Sunday 31 January 2010

"Merman" by Tori Amos

One to soothe the troubled soul. "Who could ever say you're not simply wonderful?"

Saturday 30 January 2010

"Dakota" [live] by Stereophonics

Staying with the Welsh theme ... I've been listening to the Stereophonics Greatest Hits CD over the last few days. "The Best Of collection you've been waiting for," the cover modestly declares. Well, not exactly. But there's no denying that the 'phonics have produced some memorable songs, especially in the early days, and Kelly's raspy blast of a voice still has appeal. Here's a good live version of "Dakota."

Sleep Furiously (2009)

A belated addition to my Best Of 2009 films list: Gideon Koppel’s seriously sublime sleep furiously, an evocative and poetic documentary capturing a year in the mid-Wales village of Trefeurig, where the director - the son of German immigrant parents - grew up. (Koppel’s mother is one of the two main “protagonists” in the film, though you'll only find that out from reading the DVD notes: she’s never “introduced” as such.) The director’s approach, both in terms of the construction of individual sequences and the film entire, is fragmentary yet fluid, discreet yet direct. Particular activities - cake-making, a school music lesson, a cow giving birth, distribution of hymn-books in church, sheep-sheering, a town council meeting, a lamb taking its first tentative steps, choir practice, the arrival of the mobile library van - are presented without “context” yet convey the routines and rhythms of village life to perfection. Snapshots of daily tasks create a portrait, and the movie is helped along by a lovely tinkling score by Aphex Twin. In one particularly wonderful scene, one of the villagers reads a Pam Ayres-ish poem about the benefits of a wooden signpost.

Koppel’s approach to his material - about as far from the Michael Moore Methodology as you could possibly get - is too subtle for polemics, though an epigraph near to the end of the film - “It’s only when I sense the end of things that I find the courage to speak, the courage but not the words” - obliquely summarises the elegiac quality of the documentary and makes sense of previous scenes in which the closure of the post office and the village school are mentioned. This is a community that may sadly appear an anachronism to many in the modern world.

The oblique title of Koppel’s documentary is taken from Noam Chomsky’s example of a semantically nonsensical yet grammatically correct sentence: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” sleep furiously is not, overtly, a work that seems preoccupied by “ideas.” And yet in a way that’s precisely what it is: this tightly focused, deeply engaged and resonant film ushers the viewer into a meditative state of quiet, respectful contemplation.

Thursday 28 January 2010

David Renwick @ BFI Southbank

It was a pleasure to see David Renwick In Conversation at BFI Southbank last night. The rather diffident Renwick keeps these kinds of appearances to a minimum - “You’ll soon find out why” he quipped - but he was funny and endearing on an evening that proved an all-too-brief whistle-stop tour through his career. Alongside Victoria Wood I’d nominate Renwick as one of the greatest British comedy writers. From his Two Ronnies sketches through Jonathan Creek and Love Soup and of course One Foot in the Grave his work has subverted, expanded and blended genres, providing delight, intellectual stimulation, deep melancholy, big laughs, and, occasionally, shock. As adept visually as verbally, and an expert at intricate plotting and convoluted narrative, Renwick makes sit-com art. Two great, though not exactly animal-friendly, scenes from the immortal One Foot here. Who would want a dead dog that hadn't been stuffed?

Tuesday 26 January 2010

"Strangers When We Meet" by David Bowie

A track I get addicted to, periodically. And the only pop song I know that contains the word "rechauffe." Enjoy.

Monday 25 January 2010

Last Chance Harvey (2009)

What kind of anomaly is this? A fairly likeable new Hollywood romance with characters who are actually believable and quite endearing? I’d begun to think I’d never live to see the day. But Last Chance Harvey (2009) has a couple of qualities that are in pretty short supply in the American cinema these days: charm, and some warmth and affection for its protagonists. Taking place, satisfyingly, over a couple of days, the movie (written and directed by Joel Hopkins) is about the relationship between two rather rumpled people: the titular Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) and Kate (Emma Thompson). Harvey’s a jingle-writer who’s come to London from the States for his almost-estranged daughter’s wedding; Kate conducts surveys at Heathrow. After some initial resistance (particularly on Kate’s part), these two find themselves drawn to each other.

The movie starts off better than it ends up, losing some of its appeal midway in a dull wedding reception sequence that facilitates predictable reconciliations; you’d have had more respect for the characters (not to mention the filmmakers) if they’d skipped this horrible event. Nonetheless, both Hoffman and Thompson establish a deeply sympathetic rapport with the audience in their initial scenes: you actually want these two to meet up. It’s pleasing to find a movie with characters who have plausible histories and who aren’t just rattling off “smart” (ie. dumb) quips and one-liners at each other all the time. Hopkins’s script could have been sharper, but Hoffman and Thompson both work well with what they have, and the movie deftly avoids the cringe-factor of a Something’s Gotta Give (2003).

