Monthly Archives: June 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

It’s not normal for me to go out of my way to watch something with a title like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But then it’s not exactly normal to see one’s own name getting star billing in a special effects packed action blockbuster. For it is true: the lead role in this intriguing confection is taken by the excellently named Benjamin Walker, and frankly it felt a bit rude not to see what he made of it. And, I must admit, I was kind of interested to find out how a movie that pitted a major historical figure against supernatural nasties could possibly work out without becoming irredeemably naff and tasteless – I mean, might this be a tester for a new franchise running through the gamut of America’s leaders? Should we prepare ourselves for Franklin D. Roosevelt: Zombie Reducer, in which the inspiring depression-era pres charges through a horde of under-privileged and disenfranchised corpses in his souped-up, shotgun-enhanced wheelchair? Or Richard Nixon: Werewolf Conniver, a conspiracy thriller hinging on Mr Sweat’n’Jowls’ dodgy co-opting of a cabal of Washington lycanthropes into his scheme of neutralising his Democrat opponents by tearing their throats out?

AL: VH (as I’m sure the marketing department don’t refer to it) presents an alternative biography of the man who led the USA through one of its most divisive and bloody periods. It posits a society where vampires are rife, and frequently holding positions of authority (though, confusingly to the likes of me who instinctively want their Victorian-era vamps safely cooped up in coffins in remote castles during the day, these are the 21st Century, post-Twilight and Being Human, strain of bloodsuckers who seem to be able to function perfectly well in broad sunlight) and the early scenes of the film show how Lincoln as a boy was orphaned as a direct result of the caprice of one of these amoral figures. Abe vows vengeance, but before he gets a chance to foul it up through hotheadedness and ignorance he’s taken under the wing of a mysterious mentor who gives him invaluable training and guidance in the art of evil-outrooting. Subsequently, Lincoln’s life proceeds roughly as it does in the history books, but with a hefty side-order of nocturnal axe-spinning and body disposal until we reach a climactic confrontation on the fields of Gettysburg.

As it turns out the film kind of gets away with it. It’s not brilliant or anything, and the many many computer assisted setpieces of people melodramatically getting it in the neck and pale gaunt types being messily despatched via axe, pistol or runaway train are exactly as flashy and tedious and Matrix-reminiscent as you’d expect, but there is a surprisingly sturdy plot underpinning it, with some sympathetic characters who get development and behave fairly consistently, and all the period detail looks very nice and is graded to a pleasing sepia-themed colour scheme, and while the steampunk-ish greatcoats and eye-glasses and cool boots may be a bit anachronistic they work well in bringing something of the night to scenes that largely take place under a blistering Southern sun. Most impressive perhaps is that the film does make an effort to integrate some properly important bits of actual history into its radical re-imagining of Lincoln’s life: the abolition of slavery and the civil war are threaded into the story in a way that, while undeniably simplistic, means that you get some insight into this man’s towering public achievements and often pain-filled personal life.

And what of Benjamin Walker? He’s very good, actually, carrying off both the young and the middle-aged Lincoln with solid conviction. He looks like, and has the same reassuring presence as, Liam Neeson (unsurprisingly he played the younger version of Neeson’s character in Kinsey a few years ago), and thankfully plays it straight throughout – any hint of campery would have rendered this completely unwatchable. I wonder if he’s going to end up putting my name on an Oscar in a few years…

Django Django at St Paul’s church, Cambridge, 15 June 2012

“It’s 3-2 to England!” announces Jimmy Dixon, Django Django’s affable bass player, a few numbers into their lively set at St Paul’s church in Cambridge. Nice of him to mention it, particularly given that the band hail from Edinburgh, not a part of the world where you’d expect to find much enthusiasm for the English football team. But this is a pretty nice evening all round – the novelty of finding a critically lauded techno-savvy pop group like this playing in an unusually venerable venue seems to have a generated a good vibe among band and audience alike.

St Paul’s church was built around about 1841 and has a spacious and airy interior that has been adapted to the purpose of putting on bands with little trouble. Two banks of pews on a gentle ramp face the platform that functions as the stage, and while the high ceilings probably don’t provide ideal acoustics for amplified beat music the width of the building provides ample milling and moshing space for the crowd. The long midsummer evening means that support band NZCA/Lines have to go on in what is effectively daylight, which doesn’t seem like the best fit for their electronica based sound, but they don’t seem too put out and deliver a proficient set of melodic and thoughtfully layered dance tracks, with the bass guitar cutting through as the most prominent element.

