Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Spring Breakers

Where: On the sofa
What: Crime drama
Director: Harmony Korine
Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco

Until Spring Breakers, director Harmony Korine was best known for writing teensploitation drama Kids. In 1995 the movie about a group of NYC teens “enjoying” a lost day of sex, drugs, violence and theft shocked many adult filmgoers. The youth of the day shrugged while Korine left behind the skate parks to become a director of interesting indie oddities like Gummo.

Nearly two decades later, Korine has come back to where he began with a frenetic rites of passage movie. The plot, such as it is, sees four boisterous high school girls plan a trip to Florida for their spring break. Lacking the money to have the sort of fun they want in the sunshine state, three of the girls snort cocaine and rob a diner with sledgehammers and water pistols to fund the trip.

The four soon settle in to the Florida spring break party scene, which is either paradise or hell, depending on your age and interest in partying. Scantily clad teens, wild drinking and drug-taking figure highly. British teens and early-twenty somethings don’t have a direct comparison and prefer to pursue intoxication all-year round, but the nearest equivalent is the annual summer rush to the Balearic and Canary Islands. Besides, there can’t be too many viewers on this side of the Atlantic who are not familiar with the concept of spring break from MTV or Family Guy/American Dad parodies.

Cops inevitably break up the party and our four anti-heroines played by former Disney TV stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens; Ashley Benson, and Harmony’s wife, Rachel Korine are hauled in front of a judge on drug charges. Druglord Alien pays the girls’ bail, but introduces the unruly quartet into a life of gangster squabbles that soon turns sour.

Some viewers will hate Spring Breakers. It’s trashy, slight and ridiculous but could easily become a cult hit. One gets the feeling John Waters would enjoy it, but fair enough. Based on his past work, Korine certainly enjoys Waters’ work, too.

Swathes of the film are little more than a slightly risqué music video. Many scenes are bathed in sleazy red and blue lights, others have acres of bare flesh, moshing jocks and an energetic Skrillex soundtrack. The structure slips around with flashbacks, flashforwards and repeated gunshot sound effects, voiceovers and lines of dialogue. Such cunning narrative trickery and audio-visual stylistic flourishes are disorientating and perhaps Korine’s attempt to make the audience feel they’re on their own woozy spring break.

Acting will not be what the film is remembered for, yet Benson and Hudgens as Brit and Candy are excitingly unafraid and amoral, while James Franco’s Alien is a must-watch. Part Bobby Peru from Wild At Heart, part gangster-rapper turned Tony Montana, his dodgy business dealings help the final act unspool in spectacular fashion.

Those searching for meaning won’t care much for Spring Breakers, but fans of fast, punchy party films like Go, Human Traffic and The Rules of Attraction will find plenty to love here.

Prisoners – film review

Where: Clapham Picture House 
What: Thriller
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello

Film-makers tackling the harrowing topic of child abduction face a series of tough decisions from script to edit suite. A heavy reliance on weeping parents and empty swings can result in sentimental TV movie cliché, while a dependence on violent revenge and bloody action can render the results silly and unbelievable. With Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve avoids many of the subject matter’s pitfalls to deliver a gripping, intelligent thriller replete with generally solid performances and exceptional, if appropriately bleak cinematography from Roger Deakins.

After his six-year-old daughter disappears with her friend on Thanksgiving Day, Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) throws himself into helping a huge police hunt led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Police arrest Alex Jones (Paul Dano in excellent, understated form), but have to release him when no evidence of abduction is found in his mobile home, a vehicle the girls had climbed on before they went missing. An outraged Dover confronts the learning-impaired Jones and assaults him outside the smalltown police station where he had been held and in the fracas, Jones whispers what could be a clue to the girls’ location. Distraught and consumed by anger, Dover soon kidnaps Jones and tortures him in his father’s old home, still in need of a promised renovation years after his father’s death. The film, murky and unrelenting throughout, seems to become a grim race. Will the obsessively dedicated Loki find the girls? Or will Jones reveal where they are hidden?

