Monday, 21 April 2014

Lamb of God UK - The Review

Held at Watford LDS Meetinghouse on 19 April 2014 at 2:30pm.

Rob Gardner's musical masterpiece, retracing the tragic events of Jesus Christ's death, followed by His glorious Resurrection is by no means a simple or easy piece to perform. So when I tell you that the cast and crew of the first UK production did it with all the polish of a professional set up, you know it is not faint praise I am offering, especially when it was an amateur production.

The difficulty with this piece is the constant shift from powerful crescendos and then smoothly move to poignant, personal moments. The music tells an account that is epic in its importance but is fundamentally a personal trial for a few people. Since the Saviour is not represented, the account is told from important witness viewpoints, including Peter, played by Robin Dick, whose voice demonstrated incredible power and yet accurately portrayed the breaking heart of a man who denied knowing his Master. Yet the overall performance was not missing gentleness or tenderness. Montana Ellis, playing the role of Mary, Mother of Jesus, brought a broken softness with her performance. Trying to convey the feelings of a mother as she watches her son be scourged and then crucified in song is no mean feat but you felt her devastation, in a deep, dignified manner.

Other solo performances really shone and to name check them all would not be unmerited. They were that good. The choir as a whole raised the entire performance to glorious highs, the kind that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. This is a group that would not have seemed out of place in the West End and rightly earned their standing ovation at the end. Megan Hodun, Vocal Director and Executive Producer, should rightly be praised for the tour de force performance given by the choir.

The orchestra performed beautifully, keeping the story moving at a pace but never being intrusive. Masterfully conducted by Philip Siu, the other Executive Producer, the music swept us along from triumph to tragedy, from Christ's noble entrance into Jerusalem to his inequitable betrayal on Gethsemane. No visuals were required. The music accurately conveyed the grief felt atop Golgotha and then the joy felt three days later, as Mary Magdalene found the empty tomb and her Resurrected Lord. It was a piece of music that was executed brilliantly.

The sacred nature of the content means that the only true marker of success is whether people felt like they had a spiritual experience. I defy anyone who was in that room to say that they didn't. I have a heart of stone, at best, and even I walked away uplifted and edified from the performance. If I had a criticism, it would be the venue just wasn't big enough for such a performance. It was something I wish more and more people could have enjoyed. It was a sensational performance, simply stunning. All involved should be immensely proud of what they achieved. They represented themselves to a level above and beyond what anyone could have imagined. But more importantly, they represented the most sacred event in all history with power, grace and majesty. It was a performance that the central character, the Lord Jesus Christ, would have been proud of.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

With the recent announcement that Marvel Studios have movies planned until 2028, I have to declare that what Marvel are doing is the most exciting thing in movie history. To build an effective cinematic universe that also includes TV shows and short films is unprecedented. What makes it all the more impressive is that the catalogue of films as they pile up continue to improve in quality, not just as contributors to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but as standalone films.

The recognition for this achievement ultimately rests with Kevin Feige and his team. This was clearly not something they stumbled on after a few successful films. With the first Iron Man film, the first of the consistent credit stingers came in with the introduction of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. From there, we knew that the Marvel film program was building towards a crossover film, namely The Avengers. By establishing the pattern of the now famous phases, you would think that the big crossover film would be the big lure and the individual movies would just keep the bank balance ticking over. It has been proved to be anything but.

The standalone movies, offering not only an independent story but an implication to the grand finale film of each phase, become more and more essential viewing. The two minute snippet hinting towards the nature of the crossover movie would not be enough to keep audiences coming back. The two hours that precede it has to be good and consistently it is.

First, Feige has a gift for picking the right director. Jon Favreau brought Iron Man to life with a directing resume that didn't exactly scream blockbuster. At that point, Elf was his most successful film. Not exactly the credentials you would look for in an action movie. Yet it came off. Kenneth Branagh would be anyone's first pick to direct a Shakespeare play as a film but asking him to take on Thor's origin story seemed bold. Fortune favoured the bold. It went on. Joss Whedon was an inspired choice for The Avengers and it continues, with Shane Black taking on Iron Man 3. He had only one previous directing gig before it and yet he raked in over a billion dollars at the box office.

Then the next impressive act is to find the right actors. Robert Downey, Jr. brought Tony Stark to life on the back of a slow upward curve in his career. He certainly wasn't in the league of being a name that could carry a film. Now, he commands a huge wage and is box office gold. Granted the Oscar nomination helped but ultimately, he commands mega stardom off the back of Marvel's bet. Chris Hemsworth as Thor was another big gamble but now you struggle to see anyone else playing that role. Chris Evans has made Captain America, one of Marvel's more dull heroes, relevant and interesting. It goes further than that. The villains are expertly cast, with Tom Hiddleston playing the conflicted Loki brilliantly and the casting of James Spader as Ultron being met with universal appreciation. Look at the list of actors who have worked for Marvel and you have to admit it is hugely impressive.

The road ahead isn't paved with just gold and no bumps though. Robert Downey, Jr. is due to come to an end after the third Avengers film. So is Chris Evans. And both men have already indicated that they will not be extending their contracts and both feature in franchises that are not only too lucrative to end but are pivotal to the crossover movies and phase building models. There is a suggestion that plans are afoot to deal with the issue, with the Captain America moniker potentially being passed to the Winter Soldier and Tony Stark being recast a la James Bond being the rumours doing the rounds. If they can negotiate past that and maintain the standards, which wouldn't be a shock when you consider they have over a decade worth of films planned, then Marvel Studios and its cinematic universe will continue to be the most exciting thing in cinema. In fact, it will be a licence to print money.

The future is bright. The future is Marvel.