Archive for May, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2011 by alexlarman

After a so-so opening to the blockbuster season in 2011, it’s a pleasant relief to report that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class lives up to the hype (and its subtitle). It’s not as consistently brilliant as Nolan’s two Batman films, nor does it have the crazily wacky irreverence of Vaughn’s earlier foray into superheroics, Kick-Ass. What it does boast are cracking action scenes, a witty and intelligent screenplay that assumes some people don’t need every bit of subtext patronizingly spelt out, and some near-sublime leading performances. It all adds up to a very superior slice of mainstream filmmaking.

Opening, as Bryan Singer’s first film did, with the young Erik Lensherr (Bill Milner as a child, Michael Fassbender as an adult) at Auschwitz – thereby setting the stakes that much higher than your average origin story – the plot soon dovetails into, initially, a twofold narrative. In the first, the young academic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) find themselves approached by the CIA in the form of Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), in the 1960s as they investigate the nefarious activities of the Hellfire Club, led by the charismatic Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Meanwhile, Lensherr, intent on vengeance against those who tormented him and his family at the camps, finds himself slowly drawn into Xavier’s band of mutants as it becomes clear what, precisely, Shaw’s endgame is.

If the word ‘mutants’ in the above synopsis seems incongruous, this reflects one of the strengths of the film. Less in thrall to fantasy elements that Singer’s first two in the trilogy (let’s not speak about Brett Ratner’s disappointing third), it undeniably offers some stirring effects work as the various characters show off their superpowers (there are several more, most of whom are, perhaps necessarily, somewhat underdeveloped), but it’s equally if not more interesting when the characters sit down and talk. This is partly because the 60s setting offers much topical meat – the Cuban Missile Crisis plays a pivotal role – but also because the acting is so bloody good.

Most people will walk out of this film singing the praises of Fassbender as Erik Lensherr-turned-Magneto. There’s a simple reason for this; he’s fantastically charismatic in a complex and highly nuanced role which isn’t hero, villain or even anti-hero, but an interesting response to Ian McKellen’s more stately, theatrical take on the character. At times, he channels Connery-era Bond with enormous success (the campaign for him to succeed Daniel Craig as 007 starts now), at others he plays the character of avenging angel with almost frightening conviction and hints of sadism. An early bar scene rivals the one in Inglourious Bastards for bloody intensity.

He’s well supported by a twinkly McAvoy, bringing his considerable acting gifts to a role that in the wrong hands might have ended up as Professor X-position, and Bacon, a genuinely chilling and nasty villain. A game supporting cast all bring their various skills to the characters, whether it’s January Jones’ ornamental baddie Emma Frost, Nicholas Hoult’s affecting Beast or Lawrence’s liberated Mystique. There are also a couple of fun surprise cameos and even an appearance by Vaughn’s perennial favourite Jason Flemyng, though no Dexter Fletcher this time around.

It’s not perfect. Some of the special effects are slightly fake-looking (perhaps as a result of the film’s hasty gestation), parts of the final act feel rushed and perfunctory (barring a very satisfying face-off between two of the leading figures), the Hellfire Club is an interesting but underused concept and some may cavil that most of the leading ladies seem to spend too long in their lingerie for comfort. All true. But this is set against the film’s considerable and undeniable strengths. It’s not just a good superhero film or summer film, it’s a good piece of cinema, full stop. And how can you not warm to a movie that has the eccentricity to have one character actually deliver the time-honoured line ‘More tea, vicar?’

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Hanna

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on May 19, 2011 by alexlarman

You’ve got to feel slightly sorry for wunderkind director Joe Wright, whose latest film, Hanna, opened recently to respectful if occasionally bewildered reviews and decent box office. When it was originally planned, the central concept (teenage girl is trained by her vengeful father as an assassin with the intention of avenging her mother’s death) must have seemed edgy, envelope-pushing and innovative. One can only imagine Wright’s face when he saw Matthew Vaughan’s Kick-Ass, which not only features a near-identical central concept but, when its (younger) assassin Hit Girl merrily says to a bunch of villains, ‘Right you cunts, let’s see what you can do’, manages to smash a whole set of taboos and outrage the Daily Mail at the same time.

