Phil Collins is such a drumming aficionado that for his first solo album, he got a guy named Tom Tom to arrange the horn parts.
Like him or loathe him, you have to give Collins some credit for not just going down the prog-rock route for Face Value. By that time he’d been in Genesis for 11 years, and surely the safe bet would have been to stay in that genre. Instead, he enlisted Hugh Padgham as co-producer (alongside himself) and got in the Phoenix Horns from Earth, Wind & Fire. The end result is 48 minutes of white-boy soul, with far fewer ballads than you’d expect.
The partnership with Padgham is probably the most integral element of the recording. Padgham would go on to produce most of Genesis’ output in the 1980s, alongside Collins’ subsequent solo albums and the final two albums by the Police. And it’s the sound of one of Padgham’s inventions that opens Face Value.
Rewind 12 months, and Padgham was engineering Peter Gabriel’s third solo album – the one titled Peter Gabriel (not to be confused with his earlier solo albums Peter Gabriel or Peter Gabriel, or the follow-up entitled Peter Gabriel). On the opening track Intruder, experiments by producer Steve Lillywhite, Collins and Padgham led to the invention of the ‘gated-drum’ sound – a method of recording drums by removing all of the traditional reverb that a live kit would produce. This makes the drums sound dry and compressed, yet punchy, and a perfect bed for futuristic ‘80s pop.
The technique opens Face Value on the lead single In The Air Tonight, where it is applied onto a drum machine (the Disco-2 pattern of the Roland CR-78). It works perfectly underneath the three chords Collins plays on a Prophet-5 synthesiser. The lyrics involve the incident of somebody drowning, an onlooker who didn’t help, and Collin’s reporting in first-person how he saw this happen. An urban legend suggests this actually happened, with the myth extending to Collins apparently shouting out the name of the guilty party during live performances of the song. Collins has refuted all of this, of course, and anyway, you’d just go to the Police, wouldn’t you? And I don’t mean Sting, Summers and Copeland.
The last concert I saw before the COVID pandemic was Fleetwood Mac in Auckland. Featuring their new line-up of Crowded House front-man Neil Finn and ex-Heartbreaker Steve Campbell (in place of Lindsey Buckingham), it was a great show. One thing stood out related to Santana though.
Half-way through the show, prior to the band running through a couple of Peter Green numbers to mark the band’s 50th anniversary (with Steve Campbell taking vocals for a cracking version of Oh Well), Stevie Nicks introduced Black Magic Woman and admitted to thinking that Santana wrote the song when she first heard it in early-1970s California. The audience laughed, as I’m sure Mick Fleetwood and John McVie did.
The 1960s were an odd time. Long before the age of global release dates, the UK and the US were thrillingly unsynchronised when it came to music. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones are the obvious example, with both bands’ releases on either side of the Atlantic being fairly separate before their respective record labels started talking to each other.
Simon & Garfunkel is another case in point. Debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. was released in the US in October of 1964. It didn’t hit the shelves in UK record stores for another 4 years. Unlike the Beatles and the Stones, it wasn’t released under a different name, or with a different cover, or even with a different tracklisting. It just wasn’t released until 1968. Musically, a lot happened in those 4 years.
After their debut release flopped in the US, Simon moved to England in 1965. He toured the country and appeared on radio shows as a solo artist (sometime alongside Garfunkel), and did a bit of record producing on the side.
Still under contract to Columbia in the UK, he discovered he could record for their non-American label CBS – and recorded The Paul Simon Songbook as a result. Included are two songs which originally appeared on Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. – The Sound Of Silence and He Was My Brother – while of the remaining songs, all but two would be later re-recorded by Simon & Garfunkel on later albums.
Aimed at his UK folk audience, it’s a sparse record featuring just voice and guitar. He even tries to out-Dylan Bob Dylan on A Simple Desultory Philippic, which doesn’t quite work. Columbia released the album in the US in 1969, but was recalled in a matter of days when Simon objected. You can sort of understand why – it’s an interesting listen but nowhere near the standard of the Simon & Garfunkel records that would follow. For anybody unclear on the importance of Art Garfunkel’s contribution to their music, his absence here leaves a huge space.
Is there an acoustic-based album as perfect as this?
