Posts Tagged ‘review’

‘Where are we now?’; The return of David Bowie

Posted 08 Jan 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Currently Listening, Music, Reviews

I’m a massive Bowie fan, so, transparently, today has been a ridiculously good day for me.

If you missed it – ten years after his last record and seven years after he last performed in public – this morning, entirely without fanfare or forewarning, David Bowie released a brand new song and announced a forthcoming LP. This is, in the world of pop, massive news, and judging by the fact that I heard about it on the Today programme on Radio 4, it’s presumably big news elsewhere too. The Guardian practically devoted their entire Arts team to covering it today (yielding good pieces from Michael Hann and Alexis Petridis), and my twitter feed was a pretty relentless stream of enthusiasm.

I’ve been in a good mood all day.

And amidst all the excitement, there’s a song, and you should listen to it.

It’s far too early for me to pass any real critical judgement, to declare it better than his 90s work or worse than the stuff on ‘Heathen’, and I’m too biased to be truly objective regardless – but the song matters to me because I find it thrilling to think that Bowie still digs making music (I thought he’d retired) and the song itself, regardless of its place in his canon, makes me happy – by chance it recalls much of Bowie’s music that I like best; the sombre, elegiac Bowie of the late ’70s, whose years in Berlin still seem to speak to him more powerfully than any others. To hear him singing in his own distinct, somewhat tremulous voice is, for all that it is aged, a great privilege.

He’s written so many wonderful wonderful songs, but there’s a category that I hold particularly close to my heart, and that’s the smallish number of songs where it sounds like Bowie is singing from deep within his true self – not channeling Anthony Newley, or Lou, or Iggy, or Dylan, or even James Brown (I love it when he channels James Brown). The best example is, I think, ‘Wild Is The Wind‘, which Bowie himself has described as his finest vocal performance. There are shades of that song here – or shades of the truthfulness it evinces. And something very vulnerable too.

What a joy it is to hear, and to have him back.

If you like it too – or, failing that, like David generally – then we can be friends.

Review, Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012).

Posted 07 Jan 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

When I was a kid I chanced upon 2000AD and, for a short period, I bought it every week. If you’ve not read 2000AD, you might think it’s a nerdy, ultraviolent science fiction comic (and you’d be right) and as such it’s regularly dismissed as an adolescent concern; as a teenager keenly aware of wanting to be cool, I swiftly stopped buying it when I learned this, and began looking for more serious literature to fill the gap (and do a better job of impressing others/girls).

I’ve never been a huge comic reader, but 2000AD was my gateway drug to a world of fine, artistically challenging, serious “graphic novels”, which I read throughout my 20s, in an attempt to marry my affection for comic books with my pretentiously high-brow attitude towards literature. Consequently, a shelf in my flat groans with expensive, sincere comic books, few of which I ever actually finished.

Later, it occurred to me that the comic I wanted to read wasn’t a hip independent quarterly at all – it was 2000AD, and when I went back to it I immediately recalled that actually, despite it being nerdy and ultraviolent, it was always bloody smart and often highly political and satirical. More importantly, it was great fun, and for all the dazzlingly inventive stuff that would feature in it, by far the best was generally the staple, Judge Dredd, which was and is a work of complete genius. Having spent pretending otherwise, It’s probably fashionable to say this, now, which makes this mea culpa somewhat redundant, but there it is.

Anyway, I watched the recent adaptation of this fine comic strip, the Brit-made ‘Dredd’, starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby this weekend, and I thought it was completely marvellous. Possibly not quite as darkly comic as the strip, nor quite as gruesomely inventive (hard on a very low budget), but it was an absolutely fantastic, lean, aggressive, compulsive bit of action cinema, propelled by all the things that make the comic strip great – a complete lack of misogyny, a vivid and colourful concept and best of all, a central character who is complete in every sense.

Dredd isn’t, if you trace him through the comic, a lot of things he’s described as being (a fascist, an unlearning automaton), but he is consistent, coherent and always convincing, as cleanly defined an action hero as you could wish for. He’s also devilishly hard to play, so I was completely certain that neither Karl Urban nor any actor could convincingly portray Dredd on screen, but after fifteen minutes I was absolutely sold on his performance.

Similarly, my heart sank when I saw that a young and very beautiful actress had been picked to play Anderson, fearing that meant a descent into predictable roles, but her performance (and more important, her characterisation) is almost note perfect. Never once is she shown to be weaker than any male character nor is her meeting with the (also female) villain contextualised in light of their sex. She’s just a brilliant, character, as is Dredd.

And this is a brilliant film. Not flawless, obviously, and some way from being a masterpiece of cinema – but it is a masterpiece of bringing Dredd to life, which is all we could have asked for. There’s some really exciting slo-mo filming in there, too, enough to suggest that given a bigger budget a sequel could go some way to visualising the extraordinary colour and madness of the comic.

In the meantime, your Saturday night needs Dredd.

Homeland; series two episode one, review

Posted 08 Oct 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Don’t think I blogged about Homeland at all during it’s previous run, which is a shame in retrospect as it might have given me an opportunity to segue into the following, which is a largely enthusiastic take on the first episode of the new series. Not having anything to refer to, I have to think back to the various things I liked and disliked about the initial show. But that’s not hard, as series 2 seems, at a first glance, to pick up exactly where it left off – one of the more persuasive, nuanced televisual takes on the fall out from the War on Terror, yet filled with flaws and inconsistencies which, thankfully, are for the most part forgiveable when lined up against what the show does very well.

Quickly; some of the problems – it remains essentially unbelievable that Carrie was ever tolerated at the CIA, just as it seems utterly incredible that Brody, so soon returned from imprisonment in Iraq, should be seriously considered ready for high office. The scenes in the Middle East seem, thus far, less convincing than those at home, and the scenes of high tension draw rather heavily on tropes from too-familiar scenarios (that said, I’m glad the show isn’t much bothered with whizzy technology; in some respects it seems to owe more to Le Carre than CNN).

But what it does best, first and foremost, is create characters you care about. I still don’t know quite where I stand on Brody, who I’m dimly aware is working, reluctantly, towards an event of mass terror but who, mostly courtesy of his powerful back-story and conscience (in this series personified by Morgan Saylor, who plays his 16 year old daughter) remains a fascinating and attractive enigma. He is there, the programme tells us, because circumstance has driven him there, not because he wants to be.

The opposite of true of Carrie, who wants with every fibre of her being to be in the field or high in an ivory tower, doing whatever she can to protect her sources, her agents, the public and her country. But circumstance has led her astray, too, so that she begins this series not at the CIA but teaching English and, tending her garden, trying to manage her bipolar disorder. Fresh from literally shocking medical treatment, she’s commended for her success in reinventing herself – and only her father, who shares her condition, recognises the distance she has left to travel.

It’s perhaps a shame, given this fascinating starting point, that the makers of the second series of Homeland could not have waited a little longer to re-introduce Carrie to the action, but it’s a credit to them that the way they do provides a brief valedictory moment which makes up for their impatience; a smile in the backstreets of Beirut is all it takes to reassure us that Carrie’s treatment has not purged her of her self.

I hope this principle, of returning our protagonists immediately to action, does not cause problems; of course it’s great to see Carrie, Brody, Saul and Dana plunged back into the grip of drama, but what sets Homeland so far apart from its contemporaries is the way it rejects the immediacy of 24. It knows that crises unfold more often over weeks and months than over days, and takes the risk of delaying gratification. I hope that the explosive start of series 2 is misleading, and we settle back into a dance of diplomacy, tension and mistrust.

