Friday 30 April 2010


"Things change, everywhere, even here," wrote Tony Kushner in the wonderful Caroline, or Change ... Boycotting Trends has had an impromptu "makeover" due to the previous template going haywire ... Let's see how this one fares.

Thursday 29 April 2010

Happy Endings (2005)

Don Roos's Happy Endings (2005) wasn't widely seen in the UK, but it's well worth catching up with: at its best, this charming and funny ensemble movie (about the lives of a group of intimately- and tenuously-connected Los Angelenos) has some of the magic and excitement of the best Altmans. Roos isn’t a great director, yet, and he lets some strands in his network of relationships dangle a little too loosely. But with a characteristically witty script, some well-judged musical interludes, great acting, and an undertone of sadness and rue the movie occasionally feels a bit like a modern Nashville (1975). Actors including Jesse Bradford, Tom Arnold, Jason Ritter, Bobby Carnivale and Steve Coogan spark off each other brilliantly. But Roos has always been a terrific writer for women, and here he offers Lisa Kudrow and Maggie Gyllenhaal some prime opportunities to shine. Kudrow’s unusual vocal rhythms expertly capture her character's regrets and confusion, and Gyllenhaal matches her with a performance of incredible bite and freshness. Her opportunist character may be a direct descendent of Christina Ricci’s Dedee in Roos’s The Opposite of Sex (1998), but Gyllenhaal makes every scene her own. (The sequence in which she meets Kudrow’s character at an abortion clinic is a minor classic.) It's an extremely likeable movie.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

"Volcano" by Beck

I've been walking on these streets so long
I don't know where they're going to lead anymore
But I think I must have seen a ghost
I don't know if it's my illusions that keep me alive

I don't know what I've seen
Was it all an illusion?
All a mirage gone bad?
I'm tired of evil
And all that it feeds
But I don't know

I've been drifting on this wave so long
I don't know if it's already crashed on the shore
And I've been riding on this train so long
I can't tell if it's you or me who's driving us into the ground

I don't know if I'm sane
But there's a ghost in my heart
Who's trying to see in the dark
I'm tired of people who only want to be pleased
But I still want to please you

And I heard of that Japanese girl
Who jumped into the volcano
Was she trying to make it back?
Back into the womb of the world?

I've been drinking all these tears so long
All I've got left is the taste of salt in my mouth

I don't know where I've been
But I know where I'm going
To that volcano
I don't want to fall in though
Just want to warm my bones
On that fire a while

Monday 26 April 2010

It's A Free World (2007)

Intriguing and admirable but ultimately frustrating and confused, Ken Loach's It's A Free World (2007) exhibits some of the same problems that have marred a few of the director's other collaborations with the screenwriter Paul Laverty. The film follows the exploits of Angie (Kierston Wareing), a young woman whom we first meet in Katowice, Poland, where she's working for an agency that recruits workers to the UK. After being unfairly dismissed from this job, Angie returns to London and decides to set up an agency of her own, running it from her kitchen with her friend Rose (Juliet Ellis). Angie's business flourishes, but only as it becomes increasingly dependent upon its exploitation of the immigrants.

There's nothing wrong with the premise; an exploration of the complexities of economic migration to Britain would be very welcome; indeed, Nick Broomfield went some way to providing one in Ghosts (2006), his compelling film about the Morcambe Bay cockling disaster. While It's A Free World never achieves that film's sense of urgency or intensity, a few sequences depicting Angie's interactions and arguments with the workers do find Loach at his observant best. But the film is only satisfying on a moment-to-moment basis; the connections between scenes are often unclear; some sequences seem to relate to scenes that have been edited out; and a late lurch into thriller mode does not distract from the film's increasing incoherence. Wareing gives a compelling enough performance, but it's hard to gauge just how Loach and Laverty feel about the actions of their heroine (exactly what she's up to is sometimes fudged by the structure of the film), or how the viewer is supposed to feel about her, either.

You can't help but admire Loach for his focus on aspects of British life that most film-makers tend to avoid, but that's not exactly a compensation for the narrative confusions of some of his recent work. Good intentions, sadly, do not a great film make, and It's A Free World offers further proof of that.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

The Ghost (2010)

Roman Polanski does a fairly proficient, sleek job of work on The Ghost, a piece of political pulp adapted by Robert Harris from his novel. The film follows an unnamed hack (Ewan McGregor) who's assigned to ghost-write the memoirs of a former British PM named Tony Bl- ... sorry, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Arriving at Lang’s house in the US, McGregor's character soon starts to find out some unpalatable details surrounding his subject, including the mysterious circumstances of the death of the previous ghost-writer on the project. When Lang is accused of authorising the seizure of suspected terrorists and handing them over for torture by the CIA, it’s not long before our hero starts (rather unwisely) retracing his predecessor’s footsteps in an attempt to get to the bottom of Lang’s nefarious dealings.

