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Morvern Callar (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Morvern Callar Soundtrack

Morvern Callar (2002)

After naming You Were Never Really Here as my favourite film of 2018, I thought I’d start 2019 taking a look at another Lynne Ramsay film, her second feature film Morvern Callar, in particular, the music utilised in the course of its 93 minutes run time.

Already known for her use of professional and non-professional actors, this was the first time Ramsay had worked with someone with a marketable reputation, Samantha Morton having recently worked with Woody Allen on Sweet and Lowdown and with Steven Spielberg on Minority Report.

In Scotland at least, some critics did criticise the fact that Morton was English and spoke with an English accent – one of a number of changes from the novel by Alan Warner – although Morvern Callar had been brought up as a foster child (as had Morton).

And talking of the 1995 novel, a buzz had been building up about it before it had even been published. Warner had a number of connections with Irvine Welsh. Occasional drinking buddies, they’d shared the stage at many readings and the pages of the many of the same litzines. Both had been featured in the Rebel Inc. anthology Children of Albion Rovers and Sceptre’s Disco Biscuits in 1997. And both their debut novels were made into movies by up-and-coming filmmakers.

Some in the media even began touting Ramsay’s film along the lines of the next Trainspotting, or the female Trainspotting. I’m not sure if any of the folk responsible for this hype had ever read Warner’s novel.

They were very different books, and they would be very different kinds of film. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting begins with a frenetic chase down Edinburgh’s Princes Street with Iggy Pop’s visceral Lust for Life accompanying the action together with Mark Renton’s Choose Life monologue. Morvern Callar starts with a near static female lying on a floor and caressing the back, bloodied wrist and hand of a man who we will soon discover is her dead boyfriend. Lights from a Christmas tree blink on and off, her face in darkness every few seconds. The only noise a whirring hum from the CPU fan of her computer, which displays a READ ME message on its screen.

Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar

This film is nowhere near as plot-heavy as Boyle’s film although, despite claims to the contrary, there is a storyline to Morvern Callar, albeit it is more of what Ramsay has called a ‘psychological journey’.

As Warner warned The List just before its premiere: ‘The first twenty minutes of the film are brutal; the seats’ll be snapping up at Cannes, I tell you. I really don’t see it doing a Billy Elliot; it’s too good a film.’

Morvern Callar is the story of a young Oban – although that town is never named in either the novel or film – supermarket worker who prints off a manuscript of her dead partner’s novel and sends it off to a publishing firm. But not before she deletes his name and adds her own.

She also empties his bank account and blows a chunk of the cash on visiting a tacky resort on the south coast of Spain with her best pal Lanna. But Morvern infuriates live for the moment Lanna with her distinct lack of any ‘mad for it’ hedonism once there. Indeed, it’s not too long before she decides that exploring the hinterlands of Almeria might be a more rewarding way to spend her time than with young lager-lager-lager Brits on tour.

Morton does a fantastic job portraying Morvern’s interior conflict throughout all this. The fact that she reveals so little only encourages viewers to concentrate harder in attempting to read her thoughts. Is she grief stricken and vulnerable? Or an amoral chancer? Or a bit of both?

I’ll go for the latter, but it’s hard to be sure. Ramsay has never been a director to offer everything up on a plate to audiences. Morvern Callar is a memorable character, but she’s far too inward, too elusive to ever dent the consciousness of a generation in the way Mark Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy managed to.

Music did play a big part in both films, though. Trainspotting featured a mainly indie and dance music soundtrack with a lot of big names like Blur, New Order and Underworld, while Morvern Callar, favours more generally left-field sounds, drawing heavily on the catalogue of the Warp label’s catalogue (Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and Broadcast) along with German experimentalists Can and their bassist Holger Czukay – who Warner had dedicated his novel to – in a couple of solo outings. These are among the acts collected in the mix-tape cassette labelled ‘Music For You’ that her partner has left for her.

We’re also treated to the skewed pop sensibility of Stereolab, some Ween (the one track that fails to work for me) and even a dash of Gamelan drumming.

Some older acts, who the hipsters of the day would have approved of, are additionally thrown into the mix. The Velvet Underground’s perky oddity I’m Sticking With You is used to audacious effect (I won’t spoil it for you but just mention that the song’s title isn’t literally appropriate for the action). Reggae pioneer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry makes an appearance as does my favourite ever duet, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s Some Velvet Morning, which masterfully soundtracks Morvern in slow-motion, as she makes her way to the fruit and veg counter where she’s about to start a shift.

I’ve featured this one on here before, where I described it as ‘a hypnotic and surreal masterpiece that’s even a little disorientating and also to my mind a lot more psychedelic than anything the likes of The Grateful Dead ever recorded.’

