Archive for December, 2009

The Misanthrope, Moliere and Keira Knightley

Posted in Theatre with tags , , on December 30, 2009 by alexlarman

First things first: I used to feel about Keira Knightley as a man should about a woman. In films as varied as The Hole, the first Pirates Of The Caribbean and Love, Actually, she was a perfectly sweet, highly decorative presence. Granted, her acting ability was hardly beyond that of an enthusiastic drama student, and her occasional attempts to diversify often ended up being utterly ridiculous, most notably when she played Domino Harvey in the eponymous film. Her over-enunciated delivery of ‘Mah nahme is Domino Haaaarveh, and ah ahm a bounteh huntaaah’ is still one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard in a cinema.

The problem came when people appeared to decide that Keira Knightley was actually a fantastic actress, despite no evidence of this appearing. Therefore, she got considerably more challenging and difficult roles in films such as Atonement, Pride And Prejudice (the one where the rot set in), The Edge Of Love and The Duchess; broadly speaking, the sorts of costume drama parts that British actresses tend to corner the market in, and the sort of roles that a younger Kate Winslet might well have been considered for had she conveyed a sense of unattainable glamour rather than a sort of jolly-enthusiastic vivacity.

I’m not saying that Knightley was positively bad in these films, just that she was overwhelmingly adequate, and in some cases not even that. While she remains incredibly beautiful, with the kind of perfect features that really do resemble some kind of Gainsborough picture, her acting remains rooted at the level of a drama student. What’s embarrassing is that she’s often acted off the screen by better actors; Ralph Fiennes and Hayley Atwell in The Duchess, Sienna Miller (!) and Matthew Rhys in The Edge Of Love, James McAvoy and Romola Garai in Atonement and virtually everyone else in Pride And Prejudice.

So it would be fair to say that I went to see her in Martin Crimp’s new translation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope without particularly high expectations. I was more intrigued by Damian Lewis as Alceste, reconfigured by Moliere as a cynical playwright who is obsessively in love with a young American actress (guess who), who uses her wiles to manipulate those around her, including her agent, a fellow actor, her acting coach and, best of all, a pompous critic and would-be playwright.

As West End entertainment goes, The Misanthrope is perfectly acceptable. It is short, at just over 2 hours including interval; there are some excellent performances from actors such as Tim McMullan as the critic Covington and Nicholas Le Prevost as the lecherous old perma-tanned agent; and there are plenty of witty lines and satirical digs. And to be fair, Knightley isn’t bad in a role which comes imbued with vast amounts of heavily signposted dramatic irony, and looks stunning. The letdown is probably Lewis, who is one-note in a role that needs far more nuance in order to make the protagonist sympathetic, even while he is railing against modern society. And, more importantly, this is, like so many other updates of Moliere, fundamentally easy entertainment. Even a reference to a David Cameron-esque figure’s ‘flat, bland mask of pity’ – a pretty damning indictment of a leader who we don’t even have yet – doesn’t do much other than vaguely register as a nice, faintly cutting line. And finally this is the problem – it’s a Keira Knightley vehicle. Depth doesn’t really come into it.

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Nowhere Boy – the script

Posted in Film with tags , , on December 29, 2009 by alexlarman

No offence to Matt Greenhalgh, the screenwriter, but I can’t help thinking that the screenplay for Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy must originally have looked something like this:

LIVERPOOL, 1957. It’s grim Up North, but not *that* grim – more sort of grim in a picturesque way.

JOHN LENNON is a stunning-looking young man. He looks a bit tearful under his bravado. KRISTIN SCOTT-THOMAS is his stern AUNT MIMI. His uncle’s just died.

LENNON: Eh, me uncle’s dead! (Weeps)
MIMI: No use crying, we’ve got to get on with things now. (Weeps discreetly to show three-dimensionality)

To show LENNON will be a BEATLE, he wanders past Strawberry Fields home, doodles a walrus etc. To show he will be a REBEL, he spouts faintly sarcastic one-liners, wears cool glasses and shags girls in parks.

LENNON wanders off and finds his REAL MUM JULIA, played by Anne-Marie Duff, very well actually.

