Monday, 21 November 2005

Alice Trilogy, Royal Court

(Written for Culture Wars)

There's a thing I've just made up called 'The Posh Lady Royal Court Gasp'. Writers on commission at the Royal Court are contractually obliged to include moments within their scripts that will provoke this elusive noise. (Please bear in mind, this is a different noise from 'The Posh Lady Reads a Particularly Saucy Bit of a Jackie Collins Novel Gasp'.)

I mention this, not only because Tom Murphy's Alice Trilogy provides a corker of such a moment - the sudden tension of the gasp tonight made every pearl round every neck of every Posh Lady in the audience quiver in unison - but also because the play concerns itself with the conversion of the eponymous Alice from a young dreamer into a weary, defeated, yet sympathetic, woman, who I imagine would gasp at things in the Royal Court.

Alice Trilogy is unsurprisingly three connected short plays about Alice, a grudgingly self-professed 'boring housewife'. We meet her at twenty five, married to the uninspiring bank manager and budgie-breeder Bill, already with three kids, teetering on the edge of alcoholism, toying with escape, perhaps suicide, and conversing with voices in her head. We then see her encounter, some ten years later, with an old flame, a TV newsreader, and then again, ten years after that, as a defeated woman, sitting awkwardly eating dinner with her husband in an airport. The play chronicles the squeezing of all hope from Alice. She begins with ideas of escape from her mundane housewife existence, sees her ideas of a more glamorous life with a man from her past crushed because, well, he's deeply sinister, and ends hollow-cheeked and bony with age and sadness, all the fight sucked out of her, sympathetic but irredeemable.

In the quotation I guess they would put in the Royal Court programme if they wanted to encapsulate why we should invest in the character, Alice says 'There's a strange, savage, beautiful and mysterious country inside me'. That's at the beginning of the play. At the end, this is coupled with 'There was a time when she felt that inside her there was something mysterious that she thought of as herself […] It is conceivable that the worst has happened and the reality of it leaves a lot to be desired'. That's the journey. Perhaps I'm being a little unfair; Murphy sprinkles the journey with a lot of humour - that humour through bleakness that Irish playwrights are rightly renowned for - and the subtlety and juxtaposition of this raises the game of the play.

Or rather 'plays', as Murphy takes the trilogy aspect of the play rather seriously. Play one, 'In The Apiary', is a stuttery exercise in self-reflection, Alice conversing with a character waggishly named 'Al' in her attic, getting drunk and wondering where it all went wrong. Play two, 'By The Gasworks Wall', is a noirish, sinister conversation piece, complete with mysterious drifters and men in trilbies emerging from the shadows. Play three, 'At The Airport', is Happy Days-in-an-airport, as Alice's increasingly fractured thought processes cascade out of her mouth, and her situation is worsened by dramatic events and increasing solitude. There's a stylistic jump between each playlet, which causes a question of cohesion. What does this all add up to?

Juliet Stevenson's performance in is, of course, staggeringly good. She has the ability to underplay moments in a mesmerising way - stuttering; implying; her brain racing, her eyes flashing mania, whilst remaining physically calm; subtext being thrown around like rice at a wedding. She does 'rabbit in the headlights' better than anyone I've seen on stage, and may well be in possession of the greatest 'manic laugh in the throes of desperate misery' in history. She works her socks off through this play, and at the curtain call looks positively frazzled with the exertion of it all. It is fascinating, and rare, to see someone being so effortlessly spectacular on a stage so close to you.

Why, then, is this a less than spectacular evening? Perhaps because the splintered glance at Alice's life makes such leaps over vital history that one is only just keying into Alice's predicament when it changes into a newer one, further entrenched in her desperate marital situation. Perhaps the play suffers through comparison to A Doll's House, with the opening episode's birdcage allusions and attic/coop set, and the fact that Stevenson played Nora in a definitive televised production of Ibsen's play, which ratcheted up the focus and claustrophobia that the larger timescale of Alice Trilogy lacks. The episodic structure aims for epic sweep, but instead suggests slightness, and this is a shame. Perhaps it is that the play's structure, despite being split into three, adheres to 'Royal Court Gasp' syndrome, throwing in unexpected horror exactly where one would expect it.

Alice Trilogy emerges as a piece of theatre only a madman would turn down a ticket to, yet one that the madman might well come out of a little disappointed. Madmen are, of course, notoriously difficult audience members. It's a chilly play, not just because of the Royal Court's overzealous air conditioning, but because our involvement with Alice is sketchy, skittish and fleeting. It's awkward to relate to her, rather than uncomfortable; like someone cautiously trying to tell you her life story without giving any of her secrets away.

Monday, 31 October 2005

Two Temp Agencies In London

The registration process for temp agencies probably hasn't changed since the advent of the mainstream office computer. For those of y'all who have never registered as a temp, there are three components:- Filling out lots of forms of personal details, bank information, that sort of thing; a typing and/or software test; and finally an interview with a slightly surly temp controller, whose job it is to impress upon the prospective temp that a) fucking about is not an option; b) they will get you a job.

Today, I visited two temp agencies to register. Now it is October, the summer temp job drought has eased and they are finally taking on new people. In those difficult summer months, one is often met with a stark "the students are back" excuse from agencies, before they fragrantly hang up. People who work in temp agencies are often beautiful psirens, luring you into signing documents with their slightly prissy, slightly maternal sexuality. I was once registered by a male temp controller, and he converted this coy flirtation into beery mateyness, which seemed to me highly inappropriate. Anyway, today, now, I am in need of a job. Let's see what London has to offer.


