Archive for August, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on August 24, 2010 by alexlarman

There are a few directors out there whose films present audiences with a quandary. Scene by scene, they are a pleasure to watch, with superb acting, well-written and nuanced scripts, sensitive and apposite direction and flawless production values. Spread over the course of two hours, however, the lack of narrative momentum can end up becoming extremely wearying. I’ve always put Sam Mendes and Ang Lee’s films in these categories, but, on the evidence of Scott Pilgrim vs The World, it might be time for Edgar Wright to join their band.

What’s so annoying and frustrating about Scott Pilgrim is that it’s clearly the work of an incredibly talented director. I was about to write ‘Wright is different to most British directors working today in that he didn’t come to film via theatre or television’, but this of course ignores his seminal sitcom Spaced, as well as early work with David Walliams and Matt Lucas. Spaced, in particular, was one of the very few sitcoms where the style of the direction was at least as important as the script, due to Wright’s bold homaging of countless sci-fi and horror films. Continuing his partnership with Simon Pegg, he then made Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, both of which are problematic. Both are splendidly entertaining romps in their own way, with numerous clever/funny references to the classic films that influenced them. But they’re just films made out of nostalgic allusions to other films, the ‘does anyone remember Bagpuss?’ school of cinema, rather than standing up as movies in their own right.

Wright’s first major work without Pegg, his adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book series fits in a vast amount in its running time, but at heart the story is a remarkably simple one. Slacker Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is dating the sweet Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), and plays bass in the band Sex Bob-Omb, as well as living with his sarcastic gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin – yes, brother of Macaulay). His life is thrown into disarray firstly when he meets his literal dream girl, the punky Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and then when he realises that, in order to date her, he has to defeat her seven evil exes, including Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman. Oh, and this is done in the style of a 1980s video game, including extra lives, power ups and defeated foes exploding into showers of coins.

For the first 30-40 minutes, Wright’s film is an exhilarating display of cinematic technique, combining witty dialogue, eye-popping visual set-pieces and a dynamic pace. The characters often function as little more than cartoonish punchlines, but initially at least this all adds to the fun. Cera offers yet another variation on his hapless naïf persona, but is offset by the charming Wong and the oh-so-dry Winstead, and the top-class supporting cast (including Anna Kendrick as Scott’s sister and Alison Pill as the permanently outraged band’s drummer) make all this splendidly entertaining. As scene after scene goes by in an enjoyable haze of nostalgia references and ‘WTF!’ displays of outlandish special effects, it’s hard not to get caught up in the ride.

Unfortunately, as the film continues, it becomes entirely clear that it’s not going to develop in any particularly interesting or meaningful manner. The fights with the evil exes, impressive on their own terms, descend into a tedious parade of the same visual tics (words coming out of the screen, extreme comic-book styled close ups, slow motion fighting), and the central relationships don’t fully involve the audience either. Knives is sweet; Ramona is damaged goods; Scott is a slacker. That’s yer lot for character development.  Some of the cameos – Brandon Routh’s vegan bassist with special powers – are hilarious, but they just feel like a cartoonish sideshow from a progressively less interesting central narrative.

The film has been a notable flop in the US, perhaps because of a marketing campaign that didn’t really appear to know how to sell the film. No doubt the kind of people who would like to have been in Sex Bob-Omb and those in the hip echelons in large cities will love it; I can see this becoming very much a cult item in years to come. For the rest of us, this has to be viewed as a dazzling failure, a work that clearly shows that Wright, rather like Guy Ritchie, is an intensely promising visual talent who would be best advised to work from someone else’s script next time round.

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Subs

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on August 16, 2010 by alexlarman

Who on earth would want to be a sub-editor? It’s hardly creative  journalism – when the ‘fun’ part of the job involves coming up with headlines and standfirsts, and the more serious rigour involves checking copy minutely for errors of fact, punctuation or spelling, there would seem to be more glamorous ways of involving yourself in the profession. Yet there are a great many brilliant and dedicated subs, whose largely unsung work ensures that papers and magazines aren’t riddled with mistakes and read legibly, lucidly and entertainingly.

