Movie Fest: October 2010

A huge flurry of movies as part of a massive de-compress. Feeling too lazy to write proper reviews for all of them so here’s a brief summary:

  • Toy Story 3: It’s pretty amazing that the Pixar folks manage to constantly outdo themselves from movie to movie, but to have a trilogy of movies that just gets better and better each time is mind blowing. Just think how good Revenge of the Sith would have been if that was the case for George Lucas? Anyways, I digress. Toy Story 3 is beautiful and heart rending to watch, as well as being a kid friendly roller coaster of a movie. A must watch, if only for the Buzz Lightyear secret modes…
  • Ponyo: Another Studio Ghibli classic, the story of a goldfish princess who goes off an adventure and falls in love with a human child, causing havoc to the balance of nature. Beautiful animation style. A wonderful glimpse at life in fishing villages in Japan and a mum voiced by Tina Fey, what’s not to love? Well, the story is a bit derivative and the ending seems to just happen, so it’s not the best Studio Ghibli film ever but worth a watch.
  • My Name is Bruce: Bruce Campbell, star of the Evil Dead movies, stars as ‘himself’ in this send-up of B-movie stardom. A bit flat in places, if you’re a fan of Bubba-ho-tep (“everybody likes Bubba-ho-tep”) then this is well worth watching.
  • Prince of Persia: Great special effects, epic scenes and some of the worst ‘English’ accents you’ve ever heard.. even from the British actors. Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina I’m looking at you. The storyline is a hodge podge of revenge and mythology in the classic style of Tomb Raider, another game to film conversion. A six beer movie at least.
  • The Last Airbender: M Night Shyamalan has not really produced any classic suspense movies in a while, so I was interested to see how he fired up this new trilogy. The answer? Beautifully shot, with some great special effects, but none of the Shyamalan story magic.

Must spend less time in front of a screen…

Tim Robbins @ Union Chapel

Last night we headed down, yet again, to the Union Chapel in Islington. This time, we weren’t checking out beardedly soulful singers of Americana, or disgracefully growing old Welsh crooners – we were there to see the transition of a fine screen actor into a card carrying musician. Whether it is the post-divorce mid-life crisis tour, or the ultimate fulfilment of a childhood dream, Tim Robbins and his band put on an admirable show, with an excellent, but way too short, support slot from Kami Thompson.

Looking suave in a long coat, his grey white hair slicked back atop his child-like face, Robbins strode out onto the stage with his extensive band. His expression was a mix of nervousness and joy throughout the set, and that showed itself in his songs – with a set-list that seemed more ‘favourite songs on random’ than careful curation, veering between his own songs and covers. The Chapel was nowhere near full capacity, with the top balconies closed off and seats still free in the venue, perhaps it was a bit too brave to try a small medium sized venue at this point in a career, but those people who were there enjoyed the show to its full. The highlight of the show came too early, with a singalong to an old blues gospel staple that had the audience grinning gleefully. This energy carried Robbins through the next few songs, but at some point that seemed to desert him and the set peetered out rather than ending with a bang. With the encore, ending a song earlier would have helped us leave on a high – but these are all tricks that Robbins will likely learn as he faces more real audiences, as well as finding which songs his voice carries best. Camp Billie Holiday covers may not be an ideal to strive for, Johnny Cash was a good fit with some great harmonica and Tom Waits.. well, you need Tom’s voice as Scarlett Johansson already proved.

Overall, an interesting night but more ‘watch this space’ than a gig that everyone will rue missing. Either way, you have to give Tim credit for following a childhood dream with such gusto and obvious joy. Bless you, sir.

Film: There Will Be Blood

Finally got around to watching this brooding masterpiece of a film last night. For some reason I’ve always gotten There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men mixed up in my head, purely because they were on at the cinema at the same time. There is absolutely no relationship between the two movies, one being about a slightly psychopathic oil man in the earliest days of prospecting, and the other being about a man on the run from a psychopathic killer. Oh wait. Guess there are some similarities after all.. both are great movies but as dark as anything, ‘No Country’ is a Coen Brothers movie in the style of Fargo without the humour so don’t expect light watching with either.

There Will Be Blood is a real powerhouse of a movie. Daniel Day-Lewis takes the lead as an oil prospector, Daniel Plainview, who works his way up from the bottom through his own hard work and cunning, yet still acknowledging that only one in twenty prospectors ever strike big. Along the way he loses a lot of compatriots, and makes few friends, being unrelenting in his pursuit of oil success. After achieving some early finds, he is approached by a young man who tells him of oil on his farmstead in return for money. Plainview visits the farm and finds the boy’s twin brother, Eli Sunday, a fanatical Christian played with creepy genius by Paul Dano. Buying up the farm and the surrounding area, Plainview grows his empire – facing loss and gains along the way, within a circle of his own self-created loneliness.

There is no redemption in this movie for the principle players, just dark drilling into the human soul and psyche. The beauty here lies in the cinematic vistas of early oil fields, and the starkly wonderful soundtrack by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. There Will Be Blood is a must see movie, but have a cheery follow up film as a follow up – for us it was The Triplets of Belleville, a quirky French animated movie about one Grandmother’s quest to cheer up her Grandson with surreal consequences. Very enjoyable.

