Saturday, 26 November 2011

Storm Und Drang

by Nick Pierce
Michael Shannon’s face: Old-fashioned. Crumpled and bulging like an edifice of living stone on the brink of collapse. Enormous. It might seem a strange thing to hone in on, but it’s integral to the appeal and the power of Take Shelter. Like Klaus Kinski or Humphrey Bogart, Shannon has a larger-than-life countenance built for cinema and one of the chief pleasures of this indie gem is seeing how he and screenwriter-director Jeff Nichols construct a brilliant performance around it. Surely the character actor du jour in America at the moment, stealing scenes in everything from Boardwalk Empire to Revolutionary Road and almost certainly destined to be the best thing in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, his role as everyman Curtis LaForche in Shelter is his finest yet.
  Jeff Nichols’ sophomore feature is a daring and ambitious melding of social realism and apocalyptic parable. It recounts the gradual mental disintegration of Curtis, a blue-collar worker plagued by nightmarish visions of impending disaster who decides that it is his responsibility to safeguard his family’s future by pouring money into the restoration of a bomb shelter in their backyard. Jeopardising his economic stability and alienating himself from his family and his peers, Curtis is wracked with doubt as to whether his dreams portend disaster or burgeoning mental illness.

  Despite only recently coming to prominence, Shannon has been appearing in films since the 90s (with his first official credit being for Groundhog Day!) and in Take Shelter he delivers a master-class in screen acting presumably acquired from all those years of hard graft in other people’s pictures. He plays it restrained and stoic, only giving away his mental strain through a recurring facial twitch and his hunched posture, as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. It is a deeply moving and layered performance, Shannon conveying both Curtis’ monomania and his shame that he should be afflicted in such a manner. In fact, it’s so convincing and he wins our sympathy so completely that when he finally does snap in the third act in front of a room of people one almost feels as if one is witnessing the breakdown of a relative. To be explicit, although there is little of the showboating that typically earns Academy Award nominations, this is the kind of acting Oscar was made for. He’s got my vote anyway…
  What also makes Take Shelter so impressive is the way in which Nichols skilfully negotiates the plot, avoiding the corny melodrama that such a bold narrative might have prompted from a lesser talent. Although Curtis’ visions are suitably alarming, punctuating the story like irruptions of disorder into his fragile psyche, Nichols keeps the drama grounded throughout. Even if – at least to Curtis’ way of thinking – the end of the world is at stake, our protagonist is more immediately challenged by the prospect of risky bank loans and keeping his family afloat in a treacherous economy. It is this paralleling of everyday pressures with Curtis’ acute and unshakeable premonition of danger that makes the film work so well as an allegory that is both timely and timeless. Curtis effectively is the voice of America in 2011: wanting to insulate itself from the outside world now that it has been made painfully aware of how precarious is its position; of how the American Dream isn’t written in the constitution after all, but in the sand.
  More than this, despite his possible madness, Curtis is also that sobering side of every one of us that has ever taken stock of the world. In one short scene, he pulls over on the side of a motorway and alights from his car to watch an electrical storm rage overhead whilst his wife and daughter sleep soundly in the backseat and other motorists drive past seemingly oblivious. ‘Isn’t anyone else seeing this?’ he asks aloud, as if addressing the universe, amazed at humanity’s blissful ignorance. Real or imaginary, Curtis has been granted a glimpse of the fragility underlying everything of which most of us are only fleetingly cognizant. What makes the film so unnerving right up to its audaciously ambiguous ending is that it suggests the authenticity of Curtis’ visions is in some sense irrelevant because ultimately his fears are justified regardless.
  Surprisingly then, considering the subject matter, and without giving too much away, Nichols’ sophomore film also contains an element of cautious optimism. Like his debut, Shotgun Stories, it is fiercely humanist in its emphasis upon our potential for tolerance and the importance of togetherness. And in the climactic sequence set in the bomb shelter Nichols intimates that as long as we remember to honour these impulses we may never be completely lost.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Awakening Review

