Thursday, December 28, 2006

Manifest Destiny

My Father has given up on fiction. I think he just doesn't really see the point anymore. He still watches movies and television series, but he doesn't read fiction. He's the person who made me such a big reader, probably by example more than anything else, but also through his sermons on what was so great about reading. He borrowed me books - unsolicited - from the library regularly when I was a kid and through the difficult prepubescent years, when I wasn't particularly interested. He was the one who started borrowing Stephen King and James Herbert books for me when I was 12 and 13, and they were the first books I really responded to. They're the reason I went on to study English, in some way, they're the reason I read a book every 10 days or so, on average, they're the reason I found my way to F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike and Graham Greene and Richard Yates and every writer I love. Which means that hes the reason.

But I understand his feelings, I think. He is tired of the formulas and the manipulation, tired of investing himself in characters and situations over a long period only to have the writer stiff him in the final chapter. He has a real hatred of an unhappy ending, and one too many novels have been booby-trapped to spring a sudden death or a relationship torn asunder upon him for his liking. A film is two hours of his life and if he dislikes the ending, well thats ok, it was only two hours. A book can be two weeks. It can be hard not to resent those two weeks if they're misspent. So he reads non-fiction. He is a great Hill-walker and nature-lover, and he reads an awful lot of natural history, books about wildlife, nature diaries, farmers diaries etc. But he also likes history and biography and popular science. Just no fiction.

I'm not saying that I feel the same. But I have been reading an increasing amount of non-fiction as I get older. I read a lot of books on cinema, both criticism and history or biography. I read literary biographies and some literary criticism. I read more and more about football. I read some history, and the book I enjoyed most this year was possibly "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright, which is a brilliant account of the birth and development of al-Qaeda and the reasons for the failure of American Intelligence Agencies to stop 9/11. I read it in one day, utterly gripped and fascinated.
One of the reasons I don't read more books is that I read so much other media - newspapers, magazines, the bloody internet. Also, I have come to the end of most of the writers I truly love. I've read everything Fitzgerald wrote, read all of Ian McEwan's books, read all of Richard Ford. The writers I love who still have books I haven't read - well those I have to ration out to myself. One a year, maybe, because eventually they'll all be gone. Discovering new ones is more difficult than discovering unseen directors or new music, again because books take so much personal and temporal investment. I just don't have the time.

But then occasionally I'll read a novel and it knocks me off my feet and makes me see the power of great fiction all over again. "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy is just such a novel. McCarthy has long been a personal favourite, but recently he's been releasing books at an unprecedented rate. Having written just five books in the two decades between 1965 and 1985, he has just published two in three years. While 2005's "No Country for Old Men" was a dazzling chase thriller set in McCarthy country along the US-Mexican border in the 1980s ( a movie of which, adapted by the Coens and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem, is due in late 2007), "The Road" is a sort of post-apocalyptic fable. It follows the long journey of a father and his son through a ravaged, destroyed America following some unspecified but presumably Nuclear cataclysm. The man and boy are following the highway through a dead landscape, heading South to the Ocean, desperate to find something living in what they hope will be still warmer climes. They scavenge what food they can find in abandoned houses and shops, for there are no more living animals and no plant-life still growing. The weather attacks them ceaselessly and ash blows at them off the ruined countryside as they go. They are terrified of the bands of cannibalistic marauders - "bloodcults" - roaming the country, picking off lone survivors, and the novel features a couple of almost unbearably gripping scenes as they encounter such men.

The father tries always to buoy his sons spirits. They are the good guys, he tells him, they are carrying the fire. All the while he must fight his own hopelessness and despair, the suicidal impulses which make his possession of a revolver loaded with a single bullet - more to end the boy's life in the event of capture by the marauders than for defence - a dangerous necessity, and also struggling with his memories of life before the catastrophe and of the boy's mother. They trudge on down the road, through ghost towns, skirting skeletal cities, finding shelter where they can, trying to stay dry and healthy. Their bond - the boy's questions and fear and love and trust, the fathers exhaustion and tenderness and pride and sorrow - are beautifully evoked by McCarthy in the spare conversations they have as they walk or at night as they huddle together for warmth.
The novel - like much of McCarthy's work - sustains a mood of palpable tension and dread throughout. Its action is repetitive, as are its descriptions of the bleak graveyard that the world has become. But McCarthy's descriptive language is always precise, always evocative - "By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." - and its cumulative effect, when combined with the characterisation of the man and boy, is extraordinarily moving. Having moved away from the polysyndetonic syntax he used in the Border trilogy (the novels "All the Pretty Horses", "the Crossing" and "Cities of the Plain") his language here, as in "No Country for Old Men", is plainer, punchier, his sentences frequently short and sparse. Somehow, despite the slight stylistic shift, he retains the timeless, quasi-biblical tone his work has employed since "Blood Meridian".

While "The Road" recalls many other works and films set in post-apocalyptic landscapes, from Harlan Ellison's "A Boy & His Dog" to the Mad Max films and The Postman and even the work of George R Romero, McCarthy's unique voice and the absence of anything really resembling a plot give it an identity unlike anything I have really encountered before. In terms of an almost domestic approach to apocalypse( "The Road" is filled with details of practicalities - how they eat, what they use to keep warm, where they shelter), the sensibility is perhaps closest to Michael Haneke's The Hour of the Wolf, but McCarthy's work is far more mythic and poetic than the cold world of Haneke's film.

McCarthy is generally celebrated for the quality of his exquisite prose, and is unarguably one of the greatest living American novelists. "The Road" reads almost like the pinnacle of his work. Perhaps the simplest and purest book he has written, it takes something from each of his other novels. The pitch-black tone of barbarity is familiar from his first three novels, the appalling and terrifying violence of men in a lawless world recalls the killers rampaging through Indian villages in "Blood Meridian", the tenderness and emotion and focus upon landscape seem to have come from his Border trilogy, and the mature and regretful ruminations of the main character suggest the Sheriff's philosophical passages in "No Country For Old Men".
"The Road" also feels like a novel only a mature writer could have written. McCarthy is 73, and his last few books have all dealt with the shadow of death and mortality. He is never sentimental but his book is heavy with an awareness of what is important in life, the lack of limits of parental love,with regret and mourning for the beauty of the world. If in the past he has been compared - with good reason - to Hemingway, Melville and Faulkner, here the most relevant literary comparison is with Beckett. This book has his fearlessness, his refusal to blink in the face of despair. It is also moving, exciting and thrillingly beautiful. It is one reason why my father is wrong to have given up on fiction.

Flags of Our Fathers is a fiction based on a non-fiction book, and accordingly, it makes a convincing argument for the worth of historical reality in our portrayals of the past. Like Cormac McCarthy, Clint Eastwood is a genuine American artist, and one whose work only seems to be developing in quality and complexity as he gets older. He has always been a capable, competent director. If that seems to be damning him with faint praise, well thats because it is. But his charisma and star quality as an actor has always been so inexorably bound up in his work as a director that it has been difficult in the past to judge his acheivements behind the camera. Would any of the films he has directed and starred in work half so well with any other actor in the lead? Take, for example, Unforgiven, his most critically acclaimed and successful Western as director. It works so well because of the genre baggage Eastwood the actor carries in that familiar craggy face, the expectations an audience has of his archetypal hero in any film with horses and hats and six-shooters. It is obviously a well-shot film, and Eastwood as a director understands that particular genre as well as any practitioner ever has, so that Unforgiven is perfectly paced and dramatically satisfying. But there has always been a slight sense that he was an easy director to respect and admire but a hard one to love. He is too old-fashioned, too workmanlike. He wrested control of The Outlaw Josey Wales from its writer and original director Phil Kauffman and, much as I love the film for its many great moments and its odd communal happy ending, it makes me wonder how much more interesting a film it would be if Kauffman had remained in charge. Of the two directors Unforgiven is dedicated to, Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, it seems clear that Eastwood learned more from the former. His camera always seems to be in the right place in order to advance his narrative, but not necessarily the place which would make for the most interesting or beautiful shot. His editing is clean, his storytelling clear and without any flab. This is all similar to Siegel, who made some of the tightest, tautest, most efficient genre films in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. Leone instead embraced the flab, and saw the beauty in turning his camera upon the quiet moments, saw that sometimes a beautiful composition is enough for its own sake, something that Eastwood never seemed capable of seeing.

