Monthly Archives: December 2011

Another Earth: another draft needed possibly

I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I went in to see Another Earth, directed and co-written by Mike Cahill, but the title and marketing campaign would seem to indicate that it’s straightforward speculative science-fiction: a new planet appears in the sky, and it’s eventually discovered to be an exact replica of the Earth, even down to the individuals living on it. Contact is made, and an expedition planned, with places reserved for ordinary citizens as well as scientists. I guess I thought the film was going to be something like an indie version of Contact – in fact it turns out that, other than some carefully composited background shots showing the new Earth looming large in the sky, the expected sci-fi trappings are almost wholly absent, and that the film is actually a lo-fi and personal piece about one young woman’s need to make amends for a tragedy she inadvertently caused as a teenager. The bulk of the running time is made of scenes showing lead character Rhoda (played by co-screenwriter Brit Marling) struggling to reassemble her life in banal domestic and work settings before she makes the decision to make contact with the bereaved and traumatised academic John Burroughs (William Mapother). The film has a somewhat uneven and unfinished quality to it: the use of raw digital video is absolutely fine for the scenes showing Rhoda’s attempts to reach out to the man whose life she has derailed, but it becomes jarring when obvious devices like flashbacks, slow motion and surging music are deployed to heighten the emotional effect, and you wish the film-makers had had the nerve to just let the drama play out unmolested. Similarly, the high-concept stuff with the new planet becomes seriously distracting once one realises its been included as a crushingly obvious metaphor for second chances, and one starts wishing the script had gone through another couple of revisions to downplay or even remove this angle. One suspects it would have worked just fine simply as a possibility that the characters discuss. The film has a little of the flavour of Tarkovsky’s highminded and meditative Solaris, and it presents some interesting ideas in a thoughtful manner, but sometimes it seems a bit too reminiscent of a film student’s project made to an unmovable deadline.

The Deep Blue Sea

A bare description of the events of Terence Davies’s new film The Deep Blue Sea, adapted from the 1952 Terence Rattigan play, is not going to make it sound appetising: set in a drab, postwar Britain, it concerns a woman called Hester who finds an escape route from her oppressive marriage to a starchy High Court judge when she’s wooed by a charming young pilot. She flees from her husband and joins her lover in a rented flat, only to discover that her new man’s impulsive and fiery personality has effects on her hardly less damaging than the emotional suffocation she’d previously endured. The film starts with Hester’s half-hearted suicide attempt after her realisation of her predicament and then tracks back to show how she got there before continuing with the fall-out from her desperate act.

Given the subject matter, the unapologetically stagey nature of much of the dialogue, and Davies’s pointedly austere, unhurried and non-ingratiating style of film-making it’s surprising and pleasing that the film turns to be a fine piece of drama that holds one’s attention for the full length of its running time. This is partly due to the quality of the screenplay, which succeeds in putting sometimes very wordy and finessed speeches into the mouths of the characters without forfeiting their believability, partly down to Davies’s willingness to shoot long dialogue scenes between two people in a room with the minimum of distracting edits and musical cues (although there are a couple of wordless montages set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and a moving sequence showing Londoners keeping up their spirits up while sheltering in the underground during the Blitz by singing an Irish folk song), partly due to the care and skill of the production design, which evokes a buttoned-down, airless 1940s version of England brilliantly, and partly due to the perfectly cast leads. Simon Russell Beale manages to invest what might easily have been the unsympathetic and one-dimensional spurned husband role with humanity and dignity, and Tom Hiddleston, who looks so much like a matinée idol it’s a bit uncanny, conveys both the light and dark sides of his character without descending into cliché. Most revelatory of all is Rachel Weisz, who’s onscreen more or less continually – it’s an unshowy internalised role, and she doesn’t in fact get much share of the dialogue at all, but her various shades of suffering are got across heartbreakingly well nonetheless. It’s lightyears away from her roles in fluff like The Mummy.

The Deep Blue Sea is probably not for everyone, but if you’re looking for an antidote to vacuous feelgood blockbusters it’s well worth a look. Despite the measured pace and relative lack of incident I was left wishing it was longer when the end credits came up: always a good sign.

