Thursday 31 December 2009

Two From Tori

Two Amos songs to see in the New Year with, the first a great improv on a subject I guess most of us are thinking about at this time of resolutions - the need for change in our lives - the second an ode to lost loved ones, Midwinter Graces' finale. Glasses raised ...

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is bloated, tedious, unendearing. I've boycotted Ritchie's movies up to now, but, as a great lover of the Basil Rathbone Holmes films of the 1940s, I was curious to see what the director would do with the material. Well, what Ritchie and his screenwriters have done is to turn Holmes into a run-of-the-mill action extravganza, a Die Hard-y romp featuring explosions, protracted fight scenes (including a very odd bare-knuckle boxing sequence) and weak buddy-buddy quips. (It comes as no surprise to find Joel Silver credited amongst the film's producers.) The violence - and there's quite a lot of it for a 12A certificate - comes super-stylised, speeded-up and slowed-down. What Ritchie's "style" doesn't seem to encompass, unfortunately, is any charm, lightness, or wit. The world-domination plot (masterminded by Mark Strong's Lord Blackwood - the hair-piece does much of the work here) is terribly vague, there's little delight in piecing the mysteries together, and, worst of all, this Holmes and Watson (Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law) do not prove an appealing team. Trying for eccentricity, a weary-looking Downey Jnr comes off as merely odd; Law (after his inventive, compelling performances this year on stage in Hamlet and on film in Rage) is blandness itself. The actors who don't look ill (Rachel McAdams seems particularly pallid as Irene Adler, Holmes's nemesis/paramour) look ill-at-ease, with the exception of James Fox, who brings a bit of authority and comic style to his all-too-brief appearance as Blackwood's father. There are a couple of incidental (unintentional) pleasures: I particularly enjoyed Downey Jnr's slippery diction on his English accent: he makes the line "You're in over your head, Irene" sound like "Urine over your head Irene" while "You is us" becomes "You is arse." But in the time it takes this movie to clunk to its blatantly franchise-heralding conclusion you could have watched two of the Rathbone films - and had a much better time doing so. This one's shit, Sherlock.

Monday 28 December 2009

Dave Rawlings Machine: A Friend of a Friend

One belated addition to the Albums of the Year list: Dave Rawlings Machine’s delightful A Friend of a Friend which I just got through reviewing for PopMatters. A timeless album book-ended by two particularly wonderful new songs: “Ruby” and “Bells of Harlem”.

Saturday 26 December 2009

20 Albums of the 00s


Concluding the List-o-mania.

Scarlet’s Walk (2002)/American Doll Posse (2007) - Tori Amos
For me, the decade’s two most immersive album experiences came courtesy (surprise!) of Tori Amos, firstly Scarlet’s Walk’s deeply textured travelogue and then ADP’s wild, playful-and-profound treatise on the value of exploring with your identity. Albums for always. (Can I get Strange Little Girls [2001] as well?)

In Rainbows (2007) - Radiohead
After several forbidding and brittle albums, it was delightful (and unexpected) to get such a welcoming, humane and - dammit! - enjoyable record from Radiohead. “Reckoner”’s “Dedicated to all human beings” sums up the spirit of the deeply sublime In Rainbows. And Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser (2006) was pretty good, too.

Red Dirt Girl (2000) - Emmylou Harris
On which the seraphic Harris proved herself a skilled songwriter as well as a peerless interpreter of others’ work.

An Echo of Hooves (2003) - June Tabor
Tabor’s magnum opus, perhaps: startling renditions of Child ballads delivered with consummate command and feeling. Spare and intimate musical settings, but the effect and impact of a wide-screen epic.

The Man Comes Around (2002) - Johnny Cash

For me, the American Recordings series is not just an interesting addendum to Cash’s career but its major highlight. From the robust first record to the heart-rendingly frail My Mother’s Hymn Book (2004) and A Hundred Highways (2006) Cash never sounded so moving or so true. It’s almost churlish to pick favourites out of these great records, but for choice of material The Man Comes Around (2002) just wins out for me.

Aerial (2005) - Kate Bush
So now I always hear birdsong as “a sea of honey.”

Lifeline (2004) - Iris DeMent
In terms of recorded output (though not, thankfully, live performance) Iris DeMent has practically become the Kate Bush of Country. I’d love to hear an album of new music from the creator of what I firmly believe are two of the greatest records ever made, in any genre, Infamous Angel (1992) and My Life (1994). Lifeline was DeMent’s sole offering this decade, and one that gave us only one original, self-penned song. But, still, it was an utter pleasure to experience the Gospel According to Iris.

No-one Stands Alone (2002) - Blue Murder
Songs of beauty, grace, humanity and humour delivered in gorgeous, gritty harmony by seven brilliant singers. Magic.

The Animal Years (2006) - Josh Ritter
Mark Twain, Laurel and Hardy, the Bible, Westerns and silent movies provide just some of Ritter’s lyrical inspirations on this superb record, Ritter’s best so far.

Antony and the Johnsons (2000)/I Am A Bird Now (2005) - Antony and the Johnsons
Quavering between Nina Simone and Bryan Ferry, but with its own original stories to tell, Antony’s music defies gender and genre categorisation. The Mercury-winning Bird Now received the raves but I’m equally fond of the debut album which has a playfulness and brazen theatricality that his most recent work sadly seems to have lost.

Bowery Songs (2006) - Joan Baez
From 1962’s In Concert onwards, Joan Baez has produced a string of live albums which rank among her very best work. Bowery Songs is one such, demonstrating what a vital and compelling artist Baez remains in her 60s, especially in a live setting. Starting with the a cappella benediction of “Finlandia” and ending with Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem,” the set mixes old folk (Guthrie’s “Deportees”), very old folk (“Silver Dagger”), new folk (Earle, Greg Brown) and a couple of Dylans for good measure, presenting the material as one seamless story.

Vampire Weekend (2008) - Vampire Weekend
With its cool Afro-pop rhythms, ska guitars and arch, allusive lyrics, Vampire Weekend’s debut might be the feel-good album of the decade. Substantial, too. Not long to wait now for the new one.

