The first part of what I might pretentiously position as a series of interconnected essays on the idea of comebacks. The connections are mostly thematic and tangential, and they’ll be jumping across various media, so you don’t need to read them all to appreciate the others but if you enjoy this, then watch this space… Two prolific hip-hop stars. Two big comebacks. One girl, Skylar Gray, singing the suspiciously similar dreamy hooks over the raps. An almost exactly symmetrical structure. So, what’s the difference? …Well, Diddy is the pretender to the comeback throne here, his entire career having happened in the time since Dre last released an album*. Dre is the master of the extended semi-retirement, using the vast spaces between music in a way that shows up even the most teasing post-rock soundscapes. Chronic 2001 came out, confusingly enough, in 1999. It’s now 2011. Accordingly, the Doctor cranks it all up to maximum hyperbole. The video – which manages to make Coming Home’s marching across warn-torn deserts look understated – tells you all you need to know. Dre, literally resurrected from the dead. The message is clear: He can rebuild his career. He has the technology. And form admirably matches content: the song is one long build-up, to our hero finally waking up: “It literally feels like a lifetime ago”. In the depths of the labs of Aftermath, Inc., Dre sits up, to the accompaniment of a hopeful series of bleeeeeeps from the previously flat-lined ECG, to take his rightful place as the recipient of the final verse. It’s faintly underwhelming when it does come, though. The Good Doctor is far more physically imposing – again, see the video, which answers some of the questions about exactly what Dre has been up to for the last decade by showing off his body’s transformation into a slab of pure Terminator muscle – than his voice ever really manages. Diddy is much more successful. The central gimmick, essentially Mr. Combs providing his reviews of a few well-know songs could come off as cheap, but it works. “I hear the Tears of A Clown; I hate that song”. It’s a much more distinctive reintroduction to the reawakened superstar. It’s catchier, more aggressive, cuts much more cleanly through the misty chorus, and provides a nice structural finish, where Diddy finally lands on a song he loves and makes him feel strong, to turn everything around. But for all his successes, Diddy’s company is less strong. The ‘Dirty Money’ suffix** means the addition of two women, whose contribution to the song is indistinct at best. By his side, Dre has got his trusty sidekick: Eminem plays the desperate Igor of the song, summoning his master. He swore he had Dre’s back, a decade back, in a drug-driven declaration of emotion on What’s The Difference?. So here he is, sitting in the booth, crying, surrounded by candles and pentagrams and stolen medical equipment. It’s a little embarrassing: Eminem has never been his best when being directly emotionally raw. He’s much better as the trickster, making jokes and threats in equal measure, so that the odd earnest moment catches you off guard. (Again, see that bit from What’s The Difference, which is weirdly genuinely sweet, considering it comes wrapped up in a bit of violent misogyny.) Nevertheless, he sets up the turmoil and conflict perfectly, enabling the Doctor’s return to have mythical status. The stakes are high, both artists strive to convince us. They’ve both lost people, children are invoked, the music industry is against them. The threat has to be there for the comeback to work, even if it that means manufacturing it. And Dre’s verse cuts off, mid-sentence, just to let you know he’ll be back, again. *For the purposes of this, I will be ignoring the lives of both figures as producers, choosing instead to mythologise their vocal appearances. We all have our weaknesses, I guess…**I’m aware that it is technically a group of whom Diddy is only part. But from what I can tell, at least, that seems to be in the way that any rap artist’s handle is an umbrella term for the multi-armed circus of performers than orbit every production.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a film that has it both ways. That both has its cake, and eats it. That pokes fun at the clichés of the noir-detective genre, and revels in them. It is both a proper, tense thriller and a sharp, irreverent comedy. Its closest relative in this list (at least of those already covered) is 24 Hour Party People. Distant cousins from opposite sides of the Atlantic, maybe. 24 Hour Party People is much more affable than its ill-shaven Yank counterpart, but they share at least one family one trait: the easy-going, charmingly self-reflexive narration provided by each film’s protagonist. Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson talked over the film, straight to the viewer, in order to create a particular feeling of laid-back chaos. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang does it to inject a bit of bonus style and charisma to proceeds. It breaks the Fourth Wall just for the hell of it. And what greater exponent of charismatic for-the-hell-of-it style is there than Robert Downey Jr? Downey is Harry, a petty thief on the run who ends up pretending to be an actor, pretending to be a detective… Actually, scratch that bit before. It’s disarmingly casual attitude never lets on, but maybe there is something to all this post-modern stuff. After all, this is LA. Harry is the very definition of an unreliable narrator. He’s constantly forgetting stuff, coming back to the bits he forgot later on, and apologising for obvious clues in some scenes, but nevertheless he gets all those snappy noir-poetry lines. Protecting a sleeping woman from a molestating and getting threatened for doing so, he replies, rather inevitably: “That little experiment will end in tears, my friend. So again, for the cheap seats: do not think, walk the [monster truck] away, or let’s me and you go outside right now. It’s past my bedtime. Make a choice.” …It’s just that he gets the crap violently kicked out of him afterwards. Harry is equal parts slapstick and hard-boiled cool. And that’s the best bit about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. For all he interrupts the film to apologise, for all his witty retorts end in him losing a finger, Harry never loses the presence the film demands as a thriller. The slips just make him that little bit more human. The film avoids being clever-clever in all its deconstruction and post-modernism, and avoids becoming ridiculous with its broad comedy. That’s a tightrope walk, but it never falls, and so it gets away with taking all the best bits of the genre – the pulpy poetry of hard-boiled narration, the beautiful cinematography with its obsession for cityscapes and out-of-focus blooming neon lights – just as it rejects its straight-faced grim-and-grittiness. Corpses are dealt with in slapstick fashion, then with horrifying proximity. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has its cake – with its filling of brooding detectives and dangerous dames, decorated on top with sparkling neons – and proceeds to eat it up. And you applaud it for doing so.
Before I’d even seen the film, my review had pretty much written itself. I reckoned I knew more or less how I was going to feel about Paul: Parting ways with Edgar Wright, Pegg and Frost go to America, just as Wright did with last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. But where that embraced the modern American tradition for awkward indie romance (with, y’know, musical scenes and big effin’ action), Paul moved into the current Apatowian sensibility of American comedy. Crasser than their previous work, with the looming influence of Seth Rogen and a big Hollywood budget, it seems the pair have taken on more than even they can handle. But most of all, feeling the absence of Edgar Wright’s direction, just as keenly as Scott Pilgrim missed Pegg’s tightly-structured writing.* In essence: queasy bromance, two stars; as Nick Frost has so excellently put it.** Paul is all tied up in expectations. A proper Pegg-written film (ignore Run Fatboy Run) has become a genuine event, over the course of a mere three films (ignoring Run Fatboy Run), and so not seeing it wasn’t an option (though I’ve still never seen Run Fatboy Run). Even if the above review was the result, as expected. …But it wasn’t. Clearly- otherwise I would’ve stopped by now, wouldn’t I? I did not expect, for example, the film to feature such an extensive discussion of faith in an age of science, and in science fiction. More importantly, I did not expect such a wonderfully thorough lecture in swearing, and its proper usage. The film is rich with cussing, as our American cousins would have it: F-bombs, the traditional , but also some more creative cursing from Kristen Wiig’s recovering evangelical, Ruth. Paul manages a quiet, unassuming deconstruction of exactly what the trailers suggested it was. It partakes in the commonly-criticised ‘ruder, crasser, more laughs’ approach of its Apatow-ruled sub-genre, but it also thinks about that a little bit. But I definitely didn’t expect to like Seth Rogen’s titular alien. I like Rogen, I think he’s got charm to spare and, as a Freaks & Geeks alumni, I will forever cut him a special slack. But this was another wacky, attitude-heavy comedian-voiced animated character. Rogen’s turn in Monsters vs Aliens is not easily forgiven. Meanwhile, the trailers clearly showed Paul to be a poorly-integrated rubbery monstrosity. I believe there is some ancient wisdom here, concerning Ewoks, Shaft and Jar-Jar Binks? When Paul is grating, it feels intentional, showing the contrast between Graeme and Clive, our introverted Britishers, and