Archive for June, 2011

Bridesmaids

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , on June 21, 2011 by alexlarman

In what’s proving something of an Indian summer for adult-oriented comedies (we’ve already had The Hangover part 2 and Bad Teacher, and Horrible Bosses is looming ahead), there’s been a consensus that Bridesmaids, written, starring and co-produced by Kristen Wiig and produced by Judd Apatow, is the one to watch. Ecstatic reviews have made much of the fact that it’s a rare female-led and oriented mainstream comedy that isn’t an insipid Lopez/Hudson/Aniston rom-com, and that blokes can enjoy it as well. As ever, the overwhelming hype is detrimental rather than beneficial to expectations of what is a refreshing and original, if flawed, spin on conventions.

Annie (Wiig) is a single girl in her late 30s, with a non-committal fuck buddy (played, in gloriously sleazy fashion, by an uncredited Jon Hamm), a dead-end job in a jewellery store and a best friend (Maya Rudolph) about to be married. As her maid of honour, Annie finds herself trying to compete with the too-perfect Helen (Rose Byrne), her own insecurities and difficulties and the other guests, who include the practically certifiable Megan (Melissa McCarthy). Even the hint of a genuine romance with an understanding police officer (Chris O’Dowd, of all people) can’t seem to get her life back on track.

Although there will no doubt be debate as to how much of a part Apatow played in the film’s gestation (it feels very much like Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin in its mixture of crudity and sweetness), this is really Wiig’s show. Expectations of an ensemble comedy are soon dispelled, and thankfully Wiig is a sufficiently talented and subtle actress to make her protagonist likeable, complicated, frustrating and relatable. She’s well supported by a credibly horrendous Byrne as the control freak Helen with ghastly taste, Rudolph as the sympathetic yet slightly short-sighted bride-to-be and McCarthy, essentially playing a distaff version of Zach Galifianakis’ character from The Hangover. There are lots of good lines, laughs and setpieces, not least a disastrous bridal fitting with the food poisoning from hell and all manner of bad business on board a plane.

The only real problem with the film, then, is one it shares with a lot of Apatow’s work; it’s about half an hour too long. This means that there are completely extraneous characters such as Wiig’s two English flatmates (step forward Matt Lucas), and, sadly, O’Dowd’s policeman, who is saddled with the film’s lamest and least convincing scenes. Thankfully whenever the pace slows, you know that round the corner is another killer one-liner, cringe-makingly inappropriate set piece or pithy observation on modern mores, which is enough to sustain you through the longeurs.

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The Guard

Posted in Film with tags , , , on June 17, 2011 by alexlarman

Sometimes a film is lifted so much by a dominant lead performance that the rest of the picture seems cowed in comparison. It seems unlikely, for instance, that anyone walked out of There Will Be Blood singing the praises of anyone other than Daniel Day-Lewis, or that Bad Lieutenant left people murmuring ‘Could have been good with a more striking actor in the central role than Nicolas Cage’. So it proves with John Michael McDonagh’s debut film, an Irish crime caper that is lifted from run-of-the-mill by two factors in particular, arguably Brendan Gleeson’s best performance to date and a witty, inventive script that riffs deliriously on the clichés of the genre.

Sgt Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is a morass of contradictions. A drinker, drug user and habitué of prostitutes, he’s racist, loud-mouthed and lazy. In virtually any other film, his ‘journey’ would be about his redemption, especially when he’s paired with by-the-book FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, alas unblessed with funny lines) to investigate an import of drugs into the West of Ireland, where he makes his occasional patrols. Up against a hyper-literate trio of criminals (played, splendidly, by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and Dermot Leary), Boyle and Everett must put aside their common differences, etc etc.