Last Chance Harvey isn’t what you’d call visually inspired, either, but it’s seldom lifeless and there’s some incidental fun to be had in spotting London-landmarks: Kate and Harvey spend quite a bit of time Southbank-side. (One question, though: since when were creative writing classes held in the Olivier foyer of the National Theatre?) Watch out, too, for a rather quaint anti-xenophobia subplot in which Kate’s querulous and lonely mother (great Eileen Atkins, underused) discovers that her Polish neighbour isn’t the serial killer she’d imagined him to be and is, in fact, not only quite a nice guy, but also a potential paramour. How does she find this out? He gives her a ham. The key to peaceful Anglo-Polish relations has been found.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Good (2008)

Though not quite great, Good (2008) is definitely...good. Based on C.P. Taylor’s play (which was performed at the Donmar Warehouse in a production starring Charles Dance in 1999), and directed by the Brazillian Vicente Amorim, the movie takes place in 1930s Germany, and charts the experiences of John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), the “good” man to whom the title alludes. A literature professor with a rather fraught home life (including an ailing mother [Gemma Jones] and a wife [Anastasia Hille] who clearly prefers her piano to her husband’s attentions), Halder writes a novel which inadvertently finds favour with the Nazi Party who recruit him to pen a paper arguing for the benefits of mercy death. (Compassionate euthanasia was one of the subjects of his book.) Seduced by the prospect of promotion (not to mention a movie version of his novel), Halder believes - or convinces himself - that involvement with the party might be the way to “steer the country in the right direction.” The choices and compromises that Halder makes in adhering to this stance jeopardise his life and relationships, not least his friendship with the Jewish psychoanalyst Gluckstein (Jason Issacs); they also give Good much of its moral weight and interest.

Amorim and his screenwriter John Wrathall have thoughtfully and intelligently “opened up” Taylor’s play for the screen; though the time-line is a rather jerky in places (the flashbacks are not always well handled) the film has a distinctive look and succeeds in putting the viewer in Halder’s head. (Music, in particular a series of pieces by Mahler, plays a crucial role in communicating the character’s unravelling - which is also presented as his awakening.) The film is aided by a compelling performance from Mortensen, and excellent support from a posse of Brit actors we see all too rarely on screen, not only Jones and Hille, but also Steven Mackintosh, Mark Strong and Jodie Whittaker. (Issacs - who co-produced the film - also registers strongly.) Taut and gripping, Good involves and stimulates up to its surprising and haunting end.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Cole, Fields, Me

Between W.C. Fields and Lily Cole…I’m not sure which one I adore the most.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Tuesday 19 January 2010

No Room at the Inn (1948)

Directed by Daniel Birt, and with a script co-written by Dylan Thomas (from the Joan Temple play), this witty and unsettling movie features a barnstorming performance from Freda Jackson as Mrs. Voray, an on-the-make harridan terrorising evacuees and orphaned kids placed in her care in a Northern town during WII. Jackson had played this role on stage and it shows: her memorable performance is forceful but nuanced, and even finds some sympathetic notes in a pretty heinous character. An evocative portrait of war-time Britain, the film has some memorably tart dialogue that raises gender and class issues without fuss, good performances from its child actors, and a superb scene in which our anti-heroine expertly manipulates the smitten men-in-power at a town council meeting. With lost gems like this, as well as all the bona fide classics of the time, the '40s were truly a Golden Age in British filmmaking, seems to me.

Kate McGarrigle (1946-2010)

Sad, sad news about Kate McGarrigle. From collaborations with Emmylou and Cave, to their own wonderful records, Kate and Anna's work was instrumental in opening me up to folk music in all its beautiful, humane variety. Some of their best below.

Monday 18 January 2010

"White Sky" by Vampire Weekend

One of the best from the Vamps' new album.

Sunday 17 January 2010

The Gold Diggers (1983) (to be continued)

While my belated encounter with Léolo (see below) proved rather disappointing, my long-delayed date with Sally Potter's great "lost" film The Gold Diggers (1983) met, and maybe even surpassed, my expectations. Lots to say about this one, and not enough time to say it right now. Review to come when I've had a chance to take a look at the short films included on the DVD as well.

Saturday 16 January 2010

If On A Winter's Night... by Sting

It may seem rather perverse to write about a Christmas album in January. But then Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night… isn’t really a Christmas album; it’s more properly described as a record for - and about - winter, a "seasonal" record, if you will, along the same lines as Tori Amos’s Midwinter Graces. Sting’s approach to the material is less radical than Amos’s subtly feminist/revisionist methodology, but his considered, well-researched mixing of carols, folk songs, poems and original material turns the album into a similarly powerful artistic statement. So these two records, even though they only include one of the same songs (the 15th century German carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”), have come to feel like companion pieces to me over the couple of months that I’ve been listening to them.

I also wanted to say a few words about If On A Winter’s Night... because the album has, for the most part, been so horribly and unfairly reviewed. Dave Simpson, in a ludicrous short critique in The Guardian, calls the record “expertly made” … and proceeds to give it one star. Clearly it’s not considered cool to praise a Sting album these days - and maybe ’twas ever thus.

