25 August 2007

Live Review: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, 31st July 2007

Leeds City Varieties. Support: Euros Childs and Dave

This happened quite a while ago (nearly a month), so I am going off memory here. Despite the City varieties hosting a surprising amount of gigs from cultishly popular bands in the last few years, this was the first time I had ever been to the theatre. It shouldn’t have been, as I would like to have seen the once-mighty Sigur Rós here in spring 2002 (alas I was out of the country, and they went down the pan shortly after), but it was.

As I had missed Lanegan performing with Soulsavers in Manchester just prior to this, I was eager to get the fullness here. (Actually, I’m not sure how much I did miss on account of I have never heard Soulsavers, and they might not be much cop after all.) To be honest with you (like I spend the rest of my time lying to you. I’d never do a thing like that), I wasn’t all that enamoured with the Lanegan/Campbell album, but I figured I had to see him perform at least once this summer, I’m sure their album is better than I give it credit for, and I just wanted to go, OK? Besides, their duet ‘Why Does My Head Hurt So?’, from Isobel’s Time is Just the Same E.P., was a beautiful piece of work’; easily one of my favourite sub-three minute songs ever. Ever.

So, after an ickle drink (and large curry), it was time for the gig. I tell you, I want to go to more concerts at the City Varieties, even for bands I don’t particularly want to see, because the interior is adorable in a slightly run-down, cosy, Victoriana kind of way. The opening act was an entity going by the moniker ‘Euros Childs’ and, having never heard of this ‘Euros Childs’, had no idea whether it was a man or a band. It turned out to be a combination of the two, and I just wanted to see it based on nomenclaturial awesomeness. I later learned he was in/was Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, a fact that means little to me at present on account of I have never knowingly heard GZM.

Regardless of who he was, he turned out to be quite the engaging performer on this night. Introduced as ‘Euros Childs and Dave’, two men walked onto the stage and went about their business. Childs was immediately engaging thanks to his witty line in awarely incompetent banter: ‘this song is about… no, it’s from when… no, it’s about…’

The songs themselves were endearing, too, as they muddled along generally on electric piano; nursery rhyme melodies and minimal backing. Sometimes ‘Dave’ would play acoustic guitar while keeping time with a bass drum, but the pairing worked best when he would back the Roland piano with his own little musical box of tricks. He would add seemingly random countermelodies that would make the overall songs sound like off the wall theme tunes to kids’ shows; it was fantastic and bizarre.

The highlight for me came late on in the set: ‘Look at my Fridge’ (‘it started out as “Look at my Boots” – no it didn’t. It started out as “Look at my Fridge”, then changed to “Look at my Boots”, then changed back to “Look at my Fridge”’) was a faux-naïve catalogue of items of his that we should look at. In what seemed to be a subtle parody of the Pussycat Dolls, the question was posed re: our wanting items like that; ‘don’t you wish you had a fridge like me?’ He apparently wrote it on a whim for a toddle-aged relative. I want to see him again.

With his set over, and me very entertained, Campbell and Lanegan soon appeared on the stage. Having just got hold of a new camera, I was eager to snap at least one shot of the performers, but was overly concerned with not bothering my fellow punters (I hate it when people snap, snap, snap, viewing the gig through a makeshift window). I got it in the end, even if it isn’t the greatest photo ever taken.

As I said earlier, I hadn’t made much time for their album, so approached the performance as a bunch of stuff that was new to me; anything else would be a bonus. And it was fine. I was disappointed that they failed to play ‘Why Does My Head Hurt So?’ (after termination of this set still their finest song by some way), but what they did play was fine. There were times when the almost impossibly fragile Campbell seemed as though her voice would be crushed under the (lower in the mix) force of nature that was Lanegan, but the perilously fine line was walked with some success.

The songs from the album were faithful, in as much as they were enjoyable, far from life changing, and forgotten soon after. As I believe gigs are pretty much all about the moment (which arguably renders my writing about them rather redundant), I didn’t mind that last factor so much. They also performed new songs, all of which had apparently been written by her chubby, middle-aged guitarist (most of their band was reassuringly chubby and middle-aged). They were, to be quite honest, weak songs. Bland and far more forgettable than the rest of their songs, this was trite material which, in the vocal chords of anyone other than Lanegan, would have neared offensive in their inoffensive mediocrity.

