Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 25

I first saw Michael Almereyda's "Nadja" (1994) in a mid-90s Vampire movie double bill with Abel Ferrara's "The Addiction" (1995). I had high expectations of that film on the basis of Ferrara's great track record, but knew next to nothing about "Nadja", and had no expectations. Life being as it is, of course I was knocked out by Almereyda's film and let down by Ferrara's. But "Nadja" is everything an Indie film should be - witty, stylish, beautiful and original. And it puts some great actors to strange use. And the trailer contains songs by My Bloody Valentine and Portishead. You need know no more:


Friday, March 27, 2009


- I've complained before on this blog about the unavailability of various films on DVD. But I understand it doesn't make much financial sense for DVD producers to create costly discs of niche films that then fail to sell. Warner Brothers seem to have come up with a solution to this problem, with their new "Warners Classic Archive" operation. They have an enormous library of back catalogue titles unavailable at present, and they've just opened up a small portion of it. If you want one of these films on disc, you order it from the website. They print one off specifically for you. The selection is quite mixed, but there are a couple of intriguing possibilities: Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rain People" and Paul Simon's "One Trick Pony" both jump out at me. But whats more exciting are the possibilities it raises...

- If "Burn After Reading" was exactly the opposite of what I wanted the Coens to do after the success of "No Country for Old Men", and the forthcoming "A Serious Man" is exactly the opposite of what I would have liked them to do for a follow-up to the follow-up, they've finally made me happy with the announcement of what their next project will be. Charles Portis' "True Grit" is a great Western novel which was turned into a middling (but Oscar-winning) John Wayne vehicle by Henry Hathaway in 1969. The novel follows a young girl as she hunts the murderer of her father through Indian territory with the aid of a legendary US Marshall and Texas Ranger pursuing the killer for a different crime. The true glory of the novel - in common with Portis' other work - is the strength of the distinctive voice, for the girl narrates the novel in a sort of off-kilter frontier poetry. But the characters are pretty memorable too, none more so than Rooster Cogburn, the Marshall portrayed by Wayne in 1969, and a role crying out for Tommy Lee Jones in the Coens' version. What is really exciting is that the book seems a perfect fit with the Brother's sensibility: dark, violent, witty and yet slyly funny. Plus, every director should make at least One Western in their career.

- Some exciting announcements at DC of late. Kyle Baker on a very Joe Kubert-looking Hawkman, for one:

- Recent news that a fourteen year old product of the Real Madrid youth academy by the name of Enzo Zidane (whose many Youtube clips feature a pirouette very much like his Dad's) is to make his debut for the Spain under 15s made me think of this clip of Paolo Maldini's eight year old son executing a stunningly perfect sliding tackle on Clarence Seedorf at a Milan party (unsurprisingly, he's already on Milan's books):

- Mondo Tees do t-shirts and posters and stuff. Many are beautiful, some are funny, most are cool. This poster for "Point Blank" is just awesome:

- Back in the grunge era, I always preferred Pearl Jam to Nirvana, which wasn't the fashionable choice. Pearl Jam were too earnest, too rawk, too corporate (though they later proved that to be decidedly not the case). Now it makes sense to me, since Pearl Jam came far more from a Classic Rock tradition, whereas Nirvana had their roots in Punk, and I always had more of a leaning towards Classic Rock than Punk. Anyway, for a few years in my mid to late teens, they were easily my favourite band. A gateway act, too, leading me away from metal and towards wider, fresher territory. The shiny new super-duper reissue version of "Ten", originally released in 1991(!!) makes me feel very very old. But it also reminds me of what a great band they were and how much I loved them back then, and why. I have the first three records on my ITunes, and one of their songs crashing into a shuffle always makes me smile. Especially "State of Love & Trust", off the brilliant "Singles" soundtrack. I first encountered the song on their appearance on MTV Unplugged, and it took me a while to get my head around the electric version on "Singles", but I finally did. It rocks. The unplugged version, however, edges it somewhat in my opinion. Pearl Jam didn't approach Unplugged the way most bands did. Nirvana, say, showed up and played a polite, quiet little show. Dave Grohl used brushes on his kit. They foregrounded Cobain's melodic, pop songwriting ability at the expense of the fuzz and white noise of their records. It worked, it made for a great show and a nice album. Pearl Jam, however, just treated it like any other gig. They rocked, in other words. Acoustic guitars are battered, nary a brush comes near the drums, it all gets quite loud. Theres a DVD of the appearance on the new "Ten", which may be reason enough for me to get it. But then again, I know it off by heart. I must have watched this performance at least a hundred times as a 16 year old:

That? Up there?
Tuesday Weld.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009


Michael Mann, 2001

DP: Emmanuel Luzbeki

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Reflections on Red Riding

"To the North, where we do what we want".

