Archives for November 2012

Scientology Film “The Master” Disappoints.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has all the ingredients for a cinematic treat. Two larger than life, central characters inexorably drawn to one another. Two towering performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman that bring them powerfully to life. And a story based around the figure of L. Ron Hubbard and the cult of Scientology that he managed to conjure up, like all the best American religions, from thin air.

Throw in a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and factor in the Silver Lion which the film won at last year’s Venice Film Festival, together with its slew of stellar reviews, and that you’d think would be that.

But none of the film’s impressive elements have anywhere to go, because there’s no actual story for them to service. It’s not about anything.

The miraculous birth and growth of Scientology gives the film a fascinating backdrop, but it’s never allowed to become the film’s subject. That instead is the enigmatic but all too elusive character fleshed out brilliantly by the similarly troubled Joaquin Phoenix.

But, understandably, the film is forever being distracted by the equally compelling Svengali figure of Seymour Hoffman and his mysterious cult. And so it hovers, torn between the two, and ends up going nowhere.

Anderson’s a curious fish. And this is hardly the first time he’s had difficulty with story.

His first film was Hard Eight in 1996. But it was his next outing, Boogie Nights in ’97 that catapulted him into the spotlight. And for its first couple of hours, Boogie Nights was the best Scorsese film for years. But then it just sort of petered out.

Magnolia was next, in ’99. But what started out as a small, personal exploration of Larkin’s they fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do became hopelessly bloated. The same story was increasingly diluted by being pointlessly repeated, three or four times. And the whole thing sank under the weight of its own importance.

Punch-Drunk Love was next in ’02. Oh dear. All you can say about that particular film is that it’s the only Adam Sandler vehicle to have been intentionally unfunny.

There Will Be Blood saw Anderson on something of a retrieval mission in ’07. And it duly cleaned up at both the Academy Awards and the box office. But once you see beyond yet another mesmeric performance from Daniel Day Lewis, you come to realize that, despite the film’s insistent noise, the actual story is disappointingly thin.

That’s because the film can’t decide who the antagonist is; the preacher, his son, or Day Lewis himself. So instead of being drawn to the dynamic driving the story, all you’re left with is the surface brilliance of the central performance.

Much the same thing happens with The Master. Anderson clearly has a gift for imagining compelling characters. And he obviously has a palpable capacity to help the wonderful actors he surrounds himself with inhabit them. He has a fantastic eye, and he’s an appealingly and impressively mercurial film maker. All he needs now is to team up with a similarly serious writer to help give his stories the kind of substance his flair and purpose demand.

See the trailer for the The Master here.

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Korean Film “Poetry” Quietly Dazzles.

Poetry is yet further evidence of the strength and depth of the Korean film industry. It’s the fifth film from the one time novelist Chang-dong Lee. And it netted him the Best Screenplay award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, to go with the Best Director award that he won at Venice in 2003 for his third film, Oasis.

As its name suggests, the film potters along amiably enough for its first quarter of an hour or so. It centres around a pleasantly dotty grandmother who’s dutifully bringing up her teenage grandson whilst her daughter earns a living overseas. Like most teenagers, his life consists of prolonged periods of lethargy interspersed by brief bursts of lethargy.

To make ends meet, she cares for an affluent but handicapped elderly gentleman. But she’s always dreamt of writing poetry, so she enrolls in a writing course.

When suddenly, two of the apparently disparate story strands are brought explosively together, and the story proper begins. And, over the course of the rest of the film, like all the best story-tellers, Lee molds and melds all of the story strands into one, bringing them all together in a painfully satisfying manner.

It’s a beautifully measured and meticulously crafted film. Unlike many of the films that have recently come out of Korea, Chan-wook Park’s Old Boy being the most egregious example, it refuses to champion style over content. Instead, and in contrast, its component parts are all employed in service to the story which builds quietly and confidently to a devastating finale.

And rarely will you witness sound being employed quite so powerfully, and yet carefully as it is here. Only Robert Altman and David Lynch are as similarly conscious that story-telling through the medium of film is the combination of images and sound.

