Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Faith in Strangers Review: Concrete and Melody with Andy Stott

Andy Stott's new album Faith in Strangers can be streamed here.

Whilst a large part of the techno world moves ever closer to industrial four-to-the-floor oblivion, Andy Stott is going in completely the opposite direction. As he issues a new record on long time home Modern Love, the Manchester producer is vastly diversifying his scope, citing reference points as disparate as “Ron Hardy, Prefab Sprout, Dome, Actress, Cocteau Twins and Arthur Russell”. All of these artists fall some way from the concrete-heavy dub techno for which he's become known, and what's more surprising than the list of influences is the fact that they can all be heard within the masterpiece that Stott paints with Faith in Strangers. The chugging steam-powered 100bpm dirges are still there, but they're accompanied by something entirely different.

Time Away” sets the tone, a palette cleanser with mournful chords, smothered in ferric tape hiss. At first lead track “Violence” appears to continue the theme, beginning with hushed vocals from Stott's former piano teacher Alison Skidmore. But within three minutes all hell has broken loose; sub-bass tremors the weight of tectonic plates slide in followed by a beefy kick, before Skidmore's vocal is swept aside by jagged glacial synths. After a spine-tingling onslaught, calm falls and that vocal resurfaces, slathered in reverb. This interlude is merely the eye of the storm, as the track's bewitching brutality soon returns.

An Oath” is more optimistic, slow but determined, propelled by a stuttering rhythm and, once again, Skidmore's breathy vocal, which here more clearly illustrates her operatic pedigree. The work that Stott and Skidmore have produced here feels more integrated than on 2012's Luxury Problems. That's not a criticism of their last record (which was itself a stellar achievement), it's just that whereas previously the melodious element was solely derived from Skidmore's tones, Stott has now adapted his style to absorb and more wholly complement the vocals.

That said, there's nary a word in sight on the album's bruising middle section, which stretches from the quasi-eastern chimes of “No Surrender” to the threatening “Damage”, encompassing the dubby “How it Was” in between. It's on this part of the record that Stott most resembles his genre-bending alter-alias Andrea, the moniker under which he released a collaborative LP with Demdike Stare's Miles Whittaker earlier this year. Although none of this material is club-ready, this is where it comes closest, with trap-like percussion and high energy levels.

After this the record begins to slow again, seguing into the gorgeous serenity of the title track, which, were it not for the serrated saw-blade sounds in the middle, could almost be the work of some longforgotten twee 80s group from Glasgow. “Faith in Strangers” is as close to creating a “song” that Stott has ever come, on which Skidmore narrates a morning in the life of a man who “wakes up in the morning, lights pressing on his eyes”, and barely recognizes his own face in the mirror. As she sings of the pillow he wakes on and the “celebrity pages in the paper”, the mundane becomes the beautiful and the track manages to convey both yearning and acceptance.

The curtain closes with “Missing”, a forlorn bluesy lament that could almost have been cooked up at a New Orleans jazz funeral. With this the journey is complete, Stott and Skidmore have held our hand through their murky, grime-encrusted, but beautiful world, where subtlety and power exist in equal measure. Reviews of Luxury Problems described an artist creating his definitive statement. Faith in Strangers finds Stott making an entirely new one.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Some Thoughts on Mental Health at Cambridge

I was surprised to read today of several academic studies which have illustrated that Cambridge University does not have an unduly high suicide rate amongst its students. I had looked into this off the back of an article discussing depression at the university in The Guardian, which ranks as one of today's most read articles on the newspaper's website. The article struck a chord with me because it aligned very closely with my own time at Cambridge and the difficulties I endured. However, I felt that the article missed a few vital points which I myself would like to address.

Whilst Cambridge may not appear to have a higher suicide rate than other UK universities, it can be difficult to measure for statistical significance in suicide rates due to the relatively low numbers involved, and UK coroners' resistance to list a death as a suicide without absolute certainty. The fact that, as the article points out, 25% of students at the university have been diagnosed with depression is extremely telling. The environment is positively set up to encourage it. To me one of the key causes of the problem is part of what encourages people to apply to the university in the first place; the supervision system, where students engage with their tutors on a two to one or even one to one basis, might appear like a fantastic privilege on the face of it, but to many it can seem like repeated trial by fire. There is surely much to be gained by such close contact with the some of the world's best academics, but often being the best in their field means that those doing the teaching are completely unable to empathise with students who may be struggling to grasp difficult concepts in their field. It is unfortunately often the case that those who understand most easily are the least best placed to pass an understanding on. As such supervisors can often become impatient with students when they are unable to process tricky concepts.

