Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Genre Indie Rock
Producers James Murphy, Markus Dravs, Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire emerged in the middle of the last decade, around the same time that bands like The Killers, Metric, and other ilk of the stadium-sized indie rock persuasion started to take the genre mainstream.
Of this new wave, Arcade Fire would have been considered one of the least likely for commercial success. Their debut album, Funeral, received high critical acclaim but only modest sales. After all their form broke more artistic ground than their more mainstream competition; albums structured into something more akin to classical movements, songs named with numbers as variants on the same theme, that usually exceeded the 3-4 minute pop song standard. Their equally acclaimed follow up Neon Bible continued in the same fashion. There was clearly something of ambition about the band, releasing singles that were more daring than their contemporaries, often featuring elaborate multi-instrumental compositions and dense thematics. The band was famously championed by music legend David Bowie, and It's easy to see why with such similar artistic sensibilities and musical complexities.
The turning point in terms of wider awareness was album number 3: The Suburbs. This was the album that propelled Arcade Fire from underdogs to one of the world's biggest bands, sweeping end of year awards, including that of The Ephemeric. A tremendously poignant album in its own right, but what really impressed critics most was the band's stylistic progress. Many flavours of the month have made the mistake of following up a successful first album simply by copying its style in the hopes that lightning will strike twice. What separates them from the artists with true longevity is evolution, not being afraid to change or innovate their sound. The truly great names in music, like Bowie, McCartney, Radiohead, have all shown that they can do this without losing the quality that made them so successful. With The Suburbs Arcade Fire showed that they can do this as well.
If The Suburbs was the album that brought the band mainstream success, then Reflektor attempts the delicate balancing act of venturing into more experimental territory without alienating their new larger fanbase. To accomplish this, frontman Win Butler has drafted the unlikely collaborator of James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame as producer. While it is too early to judge whether they can successfully straddle these two worlds, what is quite clear is that Arcade Fire are not just back to their creatively adventurous best, but dead set on creating a piece of work unlike anything you've heard before. What follows is a full account of The Ephemeric's interpretation and reaction to the album, and it's a long read so buckle up.
Reflektor is more than just ambitious; it takes inspiration from Greek mythology (Orpheus and Eurydice), 19th century philosophy (Kirkegaard) and more musical influences than I could possibly list here, positing big existential questions of love, death and idolatry from antiquity through to multimedia gods of the modern era. With a piece of work so layered it's impressive then that Arcade Fire manage to not make this a sprawling self-indulgent mess. Rather the above themes are linked through the common aspect of human relationships: the relationship between lovers, the relationship between artist and audience, the relationship between authority and society, and the superficial relationships of the social media age.
Arcade Fire, like few bands of the current generation, still believe in producing an album as a full length statement, rather than a pick-n-mix of potential hit singles. The album is divided into two Volumes, the first wild and full of life, the second more introspective and ambiguous. This dichotomy takes inspiration from Kirkegaard's idea of the "reflective age" (hence the name of this album) which posits that society alternates between two distinct eras, one of passion and revolution, the other of reflection and understanding.
Certainly the thematic centrepiece of the first Volume and the album as a whole is the stunning opening track and lead single Reflektor, a 7 minute anthem of the digital age covered with Murphy's unique musical fingerprints. A refreshingly dark, brassy disco groove that builds slowly to an explosive coda, Butler talks of obsession and dependency particularly dissecting the relationship between artist and audience.
"Reflektor" as a term is applied in various contexts throughout the album, and while many are foreshadowed in this song's lyrics, here it primarily describes the role of an artist as a quasi-religious idol whose songs are merely a reflection of the listeners themselves. There are strong allusions as well to social media as putting up further barriers between people, and the venomous affect it has on detaching us still further from the reality into our own narcissistic little bubbles. The slow-building composition finally comes to a head after a good 5 minutes, its seething paranoia and desperation eventually climaxing in a magnificent cacophony of piano and strings as Butler's vocals (backed by none other than David Bowie who reportedly loved the song so much he demanded to be included) slowly fade into insignificance against the greater noise.
This serves as a thematic introduction to the album's high concept before bringing us back down to the more grounded details of Volume I. Each track casts a scathing spotlight upon failed authority and questions the hypocrisy of societal expectations. These songs are bold and direct, songs of revolution and upheaval, songs of change and idealism. This is the passionate age.
Questions are asked of each of us, beginning with We Exist's 1980s-tinged critique of society's hypocrisy before the interesting, yet fairly forgettable Flashbulb Eyes and its clear comments on the invasive and public nature that life has taken with social media. Things spice up again with Here Comes the Night Time, opening with a frenetic carnival-infused riff before lulling into a deceptively calm reggae jam. The next 7 minutes brings Arcade Fire's call for revolution to crisis-strewn Haiti and levels a scathing attack upon the failure of responsible authority in general. A venomous bass-line evokes foreboding storm clouds through the otherwise calm melody before climaxing in what can only be described as a carnival crossed with a monsoon. The album detours from its more eclectic musical stylings with the much more poppy, Suburbs-eque tracks Normal Person, and You Already Know, focusing back on society and dead-end romantic relationships respectively.
Volume I then reaches its conclusion with Joan of Arc in suitably robust fashion, opening with a punk rock flourish that quickly gives way to an infectiously catchy rock song that harkens back to the questions of art raised in the album's opening track and appropriately evokes the imagery of Joan of Arc, one of the most famous anti-establishment icons in all of history. Joan of Arc is certainly one of the more "fun" songs on the album, with a bouncy beat, playful "doo-wop" vocals in the chorus and one of the best bass-lines ever written, yet as the final track to the album's opening movement it's lyrically dark enough to foreshadow the coming change in tone.
So at the end of Volume I there is certainly plenty to digest, and plenty to be impressed by. That said, at this point we'd been given the impression of an album that's certainly very good, but not yet great. The second volume is where the album really hits its mark.
And so begins the reflective age on a very different note in Here Comes the Night Time II. A low-key reprise of the earlier song, its lonely, sedate tone serves as an ironic reflection of the earlier's upbeat carnival sounds and introduces us to the more introspective side of Reflektor. Where Volume I told of revolution and the here-and-now, Volume II takes a more thoughtful view, analysing the tropes of love, loss and the end of life.
The next two songs Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus) are best considered as a two-parter, ostensibly in reference to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The first a song of unrequited love from the point of view of the Eurydice-obsessed Aristaeus, the second a duet chronicling the failed escape from Hades of Orpheus and Eurydice. But as with most of this album these songs are more than mere narrative apocrypha, the core themes applied broadly to modern society. The first as a song of unrequited love is instantly relatable, while It's Never Over's message bears a more general statement. Arguably It's Never Over encompasses the full tilt in mood from Volume I to Volume II, extolling the virtue of patience and perspective, thinking long term about life as a whole as opposed to the instant gratification of Volume I's day-to-day passions. It helps that these songs both sound fantastic, the former starting off as a dark lullaby that slowly transforms into a Beatles-esque crowd-rouser, and the latter dawning with sparkling synth overtures before breaking down into a bizarre hybrid between dirty electro-funk and soft acoustic yearning.
This all comes to a head in the album's climax, Afterlife. Much like Sprawl II in The Suburbs, No Cars Go in Neon Bible or Rebellion in Funeral, Afterlife is the focal point of the album. All the album's themes, angst, and other emotions lead up to this song's cathartic release. Explicitly this song can be said to allude to both death and the end of relationships, but Afterlife is more broadly a song about letting go and moving on. Moving on from the end of a relationship, moving on from loss, moving on from any of the hardships of the world. It's exactly the song the album needed at this point, and it hits the note perfectly. Sure the song is followed by the more mellow Supersymmetry, and preceded by Porno, a song which doesn't really fit in anywhere, but this is essentially the conclusion of Reflektor.
