Sunday, November 23, 2008

The weekend never starts round here

I never really think of myself as a music buff, or even a music lover. Compared to my obsessions with movies and games, music seems to take a back seat as I rarely seek out anything new and have bought very little in the last few years.

Thinking back to my childhood, though, it seems a very different story.

I believe the first single I ever bought was Turtle Power, the movie tie-in song on a cassette from Woolworths in Cricklewood (long since closed). It was a bizarre rap-lite concoction, and I think to my embarrassment that the first album I owned was either Bobby Brown’s ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ or Vanilla Ice’s ‘To the Extreme’, both second albums by artists who found fame as their style became fashionable, New Jack Swing taking hold around the time of Brown’s ‘My Prerogative’ being released, and Vanilla Ice cashing in on the novelty (s)hit single. Given the timeline it was probably Brown, but either way I stress that I was influenced by Top of the Pops, and was only about ten years old.

It was also Top of the Pops that set me upon a different path, however, after Iron Maiden’s ‘Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter’ reached number one and basically made me a Metaller, or Metalhead or whatever you want to call it. After that I got a leather jacket and started to grow my hair, and listened to everything from the obvious Metallica, Guns and Roses and Megadeth to lesser know acts like Pro Pain and Misery Loves co. A bunch of friends from school also shared an interested in music that was heavy and guitar based, and mostly thanks to them I hovered around the cutting edge of the scene, getting into the likes of Nirvana, Korn, Fear Factory, Incubus, Marilyn Manson, Tool and System of a Down either before they hit the big time, or before most people had ever heard of them.
I watched as the metal scene fragmented into even more little sub genres than the late 80s had to offer with the cock rock of Poison, stadium bollocks of Bon Jovi and thrash metal of Slayer and Metallica (pre-Black Album) to complement the more ‘bread and butter’ metal of Iron Maiden and Megadeth.
Rap and dance music started to have an influence, and things that had been around a while like punk split off in all directions, forming in that case a base for as diverse acts as Green Day, Pitchshifter and King Prawn.

I went to metal gigs and festivals and paraded around in baggy trousers, band t-shirts and hoodies (though it’s not hugely different now I’m 30), and have days worth of metal on my ipod even today, but it was never as simple as that.

Alongside the metal I was influenced by a number of sources. I remember furtively listening to NWA’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’at probably about 11 or 12, afraid my mum would hear it, and playing De La Soul’s ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ with considerably more volume.
This embarrassment at NWA was despite the fact that my mum was one of the biggest influences on my tastes, for it was her listening to New Jack Swing acts like R.Kelly and Warren G. that no doubt led to my Bobby Brown purchase, and it was her listening to Jungle on pirate radio as it first started to emerge in London that led to me becoming a big fan, and would lead to me twiddling through the FM band at the weekend, trying to find a station with a finger hovering over record so that I could listen to drum and bass as it was then, all Jamaican ragga and film samples set to deep, rumbling bass.
My predilection for dance music was always there, alongside all the other genres that vied for attention, and I wonder what would have happened if I were a bit older and had been a teen when Rave culture first started, rather than reaching 15 to find that the government had criminalised free raves with the Criminal Justice Act of 1994. I went to clubs and danced to trance music instead, before the shit they call trance in Ibiza was invented.

On the other hand, I was a working class kid from a post-industrial suburb, practically the inner city as far as North London’s concerned, but I went to a private secondary school with middle class kids who lived in the ‘proper’ suburbs, ones that had a postcode from a different county. This is probably a large ingredient in the reasoning as to why my tastes included white-boy guitar music as well as underground beats broadcast from tower blocks.

Indie was big too, and whilst I never read the NME like some of my more indie-centric school friends, I became a big fan of Select magazine and regularly took a chance on a band based on reviews in the mag.
As well as the emergence of metal variations like the downtuned metal of Korn and Deftones and the evolution of Jungle into Drum and Bass in the mid 90s, indie music enjoyed a big place in the spotlight with guitar based pop becoming fashionable again after a decade of synths. Blur, Pulp, Suede, Radiohead and dozens of others hit the big time, swirling around in tabloid celebrity culture despite being student music, usually a surefire way to stay out of the top end of the charts. Thus the Britpop phenomenon chugged along for a while and I was into that too, with sub-mutations all of its own as ‘indie’ and ‘dance’ merged and you had acts that were enjoyed by fans of all camps, like Orbital and Aphex Twin, and a rash of remixes bloated each and every release of a single.
And then you also had the emergence of Trip Hop, one of my favourite mini-genres, as Massive Attack furtively shuffled out of Bristol with Tricky, Portishead and my favourite Ruby following just behind.

Nowadays my musical discoveries are confined to the latest releases of the tried and trusted, stuff I happen to hear on a film soundtrack or similar, and new music of a broad hard-rock church thanks to a friend with a voracious appetite for new music within that hazy umbrella genre.
Because of this I feel like I’m not ‘into’ music anymore, but I guess you could say I was into it all ten years ago and I still haven’t finished with that yet.

