Saturday, December 29, 2007

Exercises in redundancy and egotism

Because nobody asked for it, my Top Ten of this year (UK cinema releases). Its been a great year, I think:

1. Zodiac (David Fincher)
- Fincher grows up. A tense and engrossing study of obsession and failure, a whodunnit which doesn't really care whodunnit and a policier which meticulously depicts the procedural elements of a serial killer investigation at a crucial point in the 20th century, Zodiac is Fincher's best film. Its also the first where he allows the narrative and themes and characters to take priority over his directorial pyrotechnics. The pyrotechnics, the insane virtuosity, they're still there, they're just integrated into the film, best seen in a series of remarkable crane shots, and an overhead tracking shot which is breathtaking but doesn't ever pull the viewer out of the story. Instead Fincher focuses on the details and in the process builds a convincing portrait of a time and place as much as he focuses upon the Zodiac investigation. The texture of Zodiac is thick with America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the mainly unseen and unremarked upon social and political upheaval of the era. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhal) works as a political cartoonist and we glimpse some of his work in passing, but he is more interested in Zodiac, as if seeking escape from his own job. We hear suggestions of the schism in American society on a talk radio programme. There are references to the pop culture of the times, too. Mark Ruffalo's Detective Toschi was the real-life basis for Bullitt, and he is seen attending a special police screening of that other classic portrayal of the SFPD, Dirty Harry (which was inspired by the Zodiac case). The soundtrack is full of the music of the period, most of it put to perfect use, in particular Donovan's ever-creepy Hurdy-Gurdy Man - which I don't think I'll ever be able to hear again without thinking of this film, a signal of how well it was used. But mainly we are buried under the details of the case, just like the films protagonists. Each of them is ruined by it, defeated by its blind alleys and dead-ends. Fincher's film is heavy with scenes depicting men talking in offices and on telephones, and yet it manages to build and maintain suspense for two and a half hours. In this it recalls Alan J Pakula's magisterial "All the Presidents Men" (the deep-procedural aspect also suggested the influence of "The Wire", always a good thing). The photography by Harris Savides is frequently beautiful, but it also vividly captures the lighting in the open plan offices of the SF Chronicle and the police department, contributing to the flat, banal tone which suggests the crushing repetitive dullness of the work these men are involved in. David Shire's subtle score is a direct reference to the films of the 70s Zodiac apes. Its few scenes of outright suspense are confidently, expertly staged and handled by Fincher, proving that he is best when holding back. The cast is uniformly great. Most impressive of all, perhaps, was the sidelong way this approached a Big American subject, its narrative steadily circling a few characters lost in a maze of detail and crumbling because of their inability to find a way out. The film is about the case but also about technology, how we feel about it and how it fails us (there are many references to mimeographing and early fax machines and a key plotpoint hangs upon the expertise of a handwriting specialist), and about the evil that seemed almost to hang in the air in the culture of the 1970s. It possesses a strange kind of density which reminded me of the work of Don DeLillo and Christopher Sorrentino's novel "Trance" (both of which investigate a similar era in US history). The density comes from the aggregation of detail, the depth of characterisation, and the polymathic tangents the narrative constantly threatens to follow before doubling back. All the while, we never lose sight of the evil at the centre of the story, which seems to baffle Fincher just as much as it baffles his characters. In seemingly keeping his focus so narrow, Fincher, together with screenwriter James Vanderbilt, is able to paint a panorama of a 20 year slice of history, and do it beautifully. This is a Great Film.

2. Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
- This film gave us some of the most beautiful images of the year, and none of them were digitally manipulated, there were no set-pieces or CGI. Instead Ceylan trains his lens upon life : the face of a woman, struggling to contain emotion. A man wandering through the snow in a strange city, his uncertainty about what he is doing and where he is going apparent. Two lovers travelling together, both faces to the camera, the conflict between them flickering there. His film is basically a character study and he is critical of men, of mens stupidity and selfishness, and he is a brilliant observer - some of the lengthy scenes in this film felt as real to me as my own experiences. He takes formal risks - horror movie shock cuts in an art film, endless studies of a face and its changing emotions, a love scene that is always uncomfortable, never erotic - but his risks pay off every time, and Climates is a great step forward from Uzak, his last film, which was also brilliant. But this is more accessible and universal, more beautiful and transcendent, more human and dramatic. (I'm not alone in my love of "Climates". The Coen Brothers short - "World Cinema" for the Cannes-celebrating compendium of shorts, Chacun son Cinema, features Josh Brolin reprising his "No Country for Old Men" character in the lobby of a cinema as he tries to decide between Renoir's "The Rules of the Game" and "Climates")

3. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
- Can this beautiful piece of poetry really be only Andrew Dominik's second film? Its made with such confidence, such assurance, as to appear the work of some old master, returning to the Western one last time. But then, Dominik's debut, "Chopper", was nothing if not assured. And there are other similarities between the two films - both studies of fame and its effect, both centred on complex, disturbed men all too aware of their own myths. Here Dominik recalls the great revisionist Westerns of the 20 year period from the late 60s through the early 80s - the likes of "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid", "McCabe & Mrs Miller", "Heavens Gate" and Walter Hill's superb take on the Jesse James legend "The Long Riders". His film has the solemnity and seriousness common to those films, the relaxed yet deliberate pacing, the slightly askew characterisation. It is also great enough to stand in their company without suffering by comparison. Based closely on Ron Hansen's fantastic novel - and taking its narration and much of its dialogue verbatim from the book - and exquisitely photographed by Roger Deakins, Dominik has still somehow managed to make a Western with something original to say. For this is at heart the story of an obsessive fan, with more in common with todays world of stalkers and media saturation than the genre iconography may at first suggest. Perhaps the most incisive passages occur after the titular event has passed and we are shown the fate of Bob Ford, as famous in his time as Jesse James ever was, and struggling to deal with it, just as Jesse did. The still-life montages of landscapes and empty rooms, and the daguerrotype-style shots provide visual poetry to match the lyricism of Hansen's narration, and Pitt and Affleck both do career-best work, the latter in particular an absolute revelation. The delicate score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the fine cast of young actors as Jesse's ragtag last gang (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garett Dillahunt, David Schneider) only make it all more expertly calibrated. The films most interesting quality is its ambiguity - about its characters, most particularly. Pitt's Jesse is self-loathing, unpredictable and possibly nursing a death wish, yet also charming, charismatic and attractive. Ford gains our sympathy despite his creepiness, the ability he has to set people's teeth on edge merely by talking. This ambivalence in the authorial view of the central figures spreads through the narrative until the entire film is hung with it and the certainty of the title seems possibly ironic. As slow as molasses, maybe, but in this sort of Western, thats a good thing, and Dominick adds his name to the roll-call of directors who have made great Jesse James films alongside the likes of Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Phil Kauffman and Hill.

4. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
- Gus Van Sant has had a strange and fascinating career, ranging from the low budget indie daring of his early New Queer films to his big studio experiences on the likes of "Good Will Hunting" and "Finding Forrester" through to his most recent mode, the Bela Tarr-referencing arthouse auteur. His work has always been interesting, often for the tensions inherent in it between his traditional, audience-pleasing instincts and his bold refusal to water down his artistic ambition. "Paranoid Park" is full of this tension. It finds Van Sant continuing on in the line he first began following with "Gerry" and chased after through "Elephant" and "Last Days". These films are all studies of young men against landscapes, interior and exterior, studies of numbed youth, hymns to the rhapsodic power of pure cinema. Van Sant - always a gifted visual storyteller - has only improved with experience, and "Paranoid Park" may be his most beuatifully directed film. The story of Alex, a highschool skateboarder, hiding a secret and struggling to deal with its weight, it is full of long scenes of Alex walking, his face immobile and unreadable, the shock of what has happened to him forcing him to retreat even further back into the persona of a disaffected, untouchable teen. The adults in the film - with one important exception - are barely glimpsed, their faces always out of frame or shadowed or blurred. The teens talk in ritual argot, non-sequiters and toneless phrases. Van Sant's camera - with photography by Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li - exquisitely picks them out in his airless, flat world, all of the usual iconography of the teen film absent. The soundtrack is a mix of Nina Rota and Elliott Smith, shuffling randomly during scenes. A visit to the mall makes it seem hostile and alien, all its comforting shops and restaurants unseen, replaced aurally by its dim burble, visually by its deathly non-places. They are the films real territory : a cities dead zones, the "public" plazas and ramps, the rails never used. These are the turf claimed by the skaters, and here skating is depicted as utterly rapturous, the boy's escape and soul, their way of reaching for something sublime. "Paranoid Park" is finally more accessible than "Elephant", its closest cousin. It pays narrative slightly more attention, and gives it more emphasis, while using the same strategies to twist and warp it.

5. Once (John Carney)
- When I think of Dublin, one of the images in my head is the view from the top deck of a bus crossing O'Connell Bridge from South to North as I head home. I made that trip probably thousands of times, in all sorts of moods and weathers, and to me it feels like the very literal heart of the city, crossing the river at its centre, onto its main thoroughfare. "Once" has a shot showing the view out of such a bus from the point of view of a melancholic protagonist sad about a girl beside a bus window. This film captures something about Dublin, its flat light in winter, its shabbiness and strange energy, its parochial vibe and the warmth and humour of its people. Its a low key love story tracing the tentative, ill-defined relationship between a busker with dreams of stardom and a Czech flower-seller as they, slowly and poignantly find a way to each other through music. Yes, its a musical of sorts, but the songs are all placed organically into the narrative. They all make sense, and the final two are strangeley gripping, with so much of the narrative's weight resting upon them. It ends with a sense of pragmatism and reality, without any of the melodrama of most romances. It all feels real, drawn from experience, not a common response to a movie romance, and a most welcome novelty. I've liked the Frames since my late teens, and its weird to hear their songs in a film like this and see Glen Hansard - their frontman - acting again after so very long (he last appeared in the Commitments) but the fact that neither he nor his costar Marketa Irglova are professional actors only makes the film feel more authentic. Its also really funny and moving, in its way, and Carney gives much of it a muted urban poetry, capturing the fleeting beauty of shabby streets and lost moments spent in them.

6. The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass)
- There is no greater thrill in modern action cinema than tagging along with a shaking juddering camera as it strains to keep up with Matt Damon's Jason Bourne. And The Bourne series has redefined the modern action movie. The Bourne series shows that action films can be deadly serious, can avoid jokes, can do without (much) CGI, can risk ambivalence and complexity, can even be political. In doing so, they have finally killed off the action movie as it existed in the 80s and 90s, so that a throwback like Die Hard 4 looks silly and old-fashioned. The Bond franchise was quick to adapt through a form of imitation, and the only other course seems to be to embrace the cartoon sensibility seen in films like Crank and Shoot Em Up. But Bourne is now the leader in its field, and here Paul Greengrass - on his fourth home-run in a row - delivers a precision vehicle, streamlined and sleek and perfect in its way. Damon is effortlessly great, and something in his ability to work things out before an audience and project pain and angst reminds me of prime Harrison Ford. The set-pieces are all fantastic - the Waterloo CCTV stalk and snipe, the rooftop chase and confined space combat in Tangiers, the vehicular carnage in Mahattan. Each of them is brilliantly planned, shot and edited for maximum you-are-there impact. By now audiences know and like Bourne and so the film does not have to work too hard to get us on side. It helps that all of the recurring elements are so assured: Powells pumping, tense score, the crisp handheld camerawork of Europe in winter, the classy supporting cast. The references to the earlier films are well chosen and witty. What is most relevant and interesting about Bourne is just how political it is - Bourne has, in each film, fought the establishment, fought his own government, which is generally portrayed as ruthless, incompetent and murderous. If Bond and Bourne were ever to meet, it would be because Bond, the willing tool of the establishment, had been sent to asassinate Bourne, the rebel, the outsider, one of Us. Ulimatum even includes a tacit criticism of US intelligence policy in the War on terror. Greengrass' greatest skill is to smuggle this in, then make his film so gripping and exhilarating as he does do, so as the audience barely notices. But the Bourne films all have a strange depth and melancholy usually absent from this sort of piece, too. Partly its Damon, partly those grey locations, but its also the existential questions at the heart of each, as suggested by Manohla Dargis. If the first film has Bourne asking: Who Am I? then in the second, he asks What have I done? In "Ultimatum" he seems to be asking How did I get this way? The thrill lies in the way he sets about getting answers...

