Saturday, October 30, 2010

John Landis in Conversation - Burke & Hare Premiere at the International Rome Film Festival 2010

John Landis photographs crowds lining red carpet at Rome Film Festival
The start of the fifth edition of the International Rome Film Festival on Thursday this week made the headlines in both national and international press, not as organisers had planned, because of the red carpet appearance of Keira Knightley and Eva Mendes, stars of the opening film Last Night, but because of an unprecedented demonstration by Italian film industry workers who occupied the red carpet completely and forced the cancellation of the event. In a show of solidarity with the hundreds of actors, directors, screenwriters and other industry workers who were protesting against government cuts to the film and TV industry, Knightley even joined the protest briefly.

On Day 2, however, it was business as usual at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, as French actress Fanny Ardant and American film director John Landis, amongst others, took their strolls up the red carpet, stopping to chat to fans and sign the odd autograph. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the world première of Landis' new film Burke & Hare, which was preceded by an encounter with the director in Sala Petrassi.

Presented as part of the Cinema Lessons series in the Extra section of the festival programme, presided over by erstwhile Extra organisers Antonio Monda and Mario Sesti, the encounter followed the usual formula for these interviews, in which actors and directors chat in a relaxed way between clips from their movies. With such an eloquent and generous guest, however, and one with a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema, the movie clips were hardly necessary to stimulate conversion, with Landis happily diving off at entertaining tangents and discussing everything from the greatest gorilla suit actors to the war in Iraq. It emerged, in fact, that Landis doesn't really enjoy seeing bits of his films taken out of context, with one clip in particular yesterday highlighting a pet gripe of the director – during the cafeteria scene in Animal House, in which John Belushi fills his tray (and his face!) with as much food as possible, the soundtrack features Sam Cooke singing Wonderful World...or rather, should feature that song. The Italian DVD version has some stock music in its place because of copyright issues – unfortunately, the new music had been added to the film with neither the director's knowledge or consent! This irritation aside, however, Landis spoke extremely warmly of working with Belushi, describing him as a talented and good person who had tragically died because of the illness that is substance addiction, dismissing recent conspiracy theories about the circumstances surrounding the actor's death. Indeed, Landis isn't one for conspiracy theories of any kind - his comments about Oliver Stone's movie JFK were hilarious: I love that film, it's beautifully made... but totally insane! - or words to that effect!

John Landis is a director who has made several very different films which have all gone on to acquire cult status. In addition to Animal House, which elicited inevitable ripples of applause from the audience, the biggest cheers were reserved for the Oscar-winning special effects sequences of An American Werewolf in London, the song and dance sequences in The Blues Brothers and the ground-breaking music video for Michael Jackson's Thriller. Landis even shared a couple of old fashioned pre-CGI tricks of the trade that were used for the werewolf transformation and the creation of a hand painted full moon backdrop in American Werewolf and expressed a nostalgia for less computer-dependent film-making.

Burke & Hare, which marks Landis' return to the screen after a ten year absence, is enormously entertaining, by the way. For anybody that loves the black humour of the classic British movies that came out of the Ealing Studios during the 1950s (with a touch of Carry On thrown in), this is a must see! Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis do a wonderful job of making the 19th century grave robbers sympathetic characters, but it's also a who's who of British acting and comedy talent with some marvellous turns by Ronnie Corbett, Jessica Hynes and Tom Wilkinson, and fleeting cameos by Christopher Lee and Stephen Merchant. Catch it if you can!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lang Lang | The Auditorium, Rome | 23 October, 2010

After stunning audiences during the Lang Lang Fest, a concert marathon of four shows on consecutive evenings last summer, superstar pianist Lang Lang made a welcome return visit to the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Saturday evening in the first of a three concert stint in celebration of Chopin in what is the composer's 200th anniversary year.

On his last visit to Rome, Lang Lang closed the festival with a wonderful performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. This time around Antonio Pappano, the ebullient musical director of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, was at the helm as Lang Lang and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra once again performed Chopin's early masterpiece.

As a classical performer, Lang Lang is an extremely rare breed – not only does he fill concert halls the world over, he also sells huge amounts of records. Indeed, when he made the move from the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon earlier this year and signed a new record contract with Sony Music, the sums of money involved in the transfer – several million dollars, it was rumoured - are more usually associated with the sale of football players! In spite of his staggering success, however, Lang Lang has often polarised critical opinion, with his showmanship and on stage gestures irritating some stuffier critics. Reviews of his most recent CD however, have seen a recent mellowing towards him. As Nicholas Kenyon said recently in the Observer:
It's become rather fashionable to sniff at the achievements of Lang Lang, but he is the most communicative pianist of his generation […] the technical command is peerless and the emotional warmth envelops us. He is surely the Horowitz of our generation.

