Sunday, 18 February 2007

buck befriends bond

Martin Campbell, 2006

Ah, the new Bond. Some critic said that it has the best opening sequence... since when, compared to what, I don't recall (Mark Kermode mentioned it.) Well I sat there in the cinema, finally deciding to pay up and serve my curiosity, and, hey what's this? Arty black and white? Noir Bond? And - BAM!! Brutal fight in public toilets. And, BOP! A dry one-liner and the opening song kicks in. Well, the Chris Cornell and David Arnold song is underwhelming but nonetheless, the hair on the back of your neck ought to be bristling. And then - cobra fight! Very retro-Bond. And then - that free-running chase in which the muscles of your jaw are loosening. I don't believe an opening hooked and shook and excited me so much since "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers".
I had been urged to see "Casino Royale" because of an reawakened interest in the early Bonds I had last year mixed with good reviews for the new one. I had just recently watched "Dr. No" and "From Russia With Love" again (Christmas presents). I was surprised at how measured the pace of "Dr No" actually was, how economical it was with its absurd villain, how it was straight-faced about its ridiculousness. Slick and even faintly sinister. "From Russia With Love" even better, arguably due to two brilliantly iconic fight scenes: the claustrophobic train fight, which takes a couple of minutes but apparently three weeks to film, and which hurts; and the showdown with Rosa Klebb - a frenzied, insane old lady pinned by a chair like a wild animal; lethal spiked shoes. Unforgettable.
Famously, Bond descended into a campness and overblown hokum because, well, the public liked it. Whenever the series has famously tried to return to a more earnest and bruised agenda, it has famously been called a failure. Even "The Man With The Golden Gun" was deemed mostly a minor effort for its relative modesty (I think I quite like that one, actually). And apparently action fans, like horror fans, like one-liners and puns with their ultra-violence. I have never really understood that. At least with "Casino Royale", the few one-liners seem a part of the fabric; they don't capsize the drama ~ this too is like the early Bonds. And here, Bond's ego, misogyny and barely hidden brutality - all points of critical interest and fault-finding - are all points of character and plot. Like any typical mother, "M" simultaneously chastises and cultivates him as he tears around exotic locales in an attempt to undermine and reign in a man who funds terrorism and plays poker. Some think that the key card game doesn't make good drama, that it's boring and goes on and on. But it is the mundane, forced ritual of the table, the mind games played there and the skill required, that are meant to absolutely be 007's forte. Indeed, it is the conflict between his needing to maintain his sharp cool at the table whilst being interrupted between hands by various attempts on his life that surely create drama and tension? "That last hand nearly killed me," he says, and indeed we feel the quip is earned. There he is, playing poker with knuckles that have the skin torn off. Leaving aside the convenient fact that nobody seems to notice this, let alone question it, isn't it an apt symbol of what Bond is about?
And Daniel Craig's Bond is a scary proposition. You wouldn't want to get on his bad side. Aside from those steely, seemingly unblinking blue eyes, he has a physique and cold determination that makes you believe he can sprint for miles in pursuit of his quarry, or take some serious torture in his stride. And the gratuitous product placement even becomes absorbed into the ethos, for Bond is also all about that surface glitz, that cultural passport that knowing the right brand names allows you. OK, at this stage - and this is meant to be an origin story of sorts - he is a rough diamond. He needs a well-cultured girl to tell him what a real suit is, and when he first preens in front of the mirror wearing it, and that Bond bassline slithers beneath the moment, we can almost feel his vanity and awareness doubling up. Craig makes Bond vital again and I bet those that didn't believe he could do it are shaking at the prospect of a house visit.
casino royale
No no, really, everyone seems mighty happy to have Craig prove the sceptics wrong, and not least the sceptics themselves. How Bond became nothing less than a British institution is quite odd, and surely the series has run on goodwill and the reputation of better earlier efforts? Hmm but how "British" Bond actually is open for debate: he's positively European and American friendly now, if you check out "Casino Royale"s listed country/s of origin. ...But now, we have a film in which everyone seems to have wanted Bond to matter once again. I was convinced. Too long? Possibly, but I can't say I wanted it to end. I held my breath in the brilliant action sequences and wallowed in the slower patches. The romance? Well, they tried to make it a key to his personality, and it didn't insult the intelligence. Eva Green, Caterina Murino and Ivana Milicevic all looked incredible and had the chance to play with Bond girl conventions. Even the bad guy was underplayed... someone with a foreign accent and an eyelid that weeps blood. Mads Mikkelson quietly stands his ground against Craig without ever seeming to want to upstage him. Menace rather than madness.
It's an almighty reboot, and perhaps the best action film of 2006. I am already thrilled at the thought of seeing it again, and that is the sign I was thoroughly entertained. It is going to be really interesting to see what they do next. Finally, the excited interest in the next Bond will be warranted. Will they remake the earlier Fleming titles, but stick closer to the original plots? Will they hold on to their self-confidence and sidestep a lot of that Evil Genius Plots World Domination stuff? One can only hope. I am waiting expectantly. And trying to look both impeccably cool and brutish as I do so

