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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I’ll keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I’ll keep you post­ed every week with all the very best in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I’ll keep you post­ed every week with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, tele­vi­sion and Music.

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 is a pho­to­graph with the Earth seen so small that it takes up less than a sin­gle pix­el (see below).

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.

BBC4’s Voy­ager: to the final fron­tier is yet anoth­er in what is fast prov­ing to be a gold­en age of sci­ence pro­gram­ming from the BBC (see for instance their recent doc on the Antikythera mech­a­nism, The 2000 Year Old Com­put­erhere.)

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.

The Earth seen from Voy­ager 1.