Monday, April 27, 2015

Detective Zen

We've been watching a three-part series called Zen, about an Italian detective working in Rome. There were going to be more in the series, but it was cancelled...ratings weren't good enough, of course.

The series is based on three books by English writer Michael Dibdin, and strangely enough, the first of the books is actually the third in the series; so plainly there's been some mucking about with the original stories.

The most curious thing about the series, it seemed to me, is that it's filmed in Rome almost entirely with British actors. There's no attempt by these actors to speak in anything but their ordinary accents, including a Northern one and an Irish one. But the main female character in the story is played by an Italian, and the actress, Caterina Murino, has a distinct Italian accent. Which makes you wonder why everyone else doesn't have an Italian accent too. Rather odd.

Rufus Sewell plays Zen, a policeman with integrity - presumably since it's mentioned so often this is something of an anomaly - and he does the role well. But the plots, at least in the TV versions, are pretty muddled, and there are regular characters who come and go without any introduction. They seem to turn up as needed and then are forgotten again.

There's a slight underpacing about the series; it's not that it needs to be all action, but somehow there's a feeling that it could all go just a bit faster and wouldn't lose anything by it. And there's an underlying sleaziness in regard to Murino's character: the policemen in the department have laid bets on who will sleep with her first. This distasteful process continues right through the three episodes, and reduces the impact of some of the characters. Perhaps it's a common thing in Rome. As is police corruption, apparently.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Quirky woods

Some while back I wrote a few posts on quirky places in Dunedin - here, for instance, or here, and here. These posts, which date from 2009 and 2011, are now all in need of updating. I've just updated the one on quirky water, for instance, though it could probably do with a total overhaul.

Anyway, to add to the 'series,' my wife and I today discovered 73 Hillary St. Celia had seen something about it online when she was searching for the whereabouts of chestnut trees in Dunedin, and suggested we go and look.

Well, the chestnut trees, as far as we could see, are still at a fairly early stage of their existence, and won't be producing chestnuts for a while yet. This site has to be one of the most unknown places in the city. Obviously locals know about it, but I doubt if the general population is up with it.

For a start, even though it has a street number online, there's no sign, and certainly no postbox. You go down an unmarked track between 71 and 75 and after encountering a couple of metal stands that stop people taking bikes in, you find yourself in a wonderful area full of trees - new and old - between the back of the Hillary St houses and the Motorway. It's a bit noisy at times, because of the cars going up and down the motorway, but it still manages to be very peaceful.

It's a piece of land on the hillside that is undulating, to say the least. Some of it is steep(ish) and some flat(ish). The ground underneath you is at present carpeted with thousands of leaves, so it's lovely to walk on. It's a bit like being in a English wood, although most English woods would be older and the trees would be ancient. There are some elderly trees here, but also plenty of new ones coming along, plus a good number of rhododendron bushes still in their youth.

It has a charm all its own - the dog loved it, and we loved it too. You could picnic there, at a pinch, and it's surprisingly clear of rubbish (only up towards the back of one set of houses was there any sign of unrecycled stuff.

And the view across the motorway at present is a delight: hundreds of trees of all sorts of colours: browns, yellows, reds. Who needs to go to Arrowtown to see Autumn at its best?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bad and goodel

Last night we watched an Israeli movie, supposedly a comedy, about a trio of geriatrics who try to rob a bank, with the aid of the grandson of one of them. Sir Patrick Stewart (as he's listed on the cover) was one of the trio; the other two were Hebrew actors. For some reason crudity was the order of the day, along with a good deal of swearing. Which always seems worse when it appears as a subtitle. (We watched the awful Gone Girl recently with subtitles, because the dialogue was so hard to hear you wondered if they'd purposely been told to mumble most of the time. That dialogue was even more full of four-letter words - the whole range - and was really off-putting.)

The Israeli movie was called Hunting Elephants and was total nonsense, offensive to women, and filled with male characters obsessed with sex. Rubbish. Sir Patrick, curiously enough, played an actor down on his luck, who, when we first saw him, was in an abysmal production of Hamlet done with Star Wars characters. It seemed an unlikely piece for a supposedly good actor to appear in; Hunting Elephants also seemed like an unlikely piece for a very good actor to appear in.

Tonight we watched a French comedy, My Best Friend (Mon Meilleur Ami), about a man who's so involved with his own life and what he wants that he suddenly realises he has absolutely no one to share anything with, no one he can call his best friend. Furthermore he's divorced, the woman he sees regularly has had enough, and his daughter doesn't even call him Dad. As the result of a bet he makes with his female business partner, he has to produce his 'best friend' in ten days. He discovers that the best friend isn't that hard to find, but he is hard to keep, especially if the main character wants to carry on living the way he has been doing.

