Saturday, July 25, 2015

A few random thoughts of Mahler's music

I finished reading Norman Lebrecht's 2010 book, Why Mahler: how one man and ten symphonies changed the world yesterday, and have done a rather hastily-written review here, so I'm not going to repeat what I said.

I just wanted to make a few notes about my experience of Mahler over a long period of time, which admittedly has been entirely through recordings. I've never actually had the opportunity, as far as I recall, of seeing his work performed live.

The first time I heard anything by Mahler was when I bought a record of his Fourth Symphony through a record club I belonged to, back in the late fifties/early sixties. They'd post out their record of the month, and you could either keep it (and pay for it) or send it back and get something else, or just get nothing. Anyway, the symphony started with sleighbells. Odd. And then in the fourth movement a woman began singing, sweeping along with the orchestra at a great pace - Leonard Bernstein was the conductor.

Singing in a symphony? Well of course I was young and naive, and didn't know that having singers in a symphony was hardly new - Beethoven had done it way back in the Ninth, though I probably wasn't aware of that then, being only a callow teenager. (I was ignorant enough to have been astounded to hear from another piano player that Shostakovich was not only still alive but still writing symphonies.)

But Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the Ninth (a jolly little folk song he commandeered which drives me mad wherever I hear it) was nothing compared to the joyous and delightful singing in the Mahler. Mahler's own songs often made their way into his symphonies in some form or other, and if you know the songs you'll recognise them in the symphonies; or vice versa. He's a very self-referential composer, which makes you think, when you hear one of his symphonies for the first time, that you've heard bits of it before. You probably have. He seems to use ideas from one symphony to the next, and certainly his style is so peculiar to him that on hearing a piece of music you can often identify it as being his: there are phrases, mannerisms, ways of orchestrating things that appear again and again.

This is hardly unusual: many composers' "voices" are surprisingly unique, in spite of the fact that they're working with the same bunch of notes. Mozart is recognisable almost invariably, so too Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and dozens of others.

But Mahler is a little different. I remember Chesterton (I think it was) saying that the books of Charles Dickens were like chunks cut from one long cloth. They were full of Dickensian stuff; and even where he plans out his books more carefully, it's unfailingly Dickens. Mahler, to me, seems the same. It's as if he had one enormous symphony inside him and just chopped off an hour or so at a time for the next one.

That's a simplification, of course. As is the comment about Dickens. And yet both have an element of truth in them.

I was a bit surprised the other day to find that I had five of Mahler's symphonies on CD. Which means that I've listened to a lot more of his music than I'd thought (apart from what I've heard on the radio over many years). I don't have the Symphony of a Thousand (it's number 8), so watched this on You Tube yesterday. The wonderfully enthusiastic Gustavo Dudamel conducts a combined - and enormous - orchestra made up of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Four different choirs are involved, massed up and up beyond the orchestra on stands. (The youngest choir sings without music, and occasionally you see one of them turn to another and maybe tell them they've sung something wrong, or else one spies the camera and gives a grin.)  Apparently there are 1400 people involved. Crikey. There are seven soloists as well.

Mahler seems to have delighted in going for the extreme. In at least one other of his symphonies (no 2, the Resurrection) he lists out the instrumentation required, then adds, as the score progresses, twice as many of this and six more of those, as though musicians would suddenly appear out of the woodwork during the course of the performance. I'd love to see it happen, but it's probably not going to.

I don't know whether Mahler's Symphonies changed the world. Certainly hearing the 4th for the first time was a delightful surprise, but did it change my world? Possibly, but not in a way that made me turn direction. I still get a lump in my throat at hearing the singing beginning her song in it, but then music of all sorts does that. Listening to Mahler's 2nd Symphony the other day, which also has a large choir and soloists, I got all emotional when the choir came in, super-super softly, and just sang about the life after death, about being raised from the dead. Does it change my world? Well, I don't know, but it certainly adds to it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Draft completed

This has nothing to do with writing or
wizards. It just happens to be one of
my favourite photos from when my son
was small. He and I are sharing the legs
of the overalls. Don't ask me how.
I’m happy to report that as of today a complete draft of The Disenchanted Wizard has been finished. Of course there’s a good deal of work to come, but at least now there’s a framework for things to hang more securely on. 

