Archive for March, 2011

The Most Incredible Thing

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on March 23, 2011 by alexlarman

Say what you like about Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, aka the Pet Shop Boys, but they’ve never been afraid of innovation. Not only have their live stage shows featured collaborations with figures as diverse as Derek Jarman, Sam Taylor-Wood and Es Devlin, but they’re increasingly involving themselves in extra-curricular projects such as their 2001 musical Closer To Heaven, their 2004 score to Battleship Potemkin (performed live, for free, in a drizzly Trafalgar Square) and their recent scoring of the Young Vic’s Christmas show, My Dad’s A Birdman. (They also came very close to scoring Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliantly insane Bronson, but in the end restricted their involvement to the use of It’s A Sin in a key scene.) Now, perhaps their most ambitious project to date is a full-length ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, scored by them and choreographed by Javier de Frutos, at Sadler’s Wells. It’s loosely based on a very short Hans Christian Andersen story about a kingdom where the creator of ‘the most incredible thing’ will receive half the kingdom and the hand of the princess in marriage, and features all the pizzazz and style that you would expect.

So is it any good? To be quite frank, yes and no. This is a top-class production in many respects – the designs are great, the small touches (such as an X-Factor-esque panel of judges, sponsored by vodka, who have to rate which of the various hopeless acts really is ‘the most incredible thing) are often witty and the choreography is impeccable. The score (which I’d listened to outside of the production repeatedly) alternates between pop, dance, rock, Sondheim-esque showtunes and, perhaps most bizarrely, a recurring love theme which is a near dead ringer for Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, whether intentionally or not I know not. It’s got echoes of various other Pet Shop Boys classics – some countdowns which recall It’s A Sin, fanfares that sound not unlike the hit that wasn’t quite, All Over The World, and the usual pumping dance beats. It’s a witty and beguiling way to spend two and a half hours.

However what seems rather perplexing is what it gains from being a ballet rather than a musical or a straight opera. The narrative as it stands is confused and often confusing, requiring frequent glances at the programme to explain what’s going on and who the various characters are (apart from Ivan Putrov’s glowering, black-clad baddie). And the single, frustrating use of Tennant’s voice over (intentionally) banal lyrics leaves one wondering what on earth would have happened had this taken the music and turned this into something with a clearer narrative drive. The intentions behind this show are impeccable, and it’s certainly worth seeing. Yet one has to wonder whether this is, rather than being ‘the most incredible thing’, a noble but rather misguided effort that might lead Messrs Tennant and Lowe to pause before the inevitable opera gets underway.

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I Saw The Devil

Posted in Film with tags , , , on March 11, 2011 by alexlarman

Revenge films tend to lie at the pulpier and often more morally questionable end of the Hollywood spectrum. From Death Wish onwards, the concept of vigilante violence wreaked by a lone but heavily armed man going against apparently insurmountable odds has enlivened thrillers ranging from the not-bad Kevin Bacon shoot-em-up Death Sentence to the deeply right wing but guiltily entertaining Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown. Even Taken, in its own way, functions more as a revenge film than a race-against-time thriller, as Liam Neeson wreaks bloody vengeance on anyone who gets in his way to rescue his daughter, to exhilaratingly horrible effect.

A couple of the classier examples of this genre have emerged from Korea in recent years, directed by Park Chan-wook and starring Korea’s answer to Robert de Niro, Choi Min-sik. The first, Oldboy, is a truly brilliant revenge thriller that, in the eventual revelation of why the protagonist has suffered the way he has, can honestly be compared with the finer works of Jacobean tragedy. The second, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, is slightly inferior but has a memorable climax as questions of public and private vengeance are brought bloodily into play.

