Saturday, 31 December 2011

Ecstasy in agony: a cyclist's motivation.

We can dream.

You've reached the point of no return. Your lungs are burning, your vision is clouded and your legs could seize at any moment. But you can't stop now, you've already invested too much. You're already committed. You've played your hand.
"Why am I doing this to myself?" The thought scatters across your brain. You pull yourself together and curse yourself for the weakness - you can't afford to think like that. It's all or bust on the hillside and you are a gladiator; wide-eyed, proud and breathless.
Yet the question persists, "why?" The word flitters before you again, as it will countless times before the race is over.

This is the internal dialogue of racing cyclists the world over. Somewhere deep inside of yourself you know why, but you could never articulate it to another person, be they a racer or just a civilian.This dialogue is what unites us, even as we struggle against one another on the road. It is the bond that ties us and it is the same across nations, languages and ability levels. Pain is universal.
Perhaps we do this because we feel it gives us some higher purpose, a focus which to build our lives around, a goal that exists motivated entirely by ourselves, outside of the office or exam hall. Smoke and mirrors. There is no higher purpose, what could it possibly be? A training ride begins and ends at home, where is the higher calling in that? But there is beauty in futility, ecstasy can be found in agony.
Maybe we want to imitate our heroes; the weekend's race is our Paris-Roubaix, the start our Grand Départ, our families and friend our tifosi. Emulation our raison d'être. Though we may not reach such dizzy heights as the Merckxs or Armstrongs of the world, but we feel similar pain and sacrifice ourselves upon the same altar.
Perhaps it's quite simply the endorphins, but whatever the true, intangible reason might be, we do it because we have to. Once we begin asking ourselves why, it's clear that we don't know how not to.

Playing Away: Gaming in 2011

by Tom Dunn

2011 has been something of an odd year for armchair sportsmen, at once a boon and a signal of the growing stagnation in the market. Traditional release dates were met all over; Rockstar released a late-spring blockbuster, Rocksteady swooped down in the autumn to earn its crown, and Activision ensured another COD rehash entered the arena at the eleventh hour to make us forget all the good that had come before. That said, within this growing routine lay a number of innovative titles – most of them sequels, no less – that as a result largely fail to offer any succour to either side of the ongoing debate with regard to originality in gaming. Sequels, it seems, can pioneer the market as well as condemn it. And so another year rolls on. As said, there were a number of fantastic titles this year, not least for the Nintendo 3DS, which, after the shakiest of starts, found its feet with a few top-notch N64 remakes, as well as two all-new Mario titles offering the usual quality that a stereotypical Italian fat man, addicted to mushrooms, can bring. Likewise, the die-hard indie corner in PC gaming continues to quietly thrive with the OCD-friendly offerings of both Minecraft and Terraria. However, the top five titles of the year proved that engrossing, intelligent gameplay can still dominate in the mainstream market. Even if Bobby Kotick would like you to think otherwise, gyuck!

5. LA Noire

 Coming in fifth on the list for 2011 is Team Bondi’s first, and last, title, LA Noire, an open-world homage to the film noir of the fifties (largely by way of Mad Men actors. If you’ve got it, flaunt it...) that has since been marred by stories of Bondi’s total incompetency. Regardless of how much input Rockstar had in salvaging the title, what came out in stores was a compelling tragedy with great mo-cap acting and a stirring score. Following the rise and fall of war vet and cop Cole Phelps, the game traces his journey through the ranks of the LAPD, combating the morphine trade, arson, a city-wide conspiracy, and ultimately his own past. Like all Rockstar games, it works largely as a recreation of a specific zeitgeist rather than offering anything original, but similarly it does so seemingly effortlessly. Ironically, the game’s largest fault is perhaps its open-world take; an immaculate recreation of a dead LA, it feels like a mausoleum, and has about as much life as one. If the game had instead followed the linear path it so obviously tried to hide, it might have scored higher on the list. As it is, a great visual novel that pushes the cause Heavy Rain lay down back in 2009.

  4. Portal 2

Tales of Half Life 2: Episode 3’s return are grossly exaggerated. Leaving matters on a cliff-hanger some five years ago (wow, time flies!), Valve instead continued to develop the concept of the (possibly?) in-universe title, Portal, once a two-hour tech demo with humour, now a fully-fledged title with its own agenda. Portal 2 continues where the original game left off, but develops everything, creating something wholly unique to itself even with its recurrent references to the world of Half – Life. In order to keep the portal-jumping mechanic fresh, puzzles are now equipped with a range of materials that manipulate the physical world almost as much as the portals themselves, with later levels turning into Rube Goldberg machines in your capable hands. The story of Aperture Science, largely sidelined in the original game, now comes to the fore, with Ellen McLain’s acerbic psychopath GlaDOS having her digital history entwined with that of deceased CEO Cave Johnson, played with aplomb by J.K Simmons. Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley runs the risk of turning everything into another fucking Gervais comedy, but hey, it’s a small price to pay. Especially when you (spoiler).

