Looking Back at Man of Steel

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Its been a year or so since Zack Snyder’s epic reboot of one of my favourite comic book characters and now the dust has settled and we’re a long way off from the sequel still, I wanted to take another look at it from a safe distance.

I liked Man of Steel when I saw it at the cinema and seem to be in the minority in this opinion but re-watching it again recently for the umpteenth time I am still curious as to where the backlash came from. It is very clearly not a BAD film at all. It meets a good standard in all points, matching a lot of the much drooled over Marvel offerings in recent years. Yet the vitriol aimed at it on release was astonishing. I admit I am a fan of the character and as a comic book reader I still volunteer myself as a DC and not Marvel supporter (despite the fact Marvel’s comics and films are vastly superior today) but I’m not wholly biased. Green Lantern was an unmitigated disaster, very similar to Iron Man 2 so there’s never a perfect formula but I genuinely feel Man of Steel’s hate was misguided and unnecessary. Why? Well let’s look at the main criticisms people had first of all:

The first thing that people trumpeted high and low as the films most pernicious message and damning fault was its ‘Christian Imagery’. Okay, well spotted, there is a lot of christian imagery in it. My riposte to this is: “So what?” As anyone who knows their comic book theory,  or even Nietzsche, or just cultural theory should realise the Ubermensch or Superman theory. The notion is dealt with best in ‘Watchmen’ and the sublime ‘Kingdom Come’ but also a lot in X-Men, essentially it is the notion that all Superheroes are Gods themselves. A jump of evolution to God-head. An aspirational notion that makes us question our ideas of God and who we are as beings. A noble and valid theological query. Superman himself, taking the name directly from Nietzsche’s theory, is the emodiement of that. In the fantastic Superman comic series ‘For Tomorrow’ Brian Azzarello looks at similar themes questioned by Watchmen and has a priest as a main secondary character, set after a Rapture-like ‘vanishing’ of the world’s populace. Superman and the Priest have numerous theological discussions on the idea that Supe himself is in fact a God. As such, damning Man of Steel for utilising christian iconography that is hardly subtle or hidden to make its point about aspirational attitudes is slightly redundant in my view. Its actually quite an interesting sub-text and lets not pretend these do not exist in other superhero films. I wrote an entire post about the deliberate and various political subtexts within the Dark Knight trilogy right here, not to mention the wild and varied sub-texts in the numerous Marvel universe films. That kind of additional iconography adds a certain amount of depth to a film but if people are for some reason worried it is trying to push a christian agenda: Fuck off. Doctor James Smith discusses Man of Steel’s atheist message much better over at Everyday Analysis (they have a book out now by the way) but even in blunt terms, Jonathan Kent is clearly an atheist. He laughs cynically at the notion of “divine intervention”, there is no sign of religious ephemera at his home, in his car, etc. Also why is no one tubthumping about its scientologist agenda? Aliens occupying other planets? Old spaceships before the birth of man? Or why does no one complain about the blatant facist ideology? Zod AND Jor El’s notion of eugenics is the main theme. Zod is even pictured in a Stalinist relief when shown to Clark. Or what about the environmentalist imagery? Jonathan makes the argument that being a farmer is enough to aspire to, the destructive force of those oil rigs, the constant imagery of nature (Whales beneath the sea, stills of butterflys, etc) should it not be lauded for that? No, people picked up on a theme that is practically unavoidable in superhero stories (assiduously avoided by Marvel thus far and outright refuted in Thor) and had a knee-jerk reaction to it. I am no christian but do not feel its imagery was in anyway pernicious, if anything it added to its depth.

There are, I confess, numerous plot holes in Man of Steel too. The iffy science of the Kryptonian and Earth atmosphere is a bit of rubber band reality that doesn’t quite square at times (how can he breathe in outerspace then?). There are numerous other inconsistencies but in truth I can overlook them, in the same way the Joker needs to be omniscient for his plan to work in the Dark Knight and why on Earth did Loki need to be captured? All pretty stupid but that’s movie logic. Read ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’ where Goldman rewrites a scene as if it happened in real life and you’ll see what I mean. Additionally problematic is the film’s pacing. It is overstuffed and the plot makes substantial jumps in time that are not noted and commented on. The Nolan-esque flashback/flashforward editing technique does a lot to make it lucid but it is tightened to an almost emaciated level and has very little breathing room. Avengers, despite its whizzbangs, had a very steady pace to a grand finale, Man of Steel rushes to cram everything in. But to that end Snyder tries his hardest to fit in tonal shots and character beats. The odd gag goes a long way in it and occasionally harks back to the fun of the Christopher Reeve originals, but those shots of nature, the chats with Dad, the chats with Mum, the hitchhiking, all add up to a well rounded film. If they had simply cut some of the action towards the end and made a few scenes longer and shots stretch by a few seconds it would not have felt as rushed as it does.

The one problem that I concur with and I struggle to get over is its somewhat callous preoccupation with destruction and mortality. A LOT of people die in this film and a LOT of buildings and private property is destroyed. In itself this is not necessarily awful but it misses out the depiction of people’s safety that other superhero films go a long way to point out. The Avengers takes great pains to rescue the citizens of New York and the police are constantly pictured rushing people to safety and the public are shown afterwards safe and jubilant at their rescue. For reasons best known to itself, Man of Steel will show people in peril but never shows them rescued or saved. Superman rescues but one soldier – catching him in the air, so when asked if he wants to join Zod his passion for humanity being saved doesn’t ring that true, especially after questioning whether they can be trusted or not. Christopher Reeve wonderfully delivers the line “Stop! The People!” in the Superman 2 and that was almost all you needed, instead Cavill’s Supe is so desperate to save the family in the station at the end he breaks Zod’s neck, murdering him and we see him briefly tortured by this murder but we don’t see the family alive and grateful of rescue and nor does SUPERMAN’S CHIEF MOTIVATION FOR NEVER KILLING get dwelled on beyond his pained scream. Having said all that Man of Steel did have the fight scenes I’ve always wanted from a Superman film. With Gods flying around the cities I’ve long wanted to see some mass and epic destruction in a film such as this and Snyder delivers. But just the briefest shots of people surviving and the notion of mortality would have allayed a lot of criticism. I don’t think it was deliberate however, merely just pressure for time and squeezing stuff in.

Those being the main criticisms why do I love it more and more? First and foremost its a beautiful film. It is shot with a very keen and earthy eye. Snyder makes great use of the natural beauty of this world and Krypton’s. Every scene is beautifully lit in high contrast with lush filters and lots of saturated grain. It is a visually arresting film, probably why the iconography is so eye-catching. The CG is also wonderful, Snyder if nothing else is much better at getting the right look for his CGI. Marvel’s take is big bold and bright, Snyder manages to seamlessly integrate his CGI into the naturalistic camera style and colour palate. Clark’s flight round the world and ascent to the skies is particularly energetic and thrilling. The CGI punch up in the streets is also what I’ve been waiting for in a Superman film since I was 4.

The performances are uniformly excellent. The Man of Steel is a big set of Red Boots to fill especially after so many have done it so well (I thought Brandon Routh was an excellent Superman in a dogshit awful film) but Cavill absolutely nails it; soft enough but tough enough, firm and confident but shy and diffident, confused yet sure of himself he manages the full range and has a great chemistry with the equally great Amy Adams. The Kents are a master stroke of casting, Costner is perfect as Jonathan and steals every scene he is in. Shannon steals it for me though. Zod is a frankly preposterous villain when it comes down to it, even his name is dumb but Shannon gets right into the skin of an unhinged general that’s gone ‘Full Kurtz’ in the reaches of space. The worst villain is the one who makes sense and Shannon puts a lot of effort into making his arguments convincing but equally does the shouty aggression well too. He is a constant and growing threat after his appearance halfway through and is genuinely frightening, more than a match for the Man of Steel. The fantastic line toward the end “Where were you trained? On a farm?!” making him all the more threatening.