And thus brings to a close Arcade Fire's artistic vision, a dichotomy between the passionate day-to-day focus of modern life and a reflective overview of life, death and the beyond. One can take away what they please from the album's messaging, but there's no doubt about the vast ambition on show, both from a narrative and musical perspective. This is an album that sounds unlike anything you've ever heard before and successfully provokes questions and self reflection in the listener. As an artistic feat it is a work of huge accomplishment and sublime mastery of the form. Certainly the best album of this year, and arguably one of the best of many years.
Must Listen (Note - we strongly recommend against listening to songs out of context with this album, but if you insist) :
Here Comes the Night Time II
Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)
It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)
Monday, 21 October 2013
Developed by Rockstar North
Published by Rockstar Games
Platform Xbox 360, PS3
It's no secret that The Ephemeric and Grand Theft Auto V did not get off to the best of starts. But now that the dust has settled it's time to finally get down to business. Grand Theft Auto V is easily the most highly publicised videogame release of the year and arguably for many years, it demands a full review. The gloves are off, the gaming goggles are on. Let's do this.
First it's necessary to detail the events which led to our 0-star mini-review a few short weeks ago. Upon receipt of the game, a process which already took longer than expected thanks to Amazon's penchant for unnecessary red-tape, the disk could not be read by the Xbox 360. Upon further investigation it transpired that the disk drive of the Xbox itself was busted (that would be broken Xbox 360 number three for The Ephemeric) and so a replacement was hastily acquired. Then, just as we were about to retract our previous criticism and issue an apology: the game disk still could not be read. Yes, it seems that The Ephemeric was just lucky enough to be in possession of a busted games console as well as a busted game disk. It is however worth noting that although much has been made of the Xbox 360's difficulties in running GTA V off the internal hard disk, we did not notice any such issues, and so will not be taken into account by this review. Following yet another short delay and the delivery of a new game disk, we were finally ready to rock.
We need to step back and remind ourselves of the evolution of the Grand Theft Auto series. Grand Theft Auto had always conducted itself with an air of satirical absurdity, reaching its peak with GTA: San Andreas some nine years ago, a game which featured the most ridiculous action set pieces in the franchise's history, complete with airborne battles, riding bikes out of jumbo jets, and even jetpacks stolen from Area 51's secret alien project. The game's business and property investing aspect also meant that by the end you could pretty much run the entire game-world.
But then with GTA IV Rockstar Games decided to head in a more serious direction. Gone were the absurd action set pieces, along with the ability to become the big shot in town. The story was much grittier and complex, certainly the most substantive and mature fiction in the series. Players ended GTA IV, almost nihilistically, alone and isolated, with a tiny apartment and only the disturbing yet thought provoking ending to ponder. Even the physics was dialled down to be less cartoony and more realistic. It was a drastic change for a game series which previous allowed you to parachute shirtless out of a harrier jet and take down a group of Chinese gangsters with kung fu.
But the more narrative-focused approach also saw the loss of much of the open-world toys that fans had gotten used to. No more purchasable properties or business, no car customisation, limited ability to affect character appearance (and certainly no weight or muscle gain as with San Andreas), a much more straight-jacketed affair that polarised the fans to an extent.
With Grand Theft Auto V Rockstar have struck a middle ground between the two styles. The realistic aesthetic and more fleshed out characters remain, but players are once again given the freedom to customise cars, own businesses, and complete missions with as much gratuitous extravagance as you wish. GTA V even includes a number of crazy supernatural elements that I won't spoil here, but google "the Chiliad Mystery" if you're interested. Cleverly most missions offer players two distinct paths to completion, one subtle and realistic, the other ridiculous and awesome.
It's this kind of philosophy that pervades Grand Theft Auto V, it tries to be all things to all people. In fact it's this philosophy that's behind the game's biggest new innovation, multiple protagonists. For the first time in the 3D era, Grand Theft Auto allows you to play as multiple characters, and for the first time in the entire series, each playable character has a unique personality, style and story. For those of you who played GTA IV and its add-ons, which introduced new characters to the same world, imagine if all those add-ons had been integrated into the main game and you have some idea of what they were going for.
But that's only scratching the surface of this mechanic. Each character is designed to represent the common styles of play for a Grand Theft Auto game. Franklin, the young former gang member serves as the more relatable everyman, starting small and working his way to the top through missions, his focus being on cars and driving skills very much in the vein of San Andreas' protagonist CJ.
Michael on the other hand is a married ex-criminal turned FBI informant who has been given a fake name and all the money he needs to live in Los Santos with his estranged family. He focuses more on the "being a big shot" property owning, wealth amassing style, using exploits in the system to get ahead akin to Tommy Vercetti of Vice City (or glitching multiplayer enthusiasts perhaps). He is also the embodiment of some of the new gameplay features that we will come on to later.
Trevor completes the trifecta, a former associate of Michael who believes him to be dead. This batshit insane wildman is the character for players who like to rampage across the game-world causing as much indiscriminate carnage as possible. Let's face it, most GTA players have done that at some point. There's a character for every style of play.
The writing and depth of character is clearly a step up from the older games, but at the same time clearly a step below the more mature work of GTA IV. It's on a par with a piece of good old fashioned crime fiction along the lines of Tony Soprano or Butch Cassidy, definitely more Analyse This than The Godfather. But the characters are not really the star of the show here, it's all about the world of San Andreas.
In this regard Rockstar have outdone themselves once again. GTA V's world includes the Los Angeles inspired city of Los Santos, as well as the surrounding countryside of Blaine County, which features lakes, mountains, forests and even the bottom of the ocean.
Rockstar and the various games journalists have been quick to make much of how this is the biggest GTA world yet, but this is a very misleading thing to say. The city of Los Santos itself is considerably bigger than any city in GTA: San Andreas, and only marginally smaller than GTA IV's Liberty City, but even with the surrounding countryside there's just no way the total explorable area exceeds the combined three cities and countryside of GTA: San Andreas, especially when you consider that most of GTA V's world is taken up by the three giant mountains. It's a game-world that actually feels slightly small by comparison, and wouldn't take long to traverse if not for the crazy winding roads in the countryside. Where this game-world perhaps gets its edge is with the addition of under the sea exploration. A large amount of the ocean surrounding San Andreas is explorable.
However even if this game-world does fail to exceed previous games in terms of total land area, it more than makes up for it in density. GTA V's San Andreas is packed so chock full of activity and unique locations that it's hard to find any wasted space. The world itself is so fully detailed and fleshed out that it creates arguably the most convincing world ever conceived in a videogame.
In addition to all the various missions in the game, GTA V takes a page from Rockstar's previous epic Red Dead Redemption by introducing procedural "ambient" events, ensuring that the world truly feels alive. San Andreas is also chock full of activities like tennis or golf, going to the cinema, racing, parachuting, and many more.
But that's not all. That's not even mentioning the deep sea diving underwater exploration, which is full of sunken ships to harvest for loot, nuclear waste to remove for cash.
But that's not all. In addition both the land and sea are full of wildlife for the first time in GTA history, and hunting is indeed a performable activity.
But that's STILL not all. GTA V also implements a fully functional stock market which allows the player to invest and make money, and more importantly can be manipulated through the player's actions in the game-world in order to make vasts sums of cash. That's in addition to all the businesses one can own.
Finally players can also now buy boats and aircraft for the first time, in addition to land vehicles, all of which can be heavily customised.
Suffice it to say there's enough in this game-world to keep you busy for a long time, even after the main missions are completed. As always the world is also stuffed with collectibles and secrets. In fact there's even more than usual, and most collectibles have missions tied into them each with special rewards. The amount there is to do in this game is simply staggering, and I'm sure I haven't even mentioned everything.
The gameplay itself is standard GTA stuff, satisfying driving with reasonably adept combat. If there is one criticism to make it's that the combat is starting to feel a bit old fashioned on this 6 year old engine, and the cover system is a bit hit and miss, but then the combat itself was never a big focal point of the series.
