Monday, 27 March 2017

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of David Rockefeller is up at the Guardian online and should be in the paper paper soon; you can link to it here. It is pretty much as written, and being written for a British audience and at a relatively small word length, it had to eschew depth of many of the fascinating details of his life. I would also have loved to use the quote, a masterpiece of understatement, about why he became the first, and still, only Rockefeller, to write a memoir: "well, it just occurred to me that I had led a rather interesting life". But the NYTimes used it to close their obit.

Understatement is a part of the idea of noblesse oblige which David Rockefeller I think tried very hard to exemplify. Certainly the privilege into which he was born was immense. I would have liked to contrast his influence on American policy with that of the modern billionaires who fund think-tanks, lobbying groups, universities, and politicians; I am reading Jane Mayer's Dirty Money at the moment and suffice it to say the Koch brothers are no Rockefellers. The consistent focus of their philanthropy on their own narrow self-interest is a real contrast with the Rockefellers and their foundations or influence groups. I found a quote about David's avoidance of tax avoidance which would have put that whole discussion into quick focus.

This is not to say the Rockefellers did not move in their own (or their class') interest: but the overarching theme was that they would benefit from the greater success around them, with building rather than controlling world markets, with keeping New York City and its social systems functioning, rather than destroying them. The Chase HQ in lower Manhattan was build partly to help stimulate the city's economy. David had been criticised for the lower profits generated by Chase's overseas expansion, this was part of the story omitted from my copy; when the bank recovered from the New York crisis he had also turned those overseas investments into larger profits. When he left as CEO, it was far healthier than when he started, so the benefits were mutual. But it's inescapable that although the Rockefellers and Chase were part of government, they felt government was a positive' they were not looking to create a governmental vacuum, a rich man's anarchy, in which their wealth would give them even more power.

Even so, I made the case briefly for their influence. The Guardian for some reason decided David had run the Council for Foreign Relations' think tank which bears his name; but he joined the organisation in 1941, became a director after the war, was a director for 36 years and its chairman for 15 years: the CFR is far more than a think-tank. A small note omitted from my copy was that Rockefeller founded the Trilateral Commission because the even-more-secretive Bilberburg Group would not admit the Japanese. Noting that Rockefeller Center was sold to Mitsubishi is actually an illustration how those deep government contacts work.

William Paley, the CBS chairman who went in with Nelson and David to buy the Gertrude Stein collection, was like Rockefeller someone who worked with intelligence during the war, and his ties to the intelligence community in the post-war era have been subject to almost as much investigation as the Rockefellers'. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of researching David was to see the way he, and John J McCloy, were so central to America's rebuilding in Europe in the immediate post war era.

I would have liked more space to cover both David's childhood, and also the relative disengagement of the next generation of Rockefellers from the direct sort of involvement of his. They are mostly involved in the family's philanthropies, though one daughter, Abby, was a noted rebel, and was involved in left-wing and women's liberation causes.

It should seem obvious, so I left it out saying it bluntly, but David's talent saw him engage in what was probably the most important of the tasks taken on by the Rockefeller brothers. More important than Nelson's vice-presidency, and even his governorship of New York. Running Rockefeller, Inc.

Friday, 24 March 2017

DON'T KNOCK TWICE (BUT OF COURSE THEY DO)

Jess, who is now married to a wealthy banker, has become a successful sculptor. But she is a recovering drug addict and nine years ago, at the bottom of her addiction, she gave up her daughter Chloe. Now she would like to resume being Chloe's mother, but at the home where Chloe has grown up, she gets rejected. Chloe and her boyfriend Danny proceed to investigate the local haunted house, into which another boy from the orphanage is reputed to have disappeared. Knocking twice on the front door is supposed to call up the ghost, so there is little question what the two kids will do. And soon after Danny disappears from his room. 

Next thing you know, Chloe has fled to her mother's mansion in the countryside.At this point, the Welsh horror film Don't Knock Twice gets interesting, and the real tension is not in the pursuit by the Baba Yaga Chloe claims she saw, but in the interaction of mother and daughter. 

It's driven by two excellent performances. Director Caradog James gets two great performances from his leads. Katee Sackhoff, channels her unexpected inner Claire Danes (cf her Homeland refrain of 'I'm So Sorry'), is unsettling as a woman whose inner torments are not far from the surface, and seem just as dangerous as the outer ones which make this a horror picture. She's part zombie, part succubus, part mother and she has great trouble sorting those out. Her disjointed intensity is a surprise, as is Lucy Boynton's Chloe: seemingly expected to be a classic horror teen, she makes the most of fighting her torn instincts about her mother, and her aggression plays against that helpless victim teen trope.
Given the parallel ghost story of the old woman in the house, this has the makings of a fascinating set up. Throw in Nick Moran as Detective Boardman, whose close connections to the children's home and the case push him to the point of obsession, and Pooneh Hajimohammadi as Tira, Jess' model with the vaguely eastern European accent and the mystic senses about Baba Yagas, and it's a buildup with much depth.

Unfortunately, not all those depths are really probed as the story resolves itself into its horror B movie self, complete with an Omen-like twist. An almost throwaway but crucial line about slaves makes little sense in terms of the monster we've seen (Javier Botet, who's made of career of such figures) nor of that monster's abilities, which one moment transcend space and the next seem limited to shambling along the ground, and though there is a nice twist before the final reveal, it becomes very standard indeed, and a great disappointment.

