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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