Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shuffle : Three-Quarters Blind Eyes/Found a Little Baby

I love when songs begin with a count in.
"One, two, three..."
The Ramones specialised in count-ins, obviously relishing the aura of lucky amatuers they provided. Hundreds of songs begin with count-ins, in varying tones and deliveries and with vastly different effects. But possibly my favourite count-in is from "David Watts" by the Kinks, where we hear a few seconds of studio hum before the band kicks in. Count-ins let you picture the band as if caught in a strobe light in the instant before they begin playing, and the beginning of "David Watts" lets us picture the entire studio. There is a hiss, the tapes running, the amps alive and crackling, then somebody - undoubtedly a technician, probably the producer - says "This is the master, guys", the last few words barely audible under other voices. Ray Davies almost cuts him off to say "Nice and smooth", his voice relaxed and friendly, before someone else comes in with a slightly compressed "One-Two-Three-Four" and then we're off.

Liam Hayes of Plush understands the evocative power of a count-in. He just does them his own way. "Three-Quarters Blind Eyes" begins with the near-bum note of a bass string thrumming, then Hayes intones a sleepy "One, two.." and leaves it hanging for a second of silence before the ringing guitar comes in. He even undercuts his half-hearted count with a skittering noise, either clumsy tape-splice or drumsticks clicking together. This is the Hayes aesthetic: shambolic, always sounding as if everything is about to crash to a halt, but wrapped around the most glorious songs.

The Double A-side single including these two songs was the first release from Plush, and Hayes came fully-formed. Reviews instantly invoked the names of Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach and Carole King. Hayes' songwriting has that sort of classic feel, full of craft but also with great moments of heart-stopping beauty. If he reminds me of anybody then its Harry Nilsson, just as talented but slightly wild and ill-disciplined. Plush songs are so hook-laden that his verses sound like choruses, and yet they never feel lazy or obvious. The melodies are all his own and he augments them with a sensibility in thrall both to his Brill Building idols and the world of US Indie Rock in which he has worked as a session musician for the likes of Will Oldham. Hence the swinging riff that carries "Three-Quarters Blind Eyes" along is always frayed and rough around the edges, the drums kick in with no little uncertainty during the opening bars, and Hayes' vocals are drawled, and often battling with the rising guitar line during the chorus. Much of the vocal line for "Found A Little Baby", a more polished, classic-sounding song, is sort of hummed/coo-ed rather than sung, to beautiful effect. The lyrics shimmer in and out of the songs, sometimes difficult to decipher in Hayes' voice amidst such big arrangements. "Whats so bad about dying?" he asks in "Found a Little Baby", and his only answer is that hummed chorus and the title line.

Hayes is a classically trained multi-instrumentalist from Chicago, who gigged around that city and lent his talent as guitarist and pianist to various indie bands in the early 90s, leading to enduring associations with Yo La Tengo and Jim O' Rourke. He toured with Will Oldham's Palace before the double A-side single under discussion here was released in 1994 on his hometown Indie label, Drag City, and received a lot of praise from critics, particularly in the UK, where "Found A Little Baby" was named Single of the Week by the NME. Hayes got a band together with the intention of recording a follow-up album in the same vein. Two years later he was still working on that album, but getting no closer to being happy with what he heard. So he dismissed the band and recorded a short suite of songs solo at a piano. This was released as Plush's first album "More You Becomes You" in 1998, and it also received rapturous reviews, particularly in the UK. Hayes toured, alone, as Plush, and even appears in Stephen Frears film of "High Fidelity" playing piano and singing in a bar where John Cusack is drinking. At the same time, he had redoubled his efforts to record the band album he had abandoned some years before. It would take him another three years. Drag City walked away from the project, alarmed by the spirallings costs as Hayes piled on overdub after overdub. Hayes persuaded Steve Albini, a friend who had recorded some early demos of the material with him, to extend him a loan so that he could finish his record. When "Fed" finally emerged in 2002 on Japanese label After Hours it had cost over $100,000, taken three years and ended many of Hayes oldest friendships. And its still a vitally flawed, if sporadically magnificent record. Whereas "Three-Quarters Blind Eyes/Found a Little Baby" and "More You Becomes You" both benefit from the slightly ragged nature of proceedings, "Fed" is absolutely slick and utterly controlled, and it gives the album a somewhat airless, constricted feel. But Hayes songs are beautiful and distinctive.

As was made obvious in 2004 when "Underfed" was released on Drag City. An album of those early demos of the "Fed" songs, featuring only Hayes and a couple of other musicians, it reveals the songs in their most naked form, Hayes voice at its most cracked and vulnerable. "Fed" remains available exclusively from Japan, and Hayes is working on a new album. The "Fed" odyssey has led to his acquisition of a reputation as a sort of US Indie Lindsay Buckingham, Lee Mavers or Brian Wilson - obsessive, visionary, perfectionist. But he has yet to surpass his first release, which contains two beautiful pop songs, laid down about as well as they could have been in their mix of roughshod playing and Hayes' almost Carpenters-esque vision.
They resemble the greatest double A-sided singles in that its impossible to choose between them, each song so different yet so good.

Hayes also features what may be the ultimate count-out at the end of "The Sailor", the last song on "More You Becomes You". Once he has finished playing we hear him stand up, walk slowly across the room and leave. Then silence.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

"I'm just lucky."