In some ways, director Caradog James, in his third feature, seems torn between his tale of family horror and what requires finishing in the mode of Giallo. You can see this in the manipulative score which reflects Argento, and is sometimes annoyingly forwarded, and the deft use of the shocker cut (one in particular is brilliant). But when the film works best it is in the expressive photography from Adam Frisch, and the smoldering interplay of mother and daughter which James clearly relishes. The two elements of the film might have been integrated to deeper emotional effect, but it would have required a different sort of scripting and perhaps more space. I'd have been willing to trust James with that space. 

Trivia Footnote: Ned Dowd is credited as line producer on the movie. Dowd was playing minor league ice hockey for the Johnstown Jets of the old Eastern League, which inspired his sister Nancy to write the screenplay for Slap Shot, still one of the greatest sports movies. Ned has a small part as Ogie Oglethorpe in the film, which will mean a lot to you if you know it. He's produced some fine films, including Last Of The Mohicans and The 13th Warrior

 Don't Knock Twice is in cinemas and on demand 31 March and on DVD 3 April

NOTE: This review will also appear, in a slightly different format, at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday, 20 March 2017

JIMMY BRESLIN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of the newsman Jimmy Breslin is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, and what has been left out is what I needed to omit for space, and in consideration of an audience who were not familiar with his work. Luckily, I was writing for an audience of journalists, who understood it well.

One trim was the best quote I'd found about Breslin, from the Village Voice's ace muckrakers Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett. It would have preceded the story that led up to his 2002 book about Eduardo Gutierrez. They had called Breslin "an intellectual disguised as a bar room primitive" and that was in many ways true. Damon Runyon was certainly his model, but his writing drew on a lot of literary sources, not the least of them Dickens, as well as endless hours on the phones and in the bars, and endless days with people.

The other I missed was the story of his jumping into a cab to cover the race riots in Crown Heights in 1991. When he cab got there, rioters pulled him out and beat him seriously, leaving him with, as he wrote, only his underwear and press card. He wrote that from the scene, calling in his copy before being patched up, as cops stood by. "How do you like your friends now?" they asked.

I probably should have stressed the hard reporting he did as well. I did mentioned he'd won a Polk award in 1985 for metro reporting. His 1986 Puzliter cited his AIDS story, but in 1986 he had also brought down Queens borough president Donald Manes in a payoff scandal; Manes would commit suicide a few months later.

I had also given his wives a bit more prominence. When he married his second wife he moved from Queens to Central Park West, began swimming every day, and as I mentioned stopped serious boozing after that bender with Moynihan. I couldn't get into much detail after the cast of Runyon characters he was often accused of gilding, if not inventing, in his stories. And I would have liked to have examined the nature of the Irish-American reporter: Breslin and Pete Hamill and so many others in their trench coats and tweed hats. But that's another essay. As might be his campaign with Norman Mailer, but Breslin wrote that one himself in Running Against The Machine (1969).

I had mentioned his nomination for a Golden Turkey award for his role in the 1978 movie If I Ever See You Again. He had a brief late night TV interview show on ABC, but he was no Studs Terkel; his skill at drawing the stories out of people in print didn't translate to the screen. When he got fed up with the network he bought an ad in the New York Times announcing that when his contract was up he would quit. I had also discussed the argument he had with a woman in the Newsday newsroom who accused one of his columns of being sexist, and for which (the argument) he was suspended. He took his case onto the Howard Stern radio show, not a bastion of feminist sensibility.

He was direct. I didn't speculate about his childhood, but his father literally walked away from the family: went to the store one night and never came back. In a different context I might have used the story the New York Times used, but it didn't fit my piece, and besides, they'd used it. But I'll repeat it here, verbatim from Dan Barry's obit:

after Mr. Breslin had become famous, his father, destitute in Miami, came back into his life “like heavy snow through a broken window,” he wrote. He paid for his father’s medical bills and sent him a telegram that said, “NEXT TIME KILL YOURSELF.” 

And I wanted to use this quote from Ron Rosenbaum, who called him "one of the great prose writers in America. Period." Asked for his favourite Breslin line, he quoted this one: "somebody always hangs out at a collision shop." Think about it.  RIP.

Friday, 17 March 2017

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER: LONDON FILM FESTIVAL HORROR HIT GOES ON RELEASE

The setting is somewhere between bucolic and bleak: an isolated farm somewhere in America. It's the 1960s, at least judging by the car and the television. Young Francisca is following her mother, who was an eye surgeon in her native Portugal; life on the farm, with her taciturn father working and watching TV, seems to have little besides her mother's spark, to charm her. But she seems happy. 'Loneliness can do strange things to the mind,' her mother tells her, which might seem to encapsulate the whole story, except it's really the easy way out. Then a stranger appears, and in a few moments of violence, Francisca's world is turned inside out.  

The Eyes Of My Mother, which was the best of a strong selection of horror films at the London Film Festival last October and is released 24 March, is first-time writer/director Nicholas Pesce's calm but chilling, detailed but mysterious tale of that turning. The stranger fits the setting perfectly, as played by Will Brill he's the personification of the 60s/70s hippie gone bad antagonist, Andy Robinson stepped out of Dirty Harry. He's kept alive after his horrific attack on the mother, but he would rather not be. 'Why would I kill you?' young Francisca asks. 'You're my only friend'.

