Month: July 2010

Can I (not) Take U 2 The Cinema, pt. 2

I went to see two films in twenty-four hours. For lazy me, this is a momentous occasion. The second of these films, chronologically, was Inception. I talked about that first. Don’t ask me why. The first was Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 Before, I spoke about wanting an empty cinema, void of distractions, for watching my films. The hypothesis was this: people whisper and suck you out of immersion. It can be a good thing: I’ve mentioned how Four Lions seemed, I suspect, funnier because of the amount (and mood) of people in that screening. But, for good or bad, it’s pretty much undeniable: the audience changes the film. Pixar films are the exception to this rule (the problem becoming inverted: the oh God don’t cry that would be too embarrassing don’t cry effect). Where Inception was difficult to engage with emotionally, being distracted from Toy Story was near-impossible. I could see Dom checking his watch to my left. I knew we were cutting it tight with our parking ticket. I just didn’t care. Because Pixar have discovered the magical formula, now. The film consistently pulls on a visceral emotional response. Sometimes that’s laughter, or warm nostalgia. Sometimes it’s pure, big, colourful spectacle. Often it’s trying to make you cry. These are the things Inception doesn’t quite know how to use. Even, for example, as an action film, Toy Story fares better. It provides more pure heart-in-mouth moments, at least one example of sheer terror for the plight of the heroes. For all its folding cities and rotating, anti-gravity fight scenes, Toy Story does spectacle better. In emotion? Inception is barely interested. Pixar, meanwhile, are masters of traditionally-crafted films, everything perfectly placed knowing the exact reaction it aims for and will achieve.That sounds a light mechanical. And Toy Story‘s difficult to talk about this way, because it’s as exactly as much of a bare example of pure, masterful craft as Inception is. And, thing is: while I hardly dreaded seeing Toy Story 3, it summoned nothing of the excitement the last few Pixar films have held for me. I knew the formula, I didn’t care much for the characters and, frankly, it seems unlike the Pixar of today. They seem a little beyond sequels at this point. The first film is a great family film … but Pixar seem to be pushing to making films for adults, that just happen to be accessible to (and, fortunately, hold the endless fascination of) kids too. Not too many other films in the history (and probably future) of cinema whose focus was a grieving widower could also sell action figures and inspire arguments over, no, I wanna be Kevin this time in the back garden, y’know? Being fully honest, a lot of my worries applied. They just didn’t matter. It was formulaic. The plot followed the familar pattern of the first two in a lot of ways. But damn if it didn’t fight the corner for the film formula as a non-dirty word. The formula works, and it’s a proven form on which to hang some quite thoughtful ideas: in this case, a reversal of the getting-old/broken/redundant theme of Toy Story 2. I’m still not too fond of Buzz and Woody as characters, true: but the ideas they represent – childhood, and lost toys, and innocence – are holy to me. Endangering them is an assault on entire parts of my personality. Which is why being a sequel works. Toy Story was itself a part of my childhood; it’s true for all of us. No other piece of pop-culture has held such a perfect position for our generation. It’s as easy to sneer at the little kids going into the cinema as it is the newcomers attending a gig to sing along to the chorus of your favourite band’s one accidental hit-single and tap their toe through the other stuff. This isn’t theirs, it’s ours. After all, it’s been seven years. In any other hands, this would look like greed. And until I sat down in that cinema, being honest, it did. But, just like Dom checking his watch and the ticking parking meter and the impending potential fine, it all washed away in the ease of perfect feeling Toy Story 3 manages to be. Enough to show me I was being a snob; to show me the wisdom in letting us grow out of Toy Story just a little, placing us firmly in the place of Andy, and so more emotionally vulnerable. But all that came after the film; not during. Never during. That’s the Pixar magic. …And I guess that’s all, folks. I’ve got a lot more in me: how both films reminded me of Lost, in differing ways. My worries about the future of Pixar, and the theory of Pixar’s Five Ages. But I’ve gone on long enough. I’m sure most of it will come out in future posts or essays or comments. Oh, and speaking of essays: if you would by any chance be interested in reading the essay I wrote for a Film Studies course on death and mourning in Disney and Pixar films (using Up, Bambi and The Lion King as my examples), let me know and I’ll post it up on here. But be warned, it makes this admittedly long-windeed post look like a brief relaxed chat. And, for anyone wondering, here’s the Kenickie b-side I named these two posts after:

Can I (not) Take U 2 The Cinema, pt. 1

So … I went to the cinema twice in two days. Understand that this is, at certain times of year, as much as I’ll attend* in three or four months. The last time I did it was … well, a day of Chris Nolan’s previous film – called The Dark Knight, you might have heard of it – and Pixar’s Wall.E. This time it was Inception – Nolan’s new film – and Toy Story 3. This, clearly, is the kind of stuff I get off the sofa for. Thanks to that symmetry, the two seem a bit inextricably linked, so I’m going to write about them, in the exact opposite order to that in which I watched them. And, oh yeah, if you haven’t seen either those and you want to – and if you don’t, frankly, what the Charles Freck is wrong with you? – I wouldn’t read these till afterwards. …First, Inception. Inception. You know what my dream is? To be able to go to the cinema on my own. No disrespect to any of the people I saw either film with – Tom, Dom, Zoe, I like at least two of you – but when you’re sitting in the cinema, having someone next to you can be unnerving. You can’t help but register small movements, wonder what we’re thinking of the film, whether they’re bored or uncomfortable… This is people I choose to go with. Strangers next to you who decide to spoil the end of the film you’ve managed to avoid any and all information on three minutes before it ends? Fuhgeddaboudit. …This is my dream, and until the kind of tech on display in Inception (part-Eternal Sunshine, part-Matrix) exists, those dreams will be unreachable. Fact is, you have to go with other people, and it’s just not socially acceptable to want the seats next to you, let alone the entire cinema screen, empty unless you’re Mark flipping Kermode.** Inception is the kind of film that suffers from this phenomenon particularly hard. The film’s kind of cold, and requires a certain level of attention and immersion: when someone next to you hisses “is there really still half an hour left?”, you can’t help but notice, yeah, it is going on a bit. Nolan is, fittingly enough, a bit of a paradox: I will rush to see anything he puts out, but I enjoy all of his films in a particular way: approving, generally impressed by the craft, but rarely overwhelmed. I always mean to get round to watching them again but never quite do – with the exception of Batman Begins, probably my least favourite of his work but defintiely the one I’ve seen most. It’s because of that coldness. It’s not necessarily there in the best moments of Memento, or The Best Moment of Dark Knight. But Nolan’s films generally tickle the brain, not grab hold of the heart. But that coldness is definitely playing to strength – Nolan’s emotional scenes tend off a little schmaltzy – and in Inception, it seems particularly intentional. Inception is a puzzle game: the old-fashioned variety, before computers and everything. All sliding pieces and rotating sides. The ideas involved are those big ones: time, layers, dreams. The human mind; not the human heart. It begins to reach beyond that, into concepts of the afterlife and, well, just life – like a secular version of the final season of Lost, actually – but those are a little beyond its remit, requiring a fusion of emotional and conceptual storytelling that neither example fully managed. But where it succeeds best – and it succeeds exactly – is as a film. The action and posing and posturing is very post-Matrix (remember the early 00s where every film was the new Matrix or the new Memento? This is, of course, both). It’s full of floating and slow motion. But, this is the thing: Nolan manages to find sweet justification for each and every chunk of spectacle. It plays with the action-movie cliché of those last few impossibly slow seconds before the bomb goes off and, again, justifies and finds purpsoe for them. Which mirrors the time dilation of coming out of a long film into the real world (it’s a film which, yes, people sitting next to me, feels longer than it is) and that’s all part of the plot as well as the atmosphere. It’s a film about films, just in the sense that it’s such a shining example of a film that understands films. Inception’s basic premise, and the early reveals, are based around the most obvious narrative cliche in the world: …and it was all a dream. The twist becomes not oh it was all a dream but rather, already knowing that’s in the deck, will they play that card? And where? …It is, essentially, a film I could write about all day. All my actual conversations on the matter, however, have been much more closed. That’s the other thing about seeing a film with people: I never want to say anything after the film. I need a little digestion time, a little time to try out thoughts and come up with something intelligent to say. The first thing I said about this film, which will probably remain the most true, was that the the more people say they loved Inception, the less I’ll love it. And every time someone comes home from the cinema, showering it with praise, true enough, I resent the film (and the people) just a tiny bit. Why wasn’t that it how it was for me? I can tell you why: I watched it with a different audience. And that’s how it’ll always be. (In conclusion: courtesy of this here tumblr, via Miles) *’attend’ seems like the right word. For all the holiness I feel music holds over other cultural forms, going to the cinema is the one that feels most like going to church.**Hmm. I feel a plan forming…

Gilme Gilme More (groan)

