Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A Serious Problem

So, I found out a few days ago that the latest Coen Brothers offering A Serious Man is playing at neither the Vue nor Odeon cinema near me, due to it receiving a limited release across the country. This being a film that I've been looking forward to seeing for quite some time, I'm now placed in a frustrating set of circumstances with several options, all of which are not exactly ideal:

1. Wait until the film is released on DVD and then rent or buy - not really an option I'm willing to go for, as I don't want to wait for another few months to see it. Seeing as the DVD doesn't even have a release date yet, we'll move straight on to the next option...

2. Find somewhere further afield that is showing it - not entirely out of the question, as the most geographically viable venue I've found at the moment is Birmingham, and with Christmas shopping on the horizon a shopping trip to somewhere like that is potentially on the cards. That said, if Crimbo pressies don't require such a trip, it's still quite far to go and see a film. The alternative in this category is to wait until I'm down in London again to see it, as the film appears to be playing in several cinemas in and around London. I'm not going to be in London again for around a month though, so this could be ruled out simply due to time being a factor - the film may no longer be playing by the time I'm there.

3. Acquire it by "other means" and watch it - against my principles and likely to be inferior in quality, ultimately leaving a bad taste in my mouth and a niggling little weevil dancing in the pit of my stomach. But, with options 1 and 2 not exactly leaping out at me at the moment, I can't pretend I'm not tempted.

4. Wait and see if it's released at a later date at one of my local cinemas - not unheard of, but definitely not an option that I can rely on in any real way at the moment. It could happen, in which case I'll be happy, or it could just as easily not, in which case I'll be thoroughly annoyed.

So, those seem to be all my options at the moment, with unfortunately the easiest solution currently seeming to be number 3. Ultimately, it's just a thoroughly annoying position to be in, and one that I am flummoxed about facing in the first place. Not only has A Serious Man received exceptionally positive reviews all round so far (which in turn just makes it even more annoying that I can't see it at the moment), but also the last two Coen films - Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men - have been huge successes both critically and at the box office. So why has their latest offering received only a limited release?

Anyway, if anyone has any advice or any options I haven't considered, I would be happy to hear either. For now, I'll go back to muttering under my breath about limited releases and the general unfairness of it all.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Review: "Hamlet 2"

Flat and uninteresting characters flounder through a lifeless script for the vast majority of a film that had the potential to follow in the footsteps of such great teen Shakespearean adaptations as 10 Things I Hate About You and (to a lesser extent) Almereyda's version of Hamlet. At times Steve Coogan seems as though he can't actually believe he's been reduced to a film of this low quality, although at others he genuinely seems to believe that what he's doing is worthwhile, which is almost more disappointing. His character is that of a pathetic loser, a washed-up actor who never made it further than dodgy bit parts and ad work, and who now rollerskates to work as a drama teacher. The character type is not a million miles away from that which made Coogan a household name in the UK, Alan Partridge. But whereas the humour of Partridge came from the idea that he was oblivious (or chose to be) to the way in which the rest of the world perceived him, Dana Marschz is a loser who seems not only to know that everyone else thinks he's a loser, but also believes he's a loser himself, ultimately making him an uninteresting and unsympathetic protagonist. Even when the half-baked explanation as to why Marschz rollerskates to work is revealed, by this point you care so little for the character that it falls completely flat.

Catherine Keener is wasted and seems to simply be going through the motions in a subplot that is almost entirely pointless. Playing the wife of Coogan's character, it's not so much that you can see where their relationship is headed from their very first scene together, but more that you never believe for a second that these two people would ever marry in the first place. The one plot device it throws up is certainly not worth the scenes devoid of both life and humour we have to sit through with Coogan, Keener and David Arquette's Gary. Other key plot points in the film - Marschz's winning over of the difficult pupils dumped upon him at the start of the film, and his surreal relationship with a young pupil seemingly unconnected with the story in any other way - are simply forgotten about or frustratingly ignored.