  3. Dark Souls

 Who knew that dying could become an art? Or, if not that, a wholly rewarding learning experience? Frustrating to the point of sceaming, yes, but also beneficial in the long term? If you don’t agree, you won’t get very far with FROM Software’s punishing follow-up to last year’s sleeper hit Demons’ Souls, an action RPG set across a gargantuan, plague-ridden world of monsters and psychopaths. Taking the by-gone formula of dungeon crawling and marrying it with a highly charged risk / reward mechanic, FROM software continue to offer a gaming experience that cannot be found anywhere else on the market – a war of attrition against the game world that rewards glory only once it has been thoroughly earned. With a highly unique online mode that blurs the traditional line between single and multi-play into obscurity, Dark Souls is a game for gamers. A technical masterpiece that is nevertheless an acquired taste.

  2. Skyrim

 I realised fairly late on into Bethesda’s previous Elder Scrolls title, Oblivion, that you could literally just sprint your whole way through the game to victory. Initially conjuring up snatches of Kanye West’s ‘Power’ whilst darting through Daedric corridors, the novelty soon wore off and I realised that this game-breaking mechanic revealed how easily Oblivion could slip into a dull, repetitive slog if you didn’t “invest” in its clunky world. Not so with the follow-up, Skyrim, a richer, more rewarding experience that finally chooses to modernise its play-style rather than waver between 2011 and 1983, as well as returning to a (lighter) tale of political intrigue ala Morrowind (Oblivion was many things. Well written wasn’t one of them). The sense of supposed freedom the game offers, as with all Bethesda titles, comes about largely as a result of you choosing to believe in it – in some ways this is a fairly shallow game. However, Skyrim meets you more than half way on this agreement, and as such offers a highly enjoyable adventure that, surprise surprise, is also relatively bug free! Gamebryo can still fuck off though.

  1.Arkham City

The winner for 2011 was clear within an hour of playing it. Following on from Rocksteady’s surprise hit, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City takes the freeflow combat of the original title and drops it into an open-world environment of dangerous thugs, in a sectioned-off zone of Gotham City, on a winter’s night. As you swoop down upon your prey and beat the living shit out of them, it quickly becomes apparent that, hey, you’re the goddamn Batman. And it’s pretty great. Paul Dini returns to script a sinister tale across Gotham that, whilst having perhaps a few too many eggs in the basket, nevertheless allows Rocksteady to deliver a well-paced, varied foray into Batman’s world and rogues gallery, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill return to provide the definitive voices for both Batman and the Joker. The sense of sheer escapism this game offers is what all should seek for, its deceptively complex combat system always offering something more, just as you think you may have it mastered. For those who enjoyed the stealth components of AA, the open-world environment leads into enough highly guarded safe-houses to sate your desires of shadowy vigilantism. Ripping out the Catwoman content and making it DLC at the final hour as a safety – valve against piracy (or, more pertinently, the pre-owned market) left something of a bad taste on a game that is otherwise stellar, but when this and the game’s somewhat rushed climax (again) are the only real qualms, things ain’t lookin’ so bad.

 As in all arenas, Batman wins out, typically. With next year offering both Max Payne 3 and Grand Theft Auto 5 as particular highlights, his time in the spotlight may quickly be snatched by another Rockstar classic before the end of 2012.

Friday, 30 December 2011

A year in disappointments.

by George Bate

As I do a round up of the year in music, I thought I’d get the bad stuff out of the way first, so here is my list of the disappointments and straight-up clangers of the past 12 months.

James Blake – James Blake

While many critics clamoured over James Blake’s transition to piano man songwriter on his debut LP, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disappointed. Sure, it was innovative, but the innovation just didn’t seem to lead anywhere. Repeated phrases and loops wore on me, and in contrast to how many other writers felt I found the album cold in its sparseness. The were a few isolated moments of beauty, such as the excellent Feist cover and the climatic Wilhelm’s Scream, but with so much filler in between, I was left feeling short changed.

Tyler, The Creator – Goblin

Being one of the most divisive musicians of the past few years is no mean feat in a musical environment littered with controversial characters. But controversy or not, it’s content that counts, and quite frankly this album didn’t have it. Perhaps my ears have been dulled by a childhood of Eminem, but this album just didn’t exhilarate me in the way I hoped it would. It’s ok being offensive, but it can’t be an artist’s only feature.

The Field – Looping State of Mind

The chief criticism of The Field’s Axel Willner has always been that he is a one trick pony, but up until this year that trick has always worked and Willner has produced beautifully beguiling music. On this record however, the magic was gone. The formula remained the same, but the repetition felt dry and Willner’s trick felt exposed. The title track served as somewhat of a redeemer, but if you listen to, say, Over the Ice from the first Field record, you can’t help but feel disappointed in Looping State of Mind.

Washed Out – Within & Without

Washed Out felt like an appropriate moniker for Ernest Greene when he released this clanger in the summer. This was another that felt without warmth, possibly due to heavy handed over production. His collaboration with Caroline Polachek, You and I, had been his finest moment when released as part of the Adult Swim singles series, but a new version here felt clunky and uninspired. Yet again, the title track was the sole redeeming feature on a record that otherwise fell flat.

