Archive for May, 2010

Robin Hood

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2010 by alexlarman

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen…Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men…”

Robin Hood, the latest from Ridley Scott and his own band of merry men, most of which have been working consistently with him since his career reinvigoration of Gladiator (editor Pietro Scalia, cinematographer John Mathieson etc) is highly enjoyable stuff. It isn’t Gladiator – lacking the over-ripe operatic power or the beautifully simple revenge story of the earlier film – but it gets just about everything that it tries to do right, aided by some fine performances from an excellent cast.

Strictly speaking, it isn’t so much a Robin Hood story as the prequel to it, as Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe, naturally), a lowly archer in the English ranks, finds himself impersonating Sir Robin Loxley after Loxley and King Richard (Danny Huston) are both slain while returning from the Crusades. Robin arrives back in England to find that all is not well, as the nittish Prince John (Oscar Isaac) has ascended to the throne, the villainous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) is fermenting civil war and Marian, Loxley’s wife (Cate Blanchett) is, well, widowed, but oddly handy with an arrow…

As the above synopsis indicates, there’s a lot going on here, but it’s to Scott’s credit that it stays cogent, coherent and enjoyable. (The notoriously troubled genesis, which saw it evolve from a film about the Sheriff of Nottingham to a more conventional Robin Hood story, can’t have helped.) The action scenes are as epic as you’d expect, Crowe and Blanchett supply some thespian gravitas, and a fine supporting cast including Max von Sydow, Matthew MacFadyen and Eileen Atkins all give good account of themselves. It moves at a fair old lick, has some unexpectedly hilarious touches of humour (possibly due to Tom Stoppard’s script doctoring) and, all in all, is a pleasure to watch. I just hope now that after Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and now this, Scott moves on from the sword ‘n’ swashbuckling genre for a time, as he’s said pretty much all that there is to be said. Which is no bad thing, but a director as versatile and interesting as him can surely head to fresh woods and pastures new.

Advertisements

Women Beware Women

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , , on May 13, 2010 by alexlarman

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Thomas Middleton. Despite being one of the most talented playwrights of the early part of the 17th century, his work has largely been neglected in performance in comparison to Shakespeare, Marlowe and even Webster. To use a (slightly) more up to date analogy, if Shakespeare was John Lennon and Webster was George Harrison, then Middleton finds himself somewhere between Ringo Starr and Pete Best.

Judging from Marianne Elliott’s (perhaps ironically) vivacious revival of one of his best known plays, Women Beware Women, it’s not impossible to see why he isn’t as highly thought of as his near-contemporaries – simply put, the verse plods rather than soars, and the black humour overwhelms any poignancy or poetry – but it makes a convincing case for Middleton at least being underrated. The tortuous plot concerns at least two narratives of seduction in 16th century Italy (updated in Elliott’s staging to the 1950s). Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) is an heiress married to the rather wet Leantio (Samuel Barnett, who shone as Posner in the original production of The History Boys), who finds herself drawing the attention of the suave yet lecherous duke (Richard Lintern). Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, Isabella (Vanessa Kirby), who has been promised to an imbecilic young aristocrat who is most interested in looking up her skirt, is inveigled by her aunt the Duchess (Harriet Walter) into having an incestuous affair with her uncle. Unsurprisingly, it all goes very, very badly wrong.

The chief pleasure of watching Jacobean tragedy, when it’s done by an on-form director and cast, is the seamless way in which horrendously complex plotting eventually resolves itself into a dance of death, and Women Beware Women is justly famous for the concluding masque that leaves most of the cast dead. It’s the coup de theatre of this production, breathtakingly and brilliantly staged by Elliott on the Olivier’s revolving stage as Grand Guignol, throwing in brilliant visual ideas (including literal angels of death) to accompany the final resolution of the characters’ fates. That said, there’s a lot to admire before then as well, with a fine ensemble cast giving their all. Walter, as ever, is brilliant, but the up-and-coming actresses are very strong in difficult roles that require them to be simultaneously empathetic and masculine fantasy figures.

