category: Reviews

Nov 2009

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying is painfully unfunny. Ricky Gervais is talented and can be a funny man, but he missed the target this time. A one-joke film in which the joke makes less and less sense the more you think about it. Within ten minutes I was finding the entire premise irritating rather than amusing. There’s a hint of clever satire but it’s completely drowned as a painful romance between Gervais’ character and one of the least likeable and sympathetic characters ever to appear on screen plays out in a world requiring more belief-suspension than is technically possible.

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying: Not a funny film, sadly.

Nobody can tell a lie, it seems. You can just about buy into that idea for 90 minutes. But it appears that everyone must always blurt out their worst thoughts at inopportune moments even when not asked a direct question. Not that they’re in a constant stream-of-consciousness; it just happens for comic effect. So it becomes a world filled with obnoxious tactless morons, not honest people. Even that might have survived as an enjoyable film had the writing and plot risen above the average, but they don’t. The protagonist falls in love with the most shallow and unlikeable woman in a world full of them, making it impossible to feel anything but relief when she spurns his advances and incredulity when she finally succumbs to his charms. Charms which consist essentially of (a) that she occasionally laughs when he’s around — though we don’t actually see very much of that, and (b) his dishonestly-acquired wealth and success. Her conversion is complete when she encounters a “chubby” kid being bullied in a park in one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in cinema history (she didn’t want “chubby, snub-nosed children”, you see?)

An idea that might have had some potential is squandered by writing that tries at turns to be mainstream romcom, social satire and crass sex-comedy and never convinces with any of them. Overall, avoid.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Nov 2009


Sadly, despite high expectations, the last film I reviewed (The Invention of Lying) turned out to be a turkey. So I’m glad, this time, to be able to point you towards a comedy that’s actually funny.


Zombieland: A very funny film.

And Zombieland is just that — a comedy. If you’re in the mood for a horror film, or even for a comedy-horror film, then Zombieland won’t scratch that itch. There’s blood and gore aplenty plus more Harrelson-on-Zombie violence than you can shake a banjo at, but because the entire film is played for laughs, and because the violence is of the Itchy ‘n’ Scratchy variety (one zombie is even killed by having a piano dropped on it from a building), there’s never a single moment of genuine horror. I’m not even sure there’s a single moment where the viewer is supposed to jump in fright; it’s a screwball action comedy set in a post-Zombie-Apocalypse America.

But it’s a very funny screwball action comedy set in a post-Zombie-Apocalypse America. The film follows Columbus, a college student, as he survives against all the odds in a world where pretty much everyone else has become a zombie thanks to a contaminated service-station burger (“Remember mad cow disease? Well, mad cow became mad person became mad zombie…”) The four characters (and with the exception of one of the great “As Himself” cameo appearances in cinema history, and a couple of brief flashbacks, there are only four characters in the film — the rest are interchangeable undead) are referred to by the name of the town they were born in — the aforementioned Columbus who narrates with a wonderfully dry self-deprecation, the girl he’s trying to get together with (Wichita), her 12-year old sister (Little Rock) and the ass-kicking Tallahassee played by Woody Harrelson who gets most of the good lines and steals almost every scene (“When Tallahassee gets going, he sets the standard for “not to be fucked with”).

The central running gag concerns The Rules For Surviving Zombieland, as drawn up by Columbus, which appear as three dimensional text that interact with the scene whenever they’re referred to. It’s not overdone and because the film — aware of its limitations and realising it’s more a live-action cartoon than a feature film — is only 88 minutes long including credits, you’re left wanting more rather than ending up tired of the joke.

And speaking of cartoons, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the film was co-written by Rhett Reese, one of the writers of Pixar’s glorious animated comedy Monsters, Inc. Despite the over-the-top gore and violence of Zombieland, there’s a similarity to the humour that shines right through.

The motivations of the characters (beyond mere survival) are similarly cartoonish. The two girls are travelling across the country to go to an amusement park they used to visit. Columbus was originally trying to return home but quickly realises he’s playing the “cherche la femme” role. And Tallahassee’s on the road trip because he’s searching for a final Twinkie before they all go out of date (“Pretty soon life’s little Twinkie gauge is gonna go empty”). Together they kill a bunch of zombies in imaginative ways and exchange some of the funniest Tarantinoesque dialogue to hit cinema screens for a few years. The way Harrelson delivers lines like “I hate coconut. Not the taste; the consistency” or “I haven’t cried like that since Titanic” had me clapping my hands with mirth, and right at the end of the movie his delivery of the three words “It’s too soon” had me weeping with laughter. You’ll understand if you see it.

I’m struggling to think of a film I enjoyed more this year. It’s as low brow as they come. It’s unashamedly silly and lightweight and isn’t going to change anyone’s life. But it is pure, unadulterated fun. It had me laughing from the first scene and rarely let up until the credits arrived. If you’re haemophobic, then it’s probably not the movie for you. Everyone else should check it out for an hour and a half of genuine hilarity.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Apr 2009

April in London (David Byrne gig review)

hallo y’all.

