Work in progress…

Posted in Literature with tags , , on September 26, 2012 by alexlarman

In case anyone’s wondering why I haven’t updated my blog in ages, this man is the reason:

 

I’m currently writing a long-threatened book about John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, for Head of Zeus. Provisionally titled Rochester: Sex, Power and Poetry at the Court of Charles II, it won’t be finished or published for a little while yet, but it’s taking up much of my time and energies at the moment. So expect blogging to be a bit lighter than it has been for the past few months. The trade-off is that you can expect the inside story on the book as and when it happens…in the meantime, here is one of my favourite Rochester stories.

‘It is of Isaac Barrow (a famous theologian of the age) that the familiar story is told of a playful match at mock courtesy with the Earl of Rochester, who meeting Dr. Barrow near the king’s chamber bowed low, saying, “I am yours, doctor, to the knee strings.”  Barrow (bowing lower), “I am yours, my lord, to the shoe-tie.”  Rochester: “Yours, doctor, down to the ground.”  Barrow: “Yours, my lord, to the centre of the earth.”  Rochester (not to be out-done): “Yours, doctor, to the lowest pit of hell.”  Barrow: “There, my lord, I must leave you.”

Cripes.

 

Lawless

Posted in Uncategorized on August 8, 2012 by alexlarman

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Not that many people saw John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s 2006 collaboration The Proposition, but those that did are never likely to forget it. A suffocating but frequently brilliant combination of poetic dialogue, arid Australian landscapes, gritty performances from the creme de la creme of English and Australian actors (and Danny Huston) and a memorably weird Cave-Warren Ellis score, it’s one of the most distinctive and unusual pieces of cinema released in the last few years.

Their subsequent collaboration (if we discount the Cormac McCarthy adaptation of The Road, which Cave merely co-scored) Lawless offers up a similar brew, albeit in a more accessible register. Again, the setting is an obscure location, here the backwaters of America in the Prohibition (cue Tommy guns and old-school cars), where the legendary Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and the ‘runt of the litter’ Jack (Shia LaBeouf) work in the thriving black-market industry of moonshine liquor production. This is tolerated by the complicit forces of law and order, until ‘Special Deputy’ Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a pressingly vicious sadist, arrives on the scene with the aim of making the Bondurants’ life very difficult. Matters soon escalate, bloodily. 

As with The Proposition, the level of violence here is impressively high for a mainstream film. No doubt Hillcoat and Cave, if questioned why, would shrug and say it represents a violent time. However, I can see this being an issue for many audiences, as, to a lesser extent, is the rather one-dimensional portrayal of the two main female characters, Jessica Chastain’s girl-with-a-past and Mia Wasikowska’s love interest for Jack. Set against these issues is a rip-roaringly exciting thriller, with superb performances by a fine cast (including Gary Oldman in a tasty cameo as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner) and superbly staged shoot-outs and confrontations. 

The two stand-out actors here are Hardy and Pearce. Hardy, consolidating what’s already been an excellent last 12 months with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Dark Knight Rises, is broodingly charismatic in a Brando-esque fashion as the leader of the brothers, a man whose strength and rumoured immortality are undercut with an unexpected delicacy, even sweetness. He’s up against one of the great screen grotesques in Pearce’s eyebrow-less Special Agent, a hilariously refined man who nevertheless takes enormous pleasure in inflicting pain. It’s tempting to assume that his character is the result of a close collaboration between actor, writer and director, so vividly is he realised. His first set-to with LaBeouf (never better) shows what lies ahead, and he’s a force to be reckoned with. 

So, all in all, this excellent film – complete with fine soundtrack by Cave, Ellis and various apposite covers of sometimes unlikely songs – is hugely enjoyable fare, provided that you can stomach it. And the ending is especially lovely, an unusual little coda that’s a wryly enjoyable reversal of the ‘happily ever after’ formula of so many of these films. 

