Thursday, July 30, 2009

Claire Dolan

Lodge Kerrigan, 1998

DP: Teodoro Maniaci

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pointless List : 5 (Somewhat Neglected) Elvis Costello Songs

I once read an interview with Paul Weller in which he compared his career's entire output favourably with that of his contemporaries. He meant the songwriters who had emerged in the UK in the immediate aftermath of Punk in the late 70s - Andy Partridge of XTC, Sting, Bob Geldof, Kevin Rowland and Elvis Costello. He actually singled out Costello and said that his own stuff had far more variety than Elvis'; and from the Jam's post-punk rock to the Style Council's jazz-lite soul rock to his solo stuff's Dad-rock, his point could really not be any more wrong.

Costello has never stood still. His first two albums are punky affairs, sure, but by Armed Forces, his third, he was already branching out, with more keyboard sounds and pop shadings entering the equation. Within five years he would be changing his style on every single album; from country, to Stax soul to Beatles pop, slices of music hall and folk, and back to Punk. In the decades since he has made chamber pop records, written operas, returned to country (albeit in different styles of that genre), made an easy listening album or two, collaborated with a string quartet, dabbled in jazz, written some pure pop stuff, done soundtracks, written a solo album for Wendy James of Transvision Vamp and written songs with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. Maybe Weller was joking...?

For all that, Costello has never really been "Big". Not as big as Weller, say. He has a devoted fanbase, his records obviously sell respectably, he goes on long, sold-out tours. But he has never really been a Pop or a Rock Star. In that sense, everything he has ever done has been somewhat neglected. I think he is a genius, and easily the greatest songwriter of his generation. His back catalogue is an awesomely impressive and consistent series of records, each stuffed with brilliant songs. But some are more celebrated than others. Anything that is really likely to be played on Classic Rock radio is obviously not neglected. Anything that would make a Career-spanning 2CD "Best Of" compilation (and those songs are pretty easy to pick out) is not neglected. Everything else is fair game.

Charm School (from Punch The Clock)
Punch the Clock (1983) is possibly Costello's poppiest album. Produced by the duo of Langer and Winstanley, who were responsible for some of the most popular records of that era - by Dexy's Midnight Runners, Madness and the Teardrops Explodes, among others - it is slicker, glossier and more nakedly commercial than his previous records (his previous album, the Beatlesque Imperial Bedroom, is perhaps his strongest record) and reflects his constant need to experiment and reinvent the wheel. As such, its an underrated album. Costello can write a great pop song, as Every Day I Write the Book proves, and the sugar of all that lacquered production, bright horn section and plastic soul backing vocals is leavened somewhat by the sourness of the lovely, moving Shipbuilding and the deadpan Pills And Soap. Charm School, on the other hand, is pure pop. Like most of the pure pop moments on the album it succeeds splendidly, its just not what Costello fans wanted him to succeed at. Based on a fluid, surprisingly funky bass part - as were many of the Attractions records - and a simple keyboard figure, it showcases a trademark bitter Costello lyric: "You and I as lovers/Were nothing but a farce/Trying to make a silk purse/Out of a sow’s arse" that culminates in a wounded chorus: "Didn't they teach you anything/Except how to be cruel/ In that Charm School?" He could always write a hook and this one is given punch by the backing vocals by the duo Afrodiziak (Caron Wheeler, of Soul II Soul, and Claudia Fontaine), who also give life to the rising keyboards on the middle eight. But like many of Costello's best, its a really simple, classically composed pop song.

