Friday, 29 July 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #23, Serenity


It’s a good thing this list wasn’t open to voting. If the internet has taught us anything (and God can only hope that it has), it’s that any time you give Browncoats the slightest opportunity, Serenity will win.

That’s how I first met Serenity. It topped an end-of-year list on Jonathan Ross’ Film 2005. I was amazed. A sci-fi film I’d barely even heard of, so objectively, definitely best of the year? In a year with Batman Begins?

Of course, that was before I knew anything about the world – the ‘verse – that Serenity inhabited. Both within and without, it’s a story of desperate loyalty, blind against-the-odds faith, and more than a little disappointment. The story of Serenity is that it grew out of the wreck of a dead TV show, fertilised by endless online petitioning. A single, final victory for the Browncoats.

But I didn’t know that, really, when I first watched the film. The story that interested me was just what’s in the film: the single, desperate victory of Malcolm Reynolds and crew. It’s about salvaging what’s left – the ideals from a long-lost war, what life gives you now, and whoever’s still actually alive – and making the best from it. Which is all rather fitting, looking back.

Serenity is proper sci-fi. It’s everything that immediately jumps to mind when the genre is mentioned: the swashbuckling adventures of the crew of a spaceship (Firefly class, aught-three model, designation ‘Serenity’). It scavenges from Star Wars, of course, but almost as heavily from The Matrix (in terms of plot shape, presentation and feel rather than world-building) but it’s a more plausible world than either: no aliens, no robots. (Well, almost no robots…)

Appropriately, it’s a world that feels vastly human. And Serenity has to reintroduce everything Firefly managed in its too-short 14 episodes – the sci-fi Western setting, the growth of China as a superpower and of Mandarin as a language - but it does this beautifully.

The first 15 minutes are a masterclass: it starts within a concertina of scenes-within-scenes, repeatedly pulling back to reveal ‘aha! no! that was just a dream! and the person dreaming it? it was all a video!’. It’s formalistic showiness for the sake of it, so obviously I love it dearly. But also it keeps things pacey, without too much creaky exposition (there’s one line - “and he threw away his promising career in medicine too!” – that creaks ever so slightly), and introduces the new threat. Who, fortunately for Serenity, is Chiwetel Ejiofor.

He’s the kind of man the words ‘screen presence’ were invented for, as he broods and does a bit of ever-so-slight nibbling on the scenery as The Operative. He’s a man of deep, terrifying conviction, cooing gently to a man he has impaled on a sword that, this is a good death, there is no shame in this. It’s all genuinely quite sinister and sets up a perfectly heavy, serious sci-fi film, especially when we then cut to a shot of the Serenity in space…

And then the Primary Buffer Panel falls off. The camera goes inside the Serenity, and we’re surrounded by life, personality, and full-on Joss Whedon dialogue. “Define ‘interesting’.”/“‘Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die’?”. A single tracking shot, apparently one unbroken take, takes us through the innards of the ship and smoothly introduces each character. We’re on the boat.

From there, it’s a beautiful ride of a movie, equal parts big action adventure, touching drama and wry comedy. Just like anything Whedon, or like life. The central adventure is self-contained, but rooted in enough dangling threads from the series that it doesn’t feel plucked from nowhere.

…And there I go again, talking about the one thing I said I wouldn’t. I really do think the film is marginalised as the TV programme’s sickly brother. Does it bear marks of its difficult birth? If you’re looking for them, certainly. Is it, more or less, one big episode of Firefly? Yes. Its ambitions are appropriately bigger than any of the others, but it would probably fit right in as a season finale. The thing is – and that wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, Firefly being one of the best TV programmes we’re ever going to get – the thing is that if even that were the case, if it were just slotted in, then Serenity would be the best single episode it had to offer.


Friday, 22 July 2011

Favourite Films: #24, American Psycho

“Do you like Huey Lewis and The News?

Their early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Sports came out in '83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He's been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far much more bitter, cynical sense of humor.

In '87, Huey released this, Fore, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is "Hip to be Square", a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it's also a personal statement about the band itself.”
Patrick Bateman

As Christian Bale’s Bateman gives this speech, he’s pulling on a plastic overcoat and dancing around the apartment. He delivers the final lines using the axe in his hands for emphasis. Immediately afterward, he drives this axe repeatedly into the skull of the (half-)listener.

