or a David Mamet play, the dialogue (and everything else about it) is that good. Everything, for example: Sandler’s conversation with his daughter – a self lacerating ordeal for him – is pure cinematic gold; and it lasts, what, less than I minute? I would watch the whole movie just to see that again.

As well, the film taps into that vein of Gnosticism or Jewish mysticism (associated, I think, with Isaac Luria amongst others) that sees life as a crooked path, the world as essentially an error, God looking elsewhere. Everything fucked up. This is immaculate post-Holocaust noir.

A bit early to be saying it, I admit, but it is likely to be the best film of the year.

La Dolce Vita

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La Dolce Vita

Directed by Federico Fellini

Italy, 1960

HOME, 9 January 2020

La Dolce Vita

Fellini’s masterpiece still screeches and sings.

It remains an edgy film about life, love and art.

We follow Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a man who works as a showbiz journalist, a colleague to paparazzi and a confidante to movie stars as and when necessary. Yet he is drawn toward literature and art as well, even as he sees pretension in that path.

Marcello lives with a woman, an over-anxious, neurotic woman who loves him, or says she does. Though perhaps she is just possessive and needy. But he has a mistress and myriad affairs. Love is not what he wants; or, at any rate, he is not satisfied with what he has.

It is a film where there is no solace anywhere. Where is the good life that Marcello might aim for? It is not to be found amongst the chitter chatter of artists and poets, that is for sure. He is trapped, with no means of escape.

And the scene where we see the suicide of Steiner, his murdered children, still has the power to shock.

Amanda

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Amanda

Directed by Mikhaël Hers

France, 2018

HOME, 9 January 2020

Amanda

I did not hold out much hope for this film after viewing the opening credits.

That is because I saw that it was funded by Creative Europe, an agency of the EU tasked with promoting European Identity and promoting Europe as a place of prestige and culture. Creative Europe has funded all those Woody Allen films with European cities in the title (Paris, Rome, Barcelona, etc.), though it is curious that Allen has not made a film set in Berlin and Vienna.

In the event, though, it turned out to be quite a moving film about how a brother and daughter cope with the death of a sister and mother. Amanda is the young niece (7 years old) and Vincent Lacoste plays her uncle David.

Mind, what do we get when Amanda and David visit London? Well, let me recount: a shot of the picturesque St Pancras station, lots of red London buses, shots of uncle and niece cycling along the Thames, spacious London parks with lots of greenery and a tennis match at Wimbledon. Cinematic postcards aplenty, which detract from the film rather than add to it. Still, it is good that – even as the UK exits stage left – at least one EU agency is doing its bit to promote London as a prestigious European destination.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Directed by Jacques Demy

France, 1964

HOME, 22 December 2019

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

This a a banal, bourgeois story yet a magical film.

The bourgeois story sees Catherine Deneuve’s shop girl in love with Nino Castelnuovo’s car mechanic. They are parted when he is called up into the army, but she promises to wait for him. Pregnant with his child, Deneuve decides eventually to marry a rich diamond merchant. He offers her a life and a way out of the small town. On his return, the car mechanic is torn up, naturally, but eventually he too marries and settles down.

At the close Deneuve and Castelnuovo meet when she stops to fill up her car at the garage that he now owns. Her daughter, their child, is in the car but he expresses no curiosity about her. He has another child, a boy, with the woman he has married. The two lovers talk but not for long. For now they have separate lives, their once grand passion – and any residual bitterness – has burnt out. They are strangers.

As for the film – a languid musical full of bold colours – it is wonderful to look at and full of strange moments, such as when Deneuve wears a crown and is compared to a Madonna in Antwerp. Or when she wears a dress with the pins still in it, perhaps as an anti-groping device. It is curious too that both lovers wear Burberry raincoats (in Normandy in 1964, really?).

Sons of Denmark

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Sons of Denmark

Directed by Ulaa Salim

Denmark, 2019

HOME, 19 December 2019

Sons of Denmark

A very effective thriller set in contemporary Denmark.

It portrays Denmark as a Wild West where Islamist and far-right nationalist groups fight against each other. Street violence, acid attacks. Bombings and assassinations. Terrorism, each and every day.

We follow Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed) and his descent into radicalisation. From an awareness of racism to resentment and anger, to a determination to act. He is tasked to kill a politician who specialises in anti-immigrant rhetoric. Then we follow his com padre, Ali (Zaki Youssef), who has a very different life to what we had been led to believe. And we become of far-right terrorism.

The film is not entirely realistic in that it asks you to believe that a far-right politician would be elected as prime minister in Denmark. Whereas what is happening now is that mainstream parties have co-opted the popular anti-immigrant sentiment sentiment and put forward policies to create (or coerce) greater integration. See the LSE blog post here.

Anyway, a compelling film. It kept my attention throughout.

Her Smell

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Her Smell

Directed by Alex Ross Perry

USA, 2018

HOME, 19 December 2019

Her Smell

Nasty, but kind of fun.

It is a film about a three girl rock group coming to the end of their sell by date. We see the group, particularly their lead singer Becky (Elisabeth Moss), imploding. They cannot get up on stage, they are unable to complete an album. The band members have lost patience with each other, their manager is monstrously exasperated. Each moment is a car-crash.

What is fun (and fantastic) about the film is Elisabeth Moss’s performance. Becky is an obnoxious monster, an unstoppable invective machine. She offends everyone, including her mother. Her ranting and raving has an awful power, a fabulist magnificence. You think of one Tennessee Williams’s Southern belles (but on steroids).