This has certainly been a tough book to get off the ground, as my previous emails have noted. Hopefully the book will be all the better for it. 

Now I can get on with a part I enjoy almost as much as writing the story in the first place: making the words come even more alive and adding in all those touches that help the characters leap off the page...!  That’s the theory, anyway. 

This is a short note, since it’s late on Friday night, and I’m doing this between two music practices. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Jack Reacher the movie

Having read several of Lee Child's Reacher books over the last couple of years - they're the kind of book you pick up when your brain doesn't want to have to think too seriously but still wants to be engaged - I was interested to see how the movie Jack Reacher came off, because there was a furore from many Reacher fans when Tom Cruise was cast in the title role. 

The furore arose because Cruise is short, and Reacher is continually described in the books as around six and a half foot (around 198 centimetres for those who understand such things). Not only that, Reacher is solid and tends to knock people over if they get in his way. 

Interestingly enough, Child was okay with Cruise in the role, as he commented: "Reacher's size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way." Of Cruise's relatively small stature, Child said, "With another actor you might get 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher. With Tom, you'll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height." [Quotes from the Wikipedia page on the film.] 

So was the movie, now three years old, worth watching? Yes, because it retained the intricacy of the original plot sufficiently to produce some surprises. It had the typical one man (Reacher) versus a bunch of baddies set pieces that occur in many of the books: Reacher confidently asserts that he can take on five or six hulks and put them in their place (which is often hospital), is scoffed at by the aforesaid hulks, and then calmly does what he says he'll do. In the books of course, Child tends to describe in some detail why he achieves what he achieves, in grisly detail. In the movie this element got a bit lost. 

It retained Reacher's confidence about himself and his ability to live with minimal resources, and even without relationships. It retained his almost autistic ability to remember details, and to see what needs to be seen but is missed by others. And more. All in all a pretty good story. 

The car chase scene - in which Cruise does the actual stunts apparently - was okay, but has been bettered in a number of other movies. Still its climax, with the empty car casually moving down the street and bumping into yet another police car was nice. And the end of the movie, though it brought all the elements together, just seemed to be a bit underpar. There was tension, but not quite the tension that the books create. 

Still it filled up its two hours plus well (some reviewers thought it was too long, but I didn't), and it had solid actors in the supporting roles, including Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo and Robert Duvall. Rosamund Pike played the female lead, a good role until the end, where's she stuck like the female lead of old: waiting for the hero. Werner Herzog, the famed German film director, turned up in a small role as the Big Baddie, but basically it was his face that was effective; the role was a bit thin otherwise. 

Labouring the point

Somewhere along the line I've managed to hook into the Labour Party's email system, which means that at least once a week I get an email from one or other Labour MP telling me that the naughty National Party isn't doing things properly, and that I should write to the National MP in question and tell him so. And hundreds of others are doing this as well. And we'll make them change their approach/thinking/habits/behaviour...or whatever.

Well, yes, there are some things that the National Government is doing that are definitely not to my taste. All Governments all the time do some things that don't impress their constituents, and it's the right of the people to complain.

However, what concerns me about the Labour Party's emails is the fact that their main approach is to knock the Government. I know that those in Opposition always seem to see this as their main objective in life: "whatever the Government does we'll tell them they're wrong for doing it." It gets tedious and is counterproductive in the end.

Having Andrew Little, the current Leader of the Labour Party, popping up on TV every time there's some sort of political issue, and invariably saying nothing more than that the National Government is doing it wrong, is like having a neighbour poking his head over the fence every time you do something in your backyard and telling you what you should be doing. It's wearying.

The trouble is they almost never say how they would do it right. If the Opposition only opposes, and never proposes, then after a while you switch off and don't want to hear from them anymore.

So here's the Labour Party writing to me by email week after week, and in none of these emails is there anything that suggests how they would do it better. I have to assume that they have some plan up their sleeve, or that they know the proper way to do something, but they don't talk about it.

It's like two gangs in the street: there's the gang that's currently cock of the walk. They pretty much do what they want. The rival gang happens at the moment to be number two and not number one and they resent it. So they spend their time carping at everything gang number one does. It's self-defeating: no one wants to hear a whiner day after day. (I know this from experience because my wife has frequently told me so!)