In the past year or two, Channel 4 has become perhaps the leading terrestrial producer of quality TV drama in the UK with films like "Boy A" and "The Mark of Cain". This year the superb "The Devil's Whore" maintained that high standard.
Now, a three-part adaptation of David Peaces "Yorkshire Quartet" follows along the same path. The films share a single screenwriter - Tony Grisoni - but each part is the work of a different director.

1974 - Julian Jarrold

- The main impression is of utter visual grimness. All of the beauty comes from lovely shots of desolation: rain upon a car window, ominous cloud formations, crumbling, apocalyptic estates. The interiors all seem studies in various shades of brown. The odd beige. Even the car is brown. Hideous wallpaper. Everyone smoking. Leather jackets, sideburns, big collars, flares. Life on Mars without the slight kitsch factor or the nostalgia. Jarrold's direction and Rob Hardy's photography are brilliant - this film is cinematic, its television origins absent in the finished product. No wonder the trilogy is playing theatrically in some territories.

- Arty compositions transcend the narrative - the sex scenes, with their partial shifts in focus, lens flares, obtuse framing: lovely.

- Great locations: that carpark with the low concrete-beam ceiling was absolutely terrifying in its promise of doom, of violence. The 60s-Build house by the moors, isolated, vulnerable to Yorkshire itself. Dawson's modernist mansion, a squat symbol of evil and corruption, all clean lines and cold heartlessness.

- The cast. Familiarity of many of these faces, unfamiliar dread at what lay behind some of them. Sean Bean a revelation, that sense of his hidden violence never put to use so well, especially when combined with his rough charm. Andrew Garfield's boyishness just making him seem more fragile and at risk, his cockiness fading as he began to care and finally to fear what was coming. Their scenes together tense and thrilling - never has the term "lad" been so ominous. Rebecca Hall convincingly haunted, her blondness cheap and tired. The people in smaller parts - David Morrissey, Warren Clarke - promising that the other films would be just as good.

- The shocking violence of the climax was a classic noir ending. Violent action becomes a desperate heroes only recourse. Death visiting so quickly, and in such a banal yet gaudy setting.

- The attempt to reproduce the effect of Peace's fractured, relentless prose was partially successful in the jump-cut non-linearity of it all, Garfield's troubled mental state effectively suggested.

- Non-cliche soundtrack choices: "Hang on In there Baby" by Johnny Bristol, "In the Court of the Crimson King" by King Crimson.

1980 - James Marsh

- This was more conventional, less elliptical, less arty. Relative narrative clarity. Jarrold's film was a personal journey into darkness and obsession, the story of a man being attracted to the flame and getting badly burned. Marsh's was a procedural in which the shadow of police corruption darkens an ongoing investigation with awful consequences.

- Shared visual motifs, however: the Moors, a cremation. Where Jarrold focused on nameplates blistering, Marsh shows us the coffin become a black and orange charcoal case. ANd oddly they shoot the Moors quite differently - Jarrold's compositions are all darkened sky, Marsh's all rolling, endless horizon.

- Paddy Considine is as good as ever, in a far more passive role than usual. None of the ferocity of which he is capable. Here he is bruised, understated, very careful, interior. He seems a man punishing himself. Surrounded by all this monstrous, caricatured masculinity -Northern men, shirtsleeves rolled up, sneers in place.

- The micro-politics of the North of England: these Yorkshiremen see the Mancunian Considine as a "fucking poof", and there is something of the intellectual in the way he converses with them, in his attention to detail and assurance that the Ripper has already been caught and let go. Leeds seems a world away from his homelife in Manchester.

- Men in rooms, arguing, intimidating, avoiding. Corridors, stairwells. This is a film about the process, the office work behind such a massive, long-running investigation, and as such it mostly takes place in administrative buildings, halogen lighting overhead, coffee in glass mugs and dull filing cabinets all part of the mise en scene.