Which brings me to Lanegan in general. I’m not sure at which point this happened, but I was overjoyed to transcend my usual gig-experiencing practice for most of the set. I stopped caring how good the songs were, or even really that there were songs. Ditto Isobel and the rest of the band. I had a minor epiphany as I realised the combination of seats, cosy environ and clear PA system was perfectly conducive to focusing like a laser on Lanegan’s voice.

It is, after all, what he is famous for, with fans ranging from Josh Homme and P.J. Harvey to Gavin Rossdale and, frankly, anyone else who has heard him. His is a deep, full voice, of a quality that renders pretty much anything it recites enjoyable. So I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb, as it were. I just listened to his fantastic, one of a kind voice, and it was aesthetically and spiritually uplifting. My reverie was aided by his performance of songs I actually knew (OK, so I cared a bit about what he sang after all); I was greatly heartened when he played songs I consider to be ‘his, even though they were covers: ‘Carry Home’, ‘Little Sadie’, ‘I’ll Take Care of You’: all classics, all now his, and all magnified by performer, performance and setting. For those few songs, this set was nigh-on perfect.

And it ended at some point. Campbell had muttered the odd word between songs, Lanegan had said nothing. Some complete cretins tried making him say something, under the mistaken ostent of humour, but he resisted their charmless shouts. (Indeed, I wonder quite why these idiots were even bothered about Lanegan saying anything, when he was singing in front of them anyway, a deed he does to far greater effect than ninety-nine percent of extant performers. Oh, that’s right – they’re idiots.) Lanegan doesn’t need to say anything when he sings like he does. See him whenever you can. I know I will from now on.

24 August 2007

The Wildhearts – The Wildhearts Must be Destroyed

Gut Records, 2003

This album has been delaying completion of my Wildies project, so I figured I would make a virtue of the semi-apathy I feel towards it; art creates art etc. Besides, labouring over a 1-2000 word essay on this particular record would be an act of dishonesty on my part anyway, so it is in the interest of my integrity as a ‘writer’ that I dedicate as little time, space and stress to it as it deserves. Not that it’s a bad album (it’s good), but I’m just not feeling it – especially compared to the surfeit of feeling I was doing of the other Wildies albums this summer.

I haven’t even bought it yet (which explains why the above picture is markedly inferior to the ones for both P.H.U.Q. (1995) and Fishing for Luckies (1996), which I snapped with my own fair hands), but I will at some point. It’s just a bit of a limbo album for me, and genuinely not a high point for the band itself (so says me).

I have written in the past about how I went off new rock music that was coming out between about late 2000 and early 2004, and this fell into that limbo period. I didn’t like the way rock/metal was getting trendy, I was getting a bit sick of it, Noisecore was winding down, other stuff was becoming more interesting to me, and I dunno, I just felt a disconnect with anything in the Kerrang!/Metal Hammer cultural sphere. The Wildhearts album might have been worse than usual for me at this time, too. They were a band I’d been a fan of from early teens on, and I figured that when they split that was it. Their reformation was not only the re-opening of a musical chapter in my life as a music fan that I thought had closed, but it also felt like there was a party going on to which I hadn’t been invited. Besides, the reformation featured proper old school Wildies like C.J and Stidi: they weren’t my Wildhearts.

So I ignored them, just like I did Old Man Gloom, Isis, Converge and Mastodon at the time. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that rock albums by bands I was paying attention to – Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens Of The Stone Age, Cave In, System Of A Down - at this time were uniformly disappointing. Even the debuting Audioslave, who I had a lot emotionally invested in, left me cold with an album I had assumed was guaranteed gold. Yeah, I ignored the return of the Wildhearts, as well as the reunion tour and any singles that accompanied.

