Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road (2015)

By the time you read this you'll probably have seen Mad Max Fury Road, George Miller's astounding return to the franchise he gave creative life to in 1979. And if you haven't… for once believe the hype.To echo the plaudits, MMFR is a huge, tattooed and scarified middle finger to just about every major studio blockbuster that claimed to be an 'action' movie in the last 30 years. It really is that good.

Releasing the movie a mere couple of weeks after the confused mess that is two and a half hours of Joss Whedon's studio exec-hamstrung (if you believe his recent whining in interviews) Avengers: Age of Ultron is a stroke of genius. After what seems like an eon of utterly CGI-drenched stuff based on (adolescent) comics and impossible physics where even 'normal' humans move with lightning speed and can survive any number of crushing collisions with walls that cave in like memory foam, here comes Miller reminding us that explosion-filled, loud, visceral thrills CAN make not only narrative sense, but can still have us gnawing at our cuticles like tiny children in front of an episode of Doctor Who as well. I swear that throughout the film, not ONCE did my mouth close. I think I may have even grasped the man next to me's hand at one point. MMFR is filled with a master's innate knowledge of what makes a simple chase sequence not only coherent and exciting, but almost enough to fill a screen for two whole hours without once becoming repetitive, boring or anything less than gripping. So how on earth has Miller managed this vastly welcome renaissance of a genre that looked so spent? Well, there's so much more going on under the hood (if you'll forgive the car metaphor) of Miller's glorious celebration of speed, destruction and (yes, really) feminism.

A lot of this may be down to Miller's Australian background. The freewheeling aesthetic at the heart of this movie draws heavily on the indigenous culture of gritty outback realism coupled with an anarchist's appreciation of those wide open spaces which we lack in the UK. For this reason there's a lot of Western about MMFR. But, as in the second and third Mad Max movies, it's a Western peopled by Australian crusties, But Miller goes far beyond mere body adornment and tattoos (and also avoids the annoyingly trite gewgaws of bloody steampunk - my particular favourite detail was the War Rig's human femur as a gear shift). Here the marks of identity that come with every character range from the fine white lines of subjugation and self-harm that decorate both Immortan Joe's's War Boys as well as his Wives. MMFR is a film that also belongs the tradition of Todd Browning, Luis Bunuel or Alejandro Jodorowsky, warping genre by revelling in physical non-conformity. Fury Road is filled to the brim with misshapen bodies, amputated limbs and freakish fashion. One brief scene involving women kept as a source of milk (to drink) could have sprung straight out of El Topo or The Magic Mountain. Even Charlize Theron's character has an arm missing, necessitating the use of a prosthetic. But this celebration of the ragged ends of a civilisation gone insane delights in the strangeness, letting the fever dream drift over the viewer until you inhabit this world. One can only imagine how the casting sessions went. 

Secondly, for anyone who's forgotten how good the original Mad Max films were, one of Miller's most radical contributions to car chase movies was his revolutionary use of editing. This is cutting of the highest order, and it's a dark art that seemed to have been forgotten by every director since Michael Bay and explains why every second of every Transformers film is a confusing loud jumble of blurred nonsense. Every second of MMFR is coherent, and paced like a swiss watch on steroids. Even the rare moments where the film slows down to allow you to breathe are perfectly timed. There's one post-pile up moment where Max emerges from the golden sand which is just as oddly surreal and transfixing as all the hurled spears and war-mongering. 

And for all its violence this is no testosterone fest, but a salutary lesson in post-apocalyptic feminism. Again, to bait all those Whedon fans, measure MMFR against the garbled fudging of women's roles in Avengers or even stuff like Firefly. Here each woman's role is formed by the grim implications of rape and slavery in a society where the simple act of survival of a tribe becomes twisted  by despotism, tyranny and a bogus system of religious symbolism (the War Boys, in their desperate 'half-lives', face violent annihilation with a chrome death's head grin, sprayed from a can, believing they're heading for apotheosis in Valhalla). This is no accident, as Miller used feminist playwright Eve Ensler, an expert on the atrocities in the Congo as a consultant. Essentially the film is fascinated by the implications of power in a near-medieval society and finds the real wisdom residing in female strength. What's more (and this is massively heartening) a large number of major (and positive) roles go to women in their 60s and 70s. To be truly faithful to facts, the real hero of this film is Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa: a woman who has played a waiting game since childhood to gain freedom for her and her female charges.

