Saturday, 22 December 2012

Aural Ecstacy: The Best Albums of 2012

Unlike last year, for 2012 we have decided to publish our list of our favourite albums of 2012 on time and (hopefully) while it is still relevant. The key change (haha) this year seems to have been the movement away from the traditional indie/rock band with only one or two choices in this vein making the cut. We decided not to rank our albums from 10 to 1. After all, we might change our minds next week.

An Awesome Wave, Alt-J

There have been a plethora of comment pieces this year lamenting the death of guitar music, but the Mercury Music Prize still went to an album that was played predominantly on guitars. However, this was no run of the mill indie album, incorporating influences from hip-hop and electronic music. Think of the guitar albums that have made a cultural impact this year. The list runs about as far as Alt-J and The XX, both artists operating outside of the indie norm. Guitar music as we know it IS dead on its arse.
But who cares when records like this and the others on this list are being made? What made Alt-J’s album unusual was also what made it excellent; Joe Newman’s hushed voice (at turns creepy and beautiful), Thom Green’s complex drumming, the baroque interludes, and the sporadic sampling.
Cambridge based having met at Leeds University, the band have spent nearly five years working on this record, and it shows. Every aspect is completely and utterly honed. Music aside, the cryptic but comprehensive lyrics and the brilliantly subversive video for Breezeblocks display the complete package.
Having spent so long working on their debut, and with the weight of expectation now upon them, it will be interesting to see whether Alt-J take the same route as The XX; a refinement of their debut, or something new entirely?
George Bate

Channel Orange, Frank Ocean

This man might as well have been designed as the anti-Chris Brown. In place of the tedious machismo and vacuous chart-clogging dreck, Ocean gifted us with vulnerability and genuine personality. When he opens up (if somewhat obliquely) on 'Bad Religion' about his own awakening bisexuality, a topic far more controversial in African-American music than it ought to be, it's like a blast of purifying air through a genre that has often stunk more of masculine braggadocio than a boys' locker room. 
  Channel Orange is initially loveable for its guileless eccentricity, opening for no apparent reason with the sound of somebody firing up a Playstation, and daring to explore a parallel between modern-day strippers and Egyptian queens in what is surely the most tenuous yet unexpectedly effective metaphor-as-song of the year, 'Pyramids'.  
  It's finally memorable for its wonderful songwriting, with highlights like 'Super Rich Kids' and 'Lost' suggesting that any Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye comparisons might not have been entirely premature. These are tunes made for the bedroom and the beach party. By transforming growing pains and adult anxieties into the soundtrack for life at its most purely joyous, Ocean has crafted a triumphant debut LP.
Nick Pierce

Devotion, Jessie Ware

The collaborative effort between Jessie Ware and Katy B, released quietly onto the web last week, came as no surprise; in 2011 Katy B bought pop to UK bass music, now Jessie Ware brings UK bass music to pop.
Having abandoned a promising journalism post with the Jewish chronicle, Ware began her music career on tracks by electro-bass merchants like SBTRKT before taking a step toward pop stardom with this, her long playing debut. The soulful pop route is a path well trodden, to great success in recent years by Adele et al, but Ware kept things original by collaborating with house producer Julio Bashmore and some of the writing team behind Florence Welch, all the while retaining her bass-heavy influences.
Whilst the writing and production were impeccable, the real ace in the deck here was Ware’s voice, which she manages to showcase without ever resorting to overblown histrionics. Ware has shown modesty and class with this restraint, and this serves to increase the impact when she does allow her voice to soar.
Ware displays modesty when interviewed too, “I’m just having fun trying to pretend I’m a pop star”, she says. Quite.
George Bate

Diver, Lemonade

I can’t decide whether Lemonade’s Diver is the trendiest album this year or the most unfashionable. An album of house-infused synthpop from three Brooklynites, Diver goes equally for the head and the heart, and is equally at home on the dancefloor or your headphones.
Driven throughout by four-to-the-floor kick drum and ecstatic synths, the influence of MDMA and other uppers is clearly in force here; it is apt that one of the band’s previous releases was called “Big Weekend”. That’s not to say that the whole theme here is hedonism however, Callan Clendenin’s lyrics often display a tender touch, as on 'Softkiss' where he sings “When it’s cold do you still wear my coat?” It’s the kind of bittersweet detail that really grabs you.
The album carries with it a feeling of yearning, which is at once gorgeous and sad. It has a sugary sweetness, far from cheesy, that will have the listener coming back for one more hit again and again.
George Bate

Instrumental Mixtape 2, Clams Casino

Whilst nominally a mixtape, this second collection showcasing the production work of Clams Casino (real name Michael Volpe) in fact manages so much more. It is telling that many reviews of the rap albums which utilised these beats often praise the rappers where the backed off and stayed silent, allowing the beat to “breathe”. But these tracks were much more than high quality rap beats. They actually functioned as songs in their own right and combined to make an album consistent, but not repetitive, album proper.
Clam’s secret in turning his beats into songs is his method of vocal sampling; he manipulates samples in such a way that syllables remain intact, but so that words become unintelligible. In this way they remain unobtrusive as rap beats but still retain the level of feeling of more conventional vocals and a cohesive (almost verse-chorus-verse) structure.
The production is murky, but never sloppy, and they create a feeling poignant and yearning but non-specific. This has been a rarity in rap music until recently, where any display of emotion was taken as a sign of weakness. One of Clam’s main customers, A$AP Rocky alluded to this when he described Clam’s beats as “ambient” but “hard”.
Clams could quite easily have become a professional producers and make stacks of money on the strength of what is here. Instead he has committed to continuing his training as a physical therapist. Let’s hope the working life doesn’t stop him from making beats.
George Bate

Lonerism, Tame Impala

Tame Impala are one of those bands who effectively allow you to imagine that you're living through that sepia-hued utopia of late 60s, early 70s psychedelia that you secretly envy your father having experienced enough of at first-hand to flagrantly embellish.
  What you want is exactly what you get: extended, blissful jams and glam-rock stompers about how nobody understands and who gives a damn anyway, delivered with the sort of 21st century studio expertise that makes it all sound better than the originals ever could, except in your dreams. Heavenly. If you're gonna buy it, you'll want it on vinyl. 
Nick Pierce

The Money Store, Death Grips

If punk is dead, then Death Grips mark its return as a leering zombie. Lobotomized, perhaps, but still possessed of enough antic energy to munch on flesh. Their noise actually sounds as if it is decomposing, samples and hooks regularly falling away to expose the bare bones underneath: Zach Hill's pounding drums and Stefan Burnett, resident vocalist and nutter, berating and howling like a poltergeist locked in the closet. Each track carries the reek of horrible death and dirty sex, and so it exerts an irresistible allure.
But these punk rockers aren't content to lurk down some dark alley; they want to get in the club. On such almost dancefloor-friendly bangers as 'I've Seen Footage' and 'Hacker', they manage it. And lord help the bouncer who tries to chuck them out.
Nick Pierce