It’s a brilliant, singular performance. I’m not really one to talk about actors, because it’s not my craft and – like with music – marvelling at someone’s ability isn’t something that gives me particular pleasure. But this isn’t a Oscar-begging tour de force in subtlety and observation, it’s a comedy performance. Watching the scene in isolation isn’t miles from watching a stand-up comedian. The focus is on timing and little expressions; on being funny.

And that’s the thing about American Psycho. It’s many other things - a satire that doesn’t embarrass itself too much, a strong character piece, a comment on how little people care about what others are doing, occasionally even horrifying - but mostly it’s just funny. It’s certainly structured like one, with set-pieces like the business card scene getting the big laughs, while little moments catch you for a wry smile in between. I can’t help treating it like any other comedy: it’s the kind of film that you quote to the people you watched it with for days afterwards. Listening to Hip to be Square to put me in the right mindset to write this still makes me laugh.

It’s a chuckle-a-thon, about a successful businessman who slaughters homeless people and prostitutes to the soundtrack of bland ‘80s pop. That pleases me even conceptually, just writing that down. It’s not like the film invented that idea, though, and maybe I should be siding with Bret Easton Ellis, who doesn’t think his (absolutely brilliant) book ever needed to be adapted and that director Harron ‘didn’t get it’, basically.

But I say: pshaw, Bret. We’re all friends here, and Mary Harron got one bit totally right: she turned the volume up on the comedy. It’s a little broader (more black comedy than black comedy) but that just helps makes it funnier. Any of the weaknesses of the adaptation are drowned out as a result. Even the difficult ending: though the film is far too smart to present it as a twist, it goes from being an intriguing ambiguity to a messy distraction.

But what it does ‘get’ is this: when you can laugh at a naked Christian Bale (phwoar, incidentally) flexing his muscles in the mirror during a sex scene, then running down a hallway with only a pair of white trainers and a whirring chainsaw to protect his modesty, what does that even matter?


Friday, 8 July 2011

Half-way point of FFoF

So, I don't know if you noticed, but we totally hit the halfway mark in our quest to chronicle the entirety of my taste in films, there. And anyone with an aptitude for maths can probably tell that it leaves us with a couple of spare weeks, so I think it's time for a half-time breather, to mark this point and also because I'm going on a three-week holiday across Europe. So let's have a break of two weeks and then right back to the grindstone.

I present to you: every film covered so far. Please feel free to read the ones you missed, or why not just reread them and suck every last bit of juice from their rinds?

#50: The Wrestler


FFoF49 WhereTheWildThingsAre

FFoF47 The Thing

FFoF46: Zodiac

FFoF45 Anchorman

FFoF44: 24HourPartyPeople



FFoF41: Spirited Away


FFoF #39: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang


FFoF#37: Juno













Saturday, 2 July 2011

Mix’tApe: Hippin’ anna Hoppin’

So, after four long, for most part glorious years, the Best Period of My Life So Far has come to a crashing end. Boo hiss. No longer do I live with six of my favourite people, and I’m getting all retrospective. I’ve failed to fulfil a lot of aims, hopes and promises over the years but one stands out: I never shared my music enough. After a first year of playing music loud enough that it bled through my bedroom wall I’ve failed, in my role as The One That Gets A Bit Funny About Music, to act as gatekeeper of the fabled New Music.

So, this is for the person who asked me for music most consistently. I don’t intend to miss out on Being The Person Who First Gave You Neutral Milk Hotel ever again. Here's a mixtape (except not in any way physically a tape, but since when did that matter?) :

It was made, like all mixtapes should be, with one person in mind: if you are that person, let this mark the passing of an era, and I’m crossing my fingers hoping you won’t hate it all. But: if someone were to happen upon this selection of tracks, and like them anyway, that would be just fine too.

1. Childish Gambino – Break

Let’s start with something semi-familiar. Partially because I’m constantly slipping it into ambient kitchen/BBBQ/pre-party playlists – the passive-aggressive solution to the aforementioned problem – but mostly, That Sample. Something beautiful is done to the sounds, which twists them into something with a genuine hint of tragedy. There’s just a sense of real, personal emotion, and that elevates it from being ‘just’ a great hip-pop song with fun, sharp, fast wordplay and a good sample.