The Strokes – Angles

Expectation was high prior to the release of the fifth Strokes album, their first in five years, and the stories of a difficult birth had fans clamouring for it. Sadly this tension could not guarantee a great album, and the eventual release of Angles gave us a half hearted album, as if the mind’s of the members were elsewhere, perhaps on their next solo releases. You’ll have a better time listening to it than it sounds like they had making it, but that’s not saying much.

Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

I can’t quite understand how Tim Hecker has managed to garner the reputation he has by making albums like this. All high concept, this record was simply hiding behind smoke and mirrors, as sonically what it boiled down to was just white fucking noise.

Metallica and Lou Reed – Lulu

Everything about this is just wrong, I would write this in comic sans to express my disgust if I could.

Tat's Entertainment: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Review

by Nick Pierce

There’s a persuasive theory about the films of David Fincher. Actually, it’s my own. It states that every flawed or minor work will be followed by a stone-cold classic. Thus we have the creaky Alien 3 followed by the majestic Seven; oddball The Game preceding punk masterpiece Fight Club; solid but unremarkable Panic Room bested by the sublime Zodiac; and occasionally mawkish The Curious Case of Benjamin Button relegated to a footnote by zeitgeist-snaring The Social Network. Sadly, his English-language adaptation of the ubiquitous Stieg Larrson cash-corpse doesn’t entirely buck this trend, but nor does it find its rightful place on the bottom shelf of this none-more-contemporary American auteur’s achievements. Instead, it falls somewhere between the neo-gothic theatricality of Seven and the police procedural nightmare of Zodiac, distinguishing itself for the most part but failing to touch the peaks of those earlier, near-perfect contributions to the modern mythology of the serial killer.

  The story, for those who’ve been living on Mars (well, it’s one way of waiting out the recession), concerns Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist still reeling from a libel case brought against him by a shady businessman whom he has been investigating, being offered an unusual assignment by Henrik Vanger, wounded patriarch of a family of millionaire industrialists with so many domestic issues that no soap opera in the world could possibly contain them. His task: to apply his detective skills to the case of Harriet Vanger, who went missing many decades previously, and whom Henrik believes to have been murdered by somebody close to him. Of course, the real centre of the narrative is Lisbeth Salander, a troubled computer hacker (hello, the 90s) who eventually teams up with Blomkvist in order to provide the additional investigative firepower needed to blow the case wide open. Salander is a sort of pop-feminist avenging angel, who physically brands rapists and chases down woman-killers on her motorbike, whilst engaging in sexually-liberated relationships with both genders. When her character is written down in this sketchy form one might almost take her for some sly satirist’s piss-take of a Guardian reader’s ideal protagonist. After all, she does sound a bit too boldly drawn and pulpy to be taken seriously. It’s testament then to the finesse of Steven Zaillian’s screenplay and Rooney Mara’s performance that Lisbeth works so well on the screen, exhibiting surprisingly shadowy depth and ambiguity for the ‘heroine’ of a Hollywood blockbuster. Indeed, she becomes the emotional heart of the movie, and although Daniel Craig is an effortlessly charismatic leading man and the rest of the supporting cast lend appropriate gravitas, it is undoubtedly Salander’s show.

  Elsewhere, Fincher’s direction is as meticulous as usual, largely jettisoning the dazzling stylistic flourishes of his earlier work (aside from the Saul Bass meets Svankmajer SFX of the opening credits sequence) in favour of a more measured and sober approach that makes its disturbing content all the more affecting. And special mention should be given to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score, foregrounded in the mix so that it crawls and stutters unsettlingly over the scenes, hinting at the barely-repressed violence that haunts its thematic content.
  The slightly disappointing aspects are actually less the fault of this production per se than of the novel upon which it is based. Larsson’s plot, aside from the unforgettable Salander, is actually a pretty conventional murder mystery yarn, and I’m not entirely sure why it has captured the public’s imagination where so many other similar whodunits have failed. It relies upon some of the most hoary clichés of the genre, such as the killer inspired by biblical scripture, and once the Harriet case has reached its conclusion the film outstays its welcome by returning to Blomkvist’s initial plot thread in a manner that feels curiously flat and rushed. For Fincher, it seems like a step back after the masterful subversions of Zodiac. The brilliance of that underrated 2007 picture and the South Korean Memories of Murder lies in their recognition that the most compelling part of any crime story is the mystery rather than the solution. As a result, they dwell hauntingly upon the postmodernist mires of unsolved cases where clues fail to cohere and reasons are tortuously withheld; postmodernist mires that can actually kill, and have done so. Conversely, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, although engrossing whilst the investigation is ongoing, effectively goes up in a puff of anti-climactic smoke when it feels the need to explain away every last detail of the enigma by having a succession of involved parties open up about their part in the story wilfully and seemingly for no real reason whatsoever other than a prod from the pen of the author.