Add to this the fact that most people giving supervisions have little to no training specifically in teaching and you could be setting up for a disaster. I myself can remember at least one supervisor who I would absolutely dread visiting, despite knowing that I had done my best at attempting the work. He was completely unsympathetic to my struggle and the message was effectively always “work harder”. I couldn't work any harder, and can remember at least once leaving his room in tears.

One of the other difficulties is that Academic Tutors (note capitalization), who are partially in charge of pastoral care at the university, will often have their college's academic reputation in mind. After getting a 2:2 in my second year mathematics exams I was encouraged to switch to another college to study mathematics with education. Part of me feels that this was at least in part an attempt to get a lower achieving student off their books. Institutional reputation is important at Cambridge, and it seems to me is often placed ahead of things which should matter more, such as personal well-being.

The institutional pressure to perform at all costs is reinforced by the social atmosphere at the University, which is dominated by the kind of gender-specific drinking societies and sports clubs which hold a parallel with US fraternities and sororities. A recent Cambridge University Women's Society survey found that a third of respondents had been sexually assaulted whilst at the university. It seems to me that this can't be unrelated to the hyper-masculine environment that many of the male societies encourage, the kind of cliquey environment that also leads to non-public school educated students to feel excluded and looked down upon. I cannot speak for the female experience of this kind of world, but this is the kind of toxic laddish climate that Emma Watson was referring to a few weeks ago when she spoke to the UN of how feminism can also benefit men. The pressure to drink engendered by these groups can be no help either.

The social exclusivity problem is far more prevalent at some colleges than others, but the inadequate mental health support systems in place at the university are common to all students. Whilst it is true that students at the university enjoy a specific counselling service not available to the general population, saying that one group of people has greater access to mental health facilities than the general population in the UK is hardly saying anything. The University Counselling Service was, in my experience, stretched to breaking point, and only able to offer a limited number of sessions to service users. After these sessions were done you were back out on your own, in the kind of high pressure environment that is bound to cause problems. This is not to criticise the excellent work that the people at the counselling service actually do, but everyone involved in mental health in the UK knows that non-private services are woefully lacking.

I sincerely hope that this situation changes, not only for the generally more privileged individuals at Cambridge, but all of the people suffering mental health problems in the UK. Whilst the country's ability to deal with those of us less able to cope with trappings of our own minds than others is one of its great shortcomings, mental health awareness campaigns do seem to be gaining some kind of traction, and I can only hope that this is followed up by affirmative action on mental health, for people at Cambridge and everywhere.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Art of Not Quite Falling Apart: Why Seemingly Disparate Music is Great for the Same Reason

MF Doom would seem to have nothing to do with The Libertines. Likewise, The Libertines and Four Tet. However, in my opinion there is one theme which unites all three of the artists which I've just mentioned. This theme is also the thing which makes each of them great.

When Four Tet's Fabriclive mix was released in 2011, it came as a surprise to some that he devoted almost the entirety of the mix to little known UK garage gems from a decade previously. Usually known for his genre hopping sets (this was a man whose DJ Kicks mix had included both Curtis Mayfield and So Solid Crew for chrissakes), it seemed unusual for him to restrict himself to one sound. However, in many ways it made perfect sense. In his output as Four Tet, the man known to his mother as Kieran Hebden has progressively produced music more and more indebted to various strains of UK dance music over the past decade or so. Far greater than this however, is the influence of the broken rhythms of UK garage and jungle on his output. The off kilter beats of UKG, with its shuffling hi-hats and irregular kick drums, are clearly reflected in the highly syncopated drum tracks of his work. That Hebden has worked closely with jazz drummer Steve Reid can come as no surprise to anyone who has ever listened to a Four Tet record.

Hebden's best productions tread a very fine line - his beats are often so syncopated it sounds as if everything could rattle loose at any moment. One element of syncopation is groove; this is a term used to describe a slight offset of rhythm tracks from the exact beat or half-beat. Without groove, productions can sound lifeless and robotic. Four Tet pushes groove to the maximum, achieving  highly irregular drum patterns which are often offset by mesmerising pretty melodies.

This approach to cadence and rhythm is followed in a different way by MF Doom, whose rap style sounds as if it is always on the point of tripping over itself. The emphasis in his syllables is often placed away from the beat in the instrumental track, and even when it's on the beat, it's not quite on the beat. This doesn't mean that DOOM isn't a technically gifted rapper however, it takes a lot of skill to actually pull this off in the booth without sounding kind of pathetic. And lumbering though his deep voice may sound, the cadence is actually surprisingly fast; how a man so large can spit so many syllables in such a short space of time is beyond me. Listen to Meat Grinder an try to match the vocal flow the beat. It's incredibly difficult to reconcile but somehow sounds just right, a real white knuckle ride between the strikes of the rhythm. Generally the use of syncopation in hip hop is an important part of the genre; rhythm is really nothing without it. Stories of producers such as J Dilla programming beats without using quantising (the process whereby human played beats are snapped to a discrete set of points on a musical timeline before groove is reapplied) abound. DOOM's style then is just an exaggeration of this feature of the genre.

