Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Album review: BARRY ADAMSON - I Will Set You Free

Highlights: Get Your Mind Right, Turnaround, Destination, The Sun And The Sea, Stand In

When you hear the deep, distorted sound of bass at the beginning of this album’s opening song, “Get Your Mind Right”, you just know this is going to be a brilliant album. Lusty, intense whisper, and then the funky bass groove and soulful, overpowering swagger of Barry Adamson’s vocals. It sets the tone, and gives you a good idea of what you are going to get: intense, intoxicating pop record that evokes people like Scott Walker, Nick Cave, Kevin Rowlands. Good company.

Really: with such a powerful, effortless collection of songs, you might wonder why Barry Adamson (formerly of bands like Magazine and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds) spent a good half of his solo career doing soundtracks. Good soundtracks, no argument there, but when you hear something as mindblowing as the chorus of “Destination”, you just wonder why he can’t give us more of this. Basically, I Will Set You Free is a melting-pot of styles: in this form or another we have it all, from sunshine pop (“The Power Of Suggestion”) to funked up jazz (“Black Holes In My Brain”) to soulful power pop (“The Sun And The See”) to gently crooned orchestrated balladry (“If You Love Her” is so Scott 4 it hurts – but hurts beautifully) to punkish distortion (“Destination”) to some Leonard Cohen-esque moments (the quieter sections of “The Trigger City Blues”) to elements of dub. And the instrumentation is terrific. Bass is loud and prominent, but the album also features an inventive, effective use of brass, piano, organ, synths and just about everything you can think of. Overstuffed but never overcluttered.   

If this is not a modern day singer-songwriter classic (which is somewhat ironic – considering how retro-ish it all sounds), I don’t know what is. This is a very high eight. Maybe a nine. Whatever. Throbbing, intoxicating stuff.


Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Book review: THE HOUSE OF SILK (2011) by Anthony Horowitz

This may not be the nicest way to start a review of a good book, but I’ll go ahead anyway. There’s a short story by Roald Dahl called “The Great Automatic Grammatizator”. It’s a brilliant story, one of Dahl’s best ever. A witty phantasmagorical tale of time when writers will be able to just put several words (or a theme) into a machine, and the machine will churn out a classic that everyone will want to read. The House of Silk is a masterful novel by an author who knows how to make his work appealing, but it’s also a book that is too well aware of public expectations and just what it should contain. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that if you put words like “Sherlock Holmes”, “Arthur Conan Doyle”, “Doctor Watson”, etc. into a computer, it will produce a book like this (certainly not – not this good), but the sense of inescapable literary confinement never really left me in the course of reading The House of Silk.

Everybody knows the story. The Arthur Conan Doyle estate commissioned English writer Anthony Horowitz (best known for his children’s novels as well as scripts for British detective series like Poirot and Midsomer Murders) to come up with a new book about Sherlock Holmes. Considering the enormous worldwide popularity of Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories, you just knew this would be a remarkable commercial success. And considering that Horowitz is an indisputable master of a detective thrill, you just knew this would be an artistic triumph too.

So the superior quality of The House of Silk doesn’t at all come as a surprise. Of course, all is in place: from Inspector Lestrade to Holmes’ trademark Stradivarius to the Baker Street Irregulars to heart-warming references to all those unforgettable cases of the past. It is all there, in all its stately, solemn, very British charm. With maybe a touch of edgy Postmodern tickles and delights thrown in for the modern reader and for the sake of Horowitz’ personality.

The book starts with Watson doing the explaining. The idea is that the case he is about to reveal was way too shocking and sensational to have been published in its day. So now, as he is an old man and Sherlock Holmes is gone and the story can no longer harm or affect anyone, he is ready to tell the world about what was probably the most sinister and (you might as well say it) incredible case in the whole of Holmes’ incredible career. How’s that for a setup?

The House of Silk features an intricate, criminally well-crafted plot that on the way to its brilliant (and, handily, unexpected) solution goes through a series of cleverly, meticulously arranged subplots and complications. In terms of the latter, I’d like to warn you that after this novel Arthur Conan Doyle’s ways may seem slightly too safe, if not predictable. And of course: it all starts with an art dealer named Edmund Carstairs coming to 221B, Baker Street and telling a peculiar tale of some lost paintings and a frightful Irish gang he had ‘encountered’ during his stay in America. Carstairs believes that the sole surviving member of this gang, called The Flat Cap Gang (something silly about their hats), had come from America to London for the purpose of murdering him. I won’t say much else, since this is the kind of case where almost every word might be a wicked spoiler, but it has to be mentioned that soon enough this Flat Cap case is dropped (or so it would seem), and we are plunged into the central plotline, i.e. the House of Silk. There’s not much we know about the House of Silk. From vague hints and clues scantily scattered here and there we understand that this place is as enigmatic as it is dreadful and disgusting. Place of utter, unattainable secrecy and even conspiracy, and it gets both Watson and (particularly) Holmes into all kinds of trouble. Saying this stuff is ‘engaging’ would of course be severely understating it.    