- The opening credits are very James Marsh: the use of contemporary news and interview footage to splice in actors (notably Warren Clark), the grain faithfully reproduced, is reminiscent of both "Wisconsin Death Trip" and some of "Man on Wire". The later passage of a Christmas home video of Considine at his in-laws uncannily accurate in its look and the faultless art direction.

-Here the ending is almost entirely hopeless. No redemption, no glimpse of light, except the capture of the Ripper himself. He is played by Joseph Mawle, who played Jesus in the BBC's "The Passion" last year. Odd how actors who can play Christ so convincingly are at home in disturbing roles as psychopaths. Think Christian Bale who played Jesus in a TV movie about Mary and has played any number of borderline psychotics in his career, not to mention Patric Bateman in "American Psycho". Think also Max von Sydow, Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told", but also hitmen, murderers and even Blofeld in "Never Say Never Again". Mawle is chilling here, his affectless face and politeness falling way when he starts to tell the police about his crimes in detail. Then his madness is calmly revealed and the policemen exchange glances charged with horror and disbelief.

1983 - Anand Tucker

- Always a strange pressure on the concluding part of a series; the need to tie everything up satisfactorily, the need for resolution, closure. More balls in the air, too. Where 1980 could more or less ignore 1974, making only the odd glancing reference, Tucker's film has to refer to both the previous chapters, and recontextualise them, to a certain extent. It's success in doing this is a testament to the adept direction and the clarity of Tony Grisoni's script. Good storytelling, basically.

- The opening scene is fantastic, a flashback featuring the Illuminati of Peace's Red Riding universe, this cabal of bad men out for themselves, bending the law to their will. We witness their conspiracy and hear what may just be their catchphrase: "To the North, where we do whatever we want." Dawson's plans for a massive shopping mall (which we have already heard, in 1974) are outlined, and one of the themes is made clear. In the same way that Ellroy's L.A. Quartet is about the painful, bloody birth of modern Los Angeles, this series seems to depict the birth of modern Yorkshire. The dark, brutal landscape we are shown is dying, a new Yorkshire - modern, a land of shopping malls and thrusting young policemen and reporters (Considine and Garfield's characters were in the right place, just slightly ahead of their time) beginning to emerge.

- Two protagonists are required for this more complex story. David Morrissey's Maurice Jobson finally acts upon the pangs of his conscience, and Morrisey's melancholy frown takes a lot of the entire series' weight. He walks around with his head down, bent beneath all he knows. And Mark Addy, a shambling mess of a man, seems perhaps the only innocent in the entire saga until the final scenes, when his own connection is revealed. Their first meeting, where Addy exerts some moral pressure, is very finely written and acted. Addy's gentleness makes him vulnerable to all these vicious men, whereas Morrissey appears tired of it all, wising it all to be over.

- The subtle changes in art direction and costume are inspired: suits are tighter, shinier, hair is shorter. "Fuck the Argies" reads roadside graffiti. And yet the hills are unchanged, the red houses dwarfed by them and the grey billowing of that immense sky.

- Stylistically, Tucker combines some of Jarrold's risky artiness with Marsh's narrative focus. He features a series of stunning birds eye crane shots of crime scenes. He hitches a camera rig to Addy's chest for a reaction to a horrific discovery. He cuts between slow motion shots of Morrissey and semi-abstract views of the medium's white boots aimlessly circling in a quite Estate street. He repeatedly features a view of a set of Nuclear smokestacks, towering over the landscape with a monolithic malignancy. Characters walk towards them and drive away from them, yet always they remain. But his is the only film of the three with any light in its conclusion: the climactic shot of Addy emerging from the chicken coop is beautiful, and optimistic despite the depravity we have just seen, despite the evil at the heart of the story. David Higgs' photography is just a degree lighter than either of the earlier films. Sunshine had come to Yorkshire by the early 80s, it seems.

- This is the only one of the films that feels urban. It feels as if it is set in the outskirts of a city, the presence of a major conurbation somehow obvious in the atmosphere, the lighting. The other two exist in a world of connected small towns, suburbs to nowhere.