I came to this late in life, initially eschewing the Canyon sound – except for Joni Mitchell, of course – but listening to the 1991 CSN box set on my iPod got me through a shitty temping job just before I moved to New Zealand.
I’ve been slowly buying up their studio albums, compilations and live albums by the supergroup ever since. This 1969 debut is just golden, and all the better for not including that crankpot interloper Neil Young (although the follow-up with Young, Déjà Vu, is pretty bloody special too).
As I write this, it’s Sunday April 25th here in New Zealand – ANZAC Day – our national day of remembrance.
Last year, we were forbidden to pay our respects in the usual manner as we were under strict COVID lockdown. Instead, my wife and I stood at the end of our driveway at 6am, and played the dawn service on our phone.
This year, it was good to get back to normal and attend our local village service. It was four seasons in one day – typical Auckland weather – as were covered in sunshine before belted with rain, but it was great to stand on Stockade Hill, a former Maori battlement and World War memorial, and be there in person.
At home, post-hot shower and lukewarm sausage roll from the bakery, what better album to spin than this gorgeous 1972 recording of Aretha Franklin at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.
Originally recorded as a concert film, directed by Sydney Pollack no less, the film was never finished. A problem in syncing the sound to the visuals left the project on a dusty shelf in the Warner Bros. archive, while the resulting double-LP recording went onto becoming the highest selling Gospel album of all time.
It’s a great film, capturing Franklin at the height of her powers, and belting her way through a selection of Gospel numbers that she likely grew up on. It’s such an event that Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be seen at the back of the congregation, enjoying the occasion.
More than anything, this compilation record just made me miss the hell out of the Two Ronnies (Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett). Is there anybody else that has got anywhere close to their mastery of wordplay? Morecombe & Wise get close on a skit that opens this record – Byron & Keats – but that type of thing wasn’t always the strongest bow of that similarly lovable partnership.
Growing up, the Two Ronnies were my favourite comedy duo. Their weekly TV show was so consistently good. The only weak point was those drawn-out musical numbers they put in at the end of every episode – a hangover of ‘50s and ‘60s cabaret, but surely not a high-point of prime-time viewing in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
This compilation has a heap of funny tracks, from the Goons and Round The Horne through to Dad’s Army and Porridge. TV comedy can sometimes get lost on record, but it’s a testament to the writing of these sketches that they all work brilliantly even without the visual element.
I have a blind spot when it comes to the Jacksons. I love their first brace of singles as the Jackson 5 at the end of ‘60s, but after that I’m lost. I couldn’t tell you how long they continued to record for Motown (ten albums in six years apparently), or when they started recording for Epic, the record label Michael would later record his big selling studio albums for (they switched from Motown to Epic in 1976).
The best thing about this album is that it sounds almost like a long-lost Michael Jackson studio album. The songwriting and the arrangements might not be to the same level as the Quincy Jones-produced albums – aside from Can You Feel It maybe – but some of the ingredients are there.
Recorded just after he head released Off The Wall, it has that same uptempo disco feel and while Quincy Jones is absent (the brothers self-produced the album), it does have Greg Phillinganes playing a lead role on keyboards.
Most importantly Michael Jackson plays a lead role and sounds like a 1980s Michael Jackson, full of whoo’s, hee-hees and his other trademark Tourettes tics.
Around this time every year, I list my picks for the Best Picture nominees (see these links for the 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 awards). This year, due to COVID forcing a rescheduling of the Oscars from February back to April, I managed to catch all the Best Picture nominees with about a month to go and have seen all of the films nominated in the other categories, except for some of the short films (which are always difficult to catch). It helped that 2020 was the year I started the ‘film a day’ diet, finally tallying up at 402 over the year.
After a populist year in 2019, full of big tent-pole films nominated for Best Picture, the absence of any such films from our cinemas this year has led to a slew of quieter, introspective films being nominated. COVID has really disrupted the industry, yet this year the list of eligible films marks the highest tally in half a century. People just couldn’t go to the cinema to see them.