Part I of the film is titled 'Mother'. Part II is 'Father', in which Francisca is now grown. Part III is 'Family'. The setting doesn't change, only the nature of her family does. The passing of time is indicated only a few times, most notably when Francisca does to a tavern and brings a woman home. We realise that it is an internal world of her construction, but we aren't privy to all the details. We wonder how many other victims there might have been, that we haven't seen. We don't understand what brought her mother there in the first place, but we see some reason why she remains so attached her to dour father. And as we understand the nature of her own world, we are almost drawn to sympathise with her while wondering exactly what her motivation is. Are her actions the result of loneliness? Or would the horror have been inevitable? We are drawn to seek the answers because we are drawn to Francisca, despite the abominations.

This is in no small part due to the performance by Portugese dancer Kika Magalhaes as Francisca (and a young too to Olivia Bond, who is touching as the young Francisca. Magalhaes is both fragile, but dynamic: expressions and movements making up for the lack of dialogue; who else is there, after all, for her to talk with? She commands the screen; she draws you into her own world, and it is an uncomfortable drawing in. The bits of actual horror, visceral and cruel, are for the most part offstage, and they come as relief from her own inner turmoil. When we watch Francisca cleaning up the aftermaths is when the real horror sets in.

The balletic nature of her performance, the quiet, and the beautifully composed scenes, shot in stunning black and white by Zach Kuperstein, reminded me Guy Maddin's silent work, as did the score, in which Ariel Loh's synthesised horror is entwined with classic fado.

The more obvious influence, however, would be our image of the world of Ed Gein, most notably as seen in Psycho, but drawing as well on documentaries about him and even Wisconsin Death Trip, and even the feature film Ed Gein. Think back to the delicacy of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and you'll see moments of it in Magalhaes' approach. And take almost any scene-setting shot and you'll see that same bleak and horrific America just off the beaten path, just under that small-town surface. The dreamy child-like quality of the narration speaks of Night Of The Hunter. There are elements of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, out of which Will Brill might have stepped. And right from the opening sequence I was reminded of Spirit Of The Beehive.

There are some who will find this film exceedingly arty, too full of reference, too reticent in its gore and perhaps with some justification, too sudden and standard in its finale. It sometimes draws too much on its tropes: 'don't open that barn door'. But it is gripping, engrossing, and captivating: it draws you in the way a great horror film should, with perhaps misplaced sympathy. It is a hugely impressive debut by Pesce, and a performance worthy of wider attention from Magalhaes. Don't miss it.

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (USA 2016)
written and directed by Nicholas Pesce
starring Kika Magalhaes
released in UK cinemas 24 March

Note: this review will also appear in Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

ISRAEL'S BASEBALL DAVIDS: MY JEWISH CHRONICLE REPORT

I've written a piece for today's Jewish Chronicle about the recent success of the Israeli team at the World Baseball Classic (link to it here) and managed to use the David and Goliath analogy not once but twice. It's always nice to be able to mention Moe Berg; I recommend The Catcher Was A Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff for more of the story, including when Moe was sent to Switzerland to evaluate and if necessary kill Werner Heisenberg.

I was also surprised by the JC's use of 'Mr' on second reference; offhand, I'd say I've only seen that done by the New York Times, and it strikes me as quaint. Also, there's a slight ambiguity in the description of Babe Ruth, of all people. Perhaps my fault as I assumed even the JC's audience might be aware of Mr. Ruth's fame, but to be clear, he did not play for the New York Giants, he played for their cross-town (or cross-river) rivals the New York Yankees. 

And check out that nice Israel baseball cap....

JAMES COTTON: IN MEMORIAM

If my memory serves me well, I saw James Cotton as the opening act for BB King in the old field house at my university. Acoustically, it was a barn, but Cotton stole the show with his driving Chicago blues, though of course BB's smoother style won everyone over too. I also think he was playing with Otis Spann when I saw Spann in Boston opening for Mountain; my roommate drove up to Boston to see Leslie West, and I went for Otis, but frankly I remember so little of the trip I can't recall if it was Cotton or not. This was the Sixties, mind you.

Cotton's own groups could be really great: his bits in the Chicago/ The Blues/ Today series are uniformly fine; it was his first solo band and included Otis Spann on piano. But they always paled in comparison to his work with Howlin' Wolf and then with Muddy Waters, where he was in and out with Little Walter in that band that included Spann. Cotton and Hubert Sumlin, Wolf's guitarist, were boyhood friends, and they play on each other's solo efforts, and always well. He also had  Matt Guitar Murphy in his bands, whose guitar provided a different, lighter, sound, which matches his vocals well. And of course he played harp on Muddy's Hard Again in 1977, which was a landmark of blues coming out and re-establishing itself after the rock era.

There's a fascinating record from 1996, Deep In The Blues, with Joe Louis Walker and Charlie Haden, which won a Grammy for best traditional blues album, and is truly worth it. Haden said he was 'surprised that...he would call me to do this record. I'd never done anything like this before. But I love blues so I was very happy'. And it shows.

But go back and listen to Cotton in the day. Here's a link to him with Muddy and Spann:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vx606E2OzPE 
RIP.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

THE CHAMBER: DIVING DEEP INTO BEN PARKER'S DEBUT

Mats is the Swedish pilot of a small submersible being rented out for research and oil exploration in the China Sea. When his craft, the Aurora, is commandeered by a trio of American special forces types, he goes along with the mission, trusting his British captain's word that nothing will happen. But Mats has worries. His craft is designed for two people, not four. It's old and temperamental. And they are right on the edge of North Korea's territorial waters. What could go wrong?