Prisoners grapples extensively with guilt, loss and rage, with Dover shouldering the heaviest burden: a toxic combination of all three. His wife Grace (a torn, depressed Maria Bello) can barely leave her bed, dulled by pills and grief. Meanwhile, his friend Franklin (a measured, calm Terrence Howard) – the father of other abductee child, Joy – becomes complicit in Jones’s torture. Dover doesn’t see himself as a hero, but staunchly believes he must take control of the case himself if the authorities can’t save his daughter.

French-Canadian Villeneuve’s first English film is compellingly complex, punctuated by occasional moments of brutal violence and built on a tense Aaron Guzikowski script. Guzikowski has spoken about his love of The Silence of The Lambs and Se7en and the macabre tone of both seem to influence proceedings. However, it’s a shame that the occasional unlikely twist and gaping plot hole in Prisoners make the film less credible than either those two or Gone Baby Gone, perhaps the best contemporary movie concerning a child abduction story.

In arguably his career-best performance, Jackman provides the acting fireworks in several scenes of (sometimes overcooked) explosive rage and utter despondency, but Gyllenhaal is the film’s stand-out. The archetypal loner-with-a-badge detective who won’t rest until the case is solved is not the most original of roles, but his portrayal is true and resolute.

It’s not based on a startlingly fresh premise but Prisoners proves that careful, smart directing, combined with tough, wily writing and decent performances can comprise an entertaining thriller.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Scum and The Long Good Friday: Why 1979 was a terrific year for film (part 1)

Here's the first post in a two-part look at a terrific year of film...

Arguments about the relative merits of individual cinematic years can drag on longer than The Hobbit. Yet there’s a solid case for 1979 being one of the most exciting years of English-language cinema in the 20th century.

There were auspicious acting triumphs from Ray Winstone (Scum) and Mel Gibson (Mad Max), while Peter Sellers starred in the final film to be released during his lifetime (Being There). There was hallucinatory chaos in the jungle (Apocalypse Now) and at least two pictures that saw the world’s greatest cities on show (The Long Good Friday and Manhattan). Gang culture was captured with varying levels of realism (The Warriors and Quadrophenia), while one religious satire (Monty Python’s Life of Brian) provoked hilarity and controversy in equal measure.

Repeated viewings of Scum have not diminished its power. Bleak and uncompromising, the film is not an easy watch, but Alan Clarke’s unflinching borstal story survived attempts to ban it. From start to finish, the depiction of a youth prison teeming with anger and violence is as primal and savage as any David Attenborough nature documentary. Winstone’s terrifying turn as Carlin in particular has since become a part of pop culture, with the character’s “I’m the daddy,” catchphrase being co-opted by TV adverts. Despite its explicit and relentless brutality, the film has sensitivity and wit – often expressed through the actions of considered, intellectual convict Archer (Mick Ford) – even if viewers have to sit through scenes of assault, rape and suicide to get there.

If any film of 1979 illustrated how tough like could be for the have-nots, it was this one. The Long Good Friday is another memorable early depiction of Thatcherite Britain. A criminal is again the chief protagonist, but Harold Shand is far from the disenfranchised youth of Scum. In his finest performance, Bob Hoskins plays successful East End mobster Shand with the no-nonsense capitalist bravado that would come to epitomise the 80s. His stirring, patriotic speech to a pair of American mobsters towards the film’s finale is so London it should have its own Oyster card. Watching with hindsight, the film is also a fascinating historical document. The plot centres on Shand’s attempts to redevelop then-derelict Docklands. Many scenes show poignant images of empty docks and disused cranes, the consequence of nearly 200 years of trade in the area finally drying up. Three decades and billions of pounds later, bankers have replaced dockers and the Isle of Dogs is again a huge part of London’s economy.

Check back here soon for Part 2...

Monday, 24 October 2011

Donnie Darko: a true contemporary classic

Donnie Darko crept into cinemas six weeks after 9/11. Out in the real world a decade of confusion, paranoia and fear had began, so it was no surprise audiences stayed away. Richard Kelly's movie is a strange, dark work full of unusual and occasionally unpleasant characters behaving in disturbing and destructive ways. It could have even been the film’s bittersweet streak, as punishing and beautiful as a night spent with the object of your unrequited love, which kept the box office receipts low. Whatever the reason, the film didn’t break even on its theatrical release and grossed little more than $4.1 million across the globe, $400,000 less than it cost to make.

