Friday, 29 April 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #34, Brazil

Science fiction isn't about the future. It just happens to be set there.

...So goes a common argument, and one relevant to Brazil. As emphasised by its title card, which
informs us it is set "somewhere in the 20th Century", it isn't a film about the future, in any way that matters. It's about the now. Or the 'now' of the early 1980s, at least. The trends it picks out of society are exaggerated, making the film more a caricature of the time than a prediction of the future.

But it is a proper sci-fi film, one which delights in exploring its world of Blade Runner-esque neon lights and unfamiliar technology. Then again, it's hardly straight-down-the-line stereotypical science fiction. Our hero is one Sam Lowry, a small-time civil servant. For him, at least, the world of the tomorrow is very much like our own, but with an exaggerated emphasis on the right paperwork. Meanwhile Lowry dreams, in exquisite fantasy sequences, of being free and gliding through the clouds, and of one woman in need of saving. As is the way of these things, he spots her in the waking world and becomes obsessed.

The backdrop to all this is wonderfully rich, taking from contemporary trends and extrapolating them to their illogical conclusions. And in the great tradition of these things, each feels just as relevant today as it must have in 1985:

Plastic surgery and the resulting fetishism of looks and youth. The emptiness and loneliness of the job/consumerism cycle. But most of all, the frustration of bureaucracy and its unwavering faith in machines and processes, which are showed right at the beginning to be flawed. For Archie Tuttle--sorry, Buttle, at least, fatally so.

Which doesn't sound too cheery, does it? Brazil hit me at the exact right moment, around the time I read Catch 22, and after two years at a government-initiative school that was restrictively bound to its own rules and regulations. It was a call to arms for the 16 year old me, echoing my discoveries of how unthinking people with power could be, and how impersonal and businesslike life in any institution can feel. It cemented a lot of very things in the mind of Serious Teenage Alex. But coming back to Brazil as a twenty-something, it turns out I'd forgotten how funny it also is.

Director Terry Gilliam was the token American and cartoon-provider for Monty Python and Brazil is often irreverent and surrealist in a way reminiscent of Python's stuff. The digressions from the plot that fill out the world feel like small sketches and are symptomatic of Brazil's overwhelming style. Gilliam has described his directorial style as messy, and he packs the film with anything that'll fit. It's overpacked, in every sense. Take the song that lends the film its name, for example, surfaces constantly throughout, in different versions, whistled, played by a restaurant's string quartet. Its a fascinating, and suitably patchwork, approach to a soundtrack. It's packed with ideas like this. With distinctive visuals, with themes, characters, running jokes, fantasy sequences, satire, weirdness...

Frankly, it's a baggy film. It's over two hours, and feels every minute. The central plot stops and starts. But even here, form fits function. It's a film about order versus chaos, and picks its side accordingly. As the state crumbles, the film itself explodes into countless fragments. So it's hard to say Brazil is a film about any single thing. But it's not really about the future, no. It's a messily-drawn cartoon of a film, and everything it uses to create the supposed future is drawn from the fabric of the present, and the present. Brazil is no attempt at predicting what tomorrow will be like. It's far too silly to try something as pointless as that.


Friday, 22 April 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #35, Austin Powers


It’s a funny old business, comedy. As a genre – the twin, in the eyes of Aristotle, to tragedy – it is probably the most underrepresented on this list. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is the highest ranking film that I’d describe as a ‘pure’ comedy film.

For the mathematically minded: this entire list of fifty contains three straight-comedy films. Airplane!, Anchorman, and now Austin Powers... Apparently, when it comes to comedies, my tastes are restricted by some odd alliterative fetish.

It’s hard to theorise much about these films because they’re not really about much, in terms of themes or characters or even plot. They exist to create laughter. This is 100% of what decides their success or failure. The pure comedy is just a collection of jokes, tied together by a porn-thin narrative.

...Which is probably why they haven’t made much appearance on this list. I’m deeply fond of numerous jokes and routines, individually, and I’m deeply mistrustful of any film that takes itself too seriously for a single laugh, but actual full comedy films that resonate enough to identify themselves as one of my favourite films? Rare.

And so the previous entries have tended towards the biographical, combined with some theorising on the nature of the genre as a whole, for pretty much exactly this reason. All I have to say on the former is that I remember bumping into International Man of Mystery earlier than pretty much any other film on the list, on a coach on a school trip. The more observant amongst you have probably noticed that we’re already knee-deep in the latter.

In the interests of not repeating myself, and avoiding the trap of merely telling you this is a 'funny' film (you probably already know, or you disagree) or repeating its best lines (one way or the other, you'll have heard them), I shall leave you by pointing out:

In pretty much every way that would matter, were this a 'serious' film, I take issue with International Man of Mystery. The visuals lean a little too much towards the tacky for my tastes, the subject matter is all too often crass and childish, and it's a wholly ineffective lampooning of the spy genre... But, just as much now as when I met it, its particular collection of jokes can make me laugh, heartily and repeatedly. And this isn't a serious film. It is a comedy. And so that is all that matters.


Saturday, 16 April 2011

I Know It's Over, But It Never Really Began: Spotify Free

The party's finally over, then. Anyone firing up Spotify today will have been directed to an 'important announcement' about the future of Spotify. They try to put the usual positive spin on it, mentioning how great it is that we've all embraced Spotify as tool for listening to and discovery of music, how it's helping fight piracy, etc, etc.
"...So it’s vital that we continue offering an on-demand free service to you and millions more like you, but to make that possible we have to put some limits in place going forward."
Long PR story short: as of the first of May, Spotify Free will be limited to 10 hours per month, individual tracks limited to five free listens. Which Spotify try to say won't matter, because their research shows people use Spotify to discover new music. Which is all well and good, and justifies the '5 free listens' model. And 10 hours, they point out, is 20 albums anyway!