It’s just about dark, and the hall’s just about full, when the main act take to the stage for a brisk run through of songs from their debut album. Django Django are simultaneously a very modern band and fearless ransackers of the past – their songs tend to be littered with sounds and samples and riffs and bits that feel very familiar: a Duane Eddy twangy guitar lick, a Bo Diddley-ish shuffle, a smattering of spaghetti Western seasoning colliding with a sinuous Middle Eastern keyboard part, with shamelessly jolly bleeps and bloops that sound like they’ve been lifted from an early 80s ZX Spectrum game popping up regularly. All great fun, but potentially quite annoying unless you know what you’re doing, and thankfully Django Django do, as these elements have been skillfully coralled into the support of some very robust and infectious tunes. You could indeed almost call them anthems if they weren’t so light and springy. The sheer musicality of the outfit is underlined by the ease with which they swap instruments where necessary, and the sweetness and delicacy of the vocal harmonies delivered by Dixon and lead Django Vincent Neff.  They’re clearly also far from reliant on technology, with an acoustic guitar and a tambourine making appearances at appropriate moments. The band seem to be having a great time, acknowledging and chatting with the audience, and the set seems to be over with indecent haste (Neff actually apologises for this, explaining that so far they’ve only done one album!) While some of the subtleties of Django Django on record are inevitably sacrificed to the acoustics of the nineteenth century architecture it’s still quite thrilling to hear this stuff played live, as what the band lose in clarity they more than make up for in punchiness and energy. You can imagine them becoming a real draw on the live circuit and eventually graduating to arena support slots. I’m very glad I got to see them this close up – catch them while you can if you get a chance.

Woody Allen: A Documentary

Woody Allen: A Documentary, assembled by Curb Your Enthusiasm director and producer Robert B. Weide, is a brisk, engaging but hardly definitive run through the life and works of possibly the most instantly recognisable writer and director working in film today. Allen’s always seemed a bit unknowable, despite his familiarity and frequent, if reluctant, promotional interviews, and this film doesn’t really change that, but it does at least give us a bit of insight into his writing methods (reams of scruffy handwritten notes, which provide the raw material for screenplays that are always written up on the same typewriter, with sections literally cut and stapled together where necessary) and his on-set directing style, which seems to consist mainly of letting the actors get on with it with a minimum of non-specific encouragement. There are interviews with an impressive array of actors, critics and producers (including Allen’s sister Letty Aronson) and a lot of highly entertaining footage of the younger Woody appearing on TV chat shows and comedies. The most interesting section of the documentary is probably that which deals with Allen’s childhood and gradual breakthrough into the entertainment business via jokes that he sold to the papers. These commissions eventually led to his first public appearances as a highly nervous and awkward stand-up comic – he was lucky that his natural talent caught the attention of his long-time managers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, whose shrewd handling of his career in the 60s meant that he ended up in a position where he could demand complete creative control when he started making movies. Allen admits that he hadn’t achieved anything significant enough by then to really justify such a leap of faith by any studio.

After this opening section the film falls into a pattern of going through Allen’s most celebrated, and occasionally notorious, films one by one, and we get to see his progress from the surreal rat-a-tat comedy of 1969’s Take The Money And Run, through the early, funny ones like Bananas and Sleeper, and on to the pivotal Annie Hall, where the humour was tempered by surprisingly incisive dissections of modern relationships for the first time. Allen has since then consistently frustrated his fanbase by opting for quantity over quality – a film a year rather than an obsessive mission to create a masterpiece, and while this way of working has thrown up its fair share of turkeys in recent years, his hit-rate until the mid 90s was actually fairly amazing: Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Hannah And Her Sisters, Crimes And Misdemeanours and Husbands And Wives ought to be enough to satisfy anyone looking for a gold run. I’m not convinced by the suggestion put forward here that 2005’s ropey London-based Match Point is a dramatic return to form (the tin-eared dialogue is excruciating to anyone brought up in the UK), but at least the unexpected worldwide success of last year’s light and fluffy Midnight In Paris provides Weide with a happy ending.

Where this documentary comes up short, and it may be somewhat inevitable given time constraints, is in its occasional elisions and glossings-over of certain aspects of Allen’s life and career. There’s no mention of his first, unhappy marriage, from which he mined a lot of the material he used in his stand-up act, and while his first, and deeply unsatisfactory, foray into screenwriting on What’s New, Pussycat? is included, it’s also implied that this was the last time Allen allowed anyone else to direct or tamper with his scripts, which conveniently ignores both his work on the original Casino Royale, and more significantly possibly his best early 1970s comedy Play It Again, Sam, which was directed by Herbert Ross. Weide’s film is also a bit lacking when it comes to discussing Woody’s influences, whether they be comedic (no Marx brothers or S.J.Perelman), cinematic (Bergman and Fellini only get mentioned in passing) or musical (one of the most characteristic elements in his films is the use of jazz and ragtime, and this is completely passed over). The documentary is however commendably candid when it gets to Allen’s explosive break-up with Mia Farrow (unsurprisingly, Farrow doesn’t appear as an interviewee, though Woody does offer a generous assessment of her merit as an actor).