Adam Ant live at Cambridge Corn Exchange, December 4th 2011

If you’ve been reading any of my ramblings about music you’ll have probably worked out by now that I’d be kind of happier if the last 30 years hadn’t happened and so it shouldn’t really be too surprising that I’d get a ticket for 1981’s biggest pop star when a show’s announced in my home town. Adam Ant was something of a hardbitten survivor even then, having emerged in London with the first wave of punk and then seen his first group pinched by Malcolm McLaren and recast as Bow Wow Wow, but by now he ought to be positively grizzled, what with the arrests and the mental health issues and being the only act that played at Live Aid and then saw their record sales drop. His renaissance has been a long time coming.

But renaissance this is, even if it’s one tempered by a definite undercurrent of chippiness. The man in the buccaneer’s hat and pirate garb now wears heavy-framed glasses and reminds one a bit of a cut-price Johnny Depp but he’s got all his rebel moves down pat and is in tremendous voice. None of the other original Ants are here, but the idiosyncratic line-up featuring two drummers remains and they generate a big chunky no-nonsense noise that fills the barn-like venue nicely. For some numbers Adam is joined by the support band Poussez Posse’s glamorous and pouty singer Georgie, who executes the Diana Dors part from Prince Charming with aplomb. No-one can complain about value for money: this set goes on for over ninety minutes, and with most of the numbers coming in at about three minutes, and more or less non-stop too, that represents a whole lot of songs. You get the sense that Adam resents the suggestion that he’s just a crowd-pleasing cabaret act – while the band play all the hits none of them are dwelt on, and the bulk of the set consists of unfamiliar selections from the upcoming new album (it’s actually really great to hear the early stuff again, they’re canny and robust constructions made up of witty slogans, twangy hooks and irresistible tribal beats and I may have to dig out a Greatest Hits at some point). The obvious encore selection Stand And Deliver is got out of the way early, and when Adam does indulge himself in an introduction it tends to be for a new song, or a very old punk-era one. Truth be told, the length of the set ends up being slightly wearying as there isn’t all that much variation in tempo or texture but you can’t fault the band’s energy level or commitment to the material, and the audience seem to lap it up. They finish with a T Rex medley, which seems bizarrely appropriate somehow. All in all, a pretty impressive comeback for someone who’ll be qualifying for next year’s old age pension before too long now.

Hugo: worth a few Oscars

I was completely blindsided by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which turned out to be that very rare big budget effects-heavy family film that might actually be worthy of the adjective “magical”. It’s set around one of the main train stations in Paris in about 1930 and is concerned with the fortunes of a plucky and resourceful orphan with a fascination with machinery who has learned how to conceal himself from the authorities within the structure housing the station clock. Hugo has run-ins with the buffoonish station inspector and the forbidding toy stall owner Georges, who is clearly harbouring much sadness and regret, the nature of which seems to be obliquely connected with the intricate clockwork automaton that Hugo has inherited from his father and is trying to get working again. The story starts moving properly once Hugo falls in with Isabelle, another orphan with a much more sheltered upbringing who’s keen to have an adventure with a real outsider.

The environments of the movie are designed and rendered in a precise and heightened style that reminds me a bit of Tim Burton or certain Coen Brothers projects (The Hudsucker Proxy particularly), and there’s liberal use of computer generated effects to help realise the panoramic sweeps through the station and the mighty cogs and pendulums of the clock tower, and while it’s all impressive eye candy I was wondering for the first half of the film why Scorsese of all people had chosen to take it on – this is about as far as you can imagine it’s possible to get from the brutally realistic settings of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It’s only when the back story of one of the characters starts to be revealed that one realises what the main subject of the piece is, at which point Scorsese’s involvement makes perfect sense – without giving too much away, Hugo is actually a deeply personal film and the resonance with its director’s own childhood experiences is where it draws its power from. At exactly the point where most special effects blockbusters would be lapsing into tedious and convoluted chases and threats and false climaxes and over-extended action sequences Hugo lets its gimmicky elements slide and concentrates on one person’s life story, its disappointments and the possibilities for redemption. I was openly weeping in the cinema at one point and believe me, that doesn’t happen often. The film wraps up beautifully, with just enough conflict to provide narrative tension but without crassly reducing the chief antagonist to a cartoon villain, and the epilogue is genuinely moving. Performances are spot-on throughout, with the bulk of the weight being carried by the young Asa Butterfield, whose piercing blue eyes and haunted expression really sell Hugo’s desperation, and Ben Kingsley, who succeeds in preserving the mystery of Georges’s motivations. It’s also really pleasing to see Christopher Lee keep up his tradition of dignified cameos.

