Archive for September, 2009

Exam

Posted in Film on September 23, 2009 by alexlarman

examStuart Hazeldine has acquired a modest reputation in Hollywood as a rewriter of mainstream scripts, most notably for Alex Proyas, but his directorial debut is typical British debut film calling-card stuff; cleverly plotted, with an ingenious central conceit and a fair amount of directorial style, it suffers from a resolution that feels anti-climatic and some dodgily wooden performances.

The set-up is a splendid one, however. Eight strangers, of roughly different backgrounds, have all reached the final round for a prestigious job as assistant to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, and they have to sit a mysterious exam, invigilated by a stern man (Colin Salmon) who warns them that they will be disqualified if they speak to him or the security guard, leave the room, or deface their answer paper in any way. There is, he notes, one question, and one answer, and they have 80 minutes to find out what it is. And, as they say, the tension mounts.

To give any more away would be unfair. Some of the early reviews have described this as ‘Cube meets The Apprentice’, but a better way of looking at it would be as a (mostly) non-violent slasher film of sorts, as the characters are gradually whittled down. Some of the performances (Luke Mably, Jimi Mistry) are rather good, and some are incredibly wooden, but Hazeldine deserves kudos for building a surprising amount of suspense from what ultimately seems a rather trivial topic. I don’t know how well it’ll do at the box office, but it’s certainly worth a watch.

Advertisements

Sebastian Faulks – One Week In December

Posted in Literature on September 15, 2009 by alexlarman

AWeekInDecember_hardcoverI read, and enjoyed, Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked the other day. It does everything that it aims to do right, in a modest, unpretentious way, and has interesting characters, a refreshingly straightforward tone and a story that is intelligent enough to realise the ironies of its narrative contrivances. Sebastian Faulks’ One Week In December has none of these things. Released to a murmur of disapproval for its presentation of one of its Muslim protagonists, and to other mutters in the gossip columns about the identity of its ‘literary man’, a poisonous, bitter figure called R Tranter, most of the reviews have ignored the fact that it represents a low point in Faulks’ career to date, being a highly self-conscious ‘literary novel’ which, in its portentous cross-character narrative and uniquely patronising pop-cultural and intellectual allusions, is a quick but vaguely unpleasant read, a little like being drunkenly lectured by a successful, articulate but faintly arrogant man at a Notting Hill dinner party.

Amid the novel’s myriad threads (which include, amongst others, the culture-clash love affair between a barrister and a tube driver he is representing, an evil banker – so topical! – conniving to make billions illegally, the banker’s skunk-addicted son and neglected wife and a radicalised teenager planning a bomb attack) only one really comes alive, and that is the aforementioned account of the ‘literary man’ R Tranter. Faulks has played down who he’s based on but it seems likely that it’s a dig at DJ Taylor, who, as the Guardian dryly noted, ‘is all too clearly based on journalist DJ Taylor. Tranter admires Thackeray and writes for a satirical magazine, the Toad; Taylor has written a biography of Thackeray and writes a literary column for Private Eye.’  Faulks’ digs at the literary scene are sharp, accurate and well-observed, even if the resolution to this particular subplot smacks of the same implausibility that colours the rest of the book.

Alas, the rest of it is less successful. This is partly due to a lack of focus – too many characters means not enough time to get to know any of them, and some appear for literally a couple of pages before disappearing again – but also because Faulks appears to have researched large parts of the book, rather than written it. There are lengthy speeches on banking practice, which are certainly timely, but are also painfully boring for anyone but the uninitiated to read. The depiction of young men being radicalised into terrorism is undeniably still effective, but Faulks cops out by having his young would-be martyr running into the arms of an understanding woman. There is the (intentionally?) hilarious device of having secret code concealed inside pornographic pictures of a young model that these terrorists use – the young woman, meanwhile, is the paramour of a Polish footballer. And so on.

If this is adapted for television it might yet be effective, with good actors and a firm hand on the script. But its strange, half-parodic, half-tragic tone and finally overwhelming sense of its own brilliance defeat the book utterly.

Muse – The Resistance

Posted in Music on September 15, 2009 by alexlarman

the-resistance-museMuse have acquired a formidable reputation over the past few years both as a genuinely awe-inspiring live band and as an act who combine apparently irreconcilable influences (Wagner, Queen, R ‘N’ B, Rachmaninov, Metallica and many, many more) into thrillingly original and dynamic songs. Although I still think that Absolution (2003) is their high-water mark, the first half and closing song of Black Holes And Revelations (2006) comes fairly close in terms of thrillingly visceral songwriting. Even if Matt Bellamy’s lyrics tend to range somewhere between the opaque and the laughable, there’s at least the sense of a band doing something vastly more interesting than the usual boring indie rawk or corporate drivel.

Which is what makes the comparative failure of The Resistance all the more disappointing. I say ‘comparative’ because, for many other bands, this would be a highlight of their careers. Yet for Muse it is an uneasy mix of new ideas that don’t really work and a rehash of musical nods and influences that first emerged on 2001’s Origin Of Symmetry album. I realised from the first two singles released, the highly Queen-esque ‘United States Of Eurasia’ and the hugely, hugely derivative ‘Uprising’ (Blondie meets Dr Who meets Goldfrapp meets Knights Of Cydonia), that this was unlikely to be their masterpiece – a claim that the band made over and over again during recording and promotion – but the clanging realisation upon listening to The Resistance is that there’s nothing fresh or interesting here to speak of.