And I wait keenly, while I’m at it, for the return of the jazz – rarely has a show been as well scored as Homeland. Hoping this new run keeps the standard up, and even raises it by a bar or two. In 5/4 time, perhaps.

Review; Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Posted 18 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews, Share

As usual I’m working my way through the Booker Prize shortlist, and while I’ve not read the whole lot yet, I’ve been very much stopped in my tracks by ‘Swimming Home’, the new novel by Deborah Levy, which – while a short read – has resonated at the edge of my thoughts constantly since I finished it a few days ago.

The book is as clean and clear as the ringing of a bell, but quietly and meticulously poetic, full of beautiful language and deeply visual storytelling. Set around a holiday villa in the south of France, where the warm sun seems to stir a mild fever, it conjures up a series of unforgettable images – from the sight of a naked girl swimming resembling a bear, to a boy emerging from a wall, and a centipede examined clambering out of a bucket. A very middle class English family – the Jacobs – holiday abroad with friends and get tangled up with Kitty Finch, a provocative and very cinematic agent of change, who pulls and tears at the delicate conventions of the family. And Levy is a truly superb writer, distracting the reader so with her style that the plot twists, when they come, left me startled, uneasy.

Levy’s characters are on the precipice of self-discovery but numbed, needing the disruptive power of Kitty Finch to shake them up. Of Isabel Jacob, a foreign correspondent unable to reconcile her life as a journalist and a mother, Levy writes, “If she knew that to be forceful was not the same as being powerful and to be gentle was not the same as being fragile, she did not know how to use this knowledge in her own life or what it added up to”. Her husband, Joe, seems at first blithe and unfeeling, but his crime of conscience is deliberate forgetting. Kitty, who shares aspects of his past he tries to ignore, stirs him to action. But as each character attempts to guide proceedings, their lack of control is made apparent, and things spiral out of hand. Levy’s handling of this approaching chaos is masterly. It’s truly a very lovely book.

I raced through this in two or three hours, and knew immediately on finishing that it would merit a re-read. Oddly, I’m impatient to finish the rest of the shortlist so that I might get back to it.

A real winner. Hopefully – in terms of the Booker Prize – literally.

No Direction Home, festival review

Posted 11 Jun 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Observations, Reviews

Just back from No Direction Home, a lovely three day festival in Sherwood Forest – and feeling oddly invigorated rather than knackered, which is unusual after a festival – and seems particularly counterintuitive when you consider that this festival took place in a weekend during which Britain was so thoroughly soaked that it was almost lost to the sea.

Oddly, however, the Welbeck Estate stayed pretty much dry, and by a miraculous quirk of fortune I managed to pitch our tent on a bit of even ground. Consequently we stayed dry, slept well, drank with something approaching moderation, and ate regularly and expensively at the many excellent food stalls. So I’m not dead, but rather buzzing with excitement after a few utterly idyllic days and a bunch of awesome bands.

A potted set of highlights and observations, then:

- First, what an amazing site. Compared to End of the Road at the Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset, the festival is significantly more compact and even rather prettier; it’s a less fenced-in site, making it easier and more rewarding to wander off, and the lakeside setting and accompanying wildlife (skylarks, swifts, martins and owls) were so beautiful and rewarding that it was frequently more tempting to grab a pint of Welbeck Abbey Red Feather and sit by the water, than it was to watch another band.

- Second, once again, the on-site amenities were perfect. Three small stages, with the performance times perfectly scheduled, making it almost possible to catch every single band on the bill; a beautiful comedy and literature yurt; and an absolutely charming pop-up cinema (where we watched ‘Some Like It Hot’ in preference to catching Dirty Three, and where Woodpigeon provided a lovely score to Charlie Chaplin’s surprisingly angry ‘Modern Times’ – which made up for a slightly underwhelming solo set from their Mark Hamilton earlier in the day). Besides all that there were bookshops, vintage clothes stores, a branch of Rough Trade and tons of great places to eat. Perfectly judged.

- When buying my ticket a few months back I half-wondered if I hadn’t had my fill of folk-bands; I’ve seen a lot over the last few years and the bands that jumped out at me on the bill were at the rockier end; Mikal Cronin, The Wave Pictures and Veronica Falls. But actually the line-up worked perfectly; folk, a smattering of electronica, a few big guitars, some amazing new bands and a few unique performances (in particular, The Unthanks‘ extraordinary link up with the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, which saw them further mining their interest in northern cultural history and the poetry of the pits).

- Who was good then? New stuff is always most exciting, I think, so I had a brilliant time watching a few bands new to me. Laura J Martin stood out as being incredible playful and adventurous, taking as her starting point some post-Kate Bush warbling but adding clattering drums, mandolin, and layer upon layer of sampled flutes. It was an extraordinary, slightly surreal experience watching her construct explosive little symphonies from the most unlikely of components. She stood cheerfully signing CDs afterwards, clearly delighted at having delighted so many.

Rachael Dadd was similarly great; dangerously close to conforming to twee-folk stereotypes at first glance, but standing out because her interests and approach (which incorporate steel drums played by her husband Ichi) naturally draw even the most sceptical of audience members in. Her abiding interest seems to be Japanese culture, gleefully drawing on a distant society, and, by the end, she was populating an entire song with the recipe for Oni Guri, and beguiling everyone in the process.

Also really liked Seamus Fogarty, who summoned up aspects of traditional folk music, US troubadours like Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt and his label-mates at Fence to provide good-hearted, quiet and sometimes funny ruminations on life. I was very taken with some of his lines, not least “I woke up in Chicago early on Christmas morn / with a woman who worked as a spy”, which is as lovely a set up to a song as you’ll hear.

And best of all the new artists I saw was Nat Johnson & The Figureheads, who played a pitch-perfect set of harmonious indie rock, recalling ‘Stories of the City’ era PJ Harvey and The Long Blondes, while every now and again invoking gloriously fuzzy Pavement-esque guitar riffs. They were poised, energetic, blessed with song after song, and deserve to sell lots of records.

- Saw some great stuff in the literature and comedy yurt too; Jon Ronson gave a characteristically charming reading of his Psychopath Test stuff, as well as casting further comedic light on the (surely unarguable) case for AA Gill’s criminal insanity. Mick Jackson, whose novel ‘The Underground Man’ had a seismic impact on me when I first read it in 1997, talked about the book, which was set at the Welbeck Estate, and he cast light on the network of underground tunnels which snaked through the ground beneath us. The only real disappointment was a very uncomfortable, boorish appearance by a drunk Josie Long (who I normally love) and a humourless friend, who performed an extended karaoke set prior to Robin Ince’s book club, which managed to do the impossible (make a Herman Dune song sound unwelcome) and eventually drive us out into the night, perplexed by the laddishness, excessive volume, affection for Weezer and, most pressingly, her co-host’s inept rape joke, which tipped the balance for us. Very depressing – but out of character, I think.

- More happily, we saw some superb performances from the regular suspects; from The Wave Pictures, Beth Jeans Houghton, Django Django, Spectrals, Martin Carthy and Euros Childs (who lucked out with the first real sun of the weekend setting over his glorious psych-pop). Two performances really stood out; Josh Tillman, playing as Father John Misty, played a ludicrously confident, charismatic set of acoustic country-pop. Slightly camp, very hilarious and deeply handsome, he could have left with anyone in the audience, I suspect. David Thomas Broughton was similarly engaging, if not quite so bloody sexy, but he once again captivated the crowd with a performance as funny as it was gifted, as troubling as it was proficient. Very impressed, as always. He’s one of pop’s more interesting, evocative lyricists.