Horowitz the writer basically dissolves in the book’s style and prose, both as unmistakably stately and sedate as the greatest seasoned wine. But yes, I wildly enjoyed The House of Silk. In fact, there was no way not too. I do of course stand by my criticism stated in the initial paragraph, but that’s the snotty intellect mocking the gullible heart. Nothing new. 

Of course, the question you are bound to ask yourself numerous times in the process of reading The House of Silk is could this really have been written by Arthur Conan Doyle? Well, you will probably think, it’s got a slightly higher blood & murder percentage, and the truth is somewhat too shocking, but… Yes, indeed, he could have. And you are okay with that. “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” or not – you are grateful for the way The House of Silk is. For it is exactly the way you wanted it. Perhaps even a little better – but I guess you can live with that.


Sunday, 26 February 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #47: Tall Dwarfs - "Nothing's Going To Happen"

Tall Dwarfs are a seminal New Zealand band. While definitely on the odd, edgy, often quite maddening side, they nonetheless retain the remarkable pop sensibilities of the greatest Kiwi bands (they were also signed by the legendary Flying Nun label). Most of Tall Dwarfs' albums tend to be a bit patchy (with Fork Songs being the strongest), but they recorded a number of truly fabulous EP's. Based on the unforgettable acoustic rhythm, "Nothing's Going To Happen" is the highlight of their very release, Three Songs EP (1981). I never thought something this bizarre could be this catchy. The Flying Nun promo video is delightfully hallucinatory, and it matches the song brilliantly.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Album review: SHARON VAN ETTEN - Tramp

Highlights: Give Out, Serpents, Magic Chords

Sharon Van Etten is an American singer-songwriter whose latest record (her fourth so far) is a kind of bruised, emotional, intense affair you might associate with the likes of PJ Harvey. Tramp is quality indie-folk propelled by confident instrumentation and some truly expressive (not least vocally) tunes.

Modern indie-folk is many things: boring, bearded, bizarre. But one thing’s for certain: way too often it is devoid of any kind of personality. Tramp, thankfully, suffers from no such problems. Being essentially a singer-songwriter record, it is infused with the artist’s personality. Does Sharon Van Etten have the kind of charisma that could sustain your interest over the course of these flawed, but compelling 46 minutes? I dare say she does. Tramp is made up of rockier and softer, you could even say bluisier moments. Of the two Tramp certainly favours the latter, but it’s the intense, propulsive energy rush of “Serpents” that seems most impressive. The rest of the album is more slow-burning and atmospheric, but still good enough: there’s the waltzy melancholia of “Leonard”, the acoustic drive of “Give Out”, the moody, organ-driven charm of “Magic Chords”... However, the downside is that it might also get somewhat monotonous with tracks like “In Line” or “I’m Wrong”; occasionally too lethargic, occasionally pretty watered-down.

But like I say, it’s Sharon’s personality that is at the core of all this. The lyrics and vocal melodies sound so emotionally charged, you could never mistake any of it for the contemporary breed of folk singers and their bland and brittle pleasures. Also, I would just like to say that “Serpents” is better than anything off Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. As for the rating, Tramp is a high seven.


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Album review: TINDERSTICKS - The Something Rain

Highlights: Show Me Everything, This Fire Of Autumn, A Night To Still, Medicine

It is both daring and fascinating – to open your album with a spoken word piece. Particularly a long one, particularly one so disturbing and bizarre as “Chocolate”, a tale of a man who suddenly realises (when it’s already too late) that the one he is having sex with is not actually a woman but a transvestite. It’s an engaging enough story, and it’s got a tasteful nocturnal groove swirling in the background. Well, imagine White Light/White Heat starting with “The Gift”… It’s not the most accurate comparison, but I hope you get the idea.

The Something Rain is all about grooves. Classic Tindersticks grooves: slow, dismal, beautiful. But behind all that there’s incredible intensity in the form of Stuart Staples’ frail, miserable croon and understated yet extremely effective melodies. The thing is very smartly, intricately arranged (it actually never sounds overproduced), and features an impressive variety of instruments, from saxes to violins to pianos to pretty diverse percussion.

In terms of actual songs, The Something Rain is a consistent piece. Perhaps there’s nothing of “Travelling Light” or “City Sickness” quality (the hooks are not that strong), but the second the moody, understated sounds of “A Night To Still” roll in, gently and almost inconspicuously, you know you’re in Tindersticks Heaven. A rather miserable place, frankly, but still worth a visit or two. Particularly considering how it keeps unfurling its charms with further listens. The biggest highlight is probably the grim, gorgeous, violin-heavy “Medicine”. I’d admit that the album loses me towards the end (for all its prettiness, “Come Inside” seems overlong and uneventful), but overall it stands well against the band’s classic releases.

