Archives for January 2013

Forget Tarantino, if you Want a Real Western Watch the Peerless “Johnny Guitar”.

johnny-guitar-movie-poster-1954-1020143876Nicholas Ray’s 1954 film Johnny Guitar is one of the truly great westerns. It’s also one of the first meta westerns.

Once the stranger of the title has ridden into town, the first scene proper unfolds in the saloon. It’s 15 minutes of pure dialogue. And it’s one of the best written, performed and directed pieces of drama you’ll ever see.

Absolutely everything is set up in it. Good versus evil. The two rival gangs, and the abject hatred that their two leaders have for each other. The competing love interests, and the conflict that erupts as the townsfolk are faced with the arrival of the modern world in the form of the railroad.

But all of this is turned completely upside down by the fact that the two gang leaders are women!

Not only that, but the two actresses in question, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge visibly detested one another.

So everything we find in this quintessentially male landscape is gloriously undermined. And the Johnny Guitar of the title isn’t the hero at all. He’s just the hero’s love interest. Not only that, but he’s played by Sterling Hayden.

JG2Hayden might have been a 6 foot 5 Nordic God. But he was also unavoidably threatening. He would later appear in Kubrick’s The Killing, as the mad general in Dr. Strangelove, the corrupt police Captain in The Godfather (who breaks Al Pacino’s jaw), and as the unhinged writer in Altman’s brilliant hymn to film noir, The Long Goodbye.

Not your conventional hero then. Indeed the whole landscape is peopled by similarly conflicted, gloriously Freudian archetypes.

So not only is this a genuinely great western, it also deconstructs all of the elements that a traditional western is made up of. Crucially though, this is done by Ray to heighten our emotional investment in the characters involved.

If for instance all Pirandello had done in Six Characters In Search Of An Author, was to deconstruct the formal elements of the play, instead of using this to accentuate our emotional involvement with his characters, then he wouldn’t have produced the seminal work that he did. Instead of Pirandello, all we’d have got would have been Stoppard. Clever, but vacuous.

Django-Unchained-wallpapers-1920x1200-2Which, once again, is all we get with the latest Tarantino film. He doesn’t deal with real people, so his films don’t produce genuine emotions. All he’s interested in are characters from the movies.

So when John Travolta gets killed in the middle of Pulp Fiction, you smile and think How terribly clever. But when one of your lead characters gets killed, you’re not supposed to think anything. You’re supposed to feel devastated.

When Beckett, Pinter or Sarah Kane explored the formal constructs of drama, they did so to enhance the emotional heft of the works they produced.

Which is what Ray does here in Johnny Guitar. And that’s what makes it truly great. Not the formal games, but the emotional end that they serve.

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Alt J Album is a Triumph of Marketing over Music.

Alt-J-An_Awesome_Wave-FrontalAlt J’s debut album An Awesome Wave was favourite for and duly won last year’s Mercury Music prize in the UK. Nothing necessarily wrong with that.

The xx won it in 2010 with their debut (I reviewed their excellent follow-up here), and previous winners include Portishead and P.J. Harvey, the only one so far to have won it twice.

But Alt J were omitted from as many Best Of lists at the end of last year as they were included in.

Their supporters will tell you that that’s because, like Joanna Newsom, the sound that their lead singer makes divides people, Marmite-like, straight down the middle. Enchanting as many as it infuriates.

One of whom, by the bye is the otherwise bullet proof Bob Boilen of NPR’s fab All Songs Considered, the podcast of which I reviewed earlier here.

In reality though, when you do get around to actually listening to the much trumpeted work, it’s crashingly underwhelming. As Gertrude Stein said famously of Oakland California, “there’s no there there”.

It’s perfectly competently produced, and sounds reassuringly slick. And the ubiquitous, propulsive single, “Tessellate” is a jaunty little number that promises much. But, with the exception of the catchy “Matilda”, none of the rest of the album lives up to it.

107974Instead, as the review in Pitchfork suggests here, where it gets a dismissive 4.8, there’s an unmistakable air of fabrication, both to the album and to the band in general.

What we have here in other words is this year’s Mumford and Sons. But in place of the cod authenticity that Mumford use to cloak their vacuity, Alt J rely instead on the projection of a diffident quirkiness. Both add up to the same thing though; the emperor’s new clothes.

And whilst of course there is as much room in this world for manufactured indie boy bands as there is for their pop-idol counterparts, the M(ercury) people really ought to have known better.

You can see the video for the single here. 

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5 Best Films about Hollywood.

2800338627_c5df023aac5. A Star Is Born

The 1954 version, obviously. Directed by George Cukor, scripted by Dorothy Parker and starring Judy Garland as the innocent ingénue discovered by Hollywood heart-throb James Mason. Her “Born In A Trunk” medley makes this a genuine Hollywood classic.

And make sure it’s the restored 176 minute version from 1983. They stitched it together by inserting publicity stills in place of some of the lost footage. But it all works surprisingly well, and looks at times like a carefully planned art-house film.