The Dark Knight Rises

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 19, 2012 by alexlarman

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Undoubtedly the most anticipated film of 2012, or many other years for that matter, the third and final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series opens, if not badly, certainly hesitantly. After the bang-bang-bang brilliance of The Dark Knight’s bank heist and emergence of The Joker, or the subversive time-hopping intelligence of Batman Begins, there’s a big action set-piece involving the liberation of Tom Hardy’s masked, richly (if sometimes muffled) voiced terrorist Bane that, while visually impressive, feels slightly like something out of mid-70s Bond. And not in the best of ways either. 

 Then, while Nolan sets his pieces on a chessboard, there’s 30-40 minutes of exposition and character introduction. In addition to the old favourites, such as Christian Bale’s now suffering and reduced Bruce Wayne, Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon and, especially, Michael Caine’s Alfred, we have a host of new faces. Some, such as Anne Hathaway’s slinky, sexy and morally conflicted Selina Kyle, are welcome from the outset. Some, such as Ben Mendelsohn’s slimy corporate raider and Juno Temple’s criminal-in-training, feel like uncertain and underwritten manifestations of the script’s big ideas. And others, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s upright cop John Blake and Marion Cotillard’s philanthropic Miranda Tate, might as well have ‘Big Twist or Red Herring’ written on their foreheads, so tangential might their parts otherwise seem to be.

 So, for a short time, there seems the very real possibility that Nolan, the most exciting director making films today, has turned in an acceptable, enjoyable but slightly flat final chapter in the most acclaimed mainstream blockbuster series ever. And then, as the first act comes to a close and the second act kicks in, the pace accelerates to that of a greased whippet on amphetamines. It would be churlish to spoil too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that Bane’s vision for Gotham is not one of peace and goodwill to all men, and that Bruce Wayne must once more adopt the mantle of Batman in order to avoid something foreshadowed as long ago as the first film.

 Nolan is an unusually cerebral and provocative filmmaker, and the big themes explored here – the nature of how society fares when law and order are abandoned; whether personal sacrifice can ever be less an act of altruism than a necessity; what the inevitable result of Occupy New York and its ilk must be – are immensely thought-provoking and fully realized stuff. (It should be noted that this is a deeply conservative film in its conclusions.) This is set against truly mind-blowing action set pieces, with the grandest of grand finales that bears close comparison to James Cameron’s best work, proving that Nolan, perhaps unexpectedly, has become one of Hollywood’s finest action directors as well as everything else. As ever, Wally Pfister’s cinematography (on what will apparently be his last film before he becomes a director) is top-notch, Hans Zimmer’s score gives the whole shebang urgency and grandeur in equal measure and the performances are all exemplary, as you’d expect from a cast seemingly mostly composed of award winners and nominees.

 But the talking point for many will be the ending. Not to spoil it, but early rumours of what eventually ensues for Bruce Wayne and Batman have proved to be both quite accurate and completely missing the point, ensuring that this very fine saga wraps up in an unusually emotional and moving fashion. By the very end, if you’re not even slightly moved when a character reads a particularly well-known, and very apt, passage from a novel that sets the thematic tone for the entire film, there’s something deeply wrong with you.

 As a character says at one point, ‘Boy, you’re in for a show tonight.’ 

The Plantagenets

Posted in Literature with tags , , , , on June 10, 2012 by alexlarman

Apologies to regular visitors to the blog – I’ve been somewhat busy of late with working on my first book, a biography of the poet Lord Rochester, but I will update when I get a chance (or when something interests me enough to spend an hour or so writing about it.) Here’s a reprint of a recent review that I did for The Observer. 

“The prince was drunk” is the attention-grabbing first sentence of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets. There follows an account of the 1120 wreck of royal prince William the Aetheling’s flagship, The White Ship, and the subsequent centuries of alternating triumph and disaster visited upon the Plantagenet dynasty, up until the beginning of Henry IV’s reign in 1399.

Jones, a protege of David Starkey, writes with his mentor’s erudition but also exhibits novelistic verve and sympathy. Following his acclaimed account of the Peasant’s Revolt,Summer of Blood, this is a great popularhistory, whether you are au fait with the machinations of medievalism or whether Magna Carta mystifies you.

