Wednesday, 14 November 2007

American Gangster

American Gangster arrives in cinemas feted as a proper old crime epic, a throwback to "Goodfellas", to "Scarface", to "The Godfather". What could be better than two hours and forty minutes of narcs and kneecapping, especially when in such capable hands as Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott? Well...

Washington plays the titular gangster Frank Lucas, a real-life Harlem kingpin who hits on the boffo idea of buying heroin straight from the growers, an early proponent of the Fairtrade movement. In fact… a bold, original idea? Stacks of money? Dark-suited Mafioso-types? Where have I seen that before?

Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the detective who uncovers Lucas's scheme, principally by going to the Ali/Frazier fight and seeing who is in the front row. Roberts spends the next hour and a half trying to catch Lucas with his fingers in the cookie jar, before Lucas discovers (SPOILER ALERT!) that crime doesn't pay. Crowe is in schlub mode here - an early scene of him working out, doing some benchpresses, and sculpting his guns, doesn't help to distract us from the floppiness of his hair and - later - his breathless panting after going up some stairs. It was genuinely weird to come back from the cinema and see "Gladiator" on the TV, with a lithe Crowe shanking some hapless Roman in the guts, and equate it with sad-sack Crowe making a crisp sandwich in "American Gangster".

To be fair, the acting in this is pretty great. Lucas is depicted as still and quiet where his contemporaries are brash, and Washington turns in his usual exemplary display of confidence, vulnerability, charm, and moments of pause. Crowe's character too is quiet, understated, occasionally brought out into righteous anger. How odd that the two main characters in this grandiose-seeming film are probably the two most understated, which makes their eventual confrontation and collaboration seem fitting and right. They're portrayed as similar people - both with great integrity, both with a very American drive for work, both with a robust set of principles. However, I prefer Washington as a hero - there's a real kindness in his eyes that even in his uberbastard mode in this and "Training Day" lets us know that everything's going to be okay - and never quite bought into him being the type to commit the sporadic careless violence that Frank commits.

The cast is filled out with some neat little performances - Josh Brolin as the corrupt cop is flamboyantly cruel, shooting dogs and wearing a mean moustache. It was great to see the awesome John Hawkes from "Me You And Everyone We Know" in a key role, and there are some good rap-related roles for the RZA, T.I. and especially Common, who puts in a warm and engaging performance in a very short time. (I wonder if Ridley Scott knew about the anachronistic nature of the RZA's Wu tattoo. Or tatt-Wu. Maybe the RZA wouldn't let them put make-up over it.)

Less impressive, unfortunately, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I ordinarily think is bloody marvellous. In this, he didn't really have much to do, and in a long-shot of the Lucas brothers walking down the street, his confidence was let down by his English shoulders (spot the body posture geek).

The less said about Cuba Gooding Jr the better.

Despite the largely good performances, the film never quite earns its epicness. (Epicity?) The film walks some pretty well-trodden ground, and it does so timidly - never quite wanting to grandstand as spectacularly as "Scarface", and demurely slinking around the glamour that the life has afforded Lucas. You sense that his family is what drives him to continue, and it is only near the end with events slipping out of his control that he starts believing his own hype and really becomes a monster of greed. What we are left with is the straight guy of crime, when we probably really want to see the hilarious excess of 'Mr Untouchable' Nicky Barnes. (Although preferably not played by Cuba Gooding Jr.)

The violence is shocking, yet very sporadic, but still provoked enthusiastic wincing from our audience. The film is long on quiet character moments and short on action; even the drive-by shooting is quite matter-of-fact. Probably the best influence of Ridley Scott is evoking the environment of Harlem in the early '70s, with rundown Projects contrasted with the 1970s version of high-class. "That's alpaca!" says Washington of a blood-soaked rug, "Don't rub it! Dab it!"