Unfortunately DOOM's flow is something that often doesn't translate particularly well live. Even when he's not sending impostors to perform in his place (no, really), gig reports are often scathing. I personally saw him in Birmingham a few years ago and although I love his recorded music, his live show was a shambles. DOOM didn't even appear bothered; it was as if he just wanted to get the whole thing over with, get his money and go home.

This in fact gives MF DOOM two things in common with The Libertines, who have admitted that their recent Hyde Park gigs were staged solely for the filthy lucre. The gigs themselves were by all accounts pretty shambolic, with mumbled lyrics and snuffed guitar solos a key feature. That they claimed to have rehearsed only for an hour prior to such an occasion is only true to form. This has always been part of the Libertines shambolic charm. Whether they were burgling each other's houses or making records that sounded as if they were tossed off in an afternoon between drinking sessions (they probably were), verging on the edge of (Baby)shambles was always exactly what they were about. Their ability to walk this line is why their Hyde Park gigs rapidly sold out, and it's the lack of this ability in their members other projects which means they're largely ignored. I didn't even know that Carl Barat's dreadfully dull Dirty Pretty Things had disbanded in 2008, or that Doherty's truly shambolic Babyshambles had released an album last year, until I began researching this piece. Perhaps it's the ability of the pair to anchor each other in the middle ground that means they can walk the tightrope that they do, a kind of musical Julian Barrett and Noel Fielding if you will.

With this in mind, you might think that a collaboration between the other two artists in this piece would itself fall into shambles, surely the syncopation of Four Tet combined with the arrhythmia of DOOM's vocals would be too much for one record to stand? Apparently not, as Four Tet's remix LP of DOOM and Madlib's Madvillain project attests. Somehow this meeting of minds too manages the art of not quite falling apart.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Tomorrow evening with Google

Whenever I can, I always try to catch the lift with Marcus when work’s done. He’s the janitor for our floor, and whilst I don’t really like him, his Google room temperature is way, way lower than mine. Spending time with him is the standout part of my day, and I will happily chat crap to him just so I can feel something close to a breeze on my face for half a minute.

When I leave the building I normally turn left like Maps tells me to – it’s a quick route and it cuts through Paternoster square so it’s always lively, and I’ve got yesterday’s lap time on display to keep me on my feet. It can get kind of annoying when other people are obviously doing the same thing, especially when you’re weaving between groups and then you come head-on with someone else slipping through, and it throws you so much you lose like two seconds on your clock.

I really hate that as it kills my badge run. If I remember to call out for a photo I’ll put their face in BitchslApp later on and just keep backhanding them while I eat dinner. It normally pays off as I get my best SlapStreaks when I’m already kind of wound up, so I get something to throw on Twitter before bed. I don’t think I’ll ever beat my 54 Slap Happy run though – that guy’s face just called for it, and I don’t care if he cried about it on Reddit after. He shouldn’t spend so much time stalking random accounts.

Evenings are pretty boring at the moment, especially if I’ve got no scores to show, and I spend a lot of time just browsing people from uni on Facebook (with OneWay installed obvs). I’ve got Buzzfeed set up to hit me with bundled notifications on any stories I missed while I brush my teeth, so I’m sped up on the news. I’m finding I want to stay up to date a lot more these days.

Sleep comes pretty easy since the new Android update; the shift in Flux is much less harsh on my eyes which is really nice – I finally get all the fuss from the iOS crowd, but if I’m really struggling I’ll sometimes load up Rainymood to cancel out the room.

Dreamscape’s latest series of work scenes are really useful, and I’m finding that my productivity is actually at its best during sleep. I make sure each dream ends with a prompt to activate YogaMate for 6am – obviously I could set an alarm but I like the transition in-dream. It just feels more natural.

Friday, 30 May 2014

The Amazing Yes Men

June 23, 1989 saw the release of Tim Burton’s Batman. With its dark palette, gothic atmosphere and clear references to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, there’s a strong argument for the film being the first ‘modern’ comic book movie. It stood apart from Richard Donner’s earlier, camp efforts with Superman and carried a rather less family-friendly certificate. However, with its carefully timed blitz of promotional comics, action figures, collector’s items, high street store events and rushed out videogames, there’s absolutely no denying that Batman was the first real instance of ‘event’ cinema. For a few weeks, Batman’s iconic emblem could be found on posters, Prince soundtracks, stationary and more. There was no escaping the movie – and why wouldn’t you want to be a part of something that was seemingly everywhere? Such heavy exposure played no small part in a tidy $400 million at the box office, against a now laughably small budget of $48 million.