You know something isn’t right when the highest grossing films of the year are The Eight Hundred (no, me neither), followed by My People, My Homeland (ditto – both are Chinese productions) and Bad Boys For Life (yikes). The Top 10 also includes the dreadful Dolittle, starring an unintelligible Robert Downey Jr. attempting a Welsh accent, so the world really had been turned upside down. Hopefully a vaccine-filled 2021 will start to see a return to normality. Get back in the cinemas when you can, and order a jumbo-sized popcorn when you do. Now is not the time to smuggle a family-bag of Haribos among your person.
Before we get to my pick of the year’s honourable mentions, here’s my ranking of the Best Picture nominees, from worst to best:
Hollywood has a history of celebrating movies about itself (from Sunset Boulevard through to Birdman and The Artist), so I won’t be surprised if this sweeps the board with its ten nominations. It looks great, I usually love David Fincher, and I should like a film that dramatises the making of such a classic film, but it just didn’t work for me. It felt like a massive affectation.
It might be that Citizen Kane triggers heavy-eyed boredom, from repeatedly watching it in film class at University and struggling through Pauline Kael’s book, or the fact that I couldn’t take Gary Oldman seriously after recently seeing him in 2003’s Tiptoes AKA One Of The Worst Films Of All Time.
I have to give Fincher credit though. The film looks beautiful, with a production design that just screams Oscar. The choice of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as composers seems initially unnecessary, but they pulled it off magnificently (even though I much prefer their work on Pixar’s Soul).
As an educational piece, the film is great. I wasn’t aware of (or had forgotten about) the politics surrounding the film, and that Mankiewicz’s screenplay was so daring. But I don’t think anybody without even a passing interest in Citizen Kane will get anything out of it.
My biggest hurdle was what felt like a period-specific approach to dialogue sound. It sounded too harsh, too brittle for the ears of modern audiences and was the one thing that took me out of the picture.
Give me a biopic on the making of Live And Let Die and its screenwriter Tom (nephew of Herman) Mankiewicz any day over this.
Another Oscars frontrunner, what should be a thoughtful meditation on the pitfalls and anxieties of modern society plays out for me like a boring, boomer-filled reworking of the infinitely superior Into The Wild from 2007. I’m a fan of Chloe Zhao though – she can direct, that’s for sure, and I’d be over the moon if she wins Best Director, joining just Kathryn Bigelow as the only female to have won the award.
I’m also a huge fan of Frances McDormand, but despite carrying the emotional weight of this film by appearing in every scene, I don’t think she comes close to her previous Oscar-winning performances.
My biggest concern is that Nomadland isn’t even Zhao’s best film. Her previous film, 2017’s The Rider, missed out on any Academy Award nominations despite attracting some worthwhile attention. It’s a stellar piece of filmmaking, telling the story of a young rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) who tries to adjust to life after suffering brain damage following a riding accident.
That film’s power – aside from its incredible cast (Zhao fills out her films with newcomers and unknown actors, much like Ken Loach in the UK) – comes from its realism. In several scenes, we see Brady ‘break’ wild horses in real time – an incredible sight to see, without the artifice of Hollywood special effects. Pure, electric filmmaking.
In contrast, Nomadland had Frances McDormand shitting in a bucket in a campervan.
Daniel Kaluuya has come a long way from his appearance as Tealeaf in Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Psychoville back in 2009. Since then, he’s emerged as yet another British leading man conquering Hollywood one film at a time. Breaking through in Jordan Peele’s ingenious 2017 debut Get Out, he attracted an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Opposite him here is Lakeith Stanfield, who’s had a similarly stratospheric rise in the likes of Selma, Straight Outta Compton and Sorry To Bother You. Both actors have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Judas And The Black Messiah, and I think that’s why the film doesn’t quite work.
Without a clear lead role, the film’s focus is split between the two actors and neither truly get to sink their teeth into the material. It’s a perfectly fine film, just a little undercooked and while the two kind-of leads do their best – with Black Panther Kaluuya hollering his inflammatory speeches through a ripe accent, and Stanfield forced into being an undercover FBI informant – the end result isn’t as good as the ingredients suggest.
Darius Marder has crafted a very fine picture in Sound Of Metal. The film follows metal drummer Ruben (a magnificent Riz Ahmed) who suddenly loses his hearing, and is abandoned at a shelter for deaf addicts by girlfriend and band-mate Lou (Olivia Cooke, born and bred in Oldham like me).