  All of this means that Girl ultimately comes across as a stopgap for its maker between more personal projects, and its easy to suspect that Fincher signed on the dotted line as director in the hope of enlisting studio support for more challenging and innovative fare in the future. If so, my Fincher formula might just prove to have legs after all…

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Reel Deal: High and Low, 1963

by Nick Pierce

Kurosawa, Japan’s most celebrated and influential filmmaker, is of course best known for his thunderous, visually-striking and blisteringly cool contributions to the genre of the samurai epic with which his name is nowadays synonymous. However, High and Low, one of the more obscure films in his body of work demonstrates that he was just as adept at handling the contemporary thriller. The wonderful thing about Kurosawa is how - despite being unarguably an arthouse director - he manages to make films that are far more accessible than those of many other masters of the medium. Arguably the secret to this ability lies in his refashioning of genre material. In High and Low he uses a  claustrophobic crime narrative as the starting point for a profound exploration of 1960s Japan, drawing viewers in with the gripping plotline only to present them with unsettling questions about the deleterious effects of modern life on humanity.

  The film opens in the swanky hillside property of affluent executive Kingo Gondo, played by the commanding Toshiro Mifune – Kurosawa’s regular lead actor - as he butts heads with the other shareholders in a company called National Shoes where he has made his fortune. After the businessmen have left, angry at Gondo’s refusal to assist them in squeezing out the company chairman and vowing to ruin him, Gondo shares his plan to outwit the other executives by secretly buying the majority of shares and thereby gaining control. We learn that the determined Gondo has staked the entirety of his wealth on this risky stratagem, and just as it appears he has succeeded he receives a phonecall from a mysterious person, who appears to bear Gondo a personal grudge, informing him that his son has been abducted. He is told that he must pay 30 million yen in order to have him returned – an enormous sum that would prevent Gondo from being able to complete the buyout of National Shoes and effectively bankrupt him. It soon emerges that the kidnapper has accidentally taken the child of one of Gondo’s employees instead, and the ruthless capitalist is presented with the ethical dilemma of ignoring the demands or ensuring the safety of an innocent victim to whom he feels no parental obligation.  

  The film takes an unexpected turn, however, when after Gondo has made his monumental decision the narrative veers away from the fallout this virtuous gesture will have upon his career and life to instead narrow upon the police investigation to identify and capture the mastermind of the kidnapping. Gondo is suddenly and lastingly relegated to the background of the picture. We might simply conclude that this is a way of conveying how his act has made him a shadow of his former self; we only glimpse him performing domestic duties like mowing the lawn, or looking on helplessly as his beloved house is prepared for auction to cover his debts. From here on in he is a silent and stoic figure deprived of the persona of a steely and overpowering businessman that he had previously wielded so fiercely, and this shift in his status is underlined by his marginalization within the plot.

  However, we must also take into account the thematic undercurrent of how material wealth and economic status impact upon and even come to define human beings in a capitalist society. A theme hinted at even in the film’s English-language title, which starkly reduces human difference and identity to the socio-economic binary of ‘high’ and ‘low’. In the context of the film as a whole, Gondo’s abrupt disappearance from the narrative therefore has a far more complex resonance. Kurosawa devotes nearly the first hour of the film’s running time to establishing Gondo as a multi-layered individual, wrestling with his obsession with succeeding in business and the opposing guilt at potentially sacrificing an innocent child in order to protect his ambitions. Yet his story after his financial ruin is displaced, with the agents of the criminal justice system – the local police force – taking centre-stage. The film is one of two distinct halves: the first of intensely personal drama and the second of impersonal police procedural. Whereas the first hour has a clear protagonist in Gondo, the last hour is remarkable for not providing us with any similar figure with whom to sympathise. The police detectives are, aside from a few characters tics, largely indistinguishable, and we do not learn anything of their lives outside their work. Similarly, when the film begins to follow the kidnapper as he attempts to cover his tracks, he remains almost unknown. All that we can gather from the squalid apartment he keeps is that he is a poor man, providing the most likely motive for his crime.

  In short, the individual gives way to and is defeated by broader impersonal economic and social forces of deprivation, the crime it produces and the machinery of state tasked with eradicating the same. Kurosawa can thus be said to structure the film so as to critique modern Japanese capitalist society, implying that the emotions, suffering and sacrifice of a man like Gondo are rendered unimportant by a culture that emphasises the primacy of having material wealth above all else. What’s more, the absence of characterisation in the second half suggests that the citizens of modern Japan, from detectives to money-seeking criminals, are rendered little more than slaves to this same destructive ideology.

  Additionally, by directing the camera away from Gondo Kurosawa imbues the film with an almost Brechtian conception of the role of the individual in capitalism, seemingly challenging the idea that Gondo’s sacrifice is heroic and the expectation that this ‘heroism’ should be affirmed by heightening the pathos of his downfall. It suggests perhaps that how Gondo chose to respond should not be interpreted as a heroic act so much as simply the correct decision, provoking the viewer to reconsider the ethics of any culture that values wealth so highly that opting to lose it for the sake of a human life should be treated with reverent admiration rather than perceived as merely the obvious course of action.

  Suffice it to say, without revealing all of the narrative, that High and Low shades in a genuinely unsettling picture of modern civilisation over its running time. It is further testament to Kurosawa’s genius for creating art that leaves an indelible impression, like a psychic wound, even when he’s not wielding the samurai sword.     

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Good Year: Film in 2011

Read on as Spectrum's two resident cinephiles, Nick Pierce and Tom Dunn, review the past year and offer their personal opinions on the best of 2011. A pretty classy year that could easily support a 'top twenty', 2011 has led to some critical differences between Nick and Tom - whose side are you on? If you work for a major studio, probably neither!


