Happy Birthday Chris Whitley

whit4Chris Whitley, enigmatic and confounding blues/rock genius from America by way of Belgium, would have been 58 today. I’ll drink a beer to his shade tonight.

I first heard Chris’ unique brand of music (and it is unique, its really, over his whole discography, really quite unlike anybody else’s- a tortured mix of blues, roots, jazz and rock) back around 1990/1991, sometime around when Thelma & Louise was released- the film prominently featured one of Chris’ songs.  I think I already knew of his music before then though. I remember reading glowing reviews of his debut album ‘Living With The Law’ in the music press. Back then we didn’t have the internet to throw all sorts of music at us, we had to discover it for ourselves or via recommendations  in music magazines or from DJs on the radio. I remember actually hearing the album at a listening booth in the Virgin Megastore in Birmingham; anybody remember those? Hell, even the Megastore seems like a prehistoric artifact looking back on it – three stories of massive music departments that on trips to the city I’d spend hours exploring, where I’d bought my soundtrack imports for years- never-mind such archaic objects like listening booth units dotted around in the store where you could listen to albums on headphones. I used to spend so much time back then at the booths listening to so many different kinds of music. I discovered all kinds of artists old and new- Mary Chapin Carpenter, Buddy Guy, Lyle Lovett, and buy their albums. I’m pretty sure I fell in love with Chris’ stuff there at one of those listening booths.

Cwhit3hris was a rare talent. He was the Real Deal. The music industry loves to parade before us poets and troubled souls who are really just charlatans, rock and roll heroes in torn and tatty jeans who away from the day job of musicians are millionaires living in mansions wearing clothes and jewelry worth more than I’ll ever earn in a lifetime. Chris was authentic. After his suddenly popular first album he went off making strange and unpopular albums of music that he wanted to make even though it wasn’t commercial (fame to obscurity in two albums- major label Sony dropped him like a stone after his third album failed to halt the slide). He went to rehab a few times, drank too much and smoked too much, finally dying of lung cancer at just 45 years old, leaving about a dozen albums of his life’s’ work for fans to ponder over like a mystery for the years to follow. I still don’t understand many of his lyrics. I just know I love how it sounds, how real they feel.

2005. I remember being so shocked at reading of Chris’ death in the obituaries in the press. On the one hand, it surprised me to see the news even making the major newspapers over here, as I hadn’t realised Chris was deemed popular or important enough that his death would even register outside the music press. He always seemed to be under the radar, a best-kept-secret unknown to the mainstream (I suppose he was, really, but those that loved his work really loved it hence the recognition was duly given). On the other hand, how odd, looking back on it, reading it in a newspaper in this internet age when we seem to be alerted to everything almost immediately.

Well, here’s to Chris. He’d be 58 today. That’s both sad and scary at the same time. Find it hard to imagine him being 58 years old and still making that sad, tortured music with those mysterious agonized lyrics but I’m sure he’d have found a way, given the chance. Our loss.



Only the Brave (2017)

brave1Sometimes, expectations are everything: Only the Brave is a frustrating film. Oh, its sincere enough, and a noble attempt at telling its true story with respect and surprising restraint- this isn’t the huge Hollywood effects spectacle that might be expected. It just doesn’t, sadly, ignite (sic). Its such a strange thing- competently staged and with a really great cast (Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly)… actually, maybe that cast is the problem, maybe its just too good a cast, with too much cinematic baggage behind them that carries all sorts of expectations in itself.

I was surprised to see that it was directed by Joseph Kosinski,  of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion fame, as that in itself would suggest a big, spectacular and horrifying canvas would be put up on the screen but Kosinski seems to deliberately play against those expectations. Its just a different sort of movie than his previous films might suggest. Yeah, there’s those confounded expectations again.

But it isn’t an intimate character-driven piece either, possibly because those big-name actors, or that visually-adept director, aren’t exactly an arthouse cinema bunch. Its therefore caught somewhere in-between, and so intent on treating the real events and people caught up in them with proper due respect that the film just… exists, without really saying anything.

It reminds me rather a great deal of The 33, another film based on true events that impacted on a reasonably large group. While Only the Brave mostly centers upon Josh Brolin’s character, it also tries to flesh out the rest of  the Granite Mountain Hotshots that he leads in the firefighting, and like The 33, the film suffers from not having enough time, or perhaps the script isn’t finely honed enough, to do so many characters justice.