The ending of the film, not surprisingly, is open ended with Morvern, seemingly alone in a noisy club.

Has she returned to Spain? Or is she still in Scotland? Could this even be a flashback? Again, Ramsay lets the viewer work this out for themselves.

In an echo of the opening scene, strobe lights flash across her face. Instead of any dance music, though, we hear the sun-drenched harmonies of The Mama and Papas’ Dedicated to the One I Love, which she listens to on her Walkman. Why? I have no idea but since it’s one of those songs that always make me feel happy I sense it likely suggests some kind of optimistic future for the character.

Sadly this track isn’t part of the soundtrack album issued by Warp and sadly too, the sync on the video below is slightly out here but the song is so glorious that I couldn’t resist including it here:

Quentin Tarantino has spoken recently of limiting himself to only ever directing ten movies. He’s currently working on his ninth.

Ramsay has made four full length features, her first Ratcatcher, in 1999. I would dearly love if she was more prolific but her oeuvre is so exceptionally consistent that I can’t complain. Quality over quantity and all that.

Hopefully, she’ll make more than ten films eventually although to do so she might require a similar kind of career longevity to Agnès Varda, who’s been making films since the mid-1950s and still going strong.

If you want to find out more about Alan Warner’s book Can’s Tago Mago, click here.

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Best Films of the Year: Part Two (10-1)

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Best Films of the Year 2018

10. American Animals

True-crime documentary meets bizarre heist flick in George Layton’s inventively imagined drama which I reviewed here.

9. Under the Tree

The best thing about Icelandic hit Under the Tree is the performance of Edda Björgvinsdóttir as Inga, a spectacularly bitter woman with a heart as cold as a Rekyavik winter.

8. Nancy

Nancy premiered at Sundance and went on to receive generally good reviews although in a one-star review, Slant described it as American indie miserablism and a condescending fantasy. I’ve yet to see Nancy on another best of the year list and if I was writer/director Christina Choe, I definitely wouldn’t be getting my hopes up for any Oscar action.

I was mesmerized by it though, particularly by Andrea Riseborough in the lead role. Nancy is a fantasist but not an especially skillful one. She pretends, for example, to have recently visited North Korea as a tourist to make herself appear more interesting. Her co-workers aren’t impressed.

When she sees a news item about a girl who’s been missing for thirty years, she convinces herself that she might have been kidnapped as a child (or pretends this anyway) and that she might be the girl. The results of this will have the potential to wreak havoc on the emotions of the girl’s parents when she contacts them.

Some movies pulsate throughout with a dynamic verve. This doesn’t, believe me, I felt nauseous for large chunks of it but it did also keep me riveted throughout, to the extent that I failed to even notice that its aspect ratio apparently widened out in the middle of proceedings. A highly promising debut.

7. Cold War

I only saw Paweł Pawlikowski’s period drama a matter of days ago but it did make a big enough impact on me to decide on ditching one of the movies in my provisional top twenty list to make way for it. Sorry Disobedience, I do regret not finding a place for you here.

This is a decades-spanning romantic drama but one that is far from traditional notions of that genre and it’s loosely inspired by the lives of the director’s own parents. The first names of the two leads here, Zula (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) are even the same as Mr and Mrs Pawlikowski’s.

Cold War is shot in a boxy format and looks stunning, its rich black and white tones perfectly conveying the post-war bleakness of the Eastern Bloc. It also reminded me of some of the Czechoslovak New Wave films of the 1960s. This is one that I just know I’ll want to see again in 2019.

6. Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest takes a compassionate look at the plight of a contemporary Tokyo family (of sorts) that steals in order to survive.

Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the first Japanese Palme d’Or winner since 1997. In August, it was selected as the Japanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Oscars.

5. Mandy

Nic Cage in good film shocker! Dario Argento reds. Nightmarish David Lynch style imagery. Monsters of anarchy on motorbikes and chainsaw battles. Cage in his underpants downing a bottle of vodka while howling like a maniac.

You might not like Mandy but I’ll guarantee that the hyper-stylized, ultra-ultraviolent second film by Panos Cosmatos will linger long into your memory.

Andrea Riseborough is pitch perfect again here as Mandy – she’s had another great year, especially in films where she plays the titular character – and Linus Roache, as cult guru Jeremiah Sand, behaves in a way that you won’t see his father doing in his role as Ken Barlow in Coronation Street. Unless that show has completely changed since I last tuned in.

4. The Shape of Water

In my review of the Best Films of 2017, I wrote that I’d seen a preview of this, and it was ‘visually stunning’.

It is immaculately well-crafted, with the kind of amazing imagery you’d expect from a master like Guillermo Del Toro, who also coaxed fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer.

Okay, some have groused that The Shape of Water is nowhere near as magical as Pan’s Labyrinth but how many movies are?

