Friday, 14 March 2014

reviews: Stanley Brinks and The Wave Pictures, Bill Pritchard, Appletop

                                               Stanley Brinks and the Wave Pictures – Gin

Stanley Brinks and the Wave Pictures (***)

Named after the drink that fuelled its recording, Stanley Brinks’ third collaboration with The Wave Pictures is a somewhat untidy collection that in its best stretches offers up raw bursts of inspiration, but with the odd off-moment elsewhere to suggest time at the bar might have been better spent at the drawing board.

Admittedly, the threshold between messy brilliance and just plain messy is a difficult one to pinpoint with regards an artist like Brinks, who since departing Herman Dune has generated scores of albums with near absolute autonomy, any frayed edges contributing to his appeal. Nonetheless, when a song falls as flat as Spinola Bay does here, it’s difficult not to yearn for a more discerning and incisive approach. Luckily, the rest of Gin exercises its creator’s idiosyncrasies more successfully, and, as on their previous two secondments, The Wave Pictures prove nicely suited to the record’s loose, improvisational style.
Out now

                                              Bill Pritchard – A Trip to the Coast

Bill Pritchard - A Trip to the Coast (***)

Staffordshire-born songwriter Bill Pritchard has been releasing music intermittently since the eighties, though if the name doesn’t ring bells it’s probably because his successes have mostly occurred across the channel. A Trip to the Coast is his first album in 9 years, and while it’s tempting to read dashed dreams into the line “I sometimes wonder how it could be/ if I’d been more commercial”, the music’s mellow tenor suggests no hard feelings regarding the homeland snub.

Pritchard’s Anglo-French background is conveyed through bilingual lyrics (mostly English à l’exception de Tout Seul) and tracks named for both Paris and, somewhat less grandly, a suburb of Stoke-on Trent. The fact that the latter is treated with just as much tender affection as the former indicates a lot about Pritchard’s agreeably romantic worldview, and while his understated guitar pop is possibly too lightweight to inspire more than a passing fancy, it’s a breezy pleasure while it lasts.

Out now

                                              Appletop – Brave Mountains

Appletop - Brave Mountains (***)

Hailing from the town of Hyères in the sunny Côte d’Azur, Appletop are French on their passports but emphatically American in their musical leanings, trading in the same brand of fuzzy, winsome alt-rock perfected by icons from Malkmus to Mascis. Similarities to the former are particularly obvious, with Twenty Five, Johnny’s Theme and Madonna in Love all très Pavement; a familiarity that on the one hand enhances their easy appeal, but on the other leaves the trio with a tough task asserting their own character.

In the end, the combined strength of their hooks and convictions comfortably pulls them through, with opener Headstrong finding them at their most effortlessly engaging, Nebraska piling on crunchy guitars to bristling effect, and Nikolai providing a quiet counterweight to the more pogo-friendly tempos deployed elsewhere. You might have heard it all before, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to hear it all again.
Out now

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

reviews: Angel Olsen, Withered Hand, The Birthday Suit

                                                Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness (****)

Four songs into her exquisite second LP, Angel Olsen’s deeply expressive voice alights upon the album’s title. "If you’ve still got some light in you then go before it’s gone," she whispers over skeletal arpeggios, "and burn your fire for no witness, it’s the only way to die." Suddenly, a phrase that in isolation suggested defiance becomes profoundly sad; just one example of Olsen’s acute lyrical gifts.

The song in question (White Fire) is a fragile solo performance, and thus harks back to Olsen’s delicate debut Half Way Home. But elsewhere, Burn Your Fire for No Witness proves a bolder, more assertive expression of the Missouri-born songwriter’s talents, with Forgiven/Forgotten delivering crunchy, Breeders-like guitars and Hi-Five dressing its country crooning in distorting fuzz. Furthermore, upping the volume in this way renders the remaining quiet moments all the more intimate, with Windows a starkly emotional conclusion to an album of true beauty.

Out now

                                             Withered Hand – New Gods

Withered Hand - New Gods (****)

With a title that near-anagrams its 2009 precursor Good News, New Gods sees Withered Hand (aka Edinburgh-based songwriter Dan Willson) gently shuffle aspects of his sound around, producing an album that’s distinct from yet recognisably connected to what came before. Production choices inspire the most noticeable alterations, with markedly more polish and a plethora of radio-friendly touches imparted by time in a “proper studio” with producer Tony Doogan.

It’s a shift that provokes mixed feelings. On opener Horseshoe, amongst others, it helps the material soar, urging you to sing along with the lyrical sucker punches. But elsewhere the shininess risks diminishing Willson’s individualism, threatening to draw attention away from the subtlety, intimacy and endearing awkwardness that typically flavours his songwriting. But that’s a minor complaint: throughout, New Gods affirms Willson’s superlative abilities, with highlights ranging from the airport insecurities of Love Over Desire to the communal courage expressed in closer Not Alone.
Out now

                                            The Birthday Suit – A Hollow Hole of Riches

The Birthday Suit - A Hollow Hole of Riches (***)

As far as fan gestures go, trying to force a band reunion by boycotting the members’ other musical outlets is neither the most gracious nor thoughtful. Hence when a campaign to that end appeared online last year, directed at the projects supposedly distracting Idlewild from following up Post Electric Blues, it seemed only to strengthen guitarist Rod Jones’ commitment to post­-Post gig The Birthday Suit.

While Idlewild have since confirmed they’re working on new material after all, A Hollow Hole of Riches stridently affirms that The Birthday Suit weren’t forced out to pasture in the process. On the contrary, Jones’ third album under the moniker finds him at his most confident and persuasive, with rousing opener A Bigger World the first of several aspirant anthems. Not everything that follows is of equally high calibre, but as a whole it brims with a drive and passion that’s easy to buy into.
Out now

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

goodbye! (+ final bottle rocket playlist)


For the second time in a year, Bottle Rocket is no more. Our time at the Flying Duck was short but sweet - a nice coda to our 5-year stint at Nice N Sleazy, but one which has now drawn to an end. We won't rule out the possibility of occasional one-off parties sometime in the future, but as a monthly residency-type thing, that's yer lot. Thanks to everyone who ever stopped by and joined in the dancing.

