Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pick Up a Penguin

Penguin have always produced stylish, attractive books, particularly in their Classic imprints where they select classy cover images and present them in bold, simple designs. The most recent redesign of their Modern Classic range introduced an extremely modern font - Avant Garde - with white bands at the top and bottom of the cover. Often the image was recycled from the previous edition, but the new font makes a big enough difference to the overall look that every cover seemed fresh.

This year, a few new authors have been added to the Modern Classics line, which is what prompted this post. Walter Tevis has long awaited rediscovery, and Penguin have reissued his two most famous novels - The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hustler - alongside the bafflingly neglected The Queens Gambit. Fingers crossed for a Modern Classic edition of his true masterpiece; Mockingbird. Shirley Jackson and Eric Ambler, both relatively low profile on the modern literary scene, also had three and four books republished respectively and Penguin issued an anthology of Robert E. Howard's work, Heroes In the Wind. I don't think I've ever seen quite such a subtle image on the cover of a Howard book...

All of which got me thinking about the quality of Penguin's cover art in general, and how downright beautiful so many of their books truly are:

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 40

Battle of the Alpha Males - Lancaster versus Cooper. Burt hams it up, grinning that grin in more or less every shot, while Cooper is a deadpan monotone picture of calm. Robert Aldrich orchestrates some magnificent chaos and the whole thing looks amazing in glorious, luminous technicolour. That, the beautiful Sara Montiel, and that early pan around the battlements and rooftops as heads pop up make Vera Cruz as entertaining a Western as you can find from the golden Age...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen".

I saw the trailer for Roland Emmerich'a undoubtedly bloated, awful piece of disaster-porn shit 2012 for the second time a while ago. And this time, beyond the tedium I had experienced on my first viewing, my main thought was this: Remember when John Cusack was sorta cool? When he still had some credibility? When he made interesting choices and good films?
He did once.
He seemed edgier than most name actors his age. He was plainly intelligent – in an articulate, witty way. He seemed like the kind of guy who would read good novels and maybe even some poetry but also like sports. Well-rounded.
A man, but sensitive.
Remember that?

His early career went almost perfectly. He came through on the fringes of the Brat Pack. He was in the same movies and the same kinds of movies but held himself apart from the likes of Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson, standing out in small parts and playing the lovable geek to near perfection in Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (1985). He then coasted through much of the remainder of the decade, taking lead roles in mostly forgettable teen movies and smaller parts in dramas until Cameron Crowe made brilliant, immortal use of his oddly edgy appeal in Say Anything (1989). He followed that with some great work in The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990) and at that point in the early 90s he was as close to being an actual Movie Star as he has ever been. He showed that he had some depth by choosing to vary his work - taking small parts in Woody Allen films (Shadows & Fog (1991), Bullets Over Broadway (1994)) and auteur-directed projects (Map of the Human Heart (Vincent Ward, 1993), Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins, 1992) with more stock, mainstream material (True Colors (Herbert Ross, 1991), Money for Nothing (Ramon Menendez, 1993).

He never made the leap to the next level of stardom. He tends to get lost in ensembles in big films which he lacks the star power to headline, and I struggle to even remember him in so many of his films - The Road to Welville (Alan Parker, 1994), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Clint Eastwood, 1997), The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick, 1998), Cradle Will Rock (Tim Robbins, 1999). Of course there was some success. For instance, he is brilliant in Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999). But to really do his talents justice, he was forced to develop his own projects. Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage, 1997), which he co-wrote and co-produced is a made to measure vehicle for him: witty, urbane, just dark enough to be interesting, and playing off the nostalgia of his fanbase for those 80s teen roles. It wasn't much of a popular success, however. Nor was High Fidelity (2000, Frears), despite its successful twisting of Cusack's usual persona into a sort of cool geek everyman and adroit adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel.

Since 2000, however, it seems like Cusack has lost his radar. Maybe it happened before that. I remember reading an interview with him in the early 90s in which he was asked what was his least-favourite recent film. He replied that it was The Last Boyscout (Tony Scott, 1991), which was "fascist", among other things. Basically he claimed to hate it for its status as an empty summer blockbuster of the worst, most predictable kind. Setting aside my admiration for The Last Boyscout's hilarious Shane Black script and Bruce Willis at the height of his effortlessly smug megastardom, something about that interview always rubbed me up wrong. That feeling was worsened in 1997 when Cusack starred in Con Air (Simon West), an equally soulless, empty, even more "fascist" action blockbuster than The Last Boyscout (though it too has a funny, semi-parodic script, by Scott Rosenberg).

Since then, Cusack hasn't aged particularly well. Still relatively youthful in appearance, he lacks the gravitas or presence to play the kind of roles actors his age tend to play. This was a problem as far back as the awful City Hall (Harold Becker, 1996), in which Cusack comes over all serious and oscar bait intense and never pulls it off - though his efforts are undermined by Al Pacino at his hammiest - and never even really feels comfortable with the role or the film. In this decade, he has made fewer passion projects and taken fewer risks, instead working in a depressing series of commercial duds, from America's Sweethearts (Joe Roth, 2001) and Runaway Jury (Gary Fleder, 2003) through to Must Love Dogs (Gary David Goldberg, 2005) and Martian Child (Menno Meyjes, 2007). His interesting work is limited to Max (Meyjes, 2002) and Grace Is Gone (James C Strouse, 2007).

Which brings us to a tired-looking Cusack and 2012, and back once again to that the Last Boyscout quote all those years ago. Back then I bet Cusack could never foresee the day when he would need to make big event films in order to make the occasional film that satisfied him. But here he is, in what looks like an utterly offensive, derivative piece of excrement, and i find it hard not to feel disappointed in the man who brought Lloyd Dobler to life.
But then, as Cusacks go, Joan always was more talented...


Monday, October 19, 2009

Screengrab - MM by HHH

To my mind, the most beautiful opening sequence of the past decade is in Hou Hsiao Hsien's Milllennium Mambo (2001). A single, elegant, weightless tracking shot follows the lovely Shu Qi as she crosses a pedestrian bridge over a road at night, and in doing so sets the tone for the entirety of the film. A ghostly blue grey light fills the screen. Dance music is a distant, unconscious pulse on the soundtrack. Her narration is whispered, and it tells us the film's "story" and even suggests a theme in a few simple sentences:

"She broke up with Hao Hao, but he always tracked her down. Called her, begged her to come back. Again and Again. As if under a spell, or hypnotized, she couldn't escape. She always came back. She told herself that she had NT$500,000 in the bank. When she had used it up, she would leave him. This happened ten years ago, in the year 2001. The world was greeting the 21st century and celebrating the new millennium."

She is smoking as she walks, and her extravagant hair, shining black under the halogen glow, bounces with the youthful exuberance of her stride. She looks around and behind her often. She appears to laugh. At the end, she hops down the steps and away from the camera like an excited child. Cue title.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 39

One of the few lower budget, post-Star Wars Sci Fi features to be any good, Aaron Lipstadt's Android (1982) is a cracking little Frankenstein update with a brain, some truly wooden acting and a great ending. Plus: Kinski!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009


In this months Empire, which I found myself reading during a 4 hour delay at an airport, Stephen Soderbergh says this during a long interview:

"I edit stuff on my own, things that don't belong to me, just for fun, because it gives me that much pleasure. I have an hour and 50 minute version of Heavens Gate. I've got a mash-up of Hitchcocks Psycho and Van Sants Psycho, which I call Psychos."

I want to see both of those Soderbergh mash-ups. Psychos sounds especially great. what sort of radical cuts to Heavens Gate would a sensibility like Soderbergh's make? These should be extras on future dvds.

So that got me to thinking of other mash-ups, or radical re-edits that anybody with the right technology and enough time could do. Like that Jar Jar Binks-less version of The Phantom Menace some fanboy made back when anybody still cared about Phantom Menace and the fact that it had sucked so bad. For instance, a mash-up of Casino and Goodfellas focused on the Joe Pesci character, who is a broadly similar type in both movies. Or all three Lord of the Rings movies edited down into two hours, cutting out all the emotional bombast, most of the overlong, derivative battle scenes with their dodgy CGI and much of the windy, cod-Shakesperian speechifying about the 'age of man' etc. Would two hours even remain? I'm sure Soderbergh could find them.

Or how about a long, rambling Altman-esque London tale mashing all three of Woody Allen's London films into a multi-stranded panorama called Scoop Point Dream. They are all set in a tourist London of upper-middle class Kensington apartments and nights at the theatre mingling with the landed gentry unrecognisable to most people who actually live in the City, and the moral charge and erotic sizzle of Match Point might actually give Scoop some weight and make Cassandras Dream bearable. Or maybe not. The two utterly different characters played by Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, would turn the whole thing into a bizarre study of split personalities and social compartmentalisation. Sounds riveting.

The climax of Cinema Paradiso features a mash-up montage of sorts, and I envisage a similar scene, editing dozens of boxing scenes together, beginning in beautiful black and white with The Set-Up and moving through Champion and Somebody Up There Likes Me and Body and Soul and even Raging Bull - nothing but punches thrown and taken, feints and grapples, knock-outs and recoveries - before bursting into beautiful colour for Kid Galahad and continuing through Rocky and Fat City and Ali and Cinderella Man. It sounds like an advert, I know, but it would be a dazzling advert...

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Haiku 3

Two hours twenty is
Way too long for a bromance
Without the great Paul Rudd.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 38

Steven Soderbergh's post-Sex, Lies & Videotape commercial lean patch included this terrific coming-of-age movie, set during the great depression. Much more tough and gritty than this trailer suggests


Sunday, October 04, 2009

Other Activities

Recently I've posted a couple of things at my Blog dedicated exclusively to football, so if you like the football writing I've done on this site, you should probably check them out here:

I've also started another blog which is a little more focused in its subject matter. It'll be a lot of pieces I couldn't really find a viable forum for elsewhere and don't fit in to what this blog is now. I wrote a "What If" blog about Michael Reeves a few years ago, which is one of my favourite posts and this entire blog will be in a similar vein. I obviously won't be posting there as often as I do here, but hopefully should manage one every month or so: