Saturday, February 23, 2013

How do you know if a website is dead?

Hard one this: clearly it is not always possible to keep a website going indefinitely especially where it is a personally run site. Life has a habit of getting in the way.

But it is sad when a site just seems to vanish overnight. has been going for a while now - I noted last week that the sub-site for Tena Stivcic (the gorgeously lucky Mrs Henshall) had took over the domain and tracking back to the main site for Douglas Henshall just brought up either the front page for Tena instead (on the same URL) or the dreaded '404 not found' message...

I left it for the week - perhaps site maintenance was going on?  Instead, today I find the site is down completely.

Oh dear: I do hope it gets rejuvenated...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Norway, Chile and France: film and TV from across the world (aka Jackpot, No and Spiral)

(note - not sure if the video links work here - having some technical problems embedding)

Friday night we indulged an an incredibly silly film called Jackpot - a Norwegian dark comedy thriller based on a story by Jo Nesbo (whose Headhunters we so enjoyed last year).

Jackpot has almost nothing new to add to the catalogue of 'numbskulls + money = violent comedy' films.  But it *IS* enormously entertaining if you like your comedy bloody, stupid and bloodily stupid.

Now what the UK trailer UTTERLY fails to convey is this humour - which frankly is very much the best part of the film.  It is a bit clearer in the original trailer:

I'd recommend this film to anyone who can cope with bloody humour and savage stupidity.  And for me the film is summed up in two exchanges during the film.
"So we had to go to Plan B"
"Which was?"
"Not a good plan"
"So we needed a new plan"
"Which was?"
"Even worse than the last one"
Hilarious stuff.

As a good contrast - and with a title ripe for circular conversations - Saturday saw us use our first lot of Membership tickets for the Broadway for 2013 ("Yes, we are going to the cinema", "what to see?" "No" "I thought you were going to the cinema?" "Yes: No" "what?!")

No is a fictional telling of events in Chile in 1988 when the plebiscite allowed both pro-Pinochet and anti-Pinochet campaigns.  It uses techniques and stock to look like it was filmed in the 1980s and is in turns funny and horrific.  It's about marketing, about politics, about change and about the extent to which marketing can ever really understand what politics really means (look for the appearances of mime).

The naive Rene finds himself inside events that are scary and awful even as he is co-ordinating overly tall actors ("Chileans are small people" he is chastised) and dance routines and group singing (which are resolutely NOTHING like 'We are the World').

The references and the technology don't jar as they can with movies about earlier periods, because the filming is rendered in a way to take us back to that moment.  It's both soothing and unnerving because as stories are, it was no where near as simple as a jingle and a rainbow would make this out to be.  But it is powerful and moving.  And if someone finds out more about Chile - then, before and now - from seeing this film, that will be a good thing.  Up for an Oscar as well...

Didn't get chance to sing the praises of this returning gem last weekend, but the return of Spiral (aka Engrenages) is MUCH welcomed in our house.  Another resident of BBC4's Saturday 9pm 'foreign TV' slot* Spiral has been on our radar since the ever-reliable MediumRob pointed us to it a few years ago and continues to be our go-to-dude for all things Spiral.  This is now season 4 and we love it and have been eagerly following the characters and storylines from S1.  Laure Berthaud and Josephine (definitely no longer Jo) Karlsson are two of the most wonderful female characters.

With praise and cult-following in the UK, you'd think that BBC4 would be trumpeting this from the rooftops to alert viewers to it's return, but heck it pretty much even snuck under OUR radars when it came back last week.

This is such a shame as it is a really good series and worth investing time with.  Yes: it IS violent.  But no more than The Wire (and certainly lightweight compared to Jackpot).  But there is another value to it and that is the never comfortable drama it presents regarding the French justice system and the relationships of its citizens, residents and others to the state and each other.  This means that politics, law, race and gender are never far from consideration within the spiral that is Engrenages.  Welcome back: already desperate to see next week's episodes... In the meantime, the incredible Audrey Fleurot (Karlsson) and Caroline Proust (Berthaud).

Audrey Fleurot as Josephine Karlsson

Caroline Proust as Laure Berthaud

* though do wish they'd skip the 2 hours a week routine.  Some of us have lives!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Proof that musicals do not have to be jolly: Les Miserables - film review

As I mentioned in my pre-amble post, I have a ridiculous level of love, affection and recall for the tunes and lyrics of Les Miserables.  I have to say though that seeing the film (albeit that there are a few cuts from the original stage production set-list), I was amazed at how much I could remember of each section/song.  Seems a lot has still been retained in my long-term memory!

So what did I think of the film?

Things I noted (I'm going via characters as that seems fairest):

The ensemble
What I have always loved about this musical are the ensemble tracks - whether it is the counterpoint singing of individual characters or the collective vocals of the French masses.  Wonderful singing and performances.  If I can get through "tomorrow we'll discover what our God in heaven has in store" (from "One Day More"), when I sing with the choir I will feel very strong indeed.  Totally stirring stuff.  Spine-shivering even now.