LENNON: Eh! You’re me mum! (Weeps a bit)
JULIA: I am John! And now we’ll never be apart! Did you know that music means sex?
LENNON: No! Never!

We see VARIOUS FLASHBACKS of the YOUNG LENNON which are A BIT WEEPY too. Something has CLEARLY GONE WRONG IN THE PAST.

LENNON goes to a village fete. A little boy comes up to him, played by Liam Neeson’s stepson from Love, Actually. This, apparently, is PAUL McCARTNEY.

LENNON:  Eh, you’re a wanker. Wanna beer?
McCARTNEY: Can I have a cup of tea please? Here, listen to my amazing guitar playing.
LENNON: Right, you’re in the band.
McCARTNEY: Can my mate George join in as well?
LENNON: Aye.

Eventually AUNT MIMI and JULIA have a terrible confrontation. There is A NIAGARA OF WEEPING.

MIMI: You were a useless mum!
JULIA: And you’re playing the part like you’re in Noel Coward!
MIMI: That’s as may be, but at least I’m not going to die tragically in the next ten minutes!
JULIA: I’ve abandoned my child! I’ve abandoned my boy!
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: That’s my line!

LENNON looks confused and weeps.

LENNON: I can’t stand it! All I’m faced with is carefully constructed Oedipal conflict and some arty flashbacks that end up signifying that my mum’s a bit odd in the head. What do I do? (Weeps some more.)

A RECONCILIATION takes place for dramatic purposes (‘cup of tea Julia?’), and a brief respite from weeping, until JULIA is unexpectedly run over and killed.

MIMI: My sister’s dead! (Weeps)
LENNON: My mum’s dead! (Weeps copiously)
McCARTNEY: My mum’s dead too! (Weeps even more copiously)

There is a SYMBOLIC SCENE of LENNON and McCARTNEY playing ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’. Everyone WEEPS.

LENNON: Right, I’m off to Hamburg to become JOHN LENNON. See ya, Auntie.
MIMI: I may be stern, but I can see this is what you’re destined to do. Off you go and become JOHN LENNON. (Weeps a bit.)
SAM TAYLOR-WOOD: Blimey, Aaron Johnson as John Lennon, you’re a bit of alright. Shall we get married?
AARON JOHNSON: And helpfully whip up some publicity for our film by appearing to justify the Oedipal themes? Why on earth not? The fact that you’re a multi-millionaire has nothing to do with this…

It should be also noted of this mostly entertaining but slightly histrionic film that the Goldfrapp score is frustratingly conventional; that the decision never to use the words ‘The Beatles’ is fair enough; and that it’s a surprisingly restrained directorial debut for Sam Taylor-Wood.

Sherlock Holmes

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on December 19, 2009 by alexlarman

Given the current vogue for re-inventions of iconic characters (Batman, James Bond, Superman et al), you might have predicted what a 2009 Sherlock Holmes film might have been like quite safely, pitching it somewhere between Young Sherlock Holmes and Batman Begins. A brilliant, unfocused young man, possibly with one great tragic love affair yet to come, discovers near-uncanny powers of deduction during exotic travels, mentored by an equally brilliant mastermind, known only as ‘Moriarty’. As Holmes falls in with a recently discharged army veteran, soldier-cum-doctor John Watson, he realises that Moriarty is up to no good…

Thus the film that might have been expected, an origin story that clearly dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of what the Holmes character did to become the legendary inhabitant of 221b Baker Street. It is probably to Guy Ritchie, Joel Silver and Robert Downey Jnr’s credit that the finished film bears no relation to this idea. Holmes here is in mid-career, having an amusingly camp relationship with his long-suffering sidekick Dr Watson (as played by an improbably dashing and fist-handy Jude Law) and a brilliant detective. Thus, when the satanic Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, Hollywood’s villain du jour) apparently rises from the grave after his execution and promises an apocalyptic reckoning on London, it is down to Holmes and Watson to save the day.