The Amazing Union Chapel Double Team

Last week we got the chance to go see two very different bands on consecutive nights, both at the same venue – the Union Chapel in Islington. Having never been to this venue we didn’t quite know what to expect, other than it has a small capacity of only 800 people which is one of my key requirements for seeing any band these days. We did bump into some folks at Nina’s birthday party who said it was amazing, and that we should sit up on the balcony rather than fight to get in the downstairs pews. Yes, that’s right, it’s all seated but there are no reserved seats. I was loving it already, as someone who feels that real fans who are prepared to get in line early should always be rewarded (in exactly the same way that airlines don’t reward you when you check your bags in early… why are they always the last bags out? I digress).

On entering the chapel, with its front tower currently shrouded in scaffolding, you have no sense of the size of it as the ticket desk is in a cramped entrance way, but head to the left or right and up the stairs to the front balconies and the place unfolds like a Tardis till you come onto the cavernous, yet somehow intimate, performance space of the chapel knave. We sat right on the front pews, at the front up by the stage – just a few metres away from the performance. The side angle isn’t ideal, but the closeness is wonderful, plus you get to sit and rest your arms on the stone ledge in front of you. From this vantage point we could see everyone crammed into the pews below, much closer than us but arguably a lot less comfortable. Looking up you see the other balcony pews all around, and the lofty roof above in all its ornate glory. What a place to see a gig.

First up was Iron & Wine, featuring the soulful southern croonings and skillful guitar of Sam Beam. I’ve been a fan of Iron & Wine since an encounter in Fix years ago in Williamsburg, but this is the first chance I’ve had to see him in action, and it was worth the wait, especially in such an amazing venue. Beam started with a totally acapella rendition of one of his songs, which entranced the audience from the get go. Then he moved onto solo guitar, before being joined by a single backing instrumentalist to fill out the parts on some of his more complex melodies. The playlist escapes me right now, but he did cover off most of my favourite tracks, at times leaving us almost in tears. An amazing singer and well worth a listen.

Next up was a slight change of pace, seasoned Welsh singer Tom Jones singing the entirety of his new album ‘Praise and Blame‘. Given the gospel leanings of his latest offering this was a highly appropriate venue, and from the moment Jones came out in front of his (mostly 50+) audience he set a lot of store by that with his between song banter. With his shock of pure white hair, the now 70 Jones still sets the heart racing on his fans, though no knickers were (perhaps thankfully) thrown, and his voice swept teh rest of us along – the man can sing. Another great gig, only slightly let down by his decision to play any classic Jones songs as part of an encore, instead repeating one of his earlier Praise & Blame songs.

So a great week for gigs, and another new favourite London venue located. One of these days I might start actually loving London.. who knows.

And as a brief re-cap of what I’ve been up to in the last month or so since the last post.. There was a brief trip to Israel that was absolutely stunning (some pics here) – Jerusalem is a must see, followed by a long weekend in Barcelona over my birthday. In between those we fitted in a very lovely canoeing trip down the River Wye, which didn’t result in hypothermia for a change, but did result in a broken exhaust for the second time this year. Ah, car ownership. Pip pip.

Classics: Treasure Island & Vertigo

In the middle of getting ready for an imminent work trip to Israel, I found time to attack a couple of classics from different media; the book Treasure Island, and Hitchcock’s masterpiece of film, Vertigo.

First up, Treasure Island, a book I can’t actually remember if I read when I was younger as the themes are now so familiar; pirates with parrots and wooden legs, buried treasure and heroic cabin boys. Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic is best read at a younger, more innocent age, yet maintains it’s ability to thrill even to us jaded older folk. A fun, lightweight classic but don’t expect anything too mentally challenging.

Then we have Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. As someone who watches a lot of movies I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’ve not watched any Hitchcock films. This is something I realise I now need to rectify, as Vertigo is visually sumptuous, engaging with great acting from James Stewart, and a thrilling soundtrack. There’s also a classic early intro sequence from Saul Bass. The story follows Stewart, who plays a detective on retirement due to the onset of crippling vertigo which caused the death of a fellow officer. Stewart, for want of anything else to do, accepts a friend’s request to follow his wife, Kim Novak, who has been acting strangely and apparently is possessed by the suicidal spirit of a dead woman. Stewart accepts, and in carrying out his duties falls in love with the wife and things progress from there.

Although the film is now over 50 year old it is still a joy to watch. The speed of pacing may put off some viewers, but Hitchcock was well ahead of his time and if you’re not addicted to jump cuts then all will be well. Happily for me this now means I have the rest of Hitchcock’s back catalogue to watch as well. Splendid stuff.

Punchdrunk vs. ENO – The Duchess of Malfi

Last night we went along to see The ENO/Punchdrunk co-production of The Duchess of Malfi at a remote office block in the east end of London. This was touted as one of the ‘must see’ events of the theatrical season in London, and caused the ENO’s ticketing server to crash quite horrendously when it went on sale – luckily I managed to grab four tickets in the melee, and now I really wish I’d gotten more as it was quite splendid.