Ask anyone about what an episode of Gilmore Girls consists of and they’ll tell you about the noise. The constant, sped-up dialogue, written and delivered unrealistically. That’s the caricature of the programme’s character, and it’s the draw, largely, for watching it. But Gilmore Girls knows when to be silent. It tends to be best when operating in the absence of that unmistakable dialogue, the cold vacuum of the void all the more remarkable for that noise. Silence is what separates Gilmore Girls from what it might immediately appear to be: teen romantic drama, family soap opera* … generic. Other examples of the former (I’m thinking your OC‘s, your 90210‘s) often use a similar pop-cultural, constantly-quipping voice but, apart from not actually doing the noise element nearly as well as Gilmore Girls, they don’t often know how to stop. Everything is on full, all of the time: pregnancies and break-ups and abortions get thrown at you one after the other. The premise of Gilmore Girls is founded on this kind of drama (girl has baby at 16, gets kicked out by parents), but the programme itself sits for the most part in a quiet idyll. (In fact, the biggest changes in this mould tend to be the most understated: Lorelai ditching her own wedding early on just doesn’t feel as big and important as small-town politics.) Terrifying. How it isn’t a family soap-opera is trickier to navigate, if only because I have less direct examples or experience with the genre I’m thinking of. It certainly is – like almost all the TV shows I love – about family. Examining three generations of the Gilmore family, it is one of the more straight-forward examples of this phenomenon. More Simpsons than, say, Firefly (Whedon’s stuff being, after all, always about carving your own family out of what is available). But, it’s got a touch of that, too. A well-serviced supporting cast, often the most accessible emotional route, providing the surrogate family. As I got a little choked up watching the finale of Season 3, it was this synthesised family that broke me: the tears of the local café owner. This was the reaction to an event – graduation – that will, when it happens in my own life later on today, likely provoke little emotion from me. But, I’m getting noisy. The point was silence. I’ve just reached the end of Season Three. It is uncharacteristically noisy in terms of plot points. One character got kicked out of school and ran away (again), one character’s getting married, an inn burnt down, a minor character died, there’s a big family feud… This is not the stuff of quiet old Gilmore Girls. Thing is, even when the lips don’t stop moving for a second of that forty-something minutes, the plot almost always stays restrained. Those genres I talked about earlier? You get the impression it knows them, and doesn’t want to be them, and so won’t surrender to cliché. But, I’m okay for the breaking of their key rule. For a few reasons: it’s those dying moments before Uni, before everything has to shift. So it makes sense that everything would feel accelerated. For me, that resonates because of its timing: everyone makes discoveries at Uni – alcohol, drugs, drum & bass, promiscuous sex. I discovered Gilmore Girls. That I’m still only on Season Three says a lot about my viewing habits, probably. But it’s also fitting. I’m just finishing Uni; Rory’s just finishing school. On screen, a graduation; a couple of week later, I graduate; for weeks after, I graduate again and again, my image passed around the extended family, on screen. Everything changes. It felt like a finale that the show could, almost, bow out on. Everything comes full circle, in the time-honoured tradition, while everything’s exactly as messy and unresolved as ever. Everything’s changing and for once on Gilmore Girls, everything’s changing. You just feel those changes more because of the contrast. It’s that use of noise and silence I talked about. *Watch the credits sequence, look at the cover of the first season DVD, both of which seem to be dedicated to convincing you this is a warm and cheesy afternoon family movie.