I was right and I was wrong. I was right because this is the least good Wildhearts album of them all. Because something about it seems a tad unfinished, feels a bit wrong. I was wrong because I have since learned never to doubt Ginger. This is mainly on account of he’s hardly written a bad song, so we can infer from that a bad album is unlikely. It’s just disappointing by his standards.

That’s not to say I don’t love some songs on it, because there is plenty to love: especially the singles. I don’t know how I got away with not having ‘Vanilla Radio’ for the years I did, because it is a fantastic, aggressive/melodic song that even has time for football chanty bits. The other track that stands out is the aggressive, almost hardcore, ‘Nexus Icon’. Great songs both, although ‘Vanilla Radio’ is pretty clearly the superior.

Apart from these, though, it’s not stunning stuff. There are great moments, such as in the chorus of ‘Only Love’, when some female backing vocals interject to enthusiastically proclaim the title almost as though this was one of those moments when you thought Marc Bolan was awesome (and then you listened to other stuff he did and decided he wasn’t). But… but this song reminds you of the good bits of seventies glam, sticks it in a modern rock song and ends up with an awesome bit of pop mastery, where the verses are just breathing space between excellent choruses.

Looking at the track-list, more titles stick out to me actually. The song between ‘Only Love’ and ‘Vanilla Radio’, ‘Someone that Won’t Let Me Go’, is one that I recall really liking too. The issue in general with this album, though, is that the Wildhearts had really toned down any metal aspects of their patented (not really patented) pop-punk-metal alchemy at this point, leaving us with an album of good – but not amazing – pop punk.

Now, pop punk in general was in a bit of a state by 2003. The mighty NOFX (pretty insanely undervalued by non punk rockers) were rather stagnant by this stage; after peaking in 1997 with the near-perfect So Long and Thanks for all the Shoes (crap title, I know), they stumbled a bit with the patchy Pump Up the Valuum (sic, 2000). In 2003, they had the good War on Errorism, which I deemed an improvement on the last one before proceeding to not listen to it again. Anyway, they weren’t setting the world on fire, I’m pretty sure Bowling For Soup were knocking about at that stage, and it was all looking a bit glum in the Cali-sounding punk stakes. Why this stab at context? No idea really. It was nice that the Wildies were apparently attempting to invigorate the scene, but the dropping of the metal from their sound just hurt them, and made them sound a bit bland overall, certainly compared to what fans of the band had grown used to. Maybe that was their secret plan for chart success, who knows?

So this wasn’t a bad album, but wasn’t great. In hindsight it was nice to have them back on account of (i) they are better than most other bands, and (ii) it eventually led, this year, to their eponymous album, which is fucking excellent. And it’s always nice to know that Ginger is staying (relatively) out of mischief. But yeah, my cynicism towards them, and the style in general, wasn’t particularly refuted when I eventually did get it listened this year. Then again, if I had got this at the time, I’d have likely attended what was sure to be a great gig during the period. What can you do?

Next up: I write about The Wildhearts again! A thousand words after all…

The Vinyl Mission, vol. 1

So I recently got my turntable, and it has been awesome. As well as getting to hear old albums in the way they were meant to be heard, and picking up on all the cool new discs, it has become something of a mission of mine to get my favourite albums from this decade in 12" format. I have been doing pretty well thus far, and here is what I have gathered to date (complete with embarrassingly amateurish shots. I wish I could figure out how to take a straight photo of a rectangular shape):

The Mars Volta: De-Loused in the Comatorium

Currently the best album from this decade that I own on vinyl, it is a fairly constant presence in my decade top three (sadly the top two, the mighty The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads by Lift To Experience and Cave In's Jupiter don't appear to ever have been released on vinyl). I am currently undecided on how much better this is than the CD, which I actually don't own, on account of I was waiting to find a first pressing; I don't want a goddamn bonus track. Anyway, this sounds spectacular in parts and a touch messy in others. I reckon I need a new cartridge. Anyway, silver vinyl!

