Saturday 26 March 2016

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2016 (Part 1)

The Athenaeum, a venue for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of Australia's biggest cultural events, and this year sees its 30th incarnation.

Every autumn it takes over the city centre, with numerous performance spaces sited within the grand Melbourne Town Hall, along with many others in nearby theatres, pubs and bars.

I'm reviewing for The Age newspaper again this year, but several other festival shows will be covered here by myself and Narrelle Harris (who has a new Holmes and Watson book out!).

Here are our first three reviews.

1. Tom Green Live
Reviewed by Tim Richards

This Canadian comedian's one-man show starts at 9.30pm and is supposed to finish at 10.30pm, but it's past 11 when we finally leave the theatre. This could be either a) value for money, or b) annoying, depending on whether you have another show to get to and whether you're enjoying the act.

Luckily Green is very funny, with a drawling self-deprecating charm and an inability to be thrown by gags that fall short. He has the experienced comedian's skill of getting the audience to laugh at mishaps as much as at sure-fire lines; such as his exploratory attempts at crowd work that fizzle out.

In his mid-40s, Green has lots to say about the difference between today's world and that of his youth. He's not a fan of social media, as a prolonged funny sequence involving the effect of Facebook on a married couple in the audience demonstrates. He also performs an entertaining song about Instagram and its over-sharing imperative.

About an hour in, the comedian detours into the past, referencing material from his days on MTV and his infamous movie Freddy Got Fingered. The audience loves it, shouting lines from the movie for him to perform; not having seen it, I feel a bit lost. Still, he's a funny guy and a strong performer.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here] 

2. Michael Burgos - The Eulogy
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

If The Eulogy was part of the Fringe Festival, I'd cheerfully label it as quirky theatre; but this is the Comedy Festival, so it's harder to pin it down. It's not a laugh-a-palooza. It's not a wryly observed take on death. It's not a pitch-black deconstruction of death either.

The Eulogy, when it comes down to it, is a strange and surreal show where one man plays all the pall bearers at the funeral of an unloved man, plus the unlamented Tomas himself, using odd voices, weird flashbacks, and sections of what seem to be interpretive dance.

Michael Burgos twists his body and his voice to inhabit various roles and interact with the audience. It is funny, and often funny-peculiar, an unsettling humour by way of Edward Gorey. 

Whatever else it is, it's mesmerising and even weirdly heartwarming. Well, except for all the death jokes. And as long as you aren't that fond of the late and very flammable Tomas.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Rob Caruana - Silent Comedy
Reviewed by Tim Richards

If there's something funnier than a slapstick comedian, it's an inept slapstick comedian. Even better, Rob Caruana is an inept silent slapstick comedian.

Arriving on a black and white stage dressed in black and white, Caruana proceeds to manipulate a vast and strange range of objects - sausages, talcum powder, cat food - in a rambling physical comedy routine with no speech at all.

In such a cramped venue with little room to move, this shouldn't really work (and in fact the sightlines are difficult if you're not seated in the first two rows).

However, Caruana makes the tiny stage work to his advantage, adding a slight hint of danger to his awkward antics as he dares audience members to spray water while he defends himself with a flimsy umbrella, or fills a balloon with shaving foam with predictably messy consequences.

Of the various odd and nauseating things he places in his mouth, we shall say no more. Suffice it to say that Silent Comedy is a funny night of well-meaning slapstick with an endearingly lunatic edge.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday 18 March 2016

Travel Gadget Review 3: Olympus TG-4 Camera

Four years ago, as an experiment on a short trip to Thailand, I decided to leave behind my digital camera and use my iPhone instead.

It was a success, and since then I've taken travel photos almost entirely with my phone (first an iPhone 4S, then a 6 Plus). Plenty of them have been published alongside my articles - about 100 images per year.

However, I've decided it's time to look at owning a camera again. Although it takes great photos, the iPhone has its weaknesses. It's not great in low light or other non-standard lighting, for a start, and you can't take a smartphone anywhere near water without a risk of ruining it.

So I borrowed an Olympus Stylus TG-4 Tough camera from Olympus for review purposes (and yes, I posted it back to the company's Sydney offices when I'd finished testing it out).

The primary attraction of the TG-4 to me, is its ability to take JPG photos at least 300dpi in resolution, as well as retaining the basic RAW file alongside it on the SD card. This uses up extra memory of course, but grants a deal of flexibility.

Another plus is the waterproof and shockproof nature of the camera. When I need a camera other than my iPhone, a watery environment is often the reason.

With my old Olympus I went kayaking in Borneo and became very wet as a result, with no damage to the camera. I also used it when looking for bears at the Great Bear Lodge in Canada, from where we set out on the water in small boats.

This is the Olympus TG-4:

And here are some photos I took with it one afternoon and evening, walking around the Melbourne CBD near my apartment.

A tram stop and a motorbike came out well on the camera's standard "P" setting in bright sunlight, with vivid colours:

For this shot of the London Stores building, one of my favourite local edifices, I adjusted the Aperture setting to let in more light:

The camera's 4x optical zoom allowed me to neatly frame this image of the Royal Arcade facade from across Bourke Street:

Another advantage of this camera over the iPhone is the presence of "Microscope mode", allowing photos to be taken as near as 1cm from the subject. As I walked along Bourke Street, I tried this out on a water fountain, a tree, and a vegie burger I ordered for lunch:

I was very impressed with the detail on all of these.

