Thursday, May 31, 2007

Paul Newman: an appreciation

It came as a bit of a shock to hear Paul Newman has retired from acting. This was not because Hollywood is losing one of its titans (although it is), but because I’d assumed he’d done it years ago: his cinematic output in the past two decades has been slim, tapering off into cartoon voiceovers. His early career (the first 30 years!), however, gave us some wonderful performances which his retirement should call to mind.

My favourite one earned him his first Oscar nod, in 1958: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was perfect as Brick Politt, the troubled husband of the felinely fragile yet cunning Elizabeth Taylor. While she tried to seduce him for the sake of her femininity and their future together, he pined over his best friend and the passing of his sporting glory days. He could flip in a glance from alcoholic anger to deep tenderness for his raw, passionate wife. He had the exact qualities of troubled masculinity – and was handsome enough – to pull off Tennessee Williams’ heroes, which he also did in Sweet Bird of Youth.

The 60s was Newman’s finest decade. Just listing his films from this period should give you some idea why: The Hustler, Hud, Torn Curtain, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, three of these bringing Oscar nominations. Who can forget the egg-eating scene from Cool Hand Luke, or indeed every scene from Butch Cassidy? It was the humanity that he brought to each role that magnified them, even when in jail or on the run.

Newman’s Oscar finally came in 1987, for reprising his Hustler role in The Colour of Money, Martin Scorsese’s sequel. This was perhaps an apology from Hollywood for not rewarding the first performance: better late than never is the Academy’s motto (just ask Scorsese).

Then there are his late ‘chairman of the board’ roles, as Sidney Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy, where he tries to run down and then cheaply snap up a company in the Coen Brothers’ grim comedy, and as John Rooney in Road to Perdition, where as a Mafioso he has renegade Tom Hanks killed (and who wouldn’t?). These represent final flourishes in his resume, reminding young Hollywood of just why old Hollywood esteemed him highly.

So as the credits roll on his career, and he steps away to spend more time with wife Joanne Woodward and as head of the Newman’s Own Foundation, which funds summer camps for seriously ill children, I’ll be re-watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to remind myself just what made Paul Newman such a great actor.

Monday, May 28, 2007

I guess 'Nightmaregirls' wasn't as catchy

I must say upfront, I am only reviewing the soundtrack to Dreamgirls, since I had the misfortune to be subjected to it on a two-hour drive through belting rain to Bournemouth today. Had it been the movie version, I would almost certainly have thrown myself out of the moving vehicle. As it was, I made do with grimaces and groans.

Given that Dreamgirls is based on the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes (Beyonce's character is even called Deena, for goodness' sake), I was expecting the songs to be like Baby Love, Stop! In the Name of Love, and - my favourite - You Just Keep Me Hanging On. You know, catchy, tuneful, convincingly emotional.

Which leads me to wonder: what went wrong? If a song is not two bars repeated twenty times, with limited lyrics and no discernible melody, it is faux-show-stopping and caterwauled. Instead of heartfelt words, we get repetitious lines on dull tunes: 'I want to go downtown with you, baby' - how subtle can you get?

Composer Henry Krieger really ought to have listened to some of the best of Motown while composing for inspiration, instead of reaching for the generic hook and the average tune. There's none of the deep feeling in a light tune that made Where Did Our Love Go so popular, and no jaunty melodies as in You Can't Hurry Love.

Even the song which brought the house down on Broadway 25 years ago - And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going - is shown up as a mess, wandering all over the place with occasional emotional climaxes submerged in bumbled words. Jennifer Hudson cannot sing, more to the point: she sure shouts nicely, but any tone or tune is lacking. I've heard Jennifer Holiday's original Broadway recording of this and it knocks Hudson out of the park.

Beyonce's voice is wonderful as ever, rich and full, so it's a shame it's wasted so often. She's lucky the song Listen was written especially for her in the movie: it shows off her talent to its fullest, even if the song is in a much more modern showtune/pop ballad idiom than the rest. Jamie Foxx is undistinguished, but as I haven't seen his Oscar-turn in Ray yet, I'll reserve judgement.