Until, perhaps, his elderly years. Eastwood is 76 now, his last three films are perhaps the strongest run in his entire directorial career, and if early reviews of his companion piece to flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, are to believed, this run looks set to continue. In 2003 he directed Mystic River from Denis Lehane's novel, and though in the past his work has not shied away from scrutinising the darker side of life - and of his own screen persona, in films like Tightrope, the Beguiled and even the Dirty Harry series - here his gaze seems fiercer somehow, his attraction to the material more obvious. There is an ambiguity in the conclusion of Mystic River absent from his earlier work, even in the artier films, like Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart. This ambiguity extends forward into Million Dollar Baby, where the audience must decide for itself how it feels about Eastwood's character damning himself for somebody he loves. Flags of Our Fathers is another ambiguous, complex film. It borrows the tools of non-fiction and documentary : much of it is told is voiceover, excerpted from interviews conducted by the son of one of the protagonists. Hence the narrative shifts around, from viewpoint to viewpoint, through different time periods and places and perspectives. This approach is almost essay-like, and indeed Eastwood does appear to be crafting an argument. The ambiguity lies in what he may be arguing. The film obviously works as an anti-War piece, with its Saving Private Ryan-like scenes of young soldiers riddled with bullets and pounded by explosions on beaches and in foxholes, and also in the post-War scenes which follow the fortunes of the shellshocked "Heroes" of Iwo Jima. But it also explicitly celebrates the values of men in combat, friendship and honour and loyalty, and states that men fight and die for their comrades and not their countries.

While we have seen all of this before, very recently in the case of Spielberg's film, and in Band of Brothers, and in The Thin Red Line, Eastwood's approach is fresh and different enough to make it interesting again. Though his battle scenes have the now customary mix of washed out colour and gory blood-spilling, they are not directed with quite the same intuitive genius for action and spectacle evident in Saving Private Ryan or with Malick's lyrical eye for beauty. So the film really comes alive in the quieter scenes, especially the passages set in wartime America, which the young soldiers must tour in an effort to sell Warbonds to fund the conflict. These sequences recall James Jones' "Whistle", the concluding book of the trilogy which included "From Here to Eternity" and "The Thin Red Line". The soldiers face surreal re-enactments - complete with explosions and simulated gunfire - and spontaneous applause in public as they try to deal with the fact that they are still alive while many of their friends are not. Their numb and bemused faces betray them in scene after scene. One of them collapses inward upon himself, drinking and brawling his way through the tour. The insensitivity and ignorance of the general public is vividly portrayed, but Eastwood never takes any cheap shots or makes any easy judgements. His film suggests that history is too complex for such trite summations. One of his characters, though haunted and guilt-ridden by his experiences of the War, raises a family, runs a business, and lives a long life without ever again speaking of it. When he does talk to his son about it, on his deathbed, he recalls swimming with his friends off Iwo Jima, between battles. He chooses to share a rare moment of happiness amidst the bloodshed and slaughter, to concentrate on the human in the middle of so much inhumanity. This is an attitude you feel Eastwood, like Cormac McCarthy, understands perfectly.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

On Football - No. 4 : Mark Hughes

Sometimes you simply cannot avoid football cliches. Sometimes they say it all, so well, that you have to embrace them. Mark Hughes, or Sparky, as Man Utd fans know him, was never a great goalscorer. But he was most definitely a scorer of great goals.
The picture of him above sums it up - he scored a preposterous amount of volleys in his career, among them some astounding, acrobatic scissors kicks, bicycle kicks, and the occasional plain or garden variety volley whilst he was actually facing goal. My first memories of him are for his amazing volleyed goals, one scored for Wales against Spain in a World Cup qualifier (in 1985, I think) where he leapt into the air and scissor-kicked an outrageously high ball into the top corner from the edge of the box:

He saved Man Utd in the 1994 FA Cup final with a volley in the last few minutes:

He also had a propensity for screamers from distance and insanely brave headers. He was my favourite Utd player when I was a little kid, and I was gutted when he was sold to Barcelona in 1986. But that somehow just made it even sweeter when he returned in 1988 and went on to be part of Alex Ferguson's first title - and Double - winning team.

He had joined United straight from school in 1980 and made his debut in 1983. That United team, managed by Ron Atkinson, was a complex beast, full of class and talent with the likes of Arnold Muhren, Paul McGrath and Gordon Strachan, but also a team of big, scary warriors - the likes of Bryan Robson and Kevin Moran. Perhaps their scariest pairing was up-front : Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside. Both big, physical players, both young and technically gifted, both fond of a tackle in a typically bruising celtic manner. Hughes' strengths were obvious even then - he had phenomenal upper-body strength, and his ability to hold up the ball was better than any other forward of his generation. Tough enough to handle any rough treatment from defenders, he was aggressive enough to give it back. Throughout his career, when I read interviews with Centre-halves from various clubs they would name him as their most difficult opponent. Not because he would tear past them with the ball glued to his toe then rifle it into the top corner - though on a good day, he could do that too - but because he would chase them down, tackle them as hard as they tackled him, win more than his share of headers against them and generally never give them any time to relax.

Fans loved him for that, but his eye for a spectacular goal didn't hurt. He scored 37 in his first 89 games before the move to Barcelona, in which time Utd won the FA Cup, in 1985, the same year in which Hughes was voted PFA Young Player of the Year. He failed at Barcelona, his form deserting him, perhaps due to the more patient, technical nature of the Spanish game. Hughes physical gifts and bombastic workrate did not work as well in the Nou Camp as his new teammate Gary Lineker's sneakiness and perfectly-timed runs into the box. It took a loan move to Bayern Munich in 1987-88 for his form and self-belief to return. Alex Ferguson then brought him back to Utd for a club record £1.8 million, a bargain when you consider that he went on to score 82 goals in 256 appearances, win the FA Cup twice more, the League Cup once, and the League itself twice. Most satisfying for him was probably the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1991, when he scored both goals against his old club Barcelona, the second, the winner, a crushing drive from a seemingly impossible angle.

He also won PFA Players Player of the year twice in this period, in 1989 and 1991, and it is the high regard in which he was held by his peers that perhaps speaks most eloquently about what an honest, hard-working player he was. That first title-winning Utd side of Ferguson's was built almost entirely on strong personalities - men with backbone and fighting spirit. Schmeichel, Bruce, Pallister, Robson, Ince, Cantona and Hughes were a fearsome line of footballers, willing to battle for results when the flair they usually deployed wasn't working. Hughes was Cantona's favourite strike partner, willing to do the dirty work and let Eric strut his stuff, but also capable of turning a game on his own with one of those spectacular leaps or diving headers. His distribution was always astute, and he and Cantona seemed capable of reading each others runs and movement perfectly. With Brian McClair as their third striker, that United side was able to outscore most opponents.