The film has an episodic structure (the concert that went wrong, the recording session that went to ruin…) with the final episode showing Becky rehabilitated, on the mend, saved. While this is not the final word (you still wonder: will she relapse?), it is a bit of an evasion. The film doesn’t explain how Becky saved herself, how she got from being this monster of a rock star to a loving mother, a reformed soul seemingly serene and at peace with the world.

This film is certainly not for everyone, but on the whole I enjoyed the ride.

Citizen K

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Citizen K

Directed by Alex Gibney

USA, 2019

HOME, 19 December 2019

Citizen K

A curious footnote to the rise of Putin.

It is difficult to know what to make of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He got filthy rich in Russia in the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin’s government was selling off state assets. Then, like a fair few oligarchs, he fell foul of Putin and spent a decade or so in prison. Now he lives in London, where he is still very rich (here it is estimated that his fortune is in the hundreds of millions), and where he is campaigning for human rights and greater democracy in Russia.

Are there any prospects of his efforts bringing about real change in Russia? Probably not, but it does add to the political theatre of the place.

Kharms couldn’t make it up.

Roots @ HOME

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Roots

Directed and Written by Suzanne Andrade

1927

HOME, 12 December 2019

Roots

Photo by 1927 / HOME

This suite of strange stories was both unsettling and satisfying.

The first story, about a fat cat with an insatiable attitude, set the tone. It was gruesome, quirky and darkly absurd. Later there was a story about a king who sets out to test his queen’s character – a rather head-in-his-arse king who clearly had a deficient moral sense himself. There was a Western about a bad hombre by name of The Ogre, set on terrorising a small town. Someone had to take him out, and they did. Perhaps my favourite story, though, was the one called ‘Two Fishes’, which was perfect and profound. It reminded me of some of the Hasidic tales that Martin Buber collected together. That cruel, just quality was present in spades.

What I have felt with one or two 1927 shows In the past is that while the animation and stylised acting has been highly effective at evoking atmosphere, the story and substance has not really measured up. Here the stories, for the most part (there is a little padding present), deliver a solid punch.

You can see a trailer of Roots at 1927’s website here.

Roots is showing at HOME until 30 December, further details can be found here.

Dialogues des Carmélites

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Dialogues des Carmélites

By Francis Poulenc

RNCM Theatre, 11 December 2019

RNCM Session Orchestra

This was a stunning production of the opera that held a special place in Poulenc’s heart, written as it was after his return to the Catholic Church.

Poulenc was gay, as we know, and the church, as ever, opposed same-sex relationships; but he no doubt had reconciled himself to this contradiction. The opera, which Poulenc completed in 1956 – and he had a hand in the libretto as well as the music (though much of Georges Bernanos’s text is retained), which tells you how much it meant to him – also has some of the fractious atmosphere of post-war France: the fall-out from the collaboration with Nazi Germany, the deportations to Auschwitz, all of that.

The music is both hymnal and harrowing, especially toward the end when the full cost of the nun’s moral choices has to be paid. Though, in one sense, they had only one moral choice to make, whether to accept God’s Grace and become instruments of His Will, or not. And as nuns they had already made that choice. Throughout, the song is very natural when it comes to the nuns’ everyday life; yet very moving at the close with the profound Salve Regina. As a story, curiously, it reminded me of Xavier Beauvois’s film Of Gods and Men. No doubt Beauvois was influenced by Poulenc’s opera.

All in all. the musical performances were wonderful. And with splendid costumes, gorgeous sets and lambent lighting, it was a visual delight as well.

So Long, My Son

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So Long, My Son

Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai

China, 2019

HOME, 11 December 2019

Knives Out

A family drama that is also an epic of modern China.

It is about a couple who live through the Cultural Revolution and who also have to deal with the death of their son. Because of China’s one child per family policy they have no other children and are left alone. We end at the present day, in an affluent China of conspicuous consumption. The couple are aged and reconciled to their fate, travelling in the backseat of a car, looking around at their home city, a city changed beyond recognition.

There are wonderful performances from the likes of Wang Jingchun, Yong Mei and Wang Yuan.

Altogether a very moving, beautiful film.

Halle Orchestra: Copland’s Jazz Concerto

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Halle Orchestra: Copland’s Jazz Concerto

The Bridgewater Hall, 5 December 2019

Halle Orchestra: Copland’s Jazz Concerto

A mosaic of marvellous American music.

In this concert we got four American compositions, each work an amalgam of jazz and classical elements. This was the programme:

  • Jake Heggie: Moby-Dick Suite
  • Copland: Clarinet Concerto
  • Bernstein: West Side Story: Symphonic Dances
  • Gershwin: Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture

The ‘Moby-Dick Suite’ was as epic as the novel, the music coming from Jake Heggie’s eponymous opera, which premiered in 2010. The Suite, arranged by tonight’s conductor Cristian Macelaru, was first performed in 2017.

Copland’s ‘Clarinet Concerto’, written for Benny Goodman (he paid ‘real money’ to employ the services of the great American composer), was first performed in 1950. Goodman played it on radio, not in the concert hall. Here Sergio Castelló López took it on stage and approached it in a spirit of playful dynamism. In his and the Halle’s hands it swung.

As for Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story: Symphonic Dances’, well, it had been astutely labelled. For these were dances, the music full often of violent, visceral movements. Cool yet restless, contradictory and explosive, never sitting still. True, some of the music was built on Beethoven. But alongside that there were shouts (‘Rumble!’) and finger-clicking and a feeling of frenetic action.

