A collection of Neil Milton's writing, featuring published reviews and other texts
Smashing Pumpkins - 'Solara' video
Grand Budapest Hotel
In a World
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Miami Beat Alliance - Cr*pcore
Co.Lab 'Exquisite Corpse' Iteration, Fringe Arts Bath - response to Barry Despenza iteration
Saving Mr Banks
The Way Way Back
Miami Beat Alliance - Norfolk Skies
'Brainfood' Club Night
Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Solara’ video analysis, directed by Nick Koenig
The video opens with a shot of futuristic silver-booted feet, beneath a silver skirt, sat upon a satin mattress. We discover in the next shot that the figure is a white-faced ‘high and dry’ Billy Corgan, in black dog collar and jumper, illuminated by cool blue light and looking like Nosferatu, or a deathly war lord. This is confirmed in the following shot of a drone flying in a large birdcage – the fin de siècle image of a trapped woman, recontextualised in this instance as a man on the liminal of a new female Aquarian age battling to ‘tear down the sun’, so as to chaperone in the future and a new androdgyny, evident in his lower attire. He longingly gazes upon a motivational picture depicting a modest suburban home with the legend ‘Dream’ inscribed upon it. Into the room enters three women, perhaps a trinity, in white makeup with torrid lips, dressed in beige velour loungewear, bearing a chain. Somewhat redolent of former band bassist, Darcy Wretzky, as has been suggested, they attach the chain to the fetish collar and listlessly lead him out of the room. This is intercut with an image of a topless muscular man, looking machismo in horror-movie-style Ice Hockey mask and incongruous feminine white fur sleeves, holding a stack of towels.
The focus of the video then returns to the enslaved singer/ war lord, as he is led into a room illuminated by orange and green fluorescent tubes. In the corner of the room is a plastic swivel chair beside a drip feed, redolent of a chemotherapy station for a cancer patient. The next shot reveals that the ‘Jason Voorhees’ figure is stood in a room surrounded by birdbaths spilling dry ice, surrounding a small fountain, redolent of the garden of a large stately home, maybe belonging to the lord, that tracks back to reveal more of the room. Corgan sits at the chair, whilst one of the three women holds her long nails aloft. Stitched onto their attire is the image of a stork, the universal symbol for a new-born child, beneath which are the words tragedy. A close up shot reveals that the drip is raspberry flavoured XXX-Treme ‘Trauma Vape’, simultaneously suggesting childhood pleasures, menstrual cycles, and hardcore sexual fetishes. The solution is sensuously injected intravenously into him. Meanwhile, a butler enters the room with the fountain, along with guitarist James Iha. The butler adjusts his sleeves, as if ready for work, before an extreme close-up on the water in the fountain. As if vicariously experiencing the lord’s trauma psychosomatically, the butler spits blood into the fountain, as the lord exhales vapour from his mouth, experiencing the trauma as a cool diffusion, like sub-zero weather. One of the guardians flicks the drip, seemingly to expedite the drips dispensation. Iha washes his hands in the fountain, perhaps anointing his hands in the war lord’s bloodshed, or his possible demise, as he gazes threateningly upon Corgan, whilst perhaps washing his hands of the lead’s pursuits.
We leave this room to see the prisoner escorted through a yellow room in which new bassist, Jeff Schroeder, dressed in a punk anorak, is sat on a canteen stall, above a lilac rug, before drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. He is dressed in a blue boiler suit and bowling shoes, looking like a convicted serial killer. The pair are playing an artisan ‘Connect-4’ game with black counters, rendering an innocuous family game sinister, and the object of the game redundant, seeing as neither makes any connections. Chamberlin watches Schroeder as he contemplates his next move. The punk connection is reinforced by a close-up of Schroeder’s footwear – Doc Martin’s – a zip-fronted version of the iconic footwear of the movement, with equally redundant eyelets. One of the guardians holds the drone aloft, like a pet bird, suspended from a wire attached to her ‘canary’ yellow nails - the aforementioned birds used in mines to test for noxious environments. A close-up of Schroeder’s jacket shows a crudely stitched patch depicting a version of Michaelangelo’s ‘Renaissance’ hands, with skeletal hands in gloves, throwing off their shackles. Another shot shows that Chamberlin’s boiler suit is emblazoned with a yellow-nailed hand, mirroring the hands of the guardians, surrounded by white feathers, perhaps signifying the freedom that Chamberlin’s dirty work will afford them. At this point, Corgan notices that the end of his chain has been dropped upon the floor, but clearly left intentionally. Like a silent movie star, he slowly comprehends the significance of this and quietly unhooks himself, whilst looking askance.
He shuffles out of the room into a dull blue room where a painted face woman is giving birth. Upon the wall is a picture that is difficult to make out, but seems to depict polite high society. A doctor in face-mask and surgical scrubs tends to the ‘bump’, whilst two stony-faced mimes, in traditional French attire, stand guard with machine guns. They are seemingly protecting the delivery from Corgan’s destructive influence, and the possible ‘tragedy’ the women’s tracksuits portend, such a disaster possibly a trigger for the war. A young black assistant with exaggerated white eyebrows, stands before the doctor, making notes on a clipboard, his facial hair suggesting that this role is his life’s work. The inclusion of a mime-delivery and not a real birth, suggests that this is representative of all women’s births, vis-á-vis the birth of the future. The expectant mother raises her head to reveal clown-faced make up in the style of the mimes. She is clearly of Asian descent. Maybe the symbolic child belongs to Iha and all the youth in Asia. A close-up on the assistant reveals that it is a transgender woman. The phantom child is delivered. A tear-streaked Corgan looks on, as if no stranger to grief. He tries to comprehend the significance of what he has witnessed. One of the mimes looks on, unblinking.
The lord steps from the room and opens a windowed door into purple light. The strobing light is emanating from a dilapidated room in which a group of reclining figures ‘tan’ themselves under ultraviolet light. Redolent of the vanguard in style, their blue lips and safety goggles glow fluorescent under an artificial ‘sun’. The flashing illuminates another motivational picture inscribed with the word ‘opportunity’ and the caption ‘You Never Know Whats On The Other side’ and also depicting the same shack, and maybe he never will. One of the bathers, douses their face with a white liquid, maybe the highly fluorinated water that runs through our water systems and calcifies our pineals – our gland of perception. As Corgan leaves, a toy dancing bunny gyrates upon a plinth, its significance elusive, but with connotations of playfulness, innocence and new life. A catatonic bather gawks into nothingness – his future perhaps empty of anything authentic. The camera returns to Corgan, who escapes through an industrial corridor past what appears to be a dancing janitor, through a space filled with next generation gyrating red plastic toys. He climbs up a staircase, illuminated by red light, conventionally representing danger.