Ten years on, the film has become a success for a host of reasons. Like many of the best movies, it snags one’s mind first time around but rewards on each repeated watch, offering up unmissed subtleties each time.

The eponymous troubled teen is sensitively played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who owns the screen each time he appears, even when a man in an unspeakably scary rabbit suit shares it with him. When we first see Darko he is lying asleep in the middle of the road on a hill above his hometown at dawn. This is a brilliant, beguiling and unorthodox way to begin the film, abetted by Stephen Poster’s stunning cinematography. Poster knows a thing or 50 about the creation of visually arresting images: he was second unit director of photography on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner.

With the film having opened with such a lucid statement of intent, Darko cycles down the hill towards home, perhaps mirroring the mental and emotional descent he is about to embark on. As he rides, the first song of an inspired soundtrack plays. It is Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon, a midnight tale of beauty and darkness.. Richard Kelly initially wanted INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart for the opening. Although the Australian band’s song is worthy of inclusion and was released in 1988, when Darko is set, it can be no match for the incredible blend of bombast and yearning provided by Ian McCulloch's group.

When we meet Darko’s family, there' a conversation about the merits of then-presidential candidate George H.W Bush and Michael Dukakis. This is quickly forgotten as rivalry between Donnie and older sibling Elizabeth (played, in a stroke of clever/obvious casting, by Jake Gyllenhaal's sister Maggie) quickly escalates into unnecessary but hilarious profanity around the dinner table. The squabble also contains Darko’s first mention of his mental illness and hints at the psychological unravelling to come.

What follows is  confusing, fantastical, and tense, but always compelling. We’re inducted into Darko’s school life with Tears For Fears’ mellifluous Head Over Heels and are introduced to coke-sniffing school bully Seth Devlin, inspiring teacher Karen Pomeroy (played to frustrated perfection by co-producer Drew Barrymore) and a host of others.

Most scenes are either captivating from start to finish or contain a memorable incident, from Dr Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Darko’s conversation about time travel, to the movie’s greatest line. Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), Darko’s nascent love interest, askes where she should sit in her new class. Pomeroy replies, “Sit next to the boy you think is the cutest.” Elsewhere, Patrick Swayze is a revelation as self-help guru with a secret Jim Cunningham, while Beth Grant’s Kitty Farmer is monstrous as that most dangerous of authority figures: a pushy mum and an ignorant teacher.

Categories have their uses, but maybe one of the reasons Donnie Darko failed commercially is its refusal to sit comfortable within one. It is a comedy, drama, high school movie, fantasy and love story with moments of terror. It’s also an intelligent, discursive film. Amid the chats about Smurfs’ reproductive organs, there is a constant moral probing at work, with Darko, Pomeroy and Monnitoff loosely on the side of good and Cunningham, Farmer and Devlin more firmly in the camp of evil. What makes Farmer perhaps the most interesting of these is that she would never consider herself a bad person.

There is an argument that Donnie Darko is rather pretentious. By writing and directing a film so clever, beautiful and complex, Richard Kelly is perhaps showing off his intelligence and storytelling skill a bit too much. Fair comment, but so what? Usain Bolt is a show-off and he’s the fastest man in the world. It’s only when the work you produce lacks merit that your methods or temperament matter to anybody except your colleagues or loved ones. Lemmy from Motorhead collects Nazi memorabilia, but that doesn’t make Ace of Spades any less amazing. As for Kelly, he leapt up his own bottom when he went on to make Southland Tales, a mess worse than a post-party kitchen.

Donnie Darko is a film with murder, arson, flooding, teen sex, time travel, disturbing apocalyptic dreams, unconscious masturbation, school talent contests and references to Graham Greene. A decade on, it is still haunting and hilarious and should be revered like the modern classic it so clearly is.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Amy Winehouse: Meeting and remembering a truly great Londoner

Amy Winehouse came out of the London suburbs to become an essential part of the city’s pop hierarchy with a voice, attitude and words all of her own. That she was born and grew up in Southgate is only worth a mention in passing. To dwell on that would be as pointless as highlighting David Bowie’s origins in Beckenham or Kate Bush’s birth in Bexleyheath. The pull of London’s centre for those born and raised on the fringes of it is inexorable. Ask anyone which place they think of when they think of Amy and “Camden” will be the only answer worth hearing.