A synopsis (as was discussed by my friend and I in the pub afterwards) is also another clue to where Miller and co. have absolutely hit the nail on the head. The plot is almost laughably simple. And simply bonkers. Again, compare this to Marvel's more recent product (discounting Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a real hoot) where plot threads and insanely cloddish expositional dialogue  obscure the occasional whip-smart wisecrack. Miller has a veteran's instinct for what makes a film work. It may sound utterly pretentious, but his remarks about seeing Fury Road as a form of cinematic poetry makes perfect sense. He has stated that this is a film that could be seen (without any subtitles) anywhere in the world and it would still be completely comprehensible: and he's right. The whole film probably contains about ten pages of dialogue. This concision allows every other detail in the movie to help convey back stories and detail, giving it a richness that no amount of blurby exposition can solve. Tom Hardy as twitchy old Max, delivers scant remarks, all prefaced with unsure grunts which convey his fight with insanity by making us believe that he's come so far that nothing can go past unquestioned or without a worried shake of a guilt-filled head, filled with hallucinations of his dead family and friends. What's more, you don't even see his full face until about halfway through the movie.   

To sum up: Theron hits the road in a giant 'War Rig' - a big black truck that looks like it just got pimped in a very dark fetish club - with treason on her mind. She's stolen the Citadel leader, Immortan Joe (played to the hilt by Max veteran Hugh Keays-Byrne) 's bevvy of 'Wives'  (essentially the film's only conventional eye-candy): young women who are kept as breeding machines. No longer prepared to be treated as 'things' the women (one of whom is pregnant) attempt to reach a place of sanctuary. Joined by former road warrior, Max Rockatansky (Hardy) they then go for a two-hour chase across the best deserts I've seen since Lawrence of Arabia (in actual fact, Namibia). The post-apocalyptic hell serves (pretty much as Monument Valley did in John Ford's Stage Coach) as a superbly linear backdrop to the action, which involves pumped-up dune buggies that ROAR with throaty V8 engines along with an army of other modified gas-guzzling monstrosities. One even comes complete with a set of big war drums and a GUITARIST. This is a society which depends on the triple gods of water, oil and bullets. Pretty much like today, then…

Max and Furiosa cross a desert or two, and then go back again. Things blow up. People get mangled. And that's about all there is. And the amazing fact is that you really don't need more. I saw MMFR two days ago and I'm STILL thinking about it.

Of course, too much proselytising will transform a two-hour joyride through surreal mayhem into something it would never claim to be. And yet MMFR's brilliance is that it reclaims a genre grown so tired and hackneyed due to its reliance on a slickness born of studio accounting and computerised reliability. While Fury Road does boast CGI trickery, it merely serves as a way of more efficiently delivering the very real stunts and destruction wrought by Miller's cast and crew. never once do you doubt that what you see on screen is exactly how it would go down. Such suspension of disbelief seemed impossible in this day and age. It's taken a 70-year old Australian to show us that fun hasn't gone from our screens forever.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Daevid Allen (1938-2015)

So farewell then, Daevid Allen, the one, the only real Pot Head Pixie.

Since Kevin Ayers passed away a few years ago, this leaves only two original members of Soft Machine - the ‘Canterbury scene’’s most important band - left alive. And more importantly it leaves us with one less true maverick. It seems entirely appropriate that he died on Friday 13th...

Many have already said it far better already, but the wit, irreverence and irrepressible optimism which ran through his entire canon marked him out as a true original. Ironically, like many of my generation, I have arch-capitalist Richard Branson to really thank for my introduction to Allen and the Gong clan. Regular post-school visits to the local Virgin record shop in Coventry in around 1974 were spent staring longingly at the strange album covers and spending literally hours trying to decide which to buy with my woefully limited teenage funds. Oddly the first dip into the world of Pot Head Pixies and the little green planet outlined in Allen’s self-authored mythology was with the first of the classic ‘Radio Gnome trilogy’: Flying Teapot. This is strange because at the time Gong’s previous release, Camembert Electrique (first released on Jean Georgakarakos, Jean-Luc Young and Fernand Boruso’s BYG label in France in 1971) was also available for a bargain price of 59 pence. Having fallen deeply in love with Flying Teapot and its blend of silliness, motorik funk and cosmic electronica, Camembert Electrique became my second Gong purchase. (side note: I also bought Faust’s erm… challenging - for a teenage Bowie fan - Faust Tapes for the same price. The nascent Virgin label catalogue was, at the time, composed of a truly life-influencing blend of European oddness (krautrock, electronica etc.), along with the notorious Tubular Bells and various Canterbury, jazz-rock offshoots such as Henry Cow. In fact, I really should get round to writing about how virtually everything that label released in its first few years was to influence my musical tastes. But enough of the old-man-reminiscing bullshit.)

