Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Arctic Monkey's AM Review

Mad Sounds, from the new Arctic Monkeys album AM, their fifth, is a Velvet Underground song that's had a trip around Electric Ladyland; by which I mean it's a slow and at times mournful song that ends up being inspiring through it's hints of romanticism. It's Stephanie Says with a groove. The album's name might just be the band's initials but it makes much more sense as a reference to the early hours of the morning; the parties over but the beats are still bouncing around your head. The production reflects this, it has the thicker sound of Humbug, their part-psychedelic and all too slow third album, while keeping the faster pace and personality of their early albums.

Which is to say it has so far been impossible to tell if each new Monkeys album heralds a new piece of musical evolution or just shows us another side of the same band. Their last album Suck It and See ditched the forward trajectory they were on; getting slower and more attuned to studio manipulation, and instead focused on a more raw sound and took Turner's lyrics back to finding the exciting in everyday mundanity. So the most impressive thing about AM is that it finally sums up the band. It fits in all sides of the group; the fast songs still manage to be soothing and the slow songs still have a beat. The whole album has a unified sound that finally confirms that the Arctic Monkeys have moved on from the past, all the while putting together the best track list since their debut.

Like a sudden jolt to the system we're welcomed to the album with the drum beat of Do I Wanna Know? Turner's lyrics come very fast; they remind me of The Rolling Stones, think 19th Nervous Breakdown, and both remind me less of rock lyrics and more of rappers; words, all rhyming, all coming at you fast. Do I Wanna Know? is a great rock song that works just as well as a party tune. The album starts off with it's fastest tracks, eventually slowing down for the aforementioned Mad Sounds and No. 1 Party Anthem, which feels like the loneliest dance floor in the world until Turner's "Come on, come on come, before the moments gone, number 1 party anthem" which sounds like a gleaming ray of hope and energy injected into a deadened night club; just like the rest of the album this song could easily fall into depression-filled plodding but instead I couldn't stop listening; it aims for the dance-floor but there's still something to return to when the party's over.
And eventually we stagger through the night into I Wanna Be Yours. It was originally a poem by John Cooper Clarke, with the song version having some tweaks from Turner. It sounds like a journey well-traveled; the ending is filled with infinite possibilities. It brings forth that feeling of coming home late after a great night out. All wrapped in poetics that are perfectly tuned to Turner ("Let me be your 'leccy meter, and I'll never run out, let me be the portable heater, that you’ll get cold without"). It ends an album that is, like the Monkey's debut, much better when heard as a whole; a by-product of an album where all the songs aim for the same thing, on first listen you may not even remember which track is which, but it doesn't matter because if you want variety just go fishing through their back cataloge; AM takes you into it's own headspace and doesn't let you go, and it's all the better for it.

There's nothing to prove on this album either; which isn't meant as a criticism. The bands guitar is there to be admired but never takes over the song, it neatly folds into the production. And Turner's lyrics go through their biggest change, possibly brought on by his move to America, in which he looks away from the smaller details and happenings of everyday life and instead writes an album filled with poetic metaphors and the longings for love: "It's an exploration, she's made of outer space/and her lips are like the galaxy's edge/ and her kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place". There's a Hendrix-esque mystique in the otherworldly-ness of the lyrics on AM.

Yet when reaching such highs it makes it worse when you come crashing down; which the latter part of AM does. There's some filler here; Knee Socks and Snap Out of It being the main culprits. I have mixed feelings towards recently released single Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High? It represents the style of the album perfectly; once again it starts with a drum beat that leads into a slowed-down hip-hop sound and keeps accelerating throughout. But the chorus blurs into the verse and by then this same sound just feels like a drag compared to other tracks on the album. I hope the Monkey's don't tag this "their style" as if to say they'll stay on this path from now on, but for what it is AM is my favorite Arctic Monkeys album to date, and a great surprise following their weakest album. 9/10

Saturday, 7 September 2013

What I Watched This Summer

The sun was out, I might not have spent a reasonable amount of time in it but I sure looked at it just fine from behind a glass window; which doubles back to the busy summer I've had, which in itself is my excuse for not writing about all the movies I've been watching. It's a whole lot of movies too; I felt guilty doing re-watches which lead to a mad dash to find new material, which is why I can report back from as many bad films as great ones; and from everything in-between. So here's a small selection of the movies I blew my summer on, and in my aspiring movie maker addled mind all the weird tangents they sent my mind on.

Slacker (1991)

So I really love 90s. I'd cut that down to just the movies but hell, I love the whole decade. The clothes. The hipsters. The angst. And the whole slacker thing too; all those great elements of the 90s and a whole sub-culture created out of it. Most time periods, even the most cherished of past times: the hippy 60s, can only be viewed in fragments, usually framed by a single authors viewpoint, no matter how much we think we're seeing the whole picture. Yet Slacker gives you a very unbiased look through the key whole into an early 90s Los Angeles. It has no plot; we follow some characters and when we are done with them the camera floats out onto someone new. No connections or backtracking. 