Of course something does go seriously wrong, and the four find themselves upside down in the damaged Aurora, stuck on the ocean bottom, with little power and the boat now a chamber filling up with water. And when contact is lost with the surface, with the likelihood North Koreans have boarded it, the odds increase against survival.

The Chamber is a title which suggests a horror movie, and first-time feature director Ben Parker's previous film was a horror short, Shifter. Indeed the film received its premiere at Fright Fest last year. But this is really a suspense thriller which plays out like a claustrophobic encounter session, the dynamic between the four victims shifting with each attempt to find a solution that might save their lives. Parker's control of the pacing is immaculate, the character shifts not forced, and if once or twice shocks are predictable, well, there is only so much you can do in that small space. It's a well-made work: Benjamin Pritchard's photography explores every inch of the space and every change of emotion, and Will Gilbey's editing makes the most of it. There's also a good score by James Dean Bradfield, of Manic Street Preachers, in his film debut. The Chamber moves without respite, while not overpowering the characters, which is what a good thriller should do.

It also works because of the cast. Johannes Kuhnke (best-known for Force Majeure) as Mats ('not Matt') has the same sort of Scandinavian calm as Ólafur Darri Ólafsson offered in Trapped. Which makes a nice contrast with the three Americans, Elliott Levey as the more practical technician, James McArdle as the hard man, and Charlotte Salt (who stole some scenes as Marguerite in Musketeers) as Red, the mission leader. McArdle is the only one of this British cast who doesn't quite convince as an American, but it is Salt who dominates the action in what is a striking performance; the one whose very American single-minded devotion to duty and to proving herself has to be overcome by Kuhnke's Swedish practicality. Or at least met halfway.

There is an an element of political thriller here, but it never really takes off, because of the relentless momentum of the action. It's not just the presence of the North Koreans, but more in the way Red's tunnel vision rebounds on them all, her willingness to lie and conceal, and her ultimate faith in her larger purpose contrasts with Mats' Swedish neutrality or humanity. It's left in inference only, but it's almost unmistakeable, especially because the tight setting and interplay of those two with the other two bring it into focus almost naturally.

This is an assured performance by all concerned, and its ending is something of a surprise, as well as making a conclusion that reminds you this four-hander offers elements of existential theatre as well as ocean-floor thriller. Ben Parker and his stars are three to watch.

The Chamber
written and directed by Ben Parker
starring Johannes Kuhnke, Charlotte Salt
released 10 March, available on DVD and download 20 March

Monday, 6 March 2017

JESSE STONE DISCOVERS THE DEVIL WINS

A nor'easter hits Paradise, Massachusetts, and when the storm has passed, three bodies come to the surface, as it were. One is an unknown man, only recently killed, the other two are the skeletons of two young girls, gone missing on a Fourth of July some twenty-five years before. And as Jesse Stone discovers, no one in Paradise really wants to talk much about the girls, or their disappearance, not even Molly Crone, his best cop. It's a great set up, as Jesse has to work to get beneath the rubble of silence and memory, and the killers work to make sure he doesn't.

I've written before about the difficulties of continuing another writer's character, and indeed have reviewed Michael Brandman's Jesse Stone novels (you can link to the most recent here). Now Reed Farrel Coleman has taken up the mantle, and the result is again something different from Robert B Parker's original.

It's a bad situation: if you stray too far from the original, you risk alienating fans, but more importantly you risk losing what it was that made the character and the stories, compelling. I've just reviewed one of Max Allan Collins' Mike Hammer novels; Collins has the advantage of working from Spillane's starts or outlines or notes, and he stays pretty close to the original; his prose style is somewhat less direct, though the bigger problem is that Mickey's stories are generally set in times the reader doesn't necessarily identify with Hammer. Coleman's problem is somewhat different. Brandman's Stone was the one from the TV movies he produced; still large part Parker, but somewhat dominant over the supporting cast, whose parts became smaller largely because Parker was so good at delineating character in short scenes with compact dialogue.

Coleman has brought back some characters, but he also seems to have strayed further away from Parker's Stone. It's partly a question of writing: Coleman's style is not the swift clean prose that made Parker's stories flow and work; he does far more telling than showing. More importantly, his Jesse appears to have far less inner confidence to draw back on: Jesse Stone is like a part of Spenser, and he can do things Spenser can't, like enjoy other women while staying faithful to the idea of his ex-wife Jenn. Well, this Jesse Stone can't do that, and he's having more trouble with his drinking too. His shrink, Dix, is back, but this Dix isn't really as penetrating as Parker's. And most importantly, neither Molly, who is at the heart of this story, and Suit, who recovering from a shooting and therefore not patrolling, are drawn as fully as they should be; Molly should be because of her inner turmoil and also because Coleman seems to be foregrounding Jesse's attraction to her.

Coleman's big strength is plotting, and though some might find a few things easy to guess, there is a neat twist toward the end. In fact, a twist as neat as the one in The Will To Kill, the Spillane which was my previous review, and it helps the story to have it. 

Robert B Parkers's The Devil Wins by Reed Farrel Coleman
No Exit Press, £7.99 ISBN 9781843448464

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

MIKE HAMMER'S WILL TO KILL

It's the mid 1960s and it's a somewhat mellower Mike Hammer. Though some things never change for the hard-boiled dicks, especially when they prowl the mean streets down by the waterfront in the early hours of a cold winter morning. Mike is catching a smoke and catching up with his thoughts when a body, or half a body to be precise, drifts past him on a slab of ice. Some men attract trouble, and Mike Hammer has always been one of them. 

