Overthinking Atomic Blonde

I don’t often write film reviews, but I went to see the film Atomic Blonde recently and came out of it with mixed feelings. In the end, I decided I was overthinking it all, I should just enjoy the style over substance. But it got me wondering how black people feel when they see another film about the American Civil War or slavery, or how Muslims feel when they see a film about terrorists, or Germans when they watch the triumphalist war films that get shown again and again and again on British TV. I’d like to see a Cold War spy thriller from the Russian or East European perspective. Although totalitarianism was undeniable in those countries, there was genuine fear of the West as well…

First, here are the good things about the film:

  1. Charlize Theron is smart, beautiful, utterly fearless and independent, strong but not superhuman, nuanced psychologically (for an action film) and has a wardrobe to die for. (Fits in with the comic book origin of the story, but I’m not sure anyone in the 1980s dressed that well). She absolutely rocks the Debbie Harry vibe. I also like the French/Algerian secret agent character played by Sofia Boutella. Incidentally, in the original comic book this character was a man, but it was a very smart creative move to change the gender.
  2. The backdrop of Berlin in 1989 is picturesque and atmospheric, with a good use of details (interiors of flats in East Berlin, screening of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, underground breakdance parties in the East vs. decadent nightclubs in the West). As the main characters wandered around from one secret meeting to another, you couldn’t help feeling that this was more of an advertisement for Berlin than anything else.
  3. The music was brilliant: recognisable 80s hits, although mostly predating 1989. You can’t go wrong with an opening and closing sequence featuring David Bowie (Putting Out Fire/Cat People to start off with, and Under Pressure for the end). Plus there were some suitable German titles as well: Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, Peter Schilling’s Major Tom (memorably featured as title theme for Deutschland 83 series) and Falco’s Der Kommissar (although not in Falco’s German version, sadly). However, when you read how complicated it is to get approvals for all these songs, you realise that some tough choices had to be made.
  4. The fight scenes were well choreographed and more realistic than in most superhero or spy movies (although at times too gory for my delicate stomach). There were people panting, struggling, stumbling, being hurt, not quite succeeding, bruises and plasters galore. Life as a spy is not glamorous and James Bond like (although there are some champagne moments): it’s ice baths and careful make-up to cover up the wounds. And lots of pointless walking about and trusting no one, apparently.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Charlize Theron

And then here are the things which I liked less.

A. The plot is incredibly convoluted and far-fetched. Which is fine, because it is based on a comic book. And in fact, if I am not mistaken, there was at some point in the 1980s a list of Western assets in Eastern Europe that intelligence agencies were afraid might end up in the wrong hands. (I can’t find any details about it, but if anyone knows about this, do let me know. I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream it up!)

B. The problem I always have with Cold War spy thrillers is that it was often far more boring than it’s depicted – but also more nuanced. Real spies would not go around killing members of the police – they were very keen to lie as low as possible. Having lived in an East European country myself at the time, I know that the ‘threat of repercussions’ was often more than enough to keep people in line. Self-censorship was a way of life. Spying was mostly done via bugging or denunciations from the inside. Real hunger (not so much in East Germany, which remained relatively prosperous) and greed for Western products was enough to enable small-scale denouncements (as hinted at by the black marketeer character of David Percival) – but these people seldom had anything of real value to offer. It would be more of a list of people who assembled at a church or demonstrated against the regime etc. The real hero of the film is Spyglass, who could no longer accept the Stasi policies but was aware of the devastating consequences this could have for himself and his family. The foreign spies? On the whole, they could parachute in and out without any trouble and enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

C. By November 1989, the situation would have escalated beyond the capabilities of any secret services. Most people in the former Eastern bloc are now convinced that the 1989 wave of revolutions was aided and abetted by Western intelligence agencies, and that they outwitted the Soviets in that instance. Some of the backbenchers of the Communist Party were no doubt approached and contributed to ousting their leaders, in the hope of gaining power themselves. However, there was also a degree of spontaneity to the mass demonstrations which caught them by surprise. Yes, they might have thought of the people as ‘cannon fodder’ to accelerate the fall of Communism and spread the capitalist ideology to new markets where they could sell their lesser quality goods (I remember those expired foodstuffs flooding our shelves in the 1990s). But, as always happens when you stoke the flames of revolutionary zeal, things don’t always work out as planned. Not everything went the way the Western powers had hoped.

