Friday, 19 April 2019

Pleased To Meet You, Again:
My unexpectedly intense Sleeper reunion

You'll have to forgive me but I'm having one of my Britpop moments. This happens every now and again: the doctor says it's fine and is just a symptom of a) having been at university between 1994 and 1997, and b) subsequently becoming a victim of the nostalgia culture that has characterised the early part of the 21st century. Like many of my peers I have point blank refused to let go of everything I loved from my childhood (even a girl I fancied in the mid-90s is still knocking about in my house, calling herself my wife), and while I am usually able to suppress this condition it does occasionally flare up, as it has in the last few weeks.

This recent bout of Britpopatitis was brought about when, idly browsing the racks of Sister Ray in London's Berwick Street (a road once hip enough to grace the cover an Oasis album, now just waiting for a year-overdue Premier Inn to suck the remaining life out of it), I spotted an album by Sleeper. Now I love Sleeper - or at least I loved their first two albums Smart and The It Girl; I may or may not have taken the third, Pleased To Meet You, to a charity shop about two weeks after its release. So I was surprised that I didn't recognise the LP before me. It was called The Modern Age and contained songs I did not know. I was, in the parlance of, er, the modern age, shook.
It turns out the reason I didn't recognise the record was that behind my back, Sleeper had reformed then recorded and released a fourth album last month without me even noticing. This is what happens when you take your eye off the ball for just 22 years. I was too broadsided to buy the album there and then, so I went home and listened to some of it on YouTube, coming to the conclusion that it was Not That Bad. Within a week I had not only bought that LP, but had also rebought Pleased To Meet You off eBay (quite possibly the same copy I gave away in 1997), found singer Louise Wener's autobiography on the same magical website, and then because nobody was there to stop me I bought tickets for their gig at the Kentish Town Forum last weekend. I have been listening to all four albums on repeat for around a month, to the point where I am actually even beginning to notice the bass lines. Somebody take me to Britpopspital, I need a Britpoperation.
My Sleeper story, such as it is, begins over a quarter of a century ago (Jesus actual CHRIST), one lonely teenage evening in 1993. I went through a period of taping every song Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley played on Radio 1's The Evening Session: if a song hadn't grabbed me within about 90 seconds I rewound the cassette and taped the next song over it. Any song that had me hooked was granted residency on that strip of worn-out, eighth-inch magnetic tape, and each show yielded maybe a dozen tracks to feed my insatiable hunger for new music. Pretty much the only song I can now remember from this exercise is Sleeper's Alice In Vain, the first release from their 1995 debut Smart.

Alice was a spiky, punchy piece of pop unlike most of what I was listening to at the time, and I was transfixed by Louise's switch from sultry, breathy sexpot to shouty, angry sexpot over the course of three and a half minutes. In retrospect this has been a defining feature of all my favourite female singers: Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Kim Deal and Divinyls' Chrissy Amphlett to name but a few. (If your experience of the latter only stretches as far as sweaty ode to bean-flicking I Touch Myself, do yourself a humongous favour and dig deeper. Not unlike the narrator of I Touch Myself does, in fact.)

One thing led to another, Smart came out four months into my first year at university, and just over a year later Sleeper released their second album, The It Girl. One of the key records that soundtracked one of the greatest summers of my life, The It Girl is also one of the finest achievements to come out of Britpop. An album of glossy, sleazy, perfect pop, it takes the English suburbia and lager-soaked fag-ends of Smart, squeezes the whole package into a sequinned minidress and Adidas Gazelles and parades its look-but-don't-touch hot mess in front of you like your best mate's big sister. Standout track Nice Guy Eddie is a tale of sugar-daddy sex and death in suspicious circumstances that painted Louise Wener as the black widow spider of Britpop, and I'd have gladly swapped web fluid with her were it not for the fact that she'd have eaten me whole before I'd even shown her my silk gland.

All too quickly it's October 1997. I've left uni and am working at Blockbuster video during an interminable period of compulsory nationwide mourning for Diana when Pleased To Meet You plops out and fails to lighten the mood. Aside from irregular listens to Smart and The It Girl over the next two decades, I more or less forget about Sleeper until I bimble into Sister Ray one sunny afternoon a few weeks ago. My nostalgia circuits are unexpectedly activated, I allow them full access to my bank account with carefree abandon and before I know it I am unconsciously humming the bassline from Inbetweener.

I'm more forgiving towards Pleased To Meet You now that I'm Sleeper's number one fan for as long as this condition grips me, and The Modern Age is a worthy addition to the canon. It sounds like it could have been recorded while I was at university, which is fine by me, and the trademark hooks and irrepressible bounce are still there. There doesn't seem to be as much sex and death as before, and it gives me no pleasure to report that there's a song on there about a baffling new phenomenon called "social media", but everything sounds comfortably familiar after a few listens and lead single Look At You Now is a legit banger.

Louise's autobiography, meanwhile - Just For One Day: Adventures In Britpop, which I read a mere eight and a half years after its release - is glorious. It's like The It Girl in book form: a series of arrogantly short chapters, designed like perfect three-minute blasts of pop, which took me for a breakneck ride through the life of an Essex girl turned pop icon with such conviction that when I finished it (about ten minutes after I started it) I swear I could smell perfume, stale beer and the Top Of The Pops studio. Her disarmingly frank recollections of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and her (*checks notes*) "wonderfully erect nipples" paint the highs and lows of mid-level stardom with lovable self-deprecation and zero-fucks-given insouciance.

