A throwaway horror-comedy from 2014, Cooties stars Elijah Wood as a substitute teacher filling in at a sleepy Californian elementary school. A batch of virus-infected chicken nuggets infects the schoolchildren, turning them into cannibalistic zombies which Wood and his teacher colleagues spend the film fighting off.
I’d overlooked this film for a long time, until Mondo Records had a Free Shipping sale before Christmas. Who can never say no to cheap records – especially when they’re on Chicken Nugget / Blood Splatter vinyl?
It’s not the greatest film in the world – or even in the genre – but it’s a lot of fun. The support cast picks up most of the heavy lifting in this respect, against the typically staid Elijah Wood. Rainn Wilson and Jack McBrayer exist purely for comedic purposes, Alison Pill provides the love interest, but it is the writer of the piece, Leigh Whannell, who stands out.
Whannell knocked it out of the park in 2020, writing and directing The Invisible Man, one of my films of the year. Here, he exists as the screenwriter alongside Ian Brennan, but also acts in the role of a socially awkward science teacher. He gives himself some of the funniest lines in the film, which you would, wouldn’t you?
The strongest element of the film is its soundtrack score by Kreng AKA Belgian musician Pepijn Caudron. A weird mix of child like melodies, brooding synths and hip-hop beats, it really suits the tone of the film.
My good friend Joe Foster has great record collecting story. He met Elijah Wood at a convention in 2018 and asked him to sign his copy of the soundtrack. Wood hadn’t seen a copy of the soundtrack before – didn’t even know it had been released on vinyl – and was so excited, he took a photo of it on his own phone!
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It’s the 1970s! Or is it, as I don’t think we’re ever really told? The guys in suits on the subway are definitely dressed in the corporate attire of today, but it’s clearly the New York City of Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. And of course we get Bobby De Niro in the cast just to sledgehammer the fact.
Speaking of the films of Martin Scorsese, it’s odd how Scorsese was originally tied to this film – as a producer – yet not long after he left the project, he was comparing all superhero films to theme park rides. To its credit, Joker belongs in a different camp to the rest of the DC and Marvel universes, but who knows how much of that was driven by Scorsese’s initial involvement.
Some of the success of Joker probably hinges on the fact that much of its audience won’t have seen Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, in much the same way that 2019’s Midsommar was considered a groundbreaking horror film amongst people who hadn’t seen The Wicker Man. And just to labour that point, Midsommar is a wholly unoriginal piece of work. It wasn’t influenced by Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, it’s a carbon copy in everything but name and location. If Todd Phillips’ Joker was one of the surprises of 2019, Ari Aster’s Midsommar was undoubtedly the year’s biggest disappointment.
Back to Phillips’ film, and it’s interesting to see how the portrayal of the Joker character always seems to match the tone of the times, and it’s been getting darker and darker. First we had Caesar Romero as the cheerful ‘60s retiree Joker, followed by Jack Nicholson as the tired ‘80s Yuppy Joker, and Mark Hamill as the animated ‘90s cynic. The 21st century, to match the darkness of the post-9/11 world we live in, has given us Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix – two Oscar-winning performances and … Jared Leto. I’ve said before that Leto is this century’s Nic Cage, and much like some of Cage’s performances, his version of the Joker was just embarrassing to watch.
One of the most damning things that Todd Phillips’ Joker does is paint Thomas Wayne as an unsavoury member of the ruling elite, rather than the saint he’s usually painted out to be, most recently by Linus Roache in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It’s pretty unforgivable really, and only serves an element of the plot I wish they hadn’t touched (a family connection akin to Bryan Singer introducing Super-Boy in his disappointing Superman Returns).
We also get an appearance of the Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by Douglas Hodge), although I’m not sure if he’s ever referred to as such in the film. It’s a veiled reference, only slightly more so than the shot of the young Bruce Wayne sliding down the (bat) pole of his playground. Again, saint becomes sinner and Alfred comes across as an arsehole to our anti-hero Arthur Fleck.
I enjoyed that one of Arthur’s gags in his failed stand-up performance is an old classic: ‘It’s funny, when I was a little boy and told people I wanted to be a comedian, everyone laughed at me. Well, no one’s laughing now!’ Has a Bob Monkhouse joke ever had such an impact on a Hollywood film? I have my fingers crossed that they did out his ‘animal biscuits / broken seal’ gag for the sequel, as recounted here by Frank Skinner:
Bob Monkhouse told me he used to do this joke where he’d come on and say: “I love those animal biscuits they sell at Marks & Spencer. Have you seen them, those animal-shaped biscuits? They’re lovely. But I got a box the other day, and I opened it and it said on it: Do not eat if the seal is broken. And would you believe it?” But he said: “On a great night, I don’t have to say, ‘would you believe it?’ But on a bad night, I have to say, ‘The biscuit’s shaped like a seal.’”
