April 16, 2014
Under The Skin


'Well it certainly got under my Skin!’ is the instinctive responsive to Jonathan Glazer’s new film, and is a line that has a dangerous likelihood of becoming a clichéd response for all potential viewers. But this will be the ultimate compliment. For clichés are clichés given they speak a resounding element of truth. Sure enough, Glazer’s remarkable achievement delivers something extraordinarily unsettling. By rights, it should impact all who see it.

With a background in stunning commercials and music videos, namely the seminal Guinness Surfing Horses (you know, the best ad of all time, in the world, ever?), or Unkle’s ‘Rabbit in the Headlights’, Glazer’s foray into film would inevitably have been met with quizzical gazes from the snobbish elite. Style over substance being the obvious accusation for starters. The leap from 30 seconds or 3 minutes to feature length would be light years for someone who was regarded as merely an exponent of the trendy cutting edge for the late 90’s MTV glory years. Or more gallingly, looked upon with disdain for being limited to bringing a snippet of corporate art direction to (admittedly spectacular) life.

His 1999 debut, ‘Sexy Beast’ was unsurprisingly showered with edgy style. Yet the delicious dialogue and performances riveted with panic and fury elevated it to the status of an unforgettable showstopper, and are what people mainly remember it for. If anything, it left an indelible stamp of what his feature lengths could potentially offer. The follow up, ‘Birth’ was met with mixed reviews, and  both stalled the momentum and flagellated neasayers before a decade or so off the map. All until his re-emergence now. Nine years is a long time for anyone to be hibernating from in any form of creative work, but we now know that Glazer was stewing and cultivating something boldly conceptual, and with a precise patience. In terms of impact, the result is well worth the wait.

'Under The Skin' opens with an ambiguity that never leaves it. A slowmoving, evolutionary or mechanical shot (whichever way you like to interpret it) gives way to a menacing biker speeding through the bleak Scottish night, before recovering a female body from the side of the road and dumping it into the back of a uniform white Transit van. It’s here that the film’s centrepiece, Scarlett Johansson, who is inferred to be an alien being of some sort, assumes the rough appearance and clothing of the stricken body, before taking off in the Transit to drive around the wintry environs on a quest to prey indiscrimately on unsuspecting Glaswegian men. Her origins are never explained, and neither are her motives. However, both are totally unnecessary, as the foreboding atmosphere overwhelms the entire mood, never to relent.


Kerb Crawler… Scarlett mingling amongst the punters in Glasgow

'Under the Skin' is driven by an incredibly straightforward, but jaw droppingly inventive approach to shooting, and one that has now definitively broken new boundaries. Hidden cameras followed a barely recognisable Johansson all around the streets and urban throngs of Glasgow, with a cast of thousands of unsuspecting Glaswegians being surveyed protagonists, or potential prey. All are oblivious to who they are in the midst of. If you thought Big Brother and CCTV was the stuff of Foucaultian nightmares piercing everyday life, being immersed in this most normal of crowds was an incredibly unsettling experience. Peace of mind is shattered in an instant, knowing that you could just easily be marked out as an indiscriminate target of prey for something even more merciless and unknown than the state or any overarching authority. The eeriness of wading through innocent bystanders, whether middle aged women in shopping centres, to Celtic fans post final whistle without them having any idea, struck a chilling chord throughout. The feeling of humble people like you or I, who have no idea they are so exposed and vulnerable in real crowd situations to such menace and predatory behaviour, are being observed cut impossibly deep. Glazer had created a wholly new and sharpened check on reality.

As ‘she’ works her way through Glasgow, young males are picked off once they find her alluring advances impossible to resist. Termination was easy, and merciless, luring them into a murky black liquid, or oblivion essentially, before disappearing or combusting without trace. The early cold heartlessness is extreme, coldly witnessing a couple drown, and icily killing a heroic swimmer who had just failed to save them. The purposely leaving a crying baby in the howling wind and rain on the beachfront to die is one of the most harrowing and powerful scenes you’re likely to witness.

As it progresses beyond the bustle of Glasgow, the hunting ground gets bleaker in exposure, and more isolated. Fittingly, this is in tandem with the increasingly vulnerable people who become targeted. The more hopeless and lonely the prey become however, suddenly arouses basic feelings of human sentiment and emotion. A facially disfigured victim, scarcely believing his luck, is curiously spared, whilst the companionship and sanctuary offered by another results in her bewilderment, and innocent attempts at human instincts like eating (chocolate cake), music (tapping along to Deacon Blue) and even attempting to go along with some human intimacy.  