And then, just as I was about to get the all clear and start listening to James Bond soundtracks again, along came last weekend's concert. I average about one gig a year these days, and more often than not they're by bands that disappeared in the late '90s and have finally started speaking to each other again: last year I saw Belly in Shepherd's Bush and I was so happy I cried through most of it. Expectations were middling for Sleeper, but I, along with roughly 2000 fellow balding, 40-something men, had a ruddy blast. My only regret is that I was a little too far from the stage to satisfactorily confirm or deny Louise's nipple self-assessment.
The band (the famously anonymous Sleeperblokes now enhanced on stage by the addition of Amy, a Sleepergirl) came on to the strains of Nancy Sinatra's theme song for You Only Live Twice, which immediately won me over, before launching into a 75-minute set of all killer, no filler pop gold. Factor 41 - a fine but unremarkable track from The It Girl - was the highlight, rebooted as a growling stomper that allowed Louise to watch with a wicked sense of pride as about three dozen middle-aged backs went into spasm from ill-advised moshing. Pleased To Meet You, sadly, went entirely unrepresented, as if the band were trying to erase it from history.

So I'm still stuck in my temporary Sleeper bubble, and once I've finished writing this I fully intend to pop back to Sister Ray to see if they've got any copies left of the live EP the band released for Record Store Day. I'm aware that my condition will clear up soon but I'm enjoying it while it lasts, and once I'm better, well, I notice there's a new album of Elastica BBC sessions out...

Friday, 12 April 2019

Kubism, Part 3:
The Killing (1956)

Hallelujah and thank fuck for that you guys, Stanley Kubrick has finally made a great film and we can stop kidding ourselves that everything before now had any artistic merit just because it has his name on it! Seriously, go back to The Seafarers, there is A LOT of analytical stretching going on to justify putting yourself through that.

Predictably, it turns out that all The Brick needed to turn out a decent movie was that old chestnut: a fucktonne of cash. Hooking up with savvy (and conveniently loaded) producer James Harris, who footed a hundred grand while Universal Artists stumped up double that, Kubrick found himself with a budget over four times that of Killer's Kiss. That meant sets instead of locations, an existing property to adapt and decent actors to perform it, all of which meant a giant leap for Stankind.

The Killing wouldn't be the film to put Kubrick on the map, but it's impossible to see it as anything but a turning point in his career. It's a heist movie, and heists traditionally involve thorough planning, lengthy rehearsal, precision execution and ultimate control: your basic elements for almost every future Kubrick project. It's as if he decided to live the rest of his life by the rules the masterminds of heist films set, but never quite follow to the letter. The Killing's heist might not have gone according to plan, but Stan would ensure that if his most audacious jobs ever failed, it would never be due to a total lack of control over their execution.
Without any faffing about, we're straight into the guts of the story. In the first ten minutes we're introduced to the five key players and are fully clued up about their motivation for ripping off the Lansdowne Park racetrack: Johnny the ex-con and mastermind wants that big score; Mike the bartender needs dough for his sick wife's healthcare; Randy the bent cop is in hock to the mob; George the cashier needs to impress his gold-digging wife, and Marvin, well, his motivation comes out later. But this is an immediately fascinating and complex set of moving parts, brought to sleazy life by a cast who know exactly what's required of them.
Of course the problem with complex sets of moving parts is that one of them will inevitably blab to his wife, who will blab to her lover, and before you know it there's a rogue part moving in the opposite direction to all the other moving parts, threatening the very stability of this extended metaphor. Add to that a structure that hops back and forth in time (some 35 years before a dweeby video store clerk made it fashionable with his own heist flick), and the result is a layered and unpredictable treat. You could argue that all the temporal pinballing is a gimmick, but it undeniably enriches the story: Kubrick and Harris, worried it would detriment their project, recut it chronologically only to find they hated it, and promptly reshuffled it again.

Unsurprisingly the plan goes tits up in a big way, but the sport with these things is never the direction of the tits as much as how the tits get there. Helping The Killing's tits to their final, elevated destination are a couple of crazy secondary characters (a hairy Russian brawler who looks like a wet ball of dough rolled across a barbershop floor, and a clearly mad, puppy-loving horse-killer who speaks through clenched teeth), lip-smacking, hard-boiled dialogue from pulp fiction author Jim Thompson, and last-minute Hitchcockian mischief courtesy of some recognisably hair-tearing airport baggage regulations and a nervous doggo.
There's plenty to chew on in The Killing as a standalone film, but it's as the next step in Kubrick's evolution that it takes on added value. The visual storytelling for which Stan would become famous comes of age before our eyes here: there are motifs and repeated imagery that are infinitely more efficient than the reams of impenetrable dialogue that bogged down Fear And Desire. And while Kubrick was forced by union regulations to work with a cinematographer for the first time in his career, his collaboration with Lucien Ballard resulted in some exquisite compositions. The camera is more mobile than ever before, and the tracking shots that propel the film through its most crucial moments are meticulously shot, lit and blocked.