by Tom Dunn

Nick Murphy’s period horror, The Awakening, is a film in parts. Already facing an identity crisis through having one of the most recycled movie titles in the history of cinema, the narrative that plays out over its two hour course throws in so many superfluous details, and takes so many jarring turns, that what remains grows as confused and self-conscious as its increasingly vulnerable protagonist. Carting about such weighty themes as post-war atheism, the ‘New Woman,’ and the need to believe in something, The Awakening dabbles with these concepts like trinkets it’s in awe of, having a tinker before setting them down to go along with something it considers safer in the long run; a fairly stock horror story that has to run to catch up with – and eradicate – all that has come before.

From its opening excerpt from protagonist Florence Cathcart’s (Rebecca Hall) book on the supernatural, Murphy makes clear his desire to tackle a world cast in the shadows of the First World War, one that has been forced to painfully question the reality around it. It’s a thread continued in the film’s energetic prologue, where our self-assured ghost hunter dissembles a showy fake séance to the pain of a genuinely grieving mother. Hall’s swaggering frame, adorned with trousers and jacket, stands as a monument to early feminism that is then consistently hammered home throughout the film that it is clear Murphy’s talents lie in showing and telling. Cathcart as a result comes off as perhaps somewhat more smug than was intended, but her conspicuousness comes to fit well with the film’s main setting; an austere boys’ boarding school where Master Robert Mallory (Dominic West) and nurse maid Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) wish to expose a supposed ghostly presence within the chilly corridors of this former stately home.

For the first half of the film, what follows is an entertaining, if at times unsubtle, pitting of progress against oppression. Our New Woman catches “ghosts” through a collection of directional thermometers, UV powders and cameras set off by tripwires, whilst also battling the stagnant air of patriarchy and bullying that fatally intoxicates the school. It’s unfortunate that this initial premise breezes by so quickly (it’s also clear that Murphy has read Dracula), as it all falls apart once this initial mystery is solved so as to unveil the true “awakening” of the title. From here on out, all of the intelligence of the film steadily dissolves, as this story of modernity gives way to a very typical tale of a woman’s descent into madness, all the more disappointing in its reduction of Florence’s status to that of a typical horror “heroine” by the film’s end – complete with an ill-fitting attempt at rape from a character whose status as a war deserter seems completely at odds with what the film really wants to explore. By the time the climactic twist is revealed, what’s occurring on screen feels as though it’s been passed over to a child to tie up – one who wanted to shoe horn in a ghost story that thus lacks the steady call for sympathy it requires.

It’s a shame, as with strong performances from Hall and West, cast in Eduard Grau’s suitably austere frame, there were the ingredients here for something really great – if the film had just stuck to its tale of boarding school hysteria. Instead, defeated by its own lofty goals, Murphy’s script dwarfs before our eyes in its performance; a mess of half-cooked ideas and influences when compared to the tight thesis it initially offers.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Never Mind The Love Lost

by George Bate

The latter part of this year sees the 20th anniversary of one of the most critically lauded albums in music history. The album in question is a landmark conceptually and sonically. It is stark and uncompromising but also warm and beautiful. It has an iconic, instantly recognisable cover and it changed parts of the music world both instantly and lastingly.
Many of you will by now have assumed that I was talking about Nirvana’s Nevermind (the misleading title probably contributed), but no. The actual record in question is far more ambitious and much more polarising than anything to ever spring from the grunge scene. Final clue? It's cover image, a fuzzy pink guitar.

The real object of my affections.

I am, in fact, talking about My Bloody Valentine’s magnum opus Loveless. Those of you who have heard it will almost certainly fall into one of two diametrically opposed camps: those that “don’t get it” (and probably can’t stand it) and those who think it is quite simply one of the greatest pieces of art ever created. The dichotomy is understandable – the record is overwhelming whether you like it or not. Most of its tracks are a wall of sound, bereft of anything even remotely resembling a hook and approaching melody in a way completely different to any traditional method traditionally employed in guitar music.