Perhaps one of the core themes through this penetrating film is that the modern world in no longer is a safe place for the emotive, tender human, as weakness is coldly quashed by the merciless, ominous other. The tables do indeed slowly turn, and in Johansson’s softening towards the intrigue of human instinct and feeling, she suddenly becomes as vulnerable, isolated and exposed as her previous pitiful targets, thereby embodying the idea of the hunter being the hunted, and duly paying the ultimate price for exhibiting weakness. With this in mind, the possibilities stemming from this made me feel as though ‘Under The Skin’ had scratched the surface of existentialism to a level that rubbed raw like never before.

These hugely perturbing messages wouldn’t be so impacting and resonating, if it wasn’t for the sum of Glazer’s brilliantly considered parts. The shooting of the bleak, wintry Scottish grit is so harsh and exposed, we can almost feel the cold in our bones. The feeling that we could just easily have been under watch, (and perhaps are at this moment) never leaves your senses either, and lingers on nervously. A unique ability to blend stunning cutting edge CGI with the most ordinary and humdrum of everyday life is delicately balanced at some crucial moments, lending a disconcerting plausibility to the menacing modus operandi of Johansson and the biker. As if we didn’t need further worries from what on the whole, was ultimately a genuienly scary watch, in a more far reaching definition of the term.

It may be hyperbole to declare that ‘Under The Skin’ is a cinematic watershed, but if not, at least Glazer had come pretty damn close. The unparallelled disturbing mood, executed through the groundbreaking visual impact and deep penetration of the thematic possibilities all combine to make Under The Skin a unique sensory experience. 

April 11, 2014
So long, adios

So long, adios

April 10, 2014
Double Entendre

Jesse Eisenberg portrays Jesse Eisenberg and…Jesse Eisenberg in The Double. 

You really have to do Dystopia well and inventively to pull it off, but unfortunately for Richard Ayoade’s The Double, this isn’t the case, making a slew of positive reviews baffling…

Not that Ayoade’s world revolves around appeasing my levels of taste, but this should have been a straightforward one. He stood out in early roles in Nathan Barley, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Man to Man with Dean Learner, some of C4’s standout cult gems from the noughties. I omit the IT Crowd on purpose by the way, let’s just say I never ‘got into it’… Nevertheless, to watch him make an improbable transition towards the director’s chair, and instantly carve out an indelible style for the brilliantly idiosyncratic take on the Coming of Age genre in ‘Submarine’, whilst pleasantly surprising, was a clear signal of intent that here was a talent whose breadth was only starting to expand. Surely the stars were aligned for The Double to continue that promise. Did it? Unfortunately, for me, that would be a pretty resounding no. Even if most seemingly don’t agree so far. 

‘The Double’ takes it’s premise from a Dostoevsky novella, revolving around a hapless worker with crippling social awkwardness, bereft confidence and a sense of invisibility who is a mere cog in the machine that is his grim, large scale organisation. All changes once he comes across his identikit doppelganger who represents everything he is not. A successful mirror image with cunning zeal, who is effortless at making waves in the workplace,  and most crucially, wooing the love interest of our original protagonist with consummate ease.  The conceit is one we should be familiar with, and although penned by Dostoyovsky, the premise and execution from Ayoade has Franz Kafka running through it’s veins at every moment. With the Dystopian setting impossibly Orwellian to boot, so much so it is down to every last detail in how the film looks. I don’t need to mention the litany of examples of Dystopian Classics, but in branching out on it’s own in that regards, The Double had a challenge on it’s hands. Jesse Eisenberg (funnily enough, considering his Kafka-esque obsession in ‘The Squid and the Whale’) assumes the mantle of both original protagonist (Simon James) and the more slickly devious version (James Simon), and it’s here the difficulties begin.

Eisenberg simply typecasts as…Eisenberg. The same nervy, edgy demeanour, shoulders hunched and even his walk, are present in pretty much every role he has, and whilst convincing as Mark Zuckerberg’s aspergers esque driven persona in smash hit ‘The Social Network’, the well runs dry here. Simon James is obviously a frustrated and awkward character, but for someone caught in the midst of an escalating mental crises, it’s hard to see past the same Jesse Eisenberg we see in every film, rather than someone driven to the brink of madness.