Or it might be that I was musically Samson – since the late 90s there haven’t been any musical movements I’ve been inspired by. Bands yes, but bands all doing infinitesimal variations on what has gone before. Is it a coincidence that it was the late 90s that finally saw me cut my hair, after it tangled into a mass I couldn’t comb and I became fed up with it?
I’ve not been able to grow it long since, and my enthusiasm for new music has also stunted. The signs are there. Maybe someone put a hex on me?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

CMB returns

When I was younger I was known as the Cricklewood Monkey Boy. I was known for acting like a monkey, and I lived in Cricklewood.

I have lived in Cricklewood on and off all my life, with the odd year or so every now often spent in another part of London, but I keep coming back.
This time around it was to do with cheap rents and familiarity - having to move out at short notice didn't give me a lot of time to plan, so when I had no luck finding a place in my preferred areas I lumped for what I knew. I knew what the area was like, where everything was and all the transport routes, so given the choice of living in an unfamiliar area without the potential for saving any money, I came home.

The new flat is good, much better than flat minus one in that it is structurally sound - doors, walls and lights work, and extravagances such as the washing machine also function. Nice. Plus the advantage over the last flat is that I am in the top floor, and thus have no neighbours waking me up at three in the morning playing Guitar Hero. This is a very good thing and has manifested in a remarkable improvement in my sanity, no longer do I curse obscenities to the ceiling and wish unpleasant death on strangers.
I knew when I saw the place for the first time that there was no TV aerial, but I knew I could live without it. I rarely watch TV so the slightly wonky picture of an indoor aerial suits me fine.
What I didn't realise is that despite the fact there was a phone socket in the flat, this didn't mean I could assume that I could get a phone line. After dozens of phone calls to a number of landline suppliers, I found that my flat did not exist on their computer systems, and that meant that I could not have a line installed without first getting my flat to pop up in their drop-down boxes. It turns out that this will involve getting everyone in the building to fill in forms for the council and pay fees for the privilege of dwelling acknowledgment before I can even start the phone companies on installation and all the charges involved.
I gave up and decided to get mobile broadband, which also was nothing like straightforward after spending nearly two hours trying to set up an account with a phone company, only for my bank to block the 50p transactions that the phone company used to verify my address.

Still, a month on and it's all behind me now, I have a USB dongle which feeds me internet at frustratingly slow speeds, but at least I have access. And I've worked out how to re-save photos to a file size that the dongle will actually let me upload, so finally I present to you my new flat, the day after I moved in about five weeks ago:

This is the front room.

This is the kitchen.


Thankfully, I have a separate bedroom.

And the view from the front room. The building looming over the houses opposite is my old Primary school.

Monday, November 10, 2008

As I Live and Breathe

Autumn has come around, after a brief respite from the abject failure of the British summer. Some warm, sunny days, unknown in Octobers past, have given way to the crisp chill and smell of leaves on the ground.

For me, the onset of autumn brings with it the London Film Festival and the chance for a taste of things that I might otherwise never see.
A lot of people are excited by the premieres and galas and star-studded extravaganzas that have been talked up for months beforehand, but with limited time and resources I much prefer to try and catch the little gems which may never get an official release in these green lands.
Anyone who has read one of the LFF programmes before will know that they, out of necessity, try and make every entry into the festival seem like a good bet for your time, regardless of the actual worth of the film. This makes picking a list of what to see a little more difficult, although realistically in these days of the ubiquitous internet it shouldn’t be too hard to dig up some opinion on a film, unless it is a world-wide premiere. At time of writing, however, I am without the net, with little prospect of getting it set up by November, if then.
So I have to use other means of narrowing the choices; known directors or actors are a start, meaning that I will be seeing Takeshi Kitano’s Achilles and the Tortoise this year, just as I would see anything by Takashi Miike (even though it meant I was once stuck watching the awful Izu). Another method of narrowing the field is to go for genre – a thriller or mad, revisionist western or cop film is more likely to be enjoyable, even if only average.
The most helpful part of the programme is the information on distributor – looking at any of the big names in the festival shows you who will be bringing them to our screens, large and small, once the festival is over. Frost/Nixon will be released by Universal Pictures International; W is brought to us by Lionsgate; Waltz with Bashir has been picked up by Artificial Eye; Che has been picked up by Optimum; Hunger by Pathe; Johnny Mad Dog by Momentum and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist by Sony Pictures. Ideally, I’d like to see all of these, but rather than rush to fit them into the space of a few weeks sitting in a bad seat and packed into a sold-out screening, they will all come out at some point, a lot of them hopefully to Cineworld where I hold my handy pass.

The festival itself started on Wednesday 15th October with Frost/Nixon, but I was due to start on the Friday with a screening of The Secret, an Indonesian thriller which is meant to traverse genres in a way that the best of recent Korean cinema has managed to do.
Unfortunately I had mis-timed my screenings, and had gone to see Gomorra (on general release), which I expected to end at 8 and give me half an hour to walk to the South Bank from Haymarket. When I left the cinema it was 8:20 and I had no chance, a non-refundable ticket and nothing to do but go home and finish watching season five of The Wire. Not the end of the world, then.
Gomorra was an odd film, all crumbling, damp housing estates full of preening Italian gangsters as if this was the ruin of the second Roman empire. The setting is Naples, however, and there are no sharp suits to be found with this version of the mafia; rather the universal uniform of the hoodlum – sports clothing. Guns and drugs are the mainstay for crime, and these are found in abundance as we follow the day-to-day existence of the bottom rung of the Neopolitan mafia. As a gang war brings the world down around them, we follow a money-man, Don Ciro, who is the mafia equivalent of the social services, handing out a dole to families who are recognised as having helped the Family, usually by having a relative killed of imprisoned; two teens get up to no good after we first see them attempting to emulate Scarface in an abandoned mansion, we watch as they dig themselves deeper into trouble, ripping of dealers, stealing guns and all the while acting independently of any faction; a property developer seeks to get rich by taking on the waste disposal responsibilities of a number of Italian industries by dumping them into a quarry; a tailor gets into hot water after teaching Chinese clothes makers the techniques to produce haute couture; a young boy attempts to get himself into the gang and finds the downside to the relative glamour.
Gomorra is as blistering as La Haine but with no narrative to speak of it doesn’t attempt to hold the audience’s hand with signposts or other explanations. This helps to cement the realism of the film and at times it takes on a documentary feel. It certainly stands as a stark contrast to the experiences of British youths in their so-called ghettoes. The idea of stabbings over postcodes and being in the wrong manor seems even more ridiculous when compared to the Napoli estate, rife with crime and corruption to claustrophobic levels.

On Saturday I went to see Eagle Eye, also on general release. I had seen the trailer a number of times and had an idea of what to expect, specifically a paranoid techno-thriller along the lines of Enemy of the State, and whilst I hadn’t read any reviews I had seen some of the two star ratings it had been given. Still, it was technically free and seemed a better bet than How to Lose Friends and Alienate people, so in I went. I am about to tell you what happens, so if you really care please skip to the next bit.
The idea of ‘them’ being able to see and hear everything you do thanks to the extensive CCTV network and mobile phone tapping etc. isn’t a new one, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a rampant AI. A rampant AI which believed that the best way to serve the American people is to kill the people in charge of the country. Of course, It Has To Be Stopped, but despite the deflating feeling on discovering the twist of the movie it also feels like a genuinely subversive idea wrapped into a blockbuster-by-numbers. If you made a computer to protect society and told it the rules straight up, it would probably seek to stop the President of the USA as he makes things worse. It makes sense. There would have been no Bush jr. in the first place, as he didn’t actually win the election.
The worst thing about Eagle Eye is undoubtedly the embodiment of said AI – probably the laziest piece of film design this century, the computer has a light for an eye, like HAL, and is in a little, golden globe on the end of a stalk in a big dome with lots of shiny, golden spheres on the walls with echoes of Flight of the Navigator. After the uninspired but solid stunts leading up to the big reveal it serves as a puncture wound to the big blockbuster balloon for which there is no patch.
Plus there are sticking points. An AI being able to control automatic cranes with split-second precision and flying and unmanned, armed military plane through a tunnel, and Jerry Shaw jumping from a building onto train tracks below with no injuries don’t seem to pull the viewer out of movie land, but towards the end of the film when Jerry makes his desperate attempt to stop the AI’s murderous plan, he has a fight. It has already been pointed out that he is a good-for-nothing, drifting between crappy jobs and treating a string of girlfriends poorly, and that, after FBI agent Billy Bob Thornton asks some security guards how he held a shotgun, he is not a professional. And yet, after being chased and bashed around a number of times, Jerry is able to overpower a guard stationed at an underground entry point to the White House. A guard who is not knackered or stressed beyond belief after having just escaped from an explosion as the aforementioned unmanned plane crashes in the aforementioned tunnel, and almost certainly is trained to kill with his bare hands, is taken down by Jerry Shaw after a somewhat brief struggle.
Whatever, at this point the movie has lost after copying the AI design from a movie that is now 40 years old.

Happily, The Fall fares much better than director Tarsem’s previous film, The Cell, would have you expect. The Cell was never less than visually interesting, but undeniably failed to work as a narrative piece, becoming a mostly mundane serial killer/police procedural outside the sequences set in the psyche. The Fall fares much better due to the grounding in between the flights of visual fancy. The relationship between Lee Pace’s bed-ridden stunt man Roy and five year old Maria helps to cement the movie together when it could easily have been seen as a collection of pretty but empty scenes. Some of the visuals on display are unbelievably beautiful, to the point that you are distracted as you wonder literally where on earth the director discovered his locations, but the humour in the film and the fantastic performance by Maria halt any danger of The Fall slipping into pretension or a series of unconnected music video clips.
The mechanic of using people familiar to the protagonist in their dream world has been around since the Wizard of Oz, but here it used to great effect as the sequences are literally straight from the child’s imagination, by way of Roy’s story telling.

Three films in three days and I haven’t actually seen anything at the festival yet, but I’m certainly in the mood.


That was obviously written a while back now, an echo of the past. I had recently moved into this new flat, and now I have seen the festival films I mentioned.
I will be posting pictures as is seemingly becoming a tradition; in the meantime, my latest review is up on hkcinema, link to the right.