The music was never going to be a match for John Williams’ utterly faultless Superman theme which will forever be indelibly linked to the big S but to Hans Zimmer’s credit he doesn’t try. Film scoring has long since dispensed with the symphonic characteristics of its forebears, something I mourn personally, where a film used thematic music for characters and events and places which was a hangover from Opera and the like. Instead today in a postmodernist world music scores for emotion in less Romantic fashion and utilises noise and sound in a modernist way. Zimmer has been honing this skill for decades and has brought this full force to bare in recent years, unlike say Danny Elfman who has simply been repeating himself. With Dark Knight, Inception, Sherlock Holmes and Man of Steel Zimmer has found percussion, synth style noise and the odd key hook to be most effective and whilst he never burdens anything with a ‘Theme’ as such he finds the right key sound for every moment. Relying more heavily on all American military brass sound he captures the Big Blue Boyscout perfectly but equally undermines Zod with the same synthy brass by crashing him about in a Montagues and Capulets way. The finale is particularly rousing.

Also Snyder just gets the tone right. All of these things add up to a film that has real world feel, obviously pushed by Nolan’s Dark Knight popularity, but equally has that slightly high key, pastoral old-cinema effect you want from a comic book film and certainly from a Superman film. Donner nailed this too and it shows, subsequent attempts to revive Supe have never had the deliberately nostalgic, slightly dreamy and yes RELIGIOUS aspect to them. Snyder proved he was a comic fan with Watchmen and Man of Steel is further proof he knows the medium extremely well. Marvel benefit from having an entire studio set up from the comics themselves so cannot help but fall into the comics being a major influence. Warner Bros overall disgust with the fact they have to make Superhero films and DC’s inability to market anyone but Superman and Batman is a massive hinderance but Snyder is proving his passion for the source is just enough to get a truly faithful adaptation to the screen.

The Man of Steel suffered from a backlash of over marketing, bad timing and public and critics jaded by Superheroes in general. Behind the, lets be honest, minor quibbles people level at it, is a decent and enjoyable movie. No its not for everyone, no its not perfect but I am hoping in time it will be seen as more than worthy successor to the original two, which lest we forget were high camp, flared trouser waring, time altering, silly messes of movies too. What you want from Superman, and all superhero films/comics is simple. Clark Kent is a lost soul who struggles with who he is and turns out to be an incredibly powerful being. In short, Clark is all of us. Far from being christian or religious the message of Superman is totally humanist. We don’t know who we are or where we are going. The reason superhero films and comics continue to hold such cultural value is because they speak to us. Theses are written on this topic everyday but at the root of it Superman is the original and the ultimate and Man of Steel nobly addresses this fact. Whilst it doesn’t pose those questions itself it leads us to ask the questions which are tough for anyone. But equally the notions of family, love, isolation and growing up are themes we all understand. Give Man of Steel another try. It really is super.

And Krypton was awesome!

Curt-Swan

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Little Epics

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“Epic” is a term that has bizarrely dropped into common vernacular in recent years. The original meaning is to do with poetry (YES I’M A ONE TRICK PONY, DEAL WITH IT) epikos from the Greek epos meaning ‘word’ or ‘song’. Epic Poems were long, sprawling tales of mythology, legendary figures and mighty deeds. It was then commonly used as an allusion to such tales if the thing being described could be seen as similar, i.e. something long, big, with lots of characters, set over many years and concerning major events, wars or countries. Today this has been filtered down to simply mean something impressive. My first exposure to the word I remember was a quote on the back of “Outcast of Redwall” by Brian Jacques which simply said “Epic” in quotes. Looking at it now I realise it was simply The Da**y Ma*l being lazy critics but I do remember asking my Mum why it just said that to which her reply was “That’s all you need to say really isn’t it?” As if this was the highest praise.

Epic Poems and their like were life works by the authors or accumulated tales of an oral tradition from centuries handed down. Grand and sacred, stately and revered Epics told to us great truths about people, politics, love and the soul. I recently saw The Amazing Spiderman 2 described as Epic in its saturating marketing campaign. It was at that point I somewhat lost faith in its weight as an adjective.

Blockbusters must be Epic now. Name one of the big (usually superhero based) blockbusters of the last 10 years and they are all longer than two hours, most have a large ensemble cast, are laden with massive explosions, destruction of property, high body counts and utterly unconvincing stunts. This to me is an idiots appraisal of what something “Epic” is. Something grandiose but with none of the detail or the subtleties. Someone was shown Cleopatra or Ben Hur or Spartacus and was told “That’s an Epic” and took that on face value. Interestingly it seems little used as a descriptor in the world of literature.

I went to see The Amazing Spiderman 2 last night and actually enjoyed it. Its still not that good but it fares better than its predecessor. Its biggest problem, as with the one before it, is that it does not need to exist. Sam Raimi’s exemplary Spiderman 1 and 2 were barely out of short trousers when the last one came out. Sadly this franchise boils down to licensing not creative necessity. Sony still own the rights to Spiderman unlike a lot of Marvel’s other intellectual properties which they (see Disney) have bought back and are frankly paddling the shit out of every entertainment industry with at the moment. Seeing the success of the  “Marvel Universe” Sony clearly did not wish to relinquish a much desired property and decided to strike while the iron was hot. The Amazing Spiderman was painfully obviously a designed-by-committee cash cow that had been rushed out to meet demand. It was confused, had a solitary and not well known villain, clumsily strong armed in a conspiracy plot from one of the murkier arcs of the spiderman comics to make it an obvious series, it was poorly paced, the CG was clearly hastily cobbled together and the script was a bloated, unwieldy mess. AND YET. Garfield and Stone were amazingly good and almost single handedly saved it, along with Sally Field and Martin Sheen. Parker also was written a bit more like the cocky nerd he was in the comics not the shy, bumbling, awkward teen Maguire portrayed. In this respect I actually prefer Garfield’s Spidey. SHOCK HORROR.

Its sequel fairs better but still suffers from problems of the first. It was comissioned not dreamed up. You can practically smell the gunpowder from the gun at the cast and crew’s heads. You can feel the jet black cold hand of Sony’s Creative Board in every shot: “It needs more peril” “We need more beautiful people in this shot” “Put a piece of pop music under this scene” “Our market research shows this is popular, put this in frame”. To say nothing of the overbearing and nauseating product placement by Sony itself in nearly every shot as well as many others. Sony obviously focus grouped THE SHIT out of the poor success/critical pasting of the last film and heard that the villain was crummy, therefore they over compensate by shoving in three this time. At every turn I wanted to shout “CALM DOWN” at the screen. But despite all of this it comes out okay. Just. The reason for this is the Pun-Ready named director Marc Webb.

Webb directed the delightful 500 Days of Summer and strangely enough this is where both his Spiderman films come into their own. Garfield and Stone’s obvious chemistry as Parker and Stacey is milked wonderfully and just like the last film this is where it comes to life and where Webb feels most comfortable and interestingly this is how the film actually succeeds in being Epic.

I watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over the Easter Bank Holiday and tweeted along to it with many nerdy observations. What it brought home to me is how little the film is to do with saving the Holy Grail and by extension the World and how much it is to do with characters. I’ve always known a story will stand or fall on the characters as if you don’t care what happens to them then the story doesn’t matter, you can have the most complex and intricate, wonderful plot but it counts for crap if you could give a shit whether Johnny Everyman lives or dies. Indy doesn’t give two craps about the Grail for most of the film he wants his Dad back. In this way Spiderman is similar. Webb realises all of Spidey’s acrobatics mean sweet bugger all without some emotional investment. Parker is practically invincible so by developing his relationship with Stacey we give a crap what happens and as the climax approaches we are really really nervous about the outcome. Especially someone like me who is sadly in on what happens having read the comics. You can feel Webb literally straining against the hellishly tight bonds of Sony’s demands and crowbarring in necessary character points for everyone. That’s when it works best. He has also assembled a really good cast even though the marketing demands mean almost all of them get sidelined in favour of shitty conspiracy plots and corporate bullshit. Foxx turns in a really nuanced performance as Electro which  I was crying out for more from, Field is wonderful as a more sassy Aunt May, Giamatti has a ball with his two pages of screen time as the Rhino, the only misstep is the emo Harry Osborne who seems only to have been cast because he looks a bit like a Goblin. Regardless what this amounts to is an audience knowing why things happen and where every character stands which adds weight to the action sequences and tension where necessary. The pyrotechnics are all pretty perfunctory whizzbangs towards the end with the slow downs and speed ups but the finale is pretty tense.

Sadly most of what I saw was ruined by trailers and promotional material that Sony threw EVERYWHERE prior to release which meant it didn’t have the impact it could have. Many of the main “twists” being spoilt and most of the good jokes. The scene in Times Square is pretty fantastic though. If it could have been stripped back to just a film about Electro, Spidey and Gwen Stacey with a little more breathing room you could have had a really stellar film. What this made me realise though was its not necessarily the size, length or budget that makes an Epic.

As I said earlier, Epics deal with big topics and grand themes but normally on a personal level: The war is brought about by Helen of Troy in the Odyssey, Its Adam and Eve that bring Sin into the world, Spartacus leads the Slaves to war, etc etc. The intensity of Helen’s beauty and Odysseus’ love for her, the depth of Adam and Eve’s shame and despair at their treachery, the heat of Spartacus’ fury at his captors are all things we as an audience relate to and sympathise with. The Epics bother personifying the protagonists and their struggles instead of simply having them as avatars for battles, historical events or to deliver well known speeches. What this ultimately means is that something very small can be Epic it just depends how intensely you are concerned with the characters and the results of their trials. Back to the Future amounts to little more than a kid getting his parents to hook up and breaking the speed limit but by golly how tense is the last half an hour?! With Doc on the clock tower? Marty in the Delorean with its engine not starting? You’re tearing your hair out! Truly an epic finale as he races toward the wire as Emmett Brown wrestles with the plug.

I recently rewatched The Princess Bride and was stunned how budget it now seems. The cast is smaller than I remember and there is little in the way of grand events but from minute one you give a crap about Buttercup and Wesley, then later Inigo and Fezzik and so the fairly minuscule sword fight, hand fight, battle of wits, fire swamp, lightning sand and ROUS’ in comparison to the frenetic, crash bang lightning quick action scenes in the Amazing Spiderman, are suddenly EPIC! Same as Indiana Jones merely ducking a blade, playing giant foot scrabble and stubbing his foot on a painted floor is BREATHTAKINGLY TENSE AND THE WORLD’S GONNA END OH SHIT. Audience investment is what makes an Epic because what makes an Epic is what concerns us personally. Humans are messy, live a long time and a lot of crap happens to us in a lifetime, our best stories reflect that. Human’s require symbolism to work through our problems, we use art as symbolism for inner turmoils, the closer a work of art represents these problems the more drawn to it we are. The deeper the fears, loves and joys represented the more fiercely we care, to get at those the more detailed a work of art must be (or certainly more direct) this means the canvas must be bigger. More Epic.

We are Epic works which is why when something impressive happens that affects us we use the word to describe it now. Being an angsty, insecure teenager deep down The Amazing Spiderman films speak to the bit of me that loves mushy teen romances and sterling action. It is a badly flawed film but for me there was enough there for me to enjoy it. Yet, ironically, to make it truly Epic it could have done with being shorter, quieter and smaller.

The most hilariously ironic, almost mendacious, piece of nomenclature.
The most hilariously ironic, almost mendacious, piece of nomenclature.

Summery Summary

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I have had a busy week or two and should follow up on the previous post but feel like there’s not quite enough of certain topics to fill a whole post so am going to amalgamate a few topics. As such, this will probably be a little scattered and disparate so apologies for that. Anyway, in no particular order:

  • Man of Steel

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I bloody loved this film. I have little more to say than that. It reminded me very much of Batman Begins and I think it was a great introduction to the character and world. Complaints about it being to action-ie I think are stupid. I would have been very disappointed if shit didn’t get smashed to crap in the modern age of CG etc. This is exactly the sort of film I wanted of Superman in this day and age. Wasn’t too deep, was perhaps a little too convoluted in places, but generally a blast from start to finish. A great set up for what is likely to be a stonking sequel if they focus on a battle of wits between Luthor and Kent/Superman. Excited already at the prospect!

  • Peppa and Picasso

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I have spent a lot of time with children recently and similarly a lot of time watching children’s television. One favourite is Peppa, its happy, bright and has a gentle yet warm sense of humour I really like. My main interest is its animation style though. It is an indication of the kind of absorbent culture we live in that can cherry pick from any of the arts in such a way that you can now have a cartoon drawn in a neo-cubist style. Bear in mind this particular style was massively controversial even fifty years ago. Picasso got hate mail and paintings were spat on for his, now appreciated, artistry that dispensed with vanishing point and perspective allowing for a freedom of artistic depiction that still adhered to the human eye’s recognition. And now the same technique is being used by a children’s cartoon for under fives. It never fails to amaze me how easily we have assimilated such revolutionary ideas into everyday life and mass consumerism. Futurism, minimalism, discord, avant-garde, pop-art, cubism and many other ‘schools’ of change that literally altered national perception within the given art forms are now on kids TV, album covers, films, soundtracks and coffee cups. As my spirit animal and cultural commentary guru once said “Only in a truly decadent society can you use the phrase ‘Standard Fantasy Setting’.” – Yahtzee Croshaw

