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 United 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.