I don’t know, its really a strange one. Its a good film, but it just lacks that essential spark, if you’ll forgive one more fire metaphor. I’m tempted to suggest the issue may lie with the score, funnily enough. I just find myself thinking of the film Glory, and James Horner’s magnificent score. Sure the music and the film were perhaps overly manipulative but the combination of film and music involved me, made me feel something.  I didn’t really feel anything with Only the Brave; I enjoyed it and found it very worthwhile but it didn’t engage me emotionally. It might seem odd to suggest blame lies with the music score but film music isn’t what it used to be, and the industry has lost something of the genius of the likes of Goldsmith and Horner and that kind of film music, no longer in vogue, certainly worked back in the day.

So a missed opportunity then, unfortunately, but certainly a sincere enough effort.

Another haircut for Eddie

P1080648 (3)Part of his preparations for his Scottish hols next month, Ed’s been to Posh Paws for another grooming session.  Typical for a Terrier, he doesn’t enjoy it at all, and once he realises where he’s going he’s adamant he’s not stepping a paw closer, so I have to pick him up and carry him across the threshold. He’s loud of bark and usually acts like he’s some kind of tough guy, but at times like that he cowers like one of those cuddly critters that Chewie cooks for dinner in TLJ. All smiles though once he gets back home and has had a walk as a reward.

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The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe

cyber1One of the infrequent pleasures of the pre-internet era was stumbling upon books that mentioned, even in passing, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner– particularly back when it was the very definition of cult. As the film started to get a second life on home video and became better appreciated, some books dedicated to the film began to surface. One of the first and very best books dedicated to examining the film was Judith Kerman’s Retrofitting Blade Runner from 1991, and there have been several that followed over the years as the film gained in popularity; Paul Sammon’s Future Noir from 1996, or Will Brooker’s The Blade Runner Experience from 2005. Treasure-trove’s of information or heady brews of contentious opinion, for a fan of the film they are irresistible.

So now we can add another to the list: The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe, edited by Lou Tamone and Joe Bongiorno, which went into print last month. As its such a recent book, it includes essays about Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and, in a similar way to Brooker’s book, examines both the original 1982 film and its versions in some detail as well as all that followed it in various media. There is, for instance, a delightful appreciation of the original Marvel Comics adaptation that was my one way to relive the film back in the dark days of pre-VHS 1982, and, yes, accounts of the execrable K W Jeter sequels that were inflicted upon fans around 1995 when it was clear that Blade Runner still had some kind of future (even if it was so inept it was more depressing than anything in the movie). While much of the information contained is hardly new, there is some information new even to an old fan like me, and some canny observations.  The various espoused opinions and views are interesting, the writing very good and the wide collection of essays a pleasant reminder of the decades that passed since 1982, and all we’ve lived through to the miracle of BR2049. Its a bit like sitting in the pub or by a fireside with a few knowledgeable fans of Blade Runner and having a spirited conversation and reminiscence.

Its also quite substantial, over 400 pages in length and including a very good introduction from Paul M Sammon that possibly betters, in literary terms, ell those voluminous pages of his Future Noir book.

If Alcon Entertainment are ever going to revisit the Blade Runner IP, in some future film or television project, then its important that the brand be kept alive and books such as this are a part of that. I have read that Alcon are keen on maintaining Blade Runner in comics and books at least, keeping the property alive and valid- this book is an unofficial release and not endorsed by Alcon, but I think they might well be pleased that this book has begun the campaign to keep the property alive and get something made, film or whatever, someday.

All concerned here ‘have done a mans job’, and no mistake.


Remembering Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Sad news yesterday of the passing of American playwright Neil Simon at the age of 91. The obituaries published online and in print are rightfully in praise of his genius and many accomplishments, particularly his more famous works such as The Odd Couple which became a hit movie in 1965. However, I’d like to make a nod to one of his perhaps lesser-known works, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a film of which, released in 1972, remains very close to my heart. My original post about the film can be found here.

Although more famous for his many Broadway successes than the movies that I am more familiar with, I would just like to add that the one thing the modern film industry needs, over and above more CGI artists and pretty actors and actresses, is more quality screenwriters and authors. The example that Neil Simon leaves, in his body of work, is a testament of the importance of quality dramatic writing, whether it be tinged with comedy or not. All the effects spectacle and acting skill are for nothing if the spectacle is vacuous and the acting based on empty words. Great screenplays become great movies. Bad screenplays become bad movies. Its as simple as that. Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick didn’t spend years finessing screenplays for nothing.

Anyway, I’ll forever owe Neil Simon a debt of gratitude for The Prisoner of Second Avenue. It may not be his best work, but it struck a chord in me and always will.


Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

murder3Here’s another case where my ignorance of past adaptations (1974 movie for one), and the original source material likely results in rosier remarks than might have been the case- I have no idea how honest it is to that source material, for one thing, or whether it takes diabolical liberties. Its a bit like someone who has never read a Robert E Howard story watching any of the Conan movies and judging them just as movies, ignorant of the fact that each of them ruinously ill-serve the original Howard stories and characters. Indeed, I’m not one for this whole murder-mystery genre at all, and have only recently in the last year or so watched any adaptations of Agatha Christie’s stories. So I’m hardly qualified then. Bye.

Still here? Well then. One thing is for certain- this film is utterly gorgeous to look at. I saw it via streaming in HD on Amazon Video on a rental, but that is hardly doing the term ‘HD’ justice really. I cannot imagine (well I can, and it has me salivating) what this film looks like on Blu-ray or 4K UHD. The colour palette, lighting and production design are all exquisite. Of course it could also be argued that it is all overly fanciful and possibly even distracting, but I found the look of the film utterly charming and impressive, and yes quite cinematic. This is, at all times, clearly a ‘MOVIE’ and not at all the kind of thing you’d see from a Netflix Original- well, that seems to be the clear intent.  There is also the very modern trend of the film clearly setting itself up as the start of a possible franchise, with a not at all subtle lead-in to a sequel based on Death on the Nile.

murder2Equally impressive is the cast- a list of A-listers indeed and a throwback to the ‘Old Hollywood’ habit of throwing great casts at prestige films or novelty projects like Irwin Allen disaster movies. Kenneth Brannagh as the sleuth Poirot, of course, but also a list of suspects as esteemed as Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, and Johnny Depp (the wrap party must have been legendary) as well as a supporting cast no less impressive. There is something almost comforting about seeing so many recognisable faces hamming it up in this old-fashioned 1930s murder mystery.

And ‘hamming it up’ does seem to be the order of the day- it would be fair to suggest that only Brannagh himself really gets into it and chews up the scenery sufficiently. The rest of the cast rest on their laurels, mostly, as if just bringing their familiar faces on-set and saying their lines is going to be enough. Perhaps there is something to be said that the script hardly demands anymore of any of them, and as far as the huge talents at hand, most get wasted.

As a pleasant matinee diversion this film ticks all the boxes, and I can imagine, with its snowy vistas and starry cast, this film is destined to become a mainstay of Christmas schedules in years to come. Perhaps I should criticize it for lack of ambition and failing to really stretch either itself or any of its genre boundaries- the denouement may be faithful to the book, for instance, but I did feel it rather jumped the shark and threatened to spoil the whole experience. But would that be unfair complaining about the film when it should be the original author taken to task? Or does the film have a different solution to the mystery than the book did?

So yes, maybe I’m not at all qualified to measure the worth of this film. I will just say that I quite enjoyed it, distracted throughout, admittedly, by how lovely it looked and by each famous face that appeared onscreen. Certainly a guilty pleasure then.


A Malick moment!

mal1Yesterday was a little damp and gloomy, and I was walking Eddie taking in the hint-of-Autumn air when I noticed a couple a distance ahead of me along the path. They were just standing there, not talking to each other, just standing. I didn’t pay much attention to them, as I instead considered Eddie’s usual fascination with the smells of the damp grass that the path cut through. Eventually though we proceeded to slowly work our way along the path, and I observed that the couple had split up a little; the girl, likely about twenty years old, had walked up the path towards us, the boyfriend (I presume), working his way some distance behind. Still not speaking, just looking around, walking aimlessly as if trapped by each other’s gravity.

Eventually Eddie and I passed them, and after awhile I looked back and saw the two still back there, a slight distance from each other, walking in weird circular orbits around each other, still hardly talking, if at all.

It was then that I realised it was like I was in a Terrence Malick movie. As if I had dropped into a scene from To The Wonder with Ben Affleck sulkily walking  aimlessly with Rachel McAdams or Olga Kurylenko, or Christian Bale with one of the several women of Knight of Cups. Suddenly I was living in an arthouse movie, or maybe, I considered, those Malick movies are not as fanciful as I had first thought.

Unless, of course, Malick was hiding somewhere in the shadowy bushes, filming everything, shooting a future project on a wet Sunday, in which case it really was a  movie and the world really isn’t so strange and I want my eventual residuals for my star turn as ‘man getting wet walking his dog’.

Cardinal Series Two: Blackfly Season

card2.jpgCardinal returns for another six-episodes of murder and intrigue. Readers may recall my post last year about the first season of the show, which was very impressive but distracted me with a ‘where have I see that face before..?’ mystery that was only solved at the end when I realised series lead Billy Campbell was the Rocketeer from Disney’s 1990 movie.  The soft-spoken, craggy, life-worn John Cardinal and his internalized emotional turmoil is a long way from the fresh-faced innocent hero of the Disney adventure, and Campbell is again brilliant as the core of this drama.