Funeral (2004) - Arcade Fire
Epic, yet intimate, and entirely exhilarating.

Time (The Revelator) (2001) - Gillian Welch
“You be Emmylou and I’ll be Gram…” Roots music at its most hermetic and mysterious: stark, strange, beautiful.

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006) - Arctic Monkeys
The catchy hooks were expected; the razor-sharp lyrics weren’t. Funny, swaggering, finely detailed slices of Sheffield life encompassing takeaways, boozy nights on the town, “mardy bums” and the odd bit of police brutality. As good as everyone once pretended Oasis were.

Blues and Lamentations (2006) - Kate Campbell
Campbell synthesises Southern music traditions here with effortless grace.

Caroline, Or Change (2003) - Tony Kushner [book/lyrics] and Jeanine Tesori [score]
On stage or on record, Kushner and Tesori’s rich, political people’s opera - combining jazz, blues, Motown, classical and Klezmer - proved equally powerful and compelling.

Modern Guilt (2008) - Beck
Beck released better-received, more ambitious albums this decade but none that involved or moved me more than Modern Guilt.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Some Christmas Movies

Five to watch about this time of year.

Home Alone
“This is my house - I have to defend it.” Slapstick violence, vigilantism, and family values, Hughes -style. A childhood obsession, this one. Don’t mess with the Culkin.

“And that’s how I found out there wasn’t a Santa Claus…”

Dans Paris
I love grumpy papa Guy Marchand dragging a Christmas tree through the Paris streets.

Joyeux Noel

Christian Carion’s sincere and touching film about the Christmas truce.

It’s A Wonderful Life
Must we? Oh, go on then.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

20 Films of the 00s

There were many films I loved this decade, but, challenged to come up with 20 quickly, these are the ones that emerged.

Magnolia [dir. Paul Thomas Anderson]
Limbo [dir. John Sayles]
Topsy-Turvy [dir. Mike Leigh]
American Beauty [dir. Sam Mendes]

1999 releases strictly speaking, but since these movies didn’t reach this sceptred isle until 2000 they started the decade as far as I’m concerned. And what a start. For me, the 00s offered no better films than Paul Thomas Anderson’s thunderous yet tender emotional epic, John Sayles’s profound exploration of the concept of risk, Mike Leigh’s thrilling anatomisation of the collaborative creative process, and Sam Mendes’s soulful and subversive study of rebellion in the 'burbs. Provocative, intelligent, deeply felt movies all.

Under the Sand (Sous le Sable) [dir. Francois Ozon] (2001)
A classic of first-person cinema: Ozon’s haunting, anti-closure masterpiece of mourning and melancholia.

Talk To Her (Hable con Ella) [dir. Pedro Almodóvar] (2003)
One of Almodóvar’s finest: elegant, surprising, deeply moving, all-of-a-piece.

Uzak [dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan] (2003)
Ceylan’s droll, sad portrait of two cousins (mis-)connecting in wintry Istanbul.

The House of Mirth (2000) [dir. Terence Davies]
Davies’s struggles with getting financing this decade were one of the sorriest indictments yet of that chimera known as the British film industry. But the two films he did manage to get made were both rewarding, in particular this masterful, subtle adaptation of Wharton.

Lost in Translation (2003) [dir. Sofia Coppola]
Pitching itself between apparent irreconcilables - humour and melancholy, connection and isolation, resignation and hope - Sofia Coppola’s lovely, atmospheric, invigorating movie is Brief Encounter for the 00s. Props, too, to the misunderstood Marie-Antoinette (2007).

Hidden (Caché) (2006) - [dir. Michael Haneke]
The best movie yet from cinema’s most rigorous analyst of what we watch, how we live, and the relation between the two.

Mad Hot Ballroom (2004) - [dir. Marilyn Agrelo]
In joyous tone and generous sprit, the perfect anti-Michael Moore documentary.

Gosford Park (2001) [dir. Robert Altman]
Altman’s final decade of film-making was an erratic one, as always, with as many lows as highs. But his sublime amalgam of country-house murder-mystery and Upstairs Downstairs social critique grows richer with every viewing.

The Village (2004) - [dir. M. Night Shyamalan]
Shyamalan’s odd, imaginative movies rubbed many people up the wrong way. Overlooking the paltry The Happening (2008), I think he’s a great artist, and The Village unfolds with the beauty, terror and dream-logic of a fairy-tale.

Dans Paris (2006)/ Les Chansons d'amour (2007) - [dir. Christophe Honoré]
Watching Honoré’s delightful movies I discovered that I preferred New Wave "homage" to the "real" thing.

The Child (L’enfant) (2005) – [dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes]
For all its associated pain, the massive humanity of the Dardennes’s cinema makes me very happy indeed.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) - [dir. Joel Coen]
"It didn't look like a one-horse town, but you try finding a decent hair jelly."

Dogville (2003) – [dir. Lars von Trier]
By the end of the decade, von Trier’s provocations seemed tired and tiresome. But the expert Dogville remains a great, gruelling work.

Far From Heaven (2003) – [dir. Todd Haynes]
Haynes’s ode to Sirk emerged not as a cold theoretical exercise, but rather a rapturous rediscovery of the rawness of melodrama, its depths of feeling, its social comment, and its humanity. Props to I'm Not There (2007) as well.

The Class (Entre les murs) (2008) - [dir. Laurent Cantet]
Cantet's riveting drama absorbs from first frame to last.

Monday 21 December 2009

2009 Best Ofs [Theatre]

The Merchant of Venice (Propeller)
Where Sam Mendes’s cross-cast The Cherry Orchard/Winter’s Tale productions were solid but rather staid and unsurprising, Propeller’s artful, prison-set all-male Merchant reinvigorated the play.

All’s Well That Ends Well (NT)
Ditto for Marianne Elliot’s entrancing re-imagining of All’s Well as Tim Burton-esque Gothic fairytale.

Phedre (NT)
Not all it could have been, due to a compelling but overly contained Helen Mirren and a bombastic Stanley Townsend. But Nicholas Hytner’s elegant production had some fine, memorable moments.