Tool: Lateralus

This is another definite peak of the decade thus far, being my second favourite album of 2001 (a year full of quality, the winner of which being the aforementioned Lift To Experience double), my second favourite Tool album and a gorgeous four sides of picture and prog-metal. This definitely does sound better than the CD; while it lacks that formats crystal clarity (a big thing on an album like this), the bass and separation are in another dimension. The only real issue here is that, due to the temporal constraints of a 12", 'Disposition' has been plonked onto the end of side 2. It should feed straight into 'Reflection' (which starts side 4), but instead there are two lengthy songs in between. It's not so bad but, if I had to decide, I'd have switched sides 3 and 4. That way, 'Reflection' does follow 'Disposition', and 'Lateralis' - which closes side 3 - has sufficient crescendo to close the album. But then you get into the 'extra track' mess, so I dunno. Anyway, it rules.

sunnO))) & Boris: (2006) Altar

And this is the album I consider to be the best since 2003. Not much has changed since I originally wrote about it, other than my opinion being cemented. Unfortunately my vinyl seems a little scuzzy; not scratched in any way, but a bit grubby. It certainly sounds dirty, so I'll have to get it cleaned. Apart from that, though, the bass is absolutely insane.

Boris: Pink

Getting this in was certainly a mission in itself. After learning that the vinyl had longer songs than the CD did, I knew I had to get this in. Then I learned it was limited edition, on account of metal labels like to fleece their fans in the name of 'collecting' (seriously, why limited edition? This doesn't happen with rap or dance in such ridiculous numbers. The vinyl is there), which made my job harder. Finding their label was out, I discovered the UK distro had some left. Deciding I couldn't afford both that and Altar in one go, I opted to wait. The day arrived that I would order this one, but Southern told me 'One of your items is unavailable', and I knew preecisely which one. Bastards. I resigned myself to having to pay obscene amounts on ebay for it (and even decided to get the boring black vinyl), but then discovered a shop in Belgium that had it in. Bought it ASAP, assuming it was the black one (but at an eBay-beating price), and then found - as you can see - it is pink. Happy day! But is it the best album of its year? Ooh, I don't know.*

MONO & World's End Girlfriend: Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain
This is not strictly an album I had before my turntable, nor is it historically a top album of the decade for me. However, it is included on account of (i) it rules and (ii) the vinyl is gorgeous. Despite the dual nomenclature, it's essentially one developing piece in five parts and it's quite lovely. Bonus points for ease of purchase: I walked into a shop in Leeds and bought it. If only everything was that simple.

* Code for '2005 Countdown to continue surprisingly soon'.

23 August 2007

A Cock and Bull Story

Dir: Michael Winterbottom, 2006

Steve Coogan, eh? While any artist or craftsman hates being associated with one piece of work for his whole career, it seems he will never escape the long shadow cast by his Alan Partridge character, possibly the finest British comedy creation of the nineties. Let’s face it, he’s infinitely preferable to the bloke who says ‘nice’ on The Fast Show, the bloke who says ‘great’ on The Fast Show (OK, anything on The Fast Show)… what else was there in the nineties? Brasseye was great, but was lacking what one could honestly deem a singular ‘comedy creation’. Maybe I’ll think of something by the time I finish writing this.

Anyway Partridge was awesome, but that programme’s general greatness makes everything else he’s done since look a tad mediocre. To be honest, I can’t really cast judgement on Around the World in Eighty Days or The Parole Officer, as I could never bring myself to watch them. Saxondale was pretty poor even on its own terms: the first episode had a nice climax, but it just meandered in a joke-evading complacency for the most part. I didn’t even watch the whole series which, when you consider our series tend to be six episodes long, is pretty damning an indictment. Still, it was miles better than Lead Balloon, but you’d kind of expect that, Coogan being generally infinitely better than Jack Dee.