Here's what our final night sounded like:

1. Bis - Skinny Tie Sensurround
2. Veronica Falls - Tell Me
3. Lucius - Turn it Around
4. Austra - Painful Like
5. The Knife - Kino
6. Duran Duran - Girls on Film
7. New Young Pony Club - Ice Cream
8. Dead or Alive - You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
9. We Have Band - You Came Out
10. Crystal Stilts - Future Folklore
11. Golden Triangle - Neon Noose
12. Manhattan Love Suicides - Suzy Jones
13. Elastica - Connection
14. ABBA - SOS
15. Camera Obscura - Number One Son
16. The Go-Betweens - Streets of Your Town
17. Belle and Sebastian - I'm A Cuckoo
18. St Vincent - Birth In Reverse
19. Chvrches - Gun
20. The Monks - Monk Time
21. The Doors - Break On Through
22. The Rolling Stones - Brown Sugar
23. The Specials - Little Bitch
24. New York Dolls - Looking for a Kiss
25. The Damned - Don't Cry Wolf
26. Wilson Pickett - In the Midnight Hour
27. Fontella Bass - Rescue Me
28. The Isley Brothers - Stop! In the Name of Love
29. The Teardrop Explodes - Treason
30. Blondie - Youth Nabbed As Sniper
31. Le Tigre - My My Metrocard
32. Bikini Kill - Double Dare Ya
33. Arcade Fire - Rebellion (Lies)
34. Spandau Ballet - Cut A Long Story Short
35. Alphaville - Big in Japan
36. Devo - Whip It
37. Gun Club - Sex Beat
38. Paul Simon - You Can Call Me Al
39. The Strokes - Hard to Explain
40. Sleater Kinney - Jumpers
41. Detroit Cobras - Hey Sailor
42. Lionel Richie - All Night Long
43. The Police - Roxanne
44. Placebo - Nancy Boy
45. Roxy Music - Editions of You
46. Pulp - Do You Remember the First Time?
47. Beastie Boys - No Sleep Till Brooklyn
48. The Bee Gees - Jive Talking
49. The Velvettes - Needle in a Haystack
50. Aretha Franklin - See Saw
51. The B-52s - Love Shack
52. Madonna - Material Girl
53. The Smiths - Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before
54. Pixies - Blue Eyed Hexe
55. Electric Light Orchestra - Do Ya
56. Bruce Springsteen - Glory Days
57. Psychedelic Furs - Pretty In Pink
58. Nena - 99 Luftballons
59. The Go! Team - Bottle Rocket
60. Run DMC - It's Tricky
61. LCD Soundsystem - All My Friends
62. Pet Shop Boys - West End Girls
63. David Bowie - Young Americans
64. The Cure - Why Can't I Be You?
65. Dexy's Midnight Runners - There There My Dear
66. Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart
67. Hall & Oates - Maneater
68. Prince - Purple Rain

"it's such a shame our friendship had 2 end"

Too right Prince, too right.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

reviews: Let's Wrestle, Keel Her, Tomorrow We Sail

                                               Let's Wrestle – Let's Wrestle

Let's Wrestle - Let's Wrestle (**)

After two full doses of rewardingly ramshackle indie-rock (2009’s In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s and 2011’s Nursing Home), Let’s Wrestle’s self-titled third album sees the band tuck in their shirts and leave dishevelled adolescence behind them. The transformation is pronounced, with the scruffy guitars of yore given a jingle-jangle refit and horns and strings creating a notably fuller, richer sound. But while the results are unerringly pleasant, if feels as if too many of the band’s youthful assets have ended up jettisoned or muted in the name of maturation.

One thing Wesley Patrick Gonzalez and his cohorts haven’t misplaced is their knack for crafting catchy hooks, and tracks like Rain Ruins Revolution and Pull Through For You (featuring Veronica Falls’ Roxanne Clifford) are effective examples of the band’s sonic facelift. But the likes of Care For You’s B-list Britpop let the side down, rendering Let’s Wrestle uncharacteristically underwhelming.

Out now

                                              Keel Her – Keel Her

Keel Her - Keel Her (****)
While this self-titled collection is officially Keel Her’s debut album, Rose Keeler-Schäffeler is no debutant. Since 2011, the Brighton-based songwriter has shared songs online seemingly as fast as she can finish them – faster, in fact, with myriad works-in-progress amongst the EPs and so forth. Her DIY inventiveness has already won admiration from kindred spirit R. Stevie Moore (amongst others), and for those who haven’t been following her evolution in real-time, these 18-tracks present the perfect entry point.

Underwritten by an inherent understanding that lo-fi needn’t be limiting, Keel Her never deigns to settle on single, clear style. Reflecting its creator’s raw curiosity, the album’s free-roaming aesthetic ventures from the scratchy post-punk of Go to the dense synth swirls of In My Head; the piercing fuzz-pop of Riot Grrl to the echo chamber fog of Pussywhipped. And best of all, should this economical taster menu appeal, there’s a buffet-load more where it came from.

Out now

                                              Tomorrow We Sail – For Those Who Caught the Sun in Flight

Tomorrow We Sail - For Those Who Caught the Sun in Flight (***)
Gizeh Records is a paragon of consistency, not only in terms of the quality of its output but in the overlaps and similarities between those on its roster. With post-rock, slowcore and neoclassical the key genres shaping For Those Who Caught the Sun in Flight, it’s fair to say that Tomorrow We Sail are a comfortable fit for the Manchester label – perhaps even too comfortable, since there’s little here that admirers of these gentle arts won’t have heard in some form before. 