But this is a different sort of trouble, and a different sort of story Max Allan Collins has finished working off pages and notes from Mickey Spillane. It turns out the body belongs to a butler, who worked for the Dunbars, a wealthy family up the Hudson near Monticello. And it turns out the late Mr. Dunbar was a friend of Captain Pat Chambers, Mickey's buddy. Dunbar's been dead three years, and his four children all still live on his estate, await an inheritance that won't kick in until they reach 40. When the state police rule the butler's death is ruled accidental, Pat's not so sure, but there's nothing he can do officially. So the man who can do more unofficially goes up to Monticello to look into things on Pat's behalf.

The butler didn't do it, but the fact that it was done to the butler ought to signal you that this is in not a typical Mike Hammer. In fact, it's more like a cozy who-dun-it, with a raft of suspects worthy of Agatha Christie for Mike to sort through, a will whose value would increase as the number of beneficiaries decrease, and soon more bodies are dropping. There are a couple of Hammer set-pieces; the most interesting at a casino, which plays a bit like Bogart as Marlowe at Eddie Mars' place. And though there are only two women to find Mike irresistible (Velda is also back on the scene) and Mike only is able to resist one, it's far less violent and less steamy than it might have been.

In Agatha Christie who dun its, the puzzle revolves around someone who is not who or what they say they are; often these characters are disenfranchised nobility trying to get or sometimes innocently getting their just desserts. Hammer's world isn't quite so predestined as the English, but it will not be a spoiler to say that, as with Christie, the story hinges on people who are not quite what they are supposed to be; sometimes this makes things clearer when Mike figures it out, sometimes it gets figured out for him. And there is a nice little twist at the end, where Hammer's sense of justice rears its head unexpectedly.

As I said, this is a mellower Hammer in some ways. He's more erudite, and actually corrects people with some unlikely facts. The changes in society brought on by the Sixties are just offstage, for now Luckies and Pabst are not quite declasse. Watching the way Max has worked to finish Mickey's work, and had to adjust to Hammer's changing world, I've sometimes questioned things: for me the Hammer with a deep-down rage will always seem the most authentic Mike. But this novel is intriguing precisely because, in the setting of a who-dun-it, a different side of Hammer that makes sense in terms of age and changing times suggests itself. It really seems like the kind of thing Mickey would have come to had he finished his original idea.

The Will To Kill by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Titan Books, £17.99, ISBN 9781783291427

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

PATRIOTS DAY: FRONT ROW AND BEYOND

I was on BBC Radio 4's Front Row a week ago discussing Patriots Day. It was my usual four-minute exercise in speed talking, in which Samira Ahmed raises great questions but we don't get to toss them back and forth as we ought to. You can find the show on Iplayer here, it's the lead item. Just before we went on, Samira asked the booth whether she should say 'Pay-triots Day' or 'Pat-riots Day'. I laughed and said the holiday commemorates the start of a war America fought to allow us to say Pay-triots. And so it was said.

As I suggested on the programme (note the British spelling!)Patriots Day is an odd mix of docudrama and thriller which sometimes works on each level, but doesn't quite seem to work completely as an amalgam. It's at times quite moving, and at times quite exciting, but it drifts in and out of focus. I thought the docudrama played best when it was acted; oddly enough the opening shots of the Boston Marathon don't really convey the atmosphere of community which marks the race. 

Similarly in the first coda to the film, when they show the ceremony at Fenway Park at which Red Sox star David Ortiz (ironically in the current Trumpian immigration crisis, a Dominican) says 'this is our fucking city', doesn't carry the impact it did in Boston. It might better have been reconstructed for the benefit of people who don't understand the importance of Ortiz to his adopted city. But the second coda, showing what happened to the victims and responders, is genuinely touching.

In a similar vein, the most moving scene in the film comes when, after Mark Wahlberg's fiery cop has complained about the eight-year victim whose body has to be left on the street where he died. Later, after everyone has cleared off, there is a shot of the body, with a state trooper who's been left to stand guard over it. It's a hugely powerful image. Still later, when they come for the body, the trooper salutes, which may be emotional overkill.

This docudrama is combined with an action movie with Wahlberg at its core (note the variant poster selling just this image). His character, unlike most of the others, is a construct, and it requires an opening sequence to establish his 'bad boy' status within the police department, his injury which he works through on the job, and, inadvertently, how short he really is (when he's breaking down a door they catch him next to two non-actor sized cops). Wahlberg is good in his role, because it is a classic Wahlberg part, but his presence is so awkward that during the Watertown shootout the film keeps cutting to him driving there, an uncessary distraction from the action.

This is the third fact-based movie for Wahlberg and director Peter Berg. As it happened I had seen Deepwater Horizon, the second, on an airplane to Houston for the Super Bowl not long before seeing Patriots Day. Having also recently watched Sully, it seemed like a new sub-genre of what you might call Joe the Plumber movies, in which first responders can be the cavalry riding to the rescue, if not the centre of the films. Deepwater is a slighter film than Patriots Day; its structure, like Sully's, grows from the battle against the corporate villains, and the pyrotechnics dominate the action. Wahlberg is, however, better in this film: he seems to play better with a sympathetic lead (Kurt Russell) to play off.