It isn’t all bad. Unnatural Selection and the title track are perfectly acceptable straight-ahead rockers. Undisclosed Desires sounds like Timbaland but is effective enough, and Guiding Light is a good, if prosaic, update of Invincible off their last album. The much-ballyhooed Exogenesis Symphony begins strongly, with the Overture probably the best song on the album, but quickly feels more like extracts from a larger work than the operatically stirring piece that it so clearly wants to be. And it’s the most prosaic end to a Muse album since Showbiz, perhaps surprisingly. But there’s no real passion to the album, no real drive, and there are some horrid missteps like the vile bass clarinet at the end of I Belong To You and the entirety of MK Ultra, the album’s dullest moment.

The problem with the album is, that for the first time, the patented Muse style is starting to wear slightly thin. Bellamy screams and wails apocalyptic portents, and Chris Wolstenholme and Dom Howard are as solid a rhythm section as ever, but the sheer visceral excitement that accompanied the past three albums is absent here. Most bands get criticised for releasing an album too different to their usual style. This one, I’m afraid, is all too similar.

Funny People

Posted in Film on September 1, 2009 by alexlarman

fpAdam Sandler belongs to that small sub-section of actors who it’s considered not just acceptable but practically de rigeur to dislike. Offhand, only the likes of Martin Lawrence, Rob Schneider (a long-time Sandler collaborator) and Paris Hilton belong to this seventh circle of thespian hell. Sandler gets a kicking for making films that are said to appeal to the lowest common denominator, with the $100 million plus US box office grosses gleefully contrasted with the films’ failures in the rest of the world. He has been criticised for being too lowbrow, too scatological, and, by implication, too Jewish-American to be of any relevance to anyone apart from frustrated teenage boys. Granted, he got a certain amount of critical praise for his weird performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ever-so-strange romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, and did a not-bad Bob Dylan impersonation in the apparently serious Love, Reign O’Er Me, but neither film was a success.

 

Judd Apatow, on the other hand, has become synonymous with a new breed of American comedy, serving as co-writer, producer or executive producer on a variety of comedies ranging from the excellent (Anchorman) to the dire (Year One) with barely a pause between them. Some do well, some do badly. All attract reasonably good actors and do nothing to harm his career. Additionally, his films as writer/director, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, have had critical and commercial success, even if some (myself included) would carp at their excessive length, US-centric focus, unbelievably plot contrivances and endless barrage of highly limited sell-by pop culture references. I watched The 40 Year Old Virgin months before it was released, knowing nothing about it, and found it amusing and charming, especially the performances from Steve Carrell and Catherine Keener, but was irritated by the way it kept going off into tangents designed to do little more than allow members of the supporting cast moments to riff. Ditto, on the whole, Knocked Up.

 

Apatow and Sandler have now been united (the two are long-standing friends and collaborators) for Funny People, a film that comes with all the hallmarks of grandiosity clinging to it. Its length (a staggering two and a half hours), literary allusions (The Great Gatsby and Tolstoy’s The Death Of Ivan Illyich), heavyweight cast and portentous subject matter make it quite clear that Apatow and Sandler see themselves as having grown up and want to make a serious film. The central plot, in which mega-millionaire comedian George Simmons (Sandler, fittingly cast) finds himself diagnosed with a rare and almost certainly fatal blood disease and has to come to terms with mortality and the fact that he leads a hollow and empty life is the stuff of classic tragic drama, and might have made for a blistering look at the foibles of Hollywood and comedy. It should be noted that, for the first half, Sandler is quite magnificent as an utterly hollow and superficial man facing his Waterloo.

 

However, as soon as the spectacle of Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman living together in, literally and figuratively, a sitcom situation appears, and the film devotes a significant amount of time to the somewhat unlikely friendship between Sandler and Rogen, it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be anything like as dark as it could have been. For all this, the first half is nevertheless highly accomplished and enjoyable. Rogen, a limited but likeable presence, contrasts the lurking misogyny in the Sandler character with an infectious bonhomie, not least in his tentative relationship with a glamorous but painfully shy fellow comedian who is coveted, almost in passing, by Schwartzman’s loathsome TV sitcom actor. Hill, meanwhile, looks like a junior version of the great fat actors of the 30s, a kind of twenty-something Sydney Greenstreet, delivering un-PC lines with aplomb. Good jokes and situations abound; it’s another winner from Apatow.

 

Until, that is, the Simmons character recovers, and the film goes badly downhill. Everything about the second half is unfortunate. Simmons’ rekindled relationship with old flame Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife) feels horrendously self-indulgent, with about an hour of screen time devoted to an airless subplot that eventually goes nowhere, and not even an amusingly charismatic Eric Bana, playing Australian for once, can reinvigorate it. There are endless cameos from people who will mean next to nothing to anyone outside of America (Eminem and Sarah Silverman being the exceptions), Sandler is required to show, y’know, his fans that he’s, y’know, not that bad a guy, and Rogen has little to do other than play stooge. There is a dash-to-the-airport that means absolutely nothing in terms of drama. The ending is weak and anti-climatic. And, oh dear me, it’s long. Two and a half hours feels like three. No doubt the special unrated DVD will take care of this, with extra penis jokes.

 

I hesitate to slate the film, as some of it is very good indeed. But it does make me wonder whether Apatow wouldn’t be better off making something smaller, less ambitiously grandiose and more overtly comedic in tone for his next film, avoiding the temptation to cast his wife and children (for all I know, other relatives of his appear in it as well) and becoming a filmmaker rather than someone peddling overlong home movies.