Yet, demonstrating that familiarity need not breed contempt, the Leeds 7-piece trigger shivers at all the right moments, crafting heavenly symphonies by turns sombre and soaring. It’s taken them five years to get to this debut, and their unhurried diligence is reflected in the careful precision of every slicing violin, solemn vocal and bristling crescendo, and while it may not break new ground, it treads the already turned earth with exceptional grace.

Out now

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Gore Lore: Nicholas D. Wrathall on Gore Vidal - The United States of Amnesia

Combining archive footage and brand new interviews, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia surveys the life and writings of novelist, public intellectual and dyed-in-the-wool iconoclast Gore Vidal. Ahead of the film’s Scottish premiere, director Nicholas D. Wrathall explains the film’s origins and shares his impressions of the man himself.

What initially drew you to Gore Vidal as a documentary subject? 
I am friends with his nephew Burr Steers and so had heard many stories about Gore Vidal over the years. I was always intrigued by the man and hoped to one day meet him. I was living in NY at the time of 9/11 and Gore Vidal was one of the few voices speaking out in the mass media against the Bush Administration's rush into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was at this time that I realized that he was still a very important and outspoken critic and I began to read many of his essays and novels from the past.

A couple of years later I had the chance to meet him with his nephew in Los Angeles and proposed doing some interviews with him which he agreed to. I also filmed him moving out of the Ravello house [the Italian villa where Vidal lived for over 30 years with partner Howard Austen] and coming back to live in Los Angeles. It was at this point that I realized that we had to make a film.

Was the aim always to piece together a comprehensive account of Vidal's full life and career, or did you ever consider focussing in on a single period or aspect? 
I was essentially motivated by Gore's critique of American culture and politics and always saw that as the driving force of the film. Obviously that is also what motivates Gore. His biography is fascinating and so was also a big part of the story but what I was most interested were his ideas and the way he managed to get them across in a changing media landscape. What's amazing about Gore is how relevant his commentary from the past still feels today when you look at the archival interviews that we gathered for the film. He was always ahead of his time and very outspoken. For this reason I think he is as relevant now as he always was.

What were your first impressions of Vidal upon meeting him in person?
His enormous intellect and reputation were overwhelming at first [but] gradually I learnt how to approach him, essentially with caution and respect. One of our first conversations was about Australian politics. He knew [former Australian Prime Minister] Gough Whitlam personally and I like to think we bounded over this conversation.

Were any topics off-limits?
He would rarely answer questions about his personal life or about Howard in any great detail and so this part of his life had to be filled in by other people. He liked to concentrate on ideas, politics and his views on the rise and fall of the American Empire. He was also very preoccupied with the travesties the Bush Administration was inflicting on the populace and so didn't like to do small talk on camera.

You open with Vidal disdainfully dismissing a biographer for misrepresenting him – were you ever on the receiving end of his irascible side?
I did get in trouble when we did the interview with Gorbachev for interrupting him. I shot a question to Gorbachev during the interview not realizing that Gore was wanting to control the conversation. I didn't really hear about this directly but his nephew told me that he never forgave me for that.

How did you go about organising and selecting from the archive materials?
It was really a matter of finding the most dramatic material. I particularly looked for material that illustrated different ideas that felt prescient today and showed his courage and consistency in speaking truth to power. We were also lucky to find material of Gore as a child with his father and speeches from his Senator Grandfather who greatly influenced him as a child. The debates with Buckley were also a highlight of the archival research and it was hard to cut this down to the five minutes we used in the film. There is so much great material in these debates it was a shame not to include more.

What do you think Vidal would have made of the finished film?
He did see many of the interviews we did as rushes but not the finished product. Many people close to him from his family and friends have assured me that he would have approved of the finished cut. I like to believe he would like the film. I do believe it captures his ideas and his spirit.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

GFT programme note: Teenage


‘- What are you rebelling against?
 - What have you got?’
The Wild One (dir: Laslo Benedek, 1953)
The history of teens onscreen is a history of rock ‘n’ roll and Tuesday Weld; angst, rebellion and teenage kicks; of James Dean’s red jacket, the valley girl cliques of Clueless, and Ferris Bueller twistin’ and shoutin’ through the streets of Chicago. But just as these screen archetypes have their predecessors (from Rimbaud to Austen to any number of Bildungsromans), so too does the very concept of teenage-ness – strikingly explored in director Matt Wolf’s new documentary. Teenage offers a prehistory of the teenager as both an idea and an ideal, tracing the diverse social strands that helped to demarcate the years between thirteen and nineteen as a distinct intermediate zone; a transitional stage of development between childhood and adulthood with its own qualities, cultures and characteristics.

Jon Savage, on whose book the film is based, argues that, between 1875 and 1945, “every single theme now associated with the modern teenager had a vivid, volatile precedent.”[1] The film adaptation adopts a slightly narrower focus, honing in on early 20th century events, with select milestones including the abolition of child labour, liberating youth from the factories and workhouses that had forced them to grow up fast; the cataclysm of the first World War, which “gutted an entire generation” and fostered resentment amongst the young against the older generations who’d sent them to die in the trenches; and the hopelessness and disenfranchisement engendered by the Great Depression. Alongside such seismic occurrences, various sub-cultures flourished: flappers, jitterbugs, rockers, subdebs and more. But Teenage isn’t a straightforward celebration of adolescent vitality. Alongside the film’s catalogue of teen movements in the UK and the US (the former eternally looking towards the latter for its cues), interwar Germany is presented as a kind of crucible for the way youthful energies can be corrupted and co-opted. Yet, as with anywhere and anytime else, the story of German proto-teenagers is a story of resistance and resilience as well as acquiescence and conformity, with the former qualities represented by groups like the White Rose movement and the Edelweiss Pirates, who “escaped to nature [and] declared eternal war” against their fascist contemporaries.

