Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Film Review: Cross Of Iron

Pelette and I took in the late-period Sam Peckinpaugh flick Cross Of Iron (1976) at Cinematheque on Saturday night. I'm sure that Sean will be posting a fuller and more insightful review soon, but in the meantime my humble and semi-literate efforts will have to suffice.

You can read the allmovie guide synopsis, but briefly: the film's setting is the Crimea in 1943, when the writing was clearly visible on the wall for the German regiments. James Coburn is Rolf Steiner, a fearless platoon leader who's only loyalty is to his men, James Mason is the well-intentioned and war-weary commandant (with David Warner--not playing an alien and/or miserable creep!--as his slightly shell-shocked Captain and intellectual confidant), and Max Schell is the Prussian aristocrat Captain Stransky: newly-arrived, old-school, uninterested in Hitler and his ideology, and on the make to pick up the Iron Cross as quickly and cheaply as possible. The conflict between Stransky and Steiner is really the basis of what plot there is here, and things start to heat up when the former's claim to the Cross, based on supposed valorous conduct in battle, is gainsaid by Steiner (a grunt who already has the IC) and his platoon. Steiner becomes a problem to be got rid of...

Cross Of Iron certainly contains a lot of different and interesting technical elements. The film's epilogue is a quote from Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which is quite telling as, while I wouldn't characterize Peckinpaugh's techniques as "Brechtian" exactly, there are a number of things, like the unexpected use of montage and the very occasional eruption of orchestral soundtrack that break up the rhythm of the film. All of this is filtered through the director's tendency to live in the moment and to big it up, American-style. Stylistically, there is a large helping of satire, some of it overtly comic (as in the excellent scene where Schell makes his introductions to Mason and Warner), more than a little chunk of melodrama and, this being Peckinpaugh, a generous spread of things and people being shot and blown slow motion, of course. "I say, anyone for tennis..?"

It's a good flick that certainly doesn't feel long at 2-and-a-quarter hours (this non-pristine European print contained an extra 11 minutes, where I don't know), but it is bedevilled by inconsistency. The script is one of the problems. There are great internal scenes and parts of scenes almost worthy of David Lean, and others, such as those revolving around Steiner's time recovering in the infirmary, that are a bit threadbare. The stylistic balance is also a bit out of whack. A lot of the film, perhaps by commercial necessity, is action and while a lot of it's good--the stealth movements by Steiner's platoon are particularly suspenseful--I got the distinct impression of different versions of the film competing for space. I for one would have preferred a few more scenes with Coburn, Mason and Schell and a few less of Russkies being machine-gunned in slo-mo. Given all of these contrasting and often conflicting elements, pacing is actually pretty good, with the exception of the ending which is very abrupt. The movie's really lacking a final scene (mostly due to production problems, I gather).

The acting's a strength. Lots of good moments from the minor players, but the principals are in fine form. Schell is at his oily and dangerous best (albeit slightly undercut by his character's buffoonery); Coburn's cod-German accent escapes him when he gets agitated, but he pulls off Steiner's combination of humanity and necessary ruthlessness brilliantly. Mason gets less of the glory but he's exemplary as the fatherly commander with a sense of perspective who's trying to salvage what lives, honour and dignity he can out of a bad and worsening situation. There's also a really interesting element of theatricality about the film that creates these odd, what I can only describe as "out of time" moments (viz the scene where Steiner frees the Russian boy that his platoon captured), which contrast effectively with the claustrophobic and impending doom-laden trench settings.

As I said earlier, C of I's a film that draws attention to its own technique, certainly more so than the main-sequence Peckinpaughs that I've seen. A good film that could have been better. If you like Peckinpaugh, you're surely going to find lots to like here, and if you don't, hey: he blowed up REAL good!!

Records In Review: Moving Units--Dangerous Dreams

The sub-heading for this review should be, with thanks to Dr. Nick Riviera, "you've tried the best, now try the rest!" Moving Units are a Californian entry in the new wave revivalist sweepstakes. Dangerous Dreams (2004) is the three-piece's first full-length release, and within its polycarbonate depths can be heard bits and pieces of a number of influences, both contemporary and ancient, which I'll go into as needs be, but I'll just say this one thing now: don't believe anything you read about this record resembling Gang Of Four in any meaningful way.