Welcomely GTA V sees the return of GTA: San Andreas' RPG style player skills, albeit in a much more simplified form. Whereas GTA: San Andreas featured dozens of player-skills that improved as you played the game, GTA V has five or six. It's a nice system to have brought back nonetheless, but loses something without its former complexity. More intriguing is the addition of special unique "powers" for each character that cater to that particular character's skill; for example slow-mo driving for Franklin, and an adrenalin fuelled rampage for Trevor.
However the big new gameplay addition is the "heist" mission mechanic. Certain missions allow you to plan out big heists, including choosing strategy, selecting the best crew for the job, and engaging in various preparatory work to collect the required equipment and resources. It's a very rewarding and enjoyable addition to the series.
It's honestly difficult to find flaws in the game aside from a few niggling gameplay imperfections. It's a shame that San Fierro and Las Venturas were cut out from San Andreas, particularly Las Venturas, whose gambling and casinos are sorely missing in this game. In particular with the new heist mechanic the lack of classic casino heists seems like a massive missed opportunity. Still it seems a stretch to criticise a game for what it isn't rather than focusing on what it is.
The truth is that Grand Theft Auto V is worthy of all the praise it has received. It's a true landmark, beguilingly massive, polished to an absurdly high degree, and just a joy to play for all fifty hours or so it will take to finish. It takes a lot for a game to get past initial technical woes to earn such a high score from us, but that's indicative of just how great this game is.
As a side note, we haven't even mentioned the multiplayer mode in this review, as it is so massive and ambitious as to be considered a separate game. That review will be coming up soon.
Wednesday, 16 October 2013
Genre Psychedelic Rock
Producers Dave Fridmann, MGMT
The story of MGMT is one that has been told over and over. Their debut album Oracular Spectacular was far bigger than anyone could have dreamed, spawning classic singles Kids and Time to Pretend that are still heavily played six years later. The irony was that MGMT never set out for that kind of mainstream success.
The ensuing identity crisis resulted in a followup album Congratulations which was, to put mildly, met with mixed reception. Anyone who approached the album expecting more radio-friendly Electric Feel style songs was instead met with what one might describe as "artistically adventurous" music, and what others might describe as self-indulgent or worse, pretentious. The most radio-friendly song on this album was a drug-infused 1960s trance, and the least was a tie between the 12 minute epic with 7 different movements, or a song which was just a woman shrieking.
At the time it was reported that MGMT, disappointed by the reaction to their second album, were working on returning to more radio-friendly fare for their third album. Well I'm here to tell you that that is emphatically not the case. With MGMT's eponymous third album the band has doubled down on "weird".
Let's say it right off the bat, there are no instant-love songs on this album. Anything worth listening to takes several attempts before you start to see the cleverness in the music. That said, there is plenty of cleverness here to be found.
Let's start with the album's best song by far Alien Days, a dreamy trance of 1960s psychedelia. This is an example of MGMT weirdness done right; what first appears to be nothing more a bizarre mish mash of discordant combinations and unexpected divergences upon repeated listens reveals itself to be anything but. Neuroscientists will tell you that enjoyment of music typically comes from pattern recognition, but Alien Days' intricate composition is one of those rare songs that constantly surprises you, and yet still manages to work.
Still, MGMT somehow manage to go further in the album's second track Cool Song No. 2, a rumbling tribal dirge that on first listen sounded almost painful to listen to, but on (many) repeated listens begins to strangely grow on you, a guilty pleasure of a song.
Still these half positive reviews of songs are about the best things on the album. The vast majority are either complete atonal perversions of music (Your Life is a Lie might just be the most annoying song I've ever heard), or overproduced into oblivion. For the latter see Introspection, a perfectly lovely cover of an obscure song from the 1960s which is almost ruined by the excessive and unnecessary filters and special effects. The chorus itself is almost inaudible thanks to the ridiculous post-processing.
Unfortunately it is hard to recommend this album to anyone. Beyond one or two worthwhile songs the rest seems a shadow of what this band is capable. Weird for the sake of weird doesn't make an album clever or fresh.
Cool Song No. 2
Tuesday, 15 October 2013
Genre Indie Rock
Producers James Ford, Ross Orton
While the Arctic Monkeys were quick to achieve mainstream success following their record setting 2006 debut, it's a stretch to say that they've advanced much beyond those early heights.
The band have stuck closely, too close in fact, to the smoky, indie post-punk sound that earned them such critical and commercial success, with the result that while many of those early singles have become ingrained in the pop culture landscape, it's hard to point to anything from recent albums that will live as long in the memory. It's all the more surprising considering the song-writing depth and often the brilliance that frontman Alex Turner has shown himself to possess over the years, particularly with his solo work and side projects like the Last Shadow Puppets.
But with their superb fifth studio album AM, Arctic Monkeys have inarguably reached a new level in the music world. AM takes full advantage of Turner's range, and influences from all over the music landscape. The band moves away from its sophomoric origins and in a much more serious direction, indulging the audience in everything from classically inspired heavy rock and roll to silky late-night lounge anthems.
An album highlight Fireside shows how the band have matured. A rich, 1960s infused melody very reminiscent of Turner's Last Shadow Puppets project dances around more accomplished songwriting. Elsewhere No 1 Party Anthem showcases Turner at his contemplative best, with heartbreaking lyrics that are about as far removed from early Arctic Monkeys work as Michael Buble. Tracks like these show a new softer side of the Arctic Monkeys but still ring with Turner's unmistakably subversive venom to let you know that it's an Arctic Monkeys song.
That's not to say that there aren't a few proper rock songs. Arabella is classic Arctic Monkeys that the fans know and love, but even the most devoted of longterm fans will appreciate the broadening of horizons with Arctic Monkeys' best album yet, and an album that cements their position as one of the premier rock bands of the moment.
No 1 Party Anthem
Friday, 27 September 2013
Directed by Felix Barrett, Maxine Doyle
Written by N/A
Theatre Punchdrunk for the National Theatre
The newest production from the Punchdrunk theatre company is the talk of London at the moment. Either you want to go, or you've already been, or both. The company's uniquely immersive style of theatre production has long earned a cult-like following from devotees, and word-of-mouth is fast spreading to the uninitiated.
From the entrance of Temple Studios one immediately feels transported someplace else. All participants are handed masks and funnelled down a dark passage while ambient sounds play in the background. An uneasily grinning hostess greets you with a vague warning. The town is smoky and dilapidated. Walking into the world of The Drowned Man feels like a disturbing dream crossed with a drug trip. Over the course of the evening The Ephemeric went on to witness a murder in a sandy wilderness, an adulterous tryst in a smoky bar, a high school musical audition, and a funeral attended only by an audience stuffed with straw.
The idea behind a Punchdrunk production is that the story should be an interactive experience, rather than simply a passive observation of events. To this end the company has rented out a massive former sorting office, consisting of five floors, a good 40,000 square feet, and crafted a fully realised and immaculately detailed world in which the audience can immerse themselves. For example one floor has been converted into a dusty American village, with every building, every shop fully able to be explored, overflowing with detailed props, diaries, notebooks, photographs for the audience to explore and glean detail of the world around them. One floor, my particular highlight, has a fully functioning speakeasy-style bar complete with performers and a live band. In this world the story unfolds piece by piece, actors mingling with the audience and performing their roles at the appropriate time and place.
The concept alone, a story being told through personal experience and exploration rather than funnelled into the audience's attention, is worthy of credit. It's one thing to create a myopic picture of a fictional world on stage, where every member of the audience sees exactly the same thing and exactly what the director wants them to see. In that case the designers only have to worry about that tiny cross-section of the fiction. But to create the entire world around it, fully explorable and designed to accommodate every possible action of an unrestricted and therefore unpredictable audience is a simply staggering undertaking. The designers have to consider every detail not only of the action unfolding on stage, but of the entire world around them, whole towns and buildings full of it.
In that regard one might say this production has as much in common with an explorable medium like a videogame or a large-scale art installation than traditional theatre. Here every participant will have a unique experience, and no two people who see the Drowned Man, even on the same night, will have seen the same thing.