Throughout, Teenage presents itself as a communal history, with its myriad voiceovers always in the first person, their sources largely unspecified, and with ‘we’ the preferred pronoun. The effect is a kind of collective biography through which only a handful of named individuals are afforded special attention: “a party-crazed Bright Young Thing named Brenda Dean Paul; Melita Mashmann, an idealistic Hitler Youth; a proto-punk German swing kid named Tommie Scheel; and Warren Wall, an African-American Boy Scout.”[2] In interview, Wolf has compared this quartet with the subjects of his previous films – cult musician Arthur Russell (Wild Combination, 2008), artist and activist David Wojnarowicz (Smalltown Boys, 2003) and poet and writer Joe Brainard (I Remember, 2012), labelling Teenage’s composite tales “hidden histories”, each “underground in their own way.”[3] Indeed, it seems fitting that a filmmaker whose past work has studied fringe artists, outsiders and iconoclasts should be drawn to examine the period of life in which feelings of difference and opposition are typically at their strongest.

Visually, Teenage draws its footage from an array of sources: archive photographs, newsreels, propaganda films, amateur home movies and more. Where there are gaps, Wolf inserts his own ‘fake archival footage’, splicing carefully calibrated reconstructions into the (re)assemblage of genuine archive material (a technique he previously employed in Wild Combination). Clever manipulation of the mise-en-scene allows many of these forgeries to go unnoticed, stitched so neatly into the film’s fabric that only occasionally do we see through the illusion; a rhythmic score from Deerhunter/Atlas Sound musician Bradford Cox, meanwhile, helps bridge the edits and foster coherence. For Wolf, this wild combination of real and unreal is the deliberate antithesis of the authoritative documentary style typified by a filmmaker like Ken Burns (The Statue of Liberty (1985), The Central Park Five (2012)). “The form of the film” Wolf asserts, “is perhaps as rebellious as the adolescent subjects it depicts.”[4]

Central to the film’s collective portrait of the teenager is a sense of universality: the conceit that the passions that drive individual adolescents in one cultural context are linkable to those inspiring or plaguing individuals elsewhere, else-when. As well as underwriting the very format of the film, this universality is foregrounded at multiple suggestive junctures. For instance, the history of teenagers is arguably also a history of popular music trends, and when one voice states “I got all the new jazz records – my mum thought it was awful noise”, it touches upon a cliché that could have been drawn from any of the decades since, in relation to parent-bothering youth cultures from punk to house music. Similarly, scenes of Rudolph Valentino’s funeral inspiring mass hysteria pre-empt Beatlemania by several decades (and Bieber-mania by several more), while the trend for renaming teen canteens with colourful slang to “prove that it’s ours” illustrates the ever-shifting argot of youth vocabulary.

Upon hitting 1945, the collage of events becomes more rapid: Elvis, Tiananmen Square, skateboarders, Vietnam, cheerleaders, goths and rollercoasters – 70 years of youth culture collapsed into a single montage. The message is clear: once the teenager’s arrival had been acknowledged and its existence formalised, the hard work was done, and everything since has been a reiteration. It’s only here that the film’s collective biography approach perhaps finds its representational limits, smoothing over the edginess and diversity of youth in order to wrap up its braided narratives and provide its thematic history with a rousing conclusion. But the sense of continuity it imparts – and the invitation to insert one’s own experience of teenage-ness into the tapestry – reinforces the underlying themes of inclusion, evocatively casting teen spirit as a timeless impulse: the impulse to not only refashion the past, but to forge one’s own future.

Chris Buckle, Journalist and Researcher
March 2014

[1] Jon Savage, Teenage: The Creation of Youth (London: Pimlico, 2008), p.xiii
[2] Stuart Comer, ‘Dreaming Documentary’, Mousse Magazine No. 40 (2003), accessed February 2013 at
[3] ibid
[4] Comer (2003)

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

GFF2014: Festival Diary 3

As we reach the final weekend of the Festival (and, consequently, the last of my Festival diaries), I’d like to rewind the clock and revisit a trio of recent special screenings, beginning with the most mysterious entry in the whole festival calendar: Potholing Expedition Seeks Recruits.

What do you bring to a potholing expedition? The brochure recommends sturdy footwear, but assures recruits that all other equipment will be provided. Nonetheless, an unsettling uncertainty lingers in my stomach as I enter Central Station’s concourse and add my number to the gathering crowd. A quick scan of the assembled throng brings a modicum of relief: there’s not a carabiner or hard hat in sight, and just as importantly (given the horror movie vibe I’ve subconsciously projected on the whole affair), no one looks likely to start murdering us one by one and stashing our bodies beneath the tracks. Nonetheless, I scout out fit and able factions with whom to align myself should we become trapped beneath the ground, and consider the fact that it’s not too late to pretend I’m actually here to catch the 19:05 to Neilston.

Once the group is complete, the organisers split us down the middle (definitely a bad omen…) and lead us towards the rear of Patisserie Valerie. As we re-congregate behind the passport booths and await our ride down into the station’s underbelly, it all feels faintly Harry Potter-ish – ducking off main walkways to explore a world not usually visible to muggles. Even at this stage, I’m still not certain what precisely the evening has in store, though I’m just about ready to rule out any actual potholing.

Down in the station’s bowels, we’re led to a dark entrance from which unearthly groans and moans are emanating. Instructed to grasp a length of rope and not let go, we make our way single-file through the barely-lit corridor – a nice theatrical touch – and are handed a pillow on the other side. The pillow, it seems, is what was meant by ‘specialist equipment’, and its comfort proves pretty invaluable upon reaching our journey’s final stop: a makeshift cinema beneath the concrete arches, with piled bricks for seats. The unnerving sounds are now much louder and gelled lights cast spooky shadows on the walls; an eerie vibe only deflated by the presence of a refreshments table laden with primped gateaux and tarts. Once we’re settled, GFF special projects manager Sharon Grogans thanks everyone present for 'taking a chance' on tonight’s secretive happening, adding that if anyone needs to go to the bathroom during the screening they’ll 'figure out a way'. I decide to just cross my legs if the need arises.