Jones offers vivid psychological portraits of the Plantagenet kings. Richard the Lionheart is flawed but chivalric, patriotic and drawing such respect from his enemies that his great nemesis Saladin wrote to him in 1192 to say that there was no king to whom he would rather lose his empire. But his brother, the wicked King John, is given short shrift, with his habit of torturing wealthy nobles until they would pay ridiculous amounts of ransom; he was cruel even by 13th-century standards.

One of Jones’s strengths is an eye for the small but enlightening detail of character. Edward I, or “Longshanks”, persecuted all who disagreed with him, whether it be his expulsion of the Jews in 1290 or his conquest of Scotland in 1296. He was so dominant in person that he was said to have scared a man to death, unlike his son Edward II, whose incompetent rule, bedevilled with military defeats and unwise adherence to his favourites, ended with his murder in 1327. Jones notes that the method of his death, traditionally held to be by a rectally inserted red-hot poker, “is almost certainly quite untrue”. The medieval wheel of fortune is ever-present. The greatest of all the Plantagenet kings, Edward III, is succeeded in 1377 by one of the very worst, Richard II, and the whole process of civil war begins again.

The book offers unforgettable characters, and it’s always clear whether Jones loves or hates the people that he writes about, describing key figures such as Thomas Becket or Piers Gaveston as “splendid” or “insufferably arrogant”. If the book has a flaw, it sometimes seems to flit away from these people too soon, leaving the reader keen to find out more about such marginal but important men as the mystic Peter of Wakefield and the historian Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Over and over again, the point is implicitly made that the greatness of England was an accidental occurrence, rather than a planned evolution.The Plantagenets is proof that contemporary history can engage with the medieval world with style, wit and chutzpah. It is a long book at more than 600 pages, but remains engaging throughout.

A Tale Of Two Posters

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on March 19, 2012 by alexlarman

The eagerly awaited upcoming Norwegian Jo Nesbo adaptation Headhunters has a fairly striking poster:

Except that we’ve seen pretty much exactly the same poster somewhere else:

Who said that marketing originality was dead?

The Recruiting Officer

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on March 6, 2012 by alexlarman

Josie Rourke, the new artistic director of the Donmar, has some impressively big shoes to fill. Not only does she come after the near-legendary Sam Mendes (whose assistant director she was), but her immediate predecessor was Michael Grandage, whose regime of alternating new, experimental work with big star-driven revivals has been seen as a 10-year job application for the role of artistic director at the National when the great Nick Hytner retires. (Sidenote – aren’t we blessed to have so many really excellent directors working in the theatre at the moment?) However, her first production, of George Farquhar’s late Restoration comedy, is as assured and enjoyable as anything under the previous companies.

Farquhar’s play was written in 1706, taking it comfortably out of the usual sphere of such drama as The Country Wife or The Man Of Mode. It’s not as biting or bawdy as those plays, leaving the traditional urban setting of town for Shrewsbury, where the recruiters, led by the dashing Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies) and the vaguely sinister Sgt Kite (Mackenzie Crook) have come to hunt for gullible young men to fight. Plume is also in search of his would-be lover Silvia (Nancy Carroll), who has taken to cross-dressing for entirely spurious plot purposes, and all are confused by the foppish Captain Brazen (Mark Gatiss), who makes twirlery, kissing and ‘m’dear!’-ing his arts.

Apparently this is the first time that the Donmar has staged a Restoration comedy, but it shouldn’t be the last. It’s not an especially rigorous or deep reading of the text, with most of the laughs coming from the near-pantomime exuberance with which an excellent cast (including Rachael Stirling giving an absurdly camp performance as an affected lady of ‘ears’) give the material. Some late attempts to graft on a vaguely moving finale don’t really sit easily with everything that’s gone before, but the glorious performances (especially from Menzies and Carroll) are a pleasure to watch throughout. If you can get tickets, you ought. M’dear.

