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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Film - The Girl Who Played With Fire - directed by Daniel Alfredson

Star rating – 8/10

This second instalment of the film versions of the fabulous Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson is, like the second book, not quite so self contained as the first, but is no less gripping for that. It seems the fashionable thing to do at the moment is to find fault with these films, maybe as a counterpoint to the runaway success of the novels. I don’t understand why. For me they are great films, following on from even greater novels, which are as exciting, intriguing, and gripping as anything I have read for years.

Noomi Rapace mesmerises again as Lisbeth Salander – strong; bloody minded; fearless; sexy; secretive; and an IT genius. Perhaps the one thing that doesn’t come out enough in the film is this side of her character. The film doesn’t really attempt to portray how she uses her expertise as a solver of impossible algebraic formulae to get to the bottom of the track she is doggedly following.

This film is different from the first in that she and her former lover and sometime friend (or at least he tries to be and she constantly resists) Mikael Blomkvist, played by Michael Nyqvist, don’t actually meet until the closing piece of the action. It is also about much more this time than a simple family tragedy, with Soviet secret agents, monsters who can feel no pain, and hairy motor bikers also thrown into the mix. I won’t attempt to explain the action – to do so would only spoil the fun. But the story is thrilling, gripping and moving. But why do we have to wait until November for the final instalment in this fantastic trilogy? I can’t believe that the Hollywood versions that are currently in production will be any better than these superb originals.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Books - Too Big To Fail - Inside the Battle to Save Wall Street by Andrew Ross Sorkin

Star rating – 8/10

Only a mere three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the near collapse of AIG and many more besides, we all seem to have forgotten the anger we collectively felt at the bankers’ huge bonuses, and at the risks they had been prepared to make with other people’s lives for their own gain. Yes the bumper bonuses are rolling gain in the City and on Wall Street, whatever mealy mouthed protestations are made to the contrary by regulators and politicians. So it is timely that Andrew Ross Sorkin has provided us with a detailed account of those hazy, crazy days just before and after the Lehman Brothers demise, to give us a rare insight into the episode which will surely be pored over by generations to come in their economics and history lessons.

Sorkin is a journalist on the New York Times, and has had unprecedented access to personal emails and notes from the people at the eye of the storm to write this book. It is a riveting account of how frantic efforts were made by the key players to avert a world wide economic catastrophe. Lehman Brothers was the sacrificial lamb that the American Government did not feel able to step in and save, even though they did pump billions of public money into saving Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Goldman Sachs, and AIG. And no real explanation is evident by reading about the Board room manoeuvrings and back tracking that went on for days and nights as to why Lehmans was not saved and the others were.

What is obvious is that the fate of the world economy was in the hands of a few American financiers who knew each other well, had personally moved between many of the key organisations involved during the course of their stellar careers, and who formed something of an old boys network (and they were mainly men, with only a couple of women at the cutting edge of the drama as related by Sorkin).

Sorkin’s fascinating account of the deal and double crosses gives a real sense of history in the making. Other books about the crisis tell the tale from other points of view, this one is firmly from the bankers’ perspective. Nothing much is said about the ordinary American people whose lives were wrecked by the collapse. It is also a very American viewpoint, and the way some of the British characters in the show are viewed as weak and unhelpful is amusing.
But whilst it is fascinating, and very well told, you can’t help but wonder in astonishment whilst reading it that it has taken so little time to return to the same greed and grasping for individual gain that caused this mess in the first place, or that the same system in still in place that allows banks and bankers to behave in this frankly criminally irresponsible way if they so choose. For my money there is a gossamer fine line between some of the key players in this particular drama, and the senior people who went to jail for their part in the Enron saga.

Film - Mother - directed by Bong Joon-ho

Star rating – 3/10

I went along to this Korean offering from Bong Joon-ho with the promise of slick Hitchcockian style suspense film, but came away just feeling that I had wasted a couple of hours of my life. I am afraid simply having a couple of plot twists does not get anywhere close to Hitchcock. ‘Mother’ is just plain depressing.

It is set in a small Korean town, and follows a mother and her 27 year old son, who has learning difficulties. She is unhealthily attached to him, even taking into account his disability, going so far as to share the same bed. He gets into trouble whilst having too much time on his hands, and is eventually arrested for the murder of a schoolgirl. His mother then seeks to prove his innocence, and will stop at nothing to do so.