With so much focus on the aesthetic, Ayoade has tried to create something that is wholly and grimly Orwellian, but comes up short with the pay off. Instead, we just feel as Mikhail Gorbachev must have felt when he had an honest look around at the creaking results of late 80’s Soviet Industrialization, and realised the Cold War game was finally up. It’s purposely not pretty, but it doesn’t have the desired effect either. Rather than lurking like a constant shadow, it just grates. Similarly, Ayoade’s staunch focus is far too concentraed on creating a claustrophobic, jagged and unsettling atmosphere, through constant narrow shots, and nauseating, speedy hand held takes. It does indeed work in unsettling to an extent, but rapidly becomes frustrating, and is completely at the expense of understanding the basic thrust of the film, where a slew of plot holes and questions around purpose appear and remain unanswered. The central focus suffers greatly, as the execution is completely wooly and only serves to create a milieu of confusion clouding what should be the core themes centring on Simon James struggle.

His style, following from Submarine, is obviously a noir take on comedy, almost like a much darker take on Wes Anderson. Whereas it was brilliantly apparent in Submarine through a deluded teenage case of unrequited love, it fails to work here, and much of the humour never hit the target. Telling, when it should be an absolute necessity of the style that he is cultivating. You can’t help feel that there’s layers of opportunity lost. I naturally compared it to Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’ either(a firm favourite), a film which used Kafka’s The Trial as its basis, and which deals with the same fundamental thrust, i.e. frustration, constraints from overbearing institution, and burgeoning madness, and all conveyed through deeply dark humour. Where After Hours was razor sharp with its humour, crystal clear in creating a maddening atmosphere and tangible exploration of the core themes, The Double did not strike any of these targets cleanly whatsoever. Unfortunately, all the jerky camera angles and overly nervy acting in the world could not compensate for this.

An opportunity missed here, but I’m optimistic this will be a mere blip on Ayoade’s otherwise upward trajectory, there’s still swathes of potential simmering in what he can already declare as a wholly distinct style.

April 9, 2014

Another unconventional cover to present to you, albeit one that’s fully topical given the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, and the current upsurge in coverage of all things Nirvana. Kurt lives, and all that. Covers and Nirvana are usually associated solely with some of the choice cuts from Unplugged, but when the tables are turned the favour was never really noticeably returned by anyone paying homage to the ‘grunge’ kingpins, who unwittingly gatecrashed the mainstream in such unprecedented style and who changed the face of popular music (for a few years at least)

It’s not often at all that I listen to Nirvana now, as having been exposed to them since the age of 8 there was bound to become a saturation point. It was hardly surprising that I, and I’m sure many others too, became as sick of hearing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as Cobain eventually was of playing it. ‘Lithium’ followed closely behind in terms of over exposure, and became one I couldn’t bear to hear. That is, until this Pierce Turner version, recorded as an anniversary tribute, which breathes all sorts of fresh life into it and wholly different perspectives on a song which we we’re all overtly familar with, to the rather unfair point of losing appreciation.

Turner, for those who don’t know, is a slightly enigmatic and extremely underappreciated talent who has been heralded by many critics as having Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor levels of talent, and been championed and had his own songs recorded by the likes of Christy Moore. A singer whose trademark is lyrical wizardry and painting vivid scenes through his songs, this particular version of ‘Lithium’ shows a different range to his arranging talents, with a lush, string laden orchestral take on the grunge classic, with a sweeping epic chorus driven by his undulating vocals. As a tribute, no emotional punch has been spared. It’s a version that improves on each listen, and is one that is treated with faithful aplomb. One wonder’s what Cobain himself would have thought of it, you’ld like to think somewhere he’s graciously approving the tribute Turner crafted specifically in his honour.

PS: Pierce Turner has a bit of previous in turning out some stunning covers, so if you’re willing to delve in further, I implore you to get engrossed in his take (linked below) on The The’s classic ‘Uncertain Smile’, recorded 4 years after the original in 1987. An arguably equally stunning take on the song, despite having the instant disadvantage of lacking Jools Hollands ridiculously epic and scene stealing piano solo from the original…(but don’t let that deter you!)


April 8, 2014
Classically London

Classically London

February 27, 2014

I’m one listen into Neneh Cherry’s new album ‘Blank Project’, and it might well be the best thing released this year so far. The title track, as performed live above, is a belter and a furious showcase of a stunningly powerful voice with a whole new lease of life. Her voice always reminded me of a throwback to the heyday of trip hop female vocalists like Shara Nelson or Martina Topley Bird. Maybe that’s a lazy comparison. And one that could subconsciously stem from ‘7 Seconds’ being released in the same mid nineties peak… Although her involvement in the production of Blue Lines can’t be a mere coincidence. She must have fitted the bill. In fairness, this does remind of the blunt force of Tricky’s Black Steel, with Topley Bird so memorably on the vocal duties. But there is more so a feel of some of those more urgent Massive Attack moments too, perhaps in one of the rare occasions they chose to produce music not shrouded in dense cloud of the finest Bristolian Hydroponic. And perhaps if they allowed Cherry’s energy take more of a centre stage when they worked together.