I’m sat here at one of those fancy web-terminals they have in public spaces these days. I’ve been in London for the past few days and am now on my way back to Dublin.

It’s been a groovy weekend and no mistake. London has changed in the three years since I left of course, but not by much. I felt utterly at home walking around the streets of Wood Green earlier today. Some of the shops are new, but most aren’t. There was familiarity everywhere I turned. The faces and voices. The smells. The shape of the buildings. The steel grey sky of London in Springtime. And that tree on Waldeck Road still has flecks of white paint on it. 16 years on! (about three people will know what that means, but they’ll get a smile from it. The rest of you will just have to wonder.)

The less said about The Queen’s Head at Turnpike Lane though, the better… London’s finest dirty rock pub turned into a sports bar? We live in profane times.

Anyhoo, I was over in London for a David Byrne weekend. Leastways, that was the excuse. Needless to say, the Byrnester didn’t disappoint. Though even if he had, the opportunity to catch up with some old friends was itself more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. I stayed with my old mate Gyrus (once again dude, many thanks for organising everything) and together we chilled out with a few cups of tea as well as attending a David Byrne movie double-bill at the BFI (Stop Making Sense and True Stories) on the night before the gig at the Festival Hall.

And what a gig!

I’ve seen Byrne at least once (and usually more often) on every tour since the eponymous album in the mid-90s. I’ve also seen several one-off shows (festivals and what have you). I can safely say he was never better than last night’s gig.

In fact, I’d kind of felt a bit worried about seeing Stop Making Sense on the big screen the night before the gig. Clearly live music and cinema are radically different experiences… but even so… how could his 2009 tour possibly match up to the performance on what is arguably the finest concert film ever made?

I needn’t have worried. The two can’t really be compared of course, but last night’s gig was simply breath-taking. As you may (or may not) know, the tour is called “The Songs of Brian Eno and David Byrne” and covers tracks from all of their work together… the two direct collaborations (My Life in The Bush of Ghosts and last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today), the three Talking Heads albums that Eno produced (More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light) as well as The Catherine Wheel (the Byrne solo album that includes a few Byrne-Eno compositions).

Anyways, it’s probably safe to say that while I’m a fan of pretty much everything Byrne has done; from ’77 to ’09; it’s his work with Eno that excites me the most. Well, Remain in Light is the best album ever recorded after all*.

I was delighted, so, when it turned out that the two albums that dominated the set were the latest one (naturally) and Remain in Light. He must have played at least half of that record. Needless to say, I’m hoarse from cheering.

Dressed all in white, the band and the three dancers (whose whirling, creatively slapdash choreography was at times funny, at times sexy and at times just weird, though always successful in transmitting energy to the proceedings) rarely stopped moving for the two hours. It was truly joyous, and how many gigs manage to even get close to that?

By the halfway point, everyone in the festie hall was on their feet. The audience reaction was incredible. The whoops, cheers and wild applause were heartfelt and real. Those in the lower tiers crowded down to the front of the stage, and the festival hall became a dance hall.

Life During Wartime, a glorious version of Once in a Lifetime (a song that has perhaps suffered a little from over-exposure but managed to sound fresh and wonderful all over again last night) and stunning versions of Houses in Motion and The Great Curve (“The world moves on a woman’s hips / the world moves when she swivels and bops”). Those were the highlights for me up until the encore.

Returning to the stage, still in white, but now with the addition of ballerina’s tutus, Byrne and the band launched into a blistering version of Burning Down The House. By the end, pretty much the entire hall was shouting the refrain… must have been a little bit like what Funkadelic gigs were like in the late 70s.

That wasn’t the end… but how to top that? Well, how about getting Brian Eno on stage for the final encore to provide backing vocals on the achingly beautiful title track from the last album? It was the cherry atop an already perfect cake. When the house-lights came up at the end, the Japanese chap sitting next to me asked in broken English… “the man at the end? He was Brian Eno, yes?” “Yes”, I said. He looked utterly delighted. It was the cherry for him too.

So yeah, that’s where I’m at. I must away now… my time on this terminal is running out, and I need to think about making tracks soon. If you get a chance to see Byrne on this tour, then you really need to. It’s bloody incredible.

* Excepting on the days when Astral Weeks is.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion, Reviews » Gig reviews

Dec 2008

Billy Bragg Live in Dublin

I don’t want this place to become just a collection of YouTube clips, but I’ve not got much time right now and wanted to say a little bit about the gig last night… this is better than nothing I guess. We went to see Billy Bragg at Vicar Street and, as ever, he raised the roof. A thousand people singing There is Power in a Union is a wonderful thing to hear. I ended up describing him to someone today as “like an English Christy Moore”. I hope Billy would take that as the powerful compliment I mean it as (even if, strictly speaking, Bragg has his roots in punk while Moore is a folkie).