A few months later a school friend lent me Angel’s Egg (the second in the Radio Gnome trilogy) and the game was up - I was a fan. Its more coherent feel was bolstered with extraordinary musicianship, innumerable genre touch points from bebop to space rock and all topped off with Gilli Smyth’s frankly erotic space whisper and Allen’s deeper-than-you’d-realise philosophy (the whole notion of the flying teapot was indeed borrowed from Bertrand Russell, of all people). Even better, a lot of the album was recorded in a wood on a full-moon. Far OUT!

Allen’s roots lay not in the more commercially handicapped mid-‘60s hippie era but in its roots in beat culture from earlier in the decade. Moving from his native Australia in 1960 to the UK via Paris, he was a polymath more typical of the times, writing poetry and dabbling in the visual arts as well as playing jazz-influenced rock ’n’ roll. His credentials by this point even included working with William Burroughs. It was his shared love of jazz as well as his automatic status as role model due to his greater age and free-thinking, freewheeling peripatetic experience that drew the other, younger members of the early Soft Machine to him. These included the son of his Canterbury landlady - Robert Wyatt - on drums. It was only Allen’s forced expulsion from the band in 1968 (due to an expired visa that meant he couldn’t return to the UK following a French tour) which allowed the band to gradually morph from countercultural leading lights into full-on jazz-rock bores by the mid-‘70s. Back in France, Allen and partner Gilli Smyth forged the communal umbrella of Gong and their very own brand of space rock was born.

Soft Machine w. Daevid (far right)
Gong’s somewhat degraded status in the pantheon of ‘cosmic’ rock (compared to, say, The Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd) undoubtedly lies in one simple fact: they were slightly late to the party due to bad business decisions and, let’s say, a somewhat ‘laid back’ approach to the revolution. The band’s first album proper (if you discount the cheaply recorded Magick Brother, Mystic Sister album on the free jazz label BYG/Actuel (home of Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton among others) appeared in 1971. But Camembert Electrique was initially only available in the UK on import from France and was almost instantly commercially scuppered when the label ran into financial trouble the following year. Thus, their ‘classic’ period truly began with the recording of Flying Teapot at Branson’s Manor Studios, and after Branson’s new label bought the distribution rights from BYG and made the album the second release after Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Truth be told, the appearance of a band of free-thinkers who espoused cosmic love via a metaphorical story of invisible pixies in teapot-shaped spaceships from a green planet in another dimension was at odds with the zeitgeist, and while they found a home in the ragged remains of countercultural thinking, Allen’s seed vision remained a cult proposition at best. Yet over 40 years later the mythology lives on and Allen’s legacy not only spans Soft Machine and Gong, but a whole heap of solo projects that saw him work with everyone from Bill Laswell to Sting.

Musically, DA was (as in all things) an oddity. In many ways he resembled a more cosmic John Mayall, drawing a ream of talented players into his fold while remaining true to his own idiosyncratic path (to the point of leaving Gong just as they looked set to make it big). Each of these players drawn, almost mystically into Allen’s lunar orbit, was comically re-christened as they became part of the Gong cast of characters. Thus, bebop and world music sax specialist, Didiere Malherbe became ‘Bloomdido Bad De Grass’, and future Hawkwind electronics alumni, Tim Blake was dubbed ‘Hi T Moonweed’ etc. He himself used the names Bert Camembert, Dingo Virgin and many more. The band’s revolving roster of musicians included ex-members of Magma (Francis Moze), Yes (Bill Bruford), The Nice (Brian Davison), Kevin Ayers’ band (Steve Hillage) and even jazz rock legends Pip Pyle, Laurie Allan and Pierre Moerlen (as you can maybe tell, the band had trouble hanging on to drummers): the latter of whom went on to lead the band once Allen quit in ’75.

Unlike Mayall’s sturdy and (musicologically) important but intrinsically dull blues appropriations, Daevid had chops that put him in a class of his own, both philosophically and aurally. A friend often used to point out that early Softs and Gong recordings (before he teamed up with Steve Hillage) bear the mark of a true original on the guitar. For a thorough exploration of his technique I recommend the aforementioned Camembert Electrique, or his earliest solo album, Bananamoon. But in terms of true innovation on six strings he struck gold much earlier in the ‘60s. Following the Soft Machine’s appearance at the legendary Alexandra Palace 14 Hour Technicolour Dream in 1967, Allen witnessed Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd in their full acid-drenched glory. It was Barrett’s technique of ‘stroking’ the strings with a polished zippo lighter (itself, a technique borrowed from AMM’s Keith Rowe) that led to Allen ‘inventing’ ‘Glissando guitar’ (also referred to by him on occasion as ‘aluminium croon’): a method of using massive delay along with the use of polished surgical instruments to coax ethereal sounds from his guitar. It was adopted by Steve Hillage and influenced a slew of other guitarists (including… ahem… myself), and if there’s ONE thing alone that Daevid should be remembered for, it’s this.