Well, to appropriate a particularly unpleasant Americanism: “Fuck that shit.”

I liked If On A Winter’s Night ... pretty well the first time I heard it and, again like Midwinter Graces, it has only grown in stature with each play. (How many listens our friend from The Guardian gave it is uncertain. But since he mistakes the sound of trumpet for a saxophone in the second song, the answer would appear to be: “Not quite enough.”) Sting’s choice of material - elaborated in detailed and informative liner notes - is inspired, and the musicians he’s collaborated with - including Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, percussionist Bijan Chemirani and cellist Vincent Ségal - give the album a textured but never overly dense sound.

The album comes out folk (the bearded Sting even resembles Martin Simpson a little), with classical and world touches, and its nuanced arrangements constantly yield up fresh details. I'm particularly taken by the haunting opener “Gabriel’s Message,” the driving “Soul Cake,” the dramatic rendering of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Christmas At Sea,” the understated reading of the venerable “Cherry Tree Carol” and the evocative, rather Joni Mitchell-ish original “The Hounds of Winter.” There are awkward moments: the album’s dabbles with Purcell - on “Cold Song” and “Now Winter Comes Slowly” - are a little lugubrious. But this is a thoroughly engaging record, dark, contemplative and soulful, on which Sting’s voice, sounding particularly deep and rich, warms the listener.

Friday 15 January 2010

Mark of an Angel (L’Empreinte) (2008)

Safy Nebbou’s Mark of An Angel (horribly re-titled Angel of Mine for its UK DVD release) belongs to the sub-genre of slow-burning female-centred melodramas that have appeared in the French cinema over the past ten years or so, movies such as Claude Chabrol’s chilling Rendell adaptation Le Ceremonie (1995), François Ozon’s cheeky conundrum Swimming Pool (2003), Denis Dercourt’s interesting-but-confused The Page Turner (2006) and, best of all, Phillipe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2009). Pitched somewhere between character study, mystery, and suspense thriller, each of these movies centres upon a “duet” performance by two lead actresses. Mark of an Angel makes us aware of its provenance intertextually by teaming two performers already associated with the genre: Le Ceremonie’s Sandrine Bonnaire and The Page Turner’s Catherine Frot. Here, Frot plays Elsa, a divorced woman involved in a custody battle for her young son, who becomes convinced that the daughter of an acquaintance, Claire (Bonnaire), is in fact her child, the daughter she believed to have died in a hospital fire seven years before. Elsa's suspicions seem to be based on nothing in particular, other than that old favourite: maternal instinct. But her behaviour increasingly comes to disturb and unsettle Claire.

Out of this TV movie-ish material (the film was, indeed, inspired by a true story), Nebbou constructs a taut and compelling film about loss, family, and the idiosyncrasy of belief. Elegantly structured, the film has an intriguing perspective-shift halfway through that turns it into a true duet and makes the viewer reassess what we think we know about the two women. The movie lacks the kind of brilliantly drawn supporting characters that featured in I’ve Loved You So Long, and, as a consequence, feels less fully inhabited. But the two leads offer very fine performances that keep you attuned to every emotional nuance in their shifting relationship. No Hand That Rocks the Cradle hysterics are involved; the ending, though satisfying, is if anything a bit too calm and civilised to be completely believable, and Nebbou conveniently ducks out of a couple of difficult, but dramatically necessary, scenes. Even so, this quiet but intense and thoroughly engaging film comes warmly recommended.

Thursday 14 January 2010

"My Skin" by Natalie Merchant

For some reason this is the only song I want to listen to today.

Léolo (1992)

“Because I dream, I am not …”

I’ve wanted to see the French-Canadian film Léolo (1992), by Jean-Claude Lauzon, for many years, long before any academic interest or involvement in the world of CanStudies. And, well… sometimes long-anticipated events can end up being a bit disappointing. There were several aspects of the film that I liked and admired very much, but I found its scatological obsessions - too many scenes set in the bathroom - hard to take, and when I heard myself groaning in revulsion at its most notorious sequence (it involves a group of adolescent boys and a distressed cat) I had to face the fact that I wasn’t really having a very good time. Still, this distinctive film has its fascination, and for every moment of repulsion, it offers one of tenderness and lyricism that (just about) keeps you on board.

In some ways, Lauzon’s film feels like the missing link between Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life As A Dog (1985) and Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), and elements of it seem to have influenced Jean-Marc Vallee’s more amenable C.R.A.Z.Y (2005), another French-Canadian family drama with a strong sense of time and place. Lauzon's protagonist, 13-year-old Leo (Maxime Collin), lives in an East Montreal tenement with a family plagued by eccentricity and downright insanity: a father obsessed by toilet-training and bowel movements; a relentlessly body-building brother; a fat sister (straight out of John Waters) who hoards horseflies and other critters in the basement; a grandfather who gets sexual kicks from having his toenails bitten off.