the big brashness of the ol’ US of A. But it doesn’t take long to warm to the Paul, foul-mouthed extra-terrestrial. And before you know it, Paul, the big-budget American comedy from Pegg & Frost, has charmed you as well. It isn’t that funny. As an Apatow-esque comedy, Paul doesn’t really work. But as an example of its other great inspiration, the Spielbergian science-fiction movie, it shines. There are a nice smattering of ideas that tickle that sci-fi corner of your brain, and action scenes and car chases pulled off with genuine arm-of-seat-gripping tension. Pegg brings the trademark domino-effect of callbacks, where everything is there for a reason, to be returned to. But most of all: it’s a charming, warm film. The characters are all good-natured, softly funny people you’d like to spend more time in the company of. It’s easy to care about what happens to them. The tension works because of the feat that one of your new friends is going to get it. Among all the talk of spot-on references and geek culture – and admittedly the film features a captivating range of reference-hunting and nerdy t-shirts – it’s easy to forget to remember that what Pegg and Frost have always been so good at is capturing is friendship. And like all the rest of their work, that’s what Paul is about: spending a few hours in the company of some really good mates. So, the rumours are true: Paul isn’t part of the ‘Blood & Cornettos’ trilogy. It isn’t a fully deserving successor to Shaun and Hot Fuzz. But what did you expect? *There’s an article somewhere comparing this with Ricky Gervais’ first foray into Hollywood, The Invention of Lying, and one day – if it doesn’t exist by then – I will write it. **In an interview with Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode, a meeting of duos that is a kind of magical geek-porn in its own right.
The 1950s are the perfect setting for sci-fi, somehow. That Golden Age of the American suburb makes the ideal backdrop for an alien invasion. The only decade that can compare are the 80s: its Silver Age. (But by then, these stories had mostly transferred to straight horror films, the ghost of a new era taking over haunting duties.) The Iron Giant understands this completely, and squeezes every last drop out of its setting. That 50s America mix of optimism and paranoia, as USA’s then-molten identity settled into what we Brits understand it to be now. It’s a film which knows the metaphors behind all the alien invasions, pushing headlines about Russian satellites, Red Menace comics and school filmreels of nuclear apocalypses casually into the foreground. It’s deeply cine-literate, the very first scene taking that questionable opening from The Thing, and making it cartoonishly, trascendentally beautiful in a way that an 80s live action budget would never allow. It takes in a lot of other films that I’ve never seen but have experienced equally second-hand elsewhere: The Day The Earth Stood Still; Invaders from Mars… The world that the Giant enters is one already deeply familiar with cheap B-movie science fiction, and so our boy Hogarth Hughes accepts him without question. The squares, however, are an entirely different story. ET had its federal alien-nappers, but that was the 80s. The 50s is the natural home of the behatted, besuited career man with a sinister agenda. The Iron Giant incorporates the full spectrum, between beatnik Dean McCoppin and government agent Kent Mansley. For anyone with a basic knowledge of genre, it’s no surprise who we’re going to end up siding with. But that doesn’t make the way the film incorporates all the myth around the era’s government, and especially its more secret services any less satisfying. But that doesn’t fully account for the film’s appeal. Nor does the fact (yes, fact) that it features Jennifer Anniston’s best-ever screen performance, or Vin Diesel’s. The Iron Giant is Brad Bird taking his first step from the blessed halls of early Simpsons and into film, and making something beautiful in an old-fashioned way while incorporating modern technology. That applies to the visuals, but it’s equally true of the solid storytelling, values and genuinely touching sentiment of the film too. It brings old and new together beautifully, to make a film that isn’t just a good kids’ sci-fi film, but a good sci-fi film. (And a good kids’ film, and just a plain damn’ good film.) It came out the day before my 11th birthday, and I wish I’d seen it then. It probably would have made for a better me. But seeing it a year ago, it managed to get through to that inner child, while also catching on things that had developed since. I imagine I’ll use it the same way throughout my life, finding new facets to admire. If nothing else, it would be the perfect way to introduce a child to what is – in an opinion that seems to be my inheritance – American’s most fascinating period of history.