The Dark Knight’s decisive role in contemporary Hollywood is twofold.

As a kid, I loved event cinema. When that sudden rush of marketing hit, you felt like something big was just round the corner – and when dealing with films like Jurassic Park and Toy Story, the sudden explosion of interest seemed more than warranted, the films themselves the satisfying end note to a brief frenzy. Even the marketing for Avatar – possibly the last Hollywood film to employ this promotion technique – caught my attention, and gave some sense of scale to the film. Given the end result, I’m sure it’s Avatar’s position as event cinema that helped contribute to many seeing the film as exactly that – an event. People don’t really seem to view cinema in that same way any more.

Contrast this to the rumblings coming through from Warner Bros. regarding their latest take on Batman, a film we recently learned had the mealy-mouthed title of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The grand unveiling of film’s moniker and logo came a week after the internet got its first glimpse of Ben Affleck in the cape and cowl, with Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot simultaneously teasing her forthcoming costume reveal across Facebook and Twitter. There’s a small peak in interest and discussion around the suit, and then everyone’ back to waiting for the next tidbit to drop. And this is how we’ll all continue acting until May 6, 2016, when Batman v Superman arrives in cinemas and we all immediately hop trains to start chasing info on the Justice League movie.

Hollywood cinema has swapped out the one-two punch of event cinema for a new tactic – one where we’re all endlessly chasing after a carrot dangling before us promising something more. Sometimes that carrot is a blurry set shot, sometimes it’s a 30 second teaser for a two minute trailer. Often, it’s a two hour movie that feels somewhat incomplete, but we’re okay with that, because there’s the implicit understanding that it’s just building towards something better. So what if Thor was awful? It’s just so we can all have the scene set for The Avengers. And hey, if you’re saying The Avengers came off as rushed and clunky, with a whole load of cheap scenes on a heli-carrier countering the expensive city finale, just wait until you see how much more intense The Avengers 2 is gonna be!

Regardless of your stance on the relationship between marketing and cinema, there’s surely something damaging about shifting cinema in such a way that it no longer acts as the lynch pin for the marketing, but is instead just another channel in the mix? To be clear – Batman v Superman isn’t The Man of Steel 2­, and it isn’t the new Batman film either. Its own title is quite earnestly stating that it’s nothing more than a prologue for Warner Bros. own Avengers analogue.

(On a side note, what does Dawn of Justice even mean? How does that play out in the film?


As the camera pans the horizon, all is again calm, with only a sobbing Lex Luthor cradling his now balding head breaking the peace. Super-Cavill steps forward from the wreckage, and approaches a moody Batfleck who’s subtly flexing even though the battle’s already over.

BATFLECK: I was wrong about you, Cavill-man. We’re fighting for the same thing.

SUPER-CAVILL: Yes, for what’s right.

Batfleck jerkily grasps Super-Cavill’s hand to shake it, as Wonder Gal approaches the pair, shaking city debris from her shoulders.

BATFLECK: For what’s just.

Wonder Gal places her hand over both of theirs and gives them a smug half-smile. The camera pauses to observe her glinting canine.

WONDER GAL: Together, in league.

Batfleck suddenly looks to the sky, his moody countenance broken by the sheer joy of what he’s realised, and what it means for the three of them. A single tear breaks from his eye and washes away the dirt from his face.


Cue score)

These films are just components in a marketing plan, where things are broken into ‘Phase 1, 2 and 3’, future releases speculated upon before their prequels are even out the door. They follow house guidelines, so much so that directors become interchangeable and their names moot. Did Thor feel like a Kenneth Branagh film to you? Was Ant Man looking like it was still going to carry Edgar Wright’s distinctive style when he finally left the project after eight(!) years, citing creative differences (only to be shortly followed by Drew Goddard, leaving Daredevil without a director also?)

For these films-as-marketing-channels to work, they need Yes Men – the kind of directors that do just what the studios ask, or else bow to the money and let the suits run the editing suite. This is why Marc Webb’s fingerprint is almost invisible on The Amazing Spider-man 2, and why the film’s premiere was quickly followed up by a mobile phone app revealing sneak previews of the Sinister Six. Who needs room to breathe when the next train’s already started pulling out of the station?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Amazing Spider-man 2 Review

What happens when a film comes along and smashes it at the box office, despite studio execs swearing it off as a total dud and setting up damage control before it’s even out the gate? A major tentpole film that, from its onset, was really just a way to keep a big brand in-house, and prevent it from falling back into the hands of its (now highly profitable) owners? A film that, despite this, still managed to sneak in moments of real charm and awe amidst the frankly dire scripting and bureaucratic influence – largely thanks to its inspired central casting and left-of-field choice of director?

