Archive for March, 2010

The White Guard

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , , on March 24, 2010 by alexlarman

It’s very rare that you get to see a new play (or at least, a new adaptation of an existing play), based on a semi-obscure novel, adapted by a writer whose last play in London was a resounding flop and starring a cast of respected rather than famous actors and the result be a masterpiece. Howard Davies’ production of The White Guard is that exception. Adapted by the Australian writer Andrew Upton (also known as Mr Cate Blanchett) from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, and subsequent stage adaptation The Days Of The Turbins, this is a sensational experience from start to finish, with brilliant performances matched by an incredible staging.

The action is set in the Ukraine capital of Kiev from 1918-9, as civil war rages throughout Russia, and the supporters of the Tsar (the ‘White Guard’ of the title) who find themselves under attack, first by Ukranian nationalists and then by the Russian Bolsheviks. The country’s puppet leader, The Hetman, is an incompetent and arrogant coward, and the Turbins, around whom the action revolves, are an upper-middle class family loyal to the Tsar and the status quo. Over the play, farce, tragedy and romance all jostle, as the city is brought to its knees.

If this sounds inaccessible or dry, rest assured, it’s anything but. Part of this is down to the brilliance of Howard Davies’ direction, which uses an eye-poppingly detailed set, or series of sets, to convey places ranging from a palace headquarters to a field HQ. Another is the wonderfully witty script, with treasurable lines like ‘I’m not running away…I’m escaping’. And the performances from the fine ensemble cast are all excellent, including Justine Mitchell as Lena, the woman of the Turbin household, Pip Carter as her intoxicated student cousin and, best of all, Olivier Award-winner Conleth Hill as Lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky. Hill gives an awards-worthy performance that mixes swaggering bravado, charm and intelligent pragmatism, and has a moment towards the end with Mitchell (you’ll know it when it comes) that is one of the suavest and funniest things I’ve seen at the theatre in ages.

This will be a huge hit when word of mouth gets out – the first night audience were enraptured throughout. Take my advice and book tickets now, and you’re guaranteed a great experience. If any of this sounds like PR puffery or flannel, it’s not meant to. I went along on Tuesday night, tired and perfectly prepared to walk out at the interval if it was anything less than spellbinding, which it was, in spades. I loved it.

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I Love You, Philip Morris

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on March 21, 2010 by alexlarman

I’ve never been much of a Jim Carrey fan. This isn’t to say that I haven’t enjoyed some of the films he’s made – The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – but there’s something very grating and irritating about his comic persona that means that films like Bruce Almighty, Liar, Liar and the godawful Ace Ventura series are far less enjoyable than the high concepts behind them should be. Yet there’s something odd and creepy about much of his schtick, which was first harnessed in The Cable Guy over a decade ago, but now finds its fullest expression in the distinctly dark and twisted I Love You, Philip Morris, which is based on a true story, surprising though it might seem.

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also were responsible for the uproarious Bad Santa, this tells the strange tale of Steven Russell and his journey from committed Christian and family man to con man, prison escapee and, of course, gay lover of the titular Philip Morris, who he first encountered in prison while Russell was doing time for insurance fraud and Morris was inside for failing to return a car he had borrowed. Love blossomed, but Russell, in thrall to a lavish lifestyle of excess, found himself doing more and more extravagant things in order to maintain himself and Morris in the lifestyle he was accustomed to.

In its matter-of-fact presentation of a gay relationship, this is in many respects more groundbreaking than the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia; Russell’s sexuality isn’t the source of the humour here, but his insane antics provide much hilarity, even if the final revelation is off the scale in terms of believability. The film plays like a darker, more cynical version of Catch Me If You Can, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s swagger and panache replaced by Russell’s desperation and near-endless cunning and versatility at cooking up scams.

Carrey is splendid here, never making Russell sympathetic exactly but, thanks to his apparently candid voiceover, allowing an insight into the warped mind of an utter sociopath. He’s matched by an unusually good Ewan McGregor as Morris, who beautifully conveys gentleness and decency in contrast to Russell’s increasingly absurd scams. There’s also a droll supporting role for Brennan Brown, of the Orange adverts, as a suspicious co-worker of Russell’s.

