Thursday 29 July 2010

Reviews @ PopMatters: Hadestown and Wildwood

Over at PopMatters are my short reviews of Anais Mitchell's Hadestown and Chatham County Line's Wildwood, two of my favourite albums of the year so far. If you haven't heard them yet, go get 'em! The celestial "Alone in New York" from the Chatham chaps and ""Way Down Hadestown" (sung by Mitchell, Ben Knox Miller, Justin Vernon and Ani DiFranco) can be heard below.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

"The Sun's Comin' Over The Hill" by Karine Polwart

One more song I love. The wonderful lyrics are below.

Six rain-ridden summers and he still had an eye for me
He kissed me each evening and told me he'd die for me
And then he ran off the road, full of whisky and irony
He always meant what he said

So I took to whisky so I could recall
The taste of his mouth on my mouth, that's all
And I tried to same trick with a truck, but it stalled
The engine was better off dead

Oh how the nights are long
But life is longer still
Oh how the nights are long
But the sun's coming over the hill

The taste never left me, and I don't think it will
And it caused me to supplement whisky with pills
But there was something inside that I couldn't kill
Believe me, I really did try

Now there's some say you get what you deserve, but they're wrong
Sometimes you get what you're given, and then it's all gone
And you are lucky if you are sufficiently strong
To daily decide not to die


I can't say there's many things I wouldn't change
There are better days gone than those that remain
But I can find joy in the sound of the rain
You have to find joy where you can

(Chorus 2x)

The sun's coming over the hill

Tuesday 27 July 2010

"Sinnerman" by Nina Simone

One of a kind.

"Reunion Hill" by Richard Shindell

Timeless, haunting, beautiful: one of Richard Shindell's greatest songs.

Monday 26 July 2010

Oh, Bob!

Bob Dylan and Jessica Lange at the premiere of Masked and Anonymous (2003).

Kanal (1957)

Andrzej Wajda’s masterful Kanal (1957) chronicles one day during the last gasp of the Warsaw Uprising in September 1944, following a Polish resistance group’s doomed attempt to reach the centre of the city through the only viable route: its sewers. The second part of the War Trilogy that begins with A Generation (1954) and ends with Ashes and Diamonds (1958) it is, I think, the strongest, most sustained film of the three, and perhaps my very favourite of the Wajda films that I’ve seen. Kanal has the urgency and directness of documentary - indeed, archive footage plays under the opening credits - and yet in its depths of feeling, its sensitivity to atmosphere, the terror it evokes and its singular haunting beauty, the film goes way beyond what a documentary could give us. The scenes in the sewers in the second half achieve a primal, mythic intensity; the actors' faces, looming out of the shadows in this underworld, are unforgettable. Intense, harrowing and moving, this is one of the greatest war films ever made. Or maybe just one of the greatest films, period.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Glorious 39 (2009)

Has Stephen Poliakoff lost his mind in recent years? The acclaimed writer-director’s TV dramas since the mid-noughties - Friends and Crocodiles (2005), Gideon’s Daughter (2005), Joe’s Palace (2007) and Capturing Mary (2007) - have been disappointing at best and ludicrous at worst. But with Glorious 39 (2009), his first feature film since 1987’s Food of Love, Poliakoff plumbs new depths of ineptitude. The movie - about a young English actress called Anne (Romola Garai) who discovers, in the summer of 1939, evidence of a plot to appease the Nazis and to silence anyone who objects - starts intriguingly enough, but very quickly leaves any vestige of common sense behind. Poliakoff merrily rips off everything from Notorious (1946) to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in his forced attempts to get his heroine into hot water and generate some suspense; as a campy, Shining Through (1992)-esque romp, the film certainly has potential. But the director can’t resist giving viewers an unsubtle lecture on the dangers of appeasement throughout and a fatal air of self-importance constantly pervades the movie. The results are truly embarrassing: a dire mixture of incompetence and self-righteousness. Poliakoff’s writing is often appallingly clunky (“It’s not always a good place to go, the past” states a character early on - just before the flashbacks begin), and, as a director, his idea of making the piece cinematic is to incorporate a few ostentatious swooping camera movements and to shoot the actors from a distance of about twenty feet. Meanwhile, a stellar cast including Jeremy Northam, Julie Christie and Bill Nighy compete to see who can give the worst performance (Nighy wins out, by about a mile); Jenny Agutter is given nothing to do but garden. (Though given the quality of the dialogue, she can probably count herself lucky.) Garai is game, as always, but Poliakoff’s loopy plot developments soon scupper any sense of involvement or connection with her character. I think what I hated most about Glorious 39 was Poliakoff’s decision to make Anne an adopted (gypsy!) daughter to upper-class parents; it makes her discovery of the nefarious activities that the family are involved in so damned convenient. But really this is just one of many blunders in a risible, smug and profoundly irritating film.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Leaving (2009)

