Monthly Archives: September 2013

How I Live Now: family fallout

HowILiveNowKevin Macdonald’s new film How I Live Now, adapted from the book by Meg Rosoff, is an unusual hybrid: part teen-romance, part post-apocalypse survival ordeal. Events are seen from the point of view of Daisy, an unhappy American girl who one summer is offloaded by her widower father onto her cousins in England. Daisy is uptight, defensive and governed by an arbitrary and often contradictory set of rules in her head that seem to prevent her doing or enjoying pretty much anything – her relatives by sharp contrast are easy-going, uninhibited and think nothing of letting farmyard animals roam around their ramshackle but impossibly idyllic old house deep in the English countryside. After some initial reflexive frostiness Daisy finds herself being swayed by the sheer charm and friendliness of the household and by the uncanny (and possibly telepathy-assisted) appeal of her taciturn but tender cousin Edmond in particular, so it’s a bit unfortunate when the situation gets suddenly complicated by the outbreak of war, with nuclear bombs being dropped on cities and terrorist factions sweeping through rural and outlying communities. The remainder of the film shows Daisy’s efforts to harness her will to challenges considerably more formidable than the maintenance of her self-denial and viewers should prepare themselves for some surprisingly unsavoury encounters and discoveries.

Both the romantic and the survival aspects of the scenario are pretty well-worn and have been explored already in countless books, films and TV shows so it represents something of a triumph for Macdonald that his film seems as fresh and accessible as it does: you’re hooked and drawn into the story from the minute that Daisy is greeted at the airport by her cheery cousin Isaac, with the only distracting element being the montage of her interior voices that occasionally pops up on the soundtrack to underline her conflicted state. It helps greatly that the script is genuinely funny, and delivered with naturalistic warmth by the young cast (Saoirse Ronan is onscreen more or less constantly as Daisy and manages the character’s changes in mood and resolution very well, but my favourite performance comes from the sixteen year old Tom Holland as Isaac. He was pretty great in The Impossible too). The locations too have been chosen and used with great care. Quite apart from the striking beauty of the landscapes (which are apparently in Wales in real life) there’s the way that several times a place – a farmhouse, a wood, a riverbank – recurs in the story in a very different light to how it was seen originally, with what used to be comforting and secure being recast as sinister and uncertain. The cataclysm when it comes is managed very effectively, with few special effects other than a wind machine and drop-out on the soundtrack, and the immediate aftermath is presented very differently to the chaos seen in something like Threads or The Day After: the characters are so far from the action that nothing much changes straight away, and it’s only when officials and soldiers start turning up after a few days that things get really serious.

I ended up really liking How I Lived Now, for its humanity and humour, and for what felt like a pretty convincing vision of how a breakdown of civilisation might play out. I’ve seen the basic plot of a group of children having to fend for themselves in a hostile environment a few times (most recently in the German film Lore, which is in some ways strikingly similar to this) but that didn’t make it any less gripping this time round, or the shocks when they come any less gut-wrenching. Very impressive stuff.

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Rush: rat race

Rush

Rush is a brash and pacy account of the fierce rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. I’m no student of motor racing and have no idea how much artistic license has been taken here but the way the movie tells it you couldn’t have made up two more sharply contrasting personalities: Hunt is a leonine devil-may-care playboy who spends his off-track hours boozing, drugging, and shagging glamorous models, while Lauda is a fastidious tact-free control freak who seems to regard other people’s desire for human companionship to be a sign of weakness. What they have in common is a mile-wide competitive streak and formidable talent behind the wheel, enough to take both to the brink of becoming world champion in 1976, and that particular season turned out to have moments of drama so singular that makes you wonder why they took so long to make a film out of it.

Ron Howard directs from a script by Peter Morgan, who’s got some impressive form in bringing to life famous 1970s confrontations (see Frost/NixonThe Damned United and The Last King Of Scotland). This is, thankfully, not an experimental or arty piece – it’s tightly focussed on the two men, there’s plenty of helpful expository dialogue and on-screen captions to let you know what’s happening and why and it showcases two really rather excellent performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Hemsworth is apparently Australian but you’d never guess he wasn’t born to good old English privilege and wealth based on what you see here: he captures that combination of floppy-haired charm and old-school entitlement beautifully. Brühl on the other hand has the harder job of getting the audience on-side with the obsessive and asocial Lauda but he pulls it off very well and is considerably aided in his mission by the deadpan and cutting zingers he gets handed by Morgan’s script. The verbal duelling between the two leads was in fact for me a lot more effective than the bulk of the footage of the actual races, which tends to be presented in fast-cutting montages and close-ups that don’t have the physicality of something like the chariot race in Ben-Hur, though as the season reaches its nerve-wracking climax I found myself drawn into the action despite myself.

