Archive for July, 2010

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane

Posted in Theatre with tags , , on July 29, 2010 by alexlarman

Martin McDonagh’s reputation as both a playwright and filmmaker has grown immensely since the first production of his debut play in 1996. With the much acclaimed crime thriller In Bruges winning critical plaudits and awards by the bucketload, and with later plays such as The Pillowman and The Lieutenant Of Inishmore sealing his status as an enfant terrible of the theatre – a sort of Irish Quentin Tarantino of the stage – it makes a fascinating experience to revisit The Beauty Queen of Leenane which, in the Young Vic’s highly assured staging, reveals that McDonagh’s talent was evident from the beginning.

The set-up has nightmarish echoes of a bleaker, Irish Steptoe & Son. Maureen Folan, a plain, downtrodden virgin is living with her domineering, demanding mother Mag, whose most frequently voiced requests are for Complan, shortbread fingers and porridge. Maureen, who has only ever been kissed twice – ‘two men is two men too much!’ – has her head turned by the decent but somewhat diffident neighbour Pato Dooley, who she attends a party with. Mag, however, sees nothing in her daughter’s potential relationship but her own abandonment, and schemes to plot its downfall. Things go very, very badly wrong.

In the first half, it seems faintly unclear as to where the play is going. Nods to Beckett and Pinter (and possibly even a touch of Tennessee Williams) jostle alongside digs at Irish convention, as Pato’s idiotic younger brother Ray offers his lack of surprise that a nearby priest has had an illegitimate child – ‘now if he’d punched that babby in the head, that’d be news!’ However, in the second and superior half, beginning with a bravura one-scene monologue as Pato attempts to compose two letters, McDonagh ramps up the tension and black comedy to near-unbearable levels, as audience sympathy begins to shift and turn.

The Young Vic’s fine production, more than capably directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, boasts an authentically grim set (designed by Ultz, who did similar wonders with the set for the recent Jerusalem) that perfectly captures the horrible atmosphere that the protagonists find themselves in. It’s extremely well acted by Rosaleen Linehan as Mag and Susan Lynch as Maureen, although Lynch is far too striking fully to convince as a woman described as plain, and David Ganly offers excellent support as the decent Pato. Given the warmth of the audience reaction, there seems little doubt that this will be a sell-out hit, and so you’d be well advised to get to the Young Vic to see this fine production sooner rather than later.

Advertisements

The Suburbs

Posted in Music with tags , , , on July 29, 2010 by alexlarman

It must be nerve-wracking to be one of the Arcade Fire at the moment. (That said, there are so many of them – I counted 13 on stage at one gig – that at least the worry gets shared more evenly.) Anticipation for their new album is at fever pitch, but the question being quietly, and not so quietly, asked is ‘Can they pull it off?’ Always an acquired taste of sorts, it’s possible that the musical goalposts have shifted to make their stylised epic art-pop seem an unfashionable proposition. Then again, they never particularly were into following fashions.

Their first album, 2005’s Funeral, was a very rare and wonderful beast indeed, a collection of songs about childhood, death and love that moved from Scott Walker pastiche to epic wordless choruses via  the influences of Byrne, Bowie and the Boss, in roughly equal measure. The follow-up, 2007’s Neon Bible, was initially regarded as a superior endeavour by many (including me), though it has subsequently been criticised for what some see as coldness and over-production.

I don’t share these views. For me, Neon Bible is the greatest album of the past 5 years, a collection of doom-laden songs that contain endlessly wonderful tunes, from the sturm und drang of Black Mirror to the organ-led pomp of Intervention to the stadium-sized No Cars Go. It marked out the Arcade Fire as an entirely different proposition to anything else in the mainstream, a band who marched to the beat of another drummer altogether. They probably have at least 3, so it’s not that much of a stretch.

Which brings us to their new album, The Suburbs. With a staggering 16 songs on it (4 of which were released in some form or another as singles or B-sides before release), it cannot be accused of lacking ambition, any more than it could be accused of failing to deal in diversity. You want three-minute punk? Check out the frenetic Month Of May. You want a guaranteed audience-raising anthem? Listen to We Used To Wait, a Rebellion-meets-Wake Up stormer that deals with the unlikely topic of waiting for letters to be delivered. And if you’re after what could loosely be called the band’s sensitive side, then the Regine-sang Half Light I is a gorgeous, sweeping slice of epic melancholia which neatly ends the album’s first side.