2010: The Second Quarter – Games, Films, Comics

FILMS Kick Ass I’ve written about already. It already seems weird, looking back, how much the world was taken aback by it. Its impact has been somewhat reeled in since. I’m hoping Scott Pilgrim is going to deliver the finisher on comic-book-movies-blowing-peoples’-minds-a-bit, minds softened up by 10 rounds with Kick Ass, Watchmen, and chums. Cemetery Junction seemed so likely to disappoint. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant finally doing a film together, after Ricky did The Invention of Lying (which, though I’ve never seen, maintains a certain … reputation); the long-discussed move into drama (which was definitely the most interesting thing about Extras, in the end); the words “Hollywood does small-town England” apparently supposed to sell it to me. We’ll do small-town England our own way, thankyou very much, and that’s small-minded and depressing. And then it had the gall to go and be really, really good. Full of charming, well-drawn characters; warm in just the right way (a very English way, edged with the right amount of cynicism); a genuinely – damnit – a genuine feel good film. Uplifting and memorable and reinvigorating and traditional but somehow fresh… I eagerly await the next Merchant/Gervais surefire-disappointment. The ‘Staying True to the Source Material’ Award has to go to Iron Man 2 Good solid superhero film which, like a good superhero comic, kept me entertained as I flipped through but has now more or less slipped from my memory. I liked it more than some people I expected to like it more. Sometimes the tone of a film can be completely changed by who you watch it with. Otherwise terrifying horrors become hilarious comedies of errors. Watching Four Lions, the screening swelled, my eyes getting wider with disbelief: a full house for a comedy about suicide bombers? Maybe they were here for the outrage? But, no, an entire cinema screen, fuller than I’ve ever seen in the West Midlands, making the air thick with laughter. I’d gone in expecting that sharp Morris satire, some serious drama and a bit of thoughtfood to chew on otherwise. I got those, in various portions. I just hadn’t expected it to be so funny as well. COMICS Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men being one of the most endlessly recommendable superhero comics I’ve ever read, I was a bit suspicious of the use of the monicker. I’m protective of that comic, in the way of possessive comic book nerds. I don’t really like Wolverine. Yet, here I am, about to call Jason Aaron’s Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine, on the strength of its first issue, one of the best comics I’ve read in a while. …Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine is one of the best comics I’ve read in a while. It out-Morrisons Grant Morrison’s (excellent) Batman & Robin in finding a fresh, weird take on the straight superhero story. It’s full of ideas, both in content (I don’t want to give away any of the set up of this issue) and form (there’s some really nice use of layouts and symmetry which is the kind of thing only comics can do and really isn’t done enough). I write this having only read one issue, but it’s brilliant. It left me, in a way I haven’t had since the early days of Ultimate Spider-Man, dancing round the house and wanting to be Spider-man. Thwip! And, having mentioned it in a way that might, to the unobservant eye, seem negative, I am legally obliged to say: damn, Grant Morrison on Batman (in all its forms: Batman & Robin, Return of Bruce Wayne, even that not-quite-great anniversary issue) is absolutely killing at the moment. We passed the point where you start to realise, oh, this is going to be one of the character’s defining writers a few miles back: a peculiarly comics idea, I must say, this peculiar hall of fame, and one that comes dangerously close to deserving its own essay. In superhero comics, example after example rolls off the tongue, even for stuff I’ve never read. Ennis’s Punisher; Miller’s Daredevil; Simonson’s Thor. You just get to know this stuff after a while. To non comics-reader readers, I’m trying to think hard of an analogue. Occasionally, a writer (generally, one who has already had success elsewhere, often sporadic) clicks with an existing character (often one who has languished out of the spotlight for a while), and the issues shared by that character and that writer are gold, in a way that doesn’t even necessarily align with the quality of the stories. It’s alchemy of the highest order, essentially. GAMES Shh. I’m playing Mario Galaxy 2. Bugger off, I’ll talk to you later. Just need to finish … this … level … Be with you in a minute.