Allen himself was a gloriously self-effacing and honest man who played the holy fool: part guru, part inane joker. His two volumes of autobiography make great reading, not only for his unshakeable belief in the spiritual quest which marked his muse, but for the honesty with which he paints himself as no saint, caught up in a business which rarely suffers such eccentricity for long. Despite the plaudits currently flowing about the man’s generosity of spirit, he, himself admits his tendency for an occasionally fiery temper matched with an egotism that stood at odds with his world view but was necessary to get his message across. But overall Daevid was a true idealist who never quit the search for real alternatives to late capitalism, and it often seems a shame that his adoption by the Glastonbury/Hebden Bridge brigade perhaps hampered such dialogue from reaching a larger audience. While the musical imprint of work he was involved with was immeasurably deep on my own tastes and directions, the world which he envisioned and the simple, playful ways in which it was explained were my first true introduction to so many things; from Eastern philosophy to consciousness-expansion. Like the fading traces of an acid trip, the end result always saw you returned to earth with a bump (just like Allen’s alter-ego, Zero The Hero at the close of the You album) but the journey was always so much fun.

A few years back I finally saw the classic band, along with all the attendant offshoots and followers of the Gong family, at their Unconvention in Amsterdam’s Melkweg. That one weekend still stands as possibly one of the most joyous, warm events in my life. The sense that everyone was there for the same reason was overpoweringly positive and for a brief spell I truly felt like I’d come home.

In short, he was a real hero, not a zero… 

Friday, February 06, 2015

Lousy Song, Great Solo #5

Famous bands' first guitarists: there’s possibly a book to be written there. You know: the ones that either left, lost their marbles or turned up at the studio to find that their gear was in a skip outside with no explanation (only to get a phone call from a roadie two months later) etc. etc.

From The Yardbirds onwards (Eric Clapton making way for the superior Jeff Beck) the ‘60s and ‘70s are littered with examples of groups who lost founding axe men only to finally make it big. Pink Floyd, of course, had Syd Barrett who, at least, had a few months working WITH his replacement, David (don’t call me ‘Dave’) Gilmour before he was ousted; The Moody Blues lost future Wings member, Denny Laine, but ended up with Justin Hayward (un)luckily for them; Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell drank himself out of a job, only to find that his replacement of TWO guitarists would lead the Irish rockers to world domination; Jethro Tull replaced Mick Abrahams with Martin Barre; Genesis parted ways with Anthony Phillips due to his stage fright (which almost split the band up) before they opted for Steve Hackett; and Yes ejected Pete Banks after a brief power struggle (and a disagreement about the use of an orchestra on their second album, Time and a Word), meaning that they could employ boring old perfectionist, Steve Howe.

Which brings me to the subject of this episode of Lousy Song, Great Solo: David ‘Davy’ O’List, who had the honour of being in TWO bands who went on to greater things after he left them: The Nice and Roxy Music. The poor guy must have felt cursed.

Born in Barnet, and rising to prominence in London’s swinging sixties scene in a third rate bunch of psychedelic chancers known as The Attack (whose biggest claim to fame was that they recorded ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ a few days before Jeff Beck), he was nonetheless a gritty, suitably far-out guitarist who (not unlike Pete Banks in Yes) actually managed that most difficult of tricks: having a truly distinctive sound. Unfortunately (again, as with Banks) the ability to play is rarely enough when you’re in a band with some other erm… strong personalities. Fate was ultimately not kind to these men.

O’List was recruited to join the ensemble that had initially been put together as P.P. Arnold’s backing band by Immediate label boss, and industry manager/provocateur, Andrew Loog Oldham, The Nice. Of course the band already had one show-off in their ranks in the shape of organ-mutilator, Keith Emerson. However at this stage Emerson’s legendary stage high-jinks were tempered by a deft touch on the B3 which owed a lot to his jazz heroes (Jimmy Smith etc.). He had yet to meet Bob Moog and unleash the full force of progressive rock on an unsuspecting public. But along with the powerful and sprightly rhythm section of Brian Davison (drums) and Lee Jackson (bass and gruff vocalisation) The Nice were, in truth, true pioneers. Their sound was both muscular and psychedelic, matching sonic experimentation with classical chops and the ability to stretch out arrangements live. Add to this Emerson’s exhibitionism, such as his tendency to stab his Hammond organ with a Hitler Youth dagger (given to him by their roadie at the time, Lemmy Kilminster), and the band were all set to become one of THE bands to watch in the Summer of Love.