Finally, the exact nature of our evening’s entertainment is revealed: Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror The Descent, in which a group of friends venture underground in search of adventure and discover instead a colony of bloodthirsty subterranean mutants. Having not seen it since its original cinema release, I’m pleased to discover the film just as effective as I remembered, and the echoing acoustics of tonight’s unorthodox cinema space ensures that every stinger registers with full force. After its visceral final act, we’re kindly asked not to tweet or otherwise share details just yet, so as not to spoil the surprise for the next three nights of sold out ‘expeditions’. And then, proving we’ve learned nothing from Marshall’s cautionary frightener, a few of us start foolhardily wandering down the wrong corridor in search of the exit.

The following night we’re at the Glue Factory for a less mysteriously pitched but similarly formatted event. For the second year of his Game Cats Go Miaow! strand, Robert Florence has commissioned Tron, and the Glue Factory has been tarted up accordingly. In the bar area, a cluster of arcade machines give me plenty of opportunities to prove how thoroughly rusty I am at games of all classes: on Street Fighter 2, the only thing I manage to KO is my own beer (sent flying by an overeager joystick swipe), and though I’ve little way of judging the exact worth of my zombie shooting skills, I’m going to assume that 37% accuracy and zero villagers saved doesn’t qualify as a resounding success. In the end, I decide pinball’s the game for me: there’s only the most basic connection between cause and effect, you rack up implausibly high scores within seconds, bonuses and extra lives are bestowed with no discernible rhyme or reason – plus it’s a whole lot less conspicuous than firing a blue plastic pistol at groaning onscreen sprites.

Upstairs in the cinema space, black lights on white walls prove an effective and efficient way of evoking the film’s sleek pristine world. Squinting through the ultraviolet gloom, Florence thanks us for coming and in the same breath admits it 'isnae actually that good a film' – which is true enough, but hardly a problem/revelation for an audience unlikely to be seeing it for the first time. That said, in a very real sense we’re all coming to the film cold tonight – by which I mean the heating’s broken and it’s absolutely freezing. Cannily, however, everyone’s offered free beer at the end by way of compensation, which is almost enough to encourage me to have another stab at zombie-slaying. Almost.

Friday night brings more monsters, with a screening of Young Frankenstein at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum for which attendees are encouraged to dress up in spooky garb. Upon arrival, I spy more than one Igor, a furry mogwai, plus plenty of non-specific creeps and ghouls; face-painters in the foyer, meanwhile, coax those in plain attire to get into the spirit. Admittedly, spending the first twenty-five minutes queuing in a cafeteria flattens the ‘monster’s ball’ vibe a little. But once upstairs in the museum’s atrium, the atmosphere is quickly restored thanks to a themed organ recital featuring what is certainly the most imposing and distinguished rendition of the Scooby Doo theme tune I’ve ever been witness to. I select a seat just out of the eye-line of the stuffed elephant, and spend the rest of the pre-film build-up taking in the grandeur of the surroundings; a grandeur that’s only enhanced when the lights dim, casting shadows in every archway and corridor. The film itself is as fun as ever, and peals of laughter echo around the high ceilings throughout – reverberations that reach their peak with the monster’s Puttin’ on the Ritz wails. Like the Potholing Expedition and Tron: Off the Grid before it, it’s a unique and evocative way of revisiting a familiar film, and a continuation of the Festival’s tradition for screenings in off-beat locales – one I wholeheartedly hope to see continued come GFF2015. Till then, goodbye!

Saturday, 1 March 2014

GFF2014: Festival Diary #2

'Stay indoors! Stay indoors all day and watch films!' That’s GFF co-director Allan Hunter there, using his introduction to Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai D’Orsay to invitingly suggest that we spend the rest of this dreachit Thursday in the bosom of the Festival. I don’t need to be told twice – or indeed, at all, with Tavernier’s political farce marking the midpoint of five back-to-back screenings for which I won’t even be required to leave the building.

The binge began with Chilean drama Things the Way They Are – an experience notable for both the quality of the film (in which a withdrawn/creepy-as-hell landlord awkwardly initiates a relationship with one of his tenants) and, on a more personal level, for the fact it’s my first glimpse inside the GFT’s recently completed third screen; a soft, leather-pewed Valhalla that feels particularly comfy after the brick and hard plastic on which I’ve been perched for some of the week’s other screenings (more on which in tomorrow’s diary). A short while later, I’m back in the exact same seat for The Red Robin – a well put-together if sometimes clumsily scripted psychological drama centring on a night of grim revelations in a snowbound family home. Writer and director Michael Z Wechsler battles jetlag to attend the screening (another UK premiere) and asks the audience whether we’d mind recording a brief video message for his kids back home in the States; a sweet display of paternal affection that, inadvertently, makes the ensuing tale of dark childhood traumas even more grim.

Next is the aforementioned Quai D’Orsay, in which Tavernier has fun skewering the frothy emptiness of governmental rhetoric. Named after the street on which the real French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is situated, the scattershot satire follows a young scriptwriter’s turbulent induction into ministerial life; a world of backbiting and endless blethering, where an errant word has the potential to spark diplomatic crises the world over. The comedy is broad (particularly a running gag in which the hubristic Minister sends papers flying every time he strides self-importantly through a room), but as a portrait of barely functioning pomposity it proves highly entertaining.

It’s followed by something of a novelty: an event at which the Q&A is twice the length of the work it accompanies. The legend of Black Angel’s resurrection has been covered extensive elsewhere, but to recap: personally commissioned by George Lucas to precede The Empire Strikes Back, director Roger Christian’s short fantasy film subsequently disappeared, and for over three decades existed only as a clutch of memories. With original prints either destroyed or missing from archives, it took the recent rediscovery of the negatives to bring the film back to a wider public; a wider public now all-but-filling GFT1, whooping enthusiastically as the film’s director walks out to provide an introduction.

