Wednesday 31 March 2010

London Assurance (National Theatre)

“Am I too florid?” asks Sir Harcourt Courtly (Simon Russell Beale) near the beginning of the National Theatre’s exuberant revival of Dion Boucicault’s 1841 comedy London Assurance. The flamboyant Sir Harcourt is referring to his complexion but “florid” is a word that fits Russell Beale’s performance here perfectly. Posing and preening and skipping about the stage, the actor’s work in London Assurance is the very apex of camp. The production’s central joke is that this roly-poly, bulging-eyed Sir Harcourt considers himself a dashing, highly desirable fellow, "the index of fashion," if you please. He expects the 18-year-old girl, Grace (Michelle Terry), who’s been promised to him, to fall head over heels at his charms. (In fact, she screams in horror at the sight of him.)

Russell Beale is a proven master at playing pretension and vanity for laughs (and sometimes for tears) and he’s in his element here. There is, as often, an edge of mania to his comedy, but then he beguiles you with some surprising, truthful nuance. He’s employed some of the tricks he’s using here before (in particular, the outrageous pronunciation of French words cropped up in the 2008 NT production of Pinter’s A Slight Ache), but they’re none the less effective for that. And when Sir Harcourt meets and falls in love with Grace’s raucous cousin Lady Gay Spanker (Fiona Shaw) the production shoots into the comedy stratosphere. Appropriately enough, it’s Shaw who gives the production its shot of testosterone; with her snorting laugh, love of the hunt, and endless horsey metaphors, her Lady Gay is a force. Shaw and Russell Beale are, as expected, a winning team. There’s a memorable seduction scene in which Sir Harcourt falls painfully to his knees to declare his passion and then avails himself of a cushion to hide his rising excitement. As Russell Beale plays it, Sir Harcourt’s tumescence comes as as much of a surprise to the character as it does to the audience.

Boucicault’s plot - it involves disguises and deceptions and marriage plots and possible elopements - is a nonsense and the play a trifle. But, pitched somewhere between Restoration Comedy and Whitehall farce, Nick Hytner’s production has great charm, despite a script which has been unnecessarily revisioned by England People Very Nice scribe Richard Bean and includes some flagrant anachronisms. The production isn’t quite the total joy that the Hytner/SRB Alchemist of 2006 was, but it’s well-designed and nicely inhabited by the whole cast, with Richard Briers doddering delightfully as Mr. Spanker and Nick Sampson standing out as Sir Harcourt’s wry valet. The actors all seem to be having a grand time. You will too.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Leave Your Sleep Review @ Wears the Trousers

My review of Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant is @ Wears the Trousers:

And below:

Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant (Nonesuch Records)

The relationship between poetry and song lyrics has often been viewed as a vexed one. Do poems ever gain anything by being set to music? Can lyrics ever really cut it as poetry? Despite poetry’s acknowledged roots in the oral tradition, the two forms have increasingly been seen as distinct. Sam Leith sums up the similarities and differences this way: “Poetry and song – as the two main rhythmic uses of language – have the same origins and much in common. But that’s not to say they’re the same thing. Poetry…supplies its own music. The whole score for the experience is there on the page.” For Leith, as for many others, poetry and lyrics may “share an ancestor” but they are “not the same creature”; despite the obvious connections, the two forms remain, to misquote Maya Angelou, less alike than they are unalike.

Offering a very compelling case for the defence, Natalie Merchant’s magnificent new album Leave Your Sleep will likely add further fuel to these debates. For this ambitious double-disc project – her first new release since 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter – Merchant has set twenty-six poems to music, drawing on the work of a variety of late-19th and early/mid-20th century British and American writers both well-known and obscure. Produced by Merchant and Andres Levin, the self-financed Leave Your Sleep was originally conceived as a lullaby record but broadened its scope throughout its development to encompass not only children’s verse, but also poems “about” childhood, as well as quite a few selections that move beyond that subject matter. Some fans have expressed disappointment that Merchant has not returned with an album of original songwriting after such a long hiatus: The House Carpenter’s Daughter, lest we forget, was a covers album of ancient and contemporary folk songs. But they can rest assured: Merchant may be working with other people’s words again on Leave Your Sleep, but the results still feel like a very personal artistic statement, a real labour of love.