So, a pretty run of the mill gangster movie, with little to recommend it above re-watching "Scarface" than Washington's performance. Perhaps the most confusing element of the whole thing is that Jay-Z was so inspired by the movie that he recorded a whole album based on both the film and its parallels in his own life. As another drug-dealer-turned-business-man, you could perhaps see where Jay-Z was going, but where Jay's own glittering career signified a new business world where African-Americans could be dominant, the film ends with Lucas as an outcast from the criminal community, principally because his intuition and, to some extent, ethnic origins had alienated him from the Italians who had supported his dealings, upsetting the status quo. The film's final shot sees Washington released from prison in 1991, alone and vulnerable in a new world, soundtracked not by "Across 110th Street", but by Public Enemy. So why was Jay-Z so inspired? Perhaps it is that Jay-Z's business model went from crime to using his talent as a springboard into legitimate business, and Lucas's tale suggests how different things could have ended up for the Roc-A-Fella businessman - short-lived glamour, followed by punishment. Lucas's Gangster is American because of initiative and ambition, because of principles and respect, but in latter-day America, you either (to paraphrase another rapper/businessman) get rich or die trying.

Monday, 15 October 2007

"Capturing Mary" (A Review In Kind)

As grammar is one of my strong suits, I have decided to become a 1950s gossip journalist. This blog is now only going to be filled with amazing tales of glamour and celebrity.

Yesterday, with the sun setting orangily across a mild Autumnal night, as I was crossing Hungerford Bridge in London's fashionable South Bank district, I passed the legendary film actor Mr Dustin Hoffman. Mr Dustin Hoffman! And that was but the start of it!

I was perambulating across the river on the way to the National Film Theatre where I was attending a screening of a film that my friend Ms H* is in. Ms H was late, due to the fact that she was doing something or other of great glamour and importance**. I bartered with the box office staff, they gave me one of our two allotted tickets and said that I should go in in case the film started. It was a preview of a film that is going to be on the BBC - written and directed by Mr Stephen Poliakoff, with Ms Maggie Smith, Ms Ruth Wilson (the one with the extraordinary mouth who was in Jane Eyre) and - bizarrely - Mr David Walliams.

I entered the theatre and some man-jack was sitting in our seats, so I said "Excuse me, I think I'm supposed to be sitting there", and they started to gather their things together. It was then that I realised I was moving Mr Walliams himself! Calamity! I still made him move regardless. I sat down next to the girl that Mr Walliams had been delightfully chatting with and said "Whoops, I just moved Mr David Walliams" and then bumbled on for a bit about that being something of a faux pas. It should also be mentioned at this point that I was carrying a Morrison's bag containing a crumpled suit, so I didn't exactly look prepared for high art.

Then Ms H came and greeted the girl next to me, as she was also in the film. Another hilarious faux pas!

The film was quite long and preposterous - at points unbearably tense, at other points rather crass and camp. This isn't helped by Mr Walliams being in it. Mr Walliams plays a sinister sociopath, with several haunting moments where his large face stares ominously into the auditorium, intoning something drastic and dramatic. He also makes a salad. Much like Mr Kelly, it is difficult to know how to take a figure traditionally associated with light entertainment as a sinister figure - to my knowledge, Mr Benny Hill never played Iago, and with good reason. Ms Smith is splendid in it, though. The story is told in flashbacks, with Ms Smith narrating it to a charming Cockney lad and it gets a bit clogged up with exposition. Anyway, the film is going to be on the BBC, you can sample its delights yourself then if you wish. It is called "Capturing Mary".

During the film, I recognise an actress playing a confidante of Mr Walliams, but I am unsure from whence. (From where? From whence? I am unsure of the correct formation.) As the lights go up in the theatre at the end of the cinematograph, I realise that I am sitting next to the actress in question. Troisieme faux pas! Her name is Ms Gemma Arterton, and she is soon to be in the new St Trinians film, god bless her.

Messers Poliakoff, Wilson, Walliams and the aforementioned charming Cockney then assemble at the front of the stage for a question and answer session. Little of note is said, although apparently it was very good that the actors were "in the moment" at seemingly all moments. How they managed that is quite beyond me. How brave! In fact, the only revelation is that the Cockney lad in real life is not a Cockney at all but a very well-spoken young man. What an actor! Mr Walliams stares at me throughout, as if ominously intoning "You stole my chair. You stole my chair." The effect was quite sinister, but then perhaps he was just creating in his mind a new sketch for his "Little Britain" entertainment where someone asks someone to move in a cinema and the person who sits in the chair finds it is made of sick.

Mr Walliams did not, however, make a salad.

