Monday, 23 April 2018

Comic Relief: How Dynamite Entertainment are saving James Bond

As we all know and are not allowed to argue with, the James Bond franchise skied off a cliff without a Union Jack parachute with 2015's Spectre, a strong contender for the worst Bond film ever. My heart was broken, the blinding intensity of my Bond love reduced to a flickering two-lumen glow; I even had to whine about the whole situation out loud as some kind of therapy, for which I can only apologise. But behind the scenes, the healing process was beginning: sexy nerds at comic publishers Dynamite Entertainment and even sexier, nerdier nerds at Ian Fleming Publications were sexily nerdling away at a new direction for everyone's favourite state-sponsored alcoholic gun-toting sociopathic sex tourist.

And so it was that while I was processing my post-Spectre grief, an alternate James Bond universe opened up in the pages of Dynamite's comics and collected graphic novels, and it was, like Moneypenny to Bond in For Your Eyes Only, a feast for my eyes. An insanely fun blend of reverence and freshness, Dynamite's Bond smokes, swears (PG-bombs only so far), drives a Bentley (initially, at least) and is mercilessly cruel - all as Fleming described him - but enjoys all the action beats and playful relationships of the films. It's a delicate cocktail, and Dynamite's mixology skills are currently at Duke's Bar levels, where Spectre's were more like Wetherspoons. And while the stories so far have mostly been typically action-packed Bond yarns, there have also been spinoffs for M, Moneypenny and Felix Leiter. It's this canny handling of the formula and willingness to diversify that, for me, is where comic-book Bond is gaining the edge over his cinematic counterpart.

Now I'm not saying I necessarily need a full length film about Felix Leiter, but I do dream of one day seeing an official 007 flick about an older Bond (ideally starring Timothy Dalton), or a period film, maybe set during the Cold War. But until there are major changes at the top of Bond production company EON, those movies - whose appeal to a mainstream audience would be limited, to say the least - seem about as likely as me playing James Bond. What would be an eye-wateringly expensive gamble in the cinema, however, is just a matter of original commissioning and great writing in comic book land. Last year Dynamite announced Origin, a Bond arc set during WWII (although that seems to have stalled, perhaps in light of Anthony Horowitz's similarly-themed forthcoming novel), and just the other week they released a staggeringly faithful graphic novel adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond book Casino Royale, over which I may or may not have coolly and calmly lost my shit.

Here, then, using the first five of Dynamite's runs to be made available in collected hardcovers, is a story-by-story guide to how the publishers have reinvigorated the Bond brand. With Bond 25's future uncertain, it's good to know there's still new life in the old bastard yet, even if I have to do the sound effects myself.

VARGR (2015)
Writer: Warren Ellis     Artist: Jason Masters
The brave new Bondworld kicked off with pleasing deference to the character's history and refreshing new twists: a cold open straight from the films has Bond's face hidden until a dramatic reveal, but not before there's been the kind of eye-watering violence that's always been out of bounds for the cinematic 007. The story concerns lethal drugs being peddled on the streets of the UK by diabolical mastermind Slaven Kurjak, assisted by a super-strong henchman and henchwoman. In true Fleming style, all three have some form of physical or mental disfigurement.

Warren Ellis happily throws in scenes you'd never see on screen: junkies dying in their own filth in a Brixton crack den and James Bond eating a shitty sandwich in the MI6 canteen are just a couple of ways in which the comic book Bond announces its house style, and while it's initially disconcerting, it's exactly what the comics should be doing. Similarly, there are precious few gadgets and no sex at all in Vargr, and Ellis maintains the violent streak set out in the opening - a warehouse shootout is drenched in blood, and a vicious triple murder is shocking as much for being unexpected as it is brutal. To compensate for this almost unrecognisable Bond aesthetic, there are comfort blankets to be found in the familiar relationships between Bond, Moneypenny, M and Q, and when the action kicks in it's as inventive and fun as you'd expect.

Ellis nails the tone perfectly: following a devastating car crash, Bond calmly retrieves his suitcase from the boot and walks the rest of the way to his destination; after escaping a raging inferno and discovering his phone doesn't work because it's too hot, he simply sits down and smokes a cigarette while it cools down. It's drily funny, too, refusing to take itself too seriously but not at the expense of the franchise's integrity. Jason Masters' artwork is clean, detailed and hyperreal in all the right ways, and he and colourist Guy Major have a ball splashing blood all over the place as if they're inking Preacher. Vargr announced comic book Bond in impeccable style, and while it's light on subtext - it's a straightforward romp with little new to say about 007's place in the world - it was enough just to know that Bond was back.

EIDOLON (2016)
Writer: Warren Ellis     Artist: Jason Masters
Warren Ellis hit harder and dug deeper for his second run, which sets out its stall in the first few pages when the villain sacks a sloppy employee by slowly pulling his head back until his neck snaps. That viciousness isn't limited to the bad guys: Bond himself kills six people before the story is 20 pages old, and he doesn't do it quietly. It's the Bond we were promised in the most brutal moments of Daniel Craig's Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace (only with 1000% more blood, bone and brains spattered around), before the sharp edges were softened for Skyfall and Spectre. While the films returned to family-friendly entertainment, the comics shamelessly appealed to the sadists lurking inside every fan of Ian Fleming's 007. Bond even goes a bit Jack Bauer, happily torturing a suspect in the bowels of MI6; an uncomfortable moment, the implications of which should probably have been developed further.

The plot involves murky politics and paranoia, with MI5 and MI6 pitted against each other, and terrorist cells compromising the CIA and the Turkish secret service. Behind it all is Eidolon, a mysterious organisation with links to none other than SPECTRE. Ellis joins these unlikely dots with far more intrigue and skill than the films did when they were finally able to link Quantum to Blofeld, and as a bonus there's none of that surrogate brother nonsense to drag it all down.

Old school Bond is still there though: both of the story's two main female characters end up in the sack with him (separately, I should add, although one of them - the spectacularly-monikered Cadence Birdwhistle - is into BDSM), and he's still a high-functioning alcoholic, his bourbon of choice this time being Woodford Reserve Double Oaked ("You want anything in it?" "Yes. More Woodford Reserve Double Oaked."). And it's hard to tell how intentional it is, but Jason Masters delights in dressing Bond in Sterling Archer's tactleneck for one night-time set-piece. Modern Bond has always been about weighing familiar tropes against both the character's literary origins and what 21st century storytelling can offer the franchise, and on the basis of his two runs, Warren Ellis appears to have a better grasp of that than most.

