Saturday, February 28, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 23

Peter Yates' best film, Robert Mitchum's best late performance, a cool Dave Grusin score, the grittiest of gritty 70s location shoots, a fine cast of supporting lowlifes: what more do you want?


Sunday, February 22, 2009

"The zone wants to be respected"

If you've seen Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker" (1979), then you will be aware of just what a unique, challenging and mesmerizing experience it is. If you've seen it on a Big Screen, then certain images and passages will never leave you. It is Science Fiction of the best kind - thought-provoking, demanding, imaginative, intense and with many elements left open to interpretation. Tarkovsky was a genuine artist, and while none of his features (with the possible exception of his debut, "Ivan's Childhood") is anything less than difficult, his facility with the cinematic medium means that they are all worthwhile. Some of the long, slow crawls across the barren landscapes of the Zone in "Stalker" are filled with that strain of mournful beauty which seems to have come so easily to the director.

Anyway, the film has been on my mind ever since I read Geoff Dyer's rhapsodic piece in the Guardian a few weeks back. He gets it right. No film feels remotely like "Stalker". It is too uncompromising, too singular. Which only makes it all the more surprising that it was partly the basis for a video game, "S.T.A.L.K.E.R: The Shadow of Chernobyl". And not just any video game; a First Person Shooter.

Ok, maybe "basis" is going too far, but "Stalker" was certainly the visual inspiration for the game, which parlays its setting to a future Chernobyl, sometime after a second catastrophe has made the area a "Zone" filled with mutated horrors and unexplained phenomena. The men who exist and make their livings within the Zone are called "Stalkers" just as in Tarkovsky's film. Only here they carry a variety of weaponry and spend much of their time, not arguing intently about their philosophies and what the zone could mean, but trying to blow each other to hell.

In reality, both film and game are based upon "Roadside Picnic", a 1971 novella by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky which tells the tale of a "zone", the site of an alien landing which has become affected by strange reality-warps and space-time distortions, not to mention radiation, but which nevertheless attracts prospectors in search of power or "artifacts". The novella eerily appears to foretell of Chernobyl, which following the 1986 disaster became the location of what has been deemed a "zone of alienation", a 1,400 square mile area, terribly irradiated and now monitored by men who refer to themselves as "stalkers" as they patrol dead cities and ghost towns.

But its the thought of Tarkovsky's slow view of the world twisted into a First Person shooter that really tickles me. And made me wonder what other canonical classics of World Cinema could work as video games. Nothing with guns or swords, so no genre films, no Melville or Kurosawa, since both of those directors have enjoyed direct or indirect influence on the game medium anyway. A few possibilities, however:

The Seventh Seal: You play as the Knight. You play chess with Death. So its basically a chess game with funky trimmings and a really really grim atmosphere. Max Von Sydow could even do his own voice work. An unlockable extra could be the ability to play Battleship with Death, ala Bill and Ted. Winner, I think. I'd buy it.

The Battleship Potemkin: There's this baby-carriage, see. On some steps. Teetering. While a load of malarky carries on all around it. Will it go, rolling down the steps, or will - I can see it as an iPhone game, maybe, where you have to tilt the phone this way and that to keep the carriage from plummeting downwards. I dimly remember an Untouchables game back in the day, though I have no idea if it included an Odessa Steps sequence...

The Leopard - Like "the Sims", maybe. You have to make social connections at the Ball, wear the right frock, do your hair just so, not mess up your dance, always say the right thing, know our table-manners, etc etc. Unlocking new cravats and hairpins as you go, new apertifs. Some people actually like games like this. Imagine.

Pather Panchali - Try to survive growing up in abject poverty, acquiring skills along the way - begging, sitting in the shade and out of the sun, not annoying your sister too much. Dance in the rain without catching fever and run through the grass to see the trains as they pass. I see it as a free-roaming sandbox game, like "Fable". The two sequels could be the later, more advanced stages.