  • Other Films

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I spent a week in Manchester recently to see friends and try and find somewhere to live but whilst there saw a massive amount of films (even for me). In addition to Man of Steel I saw: Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Wreck It Ralph, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, World War Z and Behind the Candelabra. Uniformly they were all pretty excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting through them. Silver Linings was a surprise as despite being a predictable Rom-a-com-a-ding-dong it was actually a good laugh and every character was interesting, my overwhelming crush on Jennifer Lawrence helped in this too. She is genuinely too good to be true. Her performance deserved every inch of that oscar and combine that with an honest appraisal of her job/situation in real life she is set to rule the world. Highly recommended. Wreck It Ralph was another surprise. Despite starting very similarly to the Toy Story movies and appearing to be nothing more than a collection of nerdy computer game in-jokes (one or two took even me a minute or two to twig) but about a third of the way in I suddenly got involved after a rather shocking moment. After that it was twists and turns at every corner resulting in a couple of genuine gasps from Stella and I. Will have to get that one on DVD. Nick & Norah was a bit paint by numbers RomCom but again it was the supporting cast that made it stand out a little more. The drunk girlfriend and the three gay bandmates were a real hoot and had a fascinating B Story. Also I fancy Kat Denning. Yes I am that shallow, deal with it. Argo was a surprise, I knew the story and am normally dubious of Oscar wins in many ways but apparently two for two as this was a real edge-of-your-seat thriller. It lacked any actual commentary on the politics which meant it was a little shallow for something that garnered such awards praise but it was an absolutely gripping story and I was hooked. Rob and I literally screamed at the screen for the last half an hour. Beautifully shot on old film too. Go with the directing thing Affleck, you’re much better at that. World War Z was also an enjoyable bit of fluff. It was basically an action movie and a Zombie film second. This was largely due to the budget and requiring bums on seats that an 18 rated film would not attain. You could tell it was taken from a book as there were lots of details and ideas you don’t normally see in a low budget zombie film: tying string round one another, taping magazines to arms to stop bites getting through, removing teeth, the ‘count to twelve’ bits. Sadly though there was none of the gore or real horror and they opted for “Runners” not slow trudging Zombies. It was great to see everything on a bigger scale though and the piles of Zombies and whole cities falling to the waves of undead was great. I also liked the finale which ditches the blockbuster nature and reduces to a few corridors and some nice tension. It was apparently a rewrite and it pays off admirably. Not much of a horror film but a great action flick. Pitt is still my favourite Hollywood leading man too. The only let down was Candelabra really. It isn’t for me though. I’m not a fan of the biopic and it did feel very much like a TV movie (HBOs presence I suppose), that said Damon and Douglas were utterly fantastic in their roles and the production was faultless. Just not my bag baby but I’d still recommend.

  • The End of the World

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Does anyone else think its more than just a coincidence we have two ‘Meta’ comedies about comedians and the end of the world? Since the millenium we have been served a cavalcade of disaster/apocalyptic movies, books and comics so that it now represents its own genre of “Apocalyptic Fiction”. I blame the Zombies. They started it with their dystopian, last-man-standing ideology but these days its anything from a virus, aliens, monsters, nuclear war, dreams, the weather or fucking TREES (yes you Shyamalan) that’s out for our extinction. Despite the fact this could not and will never happen (we’d either ALL die or more than 20% would live in the event of some of the more plausible catastrophes) It seems to imply something bigger going on. It does seem to be indicative of a certain zeitgeist at the moment though. Our postmodern society where we are cripplingly aware of all that has gone before to the point where everything created now is already something else; a desire for a blank slate seems to be prevalent in the art and popular culture we create these days. I have no solution for this and can expound no further other than “Look at that, isn’t that a little sad?”. I’m noticing it more and more at the moment and I’m kind of hoping we can move on from Post-Modernism now as I’m pretty sick to death of it. I watched Nathan Barley again while I was visiting Manchester too and it was genuinely frightening. It is less of a sit-com now more of a scary docu-soap. This has been burrowing around in my brain since reading Women in Love which feels like an early progenitor of ‘Apocalyptic Fiction’ and was a direct influence on the novel I just wrote which is also about the End of The World but more specifically about this idea itself, that perhaps an ‘Apocalypse’ (not a doomsday I should add) may in fact be necessary for culture to move forward. THE NOVEL WILL BE FINISHED SOON YOU SHOULD TOTALLY ASK ME TO SEND YOU A COPY TO READ. THANKS.

  • Gigs

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In the week I was oop narth I did three gigs and they were all a lot of fun. I played electric for all three and finally feel like I ‘get-it’ now. I normally wrestle against a certain inability to play guitar but I think I’m past that now. I’m still not a ‘Guitarist’ but I can definitely play the guitar these days. It also helped that I was playing Joel’s tear inducing ’77 Les Paul that not only looks the dogs doodahs but plays and sounds it too. I ran through my widdle Marshall for the last two as well and the two together are still a match made in heaven. You can see why the LP and Marshall combo was used by EVERYONE back in the day. They just fit. It was great to see some of the other old loons playing too and generally reminded me why I like living up there and much prefer the ‘scene’ allowing, as it does, me to play what I like with like minded musos to a receptive audience. Fun fun fun!

  • Manchester

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I somehow managed to cram in everything I wanted to do in the short week I was there: Lunch at Fyg, Art of Tea, Home Sweet Home and breakfast at Cafe Creme, book shopping, trips to the cinema, Fuel and One Lounge gigs, dinner and dates with all but a couple of friends, day out with the boys, Didsbury Arts fest and seeing Paul Magrs, in addition to long walks and trips on the new trams I even managed to squeeze in some bowling (not my choice I should add…). In short, it was a painful reminder that Manc is where my life is and I need to get back there ASAP. Such a great city and lovely people, miss it already.

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  • Shakespeare

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I am an unequivocal Shakespeare fan boy, particularly as someone who writes and writes poetry it would be foolish and impractical to dismiss him, and lately I have been spoiled by a glut of fine performances of the great bard’s output. I saw a production of Macbeth at my local amateur dramatics society which was a great variation on the original setting and was set during the first world war and featured some damn fine performances, particularly from a young Emma Thomas who gave a frighteningly assured performance as Lady Macbeth. I then got inside tickets to a touring version of the Globe’s all female cast of The Taming of the Shrew which was so much fun from start to finish and used the bare minimum of set and props to create an absolutely hilarious and fast paced update of what is essentially a horribly misogynistic and out of date story. The whole (very small) cast were all perfect, particular favourites were Petruchio, Kate and Tranio. If its touring near you SEE IT. Even if you don’t like Shakespeare the production is a riot. On Thursday I am also going to see the filmed version of Twelfth Night that starred Stephen Fry at the cinema in Ashford which will also be a treat I’m sure. AND THEN Mum and I are going to do our annual visit to the Globe itself to see the Tempest for my birthday. In short, ain’t nuthin’ but Bill lately. Fine by me, I at least know the script is never going to let me down.

And that’s all I wrote. Still no job, no home, no money and no girlfriend but to be quite honest I’ve given up on expecting any of the above anytime soon and am just doing what I’m doing and hoping something will come along. I can do no more than what I have been doing so I can only assume there are larger gears turning, the working of which I am not privy to. Hope you are doing well and I’ll see you soon with a long and boring post on poetry and the internet that I have planned.

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“Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again!”

‘Tino Unchanged

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Django Unchanged is Quentin Tarantino’s seventh movie I am told. And it is very good. It is not his best, by quite some margin I might add. I don’t know if this is because his style remains unchanged after more than 20 years or that the world has simply moved on and it has become less cool or if it is probably his most un-Tarantino movie. It is certainly his most expensive looking and lavish which is very un-Tarantino. I do find most of this hard to believe as QT’s last feature, Inglorious Basterds, was such a dazzling and enjoyable flick with so much of his trademark dialogue, gore, anachronistic music and editing ticks. Django does most of this but it feels rather token. Tarantino really feels like he was attempting an Oscar movie for this one so the dialogue is not necessarily period correct but certainly amped down from the blink-and-you-miss-it banter of previous films, the gore is excessive as ever but attempts to be more realistic, the music has no stone cold classics in it and is not as inspired but more traditionally sympathetic to whats happening on screen and there are a few customary crash zooms and silly bits of screen texts but these are few and far between. No, QT seems to really want to get this story across in this one.

It’s a shame its not that good a story.

Django is a stock revenge movie plot. Bounty Hunter finds an accomplice, teaches him the trade and have a few adventures before going after the bad guy who has his wife. That’s it. You know what’s going to happen in the end within the first few minutes. The point should be the journey getting there but sadly the incredibly flabby script bogs us down in, even for Tarantino, unnecessary guff. For once it is not QT’s flare for cinema that makes this a worthwhile film, it is actually its topic.