We also get a little closer to the themes that would preoccupy Kubrick throughout much of his future output. Johnny's futile attempt to regain total control over a situation loaded with variables offers a taste of Stan's somewhat pessimistic world view, in which man is a puny opponent of the indifferent machinations of the cosmos. The destructive power of hubris is also front and centre, and that lip-smacking sense of the absurd is right there in the actions of an incongruous but hugely significant poodle.
For the third time in as many features, Kubrick uses voiceover as a crutch, as if he still doesn't quite trust his instincts to tell a story with pictures. The Killing's incessant narration - sounding like a comically earnest newsreader - grates after a while, but its function mirrors that of the racetrack commentator, lending it a neat formal parallel. That aside, there's little else to gripe about. Setups and payoffs abound, there's barely a wasted scene and there's a depth to the characters' relationships that often goes literally unspoken but metaphorically screamed: George's marriage is fascinating, for example, and Marvin's loyalty to Johnny comes from a place the Production Code simply wouldn't allow to be mentioned out loud.

It's tempting to see the film's quintet of over-the-hill crooks as representative of the old guard of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with Val (the aforementioned lover of the aforementioned wife of the aforementioned George) as Stanley Kubrick, the precocious young buck muscling in on the game. Stan was 28 when he made The Killing, and the disruption he would cause to the status quo would be as far-reaching in the industry as Val's actions were to Johnny and his cronies. Kubrick would get a longer innings than Val, but both men could have gone on to do so much more if fate hadn't had other ideas.
Join me next time for Paths Of Glory, in which Kirk Douglas lays a glorious path down his back garden. Lovely marble slabs with a gravel border and everything.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Kubism, Part 2:
Killer's Kiss (1955)

It's been an underwhelming start for a so-called visionary genius, but in the hope of digging up something watchable I hereby present the third instalment of my shallow dive into the career of tonsorially unconcerned director Stanley Kubrick. Under the Fisher Price microscope this time is Kubo's second feature film, Killer's Kiss. Is he any good yet? Let's find out! (short answer: almost)
Scene: A man impatiently paces the concourse of New York's Penn Station, smoking like it's the 1950s (which, in fairness, it is) and talking without moving his lips. No, he's not a ventriloquist: it's one of those voiceovers they do in film noir all the time, letting us know that - in what would become one of Kubrick's favourite themes - he is a man and he has fucked up. The story unfolds in flashback, and what follows is an unremarkable stab at a genre which was on its last legs at the time. Kubrick would later claim the story was irrelevant and he just needed the directing experience, and that's crystal clear on viewing: Killer's Kiss uses all the film noir tropes in a disappointingly uninspired way (smoke, venetian blinds and shadows feature heavily), but clues to the future genius of its director occasionally pop up and punch you on the nose to wake you up.

The station-based framing device is the first fumble: where, say, Double Indemnity began at the end with Walter Neff shot, bleeding out and desperate to confess, immediately hooking you into the story, Killer's Kiss has a bloke waiting for a train. Yowzers, how could he possibly have ended up in such an incredible and unique pickle, I can't wait to find out. Turns out he's a boxer by the name of Davey Gordon, played by the kind of actor you hire when you can't afford Burt Lancaster. Preparing for a fight that evening he gazes into a mirror, imagining what he'll look like when he's had his features pulped into face soup - the first of a handful of shots Kubrick lifts from his own documentary Day Of The Fight as if we wouldn't notice (tbf, hardly anyone did because hardly anyone saw it).
The setup goes on to introduce Davey's sexy neighbour, Gloria: a private dancer, a dancer for money, any old music will do - not unlike Davey himself, whose fancy footwork also regularly entertains an undiscerning audience. Naturally Gloria ends up dragging Davey into a whole heap of trouble - not for nothing does the poster's lurid tagline shriek "Her soft mouth was the road to sin-smeared violence!", although that might be over-egging the pudding a bit. Presumably "Her boss's wandering hands meant some guy ended up on platform four" wouldn't have sold as many tickets. Censor-friendly sex, violence and mistaken identity follow, until a bizarre climax that sees Davey and the handsy man lobbing dismembered mannequins at each other in a warehouse, before the tantalising conundrum of what happens at Penn Station is wrapped up to absolutely nobody's surprise.

While the content is unexceptional, Kubrick does play around with the form a little, and that's what we're here for. Unbelievably he still hasn't mastered the 180 degree rule, more interested instead in filming Cheap Burt Lancaster's face through a goldfish bowl in an attempt to find a new way to show a schnook trapped in his own tedious existence, but there are some great moments. Davey's big fight, which he loses because he is a man in a film noir and therefore a loser, is shot with gusto: Stan gets his camera right in there with the boxers and makes you feel every punch. It's not quite Raging Bull, but the desire to put the audience into a situation rather than just show it to them is born here, and would come of age inside Dave Bowman's helmet in 2001 and Danny Torrance's maze run in The Shining.