Ultimately the film never knows what story it's telling. After over an hour of ploughing away with the tedious and painfully unfunny life of Coogan's character, it realises that the focus should have been on the play he is creating, which, from what we see of it, whilst not being a comedy masterpiece seems ten times funnier than anything we've been subjected to thusfar. The film's use of one of Shakespeare's most lauded tragedies in both title and plot sum up the film as a whole. There are vague attempts at tying the themes to those found in Shakespeare's Hamlet (father-son issues with the main character, the play within a play/film), but they always come across as half-hearted and, in the end, pointless. Why have the film share the name of the overblown and farcical production created by Marschz's character when this feature of the film is largely glossed over until the final act? Even though the film realises that its actual focus should have been Marschz's play and not Marschz himself all along, bringing with it some genuinely funny moments and songs, this realisation comes far too late to save what is overall a poorly written and acted film.

"Because you are young and full of questions, and that is the best thing of all."

I read my first Terry Pratchett novel when I was 7. It was Wyrd Sisters and it was a little beyond me at the time, but I enjoyed it and understood enough to know that it was a parody of Macbeth. My next encounter with Discworld was aged about 10, when Mum bought me The Colour of Magic as an audiobook. From then on, I was hooked.

In recent years, I've been disappointed with his later offerings in the Discworld 'verse. Going Postal and Making Money seem to me to be particularly limp additions to the canon. I wasn't even particularly enamoured of The Truth. Moist von Lipwig comes across like a recycled version of William de Worde and both of them just seem to be there to annoy Vimes who is a great character but getting overused. He was even dragged into that hellhole of a novel, Monstrous Regiment, to try to salvage that disaster (it didn't work).

Of the more recent Discworld novels, I rate Night Watch and Carpe Juggulum. I also liked The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents and The Wee Free Men. Since the latest of those, TP has written another five Discworld-based books, none of which I've been especially grabbed by. The Wintersmith in particular, I found as dull as ditchwater. Time was, that when a new Discworld appeared in the shops, I'd buy it instantly and wouldn't rest until I'd devoured every page. I've asked for Unseen Academicals for Christmas but am expecting to be underwhelmed.

So I was pleasantly surprised last Christmas when a present of Nation from a friend was one of the most enjoyable books I had read for a long time. When I noticed that the National Theatre was staging an adaptation, I was determined to go. Last Saturday, I went with my sister and three others to see the stage version penned by Mark Ravenhill and put on at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre complex on the South Bank. Before I disappear up my own superlative, I would just say that anyone living in London and able to see this production should do so.

The basic premise of the book (and the play) is an English girl shipwrecked on a south Pacific island during the heyday of the Empire finds that the only other person on the island is a teenage boy, the sole survivor from his tribe following a devastating tsunami that also caused the shipwreck. Despite having nothing in common, they band together and attempt to form a new society, which grows as survivors from other surrounding islands make their way to the larger one, which was previously The Nation. There were some alternations to the plot as I remember it, mostly to do with amping up the backstory of the main villain to make him more sympathetic, rather than just a dangerous psychopath. All in all, they cram in a lot of what happens and nothing jarred too much with my recollections of the book.

I've struggled to find other reviews of it, and most of the ones I have found have been negative. However, they have picked on things that I hadn't really thought of (though I did think at the time 'grass skirts are incredibly cliched as a depiction of what a "native" would wear'), but if you want a counter-balance to my over-the-top fangirl squeeing, look here.

I loved this performance. I thought the acting by Gary Carr as Mau, the island boy, Emily Taaffe as Daphne and Jason Thorpe as ship's parrot Milton was particularly well done. The supporting cast were also good. But the main reason I loved this production was for the look of the thing. The Olivier Theatre is a very versatile performance space and I'd seen impressive productions there before, but not one with three giant fishtanks acting as backcloths. The effects used when people dive into the sea or are attacked by sharks were really visceral and convincing and added great depth (hur hur) to the proceedings. Having someone "swim" among waving blue sheets is somewhat oldschool. Having them tumble gracefully through the air suspended behind a massive tank of water really raises the level of the world you're creating.