Indeed, this is a far more musically mixed album than the Arcade Fire have previously dabbled in. The enigmatically named Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) is the first song that they’ve done that sounds as if, with a few minor tweaks, it could start packing the dance floors, and along with the trademark epic choruses and pounding, thumping bass lines and drumbeats, there are some moments of quiet reflection and introspection, as on Wasted Hours and Deep Blue. These songs aren’t bad per se, just less interesting and striking than the ones that precede them. (Arguably this could have been released as a 12 song album without any sense of great loss.) If you’re looking for traditional grandeur, then the superb Rococo offers a biting, visceral attack on suburban mores, to the kind of chorus that sounds as if it’s going to become a favourite at festivals.

Lyrically, it’s a combination of traditional Arcade Fire concerns of old (‘Businessmen drink my blood…I stare out into the dark…I know we are the chosen few but they don’t understand’), in other words a combination of the apocalyptic and the alienated. It’s theoretically a concept album about suburbia, and anyone who heard the deceptively low-key title track might be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be Arcade Fire-lite, but they needn’t have worried. At their best, the band produce songs that sound like cathedrals of sound, echoing, grandiose monuments to embrace and get lost in, and there are at least half a dozen such examples on this album.

The only thing I miss about the way that the band have become (deservedly) a critical and commercial success is that an intimacy and bloody-minded sensibility seem to be in danger of getting lost along the way. The first time I saw them live was at St John’s Church in Smith Square in London, where they played a magnificent gig showcasing Neon Bible. At the end, they walked out and, quite happily, busked an acoustic version of ‘Wake Up’ on the church steps, creating a casual intimacy between band and fan that left one feeling that one had been part of an amazing communal experience. With this album seemingly bound for stadium glory, one cannot help but have a moment at quiet regret at such wonderful moments looking like they’ve gone forever.

The A-Team & Knight and Day

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

What do The A-Team and Knight and Day have in common? Quite a lot, actually. Both are produced by 20th Century Fox, a studio who did so well out of the extraordinary success of Avatar that if they released nothing but flops for a year, their balance sheet will still be firmly in the black. (We shall return to this.) Both are big summer blockbusters, loosely speaking action films but with a sufficiently generous dose of comedy to (hopefully) ensure a regular stream of laughs. Both feature big stars (Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper in The A-Team, Cruise and Diaz in Knight and Day) with quirkier supporting actors (Sharlto Copley and Patrick Wilson in The A-Team, Peter Sarsgaard and Paul Dano in Knight and Day). Both are globe-trotting adventures with elaborate action scenes taking place in European locales (Austria and Spain in Knight And Day, Germany in The A-Team). Both are solidly entertaining, three out of five star, pictures, but the suspicion lingers both should and could have been better.

The A-Team seems like such an obvious film to make that it’s a surprise it has taken so long to reach the screens. Based on the extraordinarily popular TV series, it does a fairly good job of sidestepping the extraordinarily camp aspects of Mr T’s subsequent career as a Snickers hawker and ‘a manly man’. The iconic central figures, mastermind Hannibal Smith (Neeson), smoothie Face (Cooper), certified nutcase Murdock (Copley, best known for his fantastic performance in District 9) and, of course, BA Baracus (here embodied by Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson) are all present and correct, and the faintly convoluted storyline follows them from their initial formation, in a clever, funny and exciting pre-credits sequence, through an involvement with an elaborate scam in Iraq involving corrupt CIA agents, mercenaries and Face’s ex, Captain Sosa (Jessica Biel), to their false imprisonment, escape and subsequent attempt to clear their names. It’s entertaining, occasionally slyly witty (check out the ‘3D show’ of The Greater Escape in an asylum Murdock is incarcerated in), about half an hour too long, has no character development whatsoever and is instantly forgettable. Joe Carnahan, who has some slight pedigree as an action director after Smokin’ Aces, co-ordinates the mayhem with a certain panache.

