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.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Irina Palm

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Tuesday 22 September 2009

June Tabor @ Queen Elizabeth Hall (18/09/2009)

Though she keeps up a fairly consistent touring schedule these days, a London appearance by June Tabor has become a rarity and, therefore, something to be treasured. Tabor has been performing live for over thirty years now and remains a thoroughly commanding, singular stage presence. Her concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday brought Topic Records’s 70th anniversary celebrations to a wonderful close.

Tabor has often organised her concerts (and sometimes her albums) into suites linked by themes, and the concept for this evening was songs reflecting upon the relationship of the British people to the sea. The selection of material was solid and in some cases surprising, including many songs that Tabor has not yet recorded, and encompassing the dolorous and the humorous, the intimate and the epic, the ancient and the contemporary. Tabor was surrounded by a superlative quartet of her regular musicians - Huw Warren on piano, Mark Emerson on violin/viola, Andy Cutting on accordion and Tim Harries on double bass - and supplemented the songs with instrumentals and a couple of poems and prose pieces, all thoughtfully and elegantly sequenced. She opened with Cyril Tawney’s moving “The Grey Funnel Line” (featured on her 1976 debut Silly Sisters album with Maddy Prior), before offering a dynamic war-at-sea suite including “Polly on the Shore” and “The Fiddler.” Les Barker’s sublime song about the Highland Clearances, “Across the Wide Ocean,” brought the first half to a thrilling close, while other highlights came in the form of an evocative version of “The Lazy Wave” and a chilling, gothic take on “The Brean Lament.”

Despite her unwarranted oh-so-serious reputation, Tabor has always excelled at delivering comic songs. Here she offered a superbly funny rendition of a Les Barker parody of generic folk-song tropes and practically acted out a sailor’s plea not to be eaten by his starving shipmates in the Thackeray ballad “Little Billie.” “Some songs about potential cannibalism at sea,” she quipped, by way of introduction.

The antidote to a million sweet-voiced folk-singers, Tabor’s extraordinary, expressive vocals sounded richer than ever and, as always, allowed her to dig deeper into the material than many of her contemporaries and descendents have managed. There’s never a moment in which you feel that she’s skating over the meaning of a lyric or is less than fully committed to communicating the emotions in a given song. Her spare, jazz-and-classical-inflected approach to the tradition, coupled with the mixture of burning passion and cool detachment that defines her singing style, makes her sound quite unique - on the folk scene and beyond. She ended the show with the classic ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” - in its dramatic, perhaps definitive wide-screen arrangement from her 2003 masterpiece An Echo of Hooves - while a gorgeous, slowed version of Ian Telfer’s tender “Finisterre” (the final track from her 1990 collaboration album with Oysterband) provided the encore. “The tale we told each other has an end,” Tabor sang, a mixture of hope and sorrow coursing through her voice. Far from a wash-out, this was a thoroughly exhilarating evening of songs of the sea.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Mother Courage and Her Children @ the National

Fiona Shaw swaggers magnificently through the first half of Deborah Warner’s thrillingly messy production of Mother Courage and Her Children, which opens (a few days later than scheduled, due to tech hitches) at the National Theatre this month. Warner loves stage detritus and her scattergun approach has a certain grandeur to it; it’s far more effective here than it has been in some of her staging of classical drama. There’s a sense of experiment and danger to a Warner production; you’re never sure what might get thrown at you next. (Literally so, if you happen to be occupying the front row.) Seventy years on, Brecht’s great play of war, profit and loss retains its power, its “relevance.” For this production, Tony Kushner contributes a lithe if tediously profane translation, while the songs of Duke Special (who mingles with the actors throughout the evening, sometimes duetting with them) bring added energy and soul to the piece - this in a play in which the heroine declares “I have no soul.” And dig Gore Vidal's deeply sinister-sounding narration! But Shaw’s the star of the show, honouring every step of Mother Courage’s journey with skill and intelligence. The cart here is an extension of Mother Courage’s physical and emotional being. At the beginning she rises triumphantly out of the Olivier stage upon it; by the end, she’s a stooped figure, effortfully dragging it alone. We see what war hath wrought.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

The Backlash Bites: Lesbian Vampire Killers

Phil Claydon’s Lesbian Vampire Killers is a film so blatant in its misogyny and homophobia that it almost has a quaint charm about it. Almost, but not quite. This cheerfully crass, amateurish movie might have been devised by the editors of Nuts magazine. It’s the sort of film that probably shouldn’t be watched sober, but it raises a (very) few (very) guilty laughs anyway. “There’s a 15-year-old boy inside all of us who made this movie,” comments Claydon. Too true. Jonathan Ross contributes an enthusiastic cover quote.