Oscar Hopefuls – 2012

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2012 by alexlarman

So, the film awards season draws near again, kicked off in earnest by the (hopefully) irreverent Ricky Gervais taking the mick out of various celebrities as he hosts the Golden Globes for the third and apparently final time, and ending with the grand dame of them all, the Oscars. As ever, it’s been a funny year for seeing what is on the radar, and what isn’t. The excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Drive haven’t had much of a showing so far, while the mediocre-looking The Descendants has attracted what seems like an undue amount of attention. Indeed, it’s been a year where slight films have prospered, with Woody Allen’s pleasant but unexceptional Midnight In Paris being lauded to the skies, apparently on the grounds it’s better than anything he’s done in years. Well, at least it isn’t Match Point or Cassandra’s Dream.

Anyway I’ve now seen a few of the more obvious hopefuls, and have a few thoughts on each:

The Artist

Apparently the current frontrunner at the Oscars, Michel Hazanavicius’ charming film has attracted much attention because it’s both in black and white, and silent. (Purists might note that it’s also filmed in academy ratio of 1.33:1.) I’d hesitate to call it the epoch-defining classic that some have called it, but it’s undeniably extremely compelling. It retreads the time-honoured story of A Star Is Born, with the difference that the fading actor George Valentin (played, in a star-making turn, by Jean Dujardin) is a thoroughly decent and honourable sort, and that the up-and-coming star, Peppy Miller (the equally charming  Bérénice Bejo) wants nothing more than to do right by the object of her affection. It isn’t as deliriously feelgood as the reviews might suggest, with an air of gentle melancholy being the pervading atmosphere, but it’s a lovely tribute to the good ol’ days of Hollywood, helped by indelible supporting performances by John Goodman (as a cigar-chewing studio head) and James Cromwell (as Dujardin’s loyal chauffeur). And, of course, the dog (Uggy) is excellent.

Girl With A Dragon Tattoo

Early reports indicated that uber-producer Scott Rudin and David Fincher wanted to set up a new franchise with their American (although, crucially, not Americanized) adaptation of Steig Larsson’s best-selling trilogy, but that this franchise would be defiantly R-rated and adult, containing all the charming details that the books are known for, not least anal rape, incest and serial killing. This has been borne out, perhaps rather too well, given the film’s as-yet uncertain box office performance. Its main draw is the astonishing performance by Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, the presumably autistic computer hacker who is recruited by disgraced journalist Michael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to help solve an age-old murder on a Swedish island. Mara, playing down her usual good looks, is appealingly vulnerable at the same time as being tough, and is helped by Fincher’s muscular direction, incorporating his usual touches of jet-black humour; a serial killer, preparing to dispatch his victim, puts on Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ as mood music. Only a rather superfluous globetrotting last act spoils it, but the strengths until then (including a nicely judged performance by Christopher Plummer as the patriarch of a truly rotten family and the stunning credits sequence) are considerable.

War Horse

Or, Spielberg makes a British film. Based on both Michael Morpugo’s novel and, more obviously, the National’s ever-running show, it showcases most of his strengths and most of his weaknesses, often at the same time. As ever with Spielberg, the casting (Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, Mullan, Niels Arestrup) is impeccable, the production values superb and the action scenes brilliantly choreographed and executed. Unfortunately, by choosing to make literal what both the book and play treated at least partly metaphorically, there’s a certain clunkiness, not least in the first act, which plods almost as much as the rejected shire horse that the titular thoroughbred Joey is bought instead of. As he forms a bond with his young owner (Jeremy Irvine, less impressive than some young Spielberg stars), and the wicked landlord (David Thewlis) schemes to evict the family from their cottage, you wonder why on earth the director bothered. As it goes into more episodic territory with the arrival of WWI, it offers tremendous set-pieces and indelible cameos, even as it serves up unlikely plot developments and all the sentiment you’d expect from a collaboration with Richard Curtis. Still very worth seeing, mind.