- Hard not to mention beer. The End of The Road organisers are always scrupulous in sourcing decent ale for their festivals and, despite a tendency to under-order in terms of quantity, they did a great job here. My favourites were the afore-mentioned Red Feather, a very nutty session beer brewed on the premises, and the Bradfield Farmers Blonde, a very pale and floral beer. Of the various bars on site, the Boathouse gets the thumbs-up from me by virtue of their insanely friendly staff and habit of shouting ‘Tip Tip Hooray’ every time they get a tip. Ever eager to please, I think I tipped them about eight quid over the course of the weekend. Lots of hoorays.

- Two more artists who seemed to effortlessly personify the No Direction Home vibe were also on grand form. Liz Green’s talent is palpably natural – she has an effortlessly perfect voice, a wry and arch writing style and can even, it turns out, play a mean trumpet solo without a trumpet (seriously; close your eyes and you’ll hear brass – open them and you’ll see her trying not to laugh while she parps merrily out of the side of her mouth… if you’ll forgive the image). She also works with a band capable of adding texture to her songs with the most glorious instrumentation. The combination of Green’s jazz vocal, a be-turbaned sax player and a double bassist in a tweed jacket and adidias short might put some off; but it would be a hasty judgement. Great stuff. Trembling Bells, meanwhile, are a rather old-fashioned folk group, taking their lead from 60s and 70s British folk-rock, but live they’re forceful, immediate and somehow very modern – this is folk music a very long way from pastiche. Instead they deal in heavy, detailed, free-form visionary music. Unexpectedly they were perhaps the loudest band I saw all weekend.

- …with the exception of Mikal Cronin, who closed the festival. Wow, these guys are good. After lots of ruminative, esoteric folk and pop, the decision to employ Cronin’s band to blow away the cobwebs was masterful. Their music is super-powerful; skewed, loose indie rock twinned with blasts of urgent psych-garage. Watching their delightful, cleansing set was a bit like being placed in front of a massive, nuclear-powered fan. Great great fun. And the joyfulness of their vibrant indie rock seemed to energise a flagging crowd, who yelled jokes and sparred with the band between songs. At one point, while they were tuning up, a moth flew on stage and was briefly illuminated in Cronin’s spotlight. “A moth! A moth!” the crowd gleefully yelled. The band, who had previously boasted of their acid intake, looked bemused.

- Lastly it would be remiss not to share another couple of key ingredients of a super weekend; first off, as always, a festival is a million times better when you’re there with people you love (and I was) and always a winner when every single person you come across, whether staff, performers or audience, seems to share that same expression of delight, good cheer and peacefulness.

So a hearty congratulations to the organisers for putting together a seriously brilliant festival. Will be there next year.

If I’ve missed anything above, do leave a comment below.



Reg D Hunter at the Brighton Dome; review

Posted 19 Feb 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

As a young teenager I careered from obsession to obsession; football, music, books, and at one point – when I was about twelve or thirteen, I think, stand-up and TV comedy. In reality, the latter was all I could actually access, being far too young to head into London to go to comedy clubs, so I watched everything from dire dross like Birds of A Feather to slightly less dire VHSs of Lenny Henry live. Stand up comics certainly never came to play at the local Arts centre – or at least, they didn’t until Eddie Izzard announced that he was playing the Barnet Old Bull. The Old Bull was a small, scruffy place, way off the comedy circuit – but in those days Eddie Izzard was perhaps six months to a year off being celebrated as the next big thing in comedy.

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, but I had read something about him in the paper and thus knew that he would be worth watching.

So I tried – increasingly desperately – to persuade my mother to take me to see him… and failed, because she, perhaps understandably, concluded that the difference between the content of TV comedy and live stand-up was rather greater than I appreciated. My request was turned down because, she said, the comedy would likely be ‘blue’.

It strikes me as odd in retrospect that this concerned her greatly (there were no restrictions on swearwords in our house and in fact I have a happy memory of her playing me her vinyl copy of New Boots and Panties by Ian Dury & The Blockheads, in order to each me some new ones), and it’s funny to think that in those pre-internet days I had no way of persuading her of the truth – that Izzard, in fact, never, even in those early days, really strayed into ‘blue’ comedy.

So, I missed the gig and, after a while, pretty much lost my interest in comedy as I turned my attentions elsewhere. But for one reason or another I’ve always remembered the conversation we had and wondered who else from the world of cuddly TV is a foul-mouthed animal when transported to the stage of the local arts centre.

This week we went to see Reginald D Hunter at the Brighton Dome, and my expectations were actually pretty high; both in terms of expecting it to be funny, and expecting it to be blue. In the event, it was certainly incredibly funny, and Reg went to some lengths to explain to his very white, very middle class audience that he had no qualms about using words like ‘nigga’ or ‘faggotry’ (“I’m not that cuddly TV nigga”, he warned us). His set though, was far more thoughtful and nuanced than I was expecting, and although the performance was laced with the odd crude joke, it generally served the purpose of his broader point, even if it almost certainly (inevitably) honed in on cheap laughter.

For the most part, the set was preoccupied with exploring the things we claim to know about ourselves, and the tension between that and the many things we refuse to acknowledge. Key to his thesis is that we’ve become complacent and unable to exercise self-restraint in our lives, whether by refusing to control our lazy desire to watch and consume crap or to resist facing self-examination or honest self-assessment. Key to all this is his reassurance, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you’. This simplistic assertion is not borne of unsympathetic cruelty or withering disdain, but instead an earnest notion that we choose not to look at ugly truths because we’re ‘waiting for something prettier to come along’. Using the age-old technique of audience ridicule, he even provides some graphic (if not particularly insightful) examples. It’s clever, rude stuff.

That said, his show is broadly without structure; anecdotes come and go, not always explicable until later on. This isn’t the result of careful foreshadowing, but rather evidence that, as of yet, Reggie isn’t as disciplined as he might be about constructing his theme. He relies, I think, on his immediate and engaging manner to waltz through complex ideas which could do with a bit of further explanation. But the general tone of his set is both ruminative and ribald, here troubling and there smoothly easy-going. It’s a nice combination of the natural comic instinct which Reg possesses and the semi-urgent discoveries of his own ascent into middle age. Having never seen him before, I don’t know if he is growing up, but his set is a nice mixture of the fast maturing, the puerile, and the naturally charming.

Review, Beth Jeans Houghton LP

Posted 09 Feb 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

I’ve been a huge fan of Beth Jeans Houghton since seeing her at The Great Escape in 2009, and at times had all but given up on seeing a debut album come out – so I’m hugely pleased that the idiosyncratically named ‘Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose’ came out this week – and more than pleased at discovering it’s not only as good as I hoped, it’s significantly better. Still, I didn’t know that when I played it for the first time on Monday night, and shared my inane thoughts with the twitterverse.

Here, then, is my life-tweet extravaganza of my first listen to the debut LP by Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny.

Not taken with Sherlock

Posted 21 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Finally, a few weeks after everyone else, I watched the first episode of the new series of Sherlock last night. At first, I was very impressed – the casting is good and the programme is visually amazing, featuring inventive shots, snappy cutaways and neat directional tricks. Given all this and the fact that the premise of Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock remake is smart (the protagonist as a kind of Aspergers suffering techie), it would be understandable should the programme sometimes seems a bit too pleased with itself – but my god it’s only occasionally that humble.