HAMMERHEAD (2016)
Writer: Andy Diggle     Artist: Luca Casalanguida
The most politically relevant arc yet from Dynamite, Andy Diggle's first pop at the series features a villain whose plan is to "make Britain great again", who hates "bleeding heart liberals and Eurocrats", is an extreme imperialist, nationalist and capitalist, and - just to be sure - has the nickname 'Tory', short for Victoria. James Bond's mission isn't just to stop her blowing up London with a stolen Trident nuclear warhead, it's to symbolically stop Brexit, Trump, nuclear proliferation and every right-wing concept going. The fact that Bond himself is an old Etonian and former Naval commander invented by an upper-class son of a Conservative MP is apparently neither here nor there.

Diggle goes all in with some classic Bond action here, assisted enormously by Luca Casalanguida's kinetic artwork. Nukes, parachutes, sharks, tuxedos, baddies who turn out to be goodies (and vice versa) and a race to abort a missile are all present and correct, and Fleming fans will delight at Bond smoking his beloved Morland cigarettes (with the distinctive triple gold bands, obvs) lit with a Ronson lighter, as well as the mention of Loelia Ponsonby, his personal secretary from the novels.

There are sequences here you'd kill to see in the films: Moneypenny threatening to kill M to avoid his capture and Bond's beloved car being remotely controlled by the enemy in an attempt to kill him are terrific ideas. But it's the final page of Hammerhead that demonstrates the comics' subversive bent: where Skyfall finished with 007 proudly framed by the Union Jack as he watched over London, here he casts a wary glance up at the flag before turning his back on it. Maybe being a dead-inside, government-sanctioned murder drone isn't as much fun as it sounds after all?

BLACK BOX (2017)
Writer: Benjamin Percy     Artist: Rapha Lobosco
OK, here's where my argument falters a little. Just as every Bond actor's fourth film is a stinker, Dynamite suffered a similar fate with their fourth run. Benjamin Percy's 007 is a shameless recreation of everything the writer obviously loves about the Bond films: loaded with familiar tropes and references, Black Box is a zippy but unoriginal tale, concerned with WikiLeaks-style secrets being used to blackmail nation states. The action is serviceable, but it's hooked onto a load of cringing waffle that sounds like it's trying to explain the digital age to your grandad.

Percy's obsession with sticking to the formula of the films leads to elements that will either be welcome or disappointing depending on how progressive you feel the comics should be. Bond's Bentley is replaced with an Aston Martin, a female agent exists only to hang on to Bond's arm (and, subsequently, his dick), and the villain is all talk and physically unthreatening, so that a massive, near-mute, virtually invincible henchman can do his dirty work. Some of the classic Bond stuff is fun (alpine-based action makes a welcome appearance), but Percy can't control himself - inserting a scene in a casino isn't enough; the casino also has to contain Chekhov's shark-filled aquarium.

There's a potentially interesting motif about scars - physical and emotional - running through the story, but it's all a bit laboured and on the nose, and ends up becoming a diet version of the kind of character analysis that's become a millstone around the neck of Daniel Craig's films. Rapha Lobosco's illustrations are strong, if less clean than we've seen so far in the series, but Chris O'Halloran's colours render the whole story - set almost entirely in night-time Tokyo - uniformly blue, black and grey: a twilight blur in which it's hard to distinguish one set-piece from another. Less adventurous than its predecessors and falling back on tired familiarity, Black Box proves how tricky it is to get the Bond balance right.

FELIX LEITER (2017)
Writer: James Robinson     Artist: Aaron Campbell
The first full-length spin-off from Dynamite's Bond series focuses on 007's scruffy Texan pal, who's made brief appearances in the main run (Bond returns the favour here, popping up for a quick cameo). It's a cracking standalone adventure, in which the ex-CIA spook teams up with another fan favourite, You Only Live Twice's Tiger Tanaka, on a mission to discover who's behind a terrorist attack in Tokyo. En route we get flashbacks to Leiter's time serving in Afghanistan alongside improbably hot female Russian agent Alena Davoff, with whom he enjoyed a little PG-rated R&R. Davoff reappears in Tokyo, somehow connected to the attack and thereby dragging Felix into the action.

Writer James Robinson lends Felix an air of introspective melancholy; equipped with a prosthetic arm and leg, he stews over the loss of his limbs (to a shark; an incident referred to but unseen in Dynamite so far, and straight from Fleming) and laments the fact that he's not as smart, cool or infallible as Bond. Riddled with self-doubt and largely clumsy and uncertain for most of the story, it's a relief that Leiter isn't simply a Bond substitute here. The welcome result is more characterisation than we've seen so far from Dynamite, although there's still plenty of action - mainly courtesy of Tanaka and his 21st century team of ninjas. Robinson avoids cliché for the most part (although the old 'villain-who-wants-to-get-captured' chestnut makes an appearance, despite the disdain Robinson shows for Skyfall's plot in an interview printed at the back of the hardcover), and there's a delicious tease at the end, leaving things open for further instalments and connecting neatly to earlier stories.

Felix Leiter's major selling point, though, is its stunning artwork. Artist Aaron Campbell and colourist Salvatore Aiala toss off panels that wouldn't go amiss framed on your wall, employing a cinematic style that would be welcome in the main run of Bond stories. Campbell's Felix is a craggy but fit Josh Holloway type, much as Ian Fleming described him, but considerably (and understandably) less cheery due to the whole, you know, missing limbs thing. Aiala's use of light is gorgeous, whether it's in a sultry middle eastern hotel room or on a sun-drenched Key West beach, and his Tokyo - a vast improvement on Black Box's rendering - is wet, gloomy and oppressive: perfect conditions for externalising Leiter's despondent frame of mind.

*

So if you've found yourself let down by your chosen James Bond platform or are just twiddling your thumbs waiting for Bond 25 to finally arrive, it's very much worth checking out Dynamite's work. I wouldn't go so far as to say that nobody does it better, but right now it's hard not to feel sad for the rest.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Baccarat To Basics:
Dynamite Comics' Casino Royale

Comic book publishers Dynamite Entertainment have, for the last two and a bit years, been steadily ploughing a furrow of new and original James Bond stories told in panel-and-speech-balloon format. The first story - clumsily titled Vargr, as if nobody would read it as 'Viagra' (is it just me? Oh god it's just me isn't it) - kicked off a parallel Bondiverse that has so far produced five full-length 007 stories (with a sixth currently mid-run), another centred on the adventures of Felix Leiter, and four one-shots. In the same time, EON Productions have released one rubbish Bond film and are currently dicking about trying to decide who should write the next one.