7. This is England (Shane Meadows)
- Shane Meadows is perhaps the most interesting and distinctively British director working today, and "This Is England" is his masterpiece. Combining a coming of age story with an investigation of the divisions within the Skinhead youth-cult of the 70s and 80s, it features a couple of great perfomances, most obviously from Stephen Graham and Thomas Turgoose. Meadows has been precociously assured in all of his features, right back to Twentyfourseven (all those early shorts paying off in his technical skill in a way no film school ever could), and here his style is so confident and easy as to be almost invisible. The film opens with an image of Roland Rat followed by a montage of news footage from the early 80s and the steady accumulation of detail over the next hour and a half makes the portrayal of a historical period feel totally authentic. This is backed up by the realism - as in all Meadows' films - of the group dynamic he captures, the banter and tensions, the warmth and cosiness of a group of good friends together. The film's first act contains all this and is then splintered by the arrival of Graham's Combo, and with him the threat of casual violence. Meadows has always had an awe of violence and it colours all of his work - he is expert at portraying the tension in the seconds before violence erupts, and also the flat repulsive banality of the act itself. But he combines this with a moving tale, and funny, believable, well-formed characters. His conclusion lifts the film beyond the politics of the era it intermittently flirts with, because Meadows is at heart a humanist, and it is the weakest, most reviled and damaged characters who turn to hate and racism. He even seems to sympathise with them, to an extent. Combo, the films villain, is revealed as sad and pathetic, and all the more dangerous for that. It is in the unexpectedly lyrical portrayal of the grimmest slices of England that Meadows' acheivements are best seen - his shots of trees filtering sunlight onto council houses while Toots & the Maytals play on the soundtrack are beautiful, and simple, and that seems to encapsulate his approach entirely.

8. I'm not there. (Todd Haynes)
- To really get the most from this film, you needed to love - or at least know quite intimately - the life and works of Bob Dylan. I don't love Dylan - not like I do the Beatles or the Stones, say, both of whom are good-naturedly mocked by Haynes along the way here - but I do like him a lot, know his ouevre really well, and have read a couple of biographies, meaning that I understand the "important" passages in his life. Which all translates as: I got this film. I'm not sure how it would play for somebody ignorant of Dylan's life and/or work. I suspect it would still be fascinating and enjoyable, because Haynes' approach is central to the success of the project. His film is a fractured, non-representational biopic, impressionist and conversational, a series of tangents in search of a theme. Its magnificent, in its way, in the confidence and unity of the finished article, and it makes some recent conventional music biopics ("Walk the Line" or "Ray") look like the corny cliche-assemblages they are. Its beautiful, richly textured and always well-acted and directed. Each of its different stories works perfectly well on its own terms, but of course there are some that work better than others : the episodes with a brilliant Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger are perhaps the richest and most entertaining. But the real joy comes in how Haynes shuffles the different strands like cards, playing scenes off one another so that they comment, inform and illuminate one another. Haynes has seemed to alter his style depending on each film, and here he has given himself an opportunity to alter his style from scene to scene. This makes for an unusually rich and layered film, which somehow manages to both inflate the Dylan myth while also querying our need for such myths. The commentary it offers on Dylan's career is generally subtle and open-minded, rejecting judgement in favour of a sort of benign understanding. It contextualises him without specifics, its several false histories (handled with far less success by Haynes in "Velvet Goldmine") adroitly and wittily bringing us a non-Dylan Dylan, by splitting his character into facets, reflecting his image, history and various personas. Yet Haynes' dramatic and narrative skills are advanced enough that just some of his scenarios would make for thrilling scenes, which they do : Blanchett's "Jude Quinn" touring the UK and confronted by an aggressive press pack, Ledger's "Robbie Clark" wooing, marrying and losing Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing some kind of approximation of Sara Loundes) against the backdrop of the American left and the Vietnam war, and Bale's "Jack Rollins" rejecting the status of protest saviour before finding God. Great music, too, obviously. My favourite moment though was the opening scene, a first person POV shot that puts the viewer behind Dylan's face for his progress through backstage corridors and up staircases to the stage on that UK tour before a baying, angry crowd, the spotlight suddenly, literally blinding...

9. 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo)
- A machine built purely to thrill and scare and drag an audience along for 90 minutes, this has no real characters and barely any dialogue after the first half-hour. Instead if offers some Romero-style political-allegory and some brilliant filmmaking in a package that is also brutal, pitiless and tremendously gripping. Fresnadillo - whose "Intacto" was an interesting if flawed thriller - ups the ante on Danny Boyle's original. Most of this films strengths come from Boyle's film, but Fresnadillo makes such radically different use of them. the scenes of a devastated London, so grandiose and epic in "28 Days Later", are here used so often that they become just the backdrop, the way things are in the universe of the film. Ditto for the all-sprinting, all-growlling, all-leaping "infected". Boyle's aesthetic, however, is front and centre, and if anything, Fresnadillo pushes it even further, his action scenes a hellishly visceral mix of handheld camera, whiplash editing and shock sound effects. The most marked difference between this film and the original is its worldview. It is profoundly pessimistic, from the assumption of Robert Carlyle's cowardice in the prologue to the reaction of the US military to the infection's spread to the French coda. Its heroes are remorselessly dispensed with. The most heroic character, the one an audience might expect to cling to, to carry them along to an ending, dies the most brutal and awful death. It all kicks off about a half-hour in, and from then on it never lets up, with each scene presenting a new horror for the audience to chew on. No supermarket scene, as in the original. No hint of romance, as in the orginal. Just a desperate, doomed scramble for survival. Brilliantly, intelligently, remorselessly done.

10. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
- This film featured perhaps the most exhilarating scene of the year. It opens with a very slow pan across the night sky before the camera stops. Stars twinkle, constellations sprayed across the frame. Cicadas and insects rise up out of the silence on the soundtrack. Then after another minute or two, we perceive a lightening in the image. Other animals make themselves heard - livestock, cows, perhaps sheep. The soundtrack is suddenly vibrant with noise. The horizon is becoming faintly visible now, a dull light behind it. That light gains power and colour and we realise we are witnessing a dawn. Two trees stand against the changing light of the morning sky. Soon that sky is full of pinks and blood-red washes of cloud, with yellow and amber edges, and soon after that it is the pale blue of a summers day. Carlos Reygadas, with this film, places himself firmly in the front rank of International Directors as a serious and ambitious artist. He has been a contentious figure since his emergence in 2001 with "Japon", and "Battle In Heaven", his 2005 follow-up, only added to his difficult reputation. While both those films displayed his fabulous eye for poetic imagery and facility with the medium, both also seemed provocative in a manner that almost recalled Gaspar Noe or Lars Von Trier. Scenes of extreme sexual content feature in both films alongside an ability to use architecture and landscape as visual metaphors or his character's conditions. But with "Silent Light", Reygadas seems to have found himself as an artist. Telling the simple, elemental tale of a love triangle set in a Mennonite community in Northern Mexico, played almost entirely by non-professional actors speaking Plautdietsch, a near-dead Germanic language, he has created a beautiful and haunting film about love and faith. His style may be considered difficult by some - he favours extremely long takes, telling his story in simple, but beautifully composed and economical tableaux - but his pacing is exact and perfect, and once one surrenders to the rhythm of his narrative the power of his staging and the simplicity of the story begins to work its slow power. It helps that Reygadas captures so many stunning moments so effortlessly - children playing in a pool, a man walking through grass to meet his lover, the first drops of what will be a horrendous thunderstorm upon a windshield. His shotmaking is never really showy even though it is so frequently breathtaking, a rare talent in a young director. His film contains elements of the work of other greats - Dreyer, Malick, Sokurov, Hsien, even Antonioni - but crucially it feels like the work of a distinctive talent. And in its closing shot - a dusk - it reverses the opening and ends the film quite beautifully...

Films that narrowly missed the Top Ten that I self-indulgently wanted to write a little about:

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilmore)
- Theres a moment early on in Michael Clayton when the title character(George Clooney) notices that his SatNav is malfunctioning, its screen filled with static, then blackness. Clayton punches it, irritation barely noticeable through the cloud of disappointment and defeat he constantly wears on his face. Its heavy-handed, you think, the obviousness of it - he doesn't know where hes going, physically, morally, emotionally. Then later on that SatNav moment is replayed, and this time the audience knows something Clayton doesn't, and the moment seems clever and witty and loaded. Well, this is a clever, witty, loaded film. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy (writer of No. 6 on my list), Michael Clayton tells the story of a few days in the life of a Manhattan attorney who has become more of a fixer and a bagman than an actual attorney. A taut, tight, gripping thriller concerning his involvement with the disintegration of a big corporate case is wound around a complex character study. He is a man with problems, a sad history and uncertain future, and he always looks weighed down by it all. You feel that he escapes the morass of his personal life in the expertise he displays in his work, but the film gradually reveals even that to be a sham. This is Clooneys best performance since Solaris. He keeps some of the weight he gained for Syriana, and with it maintains that hangdog air, those big puppy eyes put to great effect looking hurt and guarded. Hes rewarded with a fantastic long wordless close-up over the closing credits, which appears a reference to "The Long Good Friday". Hes also surrounded by a couple of classy Brits - Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson both as good as ever, both chewing on some great dramatic moments. Though this is a writers film, Gilroy puts cinematographer Robert Elswit (who has worked extensively with Paul thomas Anderson) talents to great use, giving the film, with its portrayal of New York in Winter, a steely, cold air to match the moral grey areas it lingers in. He has a surprisingly strong visual sense for a screenwriter, with an economical, lean style prone to moments of sharp beauty and unexpected menace, suggesting that his future work could be worth looking out for. But for now, this study of corporate and personal mores is reminiscent of 70s US Cinema in its cynicism and evocation of the blanketing darkness and banality of corporate evil. Its flat portrayal of Hitmen as workers like everyone else and the boss who orders murders casually as a sweaty, stressed executive riddled with self-doubt just make its moral world more convincing and realistic. The only carp is that feelgood ending, but even that seems undermined somewhat by the shot that follows it and the possible suggestion that for Clayton, nothing much has really changed at all.

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)
- I wrote some months ago of my fears for Wes Anderson and his development. And, in a way, the Darjeeling Limited just bore out those fears. It played exactly as I had imagined it would - it looked like I knew it would, felt like I knew it would, had the emotional and comedic balance I knew it would. Which just goes to show that you can rely on Wes Anderson as a director. His films feel like nobody elses, really. So The Darjeeling Limited was beautiful (more slo-mo characters walking in profile, an Anderson staple), it made me laugh, it contained a handful of cracking (Kinks) British Invasion songs and a couple of great scenes and fine performances. I was worried that Anderson will just go on and on making the same film over and over, and maybe he will, its hard to tell after this film. There are new elements, but his voice and style are so distinctive that he makes them feel like old ones. And if he does make the same film over and over, well if they're this entertaining, then so what? The best part was "Hotel Chevalier" the short film screened before the main feature, acting as a prologue and chronicling the meeting between Schwartzman's character and Natalie Portman in a Paris hotel room. It too displayed all Andrson's strengths, only more acutely and with an adult sensibility never evident in his work before. It even felt like it might have been autobiographical, at least in its emotional content, a sense I haven't gotten from Anderson since "Rushmore". It gave me hope for his future development, even if the main feature clouded the issue.