Hughes second departure from United, in 1995, was due to his age. He was 32 at the time, and Ferguson wanted to build a new, younger United squad, so he was sold to Chelsea in a clear-out that also included the sale of both Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis. Hughes enjoyed something of a renaissance at Chelsea, scoring 25 goals in 95 games between 1995 and 2000, and helping the club win the FA Cup in 1997 and the Cup Winners Cup in 1998. He then spent a few years wandering from Southampton to Everton to Blackburn, sometimes using his physical presence and experience in central midfield, from where he was probably the key player in the 2002 League Cup final as Blackburn beat Tottenham 2-1.

The newfound maturity and leadership he displayed on the pitch may have grown out of his new role as a manager, as he had taken over as Wales Coach in 1999. He rejuvenated the Welsh squad and brought them closer to a major tournament than at any time since 1986 - when they had narrowly lost out to Scotland - by securing a play-off spot against Russia, which they lost, 1-0 over two legs. Hughes then moved to Blackburn as manager, where his relative success has positioned him firmly for the job of coach at his old stomping ground whenever Alex Ferguson decides he has had enough.

However successful he may be as Coach, his attitude and skill as a player is unforgettable :


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Losing My Edge

I don't really listen to albums anymore. I buy them, occasionally, 2 or 3 at a time. I listen to them once, all the way through, as I import them onto iTunes. Anything thats immediately offensive to me - skits on rap albums, obviously filler songs etc - I don't even bother importing. Then, if its an album by a band thats important to me, I'll make the effort and listen to it on my iPod on my way to work or when I'm at the computer. Since I moved house earlier this year, I haven't even bothered setting up my actual stero yet. So 99% of the time, I listen to iTunes on shuffle. This means that I'll buy an album in March, and by December, the random nature of shuffle has decreed that, of the 8,000+ songs on my computer, I'll only have actually heard 5 of the songs of that album since its been imported. This was the fate of Broken Social Scenes's eponymous album this year. Oddly enough, shuffle also decided that of those 5 songs, I would get to hear one (7/4 (Shoreline)) no less than 5 times. Which means that I know and like that song but the rest of the record is a mystery to me.

I'm too lazy to make playlists unless its for a specific trip or event. I rarely search for a specific song on my iPod so that I can listen to it, but I do spend a lot of time skipping songs when listening to shuffle. So albums have become somewhat meaningless. Songs are the new currency for me, and the strange preferences of shuffle do throw up certain songs at certain times. Particular tracks do seem to recur, and I will get to know one song from an album in a few weeks, while another eight are never even heard, as in the case of Broken Social Scene. This makes any Top 10 list of tracks this year slightly arbitrary, or at least a joint effort, the work of both myself and my iTunes. I should also point out that working where I work means constantly hearing music, some of it good, most of it awful, all of it on a long loop which means I hear some songs dozens of times a day. Most songs cannot stand up to such scrutiny.

Added to that, I listen to more old music than new. I probably buy as many old cds as I do new ones. The album I've listened to most this year was Ghosts of the Great Highway by Sun Kil Moon, and even that came out in 2003. There are always singers and bands and composers and musicians I've heard of but never heard, genres I get a new interest in, songs I hear in films that send me off exploring. That is, after all, one of the great things about music - there is so much uncharted territory personally, so much to hear and discover. I'm getting on a bit, too, theres a disturbing amount of grey in my stubble these days, and a lot of new music leaves me unmoved. I haven't read NME in an age, I don't listen to the radio, I don't watch music tv. I feel, in a way, terribly close to that "2 albums a year" demographic. Only instead of Snow Patrol and James Blunt, my two albums would be Roedelius and The Triffids.

So, obviously, no Top 10 albums list. But top 10 songs, that I can do, though in no particular order :

Phoenix - North
Phoenix write pop songs, usually. But this song is all groove, no hook. Literally. An instrumental that never really goes anywhere, just glides along driven by a sort of krautrock motorik pulse, its the best-sounding song on their last album, which tries far too hard to sound like a poppier Strokes. Here they stretch out and relax, and it suits them so much more.

The Raconteurs - Broken Boy Soldier
I think...I prefer The Raconteurs to the White Stripes. I love Brendan Benson, and Jack White in fun-mode is, well, more fun than his Stripes stuff, for me. My favourite moment here is the intro : the way the first guitar scrapes itself in like fingers on a blackboard, then the throb of the bass, then the little tinkle of the second guitar. But it sounds like a great 70s band to me, which is how its supposed to sound.

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
She obviously has a fantastic voice, and here she uses it over a classic soul backing, a stately paced string arranged ballad of lost love and pain, with her characteristically funny, truthful lyrics ("He kept his dick wet") done justice by her sincere-sounding delivery. "Sincere-sounding" makes it sound dry, but its anything but. She just sounds like she means it, which is a big part of her appeal.

Republic of Loose - Comeback Girl
They sound like the J Geils Band and Little Feat and the Stones circa Emotional Rescue. Whiteboy funk, played by recovering indie boys. This song has a joyous chorus, made up of a falsetto cry, a mumbled plea, and a call-and-response "Yeah", all of it erupting out of a stupidly relaxed one-chord groove.

Mogwai - Auto Rock
The usual Mogwai sound. A bit of piano instead of acoustic guitar, maybe. The guitars build more quietly in the background than usual, and they don't really start to hit until about 3 minutes in, and even then it doesn't have the ferocity you expect from this band when they cut loose. Instead its all focused on that big anthemic melody, and its a great melody. Plus theres that bass drum really pounding tribally all the way through.

Cat Power - The Greatest
The fact that I found it hard to pick between about five songs from this album suggests that its my favourite album of the year, I think. But this, the opening track, with that gentle, graceful mix of strings (playing a melody reminiscent of Moon River) and piano, and Chan Marshall's always lovely voice, is just beautiful. It sounds like it could have been recorded in any year since 1950, and that for me is a good thing.

Fujiya & Miyagi - Photocopier
It sounds a bit like Can, only catchier. With more electronics, and Damo Suzuki actually making his lyrics audible. The chorus goes "And we were just pretending to be Japanese." Some of the other songs on their album sound just like Neu!, too, only catchier. And sometimes a bit like Eno. Only catchier. I love them.

The Lemonheads - Become the Enemy
Evan Dando has a genius for writing a scruffy, catchy pop-punk-country-rock tune like nobody else, when he can be arsed. Except hes only ever really been arsed consistently for one single album over the course of his entire career, and Its a Shame About Ray was 15 years ago. But I suppose I should be grateful that hes still alive at all, and still releasing records. This has that casual brilliance hes always been capable of, and sounds as if he just rolled out of bed one morning and wrote it before he'd even woken up properly. It even rocks, a bit, in that shrugging Lemonheads way, as if to really rock out is a bit uncool. As if they can't be arsed.

Loose Fur - The Ruling Class
Wilco are one of my favourite bands, and anything Jim O'Rourke is involved in is worth listening to, so Loose Fur are a no-brainer for me. But where the first album is a bit of a die-hard-fans-only experiment, the second actually has a fine set of songs. This has a strummed country feel to it, and a slightly eerie whistled refrain. Whistling always sounds eerie to me on records. Young Folks by Peter Bjorn and John includes some creepy whistling. Even that Air song from few years back, Alpha Beta Gaga, which was all whistling - its a bit creepy. Something unhinged about the cheeriness of whistling? Jeff Tweedy has a great rock & roll voice, too, even on a semi-spoken tune like this.

Guillemots - Trains To Brazil
A euphoric summertime song about cold winter mornings, with an amazing horn refrain in place of a chorus.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

"Get stuffed, Thelma"

This article in this week's Observer highlights "50 Lost Movie Classics". Very good most of them are too, if you consider Top Secret! or The Parallax View or The Low Down "lost". Many of them are lost in the sense that they are unavailable on DVD in the UK, but then that is one of the best uses of the Internet. Quality back-catalogue titles - many of them neglected classics and semi-classics, flawed masterpieces and interesting failures - are commonly available on low-price Region 1 editions, and they're only a few mouse-clicks away.

Petulia, directed by Richard Lester in 1968, is the second film on the list, and very much a neglected or lost classic. Many "lost" films gain that status because they are commercial failures upon their release, and this was the fate of Petulia. Lester had a strange, uneven career, and is probably best-remembered today for his two films for the Beatles, A Hard Days Night and Help!, or his later big budget work for the Salkinds on the Musketeers films and Superman 2. But he made a handful of great films, and even his lesser work is interesting, and, particularly in his early career, extremely distinctive visually. After the failure of Petulia, and even more catastrophically, his surreal film of Spike Milligan's post-apocalyptic satire The Bed Sitting Room, Lester turned away from cinema for a few years, and when he returned his vision seemed trained intently on the past, with the exception of the allegorical disaster movie Juggernaut. He made a series of excellent costume spectacles, starting with the Three Musketeers and perhaps peaking with the beautiful Robin & Marian in 1976. But he seemed to lose any appetite for the politically engaged, topical cinema he had created in the 60s, which is a shame considering the quality of films like the Knack, and particularly Petulia.

The film traces the brief affair between Archie Bollen (George C. Scott), a San Francisco doctor in the middle of an emotionally confused divorce, and Petulia Danner (Julie Christie), a young socialite who is troubled by the complications in her marriage to David (Richard Chamberlain). Lester combines this love story with a damning indictment of a changing America in the late 1960s. The film is full of allusions to violence - car accidents, brutal wife-beating, the Vietnam War endlessly playing on television - and the dehumanising aspects of technology. This is a city where supermarkets open 24 hours a day, and become empty temples to consumerism by night, as suggested by the shot of Petulia and Archie pushing round a trolley loaded with food he doesn't want. The motel they visit is automated, as is the greenhouse Archie recieves as a present, with its "lights that work better than the sun".

But the pleasures of Petulia are primarily sensual. Before revealing himself to be a visionary Director, Nic Roeg was an amazing Director of Photography - his work on Far From the Madding Crowd and Farenheit 451 being the best examples - and, on Petulia, he and Lester worked together to give the film a unique look and style. Its pallette is composed of warm but luminous colours, and since many of the scenes were shot on location in Haight & Ashbury, the background is always vivid and interesting. Lester makes several references to Hitchcock's use of San Francisco in Vertigo, but stylistically, his work seems more influenced by the French New Wave, with his jump-cuts and elliptical editing, and Roeg's compositions often finding characters framed by objects, and even the city itself seen through the lines of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The story is told with the aid of many flashbacks and flash-forwards, and scenes are interrupted by brief snatches of scenes from earlier or later in the narrative. Sometimes they seem to suggest the characters are being jolted by memories or premonitions, but they are also used as thematic signifiers so that Lester can juxtapose two images, as in the moment where Archie flinches at the violence at a Roller Derby because it reminds him of finding Petulia's battered body in his apartment, and the film seems to be making a connection between the prevalence of violence in modern culture and its influence on personal behavior. These flash-cuts also serve to emphasise the theme of miscommunication, as Archie and Petulia struggle to get through to each other throughout the film. Indeed, the only time the rhythm of the editing really slows down is in the scene between Petulia and David near the film's end, where a reconciliation seems possible.

John Barry had worked with Lester on the Knack, and his score for Petulia, recently sampled by the Cinematic Orchestra, is one of his most romantic and moving. Indeed, the film itself is extremely moving. It starts off seeming a little dated, with its cuts to Scott wandering around a psychedelic club and Christie's determinedly kooky behaviour, but both actors give tremendous performances. Scott, always slightly ill-at-ease in a suit, his bullish form too reined in, allows some melancholy and vulnerability to drip into the fierceness and sourness his screen presence always provides. Christie was perhaps at the apex of her spectacular beauty in 1968, but she was best in roles that asked her to suggest some darkness beneath the sunniness of her looks, and here she reveals a depth and complexity many of her pin-up contemporaries could never match. The way their relationship stumbles and finally fades away as they both lie to themselves, and the final shot of Petulia's face as she speaks Archie's name, are full of sadness and regret. While certain aspects of the film possibly do initially seem dated, they also suggest that the film captures the time and place it records with a commendable precison and authenticity, and the emotional impact of the story and performances combine to render such criticisms irrelevant.

That Observer article suggests that if you liked Point Blank or Don't Look Now, then you should see Petulia. Don't Look Now is obviously listed for the Roeg-Christie connection and the flash-forwards, which that film perfected with its famous sex scene. But Point Blank is a more pertinent comparison, another film by an English director ( while Lester may be an American, he was definitely Anglicised culturally by 1968) which offers an acute criticism of a Californian culture in the late 60s, another film heavily influenced by European cinematic modes, and another film with a healthy dose of pessimism and ambiguity in its bones. Also, another film only available, at the time of writing, on Region 1 dvd...

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

On Football - No. 3 : Liam Brady

Liam Brady may well be the greatest Irish footballer ever. There is a small pool of contenders for that title, perhaps four once we exclude George Best on the grounds that he was from Northern Ireland, and not the Republic.
There is Liam Brady, and there are Roy Keane, Paul McGrath and Johnny Giles. Brady was probably the most skilled of the four, perhaps the only true magician to ever play in the Ireland team. Gifted with a sublime left foot, Brady was a creative midfielder, a Number 10 who actually played wearing Number 7, and the talisman for Ireland, Arsenal and Juventus in the late 70s and early 80s.

He went to the same school as me (as did the current Irish Prime Minister) but when I attended, the rumour always was that Brady, easily the pupil's favourite past-pupil, had been expelled. It was a Christian Brothers School, very seriously G.A.A (meaning it enthusiastically promoted Gaelic games and tried to dissuade pupils from playing "English" games like soccer), and back in the 60s and 70s, that may even have resulted in disciplinary measures being taken against anyone who preferred to play football over Gaelic Football or hurling. But Dublin is a city in love with football, and in the 60s and 70s it produced a stream of players who thrived once they had moved to England. Brady came from a strong football family - his brothers played for QPR and Millwall, and his uncle had played - and was spotted by an Arsenal scout playing for St. Kevins Boys, a Dublin schoolboy institution. He signed for Arsenal in 1970, aged 15, and made his first-team debut at 17.

His game was built on his passing. He had a lovely first touch, and he was one of those midfielders who never seemed rushed, who always seemed to find himself in space, and who rarely gave the ball away. His long passing was as good as his short, and altough he obviously favoured his left foot, he did not really have a weak foot - he could pass and shoot with his right too. His skill demanded that every move passed through him and so he dominated games. Irish players generally possess a combatativeness and hunger in the challenge that helps them settle quickly in the British game, and Brady was no different. Though he had a slight build, he was sharp in the tackle, nipping the ball off opponents and covering a lot of ground for a ball-playing midfielder. He was the best player in an otherwise mediocre Arsenal side between 1974 and 1980, and was voted PFA player of the year in 1979, the same year in which Arsenal won the FA Cup, beating Man Utd 3-2 in a famously thrilling final. Brady, or "Chippy" to his teammates, started the move that led to the winning goal, of course.

He is also fondly remembered by Arsenal fans for this goal, scored against Spurs in a 5-0 win, typical of his class and mastery, but also illustrating his nice tackling :

But he grew tired of what he perceived as Arsenal's lack of ambition. In 1980, Arsenal played Juventus in the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup, and Brady enjoyed what he later called his greatest ever game in Turin, where the Italians were defeated 1-0. In the first leg at Highbury, Marco Tardelli had been sent off for repeatedly fouling Brady. Arsenal lost on penalties to Valencia in the final, but Juve had been impressed enough to buy him for £600,000 and make him one of their first foreign signings after the Italian game was opened up to imports. Brady had almost joined Man Utd for £1.5 million, in what would have been a British record transfer, but he felt he needed a new challenge beyond the English game.

At the time it was unusual for British or Irish players to go abroad, but it is indicative of Brady's class that a club of Juventus' stature was interested in him and of his intelligence that he was so eager to go. The only recent English player to succeed on the continent had been Kevin Keegan, who had led Hamburg to a Bundesliga title and European Cup Final. But the German game resembled the English game in its pace and physicality, whereas the Italian game was slower and more tactical. Brady may have suspected that given the technical quality of his style, he would fit in perfectly.

He quickly became Juventus' key player and pivotal to them winning the Serie A title for two consecutive seasons, scoring 13 goals in his 57 games. Near the end of the 1982 season, there were rumours that Michel Platini was to be the clubs big Summer signing, and given that he played in the same position as Brady - and even had a similar style - and that his presence would mean there were more than the Italian limit of 2 foreigners at the club, Brady feared for his future. He was informed that he would be sold in the close-season, but even with this knowledge, Brady took the crucial penalty in the final game of that season away to Cantanzaro and Juventus won 1-0, pipping Fiorentina to the title by a single point.
Brady moved on, first to newly-promoted Sampdoria (82-84), then to Inter Milan (84-86) and Ascoli (86-87). He finally returned to London to play for West Ham until injury forced him to retire in 1990. In Italy, he is remembered as one of the best foreign imports ever to play in the country, and one of the few players from the British Isles to succeed in the Italian game.

He was unlucky to play for Ireland during a long poor spell for the teams international fortunes. Despite the quality of players Ireland exported to the English game, the Irish team was forever narrowly missing out on qualification to the Major tournaments, generally at the hands of a bigger Football Nation. Twice in the 1970s, once with Brady in the side, Ireland were closely eliminated by the USSR. For the 1982 World Cup Qualifiers, Irelands group included Platini's France, a Holland in the process of rebuilding, a young and dangerous Belgian team and Cyprus. But this was possibly the greatest ever Irish team in terms of sheer talent, with players from most of England's major clubs represented, including the likes of David O'Leary, Frank Stapleton, Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath, Mark Lawrenson and Tony Galvin, all of whom played for either Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool or Spurs. Ireland lost two matches in that group, one of those a 1-0 defeat in Brussels when a goal was controversially disallowed, the other in Paris. The final match was against France at Lansdowne Road and Ireland won an amazing game 3-2, only to miss out on qualification to the French on goal difference. That French side would reach the semi-finals in Spain and two years later became European Champions.

When success finally did come to the Irish team, Brady was reaching the end of his career. He played in the qualifiers for the 1988 European championships, but his relationship with new manager Jack Charlton was strained. Charlton liked his Ireland side to play a pressure game, pumping long balls directly towards tall strikers and constantly harrassing the opposition when they had the ball. It was ugly, but it worked against continental teams who were used to being given time and space to play their football. But it wasted Brady's talent for moving the ball fluidly and imaginitively and for bringing his teammates into the play. Nonetheless, Brady was too great a talent for Charlton to ignore, and he played in the qualifiers until his way with a sharp tackle got him sent off in the final game against Bulgaria, earning him a suspension for the first two games of the tournament. As it happened, Brady was injured playing for West Ham shortly afterwards, and his injury would have ruled him out anyway. He played his last game for Ireland in a friendly against West Germany in 1989, before qualification for the 1990 World Cup had been secured. There was always the sense that Charlton was glad to see the back of him, and indeed he substituted him early in that match, for which Brady bitterly resented him. Its a horrible irony - and not unlike that of George Best with Northern Ireland - that Ireland's greatest ever talent never got to play for his country in the greatest tournament.

But he was the country's most successful footballer before Roy Keane, and the first to succeed on the Continent, where so many others from the British game would fail. He also scored this winning goal, his ninth in his 72 internationals, against Brazil in Dublin in 1987. I was at that match, and even then there was a sense that he was the best we had ever had, and maybe would ever have, and the crowd celebrated this goal accordingly :


Monday, December 11, 2006

Screengrab - Elysium

That is the opening shot from Gladiator.
Now, I like Gladiator. I like it very much, in fact. It is beautifully put together, for Ridley Scott is never happier than when hes creating vivid, fascinating worlds for his films, whether its a future L.A. in Blade Runner, the Tokyo Underworld in Black Rain or Jerusalem during the Crusades in Kingdom of Heaven. Gladiator builds its worlds with care and beauty and attention to detail - the three settings : Germania, Northern Africa and Imperial Rome, all have their own athmosphere and look, each captured evocatively by Scott's camera. Russell Crowe is possibly the only leading man in modern American cinema with the machismo, charisma and virility to truly convince in such a setting, with such a narrative weight upon his shoulders. Just consider the failures of the likes of Brad Pitt, Colin Farrell and Orlando Bloom in similar enterprises since. The supporting cast of mainly European actors all chew scenery admirably and the action scenes are as spectacular and visceral as the genre demands.

But the script is a little too by-the-numbers, a little too Focus-grouped for Gladiator to be utterly satisfying. Everything occurs just as we expect it to, in the expected order, because we have seen this type of film before, and that is the way such things will go. I had this opinion - pleased but ever so slightly underwhelmed - after my very first viewing of Gladiator, and its remained through several subsequent screenings. I had been anticipating it more than I do most blockbusters after seeing the screenshots and trailer, after all, because I loved old Sword & Sandal Epics like El Cid and Spartacus.
I saw it with a couple of friends - we all took the day off work, in fact, in recognition of how much we were looking forward to it. Saw it in a half-empty cinema, just the way we wanted.

For the first 20 seconds or so, I was thrilled by it, it was exactly the film I wanted it to be.
Thats more or less the time we stay with that hand brushing through those golden stalks of grain. In those 20 seconds, Gladiator promises to be another film entirely, a poetic, lyrical film. Obviously the trailers had shown bits of battles, legions, swords, tigers etc, and I was expecting and even awaiting them. But those 20 seconds made me wonder if this film could combine the thrill that such a huge spectacle delivered with the more intimate and cerebral pleasures which that opening shot suggested.