casino royale 3

Saturday, 17 February 2007

obligatory 2006 comments

END OF YEAR FILM ROUND-UP

I was kick-started on my end-of-year retrospecive by seeing that "Sight and Sound" critics voted "Cache/Hidden" top dog of 2006, and for all my reservations about Haneke's intents, he makes great psychological horrors. "Cache" and "Borat" were probably the biggest shockers of the year, in different ways and for different reasons, obviously, and they showed what their respective genres really could do. Did "Cache" doth protest too much? Was "Borat" a case of the Emporer's New Clothes? Intellectual, moral and discursive challenges abounded from these two, and their reputations will stick for a long, long time, I'm sure. How "Borat" will appear come ten, twenty years time will be fascinating to see, if it is remembered at all. "Cache's" immediate long-term prestige is probably a foregone conclusion.

Inevitably there were so many films on the list that I didn't see, although I guess many were are always going to be festival entries. But I did get to a couple of festivals to see a couple of coming-of-age flicks, and they were both highlights.
In fact, rather than Top Ten, I am going to do this instead:

My most MEMORABLE MOMENTS IN A CINEMA had to be:

- Seeing "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" at the London Film Festival and chatting with the director Aureaus Solito in the lobby afterwards.
- Watching "Slither" and at the end, seeing a group of under-15s huddling around to talk loudly and proudly at how grossed out they had been.
- Hearing and feeling an entire audience jump out of their seats during "Cache".
- Ditto audience's mounting horror and disbelief during the "Borat" wrestling tour-de-force.
- Taking a Russian and Polish friends to some old-style cinema to see "Superman Returns": I had forgotten what it was like to go to a non-multiplex picture house. The screen was surrounded by a black frame sprinkled with little lights meant to look like stars. Wow! The sound seemed to come from some elaborate loud-hailer device. There was even an unwieldly 'interval' in the middle which freaked out the students no end (it just confused them). The place was frayed rather than grubby, and one of a dying breed. It was kinda neat.

- PLEASED that "The Squid and the Whale" got a large critical and commercial response. A real triumph of a good product attracting the attention due to quality. A prime example that American character drama can be slick, accessable, intelligent and true, even with the most soap operatic of premises. A film that felt too short. Funny too. A real little gem.

- MOST SMART AND INTRIGUING HOLLYWOOD FEATURE which I saw was "Good Night, And Good Luck". Critic Demetrious Matheou wrote: "Confirms Clooney as the heir to Warren Beatty: a matinee idol with brains, brimming with liberal commitment." And I agree with every syllable. It felt adult and worthwhile, and packed with elegant performances. "Thank You For Smoking" gets and honourable mention.

- FAVOURITE CROWDPLEASER: "Drommen/We Shall Overcome" - so you know how these things go and that the good guys win (The English title variation states as much) but sometimes predictable narrative can still be rendered with smarts and nuance. So the good guys win, but the struggle here certainly takes its toll.