First up was the worryingly-named Next Employment, on Oxford Circus. I was made aware of the existence of Next Employment both by my housemate Jasmine - who, in her impressive position in the sales department of a publishing house, frequently gets temps from Next - and my friend Kinky Will who used to temp for Next. Kinky Will was keen to emphasise that the person who signed you up for Next was "a very flirtatious Australian woman". I attempted to contact said flirtatious Antipodean over the summer, but a stream of calls and emails came to naught. The summer drought, I thought, had claimed Next's interest, but come the Autumn months, contact was made.

The receptionist, an American lady who seemed quite tall when she was sitting down, welcomed me to the reception area with a clipboard, some forms and a pen. I asked if I could help myself to water from the conveniently-located watercooler, and she gave me permission. I filled the cup, and drank thereof. Cool, soothing water. Is there a drink more satisfying? No. There were only two forms to fill in, and they were relatively straightforward. The only thing that caused any consternation was the References section, which invited me to put down phone numbers. I don't like putting down phone numbers for references, after one of my referees, my friend Hayley, suggested that Office Angels had been harrassing her on my behalf. Anyway, I skipped past those sections of the form and handed the clipboard and pen back to the receptionist. She led me to the computers for stage two: the typing test.

This was not just a typing test, however. I was to be tested on Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Powerpoint, and then the typing test. I breezed through much of the software tests without complaint, pausing only to notice two glitches in the tests themselves. Firstly, occasionally one's mouse pointer would disappear from the screen, leaving one to guess where it had got to and click randomly in the hope that the button you should be clicking would be clucked. Secondly, if a menu was opened and then you clicked on the wrong option, the programme would assume that you had clicked the right option. I exploited this weakness mercilessly, all the time thinking about how I was a cool computer hacker, like Robert Redford in "Sneakers". God, "Sneakers" was a cool film.

Then, onto the typing test. One of the joys of the typing test is the document they get you to type. It is always nonsensical, and as all but the fastest typers only use the first paragraph or so, the end of each document is often quite factually inaccurate and ludicrous, as if the copywriter got bored halfway through writing it. As an example of the type of material one is expected to type, I once spent about five minutes typing up a document about genetically-modified grain and the impact upon the bread industry for an Office Angels type test.

Next's typing test centred on the importance of imagination in the work place, and suggested that it was essential and marked the difference between the average and the excellent candidate. I looked out of the window and was confronted by a brick wall with an air conditioning unit on it. Imagination in the workplace suddenly became something of a cruel joke. The document also contained the priceless advice:- "If you have a problem, sing a song about it, and then sing a song as a solution." I would like to try this in real life. My songs would be "I Am Unemployable (And Overqualified)" and its response song "You are Buggered".

You are buggered / You are screwed / You've been fucked over / By educational ambition
Oh dear oh dear oh dear / It's too late now / Say hello to / Malnutrition

After finishing the tests, I returned to the reception area. The tall receptionist said "I'll just take these results to Sally". (Sally is the flirtatious Australian.) The receptionist then said, in a hushed voice, "They're really good, these results. You got 62 words per minute... with no mistakes!" "Blimey," I said.

Sally invited me into a very small room, and invited me to sit. She sat in a chair with a little table attached to it, like they have in American classrooms. "The thing is," she said, "I want more information on your CV. We need to sell you to the employers, and just putting 'Various Temp Positions' doesn't do it." We ran through my last few temp agencies, what I actually did for them, and she looked pleased. Then she turned to my test results.

"WOW," she said, in capitals, "do you know what you got?" "Um... not really," I lied. "62 words per minute," she said, with awe in her voice, "with no mistakes. I haven't seen results like this since..." - she grasped for a comparison, and failed - "... since ever." "Blimey," I said.

"And Office Angels had you working in a warehouse? With results like these?"
"Oh yes."

She shook her head sadly. I copied her. We sat there, shaking our heads. It was a moment of communion.

She promised to find me a job and shook my hand, warmly. Shaking hands is important. A good grip, and plenty of eye contact. It communicates confidence. I went on my way. Apparently, the guy who was inside C3PO was in the HMV opposite the agency at about the time I left, but I didn't want to brave the Geek Chorus within.


The second agency was Crone Corkhill in Green Park. I walked into the rather opulent building and was asked by the security lady to stand in front of a camera, which took a picture of me, in a suit, slightly overdressed. "Thank you," she said, "make sure you come and see me before you leave. You need to go to the sixth floor."

The offices of Crone Corkhill are all polished wood, bold positive colours, and smart office furniture. The reception area looks like a smart cafe in the Docklands, the corridors look like a private health clinic, or a sperm donation centre. All of the receptionists - and there are about fifteen of them - are attractive, tanned women, in black suits with very prominent cleavage. I started to think I'd wandered into the wrong office, but no, they welcomed me to Crone Corkhill. A Stepford receptionist said she would take me to a room where I could fill in the forms. She led me into a corridor of about twelve tiny interview rooms, with a little sliding window on each door that said VACANT/BUSY. She took me into a VACANT room, slid the little window to BUSY and said I could fill in the forms. The room was empty, but for a table and two chairs. On the table, a dispenser of Crone Corkhill leaflets and, bizarrely, a box of tissues. "This is a sperm donation clinic," I thought, "How weird, to run a sperm donation clinic and a temp agency from the same office."

I took a photo, because I knew you wouldn't believe me.

