Magic In The Moonlight”, another New Film from Woody Allen. Yeah…

Magic in the moonlight.

Magic in the moonlight.

The lead sin­gle off the sec­ond, best and alas last album from Girls Father, Son and Holy Ghost was called “Venom” (reviewed ear­lier here). The title refers to a Bible story where a thief’s need to return to the scene of his crime is com­pared to a dog’s com­pul­sion to exam­ine its own vomit.

This seems to be the only pos­si­ble expla­na­tion as to why it is that Woody Allen keeps going back to make yet another film. It would all make sense if the rea­son he were in such a hurry to pro­duce a new film every year was because the last few had been so disappointing.

That’s what made his last film, Blue Jas­mine (reviewed ear­lier here) so refresh­ing. It sug­gested the begin­ning of a new phase. His lat­est, Magic in the Moon­light is sadly more of the same, and we’re back where we were.

Vicky Christine Barcelona.

Vicky Chris­tine Barcelona.

Since his last gen­uinely funny com­edy, Bul­lets Over Broad­way in 1994 Allen has made 20 films. That’s one a year. And the only two that mer­ited watch­ing all the way through were Sweet and Low­down in 1999 and Match Point in 2005 – Vicky Christina Barcelona (’08) doesn’t count. You could film Javier Bar­dem, Scar­lett Johans­son and Pene­lope Cruz pair­ing their toe­nails and it would still be electrifying.

What you think of his lat­est film will depend on whether you’re old enough to remem­ber how excit­ing the prospect of a new Woody Allen film used to be.

Annie Hall (’77), Man­hat­tan (‘79), Zelig (’83), The Pur­ple Rose Of Cairo (’85) and Crimes and Mis­de­meanors (’89) are all seri­ous, sub­stan­tial, sig­nif­i­cant films. And they’re funny. The last time I laughed dur­ing a Woody Allen film was Bul­lets Over Broad­way.

It’s not as if they’ve become more seri­ous. On the con­trary, they’re ever lighter and more and more insub­stan­tial. And they’re less funny. All of the themes that were once explored, painfully, are now breezily ticked off, as if on some sort of exis­ten­tial shop­ping list.

Poor old Colin Firth and Emma Stone doing their best.

Poor old Colin Firth and Emma Stone in “Magic in the Moon­light” doing their best.

Iron­i­cally, the only thing that make his films watch­able these days are the cast he still man­ages to attract. Every­body used to fall over them­selves to be in the new Woody Allen film because the scripts were so good. They still do. But the scripts are so slop­pily cob­bled together these days that were it not for their stel­lar casts, they’d be unwatchable.

None of which will bother you if all you are look­ing for is a poor man’s Down­town to watch on your new iPhone, as you keep your eye on Strictly leaf­ing through the Sun­day papers as you check your mes­sages. As ever the cast are all exem­plary, con­sid­er­ing. But for the rest of us, Magic in the Moon­light makes for decid­edly depress­ing viewing.

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The New U2 Album, Robert Plant and Staying Relevant.

U2.

U2.

Long time U2 fans have greeted the launch of their next new album with increas­ing trep­i­da­tion. Last week was alas more of the same. The lat­est, Songs Of Inno­cence, sounds like the album from an off-Broadway musi­cal cel­e­brat­ing the youth of a 90s rock band. But unable to afford the rights to any of the orig­i­nal mate­r­ial, they’ve been forced to get a trib­ute band to do their best. They might well be inti­mate, per­sonal songs, but most of the riffs sound like they have been lifted clean off of the Joshua Tree.

U2’s prob­lem has always been Achtung Baby (’91). Which wasn’t just a seis­mic leap for­ward for the band at the time, it was one of the sem­i­nal albums of the decade. The prob­lem is, how on earth do you fol­low it?

Achtung Baby!

Achtung Baby!

Zooropa (’93) and Pas­sen­gers (’95) was the sound of band grap­pling with what to do now that they’d become the global phe­nom­e­non they’d always dreamt of. You could hear them intently lis­ten­ing to what was going on around them try­ing to feel their way for­ward. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (‘00) was a very pleas­ing col­lec­tion of con­ven­tional sin­gles, but was tac­itly under­stood as a brief hiatus.

But the three albums over the 14 years that fol­lowed have proved wholly unre­mark­able and have merely pro­vided the band with more of the same to per­form live with. So why not be done with stu­dio albums com­pletely? Because a live band is essen­tially what they’ve become.

It’s per­fectly accept­able in the worlds of RnB, blues and jazz to stop fever­ishly pro­duc­ing new mate­r­ial, and to spend your lat­ter years re-examining your can­non, con­cen­trat­ing instead on pro­duc­ing the kinds of live per­for­mances that only come with age and expe­ri­ence. What’s the point of fur­ther adding to an already impres­sive back cat­a­logue with mass pro­duced, sub-standard, replica copies?

