Sunday, 23 February 2014

Last 5 Films Watched...

Advise and Consent (Warners DVD)
If you're not well versed in the complex workings of American Government you might feel a little disorientated during the first 20mins of Otto Preminger's superb 1962 political drama in which an ailing President appoints Henry Fonda as his secretary of state (read successor) and causes ructions in the corridors of power. Fonda brings his customary brilliance to the film but he's given a good run for his money by Charles Laughton (in his final film), and Walter Pidgeon (best known as Morbius from Forbidden Planet), and there's a memorable bit of work from a nervy Burgess Meredith playing a "friendly witness". With its large ensemble cast and deep-focus 'scope photography, the film now stands as a key influence on the likes of All the President's Men and JFK, and like the director's earlier film, Anatomy of a Murder, Preminger used the film to further needle away at the MPAA's sensibilities, when a senator is forced to confront his shadowy former life as a homosexual.

Meridith vs Fonda in Advise and Consent

The Notorious Bettie Page (TV, BBC2HD)
Mary Harron's 2006 biopic of America's most famous bondage star is less sleazy than you might imagine, in fact it's a rather sweet story of a good girl gone bad. Smart, witty and gorgeous to look at with noir-ish black & white photography for the New York sequences and garish Eastmancolor for the beaches of Miami, the film breezes by on a medley of Peggy Lee tunes, cool jazz and Latin exotica. Lili Taylor and David Strathairn head up a fine supporting cast but it's Gretchen Mol's career-defining turn that really makes the film cook, and she's astonishing beautiful in and out of tight fitting leather corsets and knee high booths. The re-enacted Bettie Page one-reelers are great too.

"God gave me the talent to pose for pictures and it seems to make people happy. That can't be a bad thing, can it?"

The Order of Death (download)
aka Copkiller, aka Corrupt, this Italian police thriller shot in New York is best remembered as the screen debut of John Lydon playing a disturbed young man who's wangled his way into the life of Harvey Keitel's corrupt detective living the good life in an expensive apartment paid for by filthy lucre. To say anymore would spoil this genuinely eccentric thriller which recalls the abrasive confessional relationship in Sidney Lumet's The Offence and the strange domesticity of Pasolini's Theorem. Aside from a few awkward moments, Lydon equips himself surprisingly well, and Keitel, clearly relishing his proto-Bad Lieutenant role is suitably intense and menacing. This film is well worth seeking out but be warned, it seems to have fallen into the public domain abyss and currently available DVDs are reportedly atrocious.

The public image... John Lydon in the Order of Death

Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (1428, Blu)
A gargantuan dollop of Friday the 13th business, this six hour plus (?) documentary (narrated by Corey Feldman) gathers together a near definitive list of cast, crew members and victims for a thoroughly detailed film-by-film overview of the series. Occasionally the participants get a little too chummy, ("Derek Mears was soooo great to work with") but for the most part the conversations are honest and candid - stuntman Ted White who played Jason on The Final Chapter remembers threatening to down machete when a young actress was pushed beyond endurance on a freezing cold night shoot; and no it seems has anything nice to say about A New Beginning director Danny Steinmann. The shortcomings of the films are not glossed over either with Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X in particular singled out as the worst offenders of the series. Elsewhere there's a good account of the battles fought and lost with the MPAA, and there's enough splatter footage scooped up off the cutting room floor to really make you lament Paramount's acquiescence to the ratings board. Given the sheer scale of the documentary, it might be best experienced in two or three sittings but be sure to stick around for the final credits which are overlaid with cast members reciting their most memorable dialogue ("Why, I'm Mrs. Voorhees, an old friend of the Christy's.")

Unmasked: A rare shot of Jason actor Ted White from the set of The Final Chapter

The Beast (TV, TCM)
Proof enough that every film maker is entitled to one masterpiece, this 1988 film might well be director Kevin Reynolds'. Set during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the beast of the title is a Soviet tank which has strayed off course and is pursued by vengeful Mujaheddin into the labyrinthine Valley of the Jackal. Jason Patric plays the tank crew's conscientious objector, banging heads with his commander, a surprising trim George Dzundza, unraveling at the seams from a life spent waging war for his country. Fascinating now to compare the film with Rambo III from the same year, both films very much a product of the Reagan-era Cold War, but Reynolds' film is a far more intelligent and disquieting work - a scene where an Afghan is executed under the tracks of a tank is more gut-wrenching than all of Rambo's hollow repetitive ultra-violence. A stylish film too, with fine location photography and Mark Isham's memorable electronic score.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Galaxy's Greatest Top 10 Lists...

A few days ago I was flicking thru my 2000AD collection and inside the 1989 Judge Dredd annual I was pleasantly surprised to come across a set of Top 10 Lists put together by the 2000AD staff - top ten films, books, albums and so on. I'm a bit of a list junkie so I thought these might be interesting to share, especially the selection of favourite films. I would have been about 11 years old when my Mom bought me this annual, so I can't imagine something like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Vanishing Point making a big impression on me, but I'd like to think I was filing these titles away in the back of my mind for later...

The lists also feature a roll-call of favourite records and it would be nice to imagine the 2000AD staff knuckling down to fulfill a deadline while The Stooges and The Fall were belting out of the office hi-fi. Interestingly, Crisis, a 2000AD spin off which emerged in 1988 for more mature readers, featured a number of music references throughout its run, from Dead Kennedys to Napalm Death, but two of my favorites include a nod to Throbbing Gristle in Crisis #1 ("Hamburger Lady"), while in Crisis #6 a character is seen reciting the words to a Coil song playing of a nearby stereo ("See the black sun rise from the solar lodge").

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

I've spent a pleasant few days reading Mark Blake's 2013-revised biography of Pink Floyd, which had me scrambling back to the albums with fresh ears. I must confess, I'm not a huge Pink Floyd fan, or at least I haven't been for years. I picked up my first Floyd album in my teens, jumping in, some might say at the deep end with the band's double live/studio album Ummagumma which I still love to this day. But over the years, I've grown increasingly dissatisfied with the band, the albums began to reveal themselves as rather patchy affairs, with almost every record having something throwaway on it, like the intensely annoying Seamus on Meddle, or the embarrassing Several Species of Small Furry Animals... on Ummagumma. Fortunately Mark Blake doesn't soft-pedal the band's shortcomings (I might have flung the book across the room had he defended the idea to put a yelping dog on the aforementioned Seamus), and it's a credit to the author that he manages to keep the book compelling and engaging throughout a rather depressing second half, as the story slides into the post-Wall years which produced a stream of bland group and solo albums, bitter relations between band members, the firing of key personnel and the hiring of forgettable session musicians, divorces, breakdowns, and the untimely deaths of Richard Wright and Syd Barrett, who haunts the book like a ghost unable to find a place to rest. Blake reveals that in 1992, some 18 years after he withdrew from the music business, Atlantic Records shamefully offered Barratt's family £75,000 for any new recordings that might be made of the Floyd's founding member. Perhaps my favourite anecdote from the book concerns Stanley Kubrick and his request to use a portion of the music from the side-long Atom Heart Mother suite for use in A Clockwork Orange, a request flatly refused by Roger Waters. This alone inspired me to revisit the track which I had tended to skip over in the past and I must say I rather like it now, with its orchestration and choir, it feels like the perfect soundtrack for an early seventies British Horror film.

My Perfect Pink Playlist:

A Saucerful of Secrets - Live at Pompei version, 1971
Fat Old Sun, from Atom Heart Mother, 1970
Flaming, mono version from Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967
The Narrow Way, from Ummagumma, 1969
Heart Beat Pig Meat from Zabriskie Point OST, 1969
Cymbaline, from More, 1969
Careful with That Axe, Eugene, from Ummagumma, 1969
On the Run, from Dark Side of the Moon, 1973

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Stormy Weather

Weather has always been something of a national obsession for Irish people, and while we're accustomed to long wet winters, the country seems thoroughly fed up with the current prolonged spell of Atlantic storms battering the west coast of the country, effectively washing away whole tracts of land, and leaving coastal towns and cities at the mercy of surging flood waters.

In 1969 David Lean stood on the craggy coastline of the Dingle peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, and setting his face to the cold bruising weather of the Atlantic, prayed for a storm. Robert Bolt's screenplay for Ryan's Daughter included a sequence where a shipment of guns and ammunition destined for Irish rebels in their struggle against British occupation, was landed on a beach amid a spectacular storm. The weather in general proved decidedly uncooperative for Lean, the director had great difficulty matching shots from one day to the next and constant drizzle had caused the film to fall behind schedule. And still no storm had arrived that Lean was happy with. With the production at an impasse the director was persuaded to pick up filming in Cape Town, where Lean's location scout Eddie Fowlie found a beach that would seamlessly match the location in Dingle. In a cruel twist of fate, the Atlantic offered up a suitably ferocious storm while Lean was in South Africa, so the filming was left to second unit director Roy Stevens, a camera crew, special effects team, and a few hardy stuntmen. The footage captured over the course of five days on Couminoole Beach in Kerry was spectacular. That it plays so well in the film is due in part to Lean who expertly cut the footage together for the sequence, but Stevens' work was so good, it soured his relationship with Lean and both men did not speak for many years. The screen grabs below can only give a slight approximation of the storm sequence, seeing it in motion is still hugely thrilling, with its smashing waves, and huge vortices of spray scaling the heights of the cliff walls. Today a studio would insist, not unreasonably so, that such a sequence be augmented with CGI, and while the cast members in the scene were doused with water from a 500-gallon drum (rather than being exposed to the storm force waves), the sequence retains a genuine sense of peril, with extras scurrying around across slippery rocks and being routinely knocked off their feet. Footage from the storm sequence can be viewed here



Friday, 7 February 2014

A Mars for Performance

Performance: The Biography of a 60's Masterpiece, Paul Buck's excellent study of Cammell and Roeg's seminal film was the first book I read this year, and I enjoyed it so much I gulped it down in four short sittings. I must admit I initially approached the book with some trepidation - the film had already been extensively written about by Colin McCabe as part of the BFI Film Classics line, and Mick Brown for the Bloomsbury Movie Guide series, and the film was given considerable coverage in Rebecca and Sam Umland's excellent 2006 book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side. Was there anything left to say about Performance ? Well, yes as it happens. Paul Buck's overview of the film from a sketchy storyline written in 1967 entitled The Liars through to the film's final edit in late 1969, is fresh and exciting, the author evidently well placed to discuss the film - he's been watching Performance for the past 40 odd years and witnessed a pre-release version of the film which included a scene where Chas (James Fox), ambushed in his flat savors a masochistic moment when a dying Joey Maddock's draws a straight razor across Chas' shoe, a scene Buck reveals was a reference to the eye-slitting shot in Un Chien Andalou

A treasure trove of information for Performance fans, the real jewel of the book is Buck's scene by scene examination of the film in which he decodes the myriad of obscure references Cammell injected into the film. I'll leave it for interested readers to discover them for themselves, but I'll mention one memorable revelation, which is virtually impossible to spot on home video. At the 36.24 mark there's a point of view shot of Chas looking down at the doorway of 81 Powis Square, and among the items placed in the shot are some milk bottles, a carton of cream and four Mars bars - the Mars bars being a subliminal reference to the Redlands drug bust in February '67 and the apocryphal story that when the police entered Keith Richards' home, the arresting officers found Marianne Faithful with a mars bar inserted in her vagina. By the time Performance was released this ludicrous and thoroughly untrue story had been well planted in the public consciousness as the kind of routine hedonism the Stones and their entourage engaged in. Still, the story caused Marianne Faithful much distress at the time and the placing of the mars bar in the shot was rather cruel. Of course no one actually knows who was responsible for this, whether it was Cammell or a mischievous set dresser, so this is one secret it seems Performance is not willing to give up...

Final word on the film: I can't match Paul Bucks' long association with the film but I've been obsessed with Performance for 20 years now. I can actually point to the exact date, day, even hour when I first saw the film. On October 2nd, 1993 BBC2 screened the film in a late night slot (11:35pm) as part of a season of films entitled Hollywood UK. The BBC2 screening I subsequently discovered was slightly cut, with some violence trimmed from the sequence where Chas is attacked in his flat. Later I found the film as a sell-through Warners VHS tape (packaged as part of a generic line of gangster films), but sadly the film was even more cut than the BBC2 screening. Worse still, some of the cast members had their lines poorly dubbed. Performance then returned to BBC2 on May 28th 1995 as part the Forbidden Weekend, a program of censor-baiting films, and this edition of the film restored the violence removed from the previous BBC2 screening, making it the longest Performance seen since the film's initial release. Warners issued this version on VHS in 1997 as part of their Mavericks line, and while the film was now essentially uncut, the irritating dub job remained. Thankfully, when Warners rolled out the film for DVD in 2008, the film played uncut and with all the original cast members voices re-instated. At the time of writing, this is still the best version of Performance available although it comes with a caveat - during Memo From Turner, Mick Jagger's line "Here's to old England" is inexplicably missing from the soundtrack (the line can be heard in this lo-fi clip, at the 2.47 mark.) 

Sunday, 2 February 2014

New Wave Vinyls : Du Post Punk à la New Pop

I'm spending a pleasant Sunday morning leafing thru a book I found washed up on a French beach last summer... well not exactly washed up - I found this book, a coffee-tabled sized tome which collects together a couple of hundred album covers from the post-punk, new wave years, on the shelf of a discount book store located by the French seaside. Quite a find considering the store was teeming with the worst kind of bargain-bin books, but near the rear of the shop, my eye was drawn to a book sporting the unmistakable sleeve art from Unknown Pleasures

Like similar graphics collections, this one has contextual notes running throughout the book and while I can't comment on that given it's entirely in French, the choice of album covers reproduced in the book is surprisingly comprehensive, from UK post-punk, (Gang of Four, Magazine) US art-rock (Pere Ubu, The Residents) new wave electro-pop (Depeche Mode, New Order), Industrial (Throbbing Gristle, Current 93) and various pop and rock artifacts from the 80's. More than anything else this book makes me miss my years of collecting vinyl when album art came in 12 inches and albums had two distinct sides. I got my first record player in 1989 and quickly amassed a pretty decent collection of death metal LPs, which I later sold off when I fell out of love with the metal scene (every metaller eventially does). My second great record collection thankfully had more longevity and to this day I still have most of those records bought in my late-teens/early twenties - I say most, because I seem to have lost a few items over the years, like my vinyl copy of My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, bought at a car booth sale one drizzly Sunday afternoon in the car park of a church in Greystones, Wicklow. Where is it now I wonder ? But back to the book and I'll round out this post with some favourite album covers featured among the pages...