This has its drawbacks as well. Even after attending the show one will feel as though they have only experienced a small fraction of the story. One has to be in the right place at the right time to witness the action, and this inevitably creates tension between the desire to see everything and the desire to fully explore and lose oneself in the open environment. Worse still the sense of immersion is often broken by the large crowds of audience members loitering in a circle around the actors. The aim may be to fully integrate into the action, but at the end of the day most audience members are here to see a show, not become part of it. The trouble is that most of the environments, shops, offices, dressing rooms, are not places where it is natural for so many people to be, and so inevitably they will just end up standing in a large block. Arguably the only place where this immersion is not broken is in the bar, where audience members are free to grab a drink, find a table and much more naturally become a part of the scenery.
This also leads to the unusual dilemma: is the actual show any good? Or is it just the novelty and depth of content that makes The Drowned Man worthwhile? The story itself is fairly unremarkable, the acting unmemorable, and many of the individual performed set-pieces come close to pretentious, "interpretive" styles of acting, the surreal nature of which is both wholly unnecessary and highly immersion breaking.
The amazing thing is how little any of that bothers me. Ultimately this production is a primarily subjective experience. The immense enjoyment comes not so much from the content of the script as the subtext that we observe through our individual journeys. Trying to piece together the world in front of us, filling in the blanks with our own imagination, turns out to be a very rewarding form of narrative.
It is hard not to give The Drowned Man the highest of recommendations. It is both unique and bewildering, and attendees will go home feeling as though they have experienced something in a way that really no other theatre can match.
Thursday, 19 September 2013
Developed by Rockstar North
Published by Rockstar Games
Platform Xbox 360, PS3
Grand Theft Auto V earns a 0-star review on the basis that the Xbox 360 version of the game simply does not work. The disks are unreadable, exchanging them didn't help. A quick Google search reveals that this is a very common issue among Xbox 360 versions of the game, and until Rockstar release a patch the only fix is to exchange it and hope you get a slightly better copy.
There is no excuse for a company like Rockstar to release a shoddy product. Seriously I can understand a PC game not working where the developer has to try and accommodate a whole range of technical specifications, but one of the main selling points of consoles is that they are supposed to just work out of the box. The moral of the story is that if Rockstar are going to insist on shunning the PC at least make sure their god damn game works. I may consider re-reviewing at a later date but until then the game earns 0 stars.
Thursday, 12 September 2013
"The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson and the explosion of Scandinavian culture
Author Jonas Jonasson
Publisher Hesperus Press
England prides itself as a nation that is notoriously hard to invade. Since the era of William the Conqueror no one has managed it, despite England's history of extensive warfare. Yet there are foreign forces in our midst right now, surreptitiously inflitrating our culture and assimilating our populace. The Scandinavians are here.
In recent years Scandinavian culture has been everywhere. Even before Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy conquered the world, we had the uniquely non-anglicised musical stylings of Sigur Rós topping the charts. Now it seems a month doesn't go by without some tv crime drama from our neighbours to the north becoming the next big thing on the air (or re-made into a stylistically consistent western equivalent for that matter). What all these all share is a singularly "high art" aesthetic, largely bleak and gritty, that has become the signature look of Scandinavian crime literature and film making in recent years.
In many ways then the success of Jonasson's novel runs against the cultural currents of the time; The Hundred Year Old Man has more in common with the serendipitous stylings of western comedy than one might expect. In particular the story and the main character's unlikely path of events seem highly reminiscent of Forrest Gump, a resemblance that can't be coincidental.
This fast-paced and light-hearted tale ties together the sprightly centenarian Alan Karlsson's adventure with a character history that sees Karlsson present at a variety of defining 20th century events and even influencing them directly. But far from the genre's typical dark tinge, events transpire in a wholly affable manner. Jonasson strikes the fine balance between quirky surrealism and relatable reality. One finds that the urge to keep reading is driven not by desire to reach the ending but by the enjoyment of the experience itself.
But this is more than merely a pastiche of western comedy. There pervades a distinctly European colour to everything from the culture and mannerisms of characters to the sensibilities of the dialogue. It's at once a surprise to anyone who knows Scandinavian literature primarily through the likes of Larsson and Mankell, and yet unquestionably true to its roots.
What this novel represents is a broadening of what we can come to expect of the regional literature and a maturation of the "scandi-crime" genre. It's easy to recommend as both an enjoying read and an intellectual curiosity.
Saturday, 24 August 2013
The barren, football-less summers of odd-numbered years come all too frequently; but men of England rejoice, the new season is almost upon us! As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few solid predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.
Premier League 2013/14 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions League qualifiers: Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham
Relegated: Hull City, Sunderland, Crystal Palace
Golden Boot winner: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: Petr Cech (Chelsea)
Player to watch: Luis Suarez (Liverpool)
New signing to watch: Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Young player to watch: Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Paulo Di Canio (Sunderland)
Shock of the season: Arsene Wenger to leave Arsenal at the end of the season
Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Position last season: 4th
Manager: Arsene Wenger
The summer began with cautious optimism for the Gunners, spurred on by the transition and potential frailty of their rivals in Manchester and the now mandatory trumpet blowing regarding the club's impressive financial assets that never get used. Once again very little has materialised ahead of the season's curtain raiser, so the main issue remains squad depth, particularly with the Arsenal players' spotty fitness records exacerbating the situation. Of the probable starting lineup only Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and potentially Laurent Koscielny stand out as elite players; the fact that the rest of the team relies on frontmen like Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott perfectly sums up the issues the club currently faces.
In the old days Arsenal at least had their impressive array of young talent to fall back on, but such priorities have since become the norm at top tier clubs making it far harder for Arsenal to compete with more prestigious clubs. The potential youth stars of Jenkinson, Gnabry and Bellerin don't exactly compare to Ashley Cole, Nicolas Anelka and Cesc Fabregas.
Key Signing: Yaya Sanogo
Key Man: Laurent Koscielny
Verdict: Wenger has made a habit out of overachieving with the squad he has, but with the increasing challenge of Tottenham and Liverpool, 4th place may be just beyond their reach this season.
Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Last season: 15th
Manager: Paul Lambert
Aston Villa managed to avoid the drop last season and Paul Lambert will be looking to repeat the feat again. The club has the solid foundations to do just that, with Brad Guzan's imperious shot stopping earning plaudits last season along with Christian Benteke starring as one of the standout strikers in the entire league.
Add to this the fact that Lambert has brought in some decent young talent, chief among them Danish defender Jores Okore who so impressed in last season's Champions League, and survival should be a pretty reasonable expectation.
Key Signing: Jores Okore
Key Man: Christian Benteke
Verdict: A push into mid-table is likely, but any higher may be beyond Lambert's boys.
Nickname: The Bluebirds
Ground: Cardiff City Stadium
Capacity: 26, 828
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Malky Mackay
The tastiest prospect out of the league's newcomers, Cardiff have been all over the news in recent years for the investment of Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan, and the bizarre off the pitch disputes involving club branding and colours. Despite inevitable fan outcry the new changes do seem to have improved the team's fortunes on the pitch and Cardiff were duly promoted last season as champions.
However the Premier League is an entirely different prospect, and as QPR showed us money does not automatically guarantee success. Reinforcements are sorely needed, and at the time of writing the club has spent almost £30 million in bringing in new talent. Most notable among these new players is Danish youngster Andreas Cornelius who averaged more than a goal every other game in the Danish league last season.
Key Signing: Andreas Cornelius
Key Man: Bo-Kyung Kim
Verdict: Survival is not guaranteed, but heavy investment and solid talent pool afford Cardiff the highest prospect of any newly promoted club.
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last season: 3rd
Manager: José Mourinho
Another new season, another new manager, but this time the new manager is in fact the old manager José Mourinho. José's first spell at the club saw him promoted to "club legend" status with his contribution toward Chelsea becoming one of Europe's most successful clubs of the past decade, and his return to the hotseat with the additional experience and sated ambition of his successes in Italy and Spain has Chelsea fans elated.