The film makes the mistake of getting Lang out of the picture too early, just when the viewer is beginning to enjoy the back-and-forth between this character and the writer, and too much time is spent watching McGregor playing amateur detective. Harris grafts unsubtle parallels with real political events onto a thriller plot in a way that starts to seem rather risible. "This is getting ridiculous!" exclaims McGregor at one point. He’s talking about the instruction he’s receiving from a Sat-Nav device. But he might as well be referring to The Ghost’s increasingly unlikely plot developments. There are a few enjoyably tart exchanges in Harris’s dialogue but not quite enough to make up for the lines that clunk or the sense of weary familiarity that the let’s-blame- the-CIA scenario ultimately engenders.

Still, Polanski gives the film a distinctive look - its greeny hue is both oppressive and strangely inviting - and an excellent cast help to smooth over some of the contrivances. McGregor is an engaging and likeable lead, Olivia Williams registers strongly as Mrs. Lang, and Kim Cattrall contributes a cool, amusing performance as Lang’s very attentive assistant. There are some neat cameos too: James Belushi and Eli Wallach turn up, as does Tom Wilkinson, playing a sneaky Prof with unsavoury connections. (Now, didn’t Wilkinson already get McGregor into enough hot water in Woody Allen's Cassandra’s Dream [2007?]) Not one to write home about, then, but The Ghost proves entertaining enough.

Monday 19 April 2010

Nashville (1975)

One of many classic Nashville sequences.

Belatedly... 8 Desert Island DVDs

A bit belated this, but here goes. 8 DVDs for a Desert Island.

1. Nashville (dir. Robert Altman)

Everything you need to know about the USA in one movie.

2. All About Eve (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

"What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."

3. Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (dir. Edward F. Cline)

"Godfrey Daniel!"

4. The Portrait of A Lady (dir. Jane Campion)

Much derided, but, for me, the best Henry James adaptation there has been, or is ever likely to be.

5. Wonderland (dir. Michael Winterbottom)

To help cure homesickness for London.

6. The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Because it's perfect.

7. North By Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Because this could really be a list of eight Hitchcock films.

8. Cast Away (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Not a great favourite, but survival tips, and Tom Hanks's reassuring presence, could only help the situation.

But ... ask me tomorrow, and you'd probably get a different list.

Sunday 11 April 2010

I Am Love (2009)

It’s difficult to summarise the basic plot of the striking new Italian melodrama I Am Love (2009) without making the movie sound banal and over-familiar. Let’s just say that it revolves around the passions that erupt in a wealthy Milanese family - especially those experienced by the family matriarch, Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton). It’s clear that director Luca Guadagnino knows what he’s doing from the expertly constructed title sequence which presents the city under snow; it’s even more clear once the camera starts gliding around the inside of the Recchi mansion, and introducing us to the family members who have gathered together to celebrate the birthday of Grandfather Recchi. It’s at this function that two events occur - one involving a change in the running of the family business, the other an apparently inconsequential brief encounter - that set the movie’s plot in motion.

Apart from the film’s extreme stylishness (it's reminiscent at times of Hitchcock, Visconti and Scorsese), what I liked best about I Am Love is the seriousness with which it treats emotion and desire. The title is taken from Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier, specifically the “Mamma Morta” aria used so memorably in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993); indeed, a clip from Demme’s film is surprisingly, and rather movingly, inserted into this one. There’s an operatic rapturousness to Guadagnino’s approach. Food is central to the characters’ interaction and also to the film’s (considerable) erotic appeal: it features the most sensuously-devoured prawn in movie history, as well as an extended outdoor sex scene that almost bests the one in François Ozon’s Criminal Lovers (1999). Swinton, “talking Italian” throughout, is as always superb: it’s tempting to call this her best-ever performance, but then every performance she gives seems to be her best. Still, her work here and in Erick Zonca’s Julia (2008) is particularly phenomenal, an inventive and unforgettable pair of performances.

