Archives for March 2012

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Brilliant “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”, Where All the World’s a Country.

There’s a famous Italian saying which goes tutto il mondo e’ un paese. It’s sometimes translated as it’s a small world. But we use that in English when we’re far from home and we see something or someone that we only expect to see at home.

Whereas what the Italians mean when they say all the world’s a country, is that even here, miles from home, people live their lives worrying about the same things, and moving to the same rhythms as we all do, wherever we happen to come from. If you want to witness what that looks like, look no further than the brilliant new film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan (pronounced Jay-lan).

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia picked up the runners-up prize at Cannes last year. Unforgivably, the jury gave the Palme d’Or to Malick’s hopelessly overblown The Tree Of Life instead, reviewed here earlier. More fool them, this is a proper film.

In his interview with the London Independent here, Bilge Ceylan says that his latest film owes more to 19th century Russian literature than it does to any fellow film maker, not withstanding its title. And there’s no mistaking the air of doom and that sense of existential angst that hangs over the film, calling to mind the moral fog that so many of Dostoyevsky’s troubled characters are forced to wade through. But more than anything else, it’s the shadow of Chekov that so impressively shrouds it.

As with all of his plays, what we get here is a small group of figures in isolation who offer up a picture of the world in microcosm. A ne’er-do-well and his simpleton brother have killed a man, but they can’t remember where they buried the body. So the film charts the night and early morning as they, the police, the doctor and prosecutor traipse wearily across the barren landscape until they eventually unearth it.

But the actual crime is merely the excuse, the MacGuffin as Hitchcock called it, which allows us to witness the details of the humdrum existence that they lead, and the way in which they and their separate lives are all interconnected. Inevitably, in the course of their journey into the night, they and we discover the particular hidden histories that they are each defined by.

This is a palpable advance on the film that Bilge Ceylan was best known for up until now. Climates, his forth from ’06, had a wonderfully evocative dream sequence on the beach, and an impressively feral and all too believable sex scene at its centre. But the long stretches of ennui and detachment in between were all too life-like. That might be what life is like, but it’s not what most of us want our films to be like. Drama is what you’re left with when all of that has been excised.

Here in contrast, all the time that ticks over in between what little there is in the way of conventional plot is quietly thought-provoking, and serves to build an increasingly complex portrait of everyday lives.

It’s a man’s world to be sure. But as the fleeting apparition of the mayor’s beautiful daughter demonstrates, these are men whose lives revolve around trying to come to terms with the absence of the women in their lives, for whatever their different reasons, and the loneliness that engulfs them ever after.

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BBC’s “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” Educates, Informs and Entertains, Brilliantly.

Monty Don's Italian GardensWatching Monty Don amble lovingly through some of Italy’s most spectacular gardens is rather like watching Bruno Ganz’s angel experiencing the rapture of finally falling in love in Wings Of Desire.

You feel that here’s a man who’s spent all his life burdened with a passion that he somehow couldn’t quite put his finger on. And the sense of joy now that he’s unearthed it is palpable. This man lives and breathes gardening. And it’s infectious. Or rather, he makes it infectious.

Like all the best ideas it seems obvious in retrospect, and it’s slightly surprising that a programme like this hasn’t already been made. But that of exploring Italy via its gardens is an inspired one. And, like most apparently simple things, he could all too easily have got it horribly wrong. Happily though, Don strikes exactly the right balance between the programme’s different elements.

Water, as is becoming increasingly obvious, is by far and away our planet’s most precious resource. So naturally it was the currency through which the Italian aristocracy expressed its wealth. What better way to do so than by extravagantly wasting it as wantonly as possible? And few things waste water quite like an Italian garden.

Episode 1 was centred around Rome, and as he walked us around the grandeur of the Villa D’Este there, Don put the opulence of the garden into the context of the history and the society that helped produce it. But he never lectures, nor do you have the sense that he’s merely showing off. Instead, he’s simply explaining how something that extraordinary came into being.

It’s not a question of him being interested in history and gardening, rather it’s his conviction that it’s not possible to be interested in one without the other. And watching him elaborate and hearing him explain, it’s impossible not to be drawn in.

Similarly, when in subsequent episodes he talks about food and the produce from the land, it’s not yet another area of interest, it’s all part and parcel of what gardening is all about. It’s all of it born of the same passion.