Another nice touch was the personification of death as one of the island gods, Locaha. It changed depending on which character death was speaking to and swapped between various actors. It was a good reinforcement of one of the story's main themes, the fact that one day, we will all die.

As for the adaptation itself, the thing I liked the most was the use of Milton, the parrot, as a device for recalling the comments of characters and regurgitating them at embarrassing or particularly telling moments. Almost everything he said, apart from the memorable "Is a frog's arse watertight?" was a repetition of something said by someone else. It helped signpost the story for people who hadn't read the book and helped you keep track of all the characters, and there are certainly a lot of them.

For me, this production had everything. It was funny, intellectual and engaging and ran the gamut of spectacle from the gore of shark attacks and on-stage cannibalism, funerals with zombie overtones to awkward romance and poking fun at English pomp and customs. There is also plenty of God-bashing for the atheists among you and while this point was a bit laboured at times, Pratchett and Ravenhill relent enough to allow some room for doubt on the issue so you don't feel too preached at.

I found the end of the book incredibly sad but, at the same time, right for what it was trying to say. Seeing it actually acted out on stage, I nearly cried. (NB. This should not be used as a barometer of how moving it actually is, I cried at The Lion King, what can I say? I'm a wuss.) The play captured this moment faithfully and I left the theatre buzzing out of enjoyment, as did my companions.

So yeah. Go see :D

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The House Of Elliott

After being intrigued by the adverts for it during half term week, I finally got to watch Channel 4's The Event: How Racist Are You? this weekend. The concept of the exercise that the programme purported to demonstrate seemed fascinating: demonstrate to members of the public how it feels to be discriminated against by using eye colour instead of skin colour as the discriminating factor. By choosing this as the factor by which people are segregated, and making those with blue eyes the people who are deemed inferior with brown-eyed people being placed in the position of power, the exercise attempts to place white people in the position that non-white people often inhabit with a mixture of whites and non-whites in the position of the discriminators.

But the focus of the show was not quite what I had expected. What I had prepared myself to watch was simply a playing out of this scenario from beginning to end. What I got was something somewhat different. The exercise itself was certainly one focus of the programme, and it was fascinating to see how different people from different walks of life responded to the situation they were put in. But the primary agenda for the programme was its presentation of the person who came up with the scenario, and who has been putting people through the experience for around forty years, Jane Elliott. Elliott is shown in a number of different lights: innovator, educator, activist and bully to name just four.

In the end, I couldn't decide how the programme wanted me to feel about Elliott. Sporadically footage is shown of her work over the decades, beginning with her as a classroom teacher in the USA in the 1960s where her experiment began, which seems largely to be there simply to inform, rather than to condone or condemn. Krishnan Guru-Murthy sits with two experts (I forget their nams and exactly what made them experts, but they seemed credible enough) watching footage from the current experiment and commenting upon it throughout the show. This generally seemed to me to add credibility to what was being carried out, as explanations of Elliott's techniques and exercises are analysed and backed up with psychological and sociological references.

However, as the programme wore on, things seemed to turn against Elliott in more ways than one. Firstly, the participants in the experiment being carried out for Channel 4 did not behave in the way expected when compared to how the experiment has played out numerous times before. Essentially, several of the blue-eyed and the non-blue-eyed participants conformed to what Elliott wanted them to do, going so far as to sabotage some of the exercises rendering them worthless. A number of reasons were put forward for why this was, with the main being the fact that this experiment was being carried out in Britain, whereas previous experiments had been done in countries such as the USA, South Africa and Australia - essentially Britain did not historically have the same form of overt racism (according to some on the programme) as these countries, and coupled with the collective British psyche, this meant the exercise could never take off in the same way. By the end of the programme, it seemed to me that Jane Elliott was essentially being cross-examined, maybe even attacked, for her methods, her demeanour and what she is trying to demonstrate through the exercise she has created. Murthy's closing interview with her seemed to be primarily trying to undermine and belittle everything she stood for, but Elliott stood firm and maintained her dignity and integrity, and for that she further gained my admiration.