As a rule, my favourite films and my sister’s favourite films completely fail to align. She is a relatively normal 17 year old girl who doesn’t share my pretensions. Suffice to say, were this website Zoe-Spencer.co.uk, few of my choices would make the list. There are two exceptions. Pixar films, and Spirited Away. As far as I can tell, the young Miss Spencer has some insatiable appetite for animated films. This means she ends up going to see sub-Dreamworks rubbish like Gnomeo & Juliet. But it’s also introduced her to things I suspect she’d otherwise consider too weird. …Spirited Away is, rather undeniably, a weird film. It relentlessly throws images and ideas at you, one after another. Here’s a trio of bouncing heads. A train skimming across the surface of the sea. What if someone could turn into a bird by pulling their coat round them so they look like they have wings? The film is a streamlined Alice in Wonderland, pure inventive design and unexpected discoveries. The story just exists to serve these up to you. I’m not sure I could tell you Spirited Away‘s plot, at least not in any way that made sense and sounded at all appealing. I’m not sure I’ve even seen the entire film. None of that stuff really matters. Were it not an animated film, I’m not sure this would be allowed to stand. But somehow we have been trained as a society to accept something a little different in the safe confines of animation. Maybe it’s a recent development, and Pixar are responsible. But then it isn’t difficult to think back to Fantasia, or even early Bugs Bunny cartoons. Fourth-wall breaking and surrealist touches are just accepted parts of cartoons. And so, Spirited Away, in spite of its many oddities, is the great anime crossover hit. It introduced an entire sustainable Western audience to Studio Ghibli, and can be found clutched close to people’s chest in a lot of similar lists. It gets away with just being a looker. Which it undeniably is. The characters are sharply animated, but the painted backgrounds are something else entirely. As a whole Spirited Away is by turns stunningly beautiful and deliberately ugly. Sometimes cute, sometimes scary. But not a single frame is anything less than visually arresting. The term ‘videogame’ is often thrown around as a criticism of films with little plot which focus on quick, cheap thrills and visual spectacle. Spirited Away is the most videogame piece of cinema I can think of, and the medium could learn a lot from its example. Mario Galaxy approaches the same level of inventive spectacle. But imagine a GTA-style open-world game with crannies as unexpectedly, surrealistically gorgeous as these. …All of which is important and me being clever. But none of it is the reason Spirited Away made it onto this list. It’s here because of the memories attached to it – sleepy Christmas day-viewing with the family – and the connection it represents between me and my only, otherwise very different sibling. It’s hardly all we have in common: we share a certain amount of music taste, and we religiously see every Pixar film together, about which she generally has whip-smart comments (my Toy Story 3 review was basically ripped off from her reaction coming out of the cinema), and she drinks in the fish-like manner which are her inheritance. But everybody likes Pixar, and Robyn, and vodka. Meanwhile Spirited Away, widely loved as it is, retains a feeling of being personal, private, secret even. It is the single strongest link between Alex-Spencer.co.uk and Zoe-Spencer.co.uk, the website that exists only in the alternative universe which it feel like it was created in. And for that, I treasure it.
The sun is shining right now, and it feels like summer has arrived. Before this warming illusion is inevitably snatched away, I’m revelling in a little nostalgia. So here’s a little something I’ve been cooking up* for a while that feels suddenly seasonal. Cowley’s Chinese-Style Pork Belly is part of something me and my friends shot last summer as a test for our otherwise abortive Sparkle Motion** initiative. We were wondering if we could manage a regular short internet episodic series thing. As it’s taken me till now to do anything with the footage, clearly we couldn’t. …So at the very least it worked as a test. Anyway, this is the best chunk of meat* left on those particular bones, so I’ve edited it up and put it online for your enjoyment. (Please note that the following is somewhat more risqué than my generally family-friendly blog, and beware accordingly.) (Bonus Director’s Commentary time: It’s a bit longer than I’d’ve liked, but that Cowley is a right windbag. And he chose a damned complex recipe. I cut the video aiming for a genuinely instructional tone, rather than the inevitably smug hurrr, look what me and the lads did attempt at humour. So, please, as BBQ season approaches: make this pork belly at home!) *Unintentional but very much deliberately-left-in puns. **That was what I was calling it, anyway. Ultimately, I suspect that I just wanted the opportunity to question shout “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” at people. This seems, in retrospect, somewhat ironic, presenting this to you over 9 months later.