- Never have I seen such wallpaper so consistently captured in a piece of fiction. Here it is though; woodchip, embossed velvet flowered patterns, every imaginable shade of brown...

- Peter Mullan, a dangerous presence in the margins of the other two films, is here allowed to reveal his hand. He is a powerful actor, with a fierce, frightening weight onscreen, and it is as if the charge of his few moments in each of the other films is what kept the whole thing grinding forward. The story itself was waiting for him to step centre-screen and take charge, you feel. Once he does, it must end. He is too big, too dogged and earthy.

- The ending allows BJ, the ghost in the folds of the story, to write his own survivors poem, a paean to Yorkshire itself, over previously-glimpsed footage of him as an innocent child at Blackpool, before the events which set the whole story in motion. It is downbeat and haunting, like the series as a whole. Impressive and powerful and beautiful but also grim and difficult. Worthwhile.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 24

I watched "Not Quite Hollywood" recently. Its a great little documentary about the "Ozploitation" Cinema which came from Australia in the late 60s, 70s and early 80s. It did what all such pieces should - it made me want to see a hell of a lot of films I've never seen. It also got me thinking about Australian cinema. Peter Weir, unquestionably Australia's greatest ever director to my mind, is mentioned only in passing in the film. He is referred to in oppositional terms, as one of the exponents of Australia's artier, heritage cinema. "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is the subject of a a few bitchy comments for its tastefulness, its subtlety, its seeming pretension.

Yet there are clips from Weir's wonderfully bizarre debut, "The Cars That Ate Paris" in a couple of the film's montages, which go unacknowledged. It and his second feature, "The Last Wave", are more closely related to Ozploitation than many would suspect, in their genre content and basic aesthetics. But Weir cannot help trying to elevate his material, making the films curious exercises in contradiction, albeit with an unerring grasp of nuance and tone. "The Last Wave" features Richard Chamberlain, and much of its scarily prophetic appeal is obvious in this trailer:


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Just Sayin Yet Again

- Armando Ianucci's "The Thick of It" is quality satirical comedy, with a great performance from Peter Capaldi at its dark, bitter little heart, and the forthcoming movie version adds James Gandolfini and Tom Hollander and looks funny enough to go on my short list of comedies not to miss in 2009 (alongside "Black Dynamite", "The Hangover", "Bruno" and "Transformers 2"):

- Tony Gilroy wrote and directed "Michael Clayton" a couple of years ago, and his new film, "Duplicity" opens this week. So The New Yorker give him a long, respectful profile which is full of fascinating tidbits about his role in the creation of the Bourne series (pretty fundamental, it seems) and his views on the work of Paul Greengrass (not so big a fan) together with the usual guff about his approach to writing. Good stuff.

- Juan Pablo Aimar with the most beautiful piece of control...followed by a botched finish:

- Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance" is one of my favourite novels of the last decade, and he's contributed to Granta's "Fathers" issue with this lovely little piece which encompasses a lifetime and a world in one thrilling paragraph. When is that next book due?

- DC Nation features a coy little preview of the new Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely collaboration. But nobody seems quite sure whether its in-continuity or some sort of AllStar project. Whatever, it features the best creative theam in mainstream comics of the last decade or so working on these two characters:

- "Theme de Camille" by Georges Delerue from Godard's "Le Mepris" (also used by Scorsese in "Casino"). Absolutely beautiful. But cut to a load of perfume adverts, to weirdly comic effect. Listen, don't watch, is my advice:

Up top?
Gong Li.
You knew that.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Shuffle : Dearg Doom

A guitar riff. Simple chords played in a repetitive melody, generally twinned with a sense of rhythmic drive. Popular culture and music fandom have conspired to create the Cult of the Riff. The riff has an aura, a place in rock mythology. Guitar solos are self-indulgent and aimed at technicians - the riff is more soulful in its primitive inarticulacy, more simply expressive, more satisfying. You get a guitarist with a knack for writing or playing a great riff, chances are he'll become a legend. The great riffs are unforgettable; and make a mockery of my opening description, dripping with swagger and aggression and rage and humour and lust as they invariably are. Most great riffs open the songs they drag into being, tearing a hole in the fabric of space and occupying it with sound.