The issues raised by this programme I could write about for pages and pages, but I won't. Essentially, my feelings towards Elliott at the end of the programme were largely positive. Whilst she may seem unconventional and at times harsh in her methodology, I agree with her that it is pretty much essential in producing an effective recreation of the reality of racism. If the participants had the choice of which "side" to be on at the start of the exercise, then the effect would be greatly reduced (as one participant candidly states, she was never given the choice to be a black woman, it was assigned to her at birth, along with all of the prejudiced baggage that potentially comes with that role in society). Some of the participants seemed incredibly blinkered from what racism actually is (comparing the prejudice a skinhead may receive to that which a black man may receive is simply naive; to reject the valid point that a skinhead can choose to grow his hair to change, which the black man cannot do, is fairly mindboggling) and refused to see what the exercise may be able to help them understand. The programme makers seemed to sympathise far more with the viewpoint of some of the participants than of Elliott, whereas I felt precisely the opposite.

However you respond to it, there is no denying however that this was an incredibly worthwhile and thought-provoking programme, and I would urge others to watch it and see how they respond to what they are shown.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Review: "I'm Not There"

If you were to ask me what I'm Not There is about, I'd probably have found it easier to answer that question before I'd watched it than after. How do you explain a film that on the surface is a biopic of Bob Dylan, but in so many ways, once you look closer, is anything but that? How do you explain that one person is played by six actors (specifically, five actors and an actress) but that none of them are actually meant to be that person? And how do you explain that, despite it being one of the most meandering, unforgiving and frustrating films you've seen for a long time, it's also a finely crafted and truly satisfying piece of cinema?

Well, I'm going to give it a try. I'm Not There presents the viewer with six stories which in some way represent an aspect of the life or work (or both) of one of the 20th Century's most influential songwriters and musicians. My knowledge of Dylan comes almost entirely from the fact that my parents are both big fans of his music. Whilst I haven't become a complete Dylan devotee, I have a serious appreciation for his work and find his near half-century-long career fascinating, even if my knowledge of the details of it is somewhat scarce. But it wasn't just to find out more about Dylan that I wanted to see I'm Not There. Possibly even more so was the adventurous format in which the film is crafted. As soon as I heard the (in hindsight, slightly erroneous) idea of six people playing Dylan in the film I was eager to see the final product.

The film sets itself an incredibly high bar and gives itself a great many opportunities to fall down. Whilst I'm Not There is not one hundred percent successful in everything it achieves, it is most certainly an admirable achievement. The cast's performance as a whole is of an incredibly high standard. Looking first at the six "Dylan characters": reliably strong turns from Christian Bale and the late Heath Ledger; Ben Whishaw gives a raw and unnerving performance as Arthur Rimbaud, feeling somewhat underused; Richard Gere gives a possibly surprisingly understated and emotional turn which benefits from being focused upon in the film's second half; Marcus Carl Franklin does well in a demanding role, but his character possibly receives more focus than is necessary; but it is Cate Blanchett who delivers the stand-out performance of all six, and indeed the film as a whole, as the Dylan character who is the most recognisable Bob Dylan both in deed and, maybe surprisingly, in appearance - Blanchett's turn as Dylan in all but name is a powerhouse from start to finish, fascinating and excruciating at the same time, but always mesmerising and scene-stealing. The fact that a male character is played by an actress is never distracting, with Blanchett's feminity only giving the character further depth and enigma. The supporting cast do so well, although they are always playing a firm second fiddle to whichever incarnation of Dylan shares screen time with them.

The dialogue is at its best when at its most organic; upon researching the film after seeing it I was unsurprised to find that many parts were taken or based upon Dylan's own writings, and it is these parts that shine the brightest in a strong overall script. The film's structure is probably the point at which it could have fallen or flown most of all, and the end product is ultimately subjective. Either you'll be taken in by the unconventional and arty methods employed by director Todd Haynes, or you'll feel entirely alienated by them and find the film an exercise in tediousness. I, for the most part, fall in the former camp: whilst I eventually found the film's execution to be refreshingly uncompromising and original, it took me over an hour to truly feel comfortable with what I was watching, and appreciate exactly how to take it all in.