The production here is incredibly sparse, with extremely down tuned dirgey bass, and some rough jazzy drumming allowed to roam freestyle and drive a voice at the peak of its powers in in full passionate flow. Its an intriguing sound, and a record that has instantly etched its own unique identity, akin to the experimental, dark dancey rhythms that could sit comfortably on a Warp release. Either way, I’m only getting started here. Something tells me I could be getting endless reward from each return back.

February 20, 2014

Tears For Fears - My Girls… YOU WOT?

This is the most bizarre cover premise I’ve heard or come across in a long time. More bizarre is how well it’s executed. On paper, should you have come up with this, you may well have baulked. Then again, strip away all the sonic genius and originality of Animal Collective’s soundscape on ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’, and ‘My Girls’ has at it’s core is simply an epic pop tune with a brilliantly anthemic singalong chorus. Which, funnily enough, was exactly what Tears For Fears excelled at so much at their pomp. So a match made in heaven? Clearly so obvious all along! Luckily, they stay extremely faithful to the original, but rather than just aping Noah Lennox(Panda Bear), Curt Smith’s unmistakeable voice lends even that bit more to the melody, and a few revs up on the BPM jolt with them an incredibly bouncy feel. I always thought the sound of Merriweather Post Pavilion was like a blissful, dreamy underwater sequence, but somehow, a bunch of old timers have ironically given it a massive injection of youthful exuberance.

I honestly didn’t know what to think after 1 or 2 listens until I just lost myself in how incredibly upbeat it was. They also probably got a bit too carried away with the dash of Christmas No. 1 ringing bells themselves, but hey, given how much I liked it, what would you expect with a song that just ends up being so much fun.

There’s no question that reaction to this would be utterly divisive. I can clearly see people absolutely hating it. But the whole ‘pleasantly surprised’ factor may be enough to bowl you over on it’s own. Besides, I haven’t seen any other stalwarts from the 80’s golden era who could do an Animal Collective cover with such gusto… Unless Ultravox want to step up to the plate?

February 14, 2014
Merely part of the attraction

Merely part of the attraction

(Source: jamescullen)

February 12, 2014

'Dirty Wars'

Nothing really shocks you anymore when it comes to US Foreign Policy, and in particular, the War on Terror. When September 11th occurred, it was instantly acknowledged as epoch defining, and a marked watershed in International Relations. A cataclysmic moment casting a dark shadow over what was then just a nascent century, instantly obliterating all optimism.  Everyone knew things would change. Drastically. What no one knew, and what the US Administration in place (we no longer pin things solely on the demonic George W.Bush) certainly wouldn’t want you to know, is just how out of control a declared war on terror would spiral. Likewise, they wouldn’t want you to know how untrammelled it has become, and how they have now engineered it towards a status of ‘never ending’. Rather than being a single declared War on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, things have now instead ‘progressed’ towards a global battlefield of indiscriminate enemies. 

It’s a long time since ‘Shock and Awe’, and a decade of being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to a severe desensitisation towards US military activity. And maybe we zone out with endless mentions of drones and strikes. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t be illuminated into the innermost ongoings. ‘Dirty Wars’ is the latest documentary to take this role on. Jeremy Scahill, journalist for ‘The Nation magazine, and the man who brought the mercenary work of private security firm ‘Blackwater’ to the public’s attention, assumes his next crusade here, by uncovering and delving deep into the innermost workings of the JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command). To put it extremely loosely, and what Scahill heavily implies, is that JSOC is a body has seemingly assumed the mantle of covertly wiping out any remote suspect of anti American sentiment in this constantly proliferating ‘War’. With little to work with, and an ultra low profile, he slowly uncovers much of their dirty deeds (hence the title) until he is stunned to discover that they are proudly beamed across mainstream media as the heroes as soon as Osama Bin Laden is finally ‘nailed’.  

Whilst we are fed reports of the US slowly winning the ‘battle for hearts and minds’ and discussions around ultimate withdrawal, Scahill’s revealing truth is that the US have created their own game of global ‘mole hammers’, as opposed to just within the borders of those countries where war has been declared. Numbers of targets are rapidly identified, expanded and then picked off indiscriminately. It is as though an extermination of any potential bad weeds must be ruthless so as not to affect the aesthetic of a global landscape, as fertilized by US Foreign Policy. Whilst probably not surprising for some, being faced with the hard evidence painstaking unearthed by Scahill is still a shock to the system.