2. The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls

Music that sounds like an arty black-and-white film of a burnt-out car, the final flames flickering as they die out, on an endless loop. And the footage is probably just out of focus. This is another potentially familiar one: I’ve been slipping the album in wherever I could, that monochrome flicker a background to months’ worth of social interactions. Not that House of Balloons (also the album title, available for free online) makes for good ambient soundtrack material. It should be: it’s reasonably quiet and laid-back (so far that it’s on the hard ground, spine aching, wondering how it got there). But it’s just a bit too unsettling for the music to ever settle in the back of your mind.

3. Emmy the Great – A Woman, a Woman, a Century of Sleep

Did I mention that Emmy the Great has a new album? It’s a much slower burn than First Love, trading quite heavily on the beauty of Miss Thegreat’s voice, rather than the razor sharp lyrics it’s delivering. But still: a new! Emmy the Great! album! (And one that’s hugely expanded on the sound side, in ways that would make a lesser writer pull out words like ‘mature’.) Century of Sleep is the kind of track that holds your gaze, intensely, meaningfully, and makes you forget you were only really looking into her eyes in the first place because you kind of fancy her.

4. Jai Paul – BTSTU

Less a song, more a smoggy exercise in production flexing its muscles:
  • Marvel at how artificial these waves of sound are!
  • Ponder at the interplay between shrill falsetto and thick industrial beats!
  • Take a while to notice how it softly drops the f-bomb!

5. Gil Scott Heron & Jamie XX – NY is Killing Me

More late-nite music. BTSTU could have been seeping out under the heavy doors of a club, but this is getting home alone music, awake later than you should be. Again, it’s a producer showing off, twisting something that was a perfectly balanced song (I’m not sure if you’ve heard the original before, but including that just felt like cheating: it’s just too foolproof) and wrapping a cloak of its own noises around itself. There’s a constant shift of attention as the song goes on, from one shiny thing to another: ooh, listen to these jagged icicles of elect… bouncing rubber ball in an empty… chunky wood-block noises! If you’re listening for it, there’s the feeling of a child playing with all the buttons in front of him, but – unlike most of We’re New Here’s remixes - it just about gets away with it.

6. Jim Jones ft. Lloyd & Girl Talk – Believe in Magic (Instrumental)

We’re deeply in our atmospheric midsection now. If we’re continuing the night metaphors, this is the hazy 5am of summer, after a house-party, streets abandoned but already starting to warm up. It reminds me of The Avalanche’s Since I Met You and bedroom dancing with my eyes closed. What more do you need?

7. Guided by Voice – Game of Pricks

In case you’re fancying something a little more immediate. GUITARS! SCRATCHY VOCALS! Forget all that talk about production, this is so wobbly you can hear it being recorded. It’s a song that begs to be repeated, or (preferably but somewhat impractically) heard multiple times at once. So you might be pleased to hear that there are two versions. There’s a good hour of lo-fi fun to be had in just playing them back to back.

8. Drake – Over

Now we’re getting a little more ballsy, let’s inject an ounce of testosterone to proceedings, shall we? Drake’s got that Weezy-esque drawl, stretched over big macho Mainstream-Hip-Hop bragging (most notably, about what he intends to do to Will Smith’s missus). I suspect, like me, you might have a very definite limit for how much of that is too much. It’s the hook which keeps it just the right side, channelling those uncertainties about lifestyle and where exactly I am, before the verses come in and just cut clean through it all.

9. EL-P – Stepfather Factory

There’s 0% uncertainty in Stepfather Factory. It couldn’t be further away from macho bragging; there’s just no room for it. It plays like an address to the nation but really, it’s a direct attack. On the shoddiness of American industry and . On all the second-rate fathers, the deadbeats and absentees. Mostly, though, it’s an attack on you. Your senses – when it starts to layer on top of itself, it nearly becomes too much – and your emotions – a tangential conversation with a little girl, which interrupts her with a “yeah, whatever” so it can get back to asserting that she probably gets a funny feeling in her tummy when mommy cries. This is a song that ends with a Fitter Happier-style robotic voice repeatedly asking why are you making me hurt you? I love you. There’s no doubt that it absolutely hates you. But doesn’t that make loving it back all the more thrilling?