2011 proved to be a strong year in cinematic terms, with the shores of Albion distinguished by particularly noteworthy work.The King’s Speech obviously garnered most of the attention towards the start, reaping a frankly ridiculous number of awards, but on purely artistic merit it has been vastly overshadowed by a series of art-house corkers.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy took the lion’s share of critical adulation, embraced by every film supplement contributor and his pet gerbil, and with good reason: it was this year’s classiest film, sparkling with world-class performances from a veritable who’s who of British acting royalty, a murky and engrossing screenplay and impeccable direction from Swedish wunderkind Tomas Alfredson.

However, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin was the real standout. Its striking compositions and elliptical narrative were intensely cinematic and married brilliantly with the troubling, universal subject matter of maternal responsibility and the nature of evil. Tilda Swinton’s central performance was also one of the year’s best, scrupulously avoiding clichéd, hair-pulling renditions of the distressed mother in order to delve deeper into the agony and quiet heroism of a woman thrust into extraordinary and terrible circumstances.

Another of my favourites and perhaps the most radical film to be released was Le Quattro Volte. Michelangelo Frammartino’s near-silent exploration of animist philosophy and physical comedy is finely attuned to our ever expanding sense of affinity and equality with the rest of the animal kingdom, fostered by advances in our scientific understanding of the natural world. In this remarkable picture, the conventional hierarchy of narrative importance between man and the other creatures is demolished: an ant upstages the actor whose face it crawls across and a dog barks amusingly at a man dressed as Jesus, signalling nature’s indifference to the anthropomorphic theologies humanity constructs for itself. If this all sounds heavygoing it’s not: it’s more like David Attenborough meets Jacques Tati, and a wholly original beast.

Elsewhere in world cinema, A Separation was a more traditional drama involving, y’know, people. But its dramatization of the tensions in Iranian society between man and woman, religion and secularism, rich and poor was complex and thrilling, employing the tropes of a minimalist thriller to bring urgency to its domestic material.

The only American entry in my top five is Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, an accomplished drama that dares to take a typically large-scale apocalyptic conceit and interiorise it, telling a story about the impact of potential real-world disaster on the everyman imploding in his living room. Along with Kevin, it was the most unsettling cinemagoing experience to be had in 2011, and Michael Shannon’s star-making performance ought to see him at least nominated for an Academy Award.

The other worthy American indie was Blue Valentine, an unflinching look at the blossoming and subsequent breakdown of a relationship between Ryan Gosling’s carefree boy and Michelle William’s careworn girl. Possibly a little too unvarnished for its own good, and supremely depressing in its portrayal of love turned sour, it remains surely one of the most incisive and balanced depictions of marital breakdown in celluloid history.

For sheer entertainment value, you couldn’t go far wrong with Drive, arguably the jewel in the crown of Ryan Gosling’s triumphant rise to the Hollywood A-list. Gorgeously moody and blissfully cool, this B-movie homage was a well-buffed reflection of its own protagonist, the nameless Driver, who dispensed his own violent brand of justice and had hipster kids from here to Manhattan cheering him on. In the form of Kavinsky’s endlessly replayable, sex-in-sonic-waves ‘Nightcall’ it also undoubtedly had the year’s greatest theme song.

We saw another lacklustre summer of blockbusters, but Super 8 just about saved the day with its emphasis on developing a genuinely likeable and compelling group of characters, even if its science-fiction conceit, heartfelt as it clearly was, relied a little too heavily on Spielbergian touchstones. Scorsese’s Hugo was the real star of the big-budget league however, the master filmmaker ensuring that his first family adventure was miles away from the Christmas turkey many had feared. Instead, it was a genuinely moving and – for all its 3D gimmickry - refreshingly old-fashioned evocation of the cultural value of motion pictures.

In a genre as over-saturated as that of the crime story, Australian flick Animal Kingdom still managed to make a lasting impression. This owed mainly to its novel approach of bypassing an account of the central crime family’s exploits in favour of focusing upon the Shakespearian power games that erupt once they begin fighting for their lives against a brutal police counterattack. Ben Mendelsohn deserves special mention for his feral, queasy turn as the psychopathic loose cannon of the Cody clan, ‘Pope’.

And Meek’s Cutoff tapped fresh blood in the Western, a genre that often looks to be on its deathbed only to repeatedly receive these last-minute reprieves. It is the haunting recreation of an ill-fated expedition of settlers led into and hopelessly lost in the American wilderness by their guide, Stephen Meek, a frontiersman so full of blustering bullshit it’s a wonder he can even perch atop his horse. Of course, it’s actually a nifty allegory of post-Bush uncertainty in the States, with Meek as the ex-President and the inscrutable Native American they capture a stand-in for that modern demonised outsider, the Muslim.
My Top Ten:
10. Meek’s Cutoff
9. Animal Kingdom
8. Hugo
7. Drive
6. Blue Valentine
5. Take Shelter
4. A Separation
3. Le Quattro Volte
2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
1. We Need To Talk About Kevin 


As Nick rightly states, this past year has proven to be a rather exceptional one for cinema, offering many treats that haven’t even been accounted for in our respective top ten lists of the year. From around the globe, features such as 13 Assassins, The Tree of Life, True Grit and Essential Killing have graced our screens and thoughts (some with more universal adoration than others), but as the year comes to a close, the true stand outs have become obvious, overlapping as they do in both mine and Nick’s lists. That said, there’s a few features not yet mentioned that I feel also deserve a look in.