In reality though, Wahlberg seems there because it is a Boston movie (and how will he ever live down leaving that Super Bowl game with the football Patriots down 28-3 in the third quarter?). There are all the usual Boston tropes: especially the obvious accents and Red Sox; which is a theme between Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensey, the wounded couple, throughout. Kevin Bacon playing the FBI chief, might have walked out of his role in Mystic River; the MIT flirtation seems right out of Good Will Hunting; the hospital scenes out of ER. At least we were spared Cheers bar, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

What works best in the film is the actual suspense and action. Waiting for the bombs which we know will explode to actually explode is the Hitchockian definition of suspense. The carjacking scene, with Jimmy O Yang terrific as the young Chinese who is taken. The shootout in Watertown is a tour de force, not least because of the real amateur hour feel to it. And some of the set pieces, like Wahlberg walking through the mockup of the crime scene to try and retrace the bombers' steps, are brilliant. All of it is leavened by humorous one-liners, not quite at Die Hard level but more effective because they don't come from the star.

There's another dichotomy at play here. Bacon, who is excellent, and John Goodman, who is just as good as the police commissioner, are realists who understand what labeling the attack terrorism will mean. When the politicians come aboard, we can almost see authoritarianism come to the fore: the lockdown of Watertown and environs is presented as if it were martial law; in reality it was only a request, one which the population followed gladly. And the quick trigger fingers of the police, which nearly killed the second suspect as he lay cowering inside a boat, should be frightening. The Tsarnev brothers seem to be as they were described to me by my cousins in Cambridge, whose kids knew them from high school; the younger, surviving brother Dzhokar a slacker of sort; the older, Tamerlan, the bitter, angry one. It was a bit off-putting that the actor playing Tamerlan, Themo Melikidze, looks so much like Elijah Wood playing a musclebound Frodo.

The real framing of the film is more basic than that. There is a fantastic scene where Khandi Alexander, as an FBI interrogator, enters in a hijab to question Tamerlan's wife. The battle between Alexander and Melissa Benoist, as Katharine, is chillingly brilliant, with both actresses flipping their characters' personalities. Alexander's always been undervalued; Benoist is someone to watch. But the moment points to the film's underlying theme: it is 'our' values against 'theirs'.

We have seen how Tamerlan can't be bothered to get milk for his infant son; how Dzhokar gets the wrong milk. This contrasts with JK Simmons, as a Watertown police sergeant (see yet another variant poster, part of a series themed 'True...'), going to Dunkin Donuts to get coffee for his invalid wife. Tamerlan threatens to kill his younger brother; Wahlberg shares brotherly faith in the good of people with his fellow officer. He is beside himself because he asked his wife to deliver a knee brace to the starting line; Tamerlan is abusive to his wife. Yet in the interrogation, Katherine, who has adopted Islam, refuses to turn on her husband, whom she had kissed affectionately when she realised he was the bomber. They worship death; we abhor it is the message. It's one which is reinforced by music that signals good and bad like silent movie accompaniment; although its belied by the camera work by Tobias Schliessler, which is especially good in setting human moods for action scenes.

I suspect this will be seen in different ways by different audiences: those who know Boston, those who know America, and those who don't. I suspect it will work best for the first of that group, but while a mixed bag, it has a lot to offer all three. But the overlying image is not so much 'Boston Strong' pace David Oritz, but America Strong because it's True Faith. See yet another poster for confirmation of that. 

Monday, 27 February 2017

BOB'S BACK PAGES (BEFORE THE NOBEL PRIZE): MY BOB DYLAN HEADPRESS ARTICLE

I wrote this piece more than 15 years ago; it appeared in Headpress 18, which was published in January 2002. I came across it the other day, and wished I had remembered it around the time Bob was given the Nobel Prize, and I kept thinking about 'dogs run free/why not we' as the sub-atomic kernel of a literary conflagration. I probably wrote this quite a bit earlier than its publication, and last year I wrote about the Free Trade Hall performance on its 50th Anniversary, you can link to that article here. But I like the way this piece, which I believe started as a simple review of the Andy Gill book, moved, so here it is again. I don't believe I'd heard the official Columbia release of the concert when I wrote this, internal evidence would agree with that, so I've amended it slightly to include my hearing of it...

BOB'S BACK PAGES

The apotheosis of Bob Dylan really grew out of the period where he electrified his music, and in the process, legitimized for rock music the sort of lyrical content that folk music had carried. Even though Dylan had already produced major electric hits by 1966, and in LA groups like the Byrds were already doing Beatlized interpretations of his songs, the sense of betrayal felt by his fans of the old era was still palpable at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, on May 17 1966.
The tape of that show is probably the most famous bootleg of all time, and because the original tapes were somehow mis-identified, has always been known as the Albert Hall tape. It has been available for some time in an allegedly Italian pressing with the odd title of Guitars Kissing And The Contemporary Fix. It was supposedly dubbed from the same master tapes as Columbia’s official 'bootleg' release three years later, which retains the old, misleading title. Columbia declined to send a review copy of that official release to Headpress. You’ll have to ask them why. You would assume that they have remastered the tapes beyond what the bootleg offers, but the differences are not huge. There's a bit more of The Band audible more clearly on the electric disc (of the two disc set). Of course, now that the official release is out, the bootleg is a sort of pirate disc, and it would be very wrong of me to suggest that you search the bootleg out and deny Sony their rightful legal share of your money, because Sony’s deep love of the music and concern for Dylan’s loyal listeners deserves to be rewarded fully. And coincidentally, the disc is released for in time for Christmas too, only thirty years too late.
Whichever disc you hear, as I recounted in my review of Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic in Headpress 16, this is an extraordinary set. It marks the point where 'rock n roll' music was finally transmuted into 'rock', for better or worse. This is where it starts to transcend the pop traditions, top 40 boundaries, and even, for a short while, the control of the hustlers and conmen who handled the money. It also marks the beginning of a divide in pop music, roughly between black and white, coinciding with the move from AM top 40 radio into album-oriented FM radio.