We ended with Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture’, Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of music taken from the great opera, first performed in 1935 with an all-black cast. Bennett’s arrangement was completed some seven years later. If you have ever once seen Porgy and Bess, this suite will bring will bring back to you a treasury of dazzling moments.

So an all-American concert, then, with much of the music originating from operas and musicals. The music not purely jazz or classical but a vivid oscillation between the two. For want of a better word, the end result could be called ‘American’.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

Knives Out

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Knives Out

Directed by Rian Johnson

USA, 2019

HOME, 29 November 2019

Knives Out

A completely compelling film, this one, a classic whodunnit with echoes of Nero Wolfe and The Big Clock.

There is a mystery writer dead, he is an apparent suicide, but the police want to be certain of no foul play and so interview each member of the dead man’s family in turn. And alongside the police sits a certain Mr Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous detective, who has been engaged by an anonymous client to get to the bottom of things. An anonymous client, though clearly someone with an interest in the outcome of the investigation.

It is a film with a lot of satisfying twists and turns (which I won’t divulge, naturally) and in the course of a honeyed procession it reveals much about human motive, mostly to the detriment of the species, alas, but also – outstandingly, in a single exception – to its benefit. There is one good person here.

At the heart of the film is Craig, who is wonderfully watchable as the the stylishly dressed, eccentric Southern detective – ‘CSI KFC?’ is how one suspect greets him – a man who is both compassionate and just, if not always right about everything. He is wrong about Gravity’s Rainbow, for one. I have read it (and have read V and The Crying of Lot 49 and even the stories in Slow Learner. Mind, I have not yet managed to make it through Vineland. Pynchon lost me sometime around then.

Anyway, back to Knives Out. Not profound or deep, this escapade, but you do come away royally entertained and with the confidence. maybe misplaced, that a good heart will always carry the day. Sweet Virginia. Precious cinema.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Directed by Joe Talbot

USA, 2019

HOME, 21 November 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

A richly layered film full of tender laughter.

I saw it on a cold, damp, windy evening in Manchester, a chill in my bones, and even so it brought, fairly often, a smile to my face. Though the effect in the end was as bleak as the weather outside.

Jimmie dreams of regaining the house his grandfather built (and his father let go) in San Francisco and, together with his friend Mont, they scheme ways to ensure its return. All forlorn. The two friends feel like outsiders in their own city, for it no longer has need of them: gentrification is a kind of genocide.

On one level the film is about the fruits and sins of the father, on another it is about two Somewhere guys in an Anywhere city. They want to find a place where they can belong and their home city is not it. On still another, it is a story of an unlikely friendship (it actually put me in mind of a Robert Deane Phaar novel: does anyone read this guy anymore?). And it is about survival in a precarious world, keeping on keeping on, all of that.

An astonishing film.

Meeting Gorbachev

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Meeting Gorbachev

Directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer

Germany, 2019

HOME, 20 November 2019

Meeting Gorbachev

Herzog does Gorbachev is a bit like Durer does Erasmus.

It feels already as though this is the definitive portrait. Anyway, it is a congenial documentary and a rounded picture of the great man. When Herzog interviews Gorbachev he, and on more than one occasion, addresses him by name and patronymic: Mikhail Sergeyevich. A courteous touch.

The film covers a wide berth, the full caboodle. His early life, where his father was away fighting the Germans. At one point his father was reported as dead, then he returned. His rise in Soviet society. Perestroika and glasnost and the fall out from Chernobyl. The nuclear disarmament talks with Reagan. His later arrest and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

You come away with an impression of a good, intelligent man who yet lacked the steel, the glint of ruthlessness, to steer the Soviet Union into his envisioned future. In this he was not helped by his fellow citizens, who preferred the likes of Yeltsin, or those politicians in the West who trumpeted that the Soviets had lost the cold War.

A tragic figure indeed but he achieved much.

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929)

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Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929)

RNCM Theatre, 3 November 2018

Eric Marienthal

Perfect or near-perfect cinema.

It was an extremely well crafted film, especially considering its vintage (released in 1929, so almost a century old), but on reflection that is hardly surprising when you cast a glance at who the director was: the great Alfred Hitchcock. The film was shown at the RNCM with live organ accompaniment, dazzling in its own right, by Darius Battiwalla.

So a silent film and set in London – the archetypal big city – and you are struck first and foremost by certain scenes’ similarities to the great masterpieces of Hitchcock’s heyday. When the police officers burst into Tracey’s tenement flat and we see him reading a newspaper on the bed it is like the boarding room occupied by Joseph Cotton’s killer at the start of Shadow of a Doubt. And when Tracey escapes through the window and over the rooftops and we see police officers following it is like the prologue to Vertigo.One of those police officers could be James Stewart’s Scottie. And the film evokes The 39 Steps in myriad ways.

Anny Ondra, a very beautiful Czech actress with expressive eyes, plays the damsel in distress. In one scene we see her walking down the Strand, a desolate Trafalgar square in the distance. There is a fleeting glimpse of Piccadilly Circus in another scene. Elsewhere we are at a Lyon’s Coffee House, a bustling form of life. People dining after a day at work. And then we are at a police station, with its tenebrous interiors and murky corridors. Finally, there is the British Museum, with the villain Tracey scarpering over the tombs of Egyptian mummies and statues Assyrian nobles. A frantic pursuit that has echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

It is wonderful how Hitchcock switches from verisimilitude – we are in a real city with real people – to showing us the anxious point of view of various different characters, saying in effect: this is the world that this person lives in. To be precise: not all of the characters are anxious. Some aware of their peril, others are oblivious to what is happening around them (as in life). There is a great, extended shot when Alice and the guy she has met walk up the staircase of his apartment building. It is a single tracking shot and we follow them floor by floor. How did Hitchcock manage to do that in 1929?

