Friday, 24 May 2019

Kubism, Part 5:
Spartacus (1960)

Longer, wider and more colourful than anything Stanley Kubrick had done up to this point, Spartacus saw The Kube go EPIC. 198 minutes long! A four-minute rousing Alex North overture! A Saul Bass title sequence! An intermission and entr'acte, whatever that is! A $12 million budget! Super 70mm 2.2:1 Technirama! Between 10,000 and 50,000 extras depending on who you ask! If bigger means better, then Spartacus is The Greatest Movie Ever Made Ever. However, of course, bigger doesn't mean better at all, and Spartacus is in fact pretty rubbs. And here, in the latest instalment of my gentle fondling of Stanley Kubrick's oeuvre, is how and why. Let's fondle!
Spartacus had a difficult birth, and with the benefit of hindsight it's clear it would have taken a miracle for it to grow to be a healthy, bouncing baby Hollywood epic. A passion project for star and producer Kirk Douglas, the film lost original director Anthony Mann after two weeks because Mann kept inserting peas into Douglas' chin-dimple while he was asleep (note to self: check this before publishing). Douglas approached Kubrick, who agreed to direct on the condition that he could extract himself from a five-picture contract he'd somehow got himself into with Douglas after Paths Of Glory. Now maybe I'm being naive, but if the primary reason for a director agreeing to make a film with a star is that he never has to make another film with that star again, chances are the resulting partnership isn't going to be a lusty tumble on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire. More like tumbling into a roaring fire with a skinned, lusty bear.

That's not to say Stan didn't make an effort, and there are a handful of examples within Spartacus of him absolutely smashing it. But (according to Kubrick) Douglas, writer Dalton Trumbo and producer Edward Lewis poo-pooed all his decent ideas because he wasn't yet The Stanley Kubrick. He was just a 31-year-old New York punk splashing about in the deep end of Hollywood, at a point when it was so terrified of the popularity of television it thought it would die if it didn't have a safe pair of hands throwing as much cash at the screen as possible.
The first of Spartacus' three and a quarter hours is pretty patience-testing stuff, especially if you're as swords-and-sandals-phobic as I am. Anyone playing Kubrick Bingo can cross off 'Opening Voiceover' (that's five out of five so far), which introduces us to our titular hero, his perfect white teeth standing out from his mahogany tan and his broad chest glistening like tectonic plates fresh out of the tectonic dishwasher. A slave with biceps of granite but a heart of gold, he's purchased by the deliciously camp Peter Ustinov and forced to train as a gladiator. "You'll be oiled, bathed, shaved and massaged," Ustinov promises him, neglecting to mention that he'll also be repeatedly attacked by massive blokes wielding spiky balls on long chains. Ustinov tests Sparto's intelligence, virility and skipping skills while we meet improbably fit soft-focus love interest Varinia, over whom Sparts moons like a simple puppy whenever he gets a break between training montages.

All of this drags on forever in dire need of a ruthless editor, until at the hour mark the slaves revolt, and it looks like everything's about to get knocked up a notch. It is here that we should spare a thought for actor Charles McGraw, who plays bastard slave trainer Marcellus: in a messy fight scene, McGraw clearly receives a real cut to his eyelid before having his face genuinely smashed into the edge of a cauldron of slop at the hands of an over-enthusiastic Kirk Douglas. We should also pay tribute to the integrity of Douglas' tiny slave underpants, because despite the impressive amount of acrobatics he performs, at no point do his boys leave the barracks. It's a stark contrast to that P.E. class I did in loose-fitting shorts and boxers when I was a kid that has haunted my nightmares for the past 30 years.
Just when it threatens to get interesting, we find ourselves in the Roman Senate listening to Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton parping guffs of political wind at each other. This they do in three camera angles that will be repeated throughout the film's many Senate scenes, making you wonder if the Stanley Kubrick who shot Paths Of Glory with spellbinding ingenuity and chutzpah just set the cameras up in the morning and went home while Britain's acting royalty went at it. In fairness, when Laughton and a shifty-eyed Peter Ustinov get together you could shoot them with a VHS camcorder and it'd still be gold: watching these two waggle their flabby jowls, burble Machiavellian plots and make self-effacing comments about their own repulsiveness ("You and I have a tendency towards corpulence") is arguably Spartacus' greatest gift, and Kubrick knows it.