Similarly, the plot points that are planted throughout, later to be revealed as the story unwinds, are placed with the minimum of fuss, and therefore to the maximum effect.

The result is a wonderfully balanced, evocative and quietly harrowing film.

You can see the trailer here.

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Sky Arts Doc Showcases Yet Another Side to Miles Davis.

There’s a strong case for suggesting that Miles Davis was the most important musician of the 20th century. Certainly, for four decades he expanded its horizons, repeatedly. And not once but twice he pulled off that allusive feat, the world-wide cross-over hit.

Born into an affluent family in Illinois twixt the musical pillars of Chicago and St. Louis he attended the prestigious Julliard School in New York in the 1940s, but quietly dropped out to take in the sounds of Harlem.

After soaking up all that he could in the company of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and co, by the late 40’s he’d become a regular member of Charlie Parker’s groundbreaking quintet. But by 1949 he’d formed his own nonet, teaming up with arranger Gil Evans. And the Birth of The Cool that that ushered in took Jazz in a whole new direction.

But on returning from Paris, where he’d fallen in love with French icon Juliette Gréco, he quickly sank into depression and drugs. And the next four or five years were wasted pimping to fund them.

Eventually, in 1954, he forced himself home to his father in St Louis where, at least for the moment, he snapped himself out of it. And in the second half of the 50s he re-emerged to form what came to be known as his first great quintet.

Together again with long time friend and arranger Gil Evans, he was joined by John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Connonball Adderley on alto sax, and Bill Evans on piano. The result was the seminal Kind Of Blue and Sketches Of Spain in ’59 and ’60.

More than merely the culmination of what they’d begun with the birth of the cool, this was the mapping out of entirely new terrain.

What had begun with the rejection of bebop had burst forth into something completely new. Instead of the former’s complex virtuosity, which was based around chord progressions, there was an increasing move in the direction of what came to be known as modal jazz.

More and more, performances and albums were seen as complete works to be slowly mined as a whole, rather than as being made up of distinct, component parts.

But if there’s one word to sum Davis up, it’s restlessness.  Regardless of whatever it was that he achieved or where it was that he found himself, he was forever driven to move relentlessly forward, refusing ever to look back.

And by the early 60s, he’d formed the second great and very different quintet. Wayne Shorter came in on sax and Herbie Hancock on piano, as everything else that was going on in the shape-shifting 60s was increasingly incorporated into his music.

By the time Davis embarked on the next stage, keyboard duties would be shared between Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. And what that resulted in was Bitches Brew.

It’s this period that the documentary Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, shown on Sky Arts focused in on. And it was riveting on a number of counts.

By not going into any of the incredible achievements that Davis had already notched up by the time he released Bitches Brew in 1970, they were able to focus instead on how that album came into being, and what made it so groundbreaking.

It also meant that they had enough time to be able to include in it the entire 38 minute set that he and his band gave in front of the 600 000 people at the famous Isle of Wight Festival later on that year.

But more than anything, it emphasized just how pivotal a figure Davis was. The jazz fusion, as it was derisively referred to, that Bitches Brew produced was the result of an extraordinary concoction of diverse elements.

The black panther power funk of James Brown and the acid fuelled psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix were fed into electric keyboards, multi-tracking and tape looping. The results were hypnotic and genuinely ground-breaking.

If this were all he had done, it would have marked him out as one of the century’s key musical figures. But this was the fifth time he’d taken music and extended its boundaries.

First, as part of the Charlie Parker quintet. Then with his own Birth of the Cool. Then there was the first of his quintets, which saw Kind Of Blue become the biggest selling jazz album of all time. Followed by that second quintet, and their seminal performance that that culminated with, Live at the Plugged Nickel in 1965.

And finally, with Bitches Brew, which itself became the biggest selling jazz album of all time, and the Isle of White performance that this documentary rightly celebrates.

Keep your eyes out for this remarkable doc. It is, in every sense, an education.

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Back To The Future with Superb New Dinosaur Jr Album.

The return and reform of bands from bygone and better days rarely makes for a pretty picture. What a refreshing change then that the sight of Dinosaur Junior made when they returned in 2007 with their then new album, Beyond.