The concise and economical storytelling has a spellbinding elegance. There is artistry yet it never interferes with the momentum of the narrative, which is forever going forward.

Manchester Collective: Sirocco

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Manchester Collective: Sirocco

RNCM Concert Hall, 15 October 2019

Eric Marienthal

Abel is able.

And that goes not only for Abel Selaocoe, the frontman of Manchester Collective (who here played cello and sang), mind, but for the whole group, which for the most part is made up of RNCM alumni. They showed the versatile pizzazz and the can-do quality of the city that gave them their name.

Manchester Collective were open for business, that was for sure, as they played Haydn and Purcell one moment and traditional African song the next. There was plenty of  magnificent, bombastic drumming courtesy of Sidiki Dembele and a choir of angelic, baroque melodies from the Singh sisters (Rakhi Singh and Simmy Singh) and company on strings.

It was a collision of worlds, you could call it Alex Park and the Bridgewater Hall and all points in between. A cityscape of sound, and all good.

For further details of Manchester Collective, visit their website here.

Joker

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Joker

Directed by Todd Phillips

USA, 2019

HOME, 4 October 2019

Joker

You would call it a bleak film, but it is undoubtedly a beautiful one too.

Joaquin Phoenix’s sad bastard is the joker in the pack, a harbinger of aleatory anarchy, everyone’s favourite sociopath.

Although Todd Phillips makes use of DC characters, it is not a conventional comic book film by any means. Mind, you could think of it as an ‘origins’ film for the Joker. (Or an uber-Joker, for this character seems to predate the emergence of the actual Joker in the Batman series. But I confess that I am not up to speed with the cosmology of the DC Universe – all that Infinite Crisis stuff that they have put out in recent years, which clarifies very little and to my mind simply adds to the confusion- so maybe this guy is the Joker. Anyway, an issue for the fans to talk about.)

Here the Joker is recast as Batman’s older brother, the illegitimate son that Bruce Wayne’s father disowned. Cain and Abel were brothers…  and so too these ancient protagonists. The laughter is dark and sad and involuntary. Emetic. Aural vomit. Unpleasant to listen to. The jokes (touching on cruelty and chaos, human nature and everyday folly) are on all of us. At the end, Bruce’s parents are gunned down by a clown-masked destroyer – and we all know what happens next.

There is an electric moment where the Joker dances on a stairway leading down to an alley, glam rock playing in the background (I think a few riffs from Gary Glitter’s Leader of the Band: I have not heard his music in a while) as he goes off on a killing spree. Out to paint the town red – or is that luminescent purple?

I found the first twenty minutes of Joker a bit of a grind (what the hell is going on here?) but after that it soared and took flight. From then on, pure cinematic heaven.

 

The Last Tree

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The Last Tree

Directed by Shola Amoo

UK, 2019

HOME, 2 October 2019

The Last Tree

A raw, emotionally edgy, violent and tender film.

It tells the story of Femi, who moves from foster care in middle England to inner city London, where he lives in a high-rise flat together with his mother.

It is a culture shock and at first the bond with his mother is weak. Femi gets into trouble at school, becomes involved with a gang and soon his life is under threat. But somehow he never quite loses his soul, and an ability to empathize with people. It is wonderful to see how, in time, he turns to the people in his life. The ones who have showed up and managed to stick around. His mother above all.

Sam Adewumni is terrific as Femi, in a convincing film studded with fine performances.

 

 

The Laundromat

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The Laundromat

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

USA, 2019

HOME, 2 October 2019

The Laundromat

It is a well-meaning film, but a bit too moralistic and simplistic for my taste.

There is a cleverness to it,  Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as a pair of financiers, giving an account of their own dastardly careers, making you think of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, the camp villains in Diamonds are Forever. Meryl Streep is a widow (her husband dies in a boating accident and she has a bit of a nightmare trying to get fair compensation for his death), a character in one of the stories, but even she turns preachy at the end.

The problem is that the director would rather explain and complain about financial capitalism, and preach about it, rather than tell an immersive story with convincing characters, while touching on various themes raised by said capitslism. The explanations are simple and light, the preaching comes across as virtue-signalling (especially when mouthed by Streep) and the story is, naturally enough, unconvincing (it comes across as mere illustrative reconstruction than story, to be honest). It is just not enjoyable to watch.

Were there any memorable moments in the film? Well, I cannot remember any.

Stroszek

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Stroszek

Directed by Werner Herzog

West Germany, 1977

HOME, 27 September 2019

Stroszek

Werner Herzog’s America.

In Stroszek he shows us a forlorn Elsewhere of desolate lives subsisting on limpid dreams, a flatland where his queer pioneer scrabbles to survive. Stroszek is a misfit who believes, at the start of his journey anyway, that changing his immediate surroundings will save him. So he leaves a grimy, gritty Berlin for Wisconsin’s wide vistas. But changing his very own self, his habits, peccadilloes and predilections, that is something he cannot do. Needless to say, his sojourn is not a happy one. Misery is his cruel lot in Germany, undeniably, but in America it is worse.

The performing chickens and other small animals at the end, a characteristic touch of genius by Herzog, put me in mind of Kleist’s famous essay on puppet theatre. These sentient creatures, aglow with dancing and music and song, have the febrile glitter of cheap magic. They are animate automata, mechanical toys, and their antics mock Stroszek’s inability to radically change his life. He fails, yet so do we all. (People cannot ever really change their lives, can they?) Anyway, I love the denouement to the film, it is as though Herzog had stumbled upon a New World Cabinet of Curiosities.