The two disc packages begin with Dylan’s acoustic set, the Woody Guthrie Bob already shifting into something else. The second disc, with the group that would become The Band (apart from Mickey Jones here replacing Levon Helm on drums) is a revelation. It’s not just the booing from the crowd, the voice that yells “Judas”, to which Dylan replies “I don’t believe you, you're a liar” and tells the band to “Play fucking loud”. Dylan was used to this by now. At Newport in 1965 Pete Seeger had tried to cut the cables bringing power to his instruments. Al Kooper was so shook up after the crowd reaction at Forest Hills, NY (virtually Kooper’s backyard) that he quit Dylan’s band. So too did Helm, who was depressed by the constant booing.

But as Don Pennebaker’s film of Dylan’s 65 tour of Britain showed, Dylan didn’t really care. Or, as the Free Trade Hall showed, he’d adopted an attitude to deal with it. It's incredible to watch his surreal snideness in mocking the press who interview him, and painful to follow his constant disparagement of the “British Dylan”, Donovan. Pennebaker gets great footage of manager Albert Grossman in action, conning the BBC, and also a series of really creepy-crawly shots of groupie-extraordinaire Bob Neuwirth. Although everyone, including Joan Baez, seems happy to bask in Dylan’s reflected shadow, Neuwirth is more like one of those guys who carries the heavyweight champion’s belt to the ring. “Yeah champ, you got it, you the man champ, whatever you say boss.” When he starts dissing the soon to be dumped Baez, you actually start feeling sorry for her.
All of this is covered in Andy Gill’s My Back Pages. This is a useful reference book, but suffers from an anoraky tendency to miss the forest while concentrating on the trees, like a hippie on a trip studying every vein in that groovy leaf. Gill’s source interviews, especially with Al Kooper, have provided him with great material, but it isn’t distributed evenly: it’s as if the book had been finished before all the interviewing could be done, and of course Dylan himself is only here second-hand.
Fortunately, Gill is strongest in the period we’re concerned with here, the 65-66 transformation. Like an old folkie, it’s also very thorough on the early folk albums. But it tails off quickly after Highway 61 Revisited with the albums from Blonde On Blonde through Nashville Skyline getting progressively shorter shrift, which is a particular shame because The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. I wonder occasionally about Gill’s instinctive knowledge of Americana: the Bill Lee who played bass on Dylan sessions is Spike Lee’s father, which is a cool piece of trivia. When Dylan sings “his pointy shoes and his bells” he may be singing about a jester’s costume, and he may also be talking about sharply pointed Cuban-heeled shoes and flared trousers, known as bell-bottoms in America, and often “bells” in 60s jargon. That sort of nit-picking isn’t the point. Gill cares deeply about this music, and it shows throughout. Who knows what the 52 page CD booklet in the Columbia release is like, but if you didn’t behave legally and buy the official release, this book would surely make up for that loss.
The official Dylan tribute concert is old news by now, but it has been broadcast recently in the UK on VH1. It’s sad. Al Kooper gets to sit in with John Mellancamp, whose backup singers do a full Vegas assassination of “Like A Rolling Stone” while Kooper does his organ bits in anonymous obscurity. Kris Kristofferson reads off an autocue stuff written by the same kind of guys who write the intros to the Oscar ceremonies, which is no surprise since the 'musical director' comes from Saturday Night Life and prances around in centre stage but never seems to mete a solo to Steve Cropper.  The weirdest moment comes when Sinead O'Connor tries to face down a New York crowd, and they send her backstage crying.
There are a few good points. Richie Havens seems to have lost nothing in 30 years, and Tracy Chapman seems a bit like Havens’ reborn. But apart from Booker T & the MGs, the only people who appear to be enjoying themselves are Eric Clapton, who does a brilliant job as a sort of chairman of the board, and, in sharp contrast to Clapton’s executive sleekness, Neil Young, who bounds around the stage like a kid set free by Dylan’s 60s brilliance. The Band is represented by the 1992 version, with Jim Weider on guitar and no Robbie Robertson, nor Richard Manuel, who was dead, but Garth's on accordion and Levon is back playing mandolin. When Dylan himself appears, you realise how many great epitaphs he’s already written. “I Shall Be Released” (sung at Richard funeral), “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”, “Forever Young”and yes, "My Back Pages'.  You wish it were true. Bob’s own performance is a letdown; I couldn’t help but feel we were hearing that same sort of mumbling he used to put off the crowds back in 1966 after they'd booed him. Thirty years on, and that’s what it’s come to.



