Wednesday, December 24, 2008

It Occurred To Me This Morning...

...The casting speculation surrounding Wonder Woman should be over by now. Surely it's obvious who should play her. Real-life Amazon and inspirational lady icon Amanda Palmer!

She's a fighter, she's a feminist, and she's awesome (not to mention properly FIERCE). Let's hope DC wise up and sign her immediately. Their film output this year has been a mixture of the amazingly wonderful (The Dark Knight, obviously) and the perplexing. I mean, if you're going to base a movie around a relatively minor Justice League villain, I understand why you would alter the character for the mainstream audience, but this is beyond the pale.

The namechange is annoying too. He's from the planet Kalinor, not Dieppe or wherever the hell this thing is set.

Merry Christmas, you lovely people. Hope you all get what you most want, i.e. a proper Despero movie with Keith David back on voice duties instead of post-awesomeness Ferris Bueller.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Oscar Season = XXXtreme Biopic Frenzy

Never did I think that I would ever prefer a film by Ron Howard over one by Gus Van Sant, but that may have happened this week. We were lucky enough to see both Frost/Nixon and Milk, and while both movies were excellent, they paled into insignificance next to the goosebump-inducing magnificence of John Woo's Red Cliff, or Matteo Girrone's stunning Gomorra, both of which thrilled me recently.

Frost/Nixon was, as is well known, originally a play by Peter Morgan which, through bad luck and torpor on my part, we missed when it played at the Donmar Warehouse (best theatre in London, for realsies). Seeing the movie made me regret that even more, as I have no idea what Morgan added to his screenplay in order to flesh out the story, which, as a two-header, could have been utterly uncinematic in the hands of Howard. Throughout the film I fretted about the potential differences, unsure whether every clumsy bit of exposition (such as the commentary provided by the chorus of Oliver Platt, Hott Sam Rockwell, and Matthew MacFadyen) was added by Morgan at the behest of Howard, which complicated my assessment of it. Did the play feature such anvillicious statements? Theatre, certainly highly-regarded theatre, is usually more elegant than that (we caught the Pulitzer-Prize-winning August: Osage County at the National recently, and there is zero slack in that. But I digress...).

Nevertheless, we were hugely impressed by it, and especially the outrageously good cast. I could watch Oliver Platt and Hott Sam Rockwell all day long already, and putting them together just multiplied their awesomeness, even if they were just stating the obvious for a long time. Matthew MacFadyen is an unknown quantity to me, but he was fine. Regrettably, he was playing John Birt, of "Croak-voiced Dalek" fame, the anti-creative engineer who created the BBC's impenetrably complicated internal market, an act of baffling stupidity that very nearly wrecked the greatest public service broadcaster in the world. Seeing the man being portrayed as a heroic and amusing guy hanging out with Rockwell and Platt over booze was utterly confounding. In the finale he strips naked and runs into the ocean due to a euphoria overload. Really? John Birt? Minister for "Blue Skies Thinking", experiencing an outpouring of emotion? Really? No matter how good MacFadyen was, I just couldn't reconcile the current John Birt with the version portrayed here.

Best of all were the two leads, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, transferring their acclaimed performances from the original production. Sheen starts out like a mere impressionist, mimicking Sir David Frost's voice and mannerisms so perfectly I almost lost track of whether he was actually any good. Of course he was, playing up Frost's shallowness, desperation, doubt, and eventual conversion to journalist of integrity. The lack of an Oscar nomination for his performance as Tony Blair in The Queen was a disgrace, so hopefully he'll get some recognition here.

Langella was even better. I've not seen Altman's Secret Honor yet, so I can't say whether Philip Baker Hall's performance is really the best screen Nixon (tasteful people maintain it is), but I do think Sir Anthony Hopkins' Nixon is one of my favourite performances of all time. Langella's didn't excite me as much, partially because less time is spent showing Nixon's vulnerable side (prior to his emotional slip-up at the end of his final interview), but it's still phenomenal work. Surely he's odds-on favourite for the Best Actor Oscar.

Which is bad news for Sean Penn, who is also excellent as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's biopic, which has topped as many end of year polls as WALL*E and Slumdog Millionaire. The difference between my reaction to Milk and Frost/Nixon is similar to the way I felt about WALL*E and Kung Fu Panda; the former is more ambitious but has more problems, while the latter is more focused and has a higher success rate (though I don't think Kung Fu Panda really does anything wrong). While Frost/Nixon packs a lot of story into its depiction of a small slice of American history, by making what should be little more than a long TV interview become a momentous event that redeems the protagonists and saves the American soul, Milk sprawls across a longer period, i.e. the last eight years of Harvey Milk's life, showing the effect he had on the gay "ghetto" of Castro Street, his efforts to become a city official, and his battle against homophobic legislation backed by the Christian Right.

With so much ground to cover the film skimps on a lot of detail, opening in 1970, with Milk moving to San Francisco with his lover Scott, and then skipping through the years as he becomes more politicised, despite (or because of) his failure to be elected to office. Though the movie is sprawling, and covers so much ground, I couldn't help but be frustrated by how little we find out about who Milk is, where he comes from, why he is so militant. At times he merely seems to be motivated by frustration at how gays are mistreated. Perhaps that really all there was to it (it’s understandable, after all), but I’d like to know if there was more there. Penn does an excellent job of bringing Milk to life and showing why people were drawn to him and his enthusiasm, but without Penn there Dustin Lance Black's script tends to leave Milk as little more than a raging ball of fury, albeit a very charming one.

Then again, Van Sant and Black, by beginning the story so late in his life, are far more interested in his struggle against the vile Prop 6, which was an attempt to overturn the civil rights of gays in employment. How could I begrudge Van Sant that, when this year a similar and equally evil proposition to remove the hard-won rights of gays won depressingly large support in California? That Milk was less concerned with who Milk was rather than what he stood for is not actually a fault with the movie, rather it was my subjective problem with the film, as I was eager to know even more about the man. Canyon and I both felt that the movie could have run for another couple of hours filling in those blanks, which, I guess, is a kind of praise; we certainly weren’t bored, after all. Perhaps it will spur me into finally reading that copy of The Mayor of Castro Street I have lying around somewhere.

Sadly it has its own intrinsic faults that we can't attribute to our own thwarted curiosity in the subject matter. Though beautifully performed and shot, scored with emotive brilliance than Danny Elfman at the height of his powers, and never less than fascinating, it has the same problems that many biopics have, that of condensing too much information into scenes with obvious dialogue and occasionally sentimental emoting. Far too often pivotal scenes will feature Milk facing a big emotional and political breakthrough or setback at the same time: deciding to fight Prop 6 as an explicitly homophobic piece of legislation rather than as a civil rights issue while his insecure and unhinged boyfriend throws a tantrum in a closet upstairs; facing yet more defeats while Scott sulks elsewhere; opening a shop and immediately meeting a homophobic representative of the local shopowners association, etc.

I get that biopics have to do that as there is so much information to get through, but those contrasts of highs and lows run like clockwork throughout almost all of them. Those contrasts are hard to swallow after seeing them satirised so deftly in Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard. It's possibly the most conventional genre, and I had hoped that a filmmaker as imaginative and daring as Van Sant would figure out a way to transcend those conventions, but sadly he plays by the biopic rulebook. Compare this film to Todd Haynes' love letter to Dylan, I'm Not There, surely the most perplexing and challenging biopic of recent years. Milk is pure vanilla compared to that, though it makes sense for Milk to be linear, dealing as it does with an interesting but unambiguous life. Haynes' masterstroke was to make a biopic whose structure mimics the playfulness and complexity of its subject, more a tone poem that resembles and reflects the man rather than a straight rendition of his life. Van Sant, on the other hand, is working from a pretty straight narrative from Lance Black (who, as one of the main writers on HBO’s best current show Big Love, is absolutely goddamn alright by us), and he tells it as it is. Was it respect for the subject matter that stayed Van Sant’s hand, or was it caution?

