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Archive for January, 2011

The 2006 UK Eurovision entrant Daz Sampson. My name is John and I am a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest. Not an ironic, one-night-a-year, let’s get pissed and laugh at our silly, backwards European neighbours and jokily bemoan the inevitability of the UK finishing last fan. A bona-fide, hardcore, 365-day Eurovision obsessive. I could tell you every winning entrant in chronological order and hum most of them. I have every single entry since the contest began in 1956 on MP3. My idea of a perfect night in is watching the 1993 contest on DVD and marvelling at the down-to-the-wire final voting results (between scouse popstrell Sonia for the United Kingdom and ultimate victor Niamh Kavanagh for Ireland, if you’re interested) for approximately the 72nd time.

Chances are your primary thought at this point is not “Wow, I’d really like to sleep with this guy”. Not an entirely unfair reaction – obsession with any piece of light entertainment has more than a whiff of tragedy about it. But the British Eurovision defender gets a particularly raw deal. Our generally appalling performances in world sporting events are forgivable. We still rally behind our nation with heart-warming pride and optimism. A dismal failure in the World Cup and we furiously analyse what went wrong, assign blame where it is usually due and vow to do better next time. A disaster at the Eurovision song contest and at best we shrug, at worst we snort with derision at the poor taste and politically motivated voting of our lesser neighbour nations. Surely nobody of sound mind actually takes it seriously?

Here’s a statistic for you. Since we last won the World Cup in 1966, we’ve won the Eurovision Song Contest five times. Three of those songs, by Sandie Shaw, Brotherhood of Man and Bucks Fizz, were number one hits. The other two, Lulu and Katrina & The Waves, were also top 5 records and sizeable hits worldwide. Sweden, in many ways the natural home of the Eurovision Song Contest, have only fielded four winners – and of those four only two made any waves internationally (ABBA in 1974 and to a much lesser extent Charlotte Nilsson in 1999).

The point is, when we make the effort we’re actually good at the Eurovision Song Contest, as opposed to Football, a sport at which we plough grimly on despite a near-complete lack of national talent compared with the top-tier nations.

So why do we have such a terrible attitude towards it? In recent years the statistics have admittedly been poor. In the past decade we’ve finished in the bottom half of the table eight times, including three last-place finishes and even the dread null points in 2003 (Whither now, Jemini?). We also scored two top 5 finishes – former Pop Idol alumni Jessica Garlick came third in 2002 and Jade Ewen, now clinging for dear life to the revolving door that is the Sugababes line-up, finished 5th in 2009. Chances are you can’t remember their songs – the media all but ignored them and they made little impact on the charts.

“Politics!” I hear you cry. “Europe hates us!” “They all vote for their neighbours!” I’ve even, on more than one occasion, heard the bewildering argument “It’s all because of the Iraq war!” If any of the above represents your knee-jerk opinion, I suggest you brace yourself and actually listen to any of our recent failed entries. These are, without exception, terrible terrible records. Naff, dated Carry-On Pop from Steps-lite early 00s also-rans Scooch, dreary disco from early X Factor runner up and charisma vacuum Andy Abraham, a truly unsettling schoolyard rap by forty-something Adrian Chiles lookalike Daz Sampson. These are not songs that represent the UK music scene, nor, despite the misguided and borderline xenophobic beliefs of many media figures, do they represent that mysterious demographic of the ‘great Eurovision song’ (a.k.a. a naff piece of crap that those culturally stunted peasants in Slovetzia will just go wild for!).

I love the Eurovision because every year I discover a handful of genuinely thrilling pop songs. It’s not all great – I defy anyone to sit through last year’s Russian entry more than once, for example – but the vast majority of countries send big local stars and credible entries, even if not all of them translate particularly well on the world stage. Yes it can have a certain charming awkwardness, and political voting does exist, but rarely enough to determine the winner. Besides, if not for an extremely questionable set of points from Ireland last year our entry would barely have scored anything at all.

Another statistic for you. Last year’s winning entry by Germany’s Lena Meyer-Landrut was a number one hit in six countries, and a top ten in seven more. Her album also charted well across the continent. 2009’s Norwegian winner Alexander Rybak did even better, even hitting the UK top ten. The rise of Itunes has reinvigorated the contest, allowing successful entries to instantly capitalise on the massive exposure that Eurovision still promises. In a time when the music industry is scrambling to find ways to promote their artists, it’s a goldmine which has yet to be properly exploited in this country.

