Sunday, April 17, 2016

Music criticism

I'm reading Forbidden Music: the Jewish composers banned by the Nazis, by Michael Haas. It quotes a lot from early music critics, and two particular examples appealed to me:

On page 60, Julius Korngold (father of the film composer, Erich Korngold) writes about atonal music, in 1925.

The tonality traitors know well why they're against expression. They have to make a virtue out of necessity. Atonal cacophony negates sensual, melodic, emotional sensibility. We read in Alfred Einstein's Dictionary of Modern Music  that 'The atonal melody is fundamentally a purely mechanical product and presents us with a contradictio in adjecto - an absurdity, since the comprehending spirit is incapable of finding any coherent relationship between the individual notes. One cannot write music based purely on a negative principal.' Hence the flight into linear contrapuntal writing that lucus a non lucendo - cannot be correctly voiced - causing a flight from all relationships into the tonality death-zone: the Twelve-Tone Row; this in turn results in objective, soulless attempts at messing about with material; the psychological effects of pitch and tone themselves being raised as the postulate of 'new music.'

I first read that phrase the Twelve-Tone Row as the Twelve-Tone Death Row...

The above was directed to some extent as another music critic, Eduard Hanslick, who was also no slouch at making his opinions heard. Here he is discussing another composer, Karl Goldmark, and his opera Merlin. However, he sidetracks into some sniping at Wagner...(from page 59)

For all the musical independence that Goldmark has now acquired, it's apparent that in Merlin he still stands under the influence of Meyerbeer and even more obviously, Wagner...His musical expression is impregnated with Wagner essences, though Goldmark captures different perfumes from the ones that have been floating about for the last 30 years. Occasionally, though, he inhales too deeply. King Arthur reminds one with his spongy sentimentality of Koenig Heinrich and the Landgraf Hermann...The love-duet is inconceivable without the templates of Lohengrin and Tristan. One is further reminded of Wagner with his unnatural emphasis on the dramatic, the restless chromatic breaks, and the flooding enharmonic modulations....Yet the means by which the work is composed is quite different from Wagner. With Goldmark, the sung melody remains at the centre, despite the fact that it doesn't exactly flow in generous quantities, but at least it isn't allowed into stammering declamation, which swings back and forth over a melody being spun out endlessly in the orchestra. Where there is need of a lyrical oasis, Goldmark places these within the architectural forms which became the jewels of opera in the days before Wagner: choruses with knights and elves and women; even strophic songs, marches, and a well-organised ballet are offered.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Actors, lines, stillness

We went to the Regional performances of the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival last night. And had forgotten how hard the seats are in the Otago Boys High School Auditorium, in spite of having spent Sunday after Sunday there for several years during services with Dunedin City Baptist, before it moved into its own home in Concord.  We've been to one of these regionals before, (as well as the National finals when they've been held in Dunedin) and enjoyed it. Last night seemed much more of a mixed bag than previously.

The first item of the evening, and one of the best, gave us Act 3 scene 1 from Henry IV, Part I. This was a fine fighting-talk piece with Hotspur pitting himself against the Mortimer family. It included music, and dialogue and singing in Welsh. A major achievement. I'd wondered if this was scripted, but I see from a copy of the play that all Shakespeare offers is: The lady speaks/sings in Welsh. So whatever she was saying was written for the performance. The only thing that undercut the value of the performance was that the young man playing Glendower made the mistake of assuming that because someone is old he has to be seen to be acting like someone who's nearly 100. Still he did better than the young man playing Lear in another scene. He was virtually bent over double, tottering along on his walking stick. Unlike most of the old people in the audience!

There were two King Lear pieces, both covering some of the same ground: the argument about how big a retinue Lear could bring with him when he stayed with his daughters. For some reason known only to the director (not a student - several of the pieces were student-directed) the first of these was done as a 'Mexican Day of the Dead' scene, presented in 'flashbacks' and thoroughly confusing the structure of the play. To anyone unfamiliar with the play it made no sense whatsoever; to anyone familiar with the play it took considerable effort to understand why on earth Mexico or the Day of the Dead had anything to do with it. Tacking an idea onto Shakespeare doesn't work unless the thing is integral to the text.

The other Lear, as I say, had a young man playing a Lear with considerable physical disabilities. It took several bits of scenes and ran them together. Again the result was confusion for the audience, I felt.