After filling out the forms, of which there were approximately three hundred, I returned to the reception area, taking immense care not to look in any of the other rooms down "The Corridor Of Shame". One of the forms was a spelling test, which had four options of spellings of words that you will never use, like "conscientious". The problem with this is that even though one's spelling may be perfect, the combination of pressure, too many options, and the fact that you might, at any moment, be given a small Tupperware container, inevitably leads you to making a few dodgy decisions. Parallel? Parrallel? Parrallell? I don't know. I don't particularly care.

Then, onto the typing test. Again, I was asked to do tests for software. No glitches in the software this time, although it didn't tell you if you were right at any point, so one was in the dark for pretty much the whole thing. The document of the typing test, in an audacious display of self-referentiality, was about interview technique. "Shaking hands is important," read the document, "Make sure you have a good grip, and use plenty of eye contact. It communicates confidence."

After the test was over, I went back to the reception desk. "I've finished," I said.
"Yes," said the same woman from earlier. Or it might have been a different one. "I have your results here. You got 63 words per minute. That's excellent," she said, without looking impressed.
"That's one word more per minute than this morning," I thought. "I am on FIRE!"
"So," said the receptionist, "I'll pass these onto Poppy. Thanks very much."

I left the office thinking it was odd that I didn't meet a temp controller. I had only had two stages of the three standard stages. It was getting late - it was about 6pm by this point - perhaps Poppy had gone home and would call me tomorrow.

As I came out of the Underground at Finsbury Park, I got a voicemail message on my phone.

"Tom, it's Poppy. There's been a bit of a misunderstanding in reception. Could you turn round and come back in?"

"No," I thought.

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

Broken Flowers

The received wisdom is that Bill Murray could be filmed doing absolutely nothing for 90 minutes and would still be absolutely captivating. Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" is based heavily upon this principle and goes some way to disproving it.

It doesn't help that it's based on that hoary old narrative - "Visiting old flames to see what they can teach me about my current predicament". "High Fidelity" did it with more bite; here, it's used to place Bill Murray in a series of situations that range from the slightly awkward, to the slightly threatening, and to see what happens. The "old flame visiting" is balanced with the "you have a long lost son" narrative, itself uncomfortably close to Murray's too-recent "The Life Aquatic". "Broken Flowers" seems like its running over old ground and has nothing particularly to say about it.

Someone has sent Don a letter on pink paper saying that his 19-year-old son is on his way to see him. The letter is unsigned, and Murray's neighbour Winston persuades him to visit four of his old girlfriends, each of which may be the mother of his child, and the author of the letter.

Murray's character, the japesomely-named Don Johnston ("JohnSTON. JohnSTON," moans Murray, periodically), is a nothing, a zero, a "Man Who Wasn't There" who is even less there than Billy Bob Thornton. He sits around in horrible tracksuits all day watching cartoons. He is supposedly a great lover, who understands women better than his nebbish neighbour Winston, but it's a curiously defanged performance from Murray, which demonstrates none of the charm or explosive wit that Murray is famous for, and was presumably supposed to bring to the role. His sole nod to his comic past is overloading a fork with carrots, a momentary clowning that is not dwelt upon by Jarmusch.

Jarmusch keeps things moving at a snail's pace, albeit a snail that occasionally wanders around a large pile of salt really, really carefully. If there were interesting things happening, then we wouldn't have minded lingering, but as it is, this is a series of sketches plotted very deliberately so that all symbolism and hints towards the solution of the son's mother are left maddeningly vague. At the end of the film, we are no wiser as to who is the mother, whether Don even has a son, or if the whole thing wasn't made up as a sort of test by Don's frustrated girlfriend. In fact, we don't even know if Don cares about the fact that he has a son, although we kind of think he does. Every character is draped in elusiveness, and I'm not even sure if we feel anything for any of them. I think this might have been an oversight.

You see, what the response should probably be to this film is to empathise deeply with Murray's hangdog loveliness, to giggle at the way he enters into worlds he could have been part of, to look at him and say "hey, that schmuck could be me!", but he's actually a bit of a shit, an unfeeling bastard who is passive and driveless and unapproachable. He's less an anti-hero than an anti-human, and not even touches of Jarmusch's trademark weirdness (Murray getting beaten up without saying a word by some odd bikers, Jessica Lange's dog having the same name as Don's neighbour) can rescue it from being formless and pretty much pointless.

Distracting, rather than entertaining, I would be surprised if I remembered much about "Broken Flowers" in two months time. Sorry, Bill.

Monday, 29 August 2005

"Pimp My Ride" Weekend, TMF

It could be argued by a man cleverer than I that capitalism breeds cynicism. I, for one, am pleased as punch that "Pimp My Ride" - an MTV programme given a whole weekend of themed programming this week by cable channel TMF - refutes this accusation strongly.

In writing this review, I must inform you that I am staving off the urge to make Dickensian analogies with regards to the premise of the show. A down-at-heel eccentric introduces us to their car, which is in desperate need of repair. Often, these people work in the community, and do not have money to spend on car repairs. The rapper Xzibit then meets the car-owner, who is generally overjoyed to see Xzibit. Hands are slapped, rappers are hugged. Xzibit says some funny things - he lambasts America for using duct tape to hold its cars together, and tells Americans to leave bodywork repairs to the professionals. He is full of attitude and charm.

He takes the car to West Coast Customs, a repair and customisation workshop. Here, a team of lovable car mechanics puts the car back together, repairing damaged bodywork, replacing missing parts, and restoring classic cars to their former glory.

But they do a bit more than that.