Daniel Auteuil plays the self-centred main character gradually warming up from frozen, and Dany Boon is the taxi-driver who seems to have more friends than he knows what to do with. It's an odd couple movie, I guess, but it's played beautifully, is never over-the-top, and is full of charm. There's only one swear word in it, and the character apologises for saying it. And it's funny.

Both Auteuil and Boon are actors who seem very familiar from other movies, yet nothing that's listed on IMDB means a thing to me. Perhaps they just look like a lot of other French actors...

Holders of various sorts

There's something wonderful about the way in which words are invented for different crafts, jobs, and technical areas. The music world has a number of them, some of which I've talked about in other posts, but here's my latest discovery: a gooseneck holder.

Rather than try and describe this, I've added a photo of one form of this rather cute device:

It reminds me of something from an animated movie, though I can't put my finger on it at the moment.

A related musical item, in a very loose sense (the main connection being that it holds something) is the folding music stand. I don't mean those solid stands that are guaranteed to hold the music upright even in an earthquake or tornado, but the ones you unfold bit by bit, trying to work out why it looks as though it's going to blow apart on you as you do so. An example is in the picture below:

The choir I conduct, The Choristers, went out to sing at a rest home today. I'd left the good music stand that they've provided for their conductor back at our rehearsal room (its only quirk is that it has a tendency for the separate parts to...separate). So I grabbed a music stand from home that I was given recently by a friend who'd got it from another friend who's since died. (Are you keeping up?) I'd been grateful to get that new one, because the one we've had in our house since my daughter was at intermediate school (it has her name and the school's name on it) is a little monster than hates to have to stand up and hold anything. It says that after nearly thirty years of being in my house it probably needs a rest. (I've given it a rest: out on the pile that's going to the junk yard.)

The one I was given recently is a more well-behaved character. I thought. As soon as I went to stand it up at the rest home, it claimed that I was opening it incorrectly, and promptly threatened to burst apart. I folded it again, tried again. It still looked as though the actual part that holds the music would throw any music placed on it onto the floor, So I folded it up and tried a third time, finally managing to figure out its intricacies. Even then it demanded not to stand in the position I wanted, but at an angle it claimed was more suitable. (It wasn't.)

Not a good way to start a performance....

Friday, April 10, 2015

Scott and Bailey

We've been watching the first series of Scott and Bailey, starring Suranne Jones and Lesley as the two detectives Bailey and Scott respectively, with Amelia Bullmore as their boss. Bullmore gets most of the best lines, but Suranne Jones is excellent as the detective whose clever in the detective area but hopeless in her love life. Sharp is great too, with a nice line in sarcasm, and a good deal more wisdom than her sidekick.

The blokes in it get the thin edge of the wedge: they play most of the villains, of course, but in general they show the worst side of men, the juvenile, the sulky husband, the sergeant who's in love with Sharp's character and keeps pestering her (he's actually played by Sharp's real life husband, Nicholas Gleaves) and worst of all, the barrister who keeps twirling Jones' character around his little finger (Rupert Graves at his slimiest).

The stories are almost secondary to the characters, and some of them are spread out over the whole six episodes, while others are tidied up within one.

Enjoyable over all, and they make a change from the far more frequent bloke detective series, though at least the English produce these kinds of series and focus on characters more than action, in general.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Some notes on current reading

My Goodreads 'currently reading' page has eleven items on it - there were ten until I realised one was missing. I'm not actually reading them all simultaneously. In fact I've (temporarily) given up on some of them.

Those on the back burner: 
Saint Francis of Assisi, by G K Chesterton. I started to read this after finishing Chesterton's book on Thomas Aquinas, which was great. For some reason, Francis just isn't cutting the mustard in the same way, and I only got about halfway through.

Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. One of those books I feel I should read. I haven't managed to get very far into it. Whether it's the translation, or Bonhoeffer's style, it's just not getting across to me.

Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss. I've started this twice, and did get further the second time. But currently it's circling the airport waiting for instructions to land again.

Coming to Peace with Science, by Darrel Falk. I began this after reading Tim Stafford's The Adam Quest, in which Falk's book is mentioned. Sorry, Mr Falk, I think you're trying to do a good job, but I couldn't hold onto both sides of the argument the way you seem to be able to. Still to be finished...

Those making progress (albeit slowly)
Hatred: Islam's war on Christianity, by Michael Coren. I'd like to keep on with this one, but the part I've read seemed mostly to consist of long lists of deaths of Christians at the hands of Muslims. Grisly details. Time will tell whether this one stays on this part of the list.