Metropolis - Build the most impressive, self-sustaining sci-fi city you can, from the ground up, then populate it with hot robot babes with metal boobies. Ensure your society and economy function. Try to avoid damaging industrial action.

The Red Balloon - A platform game. Guide the balloon as it is buffeted by Parisian winds towards treacherous sharp branches and evil gargoyles. Avoid the falling birdshit. Gain power points by connecting with the cute little moppet at ground level.

Last Year at Marienbad - A puzzle game. Try to figure out whats going on. Do you know this woman? Does she know you? Is this the past or the future? Didn't we have this conversation before? All interspersed with mini-games: Nem and target-shooting. And a maze option - find your way through the endless corridors...

I was going to include "El Topo", but apparently its a big influence on a Wii game called "No More Heroes", which disturbs me mightily. Also disturbing - as if the "Godfather" game wasn't bad enough, there should be a "Heat" game out later this year. Do you think it'll have some shooting in it?

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Football - No. 18 : Cambiasso vs. Serbia

There are great goals, and then there are immortal goals.
When Esteban Cambiasso connected with a Hernan Crespo backheel to drive the ball hard into the roof of the net in a world Cup Group Game between Argentina and Serbia & Montenegro on June 16th 2006 to put the Argentines 2-0 up, an instant classic was recognisable. An immortal goal. It came at the end of a sequence of 24 passes, involving eight players, in a classic move redolent of the purest aesthetic of Argentinean football - moving the ball on the ground quickly in a sweeping sequence of short passes, back and forth, dragging the opposition team all over the pitch until their defence leaves a gap which is then ruthlessly exploited. It was a breathtaking thing of beauty and a pleasure to behold. What was so beautiful? There are few instances of breathtaking skill, nothing really spectacular beyond a couple of truly superb touches. The beauty lies in the communal effort of a team, the combination of solid technique and hard work to create and exploit an opportunity. Pure football.

We'll begin almost halfway through the passage of play. Serbia had been attacking, an urgency evident in their need for an equalizer to Maxi Rodriguez's opening goal, just minutes before. Maxi had begun the match on the right wing, his usual position with Atletico Madrid and the National team, but Lucho Gonzalez had left the game early with an injury, replaced by Cambiasso. Maxi switched to the left with a licence to roam infield to support playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme. This World Cup would be the making of Maxi. He scored two fine goals in this game and probably the second best goal of the tournament in the first knockout round against Mexico with his chest-and-volley from distance into the top corner. He ended the tournament badly, however, banned for his part in the fighting at the end of Argentina's quarter-final with Germany. If he is best remembered for the sublime technique of that volley against Mexico, it is worth noting that Maxi is as much a grafter as he is a technician, and tracking back, he nipped in and won the ball deep in his own half with a sliding toe. It rolled to Gabriel Heinze, playing at Centre Back alongside the legendary veteran Roberto Ayala in a formidably cynical pairing. Heinze, with a directness borne either of his time in England playing for Manchester United or his relative lack of sparkling technique, passed it forward instantly and it was received by Javier Mascherano.

Having Mascherano and Cambiasso on the pitch together may seem a little redundant - both holding midfield "destroyers" who like to shield a defence. But Cambiasso is an intelligent and underrated player, clever enough to realize that his position as first-choice holding player had been usurped by the emergence of Mascherano as possibly the World's best in that role (Fernando Gago would push him back to third choice in the following year or two). So he showed he could be versatile. Lucho, the player he replaced, is a midfield all-rounder, good at everything, and for Argentina he played as the third point of a triangle with Riquelme and Mascherano. He tracked back, he supported the forwards, he kept chalk on his boots and he ferreted infield for possession. Cambiasso aped his teammate, his formidable engine driving him all game.