So Dynamite's output is catnip for Bond-starved geeks right now, and while the stories they've produced haven't all been 100% successful (more on that in a forthcoming waffle), last week they knocked everything up a notch with the long-awaited (and long-delayed) release of what is hopefully the first in a long series of hardcovers: a graphic novel version of Ian Fleming's debut Bond book, Casino Royale.
Adapted with fastidious loyalty to Fleming's text by Van Jensen and with artwork by Dennis Calero, Casino Royale is everything I'd hoped it would be from the moment it was announced: a perfect marriage of words and images that's the closest we'll ever get to a genuinely faithful screen adaptation of Fleming's work. It takes minimal liberties with the story, scrupulously translating every event from every chapter to ensure Fleming is never short-changed, and adding just enough flourishes to justify its existence as a separate entity. Maybe I'm still on a high from finishing it, but this book has gone some way towards reigniting a passion for Bond I thought had been utterly doused by Spectre's woefulness.

Jensen has made some bold choices with his writing, opting to retain swathes of Ian Fleming's electrically evocative prose to illustrate Calero's panels. Ordinarily this might come across as an excess of exposition, but Fleming wrote with such brutal panache that it's a joy to read those words alongside the accompanying images. To evolve the text, though, Jensen has also added what he describes as "Bond View" (personally I'd have gone for "Bond Vision", but what do I know): labels describing Bond's calculated assessments of situations before him. Initially it makes 007 look a bit like the Terminator, but then you realise that that's quite deliberate - he's cold and methodical, and that's the exact mechanical way in which the character sees the world. When he fails to stop and analyse is usually when it all goes tits up for him, which it does in Fleming far more often than on film.
Fidelity to the source leads to the kind of things we haven't seen in Dynamite's Bond work so far, but it's what makes the whole project exciting. There's no pressure to restructure the story, which plays out nothing like a typical action adventure, and no crowbarring in of explosive action sequences just because it's Bond. The baccarat game at the novel's heart remains in place (no dumbing down to Texas hold 'em here), as does Bond's lengthy mansplaining of its rules to Vesper Lynd. Jensen and Calero depict the game with the appropriate rollercoaster tension, arguably improving on Fleming's narration - which, naturally, is included almost verbatim.

We also get Bond's lengthy meditation on the nature of evil in full, selling his decision to resign much more convincingly than the 2006 film did, and making his subsequent rage-fuelled reversal of that choice (at which point Calero allows himself to portray Bond in the famous gunbarrel pose, and it's a lovely nod) so much more tragic. But unswerving devotion to Fleming means we do have to put up with the author's deplorable sexism (and presumably, in forthcoming instalments, racism). It's to Jensen's credit that he's excluded the most reprehensible misogynistic bile that Fleming spewed into Casino Royale, but hasn't shied away entirely from the attitudes with which the creator imbued his creation. It's still unpleasant to read, but it would have felt dishonest to censor it completely. Jensen himself has publicly expressed his distaste for these elements, saying they're included in order to be discussed, and I tend to agree with his judgement.

Perhaps the boldest augmentation of the novel comes in a double-page spread in which Bond, having survived the infamous knacker-whacking torture dished out by Le Chiffre and his carpet beater (Mads Mikkelsen's knotted rope going the same way as poker), internally expresses the fear that his junk might never return to its former glory. Jensen and Colero illustrate this with a technical diagram of the constituent parts of a gun; literally, a dismantled weapon. The metaphor is both ingenious and, in terms of Bond's self-image, hugely troubling.

Dennis Calero's Bond is a little inconsistently depicted throughout, although for the most part he has more than a little of the Michael Fassbender about him. As Fleming described, his looks are cold and cruel; the scar on the right cheek is mysteriously (and, in all honesty, disappointingly) absent, but the comma of hair on the forehead and ruthless blue-grey eyes are present and correct. Meanwhile Le Chiffre is an unholy hybrid of Aleister Crowley (on whom Fleming based the character) and Orson Welles, who played Le Chiffre in the 1967 film version of which we do not speak. An imposing, meaty figure with snooker ball eyes that give the impression of never having blinked, it's a pity we don't see more of him.
Calero renders Fleming's world in appropriate muted tones with shadows and silhouettes everywhere: the sense of Bond skulking around in dimly-lit casinos is a world away from the movies' idea of him strutting smugly past sparkling roulette tables. And those single-page splashes, naturally reserved for the story's most dramatic moments, are stunningly rendered by Calero and colourist Chris O'Halloran. The first contact betwixt carpet beater and Bondian undercarriage, for example, is unforgettably executed.

So yes, it's an insanely enthusiastic double thumbs up for Casino Royale: an absolute treat for Fleming fans, an education for those only familiar with the cinematic 007 who can't be arsed to read a whole book (if that's you, you're an idiot), and a tantalising appetite-whetter for what may lie in store. I can't deny the excitement I felt when, after tweeting Van Jensen to congratulate him on this book, this was his immediate response:

So it looks like yet again, James Bond will return. Now there's a novel idea.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Classic FM: 20 songs to determine your level of devotion to Fleetwood Mac

"I'd rather jack / than Fleetwood Mac," squawked the insufferable Reynolds Girls in 1989, but history has proved them to be a) culturally short-sighted, and b) absolutely shit. As we all know, Fleetwood Mac are in fact the greatest thing to happen to sound. But as we all know equally well, Fleetwood Mac come in several flavours, having gone through approximately 431 different lineups since their 1968 debut album. So how big is your love for the Mac? In an exercise designed to reveal the embarrassing limits of my music analysis skills, I've gathered what I believe to be the 20 best tracks with which to familiarise yourself depending on how much of a Macologist you'd like to be. If you don't think you want to be any kind of Macologist then you can quite literally go your own way (i.e. bugger off).

Thanks to the miracle of streaming, about which it's worth remembering that artists receive one grain of salt for every 10,000 plays, you can listen to all 20 tracks on this exclusively curated playlist while you read! Isn't the future amazing?