Occasionally an advert will just come through your line of fire and stun you. The first time I saw Volkswagen's Night Driving Advert for their Golf, I got goosebumps. Everything about it was right - the look, the editing, the shot selection, the music, and the voiceover. In case you haven't seen it, check it out:

It obviously plays in Michael Mann's sandbox, even plays with Michael Mann's toys, so much so that I wondered whether Mann himself had actually directed it. The digital photography, those ochre and orange skies, the sleek mobility of the car itself, the focus on the sodium light upon LA streets - it all feels very "Collateral". Well, Mann didn't direct it, but it was shot by one of "Collateral"'s photographers, Paul Cameron. Which explains its stark, vibrant beauty very well. Director Noam Murro is an experienced advertising guy - he did that Levis "A Midsummer Nights Dream" campaign a couple of years ago, and his first feature - which I'll be looking out for, now - is out later this year. The quiet, insistent music is by Cliff Martinez, "Don't Blow It" from the Solaris soundtrack, I think. But probably the key element is the voiceover. Richard Burton could make Chris Martin lyrics sound poetic, and his reading of a passage from Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood" (from Andrew Sinclair's 1972 film version) is perfectly, wonderfully judged, and masterfully cut to the rhythm of the visuals. Its that rare creation, a beautiful advertisement, and it makes me wonder why so many bad adverts get made. Theres a great website where you can view it in pristine hi-def and edit an extended version here.

The notion of beautiful advertisements and Michael Mann made me think of "Lucky Star", a 2002 spot he directed for Mercedes, starring Benicio Deltoro and Ana Cristina Oliveira. BMW had enjoyed a great deal of publicity and success with their series of linked adverts, "The Hire", starring Clive Owen. Owen played a Driver in an eclectic series of short films directed by big guns like Wong Kar-Wai, John Woo, Joe Carnaghan, Tony Scott, John Frankenheimer, Guy Ritchie, Ang Lee and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, executive produced by David Fincher and Ridley Scott and co-starring Gary Oldman, Madonna, Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker, Mickey Rourke and Ray Liotta. The films were available for download from the BMW website and a DVD containing all of them could be purchased. "The Hire" was even spun off into its own comic series. My favourite of the bunch is Wong Kar-Wai's, which somehow manages to work within the imposed limitations as both a generic entry in the series and as a Wong Kar-Wai art film:

Mercedes were obviously hoping to ape their rivals success when they hired Mann. Conceived in the form of a trailer for an imaginary film, "Lucky Star" is Mann doing Mann, rifling through a quick selection of his visual obsessions and stylistic tics, and seemingly enjoying it along the way. Its so convincing as a trailer that it must have confused many who saw it, especially in cinemas, when it screened in 2002. Its a short sharp shock of pure style, and the best ending to this little film festival:

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Screengrab : Overlord

The image above is the key shot from "Overlord", Stuart Cooper's beautiful 1975 film of World War II. I avoid using the phrase "War film", because while "Overlord" is about the Second World War, about a common soldier's experience of that War from training to battlefield, and about so much more besides, it contains no scenes of combat. In that sense and a few others, "Overlord" is a unique piece of cinema.

Part of its oddness stems from the circumstances of its production. It was produced by the Imperial War Museum, who have been heavily involved in the production of plenty of documentary films and television series - most famously with the superb "The World At War" - but had never before (or since, to my knowledge) produced an actual Feature Film. Expatriate American director Stuart Cooper, whose last film "Little Malcolm" had just won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, was attached, and he wrote a screenplay with Christopher Hudson which manages to tell the intimate story of one young conscript's journey through the months leading up to D-Day while also showcasing the Museum's unmatched collection of archive footage from that period. Cinematographer John Alcott, who was Stanley Kubrick's regular collaborator throughout the 1970s, was hired to shoot the film, and using vintage German lenses he managed to achieve a seamless blend between the archive footage and the material shot specially for the film.

It is a visually lovely film, with Alcott's crisp photography and the perfectly-judged editing establishing a strange dreamlike mood I've never seen in any other film about War. As Tom, Brian Stirner - who is a dead ringer for Michael Sheen - is a sensitive lead, allowing his character some very human flaws in his prissiness and strange distance. The film is mainly concerned with his training and preparation for the Normandy landings, and Cooper makes much of the military as a dehumanising machine into which men simply vanish. Tom makes this explicit in a letter he writes but never sends to his parents: "The war machine keeps growing, and I am getting smaller and smaller". He drifts off into occasional reveries and daydreams throughout the film, many of them seemingly premonitions of his own death, which he sees as certain. These scenes are poetically assembled by Cooper, who uses repetetive, startling compositions for associative effect. Tom's final kiss with a girl he meets just prior to the invasion is depicted taking place upon a landing craft heading for a French beach.

The film itself has its own reveries and tangents. It periodically drifts away from Tom and his friends to reveal the panorama of the War itself, always being fought somewhere, claiming and changing lives at every moment. All of the archive footage is breathtaking and some of it shocking. We witness London firemen fighting a firestorm which rages through streets, toppling buildings onto pavements. We see footage from the nose camera of a fighter plane, tracer rounds describing the arcs of bullets into planes, locomotives and buildings as tiny figures run for cover and eject into empty sky. We are shown bombs dropping slowly, terribly towards towns and villages, then watch shockwaves and explosions hammer the landscape as they find targets below. We watch the preparations for D-Day, men thrown about like dolls by the waves of the British coastline, huge War Machines designed to cut barbed wire and forge through minefields rolling on the beaches of England. German cities burn in the night, miles and miles of streets and factories on fire. Children boarding trains to escape London in the blitz, American soldiers flirting with an Englishwoman waving their train off, Tommys playing cards and boxing and idling as they wait for the invasion to begin. All of it fascinating and beautifully interwoven with Tom's story, which ends on the Red Beach at Normandy. Here Cooper is obviously inspired by the legendary American War Photographer Robert Capa and his shots of both that operation and the Spanish Civil War, as he describes on a documentary on the recent Criterion Collection edition of "Overlord" on DVD.