For viewers who found Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009) to be altogether too florid, Catherine Corsini’s Leaving (Partir) (2009) offers a more sober alternative. Corsini’s engaging drama tells of the affair between a bourgeois matriarch, Suzanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the rugged Spanish builder, Ivan (Sergi López), who’s been hired to work on the family home. When Suzanne finally makes the decision to leave her family to be with Ivan she doesn’t count on the reaction of her petulant husband Samuel (Ivan Attal) who dedicates himself to systematically putting as many obstacles in the way of the couple as possible.

Leaving has a superb first half. There’s a marvellous briskness to Corsini’s story-telling as she establishes Suzanne and Ivan’s growing attraction, not to mention a wonderful hook of an opening sequence that’s a little reminiscent of the beginning of François Ozon’s Sitcom (1998). (The movie’s bracing critique of marriage is rather Ozonion, too, though it's doubtless Lady Chatterley's Lover that's the principal intertext for this movie.) Without lingering over scenes, Corsini makes the viewer feel their emotional weight and she’s helped by a strong performance from Scott Thomas as a woman succumbing to passion only to be brought up short by the realisation that living out that passion will be a much rockier course than she could've imagined. What Corsini is interested in exploring, clearly,  is the fall-out from Suzanne’s leaving, and just how difficult a separation can be made for a woman when the man holds all the financial cards. This writer-director certainly doesn’t allow her characters any easy escape or reprieve from economic and other realities.

The second half of the movie is a little choppier: you hear the plot gears grinding at times, and some elements - particularly Suzanne’s relationship with her two children - begin to feel under-explored. And by the end it might be argued that Attal (who seems to be in practically every other French movie these days) is reduced to playing a representative of patriarchal oppression rather than a character. Even so, Leaving is a thoughtful film that deserves to be seen. It may lack the dizzying expressionist exhilarations of I Am Love but out of fairly familiar material Corsini has crafted a compelling, astute and often insightful drama here.

Avenue Q, Wyndhams Theatre, London

Avenue Q has been in London’s West End for five years now. Hearing the news that the musical was closing in October and reading a brilliant, affectionate review of the show by Ian over at There Ought to Be Clowns finally convinced me to go and see it. It’s not that I’d ever really decided not to see Avenue Q, exactly, just that the show’s Sesame-Street-on-heat premise sounded rather gimmicky. But what’s striking about Avenue Q is how thoroughly it transcends its central conceit. Ultimately, this musical doesn’t so much  satirise or subvert shows such as Sesame Street as embrace their tropes and expands them, giving both its puppet and its human protagonists adult characteristics and concerns including sex drives, relationship and employment woes, and marvellously foul mouths. The results are blissfully enjoyable; it’s not hard to see the reasons for this delightful show’s enduring popularity and appeal.

