15 August, 2014

Petra Haden -- Petra Goes To the Movies

Petra Haden is a prodigious singer, violinist and collaborator with the likes of The Decembrists, Yuka Honda and Bill Frisell (amongst others).  In her solo career, she is a major proponent of a capella vocalese.  If you found the Swingle Singers doing Bach over precious, you can banish that feeling forever by dipping into her 2005 Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, a full multi-tracked voicing of one of The Who's best albums (complete with silly advert send ups).  Her 2007 recording of Journey's Don't Stop Believing was ripped off wholesale by the tone deaf stunted thirty year old autotune dependents of Glee.  Here she aptly tackles a wide range of movie themes from Rebel Without A Cause to The Social Network.

I say aptly because as track 5 played out, Ennio Morricone's A Fistful of Dollars, with a beautifully pure delivery which brought tears to my eyes, I realized that this is exactly what we all try to do this as we watch our favorites with their iconic scores.  Unfortunately I didn't inherit my grandfather's perfect pitch, and I can only carry a tune in the same manner and distance as a New Jersey wise-guy carries a stiff from the trunk of a stolen limo to a shallow grave in the pine barrens.  Her treatment of the Psycho main theme is just the gravy, and her Superman theme is absolutely singalong (despite aforementioned vocal challenges), and reminds us that the John Williams music is really the best thing in that film which rides a stupid script (a hissy fit reversing the spin of the Earth would not turn back time, but likely tear the planet apart) kept afloat by Christopher Reeve's canny boyish charm.

She's not shy about tackling another great Herrman, his Taxi Driver score, or Nino Rota, the gallop from 8 1/2.  She stoops to adding instrumentation for three of the four songs, absolutely elevating the Stephen Bishop hit penned by Dave Grusin and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Tootsie's It Might Be You (with the great Bill Frisell on guitar); also Calling You from Baghdad CafĂ©, and the Bowie / Metheny This Is Not America from The Falcon and the Snowman.  She strips back to vocal for Goldfinger, which needs a few listens to overcome the hold Shirley Bassey has on our ears.

Like a great marathon movie matinee, this album certainly sends you out into the daylight, blinking and humming the tunes.

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22 July, 2014

Mike Leigh's Lord of the Rings

On set report, East Hobbiton
No film is shrouded in so much secrecy and anticipation as a new work from Mike Leigh.  After a much publicized slip of the tongue from a now disgraced Jim Broadbent, it was revealed that the quintessential English director would be rounding up one of the twentieth century's most popular and thoroughly English author's most beloved work.  Mike Leigh is preparing his film of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

"Some see Tolkien's achievement as a stunning work of imagination, but that is only the foreground of a complex subtext of middle class manners and working class aspirations." Leigh avers, although he is otherwise somewhat taciturn in discussing the direction of his film, preferring to focus on the process he uses with his actors.  "This has been one of the toughest films to develop, we spent nearly four months wandering around in circles in a mire in Norfolk, just to come up with twenty pages for the shooting script."

Timothy Spall, who spends nearly thirty minutes in make-up to achieve the look for Frodo, tells me that he wants people to know the real Frodo, "he's essentially repressed, he's wanted adventure, but been stuck, literally a square peg in a round hole by society.  When he has his chance, he's terrified of the responsibility."

"Galadriel, could easily just come off as one of those housewives who becomes a do-gooder out of boredom." says Imelda Staunton, "but she feels everyone else's plights deeply, leaving no time for herself.  She frets over Arwen (played in the film by Sally Hawkins) because of the relationship with Aragorn (David Thewlis), who is of a different character class."

Eddie Marsan (The Balrog) "the Balrog is mistaken for a terrible fire breathing monster, I see him as someone isolated, downtrodden, forgotten, left deep in the mines after Thatcher shut them.  He just wants someone to hear his pain.  He's just that bloke that complains too loudly in the pub and everyone ignores out of embarrassment."

Leigh discusses casting one of the key roles "I worked with Andy on Topsy-Turvy and Career Girls, and thought he just has such a rubbery face and physicality, he'd be able to do Gollum without us resorting to loads of make-up, or those special effects that no one understands and always looks a bit uncanny."  Serkis chimes in, "I wanted to give the truth of Gollum," but, sidestepping actorly pretention, he adds with a twinkle, "it don't half hurt my throat."