Django uses every frame of its three hour run time in pointing out what a bunch of brutal, murderous, evil, oblivious, ignorant, arrogant, wankers white men are. Despite what Tarantino’s incredibly blinkered view of the world thinks, he is not the first person to tackle slavery in cinema (he has apparently become a gross egotist since his heyday) but he is the first person to show it in this way. Due to Tarantino’s well established style we expect certain things from him which is normally used to great effect in juxtaposition, here however gratuitous violence and searing language is, sadly, apt.

Many years ago Mel Brooks made an incredibly funny film called Blazing Saddles. People seem to have forgotten about this which is frankly bizarre as the parallels between it and Django are remarkable: A black slave is freed, has dead shot white man as a friend who set out to kill a rich and stupid white man slave trader whilst dodging the slings and arrows of the common people and their complete contempt for a black person with any sort of power. … While people say Nigger a lot.

Yes I wrote the ‘N’ word. I tried writing this post without it but it doesn’t work so live with it. I am not using it in a pejorative sense I am using it as reference and citation. Lets just hang a big “I’m Not Racist” banner over this whole review before you knee-jerk pricks try to jump down my throat. If you’re offended by strong language please fuck off now. Also there may be spoilers from here on out so be warned…

Much has been made of QT’s liberal use of the word Nigger in Django and it is understandably wince inducing to some. For me however, – which made me feel rather ill afterward – was the fact I stopped noticing it after the 2nd or 3rd time (within the first 20 minutes or so). Tarantino uses Nigger in almost all his films but normally spoken by black people which, due to reclamation, is more acceptable if not ‘pleasant’. Django is a period piece and frankly it would be a very strange period piece about the grotesqueries of slavery if people didn’t say Nigger when referring to a black person. This slipped in unnoticed to me and was only afterward I realised how horrendous that is and is indicative of the success of the film. QT displays better than any other film how appallingly we treated slaves (and I do mean ‘We’) and is horribly resonant today when Racism is still pervasive in our society yet not as explicit or flagrant. The violence and abuse meted out to the slaves in this film made my stomach churn. There is a great deal of graphic violence in the film but a lot of it is preposterous and regarding gun fights that are pretty standard action movie fare, a slave being ripped apart, two slaves being paid to beat each other to death, whippings, brandings and castration are shown to us on screen and like the abundance of the word Nigger force us to recognise exactly what we did in graphic detail. It is uncomfortable to watch needless to say. Spielberg films like Amistad and no doubt the tandem slave cinema epic ‘Lincoln’ will talk about these horrors or you might see watered down versions of the above but due to QTs style he does not flinch and confronts us explicitly with that which White Men should feel truly be ashamed of. This kind of violence is normally contested as unnecessary or gratuitous, not in this case. This is probably exactly what happened.

The film has a lot of negative points against it though, sadly. It is much, much too long and needed some more than judicious editing. Tarantino has clearly grown fat on his own hype (and just plain ‘got fat’ actually as his truly dreadful cameo reveals) and his excesses are growing more grand by the film, this proves the tipping point it would appear. Foxx does not turn in the powerhouse performance I was told to expect, he is by no means bad but it is pretty run of the mill for this sort of film. DiCappuccino continues his long campaign as “Most Overrated Actor in History” but turning in a completely hollow and shouty performance that, despite top billing, accounts for little more than extended cameo (again due to the film’s length). FUCKING LENS FLARE needs to FUCK OFF from cinematographer’s “look, we’re so retro and gritty” handbook. By and large the cinematography is very pretty, the shot of blood splattering white cotton is a lovely bit of cinematic imagery, but PISS OFF WITH THE LENS FLARE! The ending reeeeeeeally annoyed me. It should have ended 20 minutes before it did but for some reason rattles on and on for no good reason. Whilst one of those gloriously wordy, subtext ridden, tension-cranking scenes around a table is present it doesn’t reach the dizzy heights of Basterds. And sadly, for the most part, it is pretty much a standard western.

However, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson turn in near perfect performances that charm you flat and make your blood boil in equal measure. Don Jonson’s cameo is bloody funny too. There are some real laugh out loud gags as well, which make me forgive a lot, the Klu Klux Klan scene being a particular hoot. But in general it is Tarantino’s desire to actually show the Slave trade in all its tooth and claw that is its most enduring feature. He did not, as I say, finally bring it to light but its the first example of a film that grabs us by the collar and wipes our noses in the massive turd which just did on the carpet.

Not a brilliant film but a necessary one.

Quid si nunc cœlum ruat?

Bond, as I said, is a symbol of decadence. A post war indulgence. A standard on which Great Britain and its once Empire flew its flag high and long. It is little wonder then it was hit so hard by the Economic Crisis. Such bastions of almost licentious displays of money would naturally be hardest hit. As such, Bond lost his studio and all his funding. Something that, no doubt, put the franchise into crisis and certainly made its identity a questionable thing. In retrospect and with the beauty of hindsight, I think this was a good thing. It allowed the film time to fester and ferment in the minds of the filmmakers, and most importantly, in the minds of the public.

If my post a few weeks ago didn’t have my cards slammed harder on the table than La Chiffre at a Poker game then I will restate the obvious. I am a big fan of Bond and this one topped my favourites before it was 2/3rds of the way through. It also staked a very bold claim in my top ten, full stop. If you want the pithy, Bond-esque, brief review without spoilers: Go and fucking see it. If you want a more meditative, rambling look at theory and technique that will contain spoilers, please read on.

The reason Skyfall was so successful for me (and I stress the ‘For Me’ part as I know many people who took quite a violent dislike to this one) is because it is quite a departure from established Bond canon. Sure it ticks every box you want a Bond film to tick: Aston Martin, Walther PPK, Nice suits, Exotic locations, Humorous one liners, Action, Espionage, blah blah blah. If you want a Bond film, it is there. It takes one hell of a sterling leap from its predecessors in its final third however. But we’ll get to that…

The two stars of this film were Dench and Deakin. Dame Judi turns in a performance I’ve seldom seen and certainly not in a mainstream blockbuster. M is a stone hard, unreadable, gun-toting iron woman with an almost pathological protective streak for her country. This edifice, beautifully mirroring the facade of Bond’s much fought for ‘Queen and Country’ slowly crumbles away until they are both literally sitting in their own ruins of centuries ago. Dench’s performance is underplayed and un-showy but she steals the whole thing through being given such full screen time. It is really something to watch one of the acting world’s truly best being given something meaty and showy and completely owning the whole thing. They would never award oscars for this sort of thing (Thankfully) but Dench, in my mind, just turned in a career high and a performance well above an action movie of this nature.

Roger Deakin is the cinematographer. Skip this paragraph if you ain’t a photography/cinema nerd. Skyfall was shot digitally on an Arri ALEXA in ARRIRAW at 4K DCP and it is beeeeeeeeeautiful. Now I personally love both digital and film and think they both serve a purpose, traditionally however, filmmakers have come to use/rely on digital due to the fact it is immediately able to be rendered in the computer for editing and after effects and it is much more responsive to this type of post production. Digital can be better blended than film. Film is an organic, chemical compound and digitising it is a struggle and not always convincing. Skyfall is the first film I have seen use a digital format in a way a film cinematographer uses celluloid. There are two glaring moments of CGI (we’re still not there yet): a man takes a looooong fall and a couple of Komodo Dragons. But that is it and for a film of this grandeur, length and spectacle that is impressive. What Deakin gets right is to not over sell the format. He does not use a grain filter most importantly to try to fool us, he keeps everything, crisp, clear and most importantly, DRY. The contrast is never boosted, colours are not over saturated, the dreaded HDR never rears its head, chromakey is not overly relied upon. The establishing shots (particularly of Shanghai and Macau by night) were so eye wideningly joyous that I was in love with the film from then on. I saw this in IMAX and can only recommend the experience. One negative against film at IMAX, unless shot in the enormous and unwieldy IMAX format, is that it can be slightly too dark and fringing can occur. The digital transfer of this film however is the first time I’ve really felt digital cinematography to be of a similar (still different) standard to film. The artistic merit for both is different but this is the first argument I’ve seen for a more grand and luxuriant digital cinema. Yet counter intuitively it is because Deakin holds it all back. In short it is kept simple to the point of emaciation. And, THAT ladies and gentlemen, is the key is to the whole riddle of why I love this movie.

The script is lean. I have heard it criticised for its verbose nature where as I would disagree. Deakin builds up to money shots by restraining every other shot. The script does the same. Dialogue is constant, even in action scenes, rattling along and keeping pace but it is when it slows, again like the cinematography, – Bardem’s entrance, those establishing shots, descending into the icy lake, the lingering and loving shot of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire – that we are fed sumptuous and delicious morsels that feed us a carbohydrate binge for the upcoming adrenalin charge. My favourite scene comes at the end of the second act when the international web of espionage has tightened and Bond is running through London, the Sound FX dim, the score pulses, the shots widen and Dench delivers with, orchestral grandeur, Tennyson’s poem Ulysees, drawing the audience so close to the screen you could hear a pin drop. It is this economy yet depth of tone that coats the whole film.

Everything is simplified. Bond has two gadgets, his suits are Alexander McQueen-esque Tom Ford designed slips, only fastening at a single button most times, the coats are simple plain cut, Crockett&Jones shoes with no detail and triple eyelets, rifles not lasers or automatics, the overblown modern architecture of modern MI6 is even deliberately undermined reducing it to a tunnel then to a bureaucrat’s pokey office, the cars are un-fussy Range Rovers, Jaguars and only one concession to the old school gaudiness with the DB5 but even that comes with a humorous asterisk. Even the sense of art hoovering up its context that I often speak of is used economically. A Leveson-style inquiry is presented in a very small courtroom. No every sense of the high ceilings, private jets, casinos and five-star hotels is carefully closeted away in favour of a more rich, dense yet economic fare.

It has its negatives. The real clincher for most will be one or both of two things: The 3rd act or its sexism. The latter cannot be ignored and should be addressed.

First and foremost it does not pass the Bechedel test but there is sadly more to it than that. Severine is Skyfall’s Bond Girl and is announced as a prostitute with a horrific and abusive past. Whom Bond duly shags in the shower. I’ve really tried to keep the spoilers to a minimum thus far but don’t read on if you haven’t seen it. Severine is shot by the evil villain Silva to which Bond makes a dismissive quip. It is admittedly hard to let this one slide. Bond is a throwback, which is not an excuse, but a lot of effort is put in to Bond’s background and his true character and motives, something I think is expertly done. However, this does not in any way paint him the hero, quite the opposite in fact. He is pictured as a self-indulgent, cynical, self-loathing, women hating, brute by the end. This does not forgive him and it does not try to endear him to us but it does develop Bond more than any other film and at least makes him more relatable. His nearest applicable character is Indiana Jones who, lest we forget, is a paedophile and a thief. Those aren’t jokes about Short Round either, watch Raiders again and pay close attention to Marion and Indiana’s conversation in her bar… There are sexist moments in this film that are uncomfortable but the film does at least make a firm effort to point the blame at an old and out of touch Imperialistic agent. Some will not be able to get past this however and I do understand/sympathise.

The finale however, is merely a matter of taste. I personally cannot put in to words how much I utterly fucking loved the final third of this film. Comparisons to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs are justified. The under siege nature of Bond’s retreat is poetic to the point elegiac, despite the quips. The pacing of it all is so wonderfully tuned it feels like a gently ramped treadmill. Unfortunately, I am biased in favour of this ending. It is shot in Glencoe, a place I love, and Deakin’s photography as soon as they get to Scotland is so utterly beautiful I want to hang it on my fucking wall. Colour is stripped back to an almost non-existent palate which then literally explodes into a single flame of colour that is so beautifully lit it looks like those Turners we were treated to earlier in the film. I honestly wanted to cry it made me so happy and excited. They are in my favourite place, amongst the hills, in a spooky old abandoned house, there’s booby traps, gunfights, chases, duels and all majestically shot. Sadly people do not consider this Bond, and they are right. I was fully behind this tonal shift in the same way as I loved Danny Boyle’s Sunshine all the more for its similarly off-kilter finale. Others will probably find the down and dirty, horror-movie climax of Skyfall a bit jarring. I utterly fucking LOVED it.

Another Con: I have no idea why they put a model for Topman in the role of Q. Terrible bit of casting for a well written role.

Thomas Newman’s score is underwhelming and seems barely present but for 3 moments when the Bond theme kicks in and when he sumptuously reprises the films main title theme.

Comparisons to Dark Knight Rises, Straw Dogs, the Mission Impossible franchise, have all been made but the film it most resembles for me is Jaws. Jaws is a classic and perfect example of the 3 act structure every great story adheres to. Act 1: Set  up – Introduce your protagonist and their motives and a mystery to solve. Act 2: The Turn – The villain is revealed along with their motives putting the protagonist either in jeopardy or at odds with them. Act 3: The Stand – Our protagonist confronts the problem and villain and resolves the conflict. Interestingly this is a method for poetry. I know I write poetry so will read it wherever I find something I like but Jaws and Skyfall follow this convention sooooooo doggedly it is hard to ignore and hard not to root for. Hooper, Quint and Brody strike out to sea to face their villain in a mano-a-mano showdown while in Skyfall, Queen Victoria, Daddy Warbucks and the dude from Tomb Raider head into the hills in a Mano-a-mano showdown. I want to cheer the whole way through a last act THIS good.

I think I have made my case as well I can. For some it will not be what they want from a Bond Film but for me there are too many things about this film that seem tailor-made to appeal to me specifically for me to not like it: A subtle but powerhouse performance in the centre stage, images of Turner, that tonal shift, Artistic Cinematography, block colour and simply tailored clothes, Scotland, a ‘haunted’ house, an epic climax wreathed in flame, poetic allegory, actual poetry, Shanghai, an evocative string-led theme, real darkness in frame, confidence in pacing, soliloquising, the list goes on. All these things on their own would make me love a film but all in one? You had me at Shanghai, James. I could ramble on for paragraphs more and would love to discuss it with anyone who is interested at great length and I am DEFINITELY seeing at IMAX again but for now I’ll leave it at that.

James Bond will return but never like this. Eleven out of Ten.

Friends of mine

So I had these three friends I grew up with. They were older than me but they were the coolest, nicest, most fun people ever. I spent everyday with them and we had such fun together. My family all loved them too so I never had any problem with spending so much time with them. We all got a little older and I made other friends but those three were always there when I needed them and I couldn’t have asked for a better trio.

When I was a teenager at school they suddenly made another friend and brought him into the group. I actually quite liked him. He had a different sense of humour and wasn’t as much fun but was nice enough and we got along, he also had this really annoying welt that everyone else focused on but I could ignore it. No one really got on with him apart from my other three buddies so I felt defensive. We still get on actually. Over the next couple of years two other guys entered our little circle and again they weren’t as much fun and we didn’t have as much in common but my original three mates made a great deal of effort with them so I happily went along with it and made friends with them too.

Then a weird thing happened: They all got surgery done. It was strange. It actually made them look good though, I mean they were only 30 but still they were all suddenly a lot better looking. I didn’t mind. So long as they were happy. Then they started introducing a load of new kids. These I liked less. They were yappy and annoying and wore garish clothes. Again I could accept this, so long as I got to hang out with my old pals and I did. Trouble was they were starting to look a little jaded and flabby.

We started seeing less of each other but we still met up. I introduced a few girlfriends to them and they seemed to have a good time with them too and I was so pleased. They were my best friends, it meant a lot that the people I loved love them too. Trouble was quite a few friends of mine were pointing out how irritating their new ‘family’ members were and how greedy and unpleasant their Dad was. Sadly this was all true and getting harder to ignore but I could deal with it. My friends hadn’t changed.

But they had. Slowly, subtly they’d all been having more and more surgery. Little nips and tucks here and there until they looked nothing like they did when we were kids and the shitty, childish, garish behaviour of those kids they were hanging around with was rubbing off on them. And they were having more and more of these friends round. I could barely talk to them without the others nipping round my feet and ruining our time together. It was heartbreaking. I was watching these three guys who I had loved so much, who had given me so much, taught me so much, who had always been there for me just starting to rot before my very eyes. The irony was they were trying not to age with all their surgery and the new gaggle of youthful friends hanging around them.

I see them sometimes, not very often though. We’re polite and remember the old days but it isn’t the same. All the fun and excitement is gone and they’re covered in the muck stains and general filth from the others. Their Dad has particularly slid into decline. He has that vacant stare and the cold stench of death about him these days. He used to be awesome too, really bright and full of joy and excitement. He just doesn’t seem to care anymore. It’s so sad.

So I decided, not so long ago, they weren’t going to be my friends anymore. I was going to stop defending them and didn’t want to see them anymore. If I see them I will be polite and respectful but I refuse to indulge them anymore. I’m just tired. Everyone fighting over them, everyone saying how horrible they’ve become, everyone acting like it was all there was to life. I was one of them. They were a formative part of my life and I will always look back fondly on our time as best friends but all good things must come to an end and these poor guys haven’t had any effect on my life in years. It really makes me sad, I loved who they were but can’t condone what they’re doing with their lives as pretty much everyone else has, either directly or indirectly. They either fawned over them and treated them like the BEST guys ever or spat insults at them for all they’ve done wrong. I’m just sad. I wish it hadn’t all gone wrong for them but I can’t keep forgiving them when they continue doing these horrible things to others and themselves.

I just heard social services kicked in the door and have taken them all away to get cleaned and are putting another younger guy into the mix and sure enough everyone round here is going nuts in the hope our old friends will clean up and get sober, ditch the horrible younger kids and get some new life in them. I personally don’t care anymore. Too much water has passed under that bridge and no matter how fresh or dynamic this other guy is, it won’t bring my three best friends back. Not the way they were.

Oh yeah I think I heard the social services were DRESSED AS MICKEY FUCKING MOUSE.

DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE? IT WAS A METAPHOR YOU SEE!

So in short, I gave up on Star Wars a long time ago. Sure it was funny when the fan boys (of which I included myself) went nuts when Phantom Menace came out and went ‘Tim Bisley’ on Lucas’ ass but I never got that. What did you expect? It was never going to live up to any expectations. I was willing to accept the 3 new episodes but now I’m just bored of it. I’m just tired of the arguments and want it to just go away. Whoopie, Disney have bought them and are going to add YET A-FUCKING-NOTHER  episode to the canon. Hooray. They aren’t suddenly going to redact the last 20 years of fucking around Lucas did are they? They’re not going to RetCon all that ancillary bullshit out of existence are they? No. They’re not. They’re going to market it even more and flog even more tat. To be honest, I’m pretty sure they will do a good film (if that is their intention) but I don’t care. I won’t go and see it. Hope you make a lot of money Disney.

As to Lucas, fuck that guy. Well done on making your billions into multi-billions. For someone who attests to creative endeavour and freedom of the auteur, etc he is one shameless fucking whore. People are saying how good it is that LucasFilm is out and about including Skywalker Sound, ILM etc. So what?! They’ve been available for hire for years. THX was sold years ago. And let’s be honest what the hell have LucasFilm themselves actually done besides Star Wars and Indiana Jones? Willow, Howard the Duck and Labyrinth. Oh and whatever the hell this Red Tails bullshit is that’s coming out. Whoopee fucking doo. What a remarkable input to the cinematic canon. I agree, the original Star Wars were an incredible landmark in cinema and changed its course but I’m sorry I don’t go with the totally empty ‘If that is their one legacy then that is enough’ argument because it has pretty successfully castrated itself as a studio over the last 20 years and its fans are now relying on one of the greatest and best cinema studios in history to reinvigorate its woefully flagging franchises. Disney probably will accomplish that because Disney constantly reinvent itself and never rests on its laurels and constantly develops and grows, something LucasFilm should have learned from over the last 30 years.

So No, I couldn’t care less about Disney buying LucasFilm or its franchises. Good luck to poor Disney who now have to waste time, money and effort into breathing new life into  something that doesn’t deserve it when its energies as a studio could be better served making more original and utterly brilliant fare like Toy Story 3, Princess and the Frog and Wreck It Ralph.

My name is Leo Cookman and I was a Star Wars fan. I’m not anymore. It’s a long road to recovery but I think I’m ready to let them go now. For all the Empire Strikes Back I’ll miss, I accept that in favour of no more Jar Jar or Hayden Christensen.

Those 3 Indiana Jones  movies are still favourites though. … Sorry? NO! THERE ARE ONLY THREE! THREE GODDAMMIT!

The Sound of My Life and My Mind

Back in 1998 I was a bookish and bullied teenager who sought refuge in the umpteen books I read on the sofa at home. I had an outside interest in music, I liked some of it, I even loved the odd tune/album, but it was not an important part of my life. Then one afternoon during that summer I was sprawled on the sofa reading my book when my sister came home with a new album she had just bought which she put on the CD player. Within 10 seconds not only had my opinion on music changed, I wanted to play the piano and my life was suddenly very different. That particular album was ‘Whatever and Ever, Amen’ by a band called Ben Folds Five.

This is an oft repeated anecdote by me because it really is a very easily pinpointed moment that changed my whole life. I explain my love for that particular album here which I recommend you read first. The reason I say all this is because they have just released (to a select few) their first album in 13 years for which I am using this post to review. Therefore the previous is a disclaimer so I can justify the slavering tongue bath I am about to give this album. If you’re not into PDAs look away now…

Ben Folds Five, despite their name, are a three piece from North Carolina (originally) consisting of Ben Folds on lead vocals and Piano, Darren Jesse on Drums and Robert Sledge on Bass. Their last album ‘The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner’ was released in 1999 to mixed reviews and signaled the end for the band. It was a fitting Swan Song in retrospect and has definitely grown on me over the years. Being my Favourite Band of All Time Ever™ I was disappointed that they had split just as I got into them and as Ben went solo I figured a reunion, despite their split not being acrimonious, was never on the cards. They were not the sort of band a label would come crawling to for a reunion. The fans, however, did. We BFF fans are a nerdy and passionate bunch and so 13 years later they have used us to help record and release their new album. They crowd funded the album using Pledge Music to overwhelming response and are starting a tour in the next few months. They released the album via a digital download to all the people who helped fund it yesterday a week or so before official release. So not only does this gushing fan get a whole new album he gets to see his favourite band of all time ever live. I never thought either of these would happen so please accept my humble apologies for my pant-wetting excitement over this development.