So, Labour Party emailers, here's a suggestion. Instead of focusing on what the National Government is doing wrong all the time, how about showing me what you will do right when you're next in Government? Because at the moment I wouldn't vote for you as a Party if you paid me. (I have voted for my local Labour MP because I think he's got some nous, but for the Party as a whole? No way.)

Monday, July 13, 2015


The name of the site always reminds me of another similar name: the old throat lozenge, Fisherman's Friend, which has apparently been around since 1865. 

I've never personally seen it used by fishermen, although that was who it was first sold to, but my connection with it is in its use by singers, who, at one time swore by it as a cure for throats that weren't quite doing their job when it came to singing. Like a lot of things it seems to have had its day as far as singers are concerned - they've no doubt found something more soothing - but the actual Fisherman's Friend lozenge is still going strong, the company producing five billion of the things a year. That's enough to soothe the throats of around two-thirds of the world's population at any one time. Good grief. 

The curious thing is that the Musician's Friend, as a name, would have been more appropriate for singers. When they soothed themselves with a Fisherman's Friend, you had to wonder at the compability. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Something's screwy somewhere....

"Stadium Profit Forecast" proclaims a headline in today's ODT.  I thought initially - it isn't April the first is it? - sadly, it's not. When you read the whole article you discover that the 'profit' comes, yet again, at the expense of the ratepayers of Dunedin. In fact, in real terms there's absolutely no profit at all.

'We're all about delivering economic benefits', says Terry Davies. Well yes, 'economic benefits' to shareholders, maybe, when they get dividends, but the economic benefits for Dunedin citizens are as always nil. 

It's all playing around with accounts: in order to turn Stadium losses into profits, the
1. Rent was halved by $2 million.
2. $30 million of Stadium debt was transferred to the Council's books.

The result is that the Ratepayers' Stadium bill will increase by $1.81 a year, to a total of $11.65 per year.

The supposed profits might reach $600,000, Davies enthuses. Well, they might, if the ratepayers of Dunedin don't get sick to death of the whole farce and demand their money back. 

Someone who understands accounting better might be able to explain how there are actual profits. In my amateur bookkeeping understanding (I did get 100% in a bookkeeping exam, many years ago) all I can see if this: if you remove debts from a company and you cut their rent in half then of course that will allow to make money more easily. Meanwhile, the company that's taken on the debts will have to pay them at some point, presumably with interest. I couldn't see a Bank ever offering to do this.

Something's screwy somewhere...

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Magic Flute

I went with some friends to see The Magic Flute at the Mayfair Theatre last night. Let me say firstly that I was greatly impressed for reasons I'll detail in due course. There were also some quibbles, which I'll discuss as I come to them. However the being impressed far outweighed the quibbles.

John Drummond produced the piece in a 'renovated' version. This meant that some of the lyrics were altered to a more 21st century language, and were aligned to the idea of cellphones and iPads. The only problem with that is when you try and include a 21st century birdcatcher you immediately run into problems. Papageno came in on a bike, which was fun, but...birdcatchers don't really figure greatly in the 21st century corporate world.

Still, there was lots of busyness from the three ladies (now corporate-besuited PAs) and the Queen of the Night (or CEO) to distract from such difficulties. There was some fiddling around with the structure of the plot: the Queen appeared at the very beginning rather than later, as did Monostatos (a security officer, again besuited, though with hair that stood on end as though he'd been electrocuted -and no darkened face. Too PC for that these days.) Some of the dialogue was strongly 21st century which suited the overall tone - though was it really necessary for the Queen of the Night to use a four-letter word?

If you didn't know the story, or couldn't remember what happens, you wouldn't know that normally Tamino is chased on by a Serpent. No Serpent here, though the three ladies did some rather odd swordplay as a substitute. And equally, in the second half, if you weren't familiar with things, you'd wonder what on earth Tamino and Pamina were up to when they were going through their trials, which, quite honestly, wouldn't have caused much of a flutter to any 21st century person of self-esteem.

So much for the minor quibbles.