300 (Zack Snyder)
- A new kind of cinema, a cinema that absorbs and utilises not only other films (though it does that, seemingly more informed by sword & sorcery than sword & sandal epics - evident in the way Snyder's film does not seem set in any realist universe, but a wholly created, fantastic one, with its blade-armed men, its disfigured mages, its God-kings, its superhuman superwarriors and the influence of Jackson's LOTR) but by comic books, obviously, and by video games. The effect makes it feel like a crazy art movie, such is the narrowness of its focus, the severity of its aesthetic. Snyder wants to tell this little-big story, and he wants to tell it this way. That he does, thrillingly. But the pleasures are not the pleasures of your historical battle epic of yore. This is a film that ignores the rules which informed the likes of "Gladiator" or even "Spartacus". Oh, Snyder seems aware of these rules, and he uses what he fancies, but the rest he tosses away. He is fanboy as director, with a fanboys glee for action - accordingly, some of 300's battle scenes are extraordinary, and it uses Matrix-esque bullet time better than any film has done since the Matrix itself - and lack of interest in subtlety or complexity. But why should it be subtle, or complex? this is a simple story, with little room for those values. So it is big and loud and brash and exciting and frequently beautiful. Snyder is a classicist at heart, as was evident in "Dawn of the Dead". He is careful in his framing and cutting, choosing the right composition and sticking with it. This is how he honours and exceeds Miller. "300" showed us the future of cinema, in a way. Frightening to some, but exciting too. Snyder is worth watching..

Sunshine (Danny Boyle)
- Its hard to get a handle on Danny Boyle. His films are all so different, with massively different settings, in different genres and with different themes. The major element they seem to have in common is an almost Hawksian interest in the dynamics of groups of characters under pressure. Or is this what Alex Garland brings to these collaborations? It is a major part of The Beach, 28 days Later and Sunshine. Sunshine makes a virtue of its confined, claustrophobic setting - it makes the Sun itself the star (forgive the pun), its awesome power and beauty the major subject of both teh story and the cameras focus. Boyle's direction and the photography by Alwin Kuchler are both terrific, always imaginitive, maintaining suspense and unease throughout. The classy international cast are solid, and the first two acts of the film work perfectly, as the premise grows in power and the stakes rise and we learn about the characters. When things begin to go wrong, in a succession of accidents and bad decisions, the audience is right there, frightened and tense. Garland's script is sure-footed and confident for most of the story, and the science feels convincing, the questions it poses profound and even provocative, a rarity in a sci-fi film. This is hard sci-fi, the sci-fi of ideas and questions rather than meaningless spectacle and action. Then in the last act, the film changes, introducing a predictable generic element in the shape of Mark Strong's insane sun-worshipper. And though it handles that element well on its own terms - the moment where Cillian Murphy's Capa learns from the ships computer that there are 5 remaining crew members, not 4, is perhaps the best in the film - you feel a little let down. Sunshine had been doing so well as it was, telling its slightly metaphysical 2001/solaris/alien-referencing story, that you feel it didn't need any help. 28 Days Later similarly suffered from becoming an utterly different beast in its final stretch, transforming from an epic post-apocalyptic survival movie into a claustrophobic military drama. Still, the ending, where man more or less meets God, is brave and beautiful, and the fact that the film survives its near-derailing suggests its true quality.

Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck)
- I loved: Ryan Gosling, the girl, the openness of it all, its easy pace, the washes of beauty from nowhere, the slightly, subtly, just-about optimistic ending, Broken Social Scene, its complexity and refusal to judge, its adult lack of a simple reason for junkie behaviour...

Films that narrowly missed the Top Ten that I have written just a few words about:

Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
- Wow.

Into the Wild (Sean Penn)
- So serious, so ambitious and so well-made. But the protagonist is such an asshole. You leave admiring the film's artfulness but questioning its rationale.

Apocalypto (Mel Gibson)
- Mel may be nuts but he's a great visual storyteller with a gonzo sensibility. This film has a POV shot from a decapitated head. No more needs be said.

The Family Friend (Paolo Sorrentino)
- Sorrentino is one of the great stylists at work in modern cinema. Scene-by-scene, this film was as good as anything released this year. It just didn't work as a whole quite so well...

The Last Winter (Larry Fessenden)
- Straight-to-DVD in the UK for this brilliantly ambitious, eerie horror film. Fessenden is the closest thing working today to the great Horror auteurs of the 70s.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henkel von Donnersmark)
- Great script, great acting, but not cinematic enough for my liking. Like a middling TV movie. Whereas both:

The Mark of Cain (Marc Munden)
& Boy A (John Crowley)
- Were fantastic, topical Channel 4 TV movies that felt truly cinematic, stylishly made, well-written and acted.

The Kingdom
- Well, the last 20 minutes anyway, when Berg brings out the semi-automatic weapons and the RPGs...

A few other worthy films :

Atonement, The Painted Veil, Superbad, Hot Fuzz, 3.10 to Yuma, Breach, 3 Days in Paris, Eastern Promises, Mutual Appreciation, Reprise, Seraphim Falls, Tell No One, A Mighty Heart, Beowulf

There were a few films this year I wanted to see but missed, because you can't see everything. So apologies to Rescue Dawn, We Own the Night, Away From Her, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, the Wild Blue Yonder, 30 Days of Night, Into Great Silence, In the Shadow of the Moon, Exiled, Lady Chatterly, I Am Legend and Dans Paris.

To everything else: a great wet raspberry. And a Happy New Year.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Golgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgol: 2

The Divine Ponytail:

The Less Divine Mullet:

Fernando Belluschi, who tries to combine the ponytail and the mullet into one hairstyle. He's River Plate's box-to-box midfielder, but hes a little bit of a playmaker too. He'll be in Europe soon:

Ronnie Whelan:

A couple of backheels-

First, Totti in training, with a penalty:

But this is in the European Cup Final! By Madjer:


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"There was a demon that lived in the air"

As major French Directors of the 1960s go, Claude Lelouch's reputation hasn't really stood the test of time. While his peers - Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Malle and Rivette amongst others - have enjoyed fluctuating critical opinion, each of them seems assured of a place in the pantheon of important directors. Not so Lelouch, who has continued to make profitable, fitfully entertaining productions for more than four decades now. But then it was more a fluke of timing than anything else that meant he was ever grouped with the directors of the Nouvelle Vague. He had come from advertising - his films all bear the coldly stylish sheen of a man always looking to sell - and his mindset was always more commercial than even Truffaut, the most accessible and human of that generation of French filmakers, would have contemplated. They had all been critics first, and their films are all intellectual to some extent, desperate to use cinema somehow, to widen its scope, to deepen its impact, desperate for importance. Lelouch never seemed to share this desperation, which is perhaps why his reputation suffers. That and the fact that much of his output is solidly pedestrian.