"Overlord" also contains echoes of the work of British directors Peter Watkins and Kevin Brownlow, and even Gillo Pontecorvo, in its stark beauty, poetic realism and honesty. It enjoyed some success in Europe upon its release, winning Cooper a second Silver Bear at Berlin, but didn't receive an American release until 2006. Perhaps its tone - sombre and almost quizzical in an inimitably British manner, not remotely angrily anti-War, as was the fashion of many American War films during the Vietnam era - was seen as off-putting to Americans at the time. But it is a singular and brilliant film, and Cooper's relative obscurity since its release is puzzling. He made one more film before retreating to work exclusively in television until the present day.
But "Overlord" has had some influence on other treatments of war. Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" is extremely reminiscent of "Overlord" in its training sequences, while Spielberg must have been aware of it when he came to shoot "Saving Private Ryan" and decided to use a handheld, chaotic shooting style similar to Cooper's treatment of D-Day. But nothing since has really attempted the same mix of realism and poetry that "Overlord" does with such success, and that is the films greatest achievement.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"Whats the rumpus?"

I'm anticipating a lot of movies this year. Being a movie lover means that you live from release to release, looking forward to some more than others. In some ways its the best, purest part of loving movies. Anticipation is one of the keenest feelings, and there are various stages connected with the release of a new film. Theres its initial announcement, usually with a short description of the premise, perhaps an attached screenwriter and/or director. Theres the casting announcements. Then the first stills and pictures taken on set begin to show up on websites. Perhaps a poster appears. Then a trailer. Then another, longer trailer, and some early reviews taken from test screenings. Then the real reviews. Obviously anticipation oscillates during this long process, which usually occurs over the course of one or even two years. A trailer may kill all anticipation or raise its pitch a degree or two. Reviews may dampen expectations. Some films I'm sold on as soon as I hear they're in production. There a certain number of directors whose work interests me, and I'll go see anything any of them does, no matter what reviews or trailers lead me to believe. With others the premise attracts me - I'm predisposed to any Western, more or less, due to a love of the genre. Sometimes a still can suddenly make me interested, just the colour scheme or the lighting of a single frame can be enough. Trailers - an artform in their own right - are obviously designed to seduce the viewer, and they are damnably effective. So many bad films have had great trailers, but its the promise of the trailer, of what they reveal and what they conceal, that makes us go to the cinema on many occasions. The best trailers are the ones that make us feel like we've come to the wrong movie, the ones where you can feel the entire audience thinking "Forget this crap, I wanna see that movie NOW."

At the time of writing, the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men" doesn't even have a trailer in circulation. Just a couple of stills (one of which sits at the top of this post) and a few reviews on geek sites from test screenings. It screened for critics at the Cannes film festival two nights ago, and the reviews have been rhapsodic, with many calling it their best ever film and a worthy Palme D'Or winner. Its based on Cormac McCarthy's 2005 modern Western manhunt novel about the repercussions of a botched drug deal on the Tex-Mex border, and stars Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones. I've written herebefore about my love for McCarthy's work, and that alone would be reason enough for me to look forward to this film. The reviews - a couple of them from critics I really respect - only make me anticipate it more excitedly. But I've had a troubled relationship with the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

They are undeniably incredibly gifted filmakers. Each of their films - going back to 1984s debut "Blood Simple" - is brilliantly scripted, full of memorable characters and witty dialogue. Their ability to translate those scripts effectively to film is also fantastic, since they are so technically accomplished, demonstrating great mastery over camera placement, movement and editing, and an understanding of actors which enables them to draw good performances from a broad range of talent. In other words, the Brothers Coen have it all. They could seemingly do whatever they wished. The problem with their work has generally resided in exactly what they wished to do. They're clever boys, Joel and Ethan. Sometimes they seem too clever, in that they let their intelligence interfere with their cinema. One of their major themes is cosmic irony, and they seem to take little they do particularly seriously. Hence many of their films display a strangely mocking attitude to their own characters - the Coens seem to think their characters are frequently idiots, and its hard to root for a character when the creator of that character isn't even really rooting for him. In some cases it seems less that they are mocking their characters and more as if they cannot bridge the distance between themselves and their creations. There is always that sense of distance, that reserve. The Coens never seem to be emotionally invested in their material. They may be intellectually and aesthetically invested - the attention to detail and effortless sense of distinctive tone and place makes this evident - but at times over their career, it has appeared they were incapable of actually caring about their stories or characters.

This attitude actually suits some of their material. When they work in the Noir genre, the Coen sensibility finds its pitch-perfect match. Here is a genre which demands that its characters be viewed through narrowed eyes, a genre where absolutely nobody is to be trusted, everybody has an agenda, and cynical twists in the narrative tail are only to be expected. The Coens have made four films which can be categorised as Noirs - "Blood Simple". "Millers Crossing", "The Big Lebowski" and "The Man Who Wasn't There". "Blood Simple", their straightest, most accessible film, is a noir from the James M Cain/Jim Thompson school, sweaty and angsty and full of twists and lies. Its also brilliantly made, the Coens (alongside their young cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld) showing what they could do if given the scope on their very first try. "Millers Crossing" is an almost-adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest" (also the source for "Yojimbo", "A Fistful of Dollars" and "Last Man Standing"), and a great leap forward in their filmaking. Lacking the hyperactive ostentation of "Raising Arizona", the comedy which preceded it, "Millers Crossing" has probably the greatest script of the Coens' ouevre, with a convoluted plot of cross and double-cross all delivered in a hard-boiled series of clipped exchanges of rapid-fire rapier wit. Its filmed in beautifully evocative tones, mainly of moss green and oaken brown, and the (since overused) Carter Burwell score is absolutely lovely. It also features a couple of outstanding set-pieces, Gabriel Byrne's best performance and a great Coen mcguffin in the guise of Tom's hat. The fact that their next film, "Barton Fink", was written during a bout of serious writers block on "Millers Crossing" puts the two films into proper perspective.