Purists may carp – and they will – at the way that Conan Doyle’s complex, tormented detective has been simplified, even softened. Downey Jnr’s performance has echoes of his Tony Stark, even his superb performance as Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and he’s an engaging protagonist, but in Ritchie’s envisioning of the character, he’s straightforward, a tad eccentric perhaps but an efficient man of action whose deductive skills come second to his talents with the fisticuffs. Watson is more or less the same, slightly more settled in his ways (he has a fiancee, indifferently embodied by Kelly Reilly) but handy in a fight. Strong plays a suitably vile villain, although he cannot but seem like a curtain-raiser for the inevitable appearance of Moriarty in the sequel.

It’s all good straightforward knockabout fun, capably directed by Ritchie who proves an unexpectedly dab hand at some large-scale set pieces, and with some genuinely funny lines. If it’s finally somewhat ephemeral, a tad overlong and not helped by Rachel McAdams in a largely irrelevant part as Holmes’ former paramour, it’s still a rollicking two hours of old-fashioned entertainment. And Hans Zimmer’s terrific score, making good use of weird instrumentation such as the Jew’s harp and zither, is a fantastic accompaniment. It may be out at Boxing Day, but it’s far from a turkey.

Avatar – the second coming of cinema?

Posted in Film on December 18, 2009 by alexlarman

Avatar, the latest from James Cameron, has had a pretty interesting journey to the screen. 12 years after becoming King Of The World with Titanic and its 11 Oscar wins, he has returned to the big screen (or, if you’re watching it at the IMAX, a very very big screen indeed) with his latest adventure, Avatar. Advance buzz on it has gone from interest (when it was first announced) to near-hysteria (when August’s so-called ‘Avatar Day’ was heralded, with the first public preview of 15 minutes of 3D footage) to ridicule and disappointment. Whispers of ‘It’s Ferngully’ were heard, and, as with Titanic, the gossip was that Cameron had hugely overextended himself. Then it screened to critics last week, and all of a sudden the word on the street was that King Of The World had become Master Of The Universe. It was, they cried, nothing less than a visionary masterpiece, a work of genius and an astonishing coup de cinema. The truth, as so often, lies somewhere in between.

First things first: Avatar is unmissable. It’s not unmissable because it’s a brilliant piece of scripting, plotting or a showcase for great performances. It’s unmissable because, in its IMAX, 3-D splendour, it really does convey the sense of an alternate world, in this case known as Pandora. The visuals that Cameron creates are mind-blowingly detailed, ranging from mountains suspended in mid-air to 12-foot high humanoid aliens known as the Na’vi, whose planet various greedy industrialists wish to rape and pillage. Caught in between is a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake Sully, as played by Sam Worthington (good though with dodgy accent and unnecessary voiceover), initially recruited to act as a spy by the psychotic Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, giving good baddie) but who eventually becomes seduced into the world of the Na’vi, which means that, come the inevitable clash, he has choices to make.

At two and a half hours, it’s quite clear that Cameron has intended to make an epic, and he’s succeeded. What’s lacking here that’s present in the likes of, say, Lawrence Of Arabia or Gladiator is a simple, compelling narrative through-line. As the love story between Sully and the Na’vi princess Seytini (Zoe Saldana) dominates the second act, echoes of the longeurs of Titanic return. Cameron can do desperate, doomed romance and the grand operatic moments within these, but he doesn’t seem to have much affinity for simplicity.* Although to be fair, when you’ve got the eye-popping spectacle of Pandora, anything smaller is going to be overshadowed.

Thank heavens, then, for the final act, which sees Cameron return to what he does best, namely mind-blowing action. As helicopter gunships battle what look like giant dragonflies, and desperate last stands and tense apocalyptic countdowns come to dominate, there can be little doubt that the greatest action director of the 2oth century hasn’t lost his touch. Whatever your opinions of the first 2 hours, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this final act alone is well worth the price of admission. What will be interesting is to see how it holds up on subsequent viewings.

*Although, on reflection, there are moments – Worthington being coerced into eating scrambled eggs before returning to his avatar at a point of extreme tension on Pandora, one of the final images of Neyriti cradling his body – which endure just as well as the I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this-spectacle.