- ANIMATED HIGHLIGHTS of the year were
(1) "A Scanner Darkly", which I suspect will be a sleeper cult hit who will gather status as the years drift on. For good and bad, it captured the essence of Philip K Dick brilliantly, including (and this is where the 'bad' comes in) the anti-climatic come-down ending. Those are the Dick endings that haunt you, but they are also the endings that only seem to really hit you the second time you watch a film. The animation was something else and captured all the otherworldly drugginess that is usually shown in lame "trip" sequences. It was as much about loss of identity and reliable reality as Lynch ever was, and just as scary for that.
(2) And yes, I am going to put up "Monster House" as a highlight. Despite a gratuitous ending, any Joe Dante fan should lap this up. It was just so great to find a kid's animation that wasn't trying to be so hip and knowing and post-modern. No, this was a great minor horror with some real nastiness, a neat script and real charm. It touched my soft spot for American Suburban Horrors. Funny too.

AND TO MENTION:
"X-Men3: The Last Stand": Of course it is customary now to lament that Bryan Singer jumped the X-ship for a grand homage to Superman, and it is a shame never to know what he would have delivered. What we do have is Brett Ratner directing and a sense that someone said, "Well, if Singer's not here, let's just round the whole thing up for no good reason." But although X-Men has always been full of doom-mongering, and although taking note of mutant mortality ups the stakes, mutants get thrown into the mix and bumped off seemingly at random and without much reflection. Angel has a fantastic introduction as a kid, a scene that taps into the heart of the struggle with being "different", and leads to nothing but Angel spreading his wings. Similarly, the bald kid who can nullify mutations - and doesn't everyone in sci-fi living in a room-cum-laboratory wear white?? - gets to ... do nothing. There is enough plot for two or three X-mens here. The bald kid and the mutant "cure"; a hint of Sentinals; Dark Phoenix; the Morlock uprising; Angel's coming-out... there just seems too much. It's all handled with great gusto and action sequences, and it's a fun superhero flick, but perhaps we had expected something a little more nuanced because of its predecessors. Less sense of build-up and more bangs. It also edges towards the more cosmic end of X-Men stories with Dark Phoenix, but just rounds things up with a little stage-tragedy. For my money, Kelsey Grammer was a surprising, inspired and wonderful piece of casting (who would have thought he'd play a blue furball?) and, inevitably, gave an effortless depth to his character and stole every scene without having particularly much to go on. Too much, too quickly dealt with.

"Silent Hill": Christophe Gans gives great visuals here, and despite awesome atmosphere and a good little conclusions, fails like so many horrors at the last hurdle. That is, I don't believe a spooker needs acres of narrative if the visuals generate nightmare logic and ambiance (hence my tolerance for "The Grudge" franchise, for example), and inevitably "Silent Hill" soon becomes tedious as soon as it rounds up with backstory, explanations and blood-splattered finale. Or maybe it is just the backstory here is tired and familiar and comes at the expense of all else. "The Descent", for example, showed that location, execution and subtext could elevate the thinnest of narratives into something special. All "Silent Hill" made me think was, hmm, bet I will enjoy playing that (I haven't yet).

"The Hills Have Eyes": Sabotaged by gratuitous backstory. All of sudden, once the mutant starts droolingly accusing humanity of heinous immorality, you realise the film is hollow. I didn't buy that preachiness for one minute; don't believe Alexandre Aja cares about those matters one jot, not even in any schlocky B-movie sense. Despite some serious gore and violence, some great visuals of car-park craters and Atomic Testing towns, and another great rendering of the horrible mid-set piece seige, Aja can't quite knock up that closing intelligence that would really knock his horrors into crossover appeal. For all its shabbiness, this doesn't supercede the Wes Craven original.

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning": - where they put in all the bits that people only thought they would see in Hooper's original. Backstory sabotage again. It scores for being more like "Wolf Creek" than "Friday the 13th", but you still walk away knowing it wasn't much.

"DEMENTED" - your average French mood piece about a disintegrating rural family, but I am a sucker for this kind of thing. Bolstered by a couple of brilliant moments, good acting and a startling anti-performance by the lead kid.

My GUILTY PLEASURES, as ever, were b-horrors. You know, the brief chills from "The Grudge 2", "Silent Hill"... Er. No excuses really.