He emerges with bleary nocturnal eyes from a cheap wooden home, similar to the one depicted in the photograph, albeit larger, into blinding daylight. Upon the wall is another image of the stork. The house is situated in a suburban American street. He removes a flyer, with ‘freedom’ written across it, from a car’s window screen that has a sticker with the words ‘safety okay’ printed upon it and a tick of approval. A white car drives past with an executioner rising from the sunroof. He turns threateningly to the lord, as if he is his next job. Another executioner chops a bush with a sword, as if to jokingly suggest that he is not hear to kill him, but just to do the gardening. An old woman watering the bush points to him, initially suggesting that he is the ‘victim’. However, Corgan follows her finger, which leads him down the street, along which he passes an aging overweight sad clown, sat upon an inflatable in his front garden, perhaps depressed from constantly entertaining people - maybe his troubled child - as a girl, most likely his daughter, plays upon a blanket. A close shot reveals that she is wearing a ‘Hannibal – the cannibal - Lecter’ mask, as she is playing with charred and disfigured dolls – innocence once again incongruously juxtaposed with evil, or the monster outside negative influences will make her. Like an executioner, she decapitates one of the figures, perhaps representing one of her tormentors. Further down the street, a man in children’s dog face-paint leads three overgrown boys along the street on reigns. The two younger boys are dressed in innocent baby blue, whilst the middle older boy is wearing ‘corrupted’ red. The overprotective father holds them back, as if protecting them from their fate, when it is he painted as the dog, the children’s ‘pet’, who is really being led by them. He glowers at the war lord, whose clutches they might be falling into. He walks innocuously across a lawn, upon which a Gothically painted pre-pubescent girl hula hoops, innocence contrasted with sub-cultural corruption, whilst a picture-perfect father, or older brother, sun bathes in ‘real’ sunlight, covered in ants, suggesting sticky confection, a potential plaything for the lord, or the magazine perfect false icon of an American suburb. Corgan saunters along past a lawn barbecue, attended by figures looking like glam metal stalwarts ‘Kiss’. They look equally imposing. They are barbecuing a red snapper, perhaps evoking the jazz electronica experimentalist, with whom he may want to collaborate, as well as the most commonly caught fish in America and a symbol of recreational lifestyle. A similarly garbed child plays on the grass obliviously, already converted to the dark side. A young woman holds a glass of milk aloft, as if mourning innocent youth - only missing her cookies - followed by the rest of the party, one of whom is the spitting image of metal washout, Alice Cooper. Another figure, in a yellow hockey mask, is sat before some bins, this one more conventionally tough and not as cleanly idealistic, perhaps unwilling to be superseded just yet.
The lord finally arrives at his picture-perfect destination, seemingly to enter his simple and modest idyll, but, as we all know, idylls are not real. As he enters the premises, haloed with a saintly penumbra, clearly fantastical, he discovers his trinity of jailers knowingly waiting for him, as if trapped in an infinite loop. After all, he’s nothing but a vessel inhabiting his own mental eversion. Clearly his escape was too easy and he has been trapped. It seems that there is no exit for Corgan, or at least not yet, until the women deign it safe to do so (perhaps when his ash will become a new time for the new generation of ancient arrivals, who are already ‘here but [from the] past’.)
What was that, mate?
As lovers of electronic music and the dance scene, we are all avid listeners. The whole scene relies on our capacity to hear, but what if you 'can’t'? Are we truly inclusive, or are we alienating a large proportion of potential clubbers? This issue was highlighted time back in the film ‘It’s All Gone Pete Tong’, in which a DJ loses his hearing. It’s not pure fiction, as there are deaf DJs, like Robbie Wilde from New York, who uses sight and touch to mix. As the Smirnoff advert from a few years back showed, deaf people like to dance and enjoy music as much as anyone else, unsurprisingly.
People rely on the primacy of aural hearing – through your ears – but there are other non-cochlear ways of hearing, such as feeling vibration through your body (and there are vibration packs available to help deaf people do such a thing). After all, aural hearing is itself a form of specialised touch, transforming vibrations into electrical signals. There is no distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration. Sound is just a vibration converted to an electrical signal, which your body can do just as well.
In some part, the community is catered to by Deaf Rave, founded by deaf DJ Troi Lee. In an interview for Resident Advisor, he stated he founded the event as door staff would not allow him and his deaf friends into a club. Such discrimination is unacceptable. The whole scene is based on peace, love and unity through dance. After all, are the gesticulations of ravers such a far remove from the beauty of sign language? It is all gestural communication, a bodily expression of feeling the music.
It’s great that such events exist, but do we want to engender segregation? Shouldn’t clubs be making more of an effort to encourage deaf individuals to attend their events, whether that be by including deaf DJs, utilising light more to better represent mixes, or making vibration packs available? Maybe all clubs and festivals should have an inclusion officer, not just for the deaf, but for all able assisted individuals? Just a thought.
There was a rupture in the fabric of time and space. Reality was beginning to warp. Three alternate realities were starting to merge. Koi carp swam through a car park in some distant suburb, seemingly sucked into a vortex. At the centre of which was a magenta sphere radiating fragmented planes – polygonal shards that flickered and jumped to their own alternate rhythm, as the surrounding fluid became ever more disturbed. An ominous disruption of universal equilibrium, resulting in a thunderous clamour of twisted ambience that resonated at sinister frequencies. This blended space, a near synergy of dimensions, always perpetually on the brink of collapse, quivered and rippled, as you were drawn into its undulating centre that simultaneously beckoned and repelled. This disquieting semblance of unity threatened to destabilise at any moment, and the unifying bonds come unknit, releasing its inner tension in a thunderous clamour of energy that would destroy us all. Mutant dawn; aquatic cataclysm.
To say that Todd Phillip’s ‘Joker’ is a dangerous movie is to give it too much credence, but it is a deeply offensive one. Ultimately, it’s just a silly superhero origin story, but it’s presented in such a ‘realist’ style, and so forcefully, that people might actually take it as a serious movie. It has all the style and surface veneer of a classic 1970s movie, as has been pointed out by numerous reviewers. Visually, it can’t be faulted for its cinematography. It’s the script and characterisation that are lacking. Nobody would go into a film based on a comic book expecting a serious character study, but, by tackling the genre in the style of such a movie, that is what you are falsely enticed to expect. Unfortunately, that is not what you get. The viewer is presented with a mentally ill man, living with his disabled mother, who becomes a deranged serial killer who incites mass violence. This could have been an in-depth psychological exploration of one man’s descent into the maelstrom, that gives the viewer some insight into how a corrupt and insensitive society can push a vulnerable individual over the edge, as those well-known seventies movies did to some extent. Such a narrative requires nuance, sensitivity, compassion and tact, or risk demonising the vulnerable. The very lack of any of the aforementioned does just that – it sets back the mentally ill fifty years or more. What we have here is a series of episodic vignettes – admittedly in the style of a comic book – in which, through a series of gross oversimplifications, the put-upon protagonist slowly loses his grip on reality and descends into graphic violence. Each prior vignette is treated in such a superficial manner that they serve merely as lame justification for the gory set pieces.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is intense and physical, but, in the absence of any human depth, proves to be nothing more than a leering caricature. Lingering, over-stylised shots of his manic posturing does not equate to a meaningful performance, however fully the actor has thrown himself into the part. Instead, when the movie reaches its riotous denouement, rather than a criticism of the society that led to his downfall, we are presented with a film that seems to celebrate and encourage the very ills that incites his violence. Points of comparison are ‘Assassination Nation’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Spring Breakers’. It is this very confusion, simultaneously vilifying the vulnerable and championing them as an anarchic anti-hero, undercutting the capitalist ruling class, that serves to further stigmatise the mentally ill. At the risk of sounding alarmist, younger viewers - older teenagers and those in their early twenties - the very audience that such a film is aimed at, or anyone else with a naïve lack of understanding of mental health, for that matter, could come away from this movie with less empathy for the isolated and marginalised than they went in, thinking the film is cool, when it’s far from that. For that reason, it is reckless and misjudged, but what should we expect from the director of puerile frat movie ‘Old School’ and laddy stag film ‘The Hangover’?
