Thursday, July 26, 2007


dir Adam Shankman

The city of Baltimore doesn't feature too much in the cinematic world, being overshadowed by New York, Los Angeles, London and so forth. If Baltimore turns up as the setting for a film, chances are it's the work of Barry Levinson or John Waters.

True to form, Hairspray opens with an overhead shot of an extraordinarily flat and featureless Baltimore, 1962, a city in which even such carefree pursuits as dancing are performed in racial segregation. Waters, the king of bad taste, turned this into a camp, gender-bending comedy in 1988. His successor, Adam Shankman, has turned to the original film as well as the 2002 Broadway show for an unlikely musical comedy, the message being that people who are different can triumph.

Waters' muse Divine performed the role of heavy-set housewife Edna Turnblad, here reprised by John Travolta, with mixed fortunes. Travolta is so weighed down with make-up and prosthetics, he can barely waddle from room to room of the Turnblad home, let alone shake a leg in the dance numbers. Peering out from his doughy face, his eyes look like slits. It's quite disconcerting and his accent wavers from deep south to The Simpsons character Comic Book Guy.

In the role of perky upstart Tracy Turnblad, we get Nikki Blonsky, who pretty much impersonates Ricki Lake's original while Lake turns up in a cameo toward the end as a William Morris Agency scout. As nebbishy dad Wilbur, Christoper Walken excels, taking a break from his alpha male villain persona. He and Travolta actually make a pretty decent couple, taking a turn through the backyard laundry for some nifty dancing and romancing. Shame there was no kiss to seal it. Travolta also does give a sense of Edna's insecurity and fears for her daughter, as big people in a world that favours thin.

But Hairspray is troubled by its basic premise, that racial discrimination can be funny. Yes, Michelle Pfeiffer is in fine form as the racist station manager threatening to cancel the local dance show's Negro Day [sic]. Queen Latifah lends some gravitas and brilliant pipes as record store owner Mother Maybelle and she gets the best songs, too. Those two are posited at opposite ends of the moral spectrum and it's a pity they have no scenes together. Interestingly, though, Maybelle, who exudes confidence and self-belief, is given a scene in which she tempts Edna with a brownie.

But it's just not funny or politically savvy enough to really get to grips with the topic. Tracy is depicted as a well-intentioned kid trying to overcome her white privilege by befriending the put-upon black kids in detention. But how come we never see any black students doing anything but singing and dancing.... in detention? What kind of racial stereotyping is that?

Elijah Kelly is brilliant as Maybelle's son Seaweed, daring to cross the colour bar and romance Tracy's pal Penny (Amanda Bynes), but he has to toe the party line and appear grateful for the limited assistance offered by the white characters. It is Tracy, not any of the black characters, who suggests they march in opposition to the cancelling of Negro Day. As if it would never dawn on any of them to fight back.

The other message of fat acceptance is also a bit muddled, with much comedic mileage expected from the sight of John Travolta in a fat suit. How condescending is that?

In the end the best line falls to Maybelle as she bemoans the troubles facing the inter-racial couple: "you two better brace yourselves for a never-ending parade of ugly coming at you from a whole lot of stupid." If only the rest of the film were as sharp.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth


Well, we've had Lou Reed performing Berlin and various artists playing old albums under the Don't Look Back banner. But the one nod to the past I would surely welcome would be Young Marble Giants performing their masterpiece, Colossal Youth. How about a Young Marble DLB at the Union Chapel? Or maybe the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington.

It almost happened. They were scheduled to do a reunion show with the Raincoats for Rough Trade's 25th anniversary, if memory serves, but illness put paid to that. And the group did reunite for a gig at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival some months back. But I have yet to see them play live.

Until that time, Colossal Youth has been reissued as part of a three-CD package collecting demos and a 1980 Peel session. And it is great. The album stands the test of time, as much a glorious oddity now as it was in the heyday of post-punk in 1980.

The Cardiff band combined the disparate elements of songwriter Stuart Moxham's choppy guitar and swirly organ, Philip Moxham's melodic bass and Alison Statton's dispassionate vocals to create an original, minimalist treasure.

Just about every Olympia band in the early '90s paid homage to YMG but they are still massively under-rated. Theirs was a delicate, anti-macho sound which didn't fit into the aggression of the times. Stuart describes their music as repressed while Simon Reynolds says in his liner notes that it was music by introverts for introverts. Were they the original quiet storm band? "Brand-New-Life" was about as rock as the band got, with its driving guitar. But they also made the Testcard EP, six instrumentals inspired by breaks in TV transmissions.