Knight And Day is more problematic. As it stands, it’s fine, but it could have been better. Directed by James Mangold, who made the excellent 3.10 To Yuma and the pretty good Copland and Walk The Line, the film bears every single sign of having been put together by many, many different hands at script and production stage. The central idea is an absolutely excellent one – a bored, frustrated single woman, June (Diaz) finds herself embroiled with potentially insane superspy Roy Miller (Tom Cruise), who claims that he is being hunted by his former employers as he has obtained a source of perpetual energy. The scene would appear to be set for North by Northwest from a female perspective, with tension and humour in equal measure.

Unfortunately, what spoils it is the way in which Cruise, rather than play on his increasingly outre public persona as a couch-jumping maniac, is essentially just reprising Ethan Hunt from the Mission Impossible series all over again. Promising early scenes – such as a punch-up on a plane where everyone apart from June and Miller die, brutally – soon give way to standard-issue heroics, some of which are amusing and impressive, such as a climatic Seville-set motorcycle chase involving a bull run, but really this ends up being yet another buddies-on-the-run action film, devoid of the big twists and revelations that might have made this a really enjoyable ride.

The connection between both films is that neither has done especially well at the box office. In the case of Knight And Day this has been blamed on a confusing ad campaign that implied nobody at Fox had any idea how to sell the film to the audience – action? comedy? something else entirely? – and in The A-Team’s case, it implies that the sub-25 audience for whom the film was clearly made had little interest in turning out for it. Still, if both films are ultimately inessential, they’re goofily entertaining in their way, amiable time-passers and far less offensive than the likes of Transformers 2 or Sex And The City 2. I can’t see either spawning a sequel.

Inception

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2010 by alexlarman

Cast your minds back, if you will, to 2005, when Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was released.  It was obviously awaited with keen anticipation – it’s a Batman film for Chrissake, the most compelling and realistic of all the major superheroes – but Nolan was mainly known amongst cinephiles for his excellent American debut Memento and his slightly less excellent, but still very good, Hollywood film Insomnia. Therefore, the billing ‘A Christopher Nolan film’ seemed more studio politics than a genuine statement of auteur intent.

How times change, and how quickly. Now, a mere five years later, Nolan has made a further three films – no Kubrickian 12 year hiatuses here – including the film that put him at the top of the Hollywood tree, the deliciously dark and operatic The Dark Knight. It’s fair to say that his latest, Inception, has been awaited with all the eagerness of a scrumpy drinker waiting for the apple harvest, and now, finally, it’s here. So has Nolan disappeared up himself and broken his run of excellent, thought-provoking and genre-defying films?

The short answer is no. Future viewings will tell exactly how good Inception is – it’s certainly not flawless, and though it’s probably a better film than The Dark Knight, it lacks a single performance of the deranged charisma and magnetism of Heath Ledger’s Joker. What it does, without a shadow of a doubt, is to confirm Nolan’s status as probably the leading filmmaker of his generation, someone as comfortable making visual allusions to Bacon and Escher as he is with co-ordinating epic,race-against-time set-pieces which play like the next generation of Bourne, Bond and the Matrix.

To reveal too much of the plot would be unfair. The bare bones are these. Cobb (Leonardo diCaprio) is an ‘extractor’, someone working illegally to enter people’s minds and obtaining information from them. When an extraction involving businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) goes wrong, he finds himself compelled to perform an act of industrial espionage involving Murdoch-esque businessman Fischer’s (Pete Postlethwaite) son Robert (Cillian Murphy), known as ‘inception’, and so called because the process involves planting an idea rather than removing one. Assembling a team including ‘architect’ Ariadne (Ellen Page), men-of-action Arthur and Eames (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), Cobb prepares for an insanely difficult and complex task, not least because he is haunted by visions of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose death may in some way be linked to his latest task.

Such a synopsis doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Nolan has come up with. Writing his script solo rather than with his brother Jonathan, it contains all his hallmarks – warped chronology, some welcome touches of throwaway wit, portentous lines of dialogue repeated at significant points in the action (this time, it’s the line about ideas being the most resilient parasite) and genuinely compelling characterisation. He’s helped, of course, by a fantastic cast, with stand-outs including Hardy (apparently doing an audition for Bond should Daniel Craig tire of the role), the extremely suave Murphy and Watanabe and, of course, DiCaprio, whose presence in a film these days is all but a guarantee of quality. Technical credits – including predictably superb photography by Nolan regular Wally Pfister and an epic, booming score by Hans Zimmer – are all top-notch.

It’s fascinating to compare this to the not dissimilar Shutter Island, but while that (excellent) film presented fantasy and dreams as threatening portents of psychosis, the unreal world created here works on all bets being off, with the grand finale revolving (entirely comprehensibly) around layers of dreams within dreams, to dizzying but thrilling effect. There are moments where the entire edifice teeters on the edge of absolute ridiculousness, such as the way in which characters are revived from their sleep by the (surely Cotillard-referencing?) use of Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien, but Nolan’s directorial touch is sufficiently sure to avoid the bathetic overkill that a lesser filmmaker would almost certainly have succumbed to.

I’m not at all sure that this will be the mega-hit many are expecting it to be. It’s unashamedly cerebral in both its execution and its themes, and although the action scenes are breathtaking and hugely accomplished, this is less a big summer blockbuster than a deeply personal meditation on dreams, death and the illusory power of the mind. That said, this is still spectacularly accomplished cinema, and a film that will lend itself to repeated viewings and much discussion. For starters – what, exactly, is the inference of the last shot?

The Tempest

Posted in Theatre with tags , , on July 8, 2010 by alexlarman

The second year of Sam Mendes’ hugely ambitious Bridge Project sees him return to the Old Vic with stagings of As You Like It and The Tempest, following last year’s highly successful productions of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale, which perfectly attuned themselves to Mendes’ dynamic, intelligent and hugely innovative style of direction.

If The Tempest, by contrast, does not threaten to become as armrest-grippingly essential, then this is partly because of the diffuse nature of what must be one of Shakespeare’s strangest plays and partly because Mendes abandons the bombast of some productions in favour of an atmosphere of gentle regret and quiet hope. Stephen Dillane, one of Britain’s greatest yet least known classical actors, makes a quiet, introspective Prospero, regarding the various situations that he is faced with under a veneer of diffident, bookish urbanity, as if to hide the man and his magic underneath.

Sometimes his diction is so softly-spoken that it verges on the inaudible, yet there is a tenderness to his performance that sets his Prospero against the sturm-und-drang of most other actors, forever beating their staff against the ground and crying out blank verse as if their fortunes depended on it. By the final reconciliation scenes, his performance as a character who is part-sage, part-director is both very affecting and a wry tribute to everyone who has ever been interested in theatre.

The supporting cast (made up, as per the ‘Bridge’ concept, of both British and American actors) are very strong, with Juliet Rylance as a radiant, yet confident Miranda and the great classical actor Alvin Epstein (who famously played The Fool to Orson Welles’ King Lear) is a touching Gonzalo. Mendes, as ever, throws in some breathtaking coups de theatre – the first appearance of Ron Cephas Jones’ Caliban from out of a sandpit, like some primal monster is one and an unexpected, but affecting video projection of Miranda as a young girl towards the end is another.

If this isn’t quite up to the exemplary standard of some of Mendes’ other productions, such as his quite brilliant farewell plays at the Donmar Warehouse, Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya, this is only because he has set himself such high standards before that it is unrealistic to expect him to reach them with every play that he produces. As London theatre goes, this is high-class stuff.

Until 21st August, Old Vic SE1

Heartbreaker

Posted in Film with tags , , on July 7, 2010 by alexlarman

It shouldn’t be hard to make a compelling and interesting romantic comedy – one of the oldest and most popular genres of film – but it seems that remarkably few writers and directors can manage it effectively. British rom-coms have been so in thrall to the artistically and commercially successful template laid down by Richard Curtis that the chances of anything approaching originality seem slim, and American examples of the breed tend either to overegg the coarse and gross-out aspects of the comic, or to disappear into sappy non-sequiturs and moralistic platitudes which would no doubt have played well with the Pilgrim Fathers, had they had charge cards at Macy’s and an addiction to Jimmy Choos.