While old men argue and Tony Curtis looks gorgeous but confused about Laurence Olivier's ruminations on the snail and oyster diet, Spartacus is leading an army of freed slaves across Italy, past an endless variety of unconvincing cycloramas and ambitious matte paintings. For reasons, once he's done this he turns his troops around, heads back the way he came and gets most of them killed when they run into the Roman army coming in the opposite direction. Poor leadership skills, certainly, but at least he does it in an impressive battle sequence that begins with those ten (or 50, who knows) thousand extras being herded around by Stanley Kubrick in a shot so mind-bogglingly wide you can almost see the curvature of the Earth. The battle itself doesn't stand up to Paths Of Glory's No Man's Land sequence, but it does at least contain some fun cross-cutting between both leaders' motivational speeches and an amusing spot of limb-lopping.
The problem with all this is that Stanley Kubrick isn't really interested in widescreen spectacle or billions of men repeatedly twatting each other; he's all about the close-up, the personal, the struggle in microcosm. Sorry to keep banging on about Paths Of Glory (not actually sorry, Spartacus invites comparisons on account of Kirk Douglas leading an army into war and struggling to find a morsel of humanity), but that film used its big set-piece to kick-start the drama that followed, whereas for Spartacus the battle is the drama. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the oft-parodied but beautiful "I'm Spartacus" scene that follows the battle, in which Kubrick wrings eye-moistening emotion from an ostensibly daft gesture of brotherhood (that one guy who isn't claiming to be Spartacus? Maybe you should check him out, Centurion?).
The last half hour is a total downer, challenging you to stay awake while it wraps up its themes in confusing fashion. The script, written by open Communist Dalton Trumbo and based on a book by open Communist Howard Fast, wants to promote the idea of the labouring masses rising up against the ruling classes, but given that the labouring masses all end up hacked to bits or nailed to a cross it's hardly a rousing argument for revolution. The only hope is represented by Peter Ustinov rescuing Spartacus' infant son, but even that just made me wonder if I wouldn't rather have watched an entire film about Ustinov's character: a morally vacuous black market racketeer who, through exposure to politics, becomes a better person and is given a noble conclusion. Plus he's played by Peter Ustinov, who may not have a chin that looks like a small child plunged its fist into a ball of dough, but he can roll his eyes like a total motherfucker.

As humdrum as Spartacus is, we should thank it for girding the Kubrick loins. The realisation that not being in total control leads to colossal dissatisfaction was an immeasurably significant one for Stan, and never again would he allow anyone else to tell him what to do. From here on in he disavowed what Kubrickologist Thomas Allen Nelson called the "trite, simplistic, sentimental morality" of Spartacus and plunged himself into the complex, murky waters of human foibles, emotional subtlety and Peter Sellers fighting his own right hand.
Come back soon (please) for more Kubism with Lolita, a film about a middle-aged man falling in love with a teenage girl, which Kubrick somehow managed to make before Woody Allen got his hands on it.

← Part 4: Paths Of Glory          Part 6: Lolita 

Friday, 17 May 2019

Booksmart: Nerds of a feather

Kids today don't know how lucky they are, what with the internet having been there since before they were born, social and political equality becoming ever closer to a reality, and not having to worry about destroying the environment because we've already done that. As if all that wasn't enough, they've now got their own defining teen movie: one they'll watch a thousand times in secret before they're old enough, another thousand while they're the same age as the characters, and a thousand more as they barrel through middle age, complaining that kids today don't know how lucky they are.

But the beauty of Booksmart, like all the best high school movies, is that its appeal is wide enough even to cater for knackered old fuckers like me. And that's because while it embraces all the tropes of the teen flicks that so clearly inspired it (The Breakfast Club, Dazed And Confused and Clueless are huge touchstones), it does so with morning-dew freshness, casually and effortlessly updating the genre for a new and woke generation who should, by rights, never find it unusual when popular film protagonists aren't straight, white males.
Amy and Molly are two proudly feminist LA high school nerds whose heroes are Michelle Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Malala Yousafzai. They are also fused together in friendship, as unequivocally displayed in their first scene together: a lift-to-school-slash-dance-sequence that tells you exactly who they are and whether you're going to love them unconditionally or be driven up the wall by them. If it's the latter, leave the cinema at this point, this film is not for you. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein sell their characters and their relationship so hard that it's unfathomable to imagine the two actors haven't been besties forever, and that's a theme throughout Booksmart: characters are introduced as if you've started watching a TV show in the last episode of the last season, and it's up to you to fill in the backstories. It's a technique that's key to the script and to Olivia Wilde's breathless, high-energy direction, and does exactly what films like this should do: it makes you desperately want to be friends with a bunch of made-up people.