Did God Really Command Genocide? by Paul Copan and Matt Flanagan. I've read a good deal of this, but it's hard work for my kind of brain, and it seems at times as though there's a lot of semantic nit-picking which has its points, but doesn't help me keep up.

ISIS: Inside the army of terror, by Michael Weiss. This is worth pursuing, but has just got side-swiped at the moment.

Climate Change, by Alan Moran et al. This is good, sometimes too technical for me, but overall worth reading. However, it's temporarily come to a halt.

Books I am reading: 
The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D A Carson. This is very good, and I'm close to finishing it.

Thomas Aquinas: a Portrait, by Denys Turner. Again, very good, though at times I have to read very slowly to understand the arguments. But keeping on with this.

Sermons Preached at Brighton: Third Series, by F W Robertson. Robertson was a 19th century preacher, and these sermons (not actually recorded while he was speaking, but taken from his notes) are very helpful, and insightful. I've been reading these bit by bit in the evenings, and am nearly finished. (I've already read some of the sermons twice, so it's taken me longer than it might.)

The Four Books, by Yan Lianke. I'm reading this to review it, and it's hard work. Not hard to read, but just hard to keep focused. On one hand it's very grim, and Lianke's style, intentionally, is repetitive, so that what's said in one paragraph will be repeated further down the page in a slightly different way, or in one of the other 'books.' It's a satire, but very dour, and you have to wonder again and again why the Chinese seem to have so willingly allowed themselves to be led up the creek by Moa and his terrorists. Yes, perhaps it being terrified that was the problem. But so often in the book the people being 're-educated' are actually offered a way out...and they don't take it.

Alert readers will notice that there are actually 12 books here. I kept remembering other ones I hadn't included on Goodreads initially. So that was good. Updated!

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Two plays in two days

Last night I went with a friend to see The War Play, by Philip Braithwaite. It's a somewhat fictionalised story of what happened to Braithwaite's great-uncle Jack, who died in the First World War. I won't reveal exactly what happens in the play because there's a certain shock element to some parts of the story, but it's superbly put-together, and if you have a chance to see it, go. It's on at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin until the 18th April.

There are only four actors in the cast: Jonathan Martin plays Jack, back in the WWI period, and Ben Van Lier plays his great-nephew, Philip, in the present. Not only does Philip talk directly to the audience most of the time, but he talks about writing the play, which is still 'being written' as he speaks. This brings a kind of intentional dislocation to the piece.

He also has several scenes with his father, played by Simon O'Connor. O'Connor is just wonderful as the not particularly likeable old man. But he also plays several other roles, and in one extraordinary moment, moves from one side of the stage, where he's been playing Philip's father, to the other. In that brief moment in the dark he changes costume, on stage, and becomes Jack's father. And the character is quite different.

The remaining actor, Alexander Walker, plays everything from a religious minister to a political minister, from an obnoxious Australian to Jack's slightly crazy brother, Eric. He probably played other roles too that I've forgotten for the moment...he was ubiquitous in the very best sense.

All of the actors bring huge energy to their roles, especially Martin. The direction is excellent and detailed and keeps the audience well abreast of what time in history we're in as two stories run in parallel. This is a play about fathers and sons, and also about truth and lies. Even some of the stories in the play may be lies or half-truths. We're not always sure. What is certain that the shame that the Braithwaite family suffered in regard to their son, Jack, was unwarranted, and the truth about this is finally revealed in this drama.

Lighting, music and everything else is top notch.

I went to a play of a different kind today. This one was a film of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Love's Labour's Lost, a play that's sometimes regarded as one of Shakespeare's lesser efforts, or one that's difficult to stage. There was no hint of that in this production. The cast sailed effortlessly through the play, one which focuses greatly on language, its complications, its humour, its verbosity. It's also a delightful play about young love and the need for love to mature before it's of real value. The ending can seem odd: after some two hours of light-heartedness and playful flirting, suddenly everything darkens. But it darkens to a purpose, and the four young men who've been courting the four young ladies suddenly discover that love needs to be taken seriously. Constant flirting and jesting won't keep it alive.

The RSC has followed up this production with one of Much Ado About Nothing, which it's (temporarily) renaming Love's Labour's Won. The same cast is in both productions. The first, the one I saw today, takes place in an Edwardian setting, just before the First World War; the second takes place after the war, in the twenties.