Christian starts by asking us to 'set our clocks back thirty-three years', framing his film as an artefact from a differently paced era of filmmaking. It’s a needlessly defensive disclaimer: from its opening scenes, the film’s oneiric allure prove to be as pronounced as its fans have always claimed, with fading edits and wind-whipped sound design underscoring the dream-like atmosphere. Would it be held in such high regard had a long disappearance not fed the film’s mythos, romanticising it for both newcomers and devotees alike? Without taking anything away from the film’s many qualities I’d hazard not, but its re-appraisal is nonetheless fully deserved.

Inevitably, given the history of both Black Angel and Christian’s own professional career, Star Wars casts a shadow on the event. During the screening, I’m surely not the only person inadvertently recalling Lucas’s space saga at every turn, with triggers ranging from the cowled old man cackling like Palpatine to the echoes of Dagobah in the slowed-down combat scenes; the design of the Black Angel itself, meanwhile, evokes a medieval Darth Vadar, with sable armour obscuring its features and heavy breathing accompanying each appearance. Christian later explains that the resemblance is the consequence of a 'similar origin', with both characters visually inspired by all-black samurai armour; just one of several influences (Kurosawa, monomythic heroism) that Lucas and Christian apparently share. Later, ‘Q’s relating to Christian’s role as set decorator on A New Hope are given obliging and crowd-pleasing ‘A’s, covering hodgepodge light sabre prototypes and the difficulties of making cars fly with nowt but a broom and a mirror.

Finally, we come to The Zero Theorem – the latest act of cinematic delirium from director Terry Gilliam, who is given a rapturous welcome from tonight’s sold-out crowd. 'Some of you are going to love, some of you might not' he mischievously warns, and its testament to the film’s bewildering impact that, a day later, I’m still not 100% certain which of the camps I belong to. If pushed I’d go with ‘loved’, citing a riveting central performance from an existentially (and follicularly) challenged Christoph Waltz, inspired production design that eschews dystopian gloom for riotous day-glo fashions, and a metaphysical plot that sees the once and future Python square up once again to the bottomless quandary that is The Meaning of Life.

As the credits roll, however, I start to actively dread the Q&A that’s about to start, fearing that too much clarity will puncture the spell; that trying to 'explain the inexplicable', as Gilliam puts it, will send the film’s mysteries tumbling and render it humdrum. Thankfully, initial questions veer towards logistical matters, with Gilliam summarising a quick production turnaround that tested the crew’s resourceful in colourful ways. (On a semi-related note, he also confirms that his much-vexed Don Quixote project is once again being readied for action, with filming due to start in September in the Canary Islands, thanks to 39% tax relief and a Spanish producer 'who doesn’t know any better'). Later questions pertaining to the film’s religious and philosophical themes, meanwhile, are given thorough but thankfully non-prescriptive replies, leaving everyone with plenty to mull over as we file out.

And what do you know: it’s even stopped raining.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

live review: of Montreal / Calvin Love @ The Art School, 18th February

Midway through his debut Scottish show, synth-toting songsmith Calvin Love decides to “go out on a limb” by playing a cover. The song in question (Love is the Drug) is about as safe a choice as you can get in the circumstances – an indicator that Love’s forte isn’t bold surprises but rather reiterations of tested dynamics. Still, his original material has a definite allure, with nostalgic, 80s-fashioned noir pop imparting a subtle intoxication; Love is the drug indeed.

What it doesn’t impart, unfortunately, is much energy, and the crowd that greets Kevin Barnes’ cosmic headliners is initially rather muted. But standoffishness isn’t really a sustainable option when a becaped man is enthusiastically thrusting his crotch in your direction, and as the room inevitably yields to the funky eclecticism snaking out of the speakers, of Montreal garner the reaction their animated performance deserves.

Concentrating on material from Sunlandic Twins onwards, first-half highlights include the dayglo chorus of The Party’s Crashing Us and the hippy strut of Triumph of Disintegration. But the best moments come at the tail-end, with a brace of Hissing Fauna tracks concluding the main set: first Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse and then an epic The Past is a Grotesque Animal in all its dark splendour. The latter makes for such an intense finale that it almost seems a shame to dilute the effect with an encore. But with demanding foot-stomps from the crowd threatening to bring down the newly refurbished Art School’s masonry, the band duly oblige, appending two more Hissing Fauna cuts for good measure. With costume changes, psychedelic backdrops and the aforementioned racy stage moves adding to the night’s showmanship and spectacle, the curtain falls all too soon.

Monday, 24 February 2014

GFF 2014: Festival Diary #1

You’re almost four days into Glasgow Film Festival and have a free afternoon begging to be filled – do you a) spend it desperately trying to remember which coat pocket you left your other tickets in, b) roam the city centre with eyes peeled, still hoping that rumours of a visiting Bill Murray turn out to be true, or c) attend 48 Hour Games – a choose-your-own-adventure documentary in which the audience gets to decide who to follow and what to see. Yours truly selects the latter (with a small amount of the other two options too, if I’m honest), and turns to the CCA to find out more.

48 Hour Games presents the world of game jams: gatherings at which ad hoc teams of programmers and designers are tasked with producing new and innovative games in an impossibly short space of time. Filmed at the 2011 edition of the Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen, Danish director Suvi Andrea Helminen trains her camera on a selection of the convention’s enthusiastic participants, all powering through 48 hours of coding and testing in the hope that, when the klaxon sounds, they’ll have something functional and perhaps even fun to show for it. The teams drink a lot of Red Bull and even more coffee; by the end of the second day, the building presumably smells as ripe as old camembert.