Musically, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s score stays mainly within the mode of upbeat kids’ show-esque cheerfulness but lyrically the duo smuggle plenty of barbed insights into the piece, along with genuine pathos, tenderness and a few very filthy gags. The songs offer pithy, often provocative musings on post-college uncertainty (“What Do You Do with a B.A in English?”), the pervasiveness of self-pity and prejudice (“It Sucks To Be Me,” “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”), coming out (“If You Were Gay”), modern technology (“The Internet is for Porn,”) and romantic disillusionment (“There’s a Fine, Fine Line”). The characterisation is strong and vivid throughout: the puppet characters in particular are hilarious and endearing, from the adorable pairing of Princeton and Kate Monster, to the saucy Southern Belle Lucy the Slut (introduced with the show-stopping number “Special”), the closeted homosexual Rod and the porn-addicted Trekkie Monster (who advises “Grab your dick and double-click…” ). They’re voiced and manipulated by an exuberant, watertight ensemble in this production, led by Cassidy Janson, Paul Spicer and Tom Parsons in the lead roles.

The overriding themes and concerns of Avenue Q make it very much a young person’s musical, one that brilliantly skewers early 20s/30s directionless-ness, but that might have also benefited from the inclusion of more protagonists of different age groups. The only character who’s much over thirty is Kate Monster’s horrible - though very funny - “crabby old bitch” employer Mrs. Thistletwat (!). I’m not sure just how much appeal the show would have for lovers of more spectacular musical theatre either, though the sight of Princeton and Kate Monster enthusiastically 69ing is certainly spectacular in its own very particular way. Witty, rude, warm-hearted, and thoroughly unique, Avenue Q is tremendous fun. London Theatreland will be a duller place without it.

Monday 19 July 2010

Father of my Children (Le pére de mes enfants) (2009)

Mia Hansen-Løve’s superb Father of my Children (Le pére de mes enfants) (2009) slots nicely into the contemporary pantheon of mature and insightful French family dramas that includes Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours (2008) and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008). There’s also a touch of Laurent Cantet (Human Resources [1999], Time Out [2001], The Class [2008]) in the movie’s timely exploration of a man's troubled relationship with his job. Hansen-Løve’s poignant, profound film draws its inspiration from the life of independent French film producer Humbert Balsan, fictionalised here as "Grégoire Canvel" and played with charm and presence by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing. Canvel seems, by traditional standards at least, to have it all, but the movie gradually reveals him to be a man in crisis, crippled mostly by the pressures of his work, pressures that lead him to a truly shocking action midway through the film.

Hansen-Løve’s approach here is discreet and tender yet ultimately very powerful; with its understated, measured and sensitive tone, the film is the anti-Precious (2009). Father of my Children very subtly pulls the viewer into intimacy with its characters and refuses to either demonise or deify any of the people that it shows us. The movie has a wonderful, unfussy naturalism and the performances that the director coaxes from the young actresses who play Canvel’s three children (including Alice de Lencquesaing - Louis-Do’s real-life daughter - who was also in Summer Hours) are simply beyond praise. In addition, the movie offers a sobering account of the practicalities of film financing and production, while some inspired and idiosyncratic song choices (John Leyton’s “Johnny, Remember Me”, Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera”) greatly enhance the tone and mood. “I wanted to make a film that gives you both the cruelty and the beauty of life, the happiness along with the sadness,” Hansen-Løve has said. That not inconsiderable feat is precisely what Father of my Children achieves.

Tori Amos @ Apollo Victoria, London (18/07/10)

(Photo by Justin Ng)

At London’s Apollo Victoria last night - with the model dragon from the set of the theatre’s resident musical Wicked watching over her - Tori Amos played a show in which every single moment was a highlight. This was Amos’s only English stop on a short-ish European summer tour and the waves of appreciation and love coming from the crowd were extraordinary. For all its intense moments, the last Amos concert I saw (in another beautiful London theatre, the Savoy, last May) was a warmer, more playful and more relaxed affair. Banter, gags and stories were in short supply last night; instead Amos went for full-throttle intensity from the opening number (“Bells for Her,” played on synth and piano, which she alternated between or played simultaneously throughout the night), tearing through eighteen songs, and never breaking the incredible dynamic flow created by the music, in all its thrilling, rich diversity. From first note to last, Amos reduced the fairly cavernous venue to the intimacy of a living room. Where her energy, spirit and sheer daring come from is still, after all these years, a wondrous mystery. But as her voice roared, cooed, crooned, growled, barked, shrieked and purred tracks from across the range of her repertoire, and as her piano ushered forth everything from the most delicate arpeggio to booming low chords, the audience tapped right into that incredible force.

