Archive for October, 2010

127 Hours

Posted in Film with tags , , , on October 29, 2010 by alexlarman

Well say what you like about Danny Boyle, but he’s remarkably brave and incredibly inventive as a director. After the surprise hit of the excellent Slumdog Millionaire (as well as the surprise failure of the equally excellent Sunshine), he might have been forgiven for taking on a high-profile paycheck gig, such as a big summer blockbuster or some obvious ‘prestige’ project. He could even have shepherded Slumdog into a big West End musical, a la Billy Elliot. But Boyle’s far too interesting a talent to do that, and so 127 Hours is the result. It’s an excellent piece of filmmaking, but (by necessity) very hard to sit through in places, let alone enjoy.

Based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a self-confessed adrenaline junkie who found his arm trapped under a boulder for 5 days in 2003 (the titular ‘127 Hours’), there might initially seem to be limited dramatic scope in the story. But Boyle, always a wildly inventive and forward-thinking director, keeps the audience’s attention in virtually countless ways. From a short prologue in which Ralston first meets and then charms two hitchhikers into taking part in some high-risk diving, to the visual dynamics used within his ordeal and eventual resolution, the film is consistently gripping and engaging.

The casting of James Franco as Ralston is also fortuitous. With most of the cast (including Clemence Poesy, Amber Tamblyn and Kate Burton) playing types rather than human beings, it’s down to Franco to make a protagonist who’s undeniably selfish and self-absorbed to someone who’s nevertheless sympathetic and dynamic enough to make an audience care about his ordeal. I’m not quite convinced that he’s going to win an Oscar for it, but it’s nice to see Franco – occasionally a rather mannered presence – delivering work of this calibre.

The only problem with the film, then, is simultaneously one of its greatest assets, namely its unflinching depiction in showing Ralston’s eventual extrication from his situation. In unflinching, graphic detail, Boyle shows precisely how a man might attempt to sever his arm, armed only with a blunt penknife. It’s horrific, although far from gratuitous, but it’s likely to leave the average viewer utterly shell-shocked. Consequently, the redemptive and uplifting ending, gloriously scored by Sigur Ros’ ‘Festival’, is likely to be overshadowed by the sheer horror of what’s gone before. And that, for many, might be enough reason to avoid this superb film.

 

Easy A

Posted in Film with tags , , , on October 25, 2010 by alexlarman

My relationship to teen comedies has always been rather similar to my relationship to the South Pole. Broadly speaking, I’m glad it’s there and I’m sure it serves a purpose, but I have no particular urge to go visiting any time soon. However, despite my general indifference towards the genre, there are nonetheless a few films that transcend their generic barriers and become something a bit special. I’m thinking of Heathers, Clueless, Ten Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls and the latest addition to their ranks, Easy A, which somewhat surprisingly is one of the funniest and most enjoyable comedies of the year.

The witty and subversive script by the hitherto little known Bert V Royal (a pseudonym?!) bears roughly the same relation to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter that Clueless does to Emma and that TTIHAY does to The Taming Of The Shrew, i.e passing allusions that will amuse the literarily inclined rather than a close adaptation. Olive (Emma Stone) leads a nondescript life in a Californian high school, where her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) is a boy-obsessed moron who takes it as a compliment to be told that her nickname ‘bits’ stands for ‘big tits’ and where her oh-so-liberal and cool parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) seem vaguely concerned by her unadventurous life. Until, that is, she tells Rhiannon a fanciful story about losing her virginity, and complications ensue, not least the school’s evangelical Christian sect led by the hypocritical Marianne (Amanda Bynes) attempting to trigger her expulsion for being, in their charming terms, a skank. But if you’re going to be called a whore, why not flaunt it?

To say much more might be to spoil much of the fun. While the eventual trajectory is inevitably predictable (it’s a teen rom-com – did you expect Leaving Las Vegas?) there’s a huge amount of enjoyment to be had along the way, because of Stone’s genuinely likeable and sympathetic performance, anchoring a character who might have been Juno-levels arch in recognisable humanity. From the first line – ‘rumours of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated’ – you know that this is going to be an unusually literate piece of work, and so it proves. Virtually every character has at least one laugh-out-loud funny line, of which my favourite is Malcolm McDowell’s harassed headmaster saying ‘This is public school! If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus!’ It’s a long, long way from If…

There’s too much amusing stuff to document, but every single scene involving either Tucci or Clarkson is comic gold, mainly because it’s two great actors given superb parts and allowed to be warm and sympathetic as well as somewhat…eccentric. (There’s a line that Tucci delivers to their adopted son which is far, far too good to be spoilt by being repeated out of context.)  Personally I’d happily watch a sitcom just about this remarkable family, and I suppose that’s a testament to the excellence of the acting and writing. But it isn’t all warm and fuzzy – a subplot involving sympathetic English teacher Mr Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) and his guidance councillor wife (Lisa Kudrow) is remarkably unsentimental and clear-sighted.