Allen looks remarkably well-preserved in his interview segments and offers some frank and self-deprecating evaluations of both his life and work. I guess at some point he’ll stop making films, but as one of his biographers points out, given that both his parents were still alive and kicking in their late 90s it may be a while yet.

The Angels’ Share: distilled quality

The Angels’ Share, the new film from veteran chronicler of social injustice Ken Loach, is a bit of a collision of genres but in the end a rather enjoyable one. It’s set in Glasgow, where a group of young offenders doing community service fall under the kindly wing of Harry (played by familiar TV actor John Henshaw), a benevolent supervisor who believes in giving the disadvantaged a second chance and is also something of a fan of whisky distilleries. Lead character Robbie (Paul Brannigan) has just become a father and is determined to put his chequered and occasionally violent past behind him, but is experiencing inevitable run-ins with past adversaries and his girlfriend’s disapproving family – fortunately he’s bright and resourceful enough to recognise an opportunity when it comes his way, even when it’s one that’s going to entail more than a little risk and deception.

This is a game of two halves and no mistake. The early scenes are impeccably social-realist and frequently quite gruelling, with beatings, expletive-laden confrontations and painful personal dilemmas depicted frankly, though thankfully with enough humanity and moments of light relief to keep them watchable. There’s a very authentic feel to proceedings, no doubt helped by the presence of many non-professional actors in the cast. When the whisky kicks in about halfway through the film however so does the main plot, and most of the unpleasantness is left behind in favour of a witty and adroitly played out caper involving the manipulation of a highly exclusive auction of an impossibly rare cask of single malt. This part of the film is delightful, a bit reminiscent of an Ealing comedy or the early films of the great Bill Forsyth, with tension, comedy and unexpected reversals held in perfect balance. Much credit is due to Loach, his screen writer Paul Laverty and the young cast for pulling off this impressive conversion of feel-grim to feel-good, which is achieved without too much of an audible gear grind, and with one or two moments that had the audience I watched the film with either laughing as one or gasping with dismay. Recommended – just don’t walk out half way through or you’ll miss a treat.

Another new favourite band: Wussy, faithful pop song Stalinists

A couple of weeks ago I posted a ramble about my difficulty in coming to terms with folk music, and my reluctant realisation that I don’t actually seem to be too interested in any music that strays too far from the uptempo three minute pop song Motown/Beatles/new wave template. And as if to prove my point I’ve recently stumbled across and subsequently gotten obsessed with a band from Cincinnati who deal exclusively with hooks and riffs and catchy bits and conversational lyrics detailing loves lost and found and wished for. They’re called Wussy, and they operate so far inside my comfort zone it’s simply unseemly.

There’s nothing revolutionary about this group’s music, and there’s no unique selling point. It’s a bog standard set-up: one drummer, one bass player and two guitarists who write the songs and take turns in singing them. One of the singers is fifty-something Chuck Cleaver, whose grizzled beardy appearance and frail, papery singing voice are both gratifyingly consistent with his splendid name, the other is the somewhat younger Lisa Walker, whose vocals are stronger but still flecked with enough imperfections to reassure you this outfit has no truck with auto-tune or Pro Tools. The band’s sound is similarly on the raw and slangy and droney side, though you couldn’t call it sloppy, and while the sound of the guitars never betrays much in the way of treatment or effects they always seem to be just about in tune. This is, as I’m sure John Peel used to say in reference to his beloved Fall records, exactly as it should be.

No, the reason you should listen to Wussy is nothing to do with aural sensationalism and everything to do with the quality of their songs, which exhibit an almost Buzzcocks level of consistent brilliance. They’ve released four albums and an EP since 2005, and more or less every one of the 49 tracks on them is worthy of your attention, either because they boast choruses you can’t shake out of your head or because they feature words that seem cynical or throwaway on the surface but actually cut as deep as Bob Dylan’s finest or because it’s just a splendid uplifting racket that you can imagine witnessing at your local pub and it being the best gig you’ve ever been to. Cleaver’s songs tend to be more world-weary and rueful, and although he does drop the odd profanity here and there he always makes you feel like he’s earned the right to. Walker’s though are the real jewels: she’s got that rare intuitive talent for constructing simple and fresh sounding songs from very familiar chord sequences and harmonic patterns. My advice if you’re curious is to start with the songs beginning with M, one from each of the four albums: Motorcycle, Mayflies, Maglite and Magnolia are all indelible melodic nuggets that feel like established classics the first time you hear them.

