Archives for August 2014

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots on BBC2 and Scottish Independence.

Andrew Marr's Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr is a senior political figure at the BBC, having previously edited the London Independent. More recently, in between hosting Radio 4’s prestigious Start The Week he’s begun presenting his own documentaries. His latest, on great Scottish writers in comfortably his best to date.

The first episode was on James Boswell. Like so many Scots before and since, Boswell was torn between his blinding ambition, which demanded that he leave Scotland and head for London, and the resentment he felt at being forced to do so.

Bizarrely, he ended up teaming up with the archetypal 18th century Englishman, Samuel Johnson. Even more bizarrely, Boswell lured the jingoistic Johnson up north for a tour of Scotland, which both insisted was the most enjoyable couple of months that either of them had ever spent.

The second episode was even more successful, not to say prescient, comparing the contrasting styles and politics of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Scott the conservative unionist who harboured dreams of rebellion, and Burns the Romantic poet par excellence who wrote in florid Scots inciting actual rebellion, but who worked by day as a tax inspector for the British government.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Marr strikes exactly the right balance between literary history and political analysis. Placing these literary giants in the context of the fierce political debate that followed the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament after the act of union in 1707, he sounds out the clear echoes without ever labouring the point.

As a proud Scotsman who nonetheless left his native soil to take the British coin at the BBC in London, Marr knows only too well of what he speaks. Wryly, he reminds us, as the Scottish so often do, that Jekyll and Hyde was written by a Scotsman. That tension that governs how they view the land south of the border and the people who live there has always been there.

So will the Scottish vote for independence this September? I get the impression they are coming to regard that previous vote accepting union some 300 years ago with increasing shame. I’ve a funny feeling the heart might rule the head. That 9-2 is looking extremely inviting. In the meantime, Andrew Marr’s Great Scots continues on BBC 2 on Saturday evening.

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“Robin Wright” in “The Congress”.

Harvey Keitel and Robin Wright in The Congress.

Harvey Keitel and Robin Wright in The Congress.

The Israeli film maker Ari Folman shot into international prominence with the haunting Waltz With Bashir in 2008. Folman, who is one of the head writers on the hit TV show In Treatment, needed to revisit what he’d done as a teenager. As a young soldier he’d been part of the Israeli army’s appalling assault on Sabra and Shatila, when they invaded the Lebanon in 1982.

But the only way he was able to peer into the dark recesses of his psyche was by using the cloak of animation, which acted like the dark of the confessional box, allowing him close his eyes and re-imagine what might have happened there.

The Congress is his much awaited follow up. And it’s an almighty mess. Robin Wright plays a version of herself, who is forced to sell the rights to her digital self so that the studio can go on to make the kinds of films with “her” that they’d like to, without having to actually deal with the moods and tantrums of the actual human being.

Robin Wright as Buttercup with Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride.

Robin Wright as Buttercup with Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride.

But then the film veers wildly into wholly improbable sci fi territory, which it can only do by retreating into animation. And not just any old animation, the kind of far out animation that’s meant to make you fondly recall The Beatles in their Yellow Submarine.

I wish I could tell you that it were just too ambitious. But none of its Big Ideas are in any way explored, they are just bullet points in bold. Will CGI allow Hollywood studios dispense with Talent all together? What’s more important, success or your family? Will future generations be incapable of communicating other than through a screen? Is the digital realm this century’s heroin? Our only means of avoiding the drudgery and disappointment of our daily lives? Etc, and so on.

Worse again, it’s entirely humourless. Imagine what fun Woody Allen might have had with the idea of separating the actress from her digital self. Come to think of it, he did have that idea, in his criminally undervalued The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

Woody Allen's much funnier The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

Woody Allen’s much funnier The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

The Congress is like that episode of the Simpsons when Homer is encouraged by his half brother to design his own car, which itself was a re-working of an old Johnny Cash song. If you take the best bits from your favourite films (or cars) and mould them all together, all you end up with is a dysfunctional eyesore.

