Archive | December, 2017

First full review of The Last Jedi (spoiler-free)

12 Dec
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Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As someone who made a pact with God in my teens to spare my life until all nine films in the proposed Star Wars canon were completed, I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi with mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s brilliantly acted, often funny, occasionally affecting, and with a climactic scene of startling beauty and grandeur. On the other hand, if I am to be struck down by a bolt of lightning after the next one, I’m not sure it’s entirely worth it.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and I promise to keep this spoiler-free. Daisy Ridley, already good in The Force Awakens, has grown into the role of Rey: she’s not just tough, she’s really funny. It seems like she’s been given all the best lines, until you write them down and realise they’re not that witty; it’s just the way she tells ‘em.

Adam Driver, of course, is a “proper” actor with an impressive indie CV that includes the sublime Paterson, and in this second film of the third trilogy he’s given much more scope to display his range. When he and Ridley share the screen, locked in a Jedi mind battle with a frisson of sexual tension, the effect is electric.

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Kawaii! One of the loveable Porgs in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Benicio del Toro also briefly joins the cast, and enjoyably out-hams the lot with a stutter like Hannibal Lecter sniffing a liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. He plays an incorrigible rogue of no fixed allegiance, which goes some way to filling a Han Solo-shaped hole. Non-human additions include the Porgs, fat birds that have evolved the very sensible defence mechanism of being so kawaii that predators feel too guilty to eat them; the Fathiers, which are like extra fast and strong horses with goat-like faces; and the friendly Vulptices or crystal foxes.

There are some knowing winks to the original trilogy: Kylo Ren spinning briefly out of control in his TIE fighter, as Darth Vader once did; a rather gratuitous sequence in a casino where the score echoes the music during the alien bar scene of the very first film; and Princess Leia’s brilliantly bathetic opener to Luke Skywalker when they finally meet again after many years apart: “I know what you’re going to say,” she tells Luke: “I changed my hair.”

And though some action scenes are underwhelming – once you’ve seen one spaceship chase, you’ve seen ‘em all, and by now we’ve seen dozens; plus there’s a key lightsaber battle that is flat-out badly choreographed – there is one extended scene so breathtaking that it would not be out of place in Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It’s on a planet of salt flats that cover hidden scarlet sands, such that the boundless white plains, when trod by boot or furrowed by laser cannon, become streaked with red. These few gashes, as vivid as a Rothko, by the end merge into a vast charnel field of red, in which a single figure stands alone…

This is a pay-off that has taken 40 years to build, and it’s worth the weight.

And now the negatives. The Last Jedi is busy. Very busy. Aside from some obligatory Force mumbo jumbo between Rey and Luke on “the most unfindable place in the galaxy” (in reality Ireland’s Skellig Michael), it’s all running around without really any place to go. The Resistance forces have no clear or noble goal, beyond trying not to get blown up. They engage in numerous red herring missions of questionable logic. And there are glaring and, frankly, unforgivable inconsistencies in plot and character motivation that I would love to enumerate but won’t (because spoilers). To pick just the biggest, the hot-headed Poe (Oscar Isaac) would in any other army be court-martialled and vilified for gross insubordination with disastrous consequences – not once, but twice! – yet here he’s somehow still treated as a hero. No wonder the First Order are winning.

All the same, massive kudos to writer/director Rian Johnson for taking the best-loved movie franchise of all time and making not just a film that the fans can get behind, but a movie that feels like it’s his own.

 

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17 writers on poker: He Played for His Wife and Other Stories

11 Dec

he-played-for-his-wife-and-other-stories-9781471162299_hrThere can’t be many poker players, at least of a certain age, who haven’t read Anthony Holden’s 2002 classic Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player. It’s a rare pleasure to read about poker from one who is not merely a skilled player, but a skilled writer, too. At least I thought it was rare, until I went to the recent launch evening for He Played for his Wife and Other Stories at the Hippodrome Casino.

The book, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, features a preface by Al Alvarez and stories by 17 different writers – all of them good, some of them great. One is Barny Boatman, who was at the launch. I told him I hadn’t realised he was a writer as well as a player, and that I’d greatly enjoyed his story, a character study of a born loser with a supernatural twist, which had just been serialised in Bluff magazine.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve written quite a few things, actually. This one took me bloody ages. I rewrote it and rewrote it. So I’m glad it hit the spot. Someone did change a couple of words, but…” Barny smiled. Anyone who’s seen him play will know he wouldn’t fold easily. “…I got it changed back again.”

Anthony Holden sadly could not be at the Hippodrome launch, for health reasons. But there was a bevy of poker-playing actors, including Neil Pearson (who contributed a story), Dougie Henshall and the wildly entertaining Naoko Mori, as well as the playwright Patrick Marber.

