Archive for January, 2011

Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on January 29, 2011 by alexlarman

When I was a child, I loved Roald Dahl. Not so much the children’s books – which always seemed to the youthful me to be trying ever so slightly too hard to be the kind of disgusting/loveable thing that kids are supposed to enjoy reading – but his peerless volumes of memoir, Boy and Going Solo, and, especially, his short stories. I still remembering acquiring a black book with a glowing neon cover, the implied promise of which was that all manner of thrills and chills were afoot. And this proved accurate. Even today, Dahl’s twisted, witty black comic squibs amuse and appal in equal measure, dealing with everything from the ethical questions of a young mother desperate to have her abusive husband’s children in ‘Genesis And Catastrophe’ to an antique-dealing parson becoming involved with some very dodgy characters in ‘Parson’s Pleasure’.

Given their successful adaptation for television before, it seems surprising that they have taken so long to be staged (perhaps because of the notoriously protective Dahl estate), but now the Lyric Hammersmith, fresh from the enormous success of Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories, have commissioned Dyson to produce an adaptation of five of the most famous, directed by rising star Polly Findlay (who, full disclosure alert, I was at university with).  It’s an interesting (if brief) evening, nailing some of Dahl’s perversity and macabre humour, but one ends up wishing that Dyson had gone somewhat further than he has done.

Connected by a wraparound story inspired by ‘Galloping Foxley’, the stories adapted here are ‘The Landlady’, ‘Mrs Bixby And The Colonel’s Coat’, ‘Man From The South’, ‘William And Mary’ and finally ‘Foxley’ itself. As ever with portmanteau stories, the results are variable. ‘Mrs Bixby’ feels out of place and inconsequential in this company, lacking the grotesquerie that the others have. ‘William And Mary’ and ‘Man From The South’ are both highly accomplished and surprisingly funny moments of anecdote, with the staging adding touches of perversity that perfectly compliment the stories. ‘The Landlady’ feels, perhaps fittingly given Dyson’s past, like a lost League of Gentlemen sketch, and ‘Galloping Foxley’ benefits immensely from being the freest adaptation of any of the stories, allowing the excellent George Rainsford (as Foxley) to offer a hilariously chilling account of a deranged public school bully.

The cast are, to be honest, variable – this is one of those annoying productions where an actress plays numerous male roles in drag for no clear reason – but Rainsford and the splendidly versatile Nick Fletcher (playing everything from a knife-happy South American to a terminally ill doctor of philosophy) impress.  Findlay’s direction is pacey and assured throughout, meaning that the brief 80 minute running time flies by. If ultimately I’d class this as an entertaining evening rather than anything more profound, I suppose it’s because the stories – macabre, challenging and endlessly captivating – offer all the thrills and twists that you need, without asking for further embellishment.

 

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The Kids Are All Right

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on January 15, 2011 by alexlarman

A slightly belated blog, this one, but Lisa Cholodenko’s film seemed slightly unappealing on its initial release, looking like the sort of smug, self-satisfied navel-gazing ego masturbation that passes for much Hollywood independent filmmaking these days. Perhaps this was just poor marketing or something rather suspicious-sounding about the onslaught of good reviews, but I didn’t bother seeing it, until the universal praise offered in the year-end round-ups made me venture into the cinema one wet Thursday afternoon. And I was terribly glad I did.

Briefly summarised, the plot sounds like something out of conservative Edwardian melodrama. A happy family, where the father perhaps takes a glass too many, the mother feels slightly frustrated as a houswife, the daughter is university-bound and the son has an unsuitable playmate, is rocked by the arrival of a feckless but charming ami de maison, to whom the mother is drawn, and to whom the children begin to have a relationship of sorts with. Trouble ensues. However, the masterstroke here is to have the central pairing of Nic and Jules to be two lesbians, and the ami de maison, Paul, to be their sperm donor and therefore biological father of the children.

The performances from Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the sapphic couple are masterly; Bening is spiky and controlling but loyal and intelligent, Moore is warm and faintly kooky, but also frustrated. Both effortlessly convey the chemistry of long-term partners with affection and with intelligence. They’re matched by the excellent Mark Ruffalo as Paul, a man who is essentially an overgrown child, whose response to finding out about the unconventional use to which his sperm has been put is to grin and say ‘Lesbians! I love lesbians!’, as if he’d just been shown some extra uncensored footage of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis ‘at it’ in Black Swan.

As for the titular kids, they’re a mixed bag. Josh Hutcherson is ever so slightly too old for his role – he’s supposed to be 15, but he’s 18, and looks it – and suffers from a slight flatness with his character as well as a relationship with an idiotic friend, Clay, that goes nowhere and presumably had its resolution end up on the cutting room floor. However, Mia Wasikowska – who was distinctly unimpressive in Tim Burton’s failed Alice In Wonderland – is quite wonderful as the daughter, an academic overachiever who finds herself emotionally confused by the sudden upheavals in her life. As the film progresses, the focus gradually turns towards her, and the final scenes of her arriving at university and realising that, for better or for worse, her life is beginning are unexpectedly moving.

For all the liberal trappings, this is, at heart, a surprisingly conservative film, stressing the importance of the nuclear family and the warmth and support that this might involve. (In this it’s not dissimilar to the splendid Easy A). And, perhaps, when all is said and done the resolution is quite conventional and pat. But it’s an excellently acted and beautifully made film, and well deserving of the attention that it’s attracting.