The Seer, Swans

Chief shaman of post-rock pioneers Swans, Michael Gira, has described the outfit's double-album opus as a record thirty years in the making. But when you listen to it, far from merely evoking several decades of innovations in rock music, it sounds like aeons of prehistoric time have been condensed into 120 minutes of unstoppable, immoveable sound.
Every track is a standout. The monolithic intensity of 'Mother of the World' and 'Apostate', with their spectral electronics and berserk guitars, put Phil Spector's own wall of sound to shame. 'A Piece Of The Sky' shifts tectonically from crackling fires to ghostly choir to propulsive rock'n'roll to tender ballad.
Taken altogether, The Seer's scope and uncompromising vision is simply breathtaking. It's a 2001 Space Odyssey or Altered States for your speakers: ascending from the quotidian struggles that usually preoccupy popular music, beyond good and evil, to the edge of sanity and the brink of epiphany. And by god does it rock.
Nick Pierce

Until The Quiet Comes, Flying Lotus

Music producer du jour Steven Ellison's follow-up to his much-acclaimed Cosmogramma LP might not be as compulsive, accessible or immediate, but it's damn near as beautiful. Indeed, this time out Ellison is less interested in sailing to new sonic horizons than he is in luxuriating in those exotic waters he's already discovered. Until The Quiet Comes is the same heady blend of free jazz, electronica and soul, only even more effervescent and nebulous than before. It's a cocktail for the ears and liable to get you just as light-headed.
Nick Pierce

Visions, Grimes

On the face of it Visions should not be a good record. Created in the space of three weeks by a Canadian pixie-goth whose interviews could quite easily read as those of a narcissistic concept artist (on video she comes across much nicer), and who once attempted a journey down the Mississippi river on a house boat, on a self imposed mixture of amphetamines, fasting and isolation, Visions should have been heavier on pretence than substance.
Fortunately what we got is an astonishing record which straddles the emotional and conceptual with poise, and perfectly encapsulates the state of music in the “post-internet” (a term coined by Grimes herself) age. Drawing from a wide range of influences, made accessible by the vast archive of the web, Visions displays a clear lineage from many areas of popular (and not so popular) music, whilst managing to be an entirely original creation. Amongst the sounds that could e heard on this most post-modern of records were the shuffling techno of Autechre, the ethereal magic of Cocteau Twins, and the sheer joy of earl Witney.
Following such a sidestep in her musical style (Grimes’ previous two albums were bizarro efforts in spooky minimalism, with a sonic palette drawn mainly from Eastern and African music) it will be interesting to see where Claire Boucher goes next, having claimed to have moved on entirely from the kind of music she was making with Visions.
George Bate

Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Fine Year: Film in 2012

Another year draws to a close, and so we find ourselves looking back on the past twelve months of cinema and the highlights therein. Unlike last year’s list, we find ourselves more divided in our choices, with Nick favouring a number of European pieces in lieu of Tom’s giddiness over genre works.

Nick’s choices

10. Faust Dir. Alexander Sokurov

Alexander Sokurov is a tricky one to get to grips with. Mother and Son is sublime and one of the greatest films ever made, but Russian Ark is the very definition of self-indulgent tedium. Faust, his eccentric retelling of the age-old myth as filtered through Mann and Goethe, doesn't particularly resemble either, and falls somewhere in the middle of those two poles of quality. Nevertheless, it's an often enchanting Germanic fantasia, and its freewheeling structure interweaved with moments of grimy magic is reminiscent of vintage Terry Gilliam. 

9. The Kid With A Bike Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Depending on how charitable one is feeling, the Dardenne brothers' Kid With A Bike is either a companion piece to their earlier unflinching studies of lonely, clumsy souls, The Kid and The Son, or the re-treading of old ground. Whilst they might have tilled this creative soil to the brink of exhaustion, it's still capable of yielding subtle riches.
As always in their films, the camera treats its subject like a specimen under a microscope, rarely shifting from their perspective, keeping them always in the centre of the frame as they cannonball through life causing pain to others and themselves. This time around, twelve-year-old Cyril is the eye of the storm. Abandoned by his irresponsible father, he is eventually taken in by a compassionate hairdresser willing to offer the boy a love that he comes to resent. The Kid With A Bike is like a rose in the desert: so tiny and delicate it might blow away in an instant, yet beautiful and imbued with a great deal of life.

8. Martha Marcy May Marlene Dir. Sean Durkin

This year was bookended by two compelling dissections of the American cult from PT Anderson and newcomer Sean Durkin. The more conventional Martha Marcy May Marlene was still a supremely impressive debut for the writer-director. Elizabeth Olsen was revelatory as the headstrong yet impressionable Martha, struggling to cope with the trauma of her time as a member of a sinister backwoods community when she is reunited with her unsympathetic family. In its willingness to plumb a bruised underbelly of Stateside life, and offer few concessions to audience comfort, it evoked the glory days of New Hollywood without becoming derivative.

7. The Dark Knight Rises Dir. Christopher Nolan

To paraphrase The Clown Prince of Crime, Christopher Nolan has changed things...forever, and we all know there's no going back. If any more proof were needed of the Brit dynamo's game-changing impact on blockbuster entertainment, then look at this year's Skyfall: The broken hero struggling to live up to his legend, the narrative deconstruction of an icon, the mirror-image villain - all lovingly ripped off from Nolan's superior Batman movies. And whilst The Dark Knight Rises doesn't quite equal its near-perfect predecessor, it silences the naysayers who doubted its director's talents. His genius is to make the spectacle and the action set-pieces integral to the plot, and to offer punters ideas nestled unobtrusively amongst the explosions. Although this might sound more like common sense than genius, it's been out of fashion for so long in Hollywood (since The Matrix, to be exact) that they might as well be the same thing.

6. Amour Dir. Michael Haneke

I'm not entirely convinced that Amour is on a par with Michael Haneke's two previous masterworks, Hidden and The White Ribbon, but it's difficult to find fault with a drama that can hold its own in their lofty company. Looked at in the context of Haneke's career, it's difficult to argue that he's not the greatest living European director.
  It's certainly a timely story, the much-applauded Austrian auteur pointing his unflinching camera at elderly couple, Georges and Annes, as they cope with the sudden onslaught of debilitating illness, at a time when the world is faced with the crisis of an ageing population. Unsurprisingly, death itself is effectively the third character in this chamber piece, its majesty and horror evoked with a moving but unsentimental power comparable to that of Bergman's Cries and Whispers.
  The story is confined almost exclusively to the retired music teachers' Parisian apartment, its shelves lined with literature and classical music. Although the apartment begins as a home, it becomes a cavernous and inhospitable warzone, and finally a fortress in which Georges inters himself, its collection of art all but forgotten. Haneke appears to be raising the question of culture's ultimate significance in our lives and that of our world, when death and destruction wreak utter ruin.

5. The Turin Horse Dir. Béla Tarr

Seemingly determined to establish his position as the Beckett of film ( as distinct from the Beckett of Film...which would be Beckett) beyond all reasonable doubt, Béla Tarr gave us what is ostensibly his swan-song: The Turin Horse. Its relentless documentation of a father and daughter undergoing the daily drudgery and hardship of life in an increasingly apocalyptic European wasteland is a lot like Endgame, but without the laffs: a depiction of the unavoidable entropy and meaninglessness of existence that is genuinely disturbing yet highly thrilling in a way that few straight horror movies can match.  On a purely visceral level, this is the most memorable (or scarring) film of the year. It's also really beautifully shot and demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. But perhaps only once...

4. Sightseers Dir. Ben Wheatley

Easily the best British film I've seen in a somewhat lacklustre year for homegrown talent, Ben Wheatley's third feature Sightseers was often sharp and funny, but also much sadder than the misleading advertising campaign might have led one to expect. The plot might be a re-run of Badlands transplanted to the English countryside, but this is no embarrassing Anglo attempt at emulating American cool. Instead, the creators poke fun at England's relationship to its own heritage, painting modern-day Brits as clueless children confounded by their nation's past and mystical landscape, but affecting a pompous reverence of it. In the character of Tina, the horror-comedy sub-genre has also found a genuinely strong female icon, who's at least as ballsy, ruthless and bonkers as the boys.

3. Holy Motors Dir. Leos Carax

If you only see one nutso art-house oddity released this year, make it Holy Motors. Errant hell-raiser Leos Carax's return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade's absence was certainly the most original prospect this year. It's an episodic look at a day in the life of the mysterious Mr Oscar, played with irrepressible dynamism by Denis Lavant, as he is ferried around in a white limo to impersonate a rogue's gallery of characters in scenarios that appear to exist somewhere between reality and fiction.
  Carax has stated that the idea was to depict life in the post-internet age and the film succeeds better than any more literal-minded attempts: just as in the virtual world, there might not be anything immediately at stake for Oscar's body, but we feel that the soul of this everyman, like ours, is caught in a profound and as yet uncharted transformation. And in the lead role, the inimitable Lavant once again shows himself to be a one-man circus: alternately clown, acrobat, lion and chimpanzee.   

2. The Master Dir. PT Anderson

The Master is appointed saviour of American cinema Paul Thomas Anderson's first film in five years. His response to the ridiculous weight of expectation cinephiles the world over have loaded onto his shoulders? To shrug it off with an unexpected and brilliant sidestep. His typically distinctive vision of drifter Freddie Quell's brief and bizarre encounter with a snake-oil California spiritualist was several galaxies removed from the filmmaker's early, Altman-esque marvels and streets ahead of his peers. It resembled something that amateur brewer Quell might've concocted in his booze shed if he'd mixed equal parts Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood: a psychotic love story locked in a haunted monument of 20th century American history. There is greatness here: startling, mesmerising, frustrating, funny, and more, it defies categorisation or easy opinions.

1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

If there's one picture this year I feel confident in calling an outright masterpiece, it's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. Turkish photographer-turned-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has long been a darling of the festival circuit with bold and intentionally 'difficult' explorations of the human condition like Distant and Climates, but his latest - and longest - effort ascends to a different class of filmmaking altogether.
  It is ostensibly the real-time tracking of 24 hours in a murder investigation, as a group of policemen, prosecutors, doctors, and suspects search the Anatolian hills for the body of the victim. It's actually a forensic examination of how men interact when alone, and there are echoes of (a mellower) Tarantino in the way that Ceylan allows the plot to drift into the background to focus on his characters as they bicker, bond and break down. Strikingly, the narrative shifts from one member of the party to another, never permitting our sympathies and our prejudices to settle, so that the protagonist effectively becomes Man himself.
  If all this sounds a little portentous, it's not. The tone is leavened, like all of Ceylan's work, with moments of bone-dry humour, such as when Prosecutor Nusret scolds the police chief for roughing up one of their suspects because he thinks it will affect his country's standing in the eyes of the European union.
1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
2. The Master
3. Holy Motors
4. Sightseers
5. The Turin Horse
6. Amour
7. The Dark Knight Rises
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene
9. The Kid With A Bike
10. Faust

Honourable mentions: Shame, Berberian Sound Studio, Killing Them Softly, The Raid, Nostalgia for the Light, Warhorse, Skyfall, Looper

Tom’s choices

10. Rampart dir. Oren Moverman

Whilst James Ellroy may have cut his chops playing with (to great success) the genre conventions of classic noir storytelling, Rampart sees the writer’s LA of the 1940s morph and decay into a sticky, sun-drenched apocalypse that at once evokes and condemns that now similarly iconic City of (Fallen) Angels circa 1994. Using the infamous Rampart scandal as its jumping off point, Ellroy and Moverman’s critique of the LAPD focuses upon the suicidal swagger of Office Dave Brown. A would-be rockstar and successful bigot, Brown is played with aplomb by Woody Harrelson, a man too busy sleeping, snorting and beating up the excess of the 90s to really care about the political honey trap he finds himself in after being filmed thrashing someone to near death in broad daylight. Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube feature as the figures bearing down upon Brown’s insanity, but this is really a one man show – we’re all just along for the ride.

9. Beyond the Black Rainbow dir. Panos Cosmatos

Arguably the most stylish of this year’s releases, Cosmatos’ debut release constantly threatens to throw itself beyond pastiche into the territory of self-parody. Incredibly earnest and totally humourless, Beyond the Black Rainbow – to my mind – successfully manages to stay on the right side of the line throughout its duration, offering up a slice of psychotropic sci-fi nitro-injected with the paranoia of 80s genre cinema. Whilst not the only film to pay homage to the days of late night cinema and VHS obscurities this year (see below), Beyond the Black Rainbow is certainly the most stirring – acting more as a mood piece than a straight narrative. Cosmatos’ love of cross-fades and saturated colours lends the film a quality almost as hypnotic as the supposed joys of the ‘Arboria Institute’ in which much of the action takes place. And Michael Rogers surely wins the award for showing just how many variations on a sour face one man can evoke.

8. Dredd dir. Pete Travis

However, king of the genre features this year is without a doubt Dredd. Whilst Looper may have offered a smart, neo-noir sci-fi in its first half, the film most definitely lagged later on, its dense pack of ideas spiralling out and fizzing away to almost nothing by the final scene. In contrast, Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s attempt to bring the law of Mega City One to the big screen kisses exposition goodbye, whilst still offering something infinitely more intelligent and true to its origins than the atrocious Stallone vehicle of old. Opting to present only enough details of its world to allow its 80 minute apartment block raid (ahem) to kick off in earnest, this is a filthy, hyper-violent little monster with a wickedly dry sense of humour to boot. Urban’s Dredd is the grunting fascist the character was always meant to be, but it’s Olivia Thirby’s take on PSI Division’s Judge Anderson that stands out. And, despite what those awful trailers might suggest, the ‘Slow-Mo’ scenes are a sensual feast.

7.21 Jump Street dirs. Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Far too often, comedy movies are left at the bottom of the pile in End of Year lists, despite the apparent love critics slather them with upon release. To wilfully ignore the hilarity and snarky intelligence of 21 Jump Street however, would be a crime – this is easily the funniest film released all year. Poking fun at both the current trend for unnecessary franchise reboots, and the stupidity of many recent teen movies, Lord and Miller’s comedy is arguably the first successful buddy cop movie of the post-Apatow generation, with the dynamic between Hill and Tatum (who woulda thunk it?) being a joy to behold. Too bad Michael Bacall’s other script this year (Project X) was the most cynical, audience-reviling shit of 2012. Swings and roundabouts!

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene dir. Sean Durkin

If cinema is any sort of indicator of geo-social truths, then the American South is still the lawless land of devils and self-interested free agents that it was so often painted as in the Bad Old West. The mystery and unease conjured by its landscape continues to capture the imaginations of up-and-coming American directors, and Durkin’s debut is no exception. John Hawkes’ is electric as the leader of a cult hidden away in the Catskill Mountains, the grotesqueness of his small, sinewy frame darkly at odds to the wells of charisma and violence that swim inside. Elizabeth Olsen, meanwhile, makes sure that her entrance onto the silver screen stands as far apart from the values of her sisters’ media empire as possible, throwing herself into a role that calls for tragic confusion and a frustrated sense of utter isolation – regardless of the community she finds herself in.