For those of you not familiar with Punchdrunk, they formed in 2000 to create immersive theatrical experiences where the audience is expected to wander around, interact with the performance to some degree and to create their own relationship with the works rather than just sitting in a chair and watching. Audience members at Punchdrunk events are required to wear masks which helps to separate audience from performers, but also creates a wonderful sense of alienation. Instead of creating a single thread of narrative that unfolds on the stage in front of you, there are little nuggets of story happening all over the venue and your participation in this requires you to find and unravel what’s going on. To add complexity, Punchdrunk events are generally quite dimly lit and involve a lot of subtle set dressing that just adds to your confusion, joy and discomfort – to varying levels. And now onto last night’s performance, in which spoilers may be revealed…

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Favourite Films: Twelve Monkeys

Above: “I am the man who kills Bruce Willis” – the actor with the dubious and singular honour of killing Bruce on-screen is coached by Terry Gilliam”

Most of you will know about my mild obsession with Terry Gilliam and his amazing films. Gilliam’s movies are some of the most regularly re-watched in my extensive collection, along with those of the Coen Brothers and Christopher Nolan. All of them delight in visually stunning extravaganzas combined with off-beat yet engaging characters, and Twelve Monkeys is no exception.

Twelve Monkeys is Gilliam’s 1996 sci-fi time-travel confuso-thriller starring Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe amongst others. The basic story is based around the surreal French short film La Jetee, centering around a man from the future who has seen his own death as a child. In this re-telling our soon to come dystopian future has the remnants of he human race living underground, holding on after a devastating virus has killed most people. Willis plays James Cole, a prison inmate chosen to go back into the past to try and investigate what happened and ultimately retrieve a pure source of the original virus so the future/present scientists can create a cure. With me so far? Well there be spoilers ahead, so be warned.

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Nineties TV Weekend (Is It Sunny Out?)

For some reason, in between bouts of sitting on the roof playing Scrabble in the sun, it’s been a bit of a nineties TV weekend. We’ve had too much sun the last two weekends anyhow…

First up has been American Gothic – a Twin Peaks-esque horror/supernatural series from the mid-90s that starred Gary Cole as the excellently ambiguous Sheriff Buck. A great character study in how people deal with someone who’s obviously the embodiment of evil, yet who’s consistently nice and helpful to everyone, of course always to his own ends. The DVD transfer’s not great, the series sometimes looks dated, and the really strange thing is that the episodes are on the discs in the wrong order (see wikipedia for the correct order), but even with all that it’s still held up really well 15 years later. As people said, it was ahead of its time and these days would likely have been an HBO series rather than CBS. Such is life.

On a slightly lighter note, Channel 4 on demand now has the hilariously surreal Mr Don & Mr George available for your viewing pleasure. Again, the order is slightly out, no idea why, but all six wonderful, bizarre and charming episodes are there to enjoy. Trailing the exploits of two men called McDiarmid, but not related, this is another series that was arguably way ahead of his time – an offshoot of the also excellent Absolutely (also available on Channel 4 right now).

Charlotte Gainsbourg @ Shepherds Bush Empire

Last night we went to see Charlotte Gainsbourg sing for the first time in London. At a fairly busy Shepherds Bush Empire, a crowd that consisted of a large proportion of French speakers waited in anticipation for the actress daughter of the famous singer to show us her own skills. As you might expect, they weren’t quite up to the high bar Serge set, but Charlotte has created her own style to set herself apart and it works well.

The crowd responded well to tracks such as Master’s Hands and the excellent IRM, which work best with Charlotte’s soft voice, but it was for covers of her dad’s songs that the crowd went wild – especially a finale of Couleur Cafe. The singing shadow of Serge Gainsbourg is hard to avoid if you’re his only heir, but maybe it’s best to embrace your heritage at times. As Charlotte herself said in a recent interview when asked who she would invite to her dream dinner party?: “Ghosts. Yvan, my children and my father, because they never met.”

The Latest Jesus-Phone Rises

Another year, another iPhone. But this year at the WWDC Steve Jobs’ presented something unexpectedly expected, the iPhone 4, and boy is it cute.

The ‘traditional’ iPhone front aspect is still relatively intact, but the new side bezel of aluminium is something very new, and indeed very ingenious as it incorporates an antenna. The latest iPhone also features something Apple calls a ‘retina screen’, a screen with resolution so high that your eye cannot perceive the different pixels. A screen the same size as the older iPhones, but with roughly 75% of the pixels of the iPad. That is stunning, and it’s a technology I can’t wait to see on any laptop screen. Twin cameras, front and rear facing, are now present – one replete with LED flash & full HD recording plus the ability to edit movies in situe via a cut down version of iMovie (available at a premium from the App Store), the other camera is set to let you video conference face to face (for now only over wireless). Then there’s the built-in gyroscope, that detects movement in three directions. What the what!

Having not held it in my hand, and only from the pre-emptive looks from Gizmodo amongst others, I can only guess how amazing it feels to the touch. Yes, unfortunately, I want one. Will this gadget-lust cost me? Yes, it will. Thankfully I won’t have to wait too long to be parted from my money, as it rolls onto UK shelves on 24th June.