Archive for February, 2009

Watching the Watchmen (& Bronson)

Posted in Film on February 26, 2009 by alexlarman

watchmenTalk about a weird kind of serendipity. Over the past couple of days, I’ve seen the mega-budgeted superhero film Watchmen and the micro-budgeted British film Bronson. At first glance, they’d appear poles apart. Yet they have a surprising amount in common. Both revolve around unconventional, charismatic figures who find themselves ostracised and cast out of society; both are set in the 1980s, which allows for both some fantastic soundtrack choices (as well as some rather more outré ones); both are incredibly, eye-openingly violent; and, for those to whom it might appeal, both feature a generous amount of male frontal nudity.

Watchmen has acquired a towering reputation as ‘the Citizen Kane’ of comic books, and there have been numerous directors and actors attached to it. Depending on circumstance, we might have seen Darren Aronofsky, Terry Gilliam or Paul Greengrass direct, with actors as diverse as Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Cruise and (heaven help us) Arnold Schwarzenegger portray the tormented ‘superheroes’ around whom the story revolves. Instead, the producers chose Zach ‘300’ Snyder to direct, a decision met with a certain amount of disbelief and scepticism, as a mediocre zombie remake & the guilty pleasure silliness of 300 didn’t exactly appear to place him in pole position to take on a work of this magnitude.

Full disclosure; I’ve never read the comic book, so was judging Watchmen entirely on its strengths and weaknesses as a film. With this in mind, I very much enjoyed it. While it doesn’t even come close in artistic accomplishment to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, it’s nonetheless head and shoulders above virtually every other comic book superhero picture of the past few years. A great deal of this, of course, must be ascribed to the source material (which, by all accounts, it sticks incredibly close to) but Snyder, while lacking the directorial signature that Gilliam or Aronofsky might have brought to the film, keeps the (frequently highly complex) narrative moving at a frenetic pace & manages to maintain clarity and tension throughout. I have my suspicions that the stirring, slow-motion fight scenes are more exciting (and played less ironically) than perhaps they ought to be, but nonetheless they’re choreographed and staged with élan.

The performances are, by and large, excellent; it was a smart choice to go with semi-known character actors, on the whole, rather than Big Stars. (When Billy Crudup is the best-known name, and when he’s playing a glowing blue demigod named Dr Manhattan, you know that the budget hasn’t gone on the cast.) I very much enjoyed Jackie Earl Haley, who was similarly excellent in Little Children, as the psychopathic, masked vigilante Rorschach, whose investigation of a former colleague’s death is the spur for the narrative, and also thought that his Children co-star Patrick Wilson provided an enjoyable flawed yet heroic central figure as the Batman-esque crimefighter Nite Owl – that is assuming that Batman was an overweight, middle-aged chap who could only achieve sexual satisfaction when he went out & beat up Bad People. (The film’s full of witty little touches like this.)

Not so sold on the (very attractive) Malin Ackermann as the PVC-clad Silk Sceptre, who finds herself caught in a love triangle between Nite Owl & Manhattan, or, somewhat to my slight disappointment, Matthew Goode as the brilliant Ozymandias, who is routinely referred to as ‘the world’s smartest man’. I’ve liked Goode’s work for a while now, as he’s often far and away the best thing in mediocre films, but he seems slightly cowed by the weight of the role; while avoiding spoilers, the last act (which I understand has been changed from the comic) might have worked better if Ozymandias had been played by a genuine star name, a Jude Law or (ideally) a Tom Cruise, someone whose narcissistic, self-regarding screen presence would have given the ambiguity of the character’s actions more of a moral heft than it currently possesses.

bronsonNevertheless, this is an enjoyable, witty, exciting and occasionally intellectually stimulating piece of cinema that will no doubt be acclaimed as the Second Coming by geeks and fanboys, but still has something to offer to the rest of us. By way of contrast, I think that Bronson, charting the life and times of Britain’s most notorious criminal Charles Bronson, represents an artistic triumph from the young Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, who makes the bold decision to shoot Bronson’s life story as a Kubrick homage, specifically A Clockwork Orange, counterpointing the many scenes of brutality and violence with glorious classical music, often Wagner or Verdi. He’s helped immensely by a terrifying, utterly committed performance from Tom Hardy, who casts off his pretty boy image and bulks up frighteningly to portray a man so in thrall to violence that fighting becomes a form of performance art to him. I can’t imagine that many people will go and see it, but those who do are in for a treat.