What is explained is that Amy and Molly are about to graduate when they realise they've spent too long nerding and not enough time getting high and/or drunk and/or laid, and their mission now is to party their pants off over the course of one incident-fuelled night. Girls just wanna have R-rated fun, and if you've ever watched a film about American teenagers you'll be entirely unsurprised to discover that this will encompass jocks, bitches, rich kids, parties at improbably large houses, beer pong, fumbling sexual encounters, fights, accidental drug intake, crippling social faux pas and an emotional finale.

There are few structural surprises, but that's OK, because pretty much everything else fizzes with shiny newness. The script, written by four women, is hugely sympathetic to both its female and male characters: everyone is treated like a young adult rather than patronised as a child, and the experiences they undergo which may be unfamiliar feel as painfully real as those we've all been through at some point. Nobody is picked on, or even remarked on, because they're LGBT, or BAME, or is wearing a silly hat, and at least one character is all three of those. There's an ingenious bit of commentary on young women and body image that has to be seen to be believed, and the very stereotypes that Booksmart itself relies on to function are frequently examined and challenged.
If all that sounds unbearably worthy, then know this: it's not. In fact it is funny as fuck. Not every gag lands, but Dever and Feldstein are adorable young comedic actors, and Wilde knows full well how to mine a sequence for maximum lols without resorting to the kind of incessant shouting, swearing and general schoolboy humour that often passes for comedy in these things (this is why Booksmart should be remembered long after its embarrassing uncle Superbad has faded into history). And the whole show is pumped up a level by a scythingly modern soundtrack, the entirety of which was new to my ears apart from one song by Alanis Morisette; a situation which has quite violently prompted me to reassess my listening habits.

Booksmart is, of course, entirely about friendship, and the friends you make when you're young that you think and hope will be there for you forever. It's a coming-of-age film packed full of heart that never descends into mawkishness or nastiness, treating all its characters with love and respect even when they're capable of extreme douchery. It's inevitably going to resonate more with a younger audience than someone like me, but it would be a grumpy old bastard indeed who didn't have any fun at all in Amy and Molly's company. They are teen titans; Go! To the movies. (to see them)

Friday, 10 May 2019

Kubism, Part 4:
Paths Of Glory (1957)

Act I of Stanley Kubrick's career is complete: over the course of three shorts and three features we've seen him grow from pretentious faux-intellectual with a keen eye into an accomplished storyteller with an even keener eye. It hasn't always been easy viewing (I refer you, once again, to The Seafarers), but the upward trajectory in quality has at least formed the kind of narrative arc every traditional first act follows. Now, though, it's time to get serious. Paths Of Glory is, objectively, The Kube's first masterpiece: a film that tears the insanity of war a new asshole, dives into that asshole to examine the very rectum of humanity, and emerges caked in the shit of man's most unspeakable behaviour towards his fellow man. I hope it washed its hands.
Things begin with the ever-present (but, this time, mercifully brief) Kubrickian voiceover filling us in on the current state of affairs: it's France, 1916, there's a war happening, and it's not going well for anyone. In the first of several chess references that pepper the film, we discover there's a stalemate situation between the French and German forces, it's nil-nil with everything to play for and both teams are snookered (it's possible I don't fully understand chess). Pompous old twat General Broulard convinces weaselly turd General Mireau that if his men can take a German stronghold known as the Ant Hill - which both men acknowledge is a logistically unachievable task - there might be a tasty promotion in it for him, setting in motion a chain of events that made me so fucking cross about how awful people can be that I immediately tore up my application for the job of high-ranking military officer in a time of horrific global conflict. The hours were rubbish anyway so they can whistle.

Passing the buck as quickly as he can, Mireau assigns the job of taking the Ant Hill (renamed from "the Pimple" in the original novel: both names reflecting the cosmic insignificance Kubrick loved to assign his characters' efforts to control forces beyond their comprehension) to Colonel Dax and his Impossible Missions Force - basically a platoon of knackered soldiers with little to no clue about why they're there or what they're doing. Dax, one of precious few heroic characters in the Kubrick canon, is played by Kirk Douglas and is therefore carved from solid granite; an anchor of decency in a sea of madness and abandoned morality. Like every other Frenchman in Paths Of Glory he also speaks with a broad American accent, which is offputting to begin with, but once you fully appreciate, like, the universality of the film's themes, man, you begin to respect Kubrick's decision not to ask the cast to go all 'Allo 'Allo.
By this time we've descended from Broulard's opulent chateau to Dax's sewer-like trenches, giving Kubrick the perfect excuse to literally roll out some stunning tracking shots through the carved-out scars in the earth that pass for Dax's workplace. Not only do these shots look incredible, prefiguring 2001's hamstery jogging wheel scene and the corridors of The Shining's Overlook Hotel, but they also lend a sense of doomed inevitability to the soldiers' journey: where Kubrick's camera followed Broulard and Mireau's flamboyant dancing stroll around the chateau, that freedom of movement is entirely absent from the linearity that, by design, characterises the trenches.