I enjoyed this film tremendously. I wouldn’t argue that it’s a classic of the cinema, but I’ve certainly laughed more in it than in any teen comedy than for years. And, in passing, it’s great to see the sort of loathsome and hypocritical ‘Christianity’ that I’ve always despised get a really, really good comic kicking.

Black Swan

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

To the UK premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan, at the LFF. As glitzy premieres go, it was a pretty good one – Aronofsky, the gorgeous Mila Kunis and the effortlessly charismatic Vincent Cassel were all in attendance, and the after-party took place in the glamorous surroundings of the Royal Opera House, complete with spraypainted black swans for decor, amidst seemingly endless Jameson cocktails. My judgement and movement might consequently have been impaired at the end of a long day, but my critical faculties remain undimmed. At least I didn’t lurch towards the terribly dapper Aronofsky and yell ‘Darren! Wolverine 2! What the fuck, man?!’

Aronofsky has described Black Swan as a companion piece to his acclaimed drama The Wrestler, and although this might seem a frivolous analogy, the kind of thing that a bored director might say to amuse himself during endless interviews, it actually holds true. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a talented but repressed ballerina whose dream it is to dance the White Swan in Swan Lake. However, the ballet’s charismatic but brutal director Tomas Lefrory (Cassel), who is notorious for having romantic relationships with his leading ladies, informs her that she lacks the passion and daring to become the Black Swan, an equally integral part of the ballet. Beset by her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) and a mysterious, sensual new addition to the corps, Lilly (Kunis), Nina finds herself embracing her dark side with alacrity. Or does she?

Yes, we’re in the realm of that old favourite, the psychological thriller, and Aronofsky gleefully seizes the chance to homage numerous classics, ranging from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes to Polanski’s Repulsion, with echoes of his own Requiem For A Dream thrown in. Portman goes to pieces at least as impressively as Ellen Burstyn in the earlier film, and delivers certainly her best performance to date as the dancer who’s a pirouette short of the full performance. That said, here, as elsewhere in Aronofsky’s work, the suspicion lingers that the character is being at least partially objectified from a male perspective,whether Lefroy’s or the director’s himself. Certainly, some of the more explicit sexual content does have the vague air of male fantasy to it. More seriously, the film doesn’t so much shun its Grand Guignol trappings as embrace them utterly, building to a finale that justifies the comparisons with The Wrestler, albeit in entirely different contexts and trappings. Nina, for all Portman’s skill, is nowhere near as sympathetic as Mickey Rourke’s Randy The Ram, meaning many might find the film emotionally compromised.

Set against this are the film’s obvious strengths. As ever with Aronofsky, the cinematography (by Matthew Libatique) and score (by Clint Mansell, making heavy use of Tchaikovsky) are impeccable and exciting, making the world of dance come alive in visceral and unexpected ways. Even if you hate the very concept of ballet,  you’re guaranteed to find its presentation here electrifying. It helps that it’s so well cast; apart from Portman, Cassel’s character is intriguingly ambiguous – is he just an opportunistic lecher who seduces his leading ladies as a perk, or is he in fact a brilliant Svengali who can unlock hidden depths? – and there’s excellent support from Kunis, Hershey and Winona Ryder in a bitter recurring cameo as Nina’s predecessor in the company.

Some will undoubtedly find the film silly and overblown, and its gradual recourse to horror and thriller tropes unworthy of a subject that might have benefited from a more restrained approach. (Who’d have thought that it contains considerably more ‘boo!’ jump scares than Matt Reeves’ Let Me In?) But for all that, it’s gripping, superbly made and confirms Aronofsky as one of the most exciting talents working today. Now, as for Wolverine 2….