Robert Plant.

Robert Plant.

Incred­i­bly few bands man­age that per­ilous bal­anc­ing act of fill­ing vast sta­di­ums and of pro­duc­ing qual­ity albums of gen­uine sub­stance. U2 are one, Led Zep­pelin were another. Amaz­ingly, Robert Plant turned his back on the peer­less 70s hell-raisers in 1980, and has been qui­etly plough­ing his own fur­row ever since.

His musi­cal wan­der­lust has seen him explor­ing the roots Amer­i­cana of the deep south, and of where all that came from in the music of west Africa. Unex­pect­edly, if quite cor­rectly, he burst into pub­lic view again in 2007 with his Ali­son Krauss col­lab­o­ra­tion Rais­ing Sand, which won the Grammy for Album of The Year in 2008 and sold by the tonne full.

Lullaby… And the Ceaseless Roar.

Lul­laby and… The Cease­less Roar.

Band of Joy fol­lowed in 2010 prov­ing for those not in the know that Rais­ing Sand wasn’t a blip but part of a fully formed renais­sance. And now he’s back with another new band (part of an old one actu­ally), with his lat­est album, Lul­laby and… The Cease­less Roar.

The Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters include mem­bers of the Strange Sen­sa­tion which he formed over a decade ago. He’s joined by both the key­boardist and bassist from Por­tishead, as well as Justin Adams, a pro­ducer who’s worked with Brian Eno and more recently the blues Tuareg band Tinawiren. That’s how you stay rel­e­vant. Musi­cally inquis­i­tive, reveal­ing, prob­ing and plain­tive, it gets an approv­ing 7.0 from the boys from Pitch­fork here. And could eas­ily have got more.

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Sumptuous documentary “Watermark” a striking visual essay.

The Canadian documentary Watermark.

The Cana­dian doc­u­men­tary Water­mark.

It was inevitable that the equiv­a­lent of the Slow Food move­ment would mate­ri­alise in the arts. And sure enough we’ve recently seen the return of the Big novel, indeed the Big Vic­to­rian novel. Long form essays and jour­nal­ism are increas­ingly vis­i­ble, and you can still buy your album on vinyl or for that mat­ter cd. Water­mark, the new doc­u­men­tary from renown Cana­dian pho­tog­ra­pher Edward Bur­tyn­sky is very much part of that trend.

The title refers to the mark water has left on our lives and the way that it has shaped every con­tour of every sur­face that those lives are lived out on. Indeed, it is lit­er­ally life. But it’s also a sub­tle ref­er­ence to the trans­par­ent stamp­ing of doc­u­ments and bank notes that are thereby con­firmed as being authen­tic.

4This film is very much a repost to all the CGI, and that tedious, patho­log­i­cal fear that all film, video and ads have of ever allow­ing a sin­gle frame to be left undis­turbed for any­thing more than a sec­ond or two. Before the ADHD-fuelled need to fre­net­i­cally inter­rupt it with the next even more urgent frame kicks in. And so on ad nauseam.

These impec­ca­ble and occa­sion­ally breath-taking images have been pre­cisely, indeed lov­ingly con­structed and care­fully ordered to con­vey an idea. It’s not hard to imag­ine what that idea is. He’s Cana­dian after all, and he’s talk­ing about what the human race has done with its most pre­cious resource.

H2O_SP_SAL_02_13Hap­pily though, the film never berates or lec­tures. It doesn’t have to. The pic­tures speak vol­umes. The obvi­ous ref­er­ence point is God­frey Reggio’s mag­is­te­r­ial Koy­aanisqatsi (’82). Water­mark is nei­ther quite as ambi­tious nor as demand­ing, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s not as hyp­notic or as grandil­o­quent, but it is a lot eas­ier to watch. You’ll not need to be in the ahem right frame of mind to enjoy it. But it does sim­i­larly pull off that unusual bal­anc­ing act of being spec­tac­u­lar, even joy­ous to look at, whilst being qui­etly depress­ing to think about.

Here’s the trailer to Water­mark. And to Koy­aanisqatsi.

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Jesse Eisenberg in the Unconventional Night Moves.

Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves.

Jesse Eisen­berg in Night Moves.

Kelly Reichardt is one of the few inter­est­ing film mak­ers work­ing in Amer­ica today, and Night Moves is her sixth film.

She first arrived albeit very qui­etly with her third film Old Joy in ’06, which “stared” Will Old­ham, as much as any­thing could be said to star him. If you are famil­iar with the pen­sive, qui­etly intro­spec­tive yet keenly per­cep­tive music that Old­ham has been mak­ing for well on two decades now, you’ll have a good idea of the sort of ter­rain that Reichardt’s films map out.