Post-Oscars

Posted in Film on February 24, 2009 by alexlarman

CB056255So as the glitz dies down for another year, the Reading Evening Post flies the flag for ‘Our Kate’ and the Manchester press does the same for ‘Our Danny’ (in India, where Slumdog Millionaire has yet to be seen as quite the amazingly perceptive neo-realist tale it’s been acclaimed as in the rest of the world because, erm, it’s their country and it isn’t, the bunting is unlikely to be hung out), what can we learn from Hollywood’s most gaudy show of all?

Minor things, perhaps. Joaquin Phoenix and Mike Myers are now fair game for satire from their peers, and probably deservedly so; Anne Hathaway would like to appear in a musical soon; Hugh Jackman believes he should be more famous;  Shirley MacLaine must have believed she was back in the 18th century; Mickey Rourke and Sophia Loren were separated at birth.

Yet what we also learn is that there’s nothing  more depressing than the herd instinct that these award ceremonies demonstrate. I’ve moaned already that The Dark Knight’s comparatively paltry showing represents a snobbery on the part of people who vote for these films on the grounds that a ‘comic book film’ can’t possibly be any good. For a change, at least, 4 of the 5 films up for best picture this year were actually rather well made – The Reader was technically fine but let down by a very, very silly plot – and highly worth watching, but I have my doubts about a lot of the awards. I’m delighted Danny Boyle now has an Oscar, but I wish he’d won it for Trainspotting, which is a film that will endure far longer than Slumdog. Sean Penn’s award for Milk is semi-deserved (I’d rather have seen Mickey Rourke win) but in its own way its brilliant impersonation of a gay, fairly camp man seems designed to demonstrate the stalwartly heterosexual nature of the paparazzi’s friend Mr Penn.

I was pleased Heath Ledger won, but there’s the inevitable ‘Oh, he only got the Oscar because he was dead’ backlash. This isn’t true; he gave the best supporting performance of the year. (Otherwise I’d have probably given the award to Michael Shannon for his disturbing, brilliant 2-scene performance in Revolutionary Road, not to the overrated Downey Jnr/ironic gollywog impersonation in Tropic Thunder, Brolin’s flat nemesis in Milk or Seymour Hoffman playing a possible bad ‘un in Doubt). As for Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the makers of the forthcoming Nine must be delighted; they now have a cast with 6 Oscar winners in. And Kate Hudson and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. Whoops.

I wonder what posterity will judge this year’s great misses to have been. I’d have liked to have seen Frost/Nixon’s tense, sweaty dynamic between Frank Langella and Michael Sheen rewarded – but then they already were on stage. And I still can’t make up my mind as to whether Benjamin Button is a flawed masterpiece or another Forrest Gump-esque exercise in impressive special effects overshadowing a thin and often implausible story.  Evidently the Oscar voters decided against it, in the final analysis.

I am seeing the much-anticipated Watchmen tomorrow night. Having never read the comic book, and believing that Zach Snyder’s previous film 300 was an amusing but risible and very, very camp exercise in style over substance, we shall see.

Assorted thoughts

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2009 by alexlarman

1) When it’s said of various imprisoned celebrity jailbirds (Archer, Aitken, Langham, Boy George etc) that they’re received ‘thousands of letters of support’, who on earth are these thousands of people who have gone to the time and considerable effort of writing letters to someone whom, in all probability, they have never met?

2) Watching Sir Anthony Sher (and he seems very much a Sir Anthony, as opposed to, say, ‘Larry Olivier’ – I can’t imagine him as ‘Tony Sher’ somehow) in The History Man last night – perhaps ‘The History Boys’ functions as a kind of quasi-spiritual sequel’ – was a highly enjoyable experience, if only because the stunning soundtrack (Stones, Beatles, Roxy) would presumably be impossible to  recreate these days. I did love this review on IMDB, which echoes my sentiments precisely – ‘the arty stuff’, after all, being the true pram in the hall. Mike Hill, come on down!

definitely recommended for the kleenex brigade!, 2 October 2002
1/10
Author:
MIKEHILL38 (MIKEHILL38@HOTMAIL.COM) from manchester, england
this is a heartfelt drama about this bloke who beds aload of birds while working as a teacher. theres alot of tasty crumpet in abundance along with loads of sex scenes. if you forget about all the arty stuff you should find all the dirty bits enjoyable!

The U2 review we wish Neil McCormick would write

Posted in Music on February 12, 2009 by alexlarman

u2The Daily Telegraph’s rock critic, Neil McCormick, is a great friend of U2. We know this because at every occasion he never fails to use the phrase ‘as Bono said to me’, thereby trumpeting himself as little less than the John the Baptist to their communal Jesus.