Elliott, who is possibly best known for her award-winning production of War Horse, also directed a revelatory, Cuban-inspired production of Much Ado About Nothing for the RSC a few years ago, which made an old warhorse (sic) of a play fresh, vibrant and sexy. She has done exactly the same here, and I’ll go on record as saying now that, should Nick Hytner be casting around for a new National Theatre director in a few years, he could do a lot worse than looking at Ms Elliott on this evidence.

Until 4 July. South Bank, London SE1. http://www.national-theatre.org.uk

Four Lions

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on May 8, 2010 by alexlarman

Chris Morris’ reputation as one of the great British satirists lies on a comparatively small body of work – the seminal Brass Eye and The Day Today, the bizarre sketch show Jam and the media farce Nathan Barley, all of which, in their own way, have come to define the comic media landscape. The deadpan parodies of absurd news in The Day Today and Brass Eye are now virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, Jam’s mix of violence, dread and absurdity has influenced countless other shows and Nathan Barley….well, let’s just say it now feels like a fairly accurate portrayal of the Hoxton yoof, circa 2005.

Morris could hardly be accused of being prolific; in the past couple of years his highest profile work was a supporting role in The IT Crowd. However, Four Lions represents a comeback with a vengeance. His first film, it was notorious from its inception – the words ‘Chris Morris is doing a comedy about jihadists’ is enough to make some gasp in shock, and others, specifically the admirers of the no-holds-barred cult comedy that Morris made his reputation with, to start looking forward to a truly unique experience.

Make no mistake, Four Lions is very, very funny indeed. When Morris described his film as ‘Dad’s Army with suicide bombers’, it might have sounded like absurd provocation, but in fact it’s quite accurate. The (five) central characters are Omar (Riz Ahmed), an apparently sensible middle-class security guard with a loving wife and child, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), an aggressively stupid Muslim convert whose idea of radicalizing other Muslims is to try and bomb a mosque, the childlike idiot Waj (Kayvan Novak), would-be rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali) and Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), whose grand plan involves using crows as living bombs. None of these are very bright – not even Omar, whose incompetence with a bazooka at a training camp in Pakistan leads to one of the film’s funniest moments.

Admirers of Morris’ previous work will note the recurring tropes. There’s the absurd shock value of news – a headline reads ‘Asian man’s head falls out of tree’, for instance. The violence (thankfully not presented in a realistic or disturbing fashion) is absurd and cartoonish, at least until the finale, which has a bittersweet poignancy to it. The script (co-written by Peep Show‘s Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain) has a baroque absurdity that makes some of the characters’ arias of insult very nearly as rich as those of The Thick Of It. There are some droll cameos from Morris regulars Julia Davis and Kevin Eldon, as well as equally amusing appearances from Benedict Cumberbatch (as a useless hostage negotiator) and Alexander MacQueen (as a cowardly MP).

Morris is careful not to mock Islam itself – although Omar’s ultra-religious brother is presented as a fool – but instead to ridicule the absurd posturings of these would-be martyrs, for whom blowing themselves up is compared to the rapids ride at Alton Towers. There is, at the time of writing, a campaign by relatives of the 7/7 bombers to boycott the film, presumably sight unseen. This would be a mistake. What Morris has done here is to make human and understandable people normally demonised as heartless criminal masterminds. Instead, we have a bunch of rather dim Northerners who fight over trivialities, sing along to Toploader and come across as all too human, something that makes this film ultimately as affecting as it is amusing. Oh, and fuck mini Babybels.

Election Special

Posted in Uncategorized on May 6, 2010 by alexlarman

Because, to be quite honest, when we all wake up tomorrow morning and are faced either with five more years of Unflash Gordon or ‘Call Me Dave’, there are other things in life, such as this genuinely inspirational depiction of politics. Shame it’s Frank Capra and therefore fiction, but hey!