Funnily enough, my frustration over the conventionality of the movie was flipped when watching Van Sant's Paranoid Park a couple of days later. Coming at the tail-end of his minimalist arthouse period, his adaptation of Blake Nelson's YA novel is as unconventional as it gets, with a similarly fractured narrative to Elephant, and featuring intentional super-longeurs, amateur performances of varying quality, and a baffling soundtrack of inappropriate Nina Rota tunes played over yet another incredible sound collage by super-genius Leslie Shatz. And yet AV Club considered it the most accessible of his experimental series. Damn, it nearly alienated me, and I usually eat this shit up. Surely Elephant is way more accessible, despite the morbid subject matter.

Their point did give me a perspective on Milk's conservative storytelling. It's a great way to make the subject matter accessible to a wider audience, and is partially attributable to some difficulties in making the movie the way he originally intended (an interview with AICN’s Mr. Beaks went into detail about how plans to shoot Milk in 16mm went awry. I would link to it but the site is being an asshole). However, no matter why it happened, it's disappointing to fans of his quirkier movies, especially when he lets characters make repeated references to Milk living to a ripe old age, and worst of all, cutting from Milk's tragic death to an early scene with Milk stating he didn't think he would reach his fiftieth birthday. That's not poignant, it's crashingly obvious and distracting. What had been an emotional moment becomes patronising (the final scenes of a candlelit march redeem it, however).

I suspect I'm being harsher on Van Sant for the flaws in Milk than on Howard for Frost/Nixon's missteps not only because I expect more from Van Sant but because I expected it feel more personal, more closely allied with this other movies. After making a series of films that feel like variations on a theme, this step back towards straightforward storytelling irked me. It's perhaps even less adventurous than Good Will Hunting (a personal favourite, and I'm not ashamed to admit it), which could well be intentional, as I said, but thus doesn't feel like it came from Van Sant's filmography. It's charming, funny, heart-wrenching, righteously rage-inducing, and touching, but it doesn't feel like a Van Sant movie, and for a huge Van Sant fan, that's a problem.

All of this is to say that my assessment of Milk is utterly subjective, and should not be taken as a warning against seeing it. On the contrary, I thoroughly recommend it, and Frost/Nixon as well. Both are total Oscar-bait, with the added benefit of having a hefty political point to make (Milk's call for a united and committed struggle against establishment-endorsed bigotry, Frost/Nixon for a journalistic focus on matters of substance and not frivolity), but they're both highly entertaining and beautifully performed (Milk features superb work from Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch).

But, for all their considerable excellence, neither film features a guy on horseback catching a spear in mid-flight.

Red Cliff FTW.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What Would We Do Without John Woo?

We'd have to invent him, that's for sure. I've commented on the great man before, specifically his work on Stranglehold, the game that doubled as a sequel to his masterpiece Hard Boiled, though when I did that I had surprisingly little interest in his latest movie Red Cliff, even though the awesome Tony Leung Chui Wai is in it, and surely the return of Woo to Chinese cinema (and the reteaming with the co-star of Hard Boiled) should be a cause for celebration after his American films failed so badly.

I was paying so little attention to the production of Red Cliff that until a week ago I didn't even know it had been finished, let alone that it had been split into two movies, that the first had opened in Asia to enormous audiences, and that the West would have to wait until next year to see a single film that would lose about two hours of footage. Well, that's not going to happen on my watch. I got hold of a copy of Red Cliff: Part One this week, and I'm thrilled to say that it did not disappoint at all. In fact, I found myself, at times, applauding it. Saying it's his best film since Face/Off might sound like faint praise, as his post-Face/Off films were pretty rough, but trust me, this is an immediate classic. Accessible to all audiences, fast moving, thrilling, imaginative, beautifully shot and scored, and a feast for the eyes, it has vaulted high up my still-in-construction Best Of 2008 list.

(Yes, it's cheeky to add a film that isn't even getting a proper UK release into my list, but then release dates have made a mockery of our list-making, and caused much upset within our household (and we will probably not shut up about it for a while). Still, I'm not going to wait until next year to praise this film, especially as the second installment will be hitting cinemas in January, meaning I have something to look forward to. Here's the trailer for the first movie, just to give a taste of why I am so excited about this.)

Of course, I rave about it without having any knowledge whatsoever of the historical background, and so I pretty much just shouted, "OMG awesome!" every time one of the characters did something cool like catch a spear in mid-air. Even just a couple of minutes spent Wiki-ing leaves me utterly befuddled by the amount of controversy about rival interpretations of this period, i.e. the end of the Han Dynasty. Based as much on Chen Shou's original Records of Three Kingdoms as much as on the later novel Romance of Three Kingdoms by Luo Guangzhong, Red Cliff is a re-telling of a story very familiar to Chinese audiences but barely known in the West. These texts have been translated into English, but they're hard to come by. Just now I considered shelling out for a copy of the unabridged Records of the Three Kingdoms, but it's over 2500 pages long. As I'm still not done with the infernal Atlas Shrugged, another big book does not appeal right now.

So, I have to just accept the movie for what it is, and not get into a debate about whether it should be censured for its interpretations of Prime Minister Cao Cao and Zhou Yu, who are treated with more accuracy than usual, even while Woo keeps the practically superheroic qualities of Guan Yu. It's fair to say Woo was looking for the best opportunities to show off the themes he is always drawn to, while getting maximum hardcore action possibilities from his cast of characters.

It's also informed by the success of Lord of the Rings and 300, with the Red Cliff itself reminiscent of Thermopylae as a location where a decisive battle is held. Woo, as far as I can tell, has been informed by the success of LOTR, as much of the film concerns the actions of Zhuge Liang as he endeavours to unite Liu Bei and Sun Quan against Cao Cao, just as much of the final two LOTR books and films show Aragorn and Gandalf trying to break down the division between the rulers of Gondor and Rohan (which makes me wonder if Tolkein ever read anything about the Three Kingdoms). The supporting generals also resemble the colourful characters of the Fellowship, with Guan Yu almlost Legolas-like in his ability to take down huge amounts of enemy soldiers, Sun Shangxiang resembles Eowyn in her efforts to join in with the fighting despite the misogynist fretting of the menfolk, and volatile Zhang Fei, with his booming battle cry, reminded me of Gimli (though Gimli never body-checked a horse).

Of course, the popularity of those movies means we've had our fill of battle scenes that are just overhead shots of phalanxes of cavalry racing towards each other. Luckily, though Red Cliff does feature that, the battle within the Eight Trigrams Formation is unlike anything I've seen before, with thousands of shield-bearing soldiers forming a maze within which an army is utterly devastated in a series of ambushes. Unlike most action scenes (especially the hyper-kinetic gun battles Woo is famous for), this twenty minute sequence is paced surprisingly slowly, but is filled with imaginative twists and turns and lots and lots of blood. Action scene of the year? Very probably.

It also features men respecting each other and giving pointedly adoring looks; in some scenes the admiration Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) has for Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) would qualify as homoerotic if it wasn't for the fact that this is what Woo does. Instead, they're a classic Woo double act, two men forced together by circumstance and filled with admiration for each other, all the while knowing their friendship is almost certainly going to be tested to the brink of destruction by events outside their control. And yes, there are doves. One bravura shot shows a dove fly from Red Cliff, over Cao Cao's navy, and into the heart of his military camp, which is greatly pleasing, especially as it is a showcase for the excellent effects team, who provide work more convincing and better integrated than any other Chinese film I can think of.