Anyways, the gig was great. The pissed bloke, not far from where myself and Citizen S were sitting, who insisted on trying to shout over the top of Billy’s between-song-monologues got beyond a joke at one point and I came close to tracking him down and offering to pay him to leave. Not that I had the money, not that he’d have left, and not that he’d have stopped shouting, but maybe — just maybe — when he awoke hungover the next day he might recall my offer and be shamed into resolving to shut the fuck up next time!

But yeah, Billy was a star. Like he always is. And support was provided by US singer-songwriter, Otis Gibbs, who was worth the ticket price alone (not that I judge an artist’s worth by how much you’d pay to see him, but you know what I’m saying).

Like any great artist who has been around a while, Billy didn’t play half the stuff I’d have liked him to play. But, then, he could have played for another couple of hours and still not played half the stuff I wanted to hear. Which is OK. When what you do get is so wonderful, it’s only an arsehole who complains. Also, as is often the case with me, my favourite album by a singer is one that other fans don’t rave about so much. So I suspect even if he had played for another couple of hours, we still wouldn’t have heard much from William Bloke.

He was as strident, as righteous and as inspiring as ever. Although having said that, the lovely Citizen S did point out afterwards that, having grown up in a communist regime, it’s a little strange for her to hear songs that idealise and romanticise unions and workers and socialism to quite that extent.

Don’t get me wrong, she enjoyed the gig and sees the worth in the songs and ideas but I guess those words are bound to have a different resonance for her. That’s one of the (many) things I like about Citizen S… I get to see the world from a different perspective when we’re together. A good thing. We’re neither of us big fans of capitalism, though. So not too different a perspective!

Hopefully next time we go see Billy play he’ll dust off a couple of tracks from William Bloke. Maybe The Space Race Is Over and From Red to Blue? Just thought I’d put that idea out there in case he googles himself one day and reads this page…

But yeah, one song he did play last night (how could he not?) was Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards. And, as the song says… if you’ve got a website, I want to be on it…

Billy Bragg | Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

2 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Gig reviews

Dec 2008

Suzuki & Kawabata Live in Dublin

Last night I was lucky enough to be one of the small number of people crammed into one of Dublin’s smallest venues, Crawdaddy, to witness the first night of the Damo Suzuki and Makoto Kawabata tour. For those of you who aren’t up on their obscure psychedelic rock music, Damo Suzuki was the vocalist with legendary Krautrock band, Can, on what many consider their best albums (recorded between 1970 and 1973). And if you’re phased by the idea of a Japanese vocalist singing improvised lyrics in English with a German band, then the actual music will probably be a wee bit much for you. In my own strange little world, Damo Suzuki is one of the few singers who qualifies as a genuine living legend.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. My companion at the gig, the lovely Citizen S, was awestruck by Damo. I know I’m with a kindred spirit when they exclaim, “I can’t believe I was close enough to reach out and touch Damo! He was with Can on all their really important records, you know?”

Indeed I do know. And what’s more, he didn’t disappoint. I’ve seen a few others in that select “living legend” category and most of them, sadly, were past their best by the time I got there. I’m glad I saw Dylan, but let’s face it… 90s Dylan isn’t 60s Dylan. Or even 70s Dylan. Tom Waits… well, it was the venue and sound-system that let him down, but overall that evening wasn’t all it could have been. The Velvet Underground? Let’s just say I couldn’t even listen to their records for a couple of years after that shambolic reunion. And “going through the motions” doesn’t even begin to describe Van Morrison when I saw him.

But some of the greats still carry their muse with them long after they’ve created the music that defines their legend. Bowie, Patti Smith, Prince… even Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop retained enough of their glorious magic to carry you back down the years with them.

And to that list I can now add Damo Suzuki. I didn’t understand a single word he sang. I’m not even sure what language he was singing in, or if it was a language at all. But his presence and his voice transfixed me. The message was clear, even if the words weren’t. “We are all here together. Allow the sound to fill you. Let your mind get blown for a while.” In a way I’m glad I wasn’t under the influence of anything other than the music (though I suspect a wee schmoke beforehand would have intensified things somewhat) as it means I don’t have to spend the next few days wondering just how much of that experience was the music and how much was the pot.

The other name on the ticket was Makoto Kawabata. He’s a guitarist with contemporary Japanese psych-rock outfit, Acid Mothers Temple. I don’t really know their stuff (though I plan to), but if Kawabata’s playing is anything to go by, then they are spiritual heirs to Can (though doubtlessly with their own unique twist). Everything about Kawabata screamed “Rock God!” How he looked, his demeanor, and the intensity of his playing. He managed to redefine “kosmische” (doubtlessly using a Japanese word that I’m unfamilar with) and has shot right up near the top of my list of Guitar Greats. Imagine if Slash from Guns’n’Roses was Japanese. And good looking. And good at playing the guitar.