The gear change between the first and second act is our first exposure to some choice Kubrickian surrealism. Davey dreams of flying down the deserted streets of New York, and we see his point of view but it's in negative, the effect foreshadowing 2001's stargate sequence but at a fraction of the duration, which is a good job because 2001's stargate sequence is almost as long as the whole of Killer's Kiss. It's deliberately jarring but a little vague for such an unambitious narrative: does it represent the desire to escape? The interchangeable nature of light and dark? A titanic fuckup in the processing lab? And Kubrick's next trick isn't entirely original but it is unusual: a flashback within the flashback, forcing the audience to stay on its toes and making Killer's Kiss the Inception of its time.
There is some legit stunning photography in here, shot by Kubrick himself. A scene in which a pair of dimbulb hitmen whack the wrong guy is a staggering work of composition and lighting: three silhouettes shrink slowly into the disappearing perspective of a back alley, Stan cuts away while the dark deed is done, then two silhouettes return towards the camera, their job apparently done. Shooting almost entirely on location in New York, Kubrick also gifts us some lovely time capsule stuff of Times Square at night, and you wonder how someone who would become such a control freak coped with all those randoms wandering through his shot as if they lived there or something. But he does achieve a palpable sense of the city's oppressiveness, with characters hemmed into tiny apartments, narrow streets and corridors, or loomed over by pitiless architecture.

Despite those flashes of brilliance, most of Killer's Kiss is unexceptional. But Kubrick has at least lost the arse-clenching pretentiousness of Fear And Desire, and is in effect still learning on the job. Today's auteurs cut their teeth on TV and in commercials, but 60 years ago you had to do the directorial equivalent of standing in front of the class and showing your working out, which is what this is. We're watching Stanley Kubrick become Stanley Kubrick, and that's never going to be anything less than fascinating.
Next time: The Kube finally pulls his finger out and makes a film with a running time of over 75 minutes. Join me soon for The Killing! (Not the Danish TV series. Or the American TV series based on the Danish TV series. Or the film with Lee Marvin, that's The Killers. Or the 2010 Ashton Kutcher / Katherine Heigl action comedy, that's Killers. The fuck is wrong with you?)

Friday, 15 March 2019

Kubism, Part 1:
Fear And Desire (1953)

Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning. So goes the tagline for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a film so bad that Stanley Kubrick literally died just a few months before its release in order to avoid watching it. Stan's first step on his own journey to becoming a legend for many generations was almost as fraught with bad decisions and terrible acting as Anakin Skywalker's, but is arguably more worthy of your time. He'd got all that unfortunate documentary business out of his system, thank God, and was all set to launch his career as one of the greatest, most innovative and exciting directors OF ALL TIME. But first: Fear And Desire.

Artistically ambitious and naive (or, to quote one S. Kubrick forty years down the line, "boring and pretentious"), Fear And Desire is a near-perfect example of an unfocused talent learning on the job. There are the striking visual compositions and classy lighting you'd expect from an accomplished photographer; lots of gigantic close-ups; daring editing choices, and evocative sound design being deployed to tell a deeply human story concerned with flawed masculinity and mankind's boundless capacity to overestimate his own control over the universe: all signature elements of the future Kubrick's oeuvre. But we pay for all that with a film student's idea of issue-led narrative, reckless abuse of visual grammar, a misogynist's approach to female characterisation (or, more accurately, lack of) and - most egregiously - colossally ponderous dialogue. Kubrick was yet to learn to trust in his instincts as a visual storyteller, and as a result Fear And Desire probably contains more dialogue in its 70 minutes than in the 160 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Fear And Desire begins mysteriously: a small platoon of four stock military characters (Lieutenant Handsome, Sergeant Warmachine, Private Babyface and Private Unremarkable) in an unidentified war are stranded on an island, six miles behind enemy lines. The time is also unidentified, as is the island, because the island is everywhere and everywhen. The island is man. The island is hell. A polar bear appears, and the pilot is abducted by a smoke monst- wait, no, sorry, I was thinking of something else. Lost in the hostile terrain of an inhospitable forest that looks suspiciously like southern California, the quartet make plans to get back to safety. Their lieutenant's idea to float down river on a hand-made raft seems staggeringly optimistic - especially when his first action is to lead his men uphill, which is traditionally not where rivers are found - but off they trot nevertheless.

What follows owes a small debt to the Greek mythology of Homer's Odyssey, and Kubrick is keen to let you know it: the soldiers' journey takes the form of a series of episodic encounters; the first stranger the group meet is a dog called Proteus; a siren (kind of) lures one of the men to madness. It would be churlish to criticise Kubrick or his high school friend Howard Sackler (who wrote the script) for their highbrow intentions, but when they present their ideas via some of the most flowery, flatulent guff you'll ever hear you would be well within your rights to shout "NERRRRRRD!" at both writer and director and pull their shorts down in front of the girls in the next P.E. class. Good luck, for example, making it through this philosophical cabbage-wank without audibly groaning:

It’s better... it's better to roll up your life into one night and one man and one gun. It hurts too much to keep hurting everyone else in every direction and to be hurt with all the separate hates exploding day after day. You can't help it. A curse buzzes out of your mouth with every word you say and nobody alive can tell which is which or what you mean. Yeah... you try door after door when you hear voices you like behind them, but the knobs come off in your hand...

