The OA: review


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Netflix has surpassed itself with the OA.  It’s a feast of creativity, originality and puzzlement.

Frankly it’s not the sort of show I’d expect to like, loaded to the hilt as it is with mysticism, other dimensions, expressive movement, spells, spiritualism and a central character (the Original Angel) that is as near to a full on hippy as we’ve seen on our screens in forty years.  It’s a fantasy show that’s grounded in reality and borrows in style from Cronenberg and Jonathon Demme.

Part mystery, part meaning of existence it centres on the story of OA who starts out life as a blind Russian girl, daughter of an oligarch who has a near death experience at the age of six when her bus full of junior oligarchs is attacked on a bridge by a terrorist group.  All but her die and for safety she is shipped to America where she is adopted by an ageing couple who, on doctors orders, heavily sedate her for the next 15 years to treat the possible impact of schizophrenia.

On her 21st birthday she goes to meet her father (one of many premonitions) at the foot of the Statue of Liberty but instead meets Hap.  The man who is to become the central feature of her life for the next seven years.

I will stop with the storyline here as the rest will just become spoilers.

What emerges is a hugely complex plot that is impressively gripping and impossible to second guess.  Ten more characters perform as a brilliant ensemble as the story plays out.

It’s odd how Netfilx works, isn’t it?

There are no ads.  Indeed for this there were not even any trailers.

And because there is no ‘schedule’ the episodes can be as long or as short as they need to be which is very refreshing and makes them essentially unairable on traditional television.  One episode is around 65 minutes long, and one only 31, with a variety in between.

The OA is spectacular viewing.  Right up there with Stranger Things as the revelation of 2016 on ‘TV’.  It’s not for everyone but I’d imagine it is for most.

The ending has divided opinion but I for one thought it was good and after a bit of post showing research it’s entirely relevant and actually closes off a huge number of loose ends.

Enjoy.  Wish I could see it again without knowing its meaning.

One last thing.  the Title.  The OA.  It probably means Original Angel but I wonder if it could also derive from Oral Administration (of drugs) or could it be an inverse of Alpha and Omega? As in Jesus Christ proclaiming, as God, that he is the Alpha and the Omega (meaning the beginning and the end of existence).  Just a thought.

Desert Island Discs is 75: An appreciation.


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I’d like to say I’ve grown up with Desert Island Discs, but the truth is I was a terrible snob about ‘middle class radio’ in my disapproval of it as a youth.  I was brought up in the punk era. DID did not fit with the zeitgeist.  (I didn’t even give Led Zeppelin the time of day then, for God sake.)

I remain a terrible snob in different ways today.

For example, when it comes to class and political affiliations I’m a mess.

I feel like a Liberal but don’t vote Liberal.  I voted Yes for Independence in Scotland but am beginning to mistrust the SNP as they have unfettered power.  I deplore the Tories, but love Kenneth Clark.  I would not vote Labour but hugely admire Jeremy Corbyn.  I love the Greens but they are too hippy dippy for me.

When it comes to music I can’t abide the current state of the charts but am fully doting on BBC Radio 6 and its general output, yet when I open The Skinny to look at their best of the year I barely recognise a band and worry that I am losing touch.

My best of 2016 included David Bowie, Radiohead, De La Soul, King Creosote, Nick Cave, A Tribe called Quest, Massive Attack, Mogwai, Pixies.

Dad Rock (and Dad Hip hop) if ever you saw it.  Not one a day under 50 years old and Seaford Mods are not far off it either.

So where does DID fit in to all this?

Right at the top of the tree.  That’s where.

My aforementioned ‘political disdain’ for Radio 4 has long been eroded and DID sits as the King of the BBC’s castle, patrolling the battlements the real life Queen, Kirsty Young.  Surely the greatest voice and most empathetic interviewer to ever grace the world of radio.