The whole show – 90 minutes of smug, self-regarding tosh – seemed to me to be entirely comprised of set pieces triggered to deliver a 10 second clip for the accompanying advert; a short burst of violence here, a naked arse there, a never ending series of arch one-liners. And no-one in it remotely likeable.

I’m kind of surprised that so many people have been so very complimentary about it, but to me it seemed like event TV where the atmosphere and the gleaming surface was clearly prioritised over not only the plot but the characters too. Sherlock didn’t feel much in it to me, despite the fact that it supposedly dealt with his first stab of emotional attachment towards a woman. He brooded and snapped, and darted his eyes from left to right, right to left. But I got little from it.

There was still stuff to like – Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, the enigmatic Mycroft, the sour police sergeant torn between respect and disdain for a genius whose help he very much needs. But elsewhere – I thought it was very poor.

If you think differently, do put me straight in the comments – I’d be interested to know what you thought.

Wuthering Heights, review (and a bit on M. Amis)

Posted 25 Nov 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Just read an an interesting article by Martin Amis, where he posits that:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.

He makes some valid points – it’s hard, even for ardent admirers of a particular author, to argue that every work is of equal standing, and there’s something slightly false, I suppose, about insisting that we judge Shakespeare only on the standard of his very greatest plays. But I’m not sure that Amis’s point isn’t somewhat of an oversimplification – granted one cannot love every work equally, but being able to rank them according to their quality does not been cutting the less loved adrift simply because others are more perfect. I think that Amis’s ‘The Rachel Papers’ is a terrific book – the fact that ‘Money’ is much better does not prevent me loving both.

(That said, I decidedy don’t love ‘Night Train’, ‘Yellow Dog’ or ‘The Information’, – few do – so perhaps Amis’ conceit is self-serving. It would certainly provide a happy explanation as to why so few people profess to like only 50% of his backlist – rather than admitting to an observable decline in quality only partially remedied by ‘The Pregnant Widow’. I’m being mean – Amis is wonderful).

Good writing is not a race, anyway, and there are no winners or losers, unless you care who wins the Booker prize. Nevertheless, for me Amis does get a couple of things right – not all Don DeLillo’s stuff is as good as ‘White Noise’ or ‘Libra’ (‘Underworld’ certainly isn’t – bravura opening apart what a chore that book was, for all the hype) and ‘Middlemarch’, despite being Eliot’s only great book, is indeed the central Anglophone novel – certainly the one I judge all others against. We part, however, Martin and I, over Jane Austen; not in the sense that we don’t both love her, but in that he attributes flaws to ‘Persuasion’ – which is madness, and that’s the end of it.

Talking of classics, It’s such a long time since I read ‘Wuthering Heights’ that my memories of it are somewhat hazy, and I suspect not entirely to be trusted – I was an ardent admirer as a young teenager of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, which gives some indication of my tastes. I remember liking Bronte’s book very much at the time, although I didn’t react as strongly as many of my peers – and like most I felt conflicted about Heathcliff without actually finding it very difficult to hate him.

Andrea Arnold’s new film adaptation of WH, starring Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave, aims to put that right by centring on Heathcliff’s perspective, reframing his behaviour in light of nature vs. nurture, and rendering his actions explicable in that context. It’s beautifully shot in 16mm (and framed in 4:3) and the first half was absolutely bewitching.

For all that Arnold (who previously directed the remarkable Red Road and lovely Fish Tank) is thought of as an art-house director, she has made a very unpretentious Wuthering Heights (far less self conscious than Jane Campion’s Keats flick, Bright Star) which makes full use of the dank, dark Yorkshire moors. It only fails, sadly, when she hands over to adult leads, asking James Howson and Kaya Scodelario to cary the final third having done precious little to establish a sympathetic relationship with the audience (meaning that the empathy which Glave earned as a troubled, far-from-home Heathcliff is largely squandered). It’s a shame that a film so visually arresting and beautifully mapped should fall apart on the back of a very odd decision (to replace two actors in their late teens with two in their early 20s), and instructive to note that even a plot as violently emotional as Wuthering Heights turns mawkish when you don’t have a feel for the characters.

Again, this is strictly a criticism of the last third – the scenes featuring the younger actors were hugely involving, but in Howson and Scodelario’s scenes I was reminded of the interminable yelling-into-the-wind scenes which blighted another recent big screen period drama – Anh Hung Tran’s emo take on Murakami’s Norweigan Wood. A shame – but not one which, ultimately, subtracts too much from the film; by the time the actors hand over you’ve already seen a brilliant production and, seeing as Arnold made the decision to only film 50% of the novel, I see no reason why I can’t draw a veil over a slightly underwhelming ending. If Amis is only taking 50% of Austen, I can take 50% of this.

Arnold is a very special director, and at the very least, she’s made me want to re-read Wuthering Heights, and re-assess Heathcliff, that old and compelling enigma.

Review, Robyn Hitchcock at the Komedia

Posted 07 Jun 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

Needless to say, Robyn Hitchcock at the Komedia last week was an utter delight. I have to confess – in the interests of transparency – that the prospect of going straight back out to a gig, once I arrive home from work, increasingly defeats me, so on this occasion I sacrificed the supporting Terry Edwards set for a half-hour snooze on the sofa, which is, I regret, further evidence of a real trend. I’m getting old. Actually, half way through Hitchcock’s set, someone in the audience saw fit to heckle the 58 year old singer – albeit affectionately – about his age. He looked slightly wounded, I thought, as if it was a comment he found, rightly, a bit gratuitous.

Robyn Hitchcock, stage chatter #1 by assistantblog

Besides, I didn’t think the audience itself was a great deal younger than Hitchcock- this was very much a sit-down show, with rows of middle-aged Guardian readers settled along benches, doubled up with pints of Guinness. I removed my camera gingerly from my bag, looked around me, and put it back again; this felt like the sort of show where I’d feel a gentle hand upon my shoulder. To get in, I’d had to push past a large, silver haired man stood at the door, and only realised as I glanced up at him it was Robyn Hitchcock himself. Five minutes later he was on stage.

Robyn Hitchcock, stage chatter #2 by assistantblog

Robyn Hitchcock, stage chatter #3 by assistantblog

And from there he delivered a set of exquisitely dry, off-kilter psychedelic pop, accompanied only by his guitar and a harmonica, through a wandering, rambling potted history of his extraordinary back catalogue; songs about jellyfish palpitating on dishes, Victorian squids, fluttering moths, taxidermists, ovulating girls and three-legged chinchillas. Between songs he digressed, hilariously – long improvised introductions which demonstrated casually the linguistic genius so familiar from his songs. Between these paragraphs are short clips of his on-stage banter. Below is his rendition of ‘Queen Elvis’ from the (wonderful) night.

Robyn Hitchcock – Queen Elvis (live in Brighton) by assistantblog

On Ian McEwan’s Solar

Posted 06 Jan 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Whereas I watched and really enjoyed Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Whatever Works, the other day – surprised at myself for enjoying it as much as I did, after sniffy reviews – I read the latest Ian McEwan novel, Solar, at the start of this week with mounting irritation and impatience. Both artists are undoubtedly past their critical peak, and can be relied upon to provide only nostalgic echoes of their early, brilliant work – but I find Allen (the most loudly criticized of the two) and his predictable later films much more lovable than McEwan and his recent novels. Both retain their primary skill – Allen holds on to the ability to riff his way through familiar scenes, and McEwan retains his to paint impressive set-pieces – but only McEwan continues to strive for importance, persisting in state of the nation novels of ever-decreasing relevance.