Faulty doorknobs aside, the soldiers' journey continues. They make a brief stopover at an enemy hut where casual death and loss of humanity (a future Kubrickian preoccupation) feature heavily, almost as if war is some kind of violent and dehumanising process. One of the aforementioned sirens - actually a simple but spectacularly hot fisherwoman - is captured by our guys and is forced to watch while Private Babyface, who was clearly never the full metal jacket in the first place, goes increasingly bananas; eventually he shoots her to ensure she performs no further useful narrative function, before declaring the river to be flowing with blood and leaping off for a swim while cackling like The Joker. War Is Hell, evidently, and you can almost feel Kubrick squirming with the obviousness of it all - so much so that when he came to make his three other war movies, he just flat out said it (War Is A Humanity Vacuum in Paths Of Glory; War Is A Bad Joke in Dr Strangelove; War Is Madness in Full Metal Jacket) rather than wrapping it all up in pseudo-intellectual literary and cultural references.

There's more to come though, when we get to meet "The General" - the de facto villain of the piece - only to find that he's played by the same actor who plays Lieutenant Handsome, and his right hand bastard is played by the same guy who plays Private Unremarkable. The General muses portentously on death and his role in dispensing it, lamenting that he has become war, and it's a blessed relief when Lieutenant Handsome and Private Unremarkable put an end to his eye-rolling wittering with a few well-placed bullets. There's just time for them to recognise themselves in their enemies' faces though (because we are very much alike, you and I), before successfully escaping to their own HQ where they are free to ponder further on the physical and spiritual casualties of war because this film definitely needs more of that.
It's easy to pick on Fear And Desire for its heavy-handedness - fun, too - but it's still absolutely worth checking out as a formative piece of Kubrickery. Its formal sloppiness and narrative hamfistedness are hugely at odds with the meticulousness we've come to expect from Stan, but there's an undeniably trippy atmosphere to the piece and enough flashes of cinematic bravado to suggest that this guy might be worth watching in the future. Themes that would eventually be more fully developed lie dormant here, waiting for geeks like me to stumble across them years later, and besides, it's never not fun to witness the birth of a legend. Unless it's in The Phantom Menace.
Next time: Kubrick goes noir in crime drama Killer's Kiss. Will he still have his head up his arse? There's only one way to find out! (Watch it yourself, Jesus, why do I have to do everything around here)

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Kubism, Prologue:
The Kubriquettes (1951-53)

Hey guys, welcome to another of my hugely original and trailblazing trawls through the career of a little-known filmmaker of whom I unjustifiably claim to have a much deeper and more meaningful understanding than you do! This time round the subject under discussion is a director called Stanley Kubrick, who you won't have heard of, but let me tell you he knows his directing onions. Present him with any random selection of onions and he would immediately know which were his directing ones. Or at least he would if he hadn't died, which I regret to inform you is exactly what happened 20 years ago today. Just as you'd found out about him, too :-(

Anyway enough about death and onions, let's talk films. The Brick made three short films and 13 features over his irritatingly short career, and I'll be fumbling my way through each of those in separate, semi-regular posts over the next one hundred years. It's only right that we should begin by investigating the infant's daubings that are his early non-fiction short films, what with them being chronologically first and all (more or less; Kubo made The Seafarers after his first feature, Fear And Desire, but it deserves to be lumped in with his other shorts). They're not very interesting I'm afraid, but I am a tedious completist and it only seems fair that you should suffer for that. OK? Great. Let's get Kubrickal!

Day Of The Fight (1951)
The Kubrick shorts, or Kubriquettes as they are widely referred to, are natural extensions of young Stan's career as a photojournalist for Look magazine. Day Of The Fight more so than the others, because he had in fact already told this story via the medium of still photography, which he used as a virtual storyboard for the doc. Following Walter Cartier (a professional boxer, although I am firmly of the opinion that the occupation should be renamed 'twatter') through a single day in the run-up to an important game of twatting, Kubrick shoots, edits and uses sound like he's making a crime drama. It's an itch he got to scratch properly with actual boxing-based crime drama Killer's Kiss two years later, but for now his style weighs its subject down with an appropriately oppressive ennui: a sense that the buildup to a twatting match is a tougher slog than the actual twatting itself.

Through his subject, Kubrick ponders the elliptical nature of time itself, which for Cartier expands unbearably when he's waiting for the twatting to begin and contracts dramatically once he's in the ring. The gaps between each of the film's time stamps gets increasingly shorter: a neat foreshadowing of the temporal manipulation seen in The Shining's gradually compressed narrative and in Spartacus' running time of approximately eight weeks. In fact there's a lot of the future Kubrick in Cartier's diligence, fastidiousness, preparation and dedication: over one shot of his twatting paraphernalia spread out on a bed, the narrator indicates that "his boxing gear has been carefully laid out", and it's hard to believe it wasn't the director himself who spent two hours arranging and lighting everything and 76 takes getting the right shot of it.

Cartier's patience and technique sees him through to victory as best twatter though, and Kubrick takes note of this route to success before embarking on his own wildly impressive career. First though, he had to prove something to himself, and to the world: that he was equally capable of farting out some painfully dull business about a priest in a plane.

Flying Padre (1951)
Challenging himself to make documentary gold out of the lustreless lead that is a vicar whose USP is that he can't be arsed to drive, Kubrick fails spectacularly. Here's a priest, he says, who gets about his ridiculously massive parish in a small plane, isn't that something? Well, Stanley love, no. Father Fred Stadtmueller is an instantly forgettable documentary subject, a man of the church who does churchly things like conducting funerals, chastising small children and ferrying poorly babies around in his airborne Godmobile. I'm sorry but if he isn't going to round off that funeral by resurrecting the deceased while floating two feet off the ground and making it rain wine then I'm putting Full Metal Jacket on.