10. Akira The Don – Steven Wells He Was The Greatest

This is a track about a NME journalist who died in 2009, but – in the immortal words of Leslie Nielsen - that’s not important right now. It’s all about the style of it all. Random moments of shouting and echoes and bits where the line hasn’t quite finished yet but the next one is going to start anyway and what appears to be a momentary Clash impression. What’s most stylish is the way it fits together to provide a vision of what British Hip-Hop might’ve sounded like: a little shabby, manic, and completely uninterested in the boundaries of genre. An Alternative History, where we were all much cooler.

11. Lucien Sanchez – One Track Lover

One Track Lover is an indulgence and a novelty to end on. But I think it’s fair to say the full extended version has gone far beyond that now. After all the praise I’ve laid on the previous tracks, to merely say that this is listenable seems anticlimactic. But we’re talking about a throwaway joke song from a cult (read: unpopular) BBC horror comedy, which skims through 80s musical clich├ęs and ridiculous innuendo. It’s not very well sung. It fades out, tries the song in a new style: why not do it as a ballad, or heavily vocodered, or with a Phil Collins drum fill? That I still listen to it at all is a miracle. And what's more... TAILPIPE!

(This is not the kind of mixtape that fades out. It’s the kind where you light up the circular ‘Repeat’ button on your player of choice, and start right off again. Recycle!)Cover

...There you go. Possibly the first proper ‘mixtape’ I’ve ever made. Maybe a few of the songs you’ll grab to your heart, hopefully at least one will provide a gateway. And you (whoever you in this case might be) will probably dislike a good portion of it. That’s okay, it’s the danger of a mixtape. I just ask that you appreciate how many time I had to listen to the same three Spotify ads to get here.

Favourite Films on Friday: #25, Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2)


When we’ve talked about the various Pixar films on this list – and there will be plenty when all’s said and done – I’ve admitted that it’s hard not to think about them in terms of the larger framework of that studio’s output. A similar rule applies to my enjoyment of the work of Mssr. Quentin Tarantino, another figure who will be proliferating this list.

Kill Bill marks a kind of watershed moment in Tarantino’s work. This is how I see it, anyway. It drew a line, between the types of films he made then and now. Moving from crime, and into other genres that leant more towards action, wearing all his cinematic influence on those baggy sleeves, while adopting a novelistic structure and odd moments of unexplained experimentation. The QT House Style of the 21st Century, I guess.

Two films later, with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino’s biggest hallmark was revealed for all the world to see. Not the bloodshed, not the pop-culture chatter that everyone had been doing in their impressions. It was simply long, building scenes of tension where violence simmers just under the surface, and is suddenly released. With, okay, maybe a little bit of blood, a smidgen of chatter.

Looking back, almost every Tarantino film is a collection of these build-and-release scenes, of varying lengths. So, it’s odd that in Kill Bill you pretty much know exactly who will be standing in the end: our singular heroine will survive. It’s just that kind of film. And Bill? Well, it seems unlikely he’s going to make it, somehow.

So how do you build that thick, syrupy tension?

Kill Bill’s answer finds its answer somewhere in that novelistic structure we talked about earlier (oh yes, the gun was very firmly above the fireplace). Kill Bill isn’t just in volumes: it’s in chapters. When the films were on the BBC recently, my lovely girlfriend – who has never seen the films before – and I only caught the middle three chapters of Vol. 2. To my surprise, each worked perfectly and satisfyingly as a self-contained story, and the three put together felt like a full, satisfying film.

The chapters phrase The Bride’s various capers in small, contained bursts that manage to feel dangerous, or else take the opportunity to dance across the other strains of the film’s mutant DNA. They build up individual characters – the supporting cast of Kill Bill’s insane world – with conflicts, threats and finally resolution (mostly, bloody resolution). It’s probably telling that Tarantino leans so much towards large ensembley casts.

Nevertheless, however it’s managed, and however you or I choose to intellectualise it, Kill Bill manages that rarest thing for a modern action film, looking back over its long lineage of jumps, thrills and stunts: it feels breathtakingly risky. Not always, and not always because of the danger to our heroine, but it’ll get to you at least once in that four hour running time.

….Phew. I got through that without a single mention of the word ‘iconic’. Not even the merest whiff, talking about the most riffed-on film of the last ten years, as the sword-reflected eyes of the Bruce-Lee-dressed Bride stare over me from a tattered poster in my bedroom back home and I’m starting to faintly hum the 5678s... Not a single mention. I must be getting better. Right?


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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.