One of the reasons I responded to this with such joy (other than that seeing Kurosawa Woo-ised is as gratifying as seeing Peckinpah get the same treatment) is that I also saw Peter Chan's The Warlords recently, and even with Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro heading the cast, it was disappointing. One terrific scene with Li charging a row of cannons thrilled me, and a mid-film sequence showing the terrible choices made following the siege of Suzhou was very interesting, but it fell apart in the final thirty minutes, and was so slackly paced prior to this that I struggled to maintain interest. Red Cliff, on the other hand, is a pure joy, and ignore the haters who complain that it is too slow. As the first half of a four-hour movie, it makes perfect sense to structure the movie the way it has been, and I cannot wait to see how all of the narrative threads introduced here are tied up in the final half. Forget the truncated Western version. Chase down a DVD copy of the first half, or find some other way to get hold of it. It's worth the effort.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

If I Were An Academy Member

Ah, Christmas. Yuletide logs roasting on an open fire, chestnuts singing Silent Night, and carollers hanging from the trees. Doctor Who is on the box, turkeys are drying in the oven, and Miramax are so busily following the template of their former CEs Harvey and Wallbanger Weinstein that we might as well rename the holiday Miramaxmas. Yes, as Canyon acknowledged with glee the other day, this is the time of year when the prestige movies come out and hunt for an Oscar nomination, and despite ourselves we love it.

Of course, Hollywood is so desperate for award recognition at this time of the year that it packs US cinemas with prestige movies starring Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet, but even though that manouevre is just as cynical as the summer season heralding dozens of movies featuring flying men and exploding cars, it's okay, because Christmas is a time for great art to be released into the arms of a culture-starved audience. Summer is where the downtrodden are avenged by robots or ubermensch. Winter is where the downtrodden are given a voice to speak of how hard it is to be a quirky teenager in an age of conformity, or a genocide survivor, or a racist who humiliates Thandie Newton and then saves her life because OMG that's three-dimensional characterisation right there.

This year, though, the disdained Hollywood product that I love has begun to generate more critical appraisal than usual, and it's possible that genre fare, so often dismissed by the critical establishment, might see some award season love. So far this month the Los Angeles Film Critics Association has chosen Wall*E as its film of the year, the AFI has added The Dark Knight and Iron Man to its 2008 list, and Robert Downey Jr. and James Franco have been nominated for "edgy" performances (i.e. uncomfortable for square audiences) in Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express respectively. Though the Foreign Press Association members decided The Dark Knight isn't worthy of as much respect as the pitiful crowd-pleasing monstrosity Mamma Mia!, the bleak superhero crime saga still might sneak past the anti-genre bias of the Academy (thanks to Skyblade for providing me with some perspective on that).

It's fair to say that the nominations are still going to feature many of the usual and predictable candidates, with nominations going to Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes, and other respectable and approved directors (I'm not denying they are talented, but they are rather safe choices). For instance, industry favourite Ron Howard is sure to get a Best Director nomination for Frost/Nixon, which I'm in two minds about. His work on that is far less adventurous than that of Chris Nolan, or Andrew Stanton, or Matteo "Gomorra" Girrone (just off the top of my head), but it's the best work of Howard's career, and as the movie is such a convincing success that I would feel churlish for being upset about it. Stanton might get a nod, which would please me despite reservations I've expressed before. Sentimentality aside, Wall*E was more daring than almost everything else released this summer. Mind you, I have to say, of all the likely nominations to come, my favourite will probably be Kate Winslet, English Rose, playing an illiterate Nazi who shags a teenager and ends up as an OAP after spending years in jail. Will Ricky Gervais get a namecheck if she wins?

Other than Best Picture, a category which seems sure to be populated by Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, and either Happy-Go-Lucky or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I think each category could possibly feature a surprise. With that in mind, our new poll is to see which unlikely but deserved nomination would you most like to see happen. I'll be honest, I don't expect many votes for this one, because I don't expect everyone to have seen all of them, but I remain curious about it nevertheless.

I'm leaving out Best Picture as I don't think there's any room for surprise there (though I really hope Dark Knight crushes the Mike Leigh-helmed affront to the world of cinema), but the rest of the main categories are represented. Only a couple of these possibilities really stand a chance, but I've tried hard not to come up with anything too outlandish (like a Best Director nod for the Wachowski Siblings, or a Best Actor nomination for Jack Black in Kung Fu Panda). So, vote for the one you would like to see happen, and I'll end the poll before the official nomination announcement in Feb. Here are the candidates, and yes, in the poll I removed the word Best. It's fair to say I don't think any of these should be nominated for Worst anything.

  • Best Director - Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)
  • Best Actor - Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man)
  • Best Supporting Actor - Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight)
  • Best Actress - Frances McDormand (Burn After Reading)
  • Best Supporting Actress - Emily Mortimer (Redbelt)
  • Best Photography - Caleb Deschanel (The Spiderwick Chronicles)
  • Best Art Direction - Peter Francis (Hellboy 2)
  • Best Costume Design - Eiko Ishioka (The Fall)
  • Best Visual Effects - Speed Racer
  • Best Foreign Language Picture - Let The Right One In
  • Best Original Screenplay - Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Pineapple Express)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay - David Gordon Green (Snow Angels)

  • Or you could ignore the poll and just tell me your dream nominations in the comments.

    Sunday, December 14, 2008

    Car Shoot Car

    My promised rant about The Mummy 3: How To Waste Jet Li has been postponed momentarily so I can make this horrible confession. Though I don't want to say it, and feel like I'm betraying everyone I know and love, I watched Paul W. S. Anderson's Death Race a few hours ago, and I didn't think it was the worst film of the year. Whether this has anything to do with seeing the truly appalling 88 Minutes a couple of days earlier, I do not know. BTW, if you're after a synopsis of Death Race, read the Wiki page I just linked to. There's no way I'm going to go through it again, which means I'm exhibiting as much effort as Anderson did while writing it.

    I usually cannot abide anything the guy does. Resident Evil remains one of my least favourite films of all time, Aliens Vs. Predator defecated all over two franchises that even hacks like Stephen Hopkins and Jean-Pierre Jeunet couldn't soil beyond salvation, and I'll never forgive the guy for wrecking David Webb Peoples' script for Soldier. Knowing that he was going to swallow Paul Bartel's entertaining Death Race 2000 and then regurgitate it out as a hairball of mediocrity angered me a lot, though perhaps not as much as the die-hard fans of the original.

    Of course, PWSA has stripped the original tale of its subversive edge and satirical bite, turning in a homogenous tale of wronged convicts and duplicitous wardens, as if crossing Steve Jackson's Car Wars and John McTiernan's Rollerball remake with John Flynn's Lock-Up, adding just a dash of Mario Kart to appeal to the gamers in the audience, while cynically introducing exploitation tropes like exploding people, gratuitous hotties, and Grizzled Old-Timer Ian McShane saying "Bullshit" a lot (but sadly, no "Cocksucker"). The cast aids and abets PWSA in his quest for mediocrity. The usually likable Jason Statham merely scowls and shows off his disconcertingly buff bod, Tyrese Gibson fails to act (as usual), and worst of all, Joan Allen appears as the warden of the prison within which the Death Race takes place. Having had her face filled to bursting with enough botox to kill a blue whale, she is incapable of emoting anything other than muted anger. It's like she's trapped behind a mask that looks like a puffy parody of her own face.

    This, more than anything else on display, depressed me totally. Joan Allen is a terrific actress (if you don't believe me check out her turn as Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's biopic of the shamed President), but here she has been plastinated so badly that she looks like a cross between Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a cat with Moebius Syndrome. Just to rub the misery in, she also gets to deliver such lines as "Release the Dreadnought!" and, worst of all, "Okay cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk", which is obviously PWSA trying to please the audience by getting an Oscar-nominated actress to utter profanities in a "shocking" manner, but just ends up sounding desperate, not to mention incomprehensible.