There's an attempt to inject tension into the sick baby story with some canny crosscutting, but that's as technically accomplished as it gets. Some of the directing and editing choices here are riddled with schoolboy errors, with Kubrick mistreating the 180 degree rule in a couple of filmed conversations almost as brutally as he mistreated Shelley Duvall nearly 30 years later. Flying Padre is, sadly, no Day Of The Fight, but don't worry, I'm sure the next one will be great!

The Seafarers (1953)
Holy shit this one is terrible. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was this long con, in which he turned the man who quacked out a half-hour corporate video for a fucking sailors' union into the genius Stanley Kubrick, a director so phenomenally brilliant that nerds would watch literally anything he'd ever put his name to, meaning we'd all check out this crushingly soulless dreck in the misguided belief that it might just be comparable to The Shining. It's a testament to Kubrick's genius that this has been included on a DVD of one of his films: is Ridley Scott's Hovis ad included on the Alien disc? No. Does Mulholland Drive list David Lynch's commercial for Clearblue pregnancy testing kits among its special features? No. Does an Easter egg on the Baby Driver Blu-ray take you to Edgar Wright's Pizza Hut promo? I don't know, I haven't got it. Yet here we are, lapping up thirty minutes of propaganda urging us to join the Seafarers' International Union, because Stanley Kubrick banged it out over half a century ago.

Ramming the message down our throats that we'd all enjoy more security, a higher standard of living, a position of respect in the community and a daily sucking off from a Hollywood starlet of our choice if only we joined the union, The Seafarers promises much but delivers little. There aren't even any scenes set at sea, just a handful of shots of blokes looking busy on a boat when the captain walks past, and 22 insufferable minutes have shuffled by before we even get to that. There is, to be fair, a good gag involving an aesthetically pleasing pair of tits, but you have to wade through an awful lot of seamen to get to it, and that's just unhygienic. Still, if you're going to sell out, best to do it at the start of your career and then make up for it, and that's precisely what Stanley Kubrick did. Eventually.


If you thought that was bad, then join me at some indistinct point in the distant future as I undertake my virgin viewing of Stanley Kubrick's first feature film, Fear And Desire. Until then, have you ever thought about joining the Seafarers' International Union? Well here's your chance!

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Captain Marvel: Brie, the change
you want to see in the world

They've made another Marvel film guys. Like you, I thought that big, noisy Avengers one was the last one, until I remembered there had been another Ant-Man since then, but surely that was it. What's left to do? Turns out that after ten years of dick-swinging testostersplosions Marvel realised they'd forgotten to put a lady in a super suit, so here's Brie Larson, the world's greatest woman to be named after a soft cheese, in what must surely be the final MCU film: Captain Marvel.
Despite myself, I still enjoy the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is either an inherent flaw in my genetic programming or a canny trick of expensive, laser-focused marketing that I actively look forward to these movies as much as I do. Sometimes they need a couple of viewings to bed in; my feelings towards Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, for example, improved considerably on rewatching it at home because when I saw it at a press preview it was inexplicably preceded by an unsolicited EDM gig that gave me a splitting headache and made me miss my train home.

So even though Captain Marvel is flawed, a little confusing at times for an old man like me and filled out with the usual messy space-explodey bits that have me checking my watch and wondering what's for dinner, I couldn't help but have a good time. Brie Larson is perfect in every way, Samuel L Jackson gifts us another sidekick-to-an-amnesiac-ass-whooping-heroine role that's almost as good as The Long Kiss Goodnight, and there's a brilliant cat. Sometimes that's really all I need to keep me happy.

It took a while to get there though: the story begins on the alien planet Hala, with Jude Law's Yon-Rogg dispensing pseudo-Jedi motivational waffle to Larson's Vers. Both are noble warrior heroes of the Kree race, who are at war with sprout-headed pricks the Skrulls, and I've got a bad feeling about this. I've already forgotten the name of the planet, and referring to yourself as a noble warrior hero is a bit on the self-aggrandising side if you ask me. But the MCU is an old hand at knowing what's old hat and subverting it for a post-post-post-modern audience, and before you know it (well, after a brief but exciting exfiltration mission which goes south fast), Vers finds herself - and us - dumped on the planet Earth. Specifically, in a Blockbuster video store. In 1995.
So far, so Thor, and like that film, this is where the fun really begins. But where Chris Hemsworth's giant walnut-man was a fish out of water, Vers takes like a duck to it. It's here where she meets up with Jackson's Nick Fury, sporting a complete set of eyeballs and a genuinely flawless de-aged face that makes X-Men: The Last Stand's similar treatment of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen look like it was done by pinching their skin behind their heads with bulldog clips. Vers and Fury team up to fight the Skrulls who've followed her to Blockbuster (presumably not to rent True Lies), and to work out why she has weird memories of being on Earth previously, only in an air force jumpsuit which is arguably more sexually appealing than the tight rubber one she swans around in at home.