A Bite of Laymon


RICHARD LAYMON: “BITE”


When I was about, oh, fourteen, I made a shift from science-fiction to horror literature. I was on holiday somewhere by the English coast, and in the creaky rotating wire rack in the beach-balls-and-postcards shop, there was a book with the most surprisingly graphic cover: A decapitated head at the bottom of a flight of stairs, a shadowy figure with an axe at the top. At least, I am sure that is what that particular edition of Richard Laymon’s “Night Show” showed – I remember the head the most. No one stopped me buying such an obviously repellent book. It was certainly as nasty as I wanted. I read a few of his books but wasn’t a grand fan. But a year ago, on the long dark search for good, bloody hell, just some decent horror writing, I started reading Laymon again. And now I am a fan.

What I always liked about Laymon (1947-01) is that he is a writer who seems to know his limitations and just gets on with all the mayhem and ugliness. This, I want to stress, is rare. The writing is stripped down and straight-forward, the dialogue believable and full of hooks. He'll start right in the middle of the horror, but then spend ages drawing out the suspense of one scenario. Or he'll kill of the characters you think you're rooting for and move on to other hapless victims. Laymon is nihilistic, cynical, brutal and uncompromising and happily beats genre motifs down into his own preferred ugliness. And then you find there is often more happening than you suspected. For example, you will read "The Woods Are Dark", but it is only when you reach the end that you discover you were reading H.P. Lovecraft homage all along, rather than just a "The Hills Have Eyes" variation. And he shocks too.

"Bite" seems like it will be an average vampire novel, and we start right in. Cat knocks on Sam's door; they haven't seen each other in a long, long time, but he still pines for her. She needs his help to kill a vampire who is feeding off of her at night, she says. Sam says, well, okay. Is Elliot a vampire? He sure behaves weirdly and brutally, and he comes donned with a cape and metal fangs. But... is he really a vampire? They kill him and set off to dispose of the body, and that's when the couple's troubles really begin.

Every minor dilemma gets a couple of chapters at least: Laymon draws out the problems and twists of disposing of this body on a skeletal narrative, but it drags you in. And then suddenly "Double Indemnity" gets mentioned, and you realise that you are reading Laymon's version of film noir. Cat is a severely victimised woman with all the credentials of a prime femme fatale, but is she? Are we being lulled into believing her incredible history of abuse? We are stuck with Sam's perspective, and suddenly we can't trust anyone or anything. Bad luck - or is it? - has them meeting up with bully biker Snow White (or is he a biker?), who proves to be their true nemesis. Do we believe Snow White's hostage Peggy when she says he is torturing and threatening her young brother? Is there a boy at all? Sam and Cat are taking on the American road, but we know it's filled with dangerous eccentrics and victims-in-waiting. Sometimes this couple are smart; sometimes they are dumb. They negotiate every plan of action. Suddenly the novel's immediate opening proves a false lead: Laymon isn't interested in fast and furious horrors, but in the drawing out of an improbable scenario, keeping it the right side of plausible and turning the screws and throwing in a number of surprises. "Duel" and "Detour" come to mind. If Hitchcock liked monster horror, and made a vampire the McGuffin... Vampire noir, anyone?

buck bonds with 007

Growing up with ...
JAMES BOND


Growing up in the seventies and eighties, it's inevitable that I grew up with Bond in some way. Bond sign-posted special occasions, such as Bank Holidays and Christmas. There was always a 007 to catch up on or remind yourself of, always heralded with "Bond. Is. Back." It was near enough a patriotic duty to watch the Bond... practically mandatory... and I guess it is still meant to be. I was a kid when I saw "The Spy Who Loved Me," "Moonraker" and "For Your Eyes Only" at the cinema (1977, '79' '81) What do I recall remembering about them? Richard Kiel as Jaws, an arachnid-like underwater base; "Star Wars" tendencies and a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" security code gag; A parrot and some snow. When you're young, you're quite inoculated to the tackiness of these 007 outings, you go with the silliness and the puns - which I was used to from the "Carry On" films and Saturday night TV. I remember watching "Octopussy" ('83) when it came out, renting it on VHS of course, and watching it maybe two or three times in a week. Dear Lord, how weak and camp it actually turned out to be.