I Am Love ’s ending? Well, it’s certainly one to debate, and, in truth, it didn’t quite work for me. There’s some clunky plotting in the last half hour, and the final sequence is, I think, over-wrought, failing to earn the emotional response it clearly seeks. For the most part, though, Guadagnino’s intense, vibrant movie is filmmaking of a very high order indeed.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Here Lies Love by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim

At times beautiful and dynamic, at others awkward and flat, David Byrne and Norman Cook’s Here Lies Love is a rather confounding experience. The double-album’s premise - a song-cycle based around the life of the Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, a kind of Evita-for-Imelda, if you will - has a touch of loopy genius about it; this and the array of great (mostly female) artists that Byrne has enlisted as vocalists for the record have generated an immense amount of curiosity and excitement about the project. Byrne has presented the songs in a live setting on a couple of occasions and retains the concert’s structure here: that of a mostly linear narrative interweaving the experiences of Marcos and Estrella Cumpas, the woman who looked after her as a child. Musically, the album takes its cues from Marcos’s own predilection for club and dance music, with Cook and collaborator Tom Gandey (Cagedbaby) combining soul, disco, and Latin-beats with (off-)Broadway and techno elements.

“The story I am interested in,” Byrne has said, “is about asking what drives a powerful person—what makes them tick? How do they make and then remake themselves? … Could one bring a ‘story’ and a kind of theatre to the disco?” Well, that’s what Here Lies Love attempts, and if the end result sometimes falls a bit short of expectations, Byrne, Cook and their vocalists/collaborators have nonetheless produced an intriguing, singular work that offers some great pleasures.

On first listen, though, Here Lies Love comes off as lightweight and effete, its sound excessively processed yet under-Cooked, its lyrics by turns over-explicit and sketchy. Byrne’s material seems not so much to embody Marcos as to present her in accordance with a succession of problematic clichés: “a simple country girl who had a dream,” a woman who’d “do anything for the love of her man” etc.

But then finer details start to emerge. Byrne may not be Richard Shindell when it comes to constructing first-person story-songs, but (as the 100-page booklet that accompanies the deluxe edition of the album attests) he’s clearly done his homework on Marcos and her contexts and does well in constructing a coherent musical narrative out of them. Depending on your perspective, the album’s concern to neither deify nor demonise its subject may seem like healthy objectivity or problematic fence-sitting. But it’s likely that listeners who know little about Marcos will emerge from the record with a clearer sense of where she came from and where she ended up, as well as an urge to find out more. (There’s something very cool about an album of dance music inspiring people to head to the library.)

And even when the lyrics and music let the side down a little, the songs are frequently redeemed by the distinctive qualities that the vocalists bring to them. Florence Welch tones down her stridency a notch on the opening title track, or “Prologue,” which offers Marcos’s recollections of herself as “a young girl in Leyte” through the prism of Studio 54-evoking disco. Candie Payne and St. Vincent trade verses sympathetically on the airy bossa nova “Every Drop of Rain” which digs deeper into Marcos’s background, and presents her and Cumpas’s perspectives in effective counterpoint. Tori Amos darts spryly and sensually around the funky “You’ll Be Taken Care Of,” as Marcos’s mother delivers a promise to the young Estrella that will not be fulfilled. Martha Wainwright lends a heartfelt and unaffected vocal to the gentle “The Rose of Tacloban,” while Nellie McKay does well by the appealing “How Are You?”

Backed by Allison Moorer, Steve Earle growls distinctively through the chugging, rather lugubrious rock of “A Perfect Hand,” while Cyndi Lauper evokes the Marcos’s whirlwind courtship on the excitable “Eleven Days.” Moorer herself steps with customary warmth into “When She Passed By,” but the song’s arrangement - country-pop with bursts of Vampire Weekend-esque guitar - isn’t exactly elegant. Róisìn Murphy is luckier: the seductive disco of “Don’t You Agree?” is entirely within her comfort zone, and the track would have slotted quite nicely on to Overpowered. Sung by Charmaine Clamor, the slinky “Walk Like A Woman” subtly exposes the constructed-ness of Imelda’s iconicity, while a restrained Camille captures Marcos among the people on the pleasing “Pretty Face.”

Opening the second disc in fine style, Sharon Jones lends a gritty, robust edginess to the Talking Heads-esque “Dancing Together.” Kate Pierson shouts her way through “The Whole Man” to somewhat wearying effect, but the record then hits one of its strongest patches. Performed by Sia, “Never So Big” is a delight, setting Cumpas’s disillusionment at her treatment by Marcos to an infectious melody. Santigold’s take on the buzzing “Please Don’t” is similarly delectable, sassily presenting Marcos’s manoeuvrings as a global diplomat. Nicole Atkins effortlessly inhabits the soaring soul of “Solano Avenue,” while a sense of political urgency and the devastating effects of the Marcos’s regime enters the album with Natalie Merchant’s plaintive “Order 1081.”