MY BACK PAGES: Classic Bob Dylan 1962-69
Andy Gill
Carlton Books, 144pp, £14.99 (1998)

THE “ROYAL ALBERT HALL” CONCERT 1966
Bob Dylan & the Hawks
Sony/Columbia CD 1998

GUITARS KISSING AND THE CONTEMPORARY FIX
Bob Dylan & the Hawks
Bootleg CD (no label) 1995

THE BOB DYLAN 30th ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE CONCERT (1992)
VH1

DONT LOOK BACK (1967)
a film directed by DA Pennebacker

Saturday, 25 February 2017

TACTICAL PERIODISATION & SPORTING APPRECIATION: My Lost NFLUK Column

Note: I wrote this Thursday for the resumption of my off-season Friday Monthly Tight End column at nfluk.com. After filing, though, I was told that the off-season column wouldn't be needed for the website; though I will be back with my weekly picks of all the games once the season begins. It was a shame, because the column was timely, given last Saturday's Guardian article, Tuesday's European Champions League match,and my being on Talksport2's Tuesday NFL programme. So I'm posting it here, for you gridiron fans, and you non-gridiron fans...


Earlier this week, someone at @nfluk tweeted the following:
“This ManCity v AS Monaco game is nearly as good as SBLI.”(That's Super Bowl 51, not Savings Bank Life Insurance, or Super Bowl Li, to you uninitiated.)

Pretty much accurate, and totally innocuous, you'd think. I didn't see the tweet until after the match ended but I responded then that Monaco had turned into the Atlanta Falcons of the ECL: unable to change their high-speed all-out attack mode when they needed to. After I finished my radio show, I happened to look at the responses to the original tweet. I should not have been surprised that many of them were harsh attacks on America football, the old 'wearing pads' and 'action stopping' arguments I've been hearing for 40 years.

It's hard to understand such antipathy, apart from the fact that twitter is twitter, and British sport is tribal in nature, but I've always tried to appreciate sports for their own strong points, and frankly, that isn't hard to do. I've done it on air with guys like Martin Johnson, Brian Moore and Martin O'Neill, having constructive discussion about the ways sports can learn from each other. It's helped me gain a lot more insight into American football as well as rugby and football (or the sports the English call rugger and soccer).

Coincidentally, Nat Coombs and I discussed just that on Talksport's NFL show the same night. We'd actually been watching the Man City-Monaco match before the show aired, but we had already planned to talk about the concept of 'tactical periodisation', following an excellent Guardian article by Gerard Meagher about Eddie Jones and England rugby. It's a concept Jones borrowed from football, where its most celebrated adherent is Jose Mourinho, and Jones got it from Alberto Mendez, and then from Pep Guardiola. It's about integrating skills, fitness, and what they call 'tactical and mental awareness' (ie: the stuff English football mostly ignored for many decades, in favour of 'luck' and 'bottle') in specific and often high-speed training. As Jones put it, 'everything is done in preparation for the game and in order to be tactically aware'.

Doesn't that remind you of someone in the NFL? Wasn't that on display in the Super Bowl? Do you remember when I wrote on nfluk.com immediately after the Super Bowl about New England and 'situational football'?

The Patriots are famously one of the few teams who will alter their game plans, on both sides of the ball, week in and week out, trying to fine tune their skills to the opposition's. We saw it in the Super Bowl, where the Falcons' offense seemed to be unstoppable for much of the game, but ground to a halt in the final quarter. When you look deeper you discover Atlanta converted only one of eight third downs in the game, and that was on a penalty. Their offense, for all its drive, was depending on big plays; they scored only three touchdowns; many of us figured if they were held under 30 the Pats could win. And at halftime, apparently, the Pats realised they were indeed moving the ball themselves, they just had to eliminate mistakes from their game, and force them from the others. Recall Wales missing touch on a crucial clearance from their own 22 against England: England had not one but three of their 'best footballers': Ford, Farrell and Daly already back for the kick; Daly scored the winning try untouched.

This combination of the players recognising the tactical situation and the preparation to take advantage of it is the epitome of what New England do, and many teams don't. Think of Gostkowski's coffin-corner kickoffs in the second half. Watch the 'Do Your Job' video about Super Bowl 49, where the Pats prepared for the pass play Butler intercepted. Or where Belichick preached situational football with your back to the goal, and you want to draw the defense offside, which they did, and avoided the safety while giving Brady room for the kneel.

Jones also talked about what he'd learned from the sport Aussies call soccer. The games are similar, he said, because 'you always want to move the ball into space.' This was a key in the Super Bowl. The Falcons game plan was aimed at taking away the space in the middle of the field where the Pats like to cross receivers. They varied their coverage, playing some 'robber' looks hidden behind their cover-one; one such was the pick six. But New England switched toward sidelines-heavy routes in the fourth quarter, counting on the extra half-step gained on lone defenders. Brady's pass to Amendola early in OT, a long-out thrown into space before Amendola had even made his cut, was one of the best throws of the season. It reminded me too that Bill Belichick had done something similar to Buffalo when the Giants beat them in the Super Bowl; in the second half he took away Jim Kelly's successful pass routes, and Kelly never was able to adjust.

Under Jones this season England has rallied to snatch wins over France and Wales. Part of this, of course, is due to their depth of talent; in the Pats' case the talent level may not be at as high a level, but the players execute their specific roles. They also rotate their big guys through, situationally more than just for rest. I was fascinated to hear Jones say that they have a system which measures the time it takes their players to get up off the ground; that explained to me why they would sub out some of their more successful guys, especially on the front row, in the second half. Much as I dislike the increasing computerization of modern sport, it is significant in rugby, which has gone from no substitutes to almost wholesale substitution in the time I've followed it. Substitution was once upon a time one of the things partisan critics said they hated about American sport in general (along with all-seater stadia, squad numbers, names of jerseys, football on Sundays or Monday nights instead of 3pm Saturday etc ad infinitum) but as I said, there is always something to be learned. And I'm always surprised when people can't learn it.