    This all might have worked if the whole enterprise wasn't so joyless and measured, aiming for a Grindhouse aesthetic but blowing it by being too neat and tidy. People explode, cars fly through the air, necks get snapped, and men hoot and holler at the sexy ladies brought in for no other reason than that sexy women attract viewers (an actual bit of meta-exposition from the film, horribly enough), but it feels hollow and gratuitous. That's saying something, considering Grindhouse movies are supposed to be hollow and gratuitous, but this is like the pod person version of those movies, all sheen and competence instead of enthusiasm and imagination.

    And yet I still found myself enjoying it on a lizard-brain level, perhaps because I thought the design on the cars was so sweet. They don't look particularly battle-hardened, even when peppered with bullet-holes, but they look butch and tooled-up. Who can resist the sight of a car covered with mini-guns, even though, illogically, they fire constantly throughout the movie and never seem to destroy anything?

    PWSA has raised his game with the action scenes as well. Though repetitive and often unimaginative, they are at least edited and shot with more coherence than a lot of modern action films, and with more muscular effect than he has exhibited in his previous, lethargic films. They're not perfect by a long shot, and confusion creeps in from time to time, but for the most part they are mindlessly fun to watch, with the added bonus of seeming to be filmed using real cars, pyrotechnics, and stuntmen (with sporadic CGI blowouts). Sadly, all of the good will generated by that commitment to real stuntwork was erased at the end of the film when Ian McShane addressed the camera. Totally unearned, and utterly embarrassing. You don't mistreat Al Swearengen like that, Anderson, you tool.

    So basically I'm saying the movie does not count as pure FAIL, which is a really insipid bit of praise, but considering how badly this most awful of directors usually screws up, it's a notable improvement. However, compare it to Neil Marshall's Doomsday, and the lack of quality becomes apparent. That was exactly the film this wished it was, and once more I urge any readers to watch it immediately. Either that or watch 88 Minutes. I'm serious! That shit is off the mu'fukken chain.

    Oh, and for the ladies (and gay fellas) who have just Googled "Jason Statham hot muscles", here is a screencap of him doing pull-ups, which he does in the middle of the film for no reason other than that his fanbase kinda expects this to happen at least once a film.

    It's a totally insane bod.

    Saturday, December 13, 2008

    Everyone Must Watch All 111 Minutes Of 88 Minutes Immediately

    While attempting to catch up on a ton of movies before this year runs out (though, of course, missing lots because of the shitty UK release schedules of some promising movies), we just watched 88 Minutes, starring Al Pacino. How bad was it? Approximately this bad.

    It's like a bad movie smorgasbord. Neal McDonough's in it, so it's like this year's I Know Who Killed Me, except a hundred times more entertaining. Leelee Sobieski is in it too, so it's like this year's Wicker Man (though she doesn't get into a brawl with Nicolas Cage, regrettably). It's directed by Jon Avnet, director of the execrable Up Close and Personal, and written by Gary Scott Thompson, the man responsible for the Knight Rider revamp. It could only have been more perfectly awful if it had been made by Mike Leigh. Truly a milestone in Bad Cinema. It's always a wonderful moment to find something as wrong-headed as Exorcist II: The Heretic, or Dreamcatcher, or the first Saw. This is that bad, but it also stars Al Pacino, for extra pain points. The cult has probably already sprung up, so keep an eye out for references to semen-pumping, phone-throwing, or Guy LaForge, because you'll know the person making that reference endured this and survived, and therefore deserves your respect, your pity, and your uncomfortably full-on hug with bonus boob grab (see the movie and watch Al's reaction to an exploding car. It'll make sense).

    Thursday, December 11, 2008

    Your Best And Worst Of Summer '08

    With my brain fully occupied with compiling my Films of the Year list (I'm taking this as seriously as Jonas Salk took his polio vaccine research), and the various critic circles announcing their awards of the year, it's time to deep six the two polls I've run since the summer, asking our readers for their favourite and least favourite films of the summer. Interestingly, the poll for least favourite got half the votes of the favourite. I guess people either made a point of avoiding watching terrible movies, or we attract a lot of people who feel uncomfortable ragging on the accomplishments of others. A noble sentiment, but I just watched The Mummy 3 - Yetis on Parade, and I feel like my soul has been frozen in carbonite, so IT IS ON. I'll get to that in a moment. First, the results from both polls:

    What Was Your Favo(u)rite Summer Movie?

  • The Dark Night Of Gotham’s Soul - 10 (31%)
  • Super Kung Fu Fighting Action Panda - 4 (12%)
  • Iron-Clad Billionaire - 4 (12%)
  • Wall*E - The Adorable Robot Messiah - 3 (9%)
  • Man Walk On Wire - 2 (6%)
  • Hellboy 2: The Surprising Awesomeness - 2 (6%)
  • Indiana Jones And The Impregnable Fridge of Safety - 2 (6%)
  • M. Night Shyamalan’s Attack Of The Sentient Plants! - 1 (3%)
  • Won’t Someone Love Poor Speed Racer? - 1 (3%)
  • Hulk 2: Not As Good As Iron Man - 1 (3%)
  • Dope + Guns + James Franco = Hilarity - 1 (3%)
  • X-Files - Battle Of The Belief Systems - 1 (3%)
  • The Mummy: Franchise Of The Diminishing Returns - 0 (0%)
  • Sexuality In An Urban Environment - 0 (0%)
  • Star Wars: The Kinda Boring Years - 0 (0%)
  • Narnia II: How Many More Tedious Sequels? - 0 (0%)
  • Meet A Robotic Version Of Eddie Murphy - 0 (0%)
  • The Fresh Prince In: Depressed Superhero - 0 (0%)
  • Wanted: Assassins Fluent In Loom Binary - 0 (0%)
  • Ben Stiller Bites The Hand That Feeds Him - 0 (0%)
  • Streep And Brosnan Sing! - 0 (0%)
  • Jack Bauer vs. Some Evil Mirrors - 0 (0%)

  • What Was Your Least Favo(u)rite Summer Movie?

  • Meet A Robotic Version Of Eddie Murphy - 2 (12%)
  • Sexuality In An Urban Environment - 2 (12%)
  • The Fresh Prince In: Depressed Superhero - 2 (12%)
  • M. Night Shyamalan’s Attack Of The Sentient Plants! - 2 (12%)
  • Won’t Someone Love Poor Speed Racer? - 2 (12%)
  • The Dark Night Of Gotham’s Soul - 1 (6%)
  • Hellboy 2: The Surprising Awesomeness - 1 (6%)
  • Indiana Jones And The Impregnable Fridge of Safety - 1 (6%)
  • Star Wars: The Kinda Boring Years - 1 (6%)
  • Streep And Brosnan Sing! - 1 (6%)
  • The Mummy: Franchise Of The Diminishing Returns - 1 (6%)
  • Iron-Clad Billionaire - 0 (0%)
  • Narnia II: How Many More Tedious Sequels? - 0 (0%)
  • Wall*E - The Adorable Robot Messiah - 0 (0%)
  • Hulk 2: Not As Good As Iron Man - 0 (0%)
  • X-Files - Battle Of The Belief Systems - 0 (0%)
  • Super Kung Fu Fighting Action Panda - 0 (0%)
  • Dope + Guns + James Franco = Hilarity - 0 (0%)
  • Wanted: Assassins Fluent In Loom Binary - 0 (0%)
  • Ben Stiller Bites The Hand That Feeds Him - 0 (0%)
  • Man Walk On Wire - 0 (0%)
  • Jack Bauer vs. Some Evil Mirrors - 0 (0%)

  • It stands to reason that the most watched and most hyped movie of the summer gets big votes in the Love category, and a desultory single vote in the Hate one. I'm actually surprised it didn't get more Hate, as I've seen some real venom directed at it, either in kneejerk attention-seeking Fanboyese or in eloquent prose. Nevertheless, Love is where my own vote went. We saw it again in IMAX recently, and it still holds up, even without the excited audience and New-York-inspired brainmelt of our first viewing. That said, even though I maintain it's my favourite movie of the year so far (things can change in the final couple of weeks), I was sorely tempted to cast my vote for Kung-Fu Panda, which still delights after four viewings. Canyon placed her vote here, as she adores it without measure, even though her antipathy toward the martial arts genre means she resists the lure of my Jet Li collection. Why do you resist? Once Upon A Time In China is the wuxia nuts, my dear wife.