"The Big Lebowski" may not seem like a Noir, but its from the LA school, paying tribute to Robert Altman's "the Long Goodbye" and Ross McDonald's Lew Archer books (and indeed the Paul Newman "Harper" films based upon them). Modern LA Noir replaces the pools of shadow of the High Noir period with sunlight, but its heroes are questing detectives in the tradition of Phillip Marlowe. What makes "The Big Lebowski" work so well is the Coens' ability to wrap this genre in their own surrealist comedy, filling the film with characters like John Turturro's Jesus Quintana, Busby Berkely dream sequences, and having the whole thing narrated by Sam Elliott in his most cartoonish cowboy mode. All these elements - which again suggest the distance between the filmakers and their narrative - works astoundingly well, and "the Big Lebowski" is perhaps their funniest comedy.
"The Man Who Wasnt there" is an attempt to return to noir in its most classical form, and probably the best example of the Coens' cleverness at its most conceited and inaccessible. The film is their blackest comedy, but it inherits the shallow characterisation which blights many of their more outright comedies, and all of the visual style and clever dialogue cannot overcome that. The UFO scene, which is the sort of thing filling "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski" is jarring in the context of such a sombre, distinctively toned film. Billy Bob Thornton's performance is admirably restrained to the extent that it becomes utterly boring.

All of their comedies, in fact, with the exception of the sublime "The Big Lebowski" are the films I have the most problems with. They write good jokes and construct sight gags as well as anybody, but there is that distance, and a coldness and cynicism about people in just about all of their work that becomes difficult in a comedy, where a certain warmth and regard for character can be desirable over the course of a feature film. "This is Spinal Tap" pokes fun at its characters, of course, but it does it affectionately. The Farrelly brothers always put their characters through the wringer, but their affection for those characters always seems evident. Even Woody Allen, while generally skewering his characters pretensions and hypocrasy, is obviously fond of most of the people he creates , for all of their flaws. There is little affection in the Coens' comedy, and what there is is overshadowed by the intellectual snobbery and mockery that colours all their work. In their dramas, however, their worldview makes sense of their characterisation. "Fargo" is partly about the disparity between Margey and the killers she is pursuing, and though the Coens never really reveal their hand directly in terms of thematic content, in that film, their mockery of Margey and her friends feels relatively gentle, even tender. Much of this is down to Frances McDormand's performance, just as Jeff Bridges gives the Dude in "The Big Lebowski" more dignity than the character may have had on the page. "Fargo" is probably their most universally admired film, and it is possibly their most mainstream, in many ways, their offbeat plotting and odd characterisations folded into a genre narrative with enough humour to make the film still seem edgy and interesting. But there is yet that lingering discomfort with the way they dwell on the oddness of the Minneasota accent, the mundane reality of the lives of their characters with a vaguely satirical intent.

The last Coen film I was anticipating the way I am anticipating "No Country for Old Men" was "To The White Sea". An adaptation of Deliverance author James Dickey's novel, the Coens wrote a screenplay, had cast Brad Pitt in the lead role, and negotiated a $60 Million budget. But the film would have made a curious $60 Million Blockbuster. It follows a WWII American bomber pilot after his plane goes down over Japan during a raid. After the dogfight of the opening sequence, there is no dialogue. The American does not speak Japanese. He makes his way across the country towards the coast, where he intends to steal a boat, killing to survive when he (quite frequently) has to, generally hiding and sticking to the most remote areas. He endures flashbacks to his youth, hunting in the great American wilderness.
Such a narrative would have tested the Coens storytelling, and probably brought out the best in them. The novel is extraordinarily violent, but it has an intensity and thematic concerns unlike anything in any of the Coens work. The similarities to McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" - both stories of survival and survivors, both based on novels by extremely masculine writers which fixate on landscape and are told in a uniquely American sort of tersely poetic language - are striking. But Brad Pitt dropped out of "To the White Sea", there were budgetary issues, and the film went into turnaround. It had seemed as if Joel and Ethan - always so clever - had known that they needed to make such a film next. Their last film had been "O Brother Where Art Thou", a one-note, one-joke comedy, and there was a sense that their career was drifting into a cul-de-sac of their own making, where they turn out smug hipster comedy after smug hipster comedy. They needed to stretch themselves somewhat, to make a film that relied on their visual flair instead of their gift for quirky characterisation and brilliant dialogue.
Instead, the film the Coens made next was "Intolerable Cruelty", which had originated in a generic romantic comedy script they had rewritten, Coen-style. In practice it played as Coen-lite, succeeding neither as romantic comedy nor as Coen movie. They followed it with "The Ladykillers", an illthough remake of the Ealing classic, and the mediocrity of the former followed by the disaster of the latter damaged their critical reputations immeasurably. Hence the three year gap before "No Country For Old Men", during which time they have reportedly written several screenplays and have been linked with many projects, a version of "Tarzan" among them.

"No country for Old Men" is currently scheduled for UK release in February 2008, which means many months of fluctuating anticipation lie instore for me. But thats ok, its even part of the pleasure. One great thing about the coens best films is their endless rewatchability: I've got "the Big Lebowski" and "Millers Crossing" on dvd, and they're full of dialogue like this:

Eddie Dane: How'd you get the fat lip?
Tom Reagan: Old war wound. Acts up around morons.