Hugo, Scorcese’s heart-felt panegyric to film, just falls short of a place in the top ten due to its at times essay-like approach to its subject matter, a whole being hinted at that isn’t quite reached in the marriage of fact and fiction. Instead, slipping in at the number ten spot is Tran Anh Hung’s angst-ridden Norwegian Wood, a movie that revels in its own luxurious melancholia as much as its protagonists, students Toru and Naoko, do, with a haunting score by Jonny Greenwood to boot. Moody and stylish, it’s what every sixteen year old boy hopelessly imagines their life to play out as.

Meanwhile, Super 8 offered a glimpse of what every thirteen year old boy instead wishes their life might play out as – specifically a strongly directed re-run of a Spielbergian fantasy. However, there’s probably something to be said about the fact that the 21st century equivalent of E.T. is both a killing machine and an oddly characterless space traveller – the weakest link in this well-scripted story of friendship dressed over with a sci-fi adventure. The film was ultimately carried by the heart-warming dynamic between Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Elle Fanning, whose representation of pubescent affection felt more real than that offered by Moretz and Butterfield in Hugo, capable as they were.

Falling a little lower on my personal list of favourites for the year is the Iranian family drama A Separation. Its complex play with social prejudices was cleverly extended into the audience, with a script that weaved its way through a zig-zag of quietly devastating twists and revelations. Aided by a continual sense of oppression and repression (exemplified in the ever-lurking voyeurs whenever a confrontation between family members occurred), everyone was under the lens here.

Sharing seventh place across both lists, Refn’s violent ode to the ‘80s, Drive was both one of the coolest and one of the most overrated movies of the year, its pouty ways sometimes coming off as more than a little try-hard, with Gosling’s triumph being marred somewhat by a few weak moments from Mulligan and Brooks. Perlman’s final scene, however, remains a cracker.

Let’s not forget this year’s other great hipster baby however, the wonderfully awkward directorial debut from Richard Ayoade, Submarine. Ruthlessly manipulative of its bric-a-brac approach to British teen nostalgia, the film at once celebrates and condemns the showy pretentiousness that its deluded protagonist, Oliver Tate (played with aplomb by Craig Roberts) shoves in the face of his hard-nose girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige) as he attempts to glue together the fractures in his parents’ marriage. The film seems to have been forgotten somewhat in the self-congratulatory retrospectives on British cinema that is year, a damn shame when it is clearly so much more inventive than our darling export, The King’s Speech.

Not to be underestimated, however, is Alfredson’s English debut, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the anti-Bourne of spy films that carries over Alfredson’s exquisite approach to decay previously evident in Let the Right One In. Little else needs to be said that Nick didn’t already cover. A wonderful showcase of today’s British acting talent, it shouldn’t be missed.

To my mind, the roughness around the edges of Blue Valentine only further aided in displaying the battered heart it wore on its sleeve. A reminder of the shift in direction relationships can take, Cianfrance’s dissection of the torn bond between Gosling and Williams is at once claustrophobic and bittersweet, looking to the past for succour rather than the uncertain, raw future.

In the same way that critical reception burned bright and died fast for Coppola’s Lost in Translation, I can’t help but feel that Aronofsky’s Black Swan has become the new film that it’s cool to hate. Whilst claims that the film is a show of style over substance and more than a little mainstream are probably correct, I fail to see how these detract from what is an enjoyably bombastic rollercoaster ride through one girl’s personal hell. Melodramatic and theatrical, Black Swan is a breath of fresh air in a time when such subject matter is normally dealt with in either overly weighty or anaemic, “thematic”, ways. With strong cinematography, and a great reworking of the original ballet’s conceit, Black Swan may not be The Red Shoes, but I’m not sure it was trying to be in the first place.

Similarly, David Michod’s Animal Kingdom seems to have been somewhat forgotten after its triumphant arrival at the start of the year. Laden with doom, this story of one family’s systematic self-destruction in the face of an enemy presence amplified by paranoia was easily the best crime film of the year. Playing out as the final act to a crime legacy may earn it comparisons to Reservoir Dogs, but there’s far more going on here than such a pairing suggests, with Jacki Weaver channelling her inner bitch as the unhealthy dynamics of her family grow putrid and explode.

Ultimately however, there’s no arguing that this year’s best came to us in the form of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Whilst some of the visual metaphors hit you across the head like a sledgehammer, scenes such as Swinton’s nightmare drive, through a street full of leering kids in Halloween dress, offered devastating moments of punctuation to a slow-burning tale of domestic horror and gamesmanship, as our view of the relationship between Kevin and his mother shifts beyond a conventional framework into something belonging wholly to them. Swinton’s role as Eva was a career highlight, whilst Ezra Miller’s Kevin shows promise for someone great in years to come. Fantastically bleak and incisive, it’s films like this that cinema was conceived for.