Or perhaps I like to think that. So that assertion by the handsome East German contact Merkel(!) that he’s got people ready to cause trouble at any moment upset me…

Anyway, all this need not trouble you, the casual viewer. Go and enjoy the stylish noir vibe, dwell in 80s nostalgia, get the thrill of the action. Just try not to be facile in dividing the world into goodies and baddies once more…

 

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Marcus Malte: music, recent history and dark humour #EU27Project

It was Catherine from the wonderful Blog du Polar de Velda (if you read French and like crime fiction, this site comes highly recommended) who introduced me to author Marcus Malte in Lyon four years ago. I read two or three of his books (none of which have been translated into English yet) and found them all very different from each other, quite dark, highly imaginative and experimental.

In the meantime, he has won the prestigious Prix Femina with his novel Le garçon (which I haven’t read yet, but you can read Emma’s review), so here’s hoping at least that will get translated. However, in Lyon this year, I picked up one of his earlier books, Les harmoniques, which makes full use of his love of music, especially jazz. Malte is frequently described as a ‘noir’ author, but this book had moments of hilarious fun, almost farce-like, which surprised and enchanted me. Moreover, it did nothing to detract from the rather serious subject matter, proving that it’s not always grim and tortuous which is memorable or worthy. (Oscar selection committee, take note! How could you ignore ‘Hidden Figures’ so badly?)

The subtitle of the book is Beau Danube Blues (Beautiful Danube Blues) and this is a hint of the European tragedy that lies at its heart. It starts off with a chapter that resembles jazz improvisation, with two people talking (we have no idea who they are at first), and musical interludes between their words.

Som7   Sibm6

‘Believe it or not, there was a time when I thought I was immortal. But I fear that has gone. For good.’

‘That’s called wisdom.’

‘I’d rather call that giving up.

Fa   Fa7

‘Wisdom includes giving up.’

This might seem like a pretentious and unnecessarily difficult way to hook a reader into a novel, but if you move on to the next chapters, you realise it gives you a good insight into the two main characters: Mister and Bob.

Mister is a jazz pianist and one of his favourite fans, beautiful young Vera, has just been murdered and burnt alive. The police has arrested two suspects, who have confessed to the crime, but Mister is convinced there is more to it than meets the eye.

Bob is his friend and favourite taxi driver, a mighty unusual one, former philosophy professor, prone to enigmatic quotations and only occasionally charging his clients. Together, they set out to discover the truth about Vera’s death. In due course, they discover more about her life: she came to France to study theatre, but she was originally from the Balkans, from the Croatian town of Vukovar, where in 1991 an 87 day siege was followed by a whole-scale destruction and ethnic cleansing of the town by the Serbian army. But what could this long-gone war have to do with her present-day murder?

We never get to see Vera herself, she is dead at the outset of the novel, but we do see her through other people’s eyes and through short, poetic chapters, very much like musical interludes, which seem to delve into her mind, although they are in the third person:

This war which she escaped but which she carried everywhere with her. In her head. Secretly. Even in the most tender moments.

They come across a series of paintings of Vera in an art gallery and decide to visit the artist Josef Kristi, a strange, reclusive character, to find out more about the relationship between Kristi and the model. Although the artist tells them a little about Vera’s past, they don’t quite believe he is not involved in her death, so they decide to do some very amateurish surveillance. What follows is a very funny scene, where they end up in the middle of a field of beetroots (or maybe turnips or potatoes or pumpkins, they are not quite sure), just opposite the Kristi house. Mister fears they are too conspicuous, but Bob says they can always claim that they are waiting for a pick-up truck. And then a farmer passes by and stops to see what these incompetent investigators are up to… I was giggling all the way through this scene.