His latest piece about the new album is more of the same laudatory drivel, complete with lots of little bits of smug Pseuds Corner-isms (‘It is a bit of a holy relic to me’,  ‘this may have been a subconscious acknowledgement of a journey deep into U2’s sound) and gloating comments about his ‘privileged access’.  Read more, if you can face it, here:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/neil_mccormick/blog/2009/02/12/u2_no_line_on_the_horizon__ready_for_lift_off

Time will tell whether the new album will be any good, but after the dire, overcooked How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb hopes are low. Therefore, this is the piece that I am still waiting for ‘Neil’ to write.

We are all let down by our idols. Christ, of course (crucified). John Lennon (shot). Boy George (obesity, prison). But never before has my hand trembled so much as when I am about to write what I am about to write. Fates forgive me.

The new U2 album isn’t very good.

I was speaking to Bono on the telephone last night, virtually in tears, as I told him I was contractually obliged as a journalist to write an accurate review of the record. ‘That’s alright Neil, these things happen’, Bono said to me, through what sounded suspiciously like gritted teeth. In the background I heard the sound of the Edge quietly weeping as a dissonant drumbeat from somewhere announced that Adam was venting his rage in the only way he could. ‘We’ll still be friends though, won’t we, Bono?’ I asked hopefully, but answer came there none. The telephone had been put down on me. I have been cast out of Eden, and, like Adam and Eve before me, reader, I shed a tear as I made my solitary way back to the office.

How the album has failed artistically is almost too heavy a burden to discuss. Lazy playing from the band, whose millions have inured them to anything that might have happened outside a studio since 1995; trite, obvious lyrics from Bono that might have passed muster on a GCSE creative writing paper but have, yet again, proved unfit for purpose; melodies that sound impressive on first listen but quickly reveal themselves to be cynical attempts at getting a stadium crowd to bellow platitudes into thin air; slapdash and thin production that throws expensive sonic tricks onto sketches in the hope that these will organically develop into songs. All of these flaws, and more, are present. I am in a state of shock.

But alas my duty is to you, my readers, and not to my multi-millionaire friends. The record is below-par, and reeks of money, rather than passion, integrity or art. It will sell in untold millions, and the inevitable tour this summer will be impressive. But – and I write this more in sorrow than in anger – this mediocre maelstrom of musical machinery is no more worth your time and money than having to endure yet another patronising, hectoring lecture from Noble Peace Prize nominee Bono.

(Lads – drink next week? Larry it’s your shout, I got the beers in last time.)

N

Twelfth Night, or, ‘That’s The Way To Do It’.

Posted in Theatre on February 11, 2009 by alexlarman

twelfth-night1Echoes of Punch & Judy are thankfully missing from Michael Grandage’s excellent production of Twelfth Night, but, after the misfire of Rupert Goold’s Lear, I was reassured to see that Shakespeare can still be staged in a ‘traditional’ fashion and be no less exciting and stimulating for that. Grandage, who has established himself as one of London’s leading directors thanks to his stewardship of the Donmar (for which this is the second production in its West End season at the Wyndham’s theatre) is not an especially showy or flamboyant director, which isn’t to say that this production doesn’t have some stylish visual touches. Orsino delivers his ‘If music be the food of love’ speech half-dressed and practically raving into the storm, and later on Olivia’s attempted seduction of Viola/Cesario takes place by the seaside, with Olivia clad in Edwardian bathing attire.

 

There are lots of nice ideas here, ranging from Toby & Aguecheek overhearing the aforementioned Olivia/Cesario scene (which segues very nicely into Aguecheek’s ‘Faith, I’ll not stay a jot longer’ remark) and a great touch in the final scene when Orsino goes to Sebastian to pledge his troth, giving a witty but understated hint that this play revolves around at least suggested bisexuality. Grandage gets rid of the character of Fabian and gives most of his lines to Maria, which works well, and, perhaps best of all, runs through it at a fair old lick, ensuring that this lasts a mere two and a half hours, including interval.

 

The performances are excellent across the board. I wasn’t mad about Victoria Hamilton’s much-praised Viola, who seemed a bit too hesitant at points (and quiet), but Indira Varma’s splendidly preening Olivia, Guy Henry’s ridiculously tall Aguecheek and Samantha Spiro’s Babs Windsor-esque Maria are all great. And then of course there’s the production’s big draw, Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. I’m not sure he’s as brilliant as Simon Russell Beale was in the Donmar’s 2002 production, where his lust for Olivia appeared to verge on mental illness, but there’s no doubt that Jacobi is very, very fine indeed, especially in the gulling and stockings scenes, where it appears as if he’s channelling Frankie Howerd at points, to genuinely hilarious effect. The production’s still on until March, and, although it’s unsurprisingly sold out, there is still the odd ticket for sale for a few performances.