If you are a newcomer, I don’t think this could make you a fan (I would suggest starting with the brilliant compilation Working For The Man), but if you are already one – well, this is basically all you could ask for at this stage.  


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

2011 films: #1


Directed by Ashgar Farhadi

The film’s original title is The Separation of Nader from Simin. And while I can see the point of this self-consciously humble variant (for in the end, this really is a simple enough tale of one separation), I would insist that the indefinite article makes a lot more sense. It’s a separation. In Iran or elsewhere – it’s the same thing. It’s universal. And the point screenwriter and director Ashgar Farhadi makes – it is all about responsibility.

There are two things that should perhaps slightly alert you prior to watching this film. One, A Separation won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival. Two, A Separation is, yes, an Iranian film. Put those two together and you might expect a murky, desperate tale of Iranians striving for freedom and democracy under the current bloody regime. The truth is, it’s nothing of the kind. Sure, politics does lurk in the background of this film, but its presence is inconspicuous and secondary. A story like this could happen anywhere.

The story deals with one Iranian family on the verge of separation. It’s a well-off, middle-class sort of family, but Simin wants to leave Iran, and Nader (whose father suffers from Alzheimer’s disease) wants to stay. There’s also their eleven-year old daughter, Termeh. All she wishes is of course for her parents to be together. In a perverted, but completely natural way, that’s what both Simin and Nader want too. But trapped by conventions and principles – they have to separate, and Simin moves away to live with her parents. Feeling it’s the only way to make sure that everything might get back to normal some day, Termeh stays with her father.

But the separation has already started giving crack and creaks to the whole thing, and when Nader hires Razieh, a pregnant, religious woman from one of Tehran’s poor suburbs to look after his father, disaster ensues. Not just one disaster – a whole series of calamitous consequences. A nightmare with no end – bringing out the worst in the world and people Termeh loves. She is learning about just how this world functions, and it gets increasingly frustrating.

Mentally, emotionally, this is devastating stuff. Farhadi raises numerous issues, from religion to law to class divisions, but as the film comes to its close, and when it looks like everything is more or less resolved, we return to where we started. The divorce, and the question of responsibility that seems so unbearable to Termeh’s parents. Honestly, the film’s final scenes have got to be seen to be believed. Termeh’s face, bruised with premature experience and strange, inexplicable and almost revengeful half-smile; her subdued parents quietly, guiltily leaving the court room (as if it were a school classroom) and waiting in the hallway. It’s one of the most tense and powerful episodes I’ve ever seen.

So when it came to choosing my favourite film of last year, well, I have to say that this was easy. A Separation was so clearly 2011’s best, in every possible way, that I didn’t have to think twice. It’s bursting with life, it’s got unforgettable acting, it features a plot that entangles you like the best thriller... Quite simply, A Separation has all I need from cinema. And more.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

2011 films: #2


Directed by Terrence Malick

It took me some time to make peace with myself and finally get down to watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Having seen the trailer and having read some comments and reviews, I knew this was not something I would appreciate – let alone enjoy. When someone said ‘ambitious’, I heard ‘pretentious’. When someone said ‘overwhelming’, I heard ‘overblown’. When someone said ‘bold’, I thought what was meant was ‘boring’. And now, having spent almost two and a half hours in the company of this film, I have to say that The Tree of Life is indeed all those things: ambitious, pretentious, bold, boring… But an artistic statement so compelling and so powerful, you find yourself most pleasantly crumbled.

There are certain films you admire and love not for the story, not for the plot, but for the general feeling and overall impression. Cronenberg’s adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was hallucinatory and all over the place – but is there a better film about writing? Equally, you might get badly lost amid the meditative, slowly paced textures of The Tree of Life – but I just can’t imagine a more beautiful and credible depiction of the process of growing up.  

There’s not much plot to speak of here. We start with the 60’s, with an American family receiving  a telegram notifying them of the death of their son. After the initial scenes of grief and despair the film dissolves into a series of flashbacks (mostly), foreshadowings (particularly abstract, with Sean Penn) and breathtaking images of the creation of the Universe. Speaking of the latter, it’s easy to mock and dismiss all those microbes, dinosaurs and volcanoes, but the effect is hypnotic.

The largest portions of the film are devoted to the aforementioned American family and, most notably, the formative years of three sons. You see the world, engrossing and hostile, seething around Jack, the eldest boy, and his two brothers. This world is inhabited by his authoritative, religious father (Brad Pitt), his calm, caring mother (Jessica Chastain) and lots of those strange men you see on the street, desolate houses with God knows what inside, beautiful girls you find vaguely appealing, etc. It’s fascinating to recognize and relive it all one more time.