If the answer you’re hoping for is: “the execs clapped everyone on the back and left them alone to make whatever movie they liked”, unfortunately your future career in Hollywood just got laughed out onto the long bus ride home. If you instead opted for “the studio made sure they got their claws in real good for the factory-line sequel and marketed that fucker to kingdom come”, you’re gonna make a lot of money and very few friends. You were also likely involved in the processing of The Amazing Spider-man 2, the latest attempt to turn cinema into a two-hour promise of future satisfaction (way, way down the line). Largely starved of the idiosyncrasy that saved its prequel from being a dud, ASM2 is disappointing in soullessness.

Picking up where we left off last time, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is having the time of his life as Spider-man, throwing out quips left, right and centre as he careens through New York’s skyline. When not wearing the mask however, Peter has to juggle his on/off relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) against the answers to his parents’ fates and sudden return of former best friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan) – a man with his own share of problems. Confusing things even further is the unfortunate transformation of loner Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into the neon-blue Electro – a walking lightning bolt who finally has the power to strike back against a world that ignored him.

I have to be frank – just thinking about ASM2’s various plot threads is making my head hurt, but thankfully the film spends almost two and half hours languidly moving across them – plenty of time to let them wash over you and leave you wondering when exactly things are actually going to happen prior to the “game-changer” climax. This is paint-by-numbers plotting in its worst form, setting up future franchise spin-offs and sequels with nary a hint of character or consistency in the here and now.

Case in point – Andrew Garfield’s Parker somehow wavers between valley boy and techno genius as the plot demands it, with the only real moments of solidity for his character coming when he’s wearing a mask (oh if only this were some metaphor on growing up) or stood alongside Gwen. The film’s romance thread continues to hold much of the charm for the franchise, though here it no longer has the room to breathe as allowed in ASM1, and suffers for getting caught in the tide of studio manoeuvring. More generally, the film darts confusedly between the more ‘realist’ tone of its predecessor into lazy comic scripting ala Shumacher’s Batman and Robin, failing to ever find the heart it desperately needs. Dane DeHaan’s excellent performance as Harry almost pulls it out of the bag, but the ‘necessary’ twist to his tale ensures anything emotive there gets side-lined for BIG TIME FUN / a brutal example of throwing a woman in the fridge.

Much like its dark twin Spider-man 3, ASM2 does at least manage to dazzle on the SFX front, and whilst most of Electro’s narrative is frankly cringe worthy, his climactic transformation into a bodiless avatar of electricity, able to travel through mains adaptors and create light collages of his face amongst Manhattan’s skyscrapers, points toward a sense of personality the film could have played a hell of a lot earlier. Instead, most of the film’s critical plot points prior are all signposted by the sudden swell of hellish indie-pop, as Sony’s latest signees all get their turn to soundtrack the “hot new Spider-man film BOOYAH!”.

So what if I’m being harsh? The traces of genuine character in this film are forced to go down like shards of glass in a poisoned chalice, and I defy you to tell me that Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are capable hands for any script ever. Forget Age of Extinction – we already got this year’s Transformers stand-in.

(And if you think I've finished with my soap box just yet - har har are you in for a treat! Factory line franchises are forcing Hollywood cinema into a black hole, and it's all thanks to The Amazing Yes Men. Look out for the article later this week)


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

I Might Buy That for a Dollar: Robocop Review

The story of José Padilha and RoboCop is, by many accounts, an unhappy one, so troubled by studio interference that Padilha supposedly swore off another stint in Hollywood. Parsing the rumours suggests the usual story of studio mandates systematically headbutting artistic intentions - a tale further dogged by the fact that many feared Padilha’s sensibilities would stray too far from the bite of Paul Verhoeven’s original.

The 1987 RoboCop is a classic example of Reaganite cinema, satirically taking the excessive living and unfiltered ambition of the Baby Boomer generation to its soul-destroying endpoint. It comfortably sits with the likes of Videodrome and Wall Street as enduring touch points of the period - an accolade any remake would struggle to replicate. 

Yet, for all of this, the fearful accusations hurled at Padilha’s take on the run up to its release could just as easily be hurled at the original franchise’s increasingly hollow sequels; Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 is the rotten byproduct of the original’s cynicism eating itself whole (and, in hindsight, the first signpost of writer Frank Miller’s descent into madness), whilst the turgid third feature was little more than a two hour marketing exercise (oh, the irony!). The franchise is by no means a sacred cow, and, for all of its differences, RoboCop 2014 manages to be far truer in spirit to the original than any of its later iterations, though remains fundamentally flawed.