Merchant’s choice of material, which ranges from Christina Rosetti to Ogden Nash, Robert Graves to Mother Goose, is judicious, and its diversity is matched by the astonishing array of musical collaborators enlisted for the project, including Irish folk-group Lúnasa, The Wynton Marsalis Quintet, The Klezmatics, members of the New York Philharmonic, The Memphis Boys, The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, and Medeski, Martin & Wood. The sound throughout is organic and inclusive; the album skips across genres with consummate ease. Each poem is given a distinct musical identity yet the experience is remarkably cohesive overall; it’s unified by Merchant’s vision and the open-hearted generosity of spirit that characterises her best work. Though always sensitive to the individual rhythms and rhyme schemes of the original texts, Merchant doesn’t pickle the poems in aspic, or treat them with undue reverence. Her arrangements take risks with the texts, breathe life into them, have fun with them. No dry academic exercise, Leave Your Sleep proves to be a vibrant demonstration of what music and the human voice can do for the written word – and vice versa.

The record opens in spellbinding fashion with a superb folkified rendition of ‘Nursery Rhyme Of Innocence & Experience’, Charles Causley’s elliptical evocation of the passage from childhood to adulthood. Inviting accompaniment of guitar, whistles, pipes and fiddle, and a caressing yet commanding vocal from Merchant, connect the piece to Causley’s interest in the Ballad form, and only make the chilly conclusion all the more moving; the song seems to grow sadder and stranger with every play. Lúnasa’s contributions here and throughout Leave Your Sleep are exemplary: Merchant has described her sessions with the group as “the most fun and satisfying musical experience of my life.” But British folk is very far from the record’s only mode.

Some of the musical settings seem immediately right: the enticing, skittish jazz of Jack Prelutsky’s ‘Bleezer’s Ice Cream’, for example, or the rendering of Mervyn Peake’s ineffably absurd ‘It Makes A Change’ as exuberant Beatles-esque whimsy. Other treatments take the listener by (delighted) surprise. Albert Bigelow Paine’s ‘The Dancing Bear’ is “klematized” to zesty, dramatic effect. ‘If No One Ever Marries Me’ sets Laurence Alma-Tadema’s evocation of a destiny beyond convention to gentle acoustic guitar and chucking banjo. Charles E. Carryl’s ‘The Sleepy Giant’ finds Merchant in Dietrich-vamp mode, while ‘The Blind Men & The Elephant’ sounds like a travelling folk troupe having a very good time en route to John Godfry Saxe’s ever-relevant moral. (This is, by some margin, Merchant’s most playful album to date.)

The second disc continues the eclectic approach. ‘Adventures Of Isabel’, Ogden Nash’s account of an intrepid heroine effortlessly besting her foes, becomes a gleeful Cajun stomp. William Brighty Rands’s ‘Topsyturvey-World’ harks back to Merchant’s forays into the reggae genre with 10,000 Maniacs. A sepia-toned, jazzy take on child prodigy Nathalia Crane’s ‘The Janitor’s Boy’ swings seductively. ‘The Land Of Nod’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s paean to escape through dreams, sweeps in like a gem culled from a lost Disney soundtrack, the grandeur of the soaring string arrangement beautifully offset by Merchant’s understated vocal. Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Griselda’ builds into a full-blown R&B work-out, with blaring horns, electric guitar, organ and sax brilliantly conveying its protagonist’s voracious appetites. (Eating is a motif throughout the album.)

Robert Graves’s ‘Vain & Careless’ is spare but intense, like chamber music from the court of Henry VIII. With delicate pipes and strings, Christina Rosetti’s touching statement of maternal comfort and protection, ‘Crying, My Little One’, bathes the listener in warmth, and begins a sequence of tracks dealing with parent–child relationships; a swelling orchestral rendering of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s meditation on mortality ‘Spring & Fall: To A Young Child’ concludes that sequence spectacularly before the album closes with a plangent take on Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s remarkable ‘Indian Names’. Backed by chants and mournful, dramatic strings, Merchant evocatively conjures the spirits on a piece that finds the Native American presence indelibly inscribed on the North American landscape.

Despite the mix of styles, the album deftly avoids pastiche; throughout, musical ideas which might seem overly literal or gimmicky on paper prove charming in practice: check out the “heave-ho” shanty-isms added to Carryl’s ‘The Walloping Window Blind’ or the ‘King & I’-esque take on ‘The King Of China’s Daughter’ for evidence. Charm may not be a fashionable attribute, and it’s certainly in short supply on the contemporary music scene, but it’s a quality that Leave Your Sleep possesses in spades.