The north London district that was a base for punk, Britpop and more became Amy’s playground. She stumbled into kebab houses, pulled pints in The Hawley Arms, spanked all comers at pool in The Good Mixer and stood waiting impatiently, cursing the Northern line, as so many Londoners have, on the platforms at Camden Town tube station.

Since she passed on up to the Pyramid stage in the sky last Saturday afternoon, 30 Camden Square has been visited by fans of all races and ages, with some receiving Amy’s clothes from her devoted dad Mitch. There has been talk of a permanent shrine memorial being built in the square, while this week police have been called to stop punters celebrating her memory too enthusiastically. There are flowers, cards, posters, scrawled slogans, bottles of vodka, cans of beer and cigarettes laid out in her memory. On Tuesday I paid my own respects and put down one of the latter, left at my house by a friend after a night of partying.

A more apt tribute than a static memorial, though, given the remarkable talent she had, would be a music school named in her honour. As the most gifted pupil to have graduated from Croydon’s BRIT School, Amy left all her alumni in the shade. Even Adele Adkins, the Tottenham-born and Tulse Hill-raised singer currently sitting at the top of the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Amy’s second album Back To Black, the only one she was really satisfied with, sold three million copies in the UK and 2.3m in the US before her death. But numbers ain’t everything, despite what the accountants think.

On Friday afternoon in December 2006, I was privileged to spend a couple of hours in her company. A friend and colleague of mine was filming the interview, while I kept the conversation flowing. There was no difficulty in that. Her personality was as striking as her music and her looks. Five feet three, but she might as well as been ten feet high. She was covered in confrontational tattoos and a mass of hyper-coiffured jet black hair. Full of mischief and wit, she sat there like a contemporary femme fatale, albeit with a microphone and an Oyster card instead of a gun and a Cadillac. Fittingly, halfway through the interview she had a violently angry, swear-heavy phone conversation with her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil. In a typically unafraid and honest gesture, when we suggested allowing her privacy for the call, she shook her head while we remained in the room. She told me I reminded her of a garrulous Camden pal and admitted she’d been drinking that day, but bore no tell-tale marks of the serious drug and drink problems that would ultimately contribute to her early death. She was exactly the sort of person you’d want to spend Friday afternoon with.

At the time many of the other amazing songs from Back To Black were almost impossible to avoid anywhere within the M25, much as they have been in the week since she passed away. At the time, they’d only been released two months and were still cementing themselves as modern classics. Artists had written about love, sex, heartbreak and despair before and have since, but has there been another line as enticing and as “I told you I was trouble, you know that I’m no good”? As unflinching as Back To Black’s opening, “He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet”? As defiant as any in Rehab?

She could have sung the instructions on a Toilet Duck and made men weep in the street. That she could tear out her heart and sing about the only thing that really matters – love and why it breaks you and makes you like nothing else – turned her into a superstar. The world is sadder without her.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Getting experimental in the East End

Photo by Diamond Geezer

Best laid plans going awry led a long-mooted viewing of the Chris Morris terrorism comedy Four Lions to be missed on Wednesday night. Instead it was time for some experimental music at the OpenLab OpenNight at Bethnal Green Working Man’s Club.

Of the assembled acts utilising open-source software as part of their performance, many bordered on the unlistenable, but at least all showed a willingness to challenge their audience, themselves and in some cases the limits of the human pain threshold. This was not a place for melody or a casual singalong chorus.

The most engaging and traditionally musical crew were the alarmingly-named Cuntbucket, who blended synths, guitar and bass to occasionally thrilling effect, albeit with moments which needed more work. This is obviously no bad thing, though. The idea of the night is about potential and having a progressive attitude rather than producing something more fully formed.

Elsewhere, screeching violins, waves of Underworld synths and a laptop seemingly weeping binary tears after being forced into an arranged marriage with an iPhone all played a role in the evening’s musical offering.