The Chicago based Colorlist, comprised of crossover jazz duo, the coincidentally named Charles Rumback and Charles Gorczynski, both multi-instrumentalists, worked long distance on this their third album proper following 2010’s ‘The Fastest Way to Become the Ocean’, released on Welsh label Serein records, after Gorczynski moved to Oakland, California. Rumback mans percussion, bells and melodica, whilst Gorczynski plays saxophone, numerous woodwind instruments, synthesizers and harmonium. Specializing in improvised song forms, live electronics, and sonic exploration they are known for their powerful live shows, having recently collaborated with Josh Eustis of Telefon Tel Aviv fame.
This reviewer has only heard a couple of tracks from their previous releases, but this doesn’t sound like a big departure, but that’s no bad thing. They have a very jazzy organic freestyle feel, which must stem from their improvisations. Songs evolve naturally over languid rhythms segueing effortlessly into one another.
The opening track ‘Sun song’ has a slightly mournful feel with a melancholy woodwind section and a flighty sax, which is also apparent on ‘Current’, the third track. That track is all tumbling drums and soothing sax with gentle guitar riffing. The second track, ‘Montreal’ is a laid back number with more woodwind swells redolent to this listener of the latter parts of Phillip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, with its images of city skylines and tumbling clouds. ‘Waiting’ opens with an obligatory music box and chiming flutter of brushed drumming, which evokes icicles. Synths are used sparingly and unobtrusively. The title track paints an ever so slightly sinister firmament. ‘Where will we go –– ambles along like some burdensome pilgrimage complete with clanking cowbell. The rhythm alters cleverly at the two thirds point and ends with quiet majesty. ‘Through the fires’ has a winter feel to it again and is slightly more experimental with another flighty sax refrain wringing its way through a gentle cacophony of drums, which grows ever more strangled as the track proceeds. The tracks discordance grates a little after a while, particularly after such a pleasant opening to the album. The album closes with ‘Safe years’. Drums tumble again before it switches to minor keys with a seeming blend of synths and harmonium. The album doesn’t so much culminate as peter out.
Like a less robust - maybe more delicate – and less syncopated Dan Snaith during his Manitoba phase on ‘Start breaking my heart’, before he got a band and went all psychedelic. Perhaps it’s the Canadian connection with one track, Montreal, being named after the Quebec city suggesting the connection. The cover depicts a foggy sun hazed forest canopy, and the tracks seem to evoke a descent into and escape from a busy winter forest floor. No track particularly strikes the listener as standout, although Montreal is perhaps the most successful. After a pleasant start, the album meanders, but never really goes anywhere. The listener can’t help but think the duo are lacking in ambition, or have a very muted colour palette. Perhaps it would work better in the live environment where the full array of the instrumentation is apparent. You would never know they were a country apart.
Tom Hanks stars as the title character in this true life thriller directed by Paul Greengrass (Bourne films) depicting the attack of cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009 - the first American cargo ship to be attacked in 200 years. The film is based upon the book ‘A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea’ by Phillips himself and ghost written by Stephan Talty. Featuring a brief appearance of Catherine Keener and a largely scarce crew, the film is mainly made up of a cast of unknown actors as the pirates (bringing credibility to the film). Shot in a documentary style by Greengrass, a former TV journalist, the African scenes have a realistic feel. After a flaccid opening, the tension gradually mounts until the insurgents board the freighter. It doesn’t really let up from there on out until a brief hiatus, when the captain is detained off ship, before it wrings the emotion out of you for the final section.
As mentioned, the actors playing the crew of the freighter have little to do in this movie other than follow orders and react to the pirates. This is a two man showdown between Hanks and Barkhad Abdi as the pirate captain, Muse, who the aforementioned never got to meet until the attack was filmed on the ship. Abdi is well supported by his cast mates as the fellow pirates, who bring a convincing sense of menace to proceedings, even as things begin to fall apart. Particularly threatening is Faysal Ahmed as the hot headed Najee. Refreshingly, Greengrass depicts the pirates almost sympathetically and the hostage scenario is infused with humanity, even if, ultimately, the pirates stick to their mission and meet a befitting end. The relief as support arrives is palpable and it’s an emotive release after such a long build up. Touted for an Oscar nomination, this segment is superbly acted by Hanks, who is often criticised as being bland. This final section is a touch overlong, and the darker lit scenes don’t always make for easy viewing, nor is the dialogue always clear, but what is lost in clarity is made up for in authenticity; after all this is an experience.
Aside from being a reportage style action thriller, the film offers up little by way of explanation, unlike Greengrass’ previous film, the surprisingly good Green Zone. There is a brief gesture at explaining the pirates’ motives in an early scene, but this is not delved into any great depth. Greed and a lack of perceived choice appear to be the pirates’ only motivation. On a superficial level you could call the movie a criticism of the imbalance in power brought out by globalisation, but, ultimately, it still champions the superpowers. In fact, if I was being cynical, I would call the film an extended advertisement for the US Navy, but I won’t detract from what is a tense and gripping film throughout, which culminates with real emotional resonance; highly recommended viewing.
An all star cast star in visionary director Wes Anderson’s 7th film, recounting the story of how its owner (F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus) came into possession of the eponymous hotel and focussing on his escapades with Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall), a renowned concierge, following the mysterious death of one of the guests, Madame D, as recounted by The Author (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins, and Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes). Gustave framed for the murder, they steal a painting bequeathed to Dmitri, her son (Adrien Brody, The Darjeeling Limited) and are hotly pursued by J. G Jopling (Willem Dafoe, Existenz), an assassin employed by him.
Let me start by saying that you have to be in a certain frame of mind to watch a Wes Anderson film. He’s a polarising force amongst audiences, with his legion of devoted fans countered by his detractors. Although not without their merits, this reviewer must profess to disliking ‘Rushmore’, ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ and ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, but thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, albeit belatedly, and ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’. Without a doubt, Anderson is a distinct presence within cinema, and we need more auteurs, daring to push the boundaries of what mainstream cinema can be.
In addition to all his regular players: Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson and Waris Ahluwalia, he has brought in the talents of Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel and Jude Law, amongst others. All give acceptable performances, particularly Ralph Fiennes and Jeff Goldblum. Tilda Swinton even redeems herself after ‘Zero Theorem’ with an all too brief appearance. The cast alone is enough to draw crowds, although, disappointingly, many have only fleeting cameos. Fiennes is simultaneously charming and despicable. Tony Revolori, as the young Zero, is a suitable foil, although his appearance is completely incongruous to his adult counterpart. That’s a joke, right? (So why did nobody laugh?) None of the cast, with the exception of its lead, are given particularly much to work with. Edward Norton didn’t impress as he usually does, Wilson barely has any screen time. Bill Murray is underused, as is Jason Schwartsman, having admittedly had their turns. Willem Dafoe’s performance was okay, but not as good as his role in ‘Zissou’. I am not one to question Jude Law’s somewhat uneven acting capabilities, but there was nothing to complain about here. This reviewer cannot be objective about Adrien Brody. Saoirse Ronan was sufficient, but was better in ‘Hanna’. Tom Wilkinson was just fine for the part.
Aesthetically, it is perfectly realised and is a glory to behold, complete with stylised model exteriors and fantastic editing. Anderson deploys all his usual cinematic tropes: the high artifice, lavish sets, stilted dialogue, exquisite attention to detail, narratives within narratives, and humorous camera movements, only this time, for me, they weren’t as effective as previously. Admittedly, it’s probably his most realised film, only it doesn’t seem to amount to very much. Unlike ‘Zissou’ where the camera movements through cross -sections of the boat evoked chortles, and the doll’s house sets of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ recall youthful innocence, which felt appropriate to the narrative, although his directorial stamp, proved mere excessive decoration this time around, much like the cakes Zero’s partner bakes. It’s all surface, which undoubtedly was highly intentional, but all it serves to do is distance the viewer, so that you never really connect with the film, aside, perhaps, for Gustave and Zero’s scene just after escaping from prison. It’s probably some form of Brechtian device, but what do I know? The change in aspect ratio, although harking back to earlier cinema, is just plain annoying. I’m a fan of Alexander Desplat’s ‘Birth’ soundtrack, too, but personally found his work in this instance grating.