So unfolds a fresh take on the superhero origin story, which organically meshes with its potentially hoary old noble-warrior-heroes-versus-sprout-headed-pricks fightgasm. Rugs are pulled and twists are twisted, and as someone utterly ignorant of Captain Marvel lore, I was continually kept guessing and frequently surprised by events, not least the hidden abilities of the cat. I was left a little baffled by a weird subplot featuring blue meanie Roland The Excuser, who I had to be reminded afterwards was the main villain in Guardians Of The Galaxy, but if you're a total MCU nerd then I'm sure it'll mean something to you. I was just happy to be kept entertained by Ben Mendelsohn as Chief Skrull Prick Talos, who spends most of the film buried under prosthetics but seems to have forgotten, so just does his Ben Mendelsohn thing regardless.
Given that one of Captain Marvel's USPs is its 1990s setting, I'm not sure it's 100% successfully mined for its full value. I'd have loved to see it lean into a '90s aesthetic a little harder: maybe it could have been shot on film; some life-size practical models could have been blown up and shot from eighteen different angles with each one cut together to protract the explosion; there could have been an erotic home invasion subplot with Sharon Stone somehow involved, I don't know. Instead we get a very 2019 movie, all arch and knowing, with its period detail limited to lazy references to the '90s. Alta Vista, Gameboy, flannel shirts, CD ROMs and pagers are all obvious gags here, although nobody ever mentions how much they're looking forward to the first Bond film in six years starring this Piers Bronson guy.

But the main attraction is, of course, the conspicuous lack of a cock and balls in the lead role, and Larson proves to be just as magnetic a screen personality as Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans and, uh, Ed Norton. Vers is positioned as a smart, capable woman who doesn't need rescuing, doesn't require a love interest to complete her, shows the guys a thing or two and - most satisfyingly - has close relationships with other females. Despite the frequent pyrotechnics, the film surfs an easy-going wave of charm that its male-centric counterparts sometimes lack. And while the script doesn't shove all this down your throat, it does allow itself a moment to say that women have been told what they can't do for too long, and now time's up. They can do it, and they can do it well. It's no accident that the most memorable scene in a multi-million-dollar, FX-strewn, sci-fi blockbuster is a simple, beautiful montage of shots of a woman standing up.
There's more socially relevant stuff, some of which gets lost in the mix a little: an underlying point about refugees and aggressive border controls is a welcome grace note rather than a fully satisfying theme, but the question of whether or not you're on the right side of a war when you haven't really explored all the angles is given a bit more due prominence. These are Good Things to stick in a kids' cape movie, obviously, but they're never going to resonate as much as more pressing issues like how Nick Fury loses an eye.

Still, it's yet another sign of Marvel's exponentially increasing development as a studio that we're now seeing whole films of things we loved seeing in one or two scenes only a few years ago: familiar actors convincingly de-aged; heroic females kicking several shades of shit out of a room full of blokes; Samuel L Jackson. If this does, as I confidently predict, turn out to be the final MCU film, well, they've gone out on a high. Personally I'd like to see Brie Larson team up with some of the other Marvel characters in an experimental crossover story, but sadly I think we all know that simply will not happen.

Friday, 1 March 2019

A review of Pierce Brosnan's
I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself !

Like most people, I was expecting this Wednesday to be just another run-of-the-mill, bog standard Wednesday: get up, go to work, get cross about Brexit, come home, get cross about Brexit again, go to bed. But, as it turned out, this Wednesday was no run-of-the-mill, bog standard Wednesday at all. This Wednesday was Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! Wednesday, a Wednesday so packed with incident that I only had time to get cross about Brexit once.

Now you might think that a mildly amusing Instagram video by a famous actor that went viral for a few hours wouldn't be worth lavishing 1,600 words on two days later, but that, my friend, is where you are wrong. I have spent the last 48 hours rewatching Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! because it is a work that demands that level of commitment and analysis. It certainly didn't take me this long to write an excessively wordy and pointless blog post about Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! because I thought of the idea about a day and a half later than I should have done, so you can forget that crazy notion right now.



The specific time is a bit of a blur, but at some point on Wednesday 27th February 2019, former James Bond actor and star of some other films Pierce Brosnan dropped a video on his Instagram feed without any warning whatsoever. Like a surprise Beyoncé album or a trailer for another fucking Cloverfield film, the video just appeared from thin air. For those of you who are tragically unfamiliar with it, here is Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! in full:

I mean, wow. I'll just let that sink in. Maybe rewatch it a few dozen times to really absorb the wonder.

Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! was shot by actress Jamie Chung, who, like me, you may not remember from Grown Ups, The Hangover Part II or Sucker Punch. Chung is currently filming The Misfits, directed by Renny Harlin and starring - yep - Pierce Brosnan. Perhaps you're beginning to see how the intricate workings of the universe, like a cosmic collection of cogs, levers and other doohickeys, have manoeuvred with a divine grace to bring the right people together at the right time to create genuine magic.
Jamie Chung, yesterday. Possibly Wednesday

Shot in a single, fluid take at the luxurious Jetex Private VIP Terminal at the Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! is eight seconds of glorious, Bronhommy goodness that this world simply doesn't deserve. And yet, despite all the odds, it exists, like one of those animals that's so amazing it almost proves the existence of God. A butterfly or some shit, I don't know.

