Sunday, 15 March 2009

Il divine Sorrentino

I always thought director Paulo Sorrentino was an old – or middle-aged – man, mainly because the subjects of his films The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend are older men. His latest, Il Divo, about Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, is no different.

Il Divo opens with a swaggering sequence of assassinations that's up there with the boulder-rolling start to Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast. Anyone who thinks The Baader Meinhof Complex glamourises terrorist killing is in for a shock. The film finishes as one of the most stunning character assassinations you'll see in cinema.

No less stylish is Sorrentino's treatment of his ageing leading man Toni Servillo, who also starred in The Consequences (as well as last year's arthouse hit, Gomorrah). Sorrentino is something of a car fetishist – some of his best sequences feature autos in tunnels – and he films his star as if he were the subject of a car ad, or a new electric shaver in a commercial.

This is quite an accomplishment as Servillo plays Andreotti as Nosferatu, hunched and shrouded (in The Consequences he was more deadpan Bilko); Giacomo Rizzo was truly grotesque as moneylender Geremia de Geremei in The Family Friend. Not that Sorrentino doesn't like his beautiful women: Olivia Magnani in The Consequences; an entire girls volleyball team for the opening of The Family Friend, and Fanny Ardant in Il Divo.

Il Divo has those flashy captions favoured by JJ Abrams, as well as an astounding sound design. Amid a typically cool soundtrack, Sorrentino's use of a couple of Italo pop tracks at crucial moments stands out – as did those cheesy, emotive songs you're more likely to hear in an Italian seaside discotheque, or a particularly patriotic restaurant, in Gomorrah, where there was no other musical soundtrack. And then Sorrentino caps it with Trio's Da Da Da. You don't get that in many political biographies, especially ones that start with a glossary.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


The campaign for Pet Shop Boys' new product is well underway and I can't wait. The Pet Shop Boys have a reputation as being top smart operators on the pop scene but if that were true, well, they wouldn't have produced the album Nightlife or single I get along.

What they are very good at is writing their own history; Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are so eloquent, so engaged in pop, that it is very easy for them to sell the latest version of themselves to journalists. (Has any other pop band annotated so many of their sleeves or collaborated on a couple of books?) It's perfectly acceptable to change your mind in life, but PSB are so doctrinal – try b-side How I learned to hate rock'n'roll; the same period produced another b-side, Disco potential – that they often leave themselves rewriting the past. (The debate over the use of guitars is something like the schism between Jean-Paul Sartre and his existentialist mates when Sartre supported Communism in the face of irrefutable evidence of Soviet penal camps. Sort of.)

They're pulling out all the stops for the release of Yes, their tenth studio album proper (though you might be tempted to throw in a couple of the Disco albums for good measure, namely Disco and Disco 3). There's been the Brits and the video for jaunty first single Love etc on YouTube as well as on the duo's official website, where there have been regular postings on release dates, formats, reviews, interviews and now a medley of the album. I even bought the Mail on Sunday to get a first hearing of another of the new album's tracks, Did you see me coming? (I suspect the band justify such a move not just in terms of reaching a large audience, but having slipped them a saucy, punny title.)

It's been a long time since I've been as excited by a new PSB single (lately its their b-sides that tend to kick loose); it reminds me of the anticipation I felt when Can you forgive her? was released. It would be quite something if Yes matches the album that followed that single, Very.

Pet Shop Boys work best with a single producer (or on their own); it's unlikely they – or anyone else for that matter – will better Behaviour, with Harold Faltermeyer. Very comes close and its successor Bilingual contains some of their best latterday songwriting but is often harshly overlooked (the odd tweak, most notably by Trouser Enthusiasts, was needed to brush the tunes up to best effect). Nightlife is best overlooked and Release is half good, if you remove the half with, eurgh, guitars.

I suspect that I, and others, championed the last album, Fundamental, because we wanted it to be good. It was produced by Trevor Horn (who also produced one of Pet Shop Boys' greatest single moments, Left to my own devices). Fundamental features Human League-style vocals, New Order basslines and, erm, Trevor's horns but, for some inexplicable reason, the band decided to change the tracklisting just before release. The songs on Fundamental sound better in any other order than the one they're in. Bloody Communists.

Love etc and Did you see me coming? hint at a band happy with the world, rather than at odds with it. Maybe that's why the album is called Yes. We'll see on March 23.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Dead giveaways

The number of newspaper DVD giveaways seems to have declined this year. The only papers that seem not to have been affected by this admittedly very minor side-effect of the recession are the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, which gave away A Room With a View and The Ipcress File this weekend, snore. Given that nobody’s going to distribute Bond DVDs with their paper for free, the excuse for a lot of the fare is that it’s “cult” (generally meaning nostalgic), whether it be crap old war movies (the Daily Mail), or J-horror (Godzilla, courtesy of the Guardian).