Together they put on what might have been an intricately rehearsed set, or might have been a jam session. It might have been a bunch of different tracks, or night have been one long piece. It really wasn’t easy to tell what was going on. Except my mind was being blown. And that’s what mattered most. It was hard, psychedelic rock in the most part, but shifted down into darkly ambient weirdness on occasion, and once in a while shifted gears into a kind of jazz-influenced insanity.

Also on stage were some local musicians… bass, drums, loops and clarinet. The drummer — wearing a rather cool Alien Sex Fiend t-shirt — was pretty good I thought. He was no Jaki Liebezeit, and I’m not going to pretend he was. But he didn’t let the side down. The others were… well, they succeeded in not ruining things, let’s put it that way. They allowed Suzuki and Kawabata to do their thing without ever really adding to it. But maybe that was the point.

And frankly, when Damo Suzuki is standing within touching distance, howling ancient magicks into my mind and Makoto Kawabata’s guitar is wailing with unearthly beauty next to him, I’ve got pretty much all I need from a gig right there. Close to the end, Suzuki spoke to the audience to inform us that he’d be playing one more song. “It’s late”, he said, “We will play one more song.” Then he smiled. “We will play one more universe”.

And they did.

The tour continues on to England over the next few days. I’d advise you to get along and see them.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Gig reviews

Sep 2008

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

I’d like to point y’all towards the new album by David Byrne and Brian Eno. Anyone who knows me knows that these two guys feature very high on my personal “musical heroes” list. So a direct collaboration between them will always be a very special thing for me.

The first thing to point out is that this is not My Life in The Bush of Ghosts II. It’s nothing like it at all. If anything, it’s not unlike Eno’s last vocal album. If you liked that, then you’ll love this. And even if you didn’t… check this one out anyway.

It’s a real grower. I liked it the first time I listened to it. Second time, as I took a walk along the country lanes near my house, I found myself thinking; “this is really good”. Third time… well, that’s when I decided it warranted a heavy plug on this blog. It’s fantastic. Really fricking brilliant. I love it!

Eno’s spacious and laid-back harmonics, Byrne’s guitar and voice, and the beautifully bizarre lyrics and strange imagery that both are past-masters at producing. This is a great album, though it may take a few listens for that fact to open out to you.

Anyways, it’s currently a “download only” thing, though you’ll eventually be able to buy it on physical cd apparently. So feel free to buy the album or just grab the first track for free as an mp3 download from the official site.

Alternatively you can listen to the entire album stream. On this very blog no less…

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Apr 2008

Southland Tales

I’ve just finished watching Southland Tales, the second feature film from writer / director Richard Kelly. His first, Donnie Darko, is one of my favourite films from the past ten years and — despite Kelly’s protestations that it’s basically a straight piece of science-fiction — I see Donnie Darko as one of cinema’s better portrayals of schizophrenia.

Southland Tales

Southland Tales, on the other hand, is indeed — fairly unambiguously — a science-fiction flick, albeit one which is a damn sight more psychedelic than most. Thematically, it draws heavily on Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron’s millennial thriller, Strange Days, as well as the little known, and rather under-rated, Wild Palms (a TV mini-series from the early 90s that still inhabits my dreams to this day, and which has forever coloured the 60s rock classic, House of The Rising Sun… a song that’s never been the same for me since soundtracking Brad Dourif’s death in Wild Palms). While structurally, Southland Tales is an ensemble piece that owes a great deal to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (released, incidentally, the same year as Wild Palms).

The first thing to say about Southland Tales is that it’s a mess. The second thing to say is that it’s a glorious mess. A beautiful, fascinating, utterly trippy mess. Unlike Donnie Darko, which combined a wonderful visual style with some compelling and engaging characters, Southland Tales is all about the style. Which is not to suggest that it’s a case of style over substance. The substance of the film — the ideas — make for a fascinating couple of hours, but there’s no emotional engagement with the characters (though, of course, it’s difficult for me to engage with Sarah Michelle Gellar as anyone other than Buffy… one of my all-time screen heroines).

And that isn’t a complaint about the acting per se; there’s just no emotional depth to the characters they are portraying. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does as good a job as any actor could have with his character(s). As indeed do all of the others, though it’s only Seann William Scott and — oddly enough — Justin Timberlake who are called upon to provide any kind of emotional content; which they do competently enough.

The film opens in contemporary America. We see home-movie footage of an Independence Day celebration in Texas culminating in a shot of a mushroom cloud on the horizon. It then jumps forward a handful of years. We learn that terrorists detonated two nuclear bombs in Texas that day. As a result, the entire Middle East is a war-zone and the United States has descended into near chaos; with a brutal, repressive totalitarian government barely managing to stave off outright revolution. Police sniper towers dot the city (the film is set entirely in Los Angeles) and people are gunned down with impunity if there’s even a suspicion that they might be engaged in criminal activity. We also discover that the war in the Middle East has all but dried up the supply of oil from the region and America is close to collapse.