My Top Ten:

10. Norwegian Wood
9. Super 8
8. A Separation
7. Drive
6. Submarine
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
4. Blue Valentine
3. Black Swan
2. Animal Kingdom
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin

A stellar year all round then, setting a high benchmark for 2012. That said, with Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Artist right around the corner, perhaps we don't have all that much to worry about...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Sound of Silents

by Nick Pierce

Thanks to the recent critical success of Scorsese’s gently affecting family-adventure Hugo, partly about the life and times of motion-picture pioneer George Méliès, and The Artist, a love story set in the years surrounding the revolutionary introduction of sound into cinema, silent films have enjoyed an unexpected return to popular consciousness. Indeed, many of the most visually spectacular moments in the aforementioned kiddy caper are provided not by state-of-the-art CGI but interpolated footage from Méliès own century-old work. However, many might still be tempted to dismiss these early movies as too primitive or out of step with contemporary tastes to warrant watching. They couldn’t be more wrong; the best of silent cinema ranks with the greatest art in world history, ranging quite literally from the blissfully ridiculous to the hauntingly sublime, and often managing to encompass both at once. So to show they’ve still got it even after all these years, here are five of the very best silent cinema has to offer:

Le Voyage dans la Lune  – Yes, that’s right, the one where the Moon gets its eye impaled with a rocket. Don’t worry, it’s far more whimsical and far less horrific than it sounds. One of the earliest examples of fantasy cinema, this follows the expedition of an intrepid group of scientists as they (no surprises here) journey to the great glowing ball in the sky, namely by firing themselves out of a cannon, where they meet and fail catastrophically to establish healthy diplomatic relations with its monstrous occupants. Surreal, elegant and over in about ten minutes, it’s almost like watching an extended daydream that’s been projected, and was one of the first works to show cinema’s potential for reflecting our collective imagination.

City Lights – I’ll try not to sprinkle the word ‘genius’ too liberally in this article, even though it constantly springs to mind, but no description of the oeuvre of probably the most famous comedian in human history would be complete without it. Even the eternally unimpressed George Bernard Shaw rated Chaplin. One of his very greatest pictures, City Lights features the recurring character of the Tramp and mixes hilarious set-pieces with genuinely heartrending pathos as it recounts his attempts to woo a blind girl by concocting harebrained schemes to raise money for eye surgery. I know, it sounds ridiculous, and in a sense it is, only beautifully so. Believe me, even if you’re a misanthropic bastard like I am you’ll feel more well disposed towards your fellow man after watching this. That’s how good it is.

Sunrise – One of the more artsy gems from this period, innovative German director FW Murnau’s most accomplished film regularly tops highbrow polls of the greatest movies ever made. And it’s easy to see why: The story of an estranged couple falling in love all over again might be simple, but the telling of it is a veritable technical masterclass, with its subtle special effects, graceful tracking shots and epic scale - think giant amusement parks and a raging storm that besets the lovers in the centre of a vast lake. Love Actually, this ain’t. It also contains possibly the only thrilling chase scene in history to feature a piglet in a principal role. If you’re not intrigued by now, no offense but there’s obviously something wrong with you.

Metropolis – Iconic is the only adjective to summarise the granddaddy of the science-fiction genre. It’s influenced so many subsequent movies that to attempt to list them would be a futile and frankly boring endeavour. To save time we’ll do it this way: Think of a sci-fi film. Any sci-fi film. Got one? Well, that was influenced by Metropolis. Both a searing indictment of class inequality in industrial society and a ripping yarn involving political skulduggery, sexy robots and creepy proto-mad-scientists, honestly what’s not to love about Fritz Lang’s monumental masterpiece? Even in its ravaged modern form, recently restored to almost its original length from a badly-deteriorated Argentinean print, it remains a mesmerising achievement with a level of invention and artistry that puts 99% of fantasy cinema to shame. Heck, its ambition makes God look like a hopeless underachiever.

Earth – We all know now that the legacy of the USSR was a bit of a mixed bag, to put it mildly, but one thing it can be proud of is its dynamic filmmaking. Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth is one of the best of a bold bunch, depicting the insurrection of a community of farm labourers against a brutal takeover by Kulak landowners. Technically, it might be considered an example of broad propaganda, but this would be to overlook the beauty of its lyricism. Dovzhenko parallels the tribulations of the peasants with the passage of the seasons in order to suggest that death and oppression will lead to rebirth and a new age of plenty for the disenfranchised. And one remarkable sequence has the young leader of the resistance dance joyously through the streets of his seemingly liberated village in the early-morning light before suddenly collapsing – gunned down in cold blood by the vengeful landowners. Its breathtaking presentation of physical rebellion, symbolised through dance, even at the moment of death is the very definition of pure cinema at its most unforgettable. 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Historical Homages of Hugo Cabret

