Archive for March, 2009

Battlestar Galactica – better than The Wire?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23, 2009 by alexlarman

Firstly, I’ve never seen either programme, so it isn’t for me to judge. But funny how this point of comparison has been used here, all on the same day, allegedly by different writers:

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/tv_and_radio/article5939054.ece

and here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/mar/19/battlestar-galactica-review

and, perhaps surprisingly given it’s supposed to be about films, here:

http://www.empireonline.com/empireblog/post.asp?id=464

Coincidence? Or just incredible laziness?

Pet Shop Boys – Yes

Posted in Music, Uncategorized on March 20, 2009 by alexlarman

psbIt’s a title to conjure with, isn’t it? The Pet Shop Boys have always been terrific at one-word titles (Very, Bilingual, Nightlife, Fundamental, Actually, Before), all of which normally hint at something wry, faintly distancing and clever. Yet Yes seems positive, exultant, uplifting. You might have forgiven for thinking that this was their great pop album – not only is it produced and partially co-written by Xenomania, suppliers of pop nous to the chart aristocracy (Girls Aloud), but also the lead single ‘Love Etc’, with its call-and-response chorus, sounds like a quasi-sequel to their best-known song of the last 15 years, their cover of the Village People’s Go West.

It’s not as good an album as their 2006 release Fundamental, which admittedly had a couple of duff tracks but also a half-dozen of their finest songs ever.  It is, however, considerably better than their 2002 album Release (for my money, the blandest thing they’ve ever released). Working with Xenomania has made it sound very much like a classic Pet Shop Boys album in the vein of Very – songs like Pandemonium, More Than A Dream and All Around The World are classic, catchy, singalong pop. I’m not quite so sure about some of the slower songs, which tend either to be unforgettable classics in their oeuvre (see It Couldn’t Happen Here, To Speak Is A Sin, Jealousy, I Made My Excuses And Left) or blandly forgettable filler; King Of Rome isn’t especially interesting, and Legacy will either grow on me or leave no trace.

There are a few traces of the usual lyrical wit – Building A Wall will be the only song you hear this year to reference John Betjeman and Captain Britain, an ill-fated attempt at a British superhero – but Neil Tennant appears  on faintly anodyne form when it comes to the lyrics, relying too much on hints at past glories; thus some of it’s a bit political, some of it’s a bit romantic, and some of it refers to Carphone Warehouse. I don’t have the faintest idea why.

So, to sum up; no Fundamental, no Very, but a decent pop album with some cracking tunes on it. Can we expect anything more? Or should we?

Natasha Richardson, Asylum & Patrick Marber

Posted in Film on March 19, 2009 by alexlarman

asylumI didn’t have any particular feelings one way or the other about Natasha Richardson while she was alive. There were murmurings that she was a fantastic stage actress – well you’d have to be with a pedigree like that wouldn’t you? – but her work in film was almost entirely underwhelming. I remember her looking ill at ease in the botched adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, managed to avoid her Grande Dame performances in the likes of Maid In Manhattan & The Parent Trap, and never saw her (apparently much better) Patty Hearst.

The film that did seem rather more successful, albeit not really because of her performance as her willingness to champion the project, was David McKenzie’s adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum. It’s not a film that particularly works – Richardson was probably about a decade too old by the time it was made, McKenzie’s direction seems fatally unsure of itself and its literary origins hang over it like a shroud – but it has some wonderfully delicious moments, all courtesy of Patrick Marber’s barbed, witty adaptation (he’s credited as a co-writer but this is a contractual Tom Stoppard/Marc Norman Shakespeare In Love situation) and Ian McKellen being very malicious, camp & highly entertaining as the second-in-command of the asylum. There’s a wonderful moment when Hugh Bonneville, as Richardson’s husband and the asylum-keeper, barks at McKellen ‘I am your superior!’ only to be met with the dry retort ‘In what sense?’ 