Mother Courage and Her Children (NT)
Deborah Warner’s thrillingly messy production of Brecht’s classic, with a magnificent Fiona Shaw.

Allison’s House (Orange Tree)
A rare outing for, and a beautiful production of, Susan Glaspell’s neglected 1932 Pulitzer-winner.

Monday 14 December 2009

2009 Best ofs [Music]

Somehow I didn’t seem to open myself up to a lot of new albums this year. Whether the fault was mine or the music's I’m not sure, but alot of the year's most praised releases left me cold. Florence Welch’s strident, pushy vocals had me cowering and reaching for a Gillian Welch record and the synthpop revival seemed fairly unexciting - give or take a couple of decent songs. But here are a few things I enjoyed.

Abnormally Attracted to Sin/Midwinter Graces - Tori Amos
So you’re still busy processing one Amos album when, lo and behold! - along comes another one. For me, neither AATS nor Midwinter Graces take their place as bona fide Amos Classics: the former is too uneven, the latter - necessarily - too limited in scope. Yet even “lesser” Amos works end up monopolising my musical year, and songs from both of these records provided me with more intense listening pleasure - and more little (and large) epiphanies - than those on any other release. “Give,” “Welcome to England,” “Ophelia,” "Curtain Call," “Abnormally Attracted to Sin,” “Lady In Blue” and “Winter’s Carol” bestow delight, orientation, courage and resolve. Colours that violate the blackness. Other worlds in parallel. Poems they can’t reach you in. Ways to break the chain.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix
Cool (but warm) pop music by clever Frenchmen. An infectious, invigorating record. Encore!

Actor - St. Vincent
There’s a smug, art-conscious aspect to Actor that I don’t really enjoy that much; Annie Clark often seems less intent on bringing you into a song than in getting you to stand back and admire its cleverness . But on most of Actor's ambitious tracks the view looks pretty good.

Merriweather Post Pavillion - Animal Collective
This year’s Fleet Foxes in terms of praise: not as great as claimed, perhaps, but an undisputed grower.

A Loud Call - Holly Throsby
Throsby’s three disarming, low-key albums form a lovely trilogy. A Loud Call is the best.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Gavin & Stacey: The End

The final episode of the popular BBC3 (now BBC1) series Gavin and Stacey screens on New Year’s Day. But, in a canny marketing ploy, the series is already out on DVD, and I just watched the final episodes. To be honest, I found this final series a bit scrappy and rushed as a whole - and, sad to say, it reaches the most phoney, contrived and banal of conclusions. The new characters didn’t really take; many elements were introduced only to fizzle out; and Joanna Page's Stacey unfortunately became an irritant. But the glory of G&S has always been in its details, rather than its conventional and sometimes soapy plotting. It was a series of quirky moments and lovely non-sequiturs, and one that - a rarity these days -had genuine warmth and affection for its characters. I loved the barn dance, the fishing trip mystery, the oven gloves, the omelettes, the singalongs, the cultural refs. A throwaway line about “that big strawberry blonde fella from Patch Adams” in the final series sums up this show’s appeal for me. I’ll miss it.

Thursday 10 December 2009

2009 Best Ofs [Film]

Films that floated the Ramon boat. And a few that didn't.

The Class (Entre Les Murs) [dir. Larent Cantet] - Anatomisations of the work-place are one of the (many) things that contemporary French cinema does so well. Through realistic and detailed real-time sequences, Cantet produced the best depiction of classroom dynamics ever seen onscreen. A classic. Waterloo Road fans should be made to watch this.

Rage [dir. Sally Potter] - Beautiful, angry and stylistically innovative, Sally Potter’s critique of marketing, corporatism, celeb culture (and much more besides) was a singular experience. Jude Law preens; Judi Dench lights a joint. A fascinating movie. At age 60, Potter’s sheer bloody inventiveness puts most directors to shame.

Wendy & Lucy [dir. Kelly Reichardt] - One woman and her dog: a compelling performance from Michelle Williams and attention to the corners of America that we don’t usually get to see.

35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums) [dir. Claire Denis] - On the Nightshift.

The White Ribbon [dir. Michael Haneke] - Eerie, haunting, and quite wonderful. It’s almost reassuring now, the way things are never all well in Haneke-land.

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto) [dir. Gianni Di Gregorio] - Italian neo-realism + Ealing comedy = joy.

Broken Embraces [Los Abrazos Rotos] [dir. Pedro Almodóvar] - Just enough bravura sequences to keep this out of the “Disappointments” category. But only just.

Seraphine - [dir. Martin Provost] - Absorbing, moving. "C'est beau" indeed.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [dir. Terry Gilliam] - “A bit of fantasticality”: not always coherent (it’s a Gilliam film after all) but there are unforgettable sequences here.

The Hurt Locker [dir. Kathryn Bigelow]- Partial in its perspective, and problematically gung-ho in tone. But Kathryn Bigelow’ s tense and engrossing movie still feels like the most authentic depiction of Iraq War experience (from one side…) yet to make it to the US screen.

Vicky Christina Barcelona [dir. Woody Allen] - It’s trivial but it’s fun.

Disappointments of the Year

Antichrist [dir. Lars von Trier] - In which Torture Porn masquerades as High Art.

Chloe [dir. Atom Egoyan] - In which Atom Egoyan masquerades as Paul Verhoeven.

Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) [dir. Tomas Alfredson] - For me the year's most flagrantly overrated movie. Teen romance + vampire flick = hell.

Che [dir. Steven Soderbergh] - Great moments, especially in the final stretches of Part Two, and a committed del Toro. But Steven Soderbergh’s uneven opus felt oddly unsatisfying overall. Seldom has starting revolutions seemed a duller prospect.

Bright Star [dir. Jane Campion] - Lovely images, but I expected more idiosyncrasy in Campion's treatment of the material.

Thursday 3 December 2009

35 Shots of Rum

The elliptical, moody nature of Claire Denis’s cinema can be a cause of intermingled fascination and frustration for a viewer.
"Frustration," for me, reached its apex during Denis’s last movie, The Intruder (2004), an impenetrable tone poem/travelogue involving huskies, heart transplants and Beatrice Dalle. Happily, Denis’s latest film 35 Shots of Rum (just out on DVD in the UK) is a much more welcoming experience - albeit one that (I would argue) still fails to mean quite as much as it might. The film focuses on the relationship between a RER train driver Lionel (Alex Descas) and his student daughter Jo (Mati Diop), a close bond which is subjected to some shifts when Jo draws the romantic attentions of a neighbour (Gregoire Colin). Lionel, it transpires, also has his own complicated history with another neighbour, the vibrant Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue).

Denis’s estimable talents are evident throughout 35 Shots of Rum. No director I know films bodies at rest or in motion with more eloquence: a glorious sequence in which the characters dance to the Commodores’s “Nightshift” in a bar (and the viewer experiences the intense, inchoate emotions circulating among them) is a candidate for scene of the year. As in Chocolat (1988) and Beau Travail (1999), the attention that Denis and her cinematographer Agnes Godard pay to people and space is invigorating, and there’s also something pleasingly subversive about the about the way that Denis lingers over “inconsequential” moments (the preparation of meals; Lionel’s train journeys) while jumping over other, “crucial” details. Few films have conveyed the mystery and materiality of the everyday better than this one.

But Denis’s approach also has its drawbacks. Proficient at creating moods, her films too often let the narrative go hang. Character motivation is so hazy, and some of the scenes are so insufficiently dramatised, that the meanings don’t emerge. In a period of punishing, obvious mainstream movies her tactics are admirable, but they can sometimes make for a slightly unsatisfying viewing experience. The rather inscrutable performances that Denis draws from her actors don’t always give enough away, either, and there are a couple of crucial subsidiary characters here that simply remain too opaque for us to know how to respond to. I get the feeling that Denis’s movies sometimes lose (rather than find) their meanings in the editing room; on the DVD interview here, she reveals that she cut the anecdote that explained the title from the film because it was “boring.” (Why name the film for it, then?) 35 Shots of Rum is a wonderful and beguiling movie in many ways. But I’d still like to get closer to its characters than Denis ultimately allows us.

Tuesday 1 December 2009


The mystery of creativity and the oddity of genius are the central themes of Séraphine, Martin Provost’s moving and absorbing biopic about the painter Séraphine Louis, known as Séraphine de Senlis. A maid troubled by mental problems, Séraphine produced vibrant, expressive canvases inspired by her love of nature. These drew the attention of the German art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, who rented an apartment in one of the houses in which Séraphine worked. The film opens in 1914, covers Séraphine’s greatest years of artist productivity, and climaxes with her incarceration in an asylum in the 1930s.

Yolande Moreau’s performance as Séraphine deservedly won her the Cesar for Best Actress this year. Moreau’s is a striking, finely modulated performance that never descends to the level of sentimentalised caricature. (No mean feat, in a movie that features non-ironic tree-hugging.) Whether stomping through the Senlis streets, communing with nature or working with rapt concentration on her canvases, Moreau is a captivating and charismatic presence. But the movie is in no sense a one-woman-show. Rather, it’s Séraphine’s relationship with her patron Uhde (a deeply sympathetic Ulrich Tukur, The White Ribbon’s Baron) that is the beating heart of this soulful film, an alliance I found far more touching than the Keats/Brawne romance in Bright Star. I dreaded the asylum scenes, but the tactful Provost doesn’t dwell on them excessively, and succeeds in bringing the movie to a tender, quietly redemptive close. A lovely, resonant and rewarding film, Séraphine deserves a wide audience.

Friday 20 November 2009

Midwinter Graces

“This is winter’s gift,” coos Tori Amos over harpsichord and piano on “What Child Nowell,” the inviting opening track to her determinedly non-denominational “seasonal” album Midwinter Graces. Following Abnormally Attracted to Sin, this is the second release this year from the musician who must surely rank as one of the hardest working (and most underrated) in the industry. Even so, this project may seem something of an unlikely one for Amos. This is, after all, the woman whose songs have variously speculated on God’s need of a girlfriend (“God”), recalled masturbation upstairs during prayers downstairs (“Icicle”), suggested Jesus was a woman (“Muhammad My Friend”) and appropriated the motif of crucifixion as an analogy for self-abnegation (“Crucify”). Few contemporary artists have made religion as central to their work as Amos has, and it’s precisely for those reasons that a seasonal album from her makes such good sense. Her Native American ancestry and her rebellion against aspects of her “Christianization” have always been focal points of her music, and have turned her into an open, willing student of many different belief systems and practices. (Then there are the memorable covers of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that she put out in the 90s). Unsurprisingly, then, Midwinter Graces approaches the genre with a mostly winning mixture of reverence and irreverence, transforming the Christmas album into the solstice album, adapting and amalgamating classic carols, and featuring a few Amos originals (which are, for me, among the highlights of the work). Always alert to the patriarchal manipulations of Christian doctrine, Amos’s focus here turns out to be the rebirth of light - the sun as much as the son - and she thereby turns Midwinter Graces into an inclusive experience that, nonetheless, should not offend traditionalists. (“I’m a big fan of Jesus,” Amos reminds us on the DVD interview, in a tone that suggests she could just as easily be talking about Robert Plant.) Difficult tightropes to walk, these, but Amos - a glorious walking contradiction herself - has pulled it off pretty well.

Musically, the album is a fairly rich experience. With Amos on keyboard duties (of course) and her usual cohorts (Matt Chamberlain: drums; Jon Evans: bass, MacAladdin: guitars; John Phillip Shenale: string arrangements) backing her, the overall sound is at once classical and fresh. Highlights include the medievally-tinged “Candle: Coventry Carol” and the evocative “Holly and the Ivy”/“Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” amalgam “Holly, Ivy, and Rose” (with effective cameos from Amos niece and daughter respectively). Of the originals, the playful big-band number “Pink and Glitter” sparkles, the lovely “Snow Angel” has both sweetness and sweep, and the stunning, dramatic “Winter’s Carol” (from The Light Princess) bodes very well indeed for the forthcoming musical. Amos elegantly and understatedly injects a healthy does of anima into each of these songs - and, indeed, into the Christmas story. The two piano-only bonus tracks - in particular an inspired reinvention of “Comfort and Joy” - are also worthwhile.