 

King Lear – oh dear

Posted in Theatre with tags on February 5, 2009 by alexlarman

LearA pretty long blog today, which I feel is deserved.

King Lear – Quintessentially Review

Fresh from some spectacular successes over the last couple of years, including his Olivier-award winning production of Macbeth and his revival of Oliver, Rupert Goold, theatre’s newest star, cannot be accused of resting on his laurels, and his new production of King Lear (transferring to London after a season in Liverpool) continues to confirm Goold’s reputation as the most exciting young director since Sam Mendes. With a restrained, almost low-key performance from Pete Postlethwaite as Lear, Goold revels in the opportunities for visual flamboyance and daring, making this one of the most spectacular Shakespearean productions that there’s been in recent memory. Those faint of heart might wish to avert their eyes during the Grand Guignol spectacle of Gloucester’s eye-gouging; apparently at least one theatregoer normally faints an evening.

 

 Thus the ‘official’ review, to be found at Quintessentially. However it doesn’t even begin to compare to the sheer eye-popping (quite literally, but more of that later) ‘What the fuck!’ reaction that I had while watching the new staging of Lear at the Young Vic last night. I went along with reasonably high hopes. I was aware that Rupert Goold’s staging opened to mediocre reviews in Liverpool, but thought that the combination of a good cast, an innovative and really exciting director (his Macbeth, which I missed, was acclaimed to the skies, and his Tempest, which I did see, was terrific from start to finish) and, of course, one of the greatest plays ever written couldn’t fail.

 

Boy, was I wrong.

 

It’s probably easier to describe the evening’s failings in two separate categories, the simply bad and then the perverse. There’s plenty in each.

 

The bad.

 

Postlethwaite simply isn’t even vaguely adequate as Lear. ‘Restrained and almost low-key’ is a polite euphemism for ‘barely registers’. Somewhat problematic, perhaps, when you’re playing the title role of what’s commonly regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Postlethwaite, who is frequently inaudible unless he’s holding a hand-held microphone (as he does, inexplicably, in the storm scene) lacks the physical presence to portray a man who, even when mad, is ‘every inch a king’. He might make an adequate Kent or Gloucester, but has precisely none of the stature that the role regards. He’s the third actor I’ve seen take on the role on stage. I had problems with both the Corin Redgrave and Ian McKellen productions, but at least both actors gave the part a suitably commanding reading. Postlethwaite looks like he’d be happier sitting at home reading the paper. And on a sidenote, the many scenes of him stripped to the waist are disturbing, not so much for any evocation of madness, but because he looks scarily, painfully thin. Give the man a cheeseburger!

 

Then again, he can’t be expected to lead from the front when a number of the cast are dreadful. The actresses playing Goneril, Regan and Cordelia are all inadequate; Cordelia is the worst, partly because she’s utterly inaudible and partly because Goold doesn’t have a clue what to do with her character. Granted, this is Shakespeare’s fault to some extent – Cordelia’s a passive figure whose off-stage death robs her of the pathos that an emotionally devastating ending appears to need – but the actress is so dreary and flat and wooden that it almost comes as a blessed relief. Edmund is played as a smarmy Ulsterman, with shades of James Nesbitt, rather than the near-Satanic seducer he should be; Kent as a trainspotter in an anorak. I can see what Forbes Masson is trying to do as the Fool – playing him as a washed-up vaudeville act with paranoia issues – but unlike an excellent RSC Feste of his I saw a few years ago, he doesn’t do it especially well. With two exceptions – a very good, very traditional Gloucester from John Shrapnel and a pretty convincing Edgar from Tobias Menzies – there’s not a performance here that rises above mediocrity.

 

The production drags horribly in places. Goold uses just about every trick in the book to keep the audience interested, a huge number of which are completely inappropriate and textually irrelevant (of which more in a moment). He appears to have ditched some of the more infamous flourishes from the Liverpool production (such as the production opening with Margaret Thatcher reciting Francis of Assisi’s prayer) but hasn’t managed to make a long night (the best part of 4 hours) any less laborious. Scene after scene drifts by without any particular dynamism or drive; as Goold’s directorial tricks get more and more outré then the play does at least become more compelling, if only in disbelief at what, precisely, is unfolding before one’s eyes.

 

The perverselear2

 

I write this not in anger, not even really in disappointment, but in bewilderment. Goold is clearly an immensely talented, incredibly intelligent man, who has a strong directorial signature and whose willingness to take risks is immensely praiseworthy. I’d much rather go and see a play directed by him, complete with cinematic flair and sweep, than the boringly competent productions half the major directors in London turn out, and, all these comments notwithstanding, I’ll be first in line for whatever he does next. But it’s quite clear that every directorial decision he made was a conscious one; as the critic next to me said, in the midst of despair, ‘It’s completely obvious that everything up on stage is his vision’.