The Sound of The Life of The Mind is probably the only thing I don’t like about the album. Its a petty gripe but in the same way I felt ‘Rise of The Planet of the Apes’ was clumsy I equally feel this one is a little clunky but considering their former album’s titles being quite long and unwieldy this actually is not really an issue. What struck me first about the album, other than it being better than I had hoped, was the production. Reinhold Messner was criticised for being very ‘Wet’, in that it had a lot of reverb and delay on the instruments and vocals, it was very airy which jarred with some people after the tight and natural mix of Whatever and Ever. Life of the Mind, on the other hand, seems to swoop back to their eponymous debut album. This is one of the many delights on this album for me. Having sat through a decade of interminable bullshit from the music industry that is constantly regurgitating the fucking 80s A DECADE WHICH I HATE, it is wonderful to finally hear the start of the 90s revival. If that’s what it is. Each instrument has a very tight yet roomy focus but pushed through the modern rack of protools to add definition. The resulting ‘Sound’ of the album is bright, close, yet warm and simple. The set up hasn’t changed, there are no other instruments but the three of them and those oh-so-pretty harmonies all of which get their own sonic space and very literal breathing room.

Techy bullshit aside – The album itself is absolutely what I wanted to hear. I would have been disappointed if they had simply rehashed one of their other albums and likewise would have been upset if they tried too hard and made it a genre hopping jazz-hip-hop-country-screamcore album. I wanted to hear the same band follow the trajectory of development they showed before and produce an album that has their innate sound but more developed, refined and mature which is exactly what this album is. Everything I loved about this band is still present yet more so.

The title track, Erase Me, shifts tonally minute to minute from bombastic rock to soppy pop and is a planting of the flag for the rest of the album. It is an instant reveal for the three musician’s technical skill and the sensitive production. Darren’s snare rolls are killer, Sledge cracks out the Big Muff in style and Fold’s solo is as pumping as ever. Michael Praytor is power pop at its finest and sounds like a cross between the Eagles and Billy Joel but in a good way, it s a return to their ‘Where’s Summer B?’ and ‘Eddie Walker’ style of Harmony driven chorus hooks. Blue Sky is my personal favourite on the album. It was written by Darren Jesse who wrote the catchy chorus for ‘Brick’ and the emotional high from Reinhold Messner, ‘Magic’. The ghostly and angelic harmonies constantly floating ethereally in the background remind me somewhat of Star Me Kitten by REM, the introduction of the piano riff for some reason really summons up a less 80s sounding Bruce Hornsby. In the same way as the harmonies and apposite lyrics of ‘Missing the War’ utterly break my heart ‘Sky High’ is an understated yet dizzying piece of wistful melancholy that grabs a handful of my angsty heartstrings and leaves me in the same place ‘Evaporated’ used to. Probably one of my favourite songs full stop, not just on the album.

The title track, to be honest, sounds a bit flat to begin with but by the time the backing vox and that chorus kick in I was sold. The production really sells this one. It sounds huge for their little 3 piece and is probably the catchiest on the album. After that I was waiting for the mid album ballad which I got in spades. On Being Frank like ‘Alice Childress’ and ‘Selfless, Cold and Composed’ before it, this one requires a little time to get into. It is wordy and measured not histrionic like seems to be the norm for ballads these days.  The string arrangement is sympathetic and not overpowering and Ben’s vocal delivery is understated and thoughtful, everything I want from a ballad. Darren and Robert sit back comfortably propelling the song toward it’s simple harmony laden climax. Structurally one of their best songs. The string arrangement and performance remind me of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from Sgt. Pepper. I can give it no higher praise.

Draw a Crowd is their rockin’ leap back into the rest of the album. Oddly this is also a continuation of their trend of critical and acerbic appraisal of music culture, see ‘Underground’, ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’, ‘Army’, ‘Rockin’ The Suburbs’ all follow this lyrical formula for pointing out the absurdities of modern music and its surrounding bullshit. The refrain of “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall” is in exactly the same template as “Will you never rest, fightin’ the battle of who could care less?” and “Officer Friendly’s little boy’s got a mohawk” and “some producers with computers fixing all my shitty tracks” in it’s irreverent appeal. Another anthem for people who honestly couldn’t give a crap about modern pop culture or looking “Cool”.

Do It Anyway was released early as a pre-release single and to me it sounded, and still does, the most like Ben’s Solo stuff. This is not a bad thing as it shows yet more development but again benefits from the production and Darren and Robert’s much more idiosyncratic approach to their respective instruments. Robert’s Bass playing is seriously tasty on this one and Ben’s Solo is a pip. Reminds me most of ‘Redneck Past’ and ‘Regrets’ form Reinhold Messner. Hold That Thought, is a country infused slow number that again seems more like Fold’s solo material such as Jesusland and The Ascent of Stan but that beautifully Crosby, Stills and Nash organ and harmonies make it different again making probably the most non-Folds or Five song on the album but in a really good way. The lyrics on this one are great too. A bit of a grower but a track that really shows growth and an ability to not follow a formula from all three, probably the most pleasing track on the album for me.

Away When You Were Here, wanders dangerously close to generic pop balladry to begin with but, typically, when those strings kick in with that little refrain you’ve got another little emotional gem. More importantly it is the (admittedly fictitious) account of the death of Ben’s father. My own father, who encouraged my piano playing and got me lessons and whom I played together with in a duo, died a few years ago making the lyrics and subsequently the whole song heartrendingly pertinent. It meets an odd union with the rest of the album but couldn’t have been done by anyone else and typically speaks to me in a very profound way and I wouldn’t have it written by any other band.

The album closes with ‘Thank You for Breaking My Heart’ another quiet and simple ballad that follows the Five’s brilliance for closing an album with absolute classics like ‘Boxing’, ‘Evaported’ and ‘Lullaby’. The instrumentation is sparse and light but the production holds your interest on the lovely Satie-esque piano line right until the wonderful, bathetic, end.

In short, I have a new album to add to the favourites. It has been a good year for me and music after having spent bloody years in the wilderness of the cavernous void of creativity and banal, dull market saturation from the likes of our modern pop icons over the last ten years but Dr. John’s latest and Graham Coxon’s along with this album has given three albums this year I have not just enjoyed but really loved and SOTLOTM is the cherry on the cake.

I know not everyone likes this band, most site Fold’s accent and somewhat saccharine lyrics as to why, but I couldn’t care less about his accent and the lyrics are largely why I love this band. As I said in my review of ‘Whatever and Ever’, I cannot be objective about this band or its material. I honestly think they are a great and musical band with some wonderful songs to their catalogue but the fact of the matter is this band is Me. They are nerds, they are cynics, they are scared of girls yet can’t live without them at the same time, they are easily heartbroken, they love music, they love the Beatles, they are everything I am and all of my character traits in a single entity so I am naturally going to be drawn to them. Apart, they don’t grab me as much as they do together but apart they have developed into the same thing I have developed into, whatever that may be, so hearing them again is like meeting old friends and finding we still have so much in common. We’re still just as cynical, just as angry, just as heartbroken, just as silly, just as funny, just as thoughtful, just as sad, just as happy but with the benefit of time and perspective have given us fresh eyes resulting in this fantastic album.

I’d recommend it but as a very much outed fanboy I doubt you’ll be able to take me seriously now. I don’t care. My favourite band, just wrote some of my favourite songs and released my new favourite album, which, if you don’t mind, I’m off to listen to again.