Last but not least, the music in Joker is incredible. The combination of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile on the soundtrack, and the footage of Chaplin in Modern Times inside the cinema is a really nice touch. But the music supervisor on this film – George Drakoulias alongside music coordinator Meghan Currier – is absolutely on fire. We get an iconic scene soundtracked by Gary Glitter’s Rock And Roll Part 2, alongside appearances by Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea, Cream’s White Room, the aforementioned Smile, and Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life and Send In The Clowns, and that’s before we get to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s sublime Oscar-winning score.
Who would have thought McCartney would release a third DIY home-studio solo album, in 2020 of all years? In hindsight, there has never been a better year to record such a thing – the quintessential COVID opportunity.
First solo album proper McCartney landed in 1970, drawing a line in the sand as a Beatle, and with the 1960s in general. Its kooky home-made feel was betrayed only by the majesty of a song like Maybe I’m Amazed, pointing to the production and bombastic songwriting that would follow in the 1970s.
Not counting its stronger follow-up Ram, credited as a collaboration with Linda McCartney, his actual second solo album appeared at the end of the next decade. 1980’s fantastic McCartney II drew a line under his involvement with Wings and looked ahead with one eye on New Wave and Synth Pop.
A solo performer ever since, McCartney III stands as his eighteenth solo studio album (and twenty-sixth overall if you include Ram and the subsequent Wings records). He might not be able to belt it out and hit those high notes anymore, but I quite like the timbre of his voice these days. There’s enough of the old McCartney in there, much like the other elder statesman Bruce Springsteen, but unlike Bob Dylan who I don’t recognise anymore.
Find My Way might have been the first single, but it’s clear that Deep Deep Feeling is the centrepiece of the record – a moody and brilliant home-recorded epic and a personal favourite alongside the rocking Slidin’. Released in a seemingly endless array of rainbow colours, I opted for Newbury Comics’ pink vinyl pressing.
If McCartney began his solo career, and McCartney II reset his solo career, McCartney III wouldn’t be a bad album to close his career with.
If there’s any truth to the rule that the even-numbered Star Trek movies are better than the odd-numbered entries, then surely there’s something in applying the same rule for the Friday The 13th films. Part III? Forgettable. Part V? Boring. Part VII? Weak.
The rule doesn’t quite work with this franchise because the first film is great, if a little undercooked compared to the rest, and the eighth instalment is pretty ropey. The rule only serves to point out that parts II, IV and VI are the best ones – which they are.
We open with a lengthy recap of the previous films, and instead of taking the audio from Part II’s fireside chat as the narration, we get a new voice filling us in. It sounds like a typical gravelly-voiced trailer man, but it’s actually voiced by Walt Gorney, the actor who portrayed Crazy Ralph in the first two films. Come back, Crazy Ralph, we’ve missed you! The credits sequence shows how much money the producers are playing with now. We see Jason’s mask against a black background, brilliant light pours through the holes in the mask and it splits open to reveal the film’s title and rest of the credits. The quality of the camera work and cinematography, and the visibly higher budget also make this look much better than Part VI.
We’ve ditched the comedy-horror of the previous film and somehow ended up in some quasi-psychological horror-movie. Is this the effect of A Nightmare On Elm Street? If so, it feels a few years’ too late. The music definitely sounds more akin to Charles Bernstein’s Elm Street score, particularly in the synth-heavy orchestration. Or are the rumours true that this was originally intended to be a crossover mash-up with Stephen King’s Carrie?
We’ve also hit peak mid-‘80s hair. I often think that women had this kind of massive hair all through the 1980s, because that’s what I remember, but it looks like it was only the last couple of years. Tina’s Mum’s hair deserves a horror franchise of its own. She looks like an extra from Mad Max 2.
The sleeping-bag death is great, perhaps one of the greatest kills in the whole series. I remember it being more gruesome than it is though. I remember Jason hitting the sleeping bag against the tree numerous times, but he only does it once. The sound design on this more than makes up for it; such a disgusting sounding crunch.
Part VII is a very cine-literate film. First we get the wood-chopping camper saying ‘I’ll be back’ like Schwarzenegger, then we get the Jaws POV shot when Jason kills the skinny-dippers in the lake. Unfortunately, one of the girls also looks like the League Of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton in drag, particularly when she gets all dressed up before Jason kills her.