MBV live circa 1990

The methodology from the record came from the MBV live show – uncompromisingly deafening affairs where, near the end, Kevin Shields and his cohorts would release a blizzard of atonal guitar, at times up to 15 minutes in length, so incredibly loud and thundering that the experience became known as ‘the holocaust’. The aim of ‘the holocaust’ was to fool the listener’s brain into creating melodies of its own, and concert-goers would often report that halfway through the experience sounds that were simply not being played by the instruments on stage would begin to drift through their heads. These experiences were likened to that of a drug and whilst collective were also completely unique to the individual. Loveless aimed to recreate these sounds for the home listener, but the approach was different. The band could not rely upon sheer volume to fool their fan’s ears into creating melody, so they used layer upon layer of distortion, feeding each guitar track through literally dozens of effects pedals, so that by the time everything was overdubbed the instruments would segue into one and melodies would appear that would not resemble any of those originally played. This and Shields’ (almost every instrument on the record was played by the band’s perfectionist dictatorial leader) constant use of the tremolo arm, which he adapted so that he would never have to let go of whilst playing, led to the record’s peerless sound.

The face of a dictator: top left.

The effect was astonishing; there are times on the album where the guitar sounds more like a flute in a symphony orchestra than an electric guitar played by a spindly sleep-deprived Irishman. The approach also led to the stripping away of the masculinity of the guitar; whereas Jimmy Page or Matt Bellamy might wield their instruments like phallic totems, the atonal sound of Loveless has a more ambiguous, almost androgynous feel, neither masculine nor feminine in reality. This was furthered by the group’s approach to vocals on the album, which often found second guitarist Bilinda Butcher singing the lower register with Kevin Shields’ voice occupying the higher ends of the spectrum.
Whilst some might state that in the Creation (top marks if you already get the pun in the capitalisation) of Loveless MBV reinvented the guitar, it could also be argued that they completely deconstructed it, by removing the link that had always previously existed between what was played (or what appeared to be played) and what was actually heard. Despite this, Loveless remains undeniably a guitar album: powerful, loud and heavy, yet at the same time beautiful and epicene.

Shields' main pedal board 

The recording process, although obviously fruitful, was also costly. It claimed Shield’s and Butcher’s relationship, drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig’s health and almost bankrupt the then fledgling Creation Records, with estimates for the album’s cost ranging somewhere between £250’000 and £500’000 (Creation would go on to have massive commercial success with Oasis but that is an entirely different and more boring story). The label’s boss Alan McGee would later confess that he thought the work out of art that resulted was entirely worth the mental anguish and financial strain it caused him at the time (the stress probably wasn’t helped by the cornucopia of drugs he was taking whilst working with Primal Scream on their opus Screamadelica).

Sreamadelica pretty much bankrolled Loveless

Whilst MBV can boast no fallen star for whom the vestiges of fame became too much to endure, the band’s post-Loveless hiatus (save a few storming live shows in 2007) has undoubtedly served to increase the record’s legendary status. A record of this type will always lend itself to hyperbole, a degree of which I am sure I will have been guilty of, but this truly is a unique record. It may have been lumped in with the briefly fashionable ‘shoegaze’ scene but it far transcends that label, leaving an ethereal pink haze drifting wispily in its wake. If you have not already been fortunate to have your ears blessed by Loveless then I suggest all that remains is for you stop reading my ramblings and take a listen to some of the music below. Loud.

The opening gambit:

The bliss of my personal favourite:

Further listening

Sonic Youth - Teen Age Riot

Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (I prefer the longer album version)

Slowdive - Souvlaki Space Station

Primal Scream - Higher Than The Sun

Music To My Eyes

by Nick Pierce

‘A candy-colored clown they call the sandman. Tiptoes to my room every night. Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper: "Go to sleep, everything is alright”.’ Lyrically, these four lines encapsulate well the unique mood now typically referred to as Lynchian: On one level, they’re expressive of a simple fantasy, a beautiful and hypnotic dream. On another, there’s an air of menace about them, even if the nature of this menace isn’t quite definable. Soothingly speaking the words ‘everything is alright’ might indicate the urge to comfort and protect, but on the other hand it might be a way of lulling an unsuspecting victim into a state of false security…