The cumulative power of the show was overwhelming but I’ll just record a few of the indelible moments in this review: the galvanising thunderous bass notes of “Dragon” (of course!), “Marianne,” and “Yes, Anastasia”; the percussive energy of “Space Dog” carrying over into a foot-stomping “Beauty of Speed”; the relish with which Amos delivered the “gets so fucking cold” line in “Northern Lad”; the ferocity generated on “The Power of Orange Knickers” and "Virginia"; the measured elegance of “Rattlesnakes” and “Garlands”; and, most movingly perhaps, the shock of a searing “Me and a Gun” (hardly ever performed these days) instantly reducing the cheering audience to pin-drop silence. The wild three-song encore -“Desperado,” “Personal Jesus” and “Take to the Sky” - encapsulated Amos’s uncanny ability to blend elements of a classical recital and a camp meeting into a hardcore rock show; she is, I’d wager, just about the only artist who could segue from an Eagles cover to a Depeche Mode cover and have it make perfect dramatic and thematic sense. “You need your own personal Jesus … Reach out and touch faith!” Amos declaimed, finding in Martin Gore’s words a perfect complement to the thorny sexual and spiritual conundrums posed so eloquently in her own music. Indeed, she wrapped snatches of “Body and Soul” around "Personal Jesus" like an ardent lover, while riffing across Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” on a final, dynamic “Take to the Sky.” “Feel the earth move under your feet - she needs you back out on the street!” We complied, reluctantly enough, stunned, grateful and energised, and equipped through the healing power of this music to inhabit our lives with more courage, more grace.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

"Compassion" by Prince

I haven't been that smitten with Prince's new album 20Ten yet, but the opening track "Compassion" is pretty irresistible.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

London River (2009)

Emerging out into the London streets after a screening of London River (2009) the viewer feels deeply shaken and moved. Rachid Bouchareb’s film charts the coming together of two characters as they search for their missing children following the London bombings of July 7th 2005. Elizabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is a widow who works the land of her Guernsey small-holding; Ali Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) is an African immigrant who tends elm trees in France; both travel to London in order to discover the fate of their daughter and son, students in the city. As the pair cross paths in hospitals and on the city streets, prejudice and suspicion slowly give way to mutual sympathy and understanding - particularly when it becomes clear that their children were involved in a relationship.

In his previous film Indigénes (Days of Glory) (2006) Bouchareb challenged the omissions of WW2 history by focusing on the contribution of North African soldiers to the cause. Though the tone of London River is less overtly polemical, there’s still an element of revisionism to this latest work, which takes the viewer into the private places where a sensationalist, soundbite-dedicated media won’t venture. As a film about the very personal consequences of terrorist acts London River feels like a sensitive, thoughtfully-considered rejoinder to Chris Morris’s egregious comedy Four Lions (2009), while as a portrait of contemporary London it’s an antidote to Roger Michell's shamefully all-white Notting Hill (1999). The multicultural London that Elizabeth finds herself in appears to her at first to be a foreign land: initially, she can only believe that her daughter has been the victim of some nefarious Arab plot involving the entire community. Her awakening out of that perception comes, gradually, through her encounters with Ousmane.