Equally adept at mauling respectable stuff by Bernstein (‘America’) or Bach (ahem… ‘Brandenburger’) as well as writing their own freak-friendly numbers, The Nice looked set for big things. But this was 1967 and show business had yet to understand how to handle or present such wild stuff. It’s here that O’List’s story not only crosses paths with Syd Barrett, but even comes to mirror it. The band were booked on a ‘package’ tour with what now seems like a dream ticket for anyone interested in the period. Stuffed low down on a bill that included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Move, Pink Floyd and Amen Corner, time constraints meant that each act played short sets which veered wildly in content and barely allowed for the full force of their stage craft. Remember, this was famously the period of misguided ‘commercialisation’ which was leading Syd Barrett to rapidly unravel. With a hit (‘See Emily Play’) on their hands and faced with screaming teenagers, such a tour didn’t sit well with the Floyd (or indeed many of these acts who were trying to break free of their ‘pop’ shackles in search of something loftier and more exploratory). Syd became more and more unreliable as the tour trundled on.

It’s interesting to note that Syd’s legendary instability actually led to O’List being drafted in at the last minute to sit in for the missing Madcap at a few shows. By all accounts he was more than up to the task. And yet, less than a year later, the strains of competing with an ego as large as Emerson’s had begun to take a similar toll on the guitarist. Well, either that or some kind of chemicals... Scant footage of the band (see below) shows O’List cowering in the background, unable to compete with the organist's flailing acrobatics. The camera barely registers his presence.

What’s more, some accounts paint O’List as suffering similar mental troubles to Barrett, but whatever the truth, he, himself, became unreliable, arriving late for gigs etc. and following a fateful gig at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall the axe fell.

It’s here that O’List’s destiny almost crosses paths with another of the guitarists mentioned above - Steve Howe - as it was he who was initially auditioned as a replacement. When he eventually turned down the job the band continued as a trendy power trio (in the mould of long-forgotten pioneers, Clouds), upped the classical pretensions and eventually imploded due to lack of success and Emerson’s longings to find a better vocalist (more of which later) and be taken seriously as a composer (stop sniggering at the back).

A couple of years drifting in rock limbo for O’List ended briefly when he placed an ad in the music press looking for a band to fill the void in his professional life. As it happened the person to answer was none other than Bryan Ferry who’d seen O’List in concert at Newcastle City hall in 1968 and had been impressed. And for half a year O’List helped Roxy Music gain shape, even up to the point of recording five numbers for John Peel’s Top Gear show, all of which would eventually turn up on the band’s debut album a year later. By all accounts (barring O’List’s – his own account makes for some mighty peculiar reading) the guitarist’s eccentricities quickly wore on the other members and with a young PhilipTargett-Adams (later to be renamed Manzanera) in the wings as their road manager, the writing was on the wall. Once more fame and fortune had eluded O’List.

This isn’t the end of his story, however. As the above linked interview recounts, O’List’s hasty ejection from Roxy seemed to have left Ferry feeling uncharacteristically guilty, and he was invited back to provide some guitar on Ferry’s second solo album, Another Time, Another Place. O’List’s claims to have played on the later hit, ‘Let’s Stick Together’ seem somewhat far-fetched, yet his contribution to Ferry’s ‘74 hit: a version of Dobie Grey’s mod classic, ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’, is an undeniable fact. I’d even considered picking this number as the subject for this LSGS. The wigged-out solo at the close of the track is just about the only thing that redeems its rather plodding approach. Attacking a soul classic with a rhythm section made up of not only Roxy’s Paul Thompson (never a subtle drummer) but also John Wetton on bass was never really going to suit the number, and Ferry’s delivery can only be described as dull.

But to return to the subject of this article: back in 1967 The Nice were signed to Immediate records and recording their debut album which went under the amusingly cod-serious title of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (see what they did there?). This was to be The Nice at their most concise and approachable as well as their most psychedelic. The album, coupled with the single version of ‘America’ (which features a great solo by O’List at its core), would turn out to be one of the great defining documents of English psych. From the revved up re-tooling of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’ (here renamed ‘Rondo’) via the full-on baroque pop explosions of the title track and outtake (included on reissue), ‘Diamond Hard Blue Apples Of The Moon’ to the creepy experimentalism of tracks like ‘Dawn’; the album is actually a delightful product of its time. O’List is on fire throughout: just check out his explosive intro to ‘Bonny K’. However, also very much a product of its time are Lee Jackson’s hokey, jokey, florid lyrics.