...Per month. Because who listens to more than 20 albums/200 songs in a month, eh?

Anyone who followed last week's Music Diary can see that I rely almost entirely on Spotify for my music listening. Since its features exploded this time last year, it is the only piece of music software I ever use. The announcement refers to users "giving up on piracy", and it being "exactly what we hoped would happen".

Full disclosure time: Spotify genuinely is what killed a lifetime habit of heavy music piracy for me. I haven't illegally downloaded anything for well over a year, and my hard-drive is free of ill-gotten MP3s. I know, I know, I'm a saint. But save your rosaries: with this change, for me, piracy has become a lot more attractive as an option.

...I'm being idealistic again. I know that. Whenever I interviewed bands and threw a Spotify question in, they seemed sceptical. We're not seeing any money from it, was the consensus. No-one really seemed to understand Spotify's business model. And so the party had to end. But that never seems to make the hangover any easier, does it?

Friday, 15 April 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #36, Battle Royale


Battle Royale
is one of a few forays we will be taking into what HMV would label 'world cinema' during this list. It's one of very few subtitled films, to my shame.

But, the thing is it doesn't feel especially Japanese. Maybe it's the way Western cinema, post-Tarantino, has moved more in that direction; maybe it's the setting, isolated from actual Japanese society for almost the entirety of the film. Whatever: it means the film feels brilliantly universal.

'Battle Royale' is the name given to an ill-defined government programme introduced in response to unruly pupils not troubled by disciplinary measures (which, as a conversation at least, sounds familiar). A single selected class goes on a mysterious school trip - the coach journey used at the beginning for contrast feels warmly nostalgic - which ends with each of them being handed a weapon and told: it's you or them. You have three days to be the last one standing.

It shouldn't feel so familiar. But, like so many other 'genre' films using high school as a setting, the fantastical elements and high concept become a way of magnifying all that teenage drama, the way it felt when you lived it yourself. Really, it could all be a metaphorical retelling of a particular dramatic school-trip. The premise, and all the ultra-violence that follows, is just a backdrop to the relationships between the various students.

Well, mostly... Battle Royale makes some brilliant choices, of which that premise is just one: it's perfect what would you do? fodder. Landing in Britain around the same time as Friends Reunited, the reminder that you didn't necessarily like or remember everyone in your class at school feels pretty relevant. But, um, what if they all had to die?

The use of weapons is another. Each student is randomly assigned an individual weapon. These provide moments of tension, or humour, as each character finds out they've got a machine gun, or a saucepan lid. It helps keep the action scenes varied, but they also act as a way of identifying the large ensemble of characters, all dressed in identical uniforms. It's the perfect hook: 'Oh, it's Scythe Girl!' you think, before you learn their names (or before their ticket gets punched).

There are 41 students in Battle Royale. You see the death of every single one that pops their clogs, accompanied by a terse identification: "Boys #7 Kuninobu Dead. 40 To Go". And so the entire film becomes one long countdown.

And this shapes the film: as the numbers get smaller and smaller, the plot gets chiselled down. The film is made up of a series of vignettes exploring the situation, and how the characters respond, and relate to each other. To pick a beloved example: the lighthouse scene. It's pretty much completely detached from the central plot, just taking a little time to further explore what it would be like.

The lighthouse is the home to a small community of girls, the biggest cohesive tribe remaining on the island by the time we arrive along with our protagonist Shuya. When a boy - perceived by some of the girls as a threat, others as a sexy opportunity - arrives and breaks up the dynamic, it falls pretty quickly, and dramatically, apart.

...Which, if you take the metaphorical view, sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it?

Eventually, the dropping numbers become a relief, as they narrow the focus of the plot. It's a inevitable consequence of the film's structure, and the dropping away of elements feels natural, leaving characters you do genuinely care about, but it's never really as good as the sprawling series of mini-stories at the outset.

...It occurs to me that perhaps I take too much pleasure from films that celebrate the teenaged condition, being a chin-stroking twentysomething. But it feels important as a subject, even now, and Battle Royale is a perfect illustration of just that flashbulb moment in my life felt at the time. Gory decapitations included.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Define 'Generic': Source Code's Poster

Look deep into the poster...
Duncan Jones' last film, Moon, had one of the most brilliantly eye-catching posters I can remember. Strongly, anachronistically distinctive, it recalled a time before every poster was just a heavily photshopped image of the cast posing, or smoothed-out close-up of the star. It made your eyes go funny if you looked at it for too long. If you ever saw the monstrous wall-to-ceiling ones on the tube: those concentric circles... I mean, just look at it!

Source Code, meanwhile, gets this:
Pow! Smash! Cool!
Yawn. There is another poster, the internet suggests , but this is the one spamming the side of every bus I see, making it easier for this to settle into the role of mental wallpaper. I didn't even notice how bland it was until I'd actually seen the film. Why?