For Gavin and Stacey fans, the chief - only - attraction of LVK is its pairing of Matthew Horne and James Corden. They play pals who, seeking respite from a neurotic girlfriend and ball-busting female boss respectively, head off for a weekend hiking trip, only to end up in a hamlet called Cragwich in which all the women, at age eighteen, are reborn as lesbian vampires.
Horne and Corden are resourceful, talented chaps; they try their best with Claydon’s shoddy material and play off their G&S personas fairly amusingly. But there’s nothing of the TV show’s quirky wit and warmth in this amalgam of sex comedy and (spoof) horror flick. (Sample banter: “Bottoms up! Cocks in” and “You are a penis.”) The height of hilarity here is Paul McGann’s Vicar saying “Fuck.” “Even dead women would sooner sleep with each other than get with me,” wails Corden’s character at one point.

The film’s sexual politics is its most noteworthy aspect. Lesbian Vampire Killers is about as explicit a fulfilment of Faludi’s backlash as you could (n)ever wish to see, a film in which women who dump men deserve death and lesbianism is presented as an abomination equal to vampirism. The Cragwich girls’ penchant for blood-sucking is, according to this movie’s logic, simply a disturbing extension of their sexual orientation: lesbianism - or being “a lover of the vagine” - is blithely presented throughout as “a curse”, an evil perversion “fuelled by a hatred of men”. “Massive tits, never speaks” - that’s this film’s version of the ideal woman. Yes, the movie possesses a “feisty” heroine but only one spared the “curse” of homosexuality. The hysterical girlfriend gets what’s coming to her and the “psycho bitch vampire queen” Carmilla can only be vanquished by an encounter with the ultimate phallic object: a sword with, oh yes, a penis-shaped handle. The piss-poor finale proposes a greater horror: a gay (ie. limp-pawed) werewolf.

As a dramatisation of hetero fears and fantasies Lesbian Vampire Killers certainly has its fascination, but as a horror-comedy it is sadly under-par. It’s a pretty bad indictment of the UK film industry that a film of this ineptitude gets such a wide distribution. Memo to Terence Davies: if hoping to secure funding for your next film, some lesbian vampires (or in-vogue TV stars) might just help.

Friday 11 September 2009

Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos)

Broken Embraces starts stodgily, builds to a spectacular middle, and then unravels at the end. The film’s pairings, doublings, frames-within-frames and films-within-films are fairly absorbing scene-by-scene but there’s ultimately a sense of anti-climax to the enterprise. After the relatively streamlined Volver, Almodóvar resorts to his old bad habit of piling on the plot and the final sections sink into a sea of exposition; pity poor Blanca Portillo, saddled with delivering some of the hokiest “revelations” that Almodóvar has yet devised. For Almodóvar buffs, it’s interesting to see the director revisiting Women on the Verge … with new muse Cruz replacing old muse Maura. But these sequences more than any others point to the film’s masturbatory, even self-congratulatory tone.

As usual, much has been made of the film’s genre blur - the shifts between comedy, melodrama, and noir - but the result isn’t the dynamic synthesis that Almodóvar has achieved in the past. There’s a distanced quality to Broken Embraces, and its swerves between genres are jarring. Lluis Homar’s Mateo and Penelope Cruz’s Lena go through a lot in this movie (blindness, beatings), but Almodóvar seems uninterested in the implications of their suffering - especially, it must be said, Lena’s. To some extent, Almodóvar uses Cruz here as he used Gael Garcia Bernal in Bad Education: more as prop than personality. She’s great to watch but remote, somehow. I’d have liked to have seen more of Angela Molina (who, in a few scenes as Lena’s mother, floods the film with emotion), and Lola Dueñas, whose sublime cameo as a lip-reader made me laugh out loud.

Nonetheless, we should be grateful that Almodóvar does more with the blind-director scenario than Woody Allen did in Hollywood Ending. He can still construct the kind of vibrant sequences that galvanise the viewer: Jose Luis Gomez’s Ernesto pushing Lena, Kiss of Death-style, down the stairs; Lena dubbing herself to Ernesto Hijo’s silent footage. The director also comes up with an indelible haptic image: the blind director touching the screen image of his lost beloved. Following the atypically asexual Volver, it’s pleasing to find Almodóvar feeling his oats again here, and showing his wit in an expertly filmed (if gratuitous) early sex scene. Yet, unlike the tempestuous couplings of Law of Desire and Live Flesh, Mateo’s love for Lena ultimately feels more like a simulacrum of passion than the real thing.