Now, if you ask me, that there is the guts of a great film and one which Richard Kelly — based on the talent shown in Donnie Darko — could have turned into a masterpiece. But to that is added yet another thick layer of ideas… in the desperate search for an alternative energy source, America has turned to a revolutionary new technology which exploits “quantum entanglement” in the ocean currents to produce limitless electricity which can be transmitted wirelessly to any location in America. This technology, however, is having unpredictable environmental effects.

So Southland Tales tries to address both The War Against Terror and a kind of accelerated Climate Change scenario. But that’s not enough. There’s yet another strand to the plot involving a strange new drug; Fluid Karma; which comes in several flavours providing a range of different mystical experiences. And on top of that, there’s rifts in space-time, time-travel paradoxes, messianic metaphors and a meta-narrative (involving one of the characters writing a screenplay that begins to mirror the plot of the film itself).

As I say; it’s a mess. But it’s a spectacular mess. Southland Tales is as far from the mundane mainstream as you’re likely to get and I salute Kelly for that much at least. It is — as mentioned previously — a very psychedelic film in places. Had it been released in the early 90s during my heavy-duty acid days, it would have utterly delighted me. Like Wild Palms, it would — I warrant — still linger in my dreams. With a clear head, however, it’s a rather unsatisfactory film overall. It never quite descends into sheer silliness, but it comes far too close for comfort and the Repo Man-esque allusions close to the end merely serve to damage Southland Tales by comparison. Whereas Alex Cox’s classic took a single concept and created a mythology with it, Kelly’s film takes a dozen concepts — each perfectly fine on its own — and fails to adequately explore any of them.

Overall though, Southland Tales is definitely worth a watch if you’re at all interested in non-mainstream cinema. It’s funny in places, always lovely to look at, and occasionally very very good indeed. The use of music — as with Donnie Darko — is quite wonderful. A track by The Killers (which I don’t actually think is a great song) becomes a bizarre hallucinogenic trip experienced by Justin Timberlake’s wounded and psychotic war veteran, while a line from Jane’s Addiction’s Three Days is turned into a kind of prophetic, mystical mantra.

Whatever you do, don’t watch this film expecting anything close to the quality of Donnie Darko. But don’t miss it either. As a piece of odd psychedelia it’s up there with The Monkee’s Head. As a feature film, it’s a complete mess.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Feb 2008

The Host

A few nights ago I watched the Korean monster movie, The Host. Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a fantastic name), it’s very possibly the finest film of the genre*. Actually, now that I think about it, Jaws may well stake a firmer claim for that title… but being the second-best monster movie to Jaws is hardly a disgrace.

The Host

And the Jaws comparison is an apt one. Like Spielberg’s classic, The Host is actually about how a small group of people deal with this catastrophic presence that enters their lives (in this case a broken family… two adult brothers and sister, their father, and the young daughter of one of the brothers), as opposed to being about the catastrophic presence itself. The acting is quite amazing and as the tragedy unfolds, engulfing this fragile family, I found myself being genuinely moved by their plight. I’m not sure even Jaws drew that level of emotional involvement from me.

One major difference, however, between the two is the lack of a “Big Reveal”. There’s no “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene halfway through the film. Instead we see the monster in its entirety bounding along the riverbank, gobbling up fleeing people, within the first five minutes. I was surprised by this, as I was with a lot of the film. Certainly the manner of the monster’s death is telegraphed early. Even before we see the thing, in fact, within the first few minutes of the film, the perceptive viewer will be left in no doubt as to a crucial factor in the beast’s eventual demise.

But aside from this, there’s little about The Host that most viewers will find predictable. Central characters who are guaranteed to survive the inevitable Hollywood remake, find themselves casually killed off with very little warning. And to say that the ultimate outcome would not feature in a big-budget American movie is an understatement. Nonetheless, the low-key, tragic ending fits perfectly on a film that is far, far more thoughtful than any monster movie has a right to be.

The dialogue is mostly in Korean, though the occasional American character makes an appearance and is presumably subtitled in Korean for the home audience. In fact, there’s a surprisingly strong anti-American theme throughout the film. The film opens with an American scientist ordering his Korean assistant to dump toxic chemicals into Seoul’s Han River (with obvious results). Later on we see a news report stating that the United States has lost confidence in Korea’s ability to contain the crisis and is planning to dump “Agent Yellow”, a powerful chemical, onto Seoul. As we follow the family’s attempt to track down their missing grand-daughter (snatched by the monster at the beginning of the film), it’s against the backdrop of a city bordering on open revolt against the authorities.

It’s worth pointing out that there is indeed one heroic American character. But even his sacrifice is cynically manipulated by the authorities in order to further their own inexplicable agenda.

