Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Spark

Another year, another Champions League Final, another big advertising campaign launched. Only this year it was Adidas, with "The Spark", featuring Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi. Not as good as Nike's "Take It to the Next Level" campaign from last year, perhaps, but an exciting, visually stylish piece of film with a nicely epic, mythic sense of the beautiful game most adverts utterly miss:

It was directed by an Englishman named Rupert Sanders, a onetime protege of Tony Kaye and advertising director of great repute. There is a definite Kaye influence in the lushness of the visuals and the almost aggressive cutting. Sanders is clearly a talented director. Check out his brilliant spot for the "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" video game, which in its wit and visceral impact, is about a million times better than anything in the film itself:

If you remain unconvinced, these two clips provide evidence of a diverse talent with a great sense of tone and nuance. The "Halo 3" spot, in particular, won tons of advertising awards, and its originality in a world of "Actual In Game Footage" is genuinely startling:

Sanders' website features more advertising work as well as some short films. Sanders himself seems to be moving on in the vague direction of cinema. Some years ago he was linked with a remake of "The Wild Geese", which seems to have broken down. But I wager he will soon be at the helm of a feature film. Hopefully it'll be as good as his advertising work...

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik, 2007

DP: Roger Deakins

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 29

In with a good shout for the title of most 1980s of all sub-genres, the "Walk on the wild side" film usually told the story of an ordinary guy getting over his head in a part of his city he never knew existed and encountering characters of decidedly pulp dimensions. "After Hours" and "Something wild" are good examples, but this deliriously off-kilter mix of comedy, thriller and love story is somehow more representative in its gaudiness and energy. What other film could possibly boast David Bowie as a bad guy, some jarringly harsh violence, Michelle Pfieffer at her most beautiful, and Jeff Goldblum owning the film as the guy in over his head? No other film, is the answer.


Friday, May 22, 2009

I Want Cannesdy

Cannes. Last year I posted some trailers for films - not the incredibly, ridiculously obvious ones - that were playing at the Festival that I wanted to see. That I thought other people, people who read this blog, might want to see. A year later, some of those films have yet to be released in the UK. Some have, and have been excellent ("Tyson", "Il Divo"). But there is no sign of "Maradona" by Kusturica, or "The Headless Girl" by Martel. This is the torment of Cannes. But its a kind of masochistic thing, because I'm back for more, of course, again hopefully skipping the most obvious stuff (so no Tarantino, Almodovar, Gilliam, Campion, Pixar, Ang Lee, etc).

"A Prophet" by Jacques Audiard:

"Mother" by Bong Joon-Ho:

"Vengeance" by Jonnie To:

"Polytechnique" by Denis Villeneuve:

"Enter the Void" by Gaspar Noe

"Visage" by Tsai Ming Liang

"Agora" by Alejandro Amenabar

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pointless List 1: Mariachi Brass

I love Mexican "Mariachi" brass. I love when Rock bands put them to use. I love the instantly evocative desert romanticism they conjure. Sunset, senoritas, tequila, one last night in town before stealing back over the border. Peckninpah, B. Traven, Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy etc etc. I love it.

I also love a pointless list. Alternative suggestions welcome but will probably be scorned. And so:

5 Mariachi Horns in Rock

1. Love - Alone Again Or
Had to be. When first I heard this, the opening track on "Forever Changes", a mainstay on every Classic Album list ever written, it had to bear a heavy load. I had massively high expectations. And though the album as a whole was perhaps not quite as astounding as I had been led to believe it would be (while still being brilliant), this song was better than I had expected.
It is amazing from the first bars - that finger-picked guitar intro rolling itself louder in seconds before the band quietly kicks in. The way the strings are just colour, a flash of light behind the vocal and the band, then squall up with a weird menace towards the chorus. The way the messy harmony vocal is so declamatory for that chorus. The way the song seems to trickle to a halt in more acoustic guitar every few seconds, then rebuild itself anew. The riddle of the lyrics. But most of all, of course, those horns, which mass and underline the melody of that simple, ernest statement: "And-I-will-be-alone-again-tonight, my dear" for every chorus. Then there is the horn solo, a clean line of melody in duet with strings, climaxing in that chorus once again, only without a vocal this time, the horns absolutely in the spotlight. It is beautiful and unforgettable.

2. Super Furry Animals - Demons
A bruised psychedelic piece which is mainly for guitar and organ, "Demons" sounds like it could have been recorded at any time post 1968, which is exactly what SFA were aiming for, I imagine. The guitars are almost gentle, in the main, little eddys and clouds of retro alongside that bubbling organ sound and some vaguely space-age sound effects. And then the song breaks down and a serene and stately mariachi horn glides in, sounding mythic and timeless and not remotely incongruous. There is something moving about the way it phrases its melody, just once, before the song and the guitars rise up once more and Gruff sings his gnomic, enigmatic lyrics which appear to address battles with ones own self-doubt and identity and perhaps even sanity. Upon hearing that they had a sizeable budget for a video to accompany this (No. 27 in the UK charts) Single, the Furries spent the money on a holiday in Colombia, where they shot a video on the cheap, echoing the latin flavour the horns impart...

3. The Raconteurs - The Switch And The Spur
There had to be at least one Western pastiche on this list, and this one makes such a virtue of its mariachi brass I couldn't ignore it. Plus its a great song. There is no chorus, just a brass refrain, which sounds like the theme from some early 60s Mexico-set Western in its yearning and romantic magnificence. The lyrics support this theory, while the band trash away at it for all they're worth.