How the hell did I get here? It’s thrilling to be tested in this way. The logical evolution of the detective story. Not: can you solve the mystery, but: can you even stand to keep up? At times, Memento really starts to make you feel like Lenny. You, not quite able to follow because the plot is moving backwards too fast; him, not able to remember anything because of his condition… How did I get here? Just about keeping up in the moment, as the plot rattles past, but as you nod along with the dialogue to show you understand, wondering: Where exactly am I now? As the scenes, and the links between them, become less clearly marked, you’re asking yourself a lot of questions: ‘Wait, how did we get here? What am I looking for? How will this scene end?’ By opening with the plot’s conclusion, but obscuring what it means, the film is able to pull you straight into its plot with the first few scenes. Having already won you over, with the clarity of its original scenes and central mystery, Memento begins to blur the lines a little. Eventually, it all gets too much, about three-quarters of the way in. You’re trying to juggle too much. It might be sloppy film-making. It might just be that the experiment, of saying ‘c’mon keep up’ and testing the audience, gets pushed a little too far. The problem with shuffling a plot around, so that each scene comes chronologically directly before the last one, is that it’s easy to be gratuitous. Merely writing something in order and then sliding the pieces around doesn’t work. (Trust me.) It has to be designed that way. Of course, Christopher Nolan is a master craftsman, and a great loss to the world of puzzle games. Memento starts out exceedingly tight, as it lays out its premise on the table. This man can’t remember further back than five minutes ago, and every five-minute scene will take us to the beginning of the last. This isn’t easy to grasp, and so the first hour of scenes are clearly marked at their start and end by contrasting locations, or a key line, anchors as carefully chosen as Inception’s totems. One scene will start in a busy diner and end in the same darkened woman’s bedroom the last scene started in, with Lenny’s anonymous motel room acting as a palette-cleanser. Discussing Memento‘s genius, people tend to talk about the mind-expanding reversed plot. It’s a story of vengeance that opens with the successful killing, and works backwards. But the true brilliance in Memento, what brings everything together, is the one story that runs forward: there are black-and-white scenes interspersed between these backwards scenes. This is Guy Pearce’s Lenny in his motel room – the neutral space of the film – narrating the story of Sammy Jankis, whose amnesiac plight reflects his own. Memento is the kind of perfectly-constructed puzzle that Nolan took to the blockbuster with Inception. But far better: it’s smaller and more personal, and the form is more fitting to the content. This is, after all, the story of a single character with a very particular problem, and about getting the audience inside of his head (as opposed to Inception, which was about getting all of its characters into as many heads as possible). Because Lenny can’t remember more than five minutes back. He’s got a condition… Wait. Have I already told you about it? Memento is here at least partially as a represent of the kind of muscular, intelligent thrillers in my formative film-watching years. The Usual Suspects; Se7en… born out of first viewing a film on this list, #2. Last week’s film, Wristcutters, represents the best of the other side of the family, oversoon by the powerful matriarch of our #1. There’s a family tree in this list, one that will only become clear once it’s all done. Ha, fitting, right?