My one complaint? I know it’s a modern fairy tale but the beastiality thang really should have been dropped.

3. Roma

Roma is set in the 1970s in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood where director Alfonso Cuarón grew up. Seen largely through the perspective of a servant Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio in a jaw droppingly good debut, Roma is poetic and looks ravishing, Cuarón shooting it in 70mm in shimmering, silvery monochrome and making use of the kind of extended takes that are becoming less and less common on cinema screens. I watched it on one of those although most will see it for the first time on the increasingly influential streaming giant Netflix.

Was my money well spent? I’d say so.

2. Lucky

The cinematic swansong of the great Harry Dean Stanton, John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut Lucky is a movie about human connections and mortality that eschews the kind of sickly sweet sentimentality that tends to blight films about very old characters. You may well find yourself imagining your own final days and how you might want to die as you watch the story of Stanton’s Lucky unfold. I reviewed the movie here.

1. You Were Never Really Here

Adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name, the fourth film by Lynne Ramsay features the ever reliable Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hoodie wearing hitman with a liking for green jelly beans.

A lumbering and hirsute hulk of a man with deadened eyes, Joe is capable of extreme violence but also is shown to be a dutiful son, showing some real tenderness as he cares for his ailing mother (Judith Roberts).

When we first see the two together, Joe’s mum has watched Psycho on TV and she’s still scared, this scene becoming unexpectedly poignant later, when she comes across some ruthless men on Joe’s trail, although we don’t see her encounter with them.

We do witness plenty of violence elsewhere, when it explodes on the screen for only a matter of seconds. Sometimes we glimpse it from a distance on low grade CCTV screens, sometimes it takes place offscreen, at other points we are only shown its aftermath.

This, though, is not just a film about violence, with political corruption, trafficking, childhood trauma, post-traumatic stress disorders and redemption being explored too.

I’ve followed Ramsay’s career since her days in the 1990s when she began making a series of intriguing and acclaimed shorts such as Small Deaths and Gasman. She hasn’t put a foot wrong since then but this very uncomfortable watch that might be her best work to date.

You Were Never Really Here might also feature Jonny Greenwood’s finest ever contribution to the world of film. His score is mostly dissonant enough to grate nerves though occasionally, when the London Contemporary Orchestra’s strings come in, it can be gorgeous too – although as he told NME, they can also be quite brutal with their instruments. ‘Strings can do so much more than just be pretty.’

There’s also some found music utilized including, strangely enough, Eileen Barton’s fluffy post-war pop hit If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake and a burst Albert Hammond’s The Air That I Breathe, a song that Radiohead channelled in their breakthrough hit Creep (to the extent of giving Hammond and co-composer Mike Hazlewood a share of the writing credits).

I did admire Thom Yorke’s work for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria ‘cover version’ but in the battle of the Radiohead men, Greenwood likely just edged it.

Best Soundtracks 2018

Also worth mentioning in the musical front is Mogwai’s work on Kin, although the actual movie isn’t one that I remotely thought about including here. Likewise Anna Meredith’s first cinematic outing, her score for Eight Grade impressed although the standout musical moment is when she sneaks in existing composition Nautilus for the disoriented entry of a socially awkward thirteen year old vlogger to a poolside birthday party where she isn’t particularly welcome.

I remember the first time I heard Nautilus, I felt disoriented myself.

Another of my favourite scores of 2018 was by celebrated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for Mandy. His music was brilliantly in-sync with the constantly bizarre events onscreen, which only makes it sadder that he would die so soon after composing and recording it. He was only 48. A truly sad loss.

For more on Jóhann Jóhannsson, click here.

And for more on Jonny Greenwood, click here.

 

Atomic Blonde, 20th Century Women & A Woman, A Part (Best Films of 2017)

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Best Films of 2017

Many very good films arrived in 2017 though none that I would rate as an out-and-out classic. Maybe that will come in the near future with Quentin Tarantino’s film set against the backdrop of the Manson murders (working title #9) currently in pre-production and Scorcese’s The Irishman, which is being shot as I type. With a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and – coaxed out of retirement – Joe Pesci, The Irishman is the most excited I’ve been about a Scorcese movie since GoodFellas.

I’m also looking forward to seeing Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which had one Variety critic speculating that the Maryhill born director may be the world’s ‘greatest working filmmaker’.

Complaint of the Year: Directors like the massively over-rated Guy Ritchie thinking it’s a good idea to give their pals like David Beckham a role in their high budget movies. Plenty of talented and experienced actors could obviously have done a far better job than a man who can’t even sound convincing as himself let alone as a battle hardened swordsman in the Middle Ages. Stunt casting is on the rise but has any example of it actually helped a film artistically? Not that I can think of.