I’ve often thought that the ideal giveaway star would be Harrison Ford, who appeals to both male and female readers, is judiciously middlebrow, and has covered many genres in his career. Start with something literary, The Mosquito Coast, say, wander through Peter Weir’s excellent Witness (with Kelly McGillis’s brilliant breasts as an added bonus), then move up to saucy Frantic, for the weekend. For a woman star, Meg Ryan is old hat, Meryl Streep dull, so it has to be inoffensive Nicole Kidman; on Saturday Dead Calm (when Phillip Noyce was good), followed by Eyes Wide Shut for Sunday night. Basically, they're films I'd like to have in my collection, but can't be bothered to buy.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Over exposed

Most street art is well-executed and sharp. It is obviously intended to be eye-catching, can distract or amuse and, at it's best, intrigue but it's rare that it reveals much about its creator. (Banksy insists on his anonymity.) A couple of recent examples in Shoreditch are changing such preconceived ideas, however.

First up was Amsterdammer Laser 3.14, whose artless spraycan slogans appeared in EC2 late last year. "How can be peace be so violent," he questioned. "These are five easy words," seemed a moment of drunken inspiration, as was, "Please let me finish my sentence for…"

But then the words became more troubling: "Haunted by regret and the consequences of endless longing"; "Give me the key out of this cage." There's more if you want to hunt out further evidence of a breakdown played out on the streets of Shoreditch.

Then, near Valentine's Day, came a series of black and white portraits of a faceless (married?) woman performing a strip tease. The photographs were taken in a flat and posted in a seedy alleyway near Old Street.

The first time I saw them it felt like a minor assault. You are immediately aware of how exposed she is (she pulls her bra down to brandish a nipple, her raised skirt reveals the crotch of her white knickers). This could be a horrible revenge – the public revelation of intimate photos – but the placing of them in this single side street hints not. Still, the first time you see this form of street tart, it takes you aback. Attention seeking it may be but it's certainly attention grabbing.

Other pictures around the same time also featured a woman, again displaying her pants – this time with slogans written on them ("Up yours"). They were posted further afield, and printed differently – in colour or on coloured paper – so it seems to be someone else (both in terms of subject and photographer). They hit on the same mode of very public expression simultaneously.

Cuban scheduling crisis

Little more than a week after the film Che: Part Two (Guevara goes to Bolivia) was released and it's hardly showing in any London cinemas. You're more likely to find the more immediately commercial Part One (the fight for Cuba) showing at more convenient times.

Presumably the distributors decided to follow the model of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill duology and release the two parts of Steven Soderbergh's epic separately. It's a shame they weren't more ambitious as I'm sure there would have been an audience for event cinema of this kind – four hours is hardly that long, after all.

Hugely assured, Che is probably one of the films of the year – way better than anything nominated for 2009 Oscars – and a good deal more inspiring than such recent biopics as The Baader Meinhof Complex and Milk. A shame, too, that a map sequence seems to have been excised from the beginning of Che, though it is still credited at the end. 

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Where the art is

It's been a quiet couple of years for London's National Gallery, overtaken in the blockbuster show stakes by the Tates, Britain and Modern. My Tate membership has served me well over the last couple of years, with exciting exhibitions of Cildo Meireles (who can forget the experience of walking on broken glass, or barefoot in a darkened room, shin-high in talcum powder?), Juan Muñoz (reminding you that art can be funny) and even Rothko (OK, the gallery was overly keen to emphasise the canvases' layers but that first, main, room, still served as a sort of minimalist cathedral) – all at T Modern – plus a welcome introduction, for me, to British painter Peter Doig (British meaning Scottish) and Martin Creed's wonderful Work No 850, both at T Britain. Despite Van Dyck at T Britain at the moment, the Tates' forthcoming calendar looks a little dry (Rodchenko & Popova at T Modern anyone? Thought not).

I wonder if my Royal Academy membership may also get a little dusty this year, following recent showings of Lucas Cranach and Vilhelm Hammershøi. It's to be seen if the oddball Hayward Gallery can recreate the success of Psycho Buildings with Walking in My Mind this summer.

Now the National Gallery has reaffirmed its central place, on Trafalgar Square, with Picasso: Challenging the Past, hoping to follow after Rubens, Caravaggio and Rembrandt over the years. Plus, next door, at the National Portrait Gallery, is Gerhard Richter, whose Paintings from Private Collections at the Scottish National Gallery was another of my treats of last year. 

The Courtauld Gallery always delights, and a major venue that has to now be considered on the London art scene is the British Museum, currently celebrating Shah Abbas. But who can be bothered getting out to the Barbican

The new Auster-ity

I've always been a huge fan of American author Paul Auster's work and, when you're waiting for his next novel, you can enjoy the latest book by his wife, Siri Hustvedt. She shares many of his fascinations, tics, even subjects.