 

What this ‘vision’ seems to be, sadly, is that Lear should be regarded as a kind of slapstick black comedy, and played as such. I had my doubts from very early, when Lear was greeted with a chorus of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, and then Lear, upon taking the microphone (yes, the microphone) serenaded the audience with a few lines of ‘My Way’, but then it continues apace with bewildering, strange directorial decisions. A few of the more egregious:

 

         Edgar ends II.III by appearing to physically transform into ‘Poor Tom’, undergoing a kind of semi-lycanthropy, for no apparent reason

         The eye-gouging of Gloucester, initially accompanied by jaunty ragtime music on a radio, then ends with Regan biting his eye out (!), taking it in her mouth (!!) and then spitting it out on the other side of the stage (!!!). Thus what should be a poignant and horrifying moment is turned into something out of a cheap torture porn film.

         The Fool’s death or disappearance – ‘Alas, and my poor Fool is hanged’ – is always difficult for any director to deal with because the character disappears halfway through, and apart from Lear’s possibly irrelevant line, no indication as to what happens to him is given. Few directors have gone quite as far as Goold, however, and added a very, very strange death scene where he is gunned down by two helicopter pilots and a white-clad Cordelia, only to reappear later on as a doctor ministering towards the recovering Lear. I can honestly say I didn’t understand what on earth the point of this was; was it just a desire to have Forbes Masson double up as two characters for budgetary reasons? In which case why does the doctor address him by the Fool’s catchphrase of ‘Nuncle Lear’? And if he’s been shot, why does Lear believe he is hanged? And if he hasn’t been shot (an action grotesquely out of character for Cordelia) then when does he get hanged?

         The madness. It’s always difficult to portray this without being pretentious or absurd, but Goold goes headlong over the top. In the heath scene, Postlethwaite declaims into a microphone while surrounded by the cast, swaying gently. The overall effect is not unlike watching some dreadful 70s rock video (although I was also reminded of the spoof Eurovision song in Father Ted, ‘The Miracle Is Mine’). However, this is nothing compared to what occurs when Postlethwaite (reluctantly, you imagine) appears dressed in a shabby floral dress, holding a parasol, which is, to be generous, a free interpretation of ‘fantastically dressed, holding wild flowers’. It gets worse; at the climax of his ‘Every inch a king’ speech, throughout which he is seen to be ‘touching himself’ furiously, he appears to ejaculate; therefore, Gloucester’s ‘O let me kiss that hand’ and Lear’s ‘Let me wipe it first’ are played for nothing more than prurient, completely inappropriate laughs.

         The final battle between Edgar and Edmund (preceded by the most ineffectual trumpet blasts you’ve ever heard) has Edgar reappearing dressed in a sort of low-rent BNP outfit, complete with flag over his head, and then the two fight in plastic swords; Edmund’s death is therefore effected by the operatic effect of his having a bit of plastic rammed into his mouth. Nice.

 

I could go on, but I shan’t. In a curious way I’d actually recommend this to anyone curious, as it acts as a kind of primer in how not to do Shakespeare. As I wrote before, I think that this will be seen as a minor footnote in Goold’s otherwise glittering career, and I hope that Postlethwaite puts on some weight soon. It should be noted that it was greeted with enthusiastic applause at the press night, and the woman on my left gave it a standing ovation. The woman on my right, however, bemoaned the fact that she wasn’t able to leave hours before. Different strokes, perhaps.

Snow, and lots of it

Posted in Uncategorized on February 2, 2009 by alexlarman

As late, unlamented post-Britpop band JJ72 once caterwauled ‘Why won’t it snow’…except that it’s absolutely pelting down now. I’ve never known anything like it. Walking down Highgate Hill this morning (late for work, naturally – but why look a gifthorse in the mouth? And besides at least I bothered turning up, unlike 75% of my colleagues) was rather like traversing a mountain, very slowly and carefully. London does look absolutely phenomenal at the moment; I was on the Mall last night just as the snow really began, and it was a genuinely awe-inspiring sight to see Trafalgar Square absolutely covered in snow.

In fact, the only bad thing about this unexpected deluge is that we have absolutely no idea when it’s going to end – apparently it may well be here for most of the rest of the week. Part of me thinks that a snowball fight is called for, but another, more cowardly, part is already looking for my hot water bottle, prior to a lengthy hibernation.