However, as is often a criticism with documentaries, it is incredibly one sided. Its production values also cheapen the overall effect. More often than not it’s like watching a ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ or (not that I’ve seen it, but you get the picture) ‘The Lone Survivor’. While his work is clearly admirable and extremely important, these values also tend to make Scahill himself the focal point of this in the context of the film, i.e a one man heroic crusade to bring down the biggest giant of them all. For guidance, just refer to any Errol Morris piece of work to show that it’s best to let the subject matter dominate rather than the maker. However, while the production values are a bit of a gripe, given what’s at stake here, being a tad one sided is probably fair game. As mentioned already, these are the people who dished out ‘shock and awe’ after all. It’s really stuff we ought to know.

In one of the few categories where I still think the Oscars have credibility , Dirty Wars has been been nominated for Best Documentary. It’s highly unlikely that anything will compete alongside the life changing and mind bending ‘Act Of Killing’, but at the very least ‘Dirty Wars’ deserves to give it a good bash. Disturbingly insightful.

February 6, 2014

Without sounding generally ambivalent or totally heartless towards most celebrity deaths, I can’t say I’ve felt one as sharply as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Less than a week after hearing the news, there’s still a clearly resonant sadness, total surprise and that awful sense of there being so much more to give. Being totally ignorant about his drug problem ensured that the level of shock numbs even more. There’s no rose tinted glasses now that he’s suddenly gone, and no empty sentiments reeled off merely for the sake of it. Every word in tribute has been deservedly gushing. Without any shadow of a doubt, he was one of the very best, and one of my own personal favourite actors of his generation. He emboldened everything he touched, and gave it a sprinkle of speciality. His partnership with Paul Thomas Anderson was particularly special, and has produced some of my favourite and most cherished pieces of cinema, right through from the hopelessly lonely Scotty J in ‘Boogie Nights’, through to the scene stealing ball of fury and scammer Dean in ‘Punch Drunk Love’, right through to the eerily charismatic Lancaster Dodd in ‘The Master’. Indeed, The Master and Capote will probably come to pass as his oft remembered lead role legacy for most, with The Oscar for Capote being a fitting reward for someone who regularly led the screen actors guild a merry dance. Roles such as Scotty J and Allen in Happiness however, will always be the ones who struck a deeper chord. Allen in particular, was the epitome of one of those classically lonely outcasts who are reviled as perverts, ostracised and shunned from society. Whilst murky and wholly repulsive a character, Hoffman still somehow struck a chord as giving that human touch to what was just a desperately unhappy individual. This kind of role was indicative of a unique and signature talent that could make us see more than meets the eye of such desperate souls. No one else could bring that complexity quite like Hoffman.

Roles such as Allen were clearly an early forte, but probably my most fondly remembered Hoffman role of all is where he totally bucked that trend and flipped it on its head. As care nurse Phil Parma in Magnolia, his character was full of kindness and compassion. Nursing Jason Robards on his deathbed, over the course of the film he becomes less professionally removed, and more engaged in helping Robards come to terms with his past and the life he has led.  In a film wrought by a web of lost souls with unravelled lives in LA, he unwittingly becomes the fulcrum of the entire piece. There’s something beautiful and touching about how Parma, as a humble and decent nurse going beyond the call of duty, begins to unwittingly piece all these souls’ lives and connections back together, by kicking off a chain of events that are to rebuild and repair all the chastened relationships that we concurrently see throughout a film that becomes almost operatic. The scene above is almost tearjerking, whereby he memorably makes the last ditch bid at reuniting Robards and his estranged son (Tom Cruise) It is especially touching, and one where he wholly assumes the very much angelic role within the modern day City of Angels. No doubt this is exactly what Anderson had in mind for a remarkable actor, and most likely, person. It is possibly the one I’ll most fondly remember him for.

Tragically, given he was so convincing as the angelic and altruistic Phil Parma, it goes to show how little we knew about just how lost and troubled he was towards his last days. It is the cruellest of ironies that, perhaps he may still be here if there had been a Parma type character in place for him. Unfortunately, this did not come to pass. Even though a stellar career has been cruelly cut short, and there was tragically so much more to give, we can at least cherish the fact that he left behind a stunningly consistent, and almost unparalleled, incredibly rewarding body of work we can always turn to.