This song contains, indeed, is built around one of the greatest riffs in all of rock and roll. However, I first encountered this riff in another song, and would later learn that it originated in yet another song entirely. In 1990, the Republic of Ireland football team had qualified for a World Cup for the first time in history with their progress to the Italia 90 tournament. The "Official" song for their campaign, released under the artist name "The Republic of Ireland Football Squad" (but put together by Larry Mullen from U2); was "Put 'Em Under Pressure", which combined quotes from Manager Jack Charlton, terrace chanting and a spectacular guitar riff in one frenetic, cringeworthy package. The riff was plainly far too good for the rest of the song. It came from "Dearg Doom" by Horslips.

Horslips were an Irish band whose heyday was in the 1970s. They adapted Irish folk music to rock ends more successfully than just about anyone else ever has. "Dearg Doom" comes from a 1973 album named "The Tain" which incorporates acoustic balladry in an old celtic style and fuses traditional jigs and reels with driving rock songs and snatches of pure folk instrumentation -uilleann pipes and bodhran drums, most obviously. Coming from 1973, "The Tain" is of course a concept album. It attempts to adapt the Irish epic myth Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), which tells the story of a cattle raid in the middle of a War between Ulster and Connaught. The hero of this story, and the greatest hero of Irish mythology alongside Fionn Mac Cumhaill (pronounced, yes: Finn McCool), is Cúchulainn.

Irish mythology is astonishingly rich and imaginitive, and Cúchulainn (pronounced Kooc'Hullen) is probably its most resonant figure. Echoes of the character recur throughout popular culture, from Robert E Howard's Conan of Cimmeria (Howard made much of his Irish roots, created a slew of Irish characters, and even took Conan's name from another figure from myth), and Pat Mills' 2000AD character Slaine, who is a blatant Cúchulainn analogue, to The Pogues' song "The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn" , and the Decemberists' "Tain" EP, through W.B. Yeats' dramas based on the myths themselves, and the Marvel comics version, who has featured in the Guardians of the Galaxy. Then there is Cúchulainn's given-name (he adopts Cúchulainn, meaning "Hound of Ulster" as a reparation for killing a wolfhound), which is Setanta, a name with special associations for UK sports fans.

As a little kid I loved the character. He stands comparison with any of the world's great mythic heros, from Robin Hood and King Arthur to Gilgamesh or Achilles. Despite the air of tragedy clinging to him which is a part of just about all Celtic mythology, he's a mans man, a fighter, possessor of the Gae Bolga, a spear fashioned from the bone of a sea monster which opens like an umbrella upon entering a body, its many barbs eviscerating its victim. He is also subject to warp-spasms, mid-battle physical seizures which render him a mindless, physically altered killing machine, and a deadly warrior. "Dearg Doom" seems to refer to this, it's title translating roughly as "Red Destroyer", though the use of the English word doom also suggests Dr. Doom, the Marvel villain, whose currency within hipster pop culture was never higher than in the early 70s.

Lyrically, its a love song with references to battles and violence: "You speak in whispers of the devils I have slain/By the fire of my silver Devil’s Blade/And still you dare to flaunt yourself at me/I don't want you, I don't need you/I don't love you, can't you see". and lines of pure kickass macho cool: "I'm a boy who was born blind to pain". The chorus is simple and ominous: "If you see me coming you had better/ Run, Run, Run/ From Dearg Doom". But the lyrics aren't what makes it so memorable. Theres that riff. It comes, inevitably, from a traditional standard, "O'Neills Cavalry" , but here its given steel and heft and a snarl by the electric guitars, and borne along on a great bassline and a storm of high-hat and cymbal.

I love how it starts, with the drummer yelling a count-in over a high-hat intro just before the guitar claws its way in. Then the bass bubbles up from the spaces between the other instruments. The vocals are laddishly harmonised at the end of each line, giving it a raucous, thuggish feel in keeping with the subject matter. I love the references to nature - black marble by the sea, the cold oak tree, hawks, the stars, the sun - and the way the solo kicks in what sounds like some sort of electric piano, then the explosion of pipe and fiddle and tin whistle at the climax, making it all somehow feverishly Irish and eccentric. But most of all I love that awesome riff, which deserves to be on Guitar Hero, which deserves to be legendary. Horslips never came close to even equalling it, never mind surpassing it.

Postscript: My Ma, improbably, went to School with the Drummer.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009




That is all.

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