A little hard thinking, a lot of Googling, and these were my findings:
i. Colours
It leans most obviously and heavily on the blue-centric (with a touch of red for contrast) palette of almost every sci fi/action/thriller poster of the last few years: The Dark Knight; Serenity; Next; Repo Men; Surrogates; Inception , to pick a few examples of variable quality.* It's the current default colourscheme for any and all films of its stripe, these days, and - playing fair - it is perfectly functional. The red does contrast perfectly nicely against the blue to pick out details. In this case...
ii. Title
Spelt out in red text and blocky, square-edged letters. Wait a minute... this feels familiar.
COMING SOON: Hitman of Lies (from the director of Inceptaken)
iii. Logo
Under this lies the slightly less striking orange bloom of an exploding train, aimed right at Gyllenhaal's heart like a bullet, implying this might be some kind of Unstoppable-esque runaway train type film. The logo for that film, in case you were wondering, looks a little like this...
The biggest cinematic deception since 'The Never-ending Story'?
iv. Background
Under all of it is that is the grid. Which can't be helped: the effect is relevant to the film, depicting the eponymous source code. So naturally...
Ah, damn... That's Tron Legacy, there, in case you were wondering. It's just about excusable - sci-fi is sci-fi, after all, and there are certain bits of iconography that help get that across- - but...
v. Photoshop
Ignoring all that, ignoring how anonymous it all is, my problem with the poster is thus: it just looks so incredibly tacky. With the exception of Gyllenhaal's manly white-noise stubble, everything just looks so plastic: contrast with the sharp lines of Moon's concentric circles. And that doesn't fairly represent the film at all. It's not Speed Racer**.
Even the gun looks poorly Photoshopped: which it might well be, given that the total screentime of our hero with a guy probably adds up to about 5 minutes. It's just so tacked on, as if to assure you, no this is action-packed!
This always made me feel like a man, you know. Now all I got is my enormous genitalia.
...Which is the main problem, really. The marketing seems determined to convince you this is an entirely different film.

The shadow of Inception hangs heavy, and fairly: the comparison is going to be drawn repeatedly. It might be coincidence, but Inception seems to have set the stage for big budget intelligent sci-fi in a similar, Philip K. Dick reality-questioning vein, and Source Code feels like the first great post-Inception film.

And Source Code does draw from, or recall, a whole constellation of other films: Minority Report to to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all the way to Groundhog Day and, yes, Inception. But the film itself takes all those elements, and makes something coherent and individual. They're merely spices that give its flavour edge: strong-tasting, true, and as you bite down on each you wonder to yourself where have I tasted that before, but it's expertly mixed, so that each rises, piquant, and falls into the background over the course of the film.

Source Code mixes up the serious and light-hearted elements of those films with a deft touch, to make something that feels more human than Inception, but just as baffling a puzzle. It's a better film, frankly.

...Not that you'd know it from the poster.
...Did I fall asleep?

*An interesting thing happens, by the way, if you search for, in particular, sci fi or thriller posters. The results will be vast, ranging from Michael Jackson to b-movies... until you filter by colour. Changing to the blue-only filter flashes up almost entirely recent example of exactly the kind I was looking for. Try it yourself at home!
(You'll probably also notice how similar the main
Watchmenand Inception posters are. A little research suggest I wasn't the first person to spot that, though
**A film of which I am one of the few admirers, incidentally. I just dig the ridiculous cartoon ambition of the thing

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Music Diary Project - Saturday & Sunday

Following a somewhat over-ambitious attempt at waking up at 8am, soundtracked by
Broken Social Scene - Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl
My Chemical Romance - Look Alive, Sunshine
Gorillaz - Rhinestone Eyes (alone, all on Spotify)
I give in to the agony in my leg muscles and the rattling in my skull labelled 'hangover/dehydration' and go back to sleep, listening to the Juno director's commentary.
The Indelicates - Sympathy for the Devil
Sex Bob-Omb - We Are Sex Bob-Omb
Janelle Monae [feat. Of Montreal] - Make The Bus (alone, all on Spotify)
help kick off Attempt At The Day#2, which starts sometime past noon. I know it's sunny outside, despite my cold dark room at the back of the house catching absolutely no sun, and I have to get out of here. An attempt not massively helped by a disappointingly drained playing of
Los Campesinos! - A Heat Rash In The Shape Of The Show Me State
Los Campesinos! - The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future (in shower, from DS)
in an attempt to finish off yesterday's . My portable speaker-block's batteries are dying, I think, and both songs come off entirely lackluster.
I give
Los Campesinos! - The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future
another go on my proper speaker system in my bedroom - it does surprisingly little for me, for a song I would general identify as a candidate of Favourite of All Time - so I just let it go, and go to the pub, and meet up with friends in Birmingham's Best Beer Garden and chat in a way inappropriate to the family-friendly attitude of the pub.
...And from there, everything's golden. We have a BBQ, and a playlist is accordingly constructed. I won't bore you with the exact tracklist - or myself with the effort of transcription - but what stand out are
Fleetwood Mac - Dreams
Flobots - Handlebars [DJ Shadow Remix]
The Horrors - Sea Within A Sea
Royksopp - The Girl & The Robot
Asher Roth - I Love College
Iggy Pop - The Passenger
I Blame Coco [feat. Robyn] - Caesar
Fleetwood Mac - The Chain
Kenny Rogers - I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In (in garden, with good company, on Spotify)
It's the kind of day that a certain type of music was made for. Stealing illicit bounces on next door's trampoline; mixing gin, beer and Pimms in a fashion most irresponsibe; flinging frisbees wildly off in the wrong direction, and - mostly - having stupid noisy conversations... For thirty-second flashes at a time, life feels like being in a music video, or some aspirational KFC advert or something.