The first thing I thought about was the films of Andy Warhol; for a man so obsessed with death Warhol tried his hardest to film real life, to remove the mechanizations of films of the time and show reality, or at least as much of it as the camera could catch. His films don't amuse me; actually I care more for the concepts of most Warhol films, the simple knowledge they have been created, than the films themselves. At the end of Slackers (don't worry, spoilers don't work on this film) the camera is finally acknowledged as a group of teens run around filming anything they can; there's no set-up for this scenario, just the images on screen. The camera gets swirled around and pointed at the other teens and then it's chucked into the ocean. It's gone, along with the images on it. Only it's not, because we're sitting here watching it. And that single image of the camera twirling around into abyss gives the full justification for this movie; to capture life. It was all to take a time and a place that was everyday for some and stretch it out using cameras so that it still exists here today in 2013. 

Every film does this but they capture the themes and story the filmmakers want to show; I get the impression Richard Linklater set out with the idea to film lots of LA youngsters and the script came after. And it's in that script where Linklater manages to surpass Warhol in delivering an enjoyable experience, a one you want to sit through for more than the concept. The characters are semi-realistic but in no way boring (maybe that's what adds the "semi") and from conversations about art to flirting to long monologues about conspiracy theories, I never stopped being interested in the characters. Linklater's dialogue is very similar to Tarantino's: long monologues that don't seem to reveal anything about the speaker on face value but through the very subject of the conversation and the way it's said we start to piece together the character; more closely resembling life than most film dialogues. 

In the end Slacker is in many ways just a modernized version of the Warhol legacy, albeit enhanced for greater enjoyment; which ends up making a film as unique as this so watchable. 9/10

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) 

Does it make sense to be a film fan and dislike black and white? Or old films? If my love of films stems from naturalistic films (or very fantastical films that I don't mind believing are real) then what am I to make of older pictures which go out of their way to feel staged and remind the audience of their fantasy, or of black and white which seems to strip away control from the filmmaker; most modern black and white films, ala Control or Schindler's List, tend to work because their directors have decided that a lack of colour will go with the story.

So it should be clear that going into Virginia Woolf didn't look too positive from the outside. Although my biggest problem was that this was a "stage film"; adapted from the play of the same, Virginia Woolf falls into a category of film I dislike: films from plays that don't attempt to do anything unique with the medium of film and simply film the play.

We pick up the story as an older couple returns home late one night. They seem content if argumentative. They are soon joined by a much younger couple; very much in love and carefree. From their the arguments begin; boosted heavily by the excessive use of alcohol throughout. These are the only four actors who appear in the film, and aside from a location change in the middle of the film we spend the majority of the film trapped in the house. To people interested in making their own films it's films like Virginia Woolf that stand as big beacons of hope; it has no real structure as all events of the story stem from the characters, and there is a big focus on dialogue and ambiguity. The only problem is most of it doesn't work. The twist left me empty; I didn't see any way to relate it to everyday couples, while the stakes of the story never felt explicit (or even visible) enough to keep me interested.

Others might call this an "acting film" or if it was released today "oscar bait" yet one of the best features of the film is it doesn't shoehorn attention onto characters when their not needed; most of the weight of the story rests on the older couple: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The two play a twisted game with each-other throughout. Burton is the highlight of the film; his character at once feels despicable but relatable at the times when the troubles of his marriage come to the forefront.

In the end I took little from Virginia Woolf. It has set the template for all stage films since; which to my mind is party what has made them so un-exciting. 6/10

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

I spent a small part of my summer reading up on this new found thing called "vulgar auteurism": think Michael Mann and Michael Bay. It's a good idea, maybe un-needed, but it throws out any ideas of what a good film should be; no looking for extra-long single takes and restrained cut aways from violence. It makes rating a film like Hobo With A Shotgun a lot easier; it doesn't have to be compared to Lawrence of Arabia or even Die Hard, the merits of a film like this exist in a far off place on their own.

Thinking of this side of "vulgar" cinema, Hobo reminded me heavily of Jason Statham action vehicle Crank, another fantastic movie that cares very little about critical success or even good taste. That movie creates a decent excuse for all it's mayhem to happen in it's real world setting, while the entire world of hobo is an excuse for such carnage. The city's in a mess, the police are corrupt, and apocalyptic gangs search the streets for targets. More worrying is that most of the inhabitants are part of the problem; only a small few people get on with their normal lives.

In walks the hobo. He's no Eastwood type like you might be expecting, he's just as helpless as everyone else in the city; although he eventually reaches his limit, and upon realizing the police aren't going to help him decides to deal with things his own. And out comes the shotgun.

The excessive violence and one-note world that's lost all humanity is what makes the film so good; it doesn't second guess it's limitations, instead it give us exploding heads and twisted characters with no apologies. The film saturates most scenes so that each one is dominated by a single colour. In the beginning we see this tortured suburbia through the veil of a bright blue sky. The sky owns the camera in these scenes. When we see the bad guys discussing plans in their hell-drenched lair we see nothing but red. It adds to the all-out nature of the film. Seeing such violence filmed in pure blood red across the screen just pushes everything to it's furthest point. If vulgar auteurism is all about throwing out good taste and constructing a taste that celebrates the extremities then I guess that makes Hobo With A Shotgun the Godfather of vulgar cinema. 9/10

4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (2007) 

Listening to Jim Emerson and his "opening shots" series would leave you to believe it's where a film starts that is most important but I'd vogue for the opposite; plough through a bad opening and their can be a hidden goldmine waiting for you on the other side, but a ending can effect (destroy or enhance) all that has gone before. Which is why it's so easy for me to call this movie great despite spending the first three quarters wondering whether I should just turn it off and get on with my life; because that last section of the movie really delivered.