Coogan’s Run, and it’s various spin-offs, were good, but they predated Partridge anyway, I think. They certainly came along before the classic I’m Alan Partridge (better than The Office, in case you were wondering. Which you weren’t) redefined who Coogan was in the eyes of the public. His scene with Alfred Molina in Coffee and Cigarettes was a highlight of that film, along with Tom Waits arguing with Iggy Pop, and ‘Bill Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’-ass Murray’, but was a bit weird when I finally saw it. See, it eventually crawled onto the Victorian screen of the Hyde Park Picture House just after I had seen Spiderman II. Therefore, the sight of Coogan acting superior to the antagonist of that year’s biggest blockbuster was rather harder to believe than if I had seen the scene when it was originally released.

I suppose all that brings us to this one, made in 2005 but released in early 2006. I remember really wanting to see it at the time; maybe the rather under-loved second series of I’m Alan Partridge had just been on or something. Not wanting to read anything about films I intend to see, I’m not sure what the precise media tone was on it, but I recall a general underwhelmed feeling emanating from various magazine and newspaper pages.

And I can see why, really. The film abandons traditional narrative (or at least what an unsuspecting viewer would have been expected) rather quickly, as the tale of Tristram Shandy* is dropped in favour of meta-narrative on the making of the film about Tristram Shandy. When the film began, with its opening scene of Coogan and ‘supporting actor’ Rob Brydon in make-up, I simply assumed that was a neat little prologue. Instead, it was the introduction to the film proper, of which the actual tale of Shandy was mere digression.

I like the idea of this a lot, especially as Coogan and Brydon have pretty great chemistry (the really rather good Cruise of the Gods seems woefully unnoticed in the annals of telly comedy); Coogan is excellent as the Alpha Comedian constantly belittling his sidekick, Chuckle Brothers style. Actually, it wasn’t all one way: while ‘Coogan’ (the character, see) went to great pains to convince ‘Brydon’ that he was a supporting actor rather than a co-star, the latter irks the former by suggesting their names go alphabetically on the marquee, and regularly does impersonations that are allegedly of Coogan, but are really exaggerated Alan Partridge impressions. See, it’s that thing about not being able to escape the shadow of Partridge again, only all self-aware. Like the Simpsons episode with Rupert Murdoch in, it’s a slightly contrived effort at showing we great unwashed that he can laugh at himself. A-HAAA!

I just don’t know with this film. One the one hand I was pleased it stopped being the quasi-bio of Tristram Shandy, on account of it wasn’t very funny, I can’t stand Dylan Moran, and the narration kept stuttering when he was about to be born (which I gather was the gimmick of the book; he wasn’t born by the time it ended. I think). Still, Keeley Hawes was rather fetching. Anyway, the narrative soon shifted from the book to the peripheries of making the film of the book, in which lots of luvvies were knocking about in an old castle mithering about various details of the production. The only problem here was that this wasn’t particularly amusing either.

It seemed to be a vague stab at making a feature length British equivalent of The Larry Sanders Show which, in a way, the Alan Partridge stuff was anyway. And it just wasn’t venomous enough to really compare to Sanders. Apart from the aforementioned relationship between Coogan and Brydon, and Coogan’s Partridge albatross, I suppose the other source of entertainment was found in the recurring motif of people having what they thought were really good ideas, only to find them completely excised from the final cut. Among these were battles that were largely derided by all involved anyway and a role played by Gillian Anderson, for which they actually used Ms. Anderson (complete with someone wondering aloud whether she’d been in Baywatch), in which she appeared, talked a bit, then complained about not ending up in the film.

I was checking on the time about half an hour into this one, which wasn’t a good sign, and I am torn between the two reactions of respecting A Cock and Bull Story for its structure and resenting it for the structures lack of success. I, to this day, am unaware of what it was trying to achieve; I do know, though, that it wasn’t funny enough to pull off such a random exercise.

One scene that I did find rather touching was the one in which Coogan was interviewed by the late Tony Wilson (of course, Coogan played Wilson in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People); I assume they showed the film because of Wilson’s recent passing but, if that was indeed the case, I don’t know why they didn’t just air the latter instead. Whatever, it was poignant and reminded me of the time I ate a few tables away from Wilson in Manchester in late 2000. and that’s about it, I suppose. The bit-parts weren’t very engaging (including some dolt from The Fast Show), it meandered without ending up anywhere, and I can’t even remember how it finished. ‘Great’.