 

Hamlet

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by alexlarman

It’s been a busy last couple of years for starry productions of Hamlet, what with David Tennant at the RSC, Jude Law at the Donmar, John Simm up in Sheffield and now Rory Kinnear in Nicholas Hytner’s new production at the National. It’s always one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, combining a gripping narrative with some of the greatest verse in the English language, but this sudden spate of stagings might make even the most committed Bard fan weary of the stale, flat and unprofitable uses of artistic directors’ time. Except of course when it’s as gripping and vital as this, which is about as far from stale and flat (and, judging by the sold-out audience when I attended, unprofitable) as can be imagined.

Hytner’s first innovation is to set the play explicitly in a police state. All the characters are being watched, either by the ever-present CCTV  or by the suited apparatchiks, forever muttering into their earpieces. The political undertones, so often soft-pedalled in performance, are here brought to the fore. Claudius, riskily but successfully played by Patrick Malahide as a vaguely Putin-esque despot, addresses his public speeches to ever-present  cameras. Dissenters, whether they’re the players, Laertes’ army or even Hamlet himself, are led away by armed men or threatened with torture. Against the ubiquitous sense of violence and paranoia, the question is asked, implicitly, ‘Does one man’s life really matter?’

The answer, thrillingly, is ‘yes’, because Rory Kinnear’s quite astonishing performance more or less redefines what an audience expects from Hamlet. Kinnear, as anyone who has seen him in such earlier plays as The Man Of Mode, Burnt By The Sun or The Revenger’s Tragedy knows, has a magnificent speaking voice, perfect comic timing and the rare ability to swing from high tragedy to low comedy in an instant. What he does here, and it’s both mesmerising and eventually highly moving, is to humanise Hamlet completely. His prince isn’t mad, or transfixed with incestuous desire for his mother, or an impotent wretch unable to avenge his father’s murder. Instead, he’s a young man devastated by grief who gradually comes to realise his destiny is one suffused by violence and loss.  The first half, daringly, ends with Hamlet after his exposure of Claudius at the play-within-a-play, but far from seeing him in celebratory mood, he is centre stage, wracked with horrendous sobs of grief.

There are countless things to admire in this production. Clare Higgins’ Gertrude is played as a semi-drunk lush, initially flattered but ultimately repulsed by Claudius’ attentions, as she comes to realise that all is indeed rotten in this state of Denmark. She’s also central to a remarkably original coup de theatre in the closet scene, where it’s made clear that she, too, sees the ghost of her former husband, but tries, in vain, to deny it to herself, even as the ocular proof presents itself. And David Calder’s Polonius is simultaneously a hard-edged spymaster and an ageing man apparently on the verge of Alzheimer’s, forever losing his train of thought and apparently wracked by guilt in his own apparent involvement in old Hamlet’s murder.

This energetic, intelligent staging moves at a tremendous pace throughout its three-and-three quarter running time, keeping the action as gripping as any modern political thriller, but allowing for grace notes throughout, such as the moving depiction of Ruth Negga’s Ophelia being bumped off and a disgusted Gertude’s account of her faked suicide showing the moral corruption endemic within the court. It’s always tempting fate to come out with superlatives, but I can’t remember seeing a clearer, more gripping or more emotionally rich production of this great play.

Let Me In

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on October 18, 2010 by alexlarman

After watching, and enjoying very much, Tomas Alfredson’s fiercely original and stylish Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In, I groaned at the idea of an American remake. My groans increased when I heard that it was to be Matt Reeves directing. I utterly failed to understand why Cloverfield had any kind of buzz behind it; the overall impression it gave was of a hyperactive teenager pirating Roland Emmerich’s equally terrible Godzilla on a cheap camcorder. So, it’s fair to say that my expectations for this one weren’t especially high.

It comes as a very pleasant surprise, then, to find that this solemn, grim and very accomplished film stands as a worthy counterpoint to the original. I’d hesitate to call it better or worse; I think I prefer Chloe Moretz’s performance as the vampire Abby to Lina Leandersson’s because Moretz, a frighteningly talented young actress, evokes both sympathy and chills, and it’s always a pleasure to see great character actors such as Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas on screen, but there are a few touches in the original that are absent here that I missed. So, swings and roundabouts.

Plotwise it’s pretty much the same as the original, albeit with an interesting shift in emphasis towards horror and away from the weirdly fairytale quality that Alfredson’s film had. I confidently predicted that the Grand Guignol setpiece of the swimming pool finale would be toned down in the remake, and I am pleased to say that I was incorrect; if anything, it’s even more brutal and uncompromising than the before.

It’s not done very well in America, perhaps because this is the polar opposite of your Twilights, but this is a serious, grown-up and often fascinating film, and shows that Reeves might yet become a director to be reckoned with.