I listen to the archives and cannot bear the sound of the Wicked Witch of the West that preceded her; Sue Lawley.  Where Kirsty embraces, Lawley shunned.  Where Kirsty giggles, Lawley sneered or simply tossed off a harumphlike snort.

Parky was good though and so was Roy Plomley in that so very BBC era.

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The beauty of DID is that it gets under the skin of its interviewees like no other programme.  Sure, the music can be special but the formula (and it’s ingenious mixologist) works at pulling the truth from people.  Not the scandalous truth but the personal truth.

How they really felt about their mum and dad.

Why they were turned from the straight and narrow for a while (no REALLY why).

What embarrassing (but not headline) secrets they have.

How childhood bullying made them.

These sorts of things.

If you want to hear that in an absolute nutshell listen to the enthralling interview with Kathy Burke.  And try not to cry.

Listen to how Atul Gawande saved thousands of lives by creating a checklist for surgeons.  Genuinely inspiring.

I’ve not yet heard the Tom Hanks interview but I understand he was reduced to tears by Kirsty, but in a very nice way.

Lemm Sissey, a poet, was another who brought me to tears as he told his adoption story.

This programme does not tolerate big heads.  How could you show off with Kirsty anyway? Although, there was probably more opportunity in Lawley’s days, because I think she was more in the thrall of her big shot interviewees.  Kirtsty often is too, but in a completely different way.  Like a little girl mouth agape at her first Spice Girls gig sort of way rather than a Lawley “look at me interviewing Henry Kissinger ” way.

The list of the most chosen pieces reflects an aspect of the show that I think represents its strictly middle class past, because over the last ten years this picture must have changed.

Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor ‘Choral’
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor
Schubert – String Quintet in C major
Beethoven Symphony No 6 in F Major ‘Pastoral’
Elgar – Pomp & Circumstance March no 1 in D Major ‘Land of Hope and Glory’
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 5 in E Flat Major ‘Emperor’
Elgar – Enigma Variations Nimrod
Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A major

That’s not exactly Radio 1 (or 2 for that matter) is it?

Interviewees divide, for me, into two groups.  Those that truly love classical music and their list is wall to wall  classical with a token Frank Sinatra thrown in, and those that think a token classical piece or two will make them look more profound.  I’d likely have no classical in my choices but if I were to play that game it would be either Faure’s Requiem or Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Look. There.  I’ve done it.

Faux Classicist.

But that minor criticism (and it’s of some of its interviewees not the show itself) Desert Island Discs really does deserve the tag “National Institution”.

Here’s to my grandchildren enjoying it at the turn of the 22nd century.

Chernobyl Diaries: Movie Review.


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Interesting premise that starts really well with a sort of fly on the wall docudrama feel but steadily declines into sub prime territory.

Six American/Australian tourists on the ‘Grand Tour” find themselves in Kiev and go on an extreme tourism trip to Chernobyl and of course it all ges wrong.

The initial set up is creepy and highly credible but when the horror starts the credibility goes out the window.

Each and every horror trope gets an outing and every bad decision (i.e. don’t go into the basement) plays out, one by one.

The end result is a bit of a shambles.  Disappointing.

 

Nativity: Movie Review.


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Martin Freeman plays an out of love primary school teacher who ‘adopts’ an intern in the shape of Mr Poppy ( Marc Wooton – the star of the show).

What follows is a School of Rock-esque extravaganza as Mr Poppy mounts the school nativity play with epic ambitions.

But like the movie he has no budget

What he, and it, have is passion.

This is a miraculous achievement with literally a shoestring to play with.

The kids can barely sing, dance or act.

The concept is overblown and ludicrous.

It has no chance of competing with School of Rock.

But.

It is a masterpiece.

And it does.

The ultimate Christmas movie.

#Netflix .

 

Passengers: Movie Review


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5,000 passengers and 258 staff, including Jennifer Lawrence, as writer Aurora Lane, and Chris Pratt, as mechanic Jim Preston, are on a 120 year journey on the commercial spaceship, Starship Avalon, to a distant earthlike colony called Homeland.