Robin Wright and Harvey Keitel are two of modern cinema’s finest actors. Even more remarkably, both have managed that rare feat of navigating the treacherous waters between a large number of small, independent films, interspersed with the occasional more commercial enterprise. Happily, in ten years’ time, no one will remember that either of them had anything to do with this. You can see The Congress trailer here.

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Luluc’s New Album “Passerby” Simmers Sublimely.

Luluc's Passerby.

Luluc’s Passerby.

It’s taken the indie folk duo of Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett six years to come up with their second album as Luluc. In the interim they signed with Sub Pop, home to Fleet Foxes, Beach House and Wolf Parade as well as, a lifetime ago, Nirvana. And last year they contributed the two best tracks on Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake.

Alt country queen Gillian Welch is a fan, and their new album, Passerby was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner in New York’s Valhalla borough of Brooklyn.

So we oughtn’t to have been too terribly surprised with the result. Nonetheless, this really is a gorgeous album. Simon and Garfunkel harmonies cloaked in the elegiac melancholia of the aforementioned Drake.

But the figure most clearly evoked throughout is that of Nico. Across the album, Randell’s vocal lines stay unexpectedly flat, only occasionally veering triumphantly up. The results are simultaneously soothing and quietly thrilling.

Nico in La Dolce Vita before joining Reed and Warhol in The Velvet Underground.

Nico in La Dolce Vita before joining Lou Reed and Andy Warhol in The Velvet Underground.

All of which was perfectly captured in the performance they gave of the title track a year and half ago in Dingle for RTE’s mandatory Other Voices here, accompanied by Mr Dessner on keyboards.

Luluc are due to go out on tour with J Mascis, who recently resurrected Dinosaur Jr for their excellent comeback album I Bet On Sky, reviewed earlier here.

That’ll be an interesting combination. In the meantime, have a look at the video for the opening track on their album, Small Window here.

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Some Forgotten Classics (and a Turkey) at Dublin’s IFI Dublin this August.

Dorleac and Deneuve in Rochefort.

Dorleac, Deneuve and Gene Kelly in Rochefort.

The Films Maudits (cursed films) Festival was begun by Jean Cocteau and friends in 1949 to give people the chance to have a look again at a few films they felt had been unfairly overlooked first time around. This August in Dublin, the IFI honours that tradition with its own mini maudits festival.

Last Wednesday they screened François Truffaut’s Le Peau Douce (‘64). After the huge success of his first three films, The 400 Blows (’59), Shoot the Pianist (‘60) and especially the joyous Jules et Jim (‘62) this dour examination of adultery was always going to be a hard sell, and they walked out of its screening at Cannes in their droves.

They were trying to make a morally neutral film about adultery in which the man and the two women were treated equally. Unfortunately, the man is all too believably ordinary, and you’re never really sure what either of the two women see in him.

It is though an all too rare opportunity to see the effervescent and radient Françoise Dorléac. Catherine Deneuve’s elder sister was killed in a car accident at the age of 25 in 1967, soon after they’d both finished filming the insanely overlooked The Young Girls of Rochefort, a sort of 12th Night to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s Romeo and Juliet. Deneuve said she never really got over it.

Monica Vitt and Alain Delon.

Monica Vitti and Alain Delon.

She, and Nelly Benedetti as the firey wife, make this film worth catching up on.

On Sunday 10th there’s a rare chance to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (‘62). The final part of his Monica Vitti trilogy, it wasn’t actually this film that caused such consternation at Cannes, it was the first part, L’Avventura (’60).

But let’s not split hairs, any chance to see one of cinema’s towering masterpieces should be grabbed with grateful hands. Vitti and Alain Delon framed by Antonioni, scripted by Tonino Guerra and shot by the master DoP Gianni Di Venanzo, who the following year shot 8 ½ (‘63) and then Giulietta Delgi Spiriti (‘65) for Fellini.

Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar".

Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar”.

After the politically savvy The Manchurian Candidate (’62) and Seven Days In May (‘64) John Frankenheimer made Seconds in ‘66 with Rock Hudson. Reviled at Cannes, it too has been completely reassessed. You can see it on Wed 13th.

Then on Sat 16th there an incredibly rare chance to see Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again. After the magisterial Johnny Guitar (’54) reviewed earlier here and Rebel Without A Cause (’55) – and in a parallel universe somewhere, there’s a version of that film with the actor he’d originally wanted in the lead, one Elvis Presley – Ray ended up teaching film students at Harpur College in New York.

He made this with them during his time there, and continued editing it before heading over to Cannes, where he discovered that the venerable film festival there was built on a far more lucrative porn festival that goes on there literally underground. And so his twilight years were spent ahem “acting”. Which is not something you’ll find on his Wikipedia entry.

Anna Paquin and Matt Damon in "Margaret".

Anna Paquin and Matt Damon in “Margaret”.

On Sun 17th you can see Kenneth Lonergan’s unjustly overlooked Margaret (’11), which I reviewed earlier here. And if you haven’t yet seen his magnificent You Can Count on Me (’00), lucky you. It’s all ahead of you. Here’s Margaret’s trailer. And, going from the sublime to the ridiculous, the mini festival ends with the risible Heaven’s Gate (’80), which I reviewed earlier here.

All the above are happily available of dvd. And, the last named aside, they all deserve a re-visit.

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5 Albums You Might Have Missed This Year.

NPR's no 1 choice.

NPR’s no 1 choice.

A few weeks ago the good people on NPR’s mandatory All Songs Considered podcast, reviewed earlier here, ran a 50 Best Albums, Songs, Bands and Surprises of the year so far set of lists, here. Here are 5 from that list that I’d missed and that, happily, I’ve now caught up on.

5. Say Yes To Love, by Perfect Pussy.

This was the one album that they all had at the top of their lists. 23 minutes of un-sanitised, triumphantly aggressive, raw post punk, that somehow manages to be significantly more nuanced that it has any right to be. You can hear Big Stars here.

4. High Life, by Brian Eno & Karl Hyde.

Earlier this year Eno and Underworld’s Karl Hyde got together to record Someday World, reviewed earlier here. After they’d finished that more formal album, they recorded a number of tracks live, where each would respond to what the other was doing as they were doing it. With Hyde on guitar and Eno on assorted synths, this is a far more organic sounding album, and is a propulsive echo of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the album Eno made with David Byrne in 1981. You can hear DBF here.

The debut album from the Family Crest.

The debut album from the The Family Crest.

3. Sylvan Esso, by Sylvan Esso.

This is the sort of mellifluous, melody heavy indietronica we used to hear from Valerie Trebeljahr with Lali Puna, or The Notwist back in the day – and the latter’s most recent, more poppy album was another of their recommendations. Structured minimalism to digital beats softened and quietly transformed by the female lead vocal that gently leads the melody. Here’s their video for Coffee.

2. Beneath The Brine, by The Family Crest.

These classically trained, multi instrumentalist art rockers from San Francisco are as happy referencing jazz, swing or Weill as they are Bowie of Boland. This is the sort of quietly sophisticated, gloriously epic sound that we had hoped the Arcade Fire would one day produce. Here’s the video for Love Don’t Go.

Dominic Palermo's heady nihilism.

Dominic Palermo’s heady nihilism.

1. Guilty Of Everything, by Nothing.

Sent to jail for two years for stabbing a man, former Horror Show front man Dominic Palermo (yes, that is his real name) discovered Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky there whilst evidently listening to My Bloody Valentine and the 4AD Records back catalogue. This is the debut album form the new band he’s formed. Industrial, post-apocalyptic noise becalmed by breathy vocals. Majestic. You can see the video for Bent Nail here.

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