The film is sprawling and meandering, and at times does feel unnecessarily slow. But any film that sets itself such a herculean task is almost inevitably going to miss the mark slightly here and there. On a second viewing, knowing exactly what I'm letting myself in for, the film may feel tigher as a whole. That said, whilst I did find it frustrating viewing at times, the eventual payoff in the film's closing scenes made me glad that I'd stuck with it. I'm Not There is certainly a film that requires a decent level of commitment and concentration to watch properly, but it's certainly worth the effort giving a fascinating and unique cinematic experience. Even if you know nothing about Bob Dylan's life, it's still most definitely worth watching.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Review: Rich Hall

We went to see Rich Hall this evening, in Croydon (and what an inviting place it is - I can't imagine why we all don't spend more time there), and personally I had a very enjoyable night. Hall's relaxed style and ease of interaction with the audience, combined with his musical numbers made it feel like more of a chat show than a barrage of one liners, but the effect was nevertheless highly entertaining.

The first half of the show was Hall's banter with the audience, ranging from writing to hiking and to the expected comparisons of American and British culture, and while a lot of the act was light, there were a couple of punchy lines to catch you off guard. The second half was then taken up with Hall's alter ego, Otis Lee Crenshaw, who treated us to some fine country music, backed by a very able band, including some old favorites and some international drinking songs.

The two hour show flashed by very quickly in the end, and if I had one quibble, it would be that I wish there had been more. This was the first time I'd seen Rich Hall live, and he certainly comes across as a confident, relaxed stage presence, and a very funny performer.

Monday, 2 November 2009

X = ?

As I am a "fan" of Derren Brown on Facebook, I receive notifications when he updates his blog. I enjoy reading what he has to say, as Brown comes across as an intelligent and free-thinking individual through what he writes. The subject matter for his blog today however surprised me somewhat: Brown revealed his passion for The X Factor. As I've had to experience in some way this show since it began earlier this year, I was intrigued to see what Brown had to say. The majority of the blog post, whilst written in Brown's usual charming and witty style, is pretty much an account of his appearance on the ITV2 companion show The Xtra Factor; his opening paragraph, however, is one of the most keenly observed descriptions of the show I've ever read.

I'll let you read it for yourself, as there's little point in me simply regurgitating it here. Most of what Brown talks about I can empathise with a great deal, even though he considers himself a fan of the show whereas I would probably label myself more of a passive and cynical (and piss-taking) recipient. At the end of the paragraph, Brown states that he "[loathes himself] for moments when [he wants] someone kicked off the show, or for sharing in an ounce of that hostility". I think this is something that pretty much anyone would become part of if they were subject to the "reality" that The X Factor shoves in your face. You forget that the contestants ultimately are just people, as they become heroes, villains, underdogs, victims - essentially they are boiled down to the stories that can be told through them, rather than who they actually are and, more importantly, whether they truly offer something worthy of winning a singing competition.

Just before I finish, I also found it fascinating that Brown even related elements of The X Factor to the things that he is well known for. Comparing the public phone vote to a massive event of misdirection is an inspired idea.


The latest comic from xkcd is just excellent. I love seeing very specific aspects of films brought out in interesting ways, and these graphs are a brilliant example of this. I'd take the whole thing or pretty much any of the sub-graphs as a poster (only the 12 Angry Men one requires the others to make sense), and I'd buy the Primer one printed onto just about anything.

Because, you know, no one can get enough Primer.

Ebb and flow

About three weeks ago, my grandmother died. It happened while I was in Prague. She was 98 and had wanted to be dead pretty much ever since my granddad died 11 years ago. But there was never anything wrong enough with her to cause her to die. Then, earlier this year, she had a fall in which she injured her eye on her walking frame. She lost the sight in that eye which, along with her deteriorating balance, led to further falls. She never broke anything, but each one left her more confused, more disorientated. Just that little bit more uncertain. She also got infections which kept needing antibiotics and hospital treatment.