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24 March, 2014

Review: Under the Skin -- Green Men are From Mars, Redheads are From Venus

When did Scarlett Johansson become so sexy?  Her voice is enough to make Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with an operating system in Her.  She is the cat suited kick ass assassin Black Widow in Marvel's Avengers franchise.  In Under the Skin she crawls the streets of Glasgow seducing young men whom she literally drives to abstraction.

I'll tell you when.  It was in Match Point.  Yes, the dreadful crime without punishment thriller in which Woody Allen totally misreads the British class system as a stand in for his usually privileged New Yorkers (jarring example: they faun over a tennis player because he's read Dostoyevsky -- the exact opposite of the practically clichĂ© pre-Thatcher product of great British education proudly well read working class Trotskyite).  Jonathan Rhys Meyers believably puts his social climbing at risk for a tortured affair with Scarlett who, for the first time for me, was fully glamorous.  Up 'til then she'd been cute, kinda pretty, kinda gawky, usually deadpan funny.  Match Point shifted her gears up to full va va va voom.  This discovery was the one intriguing element to that film.  Unfortunately, my new found appreciation of Scarlett's charms was shared by a grubby old man a few rows in front of me, who grunted lustfully every time the camera cut to her (on each and every cut, like a perverted Thelma Schoonmaker).

Under the Skin is.... hold on... I'd like to say having seen the film, I'd been told things about it I wish I hadn't... things the film itself resolutely never explains.  So... dear reader... if you fancy a film that mixes themes of death, sex and alienation, lightly plotted, opaque, but filled with a series of arresting images, and with ostensible smatterings of weird/horror/science fiction genres... or, if you just need an opportunity to grunt at Scarlett looking tantalizing in a faux rabbit fur coat and tight jeans... then read no further and go see it with my recommendation but for the caveat that it is Arty with a capital A.  You have been warned.


The Things which didn't spoil, but I'd have soon not known going in:  Under the Skin is based on the Michel Faber novel in which an alien, in a Scarlett Johansson skinsuit prowls in a van using her wily femininity to lure young men back to a stylized demise featuring nudity and black goo.   Also, some scenes were filmed with "non-actors" by hidden cameras (I didn't waste time trying to spot which ones, and difference in the end is purely academic).

The film begins with a Kubrickian sequence of lights and shapes, the 2001 monolith/stargate/light tunnel given a utilitarian re-design by Steve Jobs (and indeed it is shortly followed by a transformation sequence so filled with white light and silhouettes I thought we were briefly in an early Ipod ad). This wink to the audience (complete with the full 2001 eye close-up) is the only indication of interstellar travel.  Mica Levi's nervy box of violins being rattled soundtrack stands in superbly for Ligetti (at time of publication this link will let you stream it http://pitchfork.com/advance/384-under-the-skin/).

The fate or purpose of her victims is never revealed, although some appear to be "harvested" by the sexual encounter.  So, more Liquid Sky meets Eyes Wide Shut than The Man Who Fell to Earth meets Species.  Although, to be perfectly fair, it is thoroughly infused with that sense of "other" that liberally peppers the works of Nic Roeg.  Scarlett for her part puts this across as beautifully as Bowie did, her detachment complete as expression falls from her face each time she stops interacting with humans.

The otherness is intentionally exacerbated by the thick Gorbals accent of most of her men (amongst other Glaswegian Scots thoroughly English obscuring accents available).  She doesn't try to blend in, and sports an accent between "posh-bird" and BBC Received Pronunciation.  Apart from one conversation, hinting at a difficult to process sympathy, the sparse dialogue may as well be in an alien language.  This is a film about images and sensations, not a pithy script.  It's edifying if you let it wash over you without looking for much in the way of engagement or story.

Regardless of what you may think of director Jonathan Glazer's previous output, Sexy Beast (what's not to love? Gandhi made terrifying gangster!) and Birth (boring, preposterous, ponderous, some points for atmosphere), he does have strong visions and for better or worse carries them to fruition.  This is better.

Under the Skin may leave you perplexed, intrigued, unsatisfied, suspended in black goo, or some combination of the above, but at the very least, it will leave you wanting more Scarlett Johansson, and more Jonathan Glazer.  That's not so bad, is it?

Sidebar:  In my particular screening a woman sitting two rows behind me, perhaps believing herself to be an alien, or a spiritual cousin to the dirty old man of Match Point, made inappropriate noises throughout.  Giggles and gasps, but most strikingly, a cry of pain at the moment when a fork penetrated a slice of cake.