Viewed today, his most celebrated and best remembered film from that era: "Un Homme et Une Femme" (1966) seems a lovely curio. Beautifully shot, it is a lifestyle film, almost all style without any substance, beautiful people - stars Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant - lovingly pictured in attractive locations, with a memorable soundtrack and some ostentatious technique. Lelouch always had a great eye, and there are some lush, captivating scenes, but none of it adds up to much more than an almost Mills & Boon style romance. In 1966, its modish stylishness dazzled many viewers and it won the Palm D'Or at Cannes and the Best Foreign film Oscar. Its commercial success gave Lelouch a bankability none of his peers could match and many of his later films recall it. He tended to concentrate on love storys, and his visual style was always loud and showy, his good eye for colour and composition never deserting him.

The film I think bolsters his reputation in a way none of his more canonical work manages is "C'etait un rendez-vous", a short from 1976. At the time, Lelouch risked claiming credit for the film, since he had broken so many laws in making it, and he was arrested though later released without charges when it was first screened. After those initial screenings it was more or less withdrawn and a cloud of mystery formed around it. It occasionally screened, unannounced, before Lelouch's features. VHS tapes circulated between knowledgable buffs, it would be shown at Motor Fairs. Its reputation grew. It became legendary.

A nearly nine minute unbroken shot of a high-speed drive through Paris at 5.30am, the film remains an unmatched dose of pure adrenaline, more thrilling than any movie carchase I've ever seen or racing game I've ever played. Rumours have circulated for years that it was shot from a Ferrari 275 driven by a French F1 driver (coincidentally Trintignant's job in "Un Homme et Une Femme"), but Lelouch has stated that he was the driver and that the car was his own Mercedes with the camera on a gyro mounted on the bonnet. The engine sounds and the screeching tyres, the squealing brakes, the clunking gear shifts were all overdubbed from a Ferrari, apparently. It doesn't matter. What matters is that it is real, that the pedestrians we see the car fly past, the pigeons it scatters, the many Citroens it overtakes were all real. The curb it jumps was real. If you know Paris at all, then its fun to match the drive to familar geography, to see the streets narrow near the end as the car climbs into Montmarte, the trees shading the road, the headlights reflected in shaded car windows becoming smeared speedlines of white at the edges of the picture. Reality has its own pure beauty when captured at the right instant, and this film is beautiful in its truth, its verite singlemindedness. In saying that, Lelouch can't help himself and has to introduce a little bit of narrative at the end, giving it all a point. Its faintly cheesy but I love the ending too. Even if Lelouch's many other films are disregarded by posterity, then "Rendez-vous" (as it is most commonly known in English) will survive*, I think.
This is why:

*It's already survived being edited down to 5 minutes or so and then used by Snow Patrol, of all people, as one of their videos. And being ripped off mercilessly by this Nissan advert (which is nowhere near as good).


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"It is a beast of singular purpose."

My favourite comics creative team - by which I mean ongoing collaboration between a Writer and and Artist - is Stan Lee & Steve Ditko. It has been since I was around 8 years old and I can't see that changing anytime soon unless Grant Morrison starts writing a new Moon Knight title pencilled by John Romita Jr. and inked by Al Williamson with Barry Windsor Smith covers. Lee & Ditko gave us the Amazing Spider-Man and Dr Strange, and they're probably still the Superhero comics I get most pleasure from. Closely following these titans would be a few other creative teams, most of them obviously superb collaborations: Miller & Mazzucchelli, Claremont & Byrne, Moore & Gibbons. At the moment, only Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely even approach any of these other teams - most of the other creators I really admire and enjoy are writer-artists, one man operations. But the team pipping many of these others in my affections is a strange one, who only did a little work together almost 20 years ago: Alan Moore & Alan Davis. But what fine work that was.

Just consider the titles the duo worked on together: Miracleman. D.R & Quinch. Captain Britain. All quite different, all quite superb. I didn't really like D.R. & Quinch at the time. I had an order at my local Newsagents for 2000AD - meaning that every copy I have at home, spanning probably about 12 years, has my surname high on the cover in pencil - and I loved almost all of the long-running and recurring characters. But I liked 2000AD when it was grim and violent. I was less fond of the occasional excursions into satire - unless it was in a Judge Dredd story - and humour back then. D.R. & Quinch was obviously comedy, and though I liked the clean-lined style of Davis' art (which alongside the work of a young Steve Dillon seemed to me to be more obviously influenced by the American artists I myself had a preference for such as John Byrne and George Perez than most artists working in British comics seemed to be, though Davis claims British artists like Frank Hampson as his biggest influences) but not the scripts. Moore never really did his best work for 2000AD, though. Alongside some great "Future Shocks" stories, The Ballad of Halo Jones - with lovely art by Ian Gibson - was probably his best work for the comic, and for me it always seemed uncomfortable in the comics medium. It read like it should have been a big 1000 page Sci-Fi novel, not a serial story in an anthology comic. Skizz barely reads like Moore at all, so conventional and straightforward is its narrative, so modest are its ambitions.