Part way through the 21st Century, the American OmniCorp company dominates in the field of robotics and AI, yet whilst their medical innovations continue to see success on home shores, the company’s series of highly effective robot soldiers are limited to foreign peacekeeping, when the real money lies in civilian law enforcement. Public opinion, however, is strongly against justice being dealt out by merciless robots, but a timely accident for policeman Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gives OmniCop CEO (Michael Keaton) and beleaguered scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) the chance to circumvent governmental sanctions by putting a man inside a machine, swinging public opinion enough to ensure lucrative future contracts with Police Departments across the country.

Joshua Zetumer’s script again uses its future narrative to address the concerns of the day, but here, privatisation and big living take a back seat to manipulative marketing and PR, with RoboCop purely designed to acclimatise the public to robots before rolling out pre-planned “advanced” models (a wry extension of our complicity in buying products designed to be replaced each successive year), though beyond this, what Padhila really seems interested in is the frustrated marriage of man and machine; something touched upon only very broadly in Verhoeven’s take.

Wrestling as he does against his RoboCop persona, Kinnaman’s Murphy is rather more developed than Peter Wellers’, and comparisons to The Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man abound as Murphy is forced to fight ever harder to keep his “heart”. Unfortunately, whilst there’s some interesting stuff going on here, the PR tack is far more engaging, with Keaton chewing up the scenery as a camp CEO with a head for selling. For all of his soul searching, Kinnaman’s Murphy ultimately lacks that real bite we need to rally against Omnicorp’s steady war of attrition on his sense of being. Ultimately the film doesn’t commit enough time or attention to either strand, and by the end credits leaves both as promising avenues only half explored.

Yet the fact that RoboCop decides to do its own thing rather than just being slavish to the original is really to its credit, and whilst it doesn’t even attempt to run with the anarchic vein of black humour coursing through the original, it does make the occasional nod toward it in Samuel L Jackson’s superb jingoist commentator Pat Novak. On its own terms, RoboCop is an alternately interesting and plodding re-take on the tale that shouldn’t be outright dismissed. Nevertheless, watching it reminded me of just how desperately contemporary cinema needs the same kind of bitter medicine Verhoeven and his peers were so good at administering in their hey-day. Where is our generation’s Videodrome?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Dangerous Liaison: Stranger by the Lake Review

The reception to little-known French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake has largely fallen into two camps: celebration of its atypically frank and unsensational depiction of homosexuality, and, conversely, criticism for its association of a gay cruising sub-culture with acts of brutal murder. In fact, this minimalist thriller falls somewhere in-between, adopting a refreshingly sober, no-nonsense approach to its exploration of human sexuality in all its contradictions and conflict, without ever completely succeeding in marrying its prevailingly naturalistic style with its moody genre affectations.

 The story is deceptively simple. At a gay nudist beach somewhere in rural France, a young man called Franck spends his summer afternoons swimming in the sapphire-blue lake, sunbathing, and engaging in casual sexual encounters with the other patrons. These liaisons are fleeting, the men involved exchanging very few details about one another, and the only other regular whom Franck has anything approaching a long-term relationship with is Henri, an older man who has taken to visiting the beach and sitting alone since separating from his wife.

  One day, he notices a strikingly handsome new man who calls himself Michel and is something of a Clark Gable lookalike. Franck quickly develops a fascination with him, and one evening after everyone else has left he unintentionally witnesses Michel deliberately drown the man he has been sleeping with, seemingly having tired of his affections. Instead of reporting the apparently psychotic and dangerous Michel to the authorities, Franck embarks on a passionate affair with him, continuing to let his blossoming feelings for the murderer prevent him from blowing the whistle even as a police detective descends upon the community searching for evidence of foul play.

  Any concerns that the film might try to establish a crude and nasty link between the bathers' lifestyle and criminal amorality are quickly dispelled. Despite the movie's setting, Stranger by the Lake is primarily interested in uncomfortable universal truths about the human sexual impulse. Although at first glance the nudist beach appears to be a sort of earthly paradise where individuals can indulge their desires freely and without pain, it soon becomes clear that this garden is just as postlapsarian as everywhere else. Behind the delirious pleasures of the flesh, its residents cannot keep their jealousy, fear, selfishness and grief at bay, and unruly, destructive human emotion constantly threatens to break through the lake's placid surface.

  This theme is brilliantly supported by the sensual cinematography, which captures both the environment's languorous, sun-drunk beauty during the day, when entwined bodies can be glimpsed between the lush vegetation, and its suffocating darkness at night, when it suddenly resembles a sinister hunting ground for the id.