Of course, these weren't my only points of reference for Bond: I knew all the earlier stuff. "You Only Live Twice", for example. I was intrigued at the conundrum of the title, and knew I loved the sweeping strings of John Barry's music and the longing in the theme song. And I loved it equally when the Trash Can Sinatras did a heartbreaking cover of it. I remember thinking Roger Moore was the "funny" bond ... I didn't know what 'tongue-in-cheek' was, but I knew that "From Russia With Love" wasn't it. No, Bond number two related far more to my knowledge of steely, humourless Cold War-esque Seventies thrillers. I knew Bond was exotic, because he travelled and kick butt in countries that were only now being promised to us with the incredible opportunities of Concorde and and developing holiday industries. I knew Bond slept with any attractive woman onscreen and that they all had dirty names, not that I could quite work out why or how. I knew he wasn't part of the real world.

Apart from the mini Austin Martin car I possessed (pop-up bulletproof shield and ejector-seat! - the latter doomed to be lost...somewhere...), I also owned a book of Bond. Probably called "Book of Bond", I forget. It was a book without a wraparound jacket, so I was left with the serious black hardcover to contemplate. Inside, the book was packed with all the things you had to have or do or know to be a spy. I was young and impressionably and took much of this as rote and truth, and it panicked me that you had to have, do or know these things. It was threatening and anxiety-provoking because it seemed to be an analogy for all the adult things I would have to do, and couldn't, and was expected to succeed at. Masculine things.

And Bond is nothing if not an mythical machismo. Being British, of course, it is suave and viper-like. It cuts you down with a deadly karate move and a neat one-liner, set off with either a sadistic smirk or raised eyebrow. And in a suit. It's very British, that. You reserved and repressed yourself until the right moment, and then struck at just the correct point in a surge of precise violence. I'd seen "The Avengers" and I adored "The Prisoner", so I knew all this. Americans, however, were earthier men, in cowboy and soldier outfits, chomping cigars with shark-like teeth a'la James Coburn, James Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. Or Magnum P.I. I like, and probably still like Bond best when he is silent, suited and deadly. Bond versus Oddjob... well, that was glorious. Lethal Englishness against the inscrutability of the East.

I also knew that "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was meant to be the crap one, because it had that other Bond who only appeared once. But that's a general fallacy, it seems, and I note a lot of reclamation of George Lazenby's outing in later criticism by more serious aficionados. Truth is, Lazenby does seem to be the perfect embodiment of the morphing from hallowed Connery to variable Moore. He looks and acts like he handle himself in a fight, and yet comes burdened with those puns that diffuse the horror of his murderous manner. "He branched off." Despite this, it was a film that, for all its silliness of brainwashed colour-coded national females stereotypes and so on, tried to have the sharper edge of the first Bonds. Oh yes, and tried to shade him in with an ill-fated wife. Diana Rigg makes the film, and when she turns up late in the adventure on the ice rink and smiles, you realise how sorely she's been missed for the middle chunk. The other fluff can't compete. And Lazenby was unfairly dismissed. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" still seemed to possess the Bond qualities that I liked most: good action; a certain edge of threat, rather than the TV-humour, tacky moments and excesses of, say, "Live and Let Die". Does the franchise's humour and campness increase as Bond's misogyny and sadism falls out of favour towards the Twenty-First Century? And yet Dalton was chastised for returning to the earlier seriousness... Brosnan settled a happy medium.

And now there is that new Bond... with added pain again. It seems this time, it's being embraced. Zero tolerance and no-nonsense retaliation is thoroughly in vogue. The difference is that I have long since stopped being mildly excited at the promise of a Bond. I might go see "Casino Royale", I'm not sure. Last year, I read an A-Z of "Goldfinger", full of details on the development and history of the film, and my curiosity was aroused again. I have decided at some point to add the first three 007s to my collection, but I think my interest proper now in the series ends with "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". Is Bond evergreen and seemingly endlessly remarkable because the legend and market tells us so? The brand is still strong, and the critics are saying "Casino Royale" 2006 is best one in a long time, and perhaps my curiosity is sparked again...