Me And Orson Welles – or, the rise of Christian McKay

Posted in Film on December 7, 2009 by alexlarman

How many times have you seen a film with a supporting actor you’re either completely or partially unfamiliar with, and they’ve been so extraordinarily good that you’ve eagerly watched everything that they’ve ever done subsequently? I can think of only a few. Kevin Spacey in the one-two punch of Seven and The Usual Suspects; Ed Norton in Primal Fear; and, more recently, Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. (I’d also add Cate Blanchett in Oscar and Lucinda and Elizabeth so as to avoid accusations of sexism.)

To this list we can now add Christian McKay. Advance word on his performance in Richard Linklater’s Me And Orson Welles was stellar, but it doesn’t even come close to describing how he runs away with the film. Aside from McKay’s note-perfect, swaggeringly charismatic performances as Welles, this is a sweet but not particularly profound coming-of-age story, with an adequate but unexciting lead performance by Zac Efron as a young man who finds himself, virtually by accident, taking part in Welles’ groundbreaking fascist production of Julius Caesar in the 1930s, and becoming involved with the company’s stage manager, as played by Clare Danes. It’s Linklater in anonymous rather than arty mode, and some good gags and nice performances from a mainly British cast make the running time pass pleasantly enough.

But whenever McKay is on screen, it lifts several notches. This is partly because Welles gets all the best lines and most interesting dramatic situations, but mainly because it’s a brilliantly calibrated dramatic performance from McKay – there is one scene towards the end where Caesar is re-enacted (at pleasing detail and length) and you are effectively watching McKay, as Welles, as Brutus, and it’s electrifying. Yet watch the way in which McKay allows tiny hints of vulnerability to play off against the bravado, the almost aggressive charm and the bullying with which he treats his staff. He’s absent for the last 15 minutes or so, and is badly missed; I wanted there to be a stirring grand finale for him, because I cared so much more about him than the insipidity of Efron’s romantic entanglements. But then I suppose that Caesar is a fairly grand finale, after all – and this is all before Citizen Kane.

I don’t know what McKay will do now – he knows Welles inside out, after having played him in a one-man show for years, and it remains to be seen whether the inevitable boost that this film gives him will translate into other work of similar interest. But it’s well worth watching this film for his remarkable, charismatic and truly attention-grabbing performance.

A Prophet

Posted in Film on December 2, 2009 by alexlarman

Word on the street at Cannes 2009 was that hotter-than-hot director Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to his stunning masterpiece The Beat That My Heart Skipped was even better. A Prophet, which eventually won the Grand Prix (controversially, it lost the Palme d’Or to Michel Haneke’s The White Ribbon) received glowing reviews from just about every critic, all of whom praised Audiard’s remarkable control of cinema. For once, the hype is entirely justified; possibly even superior to his earlier work, this superb, mesmerising piece is one of the finest films I’ve seen in the past year, and a true mark of Audiard’s remarkable talent.

Starring the unknown Tahar Rahim as Malik, a naive young Arab prisoner in one of France’s toughest jails, the story unfolds carefully over two and a half hours. At the outset, Malik is easy prey for anyone, whether it involves a casual beating from other inmates or, it is implied, a particularly severe sentence for his apparent crimes. He comes to the casual attention of the jail’s Corsican gangleader Cesar Luciani (Niels Adelstrup, who also played the dissolute father in The Beat That My Heart Skipped) who compels him to perform a particularly unpleasant murder of another inmate, and, upon the completion of this, puts him under his ‘protection’. As the film’s scope slowly widens, parallels begin to open up; a touch of The Godfather here, a little Goodfellas there.

As we watch Malik’s rise and rise in this uncertain criminal fraternity, Audiard’s mastery of pacing, composition and script come to the fore. Rahim is perfectly cast as a figure who begins the film an uncertain, aggressive but almost timid presence, and ends…well that would be giving the game away, but suffice it to say it’s quite a transformation. He’s matched by Adelstrup who is marvellous as a man who, used to having a powerbase founded on fear and dominance, slowly watches it all ebb away thanks to the changes in criminal conduct. The multiple ironies and reversals of the ending are immensely rewarding.

Perhaps it’s slightly long at two and a half hours, and parts of it are incredibly violent. But this is another winner in what’s been one of the best ever years I can remember for foreign films (including the Mesrine duo and the stunning Let The Right One In) and, on its release in January, I hope it does extremely well. It deserves to.