5. Ruby Sparks dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s unfortunate that Zoe Kazan’s highly perceptive study of idealisation and control in relationships was so aggressively marketed as the quirky successor to its directors’ previous effort, Little Miss Sunshine. For there is little that is particularly twee in Ruby Sparks, despite the quaint premise upon which the story is built. Paul Dano stars as a struggling young novelist who is still living off the phenomenal success of his debut work. When his latest fictional muse, Ruby, suddenly appears in his house, it’s all Pygmalion and wish-fulfilment – until facets of Ruby’s character unaccounted for by the circumscribed nature of Dano’s fiction begin to come forth. Kazan’s script is surprisingly poignant, at times heart-breaking, exploring the needs for certainty and control we all fall into when in love, and how difficult it is to accept the fundamental disconnect with those we want to feel closest to.

4. Holy Motors dir. Leos Carax

Denis Lavant is whatever you want him to be, whether he has any real say in the matter or not. Carax’s latest feature is a troubled ode to the means and history of cinema, featuring as many nods to Carax’s work and beyond as it does roles for Lavant’s Mr. Oscar to utterly lose himself in. In the world of Holy Motors, acting isn’t so much a role as a societal function, as cinema and reality seem to awkwardly exist side by side, with the rules of the universe shifting as the unseen director best requires. The result forces us to consider the ease with which audiences are manipulated and ensnared by what they are shown on screen, the ultimate insincerity of film, and the increasingly dilutive effect post-modernism has on our appreciation of media.

3. Shame dir. Steve McQueen

McQueen’s latest team-up with Michael Fassbender presented a nihilistic New York that didn’t allow for positivity or healthy emotional relationships – only for conscious acts of hurt to one another, be it through sexual or emotional violence. Whilst the film ostensibly focuses on Fassbender’s Sullivan and his sexual addiction, beyond this lies a bleak portrait of modern life. As Sullivan passes through immaculate hotels, bars and restaurants, the need to consume is apparent throughout. With a camera that dispassionately captures sex at its most reductive, Shame is an emotional endurance test that will leave you numb.

2. The Master dir. PT Anderson

Passing by like a dream, at times feverish and distressed, at others euphoric, PT Anderson’s take on a-group-not-unlike-Scientology is so much more than just a case study of a cult’s origins – if indeed it is that at all. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman mesmerize as two men trapped within their own personal obsessions, drawn to the respective sense of freedom they sense within one another. Anderson offers no simple answers to the questions asked throughout, as Freddie Quell’s experiences with ‘The Cause’ impact / fail to impact upon his own character. Malaimare, Jr.’s cinematography is a delight, whilst Anderson leaves his indelible mark even as the film offers a far more languorous journey than that of his earlier works.

  1. The Dark Knight Rises dir. Christopher Nolan
 Every chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy has been its own beast; Batman Begins was the definitive Superhero origin feature, The Dark Knight was one of the best crime films of the past decade, and The Dark Knight Rises claims that title of Epic Blockbuster the much-overrated Inception first dallied with. Arguably the ‘truest’ Batman feature yet brought to the silver screen (despite the surprising absence of its titular character for much of the running time), Nolan’s finale is a sweeping ensemble drama that offers a damn fine action movie whilst satisfyingly concluding the more intelligent ideas that his prior entries had gently seeded in under the scenes of vigilante justice. If we go to the cinema to be transported, then The Dark Knight Rises was the greatest escape of 2012.

  1. The Dark Knight Rises
  2. The Master
  3. Shame
  4. Holy Motors
  5. Ruby Sparks
  6. Martha Marcy May Marlene
  7. 21 Jump Street
  8. Dredd
  9. Beyond the Black Rainbow
  10. Rampart

Honourable mentions: The Muppets, Cabin in the Woods, Looper, Shadow Dancer, The Artist

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The War on Britain's Roads: Some Rough Thoughts

                There is a war happening on Britain’s roads. A war between cyclists and car drivers. So a documentary aired earlier this week by the BBC would have you think.
The documentary, commissioned off the back of the recent sporting success of Team GB cyclists and the subsequent boom of commuter and amateur riders, is quick to illustrate the conflict sometimes seen between different types of UK road users, but makes no attempts at finding solutions to any of the problems shown in the programme. Quick to point fingers in both directions, the documentary presents issues in a black and white “us or them” manner, attempting to lay blame squarely at the feet of one or other party on each particular issue and then quickly moving on. As such it was a cynical attempt at garnering higher viewing figures solely by courting controversy. The prevalence in the film of clips filmed in London was a clear indicator of this; conditions here are bound to be the most fraught of those anywhere in the UK. But of course, without conflict there would be no documentary, no narrative for the producers to form.
Clearly attempts were made by the documentary makers to appear partisan, though this was mere lip service; equal screen time was given to both cyclists and road users. Here is the thing, I genuinely don’t believe that this is an issue where being partisan is at all appropriate. To me the clear and logical choice is that the bicycle is the best mode of transport in our increasingly metropolitan world, and the responsible decision in every possible way. I don’t feel as if I should need to make the environmental or health cases for the bicycle here, as they are both completely self evident.
There are a number of things, however, that I feel non-cyclists would benefit from having explained to them. The most important among these is regarding “commanding the road”. Multiple times in the documentary we heard reference made to this practice, but what is it? Essentially, “commanding the road” involves riding further from the left hand gutter than a cyclist would usually be expected to. This is a tactic taught in cycling proficiency courses (which are available free in most areas by the way) and the benefits are two-fold. Firstly, it prevents other road users from attempting dangerous overtaking maneuvers by simply not giving them the room to do so. The highway code recommends a MINIMUM gap of 1.5m when overtaking a cyclist, but too often we are squeezed outwards with merely inches to spare. “Commanding the road” helps prevent this. Secondly, it ensures that any overtaking maneuvers that are attempted are more safe. The practice forces road users to take their vehicle in an arc around the cyclist, affording them more room. The key thing here is for other road users to consider cyclists as people – mothers, fathers, husbands, wives – not mere obstacles to be overtaken in the shortest possible time.
One of the longer sections of the documentary portrayed a conflict between a cabbie and a cyclist who had struck the driver’s cab with his fist as the vehicle had moved over towards him. In the course of the conflict the cyclist did, quite frankly, come over as a bit of a bell-end. He was, however, entirely in the right. When I am using the road on my bicycle safety is my primary concern. This is not a form of aggression – why would I display aggression for its own sake when I am clearly the more vulnerable road user? Any overt aggression shown in the documentary was on the part of those in motor vehicles.  The situation is this: if I feel as if you are putting me in danger with your vehicle or are not aware of your proximity to me I will strike your vehicle to warn you. I do not care if this vehicle is your property – it is my person that you are putting in danger. I would much rather do this and potentially face an angry motorist than run the risk of being mown down by your vehicle.
It is obvious that car drivers may not be very happy with this situation when it occurs – and there is actually a parallel situation operating in the opposite direction – one of the very few point I would like to make on behalf of those in motor vehicles. This is regarding horn use. Unfortunately horn use on UK roads has become a sign of aggression, rather than its intended purpose as a warning to other road users. Cyclists have a tendency to get uppity whenever a horn is used, and we need to get out of this practice. Anyone who has ever ridden on the continent will tell you that a short use of the horn is used to warn cyclists of their presence, for mutual benefit. UK cyclists need to understand this better, just as drivers need to understand that long angry blasts of horn on a Sunday morning are not liable to make us ride in single file. It’s a Sunday morning, why on earth are you in such a rush?
This brings me to another point. Cyclists do not cause traffic. Cyclists are traffic. We are held up by congestion just as much as other vehicle users, and more cyclists can fit safely in a given unit of road space than passengers in motor vehicles. By all means let us know if you are behind us, with the aforementioned brief horn use. Most cyclists are reasonable people, and will move into single file if they know you are there. Long angry blasts of the horn though? Expect me to flip le bird at you, I certainly don’t see you in a single seater sports car.
When the situation described above does occur and conflict arises, one of the first things we usually hear is “I pay my road tax mate.” I would like to make this clear: nobody pays road tax. What you pay is Vehicle Excise Duty, and this does not go directly toward paying for roads. Highway maintenance is paid for out of general taxation, and as such this means that everyone has an equal right to the road (not that this was ever in doubt anyway). Tax technicalities aside, more than 90% of cyclists are car users anyway, and so pay just as much “road tax” as you do.
This brings me neatly to the idea of registration so often touted by the anti-cyclist brigade. This idea is ludicrous. We want to be encouraging cycling, not placing a barrier to it. I is often claimed that as cyclists do not have to pass a test, they are lacking in the skills necessary to use the roads. This can be achieved in other ways – encouraging cycling proficiency tests in schools, creating a culture where cycling is the norm and everyone learns from a young age. Prohibition is not the solution.
A minor point that I would like to make regards the skipping of red lights. Whilst I do not condone this practice, as I believe that the bad feeling created outweighs any benefits, there are instances where skipping red lights is actually the safer option. It is often said that more women are killed per mile cycled than men, as a result of men riding more assertively by skipping queues and removing themselves from traffic. Skipping red lights can be seen to form part of this. Ultimately, it should be considered that when a cyclist skips a red light, it is themselves that they are (potentially, given what I have said previously) putting at risk – cyclists have far more to lose from a collision than car drivers. This is the reason why cyclists are “never nicked” (as pondered in the documentary); and danger they pose is almost entirely to themselves, and not other road users.
The fact is that the more of us there are, the safer we are. “Ghost bikes” and “critical mass” protests are other ways we can increase visibility, not just sentimentality and fun respectively. The more people who have friends or relatives as cyclists, the more consideration we are likely to receive. Hence any reduction in numbers is not only a sad thing, it is also a dangerous thing. Another criticism I have is that finishing with a segment about irresponsible riders organising races through cities can have done little to garner sympathy for us. This left a sour taste in the mouth
I can only hope that this documentary does not create a dent in the numbers of riders now seen on Britain’s roads, and the attempts made in advertising by companies such as Sky and Fiat to raise the profile of riders on our streets. A noticeable anecdotal increase in aggressive driving this previous weekend does not bode well. Ultimately the best thing about this documentary was the music (Boards of Canada, DJ Shadow and Explosions in the Sky for those interested).