    Also great after repeated viewings is Iron Man, which especially pleases me as those damnable fanboys were crowing about imminent FAIL throughout its production, shutting the fuck up as soon as the first trailer came out. Though Favreau's direction on Elf was occasionally shaky (and that final act remains disappointing no matter how often we see it), I still had hope, especially when Robert Downey Jr. got cast. So yeah, I'm smug about it.

    That smugness is punctured, however, by my regrettable semi-apathy towards Wall*E, which I wanted to like much more than I did. Though it's obviously an amazing achievement, and kept me thoroughly entertained throughout, I do wish Andrew Stanton would resist the urge to make his films so ingratiatingly cutesy. He has very little impulse control for adding populist touches to his films, which is why Finding Nemo ended on about fifty-three climaxes with each character in the film having doubts about themselves and then overcoming those doubts in order to save the day, and why Wall*E, which heroically features very little dialogue, a bleak anti-consumer message laying the blame for the world's ills on the audience, and nods to sci-fi classics such as 2001 and Silent Running, goes and ruins it all with overlong romantic scenes of robots flying in space, obvious slapstick, and more Christ metaphors than Superman Returns (no mean feat).

    It's the sort of film I expected would be my favourite of the year and ended up being much less interesting than I had hoped even though I was constantly impressed and brought to tears from time to time. In other words, a frustrating thing I will almost certainly go back and forth on for years to come (another example: Excalibur was on Sky Movies the other day and watching bits of it made me realise I love it now, after years of hate). Compare that to Ratatouille, which remains a glorious and thought-provoking entertainment that never compromises its message by winking at the audience. Stanton may be Pixar's money machine, but Bird remains their greatest artist (unless Up is as good as I hope it will be and Pete Docter gives him a run for his money).

    Next up is the unimpeachable Man On Wire, one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time, and one that made me burst out crying with zero warning. I'm a sucker for emotional manipulation in films, I will admit, but Man On Wire does nothing to tug the heartstrings, making the emotional impact of the final third even more profound. Kudos to James Marsh for making the most cinematic documentary I can think of, other than Wisconsin Death Trip which, I only found out afterwards, Marsh also made.

    What a hero. His only fictional feature, The King, is on our Sky+ box, and once I've finished watching the various copies of this year's movies I have littering the house, I'll check it out, and in the meantime, I heartily recommend this film to all readers (as it's a Storyville documentary, there's a good chance it will be on BBC Four or BBC2 soon).

    Hellboy II gets the same amount of love as Indiana Jones IV, which is good news for Mike Mignola and Guillermo Del Toro, and bad news for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I know which one I preferred, and it was a big surprise. Despite the continuing debate about whether it's okay to like Spielberg or not (of course it is. God!), and even though this film was good for the first hour and boring for the last, it was not a debacle, certainly when compared to other summer action movies made by hacks with no understanding of how to craft a scene or frame a shot (::cough::Rob Cohen::cough::). That said, it contained no sense of wonder, which Hellboy II did. This is a big deal for me as I usually resist Del Toro's movies a little, thinking them pretty but lifeless. This time it was Spielberg's film that left me unmoved, while Del Toro's film made me giddy with joy.

    Funny how at this point in the poll, the movies getting one or two Love votes also get one or two Hates as well. Hellboy, Indy, The Happening, and Speed Racer split the audiences they got (big for Indy, relatively small for everything else). I've already dissed The Happening (twice, in fact) and praised Speed Racer, so I won't go into it again, other than to say I'm so happy someone else liked the Wachowski Siblings' crazed experimental race movie, which holds up to rewatching as well as Iron Man and Kung-Fu Panda. And I still cry at the end. Oh Matthew Fox, you'll be getting a few mentions in my end of year list, both pro (Speed Racer) and affectionate con (the demented Rashomon-meets-Bourne histrionics-fest Vantage Point).

    Solitary votes for The Incredible Hulk (which I liked) and Pineapple Express (which I loved, and enjoyed even more second time around), and then a single vote for X-Files: I Want A Cruller With That Venti Mocha, from regular Shades of Caruso reader and commenter Johnilf. Though I wouldn't say I thought the film was actually good, it wasn't deserving of the critical drubbing it got. The argument that it was a long TV episode shown on the big screen was pretty accurate (though would the TV version feature performances from international megastars Amanda Peet and Xzibit? I don't think so!), but beyond its limitations as a film, it was also a powerful trip down memory lane for a lot of fans, and while watching it I found it hard to resist those nostalgic feelings. Plus, Billy Connolly was terrific as the psychic pedophile priest or whatever he was. OMG! It really is just like an average episode of the show, because I've completely forgotten the plot a few months after seeing it!

    Nothing else gets a good vote, but there were some other bad ones. Two people saw Meet Dave, amazingly, and they weren't happy. I'll avoid and hold onto the memories of Billy Ray Valentine, thank you very much. Sex and the City: The Movie Experience gets two votes, one from Canyon, who saw it solo (I was asleep, is my defence), and was utterly dismayed by it while compelled to stay in her seat as the ridiculous clothes-wearing montages unfurled. Hancock gets two votes also, and while I was disappointed by it, I'll still be checking out the sequel. Seriously. The first one's problems were borne of the bass-ackwards exposition, and so a sequel exploring this mythology will maybe make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

    Star Wars: The Low-Budget Clone Wars (which I was almost fond of until seeing the dreary TV series it was wrenched from) and Mamma Monstrosity! both get a vote each, but the final vote cast, yesterday afternoon, was for The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which made me absolutely livid, so much so that I think I'm going to have to rant about it some other time, as it's wrapped up in some things Canyon and I have been chatting about during recent weeks. After that debacle, no votes for or against Tropic Thunder (a crushing disappointment), Wanted (ditto), Narnia II, or Mirrors, either due to the small sample of votes we got, or just because no one saw them or cared about them. In the case of Narnia I can understand that. I don't think I've ever been less interested in seeing a movie in my life, and not just because of the obnoxious religious propaganda. I'd rather see Sex and the City than this. I know!

    Okay, another poll coming up, this time based around the Oscars (because if it's not lists, I'll obsess about award nominations). Once I've figured out the candidates, I'll stick that up.

    Sunday, December 7, 2008

    Hipster Douchebag Music Recommendation Of The Week: "Momma's Boy" by Chromeo

    As one of the tail-end of the iPod generation, albums aren't my strong suit, and most of my recommendations are from music that came out a year or two ago, so I'll stick with these recommendations rather than subjecting you to another series of arbitrary lists. So on with my arbitrary song!

    Chromeo is yet another band we first heard on Conan's show -- then investigated and found two albums' worth of funny, spacey, slightly retro-sounding tracks. Electrofunk is not exactly my specialty -- I'm not even sure "electrofunk" is an entirely real category of music, much like "shoegaze" and "slowcore" (don't even get me started on how much I hate descriptions of music as "[blah]core". Can we not stop this madness? Aren't we better than this as a people?) -- but these guys are too charming to resist.