While there are parts of this film – such as an obese fellow inmate getting into the mother of all fights offscreen because ‘my word is my fucking bond, motherfucker!’ – that are genuinely tear-inducingly funny, there’s something more creepy and disturbing about much of the story (including the ending), although the genuine sweetness of the love story does make it more palatable. Either way, this is well worth watching and is a highly entertaining insight into a very sick and twisted mind indeed.

Measure For Measure

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on March 17, 2010 by alexlarman

To the Almeida for Michael Attenborough’s staging of Measure For Measure, arguably the most entertainingly warped of all Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. The last time I saw it staged was a fantastic Complicite production at the National Theatre, with Paul Rhys as the desperately repressed prig Angelo who finds himself left in control of the lewd and licentious Vienna after the Duke ostensibly departs, but in fact remains in the city to observe the depths of iniquity that exist. Angelo’s moral rectitude is called into question by his all-consuming sexual obsession with Isabella, a young novice and the sister of a man who has been condemned to death by Angelo for fornication. Things become torrid.

It’s an unusual play in the Shakespearean canon in that the tragic and comic are inextricably linked, meaning that a good production – and this one is very good indeed – gets as many bleak laughs as moments of catharsis. A silver-hued Ben Miles is especially entertaining as the Duke, apparently relishing the opportunity to dissemble while disguised as a friar, and he is matched by Lloyd Hutchinson as the bawd Lucio, gleefully taking advantage of the moral decay in the city and the Duke’s apparent absence. Attenborough’s production is swiftly paced, never dull and always intelligent – two and three quarter hours fly past.

The best performances, however, are from Anna Maxwell Martin as Isabella and the great Rory Kinnear as Angelo. Maxwell Martin brings out Isabella’s spikiness, her moral priggishness and her unwillingness to surrender her virtue, imagined or real, but also her helplessness in the heavily patriarchal society that she finds herself in. She has one of the great faces for actresses – striking rather than beautiful, but with the ability to have every emotion that she feels written far more clearly than she’d necessarily like, a must for Isabella.

And then there’s Rory Kinnear, who yet again proves that he’s one of the great classical actors of our time. Like his father Roy, he’s a great comedian (most memorably as Sir Fopling Flutter in Nick Hytner’s staging of Man of Mode in 2007), but he is more than capable of rising to tragic grandeur too. His Angelo is less a perverted hypocrite, more a repressed middle manager who finds himself utterly out of his element and trying, and failing, to deal with the opportunities, political and sexual, that are thrust upon him. Kinnear plays Angelo as a sweaty, bearded and twitching Pooter, ‘clothed in a little brief authority’ and hopelessly ill-equipped to come to terms with his desires. It’s yet another fine performance from this fantastic actor.

The play is now pretty much sold out, but if you have any sort of chance to get tickets, take it. You won’t regret doing so.

Green Zone

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on March 16, 2010 by alexlarman

A short, rather than in-depth blog today.

Saw Green Zone last night. It’s perfectly obvious what the intention was – ‘Bourne in Iraq’. Same director, same leading actor, many of the same crew as the Bourne films. Same hand-held camerawork, same kinetic action scenes, same overarching sense of paranoia, same use of technology to indicate Big Brother levels of surveillance, same brutally nasty fight scenes.

Problem is, it simply isn’t as good.

This is partly because of the patronising script, which doesn’t create characters as much as types, and partly because the storyline (Matt Damon fails to find WMDs, finds conspiracy) just isn’t that compelling. Some of the action scenes are very good, and Damon is a solid lead, but this is one of those annoying films that simply doesn’t live up to expectations. Body Of Lies, for all its faults, is a far better film (and has numerous similarities, which become more noticeable as the running time continues.)

Still, nice to see Jason Isaacs cast against type as  a Special Forces hardcase.

Shutter Island

Posted in Film with tags , on March 14, 2010 by alexlarman

Well, it’s fair to say I was looking forward to this one.