This was the fourth time that I've seen Lang Lang play and anybody who has read my previous reviews here will have understood that I'm a huge fan. Saturday's performance, however, may well have been the finest that I've seen so far. I've never been in the least bit bothered by Lang Lang's movements on stage, but it has to be said that this time there were far fewer gestures and a poetic intensity to his playing that was breathtaking. The second movement was simply magical. That he is still so young – he turned twenty-eight in June - and is showing all the signs of entering a new phase of technical maturity, is a wonderful thought. The very best may still be yet to come!

Rapturous applause from the audience and foot stamping from the orchestra on stage brought him back out for several curtain calls and an exhilarating encore that had the air of an impromptu display of bravura which demonstrated just how much Lang Lang loves to perform! Catch him in concert if you possibly can!

In what has become a tradition with Lang Lang concerts and something that brings him closer to rock musicians than traditional classical music performers, he once again made a personal appearance in the book shop at the Auditorium after the concert to meet and greet fans and sign copies of his CDs – total fan-girl that I am, I queued in line and was thrilled to exchange a few words with the man himself!

Full programme: The concert was rounded out with Rossini's Semiramide as the opening piece, and closed by a thrilling performance of Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, energetically conducted by Pappano, which was also met with cheers of approval.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Italy's Water Footprint on Blog Action Day

Today, 15 October, is Blog Action Day 2010 when thousands of bloggers around the world all write a post about one important topic. After the success of the 2008 initiative when bloggers looked at Poverty, and last year's look at Climate Change, this year the topic under discussion is Water, with the aim of focussing world attention on the severity of the global water problem.

Several days ago I started doing a little research on the Internet for this post and within minutes had stumbled upon a series of alarming statistics about water consumption right here in Italy. In fact, in spite of being a considerably smaller country, Italy lags only a little behind the United States in the league table of world champion water guzzlers! At a time when almost a billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water, studies have shown that in daily living Italians use about 380 litres of water every single day, but when the amount of water used to make the food we eat, such as pizza and pasta, or even the clothes we wear, are factored into the total, water consumption is roughly 17 times higher!

The water footprint of a nation refers to the total amount of water that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the inhabitants of that nation. The total water footprint of a country is divided into two parts: the part of the footprint that falls within the country (the internal water footprint) and the part of the footprint that presses on other countries in the world (external water footprint). And it would appear that Italy is leaving an extremely large water footprint on the planet right now. Did you know, for example, that to make a standard Pizza Margherita about 1,200 litres of water are required, whilst a kilo of pasta has a water footprint of 1,900 litres of water?

With water resources scarce in the South of the country and on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia and with the situation likely to worsen over the next few years, water should be seen as a future emergency in Italy too and one that needs to be addressed now.

Sources used in this post:

Blog Action Day 2010: Water from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Way to Blue - The Songs of Nick Drake | The Auditorium, Rome | 12 October, 2010

Almost 37 years have passed since English singer-songwriter Nick Drake died on 25 November, 1974 at the tragically young age of 26, leaving us three extraordinarily beautiful and utterly flawless albums - Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. Whilst these works may have failed to find a wide audience during his lifetime, his posthumous success and reputation has steadily grown, together with the image of him as a twentieth century version of a tragic Romantic poet. The very special evening in Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday, however, which saw Vashti Bunyan, Green Gartside, Teddy Thompson, Krystle Warren, Scott Matthews, Robyn Hitchcock, Neill MacColl, Roberto Angelini and Violante Placido revisiting Drake's songs, transcended any sadness surrounding this enigmatic figure and was instead, a celebration of his life and music.

The Way To Blue Concert was originally commissioned by Birmingham Town Hall for the English Originals festival in May 2009 and was curated by Nick Drake's record producer Joe Boyd, as well as his friend and string arranger Robert Kirby, who sadly died in October last year. This Italian version of the concert was organised by both Fondazione Musica per Roma and the Barbican Centre in London, together with Puglia Sounds. In fact, the vocalists were accompanied by a string sextet of Apulian musicians from the Collegium Musicum di Bari. Boyd himself appeared on stage several times during the evening and seemed at special pains to ensure that the Italian audience understood the significance of Drake's lyrics, asking Roberto Angelini to translate some passages, whilst the presence of Danny Thompson in the band, the legendary bassist who played on many of Drake’s recordings, further emphasised the continuity between the original albums and this tribute.