4. The White Stripes - Conquest
Jack White likes Mariachi brass, you can tell. Mariachi brass ought to be right up his alley. He seems to be on some mission to utilize every instrument ever over the course of the White Stripes recording career, at any rate, and here he made great use of some brass. Its the first thing you hear, in fact - a corny, luchador fanfare, like something from an old Zorro serial, ushering in the song itself with no little flair. The thumping guitars then take over and drive the song along until we arrive at what suffices for a chorus. In the break between the two the horns bust into the song, a little splash of colour and melody against the heavy black of teh bassy guitar and drums backing track. For the chorus, White sings a yodelled "Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah" and the horns respond in kind, picking out a bold melody. It is short and brutal, a stabbing in a shadowy alley in some Mexican border town over a local prostitute, no witnesses, just blood and death. It is a great little song.

5. Calexico - Absolutely anything
Because they use Mariachi brass on probably at least half of their songs. Literally. Spotify them and see if I'm right. And because they integrate the brass within a traditional indie guitar-bass-drums-vocal framework so naturally and organically it appears perfectly seamless. Plus, they write good songs and they play them expertly. Plus, they use Morricone guitars when they aren't using Mariachi horns. Also because they cover "Alone Again Or" in concert and often play with a full Mariachi band onstage. They seem almost taken for granted. Theres a sort of "Oh, another excellent Calexico record" vibe whenever they release an album. Poor Calexico. At least they have the solace of the Mariachi horn. Which is no small thing.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

J-J-J-J-Just s-s- s-s-

- Darwyn Cooke, one of my favourite cartoonists, tries his hand at hard-boiled crime comics with "The Hunter", an adaptation of one of Richard Stark's Parker novels. Which looks beautiful, and knowing the estimable, scarily talented Cooke (if you haven't read "New Frontier" you need to go to Amazon right now and buy it) will be a great read too:

- Last year I was dreading Sam Mendes' adaptation of "Revolutionary Road", because the director was wrong, the casting was wronger, and the mere fact of the movie was wrongest. This year I find I'm looking forward, sorta, to John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road". Interesting director, great screenwriter (Joe Penhall) and good casting of Viggo Mortensen in the lead. But when I read and loved the book I wasn't father to a little boy. Now I am, and I imagine that the film may be unbearably moving, if it captures even a tenth of the book's power. Anyway, the long-awaited trailer, featuring an excrutiating first 20 seconds or so of exposition reportedly entirely absent from the finished cut:

- Chris Ware, genius that he is, has contributed this amazing little single-page story about web culture and virtual friendship to Wired, which is almost worth buying the magazine for:

- Hernanes, next next-big-thing from Brazil, is currently playmaker for Sao Paolo, the country's most successful club in recent years. No doubt he'll be in Europe soon at a Big Italian, Spanish or Portuguese club. Its safe to say he's quite useful:

- The novelist Rick Moody is of that generation of US writers (alongside the likes of Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, say) whose work is absolutely suffused in pop culture. Its an explicit presence in all of his writing, from the use of the Fantastic Four as a metaphor in "The Ice Storm", to the film references in "The Diviners". But music seems to have a particular centrality in Moody's worldview, as indicated by the references to the Jersey scene of the early 80s in "Garden State" and a particular story in his collection, "Demonology". "Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set" is a short story in the form of a set of liner notes to a 10-volume mix-tape chronicling the title character's life. The tracklisting is in a column on one side of the page, the liner notes in another. Moody has good, interesting, varied taste in music, which goes along way to redeeming the clever-clever aspects of the conceit. "The Feelies", one of the great lost bands of the 80s, feature prominently in "Garden State", and "Wilkie Fahnstock" is almost the perfect hipster playlist in its careful eclecticism.
Recently he's started to write a music blog for The Rumpus , which is a good read if you're interested in that kind of thing (Jazz, Springsteen, Syd Shaw, Frank Zappa) or in Moody's writing in general. Last year he also contributed a fascinating, rewarding playlist to the New York Times , which is, pleasingly, surprisingly heavy on folk music, not an interest I would have ever suspected Moody of having...all of which is basically just an excuse allowing me to post this. The Feelies greatest song, and one of my favourite songs of all time, "The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness":

- Robert E. Howard created a slew of characters, but the 3 most important are the most visible in modern popular culture. Conan The Cimmerian, of course, is arguably the most popular and recognisable character in all fantasy literature, Tolkein excluded. Kull the Conqueror was the hero of a Kevin Sorbo film a few years ago. But the influence of Solomon Kane is more subtle. A 17th Century English Puritan gunman who travels widely across Africa and Europe, fighting and converting heathens, his character is more difficult and less instantly appealing. His influence is obvious visually across the fantasy and SF genres, however. Both Vampire Hunter D. and Van Helsing (and even V, in V for Vendetta, to some extent) are dead ringers for Kane. Kane himself seems to have been developed as a period version of the Shadow, in hatwear and cape, at least. But a new film, starring James Purefoy in the title role, should bring Kane himself into the cultural spotlight to some extent. Illustrator Gary Gianni has done some terrific Kane work in the past, perhaps establishing a definitive look for the character, which even that film appears to echo.