Along the way there are a couple of awkward elements: the scenes between the protagonists and police-offers don’t ring entirely true, while Bouchareb occasionally resorts to spelling out in the dialogue emotions that the viewer has already perceived. But London River is a film of such rich and restorative humanity that its minor flaws and contrivances are easily overlooked. In any case, the stunning performances of its two lead actors ride over any rough spots. The remarkable Blethyn carries the first quarter of the film practically solo before her connection with the soulful, understated Kouyaté turns the movie into a beautiful duet. (Visibly frail here, the Mali actor’s death a few months ago gives a special poignancy to his superb performance, which was awarded the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.) The trajectory of Elisabeth and Ousmane's relationship is, of course, affirmative, even heart-warming, but London River does not opt, ultimately, for facile catharsis, recognising, in a subtle, brilliantly-judged coda, that the scars of an atrocity like 7/7 are not easily erased. A deeply sympathetic and profoundly moving film; highly recommended.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Eden Lake (2008)

Directed by James Watkins, the very nasty British thriller Eden Lake (2008) has a good solid premise: the contemporary fear - justified or not? - of “feral” teenagers. In the movie, of course, such fears are justified: the focus is on a couple (Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender) who are at first irritated and inconvenienced and then brutally terrorised by a group of teenagers while on holiday in the English countryside. Ruthlessly exploiting our dread of the kind of reprisals that simply confronting people about a noisy ghetto-blaster or an unruly dog might bring upon us, the film starts strongly. But a descent into hysteria and torture-porn gore sink it by the end.

White Material (2009)

“The best films are like dreams you’re never sure you really had,” mused Tilda Swinton’s character in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009). A few months ago I dreamt that I was watching Claire Denis’s latest film White Material (2009), despite never having seen a clip from it and having read only a few basic plot details. This seemed appropriate, in a way. Enigmatic, fragmentary and sometimes disorientating, Denis’s cinema often has the cryptic quality of a dream. (And, yes, watching the film last week, some of its images did seem strangely familiar …)

Structurally, as it turns out, White Material isn’t one of Denis’s most elusive or daring works. Following a brilliantly unsettling opening sequence, the film unfolds in relatively straightforward flashback as it recounts the refusal of a Frenchwoman, Maria Duval (Isabelle Huppert), to leave her African coffee plantation as a civil war between militia and rebels erupts around her. Returning to the continent after her debut film Chocolat (1988) and 1999's Beau Travail, Denis has produced in White Material a complex, haunting meditation on war and race - a humanly-scaled epic that extends and complements the concerns of her earlier work.

Denis’s films have been characterised by a creative approach to their intertexts - Melville’s Billy Budd in Beau Travail, Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) in 35 Shots of Rum (2009) - and White Material (which she co-wrote with the novelist Marie Ndiaye and shot in Cameroon) was originally inspired by Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass Is Singing (1950), which is set in pre-Apartheid South Africa. The film doesn’t specify its precise location or its time period, but the context here is clearly contemporary; while you can argue with the movie's construction of a thoroughly generalised “Africa,” Denis and Ndiaye certainly succeed in evoking a range of post-colonial war-zones. (As an oblique yet visceral portrait of conflict on this continent, the film makes Moira Buffini’s recently-opened play Welcome to Thebes, for all its undoubted strengths, seem gimmicky and cartoon-ish.) There are echoes, too, of Rithy Panh’s recent The Sea Wall (2008), which featured Huppert in a colonial context (1930s Indochina); some of the scenes between Maria and the workers on her plantation are reminiscent of sequences in that film.

But White Material is a much stronger, more assured film than The Sea Wall, and Huppert gives a much more committed and involving performance in it; one of her finest, I’d say. Her compelling presentation of Maria’s fierce resistance to change is complemented by memorable work from Christophe Lambert as her ex-husband and from Nicolas Duvachelle as their son who undergoes a startling and disturbing transformation from indolence to aggression. There’s also a well-judged cameo from Isaach de Bankolé as the rebel hero The Boxer, who hides out on Maria’s estate.