Level 1: Clueless novice
L-R: John McVie (bassing), Christine McVie (keyboarding and lady singing),
Stevie Nicks (lady singing and twirling), Mick Fleetwood (banging),
Lindsey Buckingham (man singing and guitaring)

The golden age of Fleetwood Mac lasted from 1975 (when soon-to-be ex-lovers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band) until 1987, when Buckingham fucked off in a huff about how he was being, like, totally creatively stifled, man. This is the Mac you'll know even if you think you don't know Mac: the magical period when Buckingham, Nicks and Christine McVie's combined singer-songwriting produced some of the most gratifying aural sex your ears have ever juiced up for. Here's one track from each of the five albums they made during this precious time which you should listen to on a constant loop to achieve your GCSE in Basic Fleetwoodwork.

Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac, 1975)
Stevie Nicks' best song is a smoky, swirling folk tale about a Welsh witch "taken by the wind", presumably after a cauldron full of dubiously-sourced lamb vindaloo. Lindsey Buckingham's undulating guitar riff stops the song floating off into mystical whimsy, while Nicks' voice is at its sultry, sexy best, before it started to resemble that of a distressed goat.

The Chain (Rumours, 1977)
Tough to pick between this and Go Your Own Way; The Chain is all about sticking together and Go Your Own Way is, erm, not, so I guess it depends how apanthropic you feel at any given time. The Chain is a masterclass in harmonies and texture though, not least in its surprising turn from faintly menacing chant to hammering, bass-driven rock anthem. If you know this only as the Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 song then I am shaking my head in condescending dismissal of you. It is quite obviously the Formula 1 song.

Tusk (Tusk, 1979)
John McVie's usually functional bass playing finds a simple but irritatingly catchy hook with which to surf Mick Fleetwood's drums in Tusk's short, bonkers title track about jealousy and paranoia. It's the addition of the entire University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band thumping their tubs to Fleetwood's tribal beat that lifts the song into orbit though; have a go on the 1997 live version for the full, definitely-not-overbrassed effect.

Hold Me (Mirage, 1982)
Mirage is not a great Mac album but Hold Me is probably its least average track, its MVPs being Buckingham and Christine McVie's voices laid over each other like syrup on sandpaper. It is possibly more notable for inspiring the band's first video: a typically early-'80s mess of ideas laden with meaningless faux-symbolism, in which Fleetwood and John McVie twat about in the desert unearthing guitars and pianos while Stevie Nicks (who doesn't contribute to the song) literally lounges around on her ass.

Big Love (Tango In The Night, 1987)
Lindsey Buckingham reluctantly yanked this from his own forthcoming solo album in order to keep the Mac juggernaut running, and thank Christ he did. It's a rolling boulder of pristine production, spiced up with weird sex noises at the end. And just to prove he could carry it all by himself, Buckingham does a mind-blowing live solo version that will have you wondering exactly how many fingers he has on each hand in order to play like that.

Level 2: Discerning muso
L-R: John McVie (bassism), Danny Kirwan (guitarism), Mick Fleetwood (drummism), Peter Green (singism, more guitarism), Jeremy Spencer (even more guitarism)

The savvy Mac fan will also be able to extend their appreciation further back in time, into the band's formative days as a group of British blues avengers assembled by Peter Green. An almost comical rotation of guitarists came and went between 1968 and 1974, their departures precipitated variously by booze, drugs, abduction into cults and inappropriate insertion of themselves into their bandmates' wives. While the band's sound during these heady days bears little resemblance to the later Buckingham/Nicks era, there are plenty of killer tunes to be found by the discerning, degree-level Macademic.

Oh Well, Part 1 (single, 1969)
Peter Green busts out Fleetwood Mac's single greatest guitar riff for this musical insight into what it's like to be unable to sing, not pretty and somewhat thin in the legs department, which might be why I identify with it so strongly. The last minute (and indeed the whole of its B-side Oh Well, Part 2) unexpectedly veers off into some weird Ennio Morricone territory, as if Clint Eastwood has just appeared and is considering just how many coffins would be required to put the band out of his misery, but for 140 seconds this is absolute peak early Mac.

The Green Manalishi (with the Two Prong Crown) (single, 1970)
The sound of a particularly ugly personal demon clawing its way out of a pit it should never have left, this dread-infused musical nightmare about the perilous combination of money and drugs sees Green go black as night. While he howls into an echoey void to the chugging of an insistent riff, the whole band are held down by a bassline so deep it's barely audible to the human ear. One man's Hell has rarely sounded so cool.

Lay It All Down (Future Games, 1971)
Guitarist and singer Bob Welch began nudging Fleetwood Mac away from the blues and towards a poppier sound on Future Games, where this bouncy highlight thrusts its hips around, yakking away about Moses and paradise and other Biblical stuff that's generally at odds with its funky swagger.

Remember Me (Penguin, 1973)
Christine McVie's impeccable talent for an absolute tune finally broke loose on Penguin's opening track, providing the clearest indication of the future Fleetwood Mac's signature tunesmithery. She has to provide her own backing vocals here, making you wonder how great this could have been with the Buckingham/Nicks machine behind it, but in their absence it still ploughs a solid groove.

Hypnotized (Mystery To Me, 1973)
Bob Welch gets a bit trippy in this UFO-inspired track that sounds like nothing else any iteration of Fleetwood Mac ever produced. Guitarist Bob Weston throws in some gorgeous jazz licks which Mick Fleetwood still speaks highly of, despite the fact that at the time Weston was having it off with Mrs Fleetwood. In ensuring his own imminent dismissal from the band, Weston unknowingly hinted at its future as a hotbed of intra-band sex shenanigans and ugly (but sexy) betrayal.

Level 3: Tedious completist
L-R: Stevie Nicks (hair), Mick Fleetwood (hats), Rick Vito (not Lindsey Buckingham), Christine McVie (friend's sexy mum), John McVie (rethinking waistcoat),
Billy Burnette (also not Lindsey Buckingham)

Post-Tango In The Night, Fleetwood Mac never regained the flawless alchemy of their decade-long purple patch. The three albums they made between 1990 and 2003 are all fine, but with Lindsey Buckingham largely absent from Behind The Mask, Stevie Nicks joining him in self-imposed exile for Time and Christine McVie sitting out Say You Will (despite Buckingham and Nicks' surprising return), the holy trinity's refusal to appear on the same album at the same time renders this period a minefield of thin ice for the ill-prepared listener. Gems are there to be dug up though, and the following represent the best of the deepest cuts for those studying for their master's in Mac.

Love Is Dangerous (Behind The Mask, 1990)
The void left by Lindsey Buckingham's departure was so vast that it had to be filled with two new singer-guitarists: Rick Vito and Billy Burnette, neither of whom seemed to have ever heard a Fleetwood Mac song before. Vito's contributions in particular suggest a man who had spent the past year listening to the Road House soundtrack on permanent rotation, but this duet with Stevie Nicks proved that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Love Is Dangerous may be lyrically uninspired (turns out love is, like, really dangerous?) but it rocks its balls off, Nicks in particular contributing the kind of climbing bridge that only she could pull off.