And in the end, we realise, it has all turned to shit for Stroszek. His golden-hearted girl goes back to her old profession. He dreams up a plan to rob a bank, but it is closed so he goes to a barber’s shop instead. Even that goes awry. And self-dissolution, getting banged out of your head on booze, is never entirely successful. It didn’t work in Berlin and it doesn’t work here. For there is always a little light of awareness, of consciousness, peeking through the blurry clouds of oblivion. And what does consciousness mean, in a Werner Herzog film? Yes, consciousness means suffering, the capacity to experience pain. We know that art may console the soul, but the problem is that dire entertainment and zany amusement is all that is on offer in the Flatlands. Can that do the job as well? Well, why don’t you watch the film and see.

Stroszek was showing as part of the David Lynch’s True Favourites film season. Further details here.

 

Honeyland

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Honeyland

Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov

Macedonia, 2019

HOME, 25 September 2019

Honeyland

It looks like a documentary, this film, and at first you are not certain that it is a feature. It is a feature (I think…).

A story is told, anyway, so it is a documentary that has been shaped and sculptured in some way. Hatidze lives with her aged mother in an isolated village. They are the only ones there. She keeps bees. Her practice is to take half of their honey to leave the bees half. It is sustainable, and works for them both.

Then into the village, some newcomers arrive. A family with livestock, intending to farm and keep bees too. At first Hatidze welcomes them, helps them, gives them advice as to how to tend their bees. But the family is under pressure from their landlord. They need to maximise the output from their livestock and bees, get the most out them. It doesn’t work, that is the first thing to say: the bees sting them, for starters. But their approach impacts on Hatidze’s life and livelihood. How could it not

It is a beautiful film, superb cinematography capturing the landscape, which is stunning. In one wonderful scene we see Hatidze walking in the mountains towards a bee enclave as a plane flies by, high in the sky. A faraway plane, yet an imminent threat to her way of life. All in all, a tender portrait of Hatidze, a remarkable woman. I especially liked the moments with mother and daughter alone in their dark home (a cave or catacomb almost) with a candle lit between them. It is like looking at a Caravaggio.

Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response

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Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response

The Bridgewater Hall, 19 September 2019

Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response. Conductor Klaus Makela, photo by Heikki Tuuli

Beethoven and Shostakovich: ferociously intelligent music.

Klaus Makela (pictured) conducted the Halle this evening, and they played these three wonderful works:

  • Beethoven: Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus
  • Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1
  • Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

Beethoven’s ‘Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus’, the great composer’s only ballet score, was full of vivid images and versatile invention. Being something of a Promethean figure himself, it is hardly surprising that Beethoven was atttracted to the subject. It is a ballet where Prometheus plays God, bringing a male and female statue to life. Time for a revival?

As for his ‘Piano Concerto No.1’, well it is a masterpiece, clearly. I loved the Largo, the second movement, though in truth it was all good. Some passages are playful, others possess a raw power, an ineluctable rhythm and irresistible force. Víkingur Ólafsson played piano with consummate skill; and his encore, a Bach adagio for a friend who had just died, was plenty moving too. Both Beethoven works, incidentally, were first performed n Vienna.

Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony No.5’ was a complex, ambivalent epic, a tussle between authenticity and irony. The first movement, incorporating a quote from Carmen, was slushy and romantic. While the second featured a Landler, a slow waltz. In the third, a Largo, you were drenched in longing. Which led you to ask, Where was the composer going to take us next? Well the fourth and final movement was a military march, all that torment and anguish directed outward. Violence in service of the revolution. The question to be asked, though it can never be answered, is whether the symphony should be taken at face value. Was Shostakovich for real? Or was he being ironic? Was this music – spectacular as it often was – simply a show to avoid as show trial?

The Halle will be performing the same concert program on future dates, further details here.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

For Sama

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For Sama

Directed by Edward Watts and Waad Al-Kateab

UK, 2019

HOME, 19 September 2019

For Sama

Harrowing dispatches from a city under seige.

Waad al-Kateab’s film, dedicated to her daughter Sama, charts life in Aleppo as it comes under bombardment from Syrian and Russian forces. Five long years, and counting. Waad is the wife of a doctor, Hamza, and she and her camera witness many moments of death and grief. You see blood on the floor, corpses abandoned in a white-tiled room. Inconsolable suffering everywhere. This is a film where children die, where brothers and mothers grieve. It is not an easy watch.

Mind, there are sometimes moments of black humour (say, a mother recounting how her child would piss down her back whenever the shelling starts) and even miracle (a baby, seemingly dead, cries into life).

You realise that these people feel (correctly) that they are alone in the world. Yes, they must daily face the hostility of Assad and Putin’s henchmen. Yet they must also accept each day the West’s indifference their plight. Western leaders may have called, following the Arab Spring, for Assad to go. But after Iraq, no Western nation was ever going to act to make that happen. So the carnage goes on.

Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard

Directed by Billy Wilder

USA, 1950

HOME, 17 September 2019

Sunset Boulevard

An American film, although with Austrian elements too.

There is, to start with, Erich von Stroheim’s presence and Billy Wilder’s script and direction. And the story, the way that William Holden’s protagonist Joe Gillis is drawn into Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) clutches puts you in mind of both Stefan Zweig’s great novel Beware of Pity (because Joe does feel pity for Norma, her depression and suicide attempts and general mental instability) and various Austrian artists’ attraction to the figure of the femme fatale. You think of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, the role that tempts Norma out of retirement. And the related figure of Judith, painted by Klimt and Cranach (Cranach’s painting of Judith is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Were these images swirling about in Wilder’s mind when he came to write the story?