It is mildly amusing and elicited the odd wry smile from me, namely during the destruction of a ‘worthless’ Egon Schiele picture by Dmitiri, during which I regrettably prided myself on my understanding, as the rest of the audience sat in silence, and the odd chuckle, such as when Gustave retracts his diatribe against immigrants, but little else. I almost willed myself not to laugh at times, so hard was he trying to provoke it from me, particularly with its supposedly humorous outbursts of profanities. I didn’t want to allow myself to join in the fun as it evoked a hoity-toity titter here or a knowing guffaw there from the audience. You could almost feel the majority of the viewers were trying to appreciate the film, as if you, as a viewer, are some way uncultured or lacking intelligence if you don’t get it. Using Gustave as a mouthpiece, Anderson comments in the film that ‘getting it’ is important.
It’s pretentious elitism geared up to prove the superiority of those who understand. It’s also highly conceited. I’m reasonably cine literate, but don’t profess to know all his influences, nor do I care, but I believe I know enough to understand his game. I just don’t much rate it. Personally, I was relieved when it was over. You might just love it. (I’m off to see what I make of ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’.)
Sandra Bullock stars as a medical expert, alongside George Clooney, in this sci-fi thriller. The pair are stranded on a space station during a debris shower after a Russian missile strike on a satellite. The film depicts the aftermath of the catastrophe, as Bullock’s character comes to terms with bereavement. Mexican, Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), writes, co-produces, and directs the action. The two leads are also joined by the voice of Ed Harris as mission control, not that you would notice.
First, I would like to declare that this is not a review of the 3D release of the film. This reviewer still sees the format as little more than a marketing gimmick - besides, it gives me eye strain - so I can’t pass comment on this aspect of the film, which very probably adds a lot to the experience. Indeed, it is immaculately shot, and – I’m no astronaut – but, to me, once again Cuarón creates a very convincing reality; the anti-gravity seems very believable. The camera work is suitably dynamic and the props and costumes, one can only imagine, are authentic. It must be brilliantly edited, too, because you don’t notice a single cut; the whole film feels like one seamless sequence. It’s very much a spectacle. It’s the sort of cinematic experience you would expect to have at French theme park, Futuroscope. Although the score isn’t astounding, the sound design is also quite good, which slowly draws you in, particularly the use of silence.
The acting is sufficient, both leads turning out competent performances. Any other characters are incidental and disposable. Bullock is more convincing as a medical expert than Clooney is as an astronaut, but they both seem a little too like Hollywood actors to be truly believable. For the majority of the movie it’s Sandra Bullock’s film. Unfortunately, she isn’t given that much to work with. As pleasurable as it is, an hour and a half of her gasping and panting doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing. There is, however, some fine physical acting on display from her, and the scene where she emerges from her spacesuit in the airlock to reveal her fine physique, as she curls up in the foetus position, is a beautifully realised image. Bullock’s performance is slightly evocative of Sigourney Weaver’s turn in the Alien films and she depicts an equally strong, but vulnerable woman.
Clooney’s machismo is overbearing, and you’re glad when he’s finally dispatched; he’s all vapid charm and charisma. His presence when he reappears later in the narrative is invasive, disrupting Bullock’s character’s feminine solitude and you’re glad when he disappears. If the film is saying anything it seems to be that this kind of bravado, although necessary to drive the story forward, isn’t really welcome in the new world order.
Although, the final shot is a very strong image of female power, ultimately, the film as a whole isn’t very affecting, unlike Captain Phillips, for example. There is just not enough of a story arc to connect with. Bullock’s back story feels just like that; scripted. It is quite a tense thriller, but not a tense as the film would like you to believe it is. It’s even tedious in places. Maybe I missed something in the reading, but there’s just not that much going on and, in the end, it doesn’t amount to very much. It’s up there, but it’s definitely not the film of the year.
In a World written, directed by, and starring Lake Bell (No Strings Attached) tells the story of Carol, a voice coach struggling to succeed in the world of film voice-overs and win the approval of her chauvinistic father (Fred Melamed, A Serious Man). Following the death of voice-over legend Don LaFontaine, her father, up and coming star Gustav (Ken Marino , Role Models), and Carol vie for the job of voicing an up-coming film quadrilogy. Meanwhile, subplots involving her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins, Wanderlust) and her partner (Rob Corddry, What Happens in Vegas), Carol and Gustav, and her work colleague Louis (comedian Demetri Martin) play out.
With an original premise and a script, which won an award at Sundance, I was hoping to be unexpectedly surprised by this film. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see why the writing garnered an award. Lake is better known for her television work and it plays just like that. It’ll certainly win no awards for its cinematography; not something you want on the large screen. She plays the awkward card for the large part of the movie, which raises a few minor chuckles, but isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny. It is more successful in the more dramatic scenes.
Narrative wise it really plods in places and it’s all a tad predictable. All the cast are competent, but not particularly gripping. The unfolding relationship between Carol and Louis is endearing. It is only in the final few minutes that it delivers its hard-nosed message, and it takes a real Hollywood star to do this (Geena Davis as Katherine Huling, Stuart Little Films). The film also features other cameos from Cameron Diaz in the film in the film (which looks like a female Mad Max with production in no way convincing as a blockbuster in 2013) and Eva Longoria (as herself). The ending is several reality checks, particularly as, following Huling’s message, the sentiment of her father’s ultimate gesture is undermined by the fact that not only was he told to do it, but by someone younger than his own daughter. Ultimately he can only be pitied. It doesn’t so much pack a punch as gently slap you around the face, or is that sexist?
Final verdict: The film something of a tribute made up of a cast mostly known for their television work, it’s not going to pull a big crowd (this reviewer was a lone viewer). To paraphrase the script, it’s not the best film out there, but it needed to be made. Bell should be commended for her effort to further empower women.
Tells the story of the two weeks P.L. Travers, the writer of Mary Poppins, spent in Los Angeles with Walt Disney as he attempted to convince her to sell the rights of the story to him. Starring the ever reliable Tom Hanks as the entertainment mogul and Emma Thompson as the protective author of the children’s classic, with support from Colin Farrell as her father, Jason Schwartzman as Richard Sherman, one of the songwriting brothers, and Paul Giamatti as her chauffer; the film is directed by John Lee Hancock (writer and director of Oscar nominated The Blind Side).
Firstly, this reviewer knew little of Mrs Travers (always Mrs Travers, not Mrs), upon entering the film, and little about Walt Disney, other than his creations, so I can’t pass comment on how accurate a portrayal this movie is. However, it makes for an entertaining watch. Each scene that Hanks and Thompson share crackles with energy, the frisson between them is fantastic. The juxtaposition of this very English woman and an all American man is glaring. The script is sharp and witty and their dialogue sparkles. Travers is depicted as justified, but at times irrational, whilst Disney is charismatic and charming. The flashbacks that explain Mrs Travers’ behaviour are well shot and link well, but are a little flat and tend to slow the tale down somewhat. Colin Farrell does an admiral job of bringing life to Travers’ father, but it takes a while for these scenes to really engage. It is almost with relief that the film cuts back to the main narrative for more sparring between its two leads. The other characters are competently played but somewhat incidental.