Sooner Or Later (Time, 1995)
Christine McVie tried her best to hold the songwriting fort on the Buckingham/Nicks-less Time, and this lament to lost love was one of the album's precious few highlights. A menacing rhythm section and simple, repetitive guitar line provide a dark counterpoint to McVie's honeyed vocals and unerring ear for melody, and you thank the gods that these guys' consistent inability to maintain a healthy relationship has provided so much fuel for their music.

Nights In Estoril (Time, 1995)
Christine digs into her big box of happy memories again, tainting them with the pain of inevitable sadness that seems to have accompanied her every romantic entanglement. Most of her songs on Time follow this pattern, and hindsight suggests she's talking as much about the band she was about to say goodbye to as the men she's left behind. Yet again though, a bouncy chorus distracts attention from the heartbreak, and as a bonus features the only reference in pop music to Portugal's famous tourist hotspot that I can think of right now.

Murrow Turning Over In His Grave
(Say You Will, 2003)
With Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks back to sing hate songs about each other but Christine McVie nowhere to be seen, Say You Will saw a welcome almost-return to form for the Mac. This Buckingham-penned rant about the parlous state of the modern press features an unwieldy title and chorus, but he spits his lyrics and guitar parts out with the kind of tangible vitriol that hadn't been heard from the band since Go Your Own Way.

Everybody Finds Out (Say You Will, 2003)
Beginning with a vocal treatment for Stevie Nicks that makes her sound like Rob Brydon's Small Man In A Box, this soon transforms into a thumping, sexually-charged monster that proves that a) Nicks can still wring new and ambiguous content from her decades-old split with Buckingham, and b) the two of them combined are so much more than the sum of their parts.

Bonus level: Insufferable bore
L-R: Lindsey Buckingham (had enough of this photoshoot),
Christine McVie (very nearly had enough of this photoshoot )

If you've made it this far, congratulations! You have achieved a master's degree in Fleetwood Macology and are sure to annoy your friends on poker night by asking Alexa to play only the most obscure Mac tracks while everyone else just wants to listen to Bruno fucking Mars or whatever, the ignorant MORONS. To achieve your full doctorate though, you'll want to dabble in those difficult side projects: the solo albums nobody bought and the offshoots that nobody in their right mind would admit to liking, let alone owning a vinyl copy that was really quite hard to track down actually and so what if my heart skipped a beat when I found it at that record fair full of like-minded losers. Take your Maccery to the darkest depths with the following five bonus bangers:

Don't Let Me Down Again
(Lindsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks, Buckingham Nicks, 1974)
Back when Buckinicks were a solid, sexy and very hairy couple, they knocked out one excellent, country-tinged (wait, come back!) album that served as their job interview for Fleetwood Mac. Its arguable highlight is this none-more-seventies toe-tapper that wouldn't have been out of place on the next couple of Mac albums. As great as the music is, though, absolutely nothing beats that album cover for sheer, sexy hairiness.

Edge Of Seventeen (Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna, 1982)
The undeniable peak of Stevie Nicks' solo career came with this Destiny's Child-inspiring track full of typically Nicksian mystical symbolism and weird bird noises (who hasn't heard a white-winged dove singing "ooh baby ooh say ooh"?). That insistent, chugging riff carries Nicks' raw vocals on its shoulders for over five minutes of singalong fun, tempered only by the depressing realisation that the song is in fact about the death of John Lennon.

Go Insane (Lindsey Buckingham, Go Insane, 1984)
Due to its inclusion in the National Lampoon's Vacation movies Lindsey Buckingham's most popular solo song is probably Holiday Road, about which I'm sure he's delighted. But dig into his not-entirely-easy-listening solo career (the sound of which he's gone to great pains to distance as far from Fleetwood Mac as possible) and you'll find crackers like this title track from his second LP, which is about 16th century Belgian porridge farmers. LOL jk, it's about Stevie Nicks. They're all about Stevie Nicks.

One In A Million
(Christine McVie, Christine McVie, 1984)
McVie is, to be fair, a bit dreary by herself, but the strutting bassline on this track from her second solo album makes it a standout. She's accompanied vocally here by Steve Winwood, which improves the song but inevitably makes you wish she'd just got Lindsey Buckingham along to do it.

Too Far Gone
(Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, 2017)
The release of 2017's snappily-titled Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie should have been the Fleetwood Mac reunion we'd waited years for, if only Stevie Nicks had bothered to turn up. The album misses Nicks, but with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie in support of the headliners it's the best we'll get for now. Too Far Gone shows this dysfunctional collection of pensioners can still turn out a stomping great party tune when required. And you just can't say that about The Reynolds Girls.

*

That's it, school's out. Your Fleetwooducation is now complete and your level of devotion to the Mac has hopefully been determined. In the highly likely event that you just scrolled past all those boring words in the hope of finding a playlist of all the songs mentioned, then you're in luck! But also I hate you.


Disclaimer: the version of Oh Well, Part 1 contained herein is a live version performed by Lindsey Buckingham, because Spotify can't be arsed to have the Peter Green version. Don't @ me.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Copacabana: The Movie

It should be enough just to know that a musical film exists based on Barry Manilow's 1978 disco-busting earworm Copacabana. When I spotted it in the BFI catalogue a couple of months ago I realised that my life could now be split into two distinct periods: ignorance of Copacabana the movie, and awareness of Copacabana the movie. The delight I felt knowing that my all-time favourite go-to karaoke standard is out there in expanded, visual form - with Manilow in the lead role, no less - could barely be contained. But humanity by nature is greedy, and I wanted more. I didn't just want to be aware of Copacabana; I wanted to see Copacabana.