4. The Player

Supposedly an indictment of Hollywood, Robert Altman’s clever thriller is in fact a closet celebration of the system it slyly pretends to satirize. The sub plot centres around a horribly believable caricature of a European writer, whose sincerity is flagged by his refusal to allow his opus to be sullied by anything as vulgar as stars.

But he quickly sees the light. And his movie ends as Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts enjoy a gloriously clichéd, Hollywood kiss.

The film’s amorality and triumphant cynicism are punctuated by the pitch perfect cameos from everyone who was anyone at the time it was made, in 1992.


wallpaper043. Mulholland Dr.

As David Thomson pointed out in his perceptive review, the “Dr” of the title stands a much for Dreams as it does for Drive, where the film is set in the Hollywood hills.

A director, an actress and a starlet move from dream to nightmare and back again in a series overlapping and interweaving scenarios. The idea of Hollywood being presided over by an actual cowboy is all too appealing, but only David Lynch would have imagined him taking his responsibilities completely seriously.


Visually arresting and hauntingly evocative, it is, given its troubled history (it was originally begun as a TV series) a surprisingly engaging film, that delivers an unexpected emotional punch.


2. Sunset Boulevard

William Holden is the embittered writer, Gloria Swanson the faded goddess from a bygone age, and Eric Von Stroheim (who directed the majestic Greed in 1924) her butler in Billy Wilder’s razor-sharp satire of the industry they were all working in.

It’s hard to know what’s more contemptuous; Wilder’s casting of Swanson and Stroheim as painful parodies of their former selves, or the latter’s agreement to both act in the film.


rg363b1. The Bad And The Beautiful

An actress (Lana Turner if you don’t mind), a writer and a director are forever embittered after an archetypally ambitious Hollywood producer launches their respective careers as only he could; as a means of furthering his own.

Played with irresistible charm by Kirk Douglas, his Jonathon Shields projects the perfect mix of magnetism and ruthlessness. And of the many, many details that the film gets absolutely spot on, my favourite is the coat of arms he insists on hanging portentously on the gates to his mansion.

They read: non sans droit. “Not without right”. Which was the motto originally penned by one William Shakespeare on his coat of arms.

That this is never referred to in its dialogue is a testament to the film’s infectiously confident swagger. And director Vincente Minnelli somehow strikes the perfect balance between sophisticated cynicism and exuberant, heady melodrama.

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Oh So Dull “Life Of Pi” Confirms the Death of 3D.

Zhang-Ziyi-9Ang Lee is one of the most formidable film makers working anywhere in the world. After beginning with the charming The Wedding Banquet (’93) and Eat Man Drink Woman (’94), he made two of the very best films of the last two decades.

Sense And Sensibility (’95) and The Ice Storm (’97) combine subtlety, intelligence and range with a visceral, emotional depth. And they both capture perfectly the social mores and political complexities of 19th century England and 1970s America.

He followed that up in 2000 with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The physical ties and bonds that bind human beings together and drive them apart have rarely been explored quite so tangibly. And few films are as emotionally satisfying and as enigmatically layered.

peopleglassesge_450x300Life of Pi is its exact opposite. An obviously gay writer expresses his devotion by sitting and listening as an Indian man tells an interminable tale of a tiger on a raft. And we have to sit through the guts of two hours, as a computer generated tiger “interacts” with a CGId boy, raft and sea. And the only hold that it might conceivably have on your attention is the fact that it’s all shot in 3D.

When television arrived in the 50s, cinema responded by re-inventing itself to burst forth in glorious Cinemascope, and then in 3D. Then, when video arrived in the 70s, cinema responded once again with a still underwhelming version of 3D.

And, with the arrival of the Internet in the first decade of the new century, 3D was once again wheeled out to stave off the imminent demise of cinema. This time it was going to save television as well.

But everything we see in the cinema and on television is already in 3D. All “3D” does is to extend that illusion from the screen to your eyes. And yes, now that technology has finally caught up with it, for the first minute or so, it really is extraordinary to behold.

HowToMarryAMillionaireBut there are only so many fireflies you can be amazed by as they appear to be buzzing but inches away above your ears. The second minute is perfectly fine. But by the third minute, you get used to it. And you go back to the actual story.

If you want to see what the future holds for 3D, have a look at the woeful How To Marry A Millionaire. It was the first film to be shot in Cinemascope. And shorn of its WOW factor, today it looks hopelessly clumsy and embarrassingly thin. And what a criminal waste of Marilyn Monroe and, dear Lord, Lauren Bacall.

As for television, why would anybody want to watch, say a sporting event or a documentary in 3D? They’re already in 3D. What’s going to be added by utilizing the space in between the screen and your eyes when viewing them?

I hope that whatever bills he needed to get paid when he agreed to take this on have now been serviced. But Life Of Pi I’m afraid can be added to the Hulk (’03) as yet another pointless exploration of video game technology destined for a dusty shelf somewhere.

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