The songs are dross, pieces banged out with the minimum of thought either to convey plot points or attempt to summon up that Motown feeling. They can't, tho': Motown is synonymous with soul, and if Dreamgirls' plastic production, unimaginative songs and generally lacklustre performances lack one thing, it's soul.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Princess Bride: A fairy tale like all others

I've just watched The Princess Bride, Rob Reiner's 1987 action-comedy-romance-fantasy-drama, and I feel slightly underwhelmed. Over the years I have received a number of sharp looks from people (tho' not from the kind lady who leant me the DVD) for not having seen it, so of course I figured it must be the new Mahler's 2nd or King Lear.

It's clearly a popular movie, since it's currently sitting 140th in the IMBd's top 250 films of all time (tho' given that it's just below 2004's abominable Crash, I'm not sure how to take this). Indeed, people rave about it, so I thought I should watch it just to check.

Don't get me wrong: it's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. No-one drops a Spanish accent halfway through a line. You don't see the boom mikes bobbing into shot. Even the overwhelming cheesiness is part of its charm, since it is the tale of a princess, a farm boy, true love, pirates and a wicked prince. Any more details of the plot would be superfluous.

I just fail to see what makes it so special. It's funny, but not too funny. It's enjoyable, but not too enjoyable. It's romantic, but not too romantic. It is, in essence, every Rob Reiner movie ever. Billy Crystal doing his old-Jewish-guy shtick as Max the Miracle Worker is reasonably funny, and Mandy Patinkin gets some laughs as the Spanish rogue trying to avenge his father's death. But most of the script either isn't directed at comedy or just isn't funny.

The same applies for all other aspects. The romance between Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (a badly-moustached swashbuckling Cary Elwes) isn't earth-shakingly believable, and the chemistry is on the frothy side: less an explosive reaction, more a faint effervescence. The action is fine if not innovative or likely to set the heart racing. The plot is more predictable than our current rainy bank holiday weekend.

I yield to no man in my admiration for Peter Falk - just consider all the lunchtimes happily wasted watching Columbo - with his gruff voice and avuncular charm. But all he does here is narrate the fairy tale to his sick grandson, who has all the appropriate reactions for a seven-year old: boo, kissing! Yeah, fighting!

The biggest reason for this film's mediocrity (other than its mediocre script and acting) is one particular celluloid predecessor: it stands in the shadow of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and looks tepid by comparison. The Holy Grail is the gold standard for action-comedy-fairy-tale movies and you need to go a long way to surpass it. Unfortunately, Rob Reiner is no Monty Python. The Princess Bride, for all its cult appeal, seems directed at those (like the seven-year old) hearing such a tale for the first time. For all others, it's been done before, much better.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rufus, Released

I confess, I had my initial doubts: on first listen, I wasn't quite sure what Rufus Wainwright was doing on his fifth album, Release the Stars. It didn't seem musically coherent, and his lyrics were as difficultly erudite as ever. However, the second run-through left me convinced of its merits and the fifth go found me in love with it.

The themes are as Rufusish as ever - gay life, true love and hard break-ups, crystal meth, fellow musicians - and although his stated intention was to take this familiar material in an unfamiliar direction (less outre, more cash-producing than Want), the upper reaches of his orchestrations have broken all previous boundaries and it's all as personal and deliciously esoteric as before.

The opener - 'Do I Disappoint You' - is lush and elaborate, with seemingly an instrument from every country all piling onto lyrics challenging a lover's expectations. The lyrics are typically comic-serious, verging from the fundamental questions ('Do I disappoint in you in just being human?') to banshees screeching out hysterical slogans. This is all underpinned by a strong string section and thundering brass, swelling and falling, sometimes abruptly, emphasising
the drama.

If anything more complex and larger scale were possible, it is 'Between My Legs'. Its saucy lyric ('I'll shed a tear for you/ Between my legs') about a dumped lover turns into a symphonic plan to run away together, then Sian Philips uses her best evil I, Claudius voice to speak the lyrics above the sound of trumpets, and that's before Rufus introduces the signature chords from Phantom of the Opera to crown it all.

At completely the other end of the musical scale, we are drawn into the hurt chambers of Rufus' heart with 'Leaving for Paris No. 2', where just a piano and then a cello perform a waltz of broken-heartedness. Eschewing grandeur of sound for nobility of heart, he advises a former lover not to chase him to Paris, wounded but still tender. 'Not Ready to Love' is also wounded and tender, but it doesn't feel like it goes anywhere, but 'Tiergarten' is delicately wonderful ('Won't you walk me through it all, darling').