"Needless ostentation" is the name of the game here, people, and these mechanics add literally thousands of pounds worth of gold, bling, leather interiors, electrics, LCD-screens, and speakers to the car. Of particular note is the loving attention given to tyres and "rims" (hubcaps); things you only hear about when they get namechecked in rap lyrics. Also, as part of the customisation, personal information about the car owner is transmogrified into... well, into complete lunacy. A man who likes bowling has a bowling ball cleaner and automated shoe rack installed in his boot. A man who is training to be a mechanic has a TV put underneath his car, so he can watch TV whilst repairing it. Someone - I forget who - has a log fire put in the back of their car - I forget why. A student has an espresso machine installed in their armrest. It's very silly.

Whilst the customisation process is going on, we get to meet and learn to love the mechanics, including my favourite, Ish, who mumbles in a Latino accent and does a lot of work with fabrics. There is also a man called Big Dane, whose job is "Accessories". At one point, whilst customising a bowling ball for the bowling guy, he yells at the camera "You'll be KILLING THEM!" in a way that is hilarious, and not at all threatening.

Finally, the car owner is brought in, their car is revealed, they scream, they leap about, hands are slapped, rappers are hugged. They are shown around their car and then they drive it away.

Their "ride" has been "pimped".

Now, I generally loathe cars. I can't drive, I know nothing about them; I once watched an episode of "Top Gear" and nearly slipped into an anaphylactic coma. However, this show takes something really boring and ugly - car repairs - and raises it to not only excellent TV, but also amazing creations; turning old and decrepit, to new. MTV's "Cribs", where we get to see around rich people's houses, offers only a voyeuristic view of the "bling" lifestyle, whereas "Pimp My Ride" says "This life of ridiculous wastefulness can be yours, too".

The reason I find this show so affecting is that it is so rare that altruism has been celebrated so joyously. The premise of the show, at its most fundamental level, is that people get given presents. Everyone loves to see people get presents, and this show is like watching someone give thousands of pounds out to complete strangers.

One episode I watched had a suitably manipulative viewpoint. The car owner was a community youth leader. His car was horrible. He said that if the kids on the street saw him in a bad car, and then saw a drug dealer with a good car, then he was fighting a losing battle. At the end of the show, he said "This is proof that if you are good, good things happen to you". And, I must admit, my cynicism was defeated by that.

Now, there are deeper concerns here, not least how much insurance MTV pay so that when these "pimped rides" return to the scuzzy neighbourhoods they aren't propped up on a pile of bricks within half an hour. The show is a reflection of a certain America - a nation where a person is judged by the car they drive, where hope comes in a golden ticket, where money is there to be wasted, where the way to happiness lies in expenditure. However, in terms of raw exuberance, intelligent artistry and a lot of stupidity, "Pimp My Ride" is an entertaining half-hour.*

* Or, thanks to TMF, an entertaining two-and-a-half hours of back-to-back "Pimp My Ride". Sweet.

Thursday, 25 August 2005

Fantastic Four

In the near future, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) of the Von Doom corporation agrees to fund the space research programme of the bankrupt Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) and his lunky friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) into a cosmic storm of interesting scientific proportions. Matters are complicated by the fact that Von Doom is now both employing and dating Richards' ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) and assigns Storm's brother, Johnny (Chris Evans... no, not that Chris Evans) to pilot the mission, much to the chagrin of his ex-NASA superior Grimm.

On the space station, the cosmic storm arrives way ahead of schedule, irradiating Richards, Grimm, Storm and Storm, as well as Von Doom, who is also on the space station for some reason.

Arriving back on Earth, it is revealed that they have been given super powers. Johnny Storm can set his body on fire at will, Sue Storm can become invisible at will, Reed Richards can stretch his body at will, and Ben Grimm becomes a massive orange latex man. His superpower is that he is massive and strong and no longer has any ears. Together the four save some NEW YORK FIREFIGHTERS GOD BLESS THEM from falling off a bridge, and they are lauded as heroes. This is because if you do anything nice to a NEW YORK FIREFIGHTER in this POST 9/11 CLIMATE you are IMMEDIATELY A FRIEND OF NEW YORK AND AGAINST TERROR.

Von Doom also changes. He can now control electricity, because his body is turning into metal. He is also now bankrupt because of the failure of the space mission, and because he never got to ask Sue to marry him, ergo he is pissed off, ergo he is homicidal, ergo he is the supervillain Doctor Doom. Although never referred to as such. He attempts to break up the Fantastic Four by turning Ben Grimm back into a human, and by shooting a heatseeking missile at Johnny Storm. He also kidnaps Reed Richards and freezes him, but I can't remember why.

Anyway, the whole thing culminates in some sort of culmination and NEW YORK has a NEW PROTECTION AGAINST TERROR in the family superhero antics of the Fantastic Four.


Where Batman Begins was life-threateningly serious, this is - like most comic books - for the kids. Dealing with a very vocal minority of comic-reading dudes on the internet must now be in the Top Five of "Hollywood Producers' irritating day-to-day trials", along with getting the cocaine out of their carpets, and the tendency in recent years has been to make everything adult, everything explained, everything psychological and "dark" and not very much fun. What the producers of "Fantastic Four" have attempted is to make light, frothy, family entertainment, that'll sell some action figures and some lunchboxes.

The trouble is, the film is totally bobbins.

To start with, the characters are bland, bland, bland. The key parental figures of Reed and Sue are given pretty much bugger all to do. Johnny Storm is reasonably cheeky and mischievous, but is a one-note character. The "back-story" that "haunts" Ben Grimm - his fiancee, running around the Bronx in a negligee, rejects Grimm now he's turned into a massive orange rock man - is so hammily set-up and so pathetically dealt with, that he remains just an hilarious massive orange rock man, and not the Cyrano De Bergerac that the producers would have wished. (There's a scene where his fiancee puts their engagement ring on the ground, and walks away, and Grimm can't pick it up because of his massive rock fingers. It's not tragic, or even interesting. It's kind of comic.)