  Disappointingly, however, once Guiraudie has established his self-contained world as a metaphor for our own, he struggles with the question of where to take the story next. In the lead roles, Pierre de Ladonchamps and Christophe Paou do a great job of conveying Franck's almost childlike innocence and Michel's arrogant, worldly charisma, but they are given too little material to make their relationship truly compelling. We are seemingly meant to believe that their relationship has moved beyond sex towards something darker and more complex, but as viewers we rarely see the characters engaged in anything other than lovemaking, and so what is intended to come across as a forceful, fateful attraction starts to risk feeling monotonous instead.  It is also rather unconvincing when the film abandons its insistently unhurried pace in the final act and shifts gears to become a more conventional thriller, complete with a rapidly escalating body count.

  For those interested in seeing a movie committed to exploring uncharted waters within genre cinema, Stranger by the Lake is well worth a dip, but swimmers should be warned that the dive is ultimately somewhat shallower than one might have hoped.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Lars and the real girl: Nymphomaniac Review

The crux of Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier's latest wilful expedition into the jungle of human behaviour, is probably the moment in the second volume of the four-hour theatrical cut when Joe, the jaded connoisseur of carnal pleasures played respectively as a young woman and a middle-aged woman by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, defiantly rejects the label of 'sex addict' thrust upon her by a self-help group, identifying instead with the title given to her by the film. 'I am a Nymphomaniac, and I love myself as one' she declares, before walking away proudly, leaving her shell-shocked fellow patients in her wake.

  At the beginning, Joe is found beaten and unconscious in a gloomy alleyway by a bookish middle-aged virgin called Seligman, who carries the mysterious woman to his nearby apartment and tends to her wounds whilst she recounts the story of her life from childhood to her present situation. It quickly becomes apparent that it has been a life ruled by sexual adventure (not to mention misadventure), and sensual excess. But although Joe warns her mild-mannered confessor that it will be a 'moral' tale, any such expectations of proselytising are quickly shattered by the film's freewheeling, wonderfully mercurial structure.

  As Joe sees it, and as Von Trier obviously wants to suggest to us, the diagnosis of 'sex addict' would seek to make her simply a passive victim, gripped by a pathological disorder beyond her control. This is the depiction that we find in Steve McQueen's Shame, informed by the language and the worldview of psychiatry, where Michael Fassbender's life is ruined by his almost vampiric dependency upon sexual gratification. But it is no such straightforwardly 'moral' perspective that drives Von Trier's exploration of the subject.

  The antiquated, almost mythic idea of a 'nymphomaniac', allows Joe to see herself and us to see her as having assumed a liberating agency and self-determination divorced from what she comes to see as the assimilating and neutralising tendencies of society, sinister forces cloaked in a benign promise of treatment.

  Of course, although this moment with the self-help group may represent a small victory for Joe, obviously it doesn't make her chosen way of life any easier or more comfortable. She exposes herself to a torrent of heartache, abuse, degradation, and loneliness in her struggle for sexual freedom.

  Oddly, to return to Steve McQueen, Nymphomaniac can be seen as a continuation of some of the themes raised in the Brit's latest acclaimed drama, 12 Years A Slave. Solomon Northup's story is one of overcoming adversity and escaping bondage, where the promise of freedom represents the end point of his journey. Von Trier takes up where McQueen leaves off, exploring the issue of what happens once freedom has supposedly been obtained in a modern democracy.

  Nymphomaniac challenges the notion that humans want freedom. Most of us, it intimates, are more interested in security, comfort, and belonging. Joe, somebody seemingly more committed to the concept of freedom than most of us, doesn't even seem particularly convinced by it herself, repeatedly bemoaning the loss of loved ones brought about at least in part by her irrepressible sexual urges.

  Von Trier's movie is more complex than McQueen's because it does not present freedom as an unchangeable goal, but as something nebulous and painful that must be constantly negotiated, bargained with and assessed by every individual. It is, for Von Trier, not so much the key to a set of chains, as it is a magnificent coat of thorns.

  Steve McQueen portrays suffering as an aberration, whether it is the mortal anguish of an individual or the physical subjugation of an entire people; something which has been allowed to encroach upon the equilibrium of life and which can be eradicated by moral effort. Von Trier sees suffering as the condition of life: to be alive is to make destructive choices and to commit all types of self-sacrifice, therefore to live is to suffer.

