Tuesday, May 31, 2011

'Attack the Block'

31 May 2011

We were at the cinema last Friday to see ‘Attack the Block’ – a stunning directorial debut by the comedian Joe Cornish (best known as part of the double act Adam & Joe). Comparisons have been made with British zombie comedy ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and the two films have plenty in common: ‘Attack the Block’ includes a cameo performance from Nick Frost and Edgar Wright is among its Executive Producers. But ‘Attack the Block’ lacks the silliness of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and is much more realistic and believable – which is impressive for a film about an alien attack on a South London tower block. (“What kind of alien would invade some council estate in South London?” “One that’s looking for a fight!”). This tale of a gang of young teenagers teaming up with the nurse they have just mugged at knifepoint to fight an army of vicious alien creatures is very funny precisely because it is so scary and real. There is some graphic violence but it never seems gratuitous and is genuinely frightening. The focus is mainly on the children (led by the excellent John Boyega as Moses the gang-leader) with the adults left in the background (with the exception of Jodie Whittaker as the nurse, Sam) making the film strangely reminiscent of an old Children’s Film Foundation production (albeit with considerably more swearing and violence!). There are clear references to E.T. (boys on bikes, light emanating from a shed etc) but I was also reminded of the comic gangland of ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and Kevin Smith’s debut ‘Clerks’ (which similarly was filmed entirely without sunlight). The child actors are all great and there are some wonderful characters. Their mock-American street slang feels initially threatening but soon reveals their naivety and is often unintentionally amusing. (Moses has a tendency to use the qualifier “get me?” as in “you get me?” which leads him to say at one point “the aliens are coming to get me get me?”) ‘Attack the Block’ is a fresh and exciting new British film: I loved it.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Music in the Brickhills concert

27 May 2011

My first experience of Music in the Brickhills – the local group established to present live music in the Brickhill villages to the South and East of Milton Keynes in order to raise money for local and national charities – was as a member of the audience for last year’s Brickhill Messiah (reviewed here in October 2010). Last weekend I got my chance to perform at St Mary’s Church in Great Brickhill as part of the ‘Music in the Brickhills All-Star Wind Ensemble’ (still thinks it makes us sound like the Harlem Globetrotters!). It was great to get a chance to play Mozart’s ‘Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments’ (the ‘Gran Partita’). I seldom play any Mozart and rarely play any chamber music: both require quite a different approach to the larger-scale orchestral works that I am more used to playing. In this context every note is vital and you need a high level of concentration throughout. The Serenade is a substantial work with some sublime moments and I think we gave a really good performance under the baton of David Knight. Although we only had one rehearsal as a group it was clear that everyone had either been practising individually or already knew the piece very well – or else they were all excellent sight-readers! The first half of the concert featured the excellent Kaznowski Quartet (reviewed here in January 2008) augmented by players from Milton Keynes Sinfonia to play Brahms’ ‘Sextet no 2 in G’. It was a lovely concert which raised more than £1000 for Macmillan Nurses.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ by Kate Atkinson

20 April 2011

‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ is Kate Atkinson’s fourth Jackson Brodie novel and follows ‘When Will There Be Good News’ (reviewed here in September 2009). Reading ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ I initially worried that it so closely follows the format of its predecessors. Once again we see the action through the eyes of a range of third-person narratives which gradually coincide and overlap. Once again the book starts with a flashback to a violent crime many decades in the past which you know is going to have some bearing on the present-day events that follow. Once again there are some well-hidden twists and some great characters. But my initial scepticism that Atkinson has settled into a formulaic approach was allayed because the plot is incredibly gripping and drives you through the book’s 500 pages at some speed. The story is often grim and sad, though there are some very funny passages. And while the main plotlines are resolved and explained by the end there are some deliberately ambiguous loose ends left dangling. This manages to both create a satisfying conclusion and simultaneously to leave you scouring the details in your mind for days after you have finished reading. ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ is a very assured and clever piece of writing.


'The Barber of Seville' by Rossini

20 April 2011

Last Thursday we were at The Playhouse Theatre in Alnwick to see a production of Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’ by Swansea City Opera. This was opera on a much smaller scale than our recent experiences at Milton Keynes Theatre, and all the better for it. The set consisted of blown-up black & white cartoon drawings and Swansea City Opera created a cartoon comic opera that was incredibly funny. It helped enormously to be close enough to see the singers’ faces properly and there were some great performances. The Iranian baritone Aris Nadirian was a fantastic Figaro with a graceful swagger and a twinkle in his eyes. And Jeanette Ager gave Rosina the exaggerated air of a children’s TV presenter, her facial expressions turning on a sixpence. The six-piece orchestra provided excellent accompaniment and it was a really enjoyable evening in the theatre.

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20 May 2011

We had a lovely week in Northumberland. We were staying in a cottage on a steep hill overlooking the small town of Rothbury with wonderful views across the Coquet valley. We did lots of walking, both along the coastal path and in the Northumberland National Park. The highlights were the walk up the coast from Craster to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle and climbing the crags of the Simonside Hills for spectacular views of Rothbury. Apart from being caught in a couple of torrential downpours, the weather was kind to us with lots of sunshine. We visited Cragside – a grand Victorian house which was the first in the world to be powered by hydroelectricity, and the amazing Barter Books – a huge secondhand bookshop inside the old railway station in Alnwick. But we left Northumberland feeling that we had only scratched the surface and we hope to return soon.


Friday, May 06, 2011

'Songs Lost and Stolen' by Bella Hardy

6 May 2011

As you may remember, I first discovered the young English folk singer Bella Hardy as part of a tiny audience in the bar at the Queen's Theatre in Barnstaple in March 2008. A few months later she was opening the BBC Proms Folk Day concert in the Royal Albert Hall (reviewed here in July 2008). In March 2008 I wrote "She sings traditional English folk songs that tell a story - mostly grim tales, even when the music is uplifting. I would have welcomed a little more variety of style - it would have been good to hear her voice in a more modern idiom occasionally". Now Bella Hardy has released an album of her own compositions, 'Songs Lost and Stolen', and it's been well worth waiting for. It's a varied set of songs (with backing from members of Scotland's Burns Unit, reviewed here in November 2010) which betray a multitude of influences. Some modern folk singers write songs intended to sound like previously undiscovered ancient tunes but these songs are much more modern - pop with a strong folk influence. I was reminded of the songs of Karine Polwart (herself a member of the Burns Unit and reviewed here in November 2005, April 2006 and April 2008), Megson (reviewed here in January 2008) and occasionally of Joanna Newsom (reviewed here in November 2006) though without Newsom's vocal eccentricities. It's a lovely album.

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