Whatever Works finds Allen back, figuratively, in the Manhattan of his 70s and 80s pictures. McEwan’s latest recalls his slightest (but not his worst) work, Amsterdam, and works perfectly well when it is an arch comic novel in the mold of Malcolm Bradbury or Kingsley Amis. But his book hinges around the half-way mark and, as McEwan attempts to ramp up the farce, falls apart just as its author is busying himself tying loose ends. The end is as badly written and contrived as any book you’ll find.

What I continue to like about Woody Allen’s films, slight and rushed though they certainly are, is the neatness of scope with which Allen contends himself. Taken as short stories, rather than novels, they are terrific little pieces. A late period Woody Allen (with the exception of the terrible Match Point), if it was presented as an indie by an up and coming director, would be received with delight. Conversely, it’s my sense that a late period McEwan would barely make it out of the sluice pile, were it submitted by a less prestigious author.

Central to Solar‘s failure is McEwan’s decision to frame the narrative through a character who is both fundamentally unlikeable and also lacking any of the redeeming features which made Martin Amis’s John Self – for example – so compelling. Michael Beard, a self-absorbed, philandering scientist who stumbles into a figurehead role in the climate change movement, grows in grotesqueness throughout, until by the end it’s just depressing reading of his plight. McEwan – who we can ordinarily count on not to be sentimental – even allows Beard a shot at belated redemption on his final page, prompting a cry of dismay from this reader.

There aren’t even really any beautiful passages; unforgivable for a writer of McEwan’s power. And for all his manifold talents, displayed so luminously in the early stages of his career, he’s never been funny. At times Solar, a profoundly unfunny comic novel, seems to be begging laughs from its audience. They never come.

Solar does, actually, have it’s virtues. It’s colourful in its first half, and McEwan does a commendable job at integrating climate science into the narrative without losing pace or changing tack. But Beard is never troubled by his moral responsibilities – as adulterer, as plagiarist, as coward. As I approached the end – I salute McEwan’s technical skill – I felt the same frantic urgency to reach the denouement I do with all his books; but also an eagerness to get it finished, put it down, go to the next book. I remember the feeling of finishing McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, many years ago, in a pub, and feeling like I’d been punched, grief-stricken that the novel was over.

For me and McEwan, I fear, those days have passed.

Review; Yawning Gulf LP

Posted 10 Dec 2010 — by Dan
Category Music, Reviews

[Having recently written a post on his love of unclassifiable, classical-tinged, music, Assistant Blog's favourite guest blogger Dan turns his attention to another purveyer of atmospheric, instrumental soundscapes - Yawning Gulf].

Jack Ryder is a Hove based musician and photographer who has played in a number of bands but has now settled under the name Yawning Gulf. This year, without the backing of a major label or a distribution deal, he released his first, self-titled album – carefully manufacturing just 100 copies, which he walked around the record stores of Brighton. It seems he made a good impression. As James from Resident Records notes “(a) local chap Jack Ryder unassumingly dropped these in, a little home produced album on which he’s played & recorded everything as well as designing all the sleeve art. Turns out, it’s a real treat. “

Jack’s effort is all the more notable, and indeed heart warming, as the finished product really is good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Peter Broderick, Hauschka and Tape. Yawning Gulf is 15 tracks of wide ranging melodic, experimental and thought provoking instrumental music. Mr Ryder plays everything himself, occasionally using technology to alter sounds and enrich his playing.  Tracks such as ‘Redolence’, consisting as it does of gentle guitar and found sounds, brings to mind David Scott of Early Songs, whilst the excellent ‘Last Day’ – with its competing guitar and piano – conjures up a playful collaboration between Max Richter and Tortoise.

The album broadens with piano led tracks such as ‘Soma’ and ‘Atma’ (both reminiscent of Portland’s Goldmund) whereas ‘In the Skies’ is Hauschka-esque with its haunting, strained piano strings.  I’ve had the amazing ‘The Walk’ stuck in my head since the summer and so I exorcised it by putting it on the soundtrack to a film of friends (including Jonathan) relaxing in Paris – I hope Mr Ryder doesn’t mind.

All the comparisons made above are not, however, intended to detract from the originality of this album.  For a self released debut of very limited numbers, this is an astonishing achievement and – as one of the lucky 100 – I feel very privileged to own a copy.  Although I can’t deny that membership of this exclusive club is in some way a thrill, allowing me access to great music which others might struggle to hear, I wonder how ambitious Jack Ryder is for his release? Is he looking for it to be made more widely available? It is gaining attention online and it would be a grave injustice if Ryder isn’t already on the radar of labels like Erased Tapes or Type. I do hope so, for as corny as the expression is; this music really does deserve to be heard by a wider audience.

Album (CD) available for purchase here.

Bridge the Yawning Gulf

Yawning Gulf’s Myspace page can be found here

Several tracks are found here on Yawning Gulf’s Soundcloud page.

Jack Ryder’s site, including links to other musical projects as well as his great music and photography blog is here

[Guest post by Dan]

Review; Submarine by Richard Ayoade

Posted 09 Dec 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews, Share

Richard Ayoade’s debut feature, Submarine, doesn’t get a general release ’til March 18th, but it premiered in the UK at Brighton’s Cinecity film festival last week, and you will doubtless hear much of it in the months leading up to its launch. This is partly, unavoidably, due to the high profile of its writer and director – the likeable Ayoade’s turns in The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh might not have turned him into a household name, but he is well known and highly thought of. His work behind the camera is less trumpeted, but he’s shot a number of fine music videos and his career highlight, in fact, might be his work as director of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

Submarine will surely be a big success. Everything is surely in place for it to be a hit. It has a star director, a series of great performances, is genuinely funny and is, technically, light years ahead of most UK attempts to crack the box-office. It’s wonderfully shot and crisply edited, well-cast and tightly scripted. And the theme is likely to resonate too; a young, bright, self-aware – but awkward, emotionally clumsy – teenage boy comes of age in a faintly timeless Welsh town. As a first feature, it’s sure-footed and well-judged.

What will also happen, however, is the reviews will tilt under the weight of references and comparisons. For better or for worse, deliberately or by accident, Ayoade has made a film which fits neatly into the genre of comedy mastered in recent years by a succession of independent film auteurs in movies like Rushmore, Juno, Napoloeon Dynamite and Son of Rambow. This is both a strength – they’re all fine films – and a weakness – like them, Submarine is literate, sardonic, nostalgic and – at times – a bit self-indulgent.

The Wes Anderson comparisons will flow freely. At times, Ayoade’s style, which is heavy on cinematic grammar, does indeed recall Anderson, although happily it’s Rushmore that Submarine reminds me of, not Anderson’s later, weaker work, and one could very easily argue that Ayoade is thematically and stylistically harking back further, to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. It wasn’t Anderson, after all, who first hit on the idea of quirky, stylised comedy with folk-music soundtracks (Alex Turner, incidentally, drops the ball with his clumsy sounding musical accompaniement.)

Nevertheless, there are times when you wonder why, when Ayoade watched the rushes back, he didn’t think to himself, “if I took out all the bits that are going to really remind people of Wes Anderson, I’d still have a pretty great film”. He left them in, no doubt, because there is a confluence of style and theme which is a happy and genuine co-incidence. But the whimsy is cosmetic – in other words it spices up the visuals but adds nothing to the story – and I for one have had enough of this celluloid twee-ness. It bit into my enjoyment of an otherwise super film.