Nonetheless Sunset Boulevard owes much to film noir and to hard-boiled crime novels with their penchant for first person narration.

Hollywood is a poisonous presence in the film. It is a locus and portal of dreams, not always healthy ones. It peddles fantasies, which can transmute into obsession and perversion. Unrealities. When Joe meets Norma he is drawn into the past (a vanished Europe?) away from America and the future of an open road. Hope, the sanity of a social world – he leaves that all behind.

It shows a nostalgia for silent films, the sacred power inherent in the pure theatrical gesture, when stars possessed a kind of royal mystery. A mystery now lost in an age of vulgar speech, slick banter (at which Joe is adept) and shallow celebrity.

Sunset Boulevard, an undoubted masterpiece, was showing as part of the David Lynch’s True Favourites film season. Further details here.

Red Dust Road @ HOME

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Red Dust Road

Written by Jackie Kay and adapted by Tanika Gupta

HOME and the National Theatre of Scotland

HOME, 12 September 2019

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden, and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden, and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

A portrait of a poet who is always on pilgrimage.

This play is a heartwarming, sometimes humorous adaptation of Jackie Kay’s fine memoir. At the close, you come away happy, though you feel that Kay’s life wasn’t always like that. She has had a lot to contend with. There was the racism of ’70s Scotland and, as a black child adopted by white parents, her identity was always going to be conflicted. Mind, it is clear here that she could always depend on the love of her parents. Later, at university, she came out as a lesbian (cue disco music).

There are strong performances throughout the play. From Sasha Frost as Kay herself, even though she isn’t quite able to capture the full-throated warmth of Kay’s own voice, and from Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden as Kay’s parents. Irene Allan plays Elizabeth, Kay’s birth mother, and there is a moment where she sings a harrowing, heartfelt Scots ballad (during a sequence where the play quotes from The Adoption Papers, and we hear the voices of the two mothers). It is the still, standout moment in the play.

If Red Dust Road has a flaw it is that there is a slightly precious, over-reverential attitude to Africa and Kay’s Ibo identity. As though this might offer a final answer, a true key to unlocking what makes her who she is. An authentic end to all her searching. Yet even this notion is undercut. In modern Nigeria, on the journey to her ‘ancestral village’, Kay is pestered by policemen demanding kickbacks.

Red Dust Road is a multi-layered play about a woman with a multi-layered identity. It is showing at HOME until 21 September, details here.

Rojo

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Rojo

Directed by Benjamín Naishtat

Argentina, 2018

HOME, 7 September 2019

Rojo

This disconcerting, disquieting film is set in Argentina prior to mid-’70s coup.

The protagonist is Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), a successful lawyer who is at the edge of violence. He is a moral agent who chooses not to act. Is it complicit in murder? Well, not if he can be later implicated. Does he stand up to injustice and profiteering? There would be a danger in that, wouldn’t there, so no. He is reluctant, yet willing to turn a blind eye.

The import of the film seems to be that state acts – and here one thinks of Latin America’s ‘Disappeared’ – are preceded by individual acts of violence, theft, jealousy, a desire to profit from others’ misfortune. We see the shadows – an eclipse even – before the darkness falls. At the film’s end, anyway, darkness does fall.

In one scene a mother goes into a church because her son is missing. He has not returned home, has disappeared. A priest is nowhere to be seen. The response of man in prayer, an avowed Christian (Alfredo Castro, who plays a private detective, brilliantly), is along the lines of: ‘I am not your son’s keeper.’

A very impressive accomplishment.

 

Pain and Glory

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Pain and Glory

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spain, 2019

HOME, 8 September 2019

Pain and Glory

It is an autobiographical film, but an artful one too.

There is an elegance and a restraint to it all, a tenderness even, not least Antonio Banderas’s central performance as Salvador, a film director suffering from a prolonged creative block. He is frail and vulnerable and I like the authenticity of his small movements. The reluctance to bend his back (perhaps he cannot) when putting on his clothes. The way he walks, cautious and slow. The way he gets up after sitting down. He is a man who knows what pain is, who manages it as he can.

The story is captivating and humorous, uplifting at the end, yet throughout it is studded with moments of poignancy and pain. There is one great line, so desperately sad and honest that it must be true. That is when Salvador says that, while his mother and the people in their village made him who he is, he failed his mother as a son ‘by being who I am’.

I like also the allusions to Spain and its hinterlands. Argentina, Cuba and Mexico are places of significance. Salvador reads Roberto Bolano, underlines passages in one of his novels. And his drama samples a song by the tumultuous Chavela Vargas, a trans/gay pioneer long admired by Almodóvar.

A late masterpiece.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts @ Jewish Museum Vienna

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Arik Brauer: All of My Arts

Curated by Danielle Spera and Daniela Pscheiden

3 April 2019 – 20 October 2019

Jewish Museum Vienna

Arik Brauer, um 1965 (c) Brigitte Lüttge-Dauth.jpg

Arik Brauer, um 1965 (c) Brigitte Lüttge-Dauth

At the Jewish Museum Vienna there are two exhibitions, each very different from the other, each in its own unique way compelling.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts is a survey of the great Austrian artist’s life and work. His paintings are much in evidence. Yes, the Fantastic Realism masterpieces but also, as well, a Bosch pastiche that he completed whilst a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (unlike Hitler, he got in) and a number of coloured drawings he did  even earlier, when a child: beautiful, prodigiously accomplished drawings.