The film is set in late 80s Romania; the communist regime of the time made abortions illegal, with the film revolving around Otilia who is attempting to get an abortion for pregnant friend Gabriela. The two go for help from a man who makes his money through illegal abortions; he's professional about the deal and getting everything right first time, although as Gabriela continues to do things wrong it is revealed what a more shady character he is.

As Gabriela is lying in a hotel room waiting for the abortion to complete we get our first sign of tension., although it leads to very little. The film is slow paced, and for a film that has a clear objective from the start we spend an awful lot of time learning about the characters, especially Otilia who's struggles with her boyfriend make up part of the film.

I was bored out of my mind until things started to... happen. There's no big explosion or car chase, but not only does the ending of the film actually make the viewing an enjoyable experience, it makes the rest of the film worth it. Boring boyfriend subplots might not seem important in a film about abortion but in the end when you can see all of the pieces on the board it's finally clear this film isn't really about anything; it raises some points and the unorthodox situation of the country their in opens up some arguments between characters that are very rarely said.

As for the camera, as is frequent with the majority of modern foreign films I've seen the camera is stationary and very rarely moves. It's the complete opposite of my normal cinematic sensibilities, but in the end it shows that behind what you see on screen, it's the films that leave you with something that stick with you the longest. 8/10

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Summer Holiday Send-off

The sun's setting and I have to go back but none of it feels real, it's never-ending; the longest never-ending I will ever have. It can't be 3 days left, I wanna do it all over again and not even do any of it differently. It was lots of extended lows punctured by soring highs. Sitting in the house. Internet. Have I got depression? I haven't when I'm too caught up to think about it, but maybe thats how it is for everyone.

Maybe I'm so young such a short time can change me; haven't spoken to you in what, 13 weeks? Maybe you won't even recognize me. But I can't start new. New institution, same people. Education never changes. It hasn't even started yet and I've already planned out the ending. And what comes after as well. But I don't know; my future is confusing. Would be worse if it wasn't. This way the road has lots of surprises. Not sure if I want any of them tho; I'm boring like that. At least I think I am, but I wouldn't want anyone to know that I am. But maybe they think I am anyway, which is why I spend so long trying to change that. I'm not a cool enough personality to be proudly uncool. I'll keep trying, dammit!

And I do all this stuff. Anything I do that looks from the outside like a fulfilling life is counted as stuff. Anything social; because that's the high that penetrates the low. I go to the beach. It's all good, every situation I'm in is easier to live than it is to think about. Even the bad stuff. I'm home and I got sun burn; sizzling up my skin; good excuse not to go out tho. It takes me a week to recover. Screaming like Kanye West on Yeezus; but much more high pitched, I think I scared my dog; and I wouldn't do it if my parents were around. Kill me now; worst pain I ever felt. So bad I couldn't even think; and that's one of my hobbies. I could think about the pain; and think about making deals with the devil. He'd take the pain away and I'd do some evil in return. One of those spooky realizations when it came naturally to me. But it ended after a week. One of those experiences I wouldn't change but definitely wouldn't re-live. I'd give you all my prized possessions; maybe that would help me.

And I end it all at a party. It wasn't even to celebrate the summer ending. Drunk: my body goes tipsy and swerve-y and I'd only describe it as being more free in retrospective, and the voice in my head goes drunk too. And I start to say all those things I'd usually just think about. Actually I probably wouldn't even think things those things, but I talk and talk, it's easier drunk. It's not the confidence it's the ability to forget your normal codes of conversation and join into a communal code. And all the none drunks just look at you, but even if there was just one of us they'd still be the outsiders. It's the beer: it's the right way to be. Before I'd say my first drunk experience was good research, but it was far too fun to be research, and how can something that is actual life help with all these made up things in our artist brains? And I kissed a girl for the first time, but that's private isn't it? A tongue swerving around in my mouth; it's beautiful, and so was she but I still had to clarify her name with someone the next day. And I wake up, actually no; continue consciousness: damn fucking wooden floor, and I think everyone there hates me. It's just the lads there and were all having fun and laughing; it must be all in my head; but the alcohol's already outta there. But so what, nevermind. I walk out of there with a friend and go back to society and join into the stream. But that nights still with me, and my mind's still drunk, still feels a little the day after too, even if my body's fine now.

And now I go back in a few days. But it's been a good summer. And the bad times and good times don't matter cause it's all one big thing. But the good times do matter because I wanna have them with me and they make me have more. And I think the bad times matter too, even though I didn't learn anything from them anyway. Ah well, nevermind.