But what really dominates my day, if I'm being 100% honest, is the Walker's advert version of that Lionel Richie song (save! one! for! me! something something...extra crunchy!), on account of being catchy in that way that lends itself to constant adapting of the lyrics to whatever banal thought is currently in your brain. It's so thoroughly embedded that it leaks over into
Wherein I wake up determined not to repeat yesterday's flat beginning, and then end up playing videogames in bed for a couple of hours. Shower is accompanied by a fuzzy, poorly-tuned version of
Marilyn Manson - Tainted Love (alone, on radio)
To which the DJ (this is Kerrang! radio) says something embarrassing about using the song to get girls 'shaking their asses'. Nevertheless, I am surprised to find the song still works. I sing along, a bit, and get ready to take on the sunshine. Start a runthrough of
Kanye West - 'My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy' (tracks 1, 12, 13, back-garden, on Spotify)
before realising shuffle is still on. Muffled curses - mainly sung in a poor impression of Lionel Richie - decide to take this to the park, but not before my daily listen to
Childish Gambino - Break (x2, alone, on Spotify)
Which is still brilliant and I'm still finding new favourite bits of: today's is probably the "I'm chasing the blues away like Gargamel" line.
My time in the park is musically defined only by the hollow drumbeats of some rubbish, distant music and one ringing of
Super Smash Bros Soundtrack - Pokemon Battle Theme (on my phone)
to signify Sam calling me.
Later: home, a couple of tracks of
Radiohead - 'The King of Limbs' (tracks 1-3, in garden, with Sam, on Spotify)
before my laptop dies; then
Kimya Dawson - Walk Like Thunder (in garden, with Sam, from Soundcloud)
Which is quite slight for such a long song, but I think I like it: back to this one later, I think. For now, let's finish off
Radiohead - 'The King of Limbs' (tracks 3-8, in garden, with Sam, on Spotify)
which seeps, accidentally but not unwelcomely, into
Does It Offend You, Yeah? - 'Don't Say We Didn't Warn You' (tracks 1-8, in garden, alone, on Spotify)
Which sounds a little softer in this last hour of warmth and sunlight than I remembered from the recent gig. It's certainly a lot quieter than their first album - although, again, that could be based off of a misconceived memory - and when the singer focuses on actually singing, in what could be termed an emotional fashion, his voice goes a little too Athlete. It's nice to have that big fat worst-house-party-next-door-ever-when-the-hell-will-they-go-bed noise contrasted against something, though. It gets to the overly Nathan Barley semi-rap of Wondering, earnestly invoking Bill Hicks and Lee Harvey Oswald, and I give up, and go in search of something more suitable to finishing Wonder Boys, the Michael Chabon novel I have been working sporadically through for, seemingly, as long as Grady Tripp on his eponymous manuscript. I land upon
Radiohead - 'In Rainbows' (tracks 1-4, in garden, alone, on Spotify)
And finish it I do, and lie on my front to the sound of the suddenly invidual-seeming
Radiohead - All I Need (garden, alone, on Spotify)
taking in that strange moment following the close of a well-enjoyed but hard-fought novel, and begin to mentally construct this paragraph, before the full, square beats of the song suck me in. And as I lie, glasses off, in a back garden no longer touched by a square-inch of sun, watching an indeterminate black bob of insect flutter out and over the fence, beyond any potential of identification, as the sounds of the nearby road and overly noisy children overtaking the song, I resolve not - until the new week begins tomorrow - to listen to any more music.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Music Diary Project - Thursday & Friday

By the time the 21st hour of this day ticks over, I only have listened to one song:
Robyn - Dancing On My Own (CD, in the car, with Mom & Sister)
It's the longest any CD has ever lasted in the family car. I like it, my sister likes it, my mom likes it. This is nigh-on a miracle.
...From 21:00 onwards, music as background to the holy process of Hanging Out and Getting Internet Stuff Done with my man Dominic Parsons breaks loose, beginning with
Childish Gambino - Break (with Dom, on Spotify)
The 'her pussy tastes like vanilla' line gets a snigger from Dom. I still think it's genuinely sweet.
Neon Neon - I Told Her On Aldeeran
Black Kids - I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You
Which I don't get much pleasure from, but which -with the aid of Neon Neon - transports me back to a certain time in my first year at university, so I break the purity of the shuffle and queue up
Those Dancing Days - Hitten
which I just remembered falling back in love with, having heard it in a bar on Monday night.
Kanye West - All of the Lights
Britney Spears - I Wanna Go
The Indelicates - Roses
Kelly Clarkson - Since U Been Gone
The Streets - It's Too Late
And booking hostels in Poland leads to hilariously searching for songs with titles based on locations we'll be visiting, namely:
The Mo - Krakow Love
Krakovia - The Last Train to Krakow (with Dom, all on Spotify)
The latter proves a definite success ("cheap hotels" indeed!) and I consider making a travelling playlist/mix CD based on these principles.
Gogol Bordello - Through The Roof 'n' Underground
Thom Yorke - And It Rained All Night
R. Kelly - Ignition [Remix] (alone, all on Spotify)
seems the right place to end the evening.