After Wendy And Lucy in ’08 star­ring Michele Williams, she teamed up with again Williams in 2010 for the decid­edly off kil­ter west­ern Meek’s Cut­off. Aus­tere and deter­minedly uncon­ven­tional, this is the kind of non-western that makes McCabe and Mrs Miller look The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven.

Robert Altman's famous anti-western.

Robert Altman’s famous anti-western.

Her lat­est film, Night Moves is sim­i­larly con­trary in its rejec­tion of con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive. Gone too are the beau­ti­fully con­structed vis­tas of Meek’s Cut­off. We are in the decid­edly hum­drum world of ordi­nary peo­ple try­ing qui­etly to stand up for what they believe in.

What makes the film com­pelling, as com­pelling as a film that eschews con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive can ever be, is that what they choose to do in defence of their beliefs is highly ques­tion­able. And, even more inter­est­ingly, it’s far from clear quite how cleanly held those con­vic­tions are.

Jesse Eisen­berg is the eco war­rior who teams up with Dakota Fan­ning and Peter Sars­gaard to do some­thing that will draw atten­tion to what it is that we are all doing to the planet. She has the funds and he has the expertise.

But the two men are clearly just using her for their own dif­fer­ent ends. Whilst she’s so vis­i­bly dam­aged she’s all too eas­ily led. Inevitably their plans begin to unravel, and the sec­ond half of the film focuses on the always com­pelling fig­ure of Eisen­berg, as he sinks into a Dos­toyevskian fog. The sound of every approach­ing car is ampli­fied, and every­one seems to be look­ing at him in a funny way.

Reichardt's contribution to the genre.

Reichardt’s con­tri­bu­tion to the genre.

Given what pre­ceded it, the film takes a slightly sur­pris­ing turn in its third act, which isn’t a dis­as­ter, but nei­ther is it wholly con­vinc­ing. But that only slightly detracts from the film as a whole.

Night Moves is a pleas­ingly unusual film, and a wel­come anti­dote to all that CGI sat­u­rated noise that pol­lutes so many of our cin­e­mas. And Reichardt is a name to watch out for. You can see the trailer to Night Moves here.

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Andrew Marr’s Great Scots on BBC2 and Scottish Independence.

Andrew Marr's Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots: the Writ­ers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr is a senior polit­i­cal fig­ure at the BBC, hav­ing pre­vi­ously edited the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent. More recently, in between host­ing Radio 4’s pres­ti­gious Start The Week he’s begun pre­sent­ing his own doc­u­men­taries. His lat­est, on great Scot­tish writ­ers in com­fort­ably his best to date.

The first episode was on James Boswell. Like so many Scots before and since, Boswell was torn between his blind­ing ambi­tion, which demanded that he leave Scot­land and head for Lon­don, and the resent­ment he felt at being forced to do so.

Bizarrely, he ended up team­ing up with the arche­typal 18th cen­tury Eng­lish­man, Samuel John­son. Even more bizarrely, Boswell lured the jin­go­is­tic John­son up north for a tour of Scot­land, which both insisted was the most enjoy­able cou­ple of months that either of them had ever spent.

The sec­ond episode was even more suc­cess­ful, not to say pre­scient, com­par­ing the con­trast­ing styles and pol­i­tics of Robert Burns and Sir Wal­ter Scott. Scott the con­ser­v­a­tive union­ist who har­boured dreams of rebel­lion, and Burns the Roman­tic poet par excel­lence who wrote in florid Scots incit­ing actual rebel­lion, but who worked by day as a tax inspec­tor for the British government.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he man­aged to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Marr strikes exactly the right bal­ance between lit­er­ary his­tory and polit­i­cal analy­sis. Plac­ing these lit­er­ary giants in the con­text of the fierce polit­i­cal debate that fol­lowed the dis­solv­ing of the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment after the act of union in 1707, he sounds out the clear echoes with­out ever labour­ing the point.

As a proud Scots­man who nonethe­less left his native soil to take the British coin at the BBC in Lon­don, Marr knows only too well of what he speaks. Wryly, he reminds us, as the Scot­tish so often do, that Jekyll and Hyde was writ­ten by a Scots­man. That ten­sion that gov­erns how they view the land south of the bor­der and the peo­ple who live there has always been there.

So will the Scot­tish vote for inde­pen­dence this Sep­tem­ber? I get the impres­sion they are com­ing to regard that pre­vi­ous vote accept­ing union some 300 years ago with increas­ing shame. I’ve a funny feel­ing the heart might rule the head. That 9–2 is look­ing extremely invit­ing. In the mean­time, Andrew Marr’s Great Scots con­tin­ues on BBC 2 on Sat­ur­day evening.

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