Anyway, they’re going to be touring the UK in the Autumn, with any luck in small enough venues that I’ll be able to see the whites of their eyes. Watch this space for further developments.

Wussy discography: Funeral Dress (2005), Left For Dead (2007), Rigor Mortis EP (2008), Wussy (2009), Funeral Dress II – Acoustically (2011), Strawberry (2011). I don’t think any of these have been officially released in the UK, but there seem to be (legal) downloads available for some of them.

Prometheus: bound to be icky

Prometheus, veteran director Ridley Scott’s return to the universe of unspeakably hostile and corporeally invasive entities that he set up over thirty years ago in Alien, has apparently been marketed and trailed mercilessly over the last few months, with whole suites of teaser videos and trailers being unleashed upon its target audience via the internet. Despite Alien being one of my very favourite movies (certainly both the greatest science-fiction and the best horror film I’ve ever seen) I’ve caught none of this wave of hype, and have formed no expectations at all about Scott’s new project – this franchise fell foul of the law of diminishing returns a long time ago, and there didn’t seem to be any particular virtue in reactivating it now.

Nevertheless, I thought I ought to see this one on a big screen while I had the chance, and before I heard any spoilers. Ridley Scott may come over as a bit of a hack at times, but I can’t think of any director with a better track record of presenting alien, historical and fantastical worlds credibly and in minute detail, and he’s generally pretty good at keeping the narrative under control and holding your attention for the whole running time. Plus I haven’t been to see a big budget Summer blockbuster for a while. It turns out that Prometheus is set in a time frame not long before the events of Alien, although it’s not strictly speaking a prequel (it features no characters from the first film, and doesn’t explain all the circumstances of it), and thankfully it’s also not a slack-brained re-boot (as in throw out all the continuity, and re-imagine the cool monsters and hardware). The story concerns an exhibition by a small team of scientists to a planet in deep space, from which lead character Dr Elizabeth Shaw* (played by Noomi Rapace) has hypothesised a race of powerful beings responsible for the development of the human race originate. It’s a sound enough scenario, even if it’s not completely original, and it’s certainly not obvious exactly how it’s going to play out. There’s nothing of the all-pervasive sense of dread that characterised the early scenes in Alien, and nothing to give the audience a clue whether this is going to turn out well or ill – for a good hour or so, it’s perfectly conceivable that this will indeed be a successful and historic enterprise and that every crew member is going to get home intact. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to reveal that this doesn’t exactly come to pass.

This is in fact a highly watchable movie, despite some of the driving ideas in it feeling a bit secondhand and others remaining frustratingly unresolved. The design of the spaceship and the various forbidding alien environments is just beautiful (and pleasingly consistent with the first film, despite the decades-long gap between them), and while the individual crew members tend to have off-the-peg characterisation (nerdy scientist, hardbitten cynic, icy company representative, worldweary heart-of-gold captain, and so on), the interplay between them is entertaining and intriguing enough to fill the time before things start happening. The most interesting character by far is the ship’s android David, played by the workaholic Michael Fassbender, who we initially see singlehandedly tending the ship while the crew is asleep during their long journey. David fills his time by learning ancient languages and watching Lawrence Of Arabia, and his impeccably polite but borderline creepy manner and appearance seem to have been directly drawn from Peter O’Toole’s otherworldly performance in that film.

After landing on the planet and some initial explorations of an imposing structure and the chambers beneath it we’re just about ready for something horrible to kick off, and it duly does, though not perhaps in the way that long time observers of this series of films might imagine. In fact, at roughly the same time as the mission starts coming apart so do the various themes of the film: it all starts to feel a bit choppy, as though a longer and more coherent edit has been cut down in order to come in below particular time and certification constraints. Some actions aren’t properly explained, motivations stay murky and the origins of certain phenomena still seemed a bit mysterious to me by the end. It’s not actually that irritating, and the ideas involved are developed enough to make for good debating points, but I suspect Scott will unveil a director’s cut at some point that will prove a lot more definitive.

What the film does deliver however is a whole dollop of the suspenseful ickiness that its audience presumably paid their money for and a spectacular climactic action sequence. Here we have several new twists on slimy Giger-esque body-horror, and one bit involving an emergency medical procedure that I can’t quite believe the BBFC thought was appropriate for a 15 certificate. I really wouldn’t advise going to see Prometheus if you happen to be pregnant. I was clutching my armrest and covering my eyes quite a lot in the second half of the film and you can’t say fairer than that.