The dialogue is workmanlike at best, wisecracky and horrible at worst. "Look at me," demands the Invisible Girl. "I can't," joshes Mr Fantastic. It's like that for 90 minutes. The direction is there somewhere, but who knows where? Director Tim Story made his name on the "Barbershop" movie series, starring Ice Cube, so that's the level we're dealing with.

So, I suppose this film is entertaining, but it matches that entertainment pound-for-pound with being facile and stupid. It's a bit like the "Lost In Space" remake in tone, but without the acting calibre of William Hurt, Gary Oldman, even Matt Le Blanc, and without the story, or set-ups, or direction. Or effects.

There is, therefore, no reason to go and see this film, unless you are a 6-year-old boy. And even then, you'd probably sit around for an hour after it, drinking milkshakes and picking holes in its story. Ah, what a life...

Thursday, 18 August 2005


Paul Haggis, the writer-director-producer-songwriter of "Crash", also created the Chuck Norris TV series "Walker, Texas Ranger" and the "kindly mountie in America" series "Due South". I mention these to place this film in its appropriate, lowbrow context. "Crash" is the sort of film that rather desperately wants to be edgy and provocative, but never quite earns the plump portentousness that wobbles onto the screen.

Confusingly sharing a title with the leg-shagging JG Ballard adaptation, "Crash" is a look at racial stereotypes and attitudes in contemporary Los Angeles. Narratively, the film comes from the "more is more" tradition of "Magnolia" and "Love, Actually". Roughly thirty stories (roughly) weave in and out of each other, building up a picture of confusing times in American race relations:-

Black people are no longer slaves, white people are confused about this.

Except it's more complicated than this; white people hate black people, black people hate white people, black people hate other black people, white people hate Hispanic and Persian people because they're a bit like black people, Persian people hate locksmiths and insurance representatives, and white people hate themselves.

So, it's not really that much more complicated. In fact, it's much, much more simple. Everyone hates everybody else.

The film begins with a rather noble speech by the great Don Cheadle:- "In LA, nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something." LA is obviously meant to be a character in the film, but it comes across as a rather horrible character, a huge uncle that sits in the corner of the room and really depresses you. In this way, "Crash" is an excellent advert for upping sticks and moving to a "free love" hippy commune in the middle of nowhere, where you can just, you know, get along with people.

In this film, everything is 'complicated', and the film wears its 'complicated' colours with pride. Two young black men have an intelligent discussion about how they represent educated black youth, and how white people in the upper-class area they find themselves in should not be afraid of them, and THEN STEAL A CAR! A rich white woman is openly dismissive of her Hispanic home-help, and THEN SAYS THAT SHE'S THE ONLY FRIEND SHE HAS! A black police officer is offered a promotion BECAUSE HE'S BLACK and then is blackmailed into saying something against some guy BECAUSE THE GUY IS WHITE and if the police officer doesn't say it, HIS BROTHER WILL BE TOTALLY ARRESTED because HE'S BLACK and his MOTHER IS ON DRUGS and HAS NO GROCERIES! This constant pride in being 'complicated' is exceptionally wearing. This is even before we get to the racist white policeman rescuing a black woman he had previously molested from a fire, which could probably have been a fun episode of "Due South".

Rather than being insightful, the film's fragmented narrative allows some really sloppy writing. Characters are reduced to stereotypes, as they need to be brought in quickly and finished quickly. Stories tend to follow a pattern:- the person is unhappy, they are shot or they shoot somebody, they are more unhappy as a result. The story that resonated most for me was the deeply odd story about the Persian man trying to get his revenge on a locksmith, but that wasn't really about racial tension, it was more about the trials of being a locksmith. Quid pro quo.

One fortunate thing that the film does is make you not hate its cast. If someone suggested you went to see a film with Ryan Phillipe, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser and Thandie Newton, you'd probably expect a horribly bland comedy, but none of these are given much time to be offensive. Don Cheadle is welcomingly passive, and there's a standout performance by the rapper Ludacris, who has a nice speech about how hip-hop demeans black people. Oooh. Irony. Apparently Tony Danza from "Taxi" and the woman who plays Deanna Troi are also in this film. I have no idea where.

So, yes. "Crash". I probably enjoyed it more than watching someone shagging a leg, but I enjoyed it less than "The Wedding Crashers", which - considering how important the film wanted to be - is a rather damning state of affairs.

Thursday, 26 May 2005

"Pericles: Prince Of Tyre", Shakespeare's Globe

(Written for Culture Wars)

"Pericles" is a bit of a bastard of a play. Fragmented, epic, implausible, and without many stand-out moments, it's a huge odd old thing. It's therefore heartening that the Globe production of it, through some natty dramaturgy, infectious energy, and several standout performances, many from the wonderful Marcello Magni, is an amiable summer romp that I can heartily recommend.

The big directorial gimmick is to split the character of Pericles into two for the first half - the old Pericles (Corin Redgrave) looking upon his younger self (Robert Luckay) as he makes his youthful mistakes, and gets shipwrecked about fourteen times. "That's you! That's you!" taunts Gower (Patrice Naiambana), the narrator of the piece, fondly. This dramaturgical dealing with the text works well - it makes the whole thing into a fun storytelling exercise, which helps into the second half, as the story splits into three strands separated by an ocean, allowing Gower to jolly the whole business along with a fun irreverance ("You were expecting art?" he booms, "This is LIFE!").