Hugo is it would seem something of a triumph, and even the use of 3D seemed appropriate by the end. Amelie meets Cinema Paradiso, and you don’t even need the subtitles on. The best Christmas film I’ve seen in years and with no trees, sledges, reindeers or fat men with white beards anywhere to be seen.

The Maxon House 2011 CD: tasting notes

So this is my hundredth post, and I was thinking I should use it for something suitably pompous like a list of films of the year or new acts to watch out for in 2012 or a testing Christmas quiz but in the end I figured that I don’t really possess anything like the necessary acumen for any of those. Here instead is something different but no less self-indulgent. Every year at this time my house compiles a CD for distribution among friends that contains recent tracks we particularly like and one or two older songs that relate to gigs we’ve been to or other significant events. People sometimes ask us about the tracks and artists, so here as a public service are some tasting notes, together with a few links.

1. The Agitator: Get Ready. Used to be known as the famous poet Derek Meins who had a nice line in filthy acoustic songs about Sigmund Freud. Has now given up the guitars in favour of urgent agit-prop beats and soulful bellowing.

2. Poly Styrene: I Love Ur Sneakers. RIP. Damn shame. But a brilliant, unapologetically right-on, album to go out on.

3. The Go! Team: Buy Nothing Day. Catchiest track of the year. You can almost hear the bright primary colours, a physical response is compulsory.

4. PJ Harvey: The Glorious Land. From the startlingly great Let England Shake. Went to see her at Ally Pally in July.

5. Real Estate: It’s Real. Deceptively smooth and tuneful indie guitar band from New Jersey. This is from their second album Days, which is so mellow and relaxing and free of dissonance it’s actually quite sinister.

6. Wire: Clay. All these postpunk conceptual outfits keep ploughing on. Didn’t rate the new Gang Of Four album much, but this is well up to par.

7. Half Man Half Biscuit: Excavating Rita. This may be the most commercial sounding track they’ve ever done, ironic given the subject matter. From the splendid 90 Bisodol (Crimond).

8. Joan As Police Woman: The Magic. Terribly awkward alias for Joan Wasser, who was Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend you know. This rather slinky track from the album The Deep Field.

9. Blancmange: The Western. Yes, even Blancmange have a new album out. This is pleasingly similar to Living On The Ceiling. Let’s party like it’s 1982.

10. Eliza Newman: Eyjafjallajökull. Jolly ditty celebrating the holiday-complicating Icelandic volcano.

11. Zoey Van Goey: You Told The Drunks I Knew Karate. I know nothing about this. But I do like the title…right, just looked them up. They’re from Glasgow.

12. Robyn Hitchcock: Dismal City. From the stopgap album Tromsø, Kaptein, which is actually a much better collection than either of his last two official releases. Saw him doing Captain Beefheart in June. Here he sounds more like The Kinks.

13. The Low Anthem: Boeing 737. This lot are ironically named, I’m guessing, as most of the tracks on their Smart Flesh album are so quiet they make the Cowboy Junkies sound like Motorhead. This one’s nicely bombastic though.

14. Anna Calvi: Blackout. My single of the year, I think. Sweeping, lush, widescreen, those sort of adjectives.

15. C.W.Stoneking: Don’t Go Dancin’ Down The Darktown Strutter’s Ball. Seen him three times this year. He does an enthralling rambly surreal intro to this when he does it live, involving a Hoodoo doctor and a prophesy that he’ll die in an eight sided room.

16. The Decemberists: This Is Why We Fight. From the best REM album in twenty years.

17. Alex Turner: Piledriver Waltz: From the soundtrack of the quirky, self-conscious, but still very likeable Submarine. Later re-done by The Arctic Monkeys but I prefer this one. Just looked him up as well, turns out we have the same birthday.

18. Magazine: A Song From Under The Floorboards. Should have been one from their new album really,  but none of the new songs are a patch on this. Saw them live in November.

19. Bonus track. My current favourite songwriter doing a cover, karaoke style.

If you’re interested I think most of these should be on Spotify, or you can contact me for a CD. And, er, Merry Christmas.