2010: The Second Quarter – Music

Welcome back to the internet’s most glacially regular feature. I talk about what’s been dominating the last three months, culturally. Not reviews as much as thoughts. It’s half a way of getting to talk about everything I might possibly want to, half a way of keeping track of what’s going on at the moment. Please, recommend, and help make the next one. Musically, April was pretty heavily dictated by what I was writing my 30 Days on. Which remains, in the months that I finished my degree, handed over responsibilities at Redbrick and prepared to face the big bad world, and moved house, probably the most important anything has felt to me. The panic at 11 o’clock the nights I hadn’t written an entry yet… But since, then I have gone seeking the hott new stuff, and I haven’t been disappointed. The year has been pretty sexy so far, musically. But it wasn’t always so… Laura Marling – I Speak Because I CanAlbum #2. That’s nearly that all that needs to be said about I Speak Because I Can. I haven’t read many reviews of it, but I reckon a lot will have leant on the old Difficult Second Album cliché. It’s just not as compelling as Alas I Cannot Swim, lyrically or musically. I could try and pick apart why: less tricks up Marling’s sleeve, a shift in tone, a generic move into more territory. But it’s actually a bit exhausting to try and pull anything out of Album #2. That’s all that really needs to be said.Gorillaz – Plastic BeachIt’s probably telling that the newly Glastonbury-headlining Gorillaz have dropped their cartoon faces for those of Albarn, Simonon, Jones, et al. There’s no less sense of novelty on Plastic Beach than Demon Days (see the fake breakfast cereal ad Superfast Jellyfish), it’s no less sprawling, ambitious, or plain weird (Glitter Freeze), but it’s somehow less of a cartoon, and that’s stopped me from immediately falling in love with the whole twitching, shaking mess. Doesn’t mean it’s a worse record, of course. I think it’s probably their best. I’m just broken. Kate Nash – My Best Friend is YouThere is a definite Kate Nash formula. When her guitar goes like, y’know, and maybe there’s a bit of piano, and her voice is all like… The new album opens sounding exactly like that, like the old one. Throughout, she use of those typical Nashisms: the blunt state-the-obvious observations (“Barbecue food is good/You invite me out to eat it, I should”) with the purposely flat language and rubbish rhymes. They occasionally shine in the verses, but as usual, fall flat when they have to carry a chorus, looking like Lily Allen-lite. So more of the same, you think. But it’s a trick. My Best Friend is You is more a series of blueprints for a possible second album than an actual record. That first track, Paris, imagines a slightly evolved, slightly more euphoric Nash. There’s hyper-neurotic wordy Nash elsewhere. Then there’s Don’t You Want to Share the Guilt? (an example of Nash’s ability to stumble onto simple but handsome and evocative phrasing, every now and then). It opens with that BBQ couplet, and slowly winds up, ending in a big dense spoken word bit, opening with… “I don’t know how more people haven’t got mental health problemsThinking is one of those stressful things I’ve ever come acrossAnd not being able to articulate what I want to say drives me crazyI think I should try and read more books and learn some new wordsMy sister used to read the dictionary, I’m going to start with that” Which is pretty much exactly my point. And, admittedly, the point of all her critics. But I think it’s easy to forget the language thing is an intentional stylistic choice and just dismissing it as stupid is borrrring. It goes on to feature the kind of lyrics I’d quote online in my statuses and profiles if I wasn’t too old and self-conscious now. Then, the next song is all banshee screams and Pixies guitars. A Nash who dived back into her record collection and decided, I could be the English Karen O (which she couldn’t and I’m glad that ultimately she didn’t, but is nice to hear her trying on for a bit). Take Me To A Higher Plane is folksy-Los-Campesinos-backing while Nash pretends she’s that woman from the Juno soundtrack. Mansion Song is the touchstone, though. Listen to it now. Okay, I’m sure you’re listening to it, but I’ll tell you what it sounds like anyway. It’s terrifying. It stirs all those things I’m unsure about with feminism, post-feminism and irony, Nash spitting the words over the looping drone of a music-box as it winds down, the little porcelain ballerina spinning slower and slower… and then it becomes this hyper version of Foundations. It’s frankly unpleasant, in the best possible way. It’s just curiosity that drives me, every time I listen to this album. I sneer the just, as if that’s a weakness. But curiosity is rare, certainly not what expected from this album. Curiosity is more than enough. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening“Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry/And this is coming from me”.I’ve got a huge amount albums to talk about here (it’s been a really, really good year months for music, and it was during this album that that realisation clicked) so I’m trying to do them in a nutshell. This moment, in I Can Change (the single release of which being the point this album clicked with me, following which I had to listen to it twice a day for a week) is a pretty perfect encapsulation of the whole album. Flawless electronic waves – they could come across as cold – beat against your subconscious, while clever, funny and self-deprecating lyrics -that could come off as trite – appeal to you more directly. The song could just fall flat, but inbetween the two, somehow, […]

Number One, #2

#2: Katy PerryCalifornia Gurls The first time I heard this song:I was in the shower, where I expose myself in a safe clean environment to the unstable isotopes of new pop music. Someone’s doing a cheap Katy Perry rip-off, I thought. And that’s a pretty good Snoop Dogg impression. Oh. That is Snoop and Perry. The last time I heard this song:I wonder how much two weeks of sunshine contributed to this being #1. Miles is right, its stabs at eroticism are a bit rubbish. It succeeds away from that stuff, on the sheer celebratory ‘isn’t everything great’ front. Miles and Edgar Wright are wrong about the popsicle melting bit, though. That’s brilliant. The best bit is where Snoop says stuff and Katy replies, in uber-autotuned robot voice (“Katy, my lady” “Yeahhh” “You lookin’ here baby?” “Uh huh”). California is one of those common recurring pop motifs (see: California Love, California Dreamin’, Californication, uh …. California). I’d really like to go and see if it’s all that, actually. I hope this isn’t #1 again next week. It was perfect for this amount of time but it’s not a three-weeker. Also I’m running out of things to say.