The main topic they share is grief: The Book of Illusion, the best of Auster's recent output, is a wonderful, empathetic treatise on grief. In Hustvedt's latest, The Sorrows of an American, the narrator, Erik, is separated from his wife (she is noticeable throughout by her absence; only halfway through do we learn why she left: "I'm fucking Alan. It's time you knew"); his sister, Inga, and Inga's daughter, Sonia, are mourning Inga's husband, a writer and filmmaker, Max; and Erik, Inga and their mother all miss their father, Lars, whose presence is evoked throughout by Lars's memoirs (taken from Hustvedt's own father's text).

As with Auster's characters, these are New Yorkers, who meet at dinner parties, in the majority opposed the Gulf War and struggle with their memories of 9/11. As Auster did for filmmaker Hector Mann in The Book of Illusions, Hustvedt enjoys creating a back catalogue for Max (his film Into the Blue is so beautifully imagined, it's tempting to check its existence on IMDb).

Hustvedt, too, gives thought to the naming of her characters: a nebulous figure is named Schadow; an unpleasant journalist is named Fehlburger – "curious name, Fehl is fault or blemish in German," the book's comic detective figure notes. And there is playfulness: the narrator of What I Loved – the book that preceded The Sorrows… for Hustvedt – Leo Hertzberg, is invited to one of those dinner parties. ("My friend," says Inga, "yet another professor, but a retired one, from art history at Columbia, lives on Greene Street, sees poorly, but he's very interesting and extremely kind." In case you wanted an update.)

While Auster's leads tend to be writers – especially in his most recent, introspective, work – or detectives, Erik is a detective of the mind, a psychoanalyst, who works in decoding his patients' tellings of their troubles. (Another recent paperback, Hanif Kureishi's much looser, London set, Something to Tell You, also features a therapist at its heart, though he could just as well be a writer. On a side note, I wonder if UK book jacket designers struggle depicting therapy-centred novels, as both Something… and The Sorrows… have covers more appropriate to chick-lit, though this may be a more general trend in publishing currently.)

Of course, the strangest intersection of Auster and Hustvedt's worlds comes in What I Loved; Mark, the son of one of Leo's friends, threatens to rip his parents' world apart with his drug-taking and malicious behaviour. Mark becomes friends with a cool new painter and together they are involved in a murder that is more like something out of American Psycho. The scene owes much to reality: in 1998, Auster's son by his first wife, Daniel, pleaded guilty to stealing money from a drug dealer; Daniel is also said to have been present at the murder of the dealer, Andre "Angel" Melendez. (Michael Alig – later played by Macauley Culkin in the movie Party Monster – poured drain cleaner down Melendez' throat, chopped up the body and dumped it in the river. Mark's victim is called Rafael Hernandez and his body thrown in the Hudson River.)

Auster tackles the same territory in Oracle Night: a writer called Trause (hmm) has a junkie son who attacks the wife of the book's narrator, Sidney Orr. ("You're lucky you don't have any children," Trause tells Orr. "They're nice when they're small, but after that they break your heart and make you miserable.") The boy is a manipulative liar who wreaks disaster in both books.

Auster and Hustvedt rarely discuss their private lives but what is perhaps most wrenching in The Sorrows… is Inga's plight following the death of her husband: the journalist Fehlburger is determined to avenge herself on Inga for some imagined slight. The chance arises when it seems Inga's husband Max had an affair with an actress, and even a child by her.

While Hustvedt achieves her own revenge – Fehlburger is the only character not afforded some redemption – most disturbing is the image of people climbing over Inga's body (Max's biographer even begins a consensual affair with Inga) to get to her dead husband. It's an eerie foretelling of a potential reality.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Cinema stalled

In the year Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars, it's perhaps appropriate that Hollywood should follow Bollywood and target suburban multiplex audiences so assiduously. The Oscars have always been middle-brow, but never can the list of award contenders have been so middle-class.

Away from the Slumdog glare, there was Milk, Frost/Nixon, ChangelingDoubt – even the best animation winner, Wall-E, has an environmental message. A series of movies that stand up as fine demonstrations of film-making craft but hardly blow you away (which is perhaps why Slumdog had its day).

Kate Winslet deservedly won for her performance in The Reader, a film with a lot of German accents. David Hare's script is notable for excising much that doesn't make sense in Bernhard Schlink's humdrum novel but foregrounds every surprise the book has in store. Winslet's other turn, in Revolutionary Road, was perhaps a little underhand for the Academy; Leo and Kate reunite for an abortion-suicide movie, luring suburban audiences only to throw their existences back in their faces.

Best for fun? In Bruges was nominated for its script, though lost out to nutritious Milk; and Penélope Cruz won for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, though Rebecca Hall's was truly the stand-out performance in Woody Allen's little farce. You almost wanted a film inspired by a studio attraction to be up there just for the ride.