After this bijou dollop of insight into the film, we were afforded a further… a further dollop, I suppose, in the form of a short film starring the mouth and indeed the rest of the person of Ms Wilson. For fans of Ms Wilson, Ms Wilson's mouth, Dalmatians, and china trinkets, this short comes highly recommended. For fans of logic, perhaps not so.

Anyway, it rounded off a perfectly splendid evening of Poliakoffanalia. The mildness of the evening translated perfectly into the mildness of my affections for each of the films! Would that every Autumnal night were blessed with such a cinematic decoupage of delight!

* This is how they refer to people in these sorts of things, isn't it?
** The District Line was down.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Doing Data Input Whilst Listening To "The Drift" By Scott Walker

It's my last week at work. For the past two days, I've been doing a lot of data input. I've had seven A3 sheets of information to input in four days. That's one and three-quarters of a page per day. In the last two days, I've cleared four pages, so I felt able to kick back a bit today, and try a little experiment.

As I'm just doing data input, there's no harm in me listening to Emma, my mp3 player, whilst doing it. Yesterday, I listened to the first two albums by the Shins. Tuesday, I tried listening to the Wu Tang Clan, which worked oddly well. But then… I had an idea.

You see, "The Drift" by Scott Walker has been lurking on my mp3 player for a while. I listened to a bit of it a while back, but never all the way through. This was because it was a bit scary. I felt pretty bad as my friend Jessie burnt it for me specially and I really should have listened to it by now. Anyway, what would happen if I forced myself to listen to the whole of "The Drift" in an office environment? This was my challenge!

Below, you shall find my track-by-track report of listening to "The Drift" whilst doing data input. The tenses are all over the place, but I think you get a good idea of the experience that I had. It was enlightening.

Or the opposite of that. It was endarkening.

Cossacks Are

The air conditioning seems to be cranked a little higher as my challenge begins. Seriously, is it colder in here just because of the song? The thumping drums are quite good at maintaining a rhythm, though. "That's a nice suit / That's a swanky suit," sings Scott. How apt. I am wearing a suit! Thanks, man. It needs dry cleaning, though. This is going fine!


A gentle, yet threatening beginning gives way to cacophonous droning and that infamous meat-punching, punctuated by klangs of horrible guitar. It is oddly apt for the workplace. The stapler appears to be smiling at me. There's a brief respite whilst I highlight an error using a blue highlighter; the droning stops so Scott can sing about Mussolini's lover waiting for execution. This song is lending my every salary adjustment an enormous significance. Some electronic squiggling sound, accompanied by the sound of a man thwacking a side of pork, is giving me a headache. A man has started yelling - it might be in the song, it might be in the office. I can't tell. Similarly, the sound of the cleaners putting some cups in the dishwasher is strongly redolent of wartime Italy. "This is not a terrapin!" sings Scott.

Oh good. The droning is back. Scott is whispering about poking a man with a stick. I notice someone, possibly me, has categorised this album as "Classical". That might be a joke.

Dear lord, what was that?! Scott shrieked and surprised me.


"Noseholes caked in black cocaine," trills Scott, as I repeat the same data input pattern I've been doing for three days now. Someone calls the phone on my desk, but rings off after one ring. Sinister. I probably would have been too scared to answer it, in case it was Elvis's dead twin, who this song is about. It's a slow burning song, and isn't giving me much of a rhythm to my inputting. "I'm the only one left alive! I'm the only one left alive!" howls Scott, a capella.

Jolson and Jones

Drums! Hooray! Accompanied by some electric crickets and some atonal organ. Boo. I really haven't done a lot of inputting over the last song. I need this song to help me get down to it. It is unfailingly sinister. And, unfortunately for my work, its stop-start time signatures and free-form structure doesn't really do what I need.

Ah! A crazed donkey has just started braying. "Curare, curare," sings Scott. I'm just sitting here, a little dumbfounded. I pull myself together and input the salary information of someone in the Treasury department whilst a lone piper on a blasted heath toots plaintively - about what, I do not know. But it is scary.

"I'll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway! I'll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway!" yells Scott.


Five tracks in, and I think my productivity levels have been halved. Let's hope for a nice jaunty singalong that will not invade my headspace!

No. We get threatening Holst-style strings and Scott singing on the same notes he has for the past four songs. No idea what this song is about either. I think he might have just sung "Charmed like a muscle" or "Charmed like a mussle". Someone has started hitting a box. My colleague asks for a pencil sharpener; I ask him what he means. Turns out he just wants a pencil sharpener. This song is ten and a half minutes long. Sheesh.

Woah! Horrible, horrible Psycho strings! Over and over again! Scott is singing about a fat black crocodile. This is truly horrible. The strings slide down over and over again. "Slicing the swine!" bellows Scott. There was a regular beat for a while there, but it's now stopped. Someone is playing a bugle horn.

A long lull with nothing of note happening. Well, nothing of note but CONSTANTLY BUILDING DREAD. Which comes to nothing - the song comes to a quiet halt.

Hand Me Ups

Blistering, atonal cacophony is the order of the day in the intro to this song. Following the quiet end of the previous one, it is deeply unpleasant. Gritty, distorted sine waves and someone singing inaudibly in the background. "I tried, I tried," sings Scott, "Teeth taken out with a stroke / Rain running down a long spear… I felt the nail driving into my foot! I felt the nail driving into my hand!" There's a nice saxophone bit playing in the background. A screaming sound from either a woman or a violin.

It goes without saying, this is the most unpleasant one yet.

Some atonal harpsichord is accompanied by a lute. "The audience is waiting!" croons Scott. As is my boss, waiting for me to input these numbers. Sorry, boss. This is an important experiment.

Did he just sing "bat the rat"? Is this a song about a summer fete? Oh. Probably not. He just sung about "splintering white bone". I don't remember that at a summer fete.


Radio static! Brilliant. That's always helpful for data input. Now, some low singing about varnishing a fort (possibly), and someone hitting a wine glass. Someone in Marketing is doing terribly well with their salary.

Scott just came up with the first actual vocal melody on the album. It's track seven! True to form, it was over the lyric "Somebody dies!" After "Hand Me Ups", this is actually quite pleasant, although at the same time - of course - unbearably tense.

Oh. I've just worked out what that lyric is. "Stick the fork in him! He's done boys!" That's really put a crimp on my enjoyment of the song.


This title doesn't bode well. As it is 10.40am, I decide elevenses are appropriate. I avail myself of an over-ripe banana and a tiny can of executive lemonade and crash on with the song. This banana really is very ripe. "Jada! Jada! Jing jing jing!" sings Scott. The banana is too ripe to eat. You know when bananas are too ripe and they taste a little alcoholic, that's what this one tasted like. The lemonade is sweet and fizzy. It also claims it is "Made with real lemons!" Great.

"Here come the blankets!" sings Scott. I do like a good blanket. This song isn't so bad, perhaps because that banana was slightly more horrible than the song. The song is over. That wasn't so bad.

The banana, however, was awful.

The Escape

Before this song starts, a colleague asks me to do some work for her when I've finished inputting. I obviously look a bit suspicious. To alleviate the tension, I give her a high ten. I'm not sure that's appropriate office behaviour. My guide to what is right and what is wrong has been skewed by Scott.

I start the song. Gentle, military tattoo and quiet, threatening, descending double bass. Ah, and now skittering treated violin whilst Scott sings "You and me against the world!" I think he might be covering that Space song.

There's only one track to go! This realisation gives me hope that everything will be okay.

Dear Christ! Horrible gremlin voices! Stalking strings! This is horrible! It's like Orville is coming to kill me!

A Lover Loves

The beginning of this sounds disconcertingly like "If You Go Away". Scott psst-pssts to get my attention. Leave off, Scott! I'm trying to do data input! It is gentle, and acoustic, and rather lovely. If it wasn't for the pssting, it would be fine, but the pssting is really distracting. And then it ends.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

"Dirty Birds" by Kat Flint

I've been fortunate enough to be given a copy of Kat Flint's forthcoming album "Dirty Birds", and I hereby attempt to influence you to purchase it, when you can. It's very good. Songs such as "Ohio" and "Lonesome Crowd" contain an emotional sucker punch in the same vein as Sufjan Stevens' "John Wayne Gacy". Like Stevens, Flint is a storyteller, detailing the journey between a rural idyll and the grimy city - the title track namechecks Soho before commenting knowingly that this "is where TV came to die". She is an exemplary lyricist, often seeming to write in character - a commentator on her surroundings, with the confidence to raise a weary eyebrow at the weaknesses and foibles of a screwed-up world. Some points in the album are exceptionally upsetting - always beautiful, charming, and welcoming, but incredibly emotional and heartwrenching. For the album, Flint has welded her Aimee Mann-ly glumness to a powerful musical engine, crisp string arrangements, tinkly glockenspiel and lovely picked guitar, and the songs occasionally launch into Bright Eyes-esque choral sing-a-longs. There are lots of highlights - my personal favourite track is "Saddest Blue Dress", a tender and raw song about an extra-marital affair that concludes, agonisingly, "all my children will smile like the first time we met / It's alright…" - it's blisteringly sad.