The film features brilliant cinematography and great, effective choice of classical music. The acting is good, too, no question there, but The Tree of Life is first and foremost a director’s film. And a complete triumph at that. Artistic statements of this scope are a rarity these days, so for all its pretentiousness and slightly excessive length, this experience should be cherished. Mainly because The Tree of Life has something so few of 2011’s films have: catharsis

2011 films: #3


Directed by George Clooney

I will start this by saying that I absolutely loved Clooney’s previous political film, Good Night, and Good Luck. It was stylish, classy looking stuff – delightfully retro-ish, dim-lit, smoke-filled. So I had high hopes here. Thankfully, it only took me one scene and one Ryan Gosling close-up to know that The Ides of March would not be a letdown. Smart and cynical, this film tells you all there is to tell about politics and just how it works.

Yes, ‘cynical’ might be the very word. In this slick tale of one presidential campaign any illusions you might have had, any dreams and hopes Obama might have offered you – everything gets trampled and spat upon. And perhaps rightfully so. Stephen Meyers (for me, Ryan Gosling is sensational in this performance) is a Campaign Manager of a Democratic presidential candidate, Mike Morris (Clooney at his sly and sinister best). The story – the film’s actually an adaptation of Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North – starts with hope, gets really ugly in the middle, and ends with hope. But you are a little wiser at the end, you know the price of that hope. As of course does Stephen, who has to witness all the crookedness and opportunism and make the kind of moral choice he could live with.    

The acting is exemplary. Besides Clooney and Gosling there’s also the ever brilliant and reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman. There’s also the excellent Marisa Tomei – a New York Times reporter adding to the screws put on Stephen when a source leaks that he met Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the Campaign Manager for another candidate, Ted Pullman.

It’s hard for me to understand why the film was so modestly praised. I, for one, hadn’t enjoyed a political film this much since maybe Frost/Nixon. What you see underneath all the promises and cheerful speeches is the kind of world that is both intricate and crude. People just getting by – regardless of a young pregnant girl or any ideals they might be standing by. It’s frustrating, it’s disconcerting, but you get so carried away with the action and the pace of the film that you almost wish Stephen to do what he does in the end. You hate what you see in The Ides of March, but equally you feel mesmerized, transfixed, beguiled.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

2011 films: #4


Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

Well, The Artist was of course self-consciously different. Deliberately, purposefully different. It’s not that modern cinema doesn’t offer much opportunity for creativity, it’s just that this very modern curse of ‘satiety’ keeps getting the best of us, and we again and again evoke the past for a breath of fresh, half-forgotten air. 

The Artist is a silent movie. It’s a 20’s stylization. It’s black and white. Also, it’s really, really good.  

Set in Hollywood between 1927 and 1932, The Artist is stylish, exquisitely crafted entertainment. At its heart is a silent film star George Valentin (played so charmingly and convincingly by Jean Dujardin) who faces moral and professional crisis with the appearance of ‘talkies’ and cinema’s new stars (notably a beautiful young actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo)). After years of awe-inspiring success he gradually falls into deep and humiliating oblivion. Which, of course, is exactly the moment that is designed to test the true Artist. It's a noble cause, and it's impeccably realised on screen. Through beautiful silence, through awkward gestures, through amusing and touching facial expressions. 

The film has a very playful mood, and while being carried away with its spotless style (which is natural in this case), it also works on an emotional level. It’s funny and it’s heartbreaking. But most importantly – there’s titillating fragrance of true art in every scene of the film. 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

2011 films: #5


Directed by Woody Allen

I bet that even Allen’s biggest admirers (and those include me) couldn’t expect this one coming. A real return to form, and his greatest, sharpest film in quite some time. Even a Best Picture nomination. I don’t believe Allen has ever been responsible for anything truly disastrous, but as of late and up to Midnight In Paris that ‘film a year’ aesthetic coupled with lack of artistic spark hadn’t produced anything of note. In fact, I would go as far as to say that his last (near-)classic was the often overlooked Sweet And Lowdown from 1999.

The trick is that Midnight In Paris is such an unmistakable Woody Allen-esque experience. If you consider 2007’s Cassandra’s Dream, you will see that that film could have been made by anyone. Midnight In Paris, though, and it becomes obvious starting with the very first scenes, has that irresistible touch of wittiness and whimsy only Allen can provide. Take the main character, Gil Pander, a successful Hollywood screenwriter aspiring to write his first novel, who comes to Paris with his fiancée. Gil is a man out of time. Hopeless, slightly awkward romantic, and also so Woody Allen that Owen Wilson is almost reduced to copying Allen from Manhattan, from Annie Hall, from Husbands & Wives… The manners, the words – all so very recognizable.