But let’s give it some deserved praise. First, the cinematography is gorgeous. Ayoade repeatedly returns to the huge expanses of sky around Cardiff, and the lingering landscapes are intensely memorable. He’s also found a couple of great leads – the youngsters, Yasmin Paige and Craig Roberts perform with confidence and style, while the adult cast perform with such evident pleasure that one almost feels short-changed that they only have supporting roles. It’s hard to think of a couple of better performances in a comedy film than Noah Taylor’s Lloyd Tate and Sally Hawkin’s wonderful portrayal of his wife, Jill. Meanwhile, overacting gleefully, Paddy Considine has tremendous fun, as he always seems to.

And most importantly, despite the irritating and sometimes arch narration, Ayoade makes a serious attempt to inject emotion into proceedings, something that Wes Anderson never seems to bother with. It’s only sporadically successful (there’s still a layer of irony that impedes empathy) but the attempt alone sets the film apart from many of the titles it will be compared to. This that bodes most well for its youthful director. There’s absolutely enough to suggest, here, that Ayoade could go on to be a really super film-maker. It does sometimes become necessary, however, to carve out one’s own approach, and just now you feel there’s too many nods at other movies and not quite enough pushing ahead alone.

After the premiere, Noah Taylor – exquisite as Oliver’s dad – stayed behind to talk about the film (which he had just seen for the first time), his career to date and cinema in general. It was absorbing stuff – and luckily I taped it. So if you’re interested in hearing a bit more about the film, you can catch up below. The talk is, I think, spoiler free.

Noah Taylor talks about Richard Ayoade’s ‘Submarine’, Brighton, Dec 2010 by assistantblog

Mirror / Dash

Posted 11 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews, Travel

Family Bookstore is a terrific little arts bookshop based in Los Angeles, and this month the owners are running and curating a little pop up shop in NY’s Chinatown; it’s ostensibly mid-way between a shop, a gallery, and an impromptu arts space, and I went down there last night to go through the books, admire the pictures and – most importantly – to enjoy a live performance by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who treated the small hipster audience to a 40 minute wall of feedback and guitar noise.

Playing in the corner of a high ceilinged, white-walled warehouse, they started quietly, sat over their guitars, sawing and scraping at the strings with nail files and drumstricks, occasionally picking out shards of fractious counter-melodies with their fingers. Gordon was the most demonstrative, occupying centre stage, sometimes sat, rocking her guitar back and forth, colliding it into her amplifier, sometimes standing, arched over the mic whispering phrases into the ether. Her tired, expressive croon is a marvellous instrument in itself – at times I thought I heard it, but it was just the sound of Thurston wringing a squeal of feedback from his guitar. Sometimes Gordon would yelp ‘let’s dance’ – a counter intuitive invitation if ever I heard one, for the music was as experimental and formless as any you’ll be likely to hear.

For all that, however, the musical and personal bond betweem Kim and Thurston is so profound, so developed, that the music never seemed pointless or pretentious. It was explorative, enthusiastic, rather than high-minded. And it actually sounded extremely beautiful sometimes – an other-worldy, cacophonous orchestra of cicadas one minute, a soundscape of echo the next. Once or twice Kim played a formal riff for a minute or two, and the whole thing began to churn with the rhythmic intensity of Neu!, only for a deliberate or accidental hum to lead the pair snaking in another direction.

Mindblowing stuff.

precious, a film by lee daniels

Posted 21 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

I watched Precious, today, the second feature by Lee Daniels, and was very impressed, if upset, by its grim, unflinching portrayal of domestic abuse in 1980s Harlem. It’s only Daniels second film, although he is an established name in Hollywood, having produced both the excellent ‘The Woodsman’ – a hard, affecting film about a convicted paedophile – and the execrable ‘Monster’s Ball’, a condescending, unpleasant film about ‘black America’. Here, aided by some excellent casting and several terrific performances, he has crafted a film which is alternately painful to watch, surprisingly heart-warming, and very funny.

It’s the severity of the circumstances his young lead must face that resonate most strongly. Precious, an impassive, obese 16 year old who is pregnant for the second time by her own father, is played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe with real depth and significant restraint, and entirely fulfils her role in a film where appalling events are threaded routinely into the plot. The comedian Mo’Nique, who plays her mother, is even more impressive, bringing a nightmarish intensity to her portrayal of one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve ever seen in celluloid. In addition, there is good work by a (slightly too-good-to-be-true) Paula Patten and Mariah Carey, whose hard, ambiguous social worker is central to the film’s (ultimately hopeful, despite everything) climax.

At times, particularly when Mo’Nique is inflicting shocking abuse on her screen daughter, it’s terribly hard to watch. To leaven the horror, Daniels provides a hopeful subplot which lauds the role of the state in protecting its most put-upon citizens, and it’s for the best that he does, else the film might be unwatchable. At times the contrast between these two strands seems a little unbelievable, but it is a necessary plot device. As in both Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, however, there are some ambiguous moral lessons. In The Woodsman, vigilantism is presented in a strangely uncritical light, and in Precious it’s hard not to notice that every character who lines up to help Precious (and thankfully there are several) seem to have progressively lighter skin.

Her relationship with Patten – who plays her teacher and mentor – is touching and convincing; but at times it feels that Patten is a little too good to be true; an impeccably groomed, comfortable liberal – she seems remarkably unfrazzled for an inner city teacher. Indeed, her class – supposedly made up of Harlem’s most troubled teenagers – seems at times to resemble the kids from Fame.

This is nitpicking – there are great performances here, and it’s very difficult not to be upset, moved, and exhausted by the film. It’s a great success and Mo’Nique, for one, might feel unfairly cast aside if she doesn’t pick up an Oscar for her role. I hope that the intolerable life young Precious is handed in 80s Harlem is a historical observation, and that things are better for America’s poor today.

wave pictures at the garage, islington

Posted 01 Nov 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews, Video

Although my birthday was a month ago, I had a lovely second pass at being spoiled this weekend, when Anne-So and Rich took me not only for a delicious curry in London but also to see the final date on the Wave Pictures current Uk tour, at the Garage in Islington.

Of course, it’s as ridiculous to talk of touring schedules with the Wave Pics as it is to talk of album release cycles. Since I first stumbled, delighted, upon them at the End Of The Road three years ago, it’s been apparent that – seemingly contrary to the instincts of many of their contemporaries – they do most what they love most; writing and playing. So there have been two conventional albums in quick session plus a bunch of singles and EPs and then a slew of hastily recorded ‘unofficial’ LPs, often recorded with a cast of like-minded accomplices which includes the Berlin-based Andre Hermann Dune (now known as Stanley Brinks) and Clemence Freschard, both of whom appear with the band tonight in what seems to be a genuine and touching display of open collaboration.

In case you’re not quite up to speed, here’s a quick précis. The Wave Pictures are like no other band on earth – drawing on a set of influences which includes Sam Cooke, Jonathan Richman and early Dire Straits (and frequently sounding like a neat combination of all three) the band simultaneously straddle a relaxed, unfussy approach which yields thin, scruffy takes, shorn of overdubs, and a quite spectacular level of musicianship – David Tattersall’s guitar playing is instinctive, spare and quite dazzling when he lets loose. Aesthetically, they couldn’t be more comfortable in their own skin, transparently loving every minute of what they do. Just as notes come easy, Tattersall’s yearning, kitchen-sink lyrics sound wonderfully unforced – and are similarly wonderful.