I believe it will be out soon, but do check her myspace for details of when - it is a silvery disc to cherish.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Don't Look Now, Lyric Hammersmith

(Written for Culture Wars)

So, here's a quandary: how do you adapt something that has already been definitively adapted? Lucy Bailey and Nell Leyshon's reversion of "Don't Look Now" takes the bold step of eschewing changes made by Nicolas Roeg in his highly-thought-of 1973 film adaptation, and returning to Daphne du Maurier's original short story.

The slow-burning first half is moodily effective and genuinely entertaining. John and Laura return to Venice, where they spent their honeymoon, to get over the death of their daughter Christine. Leyshon's script reinstates Christine's death being caused by meningitis, and not the shocking drowning of Roeg's film. Set by Bailey in a gigantic copper box, with gorgeous lighting by Chris Davey, it's a creepy, atmospheric world, with tables and other settings sliding queasily from one side of the stage to the other.

It isn't, however, Venice. Of course, having large amounts of water on stage is a bloody hard thing to achieve. Here we have some lovely rippling reflections on the walls, and some undeniably pretty theatre rain. (Man, I love theatre rain. If you're making a play that I'm going to review, add some theatre rain. I guarantee you a whole extra star on your star rating.) But without the constant eerie presence of the waterways, everything feels a little dry and safe. It becomes apparent why Roeg made his alteration to the way Christine died ? to recover from your child's drowning by visiting a city built on waterways is a pleasing dramatic irony; how could John and Laura be so stupid to think that going there was a good idea? Next time, dudes, go to the Gobi Desert! The creeping dread of water for the characters is absent, and so the location, something utterly key to both original text and cinema adaptation, cannot be delivered.

The first half contains a brilliant performance by Susie Trayling as Laura, trying desperately hard to remain upbeat, whilst occasionally letting the facade break, particularly after meeting the weird psychic sisters who let her know of the ominous warnings of her dead child. Trayling's Laura clings desperately, optimistically, to any thread of hope, and the second half misses her, as she returns to Britain to attend to the appendicitis of her son.

Simon Paisley Day, as John, has a trickier time. Stoic and stiff-upper-lipped in the first half, the cracking of his facade in the second half, as scripted, is more melodramatic and explicit. He is haunted by a child in a red coat, perhaps the ghost of his dead daughter, and beset by any number of Italian buffoons who occasionally slip into oblique pronouncements from the underworld. Day's performance is a little fussy, and never quite manages to achieve either the sensitive breakdown of Trayling or the large-scale grandstanding that must surely have been a temptation. The second half suffers because John isn't really the one we're interested in in the first half. He's a petty Englishman, more interested in saving face and being frustrated that none of the Italians will humour his stilted attempts to master their language, and as such the emotional core of the second half is absent.

Joanna McCallum and Susan Woolridge are quietly effective as the twin psychics, but don't have a huge amount to do. The locals of Venice are very broadly drawn, with fun little sketches of a hotel butler and a rambunctious restauranteur seeming out of place when set against the moodiness of the main story. John's psychic tormenting by the sinister Italians in his head late on in Act Two, however, feels a little xenophobic, and exposes the datedness of du Maurier's text. This is compounded by the giggling, demonic little person, psychotically pleased with her hobby of murdering tourists, which raised my 21st Century political correctness hackles.

An interesting experiment, then. In the programme, it is stated that Bailey was looking to devise an original ghost story, but eventually settled on "Don't Look Now". Part of me wishes that Bailey and Leyshon's obvious talents had been employed on that original story, if only to avoid the pitfalls of the burden of the film, the tinges of datedness and the difficulty of getting Venice across on stage.

The website of Tom Wateracre

About Me

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