But really, I was always more of a Harry Palmer guy. Now, that Ipcress dilemma seemed closer to home and far more disturbing for it.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Songs for Girls... #3... Pass This On






From the opening of electronica-with-Carribbean leanings, I knew this was going to be something. And then when that opening line came in... Perhaps a lot of my introduction to "Pass This On" was influenced experiencing it first via the video. I suspect that that first line would have hooked me anyhow, but there is no doubting there was that extra surprise when sung by the transvestite in the video. The video looks like it took place in a place off of David Lynch drive. (Awesomely seductive video; the Karin Dreijer impersonator, looking through youtube comments, appears to be Rickard Engfors.)


By rights, this shouldn't be a "favourite", as I reckon favourites ought to be recognised over time. But when a song hits, sometimes you just know. I never doubted "Wicked Game", for example. "Pass This On" shouldn't necessarily be creepy, but there is something not quite right about it. An older woman falls for a friend's younger brother, giving us the killer line and Karin Dreijer's killer delivery, "Did he mention my age, love? Or is he more into young girls with dyed black hair? I'm in love with your brother." She reads it as one breathless line, and that Swedish accent helps no end. Dreijer is also unafraid to give some high-pitched weird backing-vocals, playing against her otherwise passionately flat key performance. The effect really is hard to describe... why does it sound spooky? You go back to it trying to unlock its mystery. The vocal melody aches and the synths zap, chime and limbo with the certainty that keyboards too can be the perfect foil for unrequited passion and strangeness. I bought the album "Deep Cuts" within the week and was soooo happy when it met all my expectations and then some.

Songs for Girls... #2 ... "Little Trouble Girl" by Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth
"Little Trouble Girl"

And I've always loved slice-of-American-life grunge too. Being British, it's a bit of an imaginary place, and never more so when dressed up in the retro-feel of what I take to be a neverland of diners, drive-ins, Cold War comforts and paranoia, Space Race spookiness, conservative smiles and stripey tops, beanies and pigtails, lollipop girls and wholesome guys. And so on. "Little Trouble Girl" has gorgeous singing from the gorgeous Kim Deal and Kim Gordon, and it's dreamy; a beautiful ode to mother-and-daughter love, but tainted darkly by both feminine jealousy and maternal disappointment, and the moment when the daughter claims her own womanhood at the expense of her bond with her mom. "I'm sorry mother, I'd rather fight than have to lie", she says. That's truthful, painful and full of love.

From that lovely, slightly de-tuning guitar which opens the song, step into the dreamy corners of girls becoming women. Sonic Youth have always had romance songs with sexual identity-with-politics and Fifies-Sixties pop to the fore, filtered through feedback soundscapes, and the album "Little Trouble Girl" is from - "Washing Machine" - is also full of similar gems. If guitar rock has been dominated and bludgeoned by masculinity, the femininity of Sonic Youth only goes to show what rock is missing out on. Shalalala. 
Lovely Mark Romanek video for this too.



Songs for Girls... #1 ...Lazy Line Painter Jane


Belle and Sebastian
"Lazy Line Painter Jane"

This was a blind buy, I recall: Hey, let's try out Belle and Sebastian, I thought. This was their second EP, and I guess I was sold as soon as that organ played. I've always loved slice-of-English-life pop and this was the real thing. Quirky, perky but sad and dirty too. Wordy and arch and ultimately true and genuinely effecting. I can be picky about duets, but the guest vocals by Monica Queen give the song wonderful bruises. There's a girl on a bus... making love? Having a baby?? It's all here: Jane's family and reputation, work and boredom, her ups-and-downs, her hopes and tragedy... And then the song unleashes one of the greatest old fashioned organ solos since... well, since Del Shannon, I say. It really has to be played as loud as possible, being such a huge, celebratory sound. Let's hope Jane is all right.
Sublime.


Small introduction

Welcome to Buck Theorem at blogspot. I was over at spaces.live, but decided a move was best... for... some... reason. Sometimes, it's nice to write about some of the things you read and watch and hear, so that'll mean this is a book-film-music blog then. But don't worry, I suspect you can always do with another. I think I might even even finish my dispute my "Torchwood", condense my modest "Borat" drama, repeat my 2006 favourites list and generally redux a lot of older posts here along with the new material. Yes, that's right: I said redux. It's the in thing.