It’s all somewhat reminiscent of McDonagh’s brother Martin’s (superior) In Bruges, specifically the same combination of offbeat detail, witty and highly quotable banter, unexpected moments of violence and a sensibility that owes more to theatre than to cinema. It scores, however, in Gleeson’s wonderfully rich performance, as a man to whom Wendell can say, despairingly, ‘I don’t know if you’re really smart or really dumb’, and the audience wonder that question for most of the film as well. Yet Gleeson makes Boyle a sympathetic and likeable character even at his most apparently crass, whether in his unsentimental but still rather touching relationship with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) or in the grand finale, where the action beats of a shoot-out are vastly less interesting than Boyle’s behaviour, keeping the audience guessing until the end.

The Cherry Orchard

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on June 7, 2011 by alexlarman

Photography (c) Catherine Ashmore

‘Straw-hatted melancholy’. Is there a more dismissive way of referring to one of the greatest playwrights of the past 150 years, namely Anton Chekhov? Well, yes and no. Chekhov’s most successful plays – Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – all revolve around minutely detailed issues of wealth, class and society in late 19th century Russia, a country on the brink of explosion. Not, of course, that Chekhov ever lived to see the rise of Lenin and Stalin, dying as he did in 1904. The description cited above comes from the sense that his middleclass characters might mildly carp about their lack of money or success, but are still living in beautiful houses and have enough funds for trips and vodka. The great productions are those that show the aching despair underneath. Perhaps because of this dichotomy, Chekhov’s major works are often revived, and in fact the National’s new production of The Cherry Orchard follows on the heels of a very successful and enjoyable Sam Mendes staging of a new version of the play by Tom Stoppard in 2009 at the Old Vic. So how does it compare?

In the programme, the director Howard Davies makes a joke (at least I assume it’s a joke) about ‘if anyone asks for a linen suit or a parasol in this play they have to pay a fine or buy a round of drinks’. This feeling of wanting to get away from the usual Chekhovian clichés permeates his production, which has a robust, colloquial translation from Andrew Upton. Purists may well carp at some of the liberties taken – this is probably the first time that a Chekhov character’s been described as a ‘bozo’ or when someone says ‘I’ve told you a thousand bloody, frigging times’ – but the critical outrage that greeted the new version (with the Daily Telegraph’s critic pronouncing that it should be ‘thrown into the Thames’) seems hyperbolic. For better or for worse, this is straight down the line Chekhov, presented in classical style at the Olivier Theatre, and sufficiently accessible to be showcased in the NT Live season, where it will screen to cinemas across the country.

The storyline is, as ever with Chekhov, less about plot than the manner in which characters interact. Ranyevskaya (Zoe Wanamaker) is a feckless landowner facing bankruptcy, much to the despair of her daughters Anya (Charity Wakefield) and Varya (Claudie Blakley). The wealthy merchant Lopakhin (Conleth Hill), who is half-fond and half-frustrated by his neighbours, tries to arrange the sale of the cherry orchard to allow for its conversion to holiday homes when the railway line arrives, but Ranyevskaya will have none of it. Meanwhile, Lopakhin and Varya seem on the verge of forming an attachment, and ‘the eternal student’ Trofimov (Mark Bonnar) is stuck with a lot of terribly dull speechifying in which he spells out that the world is on the brink of change.

I didn’t enjoy this production as much as Mendes’ Bridge Project staging, but that’s no reflection on the calibre of this one. Hill, who’s been superb in Davies’ Russian plays before (including last year’s stunning Bulgakov adaptation The White Guard) is a fine combination of pomposity and warmth as the self-made man Lopakhin, Blakley is very moving as the plain, adopted daughter who longs for love but has no idea how to express it, and Kenneth Cranham is suitably doddery as the ancient servant, Firs. There’s also a fine comic performance from James Laurenson as Gaev, the clueless and deluded brother. In fact, the only weak link is Wanamaker, whose performance seems too telegraphed and obvious in its oscillations between gay abandon and poignancy, meaning that the eventual emotional charge seems somewhat muted.

Nonetheless, this is an intelligent, heartfelt production of a great play, and well worth going down to the National to catch, or of course watching on your local cinema come June 30th.