This was a scary watch, and the sound design in the film is just terrifying – putting the audience in the head of Ruben as he loses his hearing – surely a favourite to win in the now consolidated Best Sound category.
Ahmed earns his Best Actor nomination, but it is Paul Raci’s well deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination that I was really happy to see. Playing Joe, who runs the shelter, Raci is just perfectly cast in a mentor role, giving Ruben the advice that he doesn’t want to – and cannot – hear. People may ask ‘Who is Paul Raci?’ when he – hopefully – goes up to the podium to collect his award, but after a lifetime of small roles, he’s landed in the perfect film.
Sound Of Metal works as a great double-feature with Riz Ahmed’s other standout release from 2020, Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli. Both films deal with the same subject matter – a disease pulling the rug out from beneath Ahmed’s lead character – but they’re two very different stories. I actually think Mogul Mowgli is the better film overall, but the individual performances in Sound Of Metal are much stronger.
The 100th film I watched in 2021 – not bad considering I watched it on the 27th of March – I was expecting The Father to be this year’s token sleepy, upper middle-class boomer-bait Oscars entry (see also 2017’s The Wife, 2018’s Green Book and 2019’s Marriage Story). How wrong I was.
Zeller’s film, adapted from his own 2012 play Le Père, is a stunning deconstruction of a life slowly falling apart from a degenerative brain disease. Anthony Hopkins – as brilliant as ever, and truly deserving of his Best Actor nomination – plays Anthony, a man in his twilight years and struggling with dementia.
His daughter Anne is played by Olivia Colman – or is it Olivia Williams? I’m not sure and neither is the film. This confusion that we’re faced with rings so true to me as I used to get these two Olivias mixed up back in the early 2000s as both actresses emergend onto my radar. Anthony’s confusion of facts and faces is so cleverly done, I expect it’s a very tough watch for those who have lost, or currently struggling with, loved ones with memory issues.
The film shouldn’t be as good as it is. A first-time director adapting his own play doesn’t scream cinema to me. I’m usually disappointed by stage-to-film adaptations – particularly when they’re held up as Best Picture nominees – but this was so completely gripping, and ultimately heartbreaking, and both Hopkins and Colman are fantastic. I might have had Colman in the Best Actress category, rather than Best Supporting Actress, but I’m glad she got noticed. She might not be as good here as her Best Actress-winning role in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, but it’s clear she’s rapidly becoming one of the UK’s premier acting talents.
Minari feels like a watershed moment in the history of the Academy Awards. An American production, the film tells the tale of a South Korean immigrant family attempting to make a living in 1980s rural Arkansas. But while it’s an American production, the film is almost exclusively a foreign-language film – in Korean with English subtitles – except for a couple of characters (notably the brilliant Will Patton).
At the Golden Globes it won the award for Best Foreign Language Film, and similarly at the BAFTAs it was nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language. But in 2020, the Academy changed the name of their Best Foreign Language award to Best International Feature Film. This decision not only made films like Minari ineligible for that ‘foreign language / subtitles’ Oscar, it also foreshadowed that American productions going forward might not always be in the English language. Bring it on – I’m sure this sort of thing will annoy the hell out of people like Donald Trump (and his brainless disciples).
In Minari, Steven Yeun (Burning, The Walking Dead) plays the patriarch of the Yi family who move to rural farmland with a dream of growing Korean produce. Things don’t go to plan – when do they ever? – especially when his wife’s mother (a show-stealing, Best Supporting Actress-nominated turn by Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea to stay with the family.
It’s a beautiful picture, as an immigrant family chase the American Dream – a rare topic for a Best Picture-nominated film – and a beautiful soundtrack score by composer Emile Mosseri.
One of my favourite films in recent years is Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), and it was nice to see Burnham in a supporting role here in a film that might exist somewhere in the same universe. While Eighth Grade tries to understand the anxieties and pressures of pre-teen girls – with a concerning coda about the predatory nature of males – Promising Young Woman explores those real-world dangers in adult life.