Probably the top performance of the evening was a small piece of Macbeth, with the speeches expanded out to fifteen minutes, even though in the play they'd probably only take about five. This involved three 'familiars' sinuously winding around a raised area in the middle of the stage, on which Hecate stood. (According to the programme she was also Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but I don't know where that was worked in; maybe she spoke some of their lines.) In contrast to these unpleasantly evil creatures there were three old biddies in relatively modern dress who spoke no lines at all, but provided a variety of chirps and buzzes and short sounds as they picnicked at the front of the stage. These were often very funny, and had the style of what they were doing down pat. Towards the end of the scene the three 'familiars' turned out to be the three biddies' pets (like cats) and that was disturbing. Hecate meanwhile had turned around (and proved to be a talented young girl we know) and all of them kept repeating Fair is foul and foul is fair. It was very well done, though it left a very nasty taste in the mouth - as was probably intended. The witches in Macbeth are nothing if they're not vile.

In one of the five minute pieces Mark Antony discovered his wife was dead. For some reason this was played for laughs, and the young man playing Enobarbus managed to speak all his lines in a totally incomprehensible manner. Quite an achievement!  Taieri College did the play scene from Midsummer Night's Dream, emphasizing the crudity of the humour, and getting some laughs, but overall seeming to be more knockabout than funny. That was disappointing given that Taieri has quite a reputation for good work.

In another five minute job, from Two Gentlemen of Verona, two girls did an excellent job of the scene where Julia is encouraged by her maid to read Proteus' love letter and keeps putting it off. This was a delight, as was (a female) Petruchio wooing a decidedly modern Katharina. The girl playing Petruchio also directed it, and did much better than many of the student directors. (One of the girls in the Gentleman piece may have directed it too, but the programme for some reason claimed they were presenting a scene from The Merchant of Venice, which was a little confusing.)

We had two versions of Romeo and Juliet. In the first only the Nurse and Juliet appeared, stranded on the entire width and depth of the stage, with three chairs forming a spaced-out triangle. This was student-directed too, and had some good points, but the Juliet raged her way through much of the dialogue (it's the scene where the Nurse tells her Romeo is banished and Tybalt is dead) and her words couldn't be heard. Still she brought huge energy to the role, unlike the stillness that you often see in Juliet. The Nurse however floated around the stage with a distinct lack of energy; it was hard to tell whether she cared about Tybalt or Romeo or Juliet. Or anything! An odd way to play the role. It was as if Juliet and the Nurse had swapped characters.

The other R&J was very curious, not helped by having the curtain come across when it was only two-thirds of the way through! The Juliet was played by a solid, tall boy doing a falsetto. When the audience realised he was meant to be Juliet there was a surge of embarrassed laughter. A strange piece of casting. Romeo was a little fellow, as was Tybalt, and they were left shouting at each other across the distance of the stage, for no good reason. These three were supposed to be flashback characters. The 'real' Romeo and Juliet were in the tomb scene with her lying still and him bewailing her being dead, and then each killing themselves in due course. These two were good, but the other three seemed at odds with them in age and everything else, pretty much. There was supposed to be another Tybalt, according to the programme, but he never eventuated. !!

The other piece was from Twelfth Night, and played out the scene where Olivia first meets Viola disguised as a young man. Olivia was in what appeared to be her short nightie. Malvolio was dressed in ordinary modern clothes, and showed no embarrassment at being in what must have been Olivia's bedroom. Maria spent most of her time dusting imaginary furniture and saying nothing, and the girl playing Viola spoke her lines with a strange weightedness, as though there was no rhythm or bounce to them. I couldn't tell whether she had a naturally gruff voice or whether she was trying to be a boy being a girl.

As in so many of the student productions (and even some of those directed by teachers) there was a great deal of unnecessary movement in this piece, much wandering around the stage by the two leads, without any great purpose. (In one of the King Lear pieces, two 'soldiers' marched across the stage and back again four times, for no apparent reason.) Other actors would shuffle about on the spot, as though they couldn't just stand still. Movement needs to have a reason on stage, otherwise it's nothing. And sometimes it's just annoying. Merely shifting people around without purpose achieves nothing. Sometimes the student directors got it right and did a good job. Other times it looked as though they had no idea what to do with the actors - and no one told them, it seems, that actors can stand still on a stage, say their lines effectively, and the audience will be enthralled.