Monday, 5 November 2012

Master at work - The Master Review

In his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde remarked that 'Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.' There are other American filmmakers who could be said to possess this accord with themselves: the Coen brothers, Tarantino. But the latter enfant terrible turned pop culture institution appears arguably to have been increasingly in thrall to a static (some might say sterile) and patented image of his work, producing variations on a schtick that has its origins in the earliest days of his career.

PT Anderson, on the other hand, shows with his latest release, The Master, that he is committed purely to his own vision, and has little interest in paying lip service to what others might expect of him. If nothing else, and for good or ill, The Master is a movie by a filmmaker who is truly liberated, unlike the characters who form its subject.

Certainly there has been a great deal of diversity in critical opinion of the picture, with revered figures such as Roger Ebert and David Thomson proving baffled and bemused by the film's restlessness and unresolved structure. It has been called muddled and confused, but I would be more inclined to agree with those who think of it as an example of authentically exploratory filmmaking. One gets the sense when watching it that Anderson shot enormous swathes of footage and found the film he wanted to make during the shooting and in the cutting room.

In spirit, it's far closer to European cinema than anything in the USA, and certainly anything in Anderson's back catalogue. Its habit of dwelling upon the spaces between significant events, often omitting the events at all, is straight out of Antonioni - only coupled with Anderson's endless fascination with American archetypes.

If there's one major influence on PT Anderson's The Master that has so far passed largely unobserved, it is that of American literary giant Thomas Pynchon. Anderson, no stranger to using classics from the American corpus as raw material for his own singular imagination, has previously stated that he is adapting the author's 2009 novel, Inherent Vice, but it appears that elements of his aesthetic have already filtered into the filmmaker's work.

The ghost of Pynchon is tangible in its period setting in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War and America's campaign in the South Pacific - the same period explored by Pynchon's magnum opus, Gravity's Rainbow.

The film begins with veteran Freddie Quell's fitful attempts to adapt to life in California after he is discharged from the Navy, before he experiences a chance encounter with the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, leader of a spiritual movement not dissimilar (ahem) to Scientology. After this, the pace of the movie slows and the picaresque narrative gives way to a nebulous character piece cum sociological survey as Freddie and Dodd embark upon a deeply enigmatic friendship.

Like in Pynchon's famous (and infamous) cornerstone of postmodernism, the post-war USA of The Master is depicted as a metaphysical, specifically ontological rabbit hole, torn open by the psychological trauma of the returning soldiers, where the future of the American individual, the American dream and the American soul are perilously up for grabs.

Time itself appears to have been fragmented in these texts: Pynchon jumps from days of war to peacetime in disorienting fashion; Freddie, despite his seemingly careless and unencumbered forward momentum, is actually preoccupied with a pre-war romance that he regrets fleeing from, and we as the audience are continually presented, via fleeting, Malick-like interludes, with incidents from his past.

Dodd, for all his hokey bluster and pseudo-psychology, hits the nail on the head when he defends his movement's practice of attempting to access followers' past lives by saying that even if one cannot see what is around the bend in the river that one has already passed, that does not mean it has ceased to exist. The world according to The Master is one where time, memory, and the ever-present past, are both the keys to our prison and the means of our redemption from it.

Dodd, with his obsessive attention to the past, hammering away at Freddie during their 'Processing' sessions with questions about his personal history, comes to represent the tyranny of memory. He re-awakens Freddie to himself, to who he has been and who he can be, and thereby bestows upon him a much-needed identity: that of the soul-searcher and the (temporarily) willing patient. But eventually Freddie outstrips Dodd again and strikes out into an unknown, ostensibly liberated future.

The scene where Freddie escapes on Dodd's motorbike, speeding away into the heat haze of a desert landscape is rife with contradictions that enrich this key theme: The landscape itself, redolent of the mythology of the Old West and the new frontier where America dreamt that a man was free to forge his own future, is undercut by the fact that - as we soon realise - Quell is actually heading back into his past, returning to the home of the wartime sweetheart he abandoned nearly a decade previously. It's also surely symbolic that the vehicle Quell uses to stage his escape actually belongs to his psychological captor, Dodd. If Quell has extricated himself from his past, which is not at all certain, it is only because Dodd has forcibly immersed him in it.

For a film so concerned with time, it is apposite that Anderson seems to have edited the picture with the screening room of memory in mind. Like The Tree of Life, it is a film of elliptical, discrete moments, rather than of a fully intelligible narrative. And its puzzle-box structure is arguably only really understood or felt hours after one has experienced it, as one combines disparate moments from its length in a quest for patterns and meaning.