Kathryn Hunter's direction - sorry, play mastery - is very good; the text, although there are some dodgy tennis metaphors, is made zingy and light, with some excellent verse-speaking from, among others, Jude Akuwudike, Laura Rees and Matilda Layser (who has particular fun as a fisherman's apprentice). The design uses the whole theatre, with actor/aerialists literally bouncing off the walls, climbing ropes, making a boat from two sticks and running around like lunatics, making "wooooooaaaaah" noises. It's highly entertaining.

And then there's Marcello Magni. Stealing the show every time he comes on in one of his many guises, he lulls us into a false sense of security in his bearded role as Pericles' wise custodian of Tyre, Helicanus, before pulling out the stops for his frankly barking turn as Simonides, constantly pulling his odd white wig out of his eyes, struggling to strip for a clown duel with the young Pericles, and eventually kissing Pericles and his daughter repeatedly and maniacally after he has approved their marriage. And he's only just warming up - his Italian pimp character Boult, complete with bizarre door-bolting affectation, manages to be very funny and quite, quite sinister. Magni's conviction, energy and invention is startling and infectious. It's worth a fiver just to see him.

With so many disparate parts to the production - clowning, aerial work, a gunshot, multi-cultural casts, improvised audience banter, a mix of realistic and suggested props, and the nature of playing the Globe space - there's a danger that "Pericles" could be an awkward mish-mash, but it sticks so closely to the storytelling/actor-audience relationship ethos of the Globe that you're left with a highly enjoyable production, which tells its difficult story entertainingly and enthusiastically.

And at £5 for tickets, it's good value for money! Unless you get free tickets, like I did, in which case, it's better than good value. It's excellent value.

Wednesday, 25 May 2005

"Kingfisher Blue", Bush Theatre

(Written for Culture Wars)

Failure should be an option in off-West End theatres like the Bush, particularly in ones in which such a large emphasis is placed on new writing. Here, that option is taken.

"Kingfisher Blue" comes on like a gritty, urban, issues-based play - all dodgy plumbers and East End London council estates - yet it soon becomes apparent that the writer Lin Coghlan doesn't have a clue which issue she's confronting. is it working class drug abuse, or escaping the social stratum into which you're born, or is it paedophilia, or suicide, or predatory homosexuals? Themes are touched on, then ignored, making the whole experience rather cheap and draining. Above all, though, there's a sense of complete hopelessness that is impossible to shake. It's sure difficult to sympathise with the guy with his head on the block, because you know it'll soon be over. In a similar way, the grimey situations that the four male characters find themselves in almost dare the audience to sympathise with them. You know as soon as a little glimmer of hope is offered to them, the rug will be pulled from under their feet.

For example, Ally is given £270 to escape his abusive father, his ecstacy habit, the prowling paedophiles to whom he has sold pornographic pictures of himself, and the gangs of council estate vigilantes trying to defeat the paedophiles. He plans to use the £270 to meet his mother in Majorca, where she now lives, but at the eleventh hour, she writes to him to tell him he can't come over as she's remarried, sending Ally on an ecstacy and vodka binge, which culminates in him trying to kill himself in a suicide pact with his best friend. Bummer.

Compounding this sense of crushing hopelessness is the mawkish text, which never lets an opportunity for a hearty East End anecdote go by unanswered.

Character: "Remember that old telly?"
Audience: Oh yes? A telly? Brilliant! Tell us more!
Character: "We used to poke it with a stick."
Audience: You used to poke a telly with a stick?
Character: "A big stick. They kept it behind the bar."
Audience: What? Why? Why would you poke a telly with a big stick?

How "urban"! How "gritty"! At one point, a character comes in with a tray of whelks. Whelks. Which "Bumper Book Of East End Cliches" has the author been reading, I wonder?

Character: "Those jumpers... it were a bit like yer mum... holdin' you."
Audience: Not really. It was like you were wearing a jumper.

The actors struggle against this text, but they don't struggle that hard. Josef Altin at least brings pace and humour to the role of Ally, but both Toby Alexander and Doug Allen drag the play sluggishly along with little spark, enthusiasm or creativity. Paul Moriarty has the worst of the script's anecdotage, and he looks faintly embarrassed to be involved. The direction, by Paul Miller, is also bad - moments of urgency are dismissed flippantly, jokes are underplayed, or just badly played, and the whole thing is theatrical and overly dramatic, where it should be played naturalistically and restrained. The play also relies on gimmicky stage business - Doug Allen fits a bath live on-stage, including using a blowtorch; naked photos are taken of a 14-year old boy - but the reality of these moments of action are undermined by, respectively, the fact that Doug Allen does not look like a natural plumber, and the fact that that Josef Altin is very obviously not fourteen.

Ultimately, for a play concerned with dealing with an urban, deprived situation, both script and production come across as bizarrely patronising. What reality is this based in? The playwright confuses "urban" with "depressing", and so even when the two boys are saved from their suicide pact, one of them is still abducted and murdered. And then talks to the other. From heaven. With a lot of reverb on his voice. While the other tearfully stands over his grave. Monologuing. About how great he was, and how unfair life is. Really, by the end of it, I couldn't care two tosses about anyone involved, and I don't think that's what theatre should be doing.

Friday, 20 May 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

So, I should have expected it. Well, I did sort of expect it. Those bastards whose job it is to hype films did their job admirably well, and I was excited. And now... a sort of hollow deadening.

Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and pretty much everyone else have been fighting a war. It's been the robots - led by a really big crawly robot and Christopher Lee - against the clones, who look a bit like robots - led by Ian McDiarmid and the Jedi. Oooh! Aaargh! There are "heroes on both sides"! Which is right? Which is right? Who knows?

The answer is, of course, neither of them are right, as Ian McDiarmid is actually Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord; a fact that George Lucas, the king of dramatic irony, has not even tried to hide for the past two films. First Sidious ensnares Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side, then gets his clone armies to attack the Jedis. Wait a minute... an attack of the clones? What film is this again?

Ah yes, "Revenge of the Sith". The revenge of the Sith is, apparently, to get the clones to attack. This is not the first confusing and - let's be fair - toy-manufacturer-led element to this film. Not by a long chalk.

The upshot of all this tomfoolery is that Anakin Skywalker is chopped into little pieces, burnt alive, and turned into Darth Vader. Darth Vader is the big one, the iconic figurehead of the franchise, the one we've all come to see, despite the fact that we all know that he looks pretty ridiculous when he walks.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but were you given an estimated $115m to make a film, you'd make pretty damned sure the script didn't provoke unwelcome laughter, wouldn't you? And you'd make it so that the actors who had to read the script didn't sort of take the piss when speaking the script, wouldn't you? And if you had really cool lightsaber fights, you'd want your audience to see them, wouldn't you? And you might contemplate making just a few scenes of amazingly epic battle scenes not edited at the pace of a rampant bonobo so your audience might actually understand what's going on, mightn't you?

Don't get me wrong, I really really wanted to like this movie. I wanted it to like it not because I'm a huge fan of Star Wars or anything, but because I liked Star Wars when I was a kid. And if I ever have kids, I think it would be cool to show them Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and say "This was really cool when I was a kid".

The trouble is that now, they'll say "What about those other three films?" and I'll say "you really don't need to bother with them, they suck ass".

Or, alternatively, a much worse scenario would be that people who have no experience of Star Wars will start at Episode 1, and work their way through chronologically. These people are fucked. Every major dramatic point in the original trilogy has been pre-empted by the prequel trilogy.

Darth Vader: "Luke... I am your father."
Audience: "Yeah, we knew that four hours ago."

Luke: "Leia, you're my sister."
Audience: (snore)

Obi-Wan: "I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn't allow it."
Audience: "So, like... can Obi-Wan see Qui-Gonn Jinn at this moment, or did the practice in exile not work?"

Audience: "Hey, how come the ships don't have those cool displays any more?"

Grr. The transition from "Revenge of the Sith" to "A New Hope" will be a horrible, horrible lurch. I guess that was always predictable, but there is scant effort to even make the two sets of three films feel similar in tone or mood.

Geek business aside, Ewan Macgregor is pretty good in it, and goes a little way to filling the charm void in the first two prequels. Hayden Christensen is largely awful, Natalie Portman is awful, even Samuel L Jackson looks bad. Ian McDiarmid is oddly camp, and appears to believe he is in pantomime. He looks like he knows he's too classy for this.

Ultimately, this hollow, deadening feeling is exactly what I felt after watching the previous two prequels. A dreadful sense of pointlessness hangs over these films; created not to make a good cinematic experience, but to further wring dry the wallets of the devoted. Bleurgh.

Sunday, 10 April 2005

Interpol/M83, Brixton Academy

[Overheard in the middle of the gig.]
Media type #1: Man, this is the strangest gig I've ever been to. I mean, I love the band, I love the music, but I'm the most bored I've ever been. I guess you have to be in the mood for it, and it's just been a week of meeting people...
Media type #2: Yeah...

Interpol's debut album - "Turn On The Bright Lights" - was, I now realise, titled ironically. The band are big fans of backlighting; so much so that at this Brixton Academy gig, it was sometimes difficult to work out if they were facing us or not. With the addition of a fog of stage haze, the music seems to come at us from an abyss - gloomy songs from a gloomy place.

Tonight, Interpol take a while to warm up, perhaps as their support band is the positively glacial M83. A chilly mix of Air-like mantras and big rock keyboards treated to sound like big rock guitars, the effect is overwhelmingly "French Artmusic". Like Vangelis on a complete lack of amphetamines, they bash noisily through repetitive four chord structures over and over again. This sort of thing is probably impressive and widescreen on record; here it is rendered rather annoying by the muggy mixing, to the point where you're begging them for a chorus, or a tune, or at least someone singing. I would also like to declare war on bands simply playing along to pre-sequenced music; No, we didn't come here to watch you press a button and wait, motionless, on stage for two minutes til we get to "your bit". Fuck off. Ultimately, M83 are epic to a fault. A shame. I was rather looking forward to them.

And I was looking forward to Interpol even more, so it's a disappointment that they didn't really hit their stride until a rather marvellous "Not Even Jail" about two-thirds of the way through their set. Yes, the band are tight, with Paul Banks and Daniel Kessler trading guitar parts across the left-hand side of the stage, flipping between rhythmic chops and complementary lead parts, and - thumping away behind them - the powerhouse rhythm section of the ever-impressive Sam Fogarino and - on bass - the greatest Charles Addams creation never committed to paper, Carlos D. But, like the media type standing behind me says, something's missing. Perhaps it's that the on-stage mix isn't right - Banks seems distracted and drops lines - or perhaps its just the crowd's overexposure to these songs recorded crystal clear on two exemplary albums, perhaps it's just the fact that we can't see the fuckers through the mist that means that great songs like "Evil" and "Slow Hands" are lost in a swampy first half of the set.