José also has a solid squad to work with, and the opportunity to build a successful new dynasty around the core of young talent that fills the Chelsea ranks these days. A fairly quiet summer in the transfer market indicates that he intends to use the talent he already has. This is a squad bristling with attacking quality; the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard and Ramires, not to mention the young talents of Romelu Lukaku, Andre Schurrle and Kevin de Bruyne.
Key Signing: Andre Schurrle
Key Man: Juan Mata
Verdict: One of the clear favourites for the title along with Man City.
Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Last season: Promoted (Playoff)
Manager: Ian Holloway
Palace return to the top flight after eight years in exile, but staying there will be a challenge. Ian Holloway for all the jokes and charm does not exactly have a glowing Premier League record, and as it turns out that counts for a lot. His job is not made easier by the departure of key player Wilfried Zaha to Manchester United.
On the bright side, Palace have been busy strengthening this summer with no fewer than 9 signings, including ex-Arsenal poacher Marouane Chamakh, veteran striker Kevin Phillips, and bizarrely the Spain U20's captain José Campaña.
Key Signing: José Campaña
Key Man: Mile Jedinak
Verdict: Enjoy Holloway while you can, because Palace are unlikely to stay up.
Ground: Goodison Park
Last season: 6th
Manager: Roberto Martínez
Hard to believe that David Moyes has finally moved on from Everton, the question on everyone's mind will be what becomes now of one of the Premier League's most consistent clubs. Roberto Martínez has done much to be proud of at Wigan, notably keeping them alive all these years and winning an FA Cup in his final (albeit relegation bound) season, but at a club with a history like Everton's he will find a great deal more expectation.
A lot will rest on the retention of prize assets like Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines, both of whom are relentlessly linked with moves away from the club, although nothing has yet materialised. A few signings have already been made, including the bright spark of Gerard Deulofeu on loan from Barcelona's famed academy. More will be required if the old guard should leave. One thing is for sure that Roberto Martínez will be well suited to Everton's spendthrift transfer policies.
Key Signing: Gerard Deulofeu
Key Man: Leighton Baines
Verdict: A real transition year that could see the club drop down the table somewhat, a top half finish is probably the highest achievable result.
Ground: Craven Cottage
Last season: 12th
Manager: Martin Jol
Now under new ownership, fans will be watching with interest for any major shifts in policy, not least of all what becomes of Al Fayed's infamous Michael Jackson statue. In footballing terms though for the moment it appears to be business as usual.
Martin Jol begins his third season with the club and so far looks set to continue his preference for more experienced players in the transfer market. Notable signings so far include Darren Bent, Derek Boateng and highly rated goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Elsewhere Fulham have completed a loan move for Adel Taarabt, a player of which much has been promised in the past, and so far very little has been seen.
Key Signing: Maarten Stekelenburg
Key Man: Dimitar Berbatov
Verdict: Little change of note this season could result in lost ground on other mid-table rivals, but unlikely to face the threat of relegation.
HULL CITY TIGERS
Nickname: The Tigers
Ground: KC Stadium
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Steve Bruce
An unexpected addition to the Premier League, yet Hull will surprise many with a vibrant, if inconsistent system of play that saw many wins and losses last season, but few draws. In Steve Bruce they have a wily and experienced manager who has been in this same position many times, and often come out with a positive result.
Despite this there's no getting around the fact that Hull have arguably the most paper thin squad in the league, and have inexplicably not strengthened a great deal over the summer. In particular Hull don't have anything even vaguely approaching a goal threat and will struggle to get points off of Premiership level opposition.
Key Signing: Ahmed Elmohamady
Key Man: Robbie Brady
Verdict: No goalscorers and a defence that lacks depth means Hull are a likely relegation candidate.
Last season: 7th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool's slow but steady improvement continues under Brendan Rodgers as they edge their way back towards the big boys. Rodgers has adapted the trademark possession football he engendered at Swansea albeit now with the quality and budget of a big club like Liverpool. For all his much vilified negative qualities, Luis Suarez is one of the best players in the league, and now he is partnered by Daniel Sturridge, who also ranks undoubtedly among the league's best goalscorers. The emergence of Brazilian magician Coutinho rounds out one of the most fearsome attacking lineups in England.
What will once again be Liverpool's undoing is the leaky defence in the absence of Jamie Carragher, and the worrying dearth of quality on the squad's fringes. Add to this the doubt over whether star man Suarez will remain a Liverpool player and there is plenty for Liverpool to be concerned over as the curtain raises on the new season.
Key Signing: Simon Mignolet
Key Man: Luis Suárez
Verdict: Still a few key signings away from a top four contender, top 6 is a good possibility.
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
While it may seem very harsh to sack Roberto Mancini after winning the league and FA Cup in his first two full seasons, it goes to show how disappointing Man City were in the way they slumped out of the title race so early. This year will see them revitalised with the guidance of a highly underrated new manager and with their illustrious neighbours in a seemingly vulnerable state. Optimism is high.
No fewer than four big money signings strengthen the squad, including Jesús Navas, Fernandinho, Álvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic. Man City remain the only club other than Barcelona who will spend £25 million on a bench player. Fernandinho in particular will be one to watch, his scintillating performances for Shakhtar earned his side a place in the knockout stages of last season's Champions League. These new signings strengthen an already intimidating side, but the key man will undoubtedly be Sergio Agüero; if he can shake off last year's second season blues he stands a good shout at winning the Golden Boot.
Key Signing: Fernandinho
Key Man: Sergio Agüero
Verdict: A good shout for the title, pretty much tied with Chelsea in the odds as the season commences.
Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Last season: Champions
Sir Alex Ferguson David Moyes
The football world is still in shock over the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson after a legendary 40 year career and a decade of will-he-won't-he rumours. Without doubt one of the men with the toughest jobs in football right now is David Moyes who undertakes the impossible task of replacing him, a job that has been made even harder by a very weak pre-season.
United fans are now divided into two groups, those who think this season is going to be an absolute write-off and Moyes will be sacked, and those who think he will do just fine. One way or another, as long as last season's golden boot and player of the year winner Robin Van Persie remains fit and up front, United can never be counted out.
Key Signing: Guillermo Varela
Key Man: Robin Van Persie
Verdict: Faces a tough challenge to retain the title, Moyes' lack of elite experience could prove too much to overcome.
Ground: St. James' Park
Last season: 16th
Manager: Alan Pardew
Only Newcastle could rebound so quickly from the lowest depths in the club's history, and then dive right back down even more quickly. After coming within a whisker of Champions League football two years ago, last season they came just as close to relegation. After finally mending the behind the scenes schism and tossing out the drama, owner Mike Ashley has once again undermined his manager by appointing Joe Kinnear as Director of Football. All of a sudden it's looking very bleak for Newcastle once more.
Yet despite the similarities to the Newcastle side that was relegated 5 years ago, this one contains a far more talented array of players. Yohan Cabaye, Fabricio Coloccini and Hatem Ben Arfa would be welcome at many of the league's top clubs, while Papiss Cissé has great potential if he can recapture his early form.
Key Signing: Olivier Kemen
Key Man: Yohan Cabaye
Verdict: Worrying signs for the Toon, but surely have enough talent to stay up.
Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Last season: 11th
Manager: Chris Hughton
Chris Hughton has done well to steady the ship at Norwich, as he did at Newcastle before, and the club managed not only to avoid relegation last season but even finished in a respectable mid-table position. Much of the team's success can be attributed to their proficiency at set pieces, both on the attack and back in defence. Elsewhere John Ruddy has been a hero in goal, earning himself a regular place in the England squad.
Goals have been hard to come by, but Norwich have strengthened well over the summer with the hotly tipped Ricky van Wolfswinkel up front and one of last season's Championship leading lights Nathan Redmond.
Key Signing: Ricky van Wolfswinkel
Key Man: John Ruddy
Verdict: Have enough about them to survive the drop again, but unlikely to threaten the upper mid-table, likely to be involved in any relegation battles.