  If all of this makes Nymphomaniac sound overly dour, then don't worry. Whilst it certainly has its share of tragedy and gloom, particularly in the more downbeat second volume, the prevailing mood is one of sly humour and aesthetic playfulness. Von Trier has stated that the drama represents a new cinematic genre he has named 'digressionism'. As with most of his statements, this should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt, but there is a very distinctive flavour to the way the story unfolds. There's a touch of Tristram Shandy to the way the narrative is frequently interrupted by Seligman's increasingly eccentric analogies and flights of intellectual fancy, with the autodidact pulling together subjects as disparate as fly-fishing, the music of Bach, and the death of Edgar Allan Poe by way of commentary on Joe's experiences.

  Likewise, Von Trier never lets a single tone become too well established before he pulls the rug out from under us. For instance, by suddenly blasting into a thunderous Rammstein song after a near-silent and serenely beautiful opening montage of snowflakes falling in a back alley, or mixing comedy with pathos in the scene where Uma Thurman's scorned wife (a scene-stealing performance) confronts Joe and her adulterous husband in our hero's flat, dragging along their three young boys for the ensuing fireworks. It all adds up to an uncommonly addictive and entertaining piece of cinema, rarely dragging despite its indulgent length.

  At the end of Nymphomaniac, very little has been resolved, and as an audience it's unclear how we're meant to feel about Joe's experiences. A shocking, unexpected crime is committed, the screen cuts to black, and Von Trier gleefully hurls the jigsaw pieces that he has collected for our perusal up into the air again, inviting us to assemble them ourselves. In effect, to step in and assume the role of Seligman, the fascinated interpreter of Joe's perplexing story. This is, perhaps, one mark of a great filmmaker as opposed to a merely good one. A good filmmaker makes films that are about something, whereas a great filmmaker makes film that could be about many things. McQueen remains only a good filmmaker at present, but with Nymphomaniac Lars once again demonstrates himself to be a filmmaker of strange, diabolic genius.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Northern Soul: Revival Squared

To enter the world of northern soul is to enter into a culture unashamedly trapped in the past. Even in the movement's seventies heyday it was a retroist movement, isolated both in time and space. The essence of it is that some time in the late sixties a number of mod clubs in the north of England began to move away from eclectic rosters consisting of various forms of jazz, R&B and other black American music, and instead began to focus solely on danceable fast-paced soul influenced by the output of Detroit's Motown label. The original Northern Soul club, the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, closed in 1971 under pressure from the authorities for its reputation as a drug haven. By this time however, the culture of the music and the associated all-night amphetamine fuelled raves, where dancers were renowned for their skill and stamina, had spread to other parts of the North and the Midlands. Nights were held at famous venues such as Wigan Casino and Wolverhampton's The Catacombs.

The movement reached its zenith in the mid to late seventies, and by this time musical exclusivity was the focus of most of the DJs who operated within the scene. This is mirrored currently in the penchant within UK bass music for VIP mixes and other commercially unreleased tracks which can only be found within mixes by the most respected DJs. Rarity was prized and DJs often would secure their bookings on this basis, perhaps by being the owner of the only known copy of a particular record. As such the scene was based upon failures; records by US mid-western artists which had not made an impact upon their release a decade prior were now esteemed in an entirely different context to that from which they emanated. As such, besides the DJs there were no real stars of the Northern Soul movement, the artists having long since faded into obscurity, had they ever left it.

In the intervening years Northern Soul has itself somewhat disappeared, but now it seems to be coming back, giving us a revival of what was also originally a revivalist movement. Instead of events taking place in the original venues, which have long since moved on to other things, they now occur in working men's clubs and similar halls across Britain. There are even events down in London, making Northern Soul no longer quite so northern. The attendees seem to have lost their insatiable desire for rarity, with many events featuring DJs who were major players in the old scene now advertising as "Northern and Crossover" soul, and playing more well known records. They finish much earlier too, with all-dayers now far more common than the previous all-nighters.

I recently paid a visit to one of these nights, at a Labour Club in The Black Country, not `quite sure what to expect. Initially I was greeted with a largely empty hall, and an even emptier dancefloor. It was an odd sight; most attendees were well into their fifties at least, and were sat dotted around the room which looked more like a church hall decked out for a poorly attended OAP’s club. The cobs wrapped in foil on sale next to the bar hardly helped, and neither did the faux hand pumps from which the "real" ales were served at the bar. Little more than an hour later, however, and the dance floor was almost full, and covered in the talcum powder traditionally used by dancers to facilitate exuberant sliding moves across the room. The vigorous dancing had long since given way to arthritic joints and were more shuffling than the acrobatic shapes that would have been on show over three decades ago, but those on the floor seemed not to care, just happy to be back moving to the music of their youth with like-minded people. It was fantastic to have seen men and women dancing and enjoying themselves without pretence, not looking around to see who has their eye on them, and "keeping the faith". Perhaps this is something that some of the clubbers of today could learn from.