I'm not even going to be the 100,000th (even millionth) person to say this, but blimey - Anne Hathaway!  This was the performance of the film for me.  The role demands such range, and such emotional depth and she hit every note and nuance of the performance.  Didn't think anyone would surpass my reaction to Patti Lupone who was in the original London cast, but Hathaway was just incredible.  Pack up shop folks and give her the best supporting actress awards now. It understandably tears the audience to pieces from an early point in the film ("I Dreamed a Dream"), and the ending of the film is the final rip of the hankie.  Plot totally lost by that point.

Eddie Redmayne, although I got increasingly distracted by how his head and chin wobbled with the exertion of the singing, was incredibly good.  His performance of "Empty Tables" is beyond emotional.  Yes, in many ways better than Michael Ball.

I though the child Cosette was fine - the grown-up one less so.  It's probably that I don't care much for the character.  Sorry Amanda Seyfried.

I've picked up (post-seeing the film) that not everyone was convinced about Samantha Barks being cast as the grown-up Eponine.  She's a bit blank sometimes, but gets better as she goes through the film.  My chief complaint?  Unless I momentarily passed out during the movie, they cut the two pre-song stanzas of "On My Own".  I know it isn't the only change or cut in the movie version, but it was for me perhaps the one I felt most deeply.

And now I'm all alone again nowhere to go, no one to turn to
I do not want your money sir, I came out here 'cos I was told to
And now the night is near
Now I can make believe he's here

Sometimes I walk alone at night
When everybody else is sleeping
I think of him and then I'm happy
With the company I'm keeping
The city goes to bed
And I can live inside my head

Since I adore this particular song (angsty teenage to 20-something when I first heard it?  of course I loved it) it would be hard for anyone to beat Frances Ruffelle's version.  Does Barks do it?  No - sorry.  She's good, but I'm utterly wedded to that original soundtrack performance.

The Thenadiers
It's a bit usual suspects to cast Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron-Cohen in these roles, but I thought them really rather good.  "Everybody raise a glass" indeed.

This may go radically against reactions to the film, but whilst I thought Jackman made a very fine Valjean indeed - certainly in terms of the acting - he was marginally less convincing for me in terms of singing.  Very good indeed, but again he has a tough act to follow with the perfection of Colm Wilkinson's Valjean.  CW just broke glass and hearts with that perfect final note on "Bring Him Home".

And maybe the differential was highlighted by them (nevertheless, very smartly) bringing in Wilkinson to sing the role of the Priest who initially shows compassion to the fugitive Valjean.  Wilkinson's presence, yea even his gravitas dare I say, just blows the screen away.  Both Helen and I gasped and our eyes widened at seeing the older Wilkinson appear in this role, not having picked up the pre-movie buzz he was in the cast.  So by the time he reappears at the end of the film, we were both getting pretty wrung out.  Again, rather like the line from "One Day More", if I hold my voice together for the line "To love another person is to see the face of God" from Valjean's death scene, I will definitely deserve a cake after the performance...

Anyway: kudos to Hugh, it is a great performance in the film, but I wasn't carried away as I wanted to be.  I need to rewatch the film/listen to the movie soundtrack and get away from the original cast soundtrack.  That's gonna still be hard though with CW around.

Radical statement: Russell Crowe is not bad.  I know: it goes against the grain of popular opinion, and yes, Helen is a big fan but even she was unsure if he would manage it, since having seen the stage production she felt she was more wedded to the original than me.  Does Crowe succeed in this difficult and pivotal role?  Yes and no.  I think it's a darn fine performance from him.  Could it have been done better by someone else?  Possibly - but I'm unsure who (though obviously the magnificent Roger Allam is ingrained in my heart, alternative suggestions as to who would fit in the starry movie version are welcome).  Crowe's at his best when the drama develops - I don't think anyone comes off terribly well from the opening scenes actually; I thought it the weakest part of the film and everyone gets better from then on [did they shoot it in order?].

The problem is that the role of Javert requires more than the stoicism they clearly advised Crowe to adopt for the performance: it needs a fire and bitterness.  Mot 100% perfect by any means, but in the thick of watching the film, satisfying us.

The CGI/effects/cinematography
I wished that they had not done quite so much with CGI: and I know that on stage you can't do close-up shots, but I really wasn't convinced by all of the close-ups included.  But the big set-pieces of the staging are all there and wonderfully done.

Overall, by the end where they reprise "Do you hear the people sing?" it's hard not to feel rather emotional for the defeated - but not diminished - rebels and their cause.  Yes, everybody dies; yes, there's bloodshed; yes there is poverty.  But have you read the novel?  It is meant to be grim - but it also has an uplifting feel as well.  Heightened emotions are what musicals are all about, and this has them in spades.

Yeah - I enjoyed it.  Pass the hankies...

Friday, February 01, 2013

San Francisco - late arrivals and rain, but still a stunner

The plan had been we left Auckland at 7.30pm their time and arrive in San Francisco at 10.30am their time (wooo - time travel).

It didn't work out that way.