And this:

Malibu Police Chief: I don't like your jerk-off name, I don't like your jerk-off face, I don't like your jerk-off behavior and I don't like you... jerk-off. Do I make myself clear?
The Dude: [long pause] I'm sorry, I wasn't listening.


Monday, May 14, 2007

On Football - No. 9: Rui Costa

Rui Costa was perhaps the most old-fashioned, elegant playmaker of his era. But he played in Italy at a time when Serie A had more than its fair share of the world's great playmakers - Zinedine Zidane, Dejan Savicevic, Allessandro Del Piero and Roberto Baggio, among many others, all played against Rui Costa during his time at Fiorentina and AC Milan - and as a result he never quite received the recogniton he deserved. In addition, he was part of Portugal's famous "Golden Generation", alongside the equally talented Luis Figo, meaning that he never even received the acclaim he warranted in his homeland, always having to share the spotlight with his team-mate. But in the late 1990s, if you searched Europe for a player capable of controlling the pace of a game, or of opening up a defence with a dribble or a perfectly placed through-ball, there was really nobody better.

His vision was perhaps his greatest, most unique gift. There is a sequence in the video below highlighting his ability to pick out a forward closing in on goal, often from within the centre circle, with a single, perfectly weighted, precisely-threaded ball between scrambling, panicked defenders. Forwards as celebrated as Gabrielle Batistuta and Andrei Shevchenko both benefitted greatly from this talent. Rui Costa made it look effortless, never seeming rushed in possession and always appearing assured of what he intended to do, he seemed always to have more time than anyone else on the pitch:

That confidence obviously came from his technical virtuousity. His touch was gentle, but he was blessed with the pace and acceleration of a winger when he strode forward with the ball, shedding defenders as he went with shimmys and stepovers. He had the ability to pick out a pass at any moment, but he was just as likely to perform a lollipop or set himself for a shot. So many of the goals in the above video are placed finishes, curlers which he caresses into the corner of the net, mockingly just beyond the grasp of a goalkeeper, his composure marked and admirable. But he was also capable of drilling shots from outside the box:

This stupendous goal for Milan shows a combination of his skills, with a little run to start off, then a blasted curling ball into the top corner from outside the box :

Born Rui Manuel Cesar Costa in Lisbon in 1972, he was spotted at a trial for Benfica, the Lisbon club he supported throughout his childhood, by none other than Eusebio at the age of 10, and spent his teens playing for Benfica's youth teams. In 1990 he was loaned out to AD Fafe for a season, gaining experience of the professional game. Perhaps the greatest experience he gained, however, came from his time spent in the Portugeuse Youth system. Overseen by Carlos Quieroz, that system had produced the team that won the Under-20 world Youth Championship in 1989 in Saudi Arabia. In 1991 the Championships were held in Portugal itself, and a team including Costa, Figo, Fernando Couto, Joao Pinto, Paolo Sousa and Sergio Conceicao beat Brazil in a penalty shootout in the final. Rui Costa took the deciding penalty, watched on television by most of the population of Portugal, and expectations of what this "Golden Generation" would achieve at senior level were stratospheric. Costa was welcomed into the first team at Benfica during the next season by coach Sven Goran Eriksson, playing in his customary role as attacking midfielder. I first saw him play when Benfica beat Arsenal at Highbury in the European Cup in 1994, and he was the oustanding individual. He liked to pick the ball up in central midfield and stride forward with his distinctive busy movement, skinning opponents and evading tackles before laying the ball off. Some players wind up before they strike the ball, you can see them prepare their body in the seconds before they execute the move they intend, their shoulders tigtening slightly, their hips rotating, heads maybe tilting to a certain angle. But Rui Costa struck the ball with fantastic ease - it rolled off his feet, always in his stride, as if he had not even meant to pass it, as if the perfectly placed ball he had just delivered was an accident, a fluke of his pumping sprint. That sprint too - he was deceptively pacy - never looked too strenuous, due to his strange jerky gait. He worked hard, covering lots of ground, working the spaces of midfield, but never tracking back, not making too many tackles, as if he thought defensive duties were beneath one with such extravagant technical gifts. One of his managers at Fiorentina, Claudio Raineiri, was prompted to ask him if all games in Portugal were played on a slope, because he never ran back to defend.

He won a Portugeuse league title and cup at Benfica before he was sold to Fiorentina in 1994. Instantly striking up an understanding with the awesome Batistuta, he remained there for 7 seasons, winning two Italian Cups and constantly being linked with transfers to bigger clubs. But he enjoyed the pace of life in Florence and obviously enjoyed the adoration of the Fiorentina fans, where he and "Batigol" were two very big fish in a relatively small pond. He also enjoyed absolute freedom on the pitch, especially under Turkish coach Fatih Terim in his last season. Terim, realising how important Costa was to the teams attacking style, especially in the absence of Batstuta, who had moved to Roma, told the Portugeuse that he had the freedom of the pitch, he could go anywhere and do anything he chose. When Terim moved to AC Milan in 2001, he brought Costa with him for a fee of 35 Million euros. Here he was instrumental in Milan's European success, helping them to a Champions League victory in 2003. That summer, Milan purchased the young Brazilian Kaka, and he quickly replaced the ageing Rui Costa as the player in the withdrawn role behind Milan's strikers. They are very similar players, and it is a great tribute to Kaka that his contribution was so great that Milan have not missed Costa since he left to return to Benfica in 2006. In those last two seasons at Milan, Costa played rarely, since Milan had a surfeit of playmakers - as well as Costa and Kaka there were Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo. He is still contracted to Benfica and intends to end his career there, where it started.