  These lyrics, from the Roy Orbison classic ‘In Dreams’ appear prominently in the soundtrack to David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet. Jeffrey Beaumont (fresh-faced Kyle MacLachlan) has been dragged by the psychotic Frank Booth (a never better Dennis Hopper) to the residence of the mysterious Ben, “one suave fucker” in the words of Frank, who commences lip-synching along to a recording of said song. It could be argued that the whole sequence makes no sense, and of course in one way this would be correct. But it also makes perfect sense; in fact, you might say that it’s the crux of the entire film, the moment that goes some way towards elucidating what is happening elsewhere, and this owes in large part to Lynch’s use of music. The song effectively flags up the dream state in which Lynch’s films generally unfold: a realm where things make profound and disturbing sense in the moment of their occurrence, but fail to cohere when you leave the darkened movie auditorium and awake back into the quotidian. It elucidates because, despite being closer to the logic of dreams than the world in which Jeffrey begins the film, one of suburban normality and tedium, it points to a truth that this small-town Odysseus couldn’t recognise before: that he has been sleeping and now he is awake (or not), to the underbelly and the unspoken desires of his town; its subconscious, focalised most terrifyingly in Frank. It is salient of course that this truth should be signalled when the film is at its least adherent to conventional understanding of reality. After all, I doubt a gangster like Frank has ever attempted to intimidate somebody by getting a friend to perform 50s pop tunes in front of them. Lynch’s genius is that he never provides the detachment or the interpretative standpoint that we generally expect from narrative art. Instead, a mad dream like this sequence reflects the madness of other dreams, such as that of the illusory safety of the suburbs. There’s no hierarchy imposed between these states. To put it more explicitly and without the elegance of Lynch’s cinema, Blue Velvet tells us that life is nothing but a dream.

   Effectively, this has all been an extended preamble to stating that if there’s one aspect of David Lynch’s out-there oeuvre that remains undervalued it’s his attention to sonic detail. His uncanny employment of Roy Orbison is really only the tip of the aural iceberg regarding the astonishing sound design of his work, all of which he takes a primary role in constructing, assembling evocative noises and co-writing the scores with composer Angelo Badalamenti. The album Crazy Clown Time, released in early November of this year foregrounds his technical abilities when it comes to creating cinematic music. Arriving without any accompanying film, the pieces contained within remain close relations of his celebrated movie scores. Aside from being a pretty dire title, sounding like the sort of brainlessly kooky thing a David Lynch wannabe might name his own album, Crazy Clown Time suggests a degree of frivolity, of ‘clowning around’ in its execution, as if the music is to be received as a great artist passing the time between weightier projects. And in all honesty that’s exactly what it sounds like as well: After the midnight thrills of the guitar-driven opening track and the woozy electronica of ‘Good Day Today’ the album quickly fades into background music, reliably moody and macabre without any of the arresting power of his greatest pictures. The problem isn’t so much with the execution as with the conception: a David Lynch album just sounds like a cop-out, something half-realised, reminding you of what you could be getting if you put on Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead.

  Lynch has become one of cinema’s most brilliant alchemists, taking crude or simple materials – Americana, light and shadow, our primal fears – and making the ineffable and transcendent. Without being an ingredient in this crucible, Crazy Clown Time just comes across as a crude material. It might seem too obvious to bother remarking, but those who try to fathom Lynch are missing the point catastrophically. If you seek to extract them from the crucible of the cinematic medium all you’re in danger of being left with is the raw and unremarkable stuff that dreams are made of: a heap of Crazy Clown Times, so to speak.

