Monthly Archives: January 2006

Nashville (1975) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written by Joan Tewkesbury
Directed by Robert Altman

The ensemble drama has been particularly popular in recent American film. Primary exponents are Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and Paul Haggis (Crash). However, the king of the genre is undoubtedly Robert Altman. These more recent examples offer distinct worlds that are easy to be drawn into, with fascinating characters that we do care about; the difference with Altman’s films is that every person on screen – from the part with the most dialogue, to the guy with a mullet and goatee standing in a huge crowd – comes across as a real person. The others I have seen are Short Cuts and Gosford Park, and it’s that attention to the smallest roles that sets him apart, placing him among the greatest American filmmakers.

Nashville, I would suggest, is his finest hour. (Without having seen MASH or The Player I’m not really in any position to judge, but too bad.) No better film chronicle of Americana exists that I’ve seen. All the required elements are present and correct: country music, NASCAR racing, and most of all, the sorts of interpersonal relationships that could only happen like this in America. Husbands and wives in difficulty, for various reasons (extramarital affairs, career overtaking love etc.); groups of friends in disarray; outsiders regarding the environment with fascination and ignorance, whilst being regarded with (much of the time) utter disdain. I say again, not for a second does any of it seem contrived, not even the famous climax that we know is coming but we still don’t believe will really happen.

If for no other reason, it’s all real because it’s unusually unromanticised. I expected Nashville to be a celebration of the American Dream, and in a way it is, but it is deeply critical of it; from the start it has characters singing about peace, love and understanding, then as soon as the song ends they settle back into their bitter, disagreeable, and troubled persona. Dreams don’t crumble in this film so much as they are denied outright. Everybody wants for more – that great reconciliation, that deserved recognition, that wider success – but it’s always out of reach. Some realise this and some don’t, and it is heartbreaking to watch those in both camps as they either deal with a crushing realisation, or continue to delude themselves.

I make it sound like there’s no hope in this story, but there is, and it’s summed up by the fact that the one character who really takes advantage of her big break only gets it through the extreme misfortune of another. That’s to say, outright hope doesn’t necessarily exist: through narrow-mindedness we ignore the flip side of the coin, but it is there, and it might make itself known at the least opportune time. Still, Altman sees the humanity in everyone, and they all come across as sympathetic characters in one way or another. We aren’t perfect! Nobody is! But a lot of us, deep down, have the right things at heart. A simple old message, but rarely better illustrated than it is here.

I really liked the way much of this film was shot in medium to long shot – it was another good way of making everyone seem on equal footing. The music is great, too, particularly Haven Hamilton’s opener ‘200 Years’. The acting is excellent across the board, and it would be pointless to pick a standout because there are literally dozens of good performances here. The only slightly troublesome element was that there were so many plot strands that it did get a little bit confusing sometimes… but hey, that’s what second viewings are for.

P. T. Anderson, the pretender to Altman’s throne, got Henry Gibson (Haven Hamilton in this film) to play a small role in Magnolia, and that surely is his way of recognising his roots. I imagine there are hundreds of young filmmakers in America and around the world who would cite Altman as an influence. This is another legendary director who has never won an Oscar, and as such he will receive a ‘We Fucked Up‘ one this year. He’s a pioneer, an innovator, a true cinema artist, and those unfamiliar with his work should certainly start with Nashville.

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Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) (H)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Directed by George Clooney

George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck. is unusual among modern films in that it has a great deal of respect for its audience. It simply presents a series of events that occurred in the 1950s involving Sen. Joseph McCarthy and CBS News, particularly the host of ‘See It Now’, Edward Murrow; it doesn’t ever become preachy, or manipulative, or attempt to guide the viewer through what is going on. It’s like it’s been brought forward from that great decade in American film, the 70s – it can be compared to All the President’s Men, because it is very much in the same class.

To begin with, this is not only a very good film, but such a good rendering of its time period to be practically an archival document. Shot by Robert Elswit in glorious black and white, everything feels as though it has been lifted straight out of the 50s. The best way to illustrate this is by observing the seamless integration of McCarthy archive footage into the film – indeed, test audiences suggested to Clooney that he should have hired a different actor to play McCarthy because of his overacting, not realising it was the man himself. Everything feels just right: immediately we are immersed in immaculate period detail, and it is no struggle to remain immersed throughout the duration of the film.