Nonetheless, the subversiveness of Midwinter Graces is evident more at the level of concept and lyrics than interpretation. Amos’s singing is fairly restrained throughout; she’s described the album - rightly - as the first record of hers in which there is “no anger in the work,” and it’s hard not to conclude that this has resulted in a limitation in her vocal approaches, one’s that’s particularly apparent for an artist best defined by her exhilarating ability to swing between emotions and moods. Midwinter Graces simply does not afford her that opportunity, and, conveying wonderment, Amos sometimes ends up sounding merely twee. (Worst offenders: the schmaltzy “A Silent Night With You” and the rather clunky closer “Our New Year,” which is also too close in content to The Beekeeper’s more elegant “Toast”). But like all of Amos’s albums, Midwinter Graces ultimately repays the quality of attention that the listener is willing to give it. The record is not an Amos classic, by any means. But as “winter’s gifts” go, it’s not a bad one.

The White Ribbon

In its presentation of a community hiding secrets, abuses and oppressions behind its respectable veneer, Michael Haneke’s new film takes it place alongside - and maybe draws some inspiration from? - movies as diverse as Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), and M. Night Shylaman’s The Village (2004). I love each of those films in different ways and I found myself thoroughly absorbed by The White Ribbon. “Love” isn’t an emotion that a Haneke film ever seems likely to inspire, but The White Ribbon is certainly a movie to admire and, as always with Haneke, one to debate and argue about.

Haneke’s setting is a village in Northern Germany in the years preceding WW1. Everyone here, from the local pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and doctor (Rainer Bock) to the Polish migrant labourers working on the baron's estate, appears to know (and accept) their place. But then the community is beset by a series of strange incidents: the doctor is injured after his horse falls over a tripwire; a woman dies in a sawmill accident, prompting an act of revenge; the baron's son is tortured. Who is to blame for all the crimes? The schoolteacher (whose retrospective narration structures the film) begins to believe that the village's children may be in some way responsible.

This being Haneke-land, the viewer will know better than to expect solutions to most of these conundrums. (How mainstream!) Instead, The White Ribbon operates on insinuation, suggestion - and, it must be said, a fair amount of dread. A biting critique of patriarchal power, it offers indelible images: a teenager tied to his bed to stop him masturbating; a stabbed bird; a girl explaining death to her younger brother; that same boy opening a door to find his sister and his father in mysterious collusion. The surprisingly sweet love story that Haneke smuggles into the movie never really pierces an oppressive atmosphere dominated by what one character rather baldly refers to as “malice, envy, apathy and brutality.”

As an allegory for the rise of National Socialism The White Ribbon strikes me as less satisfactory; the movie begins with the narrator’s statement that the violence in the village might “help to clarify things that happened later in this country” but ultimately ducks out of making that link more explicit. (Much as Haneke himself rather irritatingly seems to invite allegorical readings of his movies only to rebuff those journalists who dare to make such readings in interviews with him.) Nor can the general thesis of the movie - cruelty begets cruelty; victims become perpetrators - really be considered profound. Yet, scene by scene, The White Ribbon pulls you in. Haneke knows how to construct sequences for atmosphere, drama and (despite his reputation for coldness) emotional impact. There’s a great deal of manipulation in his approach, of course, and maybe some masochism on the part of the viewer in queuing up for one of his movies. But the seriousness of his work remains invigorating.

Potter, Mayer, Solnit

Sophie Mayer’s excellent and insightful book on the work of Sally Potter (available from Wallflower Press) contains a quotation from Rebecca Solnit that's worth sharing. Actually, the book contains a lot of quotes that are worth sharing, but this is the one that jumped out at me first. It goes:

“What is the purpose of resisting corporate globalisation if not to protect the obscure, the ineffable, the unmarketable, the unmanageable, the local, the poetic and the eccentric? So they need to be practiced, celebrated and studied too, right now.” (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark)

Inspiring words indeed. Will be sure to check out Hope in the Dark.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Bad Sex, Courtesy of Cave and Roth

The Bad Sex Nominations ...

Natalie Merchant @ Free Word Centre 18/11/2009

“He’s hot!” Natalie Merchant exclaims, brandishing a photo of e.e. cummings and, a bit later, Robert Graves. It says something about Merchant’s refreshingly idiosyncratic world-view that poets can be considered pin-ups. Merchant has spent the last few years adapting work by cummings, Graves and a whole host of other writers and setting it to music; the fruits of her labour will be available on her new album, Leave Your Sleep, due out on Nonesuch next March. Merchant has collaborated with more than 100 musicians from across the world for this double-album (her first since 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter). But in a delightful (and free!) preview show at Farringdon’s Free Word Centre, she presented some selections from the record with a trio of musicians, in what she referred to as the “bare-bones treatment.” Poems by Charles Causley, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mother Goose, Edward Lear and Lawrence Alma-Tadema received musical treatments that were not merely tasteful but dramatic, sensuous, funny and moving, with Merchant’s vocals at their best.
A disarming stage presence, Merchant also revealed a sense of humour that has rarely translated onto her records, swapping banter with her droll guitarist Erik della Penna (he does a mean James Mason impression; she does a good Katherine Hepburn) and drawing the audience in with grace and ease. A lovely evening that raised expectations for what promises to be a wonderful album.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Almodovar Week @ PopMatters (A Plug)

’Tis Almodóvar Week over at PopMatters. Essays, retrospectives, and Pedro pleasures untold, assembled by the venerable Mr. Matt Mazur, with a few contributions from yours truly. Head over:

Sunday 8 November 2009


I was looking forward to seeing Helen (2009), not least because the film has been described as “the latest sign of a UK art cinema resurgence.” (We might amend this to “the only sign…”). But the premise of this movie turns out to be far more intriguing than anything that the filmmakers, Joe Lawlor and Christine Malloy (making their feature debut), actually do with it. The title character (Annie Townsend) is a teenage girl from a care-home who is recruited to participate in a reconstruction of the last-known moments of a girl named (with heavy-handed Significance typical of the movie) Joy. With a fractured sense of identity and belonging due to her background, Helen gradually undertakes an investigation of the missing girl's life, stepping into "Joy" via odd encounters with her parents and boyfriend.