Crucially though, his enthusiasm is tempered by an intelligence that has the capacity to stop, stand back and calmly survey. It’s an intelligence in other words that’s been molded by experience and understands the need to always take your time before reaching any conclusions. Were he back at Cambridge, one of his more annoying classmates might proffer that his is the perfect mix of the Apollonian and Dionysian urges.

Before ever he got the gardening bug, and after a host of other things, he began work as a jobbing writer, and you can get a taste of his talents and this programme here.

If you missed it first time around it’s currently being re-shown on BBC4 on Saturdays. It’s programmes like this, and people like Don that give the BBC its august reputation. And it’s one of the reasons that it continues to be the yardstick against which all other broadcasters are measured. I hope they appreciate him.

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Katie Kim’s “Cover & Flood”, a Serious Album from a Proper Musician.

Katie Kim "Cover & FLood"The wonderfully evocative “Heavy Lighting” (here), which now appears as track 7 on Katie Kim’s second album Cover & Flood, was released as a split single last year together with a Laura Sheeran track. They both performed on the same set at the excellent pop-up event curated by Donal Dineen at last year’s Dublin Contemporary, which I reviewed here earlier.

Sheeran and Kim are part of that new breed of musicians who begin by making use of this dizzying digital revolution that we are all in the midst of to produce impressively finished music from their bedrooms, using little more than a laptop and whatever instruments they happen to have to hand.

When they then begin to perform on stage, they are forced to use the few tools that they are able to carry themselves onto stage in increasingly complex ways, as they are faced with the reality of trying to hold onto an audience’s attention with extraordinary limited resources.

What tends to result is that they learn to produce increasingly involved layers of sound by distorting their voice and instruments, both electronically and digitally, to draw the audience in through what becomes a form of ritual, rhythmic hypnosis.

The problem is, that it’s far from simple to re-translate that sound back onto disc once they return to the studio. What was captivating on stage, can often sound a little dull and repetitive, a tad samey.

So it’s hugely gratifying to be able to report that as hypnotic as she is on stage, Katie Kim is every bit as alluring now that she’s returned to the recording studio in between all that inevitable touring. And impressively, despite being apparently produced in her bedroom, her second album is an even more expansive and confident affair than her first, Twelve, from 2008.

If the sound she produces live can best be referenced by Coco Rosie and Mazzy Star, on disc it’s a slightly more measured affair. A little less primal perhaps, but more panoramic in its stead, and a lot more ambitious in its scope.

There is some distortion and feedback, but on many of the tracks you get the quieter more nuanced sound of Stina Nordenstam, or Joanna Newsom, but without the latter’s angst or sense of struggle. Whilst a track like “Dummer” has clear echoes of Julianna Barwick, reviewed here earlier, with those waves of sound that wash over you and draw you so pleasurably into their depths.

This is a serious album from a proper musician producing a complex, eclectic and singular sound. If there’s a better, more accomplished album produced in Ireland this year, I shall be very surprised indeed.

NPR’s Pitch-perfect “All Songs Considered” Podcast, Your Weekly Music Fix.

At the end of last year, the terribly clever bean counters at The New York Times decided that what the organization needed was to make it more like a traditional newspaper, and less like something more attuned to the 21st century. So they axed nearly all of their superb podcasts, leaving just a skeletal three. And one of those included in the cull was, alas, the excellent Popcast.

So in January of this year I went in search of a replacement podcast for all things musical, and was quickly pointed in the general direction of NPR’s “All Songs Considered“. And despite only tuning in to it for the last few weeks, I can confidently declare it mandatory listening.

National Public Radio is an enlightened attempt in the US to replicate the (at least original) ethos behind the BBC. It’s a non-profit organization and the programmes that are produced there are made by people because they’re the kinds of programmes that they would like to hear aired, and they rightly assume that there must be others who are similarly curious. They are in other words programmes that are made regardless of ratings.

All Songs Considered is the musical version of one of their most successful shows, All Things Considered, and it first aired on the web a little over ten years ago. It’s chaired by Bob Boilen, who created it, and Robin Hilton, and between them they manage to strike exactly the right balance of careful casualness and quiet planning. You get the impression that you’re eaves-dropping on a private conversation, but one that you’re meant to be over-hearing. And the areas that they cover every week with each of their guest reviewers really are all-encompassing.