A meteor storm causes havoc though when it leads to mechanical damage and the unlocking of Preston’s cryogenic pod.  Instead of a four month luxury approach to Homeland that’s now extended to 80 years with no way of getting back into his pod.

For over a year, with only an Android barman, played by Michael Sheen (in a brilliant nod to Kubrik’s Overlook Hotel bar in The Shining) for company, what follows is a study in mental health, romance and danger.

Dubbed Titanic in Space it’s easy to see why.

It’s a yarn with quite a nice romantic tale in reel two between Lawrence and Pratt that’s entirely well judged.

The third reel, when it all (inevitably) goes a bit Pete Tong, has echoes of Gravity but overall, to my taste, this is a far more engaging film throughout.

Some of the sic-fi is a bit bonkers.  There’s a great set piece in a swimming pool (the ultimate infinity pool) that has riled techno-geeks but, for me, it was clever and quite thrilling.

Months from now this movie will be receding into my memory quite significantly, but as a ‘don’t take it too seriously romance/action movie’ it hits all the buttons.

Decent escapism.

 

Anomalisa: Movie review.


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Certainly the oddest movie I’ve sen this year (and that includes Tale of Tales).

It’s a Charlie Kaufman sort of puppetry animation thing where most of the characters (male and female) are voiced, in the same voice, by the same person ( Tom Noonan).

It’s as weird as Kaufmann’s masterpiece ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’.  Weirder in fact. Especially as the animation is part perfection, part shabby chic which just adds to its surrealism.

Everything about the movie is surreal and centres around the central character, a celebrated motivational speaker (Michael Stone, played to laconic perfection by David Thewlis)  who has a breakdown in Cincinnati whilst beginning an affair with the only other non- Tom Noonan voiced character, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Her imperfections attract him, but mainly it’s the fact that her voice makes her different to everyone else.

A ray of light in a homogenous world.

It becomes very touching in parts and in times to come I’d expect it to be a much studied piece of work from a genuine Holywood outsider and visionary.

But be warned: it’s more Hollyweird than Hollywood.

Hush: Movie Review


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A chess game of suspense involving a deaf girl and a serial killer locked outside her home in the woods.

It sounds like a cliche with a twist, and it is, but it’s a really good cliche with a twist.

For a start the premise that the lead character Maddie, the deaf writer, who is home alone after a relationship break up, opens up a box of plot twists and devices that are unfamiliar in their familiarity.

Second, Maddie, (Kate Siegel) dominates the movie, even though it’s essentially a double hander, with a superbly sympathetic performance that never gets you shouting “don’t do that”, as is common in this genre.

The tension does not let up from start to finish (and it’s only 82 minutes so doesn’t outstay its welcome) as the masked invader tries to outwit Maddie and vice versa.

The temptation might have been to take Maddie’s disability and, like with Audrey Hepburn’s blindness in Wait Until Dark, use it to her advantage somehow; but that does not transpire.  It’s actually her skills as a writer (she is completing her latest crime novel when the would be assassin strikes) that gives her some traction in what should be a one-sided battle.

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This is an intelligent, well paced and well shot, low budget slasher movie, but on a higher plane.

 

 

Tale of Tales: Movie Review


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I missed the cinema release of this which is a pity because I imagine it looks even better on the big screen as the cinematography (Peter Suschitzky: a hand, if ever there was one, in Scrabble) is outstanding from start to finish.  It is aided and abetted by outstanding costumes, make up and design.

As for the locations.  They seem unreal, but they are, in fact, all real life Italian and Sicilian delights.

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When critics describe movies as visual feasts this is what they are referring too.

But it’s complemented by a number of great performances too from, in particular, Toby Jones, Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassell and Shirley Henderson.  If that sounds like an odd job of character actors then you can chuck John C. Reilly in too for good measure.  His part is a cameo but a welcome one nonetheless.