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Last season: 14th
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino
Southampton managed to survive last season, and in doing so earned a reputation for collecting big-name scalps despite their generally inconsistent form. A big part of their success has been the goalscoring feats of recent England debutant Rickie Lambert and Saints player of the year Morgan Schneiderlin, but serious questions must be asked of their defence.
Signs are good for the future with a decent amount of summer spending on promising players, an up and coming manager, and the youth system that produced Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott. However that leaky defence so far looks not to have been addressed, and as history shows "second season syndrome" tends to strike those who fail to tighten up the team's core.
Key Signing: Victor Wanyama
Key Man: Rickie Lambert
Verdict: If Southampton can meet the potential they showed last season then they will stay safe in the Premier League.
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Last season: 13th
Manager: Mark Hughes
Another member of the new manager club, and with the departure of Tony Pulis an era is ending. Pulis is the man who took Stoke to the Premier League and turned them into Premier League regulars on a shoestring budget. His replacement Mark Hughes comes off the back of a number of failed appointments and with great skepticism from the fans. Winning them over will be job number one for the new man.
As for the squad many of the old boys have departed this summer, leaving a thin squad that needs a good deal of investment. So far things have gotten off to a good start with the signings of Erik Pieters from PSV and Marc Muniesa from within the Barcelona youth camp. Despite this the squad remains threadbare, and key positions rest with unproven players like Jack Butland and Michael Kightly.
Key Signing: Erik Pieters
Key Man: Steven N'Zonzi
Verdict: A difficult season lies ahead for Stoke, with a real chance of relegation
Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Last season: 17th
Manager: Paolo Di Canio
A bizarre decision to sack Martin O'Neill was followed up by an even more bizarre decision to hire the volatire Paolo Di Canio, who's only previous managerial position ended in spectacular fashion and involved accusations of theft and breaking and entering. The story of Paolo Di Canio is weird enough, without even mentioning past assaults and fascist salutes, one can only wonder what a first full season of management in the Premier League will bring.
But this is only one of the problems the club will face in the coming months. The squad lacks both depth and quality, the star man Steven Fletcher is perennially crocked, and with a large outlay on players this summer the marquee signing is Jozy Altidore, a striker notable mostly for being American and therefore very marketable to 315 million people. It is also worth noting that the transfer strategy currently is being directed by a man who did the same job for Inter Milan during an era where they were known for spending hundreds of millions of pounds and winning nothing.
Key Signing: Modibo Diakité
Key Man: Steven Fletcher
Verdict: The Di Canio experiment could blow up sooner rather than later. Relegation candidates.
Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last season: 9th
Manager: Michael Laudrup
Swansea keep going from strength to strength, impressing greatly in their first ever season in the top flight, and then improving upon that last season with their first ever trophy. Even more impressive is the entertaining brand of football for which they are becoming known. Remarkably for such a short amount of time Swansea have reached the point where mid table is no longer the high aspiration of the club, and a push for Europe is the expectation.
This time last season I was tipping Michu to be one of the signings of the season and he duly delivered. However despite his excellent goalscoring form it was still all too obviously a midfielder being played out of position, borne out of necessity. This summer Swansea have rectified their lack of an out and out striker with the signing of Wilfried Bony.
Key Signing: Wilfried Bony
Key Man: Michu
Verdict: Swansea have strong foundations and a good potential for improvement further up the table.
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last season: 5th
Manager: André Villas-Boas
It's beginning to feel like it's never going to happen for Spurs. So many seasons ending up so close to the Champions League, and never quite making the cut. All this despite the fact that they are consistently among the top spenders in the league and in Gareth Bale boast a player who is currently considered one of the hottest in world football.
This season has seen an even greater outlay in the summer, with Tottenham breaking their transfer record twice so far, on Paulinho and Soldado and being linked with yet another record move for Willian. It's arguable that their squad now is at least as good if not better than Arsenal's, meaning a push for the top 4 might finally be in play. Much will depend on the future of star man Gareth Bale and whether he does in fact finalise a move to Real Madrid.
Key Signing: Paulinho
Key Man: Gareth Bale
Verdict: Probably Tottenham's best shot yet at a top four finish.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Latest club news
Ground: The Hawthorns
Last season: 8th
Manager: Steve Clarke
Last season marked a very impressive managerial debut for Steve Clarke. West Brom not only clinched an unlikely top half finish, but spent much of the season floating around the top 6 with the league's elite teams.
However this season poses a much bigger challenge. For starters Romelu Lukaku, who led the club's scoring and ranked among the top scorers in the entire league, has returned to Chelsea following his loan spell. Without his goals West Brom would have finished much lower down the table and replacing him will be a big ask. More dangerous is the sense that the club may already be playing beyond their means. The club's owner has intimated the opinion that with the current level of financial and fan support, West Brom is more akin to a Championship mid-table team than a Premier League one.
Key Signing: Nicolas Anelka
Key Man: Youssuf Mulumbu
Verdict: Unlikely to impress as they did last season, but the general lack of ambition from their mid-table rivals should permit a safe finish in the top 12.
WEST HAM UNITED
Latest club news
Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Last season: 10th
Manager: Sam Allardyce
If anyone knows how to take a team and punch above their weight it's Sam Allardyce, who has been doing precisely that for many years. His latest job has seen him take West Ham to promotion and help them achieve an impressive 10th place position on just their first season back in the Premier League.
Now the club sees themselves in a very promising position, building on these successful foundations, as well as enjoying the benefits of the Premier League's new TV deal and their status as heirs to the Olympic Stadium. A few years of stability could see some great steps forward for West Ham. The improved financial position of the club has permitted investment in new talent, including Andy Carroll, who if fit could be absolutely massive for the club, and Stewart Downing. They join an already experienced squad that features Joe Cole, Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble and an array of surprisingly impressive players.
Key Signing: Andy Carroll
Key Man: Kevin Nolan
Verdict: Mid-table is a sure bet, and if their key players stay fit a push for Europa League is not out of the question.
2. Manchester City
3. Manchester United
8. West Ham
10. West Brom
11. Aston Villa
18. Crystal Palace
20. Hull City
Thursday, 1 August 2013
As bewildered Londoners trample over one another to escape the inexplicable and record breaking summer heat, some seek refuge in the dark, air conditioned theatres of London's West End. This is the story of one such adventurer:
"This House" Theatre Review
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Written by James Graham
Starring Phil Daniels, Julian Wadham
Theatre Royal National Theatre, Olivier
It was by bizarre coincidence that The Ephemeric happened to be attending the National Theatre's production of This House, a satirical view on the partisan politics of the 1970s and the dawn of Thatcherite Britain, on the day that Baroness Thatcher died. Undoubtedly this tragically uncanny timing brought extra poignancy, and many a hushed gasp from the audience when her name was first mentioned, but even the Iron Lady's shadow could not detract from the show's crowd-pleasing nature.
Focusing on the travails of the struggling Labor Party of the 1970s, This House lampoons the partisan political system in a way that is both immensely humorous and somewhat disturbing when one considers the schoolyard pettiness with which business is often conducted in Westminster. Labor currently hold an impossibly small majority, meaning that even one or two absent MPs will open up the possibility of the Tories passing a vote of no confidence and calling a new election. Rather than sell-out Labor keep shambling forward from one vote to the next, going to extreme lengths and underhanded tactics in order to survive. It's one of the more absurd situations in political history and a perfect set up for such a play.
While the last paragraph likely contains the kind of political nonsense that will put many readers to sleep, the panache with which the production is realised ensnares the attention of even the most apathetic. It all works thanks to the razor sharp script and strong production values which sees the House of Commons reinterpreted through the rock and roll eyeglass of the 1970s, complete with a live band and sportscast-like announcer. The tone is pitch perfect, with real substance beyond the jokes that has much to say about the current political climate and the nature of party politics in general.
This House is an absolute joy to watch, the best play of 2013 so far and we fully encourage all to try and catch it, or at least the NT Live broadcasts to cinemas.