The Peel Sessions are a delightful find, almost a YMG greatest hits, including the apocalyptic "Final Day" and "Brand-New-Life". Alison's voice sounds particularly edgy on this session.

It's interesting to read that the band were adopted by the Raincoats on their arrival in London back in the day. How intriguing to imagine the two outsider bands with their cryptic lyrics, unusual arrangements and tense, prickly music palling around the grey, rainy capital. Let's hope that reunion gig happens.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Portobello Film Festival Launch Party

Cobden Club, London
18 July 2007

Although the PFF held a launch some months ago, this was the one to launch this year's programme, which makes more sense. Held again at the Cobden Club, the programme featured a night's worth of short films, accompanied by loud chatter and free beers (the last two possibly linked).

Although I didn't stay for the full duration, being an eastie and thus at the mercy of London Transport, I saw a good range of work which will be presented at the festival from 1 to 22 August (

Among the best were some experimental docs. J Is for Julie made intriguing use of home movies and snaps to trace the life of filmmaker Carol Burns's mother from her youth as a Jew in Hitler's Europe to her death as an emigre in London. The pictures were almost entirely stills but still very dynamic and affecting. It helped that the subject was so intriguing: Julie described herself as a "Jewish Christian Marxist" and found it difficult to finid a place for herself. Not surprising.

Colourful EU was Peter Vadocz's witty depiction of the flags of the EU countries found in everyday objects such as office supplies. At two minutes it flew by.

Baron Samedi, by Dan MacMillan started off brilliantly as it set up a haunting backdrop to explore the legend of blues player Robert Johnson. Then it turned into a Marilyn Manson video and I lost interest.

As far as fiction films went, they were more hit and miss. Green Pages, an alleged comedy by Sasha C. Danjanovski, was lost in the chatty confines of the Cobden and went on way too long anyway.

Film Eight, by Dan Gitsham, was well made and quite amusing but was listed as Horror. Surely some mistake?

Slap, a drama by Uriel Emil about domestic violence, I found a bit disturbing because it seemed to end on an inappropriate comic note. A matter of interpretation perhaps.

The festival has a real sense of place, dwelling on the psychogeography of the area and making use of historic venues. Among the offerings are Julien Temple's Joe Strummer doc, The Future Is Unwritten, and a photo exhibit from The Roughler Gallery Archive.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Celebrity spot

Seeing as how I never, ever run into the great and good on the streets of London, I was very excited to spot Linda Bellos striding purposefully along Kingsway, looking very businesslike in pinstripe suit and briefcase. Take that, Heat!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

BP Summer Big Screens: Tosca

Royal Opera House
as seen in Victoria Park, London

As the great British summer lives up to its historic billing as a damp squib, the idea of sitting in a park to enjoy a live screening of opera becomes more and more perverse. After Glastonbury's muddy excesses, its urban, posh cousin did its best to follow suit. The tents and wellies should have given a clue as I approached with my three companions, picnic supplies in hand.

And sure enough, as the huge red curtain on screen rose, the heavens opened for a light sprinkle which abated after about 15 minutes, about the time Mario Cavara- dossi (Salvatore Licitra) was opining the joys of his jealous lover, opera singer Floria Tosca (Violeta Urmana) and some time before villainous Baron Scarpia (Mark Delavan) made his suitably Vaderesque entrance.

Given the unpromising surroundings the performance was enjoyable and gripping enough for one to shake off the fear of imminent hypothermia. Plus, there were the added attractions of Hackney at its finest. Children milling about, yuppies on mobile phones and the amusing array of waterproofing: umbrellas, tarpaulin, the odd tent and the plethora of rain ponchos supplied by the corporate sponsor.

Up on screen Scarpia was explaining his life's philosophy of violent conquest, eschewing the "astrology of flowers" (was that a correct translation?), while in murky Victoria Park we were all looking forward to cracking open the hampers for the interval food and drinks. Presenter Deborah Bull and her guests discussed the opera's enduring appeal and concurred that love, betrayal and jealousy were as potent as ever. Certainly, the frolicking children were stopped in their tracks at the more dramatic moments while the adults took sips of wine and pondered how Cavaradossi's gaoler was allowed to smoke on-stage. Is Westminster Council aware of this flagrant violation of the law?

Despite a similarity to Dawn French which gave an inappropriate expectation of comedy breaking out on stage, Urmana was a commanding Tosca, if a bit hindered by the ridiculously long train of her dress. Licitra was a bit lacking in the charisma stakes. But Delavan excelled in this area, verbally jousting with Tosca and turning from torturer to seducer in the flash of an eye.

As the curtain fell at 10:30 and we stretched our frozen limbs, opera in the park seemed once again like a jolly good idea. See you next year down the front.

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