But it isn’t the ‘what’ that makes 48 Hour Games intriguing but the how. Rather than cut her material down to a linear documentary, Helminen structures it as a series of forking paths, asking the audience to choose at each stage what they want to do next. Go for a beer with Team A, or eavesdrop on Team B’s brainstorm? Hang out in the lobby for a while, or hunker down in the confessional booth to hear the babblings of the caffeine-addled? We’re even offered parenthetical digressions – for instance, breaking off from a lecture to see what a particular individual packed in their suitcase that morning (look, we didn’t say they were always interesting digressions…). And to top off the participatory feel, our decisions occasionally unlock ‘rewards’, ranging from a snippet of chip-tune music to handy tips on how to salvage a coffee-covered keyboard (suck it up, apparently). It all adds up to a very distinct form of documentary: not fly-on-the-wall, but rather fly-on-the-wing, with the audience permitted to buzz between rooms in search of fresh points of interest.

Assisting us on today’s journey is Scottish Games Network founder Brian Baglow, who balances noob-friendly expositional asides with occasionally niche humour (for instance, we’re warned that the interface was done in Flash pre-HTML5, and therefore may well run into technical difficulties – a joke for the programmers in the audience and Esperanto to the rest of us). A consummate host, Brian encourages us not to hold back on making our preferences known, but is initially met with a rather reticent room – raising, for a brief moment, the possibility of an interactive film with which no one wants to interact. Perhaps we’re not ready for such responsibility, I wonder. Perhaps we’re better off having others make the editorial choices. In one of the film’s earliest clips, an interviewee states the importance of 'getting into a really good group' at such events, otherwise 'you just have a really horrible experience.' It’s a statement that creates a certain amount of pressure. What if we join the wrong group? I don’t want a horrible experience, I don’t! Luckily, the audience gets over its shyness once things are properly underway, locating its collective voice box and vociferously calling out demands.

After a while, our choices expose us a rather conservative bunch. After latching on to Team Brain – a motley quartet led by a banker called Troels, whose big idea involves hooking players up to a brain scanner and having them control their avatar through sheer concentration alone – we find ourselves curiously loyal, opting to stay close to their side at almost every juncture. For whatever reason, we rebuff encouragement to venture elsewhere and choose instead to watch riveting footage of hardware failing to install properly. Furthermore, our allegiance means that most of the shouts emanating from the audience wind up being variations on either ‘TROOOOELS’ or ‘BRAAAAAAAIN’, as if we’re auditioning as extras in some zombie Middle Earth mash-up. But while our largely single-thread journey may not take full advantage of the format’s explorative potential, it does foster a certain amount of investment in Team Brain’s fortunes come the final jury adjudications and prize giving. The game they deliver is, to my eyes, a Sisyphean nightmare in which you simply stare mutely at a screen, willing a caveman to push a boulder up a never-ending hill, but you can’t help but admire the passion and commitment that went into making it. And besides, in a world where Flappy Bird is downloaded tens of millions of times despite apparently being hated by everyone who’s ever played it, perhaps ‘Neanderthunk’ is closer to genius than my untrained sensibilities can recognise.

As Brian reminds us at the end, today’s screening of 48 Hour Games has shown us but a fraction of the full story, with scores more clips – and therefore thousands more permutations – available at the project’s website ( Whether this novel synthesis of documentary and point-and-click role-playing game will be as much fun to navigate at home is questionable, but those with piqued interest should definitely consider giving it a try. Just remember to readjust to the more standard, non-interactive type of film before your next screening; outside of today, shouting ‘BEER!’ and ‘THREESOME!’ at a cinema screen is generally a shortcut to an early exit.

[written for the GFF]

Sunday, 23 February 2014

GFF 2014: 1939 Continued...

The star-dusted celluloid constituting this year’s ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ retrospective makes a strong case for 1939 being the most illustrious 12 months in the history of American cinema – and who are we to disagree? Of course, the year’s reputation doesn’t rest on Best Picture nominees alone, with hundreds of other films thundering through the Hollywood studio system across the same period. So where next to turn attentions once one has walked the yellow brick road, bid adieu to Mr Chips and delighted in Garbo’s laugh? Well, you could do a darn sight worse than this lot…

Only Angels Have Wings

A year after they made effervescent screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant reunited with director Howard Hawks for this thrilling action-adventure yarn, set in a fictional banana republic on the edge of the Andes. Grant plays a tough-minded pilot charged with getting the mail flown out on time whatever the weather, whatever the risk, while fellow marquee name Jean Arthur is the visiting showgirl who locates his sensitive side. But the real love story is that between the fatalistic pilot fraternity and their profession, with life-or-death choices taken on the chin and heroic sacrifices the order of the day.

The Roaring Twenties

A hard-edged prohibition tale told with plenty of moxie, The Roaring Twenties charts the moral erosion of opportunistic bootlegger Eddie Bartlett; a milk-supping First World War vet who gradually hardens into a ruthless crime boss in jazz age New York. In the lead role, a sly-eyed James Cagney conveys a perilous charisma that carries the saga through its decade-long sweep, while there’s stellar support from a tough-talking Gladys George (as the no-nonsense club owner who first leads Eddie astray) and a perfectly repellent Humphrey Bogart (as an old army pal turned volatile business partner). Last year, the GFF included The Roaring Twenties as part of its Cagney retrospective, so if you missed out then, now’s as good a time as any to track down a copy and remedy the situation.

The Hound of the Baskervilles/The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone wasn’t the first actor to inhabit the role of Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth, not by a long chalk. Neither was he the last, with Cushing, Cumberbatch and a bonneted Downey Jr amongst those who have put their own slant on Baker Street’s most famous resident in the decades since. Yet for the last 70 years, his has been the iteration against which every other has been judged – the closest thing cinema has to a quintessential Sherlock Holmes. While later films in Rathbone’s 16-film series saw the character thwarting Nazis in contemporary wartime settings, these initial Victorian-set instalments – released a few months apart by 20th Century Fox – present the character in more familiar terms: first investigating one of the most famous cases from the Conan Doyle canon, and then battling Moriarty in a Tower of London showdown.