Alongside the instrumental riches, Merchant’s vocals on Leave Your Sleep deserve further mention. It’s not every singer who could intone a line about the “Gulliby Isles where the Poohpooh smiles / and the Anagzanders roar” without sounding gauche, but Merchant throws herself into the nonsense verse with gusto, and then moves with equal conviction and elegance into the sensuality of ‘Griselda’ or the dolour of ‘Spring & Fall’. There’s no showboating to her vocals on this album, no straining for effect, just a palpable love of language and a commitment to embodying the characters and narratives contained in the verse. This restrained yet passionate and characterful approach finds her singing more expressively than ever.

Ultimately, then, Leave Your Sleep answers the question we came in with – do poems ever gain anything by being set to music? – with a resounding affirmative. While it’s possible that an album featuring songs about rubagub trees, talking bears and sleepy giants might initially put some listeners off, sustained engagement gradually reveals the breadth and depth of Leave Your Sleep’s humane vision. There’s something very moving about Merchant’s achievement in getting these poems to resonate across so many genres, to find Edward Lear newly established as the co-author of a bracing country hoedown, or to hear a Victorian children’s rhyme dynamically reggae-fied.

There’s a heartwarming sense of continuity to the album, of reaching through time to connect and collaborate, and it seems likely that these bold adaptations will send listeners back to the work of the poets with fresh insight and appreciation. It’s as if Merchant had dug into a treasure trove and was saying: “Look at all this great work that’s here to discover!” The artist’s delight becomes the listener’s delight. This entrancing record – Merchant’s own Songs Of Innocence & Experience, if you will – might just prove to be her masterpiece.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Monday 22 March 2010

Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant: Track by Track

Out on April 13th on Nonesuch Records, Natalie Merchant's new album - her first in seven years - is a double-disc opus featuring 26 poems adapted into songs by Merchant and a diverse posse of 130 (!) musical collaborators. The results are simply stunning; Merchant has produced in Leave Your Sleep a beautiful and entrancing album that surpasses expectations. A full review to follow soon at Wears The Trousers [; check out the revamped website if you haven't already], but, for now, here's a quick track-by-track guide to the record.

1. “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” - Leave Your Sleep opens with one of its most spell-binding tracks, a haunting folkified rendition of Charles Causley’s elliptical evocation of the passage from childhood to adulthood. Inviting accompaniment of guitar, whistles, pipes and fiddle, and a caressing yet commanding vocal from Merchant, only make the chilly conclusion all the more moving. Superb.

2. “Equestrienne” - A restrained and elegant treatment of Rachel Fields’s portrait of a young equestrienne.

3. “Calico Pie” - Edward Lear becomes the co-author of a bracing country hoe-down here.

4. “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” - Against spry jazz piano and trumpet, Merchant wittily intones Jack Prelutsky’s litany of imaginative ice-cream flavours.

5. “It Makes A Change” - Prime Mervyn Peake surrealism is appropriately adapted as exuberant Beatles-esque whimsy.

6. “The King of China’s Daughter” - Merchant’s charming collaboration with the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York could be a lost outtake from The King and I. None the worse for that.

7. “The Dancing Bear” - Merchant klezmatises this Albert Bigelow Paine piece to vibrant and dramatic effect. Play this one at Jewish weddings when the bride’s absconded.

8. “The Man in the Wilderness” - Mother Goose as folk ballad archetype.

9. “maggie and milly and molly and may” - Building gently to an off-kilter bridge, a particularly fine interpretation of e. e. cummings’s touching evocation of four girls' discoveries at the seaside.

10. “If No One Ever Marries Me” - Against gentle acoustic guitar and chuckling banjo, Laurence Alma-Tadema’s heroine dares to envisage a destiny beyond convention.

11. “The Sleepy Giant” - Merchant in Dietrich-vamp mode on this Charles E. Carryl piece. If only all giants sounded this seductive.

12. “The Peppery Man” - An earthy and robust reading of this Arthur Macy poem.

13. “The Blind Men and the Elephant” - An enticing folk-troupe take on John Godfry Saxe’s moralising fable.

[Disc 2]

1. “Adventures of Isabel” - Ogden Nash’s account of an intrepid heroine effortlessly besting her foes becomes a gleeful Cajun stomp.

2. “The Walloping Window Blind” - Merchant and her crew render Charles E. Carryl’s delightful absurdist account of life on board the titular vessel as an exuberant folk shanty, complete with “heave-hos.”

3. “Topsyturvey-World” - Following her previous dabbles with the genre, Merchant offers an unlikely but surprisingly successful reggae-ization of William Brighty Rands’s riddling children’s rhyme.