* I admit to ignorance on this one, not having read the book prior to watching the film. And, as I watched the film the other night, I still haven’t read it. Or pretty much any book.

POSTSCRIPT: I knew I forgot something. I did find the scene where Coogan was lowered into a giant fake womb to be rather amusing, as was what I think was a dream sequence in which he appeared again in the womb, this time a normal-sized one, and started ranting at the rest of the cast. The highlight of this was the most Partridge line of the film; on the surrealism of his situation he squeaked 'I don't know why I'm so small!'

Slowly Getting Converted

As time goes on, my resistance to dubstep weakens. I never actually disliked it (I gave Boxcutter and Distance the dread download treatment, and liked what I heard), but was a tad sceptical. I was especially sceptcal of Burial; I just didn't see what all the fuss was about, and certainly didn't sympathise with the 'this is the ultimate statement of urban life!' hype.

I wrote on a message board a short while back:

...[T]he depth of the image he creates finally comes into view. Fuck the 'this is the sound of London, doomed megalopolis, post apocalypse, hauntology!' accepted line of thinking, this is a pained ('Wounder', 'U Hurt Me'), personal document; disc 2 is as mournfully blissful as anything I've heard. It's like a black and white Vespertine, stripped of all joy or character; but that core, that dishevelled, drained, cadaver within is just as affecting in its diseased humanity laid bare.

And it just keeps growing on me. The moment of clarity was obviously hearing it on double vinyl, but there is also an element of slow-burn at work.

Anyway, another day, another step into the the subterranean depths of dubstep. Wandering downstairs in Crash Records, a thorough look revealed a bunch of Skull Disco records. Sadly not Majestic Visions, which is what I was most after, but they had another Shackleton/Appleblim (pictured) and also the Villalobos remix of 'Blood On My Hands' (quite literally not pictured). So I got those. I have thus far only listened to the former, but was sufficiently impressed to pen this little post. While I hae historically preferred Appleblim, I have to admit it is Shackleton's 'Hamas Rule' that impresses most, with its Middle Eastern melodies, sparse darkness and what must be the biggest bassline in my collection.

I would also like to mention the artwork, reminiscent of Pushead, lending the existing dark underground aesthetic an added sense of old school metal/crust nastiness. Excellent.

11 August 2007

Garden State

Dir: Zach Braff, 2004

I wasn’t all that hyped for this, to be honest. The second film I had seen in Film Four’s current ‘New Hollywood’ season, Garden State’s description as ‘written by, directed by and starring Zach Braff’ filled me with trepidation. It’s not that I don’t like him – he’s a perfectly fine comic performer in Scrubs (even if he’s not one of the funnier on the show, those being Neil Flynn, Donald Faison, John C. McGinley and Ken Jenkins in descending order) – but I didn’t like the idea of his having a vanity project. So: did it turn out to be a vanity project with little to redeem it, or could Braff prove me wrong by turning in a great film?

Go on, guess.

In case you were actually wondering (and are one of the four or so people in the western world who hadn’t see the film before me), it was pretty dismal. I remember someone I don’t like once remarking that Garden State epitomised what he hated about modern American popular culture. I, not liking him and all, decided that I would like it on principle. I was wrong. Garden State is a feeble, feeble example of film-making that I only endured for its entirety because I want to get into the swing of watching (and, unfortunately for you lot, writing on) more films.

I can’t discern what it was Braff was aiming for in making this film. I saw no real message, other than perhaps some vague stab at ‘live life to the full please’; there was pretty much nothing in the way of character development, save for ‘I was on anti-depressants and now I’m not’; the dialogue was weak; the cinematography was no better than adequate; perhaps most criminally, there was no conflict or drama in any meaningful way. The silver lining, I suppose, is that my DVD want list now has one less title on it.