London clearly has a loyal Wave Pics fanbase, and whereas the last time I saw the band – in a sweaty basement in Brighton – they played a short, fast, exposive set, this weekend they played a longer and more varied, more celebratory collection of songs. The results were spellbinding.

The problem with amassing such a comprehensive and assured back catalogue in a very short period of time is that it’s impossible to play everything, meaning that once again there is no room for classics like ‘Long Island’ or the beautiful ‘If You Leave It Alone’; but we’re amply rewarded with some absolute treats – a star turn on lead vocals (and a drum solo) from Jonny, some wonderful, mellow saxophone playing by Stanley Brinks, and a smattering of new songs, including a gorgeous one from Tattersall’s new CD, sung sweetly by the exceedingly European Freschard:

“I saw your hair between the trees, I saw your hair
In the sunlight on the leaves, I saw you there
I saw the curve of your lips, I saw blue skies
I saw chipped toenails in the twigs, and your blue eyes”.

Best of all was the song, presented above, which they played the one time I turned my camera on and trained it on the stage – a delicious, communal acapella take on ‘Strawberry Cables’, which saw Tattersall eke out exquisite melodies from the call and response harmonies of the original version. The crowd clapped and swooned at every turn – a crowd reacting joyfully to a band immersed in love for their craft, and preocuppied, as Tattersall’s charming, reflective lyrics attest, with love itself.

Thanks thanks thanks to AS and Rich for a wonderful night. Hope the rest of you enjoy the video.

noah’s misery

Posted 27 Oct 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

My impression – I may be wrong – is that the new Noah and The Whale record has underwhelmed quite a few people. It feels like the fans who liked the upbeat arrangements of their debut album are bewildered by the introverted, melancholic seam running through The First Days Of Spring. Equally, the people who understandably took against the contrived, Wes Anderson-influenced trappings of the band’s image and first record have not been convinced by the earnest, mature stylings they’ve followed it up with. Accompanying the new album with a full-length DVD film may be their biggest mistake; a brave, admirable artistic endeavour which nevertheless feels desperately pretentious.

Anyway – as you’ll know if you’ve spent some serious time with The First Days of Spring, it’s an excellent record; a big improvement on Peaceful The World Lays Me Down and a really rewarding, emotional account of what sounds like a pretty fucking awful year in the life of the band’s songwriter, Charlie Fink – whose break-up with Laura Marling doesn’t just dominate this set of songs, it positively defines them. On ‘Stranger’, my favourite song, he sounds positively wretched, musing on the sense of shame he feels after a night of casual sex with a new acquaintance. It’s a peculiar topic (for a man, particularly) to write about, but it’s oddly moving – once one has reconciled Charlie’s lyrical approach with a natural aversion to cliché.

My first reaction to the set of songs on The First Days of Spring was that Fink had written an extraordinary, brooding, lilting set of instrumentals but been unable to find words to express his heartache without resorting to a set of anodyne, stock-phrases to voice his anguish. That may well be the case – there’s an interminable amount of cliché here. But there’s something more complex going on here too.

A year or so ago I was confronted by a very strange, emotional experience. In a venue in Hove, surrounded by my friends, I watched a couple of musicians perform a song for a shared friend which was informed by a sense of loss and regret and love. It was a completely beautiful, spine-tingling moment. Yet I mused afterwards that if I had heard the same song on the radio, unaware of the context, I would probably have written it off as mush; as mawkish, middle-of-the-road stuff. All of a sudden, an alarm went off in my head. All my life I have written off songs with unimaginative or sentimental lyrics as ‘meaningless’, without really given much thought to the fact that they might, despite their failings, be essentially truthful, heartfelt and honest.

Listening to The First Days of Spring now, it’s impossible to argue that Charlie’s lyrics are not predictable and clichéd – and yet something about the completeness of the narrative, the tone of his voice, and the sheer brilliance of his arrangements, persuades me that they’re entirely real, entirely true. When Charlie sings about “songs for the broken hearted”, or needing “your light in my life”, I think, why adorn these despairing sentiments with beautiful embellishments if the plain sentiments get to the heart of the matter? In as much as I believe that anyone’s heart can be broken, I don’t doubt that Charlie’s truly was.

And of course, ‘Stranger’ is just particularly pretty – built, like, most of the record, around simple, ringing, circular guitar lines played on a clean-toned electric guitar, and rich with Charlie’s heavy, regretful vocal. “Last night I slept with a stranger for the first time since you’ve gone / Regretfully lying naked, I reflect on what I’ve done”. It even contains what I hope is a gag; the line where, having described his lover’s naked body entwined with his, he croons, “I’m a fox” – before completing the line “…trapped in the headlights”. If it isn’t a gag, it’s still funny.

And then, just past the half way mark, the song changes emphasis and a still, clear, piano line emerges, accompanied by muted acoustic strumming and some gentle vocal harmonies. “You know in a year”, Charlie starts to sing, “it’s gonna be better”. The riff starts to circle. “You know in a year, I’m gonna be happy”. As it shifts pace, it slides magically from tortured to reflective to uplifting; it’s Charlie reassuring himself, calming himself down, the sound of the early signs of healing. As the next song reflects, “blue skies are coming / but I know that it’s hard”.

If The First Days of Spring is written off as self-indulgent and pretentious – or just plain depressing – it’ll be a real shame. There’s a hugely satisfying single-mindedness of purpose about it; a clear-headed, direct portrayal of misery (and the emergence from misery into a more hopeful state of mind) that, yes, employs a host of well-worn, too-familiar phrases. But I think they are true.

fish tank, by andrea arnold; review

Posted 14 Oct 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

It’s a trite but accurate observation that good art is not just about how it makes you feel while you’re experiencing it, but also about how it stays with you. In the spirit of that, I keep returning to Fish Tank, the second film by Andrea Arnold, which I saw a month or so ago, and admiring the depth of its feeling, the power of the central characters’ performances, and the striking visuals of the cinematography. This makes me think I should have written about it here earlier – as much as anything so I could compare my thoughts then with my thoughts now, which feel like they have blossomed and deepened, but may merely be overpowering my memory as the details of the film recede. This is definitely a film I’ll return to when it comes out on DVD.

I remember the visuals more than anything; the way that Arnold has captured a landscape which, although it’s familiar to me from encountering it myself, feels alien and extraordinary in a cinematic context, consisting as it does of a sequence of extraordinary, vivid sunsets over the Essex countryside, intercut with scenes of industrial blight – pylons towering overhead and motorways ploughing through the fields. The film is set on the edge of London and at the start of the Essex countryside, so a strange urban/rural duality is presented. Mia, the central character, a bolshy and bright 15 year old, lives a bleak life in a tower block (although this itself in Arnold’s film is refreshingly free of cliché – there are no guns in this movie), and understandably dreams of escape. She is a dancer, although perhaps not one, like Billy Elliot, with a life-changing talent. As the title indicates, Mia is caged, looking for an escape. The fact that she can walk out of the city into the green fields, however, offers no respite until Michael Fassbender arrives in her life. He is Connor, her mother’s new boyfriend, and a surrogate father figure.

Mia – played with extraordinary believability by the newcomer Katie Jarvis – is in every frame, prowling through the landscape, her movements repetitive, purposeless and frustrated. Each day she sneaks out, argues with peers, circles the estate, and passes a patch of wasteland where travellers keep a horse tied up. Her movements echo that of a caged animal, listlessly circling, sniffing at the possibility of escape. Her outrage at the horse’s imprisonment is palpable – her own yearning for freedom just as obvious.