And before you know, it's
And, as we both know, you've got to get down on Friday.
07:30 So kick things off with
At The Drive-in - One Armed Scissor (alone, on Spotify)
because wake up with "THIS STATION IS NOT OPERATIONAL" on repeat in my brain, and this saves me having to Tweet it to release the pressure. I don't enjoy it as much as hoped (maybe too quiet?) so a couple more motivational tunes before work
Robyn - With Every Heartbeat
The Arcade Fire - Sprawl II [Mountains Beyond Mountains]
Kanye West - Power (alone, all on Spotify, though played at a volume that probably meant any family members still in the house heard it too)
Friday: let's do this!
12:30 Lunchtime with Miles & co., which brings
At The Drive-in - Pattern Against User
(which probably makes today a record of ATD-I listening frequency. Congrats, Friday! Apologies, ATD-I and fans!)
Life Without Buildings - Love Trinity
St Etienne - Finisterre
Friendly Fire - Paris [Aeroplane remix, feat Au Revoir Simone] (walking, all through my phone)
Japandroids - Younger Us
...and lunch is over.
17:00 A trip home with
Los Campesinos! - 'Romance is Boring' (tracks 1-4, on train platform, through DS)
Then a fat break whilst on the train as I watch a film (I haven't been counting the music from TV and films, specifically, for reasons threefold: a) it's a lot of effort, b) I don't want to give away the approaching FFoF, but also c) it doesn't really count, does it?) then once I'm off the train back onto
Los Campesinos! - 'Romance is Boring' (tracks 5-10, walking, DS)
Which seems a little clearer than usual, and lyrics I'd never picked out before stand out(I've never been one for accurately hearing the proper words, or remembering them, and I would never break the sacred law of Cocker: "Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings").
19:00 A cookin'-moussaka playlist, initially put together by the three of us
Roots Manuva - Buff Nuff (with Dav & Lex, all on Spotify)
Bon Iver - Skinny Love
Childish Gambino - Break
but then we surrender and just put it on shuffle
The Arcade Fire - Wake Up
Kenickie - How I Was Made
The Arcade Fire - Modern Man
Dr Dre - Light Speed
Radiohead - Up On The Ladder
Neutral Milk Hotel - The Penny Arcade in California
which supports my thoery that Spotify is somehow Arcade Fire-sponsored, but also throws up some weaker tracks by beloved acts, so I put on
Afghan Whigs - Band of Gold
before Shuffle throws up - surprise surprise! -
The Arcade Fire - Black Mirror
Robyn - U Should Know Better
Girl Talk - Play Your Part, Pt. 2
LCD Soundsystem - New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Man (with Dav & Lex, all on Spotify)
And then we go to the pub, where we consume numerous alcohols, The Religion Argument is had, and this very Music Diary is discussed.

...I can't help noticing I haven't listened to enough new stuff, which means a dearth of review-type stuff, and a more heavily archival/anecodtal skew. I'm sorry, peeps! Take it as a lesson in how working days affect your listening capabilities, perhaps?

Friday, 8 April 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #37, Juno

Classification #37

I can’t help but worry about how Juno will be remembered, at the end of the metaphorical day. What did I remember about it, before a re-watch to write this blog post?

I remembered the first time I saw it: what cinema, approximately what seat, what I did afterwards (ran hyper in the direction of a club, giggling, to an evening which I believe included me supping a spilt drink off the floor). I even remembered, more or less, when about my – at the time, newly – lovely girlfriend saw it (not with me).

I remembered the dialogue, obviously. That Holmeskillet exchange with that guy from the American Office. How fast it was, how saturated with pop-culture references, how ‘quirky’…

…And then I remembered all the ‘quirky’ films that came after. It feels responsible, now, for the shading of quirkiness into something with similar connotations to 'wacky'. But in the innocent days of early 2008, it genuinely felt like something we'd been waiting for: a romantic comedy here the romantic lead was the skinny nerdy Michael Cera; soundtracked by Belle & Sebastian and Kimya Dawson. A romantic comedy without many jokes or comic setpieces, and that didn't revolve around a single will they/won't they relationship… A romantic comedy that wasn't a romcom, really.

So we come to my worries: that this is how it will be remembered, forever. As something twee and quirky and ‘indie’ in the same way the Pigeon Detectives are.

But it’s not: the quirkiness works to make the world feel crafted, in a way you rarely see outside of fantasy. Most shots have multiple elements competing to grab your eye. Bedrooms aren't simply cluttered, they're over-saturated, which rings pretty much true of the Juno kind of girl.

It isn't just floatily whimsical. All that could be described as whimsy is there for a reason: Juno is, after all, a film about contrast. Between Juno and the adoptive parents Mark and Vanessa. Their home is designed white and minimalist. There’s a bit where Juno goes up their stairs, to find a succession of three photos of the couple in what can be only be described as garments, so glowingly white they meld together. That’s the only decoration in the public bit of their house. Compare and contrast with Juno’s collection of ‘My Name Is…’ stickers. (Mark Loring himself falls directly in the middle. His room is all deep browns, full of comics and guitars.)

The Mark Loring stuff is probably the best example of how Juno isn't just some silly bit of quirky fluff. He’s a really likeable character - with loads of signifiers of being cool, the aforementioned guitars and comics… he's played by Jason Bateman for God’s sake! - but, ultimately, he's a creepy old man. The scenes where he seems tempted by Juno are presented as kind of sweet, maybe even romantic, but looking back, at the end of the film, shows that all up. This a fully-grown married man, seriously considering being ... sexually active, as the grown-ups of Juno’s world would put it ... with a 16 year-old pregnant girl.

And then there’s the soundtrack, which is difficult not to remember fondly: if nothing else, it introduced me to the Sonic Youth cover of Superstar, which is one of my favourite songs. And then there’s Juno herself: one of those perfect cinema creations, made infectious by Ellen Page. It’s all in way she chews over the words and phrases she’s given, and the little nose-wrinkles and unexpected gestures.

It’s easy to forget how beautifully shot it all is, how colourful and tightly edited Reitman made it all, and how intentionally constructed it feels. It’s full of perfect Simpsons-esque cutaways, which I’d totally forgotten… The bottom line is: before I rewatched Juno, I was hesitant about its place on the list. As I watched it again, for probably the first time since those two or three viewings in '08, I wondered if it maybe shouldn't be higher.