First-time writer-director Emerald Fennell, a showrunner on Killing Eve and an actress in Call The Midwife and The Crown, has crafted a rape-revenge thriller that is equal parts black comedy and social commentary. Carey Mulligan (in a Best Actress-nominated role) stars as Cassie, a cafe waitress who is seemingly drifting through life. She saves her energy for her night-time pursuits, where she pretends to be drunk at nightclubs and bars and awaits a knight in shining armour to come and take her home. Obviously these men – wonderfully cast with stereotypically wholesome TV stars – don’t have good intentions, and Cassie reveals her sobriety when they ultimately try to take advantage of her.
The film doesn’t immediately tell us why Cassie engages in this activity, but her motivations are slowly revealed. Fennell gives the film the same kind of cool murderous glee that’s all over Killing Eve, with a similarly awesome soundtrack, and Mulligan gives a fantastic performance in the lead role. One critic argued that she was miscast, but I can’t image anyone else in the role – she’s perfect.
While Promising Young Woman is, in my eyes, this year’s standout film among the Best Picture nominees, it is The Trial Of The Chicago 7 that I enjoyed the most. It’s an unbelievably enjoyable courtroom drama, and when did we last have a good one of those?
Promising Young Woman might take more risks, but its originality seems to be betrayed by a clunky plot-twist late in the piece. I’ll be over the moon if Fennell’s film wins Best Picture, and if she wins Best Director, and Carey Mulligan wins Best Actress, but I feel it’s Sorkin’s film I’ll probably come back to the most.
It’s such a shame that The Trial Of The Chicago 7 streamed. It was originally intended to have a cinematic release by Paramount, but then COVID hit and they sold the distribution rights to Netflix. It’s so well-written and funny – as everything Sorkin touches seems to be – that it would have been a great experience to see with an audience.
If there was an Oscar category for Best Ensemble – of which I keep hearing rumblings about – this film would win the award hands-down this year. Jeremy Strong from HBO’s Succession is fantastic, next to an almost unrecognisable Sacha Baron Cohen. Then there’s Michael Keaton. And Mark Rylance. And Frank Langella. They’re all superb.
And is this the film where Joseph Gordon-Levitt finally grew up? He has an authority here that’s been lacking in everything else he’s been in, except possibly the prior year’s brilliantly tense terrorism thriller 7500. If anything, it’s a shame his role isn’t even weightier here – but it’s a huge cast and Sorkin’s got a lot of mouths to feed with his script.
To labour an earlier point, it really does seem like an eternity since we were blessed with a great courtroom drama. This film shows just how good they can be in the hands of a great screenwriter, where you’re hanging off the words of every character, and there’s no fat or lazy clichés to trip over.
The film’s original music is by Daniel Pemberton, who has also scored films for Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie, and features two songs by British singer-songwriter Celeste (one of which is nominated for Best Original Song).
The film received five Academy Award nominations – for Best Picture, Best Support Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen), Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael), Best Original Song (Pemberton and Celeste), Best Editing (Alan Baumgarten) and Best Original Screenplay for Sorkin which feels like a sure-fire winner.
Here are my other favourite (eligible) films from the year (in alphabetical order):
Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy, 2019) – Heartbreaking Australian drama as a 16-year old cancer sufferer goes off the rails and falls in love with a local drug addict; Eliza Scanlen and Ben Mendelsohn are brilliant.
Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar (Josh Greenbaum, 2021) – What feels like a one-dimensional Saturday Night Live skit is fleshed out into a bizarre, absurdist hoot of a comedy from the minds of stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.
Beastie Boys Story (Spike Jonze, 2020) – A brilliant run through of the Beastie Boys Book memoir, told on a Brooklyn stage by surviving members Mike D and Ad-Rock.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner, 2020) – In the craziest of years, super satirist Sacha Baron Cohen holds a mirror up to America, and unleashes his secret weapon in newcomer Maria Bakalova.
Boys State (Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine, 2020) – A thousand teenage boys build their own government from the ground up, accidentally revealing how deep-rooted corruption and dirty tricks is in US politics; should have been nominated in the Best Documentary category.
Collective (Alexander Nanau, 2019) – A Romanian sports newspaper uncovers a massive healthcare fraud, with shades of Zodiac and All The Presidents Men; nominated in both the Best Documentary and Best International Feature categories.