While I can understand why Emerson would eventually tire of Jackson’s rasping, oft-shouted vocals, preferring the angelic pipes of Greg Lake as an accompaniment to his mock-symphonies, I have a bit of a soft spot for his voice. On later work, such as their take on Dylan’s ‘Country Pie’, I think his Geordie bluster fits the bill nicely. But there are times when it can grate terribly. One such moment is on the song chosen for this series: ‘The Cry Of Eugene’.

Closing the album, this track sums up just about everything both right and wrong with The Nice. Emerson’s delicate organ intro displays a sensitivity that runs counter to his usual, more outré approach (as on the bombastic piano ending to ‘Tantalizing Maggie’ which Alan ‘Fluff' Freeman used as a comedy jingle for years on his Radio 1 rock show) and promises far more than is delivered. O’List at this stage limits himself to a weird, overdriven viola-like accompaniment. Enter Jackson, burbling what can be only described as psychedelic drivel. The song’s dreamy atmosphere is completely broken by his barking delivery of lines like ‘’The cry of three plus two times nothing at all, splits all time’s mind asunder.’’ Please, if anyone has the foggiest idea what the song’s about, let me know. Here, the internet has failed me…*

Building in intensity the song reaches a histrionic zenith at the exact mid-point where a frankly wobbly cornet adds a touch of typical English baroque-ness accompanied by Emerson’s thumping Rachmaninov impersonations and all hope seems lost. But out of nowhere at 2’ 45’’ comes O’List playing an arpeggiated, fuzz-drenched six-note motif that rips open the feyness and forcefully shoves the song into its tortured climax. Six notes, played over and over but they all matter. It’s as if someone left the studio door open and the zombie ghost of Jeff Beck walked right in. From this point on all hell breaks loose. Beneath Jackson’s laboured delivery O’List goes positively APESHIT. I can still remember the first time I heard this as a teenager, and even then I recognised the greatness. And, if that weren’t enough, as a masterstroke, 20 seconds before the end of the track the motif reappears, devouring all before it until the song does the only thing it can: stop dead.

Nearly 50 years on, the track (and the album) remain favourites of mine, mainly for O’List’s manic attack. Jackson obviously felt offended by his bandmates’ treatment of the song as he re-recorded an insipid version on the debut album by his follow-up band, Jackson Heights. This version just emphasised how lousy the song was, and yet O’List’s solo remains a highlight of British ‘60s rock.

*Also, I have no idea if the use of the name Eugene had any influence whatsoever on The Pink Floyd's later 'Careful With That Axe Eugene'.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ex Machina (2014)

It’s taken me over a week to write about Ex-Machina, not because I’ve been too busy (although I have) but unfortunately because I saw it on the same day as the previous two films reviewed on this blog. Comparisons may be odious but sometimes they make even a reasonably good film seem a bit lame. And Ex Machina IS reasonably good, but misses the mark on quite a few levels.

Alex Garland’s had a long run-up to this, his directorial debut. It’s a solid gold fact that the man knows his sci-fi. Sunshine, his second joint project with Danny Boyle was entertaining even if it contained more sly references and obvious rip-offs than was, perhaps, decent. Meanwhile his reworking of Judge Dredd’s basic building blocks into a second attempt at bringing Mega City’s law-enforcer to the screen was just magnificent. And yet what hampers Ex Machina is both its failure to ultimately surmount cliche as well as the disappointing development of what could have been some interesting variations on the hackneyed idea of man-made life and the consequences that lie therein.

Ex Machina basically takes all of the previous templates for the dangers of man playing God, from Metropolis to Spielberg’s A.I. and tries to give it a spin based on (presumably) Stephen Hawking’s recent warnings of the dire consequences of such actions (in short: as soon as machines gain sentience we’re fucked). The idea has become common cinematic fodder recently, in our post-Syri world so it’s little surprise that this aspect of the plot feels rather worn. It even formed the basis of an episode of Elementary. And last year we not only got the truly woeful Johnny Depp vehicle about merging man and machine, Transcendence, but also Scarlett Johanssen in not one, but TWO films exploring the concept (Her and Lucy): both equally terrible albeit for different reasons. Her was glib and pointless while Lucy was just hackneyed shoot-‘em-up schlock. 