Seeking escape from this bunch (who move with disturbing fluidity betweeen the apartment and the local mental hospital), Leo fantasises, creating a new identity for himself as "Léolo," whose conception (depicted in a Tin Drum-ish early sequence) came about following his mother’s encounter with a tomato that had been masturbated over by an Italian farmer (!). Italy is on our protagonist's mind for another reason: it’s the birth-place of his neighbour Bianca, the subject of many of Leo’s imaginings and desires.

It is as a portrait of adolescent imagination - and of the power of language and words to help transcend and transform - that Léolo is at its strongest. Leo's escape into writing and reading - “All I ask of a book is that it gives me courage and strength,” he says - is touchingly rendered, and it crystallises around his engagement with Québecois author Réjean Ducharme’s classic novel The Swallower Swallowed (1966), a quotation from which - “Because I dream, I am not…” - provides the film’s insistent, double-edged refrain. Developing these issues, Lauzon introduces a sympathetic adult figure into the film, a man styled "the Word Tamer" (Pierre Bourgault), who moves in and out of Leo's experiences, collecting his writings, and finally memorialising him, when our young hero's fate proves too difficult to escape after all.

Lauzon (whose second -and final - feature this was; he died in 1997) has an eye for detail and creates a distinctive mood, helped by a soundtrack that encompasses Thomas Tallis, Tom Waits and Lorenna McKennett, but his predilection for crudity and shock-value distanced me from the movie. Worse, there’s also strong strain of sentimentality surging under the film’s grotesquery: it’s evident in its portrait of the large, loving mother; in Leo’s attachment to Bianca (“my only love”); and, ultimately, in the presentation of Leo himself. But while Lauzon's commitment to the grotesque makes Léolo a more uncomfortable film to watch (and a harder one to like) than it might have been, for the strong of stomach, it's a movie that deserves at least one viewing.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

"Two Soups" by Victoria Wood

It feels like the kind of day for a classic sketch ...

Le Refuge: Coming ...Not Very Soon

The good news: Ozon's Le Refuge, which opens in France this month, has British distribution (Artificial Eye, of course). The less good news: the date of release is ... December 31. Well, patience is a virtue. Here's the trailer anyway.
Ozon in intimate, first-person mode clearly. But I'm still wondering: où est Ricky?

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010)

It was with some sadness that I heard, via a Facebook buddy, about the death of Eric Rohmer. (BBC TV News obviously don’t consider this death to be a story worth covering; now, if it had been Kerry Katona …) I can’t really claim that Rohmer was a favourite director of mine - I found a great deal of his work staid and banal - but there’s no denying that, for many, he was among the greatest of cinema auteurs. (Remember that brilliant little debate about the merits of his movies in I’ve Loved You So Long [2008]?) A few of his films - The Green Ray, A Summer Tale, An Autumn Tale, The Lady and the Duke, Triple Agent - I recall with much affection. So R.I.P, E.R.

Six Degrees of Separation (Old Vic)

John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1990) is probably my favourite play of the 1990s, even though I've never had the chance to see it on stage until now. Still, it’s the kind of play that leaps off the page, an exhilarating firecracker of a piece that has Guare’s allusive, slightly crazy wit and lyricism firing off in all directions. Like the double-sided Kandinsky painting that is one of its central symbols, it’s a work that’s full of wonderful contradictions; part social satire, part detective story, part tragedy, it demands to be played at the speed of farce, yet bursts with ideas and references and philosophical speculations: about the imagination, about race and class and celebrity and art, about how we know others, and about the reductive stories we make out of the rich experiences of our lives. Gleefully spinning through genres, Guare creates a piece of work that feels totally fresh. To borrow the painterly analogies that he delights in throughout the play, the speedy Six Degrees is a sketch, but one with such dramatic breadth and depth that it turns itself into a tapestry. And the concept highlighted by its title has of course passed into daily parlance now.

Guare himself spun the play out of a real-life incident: in the 1980s, a young black man conned his way into the homes of a number of wealthy New Yorkers by passing himself off as the son of Sidney Poitier. In Guare’s play the young man becomes a character named Paul, and the couple he dupes one Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge, a self-satisfied pair experiencing an anxious moment over a lucrative art deal. Arriving at their apartment after an alleged mugging, and claiming to be a school friend of their children, the charming and intelligent Paul gives the Kitteridges a magical evening, involving a delicious meal and a discourse on the imagination (that is one of the greatest monologues in the American theatre). He also helps to secure Flan’s deal. It’s an evening that jolts the couple into presence, giving them an almost visionary sense of possibility and engagement. But, come the morning, it emerges that Paul was not who he claimed to be, and Flan and Ouisa’s attempts unravel the mystery of his deception (with the help of their hilariously awful children and similarly duped friends) is the focus of the rest of the play. For Flan, the incident becomes a mere curiosity, an anecdote to wheel out at parties. For Ouisa, though, the encounter with Paul proves transformative, alerting her to the superficiality of her relationships and the wider mysteries and meanings of human connection: “how every new person is a door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people...”