Gil adores Paris. Sunny Paris, Paris in the rain – he loves it all. He even plans to settle here – even though his fiancée is determined to live in Malibu and shares none of Gil’s feelings. The plot’s main hook is that walking through midnight Paris Gil gets miraculously transported to the Paris of the 20’s. And that includes meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Luis Buñuel, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway – all Gil’s absolute heroes. He feels at home there, and even finds a woman he really, genuinely loves. There’s no question that quite often it all turns into crude, occasionally wince-inducing farce (check out Hemingway’s talk and demeanour). Hilarious – but quite charming, too. Allen or not, Owen Wilson looks very natural in the role, as does Michael Sheen as an impeccable and quite annoying pseudo-intellectual Gil meets in real, contemporary Paris.       

Midnight In Paris reminded me of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (also a great film by Sam Mendes). A young couple sees the cheapness of that old and weary American Dream and is having these thoughts of moving to the exciting, unfading romance of Paris… It doesn’t really work out in Yates’ book, but in Allen’s film – well, it’s a romantic comedy and it’s a completely different story. One that Paris so clearly deserves.

Watching Midnight In Paris is a singular experience. It’s the feeling of watching classic Allen – and you can’t beat that.  

2011 films: #6


Directed by J.C. Chandor

They tell you right: Margin Call could indeed be the best Wall Street movie ever made. It’s tough, it’s clever, it moves along in a totally engaging, delightfully business-like way (how else?), and it’s just such a brilliant reflection of our crisis-fuelled time – full of cynicism, dubious choices and twisted morality.

I won’t get into too much detail here; let’s just say that the story takes place at an investment bank facing the toughest crisis in its history. It’s of course a clear-cut allegory that needs no explanation. Desperate situation, a group of desperate people desperately trying to solve it – in fact, so much like Glengarry Glen Ross. Margin Call is just as big on close-ups, closed spaces and real, fully realised, fully developed characters. As for the latter, it might be the film’s main strength: there’s life, there’s emotional substance beating inside these people you don’t know and (quite possibly) don’t even like. And with the script being so well-written, all the actors excel. The cast includes Kevin Spacey (another Glengarry reference), Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany – all giving their absolute best as men under pressure trying to make the right moral choices. Not just right - right for them.

I know I’ve criticized a number of these year’s endings – and in good films, too. Margin Call, though, is just perfect in that respect. What you see is Spacey’s character burying his dead dog, slowly, methodically, in the dark – the scene is as effective and evocative as you can get. 

But in the end – it’s all about people you can feel and, hell, feel for.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

2011 films: #7


Directed by Bennett Miller

Every year produces a sports film that happens to be so good, so gripping and so powerful you just completely disregard all the clichés that go with the experience. In 2009 it was The Damned United, in 2010 it was The Fighter, and in 2011 it’s unquestionably Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, a beautiful, addictive ode to baseball – whatever you might think of the sport.

Moneyball is a real-life story telling of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and the team he manages, Oakland Athletics. The club is going through hard financial times, and coupled with the fact that its biggest names are leaving for Oakland’s more moneyed rivals – the situation looks desperate. However, Beane is full of hope. Possessing incredible vigour and unwavering dedication, belief in the club and its bright future, he keeps looking for that touch of spark, creativity that could blow his club into the stratosphere. This spark comes with the arrival of his new assistant, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Peter is a young economics Yale graduate, and he has developed a peculiar theory of how to buy the best players without spending as much as the league’s richest clubs. It’s good stuff, and the team’s initial frustration and seemingly endless run of bad results make it all the more intriguing and electrifying.

The films is smart, occasionally funny, well-acted, and has a brilliant sting where a dull happy ending would normally be. Speaking of acting, there’s no question that Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Oakland’s coach) are both effective in their roles. But it’s the performance of Jonah Hill (who was phenomenal in last year’s Cyrus) – who gives it all a more amusing, even slightly comic edge – that hits me hardest.   

The clichés? Yes, we have them, but a sports movie is quite possibly the only genre where a cliché is exactly what makes it all so appealing and so exciting. You might even forgive them that saccharine pop song theme which reappears two or three times throughout the film. If anything, it’s quite catchy.

Monday, 13 February 2012

2011 films: #8


Directed by Thomas McCarthy

This indie gem of a movie tells the story of a small American town in the state of New Jersey. It’s the kind of place well suited to beautiful losers. Troubled by ex-wives, low pay and God knows what else, they keep making their clumsy ways through the world, but, crucially, all seem to lack something (or someone) to make these lives meaningful enough. And this something comes in the form of a teenager named Kyle. Who, seemingly, can fix it all.

The central character (and, of course, the biggest loser of them all) is a lawyer named Mike Flaherty (Mike Giamatti). Mike’s life seems to have gone all wrong – and left him with just one choice: take advantage of one of his senile clients on the verge of dementia. Just for the money, of course. It’s at this moment that Kyle makes his surprising appearance. Haunted by his own problems (his mother is a drug addict), Kyle intends to live with his grandfather (Mike’s aforementioned client). But the main point is that Kyle happens to be a brilliant former wrestler who is capable of making Mike’s wrestling team of New Providence High School do something they have never done before. Which is: win. It all unravels like some fairy tale until the moment Kyle’s mother arrives. Then it gets complicated, and Mike’s shameful scheme breaks loose – inevitably.   

The plot is engaging enough, but it’s perhaps the superb acting that makes it all so good. While Giamatti’s performance is worthy of any prize, and Amy Ryan is reliably great as his wife, due kudos have to go to a charming and totally convincing Alex Shaffer – particularly since the role of Kyle happens to be his acting debut.

Win Win may well be 2011’s Little Miss Sunshine. It’s great, smart entertainment: it’s got laughs and it’s got heart. In fact, the only issue I have here is that the ending is a little too good. But then – that’s what “win win” actually means: the situation in which every side benefits (and that includes you). The edge lies in that essentially these are all losers. Who (sometimes) only need a second chance.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

2011 films: #9


Directed by Jeff Nichols

But Michael Shannon is just so good at playing these restless, disturbed characters. He is brilliant as Protestant policeman Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, he was wicked and sensational in 2008’s Revolutionary Road, and he absolutely nails it here as a possessed husband and father anticipating an apocalyptic storm coming up. Take Shelter would have been a worthy film even without him, but Shannon certainly takes it to a whole new level.

There’s not much going on in Take Shelter. Jeff Nichols (it’s his third feature) favours long, depressing, atmospheric shots that drag you in, bit by bit. Curtis LaForche is having these horrifying dreams: his own dog attacks him, his little daughter gets abducted, some people try to break into his house. Also, there are all these visions: of an upcoming storm of such power that he absolutely has to do something to protect his family; his wife (Jessica Chastain – every bit as brilliant as she is in The Tree Of Life) and his little deaf daughter. He starts building a shelter – in the process becoming even more haunted by his dreams and visions. Problems start piling on top of each: family tension; loss of best friend, money, job; worsening mental condition. It all keeps building up to a point when the suspense becomes almost unbearable, and a real storm is the only thing you actually wish – for Curtis and for his family.

The 2-hour film may seem too slow-burning and overlong, but the goods Nichols and Shannon deliver are worthy of any slight crudeness in the plot. The shelter scenes are definitely among the most dramatic and intensely impressive pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen the whole year. 

Take Shelter is a convincing and totally believable tale of paranoia that can come and get any of us. We are not insured, and the powerful final scene, with Curtis’ wife looking at her hand (the way her husband had done early in the film), is case in point. It’s not paranoia. It’s insecure, paranoid times.

2011 films: #10


Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Even if Drive was a poor movie, it’d still be worth seeing – if only for Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling. The latter managed two classic performances in 2011 (the other is further up the list), and the former could well be the best young female actress in business today. Still, however great the film’s acting may be, Drive offers a lot more than that.

Drive is all about style. It starts in a very slick, very cool sort way – with a getaway driver helping two robbers leave the crime scene. And then it comes: the cheap, addictive beats of an electronic pop song accompanied by some gaudy, truly awful fonts. Somehow, though, it doesn’t feel repugnant – it feels intriguing. It gives you a perfect idea of what you’re going to get: cheap, sometimes overtly tasteless ways wrapped in style. You can’t look away. 

Driver (we never get to know his name) is a stunt performer during the day and a getaway driver by night. He lives next door to a young woman called Irene, and you constantly sense a certain deep mutual affection between the two. Except that soon Irene’s husband returns from jail and is immediately bullied by a criminal gang from his past. Driver helps – to ensure the safety and happiness of Irene and her small son. Contrasts of this kind underpin the film. Scenes of most disturbing, gory (you could even say tasteless) violence are alternated with the warm, placid episodes involving Driver and Irene (it reaches its climax in the elevator scene that is as moving as it is sticky). Actually, the way Gosling manages to combine the brutal cool with the tender calm is nothing short of miraculous.

Perhaps, what truly drives (no pun intended) this film is its atmosphere. Both edgy and laidback, it yet again proves how important it is for a work of art to be based on a juxtaposition. Drive is indeed a very rare thing: a psychological car movie. Slightly overproduced, slightly overstuffed with style – but full of undeniable emotional intensity. With cheap synths in the background.