For the moment he loitered in right midfield. Perhaps loitered is the wrong term, for rewatching this goal is a lesson in good movement. All of the Argentines move constantly, running towards one another, away from each other in angled lines, slowing down and twisting away, a ballet of perpetual motion from all of the front six. Riquelme, in particular, is a master of slyly evading his markers and finding an empty patch of pitch in which to receive possession. In this passage of play, he, Mascherano, Captain Sorin and Maxi exchange a series of short passes in tightly congested areas, the ball zipping around between them in simple straight lines, Serbs turning and tracking them all the while. What is fascinating is their eagerness to play the simple ball. Riquelme, the most technically gifted player on the pitch, is never afraid of playing the ball first-time back the way it came. He knows that maintaining possession is more important than always seeking the killer ball, that even such a simple ball has meant an adjustment has been made by an opposition defender. And for Riquelme, such adjustments are opportunities. He is patient. He waits for an opportunity, confident that he will spot it when it comes.

Ayala plays an easy ball forward to Cambiasso, who has pushed infield to join the ceaselessly evolving passing triangles being worked by the others. Mascherano pushes forward into the Serbian half while Riquelme and Maxi make runs between Serbian players. Mascherano doesn't push forward often in a game. His tactical discipline is part of his brilliance. But he will surge upfield in an attempt to present a teammate with a better passing option, to drag opposition midfielders after him. His pace and fitness allow him to get back to cover any breakaways. No other player in modern top level football displays the same hunger to be first to the ball, the same shattering power in his tackling. But his distribution is excellent, too, his passing varied and accurate with either foot, his brain unhurried and calm.

Cambiasso sees him and plays an easy square ball. Easy passes are a funny thing. Part of the criticism of British football abroad - one of the reasons it gets branded overly simple and tactically naive - is the British instinct to attack. Players look to play the forward ball at every opportunity, the crowd demands it, the opposition has to press to prevent it, and so we have the helter-skelter pace of the average Premiership game, which is what makes the league so attractive to viewers worldwide. But possession is not quite the precious currency it is in some football cultures, because in the English game, a team always knows it will soon get the ball back. This leads to various players, from Ray Wilkins to Jamie Redknapp to Deco; getting nicknames like "the Crab" from ignorant fans because they only ever move sideways. But the aim is continual motion, the aim is misdirection. Every pass sideways or even backwards is a step towards a pass forwards. This Argentina team knew that very well. This move is full of simple, "easy" balls. But they add up, every one of them adding to the subtle shifts in the Serbian lines. Including Cambiasso's low, crisp ball over the ground to Mascherano.

When he receives it, Mascherano, as usual, does things calmly, simply. He moves the ball along to Maxi, who has already been involved in this move three times, inbetween those touches roaming with intelligence and great awareness. Here he takes the ball and plays a high, bouncing ball out towards Sorin, on the left wing. It is the first pass of this move to leave the ground, and as such it seems almost decadent in its flight, too risky. Sorin is a most Brazilian of Argentine fullbacks, spending the entire game driving forward into the opposition half, joining the attack, then relentlessly tracking back down that line when the opposition gains possession. His drive and competitive spirit saw him made Captain for this tournament, and he seemed to thrive on the responsibility. He chests the ball up to trap it, takes a touch in the face of an onrushing defender, then moves the ball back to Maxi, who again has run around the ball's passage after he played it.

The Serbs are assiduous in their closing-down. They were, before this match at least, famed for a defensive meanness unparalleled elsewhere in the competition - in qualifying, they had conceded the fewest goals of any European side. But here they are missing the injured Nemanja Vidic, colossal centre half, and their defence is shakier than usual. Still they press whoever was on the ball. Maxi takes it and has to turn away from a Serb, then play a longish square ball to Cambiasso who has crossed the field from the right to help out.