That the film is biased towards Murrow and his colleagues makes no difference to me. In fact, I prefer it that way, and not just because I agree with their strong belief in free speech and their disagreement with scare tactics by extremely powerful people. I think it makes for a more effective film, because McCarthyism is not something one reacts to with ambivalence; you have to decide which side you stand on, and the fact that Clooney wastes no time with the opposing views makes the film a lot tighter and ultimately more effective. Perhaps the most impressive aspect is that while it is a film about that period of great nationwide fear, it also directly reflects parallel events in current times. Back then, a newsman and his team were willing to stand up to a fearmonger and say “this isn’t right”, but today lies and outright ineptitude in American politics go largely unchallenged by mainstream media. It is not surprising that in Murrow’s final speech, he mentions American foreign policy in the Middle East; it is the only time in the film where Clooney explicitly offers the audience a connection, and it works very well.

In the role of Ed Murrow, David Strathairn is magnificent. He carries the film with remarkable authority and integrity; as he looks directly into the camera and speaks those immortal words of the title, we trust him, because he means it. His serious, focused remarks are balanced with some wonderful lines of sardonic wit. Only once does he show vulnerability for a moment, but he immediately picks himself up and gets on with the job again – a true professional. Equally as good is Ray Wise as the doomed colleague Don Hollenbeck: the scene in which O’Brien’s piece is read out to him is phenomenal, as he tries – but fails – to maintain a cheery demeanour. It’s surprisingly affecting. Everyone else in the cast – Clooney, Langella, Downey Jr., Clarkson, Daniels – is functional, doing the job as well as they need to without distracting from Strathairn’s great performance. I would, however, single out one scene between Downey Jr. and Clarkson as being terrifically acted, and that is just after Daniels’ character has spoken to them. We expect to see disappointment, but their tenderness towards each other is just wonderful… a superbly well-written and well-acted moment.

If anything, Good Night, and Good Luck. finishes a little too quickly. We could probably have done with another twenty minutes to convey a bit more detail, because those unfamiliar with the events going in would perhaps struggle to keep up, and anyway, I would’ve been delighted to stay in that lush black and white world a bit longer. Still, this is an absurdly early contender for the best film to be released this year. The fine acting, the wonderful pans and re-focuses, the taut directing – it’s finely honed cinema, great to watch and it makes you think.

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2005: Music

My review of the year 2005 will begin with Music. Here I will list the new albums that I listened to this year more than a couple of times, in descending order of admiration. Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to talk about music, as you’ll see.

1. Demon Days – Gorillaz
It’s close, but I’m going with Demon Days for my favourite album of the year. I probably listened to it more times than anything else, and I’m listening to it right now, so I suppose it’s appropriate. I wasn’t excited when it came out; the self-titled first one had a few good tracks, but the four-year interval killed off any remaining hope for a better follow-up. Eventually, I got around to listening to it, and on about the fourth time I suddenly loved it. It’s like nothing else released this year. I can only listen to the whole thing right the way through, because it is a genuinely great album, not just a collection of work compiled together; every track works on its own but works better in the context of the others around it. Give it a go, even if you’re sceptical.
Favourite track: 15 – Demon Days

2. ’64 – ’95 – Lemon Jelly
Paul Deakin and Nick Franglen’s third album is their best yet, after the considerable quality of lemonjelly.ky and Lost Horizons. “This is our new album. It’s not like our old album” proclaimed the cover, which proved to be very accurate: ’64 – ’95 adds a bit of darkness to their patented pleasantry, signalling that they’re not just a chillout duo any more. Another album that I have to listen to all at once, as each track segues wonderfully into the next and worms its way into your head for days. They are sampling wizards, even using a bit of John Rowles; it’s good music for any situation, with several excellent tracks.
Favourite track: 02 – Come Down On Me

3. Late Registration – Kanye West
I don’t care if you don’t like hip hop; this is a great album. Thanks to Richie for alerting me to its brilliance. I call it hip hop, but it’s hard to label (categorising music is difficult and pointless, anyway). It frequently reminds me of Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below, which is to say it’s in the same class: it’s catchy, profound but not preachy, musically intriguing. Several tracks stand out, and the interludes – especially Bernie Mac’s introduction – are amusing. Next, I shall get a hold of his debut College Dropout, which many say is even better. Hard to believe, I tell ya.
Favourite track: 19 – Gone