I won’t describe the story as too many reviews have picked it apart in detail but suffice it to say it is loosely based on Tale of Tales, an Italian book of fairy tales that inspired Andersen and Brothers Grimm.  And grim indeed are elements of these tales.  These are three interwoven fairy tales for adults.

Think of Pan’s Labyrinth (but more interesting).

For some astonishing reason IMDB only rates this a 6.4 and when you look at the breakdown of scoring one can see why.  16% of the reviews are 1 – 4 but 29% are 8+ so quite simply it’s a Marmite film.

Me?  I love Marmite.

Well, this kind.

Super Furry Animals at The Usher Hall Edinburgh: Review


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Usually with bands I prefer their early work before they ‘sell out’.  So this retrospective set of 1996’s Fuzzy Logic and 1997’s Radiator should have got me going.

But, see, I likes their later stuff. 2000’s Myng, 2001’s Rings Around the World and 2003’s Phantom Power.

There was nothing particularly wrong about this rendering of their two debut albums.  Not from the band anyway.

But the sound.  Oh my sweet Lord.

Helen Keller wearing an aqualung could have put on a better performance than this.

Go to your next gig wearing a parka with your hood up, wrap your head in a duvet and then get a dog to piss on it and you’d be getting close to experiencing what went on the Usher Hall last night.

Rubbish. And, consequently, boring.

Another great example of why Edinburgh is crying out for a good mid sized venue (it was only half sold out) because the Usher Hall is putrid for rock and roll.

1 star.

 

Blitzed (Drugs in Nazi Germany) by Norman Ohler: Book Review.


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I confess to a mild obsession with WWII, so this rather novel, but factual, book caught my eye.

It explores Hitler’s and Nazi Germany’s addiction to Cocaine, Metamphetamine and other stimulants during WWII.

Hitler, an outspoken critic of stimulant-taking, was unwittingly turned into a virtual junkie by his personal physician, Dr Theodor Morell, who gradually increased his medication from early vitamin injections ,to ease his constitution, to a dangerous cocktail of Morphine, Pervitin, Eukodal (double the strength of Morphine) and and Eupaverin.

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Meanwhile his troops were being standard issued with Pervitin – a little white pill that delivered massive hits of methamphatamine.  In experiments Nazi prisoners could be force marched 96km around a walking track in concentration camps on high doses of Pervitin before collapsing.  And it was Pervitin that fuelled the early taking of The Ardennes in April 1940 that gave Hitler an early advantage and footing in Western Europe.

You’d think the book is a stitch up and a fantasy but the 61 pages of refernces that close it are extremely convincing.

It’s a fascinating read.

And, far from Heil Hitler, it seems it was High Hitler.

St Paul’s Cathedral: From Richmond Park.


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There is a good story behind this photo I took through a telescope this afternoon..

By Royal decree (George the Third possibly) this view of St Paul’s Cathedral from 10 miles away in Richmond Park, is protected.

Viewed through a telescope you peer through an avenue of trees that are pruned annually by a helicopter carrying some sort of fuck off tree pruning saw.

On top of this, London’s planning law says nothing,  NOTHING, can obstruct this view.

So all of London’s vanity buildings can only be built behind, not in front, of it.

Mental.

But glorious.

Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre


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Ragtime is the greatest musical ever written.

Of that there is no question.

But how well it is performed is another question.

My fondness for the original cast recording on Broadway is muted.  My own youth theatre’s performance in the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a lifetime high.  The Regents Park open air show was good, but odd.

Take four then.

Thom Southerland’s, off West End, production at The Charing Cross Theatre.

First off.  This is a brilliant theatre.  Great box office and bar staff.  Nice loos.  Reasonably priced drinks (and tickets).  All good.

Now for the bad news.