We all know the inevitable denouement of the story, it’s just a question of how Walt will win Travers over. It’s all somewhat formulaic how this occurs, but makes for some wonderful moments. Namely, the sight joke about supercalafragalisticexpialadoshus, seen in the trailer, but also a joke about Dick Van Dyke (Upon seeing his performance again you marvel all over again at how bad his Cockney accent was), also when Mrs Travers first lets her guard down, to name three. Once again, it’s a case of the trailer taking some of the edge off the surprise, but it’s not all laughs, as it would make you believe, and ultimately makes for an affecting story. Particularly tender is the relationship between Travers and her chauffer as he challenges her assumptions. The intertextuality is well woven into the script and it makes you want to re-watch Poppins to see what kind of dialogue is occurring between the two movies.
Some of the same concerns that Travers had about her adaptation of Mary Poppins could be levelled as criticisms of this movie. Travers was concerned that Disney would take the edge off the story. Upon researching the back story of P.L. Travers, it seems that the same thing might have occurred in this instance. For example, there is no hint of her bisexuality, perhaps irrelevant in this context, nor how enraged Travers really was at her treatment by Disney. It leaves you unsure of how many other liberties have been taken with the truth.
The film’s coda appears to be about how creativity can re-imagine history to make peace. Maybe this is what has occurred with Saving Mr Banks between Travers and Disney, also. Ultimately, it’s a film about letting go, and in conveying that it is successful. On the flipside, by cashing in on the story of the story also, it seems that Disney got the last laugh. However you look at it, it makes for a most satisfying viewing experience.
Comedian Ben Stiller (Night at the Museum) stars in his directorial debut, loosely based on James Thurber’s classic short story of the same name, concerning the eponymous Walter Mitty, a hen-pecked daydreamer who escapes into elaborate fantasies. Stiller takes this idea as his start point and builds his own narrative upon it. In the movie, Walter works in the ironically titled negative assets department of Life magazine dealing with film stock. As he goes about his daily routine he daydreams of scenarios in which he can impress his attractive work colleague, Cherly Melhoff, played by Kristen Wiig (Despicable Me). His world is shaken up, when the magazine comes under new management and is to be restructured as an online publication and threatens to cut jobs. He becomes a negative asset himself when he loses the negative of what is to be the final cover image and his job is laid on the line. Mitty then sets off on a global journey to track down the elusive picture.
The more technically adventurous aspects, which make up the carefully edited trailer, only comprise the first third of the movie. These are the scenes depicting his daydreams. Of the whole movie, these are the least successful aspects. They are silly in nature, as would be expected in Stiller’s previous output, such as Zoolander, like the fight over a Stretch Armstrong figurine, but seem out of place in this, what is at times a very earnest film. Particularly, bad is the Curious Case of Benjamin Button pastiche. The new manager, played by Adam Scott (Friends with Kids) is too much of a caricature, also, to take seriously. The film improves a modicum in the second third when Mitty begins his pursuit of the elusive photographer, although it is still undermined by silliness. Mitty travels to Scandinavia, where Stiller takes the opportunity to capture some of the idyllic scenery. Unfortunately, there is a ludicrous scene where he encounters a drunken helicopter pilot. What is meant to be a rousing life affirming scene scored to a David Bowie song, creates a questionable message. Is climbing into a helicopter with an inebriated pilot really an act of bravery and dedication, or one of stupidity? Equally ludicrous is the implausible trade off of the aforementioned toy for a long board, seemingly to justify a scene of Mitty skating down a mountain; his skater back story in itself highly unlikely given his current lifestyle.
Yet, despite these flaws, and if you stayed long enough to catch the final third, the movie is surprisingly affecting. This is mainly during the scenes between Mitty and Sean O’Connell, the photographer, played with gravitas by Sean Penn (Milk) who espouses words of wisdom. The message seems to be that sometimes you just have to live the moment and not seek to encapsulate it, and sometimes you can go to the ends of the earth to capture the essence of life when it’s right there at home staring you in the face all along. Of course this is the big reveal of the movie, as Mitty discovers what the missing photograph depicts, once his mother saves the day (a brief appearance by Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment). Ultimately, Mitty no longer needs to escape into fantasy once he realises that his everyday life is impressive enough and Melhoff accepts him for who he is. It makes for a poignant ending as long as you ignore the coda that life is to be lived just to make your online profile more interesting.
The film has come under criticism for excessive use of product placement. Admittedly, brands are at the forefront in this movie, such as eHarmony and Life magazine, but it could be considered as grounding the film in a realistic context. There are a lot of reasons for finding fault with this film. The plot does not hang well together and, as mentioned, at times the narrative devices driving the story are tenuous. It makes for a very uneven viewing experience; it often misses the emotional beat, but when it hits the mark it works surprisingly well. It’s certainly an ambitious film. It would be very easy to be unkind to this movie, but those who give it a chance will be rewarded; Stiller is genuine. Younger viewers clapped.
The Way Way Back is a coming of age story about 14 year old Duncan, played by Liam James (2012, Aliens Vs Predator Requiem), on a summer vacation with his mother, Pam, (Toni Colette, Little Miss Sunshine) and Trent, her bullying boyfriend (Steve Carell, Anchor Man) at his beach house. Out one day on a borrowed bike he discovers Water Wizz, a nearby water park, and is befriended by Owen the irresponsible manager of the park, played by Sam Rockwell (Moon). It is here that he finds his sense of humour; boosts his self esteem and finds a love interest, in Susanna the neighbour’s daughter (AnnaSophia Robb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake).
Written and first time directed by actors Nat Faxon (Zookeeper) and Jim Rash (Minority Report), writers of 2011’s The Descendants (starring George Clooney), who both also feature in the movie. The film opens slowly and the tempo reflects Duncan’s sullen mood, understandable given the, erm, despicable treatment he receives from Trent. All is quite awkward and stilted as the embarrassing adults are introduced. The film doesn’t really start to hit the mark until the wisecracking manager is introduced. Rockwell dominates every scene until he becomes annoying. It’s testament to his acting capabilities that he shows his character sobering up and maturing just in the nick of time. It tackles similar ground to 2009’s 'Adventureland', starring Jesse Eisenberg, albeit lighter and less cerebral in tone. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious scenes, particularly the confrontation scene between Duncan and Trent over his devious shenanigans, which is perhaps a little incongruous with the rest of the film. The film sags at midpoint, but it is in its final third that it saves itself. The blossoming romance between the two young characters is tender and real and Duncan proves himself at the park. Particularly rewarding is the interplay between Maya Rudolph (Away we go) and Rockwell, and Toni Colette and Liam James during this section, who each gives the film an air of credibility. It’s also well supported by Allison Janney (Juno) as Susanna’s overbearing mother. Carell’s performance is understated and nuanced and it is a credit to his performance that despite all his awfulness you can almost understand where he’s coming from.
Overall, it’s all a tad predictable and formulaic with the biggest laughs given away in the trailer, ruining any spontaneity the film has. Some scenes should work, but don’t quite, such as the breakdancing scene. The incidental characters are amusing, but add little to the plot. The Trent aspect of the plot could have been a little more developed. Ultimately it’s a feel good movie that you will leave the cinema smiling after, but it’s not all positive, as they don’t drive home alone and Pam concedes her own weakness before imparting an important message. One of the better films this reviewer has seen recently, but it’s not as successful as Eisenberg’s 2009 fare.