So, the other night, The King’s Speech swept the Oscars*. It was a predictable series of events, drawing accusations of the film being ‘Oscar-bait’, and annoying a whole mess of people on my Twitter. But … it is undeniably a film of pedigree, being an ‘important-issues’ period drama with a cast and crew that have paid their dues. More importantly, The King’s Speech has undeniably drawn acclaim across the board. Meanwhile… “Who is Arcade Fire?” is apparently quite the hot question. They won a Grammy and a couple of Brits a couple of weeks ago, and the backlash to the victory of the likes of King Bieber was enough to birth the aforelinked Tumblr, and to mean that I have been accosted once or twice on my casual, non-pointed, wearing of an Arcade Fire T-shirt. I briefly dismissed the whole backlash-at-backlash as a bit snobbish, frankly; a lot of rockist rubbish. After all, why should a band who, evidently, no-one has heard of win pop-music awards? The King’s Speech – and this film is used as a not particularly fortunate example, standing in for every awards-flypaper film of my cultural lifetime – is a popular film, yes. It held the top-spot at British cinemas for nearly a month, and has taken something like thirty times its budget. But the story of a struggling stammering monarch from the margins of history… does that really constitute a populist film? There’s no doomed romance, as far as I can discern (with my admittedly limited knowledge). It doesn’t have battles, explosions, giant robots** or Jason Statham. It doesn’t pile on the dirty gags. It wasn’t released in 3D. It’s not a child-and-adult-alike-friendly animated sequel to one of the most loved film series ever… Yes, that was a oh-so-cleverly veiled reference to Toy Story 3, there. Pixar finally got themselves a token nod in the proper Best Films list, but no-one ever took their chances seriously. Their computerised doodles shall remain in the box labelled ‘Best Animated Feature’, where they belong. The fact is that Toy Story is the most pop film in the nominees by a million miles. It’s highbrow fare: The Social Network; The Kids Are Alright … okay, Inception is a sci-fi action flick. But it’s an ideas movie, and probably the most brain-on-sleeve ‘intelligent’ film in the whole nominations. My point is, you’re not likely to see Meet The Parents 3: Little Fockers in the nominations any time soon. Good. I have mixed feelings about the Oscars, as probably shows from my grumbles. But they matter, in a way that no music awards ceremonies really do. Best album/artist/single nominees are largely picked directly from the top-seller lists. The Brits actually ghettoises the ‘Critics’ Choice’ into their category, with a mighty three nominees. This mean there’s little snobbery – no heed is given to what the broadsheet arts sections have to say on the matter, or what albums are being championed on the internet – but equally a lot of the musical spectrum is excluded, and the focus is clear. Unit-shifters, not critical darlings. This feels like part of a larger picture. With cinema, critics are a large part of the process: people choose what films to see, based at least partly on recommendations and star-ratings. There’s an awareness and profile attained by well-received movies than bands or albums. My non-culture-interested mom has heard of Black Swan; she’s never heard of Radiohead, to pick a similar mix of popular and ‘highbrow’***. It seems like, to generalise, film sales follow reviews, whereas media coverage of music follows sales (the The Kids Are Buying Who? Put ’em On The Cover gambit). Note the prevalence of pull-quotes on film posters and accompanying trailers. Adverts for the Hot New Album, meanwhile, just have whatever Radio1 DJ is doing the voiceover telling us ‘this is an amazing album’, like they’ve been paid to do. It’s just very strange for two media, which share a similar reputation and place in society, to be treated so very differently. Film is hardly a higher artform than pop music. …I don’t know. I’m getting up on the old barricades here, ones I’m not entirely comfortable with. I don’t know the ins and outs of either industry, really, and I’m sitting a pretty privileged positions. I’m the guy that reads the reviews, and listens to the podcasts, and has spent the latter half of my life putting myself in the know. And I still know the critical opinion is wrong 33.3****% of the time. And it could be empowering, placing the power democratically in the hands of the masses, of the consumers who actually pay for this stuff rather than pompous critics.And while the theory of a potentially empowering musical democracy It seems like, in practice, this potentially ‘democracy’ of music actually depends on a handful of people, those controlling major radio playlisting. Nevertheless, is it right that winning an Oscar, chosen by an equally narrow number of people, automatically bumps up a film’s reputation and audience? (Not unless it actively deserves to seen by more people, I reckon.) But that platform is there, and it’s potentially useful. That ‘awards bait’ is even a viable tactic is demonstrative of the state of the industry. Word-of-mouth is the only truly democratic tool, and that’s how the best films are sustained, awards and reviews only supporting and confirming this method. So, I’m not saying the situation surrounding films is perfect; a lot of rubbish still sells very well, and lowest common-denominator values seem to inform what gets made. And I’m ignoring that it’s easier to explain a film with a synopsis and a review, and to explain a song by actually hearing it. I’m ignoring the blog-readers and review followers who do listen based on recommendations. I’m ignoring the opposite, the people who will go and see the film with the highest number on the end as much as they’ll only buy albums from the supermarket. Largely I’m ignoring them because either end is […]