Prometheus is kind of patchy, I suppose, but I ended up liking it quite a lot. If there’s a fuller version on the DVD I’ll definitely give it another go. The best Alien film in over twenty years, and a cut above the average Hollywood action extravaganza – but you might want to give the popcorn a miss if you’re of a sensitive disposition. You might end up losing it, one way or another.

* With apologies for shoehorning a Doctor Who reference into every review I write at the minute, but is this a deliberate reference to one of Jon Pertwee’s assistants?

Top Of The Pops 1977 reaches the Jubilee

Now. I’m one of those irritating people fond of airily declaring “oh, I never watch television” every time the discussion turns to the latest talent competition or Scandinavian crime drama or sensational soap denouement. I’d like to pretend that this not because I’m a typical middle-class highbrow elitist culture snob (I know that I am all those things), but because I haven’t got enough time because my free hours are taken up with more wholesome pursuits, like gardening, and cooking, and composing light operas and so on…the truth is however that much of my leisure time is spent listlessly flipping about on the internet, or solving excruciating Japanese number puzzles, or just failing completely to commit to the very basic chore of bothering to watch a series from the start, for however many weeks it runs for. And given that I’m equipped with a personal video recorder and fast enough broadband to effortlessly access the various helpful catch-up TV services that’s not really a very big ask these days.

I think my ennui concerning events televisual may be something to do with there just being too much damn choice of what to watch these days (my list of multi-season TV shows that well-meaning friends have insisted I simply must get up to speed with is so long that I’m paralysed into indecision every time I consider it, so never watch any of them). Whatever the reason, I find myself retreating more and more into watching stuff that I’ve already seen, or already know about. Pretty much the only new show I make any kind of effort for now is Doctor Who, more through decades-established habit than anything else these days (though it’s still holding my attention: see here and here), and lately I’ve been finding myself drawn to watching the repeats of one of the other must-see programmes from my youth, to wit Top Of The Pops, which BBC4 started repeating week by week last year. Like Doctor Who, and many other iconic shows from the 60s and 70s, the BBC’s archive of early TOTP is pretty patchy, with most of the programmes long-wiped – they do however hold a continuous archive from 1976, which is the point from which they started screening the repeats. They’re currently up to June 1977, an interesting month for a reason I’ll go into later.

The BBC have been harvesting choice performances from old TOTPs for years for presentation in compilation shows, but it’s a funny old business, seeing these unedited samples of soft rock, limp balladry, workmanlike soul and very occasionally searing pop genius again. I was eight years old in 1977 and would have been glued to the screen when TOTP was on, but most of these songs seem to have made no impression on me whatsoever – they’re formulaic, uninspired, well-crafted filler, usually delivered by uncharismatic session players. The soul and disco numbers are significantly better, even if there’s something a bit disquieting about watching talented singers working through tightly choreographed routines in matching brightly-coloured outfits. At least you can imagine people dancing to them, even if you can’t actually see anyone in the studio audience busting out any moves – one of the most endearing features of TOTP 1977 is the way that the ordinary (and reassuringly non-glamorously dressed) punters spend most of their time just sort of milling about looking resolutely non-excited about proceedings.

In fact, most of the time the most memorable, and not in a good way, aspect of these curiously washed-out shows is the attitude of the Radio 1 disc jockeys selected to present them. Noel Edmonds is smug and condescending. Dave Lee Travis is odious, lecherous, smug and condescending. Jimmy Savile is weird, and you can’t help worrying about the safety of the young ladies in the audience that have been shepherded into his proximity. Only Kid Jensen comes off as a halfway reasonable human being. TV presenters these days are often accused of being vacuous or cynical, but you can’t help feeling that we’ve come a long way. These self-important specimens are nearly enough to make you turn off, but not quite…sometimes, not often but sometimes, a jewel of a song comes down the sluice of mediocrity to remind you why you love pop music so much in the first place, most recently Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You, which is, astonishingly given the amount of abuse it’s had over the years by the hand of Steve Coogan, still heart-rendingly affecting. Even the kitsch “memories” voiceover bit in the second verse. And the simple, largely effects-free, video is simply devastating.

So I’m going to keep on watching, for the next few weeks at least, to relive a particular memory. There was a Jubilee going on in 1977 as well, and I remember at the time being puzzled and alarmed by the presence of a record at number 2 that I’d never heard and nobody seemed to want to acknowledge. Have a good weekend, and God Save The Queen.