Just like Parts III and V, it’s hard to feel anything for the characters. The film’s instantly forgettable. Maybe there was a conspiracy at Universal to keep the even-numbered films better. The dull soundtrack score, co-composed by Harry Manfredini and Fred Mollin, doesn’t help things either.
In terms of the series’ timeline, I have no idea where we are now. If 1985’s Part V was set in 1989, and 1986’s Part VI was set in 1990, then the opening sequence of 1988’s Part VII could be set any time after the events of Part VI. When the young Tina accidentally kills her father, we glimpse the chained-underwater Jason from the end of the previous film. So that means that the main part of the film, with Tina as a teenager – ten years later? – could be anytime around the turn of the millennium. That’s nuts – a film released in 1988 and set in 2000, without that fact being a central part of the plot.
To say that Kane Hodder is now so synonymous with playing Jason, his debut appearance here is very understated. After the character’s forceful striding of Part VI, he just shuffles his way through most of this film. It serves to make the character less scary, even more so when his mask is removed during the finale of the film.
We get some lovely ‘80s blue sci-fi lightning when Tina electrocutes Jason with the power lines. This must have been a free setting on visual effects hardware in the decade because it’s all over films like this, Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Aliens, and more. Jason then catches fire, and the house he’s in blows up. Huh?
And in terms of the protagonist and antagonist meeting, how does Tina even know Jason’s name? We’ve no indication that any of these characters knew about him, unless I missed some dialogue when I fell asleep to the sounds of bad scriptwriting. After such a long, drawn-out finale, we get a 15-second denouement, perhaps the shortest one in the franchise. “Jason? Where’s Jason?” Beat. “We took care of him.” And…cut! That’s a wrap!
2020 may have been the worst year in living memory, a year where we all spent a great deal of time locked-down at home, but at least we had some good TV to watch. While the cinema industry struggled with only a handful of blockbuster releases, the television industry – headed by the streaming services – took up the challenge to entertain us at home.
The year started off promisingly with Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian. Released at the tail-end of 2019, it represented the first strike by newcomer Disney+ and showed some light in the galaxy far, far away – even though it’s a fairly simple, linear show. The other hangover from the end of 2019 was the brilliant second season of HBO’s Succession. Netflix’s The Tiger King then provided a dose of absurdity for everybody to make it through COVID lockdown. Netflix scored again with the third season of Ozark, and later with The Queens Gambit, the hit out of nowhere that made everybody dust off their old chess boards. Of course, most of these shows were probably completed, or close to completion, when the pandemic hit. The real impact of COVID-19 on the industry will be how quickly it bounces back in 2021 and beyond.
My favourite show of 2020 was another one that seemed to spring up out of nowhere. Created by Alex Garland – the wunderkind writer of The Beach and director of modern sci-fi thrillers Ex-Machina and Annihilation – Devs landed on streaming service Hulu in March. Without giving too much away, the 8-episode show revolves around a young San Francisco couple, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman) who work at a tech company run by Forest (Nick Offerman) and Katie (Alison Pill). Things start to get strange when Sergei is shoulder-tapped with a promotion to the company’s secretive quantum computing division, Devs.
Given that most films and television shows are formulaic as hell – trope after trope after motherfucking trope! – Devs felt like a breath of fresh air. A truly original central conceit, a genuinely scary antagonist (played with relish by Zach Grenier) and a host of characters with questionable motives made sure that its audience was kept on its toes.
As well as looking beautiful, the show sounded beautiful too, thanks to a killer collaboration between the composer partnership of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Free Fire) and The Insects (producers and co-writers for the likes of Massive Attack, Goldfrapp and Alison Moyet). A weird mix of Gregorian chanting, a bewitching soprano saxophone motif and some nightmarish industrial synthwork, the soundtrack has been given a deluxe triple-LP release by Invada and Lakeshore Records. It’s easily one of my favourite soundtrack releases of 2020.
I get the idea that Howard Stern might be a fun guy to hang around with, but only in small doses. I hadn’t heard of him before this film came out, but it remains one of my favourite comedy releases from 1997. The film even prompted me to go back and read Stern’s pulpy Private Parts autobiography which it’s based on.
Despite being made at the tail-end of the 1990’s, Betty Thomas’ film has a wonderful grain to it. At looks at times like it was filmed in 1977, which massively helps the earlier-set scenes. It’s also fairly heartfelt and good-natured, once you look past all the gross-out humour and nudity.