The Golden Generation never really lived up to its billing, though they came close. In Euro 96, they were eliminated by eventual finalist the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, having played some lovely football to get there. However, they never really looked like the finished article, the many individual talents on display not quite blended properly yet. They had been in Ireland's group for the Qualifiers, and I remember being shocked by how fluent and skillful they had seemed when they took us apart, 3-0, in Lisbon. Costa scored a beautiful goal that night, firing a 30 yard screamer into the top corner, and he utterly controlled the game, embarassing our midfield. They seemed to be living up to their billing as "the European Brazil", at least in terms of the flair and skill with which they playe dthe game. They were grouped with European Champions Germany in the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup, a tournament for which that group would perhaps have been at its peak. During the German tie between the two countries, with Portugal leading, Rui Costa was sent off for taking too long to leave the field, Germany recovered to win the match against 10 men, and they qualified for the tournament at Portugal's expense. Euro 2000 was to be the first tournament at which they showed the true beauty and effectiveness of their football, with Costa orchestrating everything. Their amazing 3-2 win against England in their first game, when they came back from 2-0 down, set the tone. Alongside hosts Holland they were the entertainers of the tournament, playing flowing, attractive attacking football. However they ran into World Champions France in the semi-finals and were eliminated, after a tense, tight contest, by a controversial Golden Goal. Zidane scored with a penalty after Abel Xavier handled in the area, the Portugeuse threw a massive tantrum, but they were out. Worse was to come in the 2002 World Cup in Japan & Korea, where Portugal, in common with other favourites France and Argentina, were dumped out of the tournament in the group phase . After an hour of their first game against the USA, Portugal were 3-0 down, a barely imaginable scoreline. They pulled two goals back, but their campaign never really recovered from that early shock, even though they beat Poland 4-0. They needed a draw against South Korea in the last game to advance to the knock-out phase, but instead had two players sent off and lost to a late goal from Park Ji-Sung.

The Golden Generation had aged, and both Costa and Figo were no longer considered certain starters for Euro 2004, which Portugal hosted. A new generation of stylish Portuguese players led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Simao Sabrosa had emerged, and Brazilian coach Phil Scolari trusted them, loading his squad with players from the Porto team which had just won the Champions League. But Costa still made a worthy contribution, displaying his class when he came off the bench during the quarter-Final clash with England to score this goal:

The final, which Portugal lost to Greece, would prove to be his last match for his country. He is the third most capped Portugeuse player of all time. However, it is for his exploits at club level for which he will be chiefly remembered, certainly at Milan and Benfica, where his talent was rewarded with the tropies it deserved. But especially at Fiorentina, where he played probably the best football of his career before a devoted audience :


Sunday, May 13, 2007


Possibly the finest Super-Hero artist of his generation, John Romita Jr has always been horrendously underrated. He had his Dad's famous shadow to struggle with, his early work, while solid and consistent, lacked personality, and he has always been Mr Marvel-contract, meaning that he gets shuffled around, not always sympathetically, by his editors. But his style began to emerge during his run on Amazing Spider-Man, solidified on Uncanny X-Men, and since then hes just pumped out the quality work at a rate that must terrify artists like Travis Charest and Bryan Hitch - Romita seems capable of doing three monthly books concurrently with no appreciable drop in quality. Hes sustained that over a 20 year period, too. Probably the best work he has done was on Daredevil with Ann Nocenti, but hes worked on nearly every single one of Marvel's big characters, and his big, dramatic style probably was best suited to the more widescreen characters - I have a special fondness for his short second run on Iron Man during Armour Wars 2 - but for me his Spider-Man is just about the definitive portrayal of the character. You can make arguments for Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, John Romita Sr and Todd McFarlane, but Spider-Man just should look the way JRJR draws him. His work also unites two contrasting aesthetics: he is obviously influenced by Jack Kirby, with all those blocky figures, dynamic compositions and delight in portraying the epic and collossal, but there is also something almost indie in his line, in the somehow disciplined looseness of the linework in his mature period, and the ease with which he communicates emotion through facial expression. His figures always move with a grace and lightness - despite that Kirbyesque musclebound quality most possess - which reminds me of nobody so much as the great David Mazzuchelli. In short, hes an excellent craftsman but also a great artist, a rarity in modern comics. What this collection of splashes and covers can't really hope to communicate is how fantastic - and effortless - his story-telling is.

If you're used to Romita's work for Marvel, then his weird version of Batman from the Batman/Punisher crossover was almost shocking. It looks like nobody elses :

But it just about outdone by his version of the Joker, a somehow Italian white-skinned, green-haired clown :

And just a tiny slice of actual sequential panel-to-panel goodness:


Thursday, May 03, 2007

What If? : Michael Reeves*

Michael Reeves died on February 11, 1969, after getting drunk and overdosing on sleeping pills. He had been depressed, insomniac and withdrawn in the preceding months. The coroner's verdict was suicide, but his friends insisted it was an accident despite his recent behaviour. Reeves was considered a great loss to British cinema. Only 25 at the time of his death he had already directed 3 films, one of them - "Witchfinder General"(1968) - a near-masterpiece, and the growth and development of his obvious talent has led to claims that he would have been Britain's answer to Steven Spielberg or a new Orson Welles. The innovative and fascinating ways in which he invested the rote genre material of "the Sorcerers" and "Witchfinder General" with mood, beauty and intensity despite working under major budgetary constraints suggest that these claims may not be entirely without foundation. Instead we are left with a tiny filmography and the tantalising possibilities of what he might have acheived...