4. Come On! Feel the Illinoise! – Sufjan Stevens
A five-star review in the Herald put me onto this, and after two listens, I was hooked. He’s incredibly audacious and pretentious, this young man, seeing fit to give tracks ridiculous names like ‘A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in which Sufjan Stevens has an Existential Crisis in the Godfrey Maze’ and singing in a typically anguished ‘indie-wail’. But, it’s actually pretty good – very good, even. He’s on a mission to educate all of us about each of the 50 United States, and does a pretty good job on Illinois here – reaching for a deeper truth while contemplating such things as John Wayne Gacy’s killings and the Sears Tower. The whole album is wonderfully arranged and flows nicely, with Stevens himself playing almost all the instruments, and includes a nod to The Cure (naturally). Do try it.
Favourite track: 12 – The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts

5. Bang Bang Rock ‘n’ Roll – Art Brut
“Formed a band, we’ve formed a band. Look at us! We’ve formed a band!” So opens the most enjoyable album of the year. If The Streets were a punk rock band, this is what they’d sound like. It’s proper British punk rock too, irreverent but not inane, tapping into the everyday lives of young people everywhere. Rua told me about these guys, appropriately through the song My Little Brother, so cheers Rua. Just listen to it, and songwriters take note: you can reach a great many deeper truths by keeping it simple. Metaphors need not be complex – just write and sing sincerely.
Favourite track: 04 – Rusted Guns of Milan

6. The Fanatics – The Fanatics
Not actually an album, but a 7-track EP – still, this was the best NZ offering this year. The hype is not enough for this duo from Auckland: they have a unique sound, what they call ‘electro-rock’, which harks back to the 80s but also contains elements of the Future… sounds a bit like Fischerspooner, but with no pretence. They’re currently working on an album, which I am as excited about as I have ever been about a forthcoming music release.
Favourite track: 02 – Dead

7. Odyssey – Fischerspooner
Gay couple Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner were performance artists (gag, spit) who decided that the music they wrote for shows was far more interesting than the performances, so they turned their attention full-time to making music. Their first album, #1, was inconsistent with a few outstanding tracks (Sweetness, Emerge to name two); thankfully, Odyssey is an improvement, feeling more like a real album rather than a collection of tracks just thrown together onto a CD. Their sound is pretty much unique and at the forefront of what we call synthtron, or electroclash (man, music genres are ridiculous). Spooner’s lyrics are a bit dodgy, but Fischer’s sound carries it through; plenty of good tracks on here, so if you heard Emerge in a club and liked it, you’ll probably like Odyssey.
Favourite track: 08 – Happy

8. Funeral – Arcade Fire
I like singers who wail in falsetto, so I was always going to like Arcade Fire. Win Butler wails with the best of them, and sings about reasonably interesting things; as always with me, though, it’s the instruments that draw me in. Alternating between strong & driving and a sort of dreamy low-keyness, this album is great right up until the last track, which is a terrific anti-climax. Pity. Still, I enjoy it very much, and it contains maybe my favourite rock song of the year.
Favourite track: 09 – Rebellion (Lies)

9. The Sound Inside – Breaks Co-op
The other NZ album I bought this year, and it’s really bloody good. I was in Real Groovy browsing for about an hour, and found myself listening to and very much enjoying what they were playing over the PA. Turns out it was these guys, so I came back the next day and bought it. I bought it in July, and it’s a perfect summer album, so of course I haven’t come to appreciate it so much until now. It is a departure from their earlier stuff, largely because of the addition of a new band member, but it is (in my opinion) an improvement. Very much easy-listening chillout music, but… you know… good.
Favourite track: 05 – Last Night

10. Human After All – Daft Punk
Homework was essential, Discovery was a delightful reinvention, and after four years of waiting for another one we get… this? That was my initial response to Human After All – they produced this in a couple of weeks, surely? It felt like complete rubbish, derivative of everything else they and several other French house groups have done. A couple of tracks stood out, but overall it was just a big mess. But then I looked again at the title, and at all the track names, and I realised that they were in fact taking the piss. Out of us, out of what we’ve become. In the end, it’s clever, but a fascinating waste of time is still a waste of time. I don’t dislike the album, but I feel they would’ve been better off taking another six months to create something with the innovation of either of their first two. At any rate, the final track is one of my favourites of the year – it’s a blindingly obvious six and a half minutes, but as I said earlier, simplicity can often bring about a stronger and deeper reaction in the listener.
Favourite track: 10 – Emotion

11. Get Behind Me Satan – The White Stripes
More of the same from Jack and Meg, but if it’s a same you like, then great – fortunately, I do like it. Nowhere near the greatness of Elephant or the near-perfection of White Blood Cells, this is still a good offering; there are a few experiments here and there, but mostly they’re just doing what they’ve always done. Kind of feels like they phoned it in a bit. As I say, good regardless.
Favourite track: 02 – The Nurse

12. Nympho – Armand Van Helden
Easily the biggest disappointment of the year. 2 Future 4 U and Killing Puritans are two albums I own and very much enjoy, but what the hell happened here? This is lazy, sloppy work from a guy I thought was at the forefront of the DJ scene. There are some very good club tracks – Into Your Eyes, My My My – but where are the nine-minute epics of previous outings? Perhaps I didn’t give this one a fair go, but it seemed to me that his trademark repetitiveness was different this time: he was repeating boring beats and hooks, not interesting ones. Shame.
Favourite track: 03 – Into Your Eyes

So, only one new album a month on average. It goes to show that most of the music I listen to is from previous years. For the record, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips and Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes by TV on the Radio were my most-listened-to non-2005 albums this year. Both are phenomenally great, totally unique albums that you should track down and listen to as soon as you can.

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2005: Good Movies

My review of the year 2005 continues with the top ten movies I saw in cinemas. They had to play either on general release or in a festival, thus North by Northwest in a one-off at the Regent and Cremaster 3 in Film Society were not considered.

1. Grizzly Man – Werner Herzog
Nothing else screened in 2005 could approach the brilliance of Herzog’s Grizzly Man. In the guise of a nature documentary, the great Bavarian sums up life, the universe and everything, and in doing so embraces the darkness that defines our existence. More than in any of his other films I’ve seen, more even than in Lessons in Darkness, Herzog stares into the abyss and refuses to turn away; rather than trying to lionise a very troubled human being, he condemns his madness while at the same time celebrating him. Only Herzog could produce an effective film that both damns and praises its subject, while at the same time turning his gaze to the audience and demanding that they re-evaluate their own lives. It fits perfectly with his overall body of work, and stands in my opinion as one of the greatest films – documentary or fiction – ever made.

2. My Summer of Love – Pawel Pawlikowski
I had high hopes for this on the back of Pawlikowski’s excellent debut Last Resort, not to mention the presence of the incomparable Paddy Considine; still, I was stunned by how good this was. Virtually everything about this film was perfect. The screenplay was very focused on character, involving a sequence of events that make up a plot (rather than a plot that drives a sequence of events). Each scene seems to top the last, and the dialogue is powerful and real. The cinematography is first class, just beautiful in places. The acting (essentially a three-role film) from Considine and leads Nathalie Press and Emily Blunt is as good as you’ll see. The use of music is unequivocally the best of the year. The directing, man… absolutely perfect. Seriously, when I start making movies, this will be my model for a perfectly directed film. No shot is wasted, no aspect of the actors’ performances left untapped; with few locations, few actors and relatively small crew, Pawlikowski creates the most affecting and believable film story of the year. Only the ending prevents me from placing it at #1 – while excellent, it was so surprising as to seem a bit out of place. On second viewing, I’m sure it’ll seem more right. See this one, at all costs.

3. DiG! – Ondi Timoner
Like Grizzly Man, this was a documentary mostly about one completely mad guy. It was also one of the funniest and most entertaining films of the year. You would keep wishing that Anton Newcombe would just give himself a break sometime, but he would always trump himself by doing or saying something even more ridiculous (sending the Dandy Warhols shotgun shells with their names on stands out as a particularly insane act). Taking place over 7 years, this documents Newcombe’s constant rise and fall, and his rivalry with the Dandys’ Courtney Taylor (who narrates). As good a film about rock and roll as has been made, you come to the end feeling as though you personally know the principal figures, which I always think is some sign of success.

4. Palindromes – Todd Solondz
Solondz, the master absurdist, again makes fun every single member of the audience whatever their views are. It’s not as simple as that, though; he’s not merely taking aim at our collective ridiculousness through the medium of film. It’s not a protest. It just shows us for what we are: opinionated, narrow-minded fools who search for meaning everywhere in our lives when there simply isn’t any. I saw this the day after Grizzly Man, which was somehow fitting; both films are audacious enough to say that everything in our lives is absurd and trivial, but convince us that it’s nothing to worry about. It’s just the way we are. I see Palindromes not as an exploration of the abortion debate on film, but an extension (and improvement upon) the director’s earlier Happiness – an offering of freaks and outliers of society that represent all of us far better than the winners.