There are moments of trademark Denis opacity throughout White Material: ambiguous motivation, insufficiently defined relationships. These can intrigue and frustrate in equal measure, and sometimes result in fuzzy logic. Playing Maria’s ex-father-in-law, Michel Subor wanders through the film as some kind of decaying embodiment of colonialist corruption; his appearances (and final fate) seem misconceived and under-developed. At other times, though, White Material's refusal to guide the viewer’s interpretation of its characters is bracing and liberating. The director’s sensitivity to mood and atmosphere remains peerless, while her approach to violence here is discreet - and all the more shocking for it. This is another distinguished and distinctive work from Denis, an intense, gripping and disquieting film that gets under the skin.

Saturday 10 July 2010

One Foot In The Grave: "Threatening Weather" (2000)

The great Mr. Meldrew swelters, in one of the the most inventive, hilarious and, finally, moving of One Foot episodes. "Who was it that said 'Hell is other people?'" ...

Josh & Joan

Thursday 8 July 2010

Aerial (2005) by Kate Bush: 5 Years On

It's five years this year since Kate Bush released her long-awaited and well-received last album, Aerial (2005). I've been revisiting the record quite a bit recently (it's perfect listening for summertime) and wanted to share what I wrote about it for Wears the Trousers here.

Absence, it seems, really can make the heart grow fonder, even in the music press. If Kate Bush had continued making records at regular intervals over the last twelve years, it's likely that she would have been subjected to the same kind of mixed-to-harsh critical judgement that greeted her last two albums, The Sensual World (1989) and, in particular, The Red Shoes (1993). Reviewers of those records at the time accused Bush of operating below her capabilities, though both albums were in fact full of inventive and rewarding music. Now, however, it seems that all has been forgiven, and the belated release of Aerial has been treated by certain publications as something akin to the Second Coming. The excitement over the album's arrival indicates that the music press might be a little less fickle than we'd imagined and suggests that Bush is still held in a great deal of affection for her unique body of work.

For Bush’s fans, of course, every year of silence that has passed has made the prospect of a new opus ever more tantalising, yet more unlikely. All of these factors conspire to make Aerial unquestionably the year’s most anticipated release. But can any one record withstand such weight of expectation?

The answer, happily, is an emphatic "yes." Careering from the domestic to the epic, from the inside of a washing machine to the bottom of the sea, Aerial offers listeners all the wit, whimsy, weirdness and wonder (not to mention the impeccable musicianship) of Bush’s best work. In fact, just as Elvis in first single "King Of The Mountain" transcends the trappings of fame, wealth and possibly even death to take his place on some Parnassus of the mind, so Aerial surpasses the hype that has surrounded its release, sitting above it a bit loftily but willing to reveal its complex beauty to any listener prepared to give it the time and attention it deserves. This is a record to lose yourself in.

Actually, make that two records. For, in a nostalgic nod to Bush’s beloved vinyl era, Aerial is a double album, one which, twenty years on, duplicates the structure of 1985’s much revered Hounds Of Love, its two parts comprising a set of “independent” tracks and a song cycle. While the album preserves the stylistic verve and heterogeneity of Bush's earlier releases, there’s a new and greater spaciousness to the arrangements, leaving more room for the distinctive vocals. Though more restrained than ever (there's none of the way-out vocal experimentation featured on the wondrous The Dreaming [1982] here), Bush’s voice still retains its remarkable capacity for drama and metamorphosis.

Along with her singing, one of the greatest aspects of Kate Bush’s music lies in the wonderful idiosyncrasy of the subject matter of her songs, and on this score too Aerial doesn’t disappoint. On the first disc, "A Sea Of Honey," the bracing "King Of The Mountain" segues into"Pi," a eulogy for an obsessive enumerator and almost certainly the most seductive maths lesson in history with Bush cooing numbers and decimal points over a chugging organ motif. "Mrs. Bartolozzi" is an even more vivid character sketch; the song is not "about" a washing machine as such, but rather offers an oblique portrait of widowhood in which memories of domestic duty and the freedom of the sea may or may not assuage the protagonist’s current isolation. Meanings are similarly fluid on the brooding, cinematic "Joanni". With its arresting battle imagery, the song may nominally be "about" Joan of Arc, but Bush’s phrasing of the title also conjures links with another significant Joni. The funky "How To Be Invisible" is the record’s most playful moment, with its witty witch’s spell and wry comment on Bush’s own "obscurity."

