Sunday, 30 December 2012

And my favourite film of 2012 is...

2012 began with a great film and ended with a great film.

In January, Steve McQueen's Shame was released in the UK. I can't begin to describe the impact this film has had on me, months later and it still haunts my imagination. The story of a sex addicted drone (Michael Fassbender) and his mentally unstable sister (Carey Mulligan) was treated with such sensitivity and compassion that it became almost unbearable to watch. For me, one of the greatest pieces of pure cinema occurs in this film: an extended tracking shot of Fassbender jogging through a nocturnal city, desperately trying to sweat out of his system his distorted, contradictory passions. Technically, the most amazing tracking shot since Touch of Evil and Raging Bull. Existentially, the most poetic summary of the contemporary predicament.

In December, I saw Amour - Michael Haneke's penetrating examination of old age, sickness and death. There's not an ounce of sentimental fat on this film. The story of an elderly husband who cares for his wife is told with a fierce tenderness and humanity. Every frame of this film has a painterly quality. Every emotion on the screen is delivered with gamma knife precision. Cinema for adults only.

And so, there is no favourite film this year. For me, Shame and Amour both take the top spot. They share the laurel crown.

And my other favourites:

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master - Anderson is the new Kubrick. Joaquin Pheonix gave a performace of such feral rawness and strangeness that it tore up the screen.

Leos Carax's Holy Motors - it is demented, punk, exotic and completely mesmerising. People use the word "surreal" about things that are merely strange. But this film is surreal. Holy Motors takes its place alongside Dali and Bunuel as a surrealist work of art.

Sam Mendes' Skyfall - this Bond movie looked a million dollars and that was thanks to the remarkable cinematographer, Roger Deakins. It was tense and exciting, until the anti-climactic final scenes (big Scottish pile in the Highlands blows up...yawn). It also had the campest villain in any multiplex film I can recall. Javier Bardem channelling Kenneth Williams and Augusto Pinochet.

Gareth Evans' The Raid - kickass entertaiment.

Dexter Fletcher's Wild Bill - the gangsta movie reinvented.

So what were your top five films of 2012?

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Bee keeping, Quantum mechanics and love

Constellations is seventy minutes long. No interval. Most “scenes” are brief. Blink and you’ll miss some of them. The stage is bare apart from white helium balloons, heavenly spheres or molecular models, that float above the action. Two actors (Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall) are on stage throughout.

Constellations is a boy meets girl love story – a metaphysical romcom with dark metastases. A love story about the infinite, shifting possibilities of love. This is a theatrical chamber piece written with intellectual dexterity and played with inventive commitment.

Marianne, a vivacious quantum physicist at Sussex University, and Roland, a blokeish beekeeper, meet at barbeque. There’s a bit of awkward flirting. She makes a joke that bombs and any possibility of romance ends there. But then the meeting is played out again in a parallel universe. Slight variations in the original meeting – the turn of a phrase, the language of their bodies – result in new outcomes. Another universe. Another meeting. Exponential results. And so on, until we see their love for each other take shape.

The defining moments of their relationship are played out in these parallel universes. The theoretical existence of a multiverse, that our lives and deaths can be played out in any number of ways, is what excites motor mouthed Marianne. For Roland, struggling to keep up with his girlfriend’s lessons in quantum mechanics, the three different kinds of bees, each with their specific purpose in the hive, provide him with a key to understanding the purpose of life. “If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing.” The word “God” punctuates the play as a challenge to positivistic ways of thinking.

Constellations is thought provoking and stylish, but it's not as clever as it would like us to believe it is. The playwright, Nick Payne, can’t quite make up his mind whether he wants to engage our hearts or our minds. In the end, he does neither.

What this production does have are the two perfectly pitched, charismatic performances of Hawkins and Spall. Their relationship fizzes on stage with authenticity and tenderness. They remind us that love, in all its complex variations, is the atomic matter that makes us who we are. Love is the driving force of the universe.

Constellations by Nick Payne is currently playing at the Duke of Yorks Theatre, London.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

What was my favourite album of 2012?

Some music is so exquisitely beautiful that it acts as a healing balm to all that is bruised and hurting within us. Some music embracing the this-ness of life, a never ending happening, swells the chambers of the heart. And then there is music with a radiant clarity, a transfiguring power, that forces you to your knees before the mystery of creation. Bill Fay’s remarkable album, Life is People, possesses all of the above.

In the early 1970’s Fay released two critically acclaimed albums that made little impression on the listening public. He was a voice crying in the wilderness of the music business. Having fallen out of favour with the accountants at Decca, Fay became a lapsed singer-songwriter. He made ends meet by working in parks, shops and by cleaning factories.

However, some of his followers remained faithful to his memory and treasured their vinyl copy of his 1971 masterpiece Time of the Last Persecution. His fans, including Nick Cave, Marc Almond and Julian Cope, never lost faith and waited for his return from exile. This finally happened in 2007 when the US indie band, Wilco (who performed a cover of Fay’s Be not so Fearful), persuaded Fay to step on stage with them.

Now, forty years after his last studio album, Fay has returned from the wilderness of his personal Lent. In his cupped hands he carries a music that is fragile and poetic, birdsong with a broken wing. This music has a prophetic pitch. It sings of the soul of man. It draws tears.

Strings, Gospel choirs, piano, electric guitars combine with Fay’s rich, bass voice to produce an album of musical conviction and integrity. Dense, lush arrangements (Cosmic Concerto) are balanced with a spare, compelling intimacy (Jesus, Etc.). Fay’s unpretentious lyrics have a Blakean quality – adult experience expressed with a childlike innocence and purity.

These songs chart Fay’s search for the voice of the Holy One, a voice that is so often drowned out by the ferocious chatter within us and the white noise of a technologically oversaturated culture where oases of repose are hard to find. Life is People has the feel of a contemporary psalter, a collection of deeply-felt songs recording exile, redemption and thanksgiving: Thank you, Lord, for the love you’ve shown me/ your Son on the Cross is ever before me.

There are miracles in the strangest of places, Fay declares, there are miracles everywhere you go. A couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Bill Fay. Danny Watson, a father who has a son in the choir at Brentwood Cathedral, recommended this album to me. I know Danny has a great love and knowledge of popular music so I thought it was worth taking his recommendation seriously. I’m glad I did and I’m indebted to him for introducing me to Bill Fay.

Listening to Life is People for the first time was a kind of miraculous cure. It was as if some unexpected, buffeting power caught me unawares and knocked me sideways. I had been deaf for so long, without realising it, and now could hear again. I could hear “the still, sad music of humanity” and had been given a note with which to sing new songs to the Lord. Yes, there are miracles in the strangest places, even in Brentwood Cathedral Clergy House.

Life is People is a masterpiece. Listen all you that have ears!

And my other favourites of 2012:

Channel Orange by Frank Ocean
Blunderbuss by Jack White
Devotion by Jessie Ware
Is your Love Big Enough? by Lianne la Havas
An Awesome Wave by Alt-J