Auteur Terry Gilliam poses existential questions in this science fiction companion piece to ‘Brazil’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’. Qohen Leth, played by Cristoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds) is a reclusive computer genius that works for the management. His job is to solve the Zero Theorem of the title, a complex mathematical formula, which proves that existence is meaningless. Having accidentally hung up on a call from a higher power, he awaits a ring back from above to tell him his reason for living. Meanwhile, he claims insanity in attempt to get out of work, and is visited by Bainsley, a seductive woman played by Melanie Thierry (The Princes of Montpensier), and Bob, the teenage son of management, played by Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom).
Where does a reviewer start with a Terry Gilliam film? There was a time when audiences met the arrival of a new Gilliam with much anticipation, after - arguably flawed - classics like ‘Brazil’, ‘The Fisher King’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’, even the box office flop ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ has stood the test of time well, but not since ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ has he made a good film. ‘The Brothers Grimm’ was mediocre and this reviewer never even bothered with ‘Tideland’, but, if reviews are anything to go by, it’s a good thing I didn’t. I gave him another chance with ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’, mainly because it featured Tom Waits, but, from what I recall, that film was a mess. At least in that instance he could be excused, as it was beset with the untimely demise of its lead Heath Ledger. I was hoping Gilliam would have redeemed himself with his latest. Unfortunately, he doesn’t.
It starts promisingly with stylish titles over a shot of a black hole. We are then presented with the shaven headed protagonist, nude at his computer console, echoing Bruce Willis in ‘Twelve Monkeys’. There is little discernible dialogue for the large part of the first segment. Outside the confines of Qohen’s disused church of a home, Gilliam’s world is presented as a garishly wacky vision of the future, somewhere between the graffiti strewn streets of ‘Twelve Monkeys’ and Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’. Qohen works at a mysterious console which is powered by cycling. His supervisor, Joby, is played by David Thewlis (Harry Potter) who is forever onto him about meeting his targets. He tries desperately to gain a meeting with Management, played by Matt Damon (Elysium), so he can gain sick leave. At one point he enters a large chamber, evocative of ‘Brazil’, another he meets a medical committee, redolent of the psychiatrists in ‘Twelve Monkeys’. Throughout, the camera distorts with wide angles and Dutch shots to convey his mental instability, in the vein of ‘Fear and Loathing’, but where that film was effective at conveying the drug induced state, this time proves too disorientating.
He finds himself at a party where he is promised that he will meet Management. Proceedings unfold haphazardly, leading him to the alluring Bainsley, who for the most part proves to be little more than a shallow sex object. He happens upon Management, where an all too brief interaction occurs, beyond that I’m not too sure what happens. Proceedings aren’t confusing in an unconventional plotted ‘Memento’ kind of way, but rather an unstructured mess. Admittedly, the sets are well dressed and you’re interested enough by this alone to keep watching, but mainly to see if the film will improve. People come and go with little reason and their dialogue is nonsensical. In many parts I thought there was something wrong with the cinema speakers as the words were barely audible. I swear at one point a character said ‘is that joke over now?’ after belabouring one line for the first third of the movie.
The acting ranges consistently from mediocre to downright bad, with the exception of Matt Damon’s all too brief appearances. Particularly bad is Tilda Swinton as Dr. Shrink-Rom. Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, she raps. Lucas Hedges is not strong enough an actor at his age to carry his scenes. If I was being generous I would say that he made an admirable attempt at mimicking Brad Pitt’s delivery in ‘Twelve Monkeys’, which is a kind way of saying he was unsuccessful.
What there is of a plot is minimal. Qohen breaks his computer, Bob turns up and fixes it (or was it Joby?) they order pizza a couple of times, a strange couple in cowboy hats come and go, he engages in a virtual reality fantasy on a desert island with Bainsley, they split up, he realises the call was never coming and jumps into the mainframe, only to find himself alone on the island frolicking to a cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. The whole thing feels self indulgent, even gratuitous; it’s minimal nudity seemingly in place only to titillate teenage boys. The computer graphics look cheap and dated, too. What’s more of a wonder than how fantastically bad it was is how I managed to sit through the whole film.
Gilliam should be commended for the singularity of his vision, but requires a disciplined team in future to keep his eccentricities from running wild.
Steven Soderbergh presents ‘Visitors’ the latest collaboration between former monk and influential filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (Qatsi Trilogy) and composer Philip Glass (The Hours), alongside director and Fischerspooner DJ, Jon Kane (editor, Naqoyqatsi). Filmed in 4K ultra high definition black and white, it develops some of the imagery from the earlier Qatsi trilogy in a new meditative sequence of 74 images.
Taking the image of a gorilla as a start point, the opening of the film juxtaposes images of the surface of the moon with the Unisphere in Corona Park, New York, erected to celebrate the 1964 World’s Fair. This is followed by the title of the movie etched in stone. What follows is a sequence of moving portraits and landscape imagery with abstractions of hands performing everyday tasks and a crash test dummy. Progressing from the lingering shots of bystanders from Koyaanisqatsi, the camera gazes upon mid shots of individuals within a void and almost imperceptibly zooms in on them. The faces appear to subtly morph with the play of the light, as the camera grows ever closer. This film is all about the human gaze. It explores the act of looking itself. The final shot clarifies this. It is about allowing ourselves to see ourselves as other, by looking at the familiar until it becomes unfamiliar. The disembodied faces almost look back at you and you wonder what the stimulus is that is causing their expressions to change. It is evocative of video artist Bill Viola’s later work, where individuals respond to something unknown.
This is juxtaposed with images of an imposing building, a swamp and a disused fun fair. Unlike the Qatsi films, there is less of an obvious agenda. The images are hung together, to use an art metaphor, to evoke a feeling. However, the images are obviously suggestive and we are gently guided into the sequence. The gorilla is a link to our primordial past, as is the swamp, although Reggio himself describes this as Pre-Primordial. The moon symbolises isolation and desolation, viewing ourselves from afar, and the Unisphere is a symbol of the future and where we are heading. The fairground might be a comment on the world we live in and the funhouse that John Barth said we are lost in. An audience reacts to what appears to be a sporting event. The hands are an extrapolation of the communicative gestures in Naqoyqatsi. It confronts us with new everyday technological tasks, such as using a smart phone, a computer mouse and a game controller, as well as playing a piano, devoid of any context and presents them to us in extreme close up. Disembodied, they become alien and take on a life of their own with thumbs become warring creatures. It is all about seeing with fresh eyes. The film is mesmerising from beginning to end and you cannot takes your eyes from the sumptuous images. It takes patience, but not to the degree of a Matthew Barney production, and no frame outstays its welcome. This is not as sweeping as the Qatsi films, but is a much more intimate piece, in some ways perhaps slighter.
I’m not one to comment on the music, but is unobtrusive and serves as a bridge between the audience and the image. It holds the piece together in perfect symbiosis with the content. It has less of Glass’ usual motifs and is perhaps the better for it, conjuring a sober mood.
The extras are sufficient: containing some lucid interviews with the key players and just reveals the complexity in what is a seemingly straightforward film. With what they were trying to achieve I would say that they were highly successful. I only wish I’d seen it with an audience.
Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) stars alongside Morgan Freeman (Transcendence) in the latest release from French director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element). The premise being that a new drug, which allows individuals to use more of their brain capacity, has been invented and is implanted in the abdomen of unwilling victims in order to smuggle it. Johansson is one of those people tricked into doing so. Her packet leaks, following a beating, causing to her evolve. She escapes from her captors and goes on the rampage. What will happen when she reaches 100% brain capacity?