MU's principal musical mode is a crunchy, new wavey disco a la Franz Ferdinand, albeit lighter on the Brit jack-the-laddism and heavier on the west coast sleaze. Odd, considering that some of the bandmembers apparently came from the hardcore scene. The songs in this style, like the opening track "Emancipation," feature skronking, metallic guitar, fake-slappy octave-intervalled disco bass and loud 'n' messy drumming. The balance between the instruments is actually quite good, even if the band sound isn't particularly well-developed or detailed and the production is kind of in Nowheresville. The vocal production in particular is not good and consists of a thin layer of goop over almost all of the tracks that's guaranteed to get on your nerves double-quick (as will the vocals--more on that later). A few of the other tracks lean more toward electropop "Anyone" or the gloomy doomy sound of Interpol and the like ("Scars"). The lyrics range from not particularly good to godawful. The dance/disco-tinged tracks are of mixed quality, to put it mildly. They all suffer more or less from an approach that's neither subtle enough to be interesting nor over-the-top enough to be fun.

"Emancipation" is an okay beginning to the record. It's like a lighter, upbeat Franz Ferdinand; or, if you like, Hot Hot Heat with a stiffer rhythm section (same general harmonic landscape). "Unpersuaded," with its lounge guitar chords and herky-jerky slightly latinate rhythm, is the best of the songs in this style. The lounge-latin cheeze--maybe they picked it up from here?--is a persistent and persistently aggravating motif, and it doesn't do "Submission" or "Bricks And Mortar" (awful lyrics) any favours. My imagination conjures up conga lines, cruise ships, and paunchy, leering middle-aged crooners with sequinned suits and Brylcreemed hair. "Available" is embarrassing; I could only bring myself to listen to it through twice, the second time being of course "for science." Singer/guitarist Blake Miller's vocal performance, not one of DD's strengths and hampered by an oily, pseudo-Brit inflection, is particularly bad on this one and brings back unfond memories of this.

The remainder of the material's a bit better. My favorite track is "Between Us And Them," which is quick, concise and with one foot in the Interpol camp--picked eighth-note bass melody and gloomy chorus. You can really hear the influence of The Strokes' Julian Casablancas both on this song and on "Birds Of Prey," as Miller shares the former's penchant for stretching lines out and landing after the beat in faux/ironic-crooner style. "Anyone" features beatbox and keyboards, including some sounds that wouldn't be out of place on an early Ultravox/John Foxx album, and has some nice texturing to it. "Scars" is a bit overlong and features a vocal outtro that sounds like the mating call of the Baudet du Poitou (unsuccessful), but is otherwise a reasonable facsimile of the glum and grandiose Interpol/Chameleons/Cure school. "Killer/Lover" is nice and discordant, if a bit wooden on the songwriting front. The scratchy guitar in the finale is very Bloc Party.

In the final result, there's nothing on Dangerous Dreams that I'd consider essential listening, and there's too many distracting and/or taste-challenged elements on the album to make it listenable. Their contemporaries do it better, and more often. Not recommended.

Records In Review: The Decemberists--Picaresque

Album no. 3 from faux-gothic American mutant folksters The Decemberists. Damn--I really have to learn not to fire the bolt in the first paragraph. Well, please read on anyway...

Picaresque (released last spring) doesn't cosy up to you on the first listen. Hardly surprising: there's an awful lot of outlandish and over-the-top elements to assimilate right from the get-go, and the band's style ranges from hang-dog straight narrative folk ("Eli, The Barrow Boy," "From My Own True Love") to borderline power-pop ("16 Military Wives"), with a few stops in between. The line-up is what you'd expect from an outfit with folksy roots: acoustic guitar, upright bass, lightly-produced drums and accordion and/or hurdy-gurdy or something (don't have the liner notes), although augmented with a bit of electric guitar, some keyboards, and bold strings and horns that are fully integrated into the songs. Arrangements are uniformly confident, often swaggeringly so. Geetarist/mainman Colin Meloy has an unmistakable voice that not everyone is going to take to--extremely nasal with some strange diction. I find him distracting in a few places, but generally charming.

All other considerations aside, it's hard not to be impressed by Meloy's easy melodic facility, which really hits home with repeated listenings. One of my favorite tracks, the languid pop-folk "The Engine Driver," moves from section to section with incredible fluidity and grace because of the lovely vocal lines. The aforementioned and up-tempo "16 Military Wives," a hit single in my ideal alternate universe and a million miles away stylistically, is big and brassy but similarly derives a lot of strength from the forward motion of the vocals.

Back to the outlandish and over-the-top for a sec. The opening track, "The Infanta," (lyrics here) thunders along in all its semitonic glory like a psychotic bullfighting theme, painting a picture of the installation of a child queen. Exhilarating, but it's hurt a bit by its silliness, particularly in the break section, and could use a little editing and dialing back of the wild arrangement at the finale. Also in need of a little trim at the back is the otherwise excellent "The Bagman's Gambit," which effectively combines dynamically static acoustic guitar and vocal verses with some real foot-to-gas-pedal choruses--probably the most rockist approach on the album. The weakness in both songs is an (intermittent) hesitation about where to go next.