This is not to say that Ex Machina is anywhere near as bad as these films. It shares the underground research facility meme with Transcendence, but there any similarities cease. Garland’s scripts are never dumb and the setting of Ex-Machina is a far more believable ultra-chic modernist lair set not in a desert but in the northern wildernesses and filled with glass and cool concrete. The performances here are also much finer. Both male leads are actors who deserve close attention. Oscar Isaac (who was superb as Llewyn Davis), portraying Nathan, the billionaire tech as an odious, manipulative creep is great, while Domhnall Gleeson is also excellently dazed and confused as Caleb, the office nerd who seemingly gets granted the golden ticket to visit Nathan’s Willy Wonka-style research facility. Meanwhile Alicia Vikander transcends her role as sexy robot, Ava to make her possibly the most sympathetic character in the whole film.

Well, so it seems at first, when Caleb has been helicoptered to the wilderness to seemingly test the true self-awareness of Ava, but, of course, there are far more sinister things at stake here. In tone the initial third of the film felt closest to John Fowles’ masterpiece, The Magus. And of course a single, lonely, awkward coder is the perfect dupe to fall for the sexual mind-fucks which subsequently arise.

But it’s in the portrayal of Nathan that the film has its most interesting thread. Here Garland dissects the kind of Wire-reading uber-jock who both parties and practices physical self-improvement hard. He calls Caleb ‘bro’ and bud’, has a truly annoying beard and talks in horrid 21st century cliches. Unfortunately the film’s transparency doesn’t allow for you to feel anything but repulsion for the man, and his manipulation of Caleb is patently obvious from the start, defusing any plot twists in the final third. Yet Garland’s obvious critique the Schmidts, Zuckerbergs and Jobs of this world who assume the cloak of liberal progress while perhaps harbouring far more sinister motives for mankind could so easily have reaped really interesting results. 

Ava’s final (inevitable) revolt also contains the seeds of some interesting notions. Based on the predication that once  men, are given godly powers (or the internet) it will only be a short matter of time before ether use it for some kind of pornographic ends, the film dares to position itself as a post-feminist fable. Yet here sisters (and robots) are still doing it for themselves in high heels and designer dresses, even if ( a little like another Johanssen performance in Under the Skin) they use these feminine whiles to gain their bloody revenge. There’s a glimmer of intrigue in the notion that  - just maybe - AIs could already be amongst us, we just don’t know it. But Ex Machina takes too long trying to look cool to really thoroughly explore any of these innovations.  

Again like Sunshine, Garland lifts plot lines and references wholesale: the notion of browsing history as a method of measuring man’s behavioural patterns is (if anyone’s interested) is lifted from the abortive BSG prequel, Caprica, for starters. And just about anyone who’s seen a movie about creating artificial intelligence knows, it’s hardly ever going to work out well.

Ex Machina does have a few things to recommend it. The portrayal by Vikander of Ava is initially tender and nuanced enough to recreate the same sadness that pervades Spielberg’s AI. This seeming bewilderment at her own creation is oddly touching. And there is a point in the movie where you genuinely start to wonder exactly who is real (just as Caleb questions it himself once he’s figured to the extent of his role as unwitting pawn). But ultimately Ex Machina is merely a very diverting one hour and 40 minutes, instead of the truly original, intelligent science fiction film that we deserve. Still, one hopes that Garland will keep trying.

Finally, if there’s one thing on which I seem to disagree with most other critics about: it’s the soundtrack. At what point did it become de rigeur to fill every other film with cookie cutter post-rock, prefacing every plot highlight/revelation with a twinkling guitar glissando that crescendos into four-four Tortoise-isms? Maybe it was the success of Mogwai with their soundtrack to Zidane, but the stuff has become obvious, unsubtle and just plain intrusive for me. Geoff Barrow’s approximation of the trope here is just terrible.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014)

There was a point in the midst of Inherent Vice, PaulThomas Anderson’s latest examination of recent American history, that I began to wonder if he’d made the film just for me. I loved every single second of it, but listening to various (considerably younger) fellow viewers’ comments as I left the screening, realised just how much baggage you need to carry to withstand the two and a half hours of screen time. Dripping with authenticism and almost hermetic in its depiction of a very particular moment in the USA’s road to post-‘60s cynicism, Inherent Vice demands that you know your stuff, counter-culture and politics-wise, not to mention musically.  

(I apologise wholeheartedly if that last paragraph sounded like some pompous way of saying I liked this film and therefore I know a lot of stuff and you will only like this film if you are clever like me. What I’m actually trying to say is that I liked this film so much that I want everyone to like it too, and I worry that it may be a little too niche for many peoples’ tastes.)