Helen thus sets itself up as a Passenger-ish exploration of identity and the end result has all the art-conscious ambience that that implies. (And none of the pleasures of that particular Antonioni movie.) Posed and stilted converstaions abound, with all the characters speaking in the same level, neutral tone. (The movie features the most unnaturally still group of teenagers ever seen.) The shots are composed with such over-obvious, scrupulous care that any emotional involvement is lost, ensuring that Helen - and Helen - remain sadly remote to the viewer.

Monday 2 November 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

“Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all immediately,” advises a character near the beginning of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. This being a Terry Gilliam film there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t understand it all by the end, either. Typically, for Gilliam, the new movie is a mess, but I found it a much more enjoyable, endearing mess than some of his previous efforts. At its worst, Gilliam’s much-vaunted inventiveness can take the form of tiresome battering of the viewer, but, for all its manic moments, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is somewhat more measured in its moods. Thematically, the film’s pitting of the imagination against the machinations of the devil remains rather hazy, but the most effective moments here have an exhilarating dream logic. Of course the film is destined to be remembered as Heath Ledger’s last movie; fans of the actor will no doubt find his “resurrection” in his first scene here upsetting and moving. (Or maybe comforting?) It’s not every film that could get away with re-casting a part three times over, but Ledger’s morphing into Johnny Depp then Jude Law then Colin Farrell is as logical as anything else that happens in this movie.

The casting elsewhere is also superb: I loved Christopher Plummer’s Lear-ish immortal Parnassus; Lily Cole as his daughter (accurately described as “scrumptious,” this extraordinary-looking actress, fresh from Rage, should always play characters with names like Valentina); and a wheezing Tom Waits as the devil. There are magical moments throughout - Depp waltzing with Maggie Steed on a waterlily; Law’s staircase-to-the-clouds becoming a pair of stilts - and the film’s use of London locations is wonderful as well. Gilliam has been quoted as saying that he wanted “to bring a bit of fantasticality to London, an antidote to modern lives. I loved this idea of an ancient travelling show offering the kind of storytelling and wonder that we used to get.” In its best passages, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus achieves exactly that.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Jane Campion's Bright Star

British audiences have become so used to seeing dumbed-down, sexed-up treatments of the lives of writers and artists that Bright Star - Jane Campion’s film about John Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne - may come as something of a shock. At once austere and lush, Campion’s sensitive and intelligent movie functions as an antidote to brash and banal TV programmes such as Desperate Romantics (2009): its dialogue is mostly believable; it has committed, uncaricatured performances (especially from Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as Keats and Fanny); it delicately evokes nature and the changing seasons; and it gracefully works in a fair number of Keats’s poems. It is, as reviewers have consistently been pointing out, a “beautiful” work.

But if the good news is that Campion has avoided some of the crasser tendencies of the TV and film biopic with Bright Star, the bad news is that, in doing so, she’s produced her most conventional movie to date. As Bright Star progressed, I found myself longing for some of the idiosyncratic touches that have enlivened and sometimes even irritated me in her earlier films: the inspired Buñuel parody that turns up in the middle of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), for example. Campion has spent six years away from the film world since In the Cut (2003), and she seems to have returned to it a much more cautious artist. The movie begins by presenting Brawne in a way that jibes with Campion's earlier constructions of "difficult" heroines. But there are, sadly, no stylistic quirks in Bright Star to distinguish it in any way as a Jane Campion film. Thus the movie, though admirable in many ways, is never very exciting.

There’s another slight problem: the movie’s insistence on creating what feels like a highly contrived kind of conflict. Contemporary biographies and biopics alike specialise in offering reductive versions of people, and here Keats’s great friend and collaborator Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) comes to function as Bright Star’s villian, as Campion engages him in a tussle with Fanny over Keats’s mortal soul. It’s not even a fair fight: Campion is so clearly on Fanny’s side that the silly scenes in which Brown attempts to intercept the lovers' communication come off like rehashed, under-heated bits of The Piano (1993) - with Brown placed in the Sam Neill role. (Schnieder’s over-emphatic, erratically-accented performance also stacks the odds against his character from the start.) Not every movie requires an antagonist; Bright Star, certainly, would have been better off without one.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

“The complexity of things - the things within things - just seems to be endless” (Alice Munro)

It’s both a great pleasure and something of a surprise to find yourself with a new book by Alice Munro in your hands. A pleasure because Munro’s stories (recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize for overall contribution to literature) are invariably such an addictive, immersive treat; a surprise because Munro had more or less announced that her collection The View From Castle Rock (2006) would be her last. Sad as that news was, that book felt like an appropriate end to Munro’s career, revisiting as it did a number of her previous stories from a more overtly auto/biographical perspective. But three years on Too Much Happiness has appeared, and I seem to remember Munro being quoted as saying that her 2004 collection Runaway (my favourite book of hers, alongside The Beggar Maid [1978]) was also to be her last. Like so many of her protagonists, Munro, it seems, cannot easily give up the urge to story-telling. For this we should be thankful.

I confess, though, that Munro’s stories have begun to scare me a little. Not just because they are so devastatingly good, but also because their author has latterly become, in Jonathan Franzen’s phrase, “a master of suspense.” The temporal loopings and fractures that have increasingly characterised her stories are sharper and more pointed now so that, as readers, we’re often caught up in the emotional fall-out of an event before we bear witness to the event itself. The first story in Too Much Happiness, “Dimensions,” must rank as one of the most disturbing things that Munro has yet written; the story works up to the most unspeakable of events through incremental details. And yet the revelation of that event in no way constitutes the whole story. Munro often chooses to end her stories on moments of reversal or "supplement" far too complex in their ramifications to be described as "twists." Here, the knowledge disseminated by a perpetrator of violence comes to save a life in the end.