Fred Schepisi made a superb movie version of the play in 1993, with Stockard Channing triumphantly reprising her stage role as Ouisa, and a deluxe supporting cast including Donald Sutherland (as Flan), a fresh-from-Bel-Air Will Smith (as Paul), and Ian McKellen. But, much as I’d loved the movie, I’d always hoped to get the chance to see Six Degrees on stage. Now that opportunity has finally arisen: David Grindley’s new production of the play for the Old Vic is the first London production since the Royal Court premiere in 1992. The preview I attended last night got a pretty warm reception, and overall I enjoyed it very much. It is, clearly, a production still in its early stages of performance: there are, despite an uncluttered set and a generally good pace, a few clunky moments of staging. The rhythm seems a bit off in places, and the comedy comes through stronger than the pathos and the grace notes. (A tricky mode, existential farce.) The production isn’t - yet - quite as fluid as it needs to be. In practice, I think I also preferred the structure of the film: the adaptation’s ingenious conceit of having Fran and Ouisa relate their experience to various groups of friends seems to me more meaningful than the play’s direct audience-address. But, these complaints aside, this is a strong production, well served by its three lead actors. Anthony Head brings a compelling note of vulnerability to Flan’s bluffness; the great Lesley Manville, though sporting an American accent that turns her a bit brassy, skilfully charts Ouisa’s journey from complacency to questioning; while, as Paul, the charismatic Obi Abili handles an extremely challenging role with aplomb, conveying the mercurial character's seductiveness, danger, neediness and brilliance. (Mention should also be made of the young actors playing the Kitteridges' kids and their friends, who get some of the biggest laughs of the night.) Ultimately, for me, this incarnation of Six Degrees felt somewhat less substantial than the film, and also broader. But all the elements are in place here and this seems like a production that will only deepen and develop as its run progresses. Catch it if you can.

Sunday 10 January 2010

"Easy" by The Commodores

After a week of frosty songs, time to stave off the chill, methinks - especially as the weather won’t oblige us just yet. So here’s “Easy”, by The Commodores - the sonic equivalent of stepping into a nice warm bath. An easy song to take for granted, this, but one that I for one am always glad to hear. (And dig those Afros!)

Saturday 9 January 2010

Intimacy (2001)

My strongest memory of Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001) was of its frank, lengthy sex scenes, sequences which caused considerable controversy at the time of the film’s appearance in 2001. (Had it been released at the end rather than the beginning of our thoroughly pornified decade, with its parade of filmic erections, penetrations and ejaculations (plus - thank you, Mr. von Trier - one significant auto-clitoredectomy) it seems likely that the movie would have created less of a hullabaloo.) I decided to revisit Intimacy nine years on, after liking Chéreau’s Son Frére (2003) so much, and I still think that the sex scenes are the film’s most impressive feature - those, and the strong roles that the movie offers for three fine actors: Kerry Fox, the too-rarely-seen-on-screen Mark Rylance and the very-often-seen (but always welcome) Timothy Spall, who, over the years, has become as sensitive and nuanced a performer as you can find. (Though I still treasure the memory of his broadly-caricatured Aubrey in Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet [1991].)

Adapted from Hanif Kureishi's novel, Intimacy charts the spiralling, Last Tango-ish affair between Rylance’s Jay, a divorced father-of-two, and Fox’s Claire, who meet weekly for sex in Jay’s grotty South London flat. Spall plays Claire’s husband, with whom Jay forms an uneasy sort of alliance when, anxious to learn more about this woman who “comes round, fucks, then leaves,” he tracks her to a pub theatre where she’s playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie.

Intimacy excels in mood and atmosphere: it’s visually arresting, with Chéreau vibrantly capturing a sensuous-and-seedy London and creating sex scenes that are as expressive as they are explicit, and which succeed in conveying the shifting contours of the central relationship. In terms of narrative structure and dialogue, the film is much less effective: elements are simply too vague (we never even find out how Jay and Claire first met, for example) and, as in other Chéreau pictures, there are jarring moments and strange inconsistencies throughout. (Marianne Faithfull gives a very odd performance as a cock-er-nee acting student and friend of Claire’s.) Kureishi's dialogue can be hamfisted at the best of times, and this adaptation does it no favours at all. Since the movie never finds a verbal idiom to match its visual eloquence what you take away from it are scattered images: the opening shots (scored to Tindersticks) of Jay sleeping; dynamic scenes on the London streets; and the naked bodies, frantically seeking out the titular state. Troubling and flawed as it is, Intimacy deserves to be seen for all of these moments, and for the committed, intense performances of its leads.