First single 'Going to a Town' is perhaps the most obvious yet most thoughtful musical polemic. 'I'm so tired of you, America' is not a subtle lyric, but elsewhere it is still thoughtful and beautiful, especially when background singers jump in to dramatically reinforce the lyrics. Simultaneously elegiac and angry, Rufus leaves for Berlin (the 'town that has already been burnt down').

Just in case you think Rufus has lost his sense of humour, there's plenty of sly and savage laughter to be had. On 'Tulsa' he questions the sexuality of Brandon Flowers, the married Mormon lead singer of the Killers, and says he's so handsome he has 'the Marlon Brando club calling'.

He appears to out a movie star on 'Nobody's Off the Hook' (listen carefully - you can work it out), while he criticises the whole Hollywood system on 'Release the Stars' ('Old Hollywood is over'). The release he has in mind also has to do with coming out, since studios' lies won't survive public scrutiny, and this is all framed in a bluesy, jazz-bandy affair, smoky and ballsy. 'Slideshow' twists from its earnest start ('Do I love you?') to hysterical demands to appear in holiday snaps 'because I paid a lot of money to get you over here, you know', before reconciling the two.

Perhaps most deceptive is 'Sanssouci', which has a light, harp-accompanied tune but is really about the illusory promise of crystal meth. Its initial glamour and delight are empty and painful.

I remain a little unsure that the whole album coheres, but I'm not even sure how important this is when each song is a little gem, sparkling with wonderfully composed music and lyrics. Just as before, Rufus treads the territory of the heart while exploiting every resource music can provide, only this time grander, more heart-breaking, funnier, sadder, louder, quieter - more Rufus.

Going for Globe

It's summertime, so it must be Globetime.

South Park, South London

If you’ve ever thought the English educational system was a laughing stock, now you’ve been proved right, thanks to the producers of Bromwell High. It’s a cartoon set in possibly the worst and most hilarious inner city comp you can imagine: it’s South Park in south London.

Frankly, it’s been a long time coming: the halcyon, Grange Hill-view of education should not have been left to stand this long. In its do-gooder place there is now a run-down school populated by rioting kids, moronic teachers and a deputy head who may well be a servant of Satan. It’s everything you already believe, and more. Judging by what my teacher friends say, it’s also disturbingly accurate (baby-swapping and rabid monkeys excluded).

The characters are as endearingly repulsive as South Park, but instead of a quartet of foul-mouthed slacker pre-teenage boys, we have a trio of foul-mouthed slacker pre-teenage girls, called Keisha, Natella and Latrina. Stereotypes serve for characters: Latrina is white trash, Keisha the lazy but cunning black girl, and Natella the over-eager Asian and always-ignored conscience of the group.

Iqbal, the headmaster, claims to have won the school in a game of poker, which his shady past – there’s a suggestion of an African gun-running career – would support. His tenuous control of the school is secured by the ever-plotting Mr. Bibby, a true éminence grise brilliantly voiced by Graeme Garden; Bibby is always willing to bury Iqbal’s corpses (not in fact a metaphor). The menagerie of teachers includes the desperate-for-a-baby Carol, her weakling husband Martin, and the sluttish Australian Melanie, who puts the ‘ho’ into school.

Keisha gets the better lines (“Why is I have to study English? I speaks the bitch!”), although when someone remarks that Keisha’s sale of illegal, head-exploding sweets (don’t ask) was an allegory for drugs, Iqbal lays down the law, sublimely declaring that the selling has to stop because “the council has now got a zero-tolerance anti-allegory policy.”

It’s a shame that Bromwell High didn’t do well in ratings when it started on Channel 4 in 2005; now it’s only available on DVD. It may well end up being a sleeper hit, though, and if the return of Family Guy to Fox after shifting countless DVDs is anything to judge by, sufficient sales might even resuscitate its chances.