Scorsese has been on an interesting creative roll for the past decade, not just in his Leonardo DiCaprio collaborations, of which Shutter Island is the fourth, but also with his documentary and concert work, including films about Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Not bad for a man fast closing in on 70. This adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel oozes class in its casting – apart from DiCaprio, you’ve got the likes of (Sir) Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams and Elias Koteas and Patricia Clarkson in cameos – and in the usual top-notch Scorsese technical crew.

That the result is so arrestingly weird and offbeat comes as a surprise. For my money, this is Scorsese’s strangest film since The Last Temptation Of Christ, though I will concede that the misfire of Bringing Out The Dead is at least experimental. Forget the glossy mainstream class of The Aviator and The Departed – this twisted, at times deeply unpleasant and disturbing but always captivating film shows Scorsese willing to engage with both his past as a B-movie director for Roger Corman and with cinematic antecedents as various as Kubrick, Hitchcock and Sam Fuller.

Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Ruffalo) arrive on the titular island’s asylum in search of a woman, Rachel (Emily Mortimer) who has apparently vanished, after her confinement to the asylum after murdering her children. The institution’s boss, Dr Cawley (Kingsley) has been trying to promote humanitarian values with his patients – ‘not prisoners’, as he notes – and, initially at least, those in the asylum seem welcoming enough. Yet Teddy quite clearly isn’t playing with a full deck from the off, as he finds himself haunted by horrific memories of his late wife (Michelle Williams) and unspecified traumas from a trip to Dachau at the end of WW2. This will prove troublesome, for him and us.

Although this is one of those films that hinges on a big reveal towards the end, the twist isn’t especially hard to guess – the trailers and even the poster tagline all but give it away. What instead this is a marvellous exercise in is misdirection by Scorsese, who seems to be channelling Shining-era Kubrick in a presentation of horrors taking place in broad daylight, where mental illness comes from intimates and where visions and fantasies take on increasing portents as they recur.

He’s helped by an excellent cast. DiCaprio has seldom, if ever, been better – and how interesting to see that he’s cast aside his hearthrob image entirely over the past few years in the likes of this, Revolutionary Road and Blood Diamond. But then many of the cast (including Kingsley and Ruffalo in cleverly ambiguous roles) are superb, as actors tend to be under Scorsese’s direction. Lest we forget, this is the man who got a decent performance out of Anthony Anderson in The Departed, and a better than decent one from Jerry Lewis in The King Of Comedy.

While this certainly isn’t a film I can imagine anyone wanting to watch over and over again – it’s just too grim for that – it’s definitely worth seeing at least once. My advice would be to do so before its twists and turns become common knowledge, as the colder you go in, the more satisfying the experience will be.

Private Lives

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on March 11, 2010 by alexlarman

Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives is probably his best known and most popular play, a standby of repertory and amateur theatre. Part of this is the iconic plot, dealing with two glamorous divorcees, Amanda and Elyot, who accidentally re-encounter one another while on their honeymoons with their new partners. The precursor to so many subsequent romantic comedies that deal with a love/hate relationship, Coward’s play remains one of the very best because of the endlessly quotable dialogue (‘Very flat, Norfolk.’ ‘Some women should be struck regularly, like gongs’) and carefully constructed plotting that never allows the relationship between the protagonists to descend into farce.

Of course, if done badly, the play ends up as knockabout, silly buffoonery, and so it needs a really strong production to keep it compelling. Thankfully, Richard Eyre’s new staging is as clever and restrained as it needs to be. He’s helped immensely by strong lead performances by Matthew MacFadyen, unusually stern and forthright as Elyot, and Kim Cattrall, leaving Sex And The City’s Samantha behind to adopt a near-flawless upper-crust 30s accent and mannerisms as the charming, sexy but no less headstrong Amanda. There’s also excellent support from Simon Paisley Day as the very model of a repressed prig in Amanda’s new husband, Victor, a man so formal that he uses grand pianos to press his trousers, and Lisa Dillon as the twittery (in the proper sense of the word) new bride for Elyot, Sybil.

If this doesn’t quite rise to the heights of delirious hilarity that some Coward productions manage, there’s no doubt that this is a literate, consistently inventive and amusing revival of a great play that manages to say some compelling and relevant things about the perennial battle between the sexes in a timely and witty way. And it boasts the best on-stage use of brioche you’re likely to see this year.