Archive for October, 2009

An Education

Posted in Film on October 31, 2009 by alexlarman


Or, A Star Is Born. That’d be Carey Mulligan, star of possibly the year’s best British film, the quite wonderful An Education. Directed by the little-known Lone Scherfig and written by bestselling novelist Nick Hornby, the film is adapted from Lynn Barber’s coming of age memoir, in which she tells the bittersweet story of her romantic awakening at the hands of an older man while still a schoolgirl. Mulligan plays the Barber character, here renamed Jenny, a bright, witty schoolgirl bound for Oxford if she manages to master those pesky Latin words. That is until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming man in his mid-thirties who appears to know the finer things in life, such as art, wine and, best of all, Paris, somewhere that the Francophile Jenny is entranced by. He even charms her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) by his plausible manner and fantastic Goon Show impersonations. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, David is not exactly what he seems. The education that Jenny undergoes is therefore multi-layered.

Most of the advance praise for this superb film has focused on Mulligan, whose quite wonderful performance as the ingenue brings all manner of antecedents to mind. Critical commentary has suggested, over and over again, that she is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s – true – but I was also reminded of Ellen Page in Juno, a similar role in that it allowed a very talented actress to simultaneously come across as wise beyond her years and, when the chips are down, to play a frightened girl out of her depth in adult situations. She’s stunningly attractive when she needs to be, but entirely convincing as a sixteen year old schoolgirl in other scenes. It’s a magnetic performance which will certainly be recognised come the Oscars.

But – and it’s a big but – she doesn’t give the best performance in the film. That’d be Alfred Molina as her father, Jack, who is absolutely brilliant as a pompous, harried middle-aged, middle-class man, proud of his clever daughter but always pushing her, always trying to make sure that she’s going to live up to expectations and get her place at Oxford. Yet the brilliance of Hornby’s script is that when David appears, with his entirely plausible manner, Jack is as delighted by the prospect of his daughter becoming the responsibility of This Charming Man as he might be at her university career. Of course, things don’t exactly pan out like that, and so Molina has a quite, quite brilliant and moving scene in which he delivers a monologue through a closed door. You’ll know it when you see it – the crucial line is ‘All my life I’ve been scared, and I didn’t want you to be scared.’ I don’t know if Molina has any chance of winning an Oscar, given that this is the year he’s up against the brilliantly flashy Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, but he’s absolutely wonderful.

That said, so’s all the cast. Dominic Cooper brings back fleeting memories of The History Boys as David’s spivvy business partner, but is surprisingly good, and Rosamund Pike is hilarious as his incredibly dense girlfriend, at one point shrieking with delight ‘That’s so great! You won’t have to read books any more!’ I also liked Olivia Williams as Jenny’s English teacher – yes, of course the inspirational English teacher is a time-honoured cliche, but Williams manages to make the performance seem real, and natural, and sympathetic that her character is one of those that you look forward to seeing whenever she reappears. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Peter Sarsgaard – his accent is wobbly and there’s something slightly sinister about him that works against his character’s likeability – but then I guess that’s the point.

Scherfig’s direction is unobtrusive, vaguely picturesque when it needs to be, and highly sympathetic to the performances. Hornby’s script crackles with funny, witty lines and I was pleased at many of the references – from the 17th century cartographer John Speed to the artist John Piper, lots of quirky, unusual people get namechecked here. I suppose if you were utterly joyless you could carp at the film for being determinedly old-fashioned – like The History Boys, there’s something very antique about an Oxford education being the only thing worth striving for – and the ending is all a bit neat, but this is one of the year’s absolute best films, a witty, wise delight from start to finish. I can’t recommend it highly enough.



Spiritualized at the Festival Hall

Posted in Music, Uncategorized on October 17, 2009 by alexlarman

Jason-Pierce-of-Spiritual-001Another hectic but highly enjoyable week began with a visit to the Festival Hall to watch Jason Pierce and Spiritualized perform their masterpiece album Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in its entirety, as part of a series of gigs in the ‘Don’t Look Back’ series curated by ATP. As a long-standing admirer of the album and band, I was especially excited by the news that the band would be augmented by strings, brass and a gospel choir; given that previous live Spiritualized performances I’d seen had either been acoustic or just the six-piece band, I was hoping for something grandiose, beautiful and epic.