You get to hear as well many of his most famous songs. For those unfamiliar with Brauer’s music, imagine Dylan writing not in an American idiom a la Woody Guthrie but in a contemporary update of Johann Nestroy’s Viennese Deutsch. You will have a pretty good sense of why Brauer is admired  as a singer-songwriter.

Also in the exhibition there is a chess set , I think though set up wrong (on the board, the white square is not on the right hand side, unless I have read it wrong); a clip from a French film, Les distractions (English title: Trapped by Fear), with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Parisian cool playing off against Brauer’s passionate song. Another section of the exhibition explores Brauer’s buildings: architecture became an interest for him in his mid-late career. And much else besides.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts is an exhibition that does full justice to the great artist’s’s fecund creativity.

As it happens, the other exhibition, Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal, is also about architecture. It is curated by Michaela Vocelka and runs until January 2020.

When Simon Wiesenthal was at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, he made friends with a fellow prisoner named Edmund Staniszewski. Staniszewski had an ambition to start a café after the war (if he survived, that is) and Wiesenthal, who had trained as an architect, designed some plans for him. He made sketches and drawings of the premises, its outside and interior, and even thought about staff uniforms. Here is Wiesenthal’s design of a chess room within the cafe. Note the chequered floor and seat coverings, the rook depicted as a tank turret in the painting on the wall, where we see as well a pawn being carried away on a stretcher. No doubt it has been sacrificed for the greater good…

Schachzimmer des Café As (c) Jüdisches Museum Wien

Schachzimmer des Café As (c) Jüdisches Museum Wien

This project was a hinterland for both men, you sense, a shared dream that likely helped them to survive the dire situation that they found themselves in. In planning the future of the Cafe As, they projected themselves into the future and reaffirmed their resolve to survive.

You see a slue of Wiesenthal’s designs in this exhibition, along with letters and photos and other archival materials. It is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this fierce warrior for justice.

Further details of Arik Brauer: All of My Arts can be found here.

Further details of Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal can be found here.

The Pointe Dances @ Theatremuseum Wien

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The Pointe Dances: 150 Years of Ballet at the Wiener Staatsoper

Curated by Andrea Amort

16 May 2019 – 13 January 2020

Theatremuseum Wien

VIEW OF THE SIDE STAGE AT THE WIENER STAATSOPER, REHEARSAL OF "SWAN LAKE" (2.3 MB) © Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

Side-stage view at the Wiener Staatsoper, during a rehearsal of Swan Lake.
© Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

At the minute, at the Theatermuseum in Vienna, you can see two dance-related exhibitions: The Pointe Dances and Everybody Dances, both curated by Andrea Amort.

The Pointe Dances looks at the history of ballet in Vienna, from the early seventeenth century to the present day, with the focus firmly on ballet at (what is now) the Wiener Staatsoper. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Ringstrasse was built, and in 1869 Vienna’s main ballet company moved into (what was then) the Hofoper am Ring building. Ballet performances have been taking place there (and elsewhere too, mind: I saw a wonderful production of Coppelia earlier this year at the Volksoper out past the Wahringer Strasse) virtually ever since.

Notable historical highlights include Richard Strauss’s reign, from the end of World War One to the early ‘20s, so right at the birth of Austria as a republic, and Rudolf Nureyev’s tenure in the 1960s, where he famously devised a new way of doing Swan Lake. His version is still in production at the Wiener Staatsoper, incidentally; I saw one such performance in February. In this exhibition there are myriad photographs of dancers and productions, together with related films and video clips and diverse archival materials such as posters, postcards and letters. A treasure trove for fans of ballet.

With Everybody Dances, also curated by Andrea Amort, you get something different: a history of modern dance in Vienna (and Greater Vienna and, to some extent, Austria itself) from about 1900 to now. And it is still very much a vital tradition, what with the flagship ImPulsTanz festival taking place in Vienna each Summer. Bestriding this exhibition you have the gigantic presence of Rosalia Chladek (1905-1995) – charismatic dancer, inventive choreographer and influential dance theorist – although, as the title implies, it covers popular dance as well as the avant-garde. In Vienna, especially Rote Wien, dance was not an exclusively elitist pursuit.

I was surprised to learn that Isadora Duncan had once danced in Vienna, at the Secession no less, in 1902, and that Klimt (amongst other artists) was in the audience on that occasion. And here is a weird and wonderful photograph of an avant-garde dance troupe, captured in mid-1930s Vienna:

TÄNZERINNEN DES ENSEMBLES GERTRUD BODENWIESER IN "DÄMON MASCHINE", 1936, FOTO: DʼORA-BENDA Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband

TÄNZERINNEN DES ENSEMBLES GERTRUD BODENWIESER IN “DÄMON MASCHINE”, 1936, FOTO: DʼORA-BENDA
Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband

Also at the Theatremuseum, for the last couple of years and for a few years more one hopes, you can see masterpieces by Bosch, Cranach, Titian, Rubens and others. The Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, much of it anyway, has been installed at the Theatremuseum while the Academy of Fine Arts building is being refurbished. You can also see Lifelines, an exhibition of drawings by Rembrandt, there at the moment until 22 September 2019.

The Theatermuseum has always been one of Vienna’s hidden gems, and just now there is an awful lot worth seeing. So check it out.

Further details of The Pointe Dances: 150 Years of Ballet at the Wiener Staatsoper can be found here.

Further details of Everybody Dances: The Cosmos of Viennese Dance Modernism can be found here.