Informed by the birth of her son and the death of her mother, respectively, two of the loveliest songs on "A Sea Of Honey" are also the most personal. "Bertie" is an unadulterated expression of maternal delight and pride as Bush repeats “you bring me so much joy” over Renaissance strings, the simplicity of the statement accentuating her emotional intensity. The stunning "A Coral Room" is a shivers-down-the-spine piano ballad that moves from an underwater city to Bush’s intimate memories of her mother and offers a meditation on the passage of time; the song contains some of her most striking lyrical imagery yet. Indeed, in keeping with the sparser approach to instrumentation, there is a new clarity and precision to her songwriting on this record. You see that shirt on the washing line, that spider climbing out of a jug, Joanni “in her armour.”

The second disc, "A Sky Of Honey," is a carefully constructed nine-track sequence that traces the passage of a summer’s day, from afternoon to sunset and night on to the following morning; birds chirp, Bush chortles, and Rolf Harris sings. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and yet pure and unmistakably Kate, as joyous as "The Ninth Wave" was bleak. Listening to it, you feel your senses being sharpened one by one. Bertie kicks things off, directing his parents’ attention to a “day…full of birds.” Indeed, birdsong is a central motif, whether sampled or mimicked. Light is another central theme, and as the cycle progresses patterns develop and images recur. “This is a song of colour,” Bush sings on the glorious "Sunset" as a piano refrain gives way to a delirious flamenco interlude, while "Prologue" finds her at her most lushly romantic, “talking Italian” over a Michael Kamen orchestral arrangement.

Just when you fear that it’s all becoming too New Age ambient, a bewitching melody or killer chorus swoops in to orientate you. The shifts through moods of reflection, sadness and exhilaration are quite stunning. Vaughan Williams and Delius (a previous Bush song subject) are presences, and the album blurs the boundaries between musical genres as assuredly as it blurs the distinctions between night and day, dream and reality, forging a space, as one song would have it, "Somewhere In Between." The record concludes with the ebullient, pulsing title track and Bush’s urgent desire to go “up on the roof,” an image of physical and spiritual transcendence to match the one that the album started with. By now “all of the birds are laughing”; so is Kate, and so are we.

In a recent interview, Bush stated her belief that “music should put you in a trance frenzy,” and, at its best, Aerial accomplishes precisely that. It's a mature, inventive and beguiling record that expands the boundaries of the album form. Yes, there are longeurs and minor indulgences, but it wouldn’t be a Bush record without them, and for her admirers, even the "flaws" have an air of reassurance. Twelve years may have been a long time to wait, but this kind of art is built to last. 80 minutes of music, and as soon as it's over you can’t wait to hear the whole thing again.

"Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man" (Parton & Wagoner)

Listening to the enjoyable Letter To Heaven, a reissue of Dolly Parton's 1971 album Golden Streets of Glory, I was particularly taken with this great duet with Porter Wagoner. Best line: "He preached hell so hot that you could feel the heat." Sacred mammaries, indeed. And where can I get me a suit like Porter's?

Wednesday 7 July 2010

PopMatters 100 Essential Male Performances

I just got through writing my contributions to the next PopMatters Essential Performances strand, to be published next month. Here are last year's selections for those who missed them the first time around:

Howards End (1910) by E.M. Forster

I discovered E.M. Forster's 1910 novel Howards End through the great Merchant-Ivory film version in 1993. I fell in love with the book and wrote an essay on it at University as soon as I got the chance. Re-reading it recently, 100 years after its publication, I still think that it's Forster's best work: the class collision that the novel stages has lost none of its poignancy and power. I'd forgotten much of the book's dotty humour, its eccentricity and its mysticism - though not, of course, its urgent imperative that we "connect... [and] live in fragments no longer." One of the greatest of English novels, and, I think, Merchant-Ivory's very best film. (If you haven't seen or read it, be warned: the trailer, below, gives a lot away.)