Party Girl from Armed Forces
Costello really is the poet laureate of the bitter, angry love song. I Want You, from Blood & Chocolate (1986) is probably the finest and most celebrated example (Michael Winterbottom's film of the same name seems to have been built around it) of this strain of his writing. It has also given rise to many accusations of misogyny, and the level of hatred and pain he levels at anonymous women who have hurt him in his work can be disturbing. But it is also what gives it such potency. It feels real and true. Failed relationships can be agony, and he reflects this. He reflects it from a male point of view, through anger and bile and sarcasm and repressed violence. This is why a large chunk of his audience are men of a certain age. They know he gets it, because they've heard proof. They have the proof at home, on vinyl, with his face on the front. Party Girl , off Armed Forces (1979) sounds like one of those songs, too. For years, the general consensus among Elvis fans was that it was about Bebe Buell, famed former super-groupie, lover of Steven Tyler and Todd Rundgren, mother of Liv Tyler, ex of Elvis. But he claimed it was instead a defence of a student he met on tour in the US who tabloid journalists caught him with in a car, proceeding to smear her reputation to some extent. And the lyrics are more complex than first impressions suggest. The first line holds the key: "They say you're nothing but a Party Girl". This is a man preparing to defend a girl from accusations, and in doing so he lets rip with some sharp lines in the direction of "They": "But I have seen the hungry look in their eyes/They'd settle for anything in disguise of love/Seen the party girls look men over/Seen em leaving when the partys over" before the protective chorus which seems to express some regret that this relationship can only be a fleeting thing: "They cant touch me now/You say you don't mind/We're so hard to find/I could give you anything/But time".
Costello is famed for his clever-clever, often very witty wordplay, but in many of his more nakedly emotional songs he abandons it in favour of plain declaration. Here the funniest line is a throwaway "I'm the guilty party and I want my slice/But I know youve got me and I'm in a grip-like vise" and the emotional intensity he is aiming for is evident in the songs instrumental choices. For this is basically a power ballad, with big guitar chords and cascading piano and lots of high hat and very melodramatic rising and falling passages. Armed Forces was really the commercial peak of Costello's early career, featuring the singles Oliver's Army and Accidents Will Happen, and his band, the Attractions, always tight and muscular, ever-versatile, were in their best form. Every song sounds perfectly played and honed to perfection, and this one is no exception.

Impatience from North
North (2006) is Costello's attempt at a torch-song, lounge singer, cocktail hour album. Its mainly just him, a piano, and a load of strings. The songs are mainly crying-in-my-gin ballads of lost love and slowly drunken misery, with a few tales of new love to lighten the suicidal mood. I think he got the idea from a tour he did in 2000, where he played Opera Houses and concert halls accompanied only by the Attractions keyboard player, Steve Nieve, on piano. He seemed to fancy himself as a sort of Sinatra figure, dressed in a suit, selling prepared patter and gags, enjoying a newly-discovered versatility in terms of his own voice (which so many people seem to abhor) and reinventing half of his back catalogue. I saw him in Dublin on that tour and he was so brilliant (particularly the closing Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4, in which he got the crowd to perform the orchestral part, acapella, to beautiful effect) its no surprise he wanted to do an album in the same vein.
Impatience is only a bonus track on the European edition of North, and I can see why. Not down to its quality - its better than anything on the album proper, but because of its tone. The album chronicles the death of one relationship and the birth of another, but it is always sombre, sorrowful, melancholy, somewhat muted in its search for an authentic lounge feeling, even at its hopeful conclusion.
Impatience, meanwhile, is a jubilant piece of latin pop, with bongos and (fizzy rather than funky) wah-wah guitar and a rude horn part under the vocal. It builds as it goes, elements folding in. For once, the lyric seems almost throwaway. This is a silly love song about a man wanting to tell a woman how he feels but knowing he should wait; and it sounds like he wrote it in five minutes. All the better for that, as some trademark dazzling wordplay might debase the purity and simplicity of the song. Instead we get some corny rhymes that suit the naive, excited tone: "My pulse is racing still/I'm secretly thrilled/By the laughter that tumbled/And the tears that were spilled/As far as I know no one ever got killed/By impatience".