"The Night Alive" Theatre Review
Directed by Conor McPherson
Written by Conor McPherson
Starring Ciarán Hinds
Theatre Donmar Warehouse
Lately the Donmar seems to be running something of an Irish season, with two plays in a row by Conor McPherson. This began with revival of McPherson's most critically acclaimed work, The Weir, and followed with the world premiere of new play The Night Alive.
We revisit a familiar theme of McPherson's work: the tragic hero living a life of masculine isolation, the singular transformative impact of a woman's presence, and that most distinctive style of understated tension.
The Night Alive raises the bar further with McPherson's most cutting look at man's fragility. Most striking about the production is the unnerving reality of our characters' situation; the ease with which a man can lose everything, career, family, stability, and yet still continue with a tenuous sense of purpose. The desperation is palpable thanks to Soutra Gilmour's supremely detailed set design, yet moments of real levity permeate the first hour to remind us this is no manipulative melodrama, but an expertly weaved tale of real people told by a man who walks that fine line better than most playwrights.
Which brings us to the point that needs to be made about why The Ephemeric chose to review this production rather than the classic The Weir. A quick look at reviews has left a strong distaste for the amateurish standard of theatre journalism in London today, and we wish to give this play the praise it deserves.
Many relatively well regarded names from the Guardian to the Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph have slammed the post-climactic phase of the play, decrying a sudden change in tone and a saccharine deus ex machina ending where everything inexplicably fixes itself. Needless to say this is not at all what happens and it's astonishing to see professional critics remain completely oblivious to a twist that casts the ending in an entirely different light.
Without revealing too much, the actual ending strikes a much darker and more bittersweet note, simultaneously beautiful and utterly thought provoking. The Night Alive is one of those plays that will keep your party talking for hours after it ends. It honestly stands as one of the better twist endings in recent theatre history, and measures favourably even to The Weir.
"In the Republic of Happiness" Theatre Review
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Written by Martin Crimp
Starring Not worth listing them
Theatre Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood
This one is going back a bit to the beginning of 2013, however we at the Ephemeric feel it is of vital importance to say what needs to be said here.
For a brief moment The Ephemeric would like to break "blogger's anonymity" and speak just about myself. I have never walked out of a movie or play in my life, and lord knows I have seen some pretty bad ones. I very almost walked out of this play. Many people did walk out of this play. I suspect that most of the people who did not walk out of the play were wishing they had sat closer to the exits so that they could have done.
In the Republic of Happiness manages something extremely impressive in that it so perfectly encapsulates everything that is wrong about theatre, everything that is wrong about theatre journalism (albeit a minority in this case) and everything that is wrong about the element of sycophantic theatre-goers who will "enjoy" a play because they feel they are supposed to do so, without really giving thought to what they are watching.
Let's begin by introducing you to the author. This is Martin Crimp. Here he is again. And again. Ordinarily one should never judge a book by its cover, however in this case it's hard not to. If I asked you to picture someone who looks pretentious, it would probably look like those photos. The pose, the hair, the black and white, the clothes; yes even the man himself looks like a parody, like he was assembled in a lab from parts of history's most pretentious looking people.
It turns out this is no coincidence because this is exactly how the play feels. Crimp's writing has the feel of a disgruntled GCSE English student who doesn't really understand the intellectual literature he is being forced to read, and instead churns out a derivative imitation of what he thinks sounds intellectual in the hopes of fooling his teacher into believing that there is some deeper meaning.
As a result this is a play full of empty dialogue which wrongly believes that just by sounding obtuse and vague you can add this deeper meaning. It is true that the greatest plays tell most of their story through unspoken subtext, but only a true hack could believe that vague and directionless dialogue is what creates this subtext. What makes it even more unbearable is just how forced and tacky it all sounds. If you were trying to come up with some parody of vapid, pretentious theatre it would sound a lot like this. It was honestly half way through the production before it became clear that this was not all an elaborate set up for some form of self-satire, that's how brazenly bad it all was.
Then came the middle third of the production, the absolute rock bottom. At this point the more traditional scripted scene that had been unfolding (badly) in front of us gave way to something akin to a television interview, with the cast lining up chairs facing the audience and talking directly to us. What followed was one of the most bizarre and meaningless series of non-sequiturs I have ever sat through, and this segment lasted an hour.
It goes something like this: one character will say something completely irrelevant and asinine, like "I like the way my bum looks in the mirror". Then the character sitting next to them will repeat the sentence, only with a slightly different intonation. Then the next person will repeat the sentence, but with slightly different wording, and so on in this fashion. Then someone will say the word "vagina" randomly, and the cast will break out into song. Oh yes, there are songs.
What is the purpose of this dialogue? To show that people share the same insecurities perhaps? Do we really need to sit through 2 hours of incredibly tedious and repetitive nonsense just to hear that? Especially when the various phrases spouted off are mostly completely banal stereotypes of people that don't actually exist in the real world. For that matter how does this in any way relate to the opening scene, or the closing one which barely even merits mentioning?
This play is mercifully long gone from the theatres, but do yourself a favour and if you ever see Martin Crimp on a playbill you get the hell out of there and burn the tickets. I give you 1 star Mr. Crimp, and you owe me two hours of my life back.
Friday, 19 July 2013
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David S. Goyer
Produced by Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Deborah Snyder
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Running time 143 minutes
It would be an understatement to say that the newest iteration of the Superman franchise has been hyped; Superman is after all one of the oldest and most iconic of super heroes, and one with a rich cinema history. But the franchise has effectively been in limbo for the past 20 years since the loss of Christopher Reeve, even the talents of Kevin Spacey couldn't save the last entry in the series, 2006's Superman Returns, from being a train wreck.
So when it was decided to reboot the franchise once again under the direction of Christopher Nolan, hopes were sky-high. Nolan's Dark Knight Batman trilogy had completely changed the way people look at super hero movies, from childish comic book fodder to genuinely substantive cinema, and paved the way for super hero movies to be both rich in depth while still appealing to the mass market. The hope was that Man of Steel might do for Superman what Batman Begins did for Batman.
However Nolan turned down this offer, deciding that jumping from Batman to Superman would not be in the best interests either for him or the franchise (a sentiment apparently not shared by JJ Abrams who has recently performed a similar manoeuvre from Star Trek to Star Wars), but stayed on as a producer. The directorial duties then shifted to Zack Snyder, a man whose earlier Watchmen adaptation had seen a similar level of artistic nuance to Nolan's Batman films, albeit less commercially successful.
With these two attached to the project the anticipation was understandably high. At the very least the expectation was for a super hero movie of similar scope and ambition if not quality. Unfortunately the result is one of the majors cinema disappointments of 2013. Man of Steel is more Batman and Robin than Batman Begins.
Man of Steel starts off on a bad foot with the obligatory scene of baby Superman being saved from his dying world. Whereas previous iterations of the series had wisely adopted the astute mantra of "less is more" when it comes to Superman's home world, Man of Steel instead opts for an absurdly drawn out 20 minute introduction full of spaceship battles, explosions and generic action movie sequences that feel completely out of place in the Superman franchise. Tasteful? Not at all. Relevant to the plot? Barely. Is it going to look more dated in 10 years than the equivalent scene from 1978's Superman? Incredibly and laughably yes, hell it already looks like a deleted scene from the Phantom Menace.
Perhaps they were trying too hard to woo the summer blockbuster crowd, perhaps they were simply giving Russell Crowe a bigger role because they didn't have the guts to give him a single tiny cameo as they did in 1978 with Marlon Brando. Either way the manner in which the movie begins sadly epitomises everything that's wrong with Man of Steel.
A film that had been billed as something with artistic ambition instead feels more like a generic summer action movie. Action sequences are drawn out, drama is overwrought, nonsensical and contrived plot devices are employed seemingly just to advance the movie to the next fight scene. It's weak stuff.
Most of the problems can be attributed to the awful script which is full of banal dialogue, cliché-ridden set pieces, and simply none of the humour or joy that made the old Superman movies so watchable. It was easy for audiences to relate to Reeve's affably nerdy Clark Kent and his doomed romance with Lois Lane, but Man of Steel's characters feel so plastic and soulless that we are simply never given a reason to really care about what's happening to them.