But of course Almodóvar’s characters have always lived through and by film, and Broken Embrace’s true subject is the romance of the reel. There remains, even now, a movie-struck energy and excitement to Almodóvar's work that few directors can match. For sheer exuberant visual pleasure, Broken Embraces takes some beating. I swooned more than I groaned.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

New Ozon, Old Ozon

With Ricky still unreleased in the UK and apparently unlikely to be any time soon (a pox on British cinema distributors!), the lucky Torontonians get to see François Ozon’s new work Le Refuge before anyone else, as part of the upcoming film festival. I kind of wish that Ozon would get over the strange pregnancy/baby obsession that’s crept into his last few movies, a fixation that helped to banalize both Time To Leave and Angel. But at least Le Refuge finds his characters back at the beach.

A Christmas Tale (Revisited)

Any film worth its salt requires a second viewing or more. Watching Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale at the London Film Festival last year I was (mainly) irritated by what seemed a pretentious, incoherent, stylistically tricksy and (at two and a half hours) over-stuffed take on the family-gathering-at-Christmas movie, less insightful (and a good deal less enjoyable) than National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Watching it again, recently, I found myself exhilarated by the qualities which had annoyed me first time through. As Kings and Queen proved, pretension and incoherence are central to Desplechin’s aesthetic - along with manic energy, a lot of talk, a barrage of literary and other allusions, the oddest possible music choices, and a surprising amount of tenderness peaking through the awful things that his characters say and do to one another. A Christmas Tale’s main intertexts would seem to be from American cinema - Magnolia and The Royal Tennenbaums spring to mind - and the movie is not quite as successful as either of those. But what Desplechin gets on screen is the complexity and sheer elusiveness of people and of experience - you can’t sum any member of the Vuillard clan up in a sentence - and performances from Catherine Denueve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Cosigny, Chiara Mastroanni, Melvil Poupaud and the godly Mathieu Amalric which revel in those contradictions. Crammed with detail and oddity and quotations and loosely dangling strands, from its puppetry-of-the-genesis opening to its final gracious Shakespearean benediction, A Christmas Tale is alive, as messy, unresolved and unpredictable as existence itself.

Monday 7 September 2009

Diaphanously Yours: Robyn Hitchcock and Friends @ Pestival

With a little help from his friends (Mike Heron from the Incredible String Band, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, Alessi’s Ark, and Graham Coxon), Robyn Hitchcock got the Southbank Centre’s Pestival underway in fine style on Friday night with a concert of buggy, ear-wiggy and otherwise insect-related songs. Hitchcock set the oddball tone for the night when he arrived on stage and launched into an anecdote comparing Bryan Ferry to an ant (affectionately, hem, hem).

In truth, Hitchcock’s brand of eccentric banter wore thin pretty quickly; his surrealism is channelled far more effectively in his wonderful song-writing. His performances of “Insect Mother,” “Red Locust Frenzy,” “Madonna of the Wasps” and, best of all, “Olé Tarantula” were superb.

The friends came and went, contributing backing vocals and taking the occasional lead. The mild-mannered Coxon unleashed a cathartic, furious squall on “Dead Bees”, Gartside offered “The Human Fly” ("an anti-essentialist reading"), “Where Fat Lies Ants Follow” and “Wood Beez,” Alessi’s Ark beguiled with “Woman” (“I haven't written many songs featuring insects … but this one has a web in it”), while the exuberant Mike Heron all but stole the show with his leads on ISB’s “Cousin Caterpillar” and a mesmerizing pre-interval version of the truly odd “A Very Cellular Song.” A more forced brand of British eccentricity came courtesy of John Hegley’s poetry reading, though Hegley did at least get the audience singing along on his charming ode to the amoeba. A fun night.
The set-list:
"Agony of Pleasure" – Robyn Hitchcock (solo)
"Dragonfly" – RH, Graham Coxon and Jenny Adejayan
"Insect Mother" – RH, JA, Max Easton
"Red Locust Frenzy" – RH and band
"The Human Fly" – Green Gartside and Rhodri Marsden
"Where Fat Lies Ants Follow" – GG, RM
"Wood Beez" – GG, RM
"Cousin Caterpillar" – Mike Heron, Georgia Seddon, RH, rest of band
"A Very Cellular Song" – MH, RH and rest of band
Poems by Jon Hegley
"Amoeba" – RH, JH
"Woman" – Alessi’s Ark
"Snail’s Lament" – AA, RH, band
"Madonna of the Wasps" – RH, band
"Dead Bees" – Graham Coxon, RH, band
"Antwoman" – RH, band
"Olé! Tarantula" – RH and everyone
"I Am The Fly" – RH and everyone

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Noah's Compass (or Anne Tyler's Accuracy)

Take this scenario: two people, having a hesitant, stop-start affair, discovered by the woman’s husband. In a conventional novel we know pretty much how this kind of scene would play out: a big emotional bust-up, revelation, confession, violence. In an Anne Tyler novel, however, no such obvious routes are taken. Instead, Tyler constructs the scene so that the reader undergoes a startling perspective shift and we see the husband not as the insensitive bore the wife has constructed him as but rather as a friendly, human, touchingly oblivious, kind of nice guy. The encounter changes the lovers’ relationship, all right, but not in the way we - or they - would have anticipated. It’s a scene that exemplifies this wonderful writer’s ability to subvert and surprise in the subtlest ways.