I’ve probably got the advantage over fans of the sport in that beyond one or two hazy details I had no idea going into the film as to how this story plays out but in the end I found it thrilling, despite my longstanding bewilderment at the appeal of watching fast cars go round and round a track for hours. For fans of F1 this film is I suspect required viewing.

Thomas Dolby: The Invisible Lighthouse

ThomasDolbyLighthouseSo that makes two idiosyncratically English songwriters that I’ve seen play live in Screen One of the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge in support of their new films in the space of two days, though I think you can safely say that the seasoned producer, session player and electronic games designer Thomas Dolby possesses just a touch more technical competence than the blessed John Otway. He’s not however known as a director and this presentation of his forty minute film The Invisible Lighthouse has more of the ambitious Pink Floyd-style concert-plus-lightshow about it than your typical film festival screening: Dolby provides live narration, soundtracking and inventive visual effects from the side of the auditorium while his movie plays, making this a unique and personal event.

…which is nicely appropriate, given the subject matter and the autobiographical slant Dolby has given it – his roots are in Suffolk and he grew up near the coast among the peculiarly bleak flatlands of Orford Ness, where a lighthouse has stood since the eighteenth century*. This area is gradually being reclaimed by the sea and the lighthouse (which at one point boasted the most powerful lamp of any in the United Kingdom) was finally deemed unsafe and decommissioned in 2013. On hearing the news Dolby, who has in recent years returned to live here again, felt moved to mark the passing of what he remembered as a formative influence on his childhood by shooting what is in effect a home movie, albeit one that’s been shot and assembled using modern digital technology. He weaves his memories of the lighthouse and its landscape together with stories from his family history and he turns out to have had plenty of illustrious forebears including the builder of the barley malting plant of Snape Maltings, now an arts complex, and the first woman to become the mayor of an English town (Aldeburgh). He’s determined to be present when the lighthouse shines out for the last time but receives scant support from the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust, the bodies responsible for the spit of land on which the lighthouse stands, so takes the opportunity to go on a dawn commando-style reconnaissance mission in his speedboat down one of the murky channels that criss-cross the site and thankfully gets out without detonating any of the unexploded warheads supposedly still concealed in the shingle. At one point the film digresses in a slightly Sebald-ish manner into an account of a dubious extra-terrestrial sighting in a local wood and Dolby has rounded up the footage of US army personnel swearing blind that they witnessed something metallic dissolve into liquid and vanish through the trees (if you want to visit the spot in question it seems to be clearly signposted on a woodland UFO trail). If nothing else this film is a lovely look into a highly distinctive part of the country that very rarely gets much exposure outside regional news bulletins.

After the screening the confident and affable Dolby chats about why and how he chose to make his movie and even goes into the detail of how much particular bits of equipment cost him: he reckons the total cost of the project to be of the order of a modest £1,500. It’s unlikely to receive a conventional release, either in cinemas or on DVD, as he prefers to be present when it’s shown and besides he still enjoys tinkering with it – the beauty of it existing only on his laptop is that it’s easy to chop and change elements without inconveniencing anyone but himself. He rounds off the evening with a few of his old songs, the backing tracks of which have been pre-programmed into his keyboards, and even this provides an impressively multimedia experience with footage from his 80s videos and the visual representations of the songs on his computer being seamlessly projected behind him while he sings. He’s clearly fascinated by the possibilities of technology and is something of a master of the software – the only mechanism that lets him down is the mechanical pivot he uses to secure one of his keyboards to his waist which fails rather badly when he attempts a ZZ Top style spin of the instrument, not that it seems to affect the smooth playing of the music at all. I bought my first Thomas Dolby single in 1981 and now I’ve got to see him live, and at a film festival too. This was an unexpected treat.

* Interestingly Brian Eno, Dolby’s chief competitor in the electronic music boffin stakes, hails from nearby Woodbridge. Must be something in the water.

The Fifth Season: nobody but us chickens

FifthSeason

Round about the sixth day of a film festival I’m usually pretty ready for something spare, enigmatic, beautifully photographed and mildly apocalyptic and the Belgian film The Fifth Season turns out to fit the bill nicely. Here we have an isolated farming community surrounded by stunning if not always welcoming scenery who seem to rub along well enough with each other until one year they’re struck by a mysterious blight. Crops fail, the bees stop producing honey, the milk from the cows dries up and everything becomes a tad fraught. As the seasons change with no improvement in circumstance a scapegoat is sought and some of the younger villagers gain some harsh insights into how human behaviour can curdle in a crisis.

A bare description of Peter Brosens’s and Jessica Woodworth’s film makes it sound like an obvious descendant of The Wicker Man, what with the tradition-bound locals and their sinister bonfire-related rituals, but it’s a fair bit artier than that and its fascination with both muddy textures and the consequences of fundamental life-sustaining energies being removed reminds me more of Béla Tarr’s heroically gloomy The Turin Horse, though it’s nowhere near as gruelling to watch. It actually strikes quite a pleasing balance between naturalism (these people, with a couple of exceptions, generally look and talk as regular folk do) and visual invention: every so often a prop or location or farmyard animal is used in a way so striking it successfully distracts you from the underlying bleakness of the situation. It’s often quite funny too, particularly in the recurring scenes of one man struggling to connect with his rooster, though it’s no surprise that the film doesn’t have a notably sunny ending. Whether something as out on a limb as this will ever find an audience outside of people like me with nothing better to do on a Tuesday lunchtime than hang out in an arthouse cinema is a moot point, but I was glad to have seen it even if I couldn’t really begin to fathom out some of the more obscure events shown.

Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie

Otway

“OK, let’s make this the big one for Otway!” – John Otway, spoken intro to Beware Of The Flowers, 1977

The Cambridge Film Festival kicked off last Thursday with Hawking, a moving tribute to a unique and celebrated figure. Last night the organisers were good enough to screen a documentary about someone who in some select circles might be considered equally legendary and inspiring, though in this case it’s not so much for any profound breakthroughs in understanding the nature of our universe as for being a wonderful example of the triumph of unreasonable optimism and a sweetly self-deprecatory confidence over any demonstrable talent. Ladies and gentlemen, after 35 years of scrabbling around trying to recapture a tiny and barely earned spark of success we present Otway the Movie!

John Otway is a singer-songwriter and all-purpose attention-seeking exhibitionist who emerged from Aylesbury in the 1970s at just the right time to catch the attention of record company scouts eager to sign up anything rough-and-ready sounding in the slipstream of punk rock. With his considerably more musically adept partner Wild Willy Barrett he scored a minor hit with the infectiously basic Cor Baby That’s Really Free and secured appearances on Top Of The Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test (the footage from the latter providing an early recorded instance of Otway’s propensity to sabotage his career through poor judgement and sheer over-enthusiasm: his fall when he attempts to leap onto a stack of amplifiers looks spectacularly painful). Astonishingly Polydor Records had sufficient faith to award him an advance of £250,000, which Otway proceeded to blow as though he was a fully-fledged rockstar – a fancy house in Maida Vale, a vintage Bentley and, most ill-considered of all, the hire of a hundred piece orchestra to play on his next single, a drippy ballad called Geneve, in the hope that it would impress the lusted-after girl who was the subject of the song. The resulting record couldn’t have been contrived better to turn off the young pogoers who bought Really Free and Otway’s career nosedived.

Or did it? You could argue that Otway’s real creativity and imagination didn’t really emerge until he started to understand that he wasn’t ever going to re-establish himself as a successful artist through fair means and that he had enough of a loyal fan base (built up mainly through his exuberantly physical and at times death-defying live performances) to try some highly unorthodox and entertaining capers in an attempt to rig the charts in his favour. These start out with a run of gigs where punters needed not a ticket but a copy of Otway’s current single to gain admittance and a Willy Wonka style special edition pressing of another single whereby three copies were sent out sans vocal and the lucky buyers of these would receive a house visit from Otway so that he could sing it to them live. Gradually the schemes get more elaborate and the fans get more dedicated until in 2002 it pays off: a ruthlessly well-organised internet campaign manages to generate enough sales of the single Bunsen Burner to get it into the Top Ten, despite it not being available at many of the major retailers. One fan interviewed in the film admits to buying 45 copies – I myself bought three, having followed Otway on and off since about 1991, when the band I was in at the time supported him at a pub gig. I remember watching his triumphant return to Top Of The Pops and literally choking back tears!

Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure documents all this and much more besides with the help of many of Otway’s collaborators, managers and minders, all of whom display a nice line in eye-rolling resignation at their charge’s constant stream of ludicrously over-optimistic plans, and a really impressive assembly of archive footage (it seems he’s organised enough to have retained and archived pretty much every piece of film and video that he’s ever appeared on). It’s a brilliant, funny, heart-warming film that displays a very English love of the underdog and the eccentric with not a hint of self-pity or bitterness. Otway himself is present throughout, gleefully describing his hair-brained schemes which these days it seems come to fruition more often than they don’t (hire the London Palladium for a party to celebrate the success of a single that doesn’t even exist yet? Why not? Get a conductor, an arranger and a full orchestra in for a concert in the Albert Hall despite not being musical enough to understand when to start singing? What could possibly go wrong?) He’s a dreamer but a very likeable one and it’s brilliant that he’s around to show us the power of positive thinking, even if that power isn’t necessarily harnessed terribly sensibly (witness his shenanigans with a theremin, or his serial microphone-abuse).

Otway himself turns up to introduce this screening and he’s as excited and puppy-doggish as ever. Brilliantly, he’s arranged for two and a half seconds of the film to be made available as a little flip-book that you can run through with your thumb to animate! After the film he and his director Steve Barker take questions from a friendly and responsive audience – sessions like this can feel a bit awkward but this one’s a hoot, with plenty of good-humoured jokes being made at Otway’s expense. Finally, the great man straps on his guitar and we’re treated to both Beware Of The Flowers and, somewhat unexpectedly, the ill-starred Geneve. It may just be the good vibe in the room but just for once this last song sounds rather lovely and touching. Next stop: Otway the Musical.

Hawking

HawkingProfessor Stephen Hawking is almost certainly the world’s most widely known and celebrated scientist since Einstein. His fame arises of course not only from his startling research into the nature of black holes and the origins of the universe and his success in popularising his insights through a string of bestselling books but from the massively debilitating medical condition of motor neurone disease which has left him barely able to move, let alone speak or write. As a resident of Cambridge I’ve come across Hawking a few times, firstly as a Maths undergraduate twenty-five years ago when the lectures he gave to publicise the launch of A Brief History Of Time appeared on my timetable, and latterly I’ve spotted him just going about his business in the town centre: buying fruit at the market or bombing down King’s Parade at high speed in his wheelchair or watching a film at the Arts Cinema (predecessor to the current Picturehouse). He’s even come into the bookshop I work at a couple of times, once, brilliantly, approaching the counter at the same time as another customer whose enquiry of “Do you have any books by Stephen H…” trailed off into slack-jawed disbelief as he realised who he was standing next to.

There have been plenty of documentaries and dramatisations of the life of the man already but Stephen Finnigan’s new film Hawking may turn out to be the most definitive of all of them, given that the subject himself co-wrote it and even provides narration in that strange computerised voice that somehow now feels as familar and comforting as David Attenborough’s. Finnigan has been given access to scores of old photographs and home movie footage from the years before Hawking achieved celebrity and has also got interviews from many of the most important witnesses to his life, including crucially his first wife Jane who provides a lucid and moving description of the challenges of maintaining a normal family life in such unusual circumstances. We also get to hear from Hawking’s sister, a whole faculty’s worth of notable theoretical physicists including Sir Roger Penrose, and rather unexpectedly Jim Carrey, who once wrote the great man into a comedy skit. In between the talking heads there are tastefully blurry reconstructions of the young Stephen whooping it up at Oxford and feverishly scrawling equations on blackboards, and lots of nice footage of Cambridge streets, colleges and bikes which has been convincingly Instagrammed up to give it that grainy seventies feel. Then there are the bits involving actual mathematics, which is always a thorny one for film-makers to get across – Finnigan sensibly doesn’t go too far into the nuts and bolts of the equations but settles for pithy summaries of the behaviour of black holes and so on set against whizzy firework-like computer generated graphics. I’ve been a bit flippant but this is a really involving film, with most of the potential sentimentality neutralised by Hawking’s cutting, tell-it-like-it-is, wit. He’s someone who was given two years to live over fifty years ago and the impression you get of the man inside the physically helpless body is of a bitingly keen, rigorous and restless mind that can’t wait to test a new frontier.