It is around this point that the rhythm of the move changes. Cambiasso lays the ball off into the path of Riquelme, who, his back to goal and two defenders approaching, plays it first time sharply back to Mascherano, another easy ball. But the pace has been injected with Riquelme's instant touch, and it will only gather momentum over the next five passes. Riquelme's greatest gift is perhaps an ability to dictate the pace of a game, and here he has just done it. A great team moves as one to some extent, changing gears together, instantly, and in the next fifteen seconds or so this team moves up a gear and will have scored before their opponents have even noticed.

Mascherano picks up on the new pace instantly and hits a quick ball out to Sorin, still lingering on the wing. With three Serbs in close attendance, his options seemed limited. Javier Saviola gives him another. Saviola is the most baffling and frustrating of players. Anyone who saw anything of him as a youngster with River Plate in Argentina will remember the purity of his talent. He had pace, trickery, guile and imagination. He scored wonderful goals (44 in 86 games) and yet his game had more than just goalscoring to set him apart, in his ability to drop into the hole and create opportunities for others. He was Messi, Tevez and Aguero five years before they emerged, the seeming future of Argentinean football. But somewhere along the way it all went a bit wrong. He moved to Barcelona for £15 Million in 2001 and had a decent first season there under Louis Van Gaal, but his second Season was less thrilling and when Van Gaal was replaced by Radomir Antic and then Frank Rijkaard, he slipped down the pecking order and went out on loan to Monaco in 2004. That was followed by another loan, this time to Sevilla, in 2005. Finally, his reputation having taken something of a battering, he joined Real Madrid in 2007, where he remains, perhaps fifth in line for a start in a striking role and constantly linked with moves away. He has scored goals - albeit never as many as at River Plate - everywhere he has played, but has inarguably failed to live up to his massive potential. So it was something of a surprise to see that he was central to Pekarman's plans for this World Cup. Reportedly it was his understanding with Riquelme that convinced the coach, and this move would demonstrate that understanding at its best.

Saviola drifts out towards the wing, takes Sorin's pacy pass on one foot, spins around and moves infield, picking up speed. With Serb playmaker Djordevic advancing to tackle him, he prods the ball sideways to Riquelme, who has another Serb charging at him and Djordevic turning to cut off another avenue.

So again Riquelme ups the pace, flicking the ball first time off his outstep, perfectly over the raised leg of the onrushing defender and into Saviola's path. And there it is: two Serbian players eliminated from the game, their defence suddenly teetering with one single flick of the boot.

Here Saviola's technical ability comes into play, as he cushions the ball with his left on the move, then plays a volleyed pass towards Cambiasso, who is making a late run into the box from midfield. He plays the bouncing ball first time towards Hernan Crespo, darting around the penalty area in classic centre forward style.

Crespo is all about goals. He scores lots of tap ins and little dinks over despairing goalkeepers because his movement and anticipation are so good. So when he receives the ball on the edge of the six yard box, most educated observers would probably expect him to swivel and shoot. He's technically skilled enough that a goal will be the likely outcome. But it is as if the symmetry and team-play of the move up to that point have gotten to him, and Crespo instead pulls up and moves the ball back into Cambiasso's path with a curt little back-heel.

Cambiasso has no option but to hit it first time. There is a Serbian defender a fraction of a second away from smashing the ball into the stands and so he launches himself at it and, sliding almost as soon as he hits it, crashes it into the roof of the net.

Delirium from the Argentinian supporters, superlatives from the pundits. The team go a bit mental too, and will go on to score six goals in all, Riquelme running everything, the mercurial Saviola scoring one before substitutes Tevez and Messi will come on to snatch a goal each. Late on Kezman is sent off for Serbia and Montenegro for a wild lunge at Mascherano.

Argentina would go out to Germany in the knockout phase of the competition and yet, apart from Zidane's insane head butt on Marco Materazzi in the final, in this match they had created the most memorable moment of the tournament. And a sort of mission statement for how the game ought to be played. Two years later Spain would win the European Championship playing a similarly aesthetically pleasing brand of possession football, with Xavi Hernandez in the Riquelme role and David Villa as a sort of even better Saviola. The unlikely possibility of a final to the 2010 World Cup featuring Spain vs Argentina literally makes my mouth water.

So, the goal itself, with Martin Tyler commentary:

And a Mobile Phone film from the stand behind, which is interesting for the view it affords of the cluster of Serbs drawn towards the Riquelme-Sorin-Saviola triangle out on the left, leaving a hole in the centre, and also for the people all getting very happy after the ball goes in:


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 22

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I know, a combination of names to make you shudder. But this, their first collaboration, is a great little romantic fantasy that could have been made in the 1940s. Hanks - back before he took himself so seriously - is perfect, and Ryan plays three characters, each of them convincing and distinctive. It flopped. Nobody saw it. There is no justice.


Monday, February 09, 2009

Just Sayin Again

- Channel 4 airs a starry, classy-looking adaptation of David Peace's Yorkshire novels, "Red Riding" in March (the way HBO should be doing Ellroy's America Trilogy), and it looks like it could be, well, ace:

- Lewis Trondheim is a French cartoonist, and the genius behind "Mr. O", one of my favourite comics ever, which makes me cry with laughter. For the last few years he's been blogging here mainly in the form of short cartoons, vignettes about the absurdity of daily life. They're in French but frequently the gags are utterly visual, so it translates. Theres also a book collection, in English; "Little Nothings: The Curse of the Umbrella". He's done an intimidating amount of other stuff too, the majority of it remaining untranslated.

- Vincenzo Natali. He wrote and directed "Cube" and "Cypher", two original, individual genre movies with a little more depth than is usual for American sci-fi cinema. A couple of years ago he directed one of the chapters in "Paris je t'aime" (he's highly regarded in France, naturally) and he has a new film, "Splice", out this year. But I remember reading an interview with him during production of his "Cypher" follow-up, "Nothing", which he said was about two friends who are playing video games one day then when they open their front door everything is gone. There is just a void. He said it was a black comedy, and I thought it sounded great. Only it never came out. In the UK, at any rate. It did everywhere else. The DVD, needless to say, has been ordered, although this trailer is interesting but not particularly enticing:

- Grant Morrison, in a Newsarama interview, on the similarities between Kirby's New Gods, Star Wars... and something else. I didn't realise it at the time, but of course he's right:
"Star Wars just can’t come close to Kirby’s transcendental vision. The Force doesn’t even have a Wall! Real fans out there will of course be familiar with the He-Man film, Masters of the Universe, which is the closest any movie has so far come to copying New Gods outright. They even have the Boom Tube, while Skeletor is played as Darkseid and He-man is very obviously Orion."

- I wrote a post about the "Mad Men" credits ages ago, and here is the Simpsons pitch-perfect parody:

Up top? Vonetta McGee. Just because.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 21

It says a great deal about John Frankenheimer that at the peak of his powers and bankability, when he could make just about any film he wanted; he chose to make this terrifying, bitter piece of black and white brilliance which has one of the grimmest endings I've ever seen. "Seconds":


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Tackling the Twelve: Z

"Z", directed by Costa-Gavras in 1969, is a conspiracy thriller. Sort of. Its the grandaddy of the modern conspiracy thriller, I think, which would make John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" the Great-Grandaddy. Only its not really a thriller. None of the mechanics of that genre are in operation. Instead its an art film of the type that would never get made today - it straddles genres, has a diffuse, meandering narrative and lacks a main character, but it has a starry cast, is well produced and is extremely serious in intent.

The story traces the events leading up to the assassination of a charismatic leftist politician (Yves Montand) and the investigation into those events - and the ensuing cover up by the military and police - by a magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in an unnamed European country in the 1960s. It was shot in Algiers entirely in French by an obviously French cast, yet is based on the death of Greek Politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963. At the time it was released Greece was under a Military Junta (which is suggested by the film's ending), and the film was seen as a piece of political satire. There is some satirical content - the lengthy final list of things banned by the junta has a comic silliness ("long hair on men, popular music, Tolstoy, Sartre, sociology") which is then undermined by the last item - the letter "Z", which in the Ancient greek "Zi" meant "He lives" and was therefore seen as a symbol of the resistance, making the film's title a potent political statement on its own.