Over the top the Ant Hill Mob go, then, with Kubrick unleashing hell in a spectacular three-minute scene that sees Dax, centre frame at all times, lead the charge across No Man's Land. This is the opening-of-Saving-Private-Ryan of its day, and still has the power to drop jaws over six decades later. It's an incredible display of acting, directing and editing, part Hollywood epic and part documentary realism, with extras flailing about all around Douglas while Stan crash zooms into his lead's grimacing face, fixed in grim determination as it's spattered in blood and dirt.
The assault, unsurprisingly, is a disaster, the platoon sensibly scurries back to the trenches rather than risk having their bits blown off, and General Mireau naturally decides to court martial three random soldiers for cowardice as an example to the rest of the army. What has up until now been a thundering war film transforms unexpectedly into a thundering courtroom drama, with the unstoppable force of Colonel Dax (who, as a civilian, was conveniently the "foremost criminal lawyer in all of France") meeting the immovable object of military pig-headedness as he struggles to defend his men in a shambolic kangaroo court. Kubrick's effortless swinging between genres would be a trope of his later career, but it's easy to forget that here he seamlessly blends two narrative archetypes into the same film.

The trial is just as harrowing to watch as the earlier scenes on the battlefield, with the script wringing the maximum amount of hear-tearing frustration out of the army's total failure of common decency and Kubrick repeatedly placing his camera in the absolute perfect spot to tell his story. The dialogue here is glorious (Dax's closing argument, in which he professes his shame at being a member of the human race, is chilling), but if you muted the volume you'd still know exactly what's going down - specifically the three soldiers, sentenced to death by firing squad. Kubrick goes on to tease steel cables of tension out of the run-up to the execution (the constant drum roll is no help for those with high blood pressure), with the chance of a reprieve dangled in front of the viewer like a lifebuoy, and he plays with audience expectation with all the mercy of a bored cat pawing at a terrified mouse.
In the event that you've got this far but haven't seen Paths Of Glory I won't spoil the remainder of the film, except to say that it doesn't have much more to say in the way of positive appraisals of humanity in wartime; if there's a moral to the story, it's the survival of the shittest. This is arguably Kubrick's first fully-formed plunge into his characters' psyches: while his previous films were largely populated with cyphers employed to operate the machinery of their respective plots, the men (and woman) of Paths Of Glory are conduits for some searing psychological evaluation. Look at the convicted soldiers' responses to the verdict of their court martial, for example: incarcerated in the chateau's stables, treated like animals and stripped of their dignity, one turns to God, one to booze and the other falls apart in the face of a total absence of reason. Look at the smiling photographer who snaps them on their way to the firing squad. And look at Dax's reaction in the final scene, as he realises the men he's been trying to save are as "degenerate" as the men who send them to certain death - before, thanks to the future Mrs Kubrick's appearance as a terrified German girl, the soldiers reveal an appreciation of life and beauty that offers a glimmer of hope for the future of humanity.

And let's not forget Kubrick's continual development as a composer of actual works of art on screen. On the one hand obsessed with detail and authenticity, then on the other concocting a five-second theatrically operatic horror in which a nighttime wide shot of No Man's Land is suddenly illuminated by a flare, revealing mangled corpses that were hidden by the darkness, Stan truly finds his visual groove here. He may be schooling us on the worst aspects of mankind, the futility of honour in the face of cold ambition and the travesties of justice that are meted out in the name of patriotism, but at least he's making it look fucking horrific while he's doing it.
Join me again soon for more of Captain Kirk in Spartacus, the story of the slightly-above-average hero of Lazy Town and his quest to get the slaves of ancient Rome to eat more fruit and veg.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Kubism, Kubrintermission:
Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition

I realise I'm only 26.66 recurring percent through my game-changing overview of the films of Stanley Kubrick, but I thought it was time for an intermission so you could either go for a poo or read some waffle about the Design Museum's Stanley Kubrick exhibition. You could always do both I suppose, the toilet is the ideal reading location for this blog.