Conscious of the fact that there was only one screening, I booked my ticket immediately, before it inevitably sold out and became the next Hamilton. By some miracle there were actually quite a lot of tickets available; perhaps the BFI's website had crashed under the sheer volume of traffic and I had somehow managed to head off the hordes of fanilows who had brought the site to its knees.
Priceless. (Actual price £9.00)

My natural assumption was that a 1985 TV movie comedy-musical, based on an unironically naff chart-topper by the maharaja of MOR and boasting his own hitherto (and, in all honesty, thereafter) undiscovered acting talent, might not be the Citizen Kane of under-appreciated cultural artifacts. And I'll be honest, the thought that it might just be absolutely, hilariously terrible filled me with even more glee. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case. Copacabana is, disappointingly, not rubbish at all. It isn't great either, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is agreeably sweet and occasionally quite mad, and therefore absolutely worth seeking out for fans of the song, i.e. anyone who has heard it. For the sake of context:



Copacabana (the song) is brilliant for many reasons, but primarily for the love triangle story that unfolds over just two narratively economical verses - with a tragic coda saved for the third - which evokes deadly, tangled lust in the nightclub underworld of the Caribbean. No doubt you're aware, even if you didn't just watch the above piece of Manilow magic, of Lola (showgirl, yellow feathers in her hair, dress cut down to there), Tony (always tended bar, worked from eight till four) and Rico (wore a diamond, escorted to his chair, went a bit too far). The tale ends with blood and a single gunshot, but Manilow leaves unanswered the crucial question of just who shot who. All we know is that thirty years later Lola survives, unable to let go of the past and drinking herself into madness.

Copacabana (the movie), then, takes these events as the bones upon which to add tasty, if somewhat cheesy meat: we learn about the characters' backstories, hopes, dreams, families, failures and quite remarkable costume choices. Peripheral characters and subplots are introduced (and occasionally abandoned), and a thrilling Havana-set rescue unfolds against the unlikely backdrop of a delirious pirate-based song-and-dance show called El Bravo.
Throughout all this, Barry Manilow - in the role of talented but frustrated songwriter and hero Tony Starr, naturally - is adorably goofy and charming. Gangly and awkward, he doesn't so much dance as clatter across the sets like a newborn giraffe, occasionally stopping to spread his jazz hands far and wide in his signature (and only) move. The peak of his performance comes as he attempts to hawk his new ditty to a series of unimpressed music moguls: each one demands he plays the song in a different style (in one of the script's scarce moments of genius, the song is called Changing My Tune), which he does with boundless enthusiasm and irrepressible charisma. Most of the time Manilow's acting is on a par with the average school nativity play, but given that we really just want to see him sing it hardly matters.

Initially dressed in conservative knitwear and bumblingly inelegant, Manilow plays Tony like Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, which is appropriate given that Annette O'Toole - who was Lana Lang in Superman III just two years earlier - plays Lola Lamar. O'Toole is almost as delightful as Manilow, and clearly relishes vamping away in sleazy gin joints and bouncing about in the ridiculous outfits of her later career as the star of a Cuban cabaret. It's only in the film's bookend scenes (literal translations of that final, pitiful verse), where she's required to gaze at a comically ghostly Manilow, that she provokes unintentional giggles, but that's almost certainly down to the fact that she's buried under several strata of unconvincing old lady makeup.
Note yellow feathers in hair. Dress cut down to there just out of frame

What's perhaps most disappointing for a Barry Manilow-written musical is the forgettable roster of songs: only a couple - Man Wanted, sung initially in a sleazy jazz style by Lola before Tony sexes it up into a swing banger, and El Bravo, which accompanies the hijinks of the climax - really register. The big showpiece number Who Needs To Dream, with which Tony serenades Lola and magically transforms her initial dislike of him into unconditional love, is a saccharine dirge designed almost exclusively for Manilow to show off his vox chops. I'm sure I'm missing the point, but as someone whose Barry Manilow collection extends to that one greatest hits compilation you can find in any charity shop vinyl tub across the land, I'd have been much happier with a jukebox musical packed with all the hits.

There's plenty of fun to be had in the expansion of the song's story though, not least the discovery that the Copacabana club is located in Manhattan, revealing Manilow's claim that it's "the hottest spot north of Havana" as a barefaced lie: a cursory google reveals that setting it somewhere in south Florida would have been less geographically and meteorologically inaccurate. But it's great to see these characters in the flesh, particularly the dastardly Rico, gloriously described by a cop who's been after him for years as "the deadliest snake in the western hemisphere". That potentially exciting crime aspect is just one of the subplots that goes undeveloped, but if it's at the expense of the one in which Tony embarks on a jealousy-fuelled affair with a wealthy divorcée who shows him a world of champagne, caviar and double breasted blazers, then it's probably worth it. As for who shot who, well, that's a mystery you'll have to discover for yourself.
Look, the internet is not awash with hi-res production stills from Copacabana, OK

Tragically Copacabana remains the only entry to date in the MCU (Manilow Cinematic Universe). We can only dream of what might have been with movies of songs like Bermuda Triangle, in which Barry's woman mysteriously disappears with an alternate Barry in some kind of baffling space-time paradox, or Can't Smile Without You, in which Barry is doomed only to feel the emotions of others, feeling sad when they're sad and feeling glad when they're glad, or Could It Be Magic, in which Barry discovers that he's a wizard. Still, music and passion are always the fashion, so fingers crossed that somebody, somewhere, is ready to take a chance again*.






* Ready To Take A Chance Again is another Barry Manilow song

Friday, 23 February 2018

Gin Soaked Joy: The highs and lows of a day at the London Gin Festival

I made my annual pilgrimage to the London Gin Festival the other week because I love gin, and if someone's going to go to the trouble of holding a festival in honour of something I love then I feel it's my duty to pay my respects. I also feel it's my duty to spend waaaaaaayy too much money on the thing I love to prove that I love it more than everyone else, and that is an entirely healthy mindset with which to attend an event where you pretty much relinquish control of your judgement the moment you walk through the door and into an alcoholic fug of sweet junipery happy-fumes.

2018 marks the sixth year of Gin Festivals, and my third year of attendance at London's Tobacco Dock (they're actually held there twice a year, but I have to deny the existence of the summer event because neither my bank account nor my liver would survive the consequences). If you haven't been, it's essentially a chance to sample 25ml shots of a bewildering variety of gins from around the world, at the wallet-worrying price of a fiver a shot. Naturally if you fall in love with any there's the chance to buy a full bottle, and the aim of the game as far as I can tell is to come away with as many bottles of new gin as you can carry.
While avoiding the lightning-fast hipster bar staff, natch

Now the correct approach to this is to methodically scour the catalogue, cross-reference it with your spreadsheet of all the gins you've ever tried so that you don't waste money on something you've had before (don't pretend you don't have a gin spreadsheet), and basically plan your day with military precision to ensure maximum efficiency and minimum fun for your pals who mistakenly thought they were coming along to get tipsy and have a laugh. This is why I procured a catalogue months ago, exhaustively checking each gin in advance so that I knew exactly what I was after and wouldn't have to waste half an hour of precious festival time remembering if I'd already tasted, say, Braeckman Oud Jenever Kiekendief (I had, in 2016. According to the spreadsheet I thought it was fine).