- I've talked here before about my affection for "Red Dead Revolver". Well, the sequel is incoming. Only this time its a free-roaming game, GTA in the West by all accounts. "Gun", only good, I'm hoping. Also hopeful that this has better acting, characters and plotting than GTA, and less tedium. Oh yeah, and more choice spaghetti soundtrack cuts. Whatever, the trailer looks great:

- Speaking of spaghetti Western soundtracks, the Cannes programme includes a listing of the Soundtrack for Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds". The best thing about each of his last three films has been the soundtrack, and this one sounds just as good, stuffed to the gills as it is with Morricone, Tiomkin, both Charles and Elmer Bernstein, Gianni Ferrio and Lalo Schifrin, with just a little bit of Billy Preston and Bowie/Moroder thrown in. I am there. ITunes, I mean...

- YouTube is a treasure trove of boxing footage. When I was a kid, boxing was awesome. Giants still fought in the heavyweight division. Ali had only just retired. Larry Holmes was in his pomp. A young pitbull named Tyson was carving his name in the division in short, brutal fights. But even better was the Middleweight division, where the "Four Kings" co-existed to create the richest division since the Heavyweight era of Ali, Frasier, Foreman and Norton in the 1970s. Those four fighters were Roberto Duran, "Sugar" Ray Leonard, Thomas "Hitman" Hearns and "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler. They fought each other in different combinations over the course of a decade, creating a series of classic encounters. The most classic was "the War" between Undisputed World Champion Hagler and in-form Hearns at Caesars Palace on April 15, 1985. The first round may be the most exciting I've ever seen, and I vividly remember watching it in a Saturday morning ITV replay with my Dad. I doubt any fight I've seen since has really lived up to it, in its relentlessly gripping pace, its clash of style and personality and the sense that it was two true Greats, and equals at that, determined to beat the crap out of one another. Consider that the early stunning right Hearns catches Hagler with broke Hearns' hand. Consider that Hagler had only seconds before the fight would be stopped due to his bleeding eye. Consider that this fight is like something from a video game. When you've finished watching this, follow the links to watch Part 2. You know its right:

Valerie Perrine.
Miss Tesmacher to you, bud.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

"That was pretty ninja"

Or G.I. Joe : the Silent Stories

Though it looks bad, and I mean really really bad, like "Team America" without the gags, like "Street Fighter" without Kylie or Jean Claude Van Damme, like the ultimate big fascist American Imperialist blockbuster for adolescent boys, and though it's trailer is loaded with awful CGI sequences that look interminable already, even in bite-sized trailer form, and though its biggest stars are Denis Quaid and Christopher Eccleston and it is plainly opting for the pretty and empty approach with the likes of Channing Tatum and Sienna Miler in the bigger roles, and though it has that generic steely-grey palette every action spectacle seems contractually obliged to have in the late noughties, crushing all hope of beauty or cinematic transcendence through style, and though it has been directed by Stephen "Van Helsing" Sommers and halfway through that agonisingly terrible piece of trash I promised myself I would never watch another of his films, and though I know I will be twitching with irritation and impatience within ten minutes of it starting and will emerge from the cinema with a headache and a bad taste in my mouth, perhaps the taste of corporate America, feeling used and stupid and old, despite all this, I will be seeing "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra" this summer.

The reason for this, like so many things, is rooted in my past.
For me, and for thousands of Irish and British men around my age, "G.I. Joe" is really called "Action Force." The term "G.I. Joe" has a cultural resonance in the U.S., but in Europe it's WW2 derived jingoism sounds almost silly and thoroughly irrelevant. "Action Force", designed to capitalise on the market for the earlier line of toys from Pallitoy (which used some of the licensed American G.I. Joe casts, often repainted and renamed) obviously evokes "Action Man", a name with its own cultural weight in the UK. That earlier Action Force had been a range of toys from the makers of Action Man, hoping to steal some of the market which the Star Wars toy industry (with its smaller, cheaper, more easily collectable figures) had gobbled up. The semi-classic IPC War comic "Battle" (most celebrated as home to "Charley's War") became "Battle Action Force", featuring new stories about these Action Force teams against their arch enemies The Red Shadows, led by Baron Ironblood. That entire series can be read online at this fantastic website , and is definitely worth a look for anyone nostalgic for that era or with an interest in the UK comics industry.

When Hasbro decided to step into the UK market with G.I Joe, the usage of some of their licenses in Action Force gave them an easy way in. Battle Action Force had already introduced some of the "new" characters to UK fans when Baron Ironblood assumed a new identity - Cobra Commander - and created a new organisation - Cobra. Key characters like Destro and Storm Shadow were already familiar to boys in the UK. Soon after, Marvel UK launched its own "Action Force International Heroes" title, featuring, in the style of their "Transformers" weekly, a mixture of stories produced in the UK by European creators, and reprints of Marvel US "G.I. Joe" stories.*

I was there from the start. I liked more or less all UK boys comics, from "2000AD" and "Eagle" through "Warlord" to "Roy of the Rovers". So I was reading Battle before it became Battle Action Force, and I stuck with it and also bought the Marvel UK title once it launched in 1986. I also had a couple of issues of the US "GI Joe", so I felt a bit ahead of the game in my understanding of what was going on. Until it merged with "Transformers" at issue 50 (and even after that, actually), "Action Force" was on order for me at my local Newsagents, and I loved it.