Chung opens her masterpiece in unforgettable style: there, in full frame, is Pierce Brosnan's face staring into camera, his head nonchalantly propped up by the index finger of his left hand (the other fingers remain casually relaxed, but clearly ready to provide backup should the index finger require it). His shirt is unbuttoned and his tie is loose, but no suavity is lost. The hair is, as ever, impeccable, and the hint of a smile can be seen forming at the corners of Brosnan's beautiful mouth. And yet something's not quite right: the first sign that there's more to Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! than meets the eye.
FAO @OnePerfectShot

For it isn't Brosnan we're looking at here, but a facsimile: a monochromatic rendering, which appears to be floating on the surface of a cup. And not just any old cup - a cup with a silver rim and handle (plated or solid? My heart yearns to know), balanced delicately on a saucer of indeterminate material. It could also be silver or it may be glass, but the bubble effect on its surface reminds one of the tears of an angel, delicately shed around the face of Pierce Brosnan.

With no warning, a hand wielding a teaspoon (silver, naturally) enters frame and the unthinkable happens - Pierce Brosnan's face is rent asunder, shattered by the deliberate penetration of the image by an unseen assailant's ludicrously expensive teaspoon. And yet that isn't even the most dramatic thing to happen at this early point in Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself !. As the Brosnan visage is irreparably and literally defaced, a female voice (we later discover it's that of Jamie Chung herself) utters a single, spine-tingling word:

Stirred AND shaken, right guys? Guys

WHAT. THE. FUCK. Are we watching an early scene from the new 007 film? Is Brosnan somehow back in the tux after a 17-year hiatus? Or is he, in a devilish twist of casting, the villain? It is all, as yet, a mystery, although Bond fans around the world have by now accepted that Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! must be canon.
Pierced Brosnan

Not content with opening a gaping wound in the image of Pierce Brosnan's face that takes that hinted-at smile and carves it into a Joker-like grin, the hand continues its wanton destruction with a delicate but merciless stirring motion. Brosnan's face swirls into oblivion and the camera slowly pulls out, revealing a stunning truth: all this time we've been looking at a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee with Pierce Brosnan's face on it. Gradually we get a tantalising glimpse of the party responsible for the caffeine-based carnage: a man (presumably) in a smart blue suit, the warmth of which contrasts with the clinical whiteness of the surroundings. Whoever it is, they had better have a damn good reason for smooshing Pierce Brosnan's chops into a creamy froth.
Running out of joke captions now

And then, the kick in the guts none of us could have prepared for. A rug-pull of such intensity that it makes Iron Man Three's Mandarin twist look like Spectre's reveal that Christoph Waltz is actually Blofeld. Everything we thought we knew about Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! has been turned upside down and inside out, or at least it would have been if he hadn't given away the plot in the text of his Instagram post.

For the diabolical mastermind behind the opening scene of facial devastation is none other than Pierce Brosnan himself, smiling directly into camera as if he's actually enjoying the damage he's inflicting on his own mug. What are we to make of this Brosnan-on-Brosnan butchery? What parallel cinematic universe has opened up before us? As Brosnan delivers the subtlest of pouts (a clear nod to Daniel Craig's signature Bond look) and a brief but unmistakable eyebrow raise (ditto Roger Moore), the answer - one possible answer, at least - comes from Chung again, with the words we'd already begun to form in our minds but never really expected. With a whisper of love, a whisper of hate, she lets the name slip out from between her lips like cigarette smoke escaping from a femme fatale's mouth in a 1940s film noir...

"James Bond".
Yeah, nothing, sorry. Think I peaked with "Stirred AND shaken"

This is almost more than I could take. I don't know where I am any more or what my name is, let alone who the figure before me, rendered in an otherworldly square of pixels from across the globe, can be. And yet that name is unmistakable. It's James Bond. Hold me.

But that's not all. Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself !'s final, unexpected act piles another layer of possible meaning onto the metatextual lasagne that has already filled me up and given me Brosnan-flavoured gas. James Bond, for it is now definitively he, appears to break character, his face creasing into a laugh that makes a mockery of everything we've seen, as if it was merely a gag; a throwaway moment of mischief tossed off to fill time while waiting for a luxury jet. Chung, too, cackles maniacally from behind camera, as if the two of them have been in on this baffling piece of performance art all along. And who knows, perhaps they have?
Is this the last one? Oh thank fuck for that

And then, perhaps reflecting the inevitable circularity of all things, Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! begins again, the face rebuilt, ready for another massacre at the hands of its own, er, hand. How Pierce Brosnan's face got onto his own cup of coffee is never explained: was it painstakingly created by the world's greatest barista? If so, did Brosnan request it himself? Or did the image, as was suggested to me by Empire magazine's Helen O'Hara (a woman whose steadfast anti-Bond stance was demolished in the eight seconds it took her to watch the video), appear there organically, like the face of Jesus in a tortilla? Quite rightly, Chung has remained silent on the subject. The mystery must remain intact, unlike the coffee-froth Brosnan we were introduced to so long ago.

More than that I cannot add. Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! is open to so many interpretations that there simply isn't room on the internet for them. Whether it's a splintering of the James Bond franchise, a sophisticated experiment in social media or simply a man stirring a cup of coffee, I doubt we shall get to the bottom of the enigma in our lifetimes. Hopefully these words I have recorded may provide some context for future generations studying the 21st century's most formidable achievements. If that's you, then I hope you find the truth. You deserve it. PS Sorry about Brexit.