It would seem like a faintly unlikely topic for a play, but R.J Purdey’s entertaining new drama, set at the fictitious upmarket men’s magazine ‘Gentlemen Prefer…’, deals with just this. Revolving around a cast of four, the main protagonists are the chief sub Derek, a middle-aged Scot with a demanding wife and family who longs to be deputy editor, and Finch, his permanently aggrieved deputy. As played, extremely well, by Michael Cusick, Finch is a misanthropic Welshman whose response to his depression and self-loathing is to frantically wank over Internet porn and make (often very funny) sarcastic remarks. They have a young, stylish assistant James and are eventually joined, to Finch’s horror, by an equally young and attractive freelancer, Anna. Agendas soon come into play, both personal and sexual.

If Purdey’s play feels slightly overstretched at around 90 minutes, and if some of the final scene’s revelations feel somewhat unlikely, there’s no denying that it’s a fun and amusing piece that isn’t afraid to delve into murkier waters from time to time. The one-liners frequently bite – ‘they probably think that syntax is what the government charge on things that you enjoy’ sniffs Finch at one point – and it’s capably directed by Hamish Macdonald. It’s well worth the trip to the Cock Theatre in Kilburn to see it, and extra entertainment can be had by watching the patrons of the downstairs pub in the interval. I certainly learnt a few new expressions for causing GBH, that’s for sure.

Beck – ‘Ramona’

Posted in Music with tags , , , on August 11, 2010 by alexlarman

The forthcoming Michael Cera comic book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs The World had already vaguely piqued my interest because of a quirky cast – Anna Kendrick, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman – and because Edgar Wright was directing it, but I became much more interested after I saw the first teaser trailer. There was a glorious, almost slow-motion piece of orchestral music at the beginning to accompany Scott Pilgrim (Cera) spying his ideal woman, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) for the first time. I’ve watched the trailer dozens of times just to listen to this flowing, emotive piece, and so it was with some excitement that I learnt that the song was by Beck, called, fittingly, Ramona, and was to be featured on the soundtrack.

Having had a chance to listen to the full version, I can now say that it’s almost certainly the most beautiful piece of music I’ve been fortunate enough to hear this year. It appears on the soundtrack in two versions; the first is a minute-long acoustic guitar sketch, and the second is the full, orchestral version. It begins with a delicate ebb of strings (arranged by Beck’s father, David Campbell) over delicate acoustic guitar, as Beck’s hushed, sonorous vocal delivers what can only be bad news. ‘There’s nothing left to hide/You can see it in my eyes…I tried to be what you wanted/Well if it’s all a lie/The truth’s not far behind/We could try to live right for the moment’. This is followed by the glorious, glorious chorus, which consists of Beck merely singing the word ‘Ramona’ over and over again, teasing every musical cadence out of the word.  After four heavenly minutes, it’s over, and it all but dares you not to listen to it over, and over, and over again.

It’s an unusual choice for a film that looks, at least superficially, a comedy, but then Beck certainly has a fine track record in delivering this kind of emotive heartbreak on such earlier songs as ‘The Golden Age’ and ‘Lonesome Tears’ from his masterpiece Sea Change, to say nothing of the mighty ‘Nobody’s Fault But My Own’ from Mutations. It promises to be fascinating to see how it’s used in the context of the film, but until then it’s an utterly essential download.

Listen to it here:

The Big Chill

Posted in Music with tags , , , on August 10, 2010 by alexlarman

Do you ever have those moments when you start to think that you’re getting old? That happened to me last weekend at the Big Chill. As a regular, sometimes even avid festival-goer, I treasure countless musical memories from the dozen or so events I’ve attended over the years, from Bowie’s last (to date) proper UK performance at the Isle of Wight to Radiohead turning Karma Police into the most generous and open-hearted of singalong anthems. I’ve seen bands who I assumed would be useless who were terrific (and vice versa), seen all manner of exotic wackiness and strangely affecting moments of beauty, and I’ve always turned up, armed with a backpack and tent in tow, ready to serve my duty in some part of southern England.