Dear Comrades! (Andrei Konchalovsky, 2020) – A Russian government worker attempts to find her daughter during a shooting at a workers’ strike in 1962; beautifully shot in black and white.
Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020) – In what would be a great companion piece to Floran Zeller’s The Father, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson films the final years of her father’s life as he battles with dementia; full of black humour with his death imagined in many gruesome ways.
The Dig (Simon Stone, 2021) – Just a bloody nice film, with Carey Mulligan commissioning one of the most important excavations in British history; Ralph Fiennes, Johnny Flynn and Lily James all shine.
Feels Good Man (Arthur Jones, 2020) – One mild-mannered cartoonist’s quest to retake ownership of his creation – Pepe The Frog – after it becomes an internet meme co-opted by the alt-right movement.
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2019) – A lovely, sleepy film telling the story of an unlikely friendship in an Oregon township, and how the arrival of the first cow in the territory changes everything for them.
The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020) – Hands-down the best horror film of the year, wonderfully inventive with a domestic abuse slant that updates the classic H.G. Wells character into the 21st century.
Let Him Go (Thomas Bezucha, 2020) – Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, before adopting Superman, travel across state lines to rescue their grandchild that has been taken in by a questionable family; unbearably tense.
The Mauritanian (Kevin McDonald, 2021) – Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch play opposing lawyers in the case of a man held without charge at Guantanamo Bay; Un Prophète’s Tahir Rahim should have been nominated for Best Actor in the titular role.
Mogul Mowgli (Bassam Tariq, 2020) – Riz Ahmed plays a rapper on the brink of stardom struck down with a terrible disease; Sound Of Metal may have had better performances, but this is the better film of the two.
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, 2020) – Not the only Groundhog Day-fuelled flick this year (see the Oscar nominated short Two Distant Strangers, and derivative action flick Boss Level), but a nice take returning the trope to its romcom beginnings as Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti meet at a desert wedding.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci, 2019) – A wonderful retelling of the Charles Dickens novel from director Armando Iannucci (usually a sniping satirist); Dev Patel leads an ensemble cast and the film is brimming with heart-warming positivity, a perfect lockdown watch.
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg, 2020) – The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the son of David Cronenberg presents his debut film about the exploits of an inter-body assassin; body-shock horror at its best.
Saint Maud (Rose Glass, 2019) – While this slow, quiet horror didn’t quite work for me as a whole, it definitely showed that director Rose Glass is an emerging talent that we can expect much from; excited to see what she does next.
Soul (Pete Docter, 2020) – It will take a monster of a film to uncrown The Incredibles from my Pixar throne, but this one might just have done it; a beautiful, existential tale with a killer soundtrack by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste.
Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020) – Hands-down my favourite cinema experience of 2020, despite the dodgy sound mix, was watching this on IMAX; Christopher Nolan delivers yet again with a mind-bending spy film which presents a fresh take on the time-travel genre.
And three films that don’t appear on the eligibility list:
The Decline (Patrice Laliberté, 2020) – A taut French-Canadian thriller about a small group of Doomsday survivalists; a real gem of a find on Netflix.
The Lovebirds (Michael Showalter, 2020) – While not to the same calibre as the director’s previous film, The Big Sick, this is another collaboration with the always excellent Kumail Nanjiani; a romcom following a couple who split up while out on a date, and then go on the run after witnessing a murder.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanić, 2020) – A stunning film covering the genocide by Serb forces during the Bosnian War in 1995; Jasna Đuričić is almost hypnotic as the UN translator attempting to save her family from an terrible fate.
My Picks For The 23:
Finally, here are my picks for what the Academy will actually vote for on the night. I’ll be aiming to beat my last year’s score of 14/24 (58%). Note that the previous two sound categories have now been consolidated into one.
[Edit – Just 10 out of 23 (43%) – ugh!]