It's a shame because the premise is great: focusing on 'Clark Kent the person' and how it feels for him to be an outsider, so out of place and distant from the world around him. And yet this concept is never given the treatment it deserves, the words are hollow and lacking in emotional clout, not helped by the sporadically out of sequence flashbacks that slowly reveal this character-driven aspect to the story.
Much is therefore made of Clark Kent's relationship with his family, and yet so little time is spent on his youth that there's no sense of development or affection, just more cardboard cutout characters to fill the gap between explosions.
Many have simply criticised Man of Steel for being too long, but the length wouldn't be a problem if more of that time were devoted to richer character and story based scenes and less mindless action. At its heart Man of Steel is a film that aspires to the greatness of those that have come before it, and yet totally misses the qualities that made those films work.
Friday, 7 June 2013
Welcome to another end of year retrospective on what has been an extraordinary and unpredictable season of the Premier League. Here at The Ephemeric we like to choose this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow our carefully considered accolades.
Ultimately Manchester United ended up winning the title with time to spare, a fitting end to the legendary career of outgoing manager Sir Alex Ferguson. His successor will have his work cut out for him, but that's a matter to be dealt with later in our preview of the upcoming season.
Elsewhere Manchester City's disappointingly distant second place finish proved insufficient for Roberto Mancini to keep his job, while Chelsea recovered from their traditional mid-season turbulence to a relatively comfortable third place finish. Arsenal rounds off this season's Champions League qualifiers, squeaking fourth place ahead of Tottenham by one point on the last day of the season.
Further down the table there was much to be praised regarding up and coming managers Steve Clark of West Brom and Michael Laudrup at Swansea, while Wigan Athletic's luck finally ran out as they drop out of the top flight despite their historic FA Cup success. They will be joined in the parachute payment queue by the disappointingly fragile Reading and the humorously self-destructive millionaires at QPR.
Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.
The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2013:
Winners: Manchester United - In a season where no team ever really hit their finest form, Manchester United win almost by default. Sir Alex pushed them across the finish line in typical fashion, by efficiently and consistently grinding out the points, their style of play only fleetingly glamorous.
Relegated: Wigan, Reading, QPR - After several years of last minute escapes Wigan finally succumbed, and in ironic fashion having just days earlier claimed their first ever major trophy. Reading meanwhile are one of those teams it was easy to forget was actually in the Premier League this season, but no matter because they aren't anymore. And finally QPR, whose expensively assembled squad and manager (allegedly working under the name Rosie for tax purposes) remind us that money alone will not buy you success, but it can provide much amusement for the rest of us.
Player of the Year: Gareth Bale - 2013 will be remembered as the year where Gareth Bale matured into a truly world class player. Bale often appeared to carry Tottenham in their ultimately fruitless pursuit of a top four finish, and contributed 21 Premier League goals, ending up as the league's third top goalscorer. Without Champions League football on the horizon his time at White Hart Lane will surely be coming to an end, if not this year then the next.
U-21 Player of the Year: Matija Nastasić - Manchester City's 20 year old signing from Fiorentina greatly exceeded any expectations he may have had upon arrival last summer, cementing a first XI place ahead of the established Joleon Lescott and playing a key role in the his team taking the honour of being the Premier League's tightest defence this season.
Manager of the Year: Steve Clarke - The accomplishments of Clarke's debut managerial season have often been overlooked by pundits who would prefer to focus on Michael Laudrup and his team's exciting brand of football, but the results speak for themselves. For a completely untested manager to take a respectfully weak side like West Brom and marshall them to an 8th place finish right on the heels of Liverpool and Everton in his first season is a phenomenal achievement, especially for a manager who has faced so many obstacles and detractors in his pursuit of a management role for so long. Clarke's success reminds us that sometimes it's worth taking a chance on unproven talent.
Top Scorer: Robin Van Persie (30) - The latest in a long line of Arsenal players to move to a new club and win silverware, Van Persie's departure was somewhat more acrimonious than most. Selling one of Europe's finest goalscorers in his prime to an arch rival marked the moment where Arsenal fans realised that they simply are no longer on the same level as the top clubs. More than that it proved to be the driving force behind United's latest title triumph as Van Persie claimed the Golden Boot.
Most Assists: Juan Mata (12)- This was a game changing season for the Spanish magician, topping the league's assist charts and notching up an incredible 20 goals as he became the key player in a star studded Chelsea side. Mata is arguably becoming one of the finest playmakers in Europe and looks set to take a central role in the Spanish national team as Xavi nears the end of his career.
Overachievers: West Brom - There is no logical explanation for why a side whose best player (aside from revelational on loan striker Lukaku) is Shane Long could enjoy such a strong season, finishing right behind the top tier clubs. Steve Clarke has done a wonderful job, but it remains to be seen whether he can repeat these exploits next season.
Underachievers: Newcastle - From Champions League contenders to just barely escaped relegation in one season. Questions will need to be asked of Pardew and what's gone wrong. The last thing Newcastle can afford to do is drop back down to the Championship. The question is, were they overachieving last season, or underachieving this season?
Best signing of the season: Michu - One of the more inspired signings in recent years, and yet it raises questions of why no one else was looking at him. After all this was a man who scored 15 year goals from midfield in La Liga, and duly delivered a similar standard at minnows Swansea having signed for less than £3 million. All this while playing out of position as well.
The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2013:
Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan - An outside of the box choice for this year's top man between the sticks, but it is not an exaggeration to say that without Guzan's heroics Aston Villa would most likely have been relegated. In one season he has transformed his career, and usurped the talented Shay Given in the process.
Right Back: Pablo Zabaleta - It's been a disappointingly inconsistent year for Manchester City, but one man who has delivered is Pablo Zabaleta. A constant fixture in the Premier League's best defensive side, Zabaleta has mastered that rare balance of attacking threat and defensive prowess and made more tackles this season than any other player in this team.
Centrebacks: Matija Nastasić & Laurent Koscielny- This year's tasty centreback pairing begins with Nastasić, arguably the surprise package of the season and it's easy to see why when an unknown 20 year old forces his way into being the linchpin of an expensively assembled Manchester City squad, which also happens to be the best defence in the league. Koscielny meanwhile is another obvious choice: having struggled early in the year with injury the difference he made to Arsenal's fortunes upon his return could not be more clear, and without him a top four finish may very well have been beyond them.
Left Back: Leighton Baines - A very strong year from the Everton man now in the peak of his career. Baines is arguably one of the better left backs around these days and has been instrumental in his side's strong season which sees them finish in 6th right behind the very top teams in England.
Right Mid: Eden Hazard – One of the more successful signings of the season, Hazard has been tipped for great things on the world stage and has shown every sign this season that he can meet those expectations. His pace and technique ranks among the very best in the league, despite him only being 22. Being so young, one can only assume that there's even more to come in subsequent seasons.
Centre Mids: Juan Mata & Michael Carrick- Beauty and the beast. Our central midfield is composed of one attacker of sublime quality and one defensive minded battler. Juan Mata was my runner up for player of the season, leading the assists table and contributing a remarkable number of goals at the same time. Michael Carrick meanwhile was the fulcrum of this seasons title winners Manchester United. Carrick does the donkey-work, and without him United would not be half as consistent as they are.
Left Mid: Gareth Bale – The obvious choice: most pundits' choice for player of the year, ourselves included. Gareth Bale could walk into any team in Europe right now, and probably will if Tottenham can't attain Champions League football in the near future.
Forwards: Michu & Robin Van Persie – This season we have opted once again for Robin Van Persie as the frontman of our team's attack. Van Persie led the league in goals and effectively won the title for United. Playing just behind him is Michu, the talented goalscoring midfielder signed by Swansea this season and played out of position up front, to surprisingly positive effect. In this team he drops deeper into the hole to combine his natural midfield playmaking ability and his goalscoring prowess.
So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again after the summer for our preview of the next season!