Most intriguing was a “set” from a man named Chris who performs as Popdamage. At this point only witness accounts can be reported (at the time London Liked was deep in thought, staring out over tranquil City Road Basin from the new concrete and steel plateau and steps which lead from the north side of City Road – see photo above).

Popdamage then, comprises a man with a brain scanner and a beach ball. The beach ball is thrown around among audience members, while the brain scanner works with software to create sounds based on the connection between the movement of the beach ball and the brain scans.

Apparently, this progressive and unusual set of instruments failed to work on stage, but later worked for brave audience members who had a go themselves after.

It’s perhaps the first time an artist has tried to combine elements of Clockwork Orange headgear, Kraftwerk and beach volleyball, but must be worth a look in future.

Monday, 26 April 2010

LCD Soundsystem leave London breathless

*Photo courtesy of Roman Tagoe

LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy famously didn’t write for Seinfeld because he preferred the NYC stoner lifestyle.

Quite what Seinfeld scribe and Curb Your Enthusiasm lynchpin Larry David would have made of the nasal-voiced DFA Records founder remains unknown, but US TV’s loss has since been funk-punk’s gain.

Aside from his work as LCD chief, Murphy has made a plethora of albums and remixes that satisfy and excite. Radio 4’s excellent Gotham LP, the staggering Daft Punk-influenced remix of Le Tigre’s Deceptacon and the remix of Sister Saviour by fellow NYC stalwarts The Rapture have all benefited from the Murphy touch. In each case Murphy was complemented by Tom Goldsworthy, Murphy’s DFA production partner.

As for LCD Soundsystem, Murphy has brought the band to a close.

They’ll no longer be touring as the main man wants to spend time scoring. No, he’s not developed some heavy skag passion, just veered into composing soundtracks. His work on Noah Baumbach’s Greenburg was released in March.

Last weekend LCD played what may well be the band’s London’s last indoor** shows at Brixton Academy.

On Friday the show (23 April) was beset by technical problems but like true pros the Big Apple gang cracked on impeccably. Few undergarments stayed dry as feverish disco guitar riffs, battered cowbell chimes and morbidly obese basslines shuddered around Brixton’s biggest venue.

Terrific set-opener Us V Them got two airings after a synth initially failed. Luckily an IT geek got let out from his basement for 30 seconds for a spot of turning-it-off-and-on-again and things improved second time round. Masterful single Tribulations and early fan favourite Yeah provided some ragged but unified chanting. Even crashing moments of garage rock/electro crossover noise like those in Movement or new shoutalong Drunk Girls went down well.

A slightly underplayed version of Daft Punk Is Playing My House seemed to confuse fans before it worked them into a frenzy worthy of the recorded version, but All My Friends received perhaps the best reworking of the evening.

On sophomore album Sound Of Silver, All My Friends is almost a night’s finale, lighters-in-the-air take on the traditional post acid-house dancefloor epic. Here, from the opening seconds, any sort of faithful take on the original had clearly been forsaken like a burnt pie crust.

The fast, banging and resolute reinvention worked. For once all the cheesy hands-in-the-air sentiments of life-affirming rave culture and people coming together over a shared love of music seemed to have a point. Even the most inebriated gig-goers in SW9 thought about their pals both present and absent. It’s hard not to when thousands of people around you are singing, “Where are your friends tonight?”

Murphy often mimicked some of Morrissey’s vocal approach during the show, even if his overall stage persona had more in common with the original arty funk-punker David Byrne.

He brought together this sense of class and cool immaculately on unexpected final tune New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. This five boroughs lament actually did get lighters held aloft and balloons falling from the venue’s ceiling. A terrific ending but one perhaps “inspired” by Hot Chip, the Putney greats who share both a label and occasional member (Al Doyle) with LCD.

After all, Hot Chip let balloons drop at the close of their 2008 Brixton Academy show, too.

Murphy and his six stage companions tore through debut hit Losing My Edge earlier in the set.

But if, as most present agreed, the only way the performance matched that song's title was through spherical rubber plagiarism..?

Their passing will be missed more than that of childhood innocence.

**The band are due to play at Hyde Park's Wireless festival in July.