In fact, it is this perspective that makes The Host such compelling viewing. For once, we aren’t seeing the monster hunt through the eyes of the military, or some heroic monster-expert. Instead we get a citizen’s view of the complete mess being made of the situation by the authorities, while an ordinary family attempt to overcome not merely the nightmarish creature from the river, but also the utter incompetence of those in power.

One scene in particular springs to mind; Gang-Du, the central character, has been placed in quarantine having been splattered with the monster’s blood. He desperately tries to convince the police that his daughter is still alive. But he’s not a very sharp guy and has difficulty expressing himself clearly. Throughout the scene, he is separated from those he’s trying to convince by a thick sheet of semi-transparent plastic. Later, as he pleads with one of the scientists, he again finds himself separated (this time by the contamination suits worn by the officials), and shouts in frustration; “Why won’t anyone listen to me? My words are words too!” Rarely have I seen social alienation portrayed so well. And this is in a monster movie!

Watching the film, I was reminded more than once of the Japanese auteur, Takeshi Kitano. And that’s not a lazy “well both directors are from somewhere over there” comparison. Kitano is my favourite film director, bar none, and there are scenes in The Host (such as the one where Gang-Du and his father are running alongside one another by the river, Nam-il’s encounter with the homeless guy, and the wonderful final battle) which I found very reminiscent of Kitano’s work.

That’s not to suggest that The Host is a work of towering genius like Dolls or Hana-bi, merely that it transcends a rather one-dimensional genre and succeeds in being a genuinely excellent movie. Overall, this is a film I’d recommend very highly indeed. On the most basic level, it’s a damn fine monster flick. But there’s far more to it than that. Check it out.

UPDATE 22:45 I’ve just noticed that the review-quote on the English version of the film poster is “On a par with Jaws”. Pretty good call.

* It’s worth noting that I don’t consider either Alien or An American Werewolf in London “monster movies” in the strict sense. They fall very clearly into the ‘horror’ category for me. The Host, on the other hand, is not a horror film. It’s creepy, and there’s tension alright, but it’s not a scary film. Imagine if Godzilla had been really really good (instead of the steaming pile of shit that it actually was). Well, if you can imagine that, then you have something along the lines of The Host.

15 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Jan 2008

I’m Not There

Over the past few years I’ve begun to notice more and more Dylan infiltrating my musical world. Unlike many music geeks, I’ve never had a “Dylan phase”. Nonetheless, I’ve always appreciated and respected him as a great artist. His music may not have grabbed hold of me, but it grabbed hold of a lot of people whose taste I respected. And although for many years I owned no Dylan records, it wasn’t for quite the same reason that I owned nothing by Rod Stewart or Elton John.

I'm Not There

Unsurprisingly then, as the years wore on, I found myself acquiring the occasional Bob Dylan album, while my collection remained mercifully free of Stewart and John.

So despite never having that Dylan phase, I’ve finally got to the point where I’d call myself a fan. In fact, there’s a recording of Tangled Up In Blue on The Bootleg Series that’s become one of my favourite songs by any artist. In a certain mood, it can send a shiver down my spine and make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. When music has such a deep and direct emotional… even biological… impact, then you know you’re listening to something special.

I was intrigued then, when I started to hear about I’m Not There, the recent and highly acclaimed cinematic biography of Dylan. But the more I heard, the more sceptical I became. As a fan of Dylan’s music who knows almost nothing whatsoever about the man (or even, strangely enough, the myth of the man), I was actually quite interested in the idea of learning a bit about his life and the events that shaped his music. As quickly became clear however, I’m Not There was unlikely to be the film to satisfy that desire.

A biopic?

I think it’s important to point this out. I’m Not There is not a biopic. Or rather, it may be a biopic but you’d already have to have read a biography or seen another biopic in order to work that out. It would be difficult to say with any certainty that I now know more about Bob Dylan’s life than I did before. And the little I did know can be condensed into a single paragraph…

He started out as a traditional folk singer covering the songs of Woody Guthrie (a depression-era folk singer about whom I know even less than a single paragraph). He then started to write his own lyrics and became a folk music legend. He introduced The Beatles to pot in the early sixties and hung out with them occasionally in London (I did have a “Beatles phase”) where he also spent some time with Allen Ginsberg. He picked up an electric guitar and got called “Judas” by the folk scene. Nonetheless he became increasingly successful, but like most people who become living legends was fairly troubled by the experience. He turned to religion, and got into Jesus in a very big way for a while. Latterly he has settled down to tour and make a bunch of albums that inevitably could never have the impact of the earlier ones that created the legend in the first place.

To be honest, I’d hesitate to add anything to that paragraph despite having watched a two and a quarter hour film about the man’s life. And I think that’s kind of weird.