It could not. Soon after it begins, Gladiator turns into a Classical Saving Private Ryan, and never looks back at that opening shot, even when Scott revisits it later on. His later attempts at poetry and evoking Maximus' inner life are far more MTV than that single opening shot, which is a sort of daydream of home the General is enjoying prior to the imminent battle. Later dreams all have nightmarish edges, meaning Scott uses filters and visual effects. In fact, he comes closer to echoing the sensibility of that hand in the grain in Kingdom of Heaven, a film which suffers narratively because Scott seems intent on indulging himself aesthetically throughout. The film that had really delivered the combination of intelligent and sensual intimacy together with sheer spectacle I was seeking was in actual fact Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line, released two years before Gladiator. I love The Thin Red Line, and perhaps I wanted to recapture the euphoria that my first viewing of it had brought me with Gladiator, and just felt a little betrayed by Scott after that opening shot?

Not that it matters. I enjoy Gladiator - its something of a comfortable, guilty pleasure - and I love that shot, too. But I have to remind myself that a movie which took its lead from such a moment would never feature a protagonist whose catchphrase to his Men is "Strength & Honour." And, cheesy as it is, I like that about Maximus, and the film.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The toppermost of the poppermost

Its early, I know. There are still a few films to limp into cinemas this year. I'll probably see Perfume and Deja Vu, but only Flags of Our Fathers and Happy Feet look like they have any real pedigree. By which I mean directors I know and trust to some extent. So, if either of those stun me I'll amend this list. But I doubt they will.

A note : these are all films that received a UK cinema release for the first time in 2006. If I had included revivals then Jean-Pierre Melvilles L'Armee des Ombres and Michaelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger would both be in the top 5.

1. The New World
Terrence Malick makes absolutely unique films. Beautiful, rhapsodic tone-poems about nature and innocence and society, always with a philosophical basis. That makes them sound terribly boring, and some people think them so, but Malick is technically a great film-maker, and his skill with the medium instead makes his films strangely gripping. His style is much imitated (by the likes of David Gordon Green, for whom Malick produced Undertow), but nobody can really replicate it. The New World is generally shot on handheld camera, and that camera - as in all of Malick's films - will often seemingly aimlessly glide away from the action to observe a bird or the wind in the grass. Indeed, the first noise on the soundtrack is birdsong. Malick wants to immerse us into this time and place, and he lets it seep into the audience - sound first, then vision. He is as great a builder of worlds as Kubrick or Ridley Scott, and it seems as if he creates these worlds three-dimensionally so that he can then capture the moments inbetween the more obvious dramatic beats.
That is why The New World features a couple of ferocious battles between a Native American tribe and the English Settlers, but why it gazes far longer upon the awakening of John Smith (Colin Farrell) to the beauty of the harmonious lifestyle of the tribe who have captured him while he also falls in love with Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher). That the film then becomes the story of Pocahontas' spiritual and emotional journey is key to Malick's trust in theme and meaning over narrative. Kilcher is amazing, luminous and magnetic, with Farrell and Christian Bale offering two distinctly different versions of a leading man performance over the course of the film, Farrell a brute unable to cope with the feelings the girl and her world stir in him, Bale a more sensitive and mature man who watches and helps her become a woman and mother.
It is difficult to overstate just how beautiful this film is. Emmanuel Luzbeki is one of the worlds leading cinematographers and he and Malick shot the entire film without the aid of artificial lighting. Malick has always been obsessed with natural light - Days of Heaven was shot almost entirely at twilight, or Magic Hour, and is resultingly perhaps the single most beautiful film ever made, and Nick Nolte has spoken of the lengths to which Malick was willing to go on The Thin Red Line to only shoot late in the evening in a specific kind of golden light* - and here that obsession combined with an always subjective, always mobile camera conjures up a vivid and alien world. The opening passage, wherein the Native tribe rush along the edge of the forest to see the English ships arriving in the bay and we feel a sense of their mutual excitement and fear, all cut to the rising swell of Wagner's Rheingold, is perhaps the single best moment of cinema I saw all year.

2. Miami Vice
In many ways, Miami Vice is the ultimate Michael Mann film. Here he perfects the digital photography he experimented with in Ali and Collateral. Here he remakes some of his earlier work (the plot is based upon a couple of separate episodes of the Original series, but elements of it were also used in his Robbery Homicide Division series from a few years ago). Here he revisits some of his recurring themes - men defined by what they do, the impossibility of true human connection in the modern world, the relativity of good and evil in terms of law and order...Here he also returns to his favourite visual motifs, such as man pensive in a wash of blue by the ocean and the harsh beauty of the modern American city by night.
Mann has dealt with this world so often that now he is merely refining his ideas and sharpening his details. There is the sense in Miami Vice of an artist working almost in shorthand. Dialogue and exposition are minimal, spoken realistically and offhandedly. Cliched situations are elevated by the intensity of the writing, direction and playing - the undercover cop falling in love with one of his targets, a shootout in a shipyard. The details are always telling and the soul of the film is in the tiniest moments. In a stylistic choice evoking Malick, Mann's camera occasionally drifts away from the obvious focus of a scene to dwell on something else entirely - Crockett gazing out a window at the ocean while his squad turn the screw on an underworld contact, or the feet of children racing past a car-wheel on the street outside a Havana Bar.
Mann is possibly the finest stylist working in modern cinema, and he puts sequences together better than anybody else. His camera moves so elegantly and unostentatiously and some of his compositions are extremely daring - he will often begin a scene with an abstraction rather than an establishing shot and loves to fill the foreground of a shot with the dark block of a shoulder. He is obsessed with surface - buildings, clothes, cars, weaponry - because he understands that in the modern world, surface often is substance, appearance is all. His action scenes are unparalleled, realistic, coherent and thrillingly visceral.
Aside from the thematic and stylistic aspects, Miami Vice is his first film since The Last of the Mohicans to focus on a love story, and as such, its his most emotional film in some time. His decision to pull away from the procedural elements of his narrative and devote a large chunk of the film to the doomed romance between two characters is a bravura one, and it pays divedends at the climax, which has a hefty and adult sense of loss and pain.
And, oh yeah, he shoots skies like nobody else :

3. Children Of Men
Emmanual Luzbeki went straight from working on The New World with Malick to working on Children of Men with his old friend and countryman, Alfonso Cuaron. Again, this film was shot without any artificial lighting, and it captures the specific steely grey light of a Northern European autumn as well as any film I have ever seen. Its also probably the most moving of any of these films, possibly because it deals with explicitly contemporary, topical issues, but also because the emotional journey of its protagonist, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is from despair masked by cynicism to absolute ardent hope and belief in a cause of sorts.
The future dystopia portrayed by the film is a thinly veiled comment on the world of today - a world ruled by fear of immigration and asylum seekers, fear of terrorism and crime, and fear of disease both animal and human. Its proximity to our world makes the small changes, which are always in the background, and never really lingered upon, all the more jarring and convincing. This is a future that looks like now and feels like now, only - in the tiniest details - it doesn't. In this world, there are rickshaws on London streets, holograms on buses and buildings, and euthanasia kits for sale. The odd surreal piece of imagery - for instance, the giant inflatable pig outside Battersea Power station, just like on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals - just makes the rest seem more mundane and believable. The plot, once it kicks in, is a chase thriller, as a series of characters pursue Faron and Kee, a refugee who is miraculously pregnant in a world where the last child was born nearly 20 years before, as they try to get out of a Britain which has become a fortress.
Cuaron and Luzbeki shoot the majority of the film in a series of long steadicam, dolly and tracking shots, including a magnificent battle scene in a refugee camp at the climax, and a brilliant and shocking attack on a car in a Forest. Owen is the best hes ever been. Human and fallible, but always heroic. The rest of the cast is perfect, particularly Michael Caine as Faron's old cartoonist friend, and comic relief, Jasper. The film also has a great soundtrack, featuring both Classical pieces by John Taverner and a series of truly eclectic pop and rock songs by the likes of King Crimson, Roots Manuva, Aphex Twin, the Kills and John Lennon.
All of the best dystopian stories are British - 1984, Brave New World, a Clockwork Orange, Brazil - and Children of Men is worthy of inclusion on such a list.