One pattern that springs to my mind 48 hours after originally seeing it is that of men wrestling, an image recurring throughout. There's the boisterous rough-and-tumble of a group of seamen on a beach in the South Pacific, Quell's violent and comical shoving-match with a disgruntled customer in the department store where he finds himself briefly employed, and his playful, affectionate roll in the grass with Dodd upon their reunion after a brief spell in police custody. At least two of these instances can be construed as partly homoerotic, particularly in light of the fact that - as recognised elsewhere and confirmed by Anderson - Quell and Dodd's relationship is on one level that of a love affair. Very unusually for American cinema, where male interaction rarely strays from implicit affirmation of that which is hetero-normative, in The Master Anderson subtly explores how the violence of male expression might conceal or displace other suppressed desires. As in the auteur's similarly unclassifiable Punch-Drunk Love, he also sheds light on the liminal spaces where love and violence, happiness and madness can become difficult to distinguish.

It's intriguing that, given such a visceral depiction of male relationships, Anderson should keep women in the background as either an idealised form of innocent love or an image of sexual objectification: think of Dodd prancing about like a ridiculous satyr amongst an audience of naked acolytes, or the nymph the soldiers fashion out of sand, with her grotesquely proportioned breasts, before cheering raucously as Freddie humps it. Is Anderson saying that, in a society run by men where female sexuality is penned in by male desire, male sexuality consequently turns back upon itself? Tellingly, at least until the very end, no male character is able to consummate a sexual relationship with a woman.

As is emphasised by their explicitly physical confrontation, Quell and Dodd's encounters are often battles of personality, where each tries to gain the upper hand over the other in a manner that is successively sinister, adoring, outwardly hostile and nakedly flirtatious. If Quell is the raging Id and Dodd the Super-Ego, then one might ultimately say that The Master is about one soul, the American spirit of self-determination and self-destruction, in conversation and conflict with itself.

In an interview with the Spanish elder statesman of modern queer cinema, Pedro Almodóvar, Anderson shared his admiration for the way his interlocutor often fills his movies with many possible storylines that are left partially open and unresolved. It appears to have rubbed off: What you get, ultimately, with The Master is a movie that lays itself boldly, shamelessly, open to interpretation, and needs the participation of the viewer to illuminate its inner recesses.

It might be an easier film to admire than it is to love, but the same can probably be said for all great modern art - anything that is vital, complex, and new.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Spectrum MiniMix: Autumnal Shades

The leaves are fallin', it's getting darker, there's a chill entering the bones. What better time for Spectrum MiniMixes to make a return after a six month (wowzers) hiatus? This latest playlist is the soundtrack for your evening walks home in the wind and the rain, snug in your jacket with the collar raised. Some of the best new music spliced with a couple of fall classics make up a half hour of relaxing sounds rounded up by one seriously contagious Jessie Ware remix. Enjoy!

1. David Byrne & St. Vincent - 'Who'
2. Sufjan Stevens - 'The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts'
3. Kindness - 'Swingin Party'
4. Bat For Lashes - 'All Your Gold'
5. The Bird and the Bee - 'I Can't Go For That'
6. Grizzly Bear - 'Yet Again'
7. Jessie Ware - 'Night Light - Joe Goddard Remix'

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Ruby Sparks Review

Reading other reviews for Ruby Sparks, it’s surprising to see just how many critics have lazily applied the same cookie-cutter template to Zoe Kazan’s feature that the author and lead actress wishes to dismantle. Short-circuit terminology – “fantasy rom-com”, “off-kilter indie dramedy” and such like are thrown around readily in press releases and film section articles, threatening to paint this film as something it’s not. This whole process likely isn’t helped by the fact that Ruby Sparks was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the married pair behind that go-to “life-affirming” indie feature, Little Miss Sunshine. That whole mid-noughties, accessible quirk (oh god let me vomit) is there if you’re looking for it, but in doing so you’re really limiting the scope of what Ruby Sparks achieves. Influenced by the likes of Woody Allen and Charlie Kaufman, Ruby Sparks is less some whimsical romance than it is a study of both the power of art to circumscribe and reduce reality, and of in turn how often people attempt to write those close to them as something more befitting to their own needs.

 Ten years on from the novel that made him a literary phenomenon, 29 year old Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is struggling with long term writer’s block, and a resounding case of loneliness. Trading in on the success of that debut work, Calvin spends his days free of work with only the company of his dog Scotty and brother Harry (Chris Messina) giving any real colour to his routine. When his therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) suggests that, rather than try to write anything meaningful, Calvin simply write an account of someone who cherishes the insipid Scotty in spite of his faults, the young author dreams of one Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), a woman who quickly becomes both his muse and imaginary soul mate. When Ruby one day materialises in Calvin’s house, the author’s self indulgent fantasy becomes a reality. But Ruby’s burgeoning personality, once made real, soon begins to press against the limitations of Calvin’s writing.

 Kazan’s script, in allowing for Ruby’s character to evolve once given a greater playground to move within, offers a deconstruction of the Manic Dream Pixie Girl more comprehensive and “real” than that offered in Dano’s earlier feature Gigantic, where it remained ambiguous whether Deschanel’s character was to be read as a refutation of this trope or merely a more extreme spin upon it. The growth of Ruby, and how Calvin struggles with this and the power he holds in re-writing her limitations, is the real draw of this film, exploring as it does both the onanistic nature of writing and the friction caused in relationships when people work to be recognised as more than just an extension of the partner’s own consciousness. We do not place such constraints upon our friendships, so why do we obsess so much over the face our loves project to us and the world around us? In a sense, as much as Ruby Sparks is a celebration of the creative process, it is also a critique of just how destructive a role art can play in altering our expectations of simple, every-day life and its expansion beyond the condensed delight of a two-hour narrative.

 I was never a huge fan of Little Miss Sunshine, finding it unnecessarily off-beat and self-absorbed, criticisms which cannot be levelled against Ruby Sparks. Here, Dayton and Faris’ approach feels far more cinematic; their slightly bombastic touches gelling well with the fears of inadequacy and need for control stemming from Dano’s deftly handled characterisation of Calvin. Dano’s skills as a lead have certainly grown since Gigantic, and it’s extremely pleasing to see the actor tackle meatier material again after a spout of rather anaemic supporting roles. The chemistry and in turn tension between him and Kazan packs a strong punch for anyone who might think “I’ve been there,” amplified by Nick Urata’s rather fraught score. This is intelligent, emotional cinema that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty tackling the frustrations of relationships whilst still firmly positing the need to connect.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

'Looper' Review

In 2005, Rian Johnson’s debut feature Brick hit cinemas. Focusing on Joseph Gordon Levitt’s loner figure Brendan, it re-cast the teen high school drama as a pulpy detective story, using its noir themes as a catalyst for the intense feelings of isolation and angst that dog many a young teen. Like its peer, Donnie Darko, it’s revered as a fantastical genre feature yet is adored for its close familiarity to the feelings many of us tackle in our adolescence. Looper, Johnson’s second collaboration with JGL, might have similarly noirish trappings, but the resulting mood is decidedly different – where Brick settled steadily under your skin and sapped away at the marrow, Looper’s gritty landscape is offset by a glossy, even jocular approach that, whilst great fun, doesn’t quite leave the same mark.