The assassination itself, which seems almost stupidly inept and ridiculous in the film, is based almost exactly on Lambrakis' murder - at a violent, boisterous night rally, two men drive up in a three-wheeled truck and the one in the back clubs the politician in the head in full view of hundreds of people, including dozens of policemen. This comes almost 20 minutes into the film, just when an audience might have been wondering where exactly all this was going. Even then, it only really gains focus when Trintignant begins his investigation and he becomes the main protagonist in the second half. And it retains its odd ability to wander away from the main characters to follow a seemingly minor character or a nuance - hence we spend time with one of the assassins as he tries to pick up men in bars and are treated to a very nouvelle vague jump-cut flashback of Montand's to what appears to be his wife discovering that he was having an affair.

It is a terrifically strange film. The conspiracy thriller, as defined in the 1970s by Alan J. Pakula in the likes of "The Parallax View" and "All the Presidents Men" and by Sidney Pollack in "Three Days of the Condor" is generally suffused with an atmosphere heavy with dread, with the threat from the stranger in the background, and the constant awareness of surveillance. "Z", however, has a bizarrely light tone, almost sunny, or even bland in its treatment of a steadily gathering evil. Almost as if Gavras wasn't quite aware of the power of this material. Only its coal-black stone cold coda (which actually reminded me of the ending of "American Grafitti" more than anything else) is as brutal as this sub-genre routinely feels, with its sucker punch of unfair fates for good people. Which was perhaps deliberate on the director's part - it feels all the more shocking for having come entirely out of the blue, its plain statements so at odds with what went before.

What went before is interesting. Gavras seems unconcerned by any need to obey genre rules. He follows the assassination sequence with an action scene - two men grappling in the back of the three-wheeler as it careens through backstreets, then a blackly comic scene where a young policeman arrests one of the assassins and he shrugs the whole thing off. Then there are numerous scenes of men sitting in rooms talking, a couple of quick chase sequences, and the odd instance of pure visual poetry. Gavras often opens a scene with an jarring establishing shot then moves the camera or the action away to contextualise. These camera movements are occasionally shockingly ostentatious, as are a couple of thrilling transitions he introduces. This all introduces a note of visual tension lacking in the narrative itself, which is too relaxed and leisurely to allow for any real suspense. But then suspense may be beside the point since Gavras is plainly criticising the Greek authorities. Perhaps to turn such a criticism into a Hitchcockian entertainment would somehow demean the subject.

As a piece of cinema it works, if in unexpected ways. The cast is solid, though nobody really has a three-dimensional character to play. The two assassins, Vago and Yago (Marcel Boffuzzi and Renato Salvatori) register most memorably, since their characters have vitality and energy and their fair share of scenes. Montand is effortless and has an abundance of presence and Trintignant, who was in the middle of a great five years or so in which he starred in the likes of "Un Homme et Une Femme", "Il Conformista", "The Great Silence" "Ma Nuit Chez Maud" and "Les Biches" is great with a limited amount to do. His intelligence and integrity is obvious after two scenes, even with those quick, flashing eyes generally hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. The score by Mikis Theadorakis, which combines jaunty, exciting Greek arrangements with some ominous synthesizer sounds, is one of the only aspects of the film which is obviously Greek in origin, and it helps hold all of the disparate strands together. Gavras would go on to make other "political" thrillers, most notably the fantastic "State of Siege" in 1972. He later worked in Hollywood, made a few more middling thrillers with minimal political content, and one great one ("Missing" (1982)), but "Z" remains his keynote work, the film that will be in the first line of his obituary.