4. "The Janitor's Boy" - Merchant swings: a pleasing, loose and jazzy reading of child prodigy Nathalia Crane’s poem.

5. “Griselda” - Eating is a motif on many of Leave Your Sleep’s tracks. “Griselda,” written by Eleanor Farjeon, builds from a gentle piano opening into a full-blown R&B work-out complete with blaring horns, electric guitar, organ and sax (plus a superb vocal from Merchant) that brilliantly conveys its anti-heroine’s voracious appetites. The results, appropriately enough, are delicious.

6. “The Land of Nod” - A sublime widescreen rendering of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic of escape through dreams, this sounds like a gem culled from a lost Disney soundtrack. But against a sweeping and soaring string arrangement that would make a hundred Broadway composers green with envy, Merchant’s tremulous vocal is beautifully understated: delicacy itself.

7. “Vain and Careless” - A spare but intense and dramatic treatment of one of Robert Graves’s lesser-known poems.

8. “Crying, My Little One” - Pipes and strings predominate on this tender rendering of Christina Rosetti’s moving statement of maternal comfort and protection. The song bathes the listener in warmth, and begins a sequence of tracks dealing with parent-child relationships.

9. “Sweet And A Lullaby” - A cheerful folky rendition reminiscent of Silly Sisters Tabor and Prior at their jauntiest.

10 “I Saw A Ship A-Sailing” - A sweet and gentle, but remarkably un-twee, acoustic-guitar-and-pipes treatment of this classic nursery rhyme.

11. “Autumn Lullaby” - Harp and woodwind, and pastoral imagery; Merchant suggests Joanna Newsom with less affect (but not less effect) here. The mood is intimate but not exactly comforting; indeed, the fate of the child “asleep in a gown of white” feels unsettlingly ambiguous in this rendition.

12. “Spring and Fall: to a young child” - The parent/child sequence concludes with a haunting, lushly orchestral treatment of this deeply moving meditation on mortality, one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s greatest poems.

13. “Indian Names” - With dramatic and mournful strings and chants, Merchant evocatively conjures the spirits on this powerful piece of writing by Lydia Huntley Sigourney, which finds the Native American presence indelibly inscribed on the North American landscape.

Saturday 20 March 2010

Pour Elle (Anything For Her) (2008)

French genre cinema in the Tell No One (2006) mould, Fred Cavayé's Pour Elle (Anything For Her) (2008) is a rather simple-minded thriller that fails to make good on its promising premise: the response of a devoted husband (Vincent Lindon) to the incarceration of his wife (Diane Kruger) on a murder charge. Where Tell No One bogged itself down with increasingly berserk convolutions, Anything For Her suffers from the opposite problem: it’s too straightforward. You keep waiting for some complications, revelations or twists to be injected into the scenario, but none are forthcoming. An early flashback gives away too much too soon, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to the wife’s innocence, and the film soon becomes a fairly banal can-our-hero-spring-his-beloved-from-prison romp. Although the movie remains moderately entertaining, it’s far from all it could have been. The talented Kruger does fairly well in an under-written part, but Lindon isn’t an especially appealing lead and the supporting roles are written (and performed) without distinction. Missable.

Monday 15 March 2010

Contra by Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend's Contra just gets better and better. As on their self-titled debut album (on which they already seemed a group fully formed), the band continue to create songs that are so instantly accessible, yet so crammed with detail, that, after the initial seduction, you're constantly discovering fresh elements. Contra's ten songs are little rollercoaster rides on which a variety of genres - rock, ska, pop, punk, reggae, folk - are dynamically and elegantly merged. Strong hooks lurch into more turbulent territory, only for the melody to be briskly reinstated. The wry, thoughtful lyrics - and Ezra Koenig's appealing, protean delivery of them - keep pace. My favourite track on the new album is always changing. Often it's "Run," with its galloping drums and briliant, blaring synths. Then it's the choppy, twitchy rhythms of first single "Cousins." Or the twinkly yet robust "Giving Up The Gun." Or "Taxi Cab," with its restrained harpsichord. Or the quiet, woozy closer "I Think UR A Contra". Well, I guess I love them all. This is a swell album, full of energy, surprises and delights.

Sunday 14 March 2010

"Mother" by John Lennon/"Mother" by Tori Amos

Not entirely Mother's Day-appropriate, these, but two great songs nonetheless.