Further details of the Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, including the Lifelines exhibition, can be found here.

Details of current and forthcoming exhibitions at the Theatremuseum Wien can be found here.

The Last Day @ Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

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The Last Day

Photographs by Helmut Wimmer

2 March 2018 – 15 August 2019

Bassano Saal, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Fotoserie „The Last Day“ © Foto: Helmut Wimmer

Fotoserie „The Last Day“
© Foto: Helmut Wimmer

In the Bassano Saal at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, there was an exhibition of a dozen photographs by Helmut Wimmer, going by the collective title of The Last Day.

Now ended, alas, it was an exhibition with an apocalyptic, revenge of nature flavour, but we can certainly expect to see more work like this as the reality, the overwhelming presence of climate change, hits home. Here we have the grand staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum – a Greek warrior raising his sword, the scene of myriad selfies – exposed to the elements, looking for all the world as though it is overgrown with earth and twigs and moss. We see, in one photograph, cranes – at least, I think they are cranes: they are birds with a stately, distinguished plumage at any rate – wandering through a room adorned with one of Velasquez’s portraits of an infant Hapsburg prince. A courtly scene that would not look out of place in a Werner Herzog movie.

In the Bruegel room (see below), the artist’s painting of a winter journey (or of a return from a hunt, I forget which) is visible on one wall – and you can spy others, the peasant not looking where he is going, say – snow is encroaching. Winter is coming.

Fotoserie „The Last Day“ © Foto: Helmut Wimmer

Fotoserie „The Last Day“
© Foto: Helmut Wimmer

In other photographs there are rooms that contain rocky cliffs, petrified trees, a lake reflecting (Monet-like) Renaissance masterpieces. And a few rooms are flooded with water, the waves crashing and swirling. There are a typical museum-goers in many of these photographs too, doing the usual museum-goer things. Such as looking at paintings intently, consulting catalogs and explanatory text, fiddling with their phones. Being alternately hyper-attentive and impervious to their surroundings. All of which, perfectly captured by Helmut Wimmer, seems about right. For wouldn’t that be what you would expect to happen?

For about the end of the world, they were never wrong, the Old Masters. How well they understood that the end of civilization (like Christ carrying the cross to Calvary in Bruegel’s great painting) would take place while people were doing ordinary, everyday things. Like, in a modern museum setting, looking at a picture or taking a selfie or – in the cafe on the first floor – mashing whipped cream into a Sachertorte.

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien is a wonderful museum which is not unlike the National Gallery in London. In that it has ramshackle charm and is organised in quite an hackneyed way, but you can forgive all that – and even the cafe located slap-bang in the middle of it, which the National Gallery has not yet thought of, thank God – because it is piled to the rafters with masterpieces. A treasure trove of great art, in fact.

Further details of The Last Day can be found here.

Helmut Wimmer’s website is here.

Details of current and forthcoming exhibitions at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien can be found here.

MELTDOWN @ Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

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MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure

Curated by Lina Aastrup

5 June 2019 – 8 September 2019

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure

Certainly this was the most challenging and topical exhibition in Vienna this summer, and it is at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien for only a fortnight more.

MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure aims to visually represent the effect of climate change, at times by showing glaciers before (using historic photos taken from various archives, etc.) and after: that is to say now, today. And the change, the loss of a precious planetary resource (and natural beauty as well, of course) was often startling.

Curiously, one effect of the loss of glaciers – as one clump within the exhibition explained – is that borders between countries will need to be re-calibrated and (maybe) redrawn. A process whereby the rightful ownership of assets is called into question and can become, perhaps, a matter of controversy and conflict. So Austria and Italy had a bit of a kerfuffle recently over the discovery of a well preserved prehistoric man. He was found in what was not so long ago Austria, but is now Italy. This case was settled amicably, by all accounts, but we can expect these sort of disputes to multiply in the future.

Another issue is that the loss of glaciers, the dissolution of snow, will make it easier to access natural gas and precious metals and minerals. Already countries are making robust claims over areas of the Arctic, pushing these more seriously than they have done hitherto. And Trump’s supposed offer to buy Greenland, which I read about after visiting this exhibition, belongs in this playbook too. Here is a vision of our future: countries squabbling over the planet’s dwindling resources, rather than trying to stem their loss, with leaders of the most vociferous countries even denying that climate change is taking place at all.

There is another exhibition at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien that is well worth your time as well. FLORA PHOTOGRAPHICA: The Time Between, an exhibition of photographs by Petra Lutnyk, runs until 6 October 2019. These are wonderful photographs, mainly of flowers, with a few English roses thrown in the mix. She has  an extraordinary eye for nature’s fragility; with each ethereal image you see blossom and decay.

Further details of MELTDOWN can be found here.

Further details of FLORA PHOTOGRAPHICA can be found here.

Long Day’s Journey into Night

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Long Day’s Journey into Night

Directed by Bi Gan

China, 2018

HOME, 9 January 2020

Long Day’s Journey into Night

A meandering mess.

Here is the problem, it is one that a lot of these films (big on style, low on substance) have. You are not sure what is dream and what is reality, because the people who make these films like to play with the audience’s expectations. So in the end it doesn’t matter, or you tend to assume that it is all dream. And dreams are cost-free as far as the characters are concerned (if a guy is beaten up, and it may not have really happened, then who cares?). There is no jeopardy and you gradually (or abruptly) become disengaged from the characters and their fates.

So what are you left with? Well, there is an ambience and atmosphere to some of the film, I suppose. But is that really enough to sustain your interest for two hours? We know the answer to that.

No.