Upon reflection, D.R. & Quinch appears to be both the most and at the same time the least Moore-like example of his work on 2000AD. A sci-fi reading of the National Lampoon characters O.C. & Stiggs (who were made into a middling film by Robert Altman in 1987), it gave him more or less unlimited scope to expand his imagination into and an opportunity to tell various different stories under the same umbrella. But the stories he chose to tell were generally nasty little cartoons wherein his anti-heroes cheerfully, almost obliviously caused havoc. Their first appearance in a Tharg's Time Twisters story opens with these lines from Quinch : "My name's Ernie Quinch, College Student. I like guns and starting fights. My psychiatrist says I'm a psychotic deviant. But that doesn't mean I'm a bad person, right?" Over the course of this story Moore displays both his effortless grasp of Epic storytelling - DR & Quinch create life on Earth and shape the development of humanity basically as part of a longterm plan to get revenge on an enemy - and his mischeivious sense of humour, not always so evident in some of his most famous work. That story also shows that Davis could draw anything - he was as adept at the Alien gatherings as he was at the various single-panel portraits of several historical periods. Later stories were similarly frantic and juvenile, full of crass little jokes, sight-gags and widescreen comic violence. When Moore eventually left, he was replaced by Jamie Delano, which was something of a theme in his UK work with Davis. He has since utterly disowned DR & Quinch, which is a shame, as it reveals a side of his talent rarely seen in the years since.

"Miracleman" is one of the great superhero comics of the 1980s, and its a tribute to its quality to see its influence and reputation surviving after over a decade out of print. The horribly complicated and bitter legal proceedings over ownership look set to ensure the continuation of that situation, which seems sinful (you can find copies of the collections on eBay, each going for a small fortune, and it may just be cheaper to buy the single issues). Moore and Davis collaborated on the series only very briefly, Davis taking over from Gary Leach on art when the series was still being serialized - as "Marvelman" - in "Warrior" magazine. But, just as on Dr & Quinch, Davis had found his style by the time he came to "Miracleman", and was merely sharpening his storytelling from month to month. But it was clear that here was a great Superhero artist, seemingly born to draw countless figures in flight, with a lovely line and superb pacing and staging abilities. He complimented Moore's script perfectly. And Moore's script is the true glory of "Miracleman". It, not the peerless "Watchmen", is the writer's definitive statement on the Superhero genre ("Watchmen" seems to me more a sort of requiem), altough Moore was nowhere near the later highs of the series in the Davis-drawn issues. There he was still introducing characters and themes, and the leap to the big concepts of the Totelbein and Veitch issues seems in retrospect like a massive one. Indeed, the Davis stories can be read as pure Superhero tales, not nearly as revisionist as the series came to be. This suited Davis' pure, mainstream style. But not as much as their other collaboration did.

I always liked Captain Britain as a character, even though I knew he was a bit lame. My introduction to the character came in a two part Marvel Team-Up story uniting him with Spider-Man by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. This was back when he still wore the 70s-era red costume with the big Golden Lion insignia and the Bart Simpson hair, and carried a super-staff of some sort:

I liked the costume back then, liked that he was English, liked that his name was Brian Braddock. The Marvel Team-Up story faced he and Spidey against Arcade and his Murderworld, and the second part was one of my favourite single issues as a kid. I still have the comic, and its been read so many times the covers barely hanging on to the staples. I never saw any of his original run in his own Marvel UK comic, with Claremont scripting and Herb Trimpe art. So the next time I saw Captain Britain, he looked and felt radically different. He was being drawn by Alan Davis, for one thing, and his new costume looked a lot more British and a lot more modern. His staff was gone, too. I couldn't afford to buy the kind of Marvel UK comics he was in back then - it was actually cheaper for me to buy US Marvels - but I browsed them in shops and those stories looked dark and moody to me. When I did get to read them years later, I realised why that was. They had been written by Alan Moore.

Perhaps Moore's greatest gift is an ability to think laterally about characters without losing sight of their core appeal. This has enabled him to successfully rehabilitate numerous titles and characters over the course of his career, from Swamp Thing to the WildCats. He did it on Captain Britain, too, and the Marvel Universe is a far richer place because of his work back then. He took over from writer Dave Thorpe, who had transplanted the character into a parallel universe where Britain has become a repressive, Orwellian dictatorship, ruled over by "Mad" James Jaspers (visually modelled on Terry Thomas) and lumbered him with an impish sidekick, Jackdaw. Moore quickly put an end to the dimension-hopping aspects of the story, though as usual, he saw the potential Thorpe has missed and would later present the Multiverse as a sort of comedic nightmare of conflicting bureaucracies. It was also a convenient means for explaining the origins of any new, wild characters he and Davis came up with. And they came up with plenty.

The many members of the Special Executive, for example, a team of inter-dimensional bounty hunters and mercenaries. The various Captain Britains of alternate realities. Megan, who would become Captain Britain's partner, colleague in Excalibur and eventually wife. Perhaps the most memorable is The Fury, the "beast of singular purpose" of the title of this post. A Cybiote monster of steel and flesh created by Jaspers to kill Superheroes, Moore describes it as possessing the "logic of a computer, the intuition of a dog". Davis imagines it as a sort of techno-Golem, featureless but for the distinctive shapes upon its face - its eyes, preumably, though they resemble religious symbols in their primitive, simple symmetry - and its demonic qualities, with its hoof-like feet, its ridged spine, its claw and blaster for hands. The Fury is a terrifying, supremely cool creation, anticipating the similar Terminator by fully a year. Because the thing about the Fury, as Moore and Davis make clear, is that it never stops. It keeps pursuing Captain Britain. It follows him across the Multiverse, crossing dimensions in pursuit. It kills everybody who gets in its way. Moore's descriptions of it are always pitch-perfect: "It runs like a retarded child...a flailing engine of unhindered force, not designed to meet human standards of poise and beauty. But it is very fast, and very strong." It is emotionless, motiveless, merely following its programming. Its climactic battle with the reality-warping Jaspers is awesomely beautiful and epic. Of course, it has been resurrected and used in the Marvel Universe in the years since, though never with the same impact.