EXTRA CREDIT [look back at this next sentence AFTER seeing the film] : Is the hilarity of the "she doesn't always walk on water" and "so that's what that hole is for" moments intentional?


15 December, 2013

RIP Peter O'Toole -- Dean Spanley

With the passing of the wonderful actor and iconic film star Peter O'Toole, rather than adding to the plethora of appreciations of his career, I'd like to draw attention to one of his best but largely unseen performances in the light period comedy Dean Spanley.

One of O'Toole's final major roles, and the last for which he garnered professional recognition (Best Supporting Actor, a win from New Zealand Film and TV Awards, and nominations from Irish Film and Television Awards and the London Critics Circle Film Awards). He is joined in a pitch perfect ensemble by Jeremy Northam, Sam Elliot, Bryan Brown and Judy Parfitt.

Northam plays a dutiful son to O'Toole's crabbed father still in unrelenting mourning for his other son fallen in the Boer Wars. Eliot plays the titular vicar with whom Northam, abetted by convivial fixer Brown, engages in increasingly bizarre conversations.

I want to recommend this highly and could wax lyrical at length, however, there's a conundrum, I want to tell you as little about the film as possible. Its underlying fantastic conceit is so slight and delicate that it might be shattered by description. As a piece of Edwardiana, it borders dangerously on twee. The result however is a gentle comedy which speaks to the relationship between man and dog, and father and son.

Whilst the acting is brilliant all around, O'Toole's performance seals the deal, and the scene in which a dawning realization transforms his character also transforms this curate's egg of a comedy into a genuinely moving statement.  Not a bad note in this one of O'Toole's swan songs.


19 March, 2012

Back-B-Log: Catch-Up: New Forest Film Festival 2011 Wrap Up

I've gotten around to finishing all articles relating to the 2011 New Forest Film Festival, a series of events at which I both volunteered and puntered and more.   I love the idea of having this Film Festival on my doorstep in the forest, and want to help it succeed.  After an excellent taster evening in 2010, the 2011 Festival was the first with a full program, and it is an encouraging building block for the future.

It was immediately before my three week trip to the States, and much of the time since has been devoted to preparing then caring for the litter of puppies who are now four months old and, except for the lovely Anya, have gone to wonderful and loving homes (Anya has stayed in our wonderful and loving home) -- which is why this job lot are so late for completion, the puppies ate my homework.

13/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: Project Nim: Responsibility and Mind
17/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: The Americanization of Mary
17/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: Shock Treatment
18/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: The Ghost That Never Returns
18/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: Vehicle of Horrors - The Sequel!!!
18/09/11 New Forest Film Festival 2011: My Playlists

If you've ended up here because you Googled the Festival, be warned, I do go on a bit.  Of course, whether you care for my self referential musings is your problem.  Feel free to dip in and out of them as you wish.

I also was short listed (1 of 2) for this years New Forest Film Festival Critic of the Year (over 18). Here's my review as entered for The Brothers Bloom, as well as two other essays I considered submitting, a clip of the awards presentation, and my Critic's Cut of my review (including the bits that were over the submission's 500 word limit).

11/09/11 Review: The Brothers Bloom: The Sum of Its Parts
12/09/11 Fantasy Reviews: Mamma Mia! as directed by Michael Haneke
12/09/11 The Last Picture Show as Reviewed By A Critic With an Axe To Grind Over This Gimmick of Black and White
17/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: And the Winner...
19/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: The Brothers Bloom Review = The Critic's Cut

Here's a couple of tangentially related pieces, the strangely negative effect of Richard O'Brien on my existence, and why you shouldn't disabuse people of their love for a film that you patently know is wrong (which casually mentions my role in the winning team at the NFFF Film Quiz)

13/11/11 My Life in the Movies: Richard O'Brien , Unintentionally My Nemesis
13/11/11 My Life in the Movies: There Are Some Arguments You Don't Want to Win

As I perversely prefer them to be posted to the dates when either I started writing them, or more relevantly  chose to post them, this means they don't show up as the latest thing  in the arbitrarily chronological feed of this blog, hence this catch up round up.  If any of you gluttons for punishment particularly enjoy the above, you may be interested in my former festival experience, when, as a young IT consultant, I crashed the Cannes Film Festival, starting with Back-B-log 1990: Cannes - Dread And Victory (I.a.To Cannes (and hell)).

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