Only one major quibble, and this was a matter of casting. The 19-year-old who played Sarastro, Robert Lindsay, will have a good bass voice in time, but it was an awfully big ask to cast him in a part that requires an utterly rich bass sound, one that shocks us with its authority. I heard that he'd been subbed in when someone else couldn't play the part. Be that as it may, surely in the whole of Dunedin there is a bass singer with some gravitas who could have done this role. Why are Opera Otago's productions now being cast almost entirely with University students?  Dunedin has plenty of good singers and actors. Don't they get a chance to audition for these productions?

Okay, I think that's the quibbles. Better to get them out of my hair.

Here are the things that impressed: (non-University student) James Adams as Tamino. What a great voice this man has, and he can act as well. He was in Anthony Ritchie's This Other Eden back in 2014, and gave a great performance there. Here he did Mozart justice at every point. I was keen to see James perform, because he was in Opera Alive for two or three years; it was a group I was musical director for, for around seven years.

Tyler Neumann (whom I saw at a Jonathan Lemalu masterclass last year, and who didn't then seem to have the strength for an opera) gave a delightful performance as Papageno: good singing, good comedy and sheer enjoyment in everything he did.

Ingrid Fomison-Nurse played the Queen of the Night. This role doesn't usually require a lot of acting: it's the singing we're focused on. This young lady didn't disappoint. Those wonderful notes that sit high above the stave were all there, and in general she did an admirable job, even if a few notes were missing from the runs.

Her three Ladies had a good deal more to do in this version than I remember from previous productions; that was fine: Julia Moss-Pearson, Beth Goulstone and Claire Barton (another former Opera Alive participant) were all in fine voice and sang Mozart's wonderful harmonies superbly. Mentioning Opera Alive reminds me that Claire, who is short, sang a song in one of the OA shows alongside the tallest Opera Alive member we'd ever had. He was a singer from one of the Pacific Island countries, and I can't remember his name any more, but the lovely contrast of tall and short went over very well with the audience.

The other two soprano roles, Pamina and Papagena (here called Poppy Gainer, for some reason - there was a bit of inconsistency in renaming the characters) both did great jobs with their singing. From the point of view of the quality of singing this cast certainly shows that singing training at the University Music School is up with the best. Both the ladies gave good lively performances too.

There was no chorus, so three young men had to deal with all the work usually done by a larger number. That was a pity, because the male chorus music in this opera is beautiful. Why couldn't a chorus be found for the production? Choruses are an essential part of opera.

The three 'boys' were played by three girls, which was fine, as the blend of voices works just as well. The ensemble writing in The Magic Flute is consistently interesting musically, and it was a delight to hear it performed so well from all the cast.

The set design. Well, this was a bit of a curiosity. A kind of lattice hung down from the flies in the centre of the stage. It was well lit, but it meant that anyone standing behind it, or just underneath it, wasn't nearly so well lit. The remainder of the scenery consisted of a platform with steps leading off down the front, and a ramp leading off on either side. Extra work for the singers getting up and down these, as they did continually during the night. Yes, it gives variety of ways to place your singers, but it also means that audience really wonders, in their heart of hearts, why the singers so often go racing up the steps and then down a ramp, when it was far easier to just walk around the construction. Yes, I know, far too fussy.

There was also a large screen at the back on which black and white and somewhat fuzzy photographs were projected. These seemed to bear no relation to the story or the settings. I guess whoever designed this aspect knew what they were on about. However it wasn't clear to the audience - or at least this part of the audience, or the people I was with.

Costuming had its points: both Papageno and Tamino were intriguingly dressed, one in overalls and the other in hiking gear. But as the evening wore on the colour in the costumes became increasingly dull: Pamina wound up in something that was reminiscent of an army green, and Papagena/Poppy wasn't very bright for a character who's origin is birdlike. The members of Sarastro's community were dressed in long robes, but there was little decoration.

Well, you can't have everything, I suppose. The singing (and orchestra playing - from a smaller number of musicians than Mozart wrote for) was excellent. Mozart's music continues to shine - you even come out of the theatre humming the tunes. Those things in themselves are of great value.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Film catchup

Starting with Locke, a film in which only one actor is seen the entire time, and in which the whole action takes place inside a car moving down one of England's major highways. There are several other actors involved, but we only ever hear their voices, over the car phone. The interesting thing is that these 'voice roles' are so well done that we don't need to see the actors. Our imagination does all the work for us.