In 2074, murder has been made near impossible through the act of tagging, so mob bosses use outlawed time travel technology to send their targets thirty years into the past, where they are swiftly despatched of by “Loopers.” Due to the nature of their practice, all Loopers must eventually assassinate their own future self, thus closing the loop, preserving the timeline and earning a hefty payoff in the process. When cocky young Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) fails to take down his older counterpart (Bruce Willis), Joe must track down his target and ensure the loop is closed, all while “Old” Joe goes about ensuring the dystopic future he’s returned from never comes to pass.

Voices from many quarters have marvelled at the film’s willingness to forgo exposition and merely “tell it as it is,” a somewhat worrying statement when you consider just how much explanatory dialogue is present in the film. Make no mistake, Looper is no Primer level headache, but even as it chooses not to explain the logic behind its time travel machine (and honestly, how many time travel films actually do?) it puts more meat on its bones than, say, fellow recent genre inductee Dredd. This logic on the part of many critics is instead perhaps indicative of just how commonplace spoon-fed mythos building has come to be in genre features, and is less of a plus for Looper than it is a belated mark against the increasingly less relevant Inception, god-like as Nolan’s dreamscape thriller was hailed to be upon its release. For Looper’s best moments are when it chooses to indulge a little more in its reality – the moments when it fills in the 30 year gap in Joe’s life, or hints at the dark future awaiting in the hands of the foreboding Rainmaker.

In contrast, the film suffers in the areas where Brick really exceeded – character. After a rollicking first half of gritty sci-fi action and intrigue, Looper starts to slip and slide its way to the finish line upon the introduction of farmer Sara (Emily Blunt) and her intriguing young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). These scenes, necessary as they are, feel more than a little sluggish after what came before, and are largely saved by the continual probing of Joe’s (old and young) moral ambiguity. Johnson has taken pains to craft a grimy, punkish world for his characters to live in that is then left at the wayside so we can all spend some time down the farm, Witness style, and the feeling of whiplash is more than a little jarring.

That said, by its climax, Looper has done a strong job of crafting a solid story, with Levitt and Willis functioning well as two sides of the same coin – it’s a shame they couldn’t have spent more screen-time together. Nathan Johnson’s percussive soundtrack keeps things ticking along nicely, perfectly capturing the mood, with the likes of Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels rounding out a plucky cast. Talk of Looper making it onto the top five lists of 2012 seems a little optimistic and short-sighted in light of some of the other gems this year has offered, but this is still a rare creature - an intelligent science fiction film that doesn’t try and shove its intellectuality down your throat, but is instead content to just enjoy itself. And I enjoyed it too.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Captain's Log

Captain’s log, 28 August 2112

I awoke early to ensure that the other occupants of the ship were still safe in their state of hibernation. I must confess, I have neglected my duties; it has been several days since I checked that my company were as they should be, safe and well. The access that I now have to the archives of human literature has caused me to lose sight of what is important; even in their state of cryopreservation, and despite the brevity of my time in the cryo chamber, I could feel the warmth exuding from the minds of those under my charge.

Once my duties were performed, I made my morning (morning by name only, of course, time ceases to have any meaning in a world with only artificial light) coffee, indulged my hunter-gatherer need for endorphins with some time in the ship’s gymnasium and plugged myself into the machine, as I have now every day for the past four years.

I can now say that my insatiable thirst for the assimilation of information has reached its inevitable conclusion. The utopia I perceived behind enlightenment has proven to be a mirage. Clarity of vision has dissolved.

Whereas I once believed that the ideas I consumed would align themselves so that I could cherry pick the best amongst them to produce my own coherent doctrine, I now find myself greeted by a cacophony of faceless notions, each as banal as the last. All that pervades is a sense of twisted aimlessness; instead of standing liberated atop a mountain of ideas, I drown, protesting noiselessly in the mire of options.

Whilst the sensation of drowning dominates me, the urge to assimilate yet more tugs at my sleeve, whispering that there is something just out of reach that will offer me salvation, a helping hand out of the quicksand. In this way the sense of indifference breeds itself, so that I can no longer feel the bottom of the expanse. I have not abandoned myself to the machine in the same way that the captains of the other ships have, the system indicates that whilst some of them have viewed far higher percentages of the data than I have, no one has yet made a shadow of a dent towards full ingestion.

A macro-reflection of the conflicts beneath, the nagging need for further consumption competes with the sense that I wish to forget all I have already absorbed and return to a child like state of innocence, a state where new ideas thrill me rather than reeking of pastiche and tiredness. But where would I go from there? The knowledge that assimilation leads nowhere can only come from experience of assimilation itself. The tired cycle of apathy would repeat itself ad infinitum.

It is now three years since I heard a real human voice - not just one synthesized as a digital code and retransmitted as a mere ghost of itself. I long for something more than a fleeting connection.

Your captain.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Web 2.0

Lost again in meaningless words,
Constant lines with no beginning or end,
Carried on electric light pages or repeated chord patterns.
All there is to say has been said.
I've read it in print twice over.
It wasn't worth reading the first time round,
But it was written, so it's consumed,
CAPITALIZED, capitulated and compared,
Then consigned to the archival dustbin,
Held in warehouses on whirring machines,
With blank faces,
Served on demand in bites and in bits,
As banal as the noughts and ones that hold it,
Or the individual squiggles on the page.

Let's play friendship by numbers.

Restriction is the mother of invention,
And infinite choice is no choice at all.
So here's something else to assimilate and throw back into the abyss.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Prometheus Review

For those who have followed my film-writing since the earlier days of You Killed the Car, my urgent need to see Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction after three full decades should come as no surprise – particularly given that the film purports to answer questions dating all the way back to Scott’s original sci-fi masterpiece, Alien. The related essays Growing up with a Facehugger and Growing up with Formic Acid were two of the more ambitious analyses undertaken in that site’s time, and quite clearly point to a...minor obsession with the underlying themes of the Alien franchise and how they have been re-interpreted over time. Scott’s desire to address questions left unanswered in the film’s sequels filled me with hope for a return to the more focused thesis of the original film, along with a (sorely needed) kick-start for hard sci-fi in contemporary cinema. And whilst Prometheus does a sterling job at aiding the latter, with regard to the central Alien mythos, it doesn’t bring a whole lot new to the table.

If Alien twists the concept of procreation and parenthood to its limits, as a prequel, Prometheus fittingly looks to the source of life, addressing the ultimate act of creation. The film’s opening (and most arresting) sequence quite literally concerns itself with the beginning of mankind, an act of sacrifice that starts to be unearthed some millennia later by archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). Believing that they have discovered a map to our true origin point, the pair manage to secure funding for an interstellar mission from Weyland Corp, heading out for the distant moon LV-223. Accompanying them on their mission are Weyland suit Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Prometheus ship captain Janek (Idris Elba), and the Corp’s technological marvel David (Michael Fassbender) – an android. As the crew’s mission to discover our ‘Engineers’ and their fate continues, they happen upon a rather more sinister plot that threatens all of their lives, and calls into question the true value of humanity in the eyes of our gods.