Richardson was also in  Closer on Broadway, and I imagine that she’d have been considerably better than Julia Roberts was in the film (a piece of egregious miscasting dictated by Cate Blanchett’s pregnancy). It’s obviously a terrible shame that she’s died in such a wastefully tragic manner, and who knows what effect it will have on Liam Neeson, never an actor especially associated with light comedy at the best of times.

Julie Myerson – oh, the woe…

Posted in Literature on March 18, 2009 by alexlarman

myersonIf you’ve been following the saga of Julie Myerson at all, you’ll know that it goes something along these lines: writer’s son stops being lovely innocent little boy and becomes monosyllabic teenage drug taker (or addict, depending on your point of view), gets thrown out of the house, much weeping ‘n’ gnashing of teeth ensures, and then, lo and behold, a book appears out of it. In much the same way that a Guardian column appeared out of it.

I haven’t yet read Myerson’s account of her travails, but depending on how you approach it, it’s either a brave and cathartic act to write about her family’s troubles, or merely a more middlebrow and self-consciously ‘literary’ attempt (there is another story folded into the book about a 19th century girl who died young, hence the title) to turn one’s own life into a misery memoir. It’s interesting to see that women have given her much more of a kicking than men have – perhaps it’s either the utter horror many would react to the rejection of a son with, or maybe it’s more the sense that men, y’know, quite fancy her.

What we don’t know is whether her defiantly dope-smoking, articulate but undeniably mercenary son (who sold his story to the Daily Mail) is really the feral terror she appears to paint him as, or an ordinary teenager being brought up by 2 right on (in the most ghastly sense of that ghastly phrase) parents whose apparent sympathising with any number of liberal causes whose reaction to the idea that society’s problems might be a great deal closer to home is to react firstly with horror, then panic, and then in print.

The saga shows no signs of going away. Were I Myerson’s agents or publishers, I’d get her to write something altogether tamer next time. A children’s book, perhaps.

Virgin Megastore RIP…but long live Virgin Gigastores?

Posted in Music on March 16, 2009 by alexlarman

virgin20megastoreAs anyone who has even the slightest interest in music, and where they buy that music, knows, it’s now pretty dismal if you want to buy records from a high street shop. In the not-too-recent past, you had a choice from, off the top of my head, HMV, Virgin Megastores, Tower Records, Andy’s Records, MVC, Our Price, Sam Goody, Fopp and, of course, the many and various indies that throng the high street.  Now, rather impressively, all of the above have shut down, with the exception of HMV, which maintains a monopoly as a result. I don’t know if the OFT are going to get involved; they probably should. 

It’s easy to say why this is. In most of the cases above, it’s because the shops were rubbish. Tower Records was quite good but overpriced; Andy’s Records and Sam Goody never really had any national clout; MVC and Our Price were quite good for the latest releases and useless for anything else, and Fopp was a brilliant idea that horrendously overstretched itself by trying to be a major player. It has now returned, chastened with a few stores, and owned by HMV. Opinions differ on whether it’s anything like as good as it used to be.

I don’t have anything against HMV as such, but it’s a great pity that Virgin Megastores declined & died through bad luck as much as anything else, although the rebranding to Zavvi was a stupid idea, standing for nothing. As I walk past the doleful-looking former flagships on Oxford Street and Piccadilly, it seems inevitable that they’ll be turned into Primark or some other more profitable clothing store. Here is what I’d do, and this might lead to success.

1) Get Branson back on board & rebrand the shops as ‘Virgin Gigastores’, which would nod to the new musical age, but also imply that they’re going to be more involved in live music, which leads us onto…

2) Become a major player in the live market. HMV have already started this to some extent – but there’s more that can be done.  Hold regular live mini-performances in the shops, work with some existing gig venues to become ‘Virgin Academy Brixton’, rebuild a relationship with the V Festival by selling exclusive tickets, etc etc. Sell exclusive live CDs, DVDs, MP3s etc of performances.  