All the Rage from Brutal Youth
"The twitching impulses to speak your mind/I'll lend you my microscope and maybe you will find it/Is it in that ugly place that's just behind your face/Where you keep my picture still despite the fact/That you had me replaced."
...Thats just the opening verse. One of his most brutal, vengeful, hateful lyrics set against a slyly jolly mid-tempo stroll with acoustic guitars and wurlitzer organ giving off a whiff of the fairground, this is the penultimate track on Brutal Youth (1994). That album was marketed (and perceived) as a comeback after his two "solo" records on Warners and his excursion with The Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters). Here he was reunited with the Attractions on a set of rock songs, that old trademark anger back alongside the beautifully lyrical pop of a song like London's Brilliant Parade. It was his best record in some time, containing a clutch of classic Costello compositions and covering a myriad of sub-genres under the pop-rock umbrella. All the Rage gets by on its vigour, a sharp hook, and those lyrics. This is the chorus, devoid of any emotion but anger and sarcasm: " Say 'Goodbye'/Baby, can't you act your age?/You know why/I'm going to give it to you straight/Although I'll never be/Unhappy as you want me to be/Still it's all the rage".
Then the final verse feels more clinical and determinedly cruel: "Alone with your tweezers and your handkerchief/You murder time and truth, love, laughter and belief/So don't try to touch my heart/It's darker than you think/And don't try to read my mind/Because it's full of disappearing ink."
As if that wasn't enough, it starts off with a count-in, as all songs would in an ideal world.

Complicated Shadows from All This Useless Beauty
Costello writes a lot of songs for other people. He writes a lot of songs, period. Sometimes those other people don't like them or never get around to recording them. This song was written for Johnny Cash, which makes sense when its starkness and the sense of morality play and allusions to violence are considered. All This Useless Beauty (1996) is an album composed partly of songs written for other people, among them Aimee Mann and June Tabor. What is surprising then is how well it all holds together. In his late phase work, Costello seems to be able to channel all of the styles he has ever worked in almost at will. His mature "rock" records (as opposed to the albums like North or The Delivery Man where he picks on style and more or less sticks with it throughout) therefore become bewilderingly eclectic stylistic tours with Bacharachian pop songs, skiffle, post-punk, lots of alt country and bluegrass, bits of soul and jazz and chamber pop all featuring, which remain basically widescreen rock records. His melodic sense, lyrical virtuosity and the fluid, energetic interplay his band always seems to have - be it either the Attractions or his current outfit, the Imposters - gives these records consistency and unity. Complicated Shadows is the heaviest, most "rock" song on this record, distinguished by a pounding band performance that halfway through switches seamlessly from a studio recording to a live version, all the better to hear those slashing guitar chords. You can see what Costello was thinking pitching the song to Cash - it is a warning to young men ("All you gangsters and rude clowns") on the perils of violence, and needs to be sung by somebody with Cash's biblical authority (or as the lyric puts it: "In a voice like a John Ford film"). But it is almost too savage, too malicious, too Elvis Costello for Johnny Cash. So Costello sneers through it, and theres a sense of anger and vengeance to his version you imagine Cash could not have approached, no matter that his version would have been better in other ways. But Costello's version rocks in a way he seldom aims for, and the lyrics are atypically serious in their pitch black attempt to lure Cash: "Though the fury's hot and hard/I still see that cold graveyard/There's a solitary stone that's got your name on." David Chase used this version to conclude an episode of The Sopranos a few years later, which puts it in good company. And Costello himself included a new, inferior version on his most recent album, the mediocre acoustic country Secret, Profane and Sugarcane this year. But this 1996 version is the one.

Labels: ,

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Screengrab -"Don't make me insult you."

Art Garfunkel never really seemed to take acting seriously. Not that he didn't try or give his all in each role, just that his career in music was so phenomenally successful that it was obviously hard for him to make the time to appear in films. Between 1970 and 1980 he was in three feature films, two of them outright masterpieces, which is some strike rate, and one that a David Bowie, Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan could only weep enviously over. One that many actors of the era would weep enviously over. Those films were Catch 22 (Mike Nichols, 1970), Carnal Knowledge (Nichols, 1971) and Bad Timing (Nic Roeg, 1980).

Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, has possibly been in more masterpieces than any of his contemporaries, including Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. In the same period that gave us Garfunkel's three films, he acted in fifteen films and directed two. Among those fifteen: Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970), the aforementioned Carnal Knowledge, The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), The Passenger (Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975) and The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980).