One of the many problems for me with this film is that absolutely none of the characters had any redeeming features. I didn’t empathise with any of them. The film is shot with a very grey palette, so not even the scenery was easy on the eye. Everyone was a bad guy in one way or another. The plot was confused and confusing. And some of it just did not add up, so I found it impossible to suspend disbelief and get into the plot. This does not add up to a great suspense film in my book so do yourself a favour and don’t believe the hype.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Theatre - Sweet Charity - Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Star rating – 7/10

Sweet Charity is not my favourite musical by a long way – but I do have fond memories of Shirley MacLaine with her cheery disposition and tear stained face in the classic film version. So I thought I would go along and see if the reviews bore any resemblance to the reality of this West End transfer from the Mernier Chocolate Factory (having obviously forgiven them for their shocking ‘Paradise Found’ - see June '10 review). And I was a bit disappointed to say the least to find out that Tamzin Outhwaite was having a (admittedly probably deserved) night off, and that the role of Charity Hope Valentine was being played by her understudy, Tiffany Graves.

But to be honest, if I hadn’t have known that it wasn’t the ‘real’ Charity, I wouldn’t have guessed it from this accomplished and polished performance. The story is not the strongest one I have ever heard, but it does have an odd bittersweet, then bitter again, quality to it which is a bit different to some of the more saccharine musical themes. Charity is stuck in a dead end job as a dance hall hostess, with terrible taste in men. And the expression to wear your heart on your sleeve could certainly have been coined just for her. She is honest, funny, gutsy, cooky, and vulnerable.

At the start of the show her bounder of a boyfriend pushes her into a lake and steals her handbag and savings. It doesn’t get much better on the boyfriend front for poor old Charity. She has an accidental night of friendship but no passion with movie star Vittorio Vidal, then meets the shy but promising Oscar whilst stuck in a lift. There are some great numbers in the show, my favourites being ‘Hey Big Spender’; ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’ and, ‘The Rhythm of Life’. And this cast certainly does them justice, and includes some great dance routines. Mark Umbers very skillfully plays all three of Charity’s boyfriends. And it is good fun, but not much more than that. The plot is still a bit thin, and I suspect neither Tamzin nor Tiffany is a patch on Shirley MacLaine. But I did only pay £10 for my ticket so I’m not complaining.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Theatre - Enron - Noel Coward

Star rating – 9/10

There is always the danger when you see a play that has been running for some time to critical acclaim and popular acclamation, that it can’t possibly live up to all the hype. Enron is such a play (at least this side of the Atlantic – of which more later), but I am pleased to report after catching it at the end of its London run before going out to the ’provinces’, as Londoners are so fond of calling the rest of the nation, that it is no disappointment – not by a long way.

The subject matter is potentially not the most obviously suited to a successful stage play, being as it is about the rise of the giant US energy company, and its spectacular fall and the subsequent biggest corporate criminal trial in history. But the way the story is told in this very clever play by Lucy Prebble, and the sophisticated use of light, sound, and stage, mean that it is a feast for the eyes, and a very fast moving and entertaining evening.

The story starts with an office affair between the chic and slightly ruthless Claudia Roe, played by Sara Stewart, and fellow employee Jeffrey Skilling, Corey Johnson. He tells her he is leaving his wife – she says they will not sleep together again – so the usual office politics then. In this case he just happens to leap frog her to a stellar career as the Chief Executive of the company. He devises an accounting wheeze called ‘mark to market’, whereby the company can declare potential rather than actual profits, and enlists the help of Andy Fastow as his finance supremo, who can make profits appear out of nowhere, and hide losses in a shadow, not to mention shadowy, sister company. And for a while Enron is a corporate success story that is the envy of the western world, that is until the illegal practices are uncovered and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

The special effects really add to the power of the story, especially the raptors, monsters lurking in the basement to symbolise the buried bad debt, with their insatiable greed for more money. The upward, then rapid downward, movement of Enron shares is highlighted with ticker tape displays and a looming figure over the stage.

But it is easy to see why the transfer to Broadway was not a success. In fact, I cannot see how anyone would have thought the Americans would love their collective noses being rubbed in it by this story of greed and organisational deception. Their national anthem is mocked; there is the infamous clip of President Clinton denying sexual relations with ‘that woman’; and coming so soon after more corporate greed has been exposed so publicly, with such catastrophic effects on the world economy (aka the credit crunch), it is hardly surprising that Enron bombed recently in New York.

But don’t let that put you off seeing it for a minute. It is clever, witty, moral and thought provoking. One of the main thoughts that has been occurring to me since I saw it, is the difference in outcome for Jeffrey Skilling, who got 25 years in prison for his crimes, and the bankers and friends who nearly caused the collapse of the world economy, yet who are now, some 3 year later, reaping bumper bonuses again. Same old, same old then….