Okay. Here’s my top ten films that appeared in British cinemas in 2017 so no Shape of Water which is spectacularly good and no Lady Bird, which is very entertaining, though not as truly exceptional as some hype would have you believe.

10. The Olive Tree (El Olivo)
Ever wondered what a Ken Loach film might look like if he had a better visual eye? Here’s the nearest you might get to that notion with a drama set in Spain with a script supplied by Loach’s regular screenwriter Paul Laverty. Directed by Icíar Bollaín, this did veer towards sentimentality but, on the plus side, Anna Castillo’s acting is superb throughout. A perfect piece of casting.

9. Atomic Blonde
Previously I’d assumed that MI6 spies assumed low-key looks to best blend in while on the job but not according to Atomic Blonde where one of the British Secret Service’s most lethal assassins struts around with platinum hair and thigh high boots and just happens to be one of the most eye-catchingly beautiful women on the planet. Stupid me, eh?

Charlize Theron is ably supported here by James McAvoy and there’s great turns here too from the likes of Toby Jones, John Goodman and Eddie Marsan. Atomic Blonde also featured the best ever use of Blue Monday in a soundtrack.


8. A Woman, A Part
An intimate indie drama that has been completely overlooked in best of lists but which featured two of the finest performances of the year from Maggie Siff and Cara Seymour. And some Pixies and Cure karaoke!

7. Okja
Fantastically funny, this wonky sci-fi environmental parable has been called the first great Netflix release. Okja stars Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Lily Collins and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as South Korean child actress Ahn Seo-hyun, who easily holds her own against the big names.


6. Harmonium
An emotionally complex Japanese drama about secrets and lies; retribution and atonement; innocence and guilt. I saw Koji Fukada’s latest triumph early in the year at the Glasgow Film Theatre and was then lucky enough to be asked to review the Blu-ray. Here’s what I had to say.

5. Dunkirk
An ensemble movie that dazzled on the big screen. Get yer money on Christopher Nolan to bag a little golden statuette come March for Best Director. Please gamble responsibly though.

4. Manchester by the Sea
A slow-burning but highly involving film about grief with a script by Kenneth Lonergan. It’s over two hours long but always fascinating, utterly honest and sometimes even profound. Your time watching this will be well spent.

3. Blade Runner 2049
According to the maker of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott (who also exec produced the sequel) the problem with Blade Runner 2049 is that: ‘It’s slow. Long. Too long. I would have taken out half an hour.’

Box-office returns were disappointing although it will likely still make money. More importantly, like the original, it’s sure to stand the test of time (even if Scott did possibly have a point about its length).


2. The Florida Project
Willem Dafoe in the form of his life here as the kindly manager of a budget motel on the edge of Disney World. Will Hollywood honour his turn here? Well he’s 3/1 with the bookies for Best Supporting Actor, so in with a definite shout. He would get my vote.

1. 20th Century Women
If you follow this blog you’ll know I loved this movie. A fantastic central performance from Annette Benning, one of the best scores in years from Roger Neill, and The Raincoats; Siouxsie; Suicide; Talking Heads and Bowie on the soundtrack.


Honourable mentions also go to Free Fire, a film by Ben Wheatley
with more gunshots than the average Texas firing range sees in a year; A Ghost Story; T2 Trainspotting; The Meyerowitz Stories; mother!Baby Driver; Logan LuckyThe Lost City of Z and the absolutely madcap Mindhorn.

Best Film Reissues 2017

Best reissues include New World, Park Hoon-jung’s South Korean gangster epic from 2013 that is soon to be given the Hollywood remake treatment (which, of course, will likely be nowhere near as impressive).

Drunken Master (Eureka), may not be the greatest martial arts film ever made but it is very possibly the most enjoyable and watching the young Jackie Chan, you might one minute think of Buster Keaton, the next of ballet or the golden age of Hollywood musicals – only with kung fu clashes rather than elaborate song and dance routines.

This year also saw re-releases for a number of favourites including Peppermint Soda (BFI); Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Arrow) and John Water’s Multiple Maniacs (Criterion), which I hadn’t seen since borrowing a grungy VHS copy of it back in the 1980s. It’s still fantastically trashy by any standard and now looks better than ever.

The great thing about these reissues is the way that they’ve been imaginatively repackaged and loaded with extras – even if I’m uncertain about the wisdom of Dual Format editions. I usually just give away the DVDs to a good home myself.

Finally a pair of Bill Forsyth related films. His American debut Housekeeping (Indicator) is much better than I remembered it being while Forsyth makes a cameo appearance in Long Shot (BFI Flipside), a lo-fi independent film about filmmaking shot mostly at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival. It stars Charlie Gormley, who went on to make several features himself and I may feature one of these in my Scottish Connection series sometime in 2018.