It’s fitting that Hawking was chosen as the opening film for this year’s Cambridge Film Festival given the man’s association with the city, and the organisers must be congratulated for the quality and quantity of speakers they managed to assemble for the Q & A session after the showing. Khrishnan Guru-Murthy conducted short interviews with film-makers Finnigan and Ben Bowie, Walter Woltosz (the man who developed the indispensable speech software), Hawking’s sister Mary, his former student and helper Kip Thorne and finally, amazingly, Hawking himself. This last interview obviously couldn’t be conducted off the cuff and the pauses while Hawking painstakingly triggered his prepared answers from his computer were undoubtedly long enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable but it also provided a demonstration of how difficult and time-consuming the process of just communicating is for him. His tenacity and lust for life was underlined by his willingness to appear and he shows so sign of wanting to retire just yet: Richard Branson appeared on screen at one point to re-affirm an offer to give Hawking a free ticket on the first Virgin flights into space when they become available, an offer that Hawking is very keen to accept. An amazing life.

The Wave Pictures at The Portland Arms, Cambridge, September 11 2013

WavePictures1

I’ve been remiss. I’ve only recently become aware of The Wave Pictures and on the evidence of Wednesday’s gig at the Portland Arms this represents a rather serious case of cultural oversight on my part. They’re a trio from somewhere in Leicestershire who have it seems been regularly releasing collections of witty and infectious deconstructions of personal relationships and neuroses (with particular reference to household condiments) for the last ten years or so. Their wikipedia page lists The Smiths, Jonathan Richman, Darren Hayman, Jeffrey Lewis and The Mountain Goats amongst their influences and collaborators, which places them so firmly in my ball-park they’re practically sitting on my lap and nibbling on my burrito, and if the two or three albums that I’ve heard are anything to go by their songwriter David Tattersall deserves to be as celebrated as any of the above. Musically they come over initially as classic jangly indie-pop, but close attention reveals a rare fluency and judgement in the arrangements and playing. This date was the first on a tour to promote a new album City Forgiveness (which curiously their record company are not going to be releasing for another couple of months) which will be something like their thirteenth…difficult to believe given Tattersall still looks like he’s in the sixth form.

MammothPenguin

Support is provided by Mammoth Penguin, who would be worth a mention just for their splendid name even if they weren’t a pretty good power trio in their own right. Their pleasingly diffident and self-deprecatory stage manner contrasts nicely with the crunchy vigour of their performance and the distinctive full-throated delivery of the singer and the crowd get behind them enthusiastically. A short set of short but eventful songs, just the way I like it.

WavePictures2

In what must be a first the main act takes to the stage slightly before the advertised starting time and without any ceremony kick things off with a nimble take on Spaghetti. It’s clear straight away that this is one talented band. Drummer Jonny Helm is all over his kit, managing to hold down a light funky beat at the same time as providing backing vocals while the seemingly unflappable Franic Rozycki (who I saw in June on this very stage playing mandolin in The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel band) plays his bass like a master, throwing in unexpected melodic runs up and down the neck but never straying into irritating muso territory. It’s David Tattersall’s guitar playing however that’s the real revelation: slightly obscured on record by his defiantly English vocals and wordplay it’s actually a bit of a wonder to behold, with full-on bluesy solos, crisp choppy chord-work and delicate picky bits being effortlessly despatched, all on a slightly battered looking Les Paul with no effects pedals anywhere in evidence. I really hadn’t expected anything half as accomplished, and that he’s also able to find his way through his sometimes knotty and tongue-twistery lyrics without fouling up once makes it even more impressive.

From the first song on you know that you’re in safe hands and the evening flies by. They play songs old and new, including one from the forthcoming album that features high-life style guitar playing that recalls Paul Simon’s Graceland, and a couple (Now You Are Pregnant and Sleepy Eye) that afford Jonny Helm an opportunity to emerge from behind his kit and treat us to his soulful lead vocals – honestly, he looks like he’s having his very heart torn in two while he’s singing them. The material ranges from old school indie stompers (Leave The Scene Behind) through ballads (Red Wine Teeth) and even something that sounds a bit like a proper respectable blues. One of the most striking aspects is the band’s willingness to leave space in their material (instruments often drop out and sometimes Franic’s bass is the only sound to be heard) and to be, you know, quiet. On a couple of occasions Tattersall mutes his guitar right down and starts singing a song softly off-mic – at first the chatter from the back of the audience drowns him out, but it doesn’t take long for people to catch on, shut up and give him their full attention. You can’t imagine ever witnessing this kind of dynamic at Wembley Stadium.

WavePictures3After ninety minutes or so they leave us with the rowdy Friday Night In Loughborough and the house lights come on…except they don’t leave us, they go straight to the back of the room to man the merchandise stall. This gig was a rare treat. If you like your pop quirky and literate and English you should go see this group as soon as you can, and even if you don’t you should probably go anyway just because they’re such damn good musicians.