Friday 12 March 2010

The Promise (Orange Tree Theatre)

Opened last month at Richmond’s tiny, lovely, in-the-round Orange Tree Theatre, Ben Brown’s ambitious new play The Promise takes as its subject the origins of Israel, no less, specifically the British government’s involvement in securing a Jewish state via the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The play’s protagonists include historical figures both well- and lesser-known, including two PMs, Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George, Lord Balfour, Max Beaverbrook, Chaim Weizmann, and, perhaps most intriguingly, two Jewish Cabinet ministers, cousins Herbert Samuel and Edwin Montagu, the former supportive of the idea of a Jewish homeland, the latter fiercely opposed to it.

But Brown's play is careful - in fact, maybe a bit too careful - to balance the personal with the political. Indeed, it comes close to suggesting that the cause of the Israel/Palestine conflict - or, at least, of Britain’s eventual involvement in the decision - was Asquith’s obsessive passion for the aristocrat Venetia Stanley. According to the play’s (fuzzy) logic, when Venetia spurns Asquith for Montagu, the PM’s response is to kick Montagu out of the Cabinet. In so doing, Brown suggests, the Cabinet loses a member who would have approached the Balfour Declaration more circumspectly. So somehow, folks, it’s pretty much the woman who gets the blame.

Before going any further, I should probably confess here my aversion to modern drama’s fixation on the lives of historical and contemporary real-life figures. As best (or worst) exemplified by Peter Morgan’s overrated output, this trend often seems to me to be just another manifestation of celeb-obsession. That being said, and notwithstanding the slightly loony nature of the motives that the play ascribes to Asquith, I found The Promise to be a fairly absorbing experience. There are awkward moments, to be sure - in fact, the production begins with one, opening as it does with the sound of present-day news reports on Israel/Palestine, a ham-fisted attempt at contemporary relevance. But the Orange Tree space gives the piece intensity and immediacy and allows the central arguments to resonate in a clear and accessible manner. Brown’s dialogue isn’t bad, and the production (directed by Alan Strachan) has a pretty good pace. (Playwright and director previously collaborated on 2006’s Larkin with Women.)

In keeping with the very high performance standards of the OT, the actors register strongly. As is the case in so many of these real-people dramas, Patrick Brennan’s Lloyd George isn't allowed to develop far beyond caricature (though it’s an entertaining caricature, at least), but the other roles feel fully inhabited. Miranda Colchester brings elegance and humour to Venetia’s predicament, the always-reliable Oliver Ford Davies offers a typically wry and thoughtful account of Balfour, and Nicholas Asbury gives Montagu force and conviction. Christopher Ravenscroft - so good in last year's brilliant OT revival of Alison’s House - is again particularly effective here. With his emotion-filled voice, the actor makes Asquith’s passion for Venetia at once slightly sinister and deeply sympathetic. (Kudos, too, to Sam Dastor who takes on three different roles in the production: rabbi, Brit politician and Arab - what versatility!) A worthwhile evening, this.

Thursday 11 March 2010

"Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes

Prime 80s pop and some great Davis images.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Waiting For Godot (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

“Nobody comes, nobody goes - it’s awful.” “I begin to weary of this motif …” You can’t say that Waiting for Godot is a play that’s unaware of the kinds of criticism that might be (and indeed consistently have been) levelled at it; Beckett, in fact, seems to delight in having his protagonists voice those potential criticisms themselves throughout the play. These days, arguably, Godot is a work that’s in danger of seeming less radical than quaint, but, for me, it’s a play that still retains all of its fascination and frustration. Partially re-cast, Sean Mathias’s production has recently re-opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, with Ian McKellen and Ronald Pickup still on board as Estragon and Lucky, but Roger Rees replacing Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Matthew Kelly taking over from Simon Callow as Pozzo.

Mathias has been accused of making the play too cosy, but I found the precarious balance of pain and comedy in this production to be exactly right. The quartet work beautifully together: McKellen's haunting befuddlement, Rees’s progression from confidence to despair, Kelly’s scary command and Pickup’s tour-de-force on Lucky’s "soliloquy" - it’s hard to see how any of these performances could be bettered. What Mathias and his actors have achieved here is a deeply humane production of a play that can lie coldly on the page, and I found the final half hour in particular to be powerfully affecting. This funny, painful and poignant production does more than “pass the time”; it's a Godot worth waiting for.

Miriam Margolyes (II)

What does a lower middle-class carrot sound like? Let Ms. Margolyes enlighten you ...

"Night Shift" by The Commodores

Shame about the outfits, but this a great song, and used brilliantly by Claire Denis in the wonderful 35 Shots of Rum (2009).