And then we have I Saw The Devil. Every film cited thus far is violent, but this one is really full-strength java, so strong in fact that there were walk-outs at the press screening. From the opening scenes – in which Choi Min-sik, this time playing essentially the epitome of evil as Kyung-chul, a serial killer and rapist, kidnaps, brutally beats and dismembers the protagonist’s pregnant girlfriend – you know that this is going to go considerably further than just about any Hollywood thriller you can imagine. And so it proves, as secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), demented by grief, vows that simply tracking and killing Kyung-chul will not be enough for him. Instead, he decides that vengeance, in its purest form, will consist of making Kyung-chul suffer as he has suffered. Unfortunately, Kyung-chul combines evil with immense intelligence and cunning. A lot of people die. Horribly.

At nearly two and a half hours, the sheer onslaught of gore and tension – with a couple of proper jump-out-of-seat shocks – is likely to defeat many viewers. (When a cannibalistic serial killer appears halfway through, it almost comes as light relief.) Even the eventual resolution, which offers a horribly logical conclusion that is, in retrospect, the only satisfying way that the film could ever end, is draining and grotesque in its implications. Set against this, the central performances (especially Min-sik’s) are remarkably strong, the moral question at the centre – to whom does the title refer? – is a compelling one and there are some brilliantly staged, almost operatic set pieces. Whether or not you’d want to watch it more than once is another question entirely.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

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

Along with James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, Luc Besson is someone who has been as notable for the films that have appeared under his ‘produced by’ or ‘written by’ credit as the actual ones directed by him. However while Spielberg has produced things as eclectic as True Grit and Transformers 2 and Cameron has happily lent his name to virtually anything with his approved 3D (or some of Kathryn Bigelow’s earlier work), Besson with frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen has been a virtual one-man factory for slick Eurothrillers over the past decade, ranging from Taken and The Transporter to the absurd banality of Jet Li’s Unleashed and Kiss Of The Dragon.

Films he’s directed over the past decade have been patchy, to say the least. I’ve not seen the Arthur & The Minimoys cartoon/live action mash-ups, but apparently they squander eclectic voice casts (Bowie, Lou Reed, Robert de Niro, Madonna etc) on the worst sort of cutesy animation and weirdly tortuous plots. His last film proper Angel-A was a black and white meditation on the nature of fate and the supernatural that cast back to some of his earlier films in a low-key way, but before that you’re looking at the folly of Joan Of Arc for a ‘proper’ Besson film. Therefore I was quite excited at the prospect of Adele Blanc-Sec, a comic book adaptation about a female adventurer, set in 1911 and featuring all manner of reanimated mummies, psychically controlled pterodactyls and an indomitable, sexy heroine.

Instead, I emerged from the film in a state of some confusion and surprise. Besson is best known for constructing indelibly thrilling action scenes –one thinks of Jean Reno versus apparently endless numbers of heavily armed police, Bruce Willis battling extraterrestrial uglies or even Anne Parillaud single-handedly taking on a restaurant full of assassins. Here, there’s virtually nothing of that kind. Expectations of a French Raiders Of The Lost Ark are briefly piqued by an early scene that shows Louise Bourgouin’s spirited heroine battling corrupt guides, deadly booby traps and Mathieu Amalric’s near-unrecognizable archaeologist villain in an Egyptian tomb. And then, bafflingly, the film chooses to exist in an altogether lower key throughout. Amalric’s villain disappears until the very end of the film, and the narrative revolves around various incompetent big game hunters trying to bag the pterodactyl ‘terrorizing’ Paris while Adele attempts to cure her sister from a freak tennis injury that has paralysed her. Suspense and adventure are altogether absent.

It’s all quite droll, in a very broad and French/Jean Pierre Jeunet kind of way, and there’s some nice stuff involving a knowing group of reanimated mummies towards the end of the film. The problem is that anyone without a prior knowledge of the character is likely to be sunk. This feels very much like the middle part of a trilogy, with the thrilling action, dastardly villains and genuine sense of something at stake altogether absent. It remains to be seen whether a sequel – heavily hinted at at the end-  does in fact appear, and whether Besson delivers on the promise of the grand adventure that the subject matter would appear to deserve.