Anyway last week I was at the press launch for Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition, which was no different from a standard visit except that instead of paying money I had to listen to Alan Yentob introducing it. I am well aware that Kubrick fans have a lot to thank Mr Yentob for, but I've been at two Kubrick events in the last month at which he appeared and I'm not entirely sure that public speaking is his forte.

So what can you expect to get for your £14.50, apart from a Yentob-free experience (unless he's also visiting on the same day as you, which would be unlucky)? Well, the first thing you'll notice is the entrance, which has been cleverly designed to mimic Kubrick's famous one-point perspective shooting style. If you've done any research on the exhibition online you'll expect to see something like this:
But what you'll actually see is something more like this:
Basically stop fannying about trying to get a cool photo of the entrance because there are hundreds of people trying to do the same thing and there's a shitload of stuff inside you need to crack on with.

The first room is a basic introduction to Stanley Kubrick and his working practices, including cameras and lenses, clapperboards, his Steenbeck editing desk, posters, a tonne of stuff relating to his unrealised Napoleon movie, and I've just realised that if I list everything in the room I'll be here until November, so let's just say there is a shitload of deeply cool Kubrick paraphernalia on display. My favourite thing in this room is his Oscar for VFX on 2001: A Space Odyssey, because the inscription plate on the base of the statue is slightly off centre and I bet it drove Kubrick fucking nuts. Hopefully Douglas Trumbull gets some enjoyment from that.

After that, the exhibition is split into areas dealing with each of his films. However, if you're going because you're a fan of any of his first three features you'll be disappointed: Fear And Desire, Killer's Kiss and The Killing are all glossed over in the first room. It's a bit of a shame to be honest, but given that probably not much stuff still exists from that time and that Kubrick himself virtually disowned his first two films, it's understandable.
While there's a clear route through the exhibition, the films are presented out of chronological sequence, which is mildly infuriating for twats like me but in fairness it does stop everyone bunching up in the middle where his best stuff would be. The first section deals with Kubrick's three most straightforward war films (Dr. Strangelove comes later): Paths Of Glory is a little under-represented, but costumes from Spartacus and Full Metal Jacket make up for it, as do Saul Bass's glorious Spartacus storyboards (which are hilariously contrasted with Kubrick's own scrawled versions) and a letter to Kubrick from Kirk Douglas, which he signs "Spartacus" for the avoidance of doubt.

More space is understandably given over to the more popular films: A Clockwork Orange brings you a giant phallus and the Korova Milk Bar's saucy tables; The Shining has a scale model of the Overlook Hotel maze, Jack Torrance's typewriter and his somewhat repetitive manuscript, and 2001 gets a small recreation of the Hilton Space Station's Howard Johnson Earthlight Room, as well as a huge amount of other props and models which I'll leave you to discover(y). Hint: look up.
If you're a Kubrick fan, don't plan to do anything silly like double-billing Spartacus and Barry Lyndon on the same day as visiting the exhibition because you'll want to give yourself several hours to pore over everything (although if you don't immediately want to watch at least one Kubrick film as soon as you leave then you're a monster). While there's an inevitable overlap between what's on display and what you might already know about The Kube, there are exhibits here that will give you chills you can't get from DVD extras. The whole exhibition has been thoughtfully curated to include just enough to satisfy but not overwhelm you, and given how much stuff is in the Kubrick archives that's no small feat of editing.

If you're not a Kubrick fan, you're an idiot, so go along anyway and educate yourself. You might not get nerdthrills from seeing the actual candles used to light Barry Lyndon like I did, but you might at least get some amusement from reading the angry letters Stan received about his more controversial films. You'll also see some of the original scripts, sketches, set photos, costumes, equipment and clips on big screens from some of the most innovative and downright smashingest films ever made, so show some respect and get your ass to the Design Museum in London before September 15th. Otherwise I'll send Alan Yentob round to convince you, and you do not want that.

Here is a link to buy tickets, tell them I sent you and you'll get a 0% discount.