5. Sideways – Alexander Payne
I really need to see this again, since I’ve only seen it the once back in February. In any case, it was clearly going to be one of the year’s best even as early as that. The combination of Payne and Jim Taylor’s screenplay with a fine four-piece acting ensemble resulted in a wonderful reworking of the buddy comedy and road movie genres. Several scenes are great (most memorable being Miles’ lines on the beach), but they all contribute to an overall tone and theme that leaves you thinking for days. This is an extremely genuine film, amusing and (for a film about wine drinkers) remarkably free of pretentiousness. If for no other reason, see it for Paul Giamatti’s superlatively great performance; if you need another, see it for the skill of Payne, who after only four features has honed his craft to near perfection.

6. The Constant Gardener – Fernando Meirelles
A powerful, angry thriller by John le Carré was expertly transformed into a provocative and affecting film by the soon-to-be legendary Brazilian Meirelles. Filmmaking is rarely as politically charged as this, and because it was handled well, I was happy to climb aboard with the film’s agenda. It’s well acted and well shot, and as well as making you think, it’s a damned good thriller; structurally Meirelles messes you around, before slowly joining the threads back up. Some scenes could have been handled better, and it is a little difficult to handle the influx of information in the third act, but overall it is a quality exercise in filmmaking. And anyway, a film that so clearly states that it wants to change your opinion should be applauded for being so up front.

7. Sin City – Robert Rodriguez
The most brutal film of the year was also one of the most hyped, but for once, it lived up to great expectations. I’ve never been much of a fan of Rodriguez, but the technical skill on display here is so mindblowing that it has to be seen to be believed; it really is as if a comic book has come to life. And what a violent comic book it is. Many, many moments are excruciatingly grotesque (several of them, unbelievably, involve Elijah Wood), and contribute to an overall sense of sub-baseness that pervades every frame. This is all style and absolutely no substance… but what style, man. It’s so much fun it’s practically a guilty pleasure, and I must say, I’m quite looking forward to instalments 2 and 3.

8. Batman Begins – Christopher Nolan
None of the trailers or stills excited me, and the pedigree of the previous Batman films was not a little off-putting, but the presence of Nolan as director and Christian Bale as star forced me along to see this on opening night. I was far from disappointed; in fact, I really bloody liked it. This immediately re-states the parameters for Bruce Wayne/Batman, removing any comparison with the earlier films; if it seems a bit odd for the first half hour, don’t worry, you’ll eventually settle into it. This is a rare blockbuster that focuses on character rather than action, offering one of the most entertaining and enthralling screen heroes of the new millennium. Unfortunately, while a lot of the action is bad-ass, most of the fight scenes are epileptically edited with seemingly billions of cuts per second – the only disappointing aspect of an otherwise fine film.

9. Inosensu: Kokaku kidotai – Mamoru Oshii
English title: Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. This is a sequel to the 1995 original, Ghost in the Shell, which was a very direct influence on The Matrix, and I found it to be a better film. Typically for an Oshii work, it was very confusing and often totally violated all traditional rules of film storytelling; still, that never derailed a fascinating, beguiling film. I’d need to see it again to understand it, but I was happy to just be swept up in the wonder of it all – it’s visually extraordinary with its mix of traditional and CG animation, and always mindblowing. Probably only good for anime fans, and probably needs to be seen on a big screen; fortunately, I and the venue fit these criteria, so I enjoyed it very much.

10. Gegen die Wand – Fatih Akin
English title: Head-On (literally Against the Wall, a much better title if you ask me). This film’s first hour and a half is so good, I just wish they could have kept it up for the final half hour. Still, that doesn’t stop this being a powerful film, well directed and acted and with great use of music. It creates characters that we quickly care about and want to see succeed, despite their extreme anti-social qualities; however, we also quickly know that everything isn’t going to end well, so it is difficult to hold out hope. Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin and Best Film at the European Film Awards, this signals the arrival of a major new directing talent, and looks closely at lives without any sort of direction. It’s tough and shocking at times, but well worth your time.

One thing to note: the first four spots are all taken up by Film Festival films, which goes to show how shitty the general release slate was last year. I get the feeling we’re on an unstoppable slide: 2004 was good overall, 2005 rubbish with great moments, so 2006 will surely be the worst year for studio film yet. I hope I’m proved wrong.

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