Thomas Pynchon’s typically character-rich, absurdist view of the West Coast in 1970 is both dreamily nostalgic (in a good way, says Anderson) for a lost era and the closest equivalent to Chandleresque as he ever got. The shaggy dog tale of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a dope smoking P.I. in requisite khaki combat jacket, shades and sandals, simultaneously chasing a missing construction magnate, an ex-husband, a drug cartel and a lost love.

The oddest thing about Anderson’s film is that, for the first time that I can remember, it bears comparison with and references other films. Of course any circular tale filled with great cameos, stoner logic and an impenetrable mystery is going to make anyone think of The Big Leibowski, and the plot tangles give the whole piece a doper-grandson-of-Chandler dynamic. At about the halfway mark, pretty much as in The Big Sleep, you give up on any kind of grasp on who has done what to who. Apart from the other Altman/Chinatown/Long Goodbye etc. etc. allusions there’s a whole Hunter S. Thompson Gonzo section featuring Martin Short as the superbly deranged dentist, Dr. Rudy Batnoyd. And if that weren’t enough, here’s Benicio Del Toro… as a lawyer! This attorney is, however, an endearing marine law specialist with a taste in deep fried steak. Come to think of it, just about everyone in this film is in some way endearing. Even the villains are acceptably erudite.

Somewhere in between good and bad is, naturally, the policeman nemesis to Doc’s P.I.: Detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin (above), channeling his inner Tommy Lee Jones again. The love/hate hippie/pig relationship is superb, especially as half of their exchanges are by telephone, showing the hilarious juxtaposition of the straight and far out lifestyles of our protaganists. Other turns by Reece Witherspoon as Doc’s Deputy D.A. sort-of main squeeze; Katherine Waterson as Shasta Fay, Doc’s ‘ex-old lady’ who leads him into the labyrinth, and even – wow- Eric Roberts(!) as the missing Mickey Wolfmann are all suitably on the money.

In tone (as you’ll undoubtedly expect if you’ve seen the trailer below) the film is Anderson’s lightest for years. It’s not the slapstick-fest you may be expecting from the trailer, but its central performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Doc contains a vast amount of physical comedy. Phoenix has always been a deeply physical actor, but here his facial mugging almost steals the show. An inveterate stoner’s habits mean that dialogue comes thick and…err, thick. More than one reviewer has pointed to one scene between Doc and Owen Wilson (as it turns out, the real point of the movie) as junky sax player and snitch, Coy Harlingen which is all but unintelligible. But when it comes to Inherent Vice, it’s appropriate that it’s the vibe which pervades the entirety which is the most wonderful thing. Not since Boogie Nights has the director been this jolly.

As mentioned above, the numerous Black Panther, Manson Family, Aryan Brotherhood, Vietnam, L.A. music scene, Nixon etc. references mean that maybe this is just a film set to entrance only the likes of me and my crazy ‘niche’ tastes. But I’d like to think not.

When it comes to the music, I can take or leave the Debussy-liteisms of Jonny Greenwood. It works just fine. But the other stuff is a whole heap of ‘60s and ‘70s goodness. Any film that opens with Can’s ‘Vitamin C’  and also features some Les Baxter already has me halfway there. But as Anderson has said in recent interviews: the real musical inspiration of Inherent Vice comes from Neil Young; in particular, his three post-Harvest era masterpieces. Two numbers (Harvest and Journey Through The Past) feature prominently in the soundtrack.

The yearning in Neil feels just right. If there was an NY album that Inherent Vice put me in mind of most, it was On The Beach. The mellow but wary-as-fuck, post-Manson killings vibe is all offset by endless sea and sunshine or twinkling beach front cafes and faux-medieval Topanga mansions filled with tanned ‘teeners’ as Shasta Fay describes them to Doc. But there’s already a sense that the good stuff happened long ago, there are too many memories, too many ex-old ladys, too much paranoia. The lost love does finally come home, but only to tell Doc that she’s not back. And the nemesis pops round to knock down his door, apologise and finally eat his stash. Bummer.

How much of this feeling is from Pynchon I have yet to discover. I feel the need to read it. Any regular readers will know that I raved about Anderson’s last work: The Master. And while Inherent Vice immediately resides inside me in a place that’s closer to my heart, that’s weighed against the fact that The Master had life-defining performances by Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann. Time will tell no doubt tell which film wins, but in the meantime, if you want to see one more film about the death of the hippie ideal, make it this one. It’s brilliant.

Inherent Vice is released in the UK on 30 January.