One of the film’s highlights is its monster soundtrack. Alongside some classic rock needle-drops (Deep Purple, Cheap Trick, Van Halen, Ted Nugent), the film commissioned several interesting collaborations and cover versions. Stern himself performs on a couple of songs with Rob Zombie and the Dust Brothers, Ozzy Osbourne tackles Status Quo’s Pictures Of Matchstick Men with Type-O Negative, and Green Day run through the Kinks’ Tired Of Waiting For You.
The most interesting team-up though is on I Make My Own Rules, featuring L.L. Cool J (his name redacted on the album credits, presumably due to a rights issue) alongside Flea, Dave Navarro and Chad Smith. This post-One Hot Minute version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is easily more palatable without the cloying Anthony Kiedis on vocals.
The album also includes the live AC/DC performance of You Shook Me All Night Long, as seen in the film. Captured in reality during their Ballbreaker world tour, it’s just a pity it wasn’t the earlier 1985 version of the band that would have played when the scene was set. The film’s goofs, listed on iMDB, go one step further by declaring that not only was Phil Rudd not a member of the band in 1985, the Ahead-brand aluminium drumsticks he is shown playing were not introduced until the mid-1990s. Steady on…
My favourite element of Private Parts is the performance by Paul Giamatti as Stern’s program director, Kenny ‘Pig Vomit’ Rushton. He’s explosive in this, and even though he had an earlier role in the same year’s Donnie Brasco, his performance in Private Parts is the first time I really took note of him.
My one gripe with Thomas’ film is that it feels too short. The film ends abruptly when Ruston visits Stern at home to offer him an olive-branch, finding the door slammed in his race in response. It always feels a little anti-climactic, having come to like and admire Stern by this point – I could have easily gone another 30 minutes.
Alongside with sets by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Otis Redding, my collection of standalone sets from the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival seems to be slowly catching up to my collection of standalone Woodstock sets (eight at the last count).
I hope we see some more Monterey releases – perhaps scheduled for Record Store Day, as this and the Otis Redding album were. They’re short records, but such amazing packages are worth the expense: The Who’s red, white and blue tri-colour vinyl release lasts a mere 25 minutes; Otis’s red and black marbled release is slightly longer at 29 minutes. Only Hendrix’s long-available release feels like a proper-length LP at 43 minutes.
The rear cover of A Quick Live One features a photograph of the Western Union telegram sent to the festival by Who manager Kit Lambert, confirming their ability to play. The telegram opens by stating the Who accept the invitation to perform on the evening of Saturday June 17th, or Sunday June 18th. It was the Sunday evening they ultimately played, and what a night of music that was: the Who followed Buffalo Springfield, and were then followed by the Grateful Dead, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Scott MacKenzie and the Mamas & the Papas.
The band agreed to appear ‘without fee for charity,’ the telegram continues, ‘subject to festival committee paying 6 first class return air fares plus all internal transport accommodation and living expenses.’
Featuring a career-best performance by James McAvoy – who should have got an Academy Awards nomination, not to mention eight salaries – M. Night Shyamalan’s twelfth feature is a huge return to form after his wilderness years in the late 2000s / early 2010s. Marketed as a standalone film, it’s actually – SPOILER ALERT – a stealth sequel to 2000’s Unbreakable, with Bruce Willis reprising his role of David Dunn in an uncredited cameo in the film’s final scene.
Rewatching this as part of the Eastrail 177 Trilogy, it’s easy to forget how nuts the narrative is. Is it a horror, a thriller, a very black comedy, or a mixture of all three? It expertly flits between absolute unpleasantness and bizarre humour, with McAvoy’s performance driving the unease of the protagonists (and the audience).
Anya Taylor-Joy has had a brilliant year in 2020, starring in Netflix’s breakthrough chess-show-that-isn’t-really-about-chess The Queens Gambit, and the much-better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be The New Mutants, but this is the first time I remember noticing her. I didn’t care for her hairstyle in The Queens Gambit, but she’s wonderful here, with her too-far-apart eyes and exquisite doll-face.
Alongside McAvoy and Taylor-Joy, the other casting gem is Betty Buckley as the psychologist treating McAvoy’s multiple personalities. It’s wonderful that Shyamalan and his casting director resisted the urge to cast this role with a more prominent, middle-aged actress (a la Sarah Paulson in a similar role in 2019’s Glass). Buckley is fantastic and really grounds the film from falling into outright fantasy.
The music score, by West Dylan Thordson, is a vast improvement on James Newton Howard’s score to Unbreakable. While the score to the 2000 film isn’t particularly bad, it’s just very much of its time. Thordson’s score is definitely more experimental and more in line with the horrific nature of the film.