Its premise is almost insultingly simple, and obviously the brainchild of a Toy executive. Military Organisation of good guys with various different skills and specialities versus Military Organisation of bad guys bent on World domination. Meaning lots of different figures, vehicles and weapons. Marvel had done well with a couple of Toy licenses in the past, most notably "Micronauts" (remembered chiefly for Michael Golden's great artwork) and "ROM", both of which outlasted the toys upon which they were based in the US. But nobody wanted to write something as seemingly one-dimensional as "G.I. Joe" and so the relatively unknown Larry Hama was given a shot, based mainly on a series he had proposed about a Special Operations Unit of SHIELD. Hama would make a success of the title, and then some. "GI Joe" would run for 155 issues over twelve years, spawn several spin off mini-series, and is still a fixture in Comic Shops today, where the characters and concepts given life by Hama are the ones being used in various series of "GI Joe" from other Comics Publishers. The forthcoming movie is also obviously heavily based on Hama's work.

Key to this success was the use of Ninjas. When I was a kid, Ninjas were an elusive presence in popular culture. They were briefly featured in "You Only Live Twice" and bad films like the "American Ninja" series were VHS rental staples in the 80s, but these felt like less than satisfactory Ninja experiences. Martial arts films were harder to procure back then, and Ninjas hadn't quite gone mainstream in the way they have in modern culture. Their appearances in Frank Miller's "Daredevil" were incredibly thrilling to me, who knew what they were, what they looked like, but never found enough of them anywhere. This is probably down to the fact that Chinese Martial arts films dominated in that particular sector, with Japanese lagging significantly behind (the first time I even heard of Sonny Chiba was in a Tarantino interview). Miller's use would be crucial in the breakthrough of the cult of the Ninja in Western pop culture after it had been parodied in Eastman and Laird's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". Once Ninjas were on children's cartoons, it was safe for them to be anywhere. Nowadays they show up in Tom Cruise films, and its no big deal.

Hama, perhaps down to his Japanese roots, was ahead of the game here. The G.I. Joe line-up featured one outright Ninja, Storm Shadow, a white-clad villain, and also Snake Eyes, a black-clad "commando" in the employ of the good guys. Hama made Snake Eyes a Ninja-commando, and the success of this move meant that the classic second Snake Eyes action figure came with a massive Sword as well as an Uzi (and his pet timber wolf, a must have for any discerning Ninja Commando). He also concentrated on the Snake Eyes-Storm Shadow angle in the comic's larger arcs, and the fans responded. The two characters were given a shared origin, involving a traumatic Long Range Recon Patrol in Vietnam and a shared Ninja Master in the Hard Master of the Arashikage clan.

Storm Shadow is visually a classical ninja, only dressed in white rather than black. Armed with a bow and two swords, he has the usual mastery of hand to hand combat. Snake Eyes, unusually for a hero, is far more interesting - left hideously scarred and mute by a helicopter crash, his love for fellow Joe Scarlett was one of the only examples of romance in the entire series (the other being the steamy affair conducted - behind Cobra Commander's back, I might add - by king of cool Destro and PG dominatrix the Baroness). He mixed ninja skills - martial arts and swordplay - with use of grenades and machine pistols. One of the ways Hama showed his preference for these characters was in the famous "silent stories". The first is the classic G.I. Joe Issue 21, "Silent Interlude".

Marvel didn't really put much effort into "G.I Joe." Hama, once proven to be competent, was left to do what he pleased, as long as Hasbro was happy. The book sold to its ready-made audience of "G.I. Joe" fans and young boys, and it almost didn't matter if the comic was any good or not. So the title never had any hot artists ( though Michael Golden would do brilliant work on a spin off sister title later on) and instead was usually drawn by slumming old-timers or in-house hacks like Don Perlin, Herb Trimpe, Mike Vosburg and Frank Springer. On "Silent Interlude", Hama himself did layouts while Steve Leialoha finished. The result is a fantastic piece of comic book storytelling - well-paced, economical and exciting. The story follows Snake Eyes' attempt to free Scarlett from a Cobra installation in the Balkans and his encounter with a group of Ninja Warriors there, led by Storm Shadow. There is not a line of dialogue, everything told through action, expression and nuance. Snake Eyes fights each of the Ninjas in turn, before finally saving Scarlett from a sword flung by Storm Shadow. Audaciously, though this was Storm Shadow's debut in the comic, Hama chose to reveal the link between him and Snake Eyes on the final page, when their matching tattoos are depicted. Almost a decade's worth of stories began with that page, and you can bet the movie will use the connection between the characters too. The story has also been surprisingly influential, according to numerous modern-day comics creators who read it and were wowed as impressionable youths. I can understand that; this was relatively sophisticated, even risky storytelling in a comic aimed squarely at 12 year old boys and younger.

I had that US issue, my only G.I. Joe comic at that time, before Marvel UK's Action Force existed, and it was fascinating to see how the British comic framed it when they got to it. Action Force was blessed with hungry young writers and artists at the time, and the man behind the pencils on that story, if I remember correctly, was a teenaged Bryan Hitch (I suspect that the shot at the top of this post may also be by Hitch, whose style back then was a little different).
The next silent story, "Hush Job" was in Gi Joe Yearbook Number 3, three years later. Again written by Hama, it was pencilled by Ron Wagner, and this time involved an attempt by Storm Shadow and Scarlett to rescue Snake Eyes from the Cobra Consulate in New York. G.I Joe was big on capturings and rescue missions, you see. By this time, Storm Shadow had revealed that he was only a member of Cobra in a bid to discover the identity of his Master's killer, and joined G.I. Joe. This story isn't anywhere near as good, in its all-too-obvious attempt to ape "Silent Interlude". The art isn't as good, the plotting isn't as tight, and the vibe just isn't as cool. But it does feature Snake Eyes breaking a brainwashing machine by going into a Zen state, and there is lots of Ninja action, so its not all bad. Like this:

Hama was always good at Ninja action. It was always well-choreographed and exciting, and there was always a significant cool factor. These characters were firm fan favourites, and Hama rarely let fans down. The third "silent" story is full of Ninja Action. But its not really silent. "SFX", from G.I. Joe Issue 85, is drawn by the always competent but never inspired Paul Ryan, and follows an attempt by chameleon-esque mercenary Zartan and a group of red-clad ninjas to kill Storm Shadow's pupil, Jinx, and Storm Shadow himself. Instead of silence, virtually every page is filled with sound effects as the fight scene sprawls across San Francisco. Much Ninja action, in museums, dojos, on rooftops and busy city streets. It has a very different feel, full of colour and incident, from the other silent stories.