They set the tone for much of what happened to indie music in the 90s with their trio of albums from the late 80s. The third of which, Bug provided them with their signature tunes, “Freak Scene” and their cover of the then only recently released Cure track, “Just Like Heaven”.

You can see the video for the former here and the latter here.

They managed to meld and marry the sound of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine with Teenage Fanclub and Led Zeppelin, in their majestic touring rather than their leaden recording guise.

The success of which, predictably, was followed by their immediate break-up in 1990. So when news of their reform emerged in 2005, it was met with justifiable skepticism. Not another trio of washed-up has-beens in need of supplementing their now meager incomes.

So the album that followed two years later, Beyond, was a welcome and all too rare surprise. Somehow, and in an entirely good way, it sounded like they’d never been away.

Maybe it’s that Manichaean mix of theirs forever dueling for dominance. The noisy, dissonant chaos of the distorted feedback versus the elegiac, quiet calm of the dolorous melodies. Punk and metal meets alt country, and all of it decades ahead of its time.

At the centre of it all is J Mascis, the creative force at the core of the band, and, one imagines, the man responsible for its constant state of shifting chaos. There are his so laid back he’s barely awake vocals ignited by a guitar that veers between rare menace and triumphant power chords.

Somehow, and not withstanding all they’d apparently been put through, fellow band mates Lou Barlow on bass and Murph on drums agreed to get back together again. And this, I Bet On Sky is the third of their current comeback albums. And, once again, it’s a gem.

It gets an impressed 7.9 from the boys from Pitchfork here. And you can see the latest video from it here.

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BBC4’s Spectacular Vista of our Voyage to Neptune and Beyond.

For a long time in the 20th century it was widely believed that we would never be able to travel through space further than to our nearest neighbour, Mars. The fuel needed to counter the gravitational pull of the sun and planets would make that impossible.

But when a brilliant PhD student solved one of the great maths’ problems, the whole of the solar system suddenly opened up.

The problem being; how do you work out a space ship’s trajectory when its position is being constantly affected by the huge gravitational pull of the sun to one side, and an enormous planet to the other? Every new position will then be differently affected by both, and in constantly varying ways.

Once that had been solved however, they suddenly realized that you could use that massive gravitational pull as a lasso to fling your space craft off in any direction you liked. Furthermore, you’d be able to do so without using up any fuel whatsoever. Your momentum could propel you indefinitely.

Then another grad student spotted that the four biggest, outer planets, Jupiter, by far and away the biggest, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet in 2004) would all be aligned between 1975-7. We would have to wait another 200 years for the next chance.

So in 1977 the two Voyagers, I and II were launched. And over the next 12 years they sent back extraordinary data and photographs of our four biggest gas planets and their couple of hundred moons.

When Voyager II eventually arrived at Neptune, some 3 billion miles away, they needed to be able to calculate the precise moment it passed the planet’s North pole, to within one, single second! The photographs that resulted were spectacular.

And that it was thought was that. But then Carl Sagan, Nasa’s de facto spokesman had an idea. Why didn’t they get Voyager I, as it sped away from us, to turn around and take a photograph of us from the edge of our solar system?

The result, for my money, is the single most important photograph ever taken.

On the one hand, it’s a timely reminder of how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. But on the other, it’s a celebration of how extraordinary we are. We sent a machine nearly four billion miles and 13 years into the future to take a photograph and send the information back to us, so that all of us can have a look at it today.

Voyager I is 11 billion miles away as we speak and has just reached the outer reaches of our solar system. It’s still sending back data, which it does using a millionth of a billionth of a watt. And the data that it sends takes 15 hours for the speed of light to reach us.

And all of it built in 1977. That, by the way, was the year Apple was launched.

This was about as perfect a television programme as it’s possible to make. And it’s yet another in what is fast proving to be a golden age of science programming from the BBC (see also, for instance, my earlier review of the Antikythera mechanism here).

It struck exactly the right balance between calmly providing the facts, and quietly looking up in awe. And if at all you can, watch it.

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