4. United 93
What a brave, unsentimental, clear-eyed and gripping piece of work this film is. And what a great director Paul Greengrass is becoming. His documentary-style shooting gives every second a "you-are-there" immediacy which in this instance is decidedly sickening. You don't want to be there. The tension -from the very first moments of the film, a serene aerial shot of New York streets at night, oblivious to the threat from the sky - is awful and never really lets up. The first 20 minutes, when the passengers board the flight, are so mundane and casual, yet so loaded with our knowledge of where this story must take us that it is utterly riveting. You cannot deny what is going to happen, you cannot comfort yourself with the fact that it is fiction. The actors, including many of the Air Traffic controllers playing themselves, are flawless, and there is never a false note.
There is no sympathy extended to the hijackers, and yet there is an even-handed acknowledgement that they were human beings too, and that they were frightened and nervous. None of the passengers is made too heroic - rather they act as real people might, arguing their way to an agreement, terrified and yet determined.
I left the cinema after seeing this film with a headache and a pain in my stomach. I say that as a recommendation. It isn't depressing, rather it is strangely exhilarating - the defiance and struggle of the passengers on Flight 93 seems reassuringly, vitally human, and that is hopeful in its way. They die fighting for their lives, these first citizens of the post-9/11 world, and this film makes that seem an important example of the rest of us.
That it does so with such emotional power and respect for the reality of the event it depicts is tribute to Greengrass' skill as a director and sureness of touch. As much as any film-maker working today, he makes films about the way we live now, the world that we live in, and what it does to us. Even a classy piece of pulp like The Bourne Supremacy is transformed by his sensibility until it seems somehow relevant in its portrayal of a modern, digital world, shrunken by travel and technology, where Americans are touched by Russian politics in Goa and Berlin. In United 93, as in Bloody Sunday, it is obvious that Greengrass is perfectly at home dealing with real events, indeed, is inspired by such a challenge.
I can't even really imagine what he would have done to Watchmen, to which he was attached for a while...

5. The Squid & the Whale
Noah Baumbach is a sometime collaborator of Wes Anderson (they wrote "the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" together) and one of the curiosities of this lovely little family-comedy is how it deals with some of the same issues Anderson handled so differently in The Royal Tenenbaums. Baumbach is far more of a realist than Anderson, and his characters are more consistently human and credible than Anderson's quirky, often two-dimensional creations have been (in his last two films, at least). His visual style is casual, handheld and verite where Anderson's is visually overloaded, every frame filled to its edges with information and design of one type or another.
The comedy in The Squid & the Whale is often painful because it grows out of these real characters and is observed flatly and unjudgementally by Baumbach's camera. Jeff Daniels is fantastic and utterly without vanity as Bernard, the father of two young boys in 80s Brooklyn - based on Baumbach and his brother - who are struggling to cope with their parent's separation. Bernard is a recognisable, everyday monster, insecure and petty, unable to function properly as a father due to his own failures as a writer. The sadness in the film, beyond the low-key sadnesses of the elder of the two boys (Walt, played by Jesse Eisenberg) and his early and precisely captured fumblings with a girlfriend, come from Bernard's inability to change or even realise that there is any need to change. The final scene between Walt - who is finally seeing his father's flaws and beginning to value the bond he once shared with his mother - and Bernard, is a sort of encapsulation of how the film works emotionally. Bernard is a little more vulnerable than usual, caught reading Elmore Leonard in a hospital bed. Walt is willing to give his father a chance, but Bernard, even now, cannot change. His personality prevents it, and Walt instead turns to his mother and a memory of childhood with her.
Baumbach can write a great comic exchange - his directorial debut, Kicking & Screaming, is full of them- and he evokes the 1980s subtly and deftly. What is most impressive, apart from the uniformly excellent acting, is how well Baumbach mixes comedy and drama. This story is full of sadness and regret, but this film is wonderfully funny. The way Walt is starting to resemble Bernard with his lofty pronouncements on culture is perfectly captured, and their rivalry for the affections of Lili (Anna Paquin) is well-drawn. The psychological effect of the separation upon Frank (Owen Cline), the younger of the boys, is sensitively traced, but probably best summed up in one line he spits at his father : "Suck my dick, ass-man".

6. Three Times
Three love stories set in three different historical periods with the same two actors playing the lovers in each segment. Except nothing much happens. Its not even really clear if anybody ever really loves anybody else, not in the way it would be made clear in most forms of narrative cinema, at least. But then Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou is not like any other director.
Three Times is his most accessible, commercial film, starring as it does two Asian stars in Chen Chang and Qi Shu.
But it is a commercial film that deals with the minutae of the behaviour of people in love and how culture, politics and society affects that, and indeed all interpersonal relations. A film about disconnection and failed communication and the toll that it can take. A film that plays with the cinematic conventions of romance, and relies mainly on a kind of quiet poetry for its beauty and charm.
The first story, set in 1966 and scored to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and Demis Roussous' "Rain & Tears" follows the shy semi-courtship of a soldier on leave and a poolhall girl. He writes her a letter. She moves to another job. He searches for her. They eat together. His leave ends and he has to go. This is perhaps the most romantic and the most plot-heavy of the three segments, and the second segment, set in 1911, is perhaps the saddest and most beautiful. During the Japanese occupation, a patriotic Taiwanese diplomat visits a courtesan and they seem to develop strong feelings for one another. However he cannot afford to buy her for himself and she cannot afford to leave her profession. The third story, set in 2005, follows a bisexual rock star and her affair with a photographer.
Hou plays the three stories off one another for thematic reasons, contrasting the varying degrees of social, political and sexual freedom in each of the eras depicted. The first story is shot in an evocatively nostalgic golden light and scored by vintage pop, and is the warmest of the three. The second replaces pop music with a traditional song played by the Courtesan, and is entirely without dialogue, inter-title cards relaying the characters words to the audience. This segment is also set entirely in a couple of small rooms, lending every motion and facial expression of its two main characters an unusual and shattering weight. The third story is stylistically more modern, capturing Taipei's chaos, the industrial world at its starkest and the hollowness modern life and freedoms can lead to. Here the music is a song the girl performs at one of her gigs, and the city is a dark and confusing warren, the plot a drifting absence.
The cumulative effect of the three stories is moving and fascinating, and thought-provoking in that it demands you reconsider every aspect of the film and the ideas it examines. Aside from that, its a beautiful film.