However, these thoughts become somewhat less compelling when, after two increasingly nerve-frazzled days, you find yourself in a rain-soaked tent listening to youths shout, for literally hours at a time, ‘Al-an! AL-AN! AL-AN!’ in the middle of the night. (And no, I never found out who this unfortunate fellow was.) At such moments, one’s thoughts turn inexorably to things as mundane yet occasionally necessary as showers, beds and basic hygiene. The music would have to be utterly spectacular to justify these levels of deprivation, and this year’s Big Chill, with a couple of notable exceptions, didn’t deliver.

After a nightmare journey that involved near-endless delays and changes en route (due to the excuse of ‘cable theft at Tilehurst’, which makes one wonder what else people do for kicks in that part of the world), I finally arrived at the Big Chill early evening on the Friday. I was attending thanks to the generous intervention of a friend, who managed to offer me a last minute couple of spares that had materialised. Given the press office’s unlikely story that they had been so inundated with demand this year to allow the likes of me to attend, I had resigned myself to not going, but the chance to see a top-quality line up was too compelling to miss, so heaven and earth were moved and I found myself grimly traversing the festival site in an attempt to find the correct gate. Asking stewards where to go was met with blank incomprehension or veiled hostility, as if their time gossiping to colleagues and munching crisps was too valuable to be taken up by anything so vulgar as offering accurate directions.

After a walk the distance roughly from LA to New York, camp was pitched and I headed down in time to see Thom Yorke. I’ve always believed Radiohead not only to be the most talented and visionary band of their generation – and probably the greatest British act since Pink Floyd, with whom they share a musical DNA – but possessed of one of the most iconoclastic frontmen. Yorke seems to have mellowed somewhat over the past few years from the angst-ridden miserabilist of yore, performing not only with his ‘new’ band Atoms For Peace but also on his own, performing stripped down versions of songs from his solo album The Eraser and Radiohead tracks. As with his similar performance at Latitude last year, this worked beautifully. Yorke’s undoubted talents on the piano and guitar made for unusual but moving versions of such songs as Planet Telex and Airbag, which, stripped to their bare essentials, sounded both stately and affecting. An acoustic version of The Gloaming from Hail To The Thief, stripped of the trickery on the album, was just as good, revealing the dark heart underneath.

He was soon followed by Massive Attack, who revealed the central problem with the Big Chill. Many of the acts performing simply don’t translate particularly well into the live arena. People, by and large, go to festivals to sing along to songs they know, to enjoy others by acts they haven’t discovered, to drink too much, perhaps find a couple of new sexual partners and generally have fun. What they don’t do is want to stand and suffer intense and humourless barrages of white noise or unfocused and seemingly endless guitar solos. Massive Attack can and do bring out wonderful songs – Angel was a clear highlight – but too much of their performance seemed to be an assault on both the audience’s eardrums and patience.

The weekend continued, and my fatigue and sleeplessness meant that I was wandering around feeling half alive. Most bands or acts I saw or glimpsed could be summed up simply enough. MIA – ‘stage invaded, gig over’. Paloma Faith – ‘does Grace Jones want her headgear back?’ Newton Faulkner – ‘your version of Teardrop was better than Massive Attack’s. The Magic Numbers – ‘are you still going?’ Plan B – ‘what was Plan A?’ And so on, and so on. The festival offers other cultural highlights, from film screenings to a literary tent, but there’s nothing like the breadth of interest at Latitude, the clear competition, or Glastonbury. Spencer Tunick staged a photoshoot of coloured naked people on Sunday morning, which led to the interestingly unusual spectacle of men in the sort of blackface that has been frowned on for the past century cheerfully eating ice cream as their paint slowly turns flaky.

Thank heavens, then, for Lily Allen, a sentence I never expected I’d write. Whatever your thoughts about her – the well-documented public and private escapades over the past 5 years recently crescendoed with her pregnancy being literally front page news – there can be no doubt that her second album, Alright Still, was a hugely impressive collection of finely crafted pop songs, which translate beautifully into the live arena. Allen was on laidback but compelling form, delivering wry comments about everything from her casual stage attire to the rumoured ladyboy status of Lady GaGa, and she was helped by a slew of great 3-minute numbers, from the country-meets-disco stomp of Not Fair to the mighty The Fear. So, all in all, a mixed weekend, but with some memorable moments.Some of which were saved for the return journey and a rather hairy couple of hours in a Worcester biker pub, that is, but that’s another story…