Prometheus, like all good science fiction films, uses its outlandish settings and mythology to posit the big questions of life and humanity. Unfortunately, having laid them out on the table, it doesn’t really do a whole lot with them. Like the subjects of its plot, Prometheus struggles to define itself against its source-material even as it clearly panders to it in some sort of slobbering awe. The film presents a number of ‘father-child’ relationships that build nicely on the more savage paternal nightmare of Alien – man and the Engineers, David and creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), but seems confused as to what it is actually trying to say (when indeed it bothers to say anything beyond its initial posturing), something of a common downfall in the writing of scriptist Damen Lindelof (Lost). Meanwhile, the film’s attempts to present its own mythology that can exist as a self-sufficient parallel to the Alien storyline wastes screen time and forces a number of plot inconsistencies to develop for the sake of the final ‘pay-off’. Without giving too much away, if Scott had simply had the balls to put this film out as a true, linear prequel, a lot of bullshit in the script could have been avoided and we’d be looking at a potential classic. Alas.

For it is indeed a rather idiotic script that lets down an otherwise superb production, clear proof that Scott still deserves to be seen as a heavy-hitter in the directorial department. With its gorgeous cinematography, and an art direction that manages to complement the original’s Heavy Metal influences as much as its debt to Giger, the film creates the perfect playground for its key players to excel within. Rapace and Theron provide a great dynamic as two opposing female characters struggling with motherhood and childhood alternately, but it is Fassbender’s take as David that steals the show. Confused motives aside, David is a spell-binding creation whose child-like nature rings true in both its innocence and self-centred malevolence. The film’s development of the Space Jockey, or Engineer, is similarly inspired, drawing upon the Renaissance ideal of man to breathe life into the far more iconic ‘David’ of marble. It’s a shame that such an ideal is later reduced to a simple wall of strength to fit with the film’s far more conventional second half. 

Trailers for Prometheus suggest that material dealing more explicitly with the film’s subject matter of faith and the link between creator and child were left on the cutting room floor, and one wonders whether a more satisfying take on the story may be unearthed some years down the line. It certainly wouldn’t be a first for Scott. That said, in every other department Prometheus excels, and whilst it might not be the true end-point to the Alien franchise that you’re looking for, it’s an endearing effort that lingers long after viewing.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Riot grrrl: sexism and music journalism

EDIT: Just realised I forgot to link in my examples. I'll fix this today after work.

I’m not going to say that Sleater-Kinney are one of the greatest all-female rock groups of the past twenty years. I’m not going to say that at all. It’s not that I don’t like Sleater-Kinney, I absolutely adore them. What I am going to say is that Sleater-Kinney are one of the greatest rock groups of the past twenty years.

This distinction is important. At best the addition of the words “all” and “female” would be an indication of lazy journalism; it’s easy for critics to flesh out an overdue piece by dropping in a few extra sentences about how rock groups with female membership come from some line or other inhabited largely by x chromosomes. At worst they would be a creeping indication that a troubling prejudice still exists in contemporary rock music journalism.

It might sound as if I’m creating a problem where there is none (after all, I made up my own case study), but this kind of thing is still endemic in the popular media; here are a few examples of articles that seemingly reduce female musicians to their gender alone or make tedious links with other musicians on the same basis. It didn’t take me long to find them. It’s why Spotify tells me to listen to Garbage if I like PJ Harvey, even though they‘re little alike. It’s probably why every time other I try and watch a Grimes video online I have to sit through an advert for Florence fucking Welch, and never any other more similar sounding male artist.

The issue isn’t helped by tokenism either. It’s still only ten years since Q magazine devoted an issue to “Sirens! Women Who Rock Your World”, emblazoned with the image of PJ Harvey’s bare legs and her t-shirt proclaiming “Lick My Legs” (what demographic was that particular cover aimed at I wonder?).  The issue here isn’t in championing artists who display a consciousness or interest in female issues – that would be a far more useful use of journalistic space* – it’s the idea that the artists concerned are somehow separate from their male counterparts due to gender alone; artists like PJ Harvey and Kate Bush shouldn’t have to put up with being lumped in the same category as Britney Spears on such a dubious basis. This may smack of elitism, but there is still a clearly defined trope at work here that need no longer be presented by our Newspapers, Websites and Magazines.

The clearly sexualised marketing of the issue didn’t help either, although I’m sure Harvey would have been glad of the publicity. It was, however, a marked improvement on an issue of Q seven years previously, which featured Harvey, Bjork and Tori Amos and included the tagline “Hips. Lips. Tits. Power!”

So what’s the way forward? We can start by offering our female artists a level playing field and not making an issue of their gender where there is nothing otherwise to separate them from their male counterparts and nothing otherwise to tie them to their female ones.

*one would also hope such a piece would include male artists who have championed women’s issues, such as Fugazi or Ariel Pink.

Avengers Assemble Review

Joss Whedon must be rubbing his hands together. Two years ago, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly had endured limited success with the silver screen; the original Buffy movie was a camp flop that the series largely ignored, his script for Alien Resurrection – together with Jeunet’s ill-fitting visual style – is (perhaps a little harshly) considered as the centre point of that franchise’s downfall, and Serenity flat out bombed.  Meanwhile, his meta-horror piece The Cabin in the Woods was effectively shelved. That last one’s perhaps a blessing in disguise, given that Whedon can now boast that the genre cinema of early 2012 was effectively dominated by him, and him alone. The success of Cabin has already been discussed, offering something new and fresh in a genre thats current laziness is only contrasted by its marked barrenness. In contrast, Avengers Assemble enters the fray amidst a plethora of comic book movies that in many cases only highlight how stale the “Super Hero Bubble” has already become, trading in on origin stories and boringly contrived power groupings. It doesn’t help that many of said tired films were the two hour advertisements for this all-star super hero smash fest, and it’s a testament to Whedon’s writing ability that Avengers Assemble – a film that could so easily break apart under its own weight – actually feels more cohesive and full-bodied than its foundations.

The plot of Avengers Assemble finally joins together four years worth of Marvel movies under one title, harking right back to the original Iron Man, though in terms of narrative, the film largely builds on threads established in last year’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Loki, trickster demi-god and adoptive brother of Thor, has returned to Earth to claim the Tesseract; an Asgardian energy source capable of opening portals between dimensions. With it, he hopes to lead an otherworldly invasion of our planet, installing himself as our new king. It’s all very...dense and slightly daft, but Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) takes the threat seriously enough to bring together Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) et al. to bring him down – if they can just stop tripping over each other’s egos first.

 Bryan Singer’s X-Men films are frequently regarded as the go-to examples for ensemble comic book movies, but in all honesty, they come off as hammy and overtly serious, putting too much stock into their one-liners and sense of self-importance. Whedon’s script, in injecting the Avengers with a severe case of familial dysfunction, brings a strong layer of banter to the film, allowing these characters to trade off one another and come away feeling like a team, instead of a set of SFX devices. RDJ’s Stark was of course built for this kind of humour, but it’s a surprisingly well-balanced turn by Ruffalo as Banner and his chaotic alter-ego, the Hulk, that actually sparks much of the wit – particularly in the film’s climactic New York battle. It’s a smart move that, coupled with some nice visual quirks, refutes the rather staid approach to OMG-EXPLOSIIOOONSSS that dominated Thor and Iron Man 2, leaving them more than a little deflated. In fact, Whedon does a great job all round of ensuring everyone’s character arc feels complete and weighted; even Johannson’s Black Widow and Renner’s Hawkeye come away as realised characters – despite having to contend with established heavy-hitters.

 This is not to say that Avengers Assemble isn’t a mess – it is. Really, how could it not be? But it does the best it could at holding all the threads together, offering a sharp if (in the nicest way) shambolic rollercoaster ride along the way. If you thought the original Iron Man was a blast and wonder when the fun died, Avengers Assemble might just be what you’re looking for.