I travelled to London at short notice and paid £120 for my train ticket, such was my enthusiasm to see its penultimate performance, but having arrived at the theatre the show was delayed by 30 minutes because Nolan Frederick (Booker T. Washington) has been taken ill.  Rather than cancelling the show the cast, crew and production team had rapidly pulled together a compromise.  A semi staged concert performance.

That did not bode well.

But, and it’s a huge but, what followed was a performance that I feel sure had more, not less, gusto than its normal 5 star delivery as each actor sought to make the most of an unfortunate situation.

What transpired was a masterpiece.

The performances were, universally, outrageously brilliant and the stand in for Nolan Frederick, an ensemble tuba playing cast member, Lemuel Knights, was spot on from start to finish.

This is a great production.

A really great production.

With cast doubling up as orchestra playing everything from to Cello to Recorder (and that’s just Joanna Hickman as Evelyn Nesbitt).  Accordion, Tuba, Banjo, Guitar, Drums, Piano (of course), Flute, Piccolo all feature prominantly.

The political nous of the piece can never have been higher as Britain wallows in something approaching mass hysteria about immigration.  The rise of the immigrant Tateh (amazingly performed by Gary Tushaw) is like a two fingered salute to the evil that is Nigel Farage.

And the dignity and stoicism of Ako Mitchell’s Coalhouse (and metaphorically his and Sarah’s baby) sets the scene for the contribution of the ‘negroes’ that have risen to the ultimate prominence as Barack Obama vacates the White House for an ungracious white supremacist.

I cannot praise this highly enough.  E.L. Doctorow’s source novel is a classic,  and McNally, Flaherty and Ahren’s take on it cannot actually be performed any better than this.

A special mention to Samuel Peterson and Riya Vyas (adorable) as the little boy and girl.

A very, very special moment in my life that I will never forget.

Donald Trump: Person of the Year 2016


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How can one argue with this?

This was the year of the Donald.

Time is at pains to point out that Person of the year is about impact, not good.

Trump had the impact of the meteor that may have killed the dinosaurs.

And he would argue that that’s a good analogy.

I see him as an arrogant, misogynistic, racist bastard.

Time will tell.

But, yes, Time, he was unquestionably the person of the year.

It was interesting to see that Nigel Farage featured on the list.

I will resist commenting on that.

 

 

My 8 years of Royal Lyceum Theatre bliss…


 

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Amy Manson in Caucasian Chalk Circle

Bliss?  Blessed more like.

I have had the extreme privilege of spending 8 years on the board of The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh and last night it came to a close.  Good governance rules said two terms of four years was my limit and so I’ve had to move on.

I have plenty of alternative pursuits to engage me but I wanted to publicly thank the staff and fellow board members of this venerable institution for making it eight years of sublime mental stimulation, a huge schoolroom, both artistically and professionally and the scene of more parties than anywhere else in my life.

It has been monumental.

Now, it would’t be me if I wasn’t to choose a few favourites and so my top ten from my period on the board are as follows…

Caucasian Chalk Circle: Mark Thomson (my all time favourite)

Waiting for Godot: Mark Thomson 

Educating Agnes: Tony Cownie

The Venetian Twins: Tony Cownie

Bondagers: Lu Kemp

Pressure: John Dove

The Crucible: John Dove

The Suppliant Women: Ramin Gray

Dunsinane: Roxana Silbert

Hidden (various directors for Lyceum Youth Theatre)

Best Music of 2016. It’s out now.


Free to a good home.

This is my 10th instalment, having begun the tradition in 2007.  (It’s the best year for donkeys.)

There is a strong electronic (4songs) and hip hop/dance (also 4 songs) element this year.

With fewer female solo artists than I’ve become known for (only 2 in fact).

It opens with Bowie’s closer and closes with Kosmicher Laufer’s opener. (For those not in the know they are a Leith based 1972 East German Olympic Athletics team training regime music spoof, redolent of early Kraftwerk – so what’s not to love.)

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