 

The Next Three Days

Posted in Film on January 6, 2011 by alexlarman

There’s always something faintly frightening about blogging long enough to see a film, enjoy it, and then see its remake and blog about that as well. As with Matt Reeves’ excellent remake of Let The Right One In, Let Me In, Paul Haggis’ ‘cover version’ of the French film Pour Elle (best known as Anything For Her), keeps most of what worked (including a few things that didn’t) about the original, but adds an individual spin on it. The result might not appeal to everyone, but it’s undeniably a classy and eventually thrilling piece of work.

The basic plot is pretty much the same. John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is a mildly frustrated but generally happy schoolteacher in Pittsburgh, married to the beautiful Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and with an adorable son. Their world is turned upside-down when Lara is arrested for the murder of her boss, and imprisoned for the indefinite future. After appeals run out, the increasingly unhinged John decides that the best idea is to spring his wife from prison and escape overseas, after taking the counsel of serial escapee Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson, in a wry one-scene cameo). This requires him to undergo a fairly substantial metamorphosis, from mild-mannered pedagogue into hardened master criminal, all leading up to the final act’s cat and mouse thrills. And all the while, the ambiguity lingers…did Lara do it?

Haggis and Crowe, both Oscar-winners, are fairly divisive figures in Hollywood, the former for what’s often seen as his sermonic dullness (I’d certainly say I prefer his scripts to the likes of Million Dollar Baby and Casino Royale to his worthy-but-tiresome films as a director) and the latter for his open contempt for anyone and anything that he appears to consider beneath him. Here, simply put, Crowe is on close to top form and Haggis is on middling form. Crowe’s always a compelling actor, and even if he feels much more comfortable as the steely, near-psychotic risktaker than a vaguely impotent teacher, he can get more out of a long look at himself in the mirror than a dozen hammy monologues. He’s ably supported by Banks, escaping from rom-coms for once, and an able supporting cast including Brian Dehenny as his dad, Olivia Wilde as a fellow mother and potential love interest and even a couple of off-the-wall cameos, such as Home Alone’s Daniel Stern as a lawyer and, bizarrely, Mrs Sting, Trudie Styler, as a doctor.

As for Haggis, it might be damning him with faint praise to describe this as his most entertaining film by far as a director, but he does a good job of keeping the tension high (an added scene with Crowe failing to use a counterfeit key works superbly) and the central performances compelling. The problem is that it’s a good deal longer than the original, and often feels it. Details that were hinted at before, such as the potential relationship with the other mother, are now hammered home, and everything is inflated. While this escalation works superbly come the climax, which really does attain edge-of-seat thrills, it can be wearying beforehand.

Still, when all’s said and done, this is several cuts above your average generic thriller, and thanks to Crowe’s performance, it’s certainly well worth watching.

Love And Other Drugs

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on January 4, 2011 by alexlarman

 

This review contains spoilers.

Edward Zwick’s new film, Love And Other Drugs, is a very strange beast indeed. Taken on its own terms, it’s a witty, engaging and refreshingly grown-up take on the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy. However it’s also a deeply flawed film that struggles to combine its various generic ideas – I counted medical satire, Judd Apatow-esque gross-out farce, disease-of-the-week drama, doomed romance weepie and battle-of-the-sexes comedy – into a satisfying and coherent whole. A lot of people will despise it because of its ending, which I shall come to in due course.

It begins in suitably swashbuckling style as charismatic, charming and utterly empty salesman Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) seduces countless women while making his way in the Big Pharma field of Pfizer drugs, competing with other smooth-talking rogues to offer doctors ‘their’ product. Soon, when Viagra launches, he becomes the go-to guy. While trying to impress world-weary cynic Dr Knight (Hank Azaria), he intrudes on the medical examination of Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a young Parkinson’s sufferer in stage 1 of the illness. Maggie, initially appalled at his cynical bravado, soon embarks on a distinctly physical and sex-orientated affair with Jamie, but then, inevitably, things become more complicated.

This brief synopsis doesn’t even mention the distinctly improbable character of Josh (Josh Gad), Jamie’s unappealing multi-millionaire younger brother, who is responsible for strange outbursts of gross-out humour and feels like an addition forced onto the filmmakers to keep the younger elements of the audience happy. It’s not too annoying, but it feels cartoonish and out of kilter with the feel of the rest of the film. But then it’s not quite clear what Zwick is trying to do. Harsh, realistic scenes and moments – Maggie sneers at one point ‘It doesn’t make you a good person just because you pity-fuck the sick girl’, a line worthy of Patrick Marber’s Closer – are juxtaposed with gooey-eyed romantic scenes that feel distinctly cookie-cutter in their sentiments. And the dreadful, dishonest ending, which has Maggie and Jamie tied together in a ‘happy ever after’ clinch without even hinting at the horrendous problems that lie ahead, feels untrue compared to what’s gone before.

A shame, then, because this is generally enjoyable, well-written fare. Gyllenhaal, an actor who is becoming more conventionally handsome as he gets older, is just the right balance of punchable and charming as Jamie, and Hathaway is sweet, sexy, ferocious and completely sympathetic as Maggie, well deserving of all the praise that she will doubtless deserve. What a shame about the way that it cops out, short-changing all the good work of the previous 105 minutes.

Although it’d be an entirely different film, I’d be intrigued to see what a David Fincher or a Neil LaBute (an on-form LaBute, not a Wicker Man-remaking LaBute) would have done with this material. It might have been more subversive, but also more real and satisfying. As is, we have yet another example of a pretty good piece of entertainment that could have been something rather special.