Best Picture: Nomadland √ Best Director: Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) × Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) ×
Best Actress: Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) × Best Supporting Actor: Paul Raci (Sound Of Metal) ×
Best Supporting Actress: Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) √
Best Original Screenplay: The Trial Of The Chicago 7 ×
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Father√ Best Animated Feature Film: Soul√
Best Foreign Language Film: Quo Vadis, Aida? ×
Best Documentary – Feature: Collective ×
Best Documentary – Short Subject: A Concerto Is A Conversation × Best Live Action Short Film: Two Distant Strangers√
Best Animated Short Film: If Anything Happens I Love You√
Best Original Score: Soul – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross & Jon Batiste √
Best Original Song: Hear My Voice – Celeste (The Trial Of The Chicago 7) × Best Sound: Sound Of Metal√ Best Production Design: Mank√
I spotted something in the set-dressing of Michael Showalter’s brilliant The Big Sick back in 2017. Kumail Nanjiani’s character is a film-nerd, and one shot of his bedside table showed a copy of Jonathan Lethem’s book on They Live. Intrigued, I ordered it immediately.
Lethem’s They Live: A Novel Approach To Cinema is the first book of the Deep Focus series: ‘Take the smartest, liveliest writers in contemporary letters and let them loose on the most vital and popular corners of cinema history: midnight movies, the New Hollywood of the sixties and seventies, film noir, screwball comedies, international cult classics, and more . . .’
The format of Lethem’s book is definitely interesting. More a collection of random thoughts, rather than a singular piece of writing, it does follow the events of the film in chronological order but presents Lethem’s analysis in bite-sized observations. It offered a great, new perspective for me on a recent rewatch of Carpenter’s film.
They Live opens in sunshine, as drifter Nada (the WWF’s Rowdy Roddy Piper) walks across some train lines into the desolate end of 1988 Los Angeles. This is the part of the city that has been left behind by the optimism of Reagonomics, half a world away from the glitz of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street from a year earlier. It’s the L.A. featured in Netflix’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, filled with the state’s destitute and homeless.
They Live should be a dark, gloomy film, but the sunshine of the picture says otherwise. There’s a crazy amount of daylight here, compared to a normal John Carpenter film, and the stark, dusty streets (an extension of the exterior scenes in Carpenter’s previous film, Prince Of Darkness), give the film its neo-Western look – impeccably soundtracked by Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s bluesy, cowboy music score. You could be forgiven for thinking that the music doesn’t suit a John Carpenter sci-fi film, but it fits perfectly when Nada arms himself and becomes a lone ranger.
Lethem’s book was very good at suggesting who might be an alien (or a ghoul, as they’re referred to in the credits) in the film’s first act, before Nada finds the Hoffman lenses and starts to uncover the conspiracy around him. The sour lady in the job centre who interviews Nada is definitely a prime suspect. Once you start thinking like this, it’s easy to spot other warning signs in the opening scenes – the youth staring, transfixed at the TV in the shop window being an obvious foreshadowing of the film’s theme of brainwashing.
The 1950s’ black and white aesthetic seen through the Hoffman lenses is perfect, and really gives the film a unique look. It’d be easy to show off the ghouls’ colourful faces – part skeleton, part vibrant undersea life – but Carpenter holds those back until the end of the picture.
Forget the unbelievably long alley-fight. The moment where Keith David’s character Frank spots a shirtless Nada across the building site is as homo-erotic as anything in 1980’s cinema. As if that wasn’t enough, he walks over to Nada and offers him a place to stay, including a hot shower. Is this whole film an AIDS metaphor – ‘alien invasion gets in the way of male relationsip’? In the hotel room much later, dialogue between the pair – “Ain’t love grand?” and “I ain’t Daddy’s little boy no more” – suggest something else is going on other than their motivation to uncover an alien race.
And did that greasy New Zealand evangelist motherfucker Brian Tamaki model his entire look on Gilbert (Peter Jason), who’s overlooking the church in the film’s first act, and turns out to be a leader in the resistance? It’s uncanny. And Tamaki’s probably a ghoul anyway. His ‘church’ is a perfect real-world example of the brainwashing pointed out in Carpenter’s film.
It’s good to see George ‘Buck’ Flowers – the 1980’s preeminent cinematic bum, previously seen living on a bench in Back To The Future. And there’s even a glimpse-and-you-miss-him appearance by Al Leong, everyone’s favourite chocolate-guzzling henchman from Die Hard, in the alleyway gunfight. Carpenter also reuses another key element of a landmark ‘80s genre movie: the camouflaged guards in the film’s final sequence track Nada and Frank using a device that was previously used as Egon Spengler’s P.K.E. meter in Ghostbusters.