The film common to both lists is Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge. Based on an unproduced play by cartoonist and satirist Jules Feiffer (whose other screenplay credits include Alan Arkin's brilliant Little Murders (1971) and Robert Altman's Popeye (1980)), the film follows the sexual lives of Nicholson's Jonathan and Garfunkel's Sandy from their College years in the 1940s through to disgruntled middle age in late 1960s New York. The men represent two different sides of the male character - Jonathan is attractive, aggressive and intelligent, but unable to relate to women as anything other than sexual objects. Sandy - sensitive and almost passive - chiefly relates to them personally, intellectually and emotionally. Their first real experiences with a woman foreshadows all that will follow. At a College Mixer, Sandy approaches Susan (Candace Bergin) and they share a shy, uncertain conversation which suggests some personal connection has been made. During a lull in the conversation, however, she stares at Jonathan, grinning at her from across the room, and the sexual attraction is obvious. Later she will have an affair with Jonathan while Sandy remains officially her "boyfriend", and the universality of the characterisations are brilliantly questioned and restated by Feiffer's script. Jonathan only pursues Susan when he hears from Sandy that she seems willing sexually, and then turns bitter that their relationship is not based on the emotional connection she and Sandy have. He and Sandy argue about who is more sensitive and who reads more books. Susan is obviously excited by Jonathan but wants to protect the vulnerable Sandy.
This first act ends on a shot of Nicholson's sullen though somehow accepting face as Sandy and Susan (who wordlessly acknowledge the snug fit their names make together with a little wince in their first conversation) argue fondly while packing for a holiday, and constantly, thoughtlessly bounce off his silence: "Tell him, Jonathan."

Despite the sterling attempts of David Mamet, Neil Labute and many others, it remains the single most coruscating cinematic examination of modern male sexual mores. Feiffer had been trying out material in his cartoons for years, so he had a good idea of what had some mass appeal, what had the ring of truth about it. It helps that his script it so quick and funny, his people so real and fallible. In the second act, Sandy and Jonathan live very different lives in New York. Jonathan is a rakish cocksman, Sandy a married father. But we first see them lustfully eyeing a girl ice-skating in Central Park, their comments not all that different from the comments they made as virginal students. The girl will become a symbol for the ideal, unattainable, impossible woman who will drive each man mad, her image recurring at crucial points of transition throughout the film. Sandy is bored, trying to convince himself ("Theres more to life than glamour") that he is content. Jonathan is searching for the right girl, only his criteria are all physical; she needs a great rack, a good ass and nice legs. He'd marry this girl, he insists. Then he meets her in the form of Bobbie (Ann Margret), and she cures his budding impotence and moves in after an awkward conversation about whether its the right thing or not: "You're a real prick, you know that?" she ends.

Its not the right thing - they destroy one another, and the final act finds both men divorced and unhappy. A paunchy Sandy is seeing a girl half his age who he patronisingly tells Jonathan is his "Love teacher". Jonathan is horribly bitter and finally impotent. He runs a slideshow of images of the important women of his life with a commentary, branding them "King of the Ballbusters" or "Cunt", his acid cruelty making Sandy's girl cry. Their final scene together may be my favourite, however. They walk through the City at night, discussing how they feel, where they have ended up, in a sort of argument from a distance,their different positions set out without rancor or spite until the very last exchange. Sandy favours a sort of zen condescension, that of the wise man who has come through the wilderness, while Jonathan is contemptuous and sarcastic, cynical about seemingly everything. He says that Sandy always was a schmuck then summarises: “Maybe schmuckdom is what you need to stay young and open.” This, he seems to be saying, may be the key to life. And its a key he just cannot use.
But Sandy pushes a bit too hard when he defends his young girlfriend and says "If you had what I have..." and Jonathan snaps, saying "Sandy, you're my friend. Don't make me insult you." Nicholson makes the most of the moment, his easy access to his psychotic side giving the remark a cold threat which is electrifying. Sandy's reply - if there is one - is lost in the night, as the scene ends.

The next, final scene finds Jonathan visiting prostitute Louise (Rita Moreno), which seems the logical ending for a man of his beliefs and attitude to sex. And gradually we see that he pays her mainly for her performance of a monologue hymning his masculine virility and damning the women who fail to appreciate him, the whole thing acted out just so - he scolds her for a stray remark - in order to arouse him so that she can perform an unseen act of oral sex. He closes his eyes and inevitably we see the ice skater from earlier in the film, that ideal woman further away than ever.