There are serious and dangerous moments too: they get involved with nasty and brutal people, some of them in positions of power, and make some unlikely allies – a blind, elderly accordeon-player and a young, tone-deaf singer. While this is not a plot-driven book, the build-up of tension was working well until about the last 100 pages, when it all descends into a lengthy explanation and is wrapped up too quickly, as if the author had lost interest.

Scene from the literary concert, from Var Matin.

But the crime element is not the main reason to read this book: it is a wonderful piece of rhythmic and musical writing, with many passages designed to be read out loud (as the author did, with musical accompaniment, in Lyon. You can read Emma’s thoughts about the event here). It is a melancholy look at all the ‘forgotten’ towns and victims, and a reminder that the consequences of war rage on long after the conflict is officially over. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am always curious to see what Marcus Malte writes next: he is most certainly not an author to be pigeon-holed.

This fits in well with the #EU27Project, since it is written by a French writer, deals with a recent conflict in Croatia and reminds us of the purpose of the EU.

 

 

 

Rock Me Amadeus!

When I was growing up in the mid 1980s , Mozart was all the rage. Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus had been made into a film by Milos Forman, Vienna was getting ready to mourn the passing of 200 years since his death (1791) and Falco was the first Austrian singer/rapper to go global with his ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (apologies for the poor image quality – pre-HD music videos have not aged well).

Meanwhile, I was labouring with Mozart minuets and sonatas, having my knuckles rapped by my fearsome (but much loved and missed) piano teacher. It didn’t put me off him, however. He has remained, to this day, my favourite composer.

So the National Theatre’s production of Amadeus last week was a wonderful way to reconnect with my childhood. (And also an excellent form of self-medication for uncertain times.) Lucian Msamati gave a mesmerizing virtuoso performance as Salieri (his Italian was most convincing), while Adam Gillen was suitably foppish and vulnerable as Mozart (in Shaffer’s vision). All in all, Msamati is only off-stage for 13 seconds, while changing into a shinier outfit, so it’s a real tour de force.

Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.
Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.

Of course you have to allow for dramatic licence: no one seriously thinks that Salieri poisoned Mozart, or that Mozart was as childish and foolish as he appears in the play. Although he did live beyond his means and left his wife and children in debt after his death, he was not as unsuccessful and ‘tormented’ as he appears to be in the play. He certainly enjoyed scatological humour, loved his wife dearly, but he did not write his musical compositions effortlessly, from divine dictation. (He worked very hard, and if his manuscripts appear remarkably clean,  it’s because his wife destroyed many of the earlier drafts.) Schikaneder did not cheat Mozart out of the money for The Magic Flute (in fact, he put on a special charity performance for Mozart’s widow). Constanze was not a naive little girl, but quite a shrewd businesswoman who managed to turn her fortunes around after Mozart’s death. Salieri was highly respected as a composer and teacher, but it is true that he felt fashions had moved on, so he stopped writing operas for the last 20 years of his life.  Salieri’s music fell into oblivion – and do you know what boost led to its modest revival in recent years? The success of the film ‘Amadeus’!

But it’s drama, not historical accuracy we’re after, and boy, does it deliver it in spades! The conversation between Salieri and Mozart prior to the death scene was particularly moving, while the final salute to mediocrities is one of the most memorable speeches about jealousy and resignation ever:

Salieri : I will speak for you, I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all!