Later, the earlier, punkier material goes down well, and the band seem much happier standing in a tight little knot stage right, with their keyboard player banished to the dressing room. Maybe it's lack of material, inevitable with only two studio albums, that means they have to play literally all of their slower, dirgier songs. However, what raises Interpol above being mere pseudo-goth posers is their intricate arrangements - the rare combination of four very talented people - and so occasional shakey gigs must happen.

How slightly disappointing that tonight was one of them.

Monday, 21 February 2005

Drowned In Sound Iceland! Night, Marquee

Lured by the merest hint of a possibility that Anita Briem might be there, I attended the Drowned In Sound Iceland! Night at the Marquee in Leicester Square. Anita wasn't, as far as I know, there. But there were lots of other things.

The Marquee in Leicester Square is a converted floor of the old Home nightclub. It seems rather hastily converted, if you ask me, with lights randomly lashed onto whatever piece of exposed industrial girder or air conditioning work that the lighting designer could discover. The toilets are two floors away, and are unisex. There is an ill-thought-out chillout area mere metres from the stage. It's on the third floor. The lift sounds like it is on drugs. It is disarming, and impersonal.

The Drowned In Sound Iceland! Night consisted of four bands from Iceland as discovered by the ever-so-slightly precious music website Drowned In Sound at the Iceland Airwaves Festival, delightfully described as "the world's most northerly festival". Last year Keane and The Shins played alongside a dazzling array of Iceland's most outlandishly-named bands. Tonight, the four to play were Skatar, Reykjavik!, Jan Mayen and Skakkamanage.

First up, Skakkamanage, which compere John Kennedy (XFM) has difficulty pronouncing. No wonder, really. Skakkamanage play wonky acoustic guitar songs with the occasional burst of retro skanky keyboards, which then open out into lush, epic... well, Icelandic anthems. At the risk of my testosterone writing this review, the keyboardist is the most beautiful person in the room; the kind of high-cheekboned indie girl in a floaty dress that Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian would write, like, a really sad poem about. Regrettably, she's married to the guitarist. If their music is slightly samey, slightly forgettable, this may be due to the subsequent trauma to my head. They are, in a way, the most stereotypically Icelandic of tonight's bands, but their flighty whimsy and bizarre takes on English (one song is introduced as being called "Olaf, Cease!") are quite sweet. (Their website hurts me.)

Jan Mayen are really, really ugly, which comes as a disappointment after Berglind Hasler from Skakkamanage. They are named after a Norwegian island with a lot of puffins on it. They are four geeky emo boys of about 17 years old, and their first song is a metal assault. The second song, however, brings a pop edge to the grunge - like Ash punching a panda. Brilliant, I thought, there's my handle on them... they're pop! They're not as metal as I thought they were. But over the course of their set, they get harder and harder and harder, until you expect their amps to be stamped with "Tinnitus guaranteed". They also have a rather charming propensity for falling over. They fall over a lot, carry on playing, get up, fall over again. It's like watching a really good band from your sixth form. (Their website hurts me a lot less. In fact, it soothes me, as it includes the following lyrics to the song "Nick Cave"...

I could say I know Nick Cave is
the highest ape in the food chain.
D'you want to play tough and tougher
with Nick Cave ?

What's you gonna do?

One tape could take you off.
Nick Cave's a real motherfucker.
Yeah! He wants to mess you up.
Nick Cave's a real motherfucker

See this tape, this is Nick Cave
Well, he can brake like an animal.
D'you wanna play though and thougher
with Nick Cave ?

I can't prove that about Nick Cave.)

Third band of the night, Reykjavik!, are misleadingly introduced by John Kennedy playing some Sigur Ros. Anticipating an epic sweep, we are met instead by the most mismatched band I have ever seen. On bass, there is an old-school metal dude, shirtless, with spray-on trousers and a shiny belt buckle in the shape of an eagle. On rhythm guitar and vocals, a tubby bloke in a pinstripe shirt and grey greatcoat, whose blond fringe and bumbling demeanour is highly redolent of Boris Johnson. On lead guitar, a man whose hologrammatic shirt is so spangly, we remark he should be in Rocket From The Crypt. On drums, a guy in a white shirt and black tie, who has just come from the office. On lead vocals and general prannying around, an Adidas jacketed, mop-haired lunatic, who keeps jumping into the space immediately in front of the stage and running around a bit. Words really can't describe this band - there are elements of hardcore and punk in there, a smattering of emo, but they keep doing weird things with the time signatures and seem to have little to no idea that they are the funniest thing in the world. At one point the lead singer yells "By the way, we're still unsigned!" and in a way this is a wrong that should be righted. In another way, I'm not sure the world could handle Reykjavik!. (Their website is basic, but amazing.)

Thinking those three bands were impossible to top, we faced Skatar with some trepidation. Fortunately, they managed to top even Reykjavik! Skatar are five beardy blokes in white boiler suits. Again, hardcore influences are there, but tempered by... well, insanity. There's occasionally a post-punk thing going on - little moments of Interpol and The Killers creep in - but the rest of the time, lord alone knows. Drowned in Sound described them as "acid crazed Super Furry Animals in white surgical boiler suits [...] they throw Captain Beefheart, Trumans Water, Polvo and various glimpses of eighties post- punk into the blender". I hurt just thinking about them. (They don't even have a website. There's a picture of them here, though.)

Anyway, the overwhelming feeling that one emerges into the snowy Leicester Square with is that Iceland is full of a) crazy people, b) beautiful women with good cheekbones. I have booked my ticket to Iceland already.

The website of Tom Wateracre

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
Writer, Screenwriter. Born in the late Seventies. Likes marzipan.