LLL is set in a facsimile of a genuine English country house (even though the story ostensibly takes place in France): the three-storey facade is reproduced, and during the course of the production shifts away to reveal the library, or another room with French windows (and a grand piano). But there is also a bowling green, and a scene on the roof, and various other settings. This piece is rich in actual scenery and furniture. In spite of that it moves at cracking pace. The stage is also extended right out into the audience, so that many people are seated just at the edge of the stage on either side. (Cricked necks would result, I'd have thought). The cast move on and off this from the back as you'd expect, but also walk in from the sides on catwalks. There is an enormous amount of stage area.

The cast are wonderfully dressed in beautiful Edwardian pastel colours, or whites, and the women have a ball in their various long gowns.

It's hard to single any cast member out, but one of the delights is the young fellow playing Moth, Peter McGovern. He sings and dances (in a mock Ivor Novello moment - there is a small orchestra that plays regularly throughout the show) and has a perpetual grin on his face. His main foil is the tall and solid John Hodgkinson as the crazy Spaniard, Don Armado, who mangles English as the drop of a hat.

Edward Bennett as Berowne and Michelle Terry as Rosaline make a wonderful sparring couple, and Bennett in particular, with his great long wordy speeches, never puts a syllable out of place. Leah Whitaker and Sam Alexander make a great royal couple, and are ably supported by the two respective couples on each side.

This is a play with an abundance of clowns: Costard (Nick Haverson) is the first to appear; he's the coarsest, but also the most energetic. Chris McCalphy makes an excellent Dull, the policeman who is short on words, but pertinent to the scenes he's in. David Horovitch and Thomas Wheatley play the blathering wordsmiths, Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel, and manage to make the circumlocutions sound interesting.

I loved every minute of the play, and would be happy to get a copy of the DVD when it's available, in order to catch up on it again.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Shakespeare Festival

Last night we went to the - wait for it - Otago Regional Festival of the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival. Yeah, I know, quite a mouthful.

Basically it's the regional part of the finals that will take place in Wellington at the National Festival later this year. 48 of the young actors chosen to represent NZ then go on to work together for a week in the National Shakespeare Schools Production. I wrote about this last year, when the NSSP week was held in Dunedin. And then 24 of those actors are invited to go to the Globe in London for a two and a half week intensive course with actors, directors and back stage staff. They finish up doing a performance there.

I hadn't been to the regional festival before, and of course the standard varies quite a bit compared to the productions that are presented in the NSSP. The performances are either five minutes or fifteen minutes (roughly). The five minutes, I think (I missed out on getting a programme), are generally directed by the students themselves. The fifteen minute ones are directed by drama teachers in the schools.

As I say, I didn't have a programme, so I can't name names, but I wanted to make a few comments. Overall the standard was high, and there were some wonderful moments of pure theatre, and some laugh-out-loud moments. Shakespeare still cuts the mustard.

There were also scenes in which actors, having learned their lines, spoke them at such speed that not an actual word could be heard, or ranted them in such a way that the sense was lost. Part of the learning curve, I guess. Shakespeare just needs to be spoken; he does all the work for you. Speak it clearly and we'll all hear it and (mostly) understand it.

And some actors were on the move the whole time - I'm not going to focus on any particular performances in this regard, because too much movement is something the directors need to deal with. Actors can be just as intense standing still as moving. On the other hand, standing still in a line saying a couple of pages of dialogue is the other extreme, as happened in one piece.

But there were many wonderful things: the four boys doing the scene from Love's Labour's Lost, in the equivalent of a messy student flat. Hugely energetic (one lad leaping straight up into the air and into a large box; quite a gymnastic feat), and very entertaining. The French/English lesson from Henry V was done absolutely wonderfully, with the French being spoken as fluently by the two actresses as was the broken and battered English. And the young man playing Henry did a great job too. The background actors in this piece were also wonderfully on the mark, and the costumes and props were excellent.

The incredible fight scene from Romeo and Juliet, with Tybalt and Mercutio throwing each other off the stage onto the floor of the theatre, narrowly missing a chair that had already been tossed down there, and leaping up and down onto the stage again in the course of it.

A very much over the top performance of Pyramus and Thisbe from A Midsummer Night's Dream; it was almost too over the top but managed to maintain the balance. A good strong performance of the Brutus/Cassius scene from Julius Caesar. Quite a difficult piece to do without the context of the rest of the play.

An intriguing performance of a scene from The Tempest in which a very athletic-looking Prospero berated Ariel (continually bowing down and slithering around the stage; one time in which all the movement was justified). Prospero's make-up was crazy, and yet it worked.

These are the stand-out performances that come to mind immediately. I may remember more as the day goes on, in which case I'll add them into the post.

You can see some photos from last night's performances on the ODT website.