In a post-South Park world, Bromwell High is perhaps a bit obvious, a template too easily removed from America and planted on Britain’s failing schools. Its pupils’ adventures are equally foul, outrageous and unlikely, although no sign as yet of a mechanical Barbra Streisand. That does not, however, stop it from being hilarious.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The 3 Rs: Rufus, Rufus and Radio 4

I [heart] Radio 4, but I [heart] Rufus four times more. And before you ask, the new album is sublime - review to follow.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Legally bland: the rise of the moviecal

If you thought Legally Blonde – where Reese Witherspoon plays Elle, the law-loving clothes horse who’s a whiz at both res ipsa loquitur and Ralph Lauren – couldn’t get any cutesier, are you in for a saccharine surprise. Broadway has just seen the premiere of Legally Blonde: the Musical, which is pinker than Barbara Cartland blushing and more princessy than the Royal Family’s Christmas lunch.

This singing, dancing wedding cake is the most recent confection off the movie-to-musical production line, the most heinous – as Elle might say – trend since the jukebox musical (think Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You). I like to call them moviecals. The West End and the Great White Way have been swamped with this new type of show, which capitalises on an audience fond enough of the original to spend £60 on a theatrical, jazzed-up adaptation.

Take Dirty Dancing, the form’s exemplar, which broke all box office records when it opened last September. A successful movie with a devoted fan-base – $213m worldwide and teenage girls, respectively – and an irritatingly catchy soundtrack, it’s crying out for a resurrection. Slot in a few new songs, sit back, wait for the cash registers to ring.

This has worked – with varying degrees of success – for movies as varied as Billy Elliot, which lost its T-Rex period soundtrack and gained some insipid Elton John tunes; Grey Gardens, the documentary about Jackie Kennedy’s cousins who lived in Upper East Side squalor; and Spamalot, where a very silly movie gets even sillier on stage.

It’s such a depressing sight. We’re living through a period of retro-mania: with Take That at the head of the charts and Doctor Who and James Bond back in their nth incarnations, it feels like there’s nothing new or original happening. We’re stuck, being forced to relive the artistic crimes of our past, only now with cheesy musical numbers to compound the offence.

What’s next? Wall Street: the musical, where Gordon Gekko breaks into song about the joys of derivatives trading and share prices? I can see the showstopper now: ‘Greed is Good’, performed with girls wearing nothing but feathers and red stockbroker braces. Or Citizen Kane? ‘Rosebud’ could be a tender duet between one man and his sleigh.

In fact, I can tell you what’s next. After Mel Brooks kickstarted the fashion for moviecals with The Producers, in which Nathan Lane had to be muzzled to stop him chewing the scenery, what’s next is a moviecal of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Given his cinematic oeuvre – Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety and Spaceballs – Broadway may as well be rechristened Brooksville for the foreseeable future.

We should vote with our arses: stop filling the seats in the West End’s overpriced auditoria for unimaginative, cheaply adapted moviecals until producers remember that audiences would quite like something a little more sophisticated, a little less rehashed.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Independence days

Here are some of my articles from my work at the Indy:

Previews of a site-specific production of Genet's sadistic The Maids; of Kindertransport, a play about the children evacuated from Nazi Germany; and of the London Book Fair.

A series of interview on celebs' ideas of musical hell.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Puffy Chair: three cheers (chairs?)

Here's a review I wrote for the Sunday Times of a funny, moving new movie called The Puffy Chair: it's like Garden State without the pretension or moroseness.

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American indie director Jay Duplass casts his own brother, Mark, as Josh, a twentysomething floundering in his own life. He takes a road trip with his needy girlfriend (Kathryn Aselton) and spaced-out brother (Rhett Wilkins) to visit their father, picking up his birthday gift on the way – the title’s puffy chair. The tensions between the trio are given natural awkwardness, matched by juddery, low-fi camerawork. The plentiful laughs emerge so effortlessly that you could mistake this for a home movie. Though superficially similar to Garden State, this is more realistic and a lot funnier.

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See it on the Sunday Times' website here.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Brain-sawing, briefly

If you took the hellish descent of Requiem for a Dream and combined it with the sound of a buzzsaw grinding its way through your head, you would have the full experience of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.

Scott Walker was a fresh-faced, wholesome member of the Walker Brothers (none really called Walker, none brothers) in the 60s, before he fell into avant garde experimentalism. Gone are the cheerful tunes, in comes the music where pieces of meat are slapped and what sounds like monkeys are tortured.