3) Make the whole experience more fun. Neil Tennant, himself no mean observer of the music scene, commented in a recent interview how *depressing* shopping for records is these days, and he’s completely right. Going to the Apple store on Regent Street, whether you’re going to buy anything or not, is always a fun experience, partly because the people working there have every clue as to what they’re doing, and partly because it’s a funky, vibrant experience. Compared to this, record shops feel stuck in a sort of 1998 timewarp, where DVDs have replaced videos but where MP3s seem to be a kind of dirty secret that threatens everyone’s livelihood. Jazz it up – have live bands, Guitar Hero sections, mixing decks, festivals, MP3 downloading stations – *anything* – but just make the act of going to record stores fun again. Someone. Please…

Watchmen: round 2

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2009 by alexlarman

ozyI seem to have been talking, and writing, about Watchmen quite a lot lately. My first reaction to it, as my earlier post indicated, was a largely positive one, albeit with a few reservations. I then saw it again last weekend, and have a few more thoughts. Spoilers to follow, probably, but then if you’ve already seen it you probably won’t mind.

I would hesitate before describing it as either a failure or a success. Peter Bradshaw called it ‘a flawed masterpiece’ and I think that’s too strong – but then he went on to quality this by calling it ‘more flaw than masterpiece’. I remain a virgin to the comic book, though I did dip into it, and what seems quite clear is that Zach Snyder’s adaptation is about as faithful as one might be without being described as cinematically uxorious. The ending – in which Ozymandias harnesses the powers of Dr Manhattan to destroy a dozen cities, thereby preventing the apocalypse – is better than the absurd giant squid invasion in the comic book, but it still has severe problems. I liked Matthew Goode’s performance much better second time round (Malin Ackermann is still dreadful) but I wish that Snyder had cast Tom Cruise, who, as my friend Catherine has so accurately observed, has that edge of barely controlled mania that his best directors (Mann, PT Anderson, Kubrick) have expertly brought out. As is, Goode seems faintly disinterested in the idea that he’s killed untold millions of people, whereas the sheer weight of the moral choice ought to resonate far, far more.

Oddly enough the slow-motion fight scenes, and Tyler Bates’ stirring score, registered less second time around, whereas Patrick Wilson’s beautifully nuanced performance seems almost short-changed by his transformation into the most conventional action hero of the lot. I did like what Billy Crudup was doing as Dr Manhattan a great deal more second time round; he brings a gentleness and a shyness to the role which almost seems to befit a godlike figure. And at least it wasn’t Arnie.

 I suppose that I expected the film to be more difficult, more allusive (which of course it is, but in a different way) and esoteric to a point where it might almost qualify as an arthouse film. Despite the apparently disappointing opening gross in the US – yes, people, we now live in a world where a $55 million opening weekend is disappointing – it will probably end up being regarded as one of the finest examples of the superhero/comic book genre to date, but a long way short of the masterpiece it might have been.

In The Loop – the funniest film of 2009?

Posted in Film on March 10, 2009 by alexlarman

in-the-loopThe question mark is because there is a chance that Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy, Bruno, might be funnier, but I doubt it somehow. In The Loop (which has a press embargo on it til next month, blah blah blah) is essentially The Thick Of It: the movie, and none the worse for that. It concerns the misadventures of the hapless, useless Minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander, probably never better)  whose casual remark on a radio interview that war is ‘unforeseeable’ puts him into a collision course with all manner of US politicians and the expletive-spitting spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, who will win the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor next year, and if I can persuade a bookie to offer me odds I’m sticking a tenner on now). 

Directed by Armando Iannucci, and written by a team including Peep Show’s Jesse Armstrong, it fizzes with brilliantly witty dialogue that makes a great deal more sense in context, such as Hollander’s troubled line ‘Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult’, which sounds flat on the page but in context is uproarious, as well as endlessly quotable lines like Tucker’s ‘Climb the mountain of conflict? You sound like a Nazi Julie Andrews!’.  Cinematically it’s unexceptional – it might as well have been made for TV – but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that there won’t be a funnier film in the rest of 2009. And I will have to see it again to catch half the jokes I was laughing at too hard to hear the first time. Fuckety-bye!