7. Borat
What is there to say about Borat that hasn't already been said by a thousand people?
Its incredibly funny. I think I laughed more than I ever have at any film I have ever seen before. I was laughing to varying degrees more or less from start to finish. Giggling, then guffawing, snorting, whimpering, chewing on my fist, doing a throaty chortle I do when I'm trying not to laugh too hard, then guffawing again, braying occasionally. My face began to hurt halfway through from the unfamiliar sensation of making a laugh-face for too long.
And it was serious, obviously, in Cohen's satirical intentions and skewering of American society.
But forget that, for possibly the funniest moment is the naked fight scene, the basest, crudest joke in the entire film ("My moustache still tastes of your testes."). Or maybe its the scene where Borat patronises the gypsy at the yard-sale ("Gypsy, give me your tears. If you do not give them to me, I will take them from you."). Or perhaps the scene where Borat flings dollars at cockroaches believing them to be shape-shifting Jews.
I could go on forever listing contenders for funniest moment ("Get out of my face or I'll break your fucking jaw").
Did I mention its funny?

8. Zidane : A 21st Century Portrait
Obviously, I love football. Would I recommend this film to somebody who doesn't like - or maybe even hates - football? Well, yes I would. Because its a simply stunning piece of cinema. Shot by 16 separate cameras in real time over the course of a single match (Real Madrid vs Villareal, April 23rd 2005), all following Zinedine Zidane, probably the greatest player of his generation, this is as much art installation as film. But it is very definitely a film. Director of Photography Darius Khondji has worked with the likes of David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Juenet in the past, and his work is generally visually opulent. That is also the case here, where Zidane is generally shot against the black of the night, sweat gleaming under floodlights, or in motion against the blur of the crowd.
At half-time we take a break from Zizou and the film turns its gaze outwards to consider other events that occurred on that day, including the note that the directors son had a fever in the morning. This almost cosmic dimension is strikingly in keeping with the quotations from Zidane himself which scroll across the screen during the match, his reflections on how he feels when he plays, how he remembers it, what it means to him.
Mainly, he waits. Strolling, jogging, ocassionally sprinting, he maintains space around himself, and waits for the ball. Most of his touches are incredibly brief - a single touch and he has ferried the ball on to a teammate. He is fouled, he jostles for the ball. He calls for it, he points and gestures. The faces of other celebrated players move into his orbit and across the screen - Riquelme, Beckham, Roberto Carlos. In a decisive moment he recieves the ball, dribbles a little, casually steps over it and, having shaken his marker with that single instant of magic, crosses for Ronaldo to score an equalising goal. Eventually he loses his temper - unaccountably - launches himself at another player and is sent off.
If the single most important aspect of football is the appreciation and utilisation of space, then Zidane manages to become a film which is not about football by ignoring this. Zidane's actions on the pitch are decontextualised because we never really know where he is on the field in relation to the ball, or what is happening elsewhere. The camera never leaves him, generally trained to his impassive face. When Villareal take the lead in the match, we are somewhat obliquely shown this via a shot of a camera monitor. At one point, Zidane chats to Roberto Carlos and breaks out in a huge grin, and so hypnotic is the film that this moment feels almost like an action scene.
Zidane also features a great soundtrack by Mogwai and some brilliant sound design. The opening of the film pulls slowly away from the pixels of a monitor showing the game, the sound a mix of electronic burble and some muted Spanish commentary. Suddenly we cut to Zidane on the pitch and the roar of 70,000 supporters in the Bernabeau. Its an awesome, spine-tingling moment, whether you like football or not.

9. Little Children
Its always awkward when a novel you love is adapted into a film. But writer Tom Perrotta worked on the screenplay for Little Children with director Todd Field, and so you would imagine that the film would be true to his vision and sensibility. But somehow it isn't. His book is warmer and funnier than Field's chilly, ironic film. Does this suggest that Field has his own, surprisingly strong voice as a director? The tone here is reminiscent of that in his debut, In the Bedroom. Except here he is obviously more confident, not afraid to veer his story off on long tangents as his narrator describes the interior lives of supporting characters. Stylistically, too , he is braver, his film full of arresting compositions and extended tracking shots.
The setting and subject are familiar from many American films - suburbia and its dark side. A recently released sex offender returns to live with his mother in the same neighbourhood where two bored and frustrated stay-at-home parents begin a passionate affair. From this, a strangely epic but intimate study of character and society is fashioned.
Field is more careful and precise than other directors have been with similar material. He is obviously a big disciple of Stanley Kubrick (for whom he acted in Eyes wide Shut), and his style and voice owe a great deal to Kubrick's mature mode. The cold eye cast upon all of his characters is entirely Kubrickian, and means that the comedy of the novel is squeezed into an altogether darker, more tragic place.
Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play the lovers, and both give great performances, Winslet perhaps better than she has ever been before. Their work means that the characters have a depth uncommon even in the most serious of contemporary cinematic drama - they are three-dimensional, not always likeable, but always believable. Both characters are immature - the title refers to more than just their actual offspring. The love story element then becomes moving, and is matched by the darker story of the sex-offender and his mother.
Field has become, in the space of two films, an interesting and distinctive voice in american cinema and it will be fascinating to see where his career goes from here. The earnestness of both his films suggests he could become a Richard Brooks figure, always searching for the next "important" book to adapt, but there is an intelligance and craft in those films that promises he is capable of much more.

10. A Bittersweet Life
I love action films. Of course I do. It was the genre I first really loved, and when I say that I mean the really bad stuff- Steven Seagal, Van Damme, Chuck Norris, utter crap - as well as the good. A good action film can still rock me to this day, delivering a jolt of adrenaline no other genre can match, no matter how well-crafted or intelligent or beautiful. So this last place was up for grabs between a handful of action films I loved this year - Casino Royale, Crank and District 13 among them - but the one that has stayed with me the longest is A Bittersweet Life, Kim Ji-woon's delirious gangster revenge thriller. I loved Old Boy, loved Sympathy For Mr Vengeance even more, liked The Host quite a bit. Korea seems to be where the best pure genre cinema emanates from at the moment, with directors making stylish, exciting films with an unmistakeably Korean identity already established.
A Bittersweet Life is visually wonderful and its action scenes are brilliantly excessive and taut, its plot simple and direct. But it features the usual Korean mix & match style, where gory thriller become zany comedy becomes love story becomes requiem for lone hero with a code. The Koreans just don't recognise the rules of genre cinema the way we are used to, which makes their films gripping and always exciting.
Lee Byung-Hun is an iconic leading man, recalling a Melville hero in his crisp suit in the films first act, which leads his descent to shambling bloody wreck more pathos than the character perhaps deserves. The films ambiguous ending serves to intriguingly question the reality of all we have seen before, and also beautifully frames the heroes loneliness and internal conflict. This is a playful film, despite its ferocity, playful in its approach to genre, its often slapstick humour juxtaposed with horrible violence, its solemn opening voice-over relaying a "grasshopper" style parable we may struggle to find relevance in.
But really, I loved it for its high style and its fight scenes, especially the endless battle royale between the hero and his intended executioners.

Other notables that almost made this list : The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Munich, Brokeback Mountain, Requiem, Junebug, Crank, The Host, Keane, A Cock and Bull Story, Grizzly Man, Red Road, District 13, Syriana, Jarhead, The Inside Man, Casino Royale and Harsh Times.

*''So I watched Terry. He would start shooting the scene, but watch the sky. And about six, when the sky was just right, he'd say "That's enough of this scene, let's revisit the scene we shot the other day. Nothing will match, but that's fine " He was finishing the scenes in golden light. He couldn't tell the studio he was only going to shoot in golden light, they would have freaked, so he would hold these scenes off. The actor didn't get to do what he wanted to do, John Toll didn't get to photograph it the way he wanted to, and Terry didn't get to shoot it as he'd written it. All those elements were thrown out, and the only new element was this light that's what it was about.'' Nolte to Time Out, Jan 19 2003

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