  This is illustrated best of all by the director himself in another scene where music takes centre-stage in the drama. In the middle of Mulholland Drive, Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring) visit a club called Silencio where they watch a beautiful, unknown woman sing ‘Llorando’, a Spanish a capella version of another Roy Orbison hit, ‘Crying’. Again, as in Blue Velvet the narrative halts to allow a seemingly irrelevant musical performance, but Lynch connects the two scenes through his reuse of Orbison, teasingly intimating some sort of pattern and the existence of a key to his art, to what it really means. After mesmerising Betty and Rita with her performance, the woman collapses onstage, but her voice continues, and we realise it is a recording, just like with that ‘suave fucker’ Ben. Are we just being told that the wool has been pulled over our eyes, or is Lynch perhaps suggesting that reality is an overrated ideal and that the simple profundity of the woman’s performance is more important than whether it was substance or illusion? These two scenes, in my view, read like the closest one is likely to find to a commentary within his movies on their meaning. They playfully yet provocatively show how dream can overwhelm a reality that quite probably was never definable or distinguishable in the first place, becoming microcosms of the movies they’re in. Furthermore, it is significant that the only form these explications take is that of further works of art within art. In effect, this insinuates that trying to explain a trip into Lynch territory, rather than simply letting the trip function as its own explanation, makes about as much sense as building a mausoleum to illuminate a piece of modern dance. And so, having effectively rubbished my own article, I think it’s a good time to stop.                

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

All new, all British - It's Tintin!

by Tom Dunn 

In a shock twist, paper The Daily Mail has bought the rights to produce new material featuring Herge’s classic character Tintin, bringing him smack – bang into the 21st century whilst “returning to the character’s Le Petit Vingtième roots,” harkening back to such culturally sensitive stories as Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo. Coinciding with the release of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn, The Daily Mail have released solicits for all the upcoming stories, each of which will be published in daily instalments throughout the year. Look out for these exciting new adventures soon!  

Tintin and the Purple Gazelles  

Under orders from his editors at The Daily Mail, Tintin catches a train to Croydon to report on the latest developments in youth hooliganism; the summer riots of 2011. His insight into the other side begins sooner than he might think, as one eager youth has used his Blackberry communication device to disrupt the train’s speedometer, threatening to send a train full of hard working white males to their undeserved deaths! Luckily, Snowy saves the day by nabbing the dastardly smartphone between his jaws whilst Tintin swiftly dispatches of his opponent and turns disaster into opportunity, switching out his blue sweater for the grey shell-suit uniform of the youth. Armed with “Smithy’s” Blackberry and in full enemy regalia, Tintin is swiftly able to infiltrate the ranks of rioters to get a full report on the action, whilst perhaps also doing his bit for Queen and country along the way. Events take a turn for the mysterious, however, when it becomes apparent that a nefarious cabal of pirates are using the riots as a shield to gain a most coveted treasure: a pair of purple Adidas Gazelle trainers! Tintin must call upon his cunning and the occasional trigger finger to save the day.  

Tintin and the Fox Fiasco 

Under orders from his editors at The Daily Mail, Tintin catches a train to central London to report on the scandal surrounding “Dr.” Neil Andrew Fox, otherwise known as Foxy, the former judge on Pop Idol, who, it is believed, may have been sneaking fellow judge Pete Waterman into the Magic 105.4 building on at least forty occasions. Waterman’s actual activities at these times are unknown and probably quite boring, but the point remains. His attempts to crack the relationship between the two and blow the scandal wide open are continually dogged by a new pair of foes in Tintin’s colourful world, Messrs Boe Ring and Dullas Dychwatur. Events come to a head in the Magic 105.4 studio room, where, after longwinded discussions and a lack of real public interest, “Dr.” Fox resigns. Comic relief is provided by the series stalwart Haddock, largely through such exclamations as, “Eh?! Who gives a fucking shit?!” 

Tintin and the Social Strategem 

The jewel in the crown of The Daily Mail’s Tintin reboot, details on this story are a closely kept secret! Suffice to say, it involves time travel, a plot to segregate Dover as a separate, militarised state, and a reduction of all culture into a world of celebrity worship, with only Tintin able to ensure such a utopia may rise! 

A cracking future for our plucky reporter, I’m sure you’ll agree!