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.