Friday, 10 February 2012

2011 films: #11


Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film of slow pace but incredible intensity. It’s a cold, meticulous, no-nonsense espionage story (based on the eponymous 1974 novel by John le Carré) that is also one of those proverbial ‘easy to admire, difficult to love’ cases. Well, art should be different – as long as it remains good art.

It’s Britain, time of The Cold War, and the plot revolves around a secret Russian agent inside The Circus (another name of British Intelligence). George Smiley (one of Gary Oldman’s classiest performances ever), who formerly had to retire from The Circus, is summoned by a member of Civil Service to figure out who the mole is. ‘Tinker’, ‘Tailor’, ‘Soldier’, ‘Poorman’ and ‘Beggarman’ (codenamed so by Control, the former chief of The Circus) are the five suspects Smiley has to consider (Beggarman actually being him). What ensues is a sequence of intricate shenanigans, agents, half-clues and undercurrents you have to keep track of. The film is masterfully acted (Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch are all brilliant and to the point), and has an unmistakable retro feel to it which nonetheless doesn’t distract you from the rather frustrating, rather unsettling relevance of the whole thing.

Overall, there’s no getting away from the fact that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looks both compelling and kind of empty. Emotionally, it does not connect – doesn’t even try. But the classy smarts it delivers are very classy indeed. 

Thursday, 9 February 2012

2011 films: #12


Directed by Jonathan Levine

It’s probably a pretty daunting task – not making a tragedy out of cancer. Chances are you will come off an impossibly cynical bastard. Another danger lies in that you might easily get trapped by mawkishness and sentimentality, and that’s equally unforgivable. There’s no question that Jonathan Levine does teeter on the very edge of the latter in quite a lot of the film’s scenes, but he does succeed in the end – retaining both taste and edge.  

It’s a predictable sort of start. Adam Lerner (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a rather average young journalist who learns one day that he is no longer like everyone else: he has cancer. Soon Adam’s cheating girlfriend (and a wannabe artist) dumps him, so that the only people who help Adam get through the painful and endless chemotherapy are his extraverted friend Kyle, his overprotective mother and… Katherine, a bright, supportive but inexperienced therapist. You can of course tell where it is going to go from there, but 50/50 is such a charming, well-acted, arresting little thing that you might end up purring with sympathy and pleasure.  

It’s got plot problems, and the ending could have been a little more inventive (not that it’s not what you want), but the overall impression is good. No, 50/50 is not a comedy. Still, for all its depressive moments, it might be one of the lightest, most cheerful and just plain romantic films about cancer. Which probably is a good thing.

On 2011 films

I’ve always rejected comments like ‘hey, but isn’t …. (insert a year), like, a really low point for music/films/literature? Like, awful year’. I’ve always considered that a dubious sort of remark – often too lazy and just plain baseless. Made by people who either missed too much or never really got to the right stuff. 

This time, though, I do feel terribly underwhelmed. It isn’t that I haven’t watched a lot (I have) or that my expectations were too high (my expectations have become timid little things). And it isn’t even that 2011 was overloaded with bad films – no, quite on the contrary, it was chockfull of good stuff. In fact, that is precisely the problem: too many good films, not enough truly inspired ones. Great moments – yes, lots of them, but moments don’t make it. Unless, of course, you are talking about Double Nickels On The Dime by The Minutemen.

It’s interesting that animated films are a good indication of a year’s overall quality. To counter the inventive greatness of Toy Story 3 Pixar makes us sit through the dull and perfectly unremarkable Cars 2. After the well-recognized but adventurous spirit of How To Train Your Dragon you now deal with the cheap, brain-dead thrills of Kung-Fu Panda 2. Sylvian Chomet’s Illusioniste was breathtakingly beautiful and smart – A Cat In Paris is just all right. Well, yes, Rango was somewhat better than the others, but that’s a relative achievement. 

Still, there’s no question that 2011 does merit a best-of-year list. And now that I’m looking through these 12 entries, I realise they are so full of new sensations it is still well worth it in the end. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Album review: LEONARD COHEN - Old Ideas

Highlights: Going Home, Amen, Show Me The Place, The Darkness

Four songs into Old Ideas, and you might get a feeling this is actually Cohen’s best album in many many years.  And while it does get kind of patchy and diffuse after that, it’s still full of that wise, poignant charm that makes Leonard Cohen so special. After all those years – it’s still easy to get lost in that quiet, heartfelt croon.

Of course he can’t sing. But it’s not as if he is any worse at it than he was in the 60’s or in the 70’s. But with that said – there’s actually one interesting point to be made: the quality of a Leonard Cohen song always relies on vocal hooks (and I don’t just mean that ever-present female back-up choir – which is quite good here). So it’s not simply about the man’s lyrics. If you take a track like “Amen”, for instance, you will notice that for all its slowness and long-windedness, it manages to stay rather… catchy. Granted, it all needs a quiet, relaxed listen (preferably in the dark), but I believe that a man with such wisdom and taste merits a couple of grateful evenings (though he does call himself ‘nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube’ in the confessional opener “Going Home”) . I’d argue that hollow, uneventful stuff like “Anyhow” and “Banjo” is way too plain, but overall it’s gloriously understated, stately experience.

The production is crystal clear, and the pianos, violins and orchestration are as pleasant and affecting as ever – but it’s still the basics that cut it. For all the nice embellishments, Old Ideas is about that voice, those lyrics and that simple but gorgeous melody.


Sunday, 5 February 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #46: Edwyn Collins - "The Campaign For Real Rock"

The greatly titled "The Campaign For Real Rock" is the epic opener of Edwyn Collins' best album, Gorgeous George (1994). Yes, that album is mostly known for its classic single "A Girl Like You", but this one might be even better. Intense vocals and smart lyrics, the song's brilliant, never-ending crescendo finally dissolving into the unforgettable finale you will never get out of your head. 

Friday, 3 February 2012

Album review: KATHLEEN EDWARDS - Voyageur

Highlights:  Empty Threat, Chameleon/Comedian, A Soft Place To Land

At the risk of sounding discouraging and frightening off cynics, I’d say that on her new album Kathleen Edwards sounds like the Norah Jones of (not too surprising, I guess, since Jones is among the record’s guests). Gentle, touching compositions of piano- and guitar-based folk, Voyageur is as poignant and wistfully romantic as you can get without being trapped by sweetness and sugardom. 

My major concern prior to listening to Voyageur was Justin Vernon’s (aka Bon Iver) production. Words can’t describe how insipid and bland the man’s latest sounded to my ears, so I had an uneasy suspicion he might splash his whiny mediocrity (that said, I admit to actually loving For Emma…) all over Edwards’ album. Not the case. And for all Norah Joneses of the world Kathleen retains enough artistic edge to guarantee a good, solid listen. The lilting “Empty Threat” is a great opener, but “Chameleon/Comedian” is even greater: a slow-burning ballad with a timeless vocal melody beautifully sung against the acoustic strumming and some brilliant electric passages. Then the piano-based melancholy of “A Soft Place To Land” continues the first side’s perfect run. Sadly, Voyageur does run out of steam after track six or something, when it gets somewhat samey (maybe not necessarily worse), though I certainly do appreciate some timid but successful attempts at rocking out (parts of “Going To Hell”).

As it turns out, Voyageur has a lot more to offer than charm and heartfelt singing. And excellent instrumentation and melodies such as one on “Chameleon/Comedian” do push it to a very high seven. Recommended.


Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Album review: OF MONTREAL - Paralytic Stalks

Highlights: Spiteful Intervention, Dour Percentage, We Will Commit Wolf Murder

A new album by of Montreal is always welcome. While the band's enormous catalogue has enough weak points, there’s no denying that every single effort by Barnes & Co sounds inspired, convincing, supercharged. It’s good to know that Kevin Barnes’ stream-of-consciousness styled songwriting is still in full bloom – even if Paralytic Stalks does suffer from certain indulgencies (of which more later).

Sound-wise, Paralytic Stalks is more of the same: psychedelic pop, Bowie, Beatles, Prince. But it’s not the sound (or, indeed, the melodies) that makes this stuff so exciting and so charismatic: it’s the fact that Barnes makes the impression of being this drunken alcoholic blubbering obscenities. But what comes out has nothing obscene about it: what you hear is a never-ending, ever-changing onslaught of terrific vocal melodies and hooks piling on top of each other. It gets so cluttered occasionally that a track like “Spiteful Intervention” might include sections certain moneyed artists would kill for. Barnes, though, doesn’t even bother to repeat these sections, which is maddening but makes for extremely rewarding further listens.

The first side of Paralytic Stalks is near flawless, with “Dour Percentage” possessing one of the most powerful soulful hooklines in the band’s entire catalogue. But that doesn’t mean a song like “Ye, Renew The Plaintiff” (oh those of Montreal’s titles!) is not good enough. It is, it’s just that it’s so long and has so much going on that you are bound to become somewhat fastidious. The aforementioned indulgencies begin after the pretty first half of “Wintered Debts”. Suddenly it’s all about long passages of orchestrated psychedelia that just become too much to bear. The mostly instrumental “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” is almost 8 minutes long, and then there's even more frustration: the closing song is as mind-blowingly catchy up to its 4-minute mark (easily my favourite thing here) as it is expendable afterwards (even though the last two minutes do provide some piano-based loveliness).

I’m still giving it a perfect eight because Barnes’ spontaneous brilliance can’t be denied. True, some of it might be overlong and weedy, but the number of absolutely ecstatic moments simply amazes. Paralytic Stalks is the year’s first half-classic, no less.