If that sounds a grim ending and the whole thing a depressing screed on relentlessly failing relationships, well, somehow it isn't. It is at heart a black comedy. Social mores are its subject, the sad little foibles of men and women both. Feiffer's writing is razor sharp, his dialogue witty. And Nichols, perhaps never seen as the most visually exciting of directors (for all that The Graduate cribs from 1960s European Art Cinema) transforms what could be claustrophobic and theatrical into a vitally cinematic piece through the boldness of his staging and method.
He favours tight, symmetrical compositions and slow zooms, long takes allowing performances to pulse within the film. The lighting and colour pallet are lush but realistic, never distracting or ostentatious. His cinematic intelligence is evident in every scene. He knows where to place the actors within the frame so that every nuance registers with exactly the right weight, and knows too that it all works or fails based on their performances. So he lets them loose. Nicholson and Garfunkel - and Bergin and Margret, for that matter - don't let him down. Its a great film, probably his best. He returned to similar turf decades later with a film of Patrick Marber's excellent play Closer (2004), another blackly comic study of sexual politics focusing on two men and two women, which, bitter and emotionally raw as it is, and while well-acted and nicely directed, never approaches the level of casual brilliance Nichols attained with Carnal Knowledge. But then Carnal Knowledge was made during the golden age of Commercial American Art cinema, possibly the only time it could have been made in all its bitter, beautiful glory.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 33

As B-List genre auteurs go, Peter Hyams is the Man. Busting, Capricorn One and 2010 are all quality entertainment, and he made some decent movies in the 80s (Running Scared, Narrow Margin) before being claimed by the bloat of the 90s Action Superstar in stuff like Timecop and End of Days.
But in the 70s and early 80s he wrote his own stuff, and Outland is probably his best film, a gritty sci-fi retelling of High Noon with Sean Connery in beautiful middle age in the Gary Cooper role, Peter Boyle as the bad guy and an awesome Jerry Goldsmith score. Cool trailer, too:


Monday, July 13, 2009

On Val Kilmer 2

Or: Why Columbus Day?

Dear Val,

I can see that you're still trying, Val. That may be the worst part. A few years ago it seemed like you'd given up. Your choices suggested a lack of concern over the direction of your career, you see. A certain wackiness had crept in. As if you were accepting every second offer that your agent texted your way. Sitting there, in your lounger in your big-ass Ranch, nubile women half your age seeing to your every need, watching classic Swedish Erotica or 1960s Czech New Wave cinema or endless manga on your plasma, drinking far too many cans of that energy drink you seem so dangerously addicted to, picking up the kids from school in your flip-flops and boxer shorts on those dry empty evenings, not even leaving the SUV at the gate, just sitting there, like some mafia bodyguard, bloodshot eyes hidden behind the mirrored shades you cannot even begin to contemplate taking off now, not in the outside world. Knowing how all the soccer moms want you, and feeling that only as a hollowness in your gut. Once all the world wanted you, it seemed. Magazine covers were a monthly thing. But you blew that, somehow. And back then, part of what was interesting about you was that you always seemed a little contemptuous of it all. Amused by the fuss. Who else got the lead in the biggest franchise of the era and acted like they never wanted it, like the whole thing was beneath them? Nobody but you, Val. And you were right, Schumacher's version of Batman was a bad joke. Imagine what you could've done in the Nolan films...But you blew it.

So here we find ourselves. At one of your latest shitstops on the way to has-been appearances on dodgy American sitcoms.
The name of this waste of your time, Val, is Columbus Day. I'll try to jog your memory: you spend most of the movie in an L.A. park with the little black kid from Role Models (did you see that movie, Val? You could do with a movie like that. You could play either the Rudd role - not as well as him, but hey - or the Stifler role, and be equally good. We all know you can do comedy. Top Secret! I haven't forgotten, Val, even if you have...). Nothing much actually happens. You're waiting, you make phone calls, you bond with this kid. Its a crime drama, I guess. Marg Helgenberger is the chick. You remember her, right? I know, I know, you've starred opposite Nicole Kidman and Meg Ryan and Elizabeth Shue and Deborah Kara Unger, oh Deborah Kara Unger, and Mira Sorvino and Carrie Ann Moss and Angelina Jolie and here you find yourself with the slightly-too-old-though-doubtlessly-hot-a-decade-ago chick from CSI. But thats where things are these days, Val. Anyway, theres a little bit of confusing action at the start, then some at the end too, and some slo-mo.
But mainly its talky as hell.