But Hanna suffers from several unfortunate aspects of timing. Everything about it has been done before, and often better. The emphasis on close-scale hand-to-hand violence is straight out of the Bourne films, as are the globe-trotting narrative and shadowy government operatives plotting illegal machinations with unknowing subjects. An action scene involving characters stalking each other in dock containers is highly reminiscent of Batman Begins. The Chemical Brothers’ pounding electronic score is less interesting than Daft Punk’s similar music to Tron: Legacy. And so on, and so on. The overall impression is one of déjà vu, of course, but then that’s the case for virtually all Hollywood films these days.

What’s weird, and slightly depressing, is that Joe Wright has been lionized as one of the great futures of cinema. Like a lot of other young, or young-ish British directors (Tom Hooper, Sam Mendes, Duncan Jones) he has made some attention-catching films that have been dutifully praised by critics without being particularly good. His 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice was worthy and largely uninteresting; his 2007 adaptation of Atonement did well to capture much of the book’s weird combination of nostalgia and perversity but fell apart at the end, like the source material. The less said about his bizarre aberration The Soloist the better (although he has argued, convincingly, that the film’s failure was a result of studio meddling), and then we have Hanna, where the arthouse trappings do little to disguise a generic piece of Hollywood entertainment. A good cast (the scarily talented Saiorse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and a bleached-blonde Tom Hollander) all do their best, but given the expectations that many held for this, it’s all distressingly second-hand and, by the pat conclusion, more than a little underwhelming.

Roger Waters – The Wall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on May 13, 2011 by alexlarman

Pink Floyd occupy a curious place in people’s hearts and minds. They were enormously popular in the 1970s, despite a near-complete absence of hit singles and a certain, shall we say, recalcitrant attitude towards the business of fans. They emerged from a university town but weren’t associated themselves with the university, which they retained an ambivalent attitude. After an initial stab at an entirely different kind of genre, they found their niche with a seminal album which is near-obligatory for educated middle class music fans to own. And arguably their most famous music was associated with the lead singer’s self-loathing and insecurity.

Remind you of anyone else?

Be that as it may, the real surprise with The Floyd (as the pretentious call them, and I shan’t) is that the album that sold mega-truckloads, The Wall, is hardly what you’d expect from a big hit, any more than OK Computer is. It has a few obviously accessible and commercial tunes on it, but there are either weird and experimental fragments, odd insights into Roger Waters’ increasingly fractured mind and songs that aren’t really songs at all. It was famously toured in an increasingly acrimonious way in 1981, which more or less directly led to the end of Pink Floyd.

Since then, Waters has occasionally performed it either partially or in its entirety (most notably in Berlin in 1990), but this much-heralded tour is the first time since 1981 that he’s gone on a full-scale tour. Notably it’s billed as ‘Roger Waters – The Wall’, given that it’s the Floyd project that he’s probably most associated with. At the 02, it’s quite a feat of engineering and mastery. The visuals, making use of enormous puppets, projections, video and occasionally quite affecting tableaux, are staggering, even if the central point of what it’s all about (anti-war? An attack on corporate society? An examination of Waters’ disturbed psyche? All three) gets a bit lost.

The songs are variable. The stand-outs (Mother, Nobody Home, Hey You) tend to be antsy, epic ballads driven by outstanding musicianship and lyrical content, but oddly their presentation is comparatively low-key, with the exception of Mother, which, rather movingly, has Waters duetting against a recording of himself from 1981. Another Brick In The Wall is still the most miserable disco song ever recorded, but is performed with verve and brio, especially the choir of local Greenwich kids helping out on the chorus. The weird Act 2 material (The Trial, Waiting For The Worms) is done with tongue in cheek and some judicious use of Gerald Scarfe’s animations for the film, making it an overwhelming sensory experience. The in-between filler ones (Vera, Young Lust, Bring The Boys Back Home etc) are well performed and visually interesting but musically a bit blah. However it’s never anything less than gripping, intelligent and well staged.

Oh, and the night I went, David Gilmour came on to do Comfortably Numb. And then Nick Mason came on at the end with Gilmour to perform the final song, Outside The Wall, making it a bona fide Floyd reunion, the first of its kind since Live 8. (RIP Richard Wright, naturally.) I run the risk of sounding hyperbolic about this, so let me say that Comfortably Numb sounded as good, if not better, as it was when I saw Gilmour perform it with Bowie at the Albert Hall in 2006, and that it was genuinely moving and affecting to see how people reacted to Gilmour’s surprise guest appearance, playing his guitar 40 feet above the stage. It made what would otherwise have been a very good night a truly unforgettable, cathartic experience.