Thank heavens, then, for the French, who have produced a sparky, funny and highly diverting concoction, Heartbreaker, which showcases France’s second most charismatic actor*, Romain Duris, in a role a world away from the intense role in The Beat That My Heart Skipped which made his name. Duris plays Alex, a suave and debonair charmer who is hired by anxious families to metaphorically (and, to a point, literally) seduce women away from their unsuitable partners and show them what they are missing. He is aided in these endeavours by his more than capable sister Melanie and his vaguely buffoonish brother-in-law Marc, who see to it that the show is kept on track and not derailed by Alex’s extravagances. In desperate need of a big payment, they agree to take on the case of a fine wine expert Juliette(Vanessa Paradis), who is engaged to the charming, successful and philanthropic English entrepreneur Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln). However, as the team get closer, Alex finds himself falling foul of his own golden rule; never fall in love with the mark.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out how everything is going to pan out, of course, but the chutzpah and skill with which it’s all put together makes for a highly entertaining watch. There are numerous little touches – Paradis’ slutty best friend announcing ‘My pussy’s itching for a shag’, Duris relieving himself into a hedge, and the quasi-sympathetic characterisation of Paradis’ dodgy father and the revelation as to why he wants his daughter separated from Jonathan – that seem inimitably French, but the slickness and skill with which it’s put together rival anything else on at the multiplexes. Directed with verve by Pascal Chaumeil, who seems at times almost to want to be directing a Luc Besson-esque action film, it’s a lot of fun, with genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and some amusingly quirky touches and running jokes. And if the ending does feel ever so slightly mechanical, it’s still reliably feel-good entertainment.

*After, of course, Vincent Cassel.

Dandy In The Underworld

Posted in Theatre with tags on July 5, 2010 by alexlarman

As readers of this blog may well know, I knew Sebastian Horsley, the subject of this one-man show, and so it was with slight trepidation that I ventured down to the Soho Theatre where Tim Fountain’s play was being produced.

With a combination of tragic irony and great timing, Sebastian died the night after the first night, and so the play now functions less as a celebration of his life and work and more as a memorial; a daunting task for anyone to pull off, not least Sebastian’s stand-in here, Milo Twomey.

For those unfamiliar with Sebastian’s chaotic and distinctly unconventional life and way of living, Fountain’s play is a good basic primer. Twomey comes on, louche in silk dressing gown, to boast about his various antics, including the near-seduction of his Austrian publicist Henrietta, ‘as flat-chested as a pageboy…and something about her that’s eminently fuckable’. As he prepares himself for a lunch date with Henrietta, Sebastian boasts of his various misdeeds and escapades, dresses in his elaborate finery and regales his audience with a potted account of his unusual family history, including his alcoholic parents, his bisexual affairs and, quite literally, suffering for his art.

As the 80 minutes or so wear on, the jolly one-liners and witty wordplay grow darker, as Fountain draws on Sebastian’s memoir to hint at his darker sides, such as his OCD, heroin habit and occasional bouts of temper, which, I should add, I never saw the slightest hint of in all the time I knew him. (But then why on earth would I have done?) Finally, as he skips off to an orgy, we see Whoresley in all his rapacious, unmatchable and seedy glamour, both distasteful yet strangely exhilarating.

It’s hard to review this from an objective standpoint, both so close to Sebastian’s death and also given the way that it draws so closely – indeed, verbatim at many points – on the memoir itself. Twomey captures about half of Sebastian’s persona – the wit, the extravagant dandyism, the licentiousness and the hints of the little boy lost are all there. What isn’t present in either the play or his performance is the other side of Sebastian Horsley, the kindness, consideration for others, the self-awareness or the humanity that lurked beneath the suits.

But then this isn’t supposed to be a definitive life study, or a play for his friends and family- it’s an attempt, and a fairly noble and successful one at that – to offer an insight for the uninitiated into why such a curious and apparently distancing figure as Sebastian could inspire such affection, loyalty and interest, even (or especially) after his death.