Friday 8 January 2010

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941)

A season of W.C. Fields films takes place at BFI Southbank this month: the perfect antidote to any manifestations of S.A.D that you may be experiencing. I saw Fields's movies for the first time last year and was delighted by them, in particular the brilliantly bizarre Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941) - surely one of the most surreal and inventive comedies ever to come out of a major Hollywood studio. The movie is, in part, a satire on movies: it's structured as Fields's pitch to a producer (superb Franklin Pangborn). The screenplay Fields presents is a dog story shaggier than any dreamed up by the Monty Python boys or the Coen Bros: it involves Fields and his niece Gloria Jean's adventures in a Russian mountain village. Absurdist anarchy reigns but the film never becomes tiresome and just gets wilder and funnier as it builds to a truly spectacular slapstick car-chase climax. Highlights include Fields jumping out of an aeroplane window in order to retrieve his bottle of booze; a scene with a (Ruth Jones lookalike) waitress; encounters with Mrs. Hemogolobin (Margaret Dumont) and her daughter (Susan Miller) - look out for the "game" Sqwuigilium! - ; the sublimely awful trilling of Gloria Jean; and (a personal favourite) a monkey putting on a radio that plays "Comin' Through the Rye." Throughout the whole glorious mess bumbles the magnificent Mr. Fields (in his last starring role), the most endearing boozer, misanthrope and chancer the screen has ever seen.

More on the BFI season here:

Thursday 7 January 2010

"February" in January

Another chilly song ...

Dar Williams has always seemed to me to be one of the best and most underrated of the American singer-songwriters who emerged in the 1990s. In songs like “As Cool As I Am,” “I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono,” “Iowa,” “End of the Summer,” “When I Was A Boy,” “The Babysitter’s Here,” and “The Christians and the Pagans” Williams distils witty, poetic and slyly subversive insights into accessible pop/folk melodies. Here’s “February,” one of her less lyrically ambitious but nonetheless perceptive songs, an evocative portrait of both climatic and relationship freeze.

The Turn of the Screw (BBC, 2009)

The new television adaptation of Henry James's ghost story The Turn of the Screw, screened on BBC1 on December 30th, proved disappointing. Jack Clayton’s 1961 film of the story, The Innocents (from a script by Truman Capote and John Mortimer among others), is a classic: beautiful, atmospheric, and appropriately haunting, with startling performances, particularly from Deborah Kerr as the governess convinced that her two apparently angelic charges, Miles and Flora, are possessed by the spirits of two corrupt servants. Re-reading the Henry James story over the past few days, I was surprised at just what a perverse, suggestive and unsettling text it is; its powerful undertones of sexual disgust and class terror are truly disturbing. (This must surely be the James story that Virginia Woolf, as reported in her diaries, was reprimanded by an editor for describing as “lewd”.)

The meaning of the story has of course been debated for years: are the governess’s visions of the dead servants “real” or the product of an imagination stoked by repressed sexuality and a hidebound religious background? Are the children at risk from the servants, or from her? For James, writing in his notebook, the answer was clear: the ghosts were real; the governess's fears justified. But the tale keeps its psychosexual ambiguities until the bitter end, in a way that has succeeded in getting several generations of literary critics very excited indeed.

The new BBC version, directed by Tim Fywell from a script by Sandy Welch, had some intriguing elements. Relocated to the post-WW1 period (1921), it attempted (as The Innocents did not) to create a frame structure analogous to the tale-being-told device in the original story: here the governess (competently played by Michelle Dockery) is given first-person narrative agency, as she recounts her experiences at Bly to a psychiatrist (Dan Stevens) in a mental hospital where she has been incarcerated. The drama certainly made the most of the governess’s own sexual appetites: fantasy scenes of her romping with the children’s mysterious uncle (played by Mark Umbers, a talented and sadly underused actor) spelled this aspect out in no uncertain terms. But Welch’s adaptation ultimately seemed to vindicate the governess’s visions, critiquing a reading of them as feminine hysteria and linking the character, by implication, to the shell-shocked soldiers seen throughout the film. (A nod to Mrs Dalloway, perhaps?) This conceit, though very interesting, ultimately served to bog the story down, distracting from the central events at Bly, which were not terribly well executed in this version. We may not have expected the sensuous elegance of the Clayton film but Fywell’s style became downright clunky, the tension dissipating scene by scene. Thus the adaptation gradually became a rather incoherent amalgam of generic effects: scenes spuriously relocated to graveyards, appallingly heavy-handed flashbacks demonstrating the servants’ deviance, an intrusive score. Even the governess's sympathetic confidante Mrs Grose (Sue Johnston) was turned, rather bizarrely, into a figure of suspicion, with a habit of hanging around in cemeteries. Since the performances of the two child actors playing Miles and Flora were, sadly, not quite adequate, the adaptation lost much of its power to disturb, and was never very scary. James, with his special gift for dialogue and his genius for scene-making, created a story much more intrinsically dramatic than the adaptation proved to be.