Based on a series of books by author Giles Blunt (season one based on Forty Words for Snow), Cardinal is a detective drama in a similar mould to so many others on tv. What perhaps helps set this aside from others is its setting, in the fairly wild landscapes of Canada and the urban sprawl of Alonquin Bay, a fictional version of North Bay, Ontario.

While the first season was set in winter, its icy locale a perfect setting for the chilling murders it depicted, this second season is set in the summer, which immediately both distinguishes this season from the other but also lessens the show’s mood and impact that helped set it apart. That said, I did find it helped the show feel fresh and surprising. The wide vistas of snow are replaced with landscapes of green, and characters plagued  (as the season title and book it is based upon, Blackfly Season, would infer) by summer flies and procedural investigation of forensic studies of maggots in decaying flesh of victims. Yes, this is gruesome stuff in places. So the show feels a little different due to the change of season, but much of the rest remains the same, and there’s not much wrong with that when it all worked so well first time around.

If I had any fault with it, maybe it would be the odd behaviour of some characters who were just annoyingly stupid and irritatingly weak in places, but that is possibly fault of the original literary source rather than the show-runners, and hey, maybe its all just to serve the drama when we shout at the television screen at crass dumbness and smugly watch its inevitable results.

Fairly concise at just six episodes, this is a show that feels similar to BBC dramas over here that run a similar length – it doesn’t outstay its welcome and rewards inevitable binge-viewing. I’ve read that a third season has already been shot and a fourth has been greenlit, so there’s more to look forward to, which is good news indeed. John Cardinal is a fascinating character well-realised by Campbell and considering the closing events of this season, I am very curious about where the show takes him next year.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

3bill3Thank goodness for films that live up to their hype. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is pretty extraordinary- a fascinating comedy/drama mash-up that is more of a character piece then the procedural crime drama  I had expected. The film appears to be one thing and turn out to be something else entirely, something of a genius sleight of hand on director Martin McDonagh’s part. Its a welcome surprise and just one facet of a powerful and affecting film that is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving mother whose teenage daughter was raped and murdered several months ago, the police investigation of which has been ineffectual and hit a dead end. Hayes turns her frustrations and anger upon her local police department in an effort to get it to put some fresh effort into the case, renting three abandoned billboards to put some messages in order to embarrass sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. Its a play of misdirection- Willoughby isn’t the villain of the piece we might expect- he’s an honest and good officer with a poor department under him, particularly his racist and homophobic monster deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and the case really is a dead-end waiting for some stroke of luck that may never happen.

Hayes rages nevertheless, at odds with her townsfolk who rally to Willoughby’s side, partly because Willoughby is dying of cancer. Dixon lumbers around abusing his position of authority and several people are caught up in the wake of the conflict between Hayes and the police. In some ways it feels like a modern-day Western, Hayes a vigilante raging for justice and Dixon representing ignorance and a failed system of authority. With its biting one-liners and wry observations it  also feels very much like an episode of Fargo, and the film that the series is based on, which is doubly curious as McDormand starred in that Cohen brothers classic .

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURIThe film is that oddest of things- a comedy of tragedy, pain and desolation. Wonderfully, the film is less about that murder and the failed investigation and more about the characters caught up in Hayes loss and anger. It goes in unexpected directions and ends in a place that feels both right but also challenging and uncertain. I’ll avoid spoilers, but it does end very much like a Western, two characters threatening to take the law into their own hands as they ride off into the proverbial sunset. All the cast are very good, but Sam Rockwell in particular is pretty remarkable, almost stealing the film from McDormand. Dixon’s arc pushes credibility and really only works because Rockwell’s tricky performance saves some perhaps awkward writing.

Great film though, I really enjoyed it. Maybe its because it turned out to be something other than what I was expecting. Its so unusual to be take by surprise by films these days.

Autumn just got more expensive

oatw1.jpgOh God, look at this. I have to stop browsing on Amazon. This looks brilliant- 366 pages, large-format, previously unseen photographs and documents, shot-by-shot guide to the making of this classic. I have Frayling’s Leone biography Something To Do With Death which I seem to pick up and browse through every month, so this new book by him concentrating on the incredible Once Upon a Time in the West should be indispensable. What is it with this time of year and big expensive book and disc releases? I know, I know, its that long shadow of Christmas looming over all. I only wish he could one day give the same attention to Once Upon a Time in America,  but hey, you never know, maybe one day.. .

Amazon just told me that I bought that Frayling book on Leone back in 2000. Ye Gods.