At the Circus

Granted, the Marx Brothers’ Paramount heyday was several years behind them by this point, but all the classic hallmarks are there if you look for them, from prickly wisecracks (“I bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork”) to visual lunacy (a knockabout finale featuring a gorilla on a trapeze and Margaret Dumont’s society dame being fired out of a cannon) – and, in Groucho’s signature performance of Lydia the Tattooed Lady, the most memorable musical interlude of their entire oeuvre.

[written for the Cineskinny]

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

GFF: Five Picks From the Festival

The Glasgow Film Festival kicks off tomorrow night with Wes Anderson's new 'un The Grand Budapest Hotel. Over the coming couple of weeks, i'll be writing some official blogs for the festival as well as reviews and articles for the Skinny's festival rag the Cineskinny. To start, five films from the brochure that i humbly suggest are worth a punt...


Your spreadsheet proved to be more trouble than it was worth, your gut has revealed itself as decidedly less instinctive than you’d hoped, and if you keep throwing darts at the brochure you’re only going to damage it. Truly, there are better ways to resolve the dilemma of what to plump for at this year’s bumper Glasgow Film Festival.

However you go about it, make haste. The longer you dither the more restricted the choices are going to become: vacancies at The Grand Budapest Hotel are long snapped up and further enquiries about the Goodfellas Streetfood cinema screening will be met with a resounding ‘fuhgeddaboudit’. Which only leaves a few hundred more events to choose from – events like these:

Touki Bouki plus A Thousand Suns

When Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty died in 1998, the body of work left behind was relatively slender, his filmography numbering just two full-length features and a scattering of shorts. But Mambéty’s reputation as one of African cinema’s most important filmmakers was already long-secured thanks to his landmark, nouvelle vague-inspired debut Touki Bouki – described by Mark Cousins (one of the film’s numerous champions) as 'the most innovative African movie of its time'. Like so much of its home continent’s film heritage, Touki Bouki has been, for many cineastes in the northern hemisphere, a movie more read and talked about than actually watched, so this opportunity to see a restored print first-hand is exciting in and of itself. What makes the screening a must is the accompanying UK premiere of A Thousand Suns, directed by Mambéty’s neice Mati Diop. Neither wholly documentary nor fiction, it reportedly sees Diop pay tribute to her uncle’s work whilst meditating on its legacy, revisiting Touki Bouki’s principal actors forty years on and extending their characters’ story.

Stranger by the Lake

A late addition to the schedule but a very welcome one, writer/director Alain Guiraudie’s garlanded psychosexual drama has crossed la manche on a wave of accolades: best director and Queer Palm awards at Cannes, a top 10 placing in last year’s Sight & Sound poll, the top spot in Cahiers du Cinema’s equivalent list and a slew of Cesar nominations to boot. Its handsome trailer elegantly evokes summertime noirs like Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher or Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, combining sex, sunshine and skulduggery as a young man falls for a potentially dangerous Adonis at a picturesque lake-side cruising spot. Like the waters on the shores of which the narrative plays out, there’s no doubt plenty going on beneath the surface of this lusty tale.


A Japanese remake of the Oscar-winning revisionist western of the same name, Unforgiven is but the latest example of a longstanding, two-way exchange between the jidaigeki and western genres; a back-and-forth that encompasses Yojimbo’s refashioning as A Fistful of Dollars, the John Ford echoes of Seven Samurai (later repatriated by The Magnificent Seven), and the more recent irreverent reversals of Takeshi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Transposing Clint Eastwood’s celebrated original to 19th century Hokkaido, director Lee Sang-il (who’ll be in attendance on the night of the screening) adapts the central tale of vengeance to fit a fresh cultural backdrop, casting the reliably excellent Ken Watanabe as a remorseful former samurai coaxed back into action to provide for his children. The visually striking results appear to have retained the source material’s gloomy tenor, but the film promises more than a straightforward re-tread, with key alterations to the central character’s past (from cold-blooded outlaw in the original to conflicted warrior in this new take) offering plenty of scope for its themes of honour and redemption to resonate in new and distinct ways.

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

An experimental triptych that journeys from an Estonian commune to a neo-pagan black metal gig via a stint wandering the Finnish countryside, this anticipated collaboration between artist filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell is likely to be one of the more challenging (but also, hopefully, rewarding) films of the Festival. Neither Ben is a stranger to GFF, with the 2012 edition hosting shorts by both, alongside Rivers’ debut feature Two Years At Sea – a film in which very little happens to curiously mesmerising effect. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness looks to be similarly bewitching, the trailer’s mysterious collage of burning buildings, scenic wilderness and black metal offensives suggesting an immersive hybrid of ethnographic documentary, contemplative video art and niche concert footage. The latter aspect has the distinct potential to stick in the craw of those with less extreme musical tastes, but Rivers and Russell are trusted guides worth following.

Night Moves

An eco-terrorism thriller from a filmmaker better known for small-scale character studies may seem an incongruous match, but that’s precisely what makes Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature such an attractive proposition. Penned with regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond (who has written or co-written all of Reichardt’s films from Old Joy onwards), Night Moves stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as a trio of radical environmentalists plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam – though given Reichardt’s past tendencies it seems safe to assume the dramatic emphasis will be more psychological than pyrotechnical. When you consider the wrenching emotional mileage wrung from Wendy and Lucy’s lost dog tale, it’s tantalising to imagine what Reichardt will achieve with a drama of considerably higher stakes – though as she proved with claustrophobic frontier drama Meek’s Cutoff, working within a familiar genre doesn’t necessarily entail playing by its rules.

And if none of those appeal: maybe try the darts technique again?

[written for the GFF]