So it was with an unprecedented sense of spine-chilling panic that, as I walked into this year's festival, I was cheerfully handed a new, updated and totally re-organised catalogue. I had already arrived about 17 minutes after the official start time due to a combination of the laissez-faire attitude of a café waitress that morning and the vagaries of Google Maps' navigational functionality, so to be faced with one more obstacle between me and the painstakingly-plotted consumption of injudicious quantities of gin was almost too much to bear. But what could I do?

Reader, I bore it.

I ushered my then-friends into a corner, told them all to sit down and shut up, and embarked upon the quickest cross-cross-referencing session you've ever seen at an event where most people are already too drunk to even say "spreadsheet". Within minutes I had reconceived my strategy for the day, and calculated that I had probably only used up the time it takes to sample one gin, so made a mental note to simply drink even more efficiently than usual.

Thanks to my unique skills as an intolerable fun-vacuum, then, I managed the arguably heroic feat of sampling no fewer than 28 individual gins in the space of three and a half hours. They weren't all 25ml shots, you understand; that would be dangerously ill-advised and also possibly too much fun. No, I insisted that my comrades and I all picked different gins and then shared each sample. There were four of us, so 28 gins meant just seven shots had been consumed by each of us at end of play - fewer alcoholic units than in a bottle of wine (on the offchance my doctor is reading this). Although I think I may have tagged an extra one on at the end because it was a lovely blue colour and smelled of bubble gum and by that point I was slightly less disciplined than earlier.
MIDDLE CLASS CARNAGE

I feel like we could have done better, but the thing about the Gin Festival is that it's open to the general public - sadly, it kind of has to be - and if there's one thing the general public are absolutely on point at, it's getting right in the fucking way. Other things the general public do at gin festivals which are specifically designed to infuriate me include, but are not restricted to: loudly singing along with, and generally enjoying, the live band belting out Oasis' Champagne Supernova as if we're in a sticky-floored boozer in 1995; ordering the same gins within a group, apparently oblivious of the literally globe-spanning selection before them; drowning 25ml shots of precious, expensive gins with an entire 200ml bottle of tonic water so that each gin tastes exactly the same (i.e. like tonic water), and generally treating the entire event like some kind of relaxed, fun day out that can somehow magically be enjoyed without the aid of a spreadsheet.

Despite these hardships I was more or less satisfied with the day, and if you've been waiting patiently for any kind of discussion of the actual gin on offer, that patience is about to be rewarded, if only in a brief and dissatisfying way. I tended to stick to the European gins, because in all honestly most - but by no means all - of the gins on offer from the UK were London Dry gins which are virtually indistinguishable from each other. On the continent they tend to say bollocks to all that, and distil their gin with alpaca bladders, or vibranium, or a forward-thinking sense of unity and tolerance. As a result of this, Europe churns out shitloads of floral and fruity sweet gins which are lovely in and of themselves; the only downside is that after a few you do feel like you've spent a bit too long in the sweetie tin on Christmas Day.

I left the festival shop with two of these foreign fancies: Marula Gin from Belgium, which prides itself on tasting of the African fruit marula - "the forbidden fruit of the elephant tree" (if you've tried the Gin Festival organisers' own ludicrously delicious speciality, Tinker, it's not dissimilar), and Orkney Rhubarb Old Tom, which - as its name suggests - is an Old Tom (i.e. sweeter than London Dry) gin which tastes of rhubarb. And is distilled in Orkney. I needed something a bit serious and savoury to balance these two floozies out, so plumped for Norwich's St Giles, an enigmatic (i.e. I don't know how to describe the taste) gin which reminded me of another of my favourites - Willem Barentsz, which is unfathomably great - but with enough of a difference to warrant spunking 40 notes on a bottle.

(Side note: small-batch gin producers are producing such small batches these days that they often only sell 500ml bottles instead of the standard 700ml bottles, but the price - combined with the average punter's mental state at the end of a Gin Festival - convinces you you're getting more than you actually are. As I discovered when I got home.)
Other worthy offerings that I can recommend and will almost definitely consider when all these have gone (like tomorrow, right lads, weeeeyyyyy) include PJ Gin Elderflower (also from Belgium, does exactly what it says on the tin), Aduro Pink Passion (Italian, so fruity and sexy), Whitley Neill Quince (made in Liverpool and therefore well hard at 43% ABV) and Puerto de Indias Strawberry from Spain. On the savoury side I was intrigued by Aduro's Bell Pepper gin, which literally tastes of red pepper and is therefore nice but only a lunatic would want a whole bottle, and their Devil's Tail, the effects of which you could replicate by sticking eight of the world's hottest chilis in your mouth and swilling with gin. This was the only one we tried that we ended up chucking away, and everyone knows it's a sin to bin gin.

If any of this has somehow convinced you to attend a Gin Festival, then you're in luck - they're held right across the country all year round, and you can find the schedule here. One day I'll get round to announcing what are objectively and unquestionably The Best Gins, having done years of selfless, dispassionate research, but until then, get out there and have a bloody go on some gin. And don't forget your spreadsheet.


Non-disclaimer: I was not paid in cash or gin to mention or link to any of the products in this post, nor have I received any offers or discounts from Gin Festival, more's the pity. I'm @IncredibleSuit guys, just hit me up, it's so easy.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Mission Creep:
The Incredible Suit goes rogue

Hello. Neil here. You probably haven't noticed but I've been banging on about films on this criminally undercelebrated, literally award-losing website for nearly nine years now, minus a year off in 2013 when I was kidnapped by a jealous rival movie blog. My regular reader will know how comically infrequent updates are these days, and for that I would apologise if only anyone cared.

It's not that I've fallen out of love with films, or writing (although I do have a love/detest relationship with the latter), it's just that I kind of got a bit fed up of trying to find insightful and witty things to say about new releases, not least because I never succeeded. So in an attempt to stretch my limited talents to levels guaranteed to reveal just how deficient they are, I've decided to expand the remit of the blog.