    The gem off their second album, Fancy Footwork, is the one they played on Conan's show -- a funny, weirdly sweet song about incestuous desires. It's got a cool video, too, which thankfully appears to be incest-free:

    The lighthearted hooks and equally funny lyrics make the song instantly catchy -- I especially like the little riff that sounds like the theme song to an 80s sitcom that never existed but should have. It's an endearingly lo-fi effort -- like two kids who are messing around in their parents' basement with a Casio keyboard.

    In fact, the band's two members, Dave 1 and P-Thugg (real names David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel) have been friends since they were kids, and describe themselves as "the only successful Arab/Jewish collaboration since the beginning of time." Delightfully, Dave 1 is getting his PhD in French literature from Columbia so he can teach, and P-Thugg is a trained accountant. Knowing this makes their performance, complete with bling and disembodied drum-beating women's legs (they look awfully fra-gile-ay) of the title track off Fancy Footwork on Jimmy Kimmel's show all the more entertaining:

    But the best part about Chromeo is that they're willing to take chances on reinterpreting their songs. When they performed on Conan's show, they ditched the lo-fi approach and, somewhat bizarrely, brought in a string section. Have I mentioned lately that I love string sections? The result is beautiful, touching, funny, and kind of creepy. (Watch out for Dave singing "We're just Obama's boys" and grinning hugely as the audience cheers.)

    Shameful Admission of the Week:

    "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" by Sasha Fierce Beyonce

    It's not quite as good as "Crazy In Love," which may end up being the highlight of Beyonce's career, but this single is infectiously catchy, as evidenced by its ubiquity. Though Admiral Neck is an unrepentant music snob (FACT!), he's the one who showed me this video awhile ago -- and I'm sure it was in no way influenced by the fact that Beyonce is on his List (or used to be, until he saw her on Punk'd and decided she was a heartless automaton).

    It's an entrancing, hypnotic video, and not just because Beyonce is thrusting her groin at the camera at regular intervals. It's just three women dancing in black and white, but it's beautifully choreographed, with the kind of energetic thigh-shaking that is Beyonce's specialty and a stripped-down set that puts the focus squarely on our singer, who is a magnetic presence to begin with (though that may have something to do with her bionical arm) and becomes impossible to take your eyes off here. My favorite part of the video is when they run up a ramp at the side of the room for a few seconds -- it's not a big effect or anything, but it gives the video a sense of giddiness and hyperreality.

    It turns out that Beyonce rejiggered this concept from somebody who dubbed the Unk song "Walk It Out" over a Bob Fosse dance routine of Gwen Verdon and two other women dancing to "Mexican Breakfast." The slightly creepy original is here, and the terrifying mash-up/remix/unholy hybrid is here. Some YouTube commenters are apparently horrified by Beyonce "stealing" the idea. Hold the phone! An R&B artist using sampling for her song??? Where are my pearls, I must clutch them! Anyway, it's a great idea and Beyonce's updating of it works brilliantly -- not least because it helps scrub the image of Gwen Verdon high-kicking in bell-bottomed sailor pants out of my horrified brain.

    The song itself is a rump-shaking, hand-clapping barn-stormer, and as the thumping bass digs in and the mechanical whirring mimics the melody, it's impossible not to want to get up and swing your cyborg arms along with it. The synthesizer that rises up during the chorus gives the song an almost epic, slightly menacing feel, which I think is appropriate for a song in which spurning your boyfriend's love apparently turns you into a man-eating dance robot. It's another feminism-lite track from Beyonce, an ode to female empowerment via, um, withholding sex until your boyfriend agrees to marry you. Hm. Well, hey, it's got style and sass and ladies in skimpy outfits parading around with attitude, and that pretty much constitutes most feminism these days. Where are my bras, I must burn them!

    Of course I've gotten in on this phenomenon just a bit late; I suppose it's a testament to the power of the video that it's imprinted itself on the national consciousness this way. We've already had the guy who does the choreography in his bedroom (he's great, but I have to admit that his abs creep me out a little. There's so many of them!), the Gwen Verdon version, and, of course, the SNL parody with Justin Timberlake, which was hilarious but did not feature nearly enough dancing from Paul Rudd. And then there's the rest of them. Have a good time having the next nine hours of your life sucked away. Sasha Fierce will own you too!

    Friday, December 5, 2008

    A Not Quite So Large List Of Music I Liked And Hated This Year

    I won’t pretend to offer the musical breadth of experience of Admiral Neck (seriously, who has the time to discover, let alone listen to, that amount of music? Someone with too much time on his hands, I tell you), but I won’t let that stop me weighing in with my thoughts on 2008. A red-letter year in many ways, not least in that paramount among its lessons are that you can turn any old rubbish into a hit with a stoopid but memorable chorus and a gimmicky video. Speaking of which:

    Song whose transcendent awfulness mesmerised me for months on end of the year
    “Rock Star” – Nickelback

    I had previously thought “How You Remind Me” was unsurpassable in its horridness. Well done, Nickelback! The curious thing about “Rock Star” is that it took two goes to make it a hit; on its initial release in 2006, it scored some modest success in the US and Canada, but it took the 2007 re-release with the celebrity-packed video to make it a global smasheroo. It was the second biggest selling track of 2008 in the UK. It was the second biggest selling track of 2008 in the UK. This might seem to prove that you can sell anything with slebs these days, as Britain’s supermarkets are currently jostling to prove, but I think it’s something else about the video: it shows real people alongside – i.e. OMG equal to!!! – celebrities. You can be a rock star, just like Chad Kroeger! Oh.

    I was amused to read the other day that sofa retailer DFS has had its commercial that used “Rock Star” banned from TV, ostensibly because it indicated that – no! – its sofas were bigger than they actually are. Exaggeration? In advertising? What is the world coming to? Anyway, I think we know the real reason. Not for the first time, Popjustice’s Peter Robinson managed to sum up my feelings perfectly.

    Song I wanted to PUNCH in its STUPID FACE of the year
    “I Kissed A Girl” – Katy Perry

    What’s more tiresome than would-be titillating pseudo-lesbianism from a straight girl? Recording an irritating, strident, disingenuous (“I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it”, indeed) and bloody ubiquitous pop song about it. Perry appears to have a lot of things going for her, not least a gung-ho gameness and that unusual throaty contralto, so why resort to this fraudulent, adolescent, attention-seeking posturing? As if that weren’t bad enough, the song sounds horribly artificial and barely deviates off a solitary note – it was apparently created with nothing but ProTools and a lascivious smirk. Speaking of which:

    Album that needed only one and a half listens to convince me that it is the biggest piece-of-shit folly of this or any other year
    Chinese Democracy – Guns N’ Roses

    Fucking hell.

    Two-thirds-of-a-good-albums of the year

    Do You Like Rock Music? – British Sea Power
    Santogold – Santogold
    Sunday At Devil Dirt – Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
    Me And Armini – Emiliana Torrini

    All have six to eight good tracks – even some great tracks, particularly BSP and Santogold – then, “Will this do?”. I had a rant all lined up about how downloads are killing the traditional album format, but I came to my senses: of course albums have always been patchy and padded, and two-thirds of a good album is still a good album. I enjoyed all those mentioned above very much. Actually, maybe downloads will help usher in a period in which the weak album track is weeded out. Maybe it will see the end of the very concept of “album track”. It hasn’t happened yet, though.

    Disappointing album of the year
    Poor Man’s Heaven – Seth Lakeman

    As I’ve posted previously, this is by no means a terrible record, but his previous two albums were so amazing that it’s inevitably a letdown. Lakeman’s decision to cut back on the fiddle in favour of jangly-jangly guitar ballads is perplexing, because Poor Man’s Heaven is at its best when it’s at its rowdiest, and towards the end it’s just boring. Considering how receptive the critics and public were prepared to be, it goes down as a missed opportunity.