Our plane was delayed by 14 hours - a mechanical fault meant that by the time we arrived from Christchurch to the International Departure lounge at Auckland, the signs read 'NowFri'.

At least we didn't have an immediate connection: for us, getting a hotel, evening food, and a breakfast at the airport the next day was great.  A minor inconvenience.  For others, it was a disaster: I did not envy the lass travelling on from New Zealand summer to the heavy winter climate of Chicago (snow and gales).

Of course, what the delay did mean was that instead of arriving mid-morning, with the hopes of being on Market Street by about lunchtime, we actually arrived at the hotel about 12.30am/1am.  And although initially I didn't get why Neil was asking if we could get anything to eat, I soon found myself empathising for some food intake.

When we walked out the hotel (in-room service finished at 12 midnight) to one of the recommended nearby diners, we were delighted to discover that it was a branch of Lori's!

Oh man - I *lurve* Lori's Diner.

So it was that (appropriately) about 2am we were sat eating burger and fries in The Night Owl* Lori's Diner on Mason.  And it tasted like the best food ever.

We enjoyed plenty of walking in SF, a nice ride on a cable car (on the outside!  soooo cool!) and plenty of good food.  And bookshops.

Oh look: it's NOT the Flatiron!

My new favourite bookshop in the world: Green Apple Books.  Just beautiful as a shopping experience for booklovers!

Lisa Rullsenberg enjoying the bizarre qualities of the Palace of Fine Arts, SF

This chocolate pot desert at Troya on Clement Street (near Green Apple Books) was heavenly!

Food and resting at Lori's Diner (not our 2am visit)

We hadn't booked, so Greens turned us away :(

 Down came the rain at one point....

But despite variable weather we were a happy couple at Calzone's!

* Just a little reference to a much watched film

Los Angeles in winter: reflections on a vacation

We have been unlucky once, I think, hitting some rainfall in Los Angeles in December, but usually we get sunshine.  So it proved this time, as after a late-night arrival in LA, we woke to bright sunshine (if a cool breeze)!  It was a real delight to see daylight after such dark days in the UK.

The view from our LAX hotel

Passing temptations - a poster reminding me that I really wanted to see Les Miserables when it opened in the UK!

The LAX Westin was our Hotwire hotel this time around.  A ridiculously large lobby and entrance forecourt...

Ah, Santa Monica: the reason we come to LA en route...

Here's Neil - between coughs - enjoying the Santa Monica shopping

It was important to remember this was Christmas: the giant hotel Christmas Tree was a clue.

And I always love being able to see the moon, and the sun setting over Santa Monica beach...

 There is just something wonderful about seeing a sunset, especially over a beach/water.  It just feels *right* somehow, like this was how we should ALL get to see a sunset.  Plus it reminds me of Hotel California...

Les Misérables - a preamble to a film review

I've never seen / been lucky enough to see Les Misérables on stage.  Helen has seen the Glums on stage, lucky swine (and relatively early in its history).  Nevertheless, the soundtrack and the 10th anniversary performance are ingrained in my heart.

Indeed, back when the original soundtrack album for Les Misérables came out, I lost count of how often I borrowed the double album from Nottingham libraries.  I must have worn out at least three copies so often did it get played on my much-adored but scrappy boxed record player.  Renewed to within an inch of being barred from borrowing it ever again, I would sing out every song.

It was only when I bought a highlights version of the album (abbreviatedly titled "Les Miz highlights" - urgh what a horrid title!) as a present for a friend a few years ago that I listened to any of the tracks after so many years.

But even then I didn't overplay it; the tracks were like greeting some old friends but aware of the hours of tears I had sobbed over the vinyl, I didn't get really back into it.

What I did find was just how easily I could recall the songs and sing them to myself.

And then there was the news about the film version...

Crikey: it seemed an odd propostion at first - Russell Crowe as Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Hugh Jackman as Valjean.  How was THAT going to work?  Jackman at least had musical form, but Rusty could be best described as an 'acquired taste', and Hathaway?  Really?

Then the trailer came out: bloody hell... This had potential.

And then the BeVox choir announced that to co-incide with the film release they would 'bring back' their medley version of songs from Les Misérables.  For me, this was new territory of course, as everyone at choir keeps forgetting I actually only joined a season and a half ago (this is my third season I'll be singing, but I didn't join til week 5 in the May of 2012)*.

So I started listening to the medley we would be doing and it all began to flood back.  I've been a tad reluctant to go back to the originals too much because I need to focus on learning, remembering and singing to the arrangments/combination of tracks that we're doing for BeVox, but the urge is proving strong.

I had to see the film of course: the Tuesday choir session after it had been released in the UK, already a sizeable proportion had been to see it, and near unanimously voted with their tears how good it was.  As work wasn't getting any less busy, and both Neil and I acclimatized to post-holiday, snowy UK life again, Helen and I plotted to use our planned weekend in London as a way of seeing the film.

The Odeon Leicester Square was calling us...

* I'm taking it as a compliment that I've fitted right in, but blimey it's exhausting constantly reminding people I haven't actually sung most of the songs/arrangements that are bought back from previous seasons for big performances!