by Tom Dunn

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hugo was just another children’s adventure film cast in the same mould as that of The Golden Compass. Set in a fantastical version of one of the world’s most lauded cities, and centring on a plucky vagrant child inheriting a clockwork wonder – all the while bathed in an amber and blue glow – it’s a comparison which is understandable but entirely wrong. Then again, given the disparity between the film’s subject matter and the studio’s targeted audience, options for promotion were limited. For, despite a thoroughly generic marketing campaign, Hugo is definitely not your typical kid’s fare, instead functioning as something of a companion piece to Scorsese’s biopic on Howard Hughes, The Aviator. Hugo’s adventure catalyses a two hour tribute to the genius of both Georges Melies and early 20th century cinema at large, its orange and cyan palette mirroring that nostalgic world DiCaprio and Blanchett were previously cast in as pioneers of the cinematic. Revelling in the transformative magic behind the artisan craft of film, Scorsese’s latest uses the fantastic to bolster the power of cinema as a truly transcendent storytelling medium.

That the film does this whilst also straddling a serviceable children’s adventure is remarkable – though quite how many kids will enjoy little boy Hugo’s hands on education in early cinema is nevertheless debatable. Based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story of Hugo is, at its core, the story of George Melies’ career, rendered through the eyes of a young orphan attempting to find his place in the world. Hugo (Asa Butterfield), protégé of his clockmaker father, wanders the inner corridors of a Paris railway station, keeping the clocks running so that the world of the station might continue to exist as it should be. Each day, Hugo makes sure to spy on the station’s regulars, seeing them endeavour about their little coordinated lives whilst he must remain an outsider, hoping for answers and purpose in the mending of a broken automaton his father (Jude Law) discovered shortly before his death. He attempts to fix the clockwork robot by pilfering wind-up toys from the stall of one Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), a quiet old man whose history quickly becomes bound up with that of Hugo through the mystery of the robot and its connection to Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz).

Whilst this plot ensures we care for Hugo, and in turn Papa Georges, it makes no attempts to hide its meta-fictional purposes, functioning as a springboard instead for a smorgasbord of silent cinema delights. Whilst the world of Georges Melies quickly takes centre stage, through growing references to Le Voyage dans la Lune and other works by the director, Scorsese makes sure to pay tribute to all and sundry, from the Lumiere Brothers, past Edwin S. Porter all the way to Fritz Lang. Some of these references are overt, with extracts from films frequently finding their way into the story. Others, such as a rather fantastic homage to Metropolis when Isabelle struggles to keep up with Hugo in the station, are less so. This is a cinephile’s film, make no mistake, elevated into something broader through its sincere appraisal of man’s ability to make lofty dreams a reality through the most mundane of materials. Whilst film lovers might appreciate the attention to detail, the real joy perhaps comes from this overarching theme of the spectator seeing the magic in the machinery.

Perhaps the only true blot on the film is the somewhat incongruous presence of semi-antagonist Inspector Gustav, an obsessive orphan catcher who seems to exist solely to provide the film with some dramatic tension when the climax requires it. Baron Cohen, however, works gamely with the material, adding to a cast that is always strong – Moretz and Kingsley are on usual form, and Butterfield reveals that his recent casting as Ender Wiggin for the Ender’s Game adaptation is an assured one.

 Hugo is a singular film, standing apart from other tributes to early cinema such as La Antena and the more recent The Artist by avoiding outright pastiche, instead weaving its tribute through a family film that blooms into outright admiration in time for its final encore. It’s a sincere, joyous dialogue on the power of art that reminds us why we love going to the movies. So go.


Friday, 2 December 2011

A Little Piece of Cherry Pie

by George Bate

Although there are four members in The Jezabels, at least fifty percent of the audience here are only interested in one. Lead singer Hayley Mary, clad tonight all in black with tight torn leather trousers and a curious vest and arm warmers combination, is fast garnering a reputation as one of indie rock’s most talked-about front women. Somehow a little dorky, but keenly aware of her burgeoning status as an alternative sex symbol, she cuts an intriguing figure tonight as she prowls sultrily across the stage.

The set begins with the looming title track from their recent debut album, The Prisoner, a doom-laden slow-burner that clearly aims for larger venues than The Jezabels are playing to tonight and reached number two in their native Australia. There is a minimum of crowd banter from the band, but they are clearly eager to please, playing all the fan favourites, and come across endearingly, apparently thrilled to be playing to such a large crowd in London.

Whilst it’s clearly that Hayley Mary is the centre of attention, not to mention the rest of the group would be to do them a disservice, as they are far from workmanlike. Guitarist Sam Lockwood’s brooding whirl of sound, with the help of Heather Shannon’s keyboards, fills the space without the need for a bassist. It’s clear, however that the most musically talented is drummer Nik Kaloper who plays with a virtuosity that suggests a grounding in jazz or (more likely) technical metal.

Mid-set, the audience explodes in to cheers and applause at the opening notes of “A Little Piece”, the song that more than any other has propelled The Jezabels to stardom, after being featured in a video by UK bicycle trials star Danny Macaskill. It’s this song that conveys best what the band are about – soaring melodies and catchy hooks but with a tinge of sadness or desire for some feeling that has passed. This is a band that reaches for the heartstrings, both with the music and Hayley Mary’s simmering performance. Catch them in such small venues while you can folks, because they’re not going to be playing them for long.