As well as the memory of the Clayton film casting its long shadow, The Turn of the Screw has also been homaged brilliantly by Alejandro Amenábar in The Others (2001), in which Nicole Kidman memorably channelled Kerr’s woman-on-the-verge intensity. Capped by a confused and derivative ending which suggested that the saga was about to begin all over again, with another governess as the victim, Welch and Fywell’s version sacrificed its more interesting ideas and fell sadly flat.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

"You Don't Want to Know" by Loudon Wainwright

A classic song on cold weather in Britain by the original - and best - Wainwright. Enjoy.

"Horchata" by Vampire Weekend

Pure pleasure: the wonderful opening track to Vampire Weekend's new album Contra, out next week. "I'd look psychotic in a balaclava/Winter's cold is too much to handle..." How apt, chaps!

Tuesday 5 January 2010

The Proposal (2009)

Anne Fletcher’s The Proposal (2009) is an exceedingly charmless romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock as a wicked-lady executive-editor named Margaret Tate who contrives an engagement-of-convenience with her put-upon assistant (Ryan Reynolds) as a means of avoiding deportation to that most hostile of homelands: Canada. In order to assuage the suspicions of a sceptical officer (is this movie really a biting critique of US immigration policy, I wonder?) the pair head to the Reynolds character's hometown in Alaska and perpetuate the charade to his family, all the while falling in love for real.

Though familiar enough, The Proposal’s premise (an amalgam of Peter Weir’s Greencard [1990] and Frank Oz’s Housesitter [1992]) would seem to yield a bit of promise, but a very poor script and uninspired direction sink the film fairly early on; and, ultimately, the movie doesn’t so much end as give up. (It doesn’t quite plumb the depths of Amy Heckerling’s truly horrible I Could Never Be Your Woman [2007], but that’s hardly a recommendation.) Bullock shows a bit of spark in her initial scenes - she seems to enjoy playing bitchy and has fun with the literary name-dropping - but once Margaret lets her hair down (yes, literally), she simply resorts to unfunny shtick, particuarly in a cringe-making dancing-in-the-woods sequence. (The grisliest aspect, though, is that her workaholic character has to be taught a lesson in the value of Family. This is not, one senses, a movie that Susan Faludi would enjoy.) This was my first exposure to Ryan Reynolds and I’m afraid I found him to be a robotic presence. But then none of the supporting cast - from a grimacing Mary Steenburgen to a meant-to-be-adorable Betty White - are able to distinguish themselves here. The family dog -a Samoyed named Kevin - is, by default, the star of the movie.

I’m baffled as to why the contemporary Hollywood romantic comedy has become so cheap, so lame, so inherently feel-bad. Without falling too much into 1990s nostalgia (an unfortuante temptation, it seems, as one hurtles towards 30), I’d argue that the rom-coms of that period (Sleepless In Seattle, French Kiss, Only You, One Fine Day) possessed a bit of wit and style and charm, for all their ultimate adherence to formula. (The last one I recall really enjoying was Paul Weitz’s In Good Company (2004), which satisfyingly melded the genre with corporate comedy, had likeable, well-crafted characters, and unpredictable plot developments.) Neither funny nor in the least romantic, Fletcher’s film is one Proposal it would be wise to refuse.

"Winter" in Winter

One to reach for on these chilly days. A song that changed my life when I first encountered it (12 years ago to the month, to be exact) and every time I hear it again I remember why.

Monday 4 January 2010

The Good Son (1993)

It was interesting to revisit The Good Son, Joseph Rubens’s thriller from the early '90s. The film was one of many “…from hell” thrillers of its period; movies such as John Schlesinger’s tenant-from-hell Pacific Heights (1990), Barbet Schroeder’s flatmate-from-hell Single White Female (1992), Curtis Hanson’s nanny-from-hell The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and Rubens’s own husband-from-hell Sleeping With the Enemy (1991) practically came to constitute their own sub-genre at this time. The Good Son featured Macaulay Culkin as the son-from-hell (some may argue that he’d already played that role in every movie he’d starred in up to this point, but there we go), a manipulative, homicidal tyke named Henry who torments his cousin Mark (Elijah Wood) when the latter comes to stay with Henry’s family following his own mother’s death. Unfortunately, The Good Son appeared, with very poor timing, around the time of the James Bulger murder and media moral panic about the influence of “video nasties”; its UK release was held back for a few years and the film was finally issued straight-to-video. Seen today, the movie seems tame indeed; but, though far too short and obviously compromised (Ian McEwan disowned the script, though still retains the credit), it was more substantial than I remembered. The skilful Ruben creates a tense atmosphere and the themes - sibling jealousy, bereavement, the reluctance of parents to recognise their children’s potential for bad behaviour - are interesting. Culkin’s work is a bit erratic, but he manages a few effective moments of menace - especially when threatening his young sister (played, in a intriguingly morbid touch, by Culkin’s real-life sister Quinn), though it’s Wood’s soulful performance that anchors the movie. No lost classic, then, but a little-seen film that rewards another look.