    Album I (perhaps shamefully) did not buy because of its reviews of the year
    Only By The Night – Kings Of Leon

    Not because critics said it wasn’t that good, but because they said it showed KOL were aiming for a mainstream, arena-rock audience. Because Of The Times, with its off-kilter desolation and soul-shuddering grooves, was my favourite album of 2007 and one of the year’s biggest surprises, so to hear the band had gone “straight” discouraged me. That, and the juvenile lyrics to “Sex On Fire”. Ah, I’ll probably get it eventually.

    Overrated album of the year
    Songs In A&E – Spiritualized

    Proof positive, as if any were needed, that the press loves a good narrative above all. Jason Pierce produced Songs In A&E after he ::checks Wikipedia:: contracted advanced periorbital cellulitis with bilateral pneumonia with rapid deterioration, requiring intensive care and c-pap for type 1 respiratory failure. The dude nearly died, genuinely, and that’s a great story. The album sounds, well, like someone who nearly died recently. It’s moving in places, with a couple of great moments (“Sweet Talk”, “Soul On Fire”), but it is emphatically not in the same league as Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space or the underappreciated Let It Come Down, and at times just sounds like a honking mess.

    Runner-up: Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
    Why yes, I would like some warmed-over mid-80s Paul Simon riffs with my hipster New York indie rock, thanks! I’ll stick with Graceland, thanks. And their cavalier attitude to punctuation upsets me.

    Underrated album of the year
    Superabundance – The Young Knives

    Although it has nothing as immediate as the terrific singles “She’s Attracted To” and “Here Comes The Rumour Mill” from Voices Of Animals And Men, Superabundance is thoughtful and resonant, with tunes that wriggle inside your brain and set up a shop selling catchiness. “Turn Tail” is a glorious paean to disillusionment and resignation that might be the best thing they’ve written.

    Runner-up: Consolers Of The Lonely – The Raconteurs
    I’m convinced most people’s problem with this band is that they’re billed a “supergroup” when they’re nothing of the sort. But Jack White’s side project (with apologies to co-songwriter Brendan Benson) put out another great album this year, full of exhilarating blues riffs, hilarious melodrama and classic pop hooks.

    Video of the year
    “The Boy Does Nothing” – Alesha Dixon

    Just because.

    As a friend of Shades Of Caruso commented recently, “Oh, Harvey.” Bet her ex feels pretty fricking dumb right about now – as does Polydor, the record label that dropped her in 2006 and subsequently tried to re-sign her following her post-Strictly Come Dancing renaissance. (What do you know, she turned them down.) I’d like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to an earlier fantastic single, “Knockdown”, which inexplicably failed to make the UK Top 40.

    Overexposed video of the year
    Every single Rihanna video. I cannot tell the difference but they are ALL on EVERY MUSIC CHANNEL on my TV ALL THE TIME. Rihanna deservedly had a huge hit in 2007 with the very brilliant “Umbrella”, but now she seems less a popstar and more a charmless marionette who wears unflattering outfits while pretentious directors think up ways to make her MOR&B seem edgy.

    Singles of the year
    1. “Fascination” – Alphabeat
    2. “I Will Possess Your Heart” – Death Cab For Cutie
    3. “The Hurlers” – Seth Lakeman
    4. “No Lucifer” – British Sea Power
    5. “Kids” – MGMT
    6. “L.E.S Artistes” – Santogold
    7. “Waving Flags” – British Sea Power
    8. “American Boy” – Estelle
    9. “Dance Wiv Me” – Dizzee Rascal/Calvin Harris
    10. “Black And Gold” – Sam Sparro

    As Admiral Neck mentioned, this is not generally considered a vintage year for music, but what 2008 had in abundance was – to use the Smash Hits! vernacular for a moment (should that be “ver ’nacular”?) – amazingly brilliant pop singles.

    None was better than Alphabeat’s debut release, about which everything was completely perfect, from its singers’ perky fresh-scrubbed faces to that wonderful “woah-oh, woah-oh-oh”. Estelle and Dizzee Rascal’s UK number ones ran it close, though – I admire Kanye West’s solo work more than I really like it, and I thought his collaboration with Estelle was the pick of his 2008 work. Other shiny pop gems included the aforementioned “The Boy Does Nothing”, Duffy’s “Mercy” (until you hear it for the 9,000th time), Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” and the irresistible “That’s Not My Name” by the Ting Tings. I wish that wasn’t their name, because I feel stupid just typing it. Even some of the year’s lesser pop hits had undeniable choruses: “Can’t Speak French” and “The Promise” by Girls Aloud,’s “Heartbreaker” and, yes, Britney’s “Womanizer” (try getting it out of your head – I guarantee you can’t). Even Pink’s grating “So What” had a fab chorus hidden amid its pissy squawking. Choruses are back back back!

    While MGMT’s “Time To Pretend” was everywhere, I prefer “Kids”, with its plaintive, almost mournful “Control yourself/Take only what you neeeeeeeeed from it” refrain. Similarly, although Santogold’s “Say Aha” and “Creator” are overfamiliar from adverts, the haunting and ballsy “L.E.S Artistes” still sounds thrilling. And I love its crazy equine video. She’s like a deadpan, less condescending Gwen Stefani.

    (Incidentally, I’ve picked “Black And Gold” despite having no association with the religious sentiments expressed therein by Mr Sparro. I choose to read it as a simple love song. However, if it really is a paean to God, then perhaps we’ll have to revise the truism that the Devil has the best tunes because this song is bloody fantastic.)

    Triumphant comeback of the year

    Mountain Battles – The Breeders

    While the cognoscenti were focusing on the usual East Coast hipsters and high-profile R&B producers, a 47-year-old woman from Ohio was quietly making the coolest music of the year. Congratulations, that last sentence – you are the most wanky music-mag phrase I have ever written! The Breeders have always sounded out of their time: “Cannonball” might be synonymous with early-1990s alterna-rock, but it hardly epitomises it. By turns witty, penetrating, silly and heartbreaking, with its ultra-spare percussion and permanent throbbing fuzz, Mountain Battles sounds like nothing else in 2008. There are no official videos, but here’s some footage of Kim Deal and co setting up for a party while “Bang On” plays over the top.

    Album I listened to most in 2008, although it was released in 2007
    Cease To Begin – Band Of Horses

    A very nearly perfect record, and certainly perfect for the time when I acquired it, just weeks after relocating from the city (well, suburbs) to a small town surrounded by countryside. Cease To Begin’s bucolic dreaminess and sense of isolation amid familiarity enveloped and comforted me, and I listened so much that my favourite track changed half a dozen times. Currently it’s the almost oppressively beautiful “Marry Song”.

    Unquestionably my favourite album of the year
    Narrow Stairs – Death Cab For Cutie

    The title is surely ironic. Narrow Stairs is an expansive, easygoing album that never requires effort – it’s not difficult; it’s happy to be enjoyed. Aided by Ben Gibbard’s most lucid, evocative storytelling to date, this deceptively simple record draws you in and wraps itself around you. Dusty, warm and welcoming, it’s the best album of 2008, and it might be Death Cab’s best yet.

    To end, here’s a hilariously literal fan video for one of my favourite tracks, “Grapevine Fires”.

    Wednesday, December 3, 2008

    A Large List of Music I Enjoyed in 2008

    Why so early with a Best Of list? I've still got a lot of albums to check out properly, and yet here we are, partially because my hand was forced leading me to post this elsewhere first (though without the lovely YouTube videos), and also because my piece of shit TyTn phone crashed yesterday meaning I lost absolutely everything on it, including yet another Week in TV post, so I've got to reconstruct that from scratch, something I could have spent today doing but instead I stupidly farted around trying to figure out how to append .srt files to .avi files (here's the short answer; you can't because vobsub_vd.vdf and textsub.vdf files are more slippery than the King of Eels and never seem to work even when added to VirtualDubMod plugin folders, meaning you waste hours and hours installing, uninstalling, and reinstalling programs and all you get is much misery).