After the eye incident, which happened around May, she moved into a home. I only saw her there once, as I was moving house and a couple of weeks before she died. She seemed happy there. It was a beautiful house and she had a large, airy room, with many things in it that made it her own. We left her with a picture of my sister at graduation and a music box I had bought her in Austria which had been forgotten in the move. She seemed happy there, she knew who we were and who she was. I wish she could have died there.

The previous weekend, I had visited her in hospital, and the contrast couldn't have been more heartbreaking. She hadn't known where she was, who she was, who I was or what was happening. I wasn't sure she could even see me. I had to leave her bedside for a few minutes to go away and cry. She was so much worse than the last time I'd visited, it was devastating.

But that last time I saw her, she was herself again and even though, despite what I wished for her, she ended in hospital, I hope she managed to hang on to that as she went in.

The funeral was last Thursday and came the day after the funeral of a colleague at work who died of prostate cancer. I didn't know him particularly well but went to the funeral. He had always been friendly towards me and had helped me out with several stories. We were allowed out of the office for the afternoon, I had the day off work to go to Nana's funeral. It was odd. There was a lot of traffic on the motorway. I always wonder at times like that where are all these people going? I can explain the lorries, they're freighting, but the cars? What are they doing? The traffic was worse on the way back, especially around Milton Keynes, but I was leaving at about 5pm. Two funerals in two days made me think. I know death is all around us all the time. But on the way there, I couldn't help thinking "How many of these people are also going to funerals?"

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The loneliness of the long-distance blogger

So, with Mr. Telford not submitting an entry to this blog yesterday, I am now the last remaining "runner" in the blogathon. With yesterday's entry, I managed a full month of daily blog posts. Now seems like a good time to take a look back at what the blogathon has been like so far.

In all honesty, most days I didn't have an idea of what to write about until time began running out and I had to produce something to stay in the race. That said, some of the entries produced from this possibly foolish method of blogging I have been quite proud of. I would certainly say that at least a third of my entries in October have been worthwhile. Some may disagree, giving a higher or lower fraction, but that of course is a personal choice; if you have no interest in whatever I blogged about on any given day, then you're unlikely to be keen to read an entry written about it. I can feel this getting somewhat unfocused, so I shall move on.

Telf stated that daily blogging "certainly became more of a chore than a creative exercise for [him] towards the end". I've certainly felt that way at a couple of points over the last month, but not to the extent that I've wanted to give up the challenge. In a way, being the last person left in the blogathon is reinvigorating and a little bit liberating: I want to continue on to see how far I can go, but I also won't feel quite so crestfallen if there is a day where I would struggle to write something and choose to end my run of daily entries.

Lastly, my reflections on the blogathon as a whole. Has it been a worthwhile exercise? I would say definitely yes. Even if for most of its duration it had only two participants, it has certainly done its job in galvanising the writers here to become a little more active than they have been in recent months. There's been a definite increase in material here from those not attempting the daily post challenge, which is brilliant to see. This place feels a lot more alive than it has done for quite some time, and I for one have found it hugely satisfying to read everything that's been written here over the last few weeks. I too hope that the activity continues here even when the blogathon has lost its final participant.

But for now, I'm going to continue looking back over the seventy-eight entries that made October 2009 the busiest month in this blog's history, and see if I can think of something worthwhile to write about here tomorrow.

Happy new month

Congratulations to Bambi on posting on halloween, and thereby going one day further than I could. I think a month is a good time to draw the first blogathon to a close - it certainly became more of a chore than a creative exercise for me towards the end. I hope, however, that it has helped to spur people into a blogging mood, and that the descent into inactivity will not be immediately repeated. I'll certainly try to keep posting on most days, not because I feel I have to, but because I want to, with the odd missed day not feeling like a failure.

Hope you all enjoyed halloween, however you spent it, and look forward to hearing your thoughts and opinions throughout November...