FFoF#37: Juno

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Music Diary Project: Wednesday

starts with
Katy Perry feat. Kanye West - ET (alone, music video online)
...about which I'm unsure. Listened to it because it popped up on Kieron Gillen's Formspring. As usual, he's fairly spot on (except about California Gurls, tut tut). I can't imagine this song actually existing outside of the video, which isn't a particularly good sign. The Yeezy bits are pretty good (especially the mentions of bathing his ape in your milky way) but ... does it remind anyone else of Tatu, a bit? The video itself is interesting though, and it's good that after the visual inadequacy of the Gaga Born This Way video, good to know someone's still making absolutely ridiculous music videos.
Childish Gambino - Break (alone, on Spotify, having downloaded the free MP3)
Still brilliant. Increasingly fond of the so elegant its fragile opening.
Neutral Milk Hotel - King of Carrot Flowers, Part One (alone, on Spotify)
An attempt at listening to what is possibly my favourite album, but I forgot to turn shuffle off yesterday and so an advert and a leap into a song by a different band ruin it. Sigh. Then it's time to finally break open
Britney Spears - Femme Fatale (alone, on Spotify)
Which is neither as bad as I've heard claimed, nor as 'sick' as my sister suggested it might be. It's just Britney embracing current musical trends, and thus getting away from some of what makes her actually a bit unique, a lot like Madonna for the majority of the last ten years (and especially 4 Minutes). The real test is: would I dance to it, in the right situation? There is only one way to find out, dear readers.
LCD Soundsystem - All of My Friends (alone, on Spotify)
Inspired by a skim of the mammoth Pitchfork article on every James Murphy release, which I intend to properly read at some point. It finished, leaving silence as I polished up some resources for a lesson I'm teaching; in need of a inobtrusive soundtrack I put on
Mystery Jets - 'Serotonin' (tracks 1-3, alone, on Spotify)
then, showertime, so I hook my phone up to my portable speaker and on comes
Los Campesinos! - In Medias Res (alone, through my mobile phone)
Courtesy of Mr Bradley et al's This Is Not Yr Indie Radio podcast. An unexpected but pleasant meeting of Miles' voice and my nudity. Including, in a continuation of his apparent mission to convert me to The Cult of Glover,
Childish Gambino - Freaks & Geeks (alone, mobile phone)
Which I do not enjoy as much as yesterday's Song of The Day Break, but is still highly pleasurable, especially the "are there Asian girls here? Minority report!" bit, which like all the best jokes took me a little moment.
Dismemberment Plan - You Are Invited
Owls - Everyone is My Friend

The whole experience is ruined somewhat by getting water in one ear. Ears are my body's primary weakness, Alex-Spencer-Fact-Fans! They get unexpectedly warm, turn to ice in the cold, and do a weird itchy thing where I have to click my tongue to do a sort of internal scratch. ...I am deeply, deeply gross.
Childish Gambino - Break (with Ben, on Spotify)
goes back on to remind myself what it's called so I can mention it above, and then am too scared to put anything else on, as I would have to note it down and inevitably write about it, and while I did that I'd no doubt have to put something else on, which I'd then have to write .... curse your infinite Moebius loops, Music Diary Project! I was meant to go home an hour ago!
Errors - A Rumour in Africa [Gold Panda remix]
The Weeknd - What You Need
Nick Straker Band - Straight Ahead
Matt & Kim - Lessons Learned (all on train, through phone)

...I finally do, and put Not Yr Indie Radio back on for company, followed by
The Flaming Lips - 'The Soft Bulletin' (whole album, on the train/walking round town, through my DS)
Radiohead - 'The King of Limbs' (whole album, on the train, DS)
to accompany my reading of a music magazine from 2003 I picked up for 50p from the record shop and of Chabon's Wonderboys. This fills the two-hour journey home beautifully, so much so I don't notice when King of Limbs runs out five minutes before everything else. As I put the book down, I'm still humming bits of the album to myself.
Radiohead - Karma Police (on Zoë's car radio)
Muse - Knights of Cydonia (on Zoë's car radio)
Both of which - it being sunny, smelling of cut grass, shooting round my hometown in my sister's shiny new car - somehow summon Summer and make me wonder whether radio stations have an emergency 'it's sunny!' backup playlist.
Amanda Palmer - 'Who Killed Amanda Palmer' (tracks 1-5, alone, on Spotify)
is a lot noisier than I remembered, despite it only having been a week since I last listened to it, and I recoil a bit. Weird side-effect of this 'Project': I think it's actually making me a bit more afraid of music. So I take a hours-long break afterwards, not listening to anything else till just the right side of midnight, squeezing in
Kanye West - 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' (whole album, alone on Spotify)
in preparation for forthcoming blog post. I'm familiar enough with it now that even the noisy lyric heaviness can be blended into the background of my consciousness while I write a different blogpost.

...Wednesday was my most music-filled day yet this week - for a good few weeks, even - but no definitive Song of The Day that has grabbed me by the lapels and demanded my attention. Which is very much the kind of day it has been through and through, actually. Tomorrow I'll probably be busy working and the post will be much slimmer. You lucky people!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Music Diary Project: Monday & Tuesday

Given that the recent explosion in people adopting the 30 Days of Music format made me ache for that halcyon April last year, in a way that got me one step closer to fully appreciating Losing My Edge, I thought I'd hop on the latest bandwagon, courtesy of Nick Southall. Basically, an investigation into how people listen to and use music, promising some kind of spreadsheet of finding at week's end. I'll be swimming off, as usual, in my own direction, but it seemed fun and very much within my wheelhouse.

was one of those days where music is constant and unavoidable. Radio 1 in the car, a sequence of increasingly noisy pubs, meant I heard - if not listened - to a much wider range of songs than I normally would. Only two stand out:
Rihanna - S&M (4 times, pub/radio)
The definite success of Monday. Started out not liking it, ended up praying loudly that it would get played again, just one more time, and walked home shouting the lyrics. Last time I did that was Rude Boy.
Chris Brown - (4 times, pub/radio)
Which I heard the thousand-headed anonymous hydra that is local radio DJs fawn over, telling us how they'd OMGed when they heard it, and multiple times in pubs. It might be more than 4 times, to be honest; I wouldn't know. I'm not even taking offence for the obvious woman-hitting reasons, it's just the most bland generic thing ever, so much so that I can't express why without going back to listen to it. Which I won't.