The South Bank Sinfonia were both actors and players in this version, and there were some very good singers among the actors. This whetted my appetite for Mozart’s music and I listened all day Friday (Mozart’s birthday) to his Masses. On Saturday evening I also attended a local semi-staged performance of The Magic Flute, performed by St John’s Opera and Chamber Orchestra, and Renaissance Voices choir. It was a contemporary adaptation, with Sarastro being the CEO of a foundation and giving Tamino a gruelling job interview. Meanwhile, Papageno worked as a ‘model scout’ for the Queen of the Night (hunting for birds, right) and also ran her social media, doing occasional Tweets for her. Great fun, the music of course sublime and I’d never heard Mozart sung in English before. Clever translation at times!

the_magic_flute

 

Don’t Believe Me? Just Watch!

It’s on every radio station I seem to switch on: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars singing ‘Uptown Funk’. I’d heard this catchy song before, enjoyed the cheeky video, but in February it became part of the soundtrack of my life.

It was the music blaring out of the loudspeakers as my children came skiing down the slopes with shiny badges and faces to match. It was the last song on my car radio before I had my fateful meeting with a literary agent and editor. It was the song I heard just before I embarked upon a challenging training course with a difficult client. And, in each case, the outcome was as happy and snappy as the song itself. So it has become my ‘good luck token’. Think I’m all bark and no bite, all dreams and nought to back it up? Just you watch!

So it made my day to see Michelle Obama dancing to it on Ellen:

http://www.justjared.com/2015/03/12/michelle-obama-dances-to-uptown-funk-on-ellen-watch-now/

Sometimes you just need to prove them all wrong. Have a lovely weekend and don’t give up on your ambitions!

 

Poem: Love of Music

Music-Note-Coloring-Pages-For-KidsAnthony at dVerse Poets Pub has us talking about music being the food of love,  and urging us to play on. Who am I to disagree? Musicality, rhythm, sound is all-important to me in poetry – when I read the poetry of others or when I write my own.

 

 

 

When you were mine I took you for granted.

I lost you and never noticed you had gone.

My desk, my car, my home bathed in silence –

I believed them calm. I thought I relished the peace.

Then one day I wandered by chance to a small room

cloudy with sweat, bulging with smoke, but a space

where you were revered

uttered with honey-dripped tongue

encased in love-laden arms.

No more passing by in deafness.

You unleashed yourself against my ears

entered my pulse

forged new pathways in my limited world.

Friday Fun with a Valentine Twist: Stromae

For those who prefer their Valentine’s Day with a bit of humour and bite, here is a fun single about men and women by that Belgian genius Stromae. Thanks to my children, who brought him to my attention, although his lyrics are maybe a bit too grown-up and cynical for their age-group. The voice of his generation (he is in his 20s, although he sometimes looks about 15), he has a very wise head on his shoulders, and manages to temper his cynicism and despair with humour and compassion. And not afraid to make fun of both sexes in this battle song à la Stromae:

Quick translation: ‘You men are all the same…/ a band of wimpish philanderers/ so predictable…  I’m not sure you deserve me/ You’re lucky that we love you/ You should thank me.

Easy to say that I’m too whiny/and that I like too much blablabla/ but no, no, what you call my moods are important/ life is for having children/ but it’s never the right time/ of course you’re there for making them/ but for raising them you’re all absent…

When I’m no longer beautiful/ or at least, not naturally so/ oh, stop, I know you’re lying/only Kate Moss is eternal./Ugly or stupid, it’s never good (enough)./Stupid or beautiful, it’s never good./Beautiful or me, it’s never good./ Her or me, that’s never good.

Jazz and Java

Frost1When rhythm kicks

when rhythm hits

I

feel the heat

wrap up in it

why

music fills all spaces in me

never claim to see          just wonder and be

but

no denying its power-grip

heart does a tock-salto-tick

it blends its dazzle into my soul

feel all the tension

feel all the edges

soften         making me whole.

The irresistible syncopation of the Claude Nougaro song ‘Le Jazz et la Java’ (see the link below) inspired this poem, which I am offering up with my best Christmas wishes to the last Open Link Night of the year. Let’s celebrate in style with dVerse Poets!