A later story, “Free Radicals,” is practically Munro’s Funny Games, a face-off between an intruder and a terminally ill woman that strikes terror with the simple sentence “Look what I gone and done now.” Unlike Haneke’s puppet-pawn protagonists, however, Munro permits her character agency: the construction of narrative here saves one life (in a way that seems much more believable than the absurd “Dover Beach” recitation in McEwan’s Saturday). An accident - typically, for Munro - quickly finishes another.

With the stories pivoting around incidents of violence and swerving in and out of the thriller genre, by the time you get to a story entitled “Child’s Play” you’re almost expecting an appearance from Chucky the devil-doll. (Sadly not, though the story is properly unsettling, offering an analysis of girlhood treachery that surpasses Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.) Some stories explore familiar Munrovian themes from a fresh perspective. Taking its title from the Houseman poem that the protagonist is coerced into reciting (under very particular circumstances), “Wenlock Edge” confronts the incongruity of a couple viewed from outside, and turns on a truly satisfying moment of retribution. The superb “Fiction” continues Munro’s examination of the use writers make of real experience (and other people) in their work; Munro’s protagonist here undergoes the experience of finding a version of herself presented in someone else’s fiction; her “confrontation” with the author at a book-signing is a classic scene: funny, deep and brilliantly observed.

Notwithstanding the collection's overall brilliance, a couple of the stories didn’t quite work for me, at least not on a first reading. “Deep-Holes” feels like a companion piece to 21st century absent-child narratives including Shields’s Unless (2002), Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage (2004) and the unforgettable "Chance-Soon-Silence" sequence in Munro’s own Runaway, but, despite a dynamic opening, it adds little to any of these. Though intriguing, “Face” doesn’t quite convince me, and I have a feeling that Munro’s (rare and not entirely successful) use of a male narrator is one of the story’s problems. (There’s a study to be written on Munro’s male characters who seem, unfortunately, to be getting nastier with each collection.) The final, title story is something new for Munro, a text based around a historical figure, in this case the 19th Century Russian novelist and mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. Its full of detail and insight, and is a marvel of sympathetic, felt research. Yet “Too Much Happiness” ultimately strikes me as a story to stand back and admire rather than one to truly love and inhabit.

It’s become commonplace to praise the “fullness” of Munro’s short stories. But reading a new collection by her you’re struck yet again by the ways she finds to make the form so breathtakingly, ballooningly expansive. Starting in one mode and ending in another, swerving unpredictably then guided by a steady hand, Munro’s stories can encompass the trajectory of a life in all its complexity, its fractured experiences gesturing towards connection. Too Much Happiness would be a fine swan-song to her career. But I sense that this writer still has more stories to tell, more of life’s mystery and mundanity to untangle and examine.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Atom Egoyan's Chloe

The winsome Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) gets up to all kinds of things that ABBA never wrote a song about in Atom Egoyan’s latest movie. Adapted by Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson from Anne Fontaine’s 2003 film Nathalie, Chloe turns out to be yet another movie spiced up with a little lipstick lesbianism, in this case a fairly explicit tryst between Seyfried and Julianne Moore. Sadly, the sex scene dissipates the rather intriguing, almost Regarde la Mer-ish tension between the leads and precedes the film’s arthritic stagger into Single White Female mode. Chloe is, by some margin, Egoyan’s trashiest movie to date; it’s as if this radiantly intelligent Canadian auteur had decided that it might be fun to be Paul Verhoeven for the night. Even so, there remains a vague whiff of pretension about Chloe, as if Egoyan was still labouring under the delusion that he was saying something significant about re-lay-shun-ships in this movie. Something. Ah, but what? “The difference in personal interpretation isn’t as ontological [in Chloe] as it is in my other movies," Egoyan has admitted. Umm, right.

Well, ontologically, in Chloe, Moore plays Catherine, a gynaecologist who begins to suspect that her lecturer husband David (Liam Neeson) is having an affair. In order to test his fidelity, Catherine recruits prostitute Chloe (Seyfried) to approach him, and report back on their meetings. The twist is that Chloe, apparently seeking a combination of Mommy and Lover, becomes fixated on Catherine, not David, and morphs into an unholy amalgam of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Terence Stamp in Theorem.

Focusing initially on the seductive power of language, of sexual acts described but not seen, Chloe stays mildly intriguing for its first half, but falls apart as its revelations pile up. That said, the spectacle of Julianne Moore under duress is always a captivating one, and with her great physical and vocal eloquence, this prodigious actress gives the movie the few emotionally resonant moments that it has. She’s slumming it, though, and can do little with a truly humiliating late scene in which her character basically has to apologise to Neeson for her unattractiveness. (Neeson himself - perhaps unsurprisingly given the woeful personal circumstances under which the film was made for him - hardly registers. The “charm” of his character is demonstrated in one of those movie-lecture scenes in which the doting students break into hysterics at every mild witticism he utters.) Seyfried is game and Max Thieriot has a couple of amusing moments as Catherine and David's randy son. But as with Secretary there’s an insidious quality to Chloe's sexual politics, and the film’s surface transgressiveness masks an unappealing conservative streak.

With no Arsinee Khanjian on hand and not so much as a Canadian accent to be heard (despite the allegedly distinctive Toronto settings we’re clearly in homogenised North America territory here), Chloe really feels like an Atom Egoyan movie in name only. For viewers who’ve found his previous films clunky and pretentious this may be welcome news, but for those of us who’ve grown to cherish the mix of fluidity and portentousness that characterises his style, the new movie feels like something of a sell-out. Even at their most deadly and extreme, Egoyan’s previous films have mostly made a virtue of restraint, of allowing the viewer to piece together the puzzles, to fill in the many gaps. Here he reveals too much, and the results are risible.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Beautiful Star: The Songs of Odetta

It's a pleasure to announce the release of the Wears the Trousers-curated benefit compilation album Beautiful Star: The Songs of Odetta. It's out on November 30th on download and limited edition CD. I've had a preview already and it really is stunningly good. The track-list goes as follows:

01 Linda Draper, ‘Sail Away Ladies’
02 Ane Brun, ‘If I Had A Ribbon Bow’
03 Gemma Ray, ‘900 Miles'
04 Anaïs Mitchell, ‘All My Trials’
05 Haunted Stereo, ‘Santy Anno’
06 Madam, ‘Waterboy’
07 Sandy Dillon, ‘Can’t Afford To Lose My Man’
08 Ora Cogan, ‘Motherless Child’
09 Josephine Oniyama, ‘The Gallows Pole’
10 Pepi Ginsberg, ‘Beautiful Star’
11 Society Of Imaginary Friends, ‘Another Man Done Gone’
12 Marissa Nadler, ‘All My Trials’
13 Kelli Ali, ‘All The Pretty Little Horses’
14 Katey Brooks, ‘What A Friend We Have’
15 Liz Durrett, ‘Chilly Winds’
16 Arborea, ‘This Little Light Of Mine’

Saturday 10 October 2009

Pret a Potter: The Thrill of Rage

Sally Potter comes up with such innovative, original concepts for movies, but I've invariably found myself a little disappointed in the end results. Despite its splendours, her well-regarded adaptation of Orlando (1992) seemed to me to fail to find an equivalent for Woolf's spry wit and humour, particularly in its heavy-handed ending. The Tango Lesson (1997) mired its exhilarating dance scenes in a tepid love story, The Man Who Cried (2000) was visually stunning yet emotionally inert, while Yes (2005) failed to fully capitalise on its intriguing premise: an exploration of post-9/11 East/West relations via the affair between an Armenian-Lebanese doctor and an American woman, spoken entirely in verse. Even so, there are enough interesting and arresting elements in all of these movies to make me excited every time a new film by Potter gets released. (I look forward, too, to seeing her 1983 movie, The Gold Diggers, out on DVD in December after years of being unavailable in any format.)

Potter's latest film, Rage, is one of her most fascinating and most well-sustained works. As usual, the movie's premise has a touch of genius about it: a school-kid named Michelangelo gets backstage at a New York fashion show and interviews the various participants - including the designer, Merlin (Simon Abkarian, the "He" of Yes), a critic (Judi Dench), two models (Jude Law and Lily Cole), a seamstress (Adriana Barraza), a pizza delivery boy (Riz Ahmed) and a financier (Eddie Izzard) - on his mobile phone. The film presents itself as a series of talking-heads testimonies by these protagonists as they reflect upon their role in the show and, increasingly, the wider social, cultural and politcal contexts in which those roles are implicated.

The literal-minded have critiqued the film's premise as fanciful, and its targets as obvious. But Rage is that rarity: a singular film experience. (Potter's distribution strategies for the movie have been similarly unorthodox: the film has had a simultaneous cinema, DVD and Internet release, meaning that you can watch it - officially and (guilt-)free - here, right now Do so!)

For me Rage succeeds on multiple levels, not least in its skewering of a number of contemporary madnesses. It's a work about many things: about visibility and invisibility; about a society in which the camera, for many, has become the confessional; about a culture in which celebrity and big business reign, and in which people have been turned - indeed, insist on turning themselves - into commodities. Despite its modest, minimalist means, it's a visually (and aurally) stimulating movie, fluid and sensuous, and its sensitivity to language is crucial to that sensuality. (The movie is also a "thriller" of a very particular kind - all its "action" happens off-screen/stage, the violence suggested by the film's brilliant use of sound, and filled in by the viewer's imagination.)

"M" - the perfume being launched at the fashion show - is the movie's shifting signifier, standing, variously, for "Mystery," "Mortality," "Murder," and "motherfucker," depending on which charcter is speaking. (It stands for a few other words too - media, misogyny, money, marketing - all equally central to the film's thematics, and issues which are intricately linked for Potter here.) It also stands for Michelangelo, the movie's interloctor, silent and invisible (to us) - at least until the film's stunning final moments.

Part of the thrill of Rage's rebuttal to our isolating, media-fucked age is that its such a humane movie, an ode to the expressive capacities of the human face, the human voice. The range of performance styles is dynamic and diverse, encompassing the intelligently ripe turns of Abkarian and David Oyelowo (as a Shakespeare-quoting detective!) and the subtler characterisations of Dench and Dianne Wiest. (As the fashion house manageress whose family originally owned the business, Wiest has perhaps the movie's most fascinating character arc, while the shot of the regal Dench lighting a joint has to be one of the year's coolest images.) The film is no simple polemic: rather its multivocal approach allows for a bracing range of viewpoints to be expressed. It's a tapestry, a mosaic, and the interplay of voices and faces adds up to something visceral, urgent, and profound in its inclusivity. The opposite of an alienating experience, Rage is a vibrant and engrossing movie that connects the viewer to the world.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

Bravo, Monsieur Ozon

Happy to see that Ozon picked up the Special Jury Prize at San Sebastian for Le Refuge. I'll be even happier when (if!) we get to see the film itself over here.

Tuesday 29 September 2009


Colin Firth's most interesting performances seem destined to go unheralded. As Joe, in Michael Winterbottom's Genova, he digs deep into the role of a husband attempting to make a new life for himself and his kids following the death of his wife (Hope Davis) in a car accident, and comes up with a nuanced, subtle performance. Unfortunately, the film hardly surfaced in British cinemas but it's well worth seeking out now on DVD. It re-teams Winterbottom with Laurence Coriat, the writer of what is, for me, the director's best work: the beautiful tough-but-tender portrait of London loneliness and London connection, Wonderland (1999). Though quite different in tone, Genova retains some of that film's intimacy, spontaneity and truth. Joe takes up a teaching post in Genova, taking his two daughters with him. When the family arrive, they have a month to spend together before the new term starts and the film charts their response to the town and its effect upon their grief. While older daughter Kelly (Willa Holland) quickly finds a kind of solace in the company of other teens (albeit one that brings her into conflict with her father) Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) is haunted by what she feels to be her role in her mother's death, and begins to experience visions of her mother walking in the streets. Employing a skeleton crew, Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind shoot the film mainly handheld; the scenes have a loose, natural rhythm. The city is presented evocatively but unostentatiously and the film wears its Don't Look Now parallels lightly. The conventional child-in-peril ending is a little pat but Genova remains a gem.