"The Sporting Life" (are these guys really Yanks?) is a very obvious Smiths homage, right down to the vocal inflections and intervals, and a very enjoyable one too. The lyrics are a light-hearted American transposition of The Mozzer's mopey loser shtick, which adds to the fun. The rest of the material I like very much, with the possible exception of "On The Bus Mall," which is fairly anonymous late-'80s jangle-pop, albeit very prettily arranged. The glacial "From My Own True Love" is, despite Meloy's annoying inflections in the chorus, my favorite of the folk tunes, but "Eli, The Barrow Boy" (I've double-checked: the band IS American!) gives it a run for the money. The nine-minute campy narrative "The Mariner's Revenge Song" is a hoot, but probably not for regular consumption. The guitar/vocal finale "Of Angels And Angles" is very pretty, and sounds like Nick Drake without the heavy hand. A nice palate cleanser to end the disc.

This review probably comes across as more critical than I intended. Even displaying a few errors in judgment, Picaresque is very lively and a good listen from start to finish, with variety and confident delivery to burn. Very much recommended.

Records In Review: Bloc Party--Silent Alarm

I'm beginning to think I've got "sucker" tattooed on my forehead; I'm such an easy mark for all of this new wave revivalist stuff.

If I was to compare London's Bloc Party to some of their generational colleagues, I'd say that it's the same ballpark, different hot dog. The influences on display on their debut album Silent Alarm are less of the mod set, Gang Of Four and XTC, and more of P.I.L., The Chameleons (yes, I know I keep bringing them up, but I will continue to do so until people stop ripping them off!) and a little bit of The Cure; so, it's no surprise that BP's is a sound that, like much of the output of these latter three, mixes the aggression with a touch of grandeur--and very successfully too. In terms of instrumentation, it's the guitars that steal the show, as they produce a lot of different sounds, from the sustained to the metrical to the scratchy and reverberated; they're complemented by some keyboard washes and effects here and there. The bass pulses, often with an implied "dubness" to it, and the drums are fairly frenetic, pounding and rough around the edges (usually in a good way, but occasionally with more blood than brains like in the opening to "Banquet"). I hear Martin Atkins in many of the drum patterns (hear "Positive Tensions"). Singer Kele Okereke alternates between subdued achiness and a glottal declamatory style that brings to mind either Robert Smith, Damon Albarn or John Lydon, depending on which song you're listening to. With the vocals, melody is usually secondary to rhythm and attack.

I have to admit that after the first three tracks, I thought that there might be too much of the emo tendency here for my taste, but the middle section of the disc is a peach and with mucho variety. The martial "Price Of Gas" is the most obviously P.I.L.-inspired (hear Okereke's Lydonesque yelps), with the bass and drums providing the foundation in the verse and intro parts while the guitars skitter along the surface. In contrast to this approach, you've got the infectious and radio-friendly new-wave/disco "Banquet," in which the rhythm section and guitars are pretty much working as one metrical unit. Another favorite is "This Modern Love," which, despite it's borderline wimpy-'80s-love-song opening, ends up as quite an exhilarating number. I think it's on tracks like this that the defined edges of the band's instrumentation are a real advantage. BP don't rely on indiscriminate washes of sound, even on the loud and monolithic "Pioneers." "Blue Light" is a sweet, gentle and welcome change of pace.

Back to my Chameleons obsession: I guess what I'm talking about is some of the twin guitar (the opening to "Helicopter" is a good example), the kind of drawn-out sectional songwriting on display in the powerful "Like Eating Glass," and the album's overall blend of wistful and earnest. The final track, "Compliments," does have more of The Cure's shoe-staring dirge quality about it, for those who're into such things. I prefer wistfulness to overwrought, but that's just me (and I am right).

The International Record Evaluation Standards (IRES) require me to deduct a half-cookie for the last few tracks not being up to the standard of the rest of the disc, and an additional quarter for dipping into the same harmonic well maybe once too often, but other than that, this one's yet another keeper, and a nice change from the jerkier styles of the likes of The Futureheads and Maximo Park. Amazing how many of these bands have created a unique sound, despite wearing their influences so boldly on their sleeves. Muchly recommended.

P.S. My burned copy of this disc appears to be missing track 11 ("This one doesn't go up to 11"). If this is the greatest song in the history of rock music, I will adjust my review accordingly.