Saturday 6 March 2010

Miriam Margolyes @ Masterclass (5/3/10)

Masterclass is a great series of workshops and talks by British theatre practitioners held at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London. Free to 17-30 year olds, but open to all, the events generally attract drama students or those with a general interest in theatre, film and performance. I’ve attended a few of the actors' talks previously - Matthew Macfadyen, Douglas Hodge and Brian Cox - and have always emerged inspired and energised by these performers’ generous insights into their work.

Yesterday’s Masterclass with Miriam Margolyes proved to be one of the best yet. Though confessing to nerves due to the absence of a script, the “loquacious” Margolyes effortlessly charmed and engaged the audience with her particular brand of cheekiness and erudition as she discussed how (in her words) “a short, fat Jewish girl with no neck has managed to sustain a career all these years.”

Radiating love of language and enthusiasm for (as well as fierce pragmatism about) the profession, Margolyes talked frankly and colourfully about her family background, her Cambridge years, her first theatre job (playing a West Indian woman!), the joys and challenges of radio work, the greatness of “senior” British actresses, dealing with pre-performance "terror" and being out of work, the “golden thread” that binds performer and audience, and some of her most recent roles, including Wicked and Endgame. (Of the former: “I can’t sing, so I just spoke loudly in time to the music.”) In passing she slagged off the Python boys and Max Stafford Clark (“a brilliant director - but not a very nice man”) and put two brave young actors through their paces on a reading of the "handbag" scene from The Importance of Being Earnest. (“When Jack tells Lady Bracknell he was ‘found’ it’s the most appalling thing she’s ever heard - like somebody just said ‘cunt’ or something.”) An entirely delightful and inspiring afternoon.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

An ugly amalgam of Jewish revenge movie, revisionist WWII fantasy and cinephilia self-indulgence, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds strikes me as a folly on a grand scale. The enthusiasm that I’d managed to work up for the movie sustained itself through the bravura opening sequence but the success of that set-piece only served to make the film's progressive slide into puerility all the more dispiriting. Sure, there’s stuff to appreciate – in particular, some good work from a Euro cast including Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent – but what I liked about the movie didn’t compensate for what I hated: Brad Pitt’s awful performance, the cavalier attitude to violence (the scalping scenes seem designed to thrill viewers who drooled over Reservoir Dogs’s ear-slicing), the show-offy cinema refs, the bizarre cameos (Mike Myers as a British General, Rod Taylor as Churchill), and the sheer stupidity of the whole clunking contraption. And since the movie expresses barely a shred of feeling for any of its characters, the actors' efforts finally go to waste. A horrible piece of work.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Micmacs (2009)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s politically naïve but fairly entertaining anti-arms fantasia pits a motley crew of “salvagers” - misfits with special talents who scavenge and reuse the city’s detritus (they’d have made a good case study in Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I [2000]) - against two thoroughly evil rival arms-dealers (played with relish by Nicolas Marie and the great Andre Dussolier). The two groups come into contact via Bazil (Dany Boon), a video store employee (he lip-synchs charmingly to Bogart and Bacall) who, as a kid, loses his father to a landmine, and, as an adult, gets left with a bullet in his skull following a street shooting. Bazil decides to revenge himself against the arms barons, and his new friends - who take him in when he loses both home and job following the shooting - are, it turns out, only too happy to help him.

Though all the trademark Jeunet tics and tricks are in evidence in Micmacs - manic pacing, saturated colour, actors’ faces looming out at the viewer - this is the first movie of the director’s in which I didn’t find the style to be too assaultive. Overlooking a few laboured moments, there’s a pleasing fluidity to the film (the prologue sequence is superb, and an airport set-piece is also brilliantly done), and some great details. The Dussolier character’s collection of “treasures” - it includes Churchill’s nail clippings - is a stroke of genius, as is the sabotage enacted against it by our heroes. The film also features perhaps my favourite piece of absurdist dialogue so far this year: “He busted a lung in a hot water-bottle exploding contest.”

The actors come through, too. Boon (a very popular comedian in France, he’s perhaps most familiar to Brit audiences from My Best Friend [2006]) is adorable, and the rest of the salvagers - among them Julie Ferrier, Omar Sy, and Jeunet regulars Yolande Moreau and Dominque Pinon - also make their mark. I’m not sure that Micmacs adds up to much, ultimately, but overall it's a lively and inventive movie that keeps you grinning throughout.