Tom Hardy is the only visible actor, playing a major concrete contractor, who's about to pour the biggest pour in 'non-military and non-nuclear' history. (According to the goofs section of IMDB, that's probably an exaggeration, given the quantities quoted, but that hardly matters.) The trouble is he's driving away from the pour, which will happen in the morning, leaving in the less than capable hands of his assistant, Donal. He has a very good reason for doing so, and it will cause chaos in his personal life, and in his career. It would spoil the suspense to tell you more, but suffice to say that it's some achievement to set an entire movie inside a car, with one actor, and have you sitting watching it nervously, wondering what will happen next.

Hardy is superb: he's a man fully in control, even when things seem to be spiralling out of control. But it's the control of man with integrity, not some arrogant so-and-so who doesn't give a toss about other people. It's because he does give a toss that he's in the situation he's in.  He's a man who will do what he believes is right, no matter the cost. And we're cheering him all the way.

Second in line was Girl, Interrupted, This is a Hollywood-style mental hospital movie, so you can guess there'll be several parts for people to play to the hilt. And there are. Winona Ryder is Susanna, who somewhat unwittingly signs herself into a mental hospital, believing that there must be something wrong with her, because she's different, different especially in terms of her parents' expectations for her. Angelina Jolie, only 24 at the time the movie was made, plays Lisa, the blunt, foul-mouthed, in-your-face psycho, the sort you'd normally avoid, because she's something of a bully. She and Susanna hit it off, nevertheless. The film's main story concerns whether Susanna will allow herself to be healed and stop wasting her life looking for a healing she doesn't really need. (That's Whoopi Goldberg's take on it, anyway; she plays the sympathetic but realistic nurse.)

This is a good solid old-style movie, with some whiz bang performances (Ryder plays a relatively quiet character, yet she shines at the centre of the movie, even outdoing the full-on performance Jolie gives.) It holds your interest throughout, though whether it's true to the reality of a mental hospital isn't always easy to tell. (It's based on a book by Susanna Kaysen, who wrote of her own experience.)

The ending is tacked on, somewhat, spoiling the integrity of Jolie's character, but otherwise this was worth watching.

Not so worth watching was The Butler, an overblown piece that, like some broad spectrum medicine, covers everything possible in its two hours or so. It's a rough take on the true story of a Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, who was a long-time butler in the White House. He works his way through the Presidents from Eisenhower (a subdued Robin Williams) to Reagan (played by Alan Rickman), forever insisting that service without bias is his keynote. Consequently, even though he's in the thick of history, he manages to stand to one side, holding his tray, or cleaning the shoes, or reading a story to Caroline Kennedy. And he also manages to avoid confronting the things his older son confronts, the things that keep black people in the USA under the thumb of white people. This is a constant source of conflict between the two men.

Unfortunately, the scriptwriters decided that every historical moment needed to be included, and the film hops from one issue to another while the characters strive to keep up. Whitaker, a fine actor, gets a one-note role that eventually becomes an irritation at the centre of the movie. Oprah Winfrey plays his long-suffering wife, and is by far the best thing in the film, along with David Banner, who plays Gaines' older son. These two actors have some scenes that they can get their teeth into. Whitaker has almost nothing. By the time he finally makes up with his son, with whom he's been at odds since the man was a teenager, it's become all a bit ho hum. We knew it would happen but it's just another event in the midst of all the stuff. (Incidentally, the make-up of the actors as they age is superbly done: whether there's been CGI added to the literal make-up, or whether make-up has improved phenomenally over the years I don't know. Only Robin Williams looks a bit odd with a partly bald head.)

Why it was thought necessary to cast various top actors in often tiny cameo roles is a mystery. It adds nothing to the film - or rather, it does add something to it: an interruption to the flow of things while you try and work out which famous actor is now playing which famous person. I missed a few, but got most of them right. Casting 'ordinary' actors in these roles would have made a lot more sense; the stars distract from what's going on.

As an example of how to put famous actors in cameo roles and make it work to your advantage, however, check out Oceans Twelve. I first saw this at the cinema, and have seen it in part at least twice more, because one or other TV channel thinks it's worth playing endlessly. It's watchable even if it's self-indulgent nonsense. The best part about it is Julia Roberts playing an imitation of Julia Roberts, which aforesaid imitation catches the attention of the real Bruce Willis playing the real Bruce Willis. These two have a wonderful time hamming it up between them, and even Matt Damon has a job keeping up.