I love how Nada’s first act of violence, against the policeman outside the bank, is a clothesline – a staple move of the WWF (I refuse to call the company by its updated name). If Nada’s role was played by anybody else, would the alley fight with Frank even exist? There are so many wrestling moves used in it, it’s difficult to believe that the whole sequence is anything other than a showcase for the film’s star.
The film’s only major flaw is the clunky plotting of Nada meeting Holly (Meg Foster), who just happens to work at the TV station that is controlling the transmission that keeps the ghouls hidden. Hmm, what a coincidence… I’m prepared to forgive Carpenter for this, if only for that awesome De-Palma worthy overhead shot where Holly smashes a bottle over Nada’s head and pushes him out her living room window – absolutely glorious filmmaking.
With a running time of 94 minutes, the film is perfectly divided into three 30-minute acts, which all serve as separate genres. The first act is a mystery film, the second act from when Nada first puts on the Hoffman lenses all the way through to convincing Frank is pure science-fiction, and the final act is a typical late-‘80s action movie. If anything, the end shots as the ghouls are unhidden, feel like an anti-climax. I love those short scenes, but they’re too short, and the comic element obscures any suggestion as to what might happen now that the human race can see their invaders. Would we fight back, or would we continue living the oppressive yet comfortable life the ghouls have made for us?
The first thought that comes to mind on a cursory rewatch of Buster some 31 years later is that it looks terrible. It has the same drab cinematography as the previous year’s Withnail & I. Did the UK just have a really bad shipment of film stock around this time? The sky is so overcast in the film’s opening funeral scene that you can’t actually see any clouds. It’s just a glare. No wonder the UK didn’t have a decent film industry in the UK in the late ‘80s – except for a handful of brilliant films, of course – if everything looked this bad.
Buster tells the story of the UK’s infamous Great Train Robbery of 1963, seen through the eyes of one of its participants – Buster Edwards, played with zeal by annoying arsehole of the 1980s, Phil Collins. The real crime that is portrayed in the film is Collins’ hairline. I wonder how much of his public dislike is somehow tied to that horrible wisp of hair he’s clinging to around this time? Shave it off, mate.
The way that British films – and British culture in general – glorify ‘honest, hardworking’ cockney criminals as salt of the earth modern-day folk heroes is really sickening. Guy Ritchie has made a career out of it, and it’s not hard to imagine this film making an impression on the 20-year-old Ritchie.
The other star of the film – alongside Phil Collins, and his long-suffering wife Julie Walters – is the tobacco industry. There’s so much smoking in this film, I’m surprised that Buster’s 4-year-old daughter isn’t pictured having a crafty fag at some point.
The rest of the soundtrack grabs cool yet anachronistic songs from the middle of the decade. But it’s easy to forgive the film when the songs are this good: the Spencer Davis Group’s Keep On Running, Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe and the Hollies’ Just One Look. Anne Dudley’s original score is great too; particularly the cue entitled The Robbery.
Of course, the ‘60s vibe is maimed by the inclusion of new song Loco In Acapulco (co-written by Collins with Lamont Dozier), and then killed off entirely at the end of the film as Buster gets arrested to the strains of Collins singing Groovy Kind Of Love, a capella over an ‘80s drum machine.
Not only does the Great Train Robbery have a musical connection through Ronnie Biggs’ later involvement with the Sex Pistols, but the mastermind behind the crime, Bruce Reynolds, is the father of Nick Reynolds, a member of the Alabama 3 – known for their theme song of The Sopranos, Woke Up This Morning. An attraction to crime must run in the family.
The weirdest link to popular culture by any participant of the Great Train Robbery though, involves Buster Edward’s subsequent life as a flower seller in London. In 1991, actor Dexter Fletcher stole two bunches of flowers worth £5 from his stall – one of the most cockney things I’ve ever heard – to give to his then-girlfriend, and Press Gang co-star, Julia Sawalha. Fletcher was subsequently arrested and given a 12-month conditional discharge.
Fletcher, of course, went on to star in Guy Ritchie’s breakthrough film Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, and we’ve come full circle back to lovable cockney crime capers.