And, as ever with these nights, Monday bled over into what was technically
which began too drunk to really record what I listened to. I faintly remember a crawl across Youtube. But Friday proper began with repeated listens to
Patrick Wolf - The City (4 times, alone, Youtube)
Which is the new single, or at least new to me. It's certainly very Patrick Wolf, ebullient yet fey and all that. There's a bit where a deep-voiced vocoder echoes the chorus against the most 80s bit of saxophoning you've heard since 2008, and then Wolf's singing kicks back in, doing the accelerated verse. This bit undeniably is brilliant; the jury of my heart is still a little out on the song as a whole.
Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx - Tracks 1-3 from We're New Here (alone, Spotify)
This didn't prove as compatible with my hangover as I would've liked. Abandoned the album three tracks in to seek softer, more headache-friendly forms of entertainment.
Johnny Boy - You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve (alone, Spotify)
Rose-Elinor Dougall - Tracks 1-5 from Without Why (alone, Spotify)

Which was much more in line with the hangover. Proved a little too soft after a while and an argument with a call centre via a payphone, so I changed to bigger, external speakers and
Crystal Castles & Robert Smith - We Are Not In Love (alone, Spotify)
which struck the balance I was looking for all along. Soft by Crystal Castles' standards, but still crisp and a little bit noisy. Queued up
The Decemberists - 16 Military Wives (alone, Spotify)
and then put every playlisted song on shuffle for a bit. This means skipping a lot of my alt-Christmas songs and stuff people have added to party playlists (T.I., shudder) but also throws up
The Arcade Fire - Wasted Hours
Big Boi - The Train, Pt. 2
The Arcade Fire - We Used to Wait
LCD Soundsystem - Pow Pow
(all alone, all on Spotify)
Which I am really enjoying, and then my phone rings, which means
Super Smash Bros Brawl Soundtrack - Pokemon Battle Theme (on my phone)
I am such a smug post-Pilgrim hipster, but this is a briliant ringtone, especially for someone like me who is: a) rubbish at not missing calls, b) a little afraid of phone conversations. Really brings the tension. This leads to a break from my room and thus my music, though I do hear a snatch of
Rebecca Black - Friday (unknown, sounded like teenaged girls singing)
from an unidentified source, accompanied by a lot of gleeful voices, while I am in the phonebox outside my house. Back to the shuffled music, back to
Amanda Palmer - Blake Says
Standard Fare - Dancing
Jay-Z - 99 Problems
LCD Soundsystem - All My Friends
Xiu Xiu - Apple for a Brain
Belle & Sebastian - I Didn't See It Coming
Cut Copy - Pharaohs & Pyramids
Los Campesinos! - Straight in at 101
The Horrors - Do You Remember
My Chemical Romance - Planetary
The Kinks - All Day & All of The Night (all alone, all on Spotify)
and then, at the recommendation of Mr. Miles Bradley's Tumblr, I put on
Childish Gambino - Break (alone, web browser)
--which is promptly interrupted by
Super Smash Bros Brawl Soundtrack - Pokemon Battle Theme (on my phone)
Hi Mom! Back to
Childish Gambino - Break (3 times, alone, web browser)
Which is my first exposure to Childish Gambino, or AS&F! Man of The Year Donald Glover, even. And I really like it, balancing as it does sharp lyrical turns and I-want-to-eat-them-up beats. It's clever and silly and crammed with pop-culture references, but it feels pretty honest too. The use of All of The Lights works brilliantly, too, which surprised me. I've spent a lot of the last couple of months listening to that song (culminating in The Greatest Moment of last Friday's party) and this channels that love into something that doesn't wear it out for me. Turns out to be Song of The Day; thanks Miles!
Michael Nielsen - Splinter Cell Conviction OST (7; random tracks, alone (obv), Spotify)
soundtracks the polishing up of a post on the game, before a long tea-and-Coen-Brothers break, which is followed hours later by my final song for the day,
Gonzales - I Am Europe (with Sam, Spotify)
because it came up in conversation. "I am gay pastry and racist cappucino" ...Well, quite.

Don't Call It...: Return of the Fisher King

Another piece on comebacks, this time in the world of console-and-televisual games. It's a bit more tangentially related to the hip-hop orientated posts which will bookend it, but no less violent or sweary.

Eat this, five-eyes.

Sam Fisher. Like stealth gaming’s Eminem, every apparent retirement means another inevitable self-reinventing comeback. After a four year hiatus, and at least one return to the drawing board, Conviction brings back everyone’s favourite grumpy killing machine.

Except, he’s not so silent these days. Following the apparent death of his daughter, Sam’s not feeling so subtle. As he tracks down whoever is responsible through fairgrounds, industrial warehouses and (in flashback) war-torn Iraq, he leaves a trail of snapped necks and exploded craniums.

Oh yes. Out go the extensive gadgets and meticulous planning. In come brutal close-quarter murdering and its reward, the ‘Mark & Kill’ system, which allows Fisher to get off two or three insta-kill shots from the hip faster than the unholy spawn of Clint Eastwood and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Everything is designed to streamline your stealth experience. The new ‘last known position’ system, which leaves a white outline in the place enemies makes it easier to keep track of cat-and-mouse chases. It’s also a step towards the removal of the cluttered HUD, as Conviction tries to put everything on screen.

Mark & Spencer

This is a double-edged sword. Replacing the increasingly over-complicated feed of information (light meters, noise meters, doing-a-jig meters) of yesteryear by simply jumping into black-and-white when you’re hidden is a neat idea. In theory.