Other than this the movie is full of lots of scenery, a plot that is so impenetrable I doubt if anyone knew what was going on (certainly the audience hasn't a hope), Brad Pitt and George Clooney enjoying themselves and being funny, and Matt Damon playing the extreme opposite of Bourne. A bunch of second-tier actors (the rest of the Twelve) spout lines that sound like they're making them up as they go. Unfortunately the lines are waffle, and the audience knows it, and worst of all they're totally lacking in wit or humour.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

How not to plot a story

I know that European filmmakers have long seen themselves as anti-story, anti-plot and the like, and sometimes this has produced some wonderful 'art' movies ('art' here meaning the film successfully does its own thing regardless of the rules of storytelling). More frequently it produces films that meander, that lose the plot at the very moment they should be maintaining the plot and that, as a result, lose their audiences.

Two such movies in the last week: one starring Michael Caine and Clémence Poésy in a film set in Paris. The other, also French, is about a girl who wanted to become a great pianist, was foiled, and then takes revenge. More on this later.

There will be spoilers...

The Michael Caine movie is called Mr Morgan's Last Love though you may also find it listed simply as Last Love. It concerns an American philosophy professor, Matthew Morgan, (Caine, with a varying American accent) whose wife died a couple of years ago. He still talks to her, and seems to have been deeply in love with her; in fact he was so in love with her that his two children, now adults, suffered from neglect. Apparently. He spends his days in a lonely state, refusing to learn even the most basic French, and hating any change to his routine.

Of course Pauline (Poésy) comes along. She's a young dance school teacher, and Matthew falls in love with her, but very quietly, almost trying to avoid saying what he's feeling. She accepts him as he is, just as a friend. When he accidentally (?) overdoses on his sleeping tablets and winds up in hospital, his two American children, Miles and Karen, turn up (Justin Kirk and Gillian Anderson - she has a very brief time in the film, regrettably). Miles is perpetually angry - he's the one who's felt most neglected by his father as a child - and furthermore, his own marriage has just gone down the tubes, though he has custody of his young son.

The usual argy-bargy ensues, the children claiming that Pauline is a bimbo about to take away everything their father owns - which, of course, is rightfully theirs. (Poésy as a bimbo? Hardly.). So far, all fairly predictable. But then the writer/director, Sandra Nettleback, gets herself into a plot-hole, and never quite makes it out. Don't read further if you want to watch this movie. 

Miles, surprisingly, falls in love with Pauline. Yup. Which totally wipes out Pauline's integrity as a character. Miles and his dad have a reconciliation, which is good, but it's not good in terms of what's just happened. Matthew commits suicide. Sorry? (Incidentally, this film is billed as comedy and drama on IMDB.) This awful crunching of gears comes as a result of the thing being forced into a corner by the writer. Did she think that the story needed a bit of pepping up at the end? Did she write herself into a corner because she didn't know how the Matthew/Pauline relationship could work? Who knows. The movie got made, and it leaves an odd taste in the mouth.

Caine, incidentally, is very good, as are the two main women - Anderson strides all over the place and should have been given a lot more screen time. Perhaps it would have been better to have made her the main third character, instead of the dull and boring Miles. She would have dealt properly to Caine and Poésy's situation. She certainly livens up what is often a quite slow movie.

The other movie is The Page Turner. It's a tale of revenge, a perfectly acceptable genre, even if we do wind up on the side of the one doing the revenge.

The main character of The Page Turner (or La Tourneuse de Pages) is Mélanie (played with a cold-eyed sweetness by Déborah François). As a child she goes in for an exam in order to enter some music academy. Rather remarkably (from a musician's point of view) she's playing a fairly straightforward piece, one that might get her through a grade in Trinity College exams, but probably wouldn't get her into an academy. She has five examiners. (Yup, five.) One of them is a famous concert pianist. Ariane, (played by Catherine Frot - she begins with arrogance, but later has an increasingly bemused look about her, which may not be surprising, given what her character goes through). Ariane, in an extraordinary piece of plot nonsense, allows another parent into the room while Mélanie is playing, and signs an autograph. It puts Mélanie off. (As one reviewer said, 'If something as little as that puts her off, she probably shouldn't be going to the academy anyway.')