The arrival of McAvoy’s ultimate personality, The Beast, is shot brilliantly – pure filmmaking from Shyamalan – and Thorsdon’s cue when Taylor-Joy confronts McAvoy’s Beast (Kevin Wendell Crumb) is sublime. The twist ending is perfect – a genuine surprise that Shyamalan drops the film in the same universe as Unbreakable. I wonder how many people guessed the reveal purely based on the music in that last scene – taken from Unbreakable – before they saw Bruce. I didn’t, but there are some soundtrack nuts who definitely would have recognised it.
I’m unsure whether Taylor Hackford’ Against All Odds is a tawdry thriller wrapped up in a tense romance, or a tense thriller wrapped up in a tawdry romance, but something about it just doesn’t land 100%.
A remake of the 1947 film Out Of The Past (directed by Jacques Tourneur), a golden Jeff Bridges plays NFL star Terry Brogan. After sustaining a shoulder injury that forces him off his football team, he takes a job from his nightclub-owner friend Jake Wise (a fantastically slimy turn from James Woods) to hunt down his estranged partner Jessie Wyler (the beautiful Rachel Ward) who is hiding out on a Mexican island.
Brogan and Wyler inevitably fall in love – or do they? – and the film descends into a fairly dense plot around blackmail, real estate and betrayal. It’s narratively quite odd, opening on Brogan searching for Wyler in Mexico before rolling back to show the events leading to his dismissal from his NFL team. The exposition is handled poorly also, with Brogan shovelled a heavy amount of unlikely plotting from the adoring secretary at his agent’s office.
Rachel Ward, as the femme fatale Jessie Wyler, is absolutely spellbinding. I’ve seen her recently in Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Burt Reynold’s Sharky’s Machine, and she’s always captivating. A cross between Kelly McGillis and Sean Young, it’s not hard to imagine Ward playing Young’s role of Rachel in Blade Runner – a parallel universe that may have led to her playing Vicki Vale in Tim Burton’s Batman, as per Young’s trajectory before the horse-riding accident that led to her being replaced at the 11th hour by Kim Bassinger.
Overall, it’s a fairly strong film overall but it’s let down by individual moments. The scene in the Mayan pyramid, where Brogan and Wyler are confronted by Brogan’s old football coach, is particularly hard to watch. Suddenly falling into melodrama, it suggests that maybe Rachel Ward wouldn’t be a good fit for action cinema after all.
There are some bad hairstyles in this film – it is 1984 after all – but I don’t know what’s worse, James Woods channelling the fringe of Slade guitarist Dave Hill, or the visibly hairy armpits of the backing singers in Kid Creole & The Coconuts, who play at Wise’s nightclub.
The film’s greatest strength is perhaps its soundtrack. Centred around Phil Collin’s brilliant title track, the soundtrack also features cuts from Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford, Stevie Nicks, Big Country and the aforementioned Kid Creole & The Coconuts. Genesis manager Tony Smith is given ‘special thanks for music coordination’ in the film’s credits, which explains the heavy Genesis connection between Collins, Gabriel and Rutherford.
The flip-side of the soundtrack is taken up with the wonderful score by Michel Columbier and Crusaders / Steely Dan guitarist Larry Carlton. The main title theme (The Search) features some ominous, pulsating chords offset by some wonderful flamenco guitar – and it all sounds a little close to what would become Michael Kamen’s trademark sound later in the 1980s. In fact, there’s a particular cue (For Love Alone), where Brogan visits Wyler’s shack in Mexico that features a similar electric blues guitar lick that Clapton plays in 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Kamen and Clapton definitely saw this film!
Despite the global pandemic severely delaying or sidelining some sections of the entertainment industry – cinema, I’m looking at you, kid – the music world seems to have been relatively untouched. Okay, so concerts have mostly disappeared from the face of the planet, but while live music has suffered, recorded music has mostly been operating under a business as usual policy.
Throughout the year, new records from legacy acts like Dylan, Springsteen, McCartney and AC/DC saw the light of day, alongside releases from bands like Pearl Jam, The Killers, Doves and Badly Drawn Boy. One of my favourites of the year was this new studio album from actor and all-round funny man Matt Berry; my second purchase of his work after his brilliant Television Themes record in 2018.
Phantom Birds is Berry’s eighth studio album, released on Acid Jazz Records. It’s perfect if you’re either in love with Berry’s magnificent speaking voice, or enjoyed his musical interludes in Channel 4 comedy Toast Of London. He trades in wistful, singer-songwriter folk with an ominous edge offset by his glorious voice. It’s by far the new record I’ve spun the most this year.