Besson has returned to lighter affairs with ‘Lucy’, following 2011’s biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘The Lady’. This reviewer never caught last years ‘The Family’, but enjoyed ‘Leon’ and admired the visual inventiveness of the ‘The Fifth Element’. Requiring a lot of suspension of disbelief, the film will win no awards for subtlety. Bold and brash, it is drawn with broad strokes. No time is wasted with set up and the film moves along at an exhilarating pace. Similar in vein to both ‘Trancendence’, and ‘Her’, albeit more successful than the former and less successful than the latter. It takes its visual cues from Godfrey Reggio, John Woo, the Wachowski Brothers, a less sober Kubrick, and even Terrence Malick. In other words, it’s highly derivative, and there is little here that you haven’t seen before, but it has some nice touches, such as the intercutting of wildlife footage into the narrative.
The acting is very tongue in cheek and the line between intentional and unintentional laughter is never entirely clear. The film is very much a vehicle for Johansson, to elevate her to another level of superstardom. Her acting can’t be criticised, as she carries the film well, and she is convincingly agile, but sometimes you are left wondering what all the fuss is about. Morgan Freeman plays the same role we have seen him play in many a film of late, but adds sufficient gravitas to the technical jargon, however superficial it is. (It would seem that greying men in white lab coats and glasses equates to scientists.) The remainder of the cast is made up with stereotypical Yakuza types (in this instance the Korean mafia), casting which borders on the xenophobic. However, it is such a conventional cinematic trope and is treated with such frivolity that it never really causes much offense. You could easily not notice the amorality of Johansson’s character either. The plot often does not always make complete sense, but it’s less of a mess than ‘Transcendence’. There is a huge hole in the narrative between Lucy boarding a plane, enduring some kind of metamorphosis, or is that hallucination, and being captured. Other than the general preposterousness of the whole concept, most of the unintentional laughter comes from the imagery, which is not always entirely successful, such as Johansson floating on a chain, men floating on the ceiling, and the final chair scenes. It’s all pretty silly stuff, but it is clear that Besson is having a ball here.
Its final message is less profound than it thinks it is, and appears to be inspiring youngsters to appreciate their parents (Lucy’s lengthy telephone call to her mother), lead a healthy lifestyle (‘take this medication, work out and eat organic food’), stay off the drugs, man (a drug addled victim is swiftly executed) and have children (‘I don’t care about the scar [on her abdomen]), so that they can invent super computers and reshape the world in the style of an earlier epoch. Don’t expect too much from it and you’ll have a lot of fun. The last time I was similarly amused was one of the ‘Residential Evil’ films with Milla Jovovich (who was similarly idolised by Besson in ‘The Fifth Element’). Who knows? It might even empower you. It all depends on how much you admire Ms Johansson.
On first listen of Miami Beat Alliance’s debut EP, ‘Norfolk Skies’, you cannot help but think that it’s all somewhat familiar. Its minimal combination of frenetic hardcore breakbeats and simple melodies, very much in the style championed by ‘Rephlex’ and ‘Warp’, is derivative in many ways. With obvious influences from the likes of ‘Bogdan Raczynski’, ‘Aphex Twin’ and ‘Two Lone Swordsmen’ and a pastoral ness redolent of ‘The Boards of Canada’, one could construe that MBA are merely a poor imitation of their idols. Yet there is an assuredness to ‘Norfolk Skies’ that suggests that ‘Looky and Orn’, the helmsmen behind MBA, know otherwise. It has a sense of character and emotiveness – an essence of crystalline beauty - beyond the immediacy of its catchy melodies that sucks you in. With each listen its familiarity becomes reassuringly comforting and, much like Norwich, serves as an elaborate trap that is difficult to escape from.
It is not long before hidden sounds begin to appear; minute chatterings, ticks and whirs drifting to the fore and revealing a depth not initially noticeable. Each one exhibiting an almost inexplicable complexity and finery (that belies any lack of sensitivity that the aggressive breakbeats may conceal); a rawness of sound, seemingly untampered, with the intimacy of live instrumentation, juxtaposed against the highly processed digital sheen. And yet, such intricacy aside, there is also an illusion of infinite space to ‘Norfolk Skies’; an unclutteredness to the tracks and a sense that there is not much occurring. It is this balance which allows the EP to work its enchantment. As each note is allowed to reverberate, the music resonating through you in visceral waves, something happens between the gaps – the music begins to work its spell. The imagination runs wild and vast vistas begin to unfold, conjuring mental landscapes not just of Norfolk, as its title suggests, but images of much wider scope. Simultaneously rendering immense grey skies over the North Sea and purple dawns over Cathedrals.
The emphasis of such imagery seems to be in natural balance and there is an attempted harmony throughout. The sounds appearing to represent the incongruities of nature as its many opposing forces clash and clang and scrape and whir, shifting and changing, whilst occasionally attaining brief moments of equilibrium. Yet, rather than simply suggest the beauty in balance, MBA, much like the Icelandic soundscapes of both ‘Björk’ and ‘Sigur Ros’, also reveal the beauty in disequilibria. This theme mirrors MBA’s own sound - a synthesis of both black and white musical influences, particularly evident on ‘Leezar’, in which the picturesque gentleness of folk music is fused with the distilled essence of R&B (swing), Jungle (energy and grind) and Dub (dirtiness).
The EP opens gently with ‘Dirty’, its organ solo evocative of Norwich’s church littered skyline. This is accompanied by a slowed down Hip-Hop beat that soon accelerates - with the introduction of a light harpsichord melody - into a full-on hardcore breakbeat. The beat, interspersed with the thud of a kick drum, shifts and changes gear throughout, until it eventually falls silent; leaving the harpsichord to play its idiosyncratic ditty alongside the barely audible organ accompaniment. The brief return of the breakbeat signalling the end of what is little more than a short introduction.
A slower but similar harpsichord motif – like a chiming clock of icicles - returns for ‘Leezar’ as a time stretched vocal hypnotically tells you to ‘feel your soul drifting along with the music’. The voice soothingly gurgles away like a small child, whilst a lonely flute softly floats over a fractured but heavy beat that organically evolves into a booty grinding dub swing. Just as you are lulled into a near comatose state, the deepest most sexy jungle bassline slides in like caramel, to warm your chilled soul. Moments later and, the ticking beat stuck in a groove, the bassline drifts away, leaving you desperately craving more. Thankfully it returns, seemingly rattling the speakers, before leaving seconds later; a marching band of squelches and ticks remaining.
A laughing baby signals the beginning of the more up tempo ‘Einen Zomernacht’, a lighter and more humorous interlude comprising a vibrating circus melody. Manic hardcore breaks and clashing symbols, interspersed with imploding sounds and hidden beats, rattle across the fore as a jazzy organ solo and a discordant accordion melody evoke France and sad clowns.
This is followed by the quirky ‘Water Rushes In’, the least emotive, and possibly the weakest full track on the EP, its wonky funk very much in the tense minimal style of ‘Two Lone Swordsmen’. A clipped techno hi-hat duels with a stuttering jungle drum and curves of bass, whilst a circus tune weaves in and out as a flute melody (yes another one) plays quietly in the background. Occasionally a distant voice materialises out of a rush of white noise, like an aeroplane landing (or water rushing in even) as the familiar jungle time signature arises regimentally from the tangle of beats. Then, as if worn out by the struggle for coherence, the beats sputter out.