Mélanie goes home, shuts up the piano, locks it and never plays again. Hmm. Flash forward a few years and she gets an intern's job in a law firm. Hang on! The lawyer in charge just happens to be the husband of Ariane. Does Mélanie know that when she applies for the job? It's not clear, but she then offers to look after the lawyer's son during the holidays - someone else couldn't do the job. Two coincidences in a row. Okay...passable.

Mélanie recognises Ariane; Ariane never, never, never during the course of the film recognises Mélanie. Nor does Mélanie ever tell her who she is. Consequently Ariane, from now on, presumably wonders why this cold-eyed young woman seems to be doing some very odd things.

Mélanie ingratiates herself into the household: she gets on with the young boy, who also plays piano. She not only offers to turn pages for Ariane at a concert that's coming up, she makes herself indispensable. (Ariane has been the victim of a hit and run accident some time before, and is 'fragile' according to her husband. Fragile is putting it mildly. She can barely hold herself together.) Furthermore, she starts touching Ariane in what can only be described as in an oddly inappropriate way. Yes, we know what the French are like, but this is a bit over the top. Ariane, at first confused, responds, although it's all low-key.

All goes well at the concert. Okay, you think - because there is a deal of suspense being set up - the next concert will be the one when she doesn't turn the page at the right moment, and laughs maniacally (as an old friend used to say) at her employer's distress. But there isn't a next concert (what were the writers thinking?). Instead there's an audition for an American, presumably a promoter of some sort. No audience, but him, and the agent.

What does Mélanie do? As the audition is about to start she just wanders off somewhere, and can't be found. Ariane makes an absolute hash of playing (even though another page turner is brought in), and the American walks out in disgust. And not surprisingly either: Ariane's playing is ridiculously awful; no career pianist would make such a mess of things however fragile they were. Plainly the director thought if it wasn't obvious to a non-musical audience that Ariane was making mistakes, then the scene wouldn't work.

But the scene doesn't work because the Page Turner isn't there! Surely this was a scene in which Mélanie should have once again done her duty effectively, and built up the tension still further. Instead Ariane, by now somewhat besotted with her, just lets her off with a 'sorry.'  Good grief. Ariane is super fragile, don't forget.

Where is the big climax in a concert hall full of people, with the will-she-won't-she-turn-the-page scene? The scene where Ariane is ruined for life? It could be done so simply: turning a page at the wrong moment (as anyone who's done it knows) can be seen as an accident. It doesn't have to be deliberate. There's the opportunity in the film for it to be seen as an accident by the concert audience, but deliberate by Mélanie, and yet this scene never happens. 

Instead, a couple of other things that have been set up, things that are secondary to the main revenge plot, work themselves out in the last scene, and Mélanie walks off into the sunrise. (She'd got up early that morning.) Ariane and her family are in a mess, but not one of them knows why this invaluable young girl has done what she's done. HUH?

Yes, I know we can become too used to a plot working out according to the normal lines. But an audience also needs to see logic and suspense building to a certain point - think The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day and James Stewart, where no item of suspense is missing, and where even though the audience knows how it will work out, they\re still kept guessing till the last minute. Audience expectation is a great deal of what makes a suspense movie work. Denis Dercourt (again, a writer/director) builds up the tension well, with several suspicious scenes (the discussion of how to kill a chicken, the boy being nearly drowned but it being taken as a joke) but none of these come to anything. At the end we're left with a plot that picks up all the wrong pieces and leaves behind the vital ingredients.

Why am I making such a fuss? Because my co-writer and I are currently working on a very difficult story, the third children's book we've written in the last couple of years. All the bits of the plot have to fit neatly, or something else will fall apart. We know how difficult and frustrating it is to make a plot work, and yet at the end of the day it's very satisfying for the reader to see things click into place. What's the point of building up the suspense if you're going to let it all dissipate?