Which I certainly got, albeit with some occasional longeurs. Pierce seems torn as to whether he wants to be Phil Spector or the Jesus and Mary Chain, which means that the show alternated between moments of heartstopping brilliance and irritating, rambling jams which go nowhere. (Cop Shoot Cop was better than on record, but still something of an ordeal.) Thankfully the highlights were sublime, especially a version of Stay With Me that tipped its hat to the Lorraine Ellison/Scott Walker 60s classic Stay With Me Baby and the gospel-tinged Cool Waves, to say nothing of a fine account of Broken Heart, which ended like a classic Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

Pierce was as taciturn as ever – has there ever been a frontman who bothers so little about engaging the audience? – and can’t sing for toffee, but none of this matters when some of the music is quite so glorious. Here is an indication of the kinds of things going on.

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

Posted in Film on October 4, 2009 by alexlarman

parnassus001Is there any major Hollywood director who has had a harder time of it than Terry Gilliam? Edited lowlights of his career would include Universal refusing to release Brazil and attempting to re-edit into something more acceptably mainstream (Gilliam won), The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen briefly being the greatest flop of all time, failing to make his Don Quixote film for countless reasons, such as flash floods and Jean Rochefort’s illness, the Weinsteins utterly emasculating his Brothers Grimm film, his utterly inexplicable and perverse Tideland making literally no money, and, most gallingly of all, his latest film, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, suffered from the high-profile death halfway through of its star, Heath Ledger.It is a testament to Gilliam’s chutzpah and determination that the film was ever finished at all, thanks to the appearances of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in showy cameos.

The good news about the film is that it is clearly 100% a Terry Gilliam film, perhaps the most obviously ‘Gilliamesque’ film he has made since Munchausen. Present and correct are dream/fantasy sequences, grotesque and larger-than-life characters, surreal humour, charismatic actors giving flamboyant performances and a genuine sense of the fantastical. What the film unfortunately lacks is a coherent narrative. The plot, as far as it goes, is a competition between the immortal Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and the Devil (Tom Waits – who else?) to be the first to collect five souls. Failure for Parnassus results in his 15-year old daughter (Lily Cole) becoming Mr Nick’s property for all eternity. Parnassus runs a travelling theatre of sorts equipped with a magic mirror through which people can explore their own imaginations – and does that seem like a non sequitur? Effectively, that is the film’s problem. There’s an awful, awful lot going on here, both visually and in terms of ideas, which Gilliam’s madcap script (co-written with Charles McKeown, who hasn’t had any credited scripts since the underrated Ripley’s Game) is barely able to encompass. There’s some brilliant stuff here – a wry Depp cameo that plays like something out of The Fast Show; a surreal musical number in which cross-dressing policemen extoll their love of violence; Farrell’s brilliant performance, which adroitly combines charm and menace; and, of course, the last stand of Ledger, again reminding everyone why it’s such a loss that he died so young.

The problem is that it doesn’t combine into a coherent whole. The London-based locations oscillate between the brilliantly effective (Leadenhall Market) and the banal (Homebase?!) and give the film a slightly grotty, cheap feel, as if there’s scrimping and saving going on. There’s also a subplot involving Andrew Garfield, as one of the troupe, and his love for Cole which doesn’t convince. And let’s not even start on Verne Troyer, who is less an actor or character than a kind of exotic prop.

If this sounds negative, it’s not supposed to be. Gilliam firing on some cylinders is better than most hacks making their best film. And it’s witty, clever (note the way that ‘Tony’ is clearly a satire on Blair) and visually stunning. Certainly recommended, and maybe one day it won’t be overshadowed by Ledger’s death.

*Update* A thought – I don’t think that the modern-day setting does Gilliam any favourites. It might well have been a more compelling piece had it been set in Victorian times, a la Grimm.