Tyler is a rarity among contemporary novelists in that she never allows the reader to form a reductive judgment on her protagonists. No one view of a character is ever sufficient in a Tyler novel, no one perspective on a situation can ever convey its total meaning. Noah’s Compass is another radiant, delightful novel from her. It doesn’t have the blinding emotional punch of her last two books, The Amateur Marriage (2004) and Digging To America (2006): it’s slighter, less expansive, and not so adventurous in structure. But the novel’s depiction of its 60-year-old protagonist Liam’s stumble into and out of love (or something like it) is honest, surprising and compelling.

Despite her reputation for being, in the words of one critic, “nutra-sweet”, there’s a deadly accuracy to Tyler’s work, a sharpness of insight, an emotional intelligence that blows apart that definition. The warmth and humanity, the compassion and humour, of her writing, never entirely negates its melancholy undertow, the sense that, as Liam comes to recognise, “life in general was heartbreaking”. Tyler understands that few people get the lives they want or feel they deserve with the people they want or feel they deserve and she’s interested in how that’s negotiated. The awkwardness of familial and other social interactions is her forte, and few novelists have ever conveyed it better. Reading her, you feel that your perceptions have been sharpened by about 80%.
Of Liam's relationship with his mother, the narrator muses: “Funny, it used to be so simple to sum his mother up, but now that he looked back he seemed to be ambushed by complexities”. To read Tyler is to be ambushed by complexities: the complexity of interacting with other people, of understanding the self and the world. She’s at once the least pretentious and the wisest of contemporary writers, and you dive into her work with gratitude.

The Hurt Locker

I generally avoid writing about American films on this blog, primarily because there seem to be so few interesting ones to see, let alone bother formulating a response to. Somewhere over the last ten years something seems to have gone horribly wrong with US film-making. Blame Bush, blame the success of the American Pie series, but American cinema badly needs an injection of reality (and imagination). The studios offer a turgid sea of sex comedies, comic book adaptations and remakes , while most people’s idea of a good indie movie, these days, isn’t The Apostle, Ulee’s Gold or Sling Blade but the painfully smug and bogus likes of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. Or the equally smug and bogus (self-) “important” films: Syriana, Goodnight and Good Luck, Crash.

Surprisingly, though, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is worth seeing. It might be the best American Iraq War-related movie yet (not that there’s much competition for that particular title), and it’s certainly a vast improvement on the dire In The Valley of Elah, the original story for which was also written by Mark Boal. Drawing on Boal’s experience as an “embed” with a bomb disposal squad, The Hurt Locker follows a team made up of Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and leader Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) whose reckless, getting-off-on-it approach to his work intrigues and frightens the other men.

The movie pulls you in from its opening scene: it’s visceral, with hand-held camera-work putting the viewer right there. Bigelow orchestrates the big set-pieces superbly and finds interesting, unexpected details in them: a cat limping across the road, a fly going into someone’s mouth. (There’s also a lovely little scene in which James dons his disposal helmet while lying on his bed.) The film's dynamic formal interplay between distance and closeness is echoed in the slippery relationship between the three protagonists, each expertly acted by the leads. Cool cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes are also effective.

Even so, there’s something a bit dubious about Bigelow and Boal’s creation of what is, essentially, a gung-ho action movie (which opens with the Chris Hedges quote “War is a drug”) out of an ongoing tragedy. There’s an odd mix of subtlety and banality to Boal’s writing: some scenes are brilliantly realised, others clunk. (The biggest clunker has the previously commitment-shy Sanborn tearfully declaring “I want a son!” after a particularly close encounter.) An initially affecting subplot about James’s relationship with an Iraqi boy named Beckham is also badly botched. While it’s certainly a relief that the film doesn’t take the obvious route of having James stay with kid and wifey (Evangeline Lilly, in the very definition of a thankless non-role) back in the US (or Canada, masquerading), the tone still seems off in the glib final sequence as he returns to Iraq and strides, smiling, towards the next unexpected bomb. The movie tells us “War is a drug” but could have dug deeper into the implications of that thesis. But if there are contradictions in what Bigelow and Boal are doing here, The Hurt Locker still feels like the most authentic depiction of Iraq war experience yet to reach the screen.