Dercourt has the directorial touch to have made a suspenseful movie that would build to a solid climax. Instead he lets himself down with an ill-plotted script. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian called this film 'a treat for lovers of intelligent cinema.' Plainly I'm not intelligent enough.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Best day of my life

I have a piece in the Otago Daily Times' The Mix weekend magazine, today. It's part of their Best Day of My Life series. I was asked about three weeks ago if I'd contribute something to it.

Initially I was a bit flummoxed: there are so many 'best' days in anyone's life, how do you choose? Fortunately I have a wise wife who came up with the 'best' idea immediately I discussed it with her. Write about the premiere performance of Grimhilda! she told me. So I did. Even had photographs to supply to the paper if they wanted them...and they did, using the delightful one of Bernie Crayston (as the Sergeant Major) and Emily Hill (as Polly, the doll who's alive). The Sergeant Major is giving Polly some magic dust to help the main character, Toby, see that his parents haven't always been as unpleasant as they are now. You can see them below.

I was reading Michael Simkins' book, The Rules of Acting, the other day, and he remembers one of the best days of his life being when he saw his name in neon lights outside the West End theatre he was currently appearing in. (The fact that the play only lasted three weeks didn't matter!)

Unfortunately, Dunedin's Mayfair Theatre, where Grimhilda! was performed, doesn't go in for neon lights. But if it had, I'm sure having my name up there would have been exciting, but probably not so exciting as actually having my show put on in the first place!

Photo: Ian Thomson
For those who missed seeing Grimhilda! in its musical version, you can read the e-book version. It's available from Amazon, on Kindle, or from iTunes, Kobo Smashwords, and a variety of other e-book outlets.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

French movie, Israeli movie

Some spoilers here...

Having a bit of a run on movies worth mentioning at the moment. In the last few days we've seen the Israeli film, The Lemon Tree and the French movie, The Big Picture (L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie, which translates roughly as 'the man who wanted to live his life').

The French movie was well made, but left you with a rather flat feeling: it comes to a sudden halt at a point which could be said to be showing something of an epiphany in the main character's life, but it's very understated. Paul (Romain Duris) is a youngish man with a wife and two children, and a good job in a legal firm which it's likely he can take sole charge of soon: the co-owner (Catherine Deneuve) has learnt that she hasn't long to live. Somehow Paul manages to throw all this away, partly because of misunderstandings, partly because of not being able to talk sensibly to his wife, and partly because she's having an affair and he accidentally kills her lover. But no one else finds out about this. He makes it look as though the lover has gone away. And then he fakes his own death.

There are lots of plot-holes, as my friend calls them, lots of improbabilities. Paul is supposed to be a somewhat impetuous character, but he somehow meticulously plans not only how to get rid of the lover's body, but how to make himself vanish. Other unexplained matters irritate, such as how he manages to live without work by using only cash for several months after the events described above. The piece is slow in its first half-hour, and then after the lover's death it picks up, but there are still too many shots of Duris brooding. After a while you just wish he'd get on with things...

The Lemon Tree moves along quietly, but it has an intense performance at its centre: Hiam Abbass (an Israeli actress) plays a Palestinian widow, Salma, whose sole income is from a lemon tree orchard that is situated inconveniently on the border, right next to a house just taken over by the Israeli Defence Minister, his wife, and entourage. The security people advise cutting down the trees so that there's a clear view across the land; Salma, of course, is appalled at their arrogance, and fights for her rights.

The Defence Minister is a jerk, of course, but his wife sees through the situation a little more clearly, and after a lot of internal debate manages to do the right thing. Unfortunately it's rather too late, and the film has a bittersweet ending.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is that it's been made by Israelis, and yet the Israelis are the baddies/villains/whatever. Only the Defenc
e Minister is really bad news, in the sense that he's juggling every ball possible at the same time; most of them come crashing down before the movie ends. His wife becomes increasingly sympathetic to the widow's situation as the movie goes on, but between her hands being tied, and her lack of will to do something to change things, she fails the widow, effectively. There are some unpleasant people on the Palestinian side, of course, most notably the 'elders' who, instead of aiding the widow, want to push her down even further. There are a lot of Biblical parallels in the movie: those who are supposedly acting righteously but not caring for the widows, for instance, and Ahab taking over his neighbour's vineyard. Salma, however, is a tough woman, and she doesn't let things knock her down completely, though there are plenty of knocks along the way.