See, I know how the script must have seemed. "Intelligent". Interesting, trying to be something other than the usual Hollywood crap. But its not intelligent enough. The writing is mediocre, the direction workmanlike. None of the characters are really memorable, the situation is just a slight variation on a dozen we've seen before. It tries, but sometimes thats not enough. I get what you were going for. Harvey Keitel was in a similar spot, a long time ago. A worse spot, maybe. Barely anybody even remembered him, and he had been in some of the greatest films of the previous two decades. But he made - this sound familiar ?- a series of baffling, awful choices, and stardom crumbled away from him and suddenly he was doing crap parts in bad films. So what did he do? He started working with young directors on indie films. He worked with old mavericks on risky projects. He got lucky - Reservoir Dogs and Bad Lieutenant happened and he had a new cachet which he could trade in for parts in big movies while continuing to work with his indie buddies. But it was luck. And you are no Harvey Keitel. Your charms have always been simpler, more...mainstream. so now you try to remake yourself, and it might just be too late, Val.

And if you are to remake yourself, you just have to pick and choose your projects better. I know you've got the wit and brains to do that (I remember a long profile of you in Premiere, maybe, way back when The Saint, your one true attempt at carrying a Blockbuster solo, was released, and you drove the journalist in a jeep at night through the African savannah and camped out somewhere, all the while discussing Bruce Springsteen as the modern Al Jolson and the reality of stardom and you seemed fascinating and impossibly glamourous, whereas now you just seem fat and desperate). Try something which - if its a genre film - has at least a smidgen of tension or suspense. Something with characters other than stock types. Something that doesn't look like a TV movie. (Ok, that may be a cheap shot, it doesn't look like a TV movie. But it doesn't look like a Movie Movie either, does it? A Direct-to-DVD movie, then. Which makes you Steven Seagal, for Gods sake.) Something good, if you can. That would be nice. Failing that, just stick to supporting roles in big movies. Audiences like familiar faces in certain roles. The Cop's Captain. The ex-husband. You know the type. They'll pay the rent until you figure it all out. Some of your old directors like you - Michael Mann might throw you a bone. Or David Mamet, Tony Scott. Send them Christmas cards, stay in the good books. You can do it Val. You're still big, its the pictures that got small.

Yours affectionately,
David N.

Labels: ,

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Lets worry about it in paradise"

Satan - yeah, you know the guy, he also goes under the names Beelzebub and Lucifer, and often the very impressive definitely articled "The Devil" - is more or less the hero of John Milton's Epic 1667 poem "Paradise Lost". Well, ok, he isn't quite the hero in the traditional sense. But he is the protagonist for the first few books, and Milton chooses to tell his "story" from Satan's point of view, meaning that Satan is an empathetic character, somewhat humanised and sympathetic. William Blake famously said that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it". Satan is definitely the most active character in the narrative of the poem, driving the action onward, and this alone makes him an attractive figure. As does the suspicion - encouraged subtly by Milton - that Satan is merely rebelling against an unjust God, whose characterisation is generic and shallow by comparison. Of course Milton makes Satan an unreliable narrator - he is Satan, after all - and so our admiration for him or sympathies are always conflicted, always qualified. He undermines himself by his very nature.

Some actors will play a bad guy that way. Like they can't help themselves, like they think its their movie - they will play the bad guy as if he is the lead role. Its arguably the way all bad guy parts should be played. Its a sign of a brave, confident actor. An actor who should be a Leading Man.