I absolutely adore Nick Drake and I'll admit that before the concert I had some reservations about whether I really wanted to hear other artists perform his songs. My fears were instantly assuaged as the strains of Joey – just music, no words – opened the evening, and then artist after artist proceeded to delight the audience with their own interpretation of Drake's songs, under the musical direction of Kate St. John, a former member of pop band Dream Academy, whose massive 1980s hit single Life In A Northern Town was dedicated to Drake. There were many wonderful moments, but I particularly enjoyed Fruit Tree sung by Green Gartside (of Scritti Politti fame), whose voice suited the material exceptionally well. Teddy Thompson's Poor boy and River man were exquisite, as were Vashti Bunyan's soft and breathless versions of Which will and I remember (by Drake's mother Molly), whilst Scott Matthews' vocal and physical similarity to Drake himself during Day Is Done made one imagine, just for a second, that the man himself was back among us. Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman was stunning all evening, but her duet with bassist Danny Thompson on One of These Things First was a show stopper. The discovery of the night for me personally, however, was Krystal Warren. Her mesmerizing performance of Time has told me, which stripped the song down to its raw essentials and transformed it into a gospel-meets-soul rendition that even Nina Simone would have been proud to call her own, brought the house down last night, as did her exhilarating duet with Teddy Thompson on Pink Moon.

The first song of the encores was, in fact, the only song of the evening not to have been written by Nick Drake, but was instead a song about him. In broken Italian, Robyn Hitchcock explained that he had dreamed about Drake many years after his death, and proceeded to sing the curious I saw Nick Drake. After over two and half hours of celebrating the man and his music the simple sentiments of the lyrics “I saw Nick Drake...and he was fine” were unexpectedly moving. The entire ensemble then gathered for Voice from the Mountain, a song from Nick Drake's final recording session. We now know that life was very dark for Drake when he recorded this, but yesterday the song sounded ultimately uplifting.

This was a wonderful evening and a fitting tribute to Nick Drake's utterly timeless songwriting.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Room in Rome - an installation by Franz West in Piazza di Pietra

Room in Rome by Franz West
Rome is already an open air museum where one is left smiling with surprise and wonder at every turn, so it follows that its squares and open spaces should lend themselves so well to temporary art installations and exhibits. Piazza di Pietra, where the imposing columns of a Roman temple built to Emperor Hadrian were incorporated into the central Customs Office under architect Carlo Fontana at the end of the 17th Century, is the setting for the first public installation in Italy by Austrian artist Franz West. Entitled Room in Rome, the sculptural installation is constructed in aluminium panels, soldered together in a patchwork effect to form three monumental forms, then lacquered in colours familiar to anybody living in Rome – sky blue, and shades of orange and pink used to tint the local intonaco or plaster.

Sitting on a raised plinth, the pieces appear as if on a stage set, although the audience is explicitly invited to climb up and interact with the installation and even sit on the scupltures breaking the “Do Not Touch” taboo! Certainly, when I visited Piazza di Pietra yesterday afternoon on a gloriously sunny day, a couple was sitting in the crook of an elbow-like shape, children were playing in and around the structures and the entire installation was exciting considerable curiosity.

Room in Rome by Franz West at Piazza di Pietra is presented in conjunction with an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Rome and continues until October 16, 2010.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

No Berlusconi Day 2 – Wake up Italy!

No Berlusconi Day 2
Ten months after the first No B Day protest led by Il Popolo Viola (literally the “Purple People”) on 5 December last year, tens of thousands of us took to the streets of Rome yet again today to demand the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Once again, this was a protest organised entirely via Facebook and social networks online and whilst the numbers may have been smaller than at last year's demonstration, there was a noisy and decidedly angrier turn out this time round, with an atmosphere of collective exasperation with the current political situation palpably in the air.

Things went off peacefully, however, with frustration vented via rousing choruses of Bella Ciao and a good smattering of chants against Berlusconi and his cohorts. Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the Italia dei Valori party, was given a hero's welcome when he joined marchers at Piazza della Repubblica and walked amongst the cheering crowds along the streets of the capital to Piazza San Giovanni, where the demonstration continued with speeches and music.

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