Sunday 3 January 2010

Son Frere (2003)

Although it deals with a human body in decline, Patrice Chéreau’s Son Frére (2003) possesses a wondrous tactility that is bracing and invigorating, turning the movie into much more than the depressive experience it could have been. I found this to be by far the most satisfying of the Chéreau films I’ve seen. La Reine Margot (1994), the splendidly-titled Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998), Intimacy (2001) and Gabrielle (2006) all had superb moments, but jarring and unconvincing ones as well. Son Frére sustains itself from beginning to end, and I’d place the film as an elegant companion piece to François Ozon’s Time To Leave (2006) which also documented a young male protagonist’s journey to death and subtly queered its genre. Where Ozon’s film was distinguished by its hero’s removal of himself from the “comforts” offered by lover, friends and family, the main focus in Chéreau’s film is on the growing intimacy between two brothers, Thomas (Bruno Todeschini) and Luc (Eric Caravaca). Comfortably estranged, the pair are reunited when Thomas arrives at Luc’s apart with the news that he - Thomas - has been diagnosed with a blood disorder. The film charts the brothers’ growth into closeness as it moves between scenes documenting Thomas’s hospitalisation in Paris and those set later, in Brittany, where the brothers go when Thomas refuses more treatment.

The plot may have all the makings of a US TV movie-of-the-week/p, but, based on a novel by Phillipe Besson, Son Frére is an adaptation that has been thought out fully in cinematic terms. Chéreau has something of Claire Denis’s ability to eloquently film bodies: he often keeps the camera very close to the actors, but the effect is never intrusive or voyeuristic; instead the mood is one of tender concern and curiosity. (A lengthy sequence in which Luc observes Thomas being shaved before his operation is masterfully done.) What’s most intriguing about Son Frére, though, is its frank interlinking of Thanatos and Eros, and its sensitive exploration of the fraternal and sexual components of the central relationship. A brave, understated and (in all senses) touching film about the complexities of living, dying, desiring, and brotherly love.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Grey Gardens (2009)

I was pleased to have the opportunity to see Grey Gardens (2009), the HBO film about “Big” Edie and "Little" Edie Bouvier Beale, the now-iconic subjects of the Albert and David Maysles’s documentary from 1976. The Edies were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy, and lived, in increasing squalor, in the once-opulent Grey Gardens mansion in East Hampton. The Maysles’s documentary, regarded as a classic by some, captured the theatricality of the women’s personalities and the spectacle of their relationship.

Directed by Michael Sucsy and co-written by Sucsy and (surprisingly enough) Patricia Rozema, the dramatised Grey Gardens bears the usual HBO hallmarks: lavish production values, prime roles for some these-days-underused actresses (Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, here), scenes of genuine insight, and other moments of clunking obviousness. Its structure is artful: the film juxtaposes incidents from the Edies's lives in the 1940s/50s (“Big” Edie’s divorce from her husband Phelan; “Little” Edie’s frustrated bids for stardom) with scenes of the filming of the documentary in the 1970s. More than a gleeful game of "compare and contrast," the sequencing offers a witty demonstration of "Little" Edie’s oft-quoted comment about the difficulty of maintaining "the line between the past and the present."
The film-making conceit, though, turns out to be more interesting than anything that is actually done with it. The Maysles’s methods and motivations for making the documentary remain unexplored; as depicted here, the brothers (played by Ayre Gross and Justin Louis) just stand around with boom and camera in hand, exchanging inscrutable smiles. There’s also something rather problematic about the new film’s unequivocal celebration of the documentary, which is presented here simply as an unvarnished record of the truth which garnered universal acclaim.(Not so: Helen MacKintosh, for one, accused the Maysles of filming the Edies “in the most offensive of ways” - a valid enough point.)

But where the new movie does succeed is in its presentation - and contextualisation - of the women’s complex and contradictory alliance, a relationship defined by mutual dependency, antipathy and affection. The movie seems to begin, conventionally, by presenting “Little” Edie as a victim of parental oppression (both paternal and maternal), but this perspective becomes much more nuanced as the film progresses. And the actresses simply couldn’t be bettered. Barrymore’s moving, intelligent performance could be a career-best - she succeeds in making sense of “Little” Edie’s slide into eccentricity without editorialising on it - while the incomparable Lange unleashes her formidable brand of vulnerability, tenacity and humour to haunting effect. (There’s more than a touch of the Tennessee Williams heroines she’s played so memorably on stage here; clumping around with a stick (in very convincing old-age make up) in the 1970s scenes, one senses a Suddenly, Last Summer in her future.) The ending - with a rather contrived reconciliation scene and “Little” Edie basking in her long-awaited fame after the movie’s premiere - is too cosy. But, between them, Barrymore and Lange turn this Grey Gardens into more than an interesting supplement to the original film and a compelling “duet” in its own right.

Friday 1 January 2010

"Wisteria" by Richard Shindell

A lovely Richard Shindell song here - as good a way as any to ease yourself into the New Year.