    Where was I? Oh yeah, music. As you can see from my top fifteen album list, it's been another good year (though there is much carping across the internet that dammit, those musicians didn't excel themselves this year, how selfish of them). There are several albums I'm still getting into, and many more I've not even heard at all. As usual, I expect to find more out as soon as I hit Publish (last year I damned The National with faint praise and then realised Boxer was a masterpiece), but for now, let this stand.

    Albums of the Year:

    1. Re-Arrange Us - Mates of State
    2. April - Sun Kil Moon
    3.= The Family Afloat - Bound Stems
    3.= Lay Down In The Light - Bonnie "Prince" Billy
    4.= Real Emotional Trash - Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
    4.= Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
    5. Microcastle - Deerhunter
    6.= Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust - Sigur Rós
    6.= Narrow Stairs - Death Cab For Cutie
    7. This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That - Marnie Stern
    8.= Gift of Screws - Lindsey Buckingham
    8.= Who Killed Amanda Palmer - Amanda Palmer
    9. For Emma, Forever Ago - Bon Iver
    10.= Only By The Night - Kings Of Leon
    10.= Sea Lion - The Ruby Suns

    Disappointments of the Year:

    Heart On - Eagles of Death Metal
    Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp
    Caught In The Trees - Damien Jurado
    Stay Positive - The Hold Steady
    Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - David Byrne and Brian Eno (Yes, I know I blogged about it before, but it never got any better than the first listen.)

    Possible Contenders That I've Not Yet Listened To Enough:

    Something for All of Us... - Broken Social Scene Presents: Brendan Canning
    Dear Science - TV On The Radio
    The Stand Ins - Okkervil River
    Untitled - Nas
    Hold On Now, Youngster... - Los Campesinos

    I know, that video's been around for a year and a half but it's so great it needs to be seen as often as possible.

    Worst Album of the Year/Decade:

    The Bedlam In Goliath - The Mars Volta (Having been forced to listen to a lot of Mars Volta this year, I have to ask: what the fuck is the appeal of this band? It makes me turn into an old fart complaining about the racket, which earns it extra hate points. HATE!)

    Best Use of Autotune to Confound Squidbrains Album of the Year:

    808s and Heartbreak - Kanye West

    Best Posthumous Release of the Year:

    Leucocyte - Esbjörn Svensson Trio

    I Don't Get What The Big Deal Is Album of the Year:

    In Ear Park - Department of Eagles (The hipsters love it but it reminds me of cloying 60s pop filtered through an Americana mindset and as such depresses me greatly.)

    Why Isn't This More Popular Album of the Year:

    This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That - Marnie Stern (The woman is a musical genius, and has the requisite cute-hipster look to appeal to all of the douchebags. She should PWN the world by now.)

    Underrated Album of the Year:

    Only By The Night - Kings Of Leon (Yes yes, stadium rock etc. But it's a grower, and even if it's not as good as Because of the Times, it's partially because that was the best rock album of the decade and it's hard to top. Two more albums like this and I might change my tune, though.)

    Best Classical Music Album of the Year:

    Video Games Live - Jack Wall/Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/Crouch End Festival Chorus/David Temple (I only just found out about it! Tron Medley? Halo? Civ 4? I never knew you cared enough to make this, world.)

    Songwriter of the Year:

    Amanda Palmer, whose commitment to brutal truthtelling shocked and thrilled me.

    Lyrics of the Year:

    Gardenia by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

    Richard Avedon. Richard Avedon would. Richard Avedon would surely approve.

    Overrated Album of the Year:

    Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (While I love the first half of the album, the second half is just nothing. I cannot remember a single thing about it and I've heard it about 30 times.)

    Best Soundtrack of the Year:

    Lost Season Three OST - Michael Giacchino
    Plus, I've not heard it on CD, but the soundtrack to Snow Angels was lovely, and would probably swipe this spot.

    Best Comedy Album of the Year:

    Flight of the Conchords OST - Flight of the Conchords

    Most Overdue Return of the Year:

    Harps and Angels - Randy Newman

    Most Welcome Return of the Year:

    Mountain Battles - The Breeders

    Most Career-Rehabilitating Return of the Year:

    Forth - The Verve (Not technically a good album, but even in semi-FAIL mode it's infinitely better than Richard Ashcroft's solo work.)

    Most Reputation-Destroying Return of the Year:

    Snowflake Midnight - Mercury Rev (They discovered technology! And made an embarrassing hash of it. Bring back David Baker and Suzanne Thorpe.)

    (Interstellar space orgy featuring Ron Jeremy! That's more like it. These days it's all neuroses and overthinking. Very disappointing.)

    Most Surprising Return of the Year:

    Third - Portishead

    Most Underwhelming Return of the Year:

    Songs in A&E - Spiritualized®

    Most Frustrating Return of the Year:

    The Hungry Moon - Tindersticks

    Production of the Year:

    Mark Nevers, traditionally tied to Lambchop, worked wonders on Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Lay Down In The Light, the best Will Oldham release since Master and Everyone. Whereas that was minimalist, and The Letting Go was dour, this is playful, funny, and even catchy. The addition of a few new and unusual instruments to the usual array of Americana staples unleashes Oldham's quirkiness, and the result is a pure joy. Of course, I can't find any online evidence of this, so here's Runs In The Family by Amanda Palmer, produced (brilliantly) by Ben Folds. A lot of work went into getting this terrifying and dizzying run-on rant together.

    Albums From Previous Years That I Properly Fell In Love With This Year:

    Boxer - The National
    Kala - M.I.A. (Both of these albums would get on last year's list, pushing two others out)
    Tusk - Fleetwood Mac
    Bring It Back - Mates of State
    Source Tags and Codes - ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

    Singles of the Year:

    1. SEX ON FIYAH!!! - Kings of Leon
    2. Get Better - Mates of State
    3. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) - Beyonce aka Sasha Fierce
    4. Death Cab For Cutie - No Sunlight (Well, it's not out as a single yet, but it will be soon. If not this, then Cath...)
    5. Time to Pretend - MGMT
    6. That's Not My Name - The Ting Tings
    7. I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked - Ida Maria

    8. Gardenia - Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
    9. A-Punk - Vampire Weekend
    10. Bruises - Chairlift

    Synapse-Frying Hyper-Uplift Single of the Year:

    Við Spilum Endalaust - Sigur Rós

    You Upset My Cats And Have Thus Upset Me Single of the Year:

    Creator - Santogold

    EP of the Year:

    Water Curses - Animal Collective

    Album Tracks of the Year:

    1. The Re-Arranger - Mates of State
    2. Sugar City Magic - Bound Stems

    3. Moorestown or Tonight In Bilbao (can't decide) - Sun Kil Moon
    4. Wait For You - Lindsay Buckingham
    5. Manhattan - Kings of Leon
    6. Where Is The Puzzle? - Bonnie "Prince" Billy
    7. Ruler - Marnie Stern
    8. Never Stops - Deerhunter
    9. Tane Mahuta - The Ruby Suns
    10. Change is Hard - She and Him

    Insanity-Generating Brainworm of the Year:

    Ragged Wood - Fleet Foxes

    OMG Seriously WTF You Can't Say That Album Track of the Year:

    Oasis - Amanda Palmer

    Perplexing Omission of the Year:

    Why is If You're Into It missing from the Flight of the Conchords OST?

    Missed opportunity there.

    I'm still working on a film list, which will come later this month, and Canyon is cooking something up something music-related. Stay tuned (and buy Amanda Palmer's album or, if you're a skinflint, check out the series of videos she made for it on YouTube).