The Damnation Of Faust

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on May 10, 2011 by alexlarman

As we all stagger out, heads throbbing and hearts pounding, from the final instalment of the Harry Potter series this summer, a multi-billion dollar behemoth that has offered virtually nothing other than polished Cliff’s notes to an overrated series of children’s books, the question will resonate with many: why didn’t Terry Gilliam direct them? He was JK Rowling’s first choice, and throughout his career has excelled in creating fantastical environments imbued with a sense of wonder and danger, from the neo-Orwellian phantasmagorias of Brazil to Hunter S Thompson’s Las Vegas.

The answer is a simple one. Gilliam, one of the few true visionaries still working in English language cinema, is seen by studios as ‘unreliable’ and ‘not box office’. His career has been affected by appalling incidences of bad luck, ranging from Heath Ledger’s death while filming the (interesting but flawed) Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus to his having to abandon his long-cherished Don Quixote project due to a near-Biblical run of unfortunate occurrences that included the illness of one of its stars, flash floods and the intervention of military jets. His past few films have disappointed, both commercially and critically.

So, what next? While some would retire to their chateaux and lick their wounds, Gilliam, a remarkably energetic 70-year old, has continued to innovate, directing short films, a well-received webcast for the Arcade Fire from Madison Square Garden and now accepting the ENO’s offer to direct Berlioz’ rarely staged The Damnation Of Faust. Perhaps surprisingly, he hasn’t ever directed an opera before, although he came extremely close to staging Andrea Chenier at La Scala in 2008. (That old bugbear, ‘scheduling conflicts’, played an unfortunate part.) But it would seem fitting to combine his crazed visual genius with the ENO’s latest attempts at hiring high-profile directors from outside the world of opera to breathe life into often unusual and challenging projects. Sometimes, as with Simon McBurney’s A Dog’s Heart, the result is a resounding success. At others, as with Mike Figgis’ recent Lucrezia Borgia, it’s a more disappointing blend of two incompatible styles.

What helps Gilliam’s production of The Damnation Of Faust is the piece’s comparatively non-canonical nature. Of course everyone knows its most famous part, the Hungarian March, but it’s seldom staged as an opera due to its lengthy instrumental sections and comparative absence of sustained narrative. Gilliam, a man never to shy away from a challenge, takes the central dynamic of Faust falling in love with Marguerite and being tempted by the devilish Mephistopheles, and moves it from its traditional 19th century setting to a time-hopping period between the fin-de-siecle of Romanticism to the altogether more chilling vision of Nazi Europe. The results are sometimes funny, occasionally horrific and mainly viscerally gripping. Of course, Nazis on the stage bring about the unfortunate memories of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, but Gilliam manages to shy away from the absurdity and unintentional humour that a well-turned swastika can still engender in the wrong hands.

The production (designed by Hildegard Bechtler, who was also responsible for the ENO’s Peter Grimes) first suggests, stunningly, the mountains and grand vistas of Caspar David Friedrich, but gradually moves into darker and more disturbing territory, with fascist slogans daubed on grim, utilitarian buildings that cannot but help remind viewers of Brazil’s claustrophobic dystopias. The performances and singing are all very strong, especially from Christopher Purves as a suave, shaven-headed Mephistopheles who doubles up as a devilish MC, and from a shock-headed ginger Peter Hoare as the bewildered, outwitted Faust.

I felt occasionally surprised that, despite the visual opulence and intelligent use of video, there are comparatively few moments where Gilliam goes flat-out for broke visually. If you’re expecting Monty Python-esque flying eyeballs and enormous expanding cities, forget it. What he does do, in harness with Edward Gardiner’s predictably excellent conducting, is to treat Berlioz’ curious hybrid with a respect and seriousness that it seldom has received in the past, and manages to make some apposite points about the human tendency to look the other way in times of suffering as well.

So, Hollywood. Gilliam has proved that he can handle a large-scale production in an unorthodox environment, and that he can do so with taste, wit, imagination and sensitivity. Any studio executives who brave their self-imposed cultural apartheid and venture out to the Colisseum during the production’s run might be pleasantly surprised. Let’s hope that some paws are put into chequebooks and that Gilliam is allowed a final crack at directing the Don Quixote story. Heaven only knows, he’s sold his soul to enough Faustian pacts to deserve it.