And don't forget to read Kubism, my long-winded look at the films of Stanley Kubrick, because it's taking me ages and I need to know I'm not wasting my time.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Avengers: Endgame:
All's well that ends well

April 14th, 2010. Who among us can forget that day? The day that one man, with unshakeable self confidence and almost supernatural foresight, logged on to Twitter and announced the following to his couple of dozen followers:
As it turned out, that man (I won't name him to avoid embarrassment) was a little wide of the mark. Nine years later, almost to the day, that anonymous man sat in a cinema and watched the fourth film that brought together the Avengers, the twenty-second in the series, the nerdgasmic climax that he would have once thought as likely as Donald Trump becoming president. Anything is possible these days, it seems (except for a slick, satisfying James Bond reveal), and if you think you know what's going to happen you should keep it to yourself because if you put it out there then nine years later you will look like a complete prick.

The chief nerds at MCU HQ know full well that you think you know what's going to happen, and they are black belts in proving you wrong. They've been baiting traps and pulling rugs for so long now that a Marvel film without any surprises would be like a bag of Jelly Belly without any disgusting chocolate flavoured beans: apparently unthinkable. And Avengers: Endgame opens with perhaps the biggest surprise of the action-packed, effects-laden, speaker-threatening franchise so far: an entire hour of superheroes moping about in the gloom as if Kenneth Lonergan had accidentally wandered onto the set and started directing.
"Looks like rain again"
"I'll put the kettle on"

This is, of course, a direct consequence of the less-than-cheery cliffhanger ending of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, in which unpleasant things happened to a lot of people. It's a bold choice - the kind of thing we've probably all joked about at some point in an attempt to think of a different approach to cape movies: "how about if they all just sat around in poorly-lit rooms discussing existentialism while Thanos whipped up breakfast wearing ripped jeans and a scruffy old t-shirt?" Turns out not only does that happen, but it's actually not boring. Two surprises for the price of one, and there are probably half a dozen more still to come in this first act alone.

It's not boring because we've spent over ten years with these guys. We know them, we love them, we want to share their grief and their fears. They're family to each other and not far off to us, and when that family suffers we feel for the poor superbuggers. It's all a minor miracle; imagine a similar hour of the X-Men, or Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman doing the same thing without wanting to pluck your own eyes out. And we care because many of them have been severely affected by the intervening time period: Black Widow, Captain Marvel and Hawkeye have all had dramatic haircuts, Thor is twice the man he used to be, and Bruce Banner is one and a half times the man he used to be.
This guy still looks like a shaved scrotum though

But we also know that Avengers: Endgame is three hours long, meaning we can afford an hour of introspection because, woven into it, is the setup for the film's middle act, which will surely get the old pulse racing again, right? Well, not quite. The main thrust of the Avengers' plan to right Thanos' whopping wrongs is almost as low-key as the first hour, just in slightly brighter locations. That's not to say it isn't crowd-pleasing though: writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors the Russo brothers take the chance to celebrate the last decade in winning style, treating us to a parade of witty callbacks to the franchise's history and a number of surprise returning cast members - some of whom you never thought you'd see in the MCU again, some of whom you never thought you'd see in any films again.

There's plenty of fun to be had (an early experiment to see if the plan will work is essentially live-action Futurama), some heart-soaring moments (Captain America dealing with his own pomposity is priceless) and enough unexpected - and heartbreaking - developments to satisfy, but the thrilling set-pieces you feel like you were promised aren't forthcoming. Again, though, it hardly matters, because the MCU has fully earned the right to just let us spend a few more minutes hanging out with our superpals before the inevitable. And here it comes, in a finale that delivers spine-tingling, tear-jerking and air-punching wonder with relentless frequency. The enormity of what's come before and what must now happen is overwhelming, and it's perfectly executed at almost every level.
Tony had bashed his helmet once too often

Nitpicks are unavoidable, of course: the plot mechanics upon which much of the film relies are almost insultingly shonky; certain characters are conspicuous by their disappointing and poorly-explained absence, and an ostensibly tremendous moment for the female contingent of the MCU is tarnished by the realisation that 97% of Avengers: Endgame is a total sausagefest, rendering that moment hollow and tokenistic. Plus I still have no idea what each of the magic gems are or do.

None of that is enough to ruin the experience though. Here we are, at the end of all things, with a Lord Of The Rings-esque handful of endings to boot, and any flaws are crushed by the sheer weight of cultural significance the MCU has brought us. An astonishing technical and storytelling achievement, this series of films has pushed the limits of popcorn cinema through time and space into another dimension where mediocrity is no longer an option. My relationship with the franchise has had its ups and downs, but it won me over by simply getting better and better, and by repeatedly knowing exactly what I thought I was expecting and then showing me something completely different. Whoever that idiot on Twitter was, I imagine he's rarely been happier to have been proved wrong.

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.