This isn't a music review, so I won't go on and on about the absolutely nightmarish 30 minutes I spent while my eardrums were pierced with tiny pins and my brain was hacked through by a rusty letter-opener. It was sensory overload, and not in the eating-too-much-Green-&-Blacks-chocolate-while-watching-Sex-and-the-City way. It was pain, administered by decibels.

There are, however, equally legitimate criticisms applicable to the film. Its great claim is that it has got the reclusive Walker to speak on-camera about his life and work, but he's reticent about elaborating on his life. He has a euphemistic drink problem ('imbibing') but he won't explain how it came about, which would presumably actually let us learn something about him.

The film started off pretentiously, comparing Walker to Orpheus; Walker may have come back from the musical dead, but he sounds like he's brought their anguished cries with him and used them as a backing track. Orpheus represents the power of love and music, and has endured as a symbol and a story for thousands of years; Walker's experimentalism is far too self-conscious with sense so suppressed that if he endures, it is not as a tragic poet but as a wasted talent. He is no Orpheus for our times.

The talking heads (Lulu, Jarvis Cocker, Alison Goldfrapp) did their best to provide comment on the music, but few could give an insight into Walker's life, and they could certainly be seen straining even to praise his more conceptual music. It was only a long-term collaborator who had any clue what Walker was like.

While the film clearly illustrated Walker's arc - from 60s golden boy to uber-Philip Glass - it left me in the dark about Walker the man. It's no coup to have him hawk his new album with superficial remarks about his life: what would have impressed me was some insight into how he became the sort of person who believes that music - like love - should hurt.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Helen of boy, oh boy

"The Iliad - the greatest love story ever written!" Yes, it's Hollywood's idea of the Trojan War, c.1956, but with smooching instead of smiting.

The studio system gave the Iliad its best sword 'n' sandals treatment in the mid-century Helen of Troy, which had - among other treasures - a young Brigitte Bardot and the wonderfully-named Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Priam. The movie is as hilarious and terrible as you'd expect, with the violence stagier than the National Theatre's boards.

The first hour is devoted to Paris wooing Helen in Argos, providing the nutritious romance 50s audiences would have eaten up. Paris is astonishingly girly, falling for a Helen who believes that she - the most beautiful woman in the world - is unrecognisable because she's wearing a cowl. I think I got diabetes from this saccharine section. There's everything here but Paris and Helen singing each other a duet called 'I wuv you'.

Before Diane Kruger's Helen (in 2004's Troy) boobed her way along the battlements of Ilion and into the trousers - sorry, hearts - of movie audiences everywhere, there was Rossana Podesta, giving the Iliad that aura of desperate romance it so lacked. Podesta seems to have been Italy's leading lady of the 50s, appearing in every mutilation of ancient history they could produce, including the fabulously named 'Revenge of the Pagans'. (Ooh, the pagans are coming!) She's benignly bland, screwing up her face in lieu of emotion.

After far too much chaste wooing (practically always one foot on the floor), the lovers eventually run away to Troy, where the next hour is devoted to the whole ten years of the war. Befitting the low-tech 50s, men get stabbed underneath their armpit and fall backwards with a tragic yelp, while wonderful (Roman) siege engines pitch up to the walls. There's none of the rolling fireballs of the 2004 version, but just the best you can get on 50 cents.

It's all ludicrous, from the storm which brings Paris to Greece (you can almost see the men hurling buckets of water over the cast) to one of the Trojans counting the Greek ships on the horizon: "One, two, seventy, eighty, three hundred, four hundred - there must be a thousand ships there!" As if that's not enough, Priam later utters the immortal cliche (penned by Marlowe, 2000 years after the Iliad) in front of Helen, in case we missed it.

But none of these are complaints. The best (and perhaps only) way to enjoy this movie is from a patronising 21st century perspective, laughing knowingly at the cheap, anachronistic effects, the Renaissance cliches, the mixing of Roman names (Ulysses, for goodness sake - isn't Odyesseus famous enough?) with Greek.

This era of movies depends so heavily on the romance and the war that when both become outmoded, there's really nothing left. The war side fades as technology flies on, while tastes in romance have long since moved on from the cheesy, restrained fumblings of the 50s. They're historical artefacts, but not in the sense you'd think.

Stalinise your taste

There's nothing quite like having your evening's entertainment planned by Joey S.