Relegated toward the end of the record, Byrne’s own vocal contributions are intriguing oddities: the twitchy anatomisation of US excess “American Troglodyte” sounds like a Beck reject; it’s engaging but a little arid, and its relevance to the album seems negligible. Detailing Marcos’s relationship with opposition leader Benigno Aquino, the more expansive “Seven Years” pits Byrne against the unearthly vocalising of Shara Worden; backed by strings and electronic noodling it’s an overwrought yet strangely effective piece. But “Why Don’t You Love Me?” - a final duet for Marcos and Cumpas - feels all wrong as a closer. It’s catchy enough, and taken at a decent clip by the powerhouse duo of Lauper and Amos. But, lyrically, Byrne needed to pull something more creative out of the hat than this sour piece that leaves the album’s protagonists caught up in their separate senses of betrayal and seemingly unwilling to do anything about it other than plead and accuse.

But, weaker moments such as these aside, Here Lies Love ultimately proves an enjoyable and absorbing piece of work. Despite its surface accessibility, it’s a record that tends to yield up its treasures slowly, repaying the quality of attention that the listener is willing to give it. It’s an album to grow into, and one that is to be celebrated for its ambition, its oddity, and its antidote-to-iTunes ethos. Immortalising Ms. Marcos alongside Eva Duarte, Jesus Christ and Jerry Springer as the unlikely subject of a pop opera, Byrne and his collaborators have fashioned an erratic but sometimes exhilarating opus that gets you thinking and dancing, together. 4/5

This review will also appear at
Santigold and Roisin Murphy’s contributions are below.

Corin Redgrave (1939-2010)

I saw Corin Redgrave on stage on just three occasions - as the errant husband in Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour (2003), as Lear (2004), and, last year, as Wilde in De Profundis - and was impressed every time by the skill and command, the pathos and sly humour, with which he invested these roles. And also by that little something extra - call it star quality - that all these Redgraves and Richardsons seem to possess.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Pora umierac (Time To Die) (2007)

A kind of senior, housebound variant on Kelly Reichardt’s wondrous Wendy and Lucy (2008), the award-winning Polish film Pora umierac [2007] (translated, rather uninvitingly, as Time to Die) features two star performances: one from 90-year-old Polish actress Danuta Szaflarska, as Aniela, the other from one Tokaj as “Phila,” the dog who is Aniela’s constant companion. This pair reside in a large, run-down property flanked on one side by an upwardly mobile couple and on the other by a music school for children. The film (which, apart from a brief prologue sequence, takes place entirely in this one location) follows Aniela as she observes her neighbours and the kids at the school (the movie features some of the most productive investigative voyeurism since Rear Window), interacts with her portly son and grand-daughter and generally passes the time. With developers snooping around, Aniela is keen for her family to move into the house and take over the running of the property. But when it emerges that her son’s intentions are not entirely honourable, Aniela, after a brief surrender, decides to take some serious action.

It's the kind of plot that's familiar enough from TV movies, but the writer/director Dorota Kedzierzawska throws some very pleasing surprises into the mix here. For a start, Aniela isn’t constructed to fit current US movie paradigms of elderly protagonists. She’s not a loveable old dear, or a bawdy wisecracker, or a harridan, and she doesn’t (thank God) have early onset Alzheimer’s. Rather, Szaflarska’s wily and intelligent performance continually discovers subtle and complex shades in the character, creating a fully realised human being, full of believable quirks and contradictions. (The prologue sequence finds Aniela telling an insensitive doctor to “Kiss my ass,” but she later upbraids one of the music school kids for his use of bad language.)

Then there’s the distinctive, striking look of the movie, which is shot in black and white. It’s an extremely atmospheric work: Kedzierzawska and her DP/editor Artur Reinhart unostentatiously turn the locations into an extension of the protagonist’s consciousness, placng the viewer right inside her perceptions and memories. But, ultimately, it’s Aniela’s relationship with Phila that’s the centre of Pora umierac, and the dog’s expressions and reactions to his mistress’s manoeuvres and monologues are a joy to behold. This is a touching and profoundly intimate film that sustains the interest up to its graceful, well-judged end.

Friday 2 April 2010

Sacred Music (BBC4)

The second series of the excellent BBC4 Sacred Music documentary came to an end tonight, with Simon Russell Beale leaving any Sir Harcourt-isms behind to conduct fascinating interviews with three of the UK's leading composers: James MacMillan (above), John Rutter and John Taverner, each of whom offered a different perspective on the role of Christian music in 21st- century Britain. Russell Beale was, as ever, a genial, informed and enthusiastic presenter, and, even for those of us who are pretty ignorant about the classical music world, the series has proved a fascinating and inspiring exploration of music's ability to, in MacMillan's phrase, "get into the crevices of the soul."

"Life Is Sweet" by Natalie Merchant

A Merchant classic.