A recent edition for instance looked at the collaboration between Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the veteran avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Hearing how in awe the former is of the latter, and how unashamedly he echoes him on his soundtrack to There Will Be Blood was a revelation.

In another which focused on electronica, they gave us a taste of the latest project from Joe Goddard, one half of Hot Chip whose The 2 Bears, and yes, they really do dress up and DJ in bear suits, is about to release its debut album.

And it was here too, in an earlier edition again, that I was introduced to the ethereal delights of the bewitching Julianna Barwick, whose album I reviewed here earlier.

Next week they’re previewing this year’s South By Southwest, and the following week they’ll be covering the event proper. SXSW is to music what Sundance is to film. It has in other words become so much a part of the mainstream that referring to it now as being in any way indie is frankly laughable. Nevertheless, it still manages to somehow unearth an undiscovered gem every year.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells (whose follow up album Reign Of Terror has just been released). And on this, its 20th anniversary, it’s unlikely to prove any less illuminating. Either way, the best place to keep tabs on it is All Songs Considered’s pitch-perfect podcast, which you can find here.

5 Worst Films To Win The Oscar For Best Film.

5. Million Dollar Baby (2004). For its first 90 minutes or so (most films’ actual length), Clint Eastwood’s boxer chick flick shuffles along as a poor man’s Rocky. But then, with what’s laughably described as a plot “twist”, it suddenly veers off into the final scene of Betty Blue, which it manages to drag out for a further ¾ of an hour.

Neither one thing nor the other, it manages to be dull and tedious twice over. Incredibly, it triumphed at the expense of the rightly lauded Sideways, the charming Finding Neverland, and Scorsese’s underrated The Aviator.

Having to write Million Dollar Baby was obviously the price that Paul Haggis had to pay for being allowed to direct Crash, which quite correctly won the following year.

4. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003). The final installment of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus affords a third opportunity to spend yet another three hours (3 hours and 20 minutes actually…) watching one set of computer generated characters in a series of increasingly noisome battles with A N Other set. Which, inexplicably, they occasionally do with subtitles.

Watching a video game without being able to participate is the cinematic equivalent of being treated to a lap dance without being allowed to touch. For hours and hours. Oh and it beat Lost In Translation and Clint Eastwood’s superb Mystic River.

3. How Green Was My Valley (1941). Is John Ford the worst film maker of all time? Or is that Kurosawa? They are, as they say, well met.

Either way, just in case you thought that getting it monumentally wrong on Oscar night was a modern phenomenon, Ford’s oh so dull and typically leaden tale of, yawn, a Welsh mining town was duly awarded the gong in 1941. And at whose expense?

Well, for one there was a certain Citizen Kane. Then there was John Huston’s enigmatic and genuinely quirky noir classic, The Maltese Falcon. And William Wyler’s ice-cold but razor-sharp Bette Davis vehicle, The Little Foxes (which, like Kane, was shot by Gregg Toland). As well as Hitchcock’s Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.

2. Titanic (1997). Our very own Ford and Kurosawa rolled into one (see above), the first thing you want to do with James Cameron’s mesmerically tedious  3 hours and 17 minute film is to take each and every one of its shots and chop off their opening and closing 25%. That would bring it down to just over an hour and a half.

You’d lose nothing. You would however see even more clearly that it’s little more than a shot by shot remake of the 1958 film A Night To Remember, but without any of the latter’s charm, social graces or understanding of etiquette. And as for those special effects. Well, they’re certainly special all right.

1. The Artist (2012). Anyone who’s ever done any of those Hollywood screenwriting courses will know that there are a certain number of archetypal plots. One of which is the Ironic Plot, a classic example of which goes as follows; he does something to avoid being caught, and hide his true identity, only to discover that what he does is precisely the thing that leads to him being unmasked.

The one thing that Hollywood is obsessed with, is proving to the rest of the world that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not in fact peopled by philistines. So they fell over themselves in their haste to lavish The Artist (reviewed by me here earlier) with ill-considered praise on the grounds that a) it’s French, b) it’s in black and white, and c) it’s silent.

But by failing to spot its complete absence of drama, or to notice that it’s made up of one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, albethey beautifully drawn ones, whose narrative arc could be comfortably predicted by most below-averagely intelligent 9 year olds, they have, needless to say, confirmed all our worst suspicions. So there you are then, QED.

Appropriately enough I  suppose, Hollywood itself has become a classic example of one of its own genres.