In practice, it can be headache-inducing or, worse, just plain unconvincing. Coming back into full-colour mode shows these ‘hidden’ spots to be quite reasonably-illuminated corners. The flashbacks and objectives projected onto walls, however, are a brilliant idea. They’re Conviction at its most beautiful, and should be copied immediately.

But this isn’t a particularly beautiful game: it’s too busy with manly grunting for that. The delicate interplay of light and shadow, growing in sophistication with each instalment, is gone. There’s certainly no more gawping at thin slits of light crawling across your body, or the slowly-rotating silhouette of a fan. Without the strength of its convictions to create deep dark shadows, there’s little contrast, and little hiding rough-edges.

Meanwhile, the men you’re trying to knock off shout increasingly hyperbolic threats. “We’re gonna find you Fisher!” “You’re supposed to be a soldier, Fisher, not some little girl!” “How about I take your mother out on a date, Fisher?!?” It used to be that the snatches of dialogue you’d catch felt like spying on your enemies. But that little voyeuristic thrill is swept away in the deafening scream.

God, I feel like an old man. I know I keep leaning on the it aten’t the way I remember it argument, but this is quite self-consciously a comeback. The weight that carries means you can’t help but compare it to what came before.

A wee torture session (ha! wee! gettit?)

There’s the scent of a few failed attempts during that time in the wilderness, and of looking over its shoulder at the competition (the looming bat-shaped shadow of Arkham Asylum, the sweat-marks left by Call of Duty). After nearly annual releases, there were four long years between this and the last Splinter Cell game. That can’t help but build expectations: just look back at my 2009 preview for proof of that.

In the hip-hop examples I’ve been looking at, the comeback pushes against the tension of all that time away to build tension, raise the stakes. All a long-delayed game has to push against is the fans. And so I end up focusing on how much complexity it has shed, reaching for options that aren’t there anymore like a phantom limb. The myriad of buttons and moves you’d only use twice was part of the joy of Splinter Cell.

But, it is a Proper Stealth Game. It’s been a while since we saw one of those, following the death of last decade’s stealth boom. I just wish it would remember that, realise what used to make it so special, and just quiet down a little. But then, isn’t that how it always is when one of your favourites comes back from the dead?

Friday, 1 April 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #38, Leon


Everything you need to know about Leon can be found in the cracks and dips of Jean Reno’s face. With those iconic circular sunglasses in place, he’s a fearsome figure of cool.

And this is a film that knows a thing or two about that. It uses a language and iconography of cool all its own. Leon’s glass of milk. Vents, slowly creeping open. The trench-coat full of grenades. It’s a vocabulary that echoes through a good majority of action films made since, and games. Especially games.

Coming out in 1994, in the wake of Doom and at the advent of 3d shooters, it isn’t hard to see a little Leon threaded through gaming history. In one small sequence, it taught the pleasures of the sniper rifle. As Leon shows his protégé Mathilda how to stare , carefully picking her moment and waiting… waiting… thump. And you can’t help but imagine a hundred darkened rooms of game developers scribbling away.

Because that’s Leon: a man sharpened into a single-purpose tool. And it’s easy to believe Jean Reno could be that person. He’s got angles in all the right places, and stubble that someone manages to be world-weary in and of itself.

But then take the glasses off, and those big innocent eyes are revealed. You start to notice his little mousey teeth. Get Jean Reno looking at the camera in just the right way, and he’s childlike. He is an ice-cold killer, true, but when the film reveals he’s a victim, being taken advantage of by his boss, it’s hardly a surprise.

Leon’s success is entirely dependent on the chosen actors in the film, something you could pass off as inspired casting. But Natalie Portman, 13 year-old Natalie Portman, is perfect for reasons that could never be predicted. She’s awkwardly sexualised: not in the Sucker Punch sense, but in a way that’s honest to that messy transition from childhood to adulthood. And this is made all the more fascinating, and excruciating, for the figure she’s bloomed into. There’s a line to be drawn between Black Swan and here, not to mention that bit in the Your Highness trailer where she strips down to some kind of medieval thong.

There’s a sequence where she dresses as a sequence of pop-cultural icons – including the Madonna singing Like A Virgin, doing a husky Marilyn Monroe impression of that come-hither Happy Birthday. It’s something I’d entirely forgotten was in the film, and it’s possibly its greatest moment. Leon can’t quite look directly at her – those big Jean Reno eyes, again – and neither can you. It’s more painful for the pleasure you’ve probably taken in a bethonged Portman in the years since.

Meanwhile, Leon responds with an attempt at John Wayne. It shows how the characters are working from two separate spheres of reference, joined only at the unlikely hip of Gene Kelly. It’s got touches at my most beloved theme, of how pop culture informs and crafts identity.

And then there’s Gary Oldman. A twitchy, quirky bad guy, full of crunched-between-the-teeth pills and Beethoven. His looks are the weasel to Reno’s mousiness, effortlessly carrying both a sense of sleaziness and of how deranged he is, in a way that recalls, nearly two decades early, Ledger’s Joker.

So, all these familiar faces. Leon understands what they can do, and spends a lot of time pushing you into their faces. Watching an extensive shot of the quietly crying face of Mathilda as she simultaneously grieves and prays for her life, is torturous. And so it builds tension and atmosphere, but also sympathy.

The scenes of Leon’s everyday life, alone and then with Mathilda, are surprisingly touching. He makes a puppet out of a novelty pig oven-glove. They have water-fights and do impressions of celebrities, whether Madonna or John Wayne. For a film about an assassin, these scenes clash directly against the other half, and it makes both more interesting and satisfying.

As Leon softens – Mathilda inevitably going the other way, and forcing herself to harden - he spends less and less time with the glasses on. Until it’s time for them to go back on, and then the stylish violence begins.


About Me

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.