I have some history with Marber – he was Time Out’s columnist for a while when I was Editor, so we reminisced about that rather than poker. But it was poker that put him on the road to success that would take him to Hollywood and an Oscar nomination: his first play, which opened at the National Theatre in 1995 and won an Evening Standard award, was Dealer’s Choice, the second part of which takes place entirely around a poker table. Marber’s slice-of-life story in the book, The Old Card Room, is a paean to a vanished era of poker where men with nicknames like The Doc or The Chauffeur played in smoky back rooms and the chosen game was seven-card stud rather than Hold ‘Em.

There are so many strong stories in He Played for his Wife… that it feels invidious to pick out any individual ones. Nevertheless, I did particularly love David Flusfeder’s Heads Up, which imagines a game of heads-up poker in which the antes never go up, between two players so evenly matched that they end up playing forever; a sinister high-stakes story by Michael Craig, author of one of my favourite poker books, The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King; and Jennifer Tilly’s Once More Into the Abyss!, which, as the title suggests, is clear-eyed and mildly self-loathing about the dark side of the game.

But the real high-wire writing comes from D.B.C. Pierre in Five Tables. Take this on how he got hooked on poker as a kid, in a family home game:

“Then the table sloughed its salt and pepper and cloth to become a vortex, a court of miracles where the laws of maths spun dust-devils through our hands. I didn’t know at the time how unlikely it is in the history of the world that a deck of cards has ever shuffled into the same order twice, nor how remote the chance is that it ever will; but you could feel the maths swirling. It was a voltage. And there was violence in it.”

After rather too many drinks at the launch to be thinking straight, we all played a tournament, organised by Shelley Rubenstein, who contributes another of the better stories in the book. Shelley’s not afraid to think big. Einstein famously said that “God does not play dice with the universe”, but in Shelley’s story, He does play poker.

Who won the tournament? I know only that my Aces got cracked by 10-J and I took my leave early. My fault for trying to be too clever: with the blinds high, I let the button in by flat-calling Natalie Galustian’s raise. I figured she and everyone behind me would fold to a 3-bet as I’d been playing tight; also I’d need two players’ chips to stand a chance of winning the tournament. The flop, naturally, had a 10 and a Jack in it to give the button a lucky two pair. Ah, that court of miracles, that violent vortex of maths.

He Played for his Wife and Other Stories, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99

Christmas cheers: a night of Music for Mental Wealth

9 Dec
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Lady Oracle and the angelic guitarists of Coffeepot Drive

“That wasn’t at all what I expected,” said a posh-voiced suit as he exited St Paul’s in Covent Garden, after the Actors’ Church had been shaken to the rafters by a mighty gospel-voiced singer named Lady Oracle and her rock band that included two guitarists with angel wings. He hated it, I thought. He only came for the heavenly a capella carol singing which kicked off the evening by Stelle Cadente, composed of members of the London Philharmonic Choir. But he went on: “It was absolutely fantastic. An amazing evening.”

This was “A Celebration of Christmas and Music”, in aid of Music for Mental Wealth and Nordoff Robbins. As the founder of Soundcheque (see previous blog) as well as of Music for Mental Wealth, Laura Westcott knows a thing or two about talent-spotting, and she came up trumps this time.  There were dizzying arpeggios from classical-crossover pianist GéNIA; a very modern take on the traditional Irish harp from the flame-haired Lisa Canny, who played a blinding version of Ed Sheeran’s You Need Me, I Don’t Need You; and the aforementioned finale by Lady Oracle and her band Coffeepot Drive, where they topped their own songs with the best cover ever of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody.

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Singer/songwriter Joe Slater, up from Liverpool for the Music for Mental Wealth benefit at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden

But fantastic as they were, the real discovery of the night was young singer/songwriter Joe Slater, down for the night from Liverpool, who received a spontaneous and unanimous standing ovation. Ye Gods, that’s a talent. Even the brand-new song he tried out, Wasting Away, was brilliant. The songs have tunes as anthemic as Oasis, his voice is powerful, with high notes in the range, a rock ‘n’ roll rasp on command, and real heart. He’s all there. The complete package. The real deal. To all record label scouts: go see. Go sign.

And of course the night was one in aid of good causes. Laura Westcott herself battled with anxiety and stage fright as a music graduate, which made her courage in singing and reciting a self-composed poem as moving as the verse itself. As was the guitarist in Coffeepot Drive, who spoke of depression and suicide in his musician family, with a broad smile to hide the tears.

Christmas is indeed a time for giving, and not just iffy socks to distant family members who have more than enough already. If you’d like to make a donation, go to www.musicformentalwealth.com.