Her home life is thankless; her young mother is largely unconcerned with the duty of raising her two daughters, and Connor – who displays a sudden, unexpected interest in her life – offers something to which Mia is quite unused; encouragement, positive reinforcement, love. Mia has been excluded from school, and her mother echoes their analysis of her, that she is a nuisance, trouble, out of control. And there is another problem brewing; for all that Connor tries to nurture the girls, it is quickly apparent that Mia’s role as troubled daughter is complicated by her emergence as a sexual rival for a mother who, apart from when Fassbander is around, is stuck in the memory of her own teenage years.

Connor is as complex and fascinating a character as the young lead. Notably a bit better educated, a bit more gainfully employed, a bit more comfortable in his own skin than the men Mia’s mother normally sees, he nevertheless has his own troubles, and his complex relationship with Mia is just one of them. Their connection is apparent very early on. In one scene, Mia pretends to be asleep so that she can enjoy the feeling of his carrying her back to her room, and in another extraordinary set-piece, Connor takes the family out to the country, where he leads Mia into a fast flowing stream, leans over, and simply lifts a fish smoothly out of the water with his bare hands. It is an incredibly sensual scene, where electricity fizzes silently between the two characters, while Mia’s mother and sister look on, oblivious.

Mia can hardly be blamed for her feelings for Connor; living a life so shorn of encouragement and love, she is completely unprepared for her reaction when such things are offered. Connor represents freedom, adulthood, and escape. Her already profound spirit of rebellion is spurred, as is a heart-warming, uncynical appreciation of the more poetic side of life. There are some absolutely thrilling scenes when she dances.

For all that Mia blossoms with Connor’s encouragement, he is not the strong, centred man that he appears, and things swiftly get out of hand. Yet Arnold handles the development of the story beautifully, drawing wonderful things out of her young lead, and keeping such a tight hold of the reins that the final third of the film, again shot beautifully on the shores of the Thames Estuary, is completely surprising.

Fish Tank has been the best film I’ve seen this year, even better than Moon, which I praised very highly on this blog just a month or two ago. It’s a magnificent study of youthful disaffection, love and anger, beautifully controlled, shot in bewitching colours. And as I indicated, I’ve thought about it almost every day since I saw it –so I don’t think I could possibly recommend another film so heartily.

moon, by duncan jones; review

Posted 30 Jul 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

I saw Moon tonight, the debut feature by Duncan Jones. Set in a familiar, dystopian future, it is what all the best science fiction films are; a slow, thoughtful examination of isolation. What could be more lonely than being sent to space, so far from the people who begat us? (Except perhaps to be living in a city – where far more science fiction films ought to be set).

Moon gives away it’s plotline early, so I have no compunction about revealing details, although I’ll try to hold something back, in case you’ve not seen it. Following in a great tradition of stories about identity and the self, it’s about doubles; Sam Rockwell – the beautifully calibrated lead – encounters no-one on his solitary posting on the moon – except himself. He’s there on the last leg of a solitary posting to oversee a mining operation which supplies Earth with 70% of it’s energy, alone but for a nostalgic portrait of a robot companion, voiced by Kevin Spacey (with more than a nod to HAL). And then an exact clone of himself arrives, ready to assume his post. Immediately he starts to disintegrate. And the process is painful and frightening to watch.

It must be hard being a first-time director. Everyone looks not only for evidence of genius but obsessively for immature flaws. So Moon has encountered its own doubling, its own dichotomy, in its reception. On the one hand, reviewers note, it’s an emphatic triumph – a mature, thoughtful science fiction film, a loving homage to a lost era of film-making and a triumph of art over budget. On the other hand, we read, Jones gives too much away, references too many forebears, doesn’t quite pull it off. Well – nonsense. I thought Moon was a perfectly weighted film, and a complex, haunting pleasure to watch.

Rockwell must take some of the credit. It’s unusual to see a film where one actor alone carries 99% of the screentime, and more unusual still to see him make such a success of carrying not one, but two, distinct characters. For although Rockwell plays two clones of the same character, he imbues each with their own identifiable strengths and weaknesses.

And this is what the film is really about. The first Sam, the dying ember, slowly approaching the end of his shift, is self-aware, rounded, complete. Three years in space have allowed him the time to resolve his conflicts, make peace with his demons. By the same token, the dynamism apparent in his younger clone is altogether gone – his lifeblood drained by his isolation. As the drama unfolds, we begin to wonder – is he resolved, or is he beaten? And is his younger, more aggressive, more impetuous self, his only hope of escape?

Few dystopias, of course, have happy endings. The question, here, is what hope has man in the face of corporations? Sam is only a commodity to be exploited. And only humanity can save us. When GERTY, Sam’s robot companion, first begins to exert his malign influence on his final days, we can see only the negative connotations of a computerised future. But soon GERTY, who is treated as a friend by Sam, begins to display not just emoticons – his screen displays them to denote texture to his monotone pronouncements – but real emotions, humanity is given a metaphorical shot in the arm. He helps propel Sam’s clone to the film’s semi-positive denouement. But we must be cautious; his sentience is sympathetic but not empathetic. Despite helping Sam, he declares himself happy to be re-booted, his memory wiped, the program to begin once again. Essentially, his ‘humanity’ is nothing more than a glitch in the program; albeit one that Sam is lucky to find, and exploit.

So perhaps this is the future – a future where we’re forced to look for holes in the system, glitches to exploit. Corporations, governments, mean only to exploit mankind. But humanity is ingenious, humanity is persistent. Jones never quite gives resolution, and the film is ultimately upsetting and bleak. But Rockwell’s Sam is so powerful, Jones’s direction so focused, that Moon can only inspire. A sad, loving, hopeful, defeated – and defiant film. Best thing I’ve seen in ages.

peggy sue, ‘lover gone’ review

Posted 11 May 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

I’m a bit (alright, totally) obsessed with the new Peggy Sue single, ‘Lover Gone’. It’s just the most beautiful, wistful, two-minute pop song. When I first saw Rosa and Katy a year or two ago I really had no idea of how good they’d become, nor how coherently they’d form a signature sound, a set of sounds, images and ideas so evocative and true. Every new song they do is their best yet – which makes you wonder just how good they’ll get.

‘Lover Gone’ – which is out on March 18th; you can pre-order it from their myspace – opens with a delicate, quiet combination of plucked strings, piano, and unspecified, distant percussion. Like lots of Peggy Sue’s songs, the low key, muffled sound belies the soaring melody to follow. At first, the vocals, too, are gentle; the first lines sad, confident.

“Lover gone – this song is a good one,
In four years I’ll be anyone
But for four years I was there
where you are”.

Rosa and Katy’s singing style is, technically, amazing, but the key is the intuitiveness of their approach – they sound instinctive rather than practised; the way that their vocals overlap and rise and fall together. And when Olly starts hitting the snare and they open up their voices they seem to occupy so much space that the sparse arrangement sounds suddenly huge.

The lyrics, meanwhile, are simultaneously a lament and a celebration – an elegy for a dead relationship, where the protagonist “gave to you four years out of my twenty four”; reflecting not on where things went wrong but what remains; the tan on skin from a summer on the beach, the confidence nourished through four years of support. And yet things change. It’s just immensely moving…

When the song ends, suddenly, prematurely, a mere two minutes in – it closes in a moment of perfect, satisfied completion, acknowledging its brevity – like a sad, soft parting breath.

“This song is not a long one.
But for four years we played safe
In a place that was warm”.