Much of Moore's work in the 1980s was obsessed with visions of Dystopian societys - most obviously in "V For Vendetta". "Captain Britain" is no different, as Moore takes Dave Thorpe's work and reruns it through his own sensibility. Jaspers' rise in the alternate reality is repeated in the Britain of the Marvel Universe, and the characters find themselves in a cold, fascist Britain of food-queues and secret police abductions. Moore mixes this with a poetic treatment of Jaspers' crumbling mental state given physical reality by his own superpowers. There is also a sort of smaller scale version of the famed issue of "Watchmen" in which Dr Manhattan mentally timeshifts on the surface of Mars. Except here its all done in two pages and four large panels as the clairvoyant Cobweb deals with sudden altered perceptions. Throughout all this is the steadily improving art of Alan Davis. His character designs are rich and imaginitive and his storytelling and linework only become more acute from issue to issue. By the final chapters, his confidence and assurance are evident, and after a few more years on Captain Britain - in the company of Jamie Delano, who again replaced the departed Moore - he was lured to America to work for DC on "Batman and the Outsiders" (his Neal Adams-esque version of Batman remains one of my favourites). Since then he has worked for both of the big US companies on nearly every one of their major characters, and is now a writer-artist.

The influence of the work Moore and Davis did on Captain Britain is obvious in subtle ways. One of Moore's throwaway ideas in "Captain Britain" was the numbers assigned to the different realities in the multiverse - Brian Braddock's reality, or the reality of the Marvel Universe, of Spider-Man and the X-Men and the Hulk - was number 616. Since the creation of the Ultimate Universe, use of the term "616 Universe" has become commonplace, especially on the Internet, but also within the Marvel Universe itself, leading to some disagreement about it's ultimate origin (Alan Davis, for instance, claims it was coined by Dave Thorpe).
Many of the concepts, characters and situations from Captain Britain became staples of a particular corner of the Marvel Universe when Chris Claremont and Davis revisited them in "Excalibur", which recast Braddock and his supporting cast within the context of the X-Men family. Of course nobody - not even Davis himself, as eventual Writer-Artist on that title - did them quite right, or anywhere near as well as Moore and Davis had done. But then, thats the beauty of the peculiar chemistry leading to a great collaboration. Its mysterious, almost magical. Moore and Davis definitely had it.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Shuffle : Needle In the Hay

Probably anyone who reads this blog regularly will know this song. Either you'll like Elliott Smith - and if you don't, you should - or you'll have seen Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums". This song scores perhaps the most memorable scene in that film, when Luke Wilson's Richie slits his wrists in the bathroom.

Its a great song, one of Smith's best, and absolutely shattering. Its effects - that stubborn, shuddering, repetitive chord sequence, his oh-so-intimate double-tracked vocal sounding as if he's whispering in your ear, the vague but evocative lyrical imagery suggesting addiction and depression - give it an extraordinary power, considering the fact that its just one man with a guitar. The magic in Smith's music for me lies in his ability to wrest lovely, unexpected melodies from simple, often overly-familiar chords and structures, and on his later records his knowledge on how best to present the resulting songs improved. But here the basic recording suits the song, makes the listener feel as if they're in a room alone with the performer, like hes confessing it all just to them.

It was the first Elliott Smith song I heard. He was one of those acts that suddenly seemed to be eveywhere in the popular culture with which I always surrounded myself. I read references to him in magazines and on websites. Elvis Costello raved about him in an interview. I bought "Elliott Smith", his 1995 second album, on vinyl, without ever having heard him, based on some review I'd read, probably. I used to do things like that back then, before downloading or iTunes was an option for me. "Needle In the Hay" is the opening song on that album, and it sets the tone fairly well. There's little let-up over the course of what is his most sombre and monochrome album. It was so grim it shocked me a little, but I recognised the quality of the songwriting straightaway. A year later he was a hundred times more famous when his songs appeared on the "Good Will Hunting " soundtrack, and his fourth record, "XO", was an enormous leap forward, featuring a positively Beatlesque sonic palette and some of his most beautiful and ambitious work. He became one of my favourite acts, one of the few whose records I actively waited for.

He played Dublin a couple of times, in 1998 and 2000, before a gig at a venue called the Red Box in September 2000 on the Figure Eight tour. He seemed nervous and jumpy at that gig, and I've read since that his heroin habit resurfaced during that particular tour, which may account for it. But it was a fantastic gig. I had all his albums by then, and though my favourite was (and remains) "Either/Or", the songs I loved most were those dark acoustic pieces from the "Elliott Smith" album. I knew that he was going to be backed by a full band at this gig - the material on his last two records demanded it - so I wasn't expecting to hear those songs. But then he shambled on, he and his band tuned up for a few seconds, and he started to play "Christian Brothers". Then the band joined in, and they raged through a loud, rock version. Those furiously strummed acoustic chords translated perfectly into electric riffs, it turned out. I was blown away. Delighted. It got better when he later played "Needle In the Hay" in the same fashion. The version isn't even all that different - similar tempo, same structure and lyrics - just louder and with a big backbeat. It rocked, and it was a nice night at a great gig with a good friend. I always felt a special love for that version of the song, and could never find it anywhere. It's like when a band you like cover a song you love in concert, as if they've done it just for you. This felt weirdly as if he had covered his own song. Its not better than the original, it might not even be as good, but it is great:

And the original version, as used in "The Royal Tenenbaums":


Monday, December 03, 2007


Since I've posted quite a few adverts shot by Directors I like, heres another that just appeared online. But for whats basically an advertisement for Wine, this one has a tremendously classy pedigree. Directed by Martin Scorsese and shot by the great Harris Savides, "The Key to Reserva" is a fun tribute to Alfred Hitchcock in the style of Hitchcock. In a way, it feels like it really should have been directed by Brian DePalma, but Scorsese - whose only film in any way resembling this up to now was "Cape Fear" - does a fine job. The use of Bernard Herrmann's "North By Northwest" score is obviously crucial to maintaining the mood, but Scorsese and Savides uncannily emulate his distinctive visual style too. The lighting techniques are perfect, the velvet richness to the reds feels just right, and the shot choice is brilliant. It even uncovers a hitherto unnoticed certain old-fashioned square-jawed stiffness to Simon Baker. And Scorsese, interviewed by "Oceans 11" Screenwriter Ted Griffin, is always good at parodying himself onscreen:

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