Finally, I stepped out at night to take some shots after dark, using the Night Scene mode under the camera's shooting mode settings. Exposure time on these was controlled by the camera, and varied from 0.5 to 1.3 seconds:

I was pleased with these results, from what is basically a point-and-click digital camera.

One other impressive aspect - and a great step up from the Olympus I used to own - is that the TG-4 has its own inbuilt wifi hotspot. Once activated, photos can be quickly selected and downloaded to a smartphone via a free Olympus app.

I'd expected this to be a clunky experience, but in fact it was very quick and efficient. While perched on the Public Purse sculpture on Bourke Street, I rapidly downloaded pics to my iPhone so I could share them on social media.

This is a brilliant facility, as it allows backup on the spot for any shots you particularly value. While travelling, it would allow me to easily back up those images from iPhone to Dropbox when I returned to my hotel's wifi.

Overall I was impressed with the Olympus TG-4 camera. I'm inclined to buy one of my own in the near future.

The Olympus Stylus TG-4 Tough camera retails in Australia for around $450. Find more details, including technical specifications and sample shots, at this link.

Friday 11 March 2016

Warhol + Weiwei Together in Melbourne

I visited the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition as a guest of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Over the past two years I've seen a great deal of Andy Warhol's work: at art museums in Cologne, New York, and Los Angeles. Many years ago, I also saw a travelling exhibition of his art while on a visit to Vienna.

Today I saw even more of it at a major exhibition here in Melbourne, but with a twist. The Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition combines and contrasts the work of two great artists - one an American who defined pop art in the late 20th century; the other a Chinese dissident at work in the 21st.

At first glance it may not seem likely they'd have much in common; but they do, as becomes clear in the first room of the exhibition:

On the left you can see some of Warhol's most famous works - his paintings of Campbell's soup cans.

In the centre are ancient Chinese pots to which Weiwei has added a garish new glaze, similarly appropriating a well-known cultural item in order to have it seen in a new light.

More of this iconoclastic approach can be seen in this large piece made of tiny building blocks, in which the artist drops an ancient vase:

And another vase has an obvious Warhol vibe:

There are more parallels throughout the exhibition, such as this one between a Weiwei work intended to resemble grapes (left) and a Warhol series of flowers (right):

Though Warhol was unconventional, however, he wasn't an overtly political rebel (though his art did include disturbing images of violence in America). That's where the two artists diverge, as Weiwei has been in conflict with Chinese authorities for much of his career.

On that note, a highlight of the exhibition is a new Weiwei piece gifted to the NGV, The Letgo Room.

It's a large cube through which people walk, its interior decorated with quotes from Australian human rights campaigners.

It was supposed to be constructed, as the name suggests, from Lego bricks.

However, the Lego company refused to fill the order due to the work's political connotations, causing outcry and donations of bricks from the public all around the world.

In the end it was put together using a copycat Chinese brand of bricks, an apt or perhaps ironic touch.

The show isn't all serious, thought-provoking art. One of the most fun items in the exhibition is Weiwei's riff on Warhol's Silver Cloud and Cow Wallpaper (which also appears in the exhibition).

Warhol's piece has large silver balloons gusted about by fans to a backdrop of cows. Weiwei's homage, Caonima and Bird Balloons, has two types of balloon bobbing about - one based on a kind of alpaca.

In both cases, visitors can walk among the balloons, gently batting them as they float through the space.

I've merely scratched the surface with this overview of the exhibition. There's lots to see, it's imaginatively displayed, and you'll walk out feeling you've had some enjoyable intellectual exercise as well as having seen some intriguing art.

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei continues to 24 April 2016 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne, Australia. Entry: $26 adult, $22.50 concession, $10 child. For more, see the NGV website.

Friday 4 March 2016

Melbourne on a White Night 2016 (Part 2)

In the previous post, I described the first part of our wander across the northern sector of the annual White Night event in Melbourne. Now, after midnight, we head on...

Before we left Franklin Street, we spotted a smaller illumination on a wall of RMIT University, above the food trucks. According to the program, this series of colourful images, Kaleidodreams, had been crafted around the movements of a famous burlesque dancer:

The best experience of the evening, however, was ahead of us in the Carlton Gardens. Against the facade of Australia's first World Heritage cultural site, the Royal Exhibition Building, was the Pitcha Makin Fellas projection.

A collaboration between the Aboriginal art group of the same name and Portuguese digital art outfit Ocubo, it was a huge animated work which mapped six traditional indigenous seasons across the entire face of the building. Here are some of the resulting images:

And here's a clip I filmed during the autumnal sequence:

Lying on the grass among a crowd of relaxed spectators at 2am, this was the highlight of the night for me.

On the way back home, though, I couldn't resist making a detour to see the gigantic inflatable golden tamarind monkey hanging off the side of the Melbourne Town Hall:

That's Melbourne on a White Night! It's still there as I write these words nearly a week later...