As of now, The Incredible Suit is no longer a film blog. It's an everything blog. It's one of those tedious blogs where some idiot vomits their brainpuke onto the page regardless of expertise or reader interest. It's a dumping ground for me to witter inanely about whatever takes my interest and whatever I might feel strongly about after a couple of gins, including gin. It's a film blog, a booze blog, a book blog (lol as if I read books), a TV blog, a travel blog, a music blog (although almost certainly the only music covered will be the output of Fleetwood Mac between 1975 and 1987), and - if you're really unlucky - a blog about the crushing misery of attempting to simultaneously buy and sell a house, which is about the only thing in this list on which I am actually an expert.

The new dawn begins tomorrow, with a load of old shit that will only be of remote interest to the crossover in the Venn diagram of People Who Like Gin and People Who Like Festivals. You have been warned.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The ten best films of 2017,
according to this idiot

They say that in 2017, web-based film commentary has been reduced to little more than highly subjective listicles that mean nothing to anyone but the writer, whose over-inflated sense of ego drives them to continually vomit their opinions onto the internet regardless of a total lack of insight and a steadily dwindling readership. I don't know if this is true because I've been far too busy ranking the films of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese to take any notice of what anyone else is doing, but it seems unlikely. Anyway never mind that, here are my ten favourite films of the year!

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE
Thank Christ there are filmmakers out there who actually like Batman enough to celebrate him and all his iterations no matter how ridiculous. The LEGO Batman Movie had love for the caped crusader coming out of its tiny, pointy ears, but that's not all - it dared to prod the Dark Knight's obvious psychological issues in a way that's somehow sensitive and fun at the same time. And not only did it feature a superhero team-up to beat Justice League, but also a supervillain team-up to beat Suicide Squad. All that said, I am deeply disappointed that Batman doesn't pay his taxes. That's not cool, kids!

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING
The MCU's wackiest year yet peaked with this welcome return to a Spidey who looked and acted like a teenage nerd so excited about his superpowers that he could barely contain his own web fluid. After three forgettable Spider-outings, Kevin Feige's guiding hand steered ol' webhead back on track, not just restoring audience faith in Spidey but enhancing the MCU to boot: Peter Parker's father / son relationship with Tony Stark looks set to pay off in spades when the latter finally fires his last repulsor. Now if only Marvel could free themselves of the need to crowbar twenty minutes of tedious superhero-versus-supervillain punch-ups into the final acts of their terrific character-based comedies, they'd be streets ahead of DC by now. What's that? Oh.

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Like a 21st century Euro-Kubrick, Yorgos Lanthimos turned out this gleefully horrifying companion piece to 2015's The Lobster with clinical black humour and an eye for unforgettably, hilariously grim imagery. Like real life but with the absurdity curtains pulled right back, Sacred Deer forced you to view humanity through a different lens; you might not have liked what you found there but at least you had an excruciatingly awkward and uncomfortable time while you looked.

STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI
Maybe it's the case that the more you love a movie franchise the more glaring its issues are. Overlong and bloated with unnecessary scenes, jokes and beats lifted from the original trilogy, The Last Jedi pushed its luck pretty hard. But for every terrible, overly-CG, Episode I-esque chase on alien horseback, there was a galaxy of new and wondrous moments searing themselves into Star Wars lore: an unexpected and shiver-inducing team-up; an iconic hero revealed to be less the infallible legend and more the wry old hermit; a dozen unforgettable images as instantly quintessential as anything in the series since 1977. Hope remains.

GET OUT
Deeply biting, genuinely thought-provoking and thankfully not-too-gory horror aimed precisely at liberal white folk who are a) possibly a little too comfortable in the belief they're not racist, and b) sick of jump scares and torture porn (hello). The writing here was sublime (there were so many clues in the first half that a rewatch was essential), and even if the last reel was a bit silly and rushed it didn't matter. In a world of socio-political message-movies that yell into an echo chamber, Get Out actually had something vital to say to the majority of its audience.

SILENCE
Martin Scorsese's most personal passion project since The Last Temptation Of Christ was uncommercial enough to keep audiences away in droves (in fairness, punters' choice in January was a 160-minute meditation on faith, or Ryan Gosling tap-dancing with Emma Stone), making back less than half its scraped-together budget. But Marty is long past crowd-pleasing, and Silence was the kind of film whose stature will only grow over time until it's rightly hailed as the late-period auteurist masterpiece it is. Essential Scorsese and soul-enriching cinema, but Jesus Christ on a cracker I am totally ready for The Irishman.

DUNKIRK
The story of a cursed soldier who manages to sink four of the five boats on which he tries to escape from a perfectly pleasant seaside town, Dunkirk was an assault on the eyes and ears (especially in IMAX) as well as the marbles, deliberately disorientating you with its director's trademark timefuckery. Visually breathtaking (not least when it took to the skies in horizon-spanning megavision) and aurally stressful, this tale of heroism, survival and sacrifice boasted 2017's most effective combination of action and music, to the point where it could just as well be described as Hans Zimmer's best album of 2017 featuring an ace video by Christopher Nolan.

PADDINGTON 2
Episode 2 of what is now looking like a fifteen-star trilogy (and there's no reason why they need to stop at three) repeated its predecessor's perfect alchemy of silent comedy and sharply-observed British humour, adding an entire hacking enquiry's worth of HRH Hugh Grant to push it into the stratosphere. Inexplicably hilarious while simultaneously heartbreaking, Paddington 2 provided the year's most thorough emotional workout: this and La La Land probably delivered my happiest moments of 2017, proving that cinema's capacity to make you feel absolutely fucking great isn't dead just yet, despite all the efforts of the DC Cinematic Universe.

A GHOST STORY
Buried away in blockbuster season was this tiny, tender, thought-provoking beauty about life, death, love and the infinite. Its epic themes boxed up in a vignetted 4:3 frame, A Ghost Story provided big ideas on a small scale, as well as welcome relief from the empty noise that characterised most of this summer in the cinema. Also where else were you going to watch Rooney Mara eat a pie for five minutes? In The Lost City Of Z? I don't think so.

LA LA LAND
It is still unfathomable to me that there was a backlash to La La Land, but what are you gonna do? People are idiots. Regardless of how you feel it turned out, there was so much love poured into this film that it spilled out of the edges: love for movies, love for musicals, love for golden age Hollywood, love for dreams and dreamers, love for art and artists, love for love itself. I haven't been as happy to see a fictional couple fall in love or so sad to see them break apart since Han and Leia. I fell in love with La La Land at first sight and we're still going strong over a year later; check back in five years to see if we had to break up because it held me back from becoming a professional miseryguts.

*

The usual disclaimer: if you're reading this more than 24 hours since I wrote it, I've probably changed my mind. Up-to-date version, including everything else I saw from 2017, here.