In the most recent play I did, Verdict, I had less than ten minutes on stage. My entrance required me to show that I was an arrogant blusterer: initially I took control of the centre and forced the main character to stay at one side. And then it was a matter of each of us shifting from one position to another as we played out the scene, the two characters assessing each other, constantly changing the balance of power, even when both of us were sitting. Even small movements, such as a turn of the head, or my crossing my legs as I sat, or a refusal to shake hands, were slotted in for maximum effect. The third person in the scene, who had no lines except at the beginning and the end, stayed in one place all the time, only her face showing her reactions, or occasionally a slight shifting of her body.

I don't note this to say that we are better actors than these young people, but just to point out how movement is part and parcel of character and of what's going on in the scene. I'm reminded how in J B Priestly's play, When We Are Married, I played a photographer who became increasingly drunk as the play went on. In my first scene I was allowed to wander around the room inspecting things on the mantelpiece or a table and so on, even though other characters were speaking. It showed that as a character I had an underlying restlessness, probably because I was ready for my next drink. By the time the last scene came, I was able to literally burst through the door into the room where most of the other actors were assembled, and take over the scene as I lolled across the stage, drunk.

A more disciplined approach to movement gives the actors a much better sense of why they're on the stage, why they're saying what they're saying.














Sunday, April 03, 2016

Opera Otago's House Operas

I've been rehearsing with four young singers and two directors over the last two and a half weeks or so (with a few more days to go). Opera Otago is presenting two 'house operas' at Olveston on the 8th, 9th and 10th of April. It's going to be interesting to see if everything we've been rehearsing will actually work in the venue, which is not strictly speaking geared for opera, even small scale ones like these two.

They're an interesting pair, put together, I'm sure with both their similarities and contrasts in mind. The first in the programme is John Drummond's Dearest Maurice, a work that lasts around forty minutes. John is a well-known figure in Dunedin music circles, and has a good deal to do with Opera Otago over a number of years. (His son Jonathan conducted the premiere of my own children's musical, Grimhilda!, back in 2012). John has written several operas, but this is the only one I've had the opportunity to work closely on.

There are two characters, a young doctor, and a mysterious woman touring in the United States as a lady's companion. The third character, Maurice, never appears, but in spite of that brings the couple together. Unintentionally.

The other piece is better known, perhaps, having been presented by the Dunedin Opera Company at least once before. It's Menotti's The Telephone, in which that instrument plays an irritating and interrupting role in keeping the pair of lovers apart.


Both are romantic pieces, the former more serious in tone, the second lighter, with definite comedy running through it. In Drummond's piece, the tenor (Ben Madden) has the bigger role, not only being onstage for most of the time, but also very busy. The soprano (Ingrid Fomison-Nurse) has her own work, and some lovely duets. In the Menotti we have the reverse: the soprano (Julia Moss-Pearson) gets the majority of the singing, while the tenor (Harry Grigg) struggles - at times - to get a word in.

Musically Dearest Maurice swings between  enthusiastic, rowdy music and lush harmonies. Menotti's music is bright, sparkling, and often funny (something music isn't always good at). The soprano has several coloratura moments as well, while the piano frequently provides the 'voice' of one or other of the various people she encounters on the phone. Mixed with these are the warm melodies and harmonies Menotti is known for.

John Drummond is producing his own opera, and Claire Barton is producing The Telephone. The two operas are presented in the same programme, and each of the three shows starts at 6 pm. The whole presentation will take around an hour and a quarter.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Busy, busy....

Blogging has gone on the backburner because of a number of things. First was the ongoing efforts to finish my third children's book, The Disenchanted Wizard. And now that's gone on the backburner too!

Over the last month and a half I've been tied up playing first for Opera Otago's 60th Birthday Extravaganza Concert; I took over from the pianist who was originally hired because he himself got tied up with something else that caused him to weigh up his priorities. When that finished, just over a week ago, I went straight into rehearsals for two 'House Operas', short, one-act operas to be performed at Olveston, in just over a week's time.

The rehearsal period for these has been immensely short: around three weeks. I've had the music for several weeks, but had to practice and learn it at the same time as I was dealing with sixteen major items for the Extravaganza concert. Not only that, one of the operas was handwritten, and for my aging eyes, very difficult to read, so using the music programme, Sibelius, I put it on computer and printed out a readable copy. Which took several days, working a few hours at a time.

And then we've had some family ups and downs, as usual, and that takes energy, and we had to clear around the house because the scaffolders were coming to put up scaffolding so that the painters could paint the roof, and...

All in all it's been quite a couple of months, and though I've put some time into the book, it's been very inconsistent, and that's not ideal. There's been no blogging time at all, really, because I just haven't had the energy to keep at it!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Disenchanted Wizard makes progress...and the next project in line

Just found a post on my blog that was begun the other day and never completed. In fact I don't seem to have got beyond opening the page. So here was this good solid blank space just waiting for me to put some of my best thoughts in it.

Okay, it will accept second-best, third, fourth, etc.

Over the Christmas holiday period (which for me is as long or as short as I like, pretty much, being retired) I sent off a copy of the 'final' version of the my third children's book to my co-writer/editor/commentator/whatever and so far we've worked through the first eight chapters without the relationship busting up, or even showing signs of doing. (This hasn't always been the case with the books we've worked on.)

However, the first eight chapters have been written and rewritten and rewritten already, so it was a matter of making sure we were thoroughly satisfied with what was there. In one three-hour face-to-face session everything was pretty much ticked off, and that was after I'd already done a lot of further tidying up and reshuffling and all the other stuff that hopefully will comprise the book's first part.

From chapter nine up to twenty, however, it's going to be a different story. This section has already been completely rewritten after the first version was consigned to the dustbin of history. (What it is to have a co-person who insists 'You can do better.') However, we took a look at chapter nine the other day ('taking a look' consists of me thinking I've done my best and her replying with heaps of comments showing where I haven't done my best), and while it kept its framework and lots of its material, things had be shifted about, things had to be tidied up to make more sense, the irritable heroine had to be softened down a bit (otherwise, in spite of her status, she might have been replaced with a more amenable character) and so on.

Chapter nine has just been returned to me with further comments, but...and this is the good news...chapter ten is now under scrutiny. That sounds like progress!

In the periods while I've been waiting for chapters to turn up in my email again, with comments, I've been continuing to type up the letters I sent to my mother from London to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1968-70, when I was studying at the London Opera Centre. The letters I've been doing over the last week or two are from a time when I'd finished at the Centre and was trying to make sense of what to do next, since in some respects I'd 'failed' the course. 'Failed' isn't the right word; it was more the point that I'd lost confidence in my abilities after coming from a place where I was a relatively big fish in a small pond, to the opposite status.

As I've typed these letters I've been posting edited versions online, on the Hannagan Family.blog. This began life as a place for our family to put on family news and history, and this has happened in a random way, but it's also proved worth using for these letters, which I began to post online back in in November 2012. They then wend their way through the months, those there's a gap at one point when other things took over. I'll have to go through and link them one to another, in order to make them readable.

However, I'm coming to the end of the original letters, and have been thinking for some time about forming them into a book, since a few people have found them interesting in their current, scattered format. So that's probably the next project after The Disenchanted Wizard finally makes gets himself sorted out.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Total Recall and Star Wars

We watched the remake of Total Recall a couple of nights ago. Colin Farrell does an excellent job, not just as an action hero, but as a man with  depth to his personality. I think I've seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger version, but can't remember anything about it. My gut feeling is that Farrell presents a much more interesting character than Schwarzenegger would have. The two women in the story, Kate Beckingsale, who plays Farrell's seemingly indestructible and villainous 'wife,' and Jessica Biel as his true love, are both equally good. Apart from the excellent acting and the tense action scenes, it's the design of the movie that stands out most: the hemmed-in feeling of an overcrowded city, the washed-out colours, the extraordinary structures and much more. 

In the end they whole thing is far-fetched to the max, but surprisingly survives its innumerable plot holes. By all accounts fans of the original movie were highly offended by this one; be that as it may, I think it stands up well as a decent action movie on its own. 

Last night we went and saw the latest Star Wars. Don't ask me what it's subtitle is: I long ago gave up trying to remember these, since they all seem similar. Wait, it's The Force Awakens. Okay. Spoilers follow...

Well, the first thing that can be said is that it's back to the original, almost faultless style. Gone is the super seriousness of the middle three prequels; the humour, action and storytelling are all on a par with the first episode. (Number IV, I think that actually means. Good grief.) Many of the original characters turn up (not until the very last scene in Hamill's case) but there are plenty of newcomers, not least a wonderful new droid, BB8. His name doesn't have quite the catchiness of R2D2, or CP3O, but he's full of charm, and beautifully presented, both vocally and in terms of his movement. Harrison Ford gets into his stride within a few moments of appearing, and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca actually gets some decent moments for a change. Carrie Fisher plays a much matured Leia; she has a warmth that wasn't quite so evident in the early movies. 

But these actors are supporting artists really, in this movie, in spite of the fact that three of them get top billing. Bit odd, when you think that Mark Hamill has one scene, one in which he doesn't even speak. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega play the leads and swing through all kinds of emotions in the process. Whether they'll survive into the next episode is anyone's guess, but they deserve to: by the time the movie ends they're fully-fledged characters. 

Adam Driver plays Kilo Ren, the main baddie. (Kylo Ren? Many of Lucas' characters have oddball names that don't work for me: this is one of them, along with Poe Dameron, Maz Kanata, Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg gets landed with this monstrosity), and Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke? Is that really a name for a villain, apart from the difficulty of pronouncing it. Max von Sydow plays Lor San Tekka. Come on, George, give people names that sound like names, as you did with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker (a brilliant name) and Princess Leia. 

Maz Kanata, incidentally, is one of the more interesting characters amongst the smaller roles: played by a normal-sized human being - the Kenyan actress y - she appears on screen as a pint-sized woman with enormous glasses almost set into her head, and a couple of slits for nostrils. Andy Serkis is in the cast too, though as usual he's unrecognisable. He plays the Supreme Leader who only appears as an immense hologram, his face beginning to disintegrate and his longevity obviously telling on his body. I don't know how he fits into the scheme of things, though no doubt there are hundreds of fans out there who could tell me. And presumably, being broadcast from somewhere else in the galaxy, he survives the holocaust near the end. 

The visual effects are endless, but remain within the realm of plausibility. The John Williams score is hugely varied, as always, with familiar themes appearing at appropriate times, and plenty of new ones. 

I went expecting to be underwhelmed, after the last three mostly awful pieces, but it's great to see the series back on form. 










Sunday, December 27, 2015

PDP

pdp apparently stands for performance designed products. I'm not sure what a product not designed for performance would look like.Wouldn't that be a counterproductive, non-performance, undesign?

Don't ask me. I'm assuming that something that is performance designed means (a) it will actually work, which immediately makes it better than many products on the market today; (b) it will be produced to a decently high standard - I'm assuming that, of course, otherwise it would just be classified as a designed product, thus putting it in the same category as pretty much every other product on the planet.

The problem with acronyms, to change the subject somewhat, is that they don't mean the same thing to every person. Looking at Wikipedia on the subject of PDPs, for instance, you find that there are umpteen (well, maybe not umpteen; more like thirty) other interpretations of these three simple letters. I haven't got room to go into all these, though it might make an interesting post sometime, and anyway it's late at night and I need to go to bed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review of Prostate Wimp

The following review appeared in Readers' Favourites, and is by Java Davies

Like many people, I'm sure, I thought that all prostate issues were due to cancer. Reading Diary of a Prostate Wimp by Mike Crowl showed me other types of prostate issues. Mike Crowl wasn't kidding about this being a diary. It's a combination of diary entries on his blog, entries from other men suffering from prostate issues, and letters to God, whom Mike refers to as "Dad," in the style of Jesus referring to God as Dad in Aramaic. While the title of this compilation is Diary of a Prostate Wimp, these men carried themselves with strength and humor for the most part, with some fear and doubt thrown in the mix on occasion.

At the very beginning, Mike Crowl warns people that the squeamish shouldn't attempt this book, and the warning is well advised. Mike doesn't flinch when discussing the pain of catheterization and its side effects of peeing on himself in public when the catheter dislodged, having irritation at the penis tip where the catheter can rub, discomforts along the sexual front, exhaustion, leaving home for a vacation, and even weight gain from the inability to exercise regularly. Mike also talks about different levels in the quality of medical care, and the lack of information from the doctors when you don't know what to ask. Frequent visits to doctors and clinics made me wonder what the healthcare system is like in New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, it's a combination of private and public provision, depending upon the illness or injury.

I was intrigued by the frequent references to Celia, Mrs. Crowl. She and the rest of the family seemed to be very supportive during the long months of catheterization, the prostate scraping surgery, and the slow recovery. Throughout, the author talks about the things he misses and can't wait to get back to. I was rooting for his eventual, successful recovery. If the reader, or someone the reader knows, is suffering from prostate issues, I recommend this book.

A footnote to this review: Davies is correct in that the NZ Health system is a combination of public and private. Due to increasing delays in getting treatment through the public system, many people now opt to pay for health insurance, in order to be able to be treated more speedily in the private sector. Ironically the doctors often work in both areas. Still, for all its failings, the health system in New Zealand is still better than in many places in the world. 

Mumbersons reviewed

The following review comes from the Readers' Favourite site, and is by Michelle Stanley:

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret (Grimhilderness Book 2) is a children’s fantasy by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. A haircut turned into an ear cut when Billy Mumberson went to the barber. Things got more peculiar when a bedraggled looking elderly couple barges into his home, claiming to be his grandparents, and takes over running it. A text from his father asks Billy to meet him at the factory, but when Billy and his friend Olivia arrive there, they walk into a trap. The barber who had nipped his ear forces him into a room to extract more blood. Quick thinking Olivia rescues Billy, who wonders why his blood is in demand. They soon learn that the Mumberson family are in more danger, especially when Grandpa decides to sell his diamonds and the villains find out.

The Mumbersons and The Blood Secret is the sequel to Grimhilda! by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. It is a charming story with magic, action, and a nice mystery that will keep children engrossed. I think the first chapter is very interesting since it gives readers a perceptive look into Billy’s character, his family, and Olivia’s too. The authors are creative in their writing and they seem to enjoy keeping readers in suspense since almost everyone that Billy meets and events that occur always appear suspicious. I like the main characters, Billy and Olivia, but found the others amusing, given their descriptions, attitudes and conversation. I highly recommend this fantasy book.

The Disenchanted Wizard heads for the finish line

Blog posts about the book I'm writing have been few and far between recently, mainly because I've been writing. (#amwriting, as the Twitter hashtag goes...)

The latest posts on the topic seem to be here, and here. However, such has been the nature of this particular beast, that what I say in one blog post seems to get sideswiped by what I say in a later one, because this book has changed so many times.


It started life as a NaNoWriMo exercise, you might say, though I'd had the idea for the book in my head for some time before that. The NaNoWriMo version is so different to the draft I've been working on today, that you might almost say there's no comparison. The hero took second place to a heroine and the couple who were going to be the reason for the book's existence have vanished entirely. Though I regard it as the third in the Grimhilderness! series, there's no mention of Grimhilda or anything else to do with the place: there was, but even that got excised. 

A good character got shunted out and a bad character who'd had a very small role took his place. Dogs became wolves, to avoid confusion when reading the book aloud (something I hope will be done!). Those who were wizards in the first version stopped being wizards and became ordinary human beings...and then one of them became a wizard again! One character who played an ambiguous role in the original version, changed sides several times before he settled down to being a 'good' character. Soccer was intended to play a big part in the story, was reduced to almost nothing, and now plays a big part in it again. And certain people flying was an exciting idea I had originally which got abandoned, and now plays a big role in the current version. 

My 'beta reader' as you might call her - her name appears on the first two books in the series - has finally deemed that we're getting to the point where the structure of the book is working. Now it's down to the nitty-gritty of detail, which is what I've been working on today. 

I've predicted that I was nearly finished this book at least twice before, and ended up with egg on my face. This time I think you can save the eggs for eating. I hope!

If you haven't read the first two books in the Grimhilderness series, these are the details: 

Grimhilda! - a fantasy for children and their parents. Kindle or Smashwords
The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret. Kindle or Smashwords

Both books are available on iTunes, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and a bunch of other sites. Just search for the titles on these. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two Maori movies

We watched two recent New Zealand movies over the last few days, firstly The Dark Horse (2014), with Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston, and Fantail (2013), with Sophie Henderson - who also takes the lead role.

Fantail, for my taste, is rather too slow in its set-up. There's a kind of dreamy quality about the first half hour or so, and you begin to wonder when the story is going to appear. Henderson is terrific in her role of a young girl working all night in a petrol station while caring for her invalid mother in the daytime. Her younger brother (Jahalis Ngamotu), who's plainly Maori - while she's plainly white - is likely to go off the rails, and does. The daytime worker, played by Stephen Lovatt, is a fatherly figure who cares a lot about Sophie's wellbeing. It's possible he is her actual father, though we never find out. And then there's the 'regional manager' a loser trying to impress. This is a comedy role, played nicely enough by Jarod Rawiri, but it's sometimes at odds with the rest of the movie, which heads deep into drama territory.

The film's basic story is strong enough, except there's just not enough of it. Too much of the movie's weight is loaded onto Henderson's shoulders; we certainly get to know her, but the three supporting roles seem a bit underwritten. The small budget means there are few other characters, mostly seen only briefly. It's a bit of a puzzle why this petrol station needs someone working there all night when there are hardly any customers, and when the customers appear to prepay to get the petrol (a couple don't, which is one of the inconsistencies). It seems highly uneconomical. There are other inconsistencies too; none of them are major, but they film loses credibility as a result of them. And the ending, which is certainly dramatic enough, isn't quite believable. I won't say what happens, because the movie is worth seeing; it just felt that a bit more tension might have been useful.

The other film has a bigger budget, a top-notch star in the main role, and a bunch of strong actors around him. Cliff Curtis eschews his normal good looks, and appears here padded with a pot belly; he walks oddly, and is missing some teeth and hair. Rolleston, who is excellent, has a smaller role, but some vital scenes. This young man seems born to the screen.

The story is (loosely) based on the true story of Genesis Potini, a brilliant chess player who had mental health issues most of his life. He was in an out of institutions much of his adult life. In the movie, his older brother, Noble, (Kirk Torrance) who taught him to play chess as a child, is officially in charge of him now that he's out of the hospital, Noble isn't interested in looking after him (Potini winds up sleeping rough); he's even less interested in seeing his son yearning for the kindness and gentleness that Potini exudes. Noble is also a longstanding gang member, and wants to initiate his son (Rolleston) into the gang. Meanwhile, Potini has seen potential in a bunch of kids from poor backgrounds who are part of a chess club formed by an old friend, and decides he can help. It's also a way of his staying sane, though whether the idea of taking them to Auckland for a Chess Championship is sane is another matter.

The format of the story is by no means new, but it's given plenty of energy and life by the actors. The gang scene is portrayed as a vicious dog eats dog world where the only way to keep alive is to be as bad as everyone else. Drugs, alcohol, loud music abound (as they do in a sequence in Fantail), and violence is common. This is possibly a world many pakeha (white New Zealanders) don't know a lot about, particularly at my end of the country.

Dark Horse is a two-hour movie that might have done with a bit of trimming. Nevertheless, Curtis and Rolleston keep the screen alive throughout.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Prisoners: morally ambiguous

Prisoners is a disturbing movie, less for its subject matter - the abduction of two little girls - than its moral ambiguity. Are we really supposed to believe that a father who prays the Lord's Prayer before he allows his teenage son to shoot a deer, and who much later prays the same prayer with a great more difficulty, would become such a vigilante character as to beat a suspect almost to a pulp? And I mean 'pulp'.

Another character, supposedly once a Christian, also goes on about doing her now evil work in order to make people stop believing in God. At least I think that's what she said. Sorry, run that by me again? It sounded like a last minute motivation pulled up out of the hat.

There are also some rather iffy plot-holes by the end of the movie, and quite honestly I almost lost my own plot when late in the piece there was lots of stuff about mazes and snakes, neither of which, as far as I could tell, had much to do with the overall mystery.

Okay, gripes over and done. Hugh Jackman is terrific in his role of the ambiguous father. I couldn't much believe in him as a Christian, but I could understand a great deal of his pain and frustration as a father. Jake Gyllenhaal (whatever happened to movie stars having pronounceable names?) is his opposite number: just as determined to solve the case but only through legal means, and frustrated that those legal means can sometimes cause unintended dire effects. Gyllenhaal always seems to bring great integrity to his roles, and here, even though he plays someone who mostly keeps his anger at bay, he's extremely effective. In fact I thought he was the star of the movie; it's actually Jackman who gets top billing.

The rest of the cast are excellent iu their own quirky ways. The black couple who also lose a daughter aren't made of such tough metal as Jackman's character; you long for them to bring integrity and honesty to the brutality that Jackman is imposing on the suspect. When they continually wimp away from this I found it frustrating: why don't they speak out against from Jackman is doing? He's obviously not the friend they'd thought him, and worse, he's likely to get them all put away in jail.

The production values are terrific in every way. Some have complained about the music score; personally it never intruded at any level for me, so it obviously did its job well. I think the movie is overlong. Over half an hour before it finished I was beginning to wonder: how long is this going to go on? There were plenty of places where judicious cuts could have been made, which would have made an already suspenseful movie into an even tauter one. But, this is the movie as it stands, at nearly two hours. There are plenty of great moments along the way.