So while some will roll their eyes at the announcement last night that faded boyband Blue will be our 2011 representatives, I applaud the decision. It isn’t ideal – early rumours included Pixie Lott, Charlotte Church and Katherine Jenkins, all of whom are much more high-profile and credible. But they’re a professional group, the song, we have been assured, is a serious effort with nary a hint of novelty, and in their heyday they scored numerous big hits all over Europe. If they do well they’re recognisable enough that their song might become a hit single from which they can launch a serious comeback. If this is the case, and I fervently hope that it is, perhaps bigger and better names will see the benefit of representing themselves and their nation on this massive stage, instead of dismissing it as beneath them. Because by patronising this silly little contest, we only make fools of ourselves.

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Film Review: Black Swan

Natalie Portman in Black SwanIn Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, the viewer is dragged along as a group of drug-addled characters descend into an ever-escalating nightmare that doesn’t let up until the final frame. In The Wrestler, we follow one damaged, isolated misfit so closely that we feel we’re practically inside his head. In his dizzying latest release Black Swan, these two experiences are combined as we follow rising ballet star Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) on a disorienting journey into madness.

Watching Black Swan is an almost hysterical experience. From the moment Nina is cast in the make-or-break lead role in a production of Swan Lake, the tension barely lets up for a second. Portman is in every scene of this movie, and as with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, every aspect of the film is geared towards placing you as close to her point of view as possible, from the shaky, intrusive camera shots to the occasionally deafening soundtrack.

The plot has elements of everything from All About Eve to Inland Empire, by way of Rosemary’s Baby and, inevitably, The Red Shoes. There’s the promotion from chorus-line to centre stage at the expense of an ageing star (a brief but memorable turn by Winona Ryder), the possibility of romance with the director who questions her ability to truly inhabit the role, and the initially friendly new arrival who may or may not be plotting to take Nina’s place.

However all of these influences are merely a framing device for a surreal journey into Nina’s psyche as she begins to lose her grip on reality and her sense of self as she is subsumed into the twin roles of the tragic white swan and the passionate, uncontrolled black swan. Nina begins seeing mirror images of herself everywhere, cleverly shot so that the viewer shares her split-second confusion as to whether these doppelgangers are Nina or the trio of female characters who haunt her mind at every turn.

Portman’s performance, which initially seems somewhat mannered and one-note, soon reveals itself to be an extraordinary display of repressed fear and self-control. She spends the entire first half of this movie with her face in a riktus of sheer terror. Her entire life consists of the ballet studio and the claustrophobic flat where she endlessly practices, under the ever-watchful eyes of her ex-dancer mother (Barbara Hershey). Only once is she shown to venture into the real world, when she is manipulated into a hedonistic night out with spirited newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis). On returning to her flat, dizzy with drugs and alcohol, she briefly rebels in an angry confrontation with her mother. The scene is brief, but the utter transformation of Nina’s visage, as she her facial muscles relax and the fear disappears from her eyes for the first time, is astonishing.

The movie is unquestionably Portman’s show, but the supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Barbara Hershey makes a particularly strong impression as Nina’s mother Erica. The two evidently share an unhealthy relationship; Nina has been so infantilised by her mother that she allows her to dress and undress her, while Erica’s bedroom is a shrine to her daughter’s achievements. Rather than a place of escape, Nina’s flat is a claustrophobic hellhole where she can never escape from Erica’s gaze. In the hands of a lesser actress the role of Erica would have been a fairly rote ‘stage mother from hell’ performance, but Hershey wisely underplays it. At times her character exudes such genuine warmth that you can believe that Nina would have allowed herself to remain cocooned in this childlike state without making a break for independence. This makes the moments in which Erica’s behaviour reveals her to be obsessive and controlling all the more unsettling.

Mila Kunis is also strong, providing an important note of levity as the only character in the film who appears relatively well balanced. Vincent Cassel is perfectly cast, all smouldering Gallic passion and bravado. The character is a pretentious windbag, but we believe that the dancers would push themselves beyond their physical and mental limits for his approval, which seems at times to be more Nina’s goal than the stardom that a triumphant performance could promise.

This won’t be a film for everyone. It’s an intense, hysterical and challenging watch. The ambiguous question of what (if anything) is reality and what is a product of Nina’s unhinged mind will undoubtedly frustrate some viewers. But for the thrill of witnessing something genuinely different, if not entirely original, and that of seeing a talented actress finally coming of age in what will surely be one of the defining performances of her career, Black Swan is the first must-see movie of 2011.

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