In defence of the film, its somnolent delivery and dreary pace could be seen as allegory for modern life itself: the very lack of emotion or character at the heart of the film (a pretty damning omission, as this was ostensibly a character driven piece) a cinematic representation of life while tranquilised. While I am happy to give Braff the benefit of the doubt on this one, it’s not like such method makes for compelling film-making. One would have hoped that such a message of ‘live life instead of being medicated to the eyeballs!’ would be represented by a celebratory, exciting film, but apparently not.

Instead, viewers of the film were subjected to nearly two hours of the most anodyne indie pop music imaginable, the candy-coated dirge pausing only for witless dialogue and stumbling, bumbling narrative. The ubiquity of the music (fittingly empty of emotional or intellectual content) was so blatant that one character actually made another listen to The Shins on headphones; it was a ghastly experience. Fortunately, there was a scene sound-tracked by Nick Drake, which was a definite upturn in fortunes. In fact, that was quite easily the best scene of the film, as it was visually far less mediocre than the rest of Garden State’s cinematic mire; I should try riding with my feet up in an antique sidecar while ‘One Of These Things First’ plays.

Speaking of the headphone scene, I suppose now would be the best time to mention the second most prominent actor in the film: Natalie Portman. Watching the film, I was for some reason reminded of the trailers for Lost in Translation, another film everybody but me has seen (to incredibly divisive effect); I had missed it due to hitting the bars that night, and was ruing having to watch Portman instead of the pink bob bewigged Scarlett Johansson (as well as wishing I had stayed out longer on this night). I then remembered that Portman wears a pink bob in Closer, so I shall have to get that done in due course. That is not to say la Portman is not an attractive person, because she is. Sadly, she is also intensely annoying in this film, but I will gladly attribute that to Braff’s cack-handed writing non-ability.

Otherwise, the cast was a set of ghostly archetypes and stereotypes, never to pass into the realm of credibility. The story, such as it was, concerned jobbing actor Andrew Largeman (Braff) returning home to New Jersey to attend the funeral of his mother, a paraplegic due to a household accident caused by a childhood Andrew. While there, he goes to a party where people take Ecstasy and make out (think that scene on the barge from Peep Show, minus the comedy and self loathing, plus smugness), and generally knocks about with the slackers with whom he grew up. He meets Sam (Portman) in the doctor’s and falls in love with her. He also sort of talks to his dad about his mum, with little in the way of resolution.

Maybe I’m just jealous that I haven’t met Natalie Portman while wiling away my time in waiting rooms, but she seemed a tad off. Apart from the painfully trite words Braff placed in her mouth like so many cylinders of pre-filling dental sponge, she seemed unwholesomely young for the donkey faced Braff to be getting off with. And I don’t even know why – this was a good half-decade after she had played a young queen in Star Wars, after all. There was also a nodding, winking self awareness to the film, which made the complete lack of wit even more pointed. Sam spouted annoying teen cliché about how weird she was, and how freaked out Largeman must be in her company, apparently only so Largeman could point out the fact that she was doing it.

There was to be no great conclusion to this meandering, other than Largeman deciding to be with Sam rather than return to California. It was like the end of Friends but stripped of any drama or the years of viewing that had invested a level of emotional attachment to Ross and Rachel. The narrative overall, of a quirky girl who brightens up the life of a dullard, was like Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, told from the opposite viewpoint, with infinitely less charming cinematography, setting, characters, performers and plot. There were two more elements of silver lining to this drab, cultural cumulonimbus: the title ‘Guardian of an infinite abyss’ was a nice line and, were it the film’s title, should have invested it with at least a modicum of mystique; and the presence of Method Man. He is awesome, and I never realised he was so tall.

10 August 2007


Dir: Alexander Payne, 2004

FilmFour recently put on a ‘NEEEWWW HOLLYWOOOOOD!’ season, because the future of da bidneth is apparently represented by the cinematic equivalent of Nemo music. I either missed (Lost in Translation, probably other stuff) or decided against watching (I ♥ Huckabees, Brick) a lot of what I was originally interested in, but I caught a couple of films; this is one of them. And no Napoleon Dynamite, because I can barely bring myself to look at Jon Heder.