SWAT (2003) is a big budget B-movie with a decent cast, some solid action sequences and a great bad guy. That bad guy would be called Brian Gamble and hes played by one Jeremy Renner.
His bad guy starts out as a good guy with a little bad in him. He's a SWAT team member, but his recklessness gets himself and his partner Jim Street (Colin Farrell) in trouble, they fall out over it, and he quits. Theres a lot of homo-erotic posturing, face to face intensity and leering in their first confrontation. The dialogue sounds like something from a lover's tiff ("Partners for five years and thats how you want to end it?" "Oh, I didn't end it.") and the two actors play it as if its Shakespeare, all raging emotions and raw nerves. It feels like the actors are battling for the film. Its that sort of film - full of big masculine presences, the dialogue generally closer to locker room banter than witty repartee. Samuel L Jackson strolls through on autopilot, Olivier Martinez plays a stock Eurotrash villain, Michelle Rodriguez does her usual tomboy schtick, and LL Cool J gets a few laughs from some bad lines. Its not the best script David Ayer ever wrote, and thats part of Renner's triumph. He makes Gamble register as a vivid character without much to go on. Its all in his face, the near-constant smirk only replaced by a cold aggression, the almost demonic tilt of his eyebrows; in the cocky set of his shoulders, in the sense of competition between him and Street.

Farrell was the hottest young actor in Hollywood at the time and this was his first fully fledged Summer movie. But Renner, who had made an impression in a Jeffrey Dahmer biopic a few years before, knew a good chance when he saw it. He steals every scene hes in, from his introduction, shooting a hole in a hostage to kill a bank-robber ("I saved a hostage" he explains) to his final fight scene with Farrell. And he plays it all as if Gamble is the lead, as if this is his story and Street is just a supporting character. Gamble is almost sympathetic - his career destroyed by bureaucrats at the start, he is forced into crime. It is only his evident delight in it and Street's righteousness that places him so squarely as the villain.

I came away from SWAT wondering who Jeremy Renner was, since he is plainly the best thing in it. Apart from Dahmer (2002), he had enjoyed only small parts on tv and in movies, but after SWAT he started popping up in bigger films and capturing key parts in US Indies. He was great as the most classically heroic character in 28 Weeks Later (2007), retaining just enough of the no-shit attitude from SWAT, and also great, in a more muted, subtle fashion in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). But there is the suspicion that stardom will elude him. He seems too interesting, too interested in exploring his options. Not many hunky leading men get to play a real life Serial Killer so early in their careers, and it does seem to have set the tone for him to a certain extent. This despite the massive buzz surrounding his latest film at its recent release in America.

Director Kathryn Bigelow had Renner in mind for The Hurt Locker from the moment she saw his work in Dahmer. And her film has been, alongside Gregg Mottola's Adventureland, perhaps the best received American film of the year so far in the US. Oscar nominations are mooted, critical acclaim has been near-unanimous, and only a low-key release has prevented it from making more money than it has to this point. Renner has drawn raves, at the same time as he has seemed to take something of a sideways step, playing a part on TV in the ensemble Cop Show, The Unusuals.
But even if Renner never makes that step up to actual stardom, it is good to know that he can attract big parts in movies by good directors, based on nothing more than his talent. And Bigelow is a very good director, even if the relative disappointments of her last two films, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) and The Weight of Water (2000) did a good job of suggesting otherwise. The Hurt Locker, an action drama about a bomb disposal unit on duty in Iraq, seems the perfect marriage of director and material, and in Renner it has a great leading man.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Solo diciendo

-Anybody remember Marco Brambilla? Well, in 1993 he directed a sci-fi Action film satire called Demolition Man. It was Sylvester Stallone's first post-Cliffhanger comeback vehicle, and it co-starred Wesley Snipes as the villain, a pre-stardom Sandra Bullock as the girl, Nigel Hawthorne as the other villain and Denis Leary as basically himself, if he was a freedom fighter in a future dystopia. And, as big Dumb 90s Action blockbusters go, it was pretty good. With a script written by Daniel Waters, who also wrote Heathers and Hudson Hawk, there is as much emphasis on comedy and light satire as there is on setpiece action. Aldous Huxley references abound, Benjamin Bratt's character is named Alfredo Garcia, there are lots of injokes, and Brambilla never seems overwhelmed by all the whizz-bang stuff hes trying to marshall. His follow-up was Excess Baggage (1997), a silly vehicle for a then-hot Alicia Silverstone costarring Benicio Deltoro and Christopher Walken. Since then hes directed only the mini-series Dinotopia(2002) and one short in the anthology Destricted (2006). Instead of cinema he seems to have turned his attention to conceptual and visual arts. His Destricted piece, Sync, began life as an installation piece, and it edits together and overlays images and clips from dozens of filmed sex scenes, creating a new context and meaning from the result. His newest piece, Civilization, is a fascinating, dazzling video mural created for the Standard Hotel in New York (and showing in their elevators) depicting a journey upwards from hell to heaven created as a collage from hundreds of found-images from cinema. Though its on YouTube, it is best viewed on as large a screen as possible - like this Quicktime version at motionographer - and is definitely worth checking out. Quite a journey from Demolition Man...

- It is a great feeling to watch a young Director develop from film to film, becoming more accomplished with each step. Yet surprisingly rare. "Second album Syndrome" is a problem in cinema as much as music or literature. Not with Pablo Trapero. Emerging as part of the New Argentine cinema in the early years of this decade alongside the likes of Lucretia Martel, Fabian Bielinsky and Daniel Burman, Trapero has surpassed the preceding achievement with each of his four films so far. His last film, the 2006 Born & Bred is a beautiful, remarkable achievement, a precise study in grief and trauma set in stunning wintry Patagonia, which it utilizes with a potency not many young directors could match. Trapero's characters are always believable; flawed, warm, petty real people in a fascinating Argentina full of problems and compromise. His new film, Lions Den, starring his wife, Martina Gusman, played at Cannes this year to no little acclaim, and frankly, I think it looks amazing. The only question is will it get UK distribution?

- Michael Bay directing "The Great Gatsby". The perfect fusion of director and source material, obviously. reveal the storyboards for what would be an unmistakeable, undeniable, unshakeable masterpiece. Heres a little sample:

- One of my favourite players when I was a kid was flamboyant Belgian playmaker Enzo Scifo, mainly because he scored goals like this, which includes an embarassing air-kick, a volleyed one-two, and a sublime finish:

- A few months ago, critic Matt Zoller Seitz posted a great series of video essays on Wes Anderson at the site of the Museum of the Moving Image (he was also partly responsible for the fine essays on The Wire credit sequences I ran some months back). His latest series is on Michael Mann , starting with the centrality of Miami Vice the tv show to Mann's work and continuing with an examination of what drives the typical Mann hero. Its great stuff for anyone who appreciates Mann's work, and with three more installments due this week, its worth keeping up with.

- I saw this at Cartoon Brew, and its something of a mini-masterpiece, especially considering it was created as a thesis film by a student at the School of Visual Arts. Great design, animation and storytelling, and a nice mix of a Noirish vibe with a 50s sci-fi feel. There are tons of designs, sketches and test-demos at creator Jake Armstrong's blog, too:

- J.H. Williams III is one of the greatest artists working in mainstream comics today, with a breadth of tone and setting denied to 90% of his peers combined with a beautiful command of line (in a unique style) and great storytelling chops. In saying all that, however, perhaps his greatest talent is his sense of design. Evident in his adventurous panel layouts and his cover work, its boldness and fluidity ensures his art never looks like the work of anyone else and always looks glorious.
Below is a Jonah Hex cover, purely because I love me some Jonah Hex, but Williams has a decent website with a blog and a link to his flickr page where you can view loads of his work, including pencils, sketches, pin-ups, covers, etc. Beautiful stuff.

-Evan Dando, whose genius for a lovely pop song is generally overlooked due to his history of being a junkie mess, is these days quite an active YouTube poster under the name PelicanMouse. A few nice cover versions in there, mostly just Dando and guitar, a format in which he excels. My favourite Dando cover on YouTube, however, is this Lemonheads take on Abba's "Knowing Me, Knowing You", a song seemingly forever ruined by Steve Coogan. But no, Dando's interpretation wrings all the melancholy beauty from it without sacrificing the Ah-hah moment, which is a testament to his talent:

Diane Lane.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 32

This freaked me out when I saw it as a kid, for its eerie score, its childs-eye view of a story in which parents are replaced by mindless, alien-controlled zombies, and the weird mix of bland and eccentric 50s kitsch in the design. It still freaks me out today, and retains much of its original power...