Monday 5 July 2010

Katalin Varga (2009)

Funded out of a 30,000 Euro inheritance, seventeen days in the shooting but over two years in post-production, the development of Peter Strickland's striking debut feature Katalin Varga (2009) is almost as intriguing a story as that contained in the movie. Set and filmed in Romania, the film focuses on the journey of the title character (Hilda Peter) and her young son when they are effectively banished from their village following a revelation about Katalin's past. As the pair travel through the Carpathians, staying with various strangers en route, the mystery of Katalin's past and the object of her quest slowly become apparent.

If Tarkovsky had directed I Spit On Your Grave (1978) after viewing The Night of the Hunter (1955) it's possible that the end results may have been something like Katalin Varga, which deconstructs the "rape-revenge" sub-genre through an art-cinema aesthetic. The film is sometimes self-conscious and its rhythm isn't enirely satisfying: the early scenes, in particular, pass by a bit too quickly. But it's a gripping and distinctive piece of work, with a good performance from Peter and plenty of atmosphere: the director makes the most of his locations, while an innovative approach to sound design also distinguishes the movie. Here's hoping that the talented Strickland doesn't have to undergo another bereavement in order to get his next film made.

"Movie Star" by Roisin Murphy

A truly outrageous video for this bit of great pop from Ms. Murphy.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Claire Bloom @ Masterclass

It was great to have the chance to hear Claire Bloom talk about her work at today's Masterclass at Theatre Royal Haymarket. Atypically, the event took the form of a conversation between Bloom and Geoffrey Colman, who stressed the difficulty of squeezing a discussion of Bloom's career into an hour and a half. Despite the occasional descent into gush, and no time for audience questions, Colman did a pretty good job. There were less direct insights into acting than are usual at these events; asked about the differences between stage and screen performance, Bloom cheekily quoted Diana Dors's comment that "in the theatre you overact; on film you underact!". But Bloom - looking radiant and about two decades younger than her 79 years - offered some fascinating reminsences on her early Shakespearean roles (she was described as "the Juliet of our age" by Kenneth Tynan), her star-making performance with Chaplin in Limelight, her collaborations with the likes of Olivier, Gielgud, Burton, Tony Richardson and Tennessee Williams, and the central role that acting has played in her life. The conversation was illustrated with some choice clips from Bloom's films (including Limelight (1952), Richard III (1955), Look Back in Anger (1958) and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965), inspiring Bloom to muse on changes in performance style over the years. An enjoyable afternoon.

Reasons To Be Cheerful: This Summer's Movies

I've hardly ventured into a cinema in the summer in the last few years: between the remakes, action films and kids movies released in the "silly season" there never seemed to be much worth seeing. This summer didn't seem to be shaping up very promisngly, either: walking through an Odeon recently, with posters for The Karate Kid, The A-Team, Nightmare on Elm Street and Predators displayed, you could be forgiven for thinking that you'd entered into some hideous 1980s time-warp.

But miraculously, out of nowhere it seems, there's one interesting-sounding movie opening after another, and I don't think I'll be spending much of this summer outside in the sun, after all. Claire Denis's White Material, Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, Rachid Bouchareb's London River, Tom DiCillo's doc on one of my favourite bands, When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors, Pascal Chaumeil's Heartbreaker, Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard, Lucas Belvaux's Rapt, Rachel Ward's Beautiful Kate, Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, Joann Sfar's Gainsbourg, and Ozon's Le Refuge (release date very sensibly brought forward from December to August) are among the films I'm excited to see. And, not to completely desert the mainstream, who can resist Toy Story 3, or even Knight and Day with its crack supporting cast (Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Jordi Mollà; forget Cruise and Cameron). Reasons to be cheerful, these.