I don’t get the deal surrounding this film at all. Reviewed when it came out as a great low key film full of character and characters, it left me wanting more. More what? Not sure really. At two and a half hours on FilmFour, not more of the film, that’s for sure. Not to say it’s a bad film (that’s coming next), but it is neither here nor there, and that is arguably even worse.

I was tempted to get shot of it on the premature tip, but decided to stick with it so I could write it up for the blog; the temptation, though, was always there and really came about because nothing happened in the first half an hour. I mean little happened in the whole thing, but the first thirty minutes or so was pure exposition and nothing else. Yeah, we get it: it’s an odd couple comedrama about an ageing former star lothario who’s about to get hitched, and a cartoony nerd character. Together they are giving the former his last week of freedom in Wine Country!

I think the draw with the film was that middle aged Guardian readers (and whatever their equivalent is in America – New York Times?) watched it and wanted to drink some fine wine. Well, it had quite the opposite effect on me; I specifically didn’t want to get into wine for fear of turning into the loser of the Sideways pair (Mike, played by Paul Giamatti; I remember him from The Truman Show and Donnie Brasco, playing various control room nerds. Maybe you do too!).

Thankfully a plot was found before I turned over the channel, and it proved reasonably engaging, and pretty well written. The deal was that the engaged character (Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church) was desperate to get laid with another woman before getting married, and only slightly less desperate to get not-so recently divorced Mike in the sack with another woman before he died. Not that his death was imminent or anything – this isn’t a terminal illness flick – but that’s the point.

So it turns out that Mike has a thing for a Wine Country waitress (Maya, Virginia Madsen) (see, while I felt nothing for the wine element of the film, I was a big fan of the leafy Californian environs housing the story), who has a reciprocal thing for him. Ergo Jack tries to get them together while intending to get himself with local wine store owner (Stephanie, played by Sandra Oh off Grey’s Anatomy – you have nothing to fear from me writing that one up, unless some major changes occur). And they get together, sweet.

Or is it? See, while Mike and Maya are on a date, he blurts that he and Jack hae to be back home soon for the rehearsal dinner, and all hell breaks loose. Stephanie is well gutted, as she thought she was in a cool relationship, so she batters him with a motorcycle helmet. Meanwhile Mike, still hurting over the recent news that his ex wife has remarried and will be at Jack’s wedding, goes on quite the downward spiral. See, it took what felt like forever, but the film finally got interesting.

In fact, it went a bit further than I thought it would, plot wise, for which I doff my hat, which I’m not currently wearing. It would be pretty amusing to have a computer hat, though, which I wear only for blogging and chatting to folk. Maybe a deerstalker, which I can pair with a bubble-blowing pipe and possibly even a monocle. Anyway, the downward spiral segment of this film was way more compelling than, say, the second half of the insanely over-loved Goodfellas (I always preferred the Salad Days half, myself), as Jack bedded an overweight fan of his before making his nude escape when her shift-working hubby turned up. And then he and Mike having to return to the scene of the crime because Mike had left his wallet – and his wedding rings – in the house.

Yes, the final third of the film was quite the act of salvation, as I was finally given a reason to care about my characters and what happened to them. More importantly than unfortunate plot twists, the characters became fleshed out: I started sympathising with Mike, and actually quite disliking the otherwise charismatic and winning Jack; similarly, Stephanie and Maya were transcended from the status of dual plot devices to the most sympathetic characters in the piece. Stephanie especially, the free spirited single parent who just wanted a bit of stability in her life, really came into her own with the aggravated battery scene.

There were also laughs in the film; intentional, belly laughs at that. The apparently quite infamous ‘if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!’ line was excellent, as was Mike’s dash for (in)glory, steaming out into a field with bottle in hand upon news of his ex’s new life. Further, the drunken phone call to said ex was handled really well; potentially the most awkward phone scene since the Swingers answer-phone message.

But while it developed into a very decent film (‘romp’, if I was a Guardian hack), it was way too slow to get going and therefore too bottom heavy for me to consider a good overall film. Sideways is uneven and overlong, but damn it if didn’t end up charming me beyond the lovely scenery.
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