Things change. Silent stories are pretty common in mainstream comics these days. A few years ago, one of the majors even had an entire month of completely silent comics, just as a sales gimmick. And Ninjas? Ninjas are old hat. Kids these days can probably do courses in Ninjitsu in school, or at least pick up the basics on the internet. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow probably won't have quite the same resonance for them they had for me. But there they are, front and centre in the trailer for the new movie. There is even a shot of them crossing swords. That shot is why I'm going. And I probably won't be the only one. If only all their sequences could be utterly silent, I would be happy...

*Battle soldiered painfully on, introducing "Storm Force", and their arch-enemy, Tarantula, who freaked my 11 year old self out to a disturbing degree. Eventually Battle and Eagle merged before both perishing as the UK comics industry evaporated during the 90s.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 28

This grindhouse b-movie pseudo classic is being remade. Not a surprise. It won't be as good, of course. It won't have Warren Oates or Hot Lips Houlihan. Or weirdly pointless dirt bike sequences. Or a voiceover as good as this one in its trailer:


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals."

This may yet be the year of the Mission movie. Both Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" and Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" will tell tales of disparate groups of fighting men sent into hostile territory with a single, extremely violent and dangerous purpose. They will hopefully be worthy additions to a sub-genre with a fine history. Some classic Sunday afternoon Dad movies - arguably most classic Sunday afternoon Dad movies - are Mission movies. You know the films I mean. The likes of "The Dirty Dozen" (Robert Aldrich, 1967) and "Where Eagles Dare" (Brian G Hutton, 1968) and "The Guns of Navarone" (J. Lee Thompson, 1961) spring instantly to mind. Simple, spectacular entertainments, invariably intensely male, preferably set during the Second World War, with all-star casts, plenty of action and attractive widescreen photography.
"Play Dirty" (Andre De Toth, 1968) is from the same era as the films mentioned above, and it too is a Mission movie. Only the execution makes it a radically different beast.

I've long known the name Andre De Toth. Faber's series of "Director on Director" books has included a clutch of legends and predictable critical favourites, ranging from Woody Allen and Scorsese to David Lynch and Kieslowski. And Andre De Toth, whose autobiography, "Fragments", Faber published in 1994. That name always stood out, for me. Faber also published biographies of Nick Ray and Don Siegel, but I know the work of both those men well, their inclusion was no big surprise. Before "Play Dirty", however, I'd never knowingly seen a De Toth film. I knew that he was one-eyed, as pictures of him always depict a bald man wearing a Nick Fury eyepatch, and that this handicap didn't prevent him from directing the first high profile 3D film, the 1953 version of "House of Wax", even though he lacked the ability to see the effects he created. I knew that Scorsese was a big fan, as was Tarantino, who dedicated "Reservoir Dogs" to him. Born in Hungary in 1912, De Toth studied law and wrote, directed and acted in plays before he was drawn to the Hungarian picture business. In 1942 he emigrated to America via a short period in London, and soon he was directing hard edged little noir programmers for the Hollywood studios and writing (largely without screen credit) Westerns and crime films for the likes of John Ford.
He never quite made it beyond that level of cinema. He specialised in B-movies in those familiar genres, and as such probably his two most celebrated films beyond "House of Wax" are "Crime Wave" (1954) and "Day of the Outlaw" (1957).
He possibly gained more fame for his marriage to Veronica Lake than for any of his films, despite having directed major stars like Kirk Douglas, Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden. By the 1960s he was directing on US TV with episodes of "Maverick" and "The Westerner" notable on his CV. Prior to "Play Dirty" he made a couple of foreign-financed action epics starring Steve Reeves and Jack Palance. His career had become a jumbled mess.

"Play Dirty" fell into his lap. It had been developed by Rene Clement, but he dropped out late and De Toth was in the right place at the right time. His mercenary attitude and undoubted technical expertise are oddly suited to the films flip, cynical, almost dystopian attitude.
Rather than any of the Mission Movies listed above, the film "Play Dirty" bears most resemblance to is Nicholas Ray's cold, precise "Bitter Victory". De Toth was clearly affected by his long education in the Noir genre - this film is filled with duplicitous, misanthropic characters and dishonest acts. The usual moral clarity of the World War 2 Mission genre is almost entirely absent, an absence signalled by the fact that the opening and closing scenes depict British Soldiers posing as Germans. Here the Allies are ruthless, murderous and only semi-competent.

The plot follows Michael Caine's Douglas, a BP Executive seconded to the Army for a dangerous mission to blow up a fuel dump miles behind enemy lines. He is accompanied by a "Dirty Dozen"-esque squad of released prisoners commanded by Leech (Nigel Davenport), himself an ex-Prisoner who doesn't want, need or respect Douglas. Leech has been promised £2000 to get Douglas back alive, having lost several officers on previous missions. The mission entails the men dressing as an Italian Unit, and their first act is to massacre a band of Bedouin they come across at an oasis, which sets the tone for what is to follow. The trek across the desert takes up much of the film's running time, with the attack upon the fuel dump itself offering an ironic anti-climax at its end. This is followed by the actual climax and then an incredibly cynical and bitter final scene.

De Toth's experience is evident in the muscular economy of his style. He never wastes a shot, his action scenes are beautifully simple and possess a true impact and coherence most modern action scenes do not even begin to approach. Indeed, the sequence where the men attempt to winch their vehicles up a rocky hill is excrutiatingly tense and impeccably shot and edited. The violence has a savagery and edge to it rare in that era outside the work of Peckinpah and Leone. The sense of place is also brilliantly conveyed - the vast emptiness of the desert, a pitiless landscape echoing the men's doomed, futile mission, is captured in slow pans and zooms. Against this stark landscape, the human drama is suffocatingly intimate, as Leech and Douglas tear at each other with laceratingly clipped exchanges of mutual contempt and ignorance. Caine and Davenport are both outstanding, and their battle of wills dominates the film.

The other men are doomed from the start, but the slow way the film tortures them is part of its beauty - they are stymied and defeated at every turn. Everything goes wrong. Heroism is forbidden in De Toth's world, it seems. These are the kind of men who try to rape a German nurse they encounter, who loot corpses. Their Arab guides are depicted as a giggling homosexual couple, one sign of how unusual and un-Hollywood this film is. The title of the film is the code they all live by, constantly reverting to subterfuge and trickery to survive. The opening sequence, depicting Leech's return - the single survivor - from a previous mission, dressed as a German officer and blaring German music until he crosses into British territory at which point he switches radio stations sets out the characters and the films stall succinctly and without any dialogue. De Toth often stages such scenes of pure cinema. The assault on the fuel dump which turns into a shocking narrative twist is similarly wordless.

A very post-War, Noir view of the conflict runs throughout the narrative, and is underlined by the devastating ending. This is evident at every level - the Mission is viewed by the men's superiors as worthless, a decoy from the real thing. They are, in a sense, betrayed before they even embark upon their exhausting desert journey. Caine's Douglas seems unconcerned by the War when we first encounter him, lazing by the harbour, and later he is driven mainly by a desire to survive. Leech's survival instincts are established by that opening scene, and his ruthlessness and greed are restated throughout the film. And yet, despite these unsympathetic protagonists, despite the plot's cynicism and anger, the whole thing works just as well as a standard mission movie as it does in its capacity as an anti-War screed. You want these men to survive, to succeed. De Toth and screenwriter Melvyn Bragg (yes that Melvyn Bragg, presenter of the South Bank Show) invest the whole thing with such intensity that it packs an unusually powerful punch, which only serves to make the conclusion all the more shattering. It makes "The Dirty Dozen" (superficially quite a cynical film in its own right) seem like a super-patriotic piece of propaganda. And I mean that in a good way. It was a commercial failure, perhaps crowded out by too many similar films, its depth and quality going unrecognised, as is so often the case, until many years later.

As for De Toth, anything he directed I'll watch. "Day of the Outlaw" is the one I'm most interested in, since it sounds right up my street. This film makes sense of the references he enjoys alongside other B-movie giants like Fuller and Boetticher, and compliments don't come much higher than that from me.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009


Welcome to my most self-indulgent post ever. If you don't like football or don't play FIFA, I'd advise you skip it. Really.

Still here? Ok.

FIFA 09: 6 Goals

David Silva for Spain vs France

Spain are perhaps my favourite team to play as. As in the real world, the entire team has ridiculously solid technique, making their possession game both a necessity and a joy. As Spain - and a few other teams similarly bestowed with creativity and technique - I can keep the ball endlessly, playing in little first time triangles, shifting the play all across the pitch. The magic midfield line-up of Xavi-Senna- Iniesta-Silva is a beautiful thing. And ahead of it are Torres and Villa, to my mind the best strike pairing in the entire game. Villa can seemingly do anything, and he scores goals of unlikely quality: shots from distance, free-kicks, volleys, tap-ins, headers, dribbles...nothing is beyond him in front of goal. Alongside him, Torres' pace is a lethal weapon. I have scored more goals playing through-balls for an on-the-shoulder striker to run onto than of any other kind (though this goal probably belongs in the category of the second most common kind of goal I've scored - the pounce upon a rebound from a save) , and Torres is perhaps the best player in FIFA 09 at playing to this tactic. His pace, once he gets on the ball, is terrifying, and he is virtually uncatchable by legal means. Spain just seem to have goals in them at any point during a game. And its always lovely to look at...

Near the end of a tight game under the floodlights at the Mestalla. A goalless stalemate so far, despite Torres striking a post and Villa twice clipping the crossbar, and Henry being denied in a one-on-one by the onrushing and suicidally brave Casillas. Spain dominate possession while France break with pace down the flanks, usually via the elusive Ribery.
Spain are stroking the ball around in midfield, as they have done all game. Xavi takes a touch, turns away from the pressing Toulalan, then plays the ball off to Senna, who finds him with the return, Toulalan now lost in the space between them. Seeing the opportunity, Xavi plays in Torres with a first-time ball along the turf. Torres, who has made a run along the edge of the box, turns speedily into the area as Gallas closes towards him.
Torres deigns not to shoot and instead cuts it back for Villa, near the penalty spot. The ball is a little behind him and his shot is not as powerful as it should be, but it forces the keeper to dive to his right to save it, then Mexes hooks it clear.
It arcs out of the box towards David Silva, loitering near the left touchline. He takes a short run and hits it first-time, on the volley and it travels over the crowd of players in the area and into the far top corner like an exocet, the keeper barely having moved. Silva may even have done the robot in celebration.

Juan Roman Riquelme for Boca Juniors vs Sao Paolo

Boca are probably the team I play as on the most regular basis, and it is a source of massive heartache that the Argentine League is not one of the featured leagues, and something EA should address forthwith. I would play as Estudiantes, Lanus and Independiente, for instance. I never ever play the Danish League. Or the J-League or K-League. Anyway, I have to create tournaments if I want to "manage" Boca the way I can Man Utd or Barcelona, say. And, being a stickler for some sort of realism, I tend to make my tournaments regional in nature. So Boca play River Plate, obviously, the bigger Mexican clubs, and a lot of Brazilian teams. Probably the strongest of these teams is Sao Paolo, who are pacy all over the pitch and always tough to beat. Boca play a short-passing game, you see, meaning you need to be at your best to unlock a well-organised team, and that it is extremely difficult against the big European Super-Clubs, who all have considerably better stats.
The pace of Palacio upfront or even Vargas in midfield is no use against a team as fast over the ground as Sao Paolo. But I love playing as Boca. Riquelme, who the commentary in Fifa 08 branded "the orchestrator of the midfield" is just that, on the ball more than anybody else in every game. He also breaks into the box to score crucial goals, as his finishing is almost as good as his passing. This goal, however, was sort of a fluke. I meant it, but it shouldn't have worked.

Boca pass it out from the back, creating little triangles between defenders and then feeding defensive midfielder Sebastian Battaglia, who turns and slides it to Riquelme, hovering, back to goal, near the halfway line. He turns with a little backheel. He has space, a snatch of time. There is no pass on save for a safe ball out to the flank. Instead he looks up, and instantly shoots. One stroke of the boot and the ball is high in the air and traveling at pace in a low arc over the pitch. The goalkeeper is scrambling already and then, somehow, ridiculously, the ball is passing into the net just under the crossbar, the keeper in a heap on the goal line.
1-0 Boca. Beautiful. Later Riquelme would sweep a free kick into the top corner, just to make the result safe, before Palacio stabbed a Palermo cutback inside the near post in injury time to flatter the Argentines with a 3-0.

Kaka for Brazil vs Paraguay

The problem with Brazil is that midfield. Two destroyers in the middle makes them slightly less terrifying than they should be, despite the amazing attacking talent at the top of the pitch (Ronaldinho, Adriano and Robinho in addition to Kaka, with Pato and Diego on the bench). So I changed it. What does Dunga know? I put in Thiago Motta and Felipe Melo, more rounded players, giving the team a more creative element in that area. Motta, in particular is adept at charging forward and delivering telling passes to the forward players. Altough sometimes they do that themselves. for years, when PES was in its pomp and lording it over FIFA, the accusation most commonly made of EA's game was that it was too easy. That you could pick up the ball with one player and dribble right the way through the opposition to score. There may even have been something to this, back then. But for the last 2 years, PES has been the easier, more Arcade game, all unrealistically pacy players and spectacular goals. FIFA is now a game where tactics and patience matter, where goals can be rare and precious for that. And yet it can be spectacular and even beautiful when something goes right. In short, its a true simulation, it feels like football. PES feels like a game. Made by people who want football to be more like a game. Sometimes, though, with the right player at the right moment in the right game and the right coordination, its still possible to score one of those "beat-the-entire-defence" goals in FIFA 09...

Kaka takes the ball from Melo inside his own half. Brazil already lead 2-0. He turns and sets off at pace, beating a midfielder with his speed within two strides, then turning past another. Passes open up for him; Robinho making a run towards the box to his left, Ronaldinho loitering in safe distance. He ignores them. The penalty box is in view now and he performs a step-over and then slaloms between two defenders with a burst of acceleration and into it, heading towards the corner flag, the keeper unsure whether to come out or not. Morel-Rodriguez, the Paraguayan left back, is charging at him and will be there in an instant. Kaka clips the ball just as the keeper commits himself and before Rodriguez arrives and it flicks almost apologetically over his ankle and nestles in the side netting just inside the far post, the goalkeeper skidding into Kaka as Brazil begin to celebrate. He has beaten four or five players and run from the halfway line.

Berbatov for Manchester United vs Arsenal

United are too good in FIFA. Its too easy. No team really measures up. Strong in defence, able to pass it through the middle, quick and inventive on the flanks and with an awesome array of attacking options. If I play as United and get an early goal, it is usually the first of many. Rooney scores amazing goals, of course, as do Ronaldo and Tevez. But Berbatov seems programmed in FIFA to play as a poacher, which he isn't remotely in real life. So he finishes off long passing moves. He scores tap-ins. The real Berbatov likes to drop back and dictate the play, to create for others. Here Rooney does that job. This Berbatov is also blessed with the kind of pace the real Berbatov can only dream of, or at least rarely displays. But one thing is legitimate: that divine touch. That elegance of movement and vision. I usually prefer Tevez. But Berbatov is better in the air and the EA version isn't as seemingly lazy as the real Dimitar...this goal was maybe the second time that trying this had ever worked for me. Which was exhilarating. Especially against Arsenal.

A night time game at the Emirates. United lead 1-0 from an early Rooney missile from the edge of the box. Arsenal have had a couple of chances, and have finally gone all cavalier in the last minutes of the game in a desperate attempt to score an equaliser. As a result, United are breaking and threatening every minute or so. On this occasion, Giggs plays a smart first time ball to Berbatov after an Arsenal move has broken down at the feet of Carrick. Berbatove nudges it to Rooney, again first time, and Rooney rounds Sagna and plays it back into Berbatov's path. Gallas and Toure snap at his heels as he approaches the box. Goalkeeper Almunia advances slightly. So Berbatov lobs him. An impudent flick, perfectly struck and judged. Almunia leaps but comes nowhere near. The ball crosses the line at waist height. Berbatov celebrates. Almunia will get one back with a great header in injury time.

Zico for Classic XI vs Brazil

If I miss anything about the old days when I played PES instead of FIFA, its the Classic lineups of International teams. To play with a Classic Argentina starring Maradona (alright, Manadona) and Redondo (Redanda) was a great pleasure. Figuring out who some of the other players were meant to be was always amusing, too. I often found myself scruitinizing an England full-back, thinking "Could it be Kenny Sansom?" This is one rare PES feature FIFA should copy outright. At present, the closest it gets is the Classic XI and the World XI. The World XI seems an arbitrary and somewhat silly notion. As does the Classic XI, I guess. But it allows you to play as Cantona and Hugo Sanchez. Or even better, as Zico. One of the greatest players ever, he is a little underrated, for my liking. He should be somewhere just below Maradona and Pele and Crujif in the pantheon, alongside Platini and Zidane (he was easily the equal of either). In FIFA his stats reflect how good he was. And he can score the most sublime goals. So can most of his Classic XI teammates, to be fair...
Sometimes a player will do something you didn't expect in FIFA. Some combination of buttons and triggers and analogue stick pressure elicits a move you didn't know was possible. A drag back and flicked backheel of a pass. An overhead flick. This Zico goal was like that. And all the more enjoyable for it.

A corner kick. Taken by Paul Gascoine. Zico near the penalty spot, a crowd of Brazilian and CLassic XI players also in the box. As Gascoine steps up to the ball, Zico makes a short run to the edge of the six yard box. The ball is floated in. Behind him. He goes for it anyway, but instead of heading it hopelessly over the bar - which seems the only real option - he dives backwards and, almost upside-down as he strikes it, scissor-kicks it into the top corner. It is a graceful, balletic physical motion, then the ball is in the back of the net.

Thierry Henry for Barcelona vs Real Madrid

Ah, Barcelona. Pass-pass-pass-pass-pass- little dribble - pass-turn-pass-pass-pass-flick-pass-goal. Like Spain, like Man Utd, playing with Barcelona is almost too easy, too smooth. Built for possession, they pass and score, pass and score. Their defence may be unrealistically solid, but they lose the ball so seldom it barely matters. Their midfielders all pass the ball beautifully, their strikers all have amazing pace and finishing prowess - every game is a feast of perfect through-balls and superb clips into the bottom corner.
Anyone who knows me well and talks about football with me knows I love a passing game. Football is a passing game. It must be played that way. Long ball football is an affront to the soul. When I play it I want to play in a passing team. I get annoyed when I don't play in a passing team. When I watch football I want to watch beautiful technical football. Yes, there is a separate pleasure to a strong, well-organised defence, but there is something almost sacred in the sight of a team playing as one in possession of the ball. Even to be involved in a goal based upon the timeless principles of "pass, move, offer, receive, pass" is the greatest pleasure in the game, I think.
But from playing and watching others play FIFA, it is obvious that not everyone plays the game the same way. Most people, in fact, play a weird combination of ceaseless dribbling and long balls muntered up front. Give the ball to a fast, skillful player, and let him do some damage, seems to be the theory. And of course all football comes down to this at some point. Only, with the best teams and the best football, it only comes into focus in the six yard box, after a beautiful sequence of passes has opened up the soft underbelly of the opposition. Style in football is a moral question, I think. If you play ugly, pragmatic football, you're in the wrong, win or not. Thats why the Brazil team of 1982 are more beloved than the team of 1994. Or to quote Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."
This all applies to FIFA as much as real football.
This goal came at the end of a period of short passing possession that went on so long I was almost getting bored. Then a hole appeared in the other teams defence. And the flea found it.

Barcelona pass it about from a short goal kick. Puyol to Alves, up to Messi, over to Xavi, back to Puyol, over to Milito, out to Abidal, back to Milito, forward to Iniesta, out to Henry, back to Toure, to Xavi, to Iniesta, to Messi, to Xavi, to Alves, to Messi, to Xavi, to Toure, to Etoo etc etc. Madrid make the odd lunging tackle and continually press but never really threaten to regain possession. The ball comes to Messi, facing Heinze. He sprints up the wing then turns sharply and cuts infield. He lays it off to Xavi. Xavi plays it in to Etoo, who plays it across the corner of the box to Messi, back on the wing. Messi turns and flicks the ball past Heinze, and is beyond him before he can even turn. On the edge of the box he plays it fast along the ground almost perfectly along the six yard line. Etoo is already past the ball, as are a scrambling Cannavaro and Pepe. It rolls straight into the path of Henry's run, and he strokes it first time into the top corner, Casillas having no chance. this is the opening goal. Barca will score four more, Madrid none.

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