Let us imagine Reeves had taken four or five tablets fewer that night in 1969 and woke up the next day, refreshed and reinvigorated after he shed the inevitable hangover. He evaluated his career and his goals. He had always wanted to be a director, ever since his childhood, and here he was. But he had no interest in horror as a genre. It was merely a vehicle for his talent, and it had taken him as far as it could. He had done what he could to treat "Witchfinder General" as if it were a Western rather than a horror film, in any case. A homage to the greats of Classic Hollywood and the B-movie legends he loved: the amazing Western director Budd Boetticher and his own mentor, Don Siegel. He resolved to change his career, to start making the films he was interested in making. He immediately quit working on pre-production of his next film, "The Oblong Box", an Edwardian melodrama/horror. He spent a year or so looking for a new film, collaborating on several scripts, drifting between California and London, mixing with the Laurel Canyon scene and the slowly dissolving Swinging set.

Denied funding for any of the projects in which he was interested, Reeves was forced to return grudgingly to the horror genre. But he insisted upon doing it on his terms. He chose the source material and approved the casting, he wrote the script, he carefully selected each and every collaborator. His adaptation of William Hope Hodgson's 1908 novel "The House On the Borderland" was released in late 1970. Starring Peter O'Toole in the role of the Author of the manuscript, the film was a significant commercial and critical success. Many critics focused upon Reeves confident, stylish direction, his use of suggestion and camera trickery to build suspense and his elaborate marshalling of the special effects sequences which did justice to the more cosmic horror aspects of Hodgon's work. The bleakness of the films ending - in accordance with the ending of the novel - has helped to make it a lasting classic, frequently mentioned near the top of lists of the Greatest Horror films of all time. After that film, Reeves abandoned the genre for over a decade.

Finally granted some commercial clout, and more at home with the newly open and permissive Hollywood which had blossomed in the wake of the success of "Easy Rider" than many directors, Reeves was able to make whatever he liked as his next project. He chose to adapt another novel. He had collaborated with Phillip K. Dick on a script for "The Man In the High Castle", the novelists 1962 alternate history novel of an America under Nazi & Japanese rule, and he began pre-production in 1971. Starring Robert Duvall as Frank Fink, Tuesday Weld as Juliana, James Caan as Joe and Toshiro Mifune as Nobusuke Tagomi, Reeves film is today regarded as one of the key films of the 1970s, even though it flopped catastrophically at the time. Reeves had begun to experiment with lenses and filters between films and "High Castle" is full of evidence of this. Stuffed with visual extremes, character colour-coding, references to the I-Ching and subtle exposition, the film was far too complex and arty for a mainstream audience. Reeves' use of cross-cutting - often so brief as to be almost subliminal - was aggressive and alienating to many viewers. It instantly gained a cult following on U.S. campuses and Weld received an Academy Award Nomination for her work as Juliana. Reeves' stock rose in France, where the film was acclaimed as a masterpiece, and, seeking to escape the collapse of his relationship with folk singer Judee Sill and a worsening heroin habit, he travelled to Paris to undergo a brief period of cold turkey and eventually to make his next film.

"Sticky Fingers"(1972), written, photographed, edited, produced, and directed by Reeves, is an obvious example of a Director taking the auteur theory too seriously. It tells the story of the love triangle between a struggling young actor (played by Reeves' old friend Ian Ogilvy), a model/actress/It-girl (Jacqueline Bisset) and an up-and-coming Rock Star (Terry Reid). Shot in the starkest black and white, mainly using handheld cameras, and full of long dialogue secnes and a couple of extremely sexually explicit sequences, the film was banned in the UK, given an X-Rating in America, and became a massive hit in France. Reeves soundtracked the film with rock and soul music from the period, an approach copied a year later by Martin Scorsese on "Mean Streets". His characters drink, take drugs, dance, have sex and debate in the rooms, streets and parks of a Paris captured as vividly as it has ever been by Reeves' relentlessly mobile camera. The celebrated, much-imitated ending wherein one characters suicide is intercut with the departure of another while the third buries himself in flesh at an orgy deserves its reputation as one of the best shot and cut sequences of the era, and is the logical extension of the cross-cutting technique Reeves had introduced on "The Man in the High Castle". Reeves took the films reception in his homeland hard and coupled with the breakdown in his relationship with Bisset, who had begun to see Francois Truffaut on the set of "Day For Night", he retreated from directing for a few years, only returning in 1975 with a documentary following the lives of a trio of Vietnam veterans upon their return from the War. "Soldiers Three", little-seen at the time, is an incredibly powerful portrayal of lives ruined by politics and of the damage done by combat. Its reticence and the lack of ostentation in the direction makes it play utterly differently to the rest of Reeves' work, to which its a fascinating counterpoint.

His next film was something of a thematic sibling of "Soldiers Three". "Bad Moon Rising" (1977) was the story of the return of two veterans to their Hometown, close to the Mexican border, and how they dealt with the corruption and crime they found newly entrenched there. The veterans - played with convincingly haunted grit by Sam Shepherd and Jon Voight - at first try to reason with the towns new "Owner", Garrett, brilliantly played by Lee Marvin. When that produces no results they resort to violence and after a series of horrifically realistic escalations the War itself is finally re-enacted in a massive battle at Garrett's farm outside town. The film works as both a b-movie action thriller, filled with references to Westerns and War movies (the fact that Shepherd's "Red" has lost an arm is itself a reference to John Sturges' "Bad Day at Black Rock") and an extended metaphor for the War itself. The long scene between Marvin and Carrie Snodgrass (who plays Leah, Voights ex) in which he confesses his lifelong love for her while simultaneously threatening to rape her is a great piece of acting by both performers and an incredibly intense ordeal of a scene, due to the intimacy and resolve of Reeves' direction.
"Bad Moon Rising" was the biggest hit of Reeves' career, and Hollywood, newly interested in Blockbusters after the success of Jaws and Star Wars, hired him to adapt a comic book superhero for a massive film.

"Plastic Man"(1980) starred Elliott Gould in the title role, with Dom DeLuise as Woozy Winks and a young Michelle Pfieffer as Penny. Shot in Italy on massive, elaborately designed soundstages, the film anticipated later films like "Flash Gordon" and "Dick Tracy" in its efforts to render the one-dimensional world of the original comics convincingly in three dimensions. With incredible, uneartly photography by Vittorio Storaro, an insane Ennio Morricone score, no plot to speak of, effects work which has aged quite well, and a charming performance from Gould, "Plastic Man" is not quite the diasaster its reputation suggests. Indeed, if taken in the right spirit, its an engaging, witty slapstick comedy. What it never is, is a Blockbuster Superhero movie, which is what producer Dino DeLaurentis wanted after "Superman" (1978) had done so well commercially. DeLaurentis and Reeves fell out before, during and after shooting, and Reeves was finally locked out of the editing suite. He blamed the resultant incoherence of the cinematic cut of the film on his absence from the edit. The appearance of a Directors Cut on dvd in 2005 indicated that he was correct - his cut is tighter and funnier and many of its zanier pasages play much better than they did in the original version, but it is still a deeply flawed film. Its terrible box office performance and the tales of excess and conflict from the set meant that Reeves did not make another film for five years.

When he returned, he returned to the horror genre. "Baal"(1985), his epic adaptation of Robert McCammon's novel of the rise of a demonically charismatic and destructive Political leader and the efforts of three men - who see his true nature - to stop him was hamstrung by some budgetary restrictions, but is in many ways Reeves' most ambitious and interesting film. It has much to say on the politics and society of the 1980s and seems uncannilly clairvoyant in its usage of Kuwait and Iraq as the seat of a world-changing rise of Islamic Fundamentalism. Its Arctic climax also contains possibly the best action sequence Reeves ever shot, and he draws a fantastic performance from Rutger Hauer as Baal. Maximillian Schell is also brilliant as Virga while Liam Neeson is perfectly cast as Michael, and Jerry Goldsmith's electronic score is among his best and most unsettling work. Reeves used different shooting styles and colour palates for each of his films settings, much as he had done on "The Man in the High Castle" over a decade before. The washed out colours and flat light he uses for the scenes of Baal's time as leader of a Manson-like Californian cult are particularly beautiful and eerie.

Reeves, by this time married to blaxploitation star Vonetta McGee and father to a young daughter, made his next film his most autobiographical to date. "Glad & Sorry"(1987) recalls "Sticky Fingers" in its insistence on the importance of conversation as the basis for drama and narrative, and also in the fluidity of its style. Reeves cast Terence Stamp as an ageing British film director reflecting upon his romantic life as he travels to the funeral of an ex-lover (played in flashbacks by Anouk Aimee). The narrative revolves around his loss of the great love of his life, Nathalie (Julie Christie) to a rival French director, played with sneering arrogance and great humour and charm by Alain Delon. Reeves simplified his stylistic choices on this film and there are many long sequences with unbroken shots and long, slow pans. Stamp spends a lot of time staring into the middle distance, into his past, and his experience and regret are writ in every wrinkle of his still-beautiful face. It may be his greatest ever performance. Each of the flashbacks is a sort of reverie, a series of romanticised moments with beautiful women in a youth that can never be recaptured. Ennio Morricone provides a score played only on piano and cello, a set of variations on a single theme which proves immensely powerful when a full orchestra is brought to bear for the final scenes. The film even suggests a happy ending for Stamp's nameless director with his final encounter with Pam Grier in an airport bar. Ironically, Reeves and McGee divorced before the film was released to great critical notices but little popular success in late 1987.

Again Reeves disappeared from the industry for a few years, apparently writing and painting in his Californian home. He resurfaced in 1992 with "Flicker", a dark conspiracy thriller and alternative history of cinema based upon the cult novel by Theodore Roszak following a young film academic (Matthew Modine) and his research into the work of pre-War hack B-director, Max Castle (played in flashback by Rutger Hauer). The film obviously has trouble articulating the novels claims for the power of Castles work - Reeves makes Castle's films look very much like 1990s advertisments - but it is perfectly paced and always gripping, right until its shattering climax. It is, however, the first film where Reeves' touch is difficult to detect, his individuality somewhat compromised by the demand to make a commercial film. On the promotional circuit for the film, Reeves was not shy about sharing his complaints about the studio and the process with the press, and when pre-production on his proposed next project - a historical epic based on John Milius' screenplay "The Northmen" - ran into trouble, he issued a press statement announcing his retirement from the industry.

Despite frequent rumours that he is collaborating on a screenplay or has been hosting readings of scripts at his house throughout the last decade, Reeves has stuck to his word and made no further directorial contributions to the film industry since that statement in 1995. In that time, his reputation has grown and improved, and his work has been the subject of no less than four books, and one documentary. In 2003 he received a Lifetime achievement Award at the Oscars. He appears in that documentary, interviewed on a balcony overlooking the Pacific, tanned and healthy-looking, discussing his long career with good humour and insight. He has no plans to return to cinema, he says, as if his experience directing "Flicker" has alerted him to its deadly power. He has his painting and his old rock & roll, and he doesn't need any other art.
But the rumours, of course, persist...

*After David Thompson & his James Dean piece....