‘Aayala’ attempts to join the less introspective sound of the previous two tracks with the Wintry mood established at the beginning of the EP. Tiny beats skitter and scrape like cracking ice, as an iceberg drum thuds between them. All the while a harp-like melody plays regally, before the whole thing disintegrates barely a minute into the tune. In an instant, the harp metamorphoses into a child’s music box, which skips excitedly over an energised breakbeat, only to return to the bitterly cold air from whence it came. The rhythm stops and starts throughout as the incongruous states wrestle, in an attempt at fusion, never quite finding a comfortable equilibrium.
A strong workmanlike piano melody follows in the shape of ‘wwwww’, that grows in complexity, as it partners with a flurry of bleeps, before running away like lovers barely a minute later.
The previous excitement is followed with the penultimate track, the more reflective ‘Flutes at Dawn’, as it slowly winds down – evoking the mood of dusk more than dawn – through another amalgamation of heavy beats and resonant flute melodies.
The album closes on ‘Mouse-Killa’ the most evocative track of them all. It's bloated hollowness suggesting tense, empty spaces; capturing the immensity of the sky or a vast ocean. Lone beats struggle to assert themselves, drifting in and out of aural focus, like a buoy on the waves, or a lonely figure walking across fields, before the peaceful serenity is suddenly interrupted. Great clashes of sound erupt from the speakers, the metallic sound evoking massive lightning storms, like clashing girders in the sky, or tumultuous waves splintering as they smash against bruised rocks; the sound infinitely complex in its density as it perpetually implodes and reforms.
As the echoing sounds slowly dwindle, you are left aching for more.
8/10 - an astonishing debut.
Watch out for the high-octane secret track (scares me every time) for a brief taster of MBA’s less refined, ‘forking hardcore’, live sound.
Lap(top)Dancing to Cr*p(core)
Produced for the recent ‘Brain Food’ night at the Norwich Arts Centre, ‘Crapcore’ features the highlights from Looky and Orn’s latest set.
Opening with their newly appropriated intro, which comically samples yours truly’s disastrous radio slot on UEA’s Liverwire AM, its very crappiness seeming to epitomise the MBA agenda (ever present in their lo-fi cover art, website and unpolished sounds).
Then the hardcore kicks off. Delivering 20 minutes of the savage breakbeats promised on the secret track at the end of ‘Norfolk Skies’, ‘Cr*pcore’ is ultimately more of the same, albeit less reflective and more dancefloor orientated than the previous outing - which is no bad thing. For a start it’s a much better recording and, so I’m told by L + O, more representative of the MBA sound than their debut.
Continuing with their hardcore/ melodic incongruities, track 1, jumps straight to it with a hollow breakbeat overlaid over a piano solo. Clanging and grinding throughout, as it drops those familiar MBA sounds, RnB hi-hats, metallic discord and those beautiful melodies, whilst throwing a ragga sample into the mix, adding a new dimension to their sound, rather than being a mindless sound-bite in the vein of Fatboy Slim.
Track 2 shifts tone a little, somehow managing to make the melancholic upbeat, stuttering ‘kick it’ as it’s tempo accelerates into DnB territory, before winding down into track 3. Serving as a brief respite from the breaks, the third track is a topsy-turvy accordion/hi-hat cut and paste workout, which rasps and whines as it struggles to stay in key throughout its brief length, finally fizzling out as it eventually manages a proper note.
The EP closes with the midnight beats of Track 4, an icy melody tinkling through the static of its digital fog, as unintelligible voices murmur in the distance. Evocative of a night-time stroll under hazy streetlamps, ears ringing after a night at a club, not only is it deeply reflective, but seriously kickin’ at the drop of a break.
Less structured than their previous outing, ‘Cr*pcore’ is more of a cobbled together bundle of tracks than EP proper, but manages to be equally memorable and as annoyingly addictive as ‘Norfolk Skies’. Keep the cr*p coming.
4/5 – Dishes up another rural beating.
‘Brain Food’ at the Norwich Arts Centre (27/9/02[?]).
Friday saw ‘Barracuda 500’ and ‘Substatic’ return with another ‘Brain Food’ event showcasing Norfolk’s Leftfield Intelligentsia. Representing the local talent on the night were such knob tweakers as ‘The Experimentalists’, Souls Held In Time, ‘SWV/Herbivore’ and ‘Miami Beat Alliance’. The uniting factor amongst them all being a self-effacing emphasis on their lo-fi production (MBA’s EP – ‘Cr*pcore’, Souls Held In Time a mnemonic [acronym] for SH*T, and Herbivore’s slogan – F*ck Sh*t Up - hey, I'm just reporting it). Lending support on the night was veteran ‘Rephlex’ DJ, Mike Dred.
Kicking off the night on the dex, event organiser, DJ Dave Breaks, warmed things up before ‘S.H.*.T’ and ‘Herbivore’ took centre stage. Segueing through their homegrown selection of down tempo techno and acid breakbeats, it was more than enough to get the gathering crowd worked up. Establishing a suitably homely atmosphere, they made way for Norfolk’s answer to ‘The Bays’, improv. collective, ‘The Experimentalists’ - Davebreaks returning amongst a whole host of other musicians bombarding the stage (many of whom having never met before the night). A cacophony of sounds filled the room, as DJ, drummer, guitarist, didgeridoo player, tablas and effects units all sounded off at once. Gradually the seeming mess began to cohere as the players found their groove, sounds uniting into a thunderous funk, rumbling and scratching in true jazz spirit. A thoroughly engaging performance captivating the crowd, as they shuffled to the building rhythms, before the whole thing exploded into discord at the climax.
A suitably large crowd forming, Dave Breaks remained on turntables as ‘Miami Beat Alliance’ set up - the announcer trying unsuccessfully to establish the next act’s name. Finally Looky and Orn sauntered onto stage left, taking up their places at their laptops. Greeting the crowd with a high pitch hello, there was little need for introduction as their own hilarious intro squealed from the speakers. Taking my disastrous radio interview from earlier in the year and mangling it through their laptops, there was no doubting their identity as they announced themselves in their own inimitable style. MBA were indeed in the place-i.
Hammering through a set of frenetic breakbeats, which threatened to collapse at any moment, the pace was relentless as they near destroyed the speakers. Pumping out ragga samples, dancehall, HipHop and R&B over their piano fuelled sounds the intensity was almost too much (Luke: ‘we just see what we can get away with. We push the limits - see how hard we can make it before people stop listening.’). Fortunately respite came from some beautiful down tempo melodies in the vein of their earlier ‘Norfolk Skies’ material, only to break out again into a series of hardcore pop R&B reworkings shortly after. As the pace continued to accelerate, the crowd tried their best to keep up as onstage Luke flailed about in a whirlwind of Rizla papers whilst the silhouette of Owen’s hair bobbed in the background (‘I haven’t brushed it for about five years’).
Arguably less proficient than their previous gigs - ditching the delicacy and diversity of old - it was still an awesome set, making up for the loss of refinement with intensity and humour. It certainly established MBA as an act here to stay, anyhow.
Finally, grandpa ‘Rephlex’, DJ Mike Dred, took to the stage for the remainder of the night, retaining the intensity of the evening as he weaved a texture of techno, breakbeat, garage and ragga into dancefloor maelstrom. Ending abruptly with pal ‘Aphex Twin’s’, ‘Come [to] Daddy’, Dred’s set came to a close. Prematurely over, it still beat the hell out of the average Norwich club night. Now they just need to sort out the club opening times.
All in all, a successful showcase for Norfolk’s close-knit community of beatfreaks, who generated a truly exciting atmosphere, raw and refreshingly new, with the promise of future success. In the words of Mike Dred, ‘Good luck to them’.
4/5 – ‘New, new, new, sh*t’.