But of course, it can be argued (and I have no doubt that Todd Haynes, the writer and director of I’m Not There, would do so) that the film fundamentally isn’t a traditional biography. It is quite clearly not attempting to tell the Bob Dylan story in a traditional, linear, literal sense and so it’s unfair to criticise it for failing to do so.

And here’s the thing; I accept that. I understand what Haynes was trying to do, and he has to a great extent succeeded. We’re deep into the review and this is the first time I’m saying this, but let it be said; I’m Not There is a masterpiece. It is one of the most beautiful, compelling and perfectly constructed films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s got a magical, hyperreal quality to it that reminded me a lot of David Byrne’s underrated True Stories in places and Woody Allen’s underrated Stardust Memories in others. It is a magnificent piece of cinema and I’d urge all of my readers to check it out, whether or not they are fans of Bob Dylan.

It’s a masterpiece. But it’s a flawed masterpiece. Because when I’m watching a truly great film, the last thing I want is to be dragged out of that immersion in another world towards the nagging questions of my own mind. And I just couldn’t prevent myself from wondering which events were close to being direct representations of scenes from Dylan’s life and which were metaphors. The film tells the story metaphorically, but clearly strays further from literal reality in some places than in others, and the part of me that was hoping to learn something new about Bob Dylan insisted on wondering which was which.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that’s not the right way to view such a poetic and dreamlike film; but I’d argue that for fans of Dylan’s music who know nothing about his life, it’s damn near unavoidable. Did he really say that in a Press Conference? Or are they the Dylanesque words of a screenwriter? Did he ever spend time travelling America in box-cars? Clearly he didn’t do it as an eleven year-old black kid, but are those scenes entirely a metaphor for his early fixation with Guthrie, or are they also illustrative of a real period in Dylan’s evolution?

And while Haynes might argue that the point is that the young Dylan’s heart and mind were living a hobo’s life… that it doesn’t matter precisely how literal or metaphorical the scenes are… in reality that’s simply not quite true. A young man travelling from town to town, earning his meals playing folk music, is having a fundamentally different set of experiences to a young man who — feeling trapped and suffocated by suburbia — escapes to the open road in dream and fantasy.

The Players

As well as the dreamlike / metaphorical style of the film, I’m Not There is also known for the creative casting. The different stages of Dylan’s life are portrayed by different actors. So Marcus Carl Franklin is an 11-year-old hobo called Woody Guthrie. Christian Bale is “Jack Rollins”, a legendary folk singer who retires from the public eye to become an evangelical preacher. Heath Ledger is a famous actor who plays Jack Rollins in a biopic and whose personal and family life is torn to shreds by fame and public adulation. Richard Gere is “Billy The Kid”; the older Dylan, a fugitive from his own legend. Ben Whishaw is “Arthur Rimbaud” who declaims to camera in scenes which may have had a significance I didn’t grasp (did Dylan really face persecution as a leftist in his early days? Or is that a metaphor for how he felt he was being viewed and treated by mainstream America?) And last but far from least, Cate Blanchett plays “Jude Quinn”, the legendary folk singer who picks up an electric guitar.

Paradoxically, Blanchett manages to be the second great flaw in I’m Not There despite turning in the best performance (one worthy of all the acclaim it has received). She is utterly hypnotic when she’s on the screen and overshadows five other fantastic actors. But if anything, she is too good. Partly the quality of the make-up, but mostly the quality of her acting, meant that I found myself — again and again — involuntarily thinking “I really can’t believe that’s Cate Blanchett! She’s just incredible!” And of course, few things are as likely to burst that bubble of cinematic immersion, than repeatedly being reminded of the actor in the role. Which is a shame. Superficially, perhaps if she hadn’t looked so much like Dylan, it would have been easier to accept her…? I don’t know. As it was, she was the best actor in the film, but she was also the one who most exposed the film as a film, rather than an unfolding dream.

Beyond The Flaws

A flawed masterpiece is still a masterpiece. And I’m Not There is the kind of film that only comes around every handful of years. It stands head and shoulders above everything else released last year (though I say that without having seen the new Coen Brothers movie yet) and if you’ve not seen it, then I urge you to. The flaws are certainly there, but despite having spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about them here, they never overshadow the film as a whole. This is a truly great piece of cinema and if you go in expecting “near perfection” as opposed to “absolute perfection”, you won’t be disappointed.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Dec 2007

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Having failed to give the excellent Dreamflesh Volume One the glowing review it so richly deserved here on The Quiet Road, Gyrus threatened to “burn down your home, and the homes of everyone you’ve ever met!” unless I at least mentioned his latest tome.

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Well, he’s a man of his word. So I shall do more than just mention it. I shall post a big shiny graphic showing the rather striking cover (designed by Andy Hemmingway) and urge y’all to get hold of this fantastic anthology.

Entitled Archaeologies of Consciousness: Essays In Experimental Prehistory, it’s billed as a collection of writing on “ancient monuments, prehistoric rock art, folklore, mythology, and altered states of consciousness”. But don’t let what may sound like a specialist book on a selection of niche subjects put you off. The essays in this book are explorations of consciousness, of what it means to be human, and of the environment and landscapes that shaped our development. It’s a book that drags these “niche subjects” out of the cosy, dusty libraries in which they’ve locked themselves and takes them for a much needed hike across a windswept moor to get their blood flowing again.

But what’s it actually about?

[…] in Freudian language [we say] that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.

Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

In the space of these five extended essays and a few shorter bits and pieces, Gyrus boldly strides where Bateson fears to tread.

To be honest, that last line is hyberbolic to the point of sheer inaccuracy, but it’s a good pull-quote. In actual fact, the writing of Bateson and Gyrus complement one another in interesting ways. Both are examining the unsettling, blurred region where a number of disparate disciplines intersect; archaeology, anthropology, mythology, psychology (along with psychoanalytic theory) and biology. Both are aware that, for a whole bunch of reasons, traditional academia finds it difficult to comfortably accommodate research in this area, but are equally aware that for their work to be influential within these disparate disciplines (as it damn well should be), it must be accessible to them.

But where they differ is the fact that Bateson is writing from within the establishment; emerging from it as it were; while Gyrus is approaching it from outside. Both approaches have their strengths and both have certain limitations. Thankfully there’s nothing stopping us from reading both and allowing them to, as I say, complement one another.

One thing that strikes me though, is that Gyrus generally overcomes the limitations imposed by his position as a “freelance” / “amateur” researcher (a tendency towards flights of fancy, tangents and a perceived lack on intellectual rigour) better than Bateson overcomes the limitations imposed by his own (conservatism, unimaginativeness and a tendency to obscure meaning with over-complex prose and jargon).

Now Bateson can’t be accused either of conservatism or a lack of imagination, but his writing does occasionally become rather dense and opaque. In Archaeologies of Consciousness however, Gyrus presents his readers with clear, flowing prose that is at turns poetic, at turns scientific, but always comprehensible. And it’s not the patronising comprehensibility of “popular science” books that spoonfeed complex ideas to a mass market by simplifying them to the point of meaninglessness. This is the real deal… exactly as complicated as it needs to be, but no less accessible for it.

The collection opens with The Devil & The Goddess which I recall reading when it was first published over a decade ago. It was around that time that I first met Gyrus, and during the intervening years — in private discussions and through reading subsequent articles — I’ve seen how his ideas and research have evolved. So it’s interesting to revisit The Devil & The Goddess; not the start, but certainly an important early milestone, on a unique intellectual journey; and to find it’s still vital, still relevant and is filled with the questions and themes that would dominate his work for the next ten years.

Culture and civilization are inseparable from material technologies, and things are no less confused in the technophile / Luddite debate. The real dichotomy to be tackled here is that of harmonious / unharmonious technology. Do our tools help us achieve our desires, or do they become our desires?


This spiritual poverty, this rigid division of life into the sacred and profane (in their modern senses), has only been the norm of human experience for several hundred years, if that. And in their historical accounts, modern scientists have been projecting this division back in time for far too long. A re-vision of anthropology and archaeology is overdue, necessary and, I feel, imminent.

And concluding with…

For ourselves, living in a culture where the dominant spiritual institutions have insisted not only on separating themselves from everyday life, but directing their spiritual aspirations outside this world, it’s evident that a new vision of spirituality more directly concerned with life, the Earth, our bodies and survival is needed. We cannot live on bread alone, but I don’t want to try to live without it. It’s no coincidence that it took an affluent society like our own, where day-to-day existence is taken for granted, to produce a device capable of utterly destroying the biosphere.

… via a route that takes in Shamanism, Satanism, the Kundalini experience, anal eroticism, the origins of blood sacrifice, the Knights Templar and the landscape of Avebury…

It’s the least focussed of the essays in the collection, certainly, but it provides a perfect opener to the book by setting up many of the themes that are expanded upon in the later pieces.

My personal favourites (if one can be said to have favourites among essays on abstract and esoteric subjects) are probably the final two of the long pieces; Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art and Aeons Past & Present. The former contains my favourite line of the book, where the author is examining some neolithic rock art while under the influence of 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine which is known to produce, among other things, visual distortions not unlike the geometrical patterns found in much primitive art) and has the multi-layered revelation that “There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art!” While the latter draws together theories about time and evolution from a remarkably wide range of sources and makes all manner of intriguing and insightful connections between them, eventually concluding with a call to action in the face of the seemingly paralysing desires manufactured by modern culture.

From the upbeat and characteristically enthusiastic preface by Julian Cope, to the meticulous indices, Archaeologies of Consciousness succeeds in being a well-researched, informative; indeed illuminating; collection of essays which is also a pleasure to read. This makes it a very rare item indeed; so I recommend you grab a copy.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews