Tag Archives: 2019

Rocks In The Attic #817: Matt Morton – ‘Apollo 11 (O.S.T.)’ (2019)

RITA#817On the last day of the year, I thought I’d post about my favourite release of 2019. I don’t tend to buy much in the way of new music – I’m so out of touch, the list of food-trucks at Auckland’s Laneways festival always catches me out as they could be band names for all I know – but I do buy lots of soundtracks, for films both old and new.

For me, 2019 was a year punctuated by two huge let-downs. First we had Ari Aster’s follow-up to his wonderful 2018 debut Hereditary (or should that be Her-head-hit-a-tree?). Midsommar should have been a sure-fire hit. Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter star as a group of American college students who take a trip to the northern Swedish countryside with their Scandinavian college friend. Aster then follows the script of The Wicker Man with unapologetic audacity, closely following the major plot-points in everything but location.

RITA#817aIt looked great, and sounded even greater with a wonderful score by Bobby Krlic, but the film’s unoriginality is just unforgivable. I guess it must be okay to steal so shamelessly from a 46-year old film as most of your target millennial audience won’t have seen it, and any older viewers might not remember it?

The other let-down was Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino’s ninth and his weakest offering since Death Proof. I’ve already written about that disappointment, and I’m sorry to say that a second viewing made me dislike it even more.

Instead, I found greater enjoyment in two documentaries: Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 and Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona. Both films offer a fresh, new perspective on their subjects and both demand repeat viewings. I’m hoping Antônio Pinto’s score to the Maradona film will eventually see the light of day on vinyl, it’s a genuinely beautiful accompaniment that works as a piece on its own (I’ve been thrashing it on Spotify ever since I saw the film). The strength of the film can be demonstrated by the fact that it almost made me feel sorry for Maradona. Almost.

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The score to Apollo 11 is similarly fantastic. Miller’s film eschews the standard talking head interviews that slow down most documentaries, and ditches the concept of a narration track of any kind. Aside from Matt Morton’s score, all sound contained within the picture is real-life diegetic sound. All that is left is just chatter on the mission’s microphones, and background sound.

About 30 seconds into the film, I had to check on IMDb what we were watching. Was this a documentary with computer-generated effects shots to bolster the launch and space sequences? No, but it looked like it. The images were just too good. The opening shots of the film, showing the rocket on the launch-pad at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral look uncannily like CGI but they’re not. It’s in fact footage shot by NASA on huge 70mm film-stock (essentially the size format IMAX screens were built for), and mostly unreleased by the space administration until now.

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My only regret is not seeing it on an IMAX screen as that would have been superb. I’m hoping it will continue to play on an occasional basis, given the film’s timelessness.

As iconic as the events of the film are – spoiler alert: they land on the moon, Michael Collins goes for a ride around the moon, picks up Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and they fly safely back home – the film’s real power for me is in its soundtrack. Composer Matt Morton went to great lengths to only use period-era analogue synthesisers (the liner notes state: ‘All instruments and effects existed at the time of the Apollo 11 mission’), and so the music sounds just as ‘1969’ as the action on screen. It’s a wonderful score, building and building in tension as the three-man crew pass each milestone in their journey.

2019 was a tough year for me in both health and work, and also for our country with two international-scale tragedies and a shocking murder-trial. And so it isn’t hard to understand why I’ve taken so much joy from two films focusing on former glories. Here’s to a better 2020, hopefully without that idiot in the White House.

Hit: The Burdens And The Hopes

Hidden Gem: Liftoff And Staging

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Rocks In The Attic #793: The Beatles – ‘Abbey Road (3LP Anniversary Edition)’ (1969/2019)

RITA#793Christmas continues to come twice a year for fans of the Fab Four, with 2019’s banner Beatles release. 50 years and a day after its original release on 26th September 1969, Abbey Road  has been given the same makeover afforded to last year’s White Album anniversary set.

Packaged in a similar sized box to the White Album / Esher Demos package, the set is comprised of the new 2019 mix by Giles Martin (with credit given to mix engineer Sam Okell on the hype sticker) in its own sleeve, two LPs of outtakes from the sessions presented in an ‘alternate’ cover sleeve, and a four-panel booklet of liner notes, featuring forewords by Paul McCartney and Giles Martin.

It’s a wonderful package down to the smallest details. The blue font used on the hype sticker and in the ‘3LP Anniversary Edition’ labelling on the side of the box echoes the blue sky that takes up the negative space on the album’s world-famous cover shot. Or is it the blue of the dress worn by the girl blurrily walking out of shot on the rear cover? Maybe it’s just the same blue as gravedigger George’s double-denim?
RITA#793aAs with the White Album’s 2018 mix, the 2019 mix of Abbey Road is intimately revealing. Casual listeners probably won’t be able to spot the changes, but if you grew up listening to the album on headphones during your formative years, the differences are massive. Following on from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s remastering campaigns in recent years, the key words here are clarity and presence. It isn’t merely a money-grab release by simply making things LOUDER, although I’m sure the EMI accountants will all be in line for a sizable end-of-year bonus. Thankfully, Giles Martin and team have done more than just ‘make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder.’

John’s vocal on the first stop in Come Together – ‘got to be a joker, he just do what he please’ – reveals the first tweak. You can hear him bite down – or hold back? – on that last word even harder than before. George’s jangly guitar on Octopus’s Garden is even janglier, strengthening the song’s Country credentials. And Ringo’s fills, particularly on The End, have more weight in them. ‘The sound was the result of having new calfskin drum heads,’ Ringo explains in Kevin Howlett’s liner notes. ‘There’s a lot of tom-tom work on that record. I got the new heads and I naturally used them a lot – they were so great.’

The biggest change in the remix however is in the bottom end. Paul’s bass is pushed further into the front of this mix – if such a thing is possible given how front and centre it already was in the original 1969 mix. This is a good thing; the bass playing throughout the album represents the peak of McCartney’s playing, and his fluid, walking basslines are one of the album’s key ingredients.

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In terms of bonus content, it feels like a missed opportunity that Martin Jr. wasn’t tasked to produce a mono mix of the album. With the White Album being the last Beatles record to enjoy a mono mix upon release, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be have only been available in stereo, the decade’s eventual winning format (even though Martin Sr. and team were still mixing the singles in mono in 1969, with Get Back appearing in April of that year as the band’s final mono single in the UK). If mono mixes of Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be don’t already exist somewhere in the archive, even as reference mixes, then it seems a missed opportunity to not hand this challenge to Martin The Younger. Of course, nobody really needs a mono mix of these albums, but given his achievements, from 2006’s Love soundtrack album of the Cirque du Soleil show, to the remixes of Pepper, the White Album and now Abbey Road, he’s the perfect candidate to do something a little different sonically to compliment the respective stereo mixes.

What we do get as extras are still brilliant: twenty-three tracks of demos, outtakes and orchestral instrumentals. As with the outtakes in last year’s White Album set, some have seen the light of day in one form or another across the Anthology project, but the vast majority have been officially unreleased until now.

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The studio chatter preceding the first track – a run-through of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) at Trident studios – offers a glimpse at the joys that lie ahead:

“Is it possible, without affecting yourselves too much, to turn down a little?” somebody politely asks in the background, off-mic. “Apparently there’s been a complaint.”

“From who?” asks John.

“Somebody outside the building,” comes the reply.

“Well, what are they doing here at this time of night? What guy?” fires back a frustrated John.

Several voices debate for a few seconds. In the background, Paul says ‘It’s his own fault for getting a house in such a lousy district!’

John then comes back on the microphone. “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud, and if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet….Last chance to be loud!”

As much as I love hearing the alternate versions of these fifty-year old songs, it’s the banter in the studio that’s just as revealing. As we’ve heard before, Paul is always the most playful in the studio. At the beginning of a take of You Never Give Me Your Money, a croaky Paul – at exactly half-past-two, he tells us, presumably in the A.M. – sings ‘You never give me your coffee.’ At the start of the first take of Golden Slumbers, he changes the piano chord from minor to major (specifically from Am7 to D6), singing ‘Day after day…’, the opening line of The Fool On The Hill, before stopping abruptly to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s annoying when the later, solo-years McCartney peppers his releases with this kind of studio tomfoolery. Listening to him larking about as a grown-up feels akin to tolerating a precocious child. Here, as a fresh-faced 27-year old, he’s just endearing.

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As for the album itself, fifty years young, for me it represents their artistic peak. It’s always been in my top 3 Beatles albums, and contests that top spot on an almost daily basis with Revolver and the White Album. It has such a magical vibe, and seems to be full to the brim with positivity. Even John’s default songwriting setting – pessimist – doesn’t seem to derail the proceedings.

Speaking of which, forget other contenders (The Who, The Byrds, and the Beatles’ own Helter Skelter) for the first heavy, heavy sound. Surely the roots of heavy metal can be traced back to John’s doom-laden arpeggios in I Want You (She’s So Heavy). It’s surely the song that feels it’s opening the door for Black Sabbath’s debut just five months later. Lennon and Harrison’s use of arpeggios thoughout their Beatles career – from songs as varied as And I Love Her to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – feel like one of least celebrated aspects of their musicianship. Mark Lewisohn, in the first volume of his Beatles mega-biography, goes to great pains to point out that it was the band’s vocal harmonies that made them stand out from their contemporaries in their early years. I hope Lewisohn will give the band as much credit for their intricate rhythm guitar lines, in the eagerly anticipated next volume of his biography (currently due in 2020).

Abbey Road also represents the songwriting peak of George Harrison, with two of the album’s songs penned by him. It’s a peak that would last at least as long as his debut record, arguably longer, but there’s no debate that in terms of maturity, both Something and Here Comes The Sun are miles ahead of anything he submitted to the White Album or the Let It Be sessions.

Those calfskin toms on Ringo’s drums get the spotlight at the end of the record, with the break leading into The End serving as a brilliantly held-back bit of drumming. Some might see it as a half-hearted drum-solo, but Ringo’s subtlety and less-is-more ethos, as always, works wonders.

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More than anything, it sounds like McCartney’s enthusiasm – the driving force of the band since the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967 – has led the band to this point, from movie-making and the aborted attempts to get back to their roots as a performing band, to getting together to record again with George Martin. The studio banter on the sessions discs sound as good natured as the biographies would have us believe all these years, and there doesn’t sound to be any kind of tension from the business affairs that were looming in the background.

The album’s very special to me for one specific reason. Once, during my teens, I was on a holiday over Christmas in the snowy highlands of Scotland. My parents fell sick with food poisoning for a few days, and so I was left to my own company. Out of boredom one day, I decided to walk to the next village and back – a 6-mile round trip, through heavy snow. I took off, with the last Beatles album to be unlocked in my brain – Abbey Road – sitting in my portable CD player. I probably listened to the album 6 or 7 times, back to back, as I made my way through the snow. Those magical elements to the album seemed to be heightened in the landscape and even now I associate it with that hike from Newtonmore to Kingussie and back. In terms of location, it’s not a million miles away from the Mull Of Kintyre, where McCartney might have been wintering with Linda at the time, and so the connection feels just right.

Hit: Here Comes The Sun

Hidden Gem: Goodbye (Home Demo)

Rocks In The Attic #789: Primal Scream – ‘Maximum Rock ‘N Roll – The Singles Volume Two’ (2019)

RITA#789I only bought this record because one of my local record stores got a copy in signed by Bobby Gillespie.

Why else would I buy a greatest hits collection of singles released since I last bought a studio album by the band? I guess it saves buying the individual albums. I picked up the first volume at the same time – a no brainer – but surely the second volume is a pointless barrel-scraping exercise?

It turns out I know – and like – every song on here. Maybe my old man ears are more attuned to contemporary music than I care to let on. It’s a damn-sight more consistent than the first volume, which is all over the place stylistically. Maybe I should pick up some of those post-XTRMNTR albums…

After congratulating me on picking up the autographed copy quickly after they posted it on their Instagram account, the man at the record store delighted in telling me in how good the band were at their recent Auckland gig. This conversation really did show up my lack of knowledge about contemporary music.

Record shop man: Did you see them when they last played in town?

Me: No, I didn’t make it. [Opting not to devalue the coolness of my purchase by admitting that I made the mistake of seeing David Duchovny and band play at the same venue the night before]. Any good?

Record shop man: Aw, man. It was awesome. Our bass player ended up playing bass for them.

Me: Oh, what was wrong with Mani? [The last time I took any interest in them, Mani from Primal Scream was firmly ensconced as their bass player.]

Record shop man: No, she was sick. [She? Huh? Why’s he referring to Mani as a woman? Is this record shop man gay, and he’s referring to other men as ‘she’? Or has Mani had a sex change?]

I took my purchases and made a swift exit, desperate for the anonymity of the streets outside. A quick check on Wikipedia put me right – Simone Butler has been their bass player since Mani left to reform the Stone Roses in 2012. Twenty years ago, I would have been all over this. If Bobby Gillespie had farted, I would have read the headline in the NME. Man, I’m out of touch.

As a further example of how out of touch I am, I stopped in to buy these Primal Scream records on the way to an appointment with my urologist. But that’s a different story…

Hit: Country Girl

Hidden Gem: 2013

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Rocks In The Attic #784: Primal Scream – ‘Maximum Rock ‘N Roll – The Singles Volume One’ (2019)

RITA#784This compilation, with a bizarre cover shot suggesting that Primal Scream = Bobby Gillespie and nothing else, charts the band’s progression from indie shoegazers to acid house crossovers to Stones-esque rockers to whatever genre of noise they’re playing on ‘97’s Vanishing Point and 2000’s XTRMNTR.

I can’t imagine what’s on Volume Two, I only picked it up for Bobby Gillespie’s scrawled signature on the front cover. I haven’t bought any of their records since XTRMNTR, but surely I must have heard some of their singles over the last 20 years? Thankfully Volume Two has a much more democratic band photo for the cover.

But back to Volume One, there’s some real bangers on this…

Hit: Rocks Off

Hidden Gem: Jailbird

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No Time To Think

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INT. DAY – EON PRODUCTIONS BOARD ROOM, PINEWOOD STUDIOS

Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson sit on leather chairs, deep in thought.

Barbara: Hurry up Mikey, he’ll be here any minute.

Michael: Okay, Babs, don’t rush me…I’ve almost got it.

Barbara: C’mon, otherwise we’ll have to go with ‘Shatterhand’.

Michael: Ugh…Shat Her Hand.

Barbara: [Puts on a film-trailer voice] “Bond loved her until she…shat…her…hand”.

Michael: Hah!

Barbara chuckles, Michael guffaws.

Michael: Okay, what about ‘Gold’-something. That’s always worked.

Barbara: Nobody buys gold anymore, Mikey. Platinum’s the in-thing now.

Michael: ‘The Island Of Dr. Platinum’?

Barbara: Sounds like a rapper.

Michael: True. ‘The Man With The Platinum Hand’?

Barbara: Not threatening enough.

Michael: ‘The Man With The Platinum Finger’?

Barbara: Too threatening.

Michael: What about space? Something to do with the moon?

Barbara: Boring. We’ve done it.

Michael stares out in the window in desperation.

Michael: What about the weather? We used thunder once.

Barbara: Don’t be stupid, Mikey. [Looks at watch] He’s late – we should have had this figured this out by now.

Michael: ‘Lightning To Kill’?

Barbara: Oooooh. [Pause] No.

Michael: ‘Windmaker’?

Barbara: Huh?

Michael: ‘It Only Rains Twice’?

Barbara: Terrible

Michael: ‘Risico’?

Barbara: No.

Michael: What about diamonds?

Barbara: Maybe.

Michael: Octopuses?

Barbara: Octopi.

Michael: Pie?

Barbara: No, Octopi. The plural of octopus.

Michael: Oh right. I thought you meant something to do with pies.

Barbara: Pie Another Day.

Michael: Hah!

Barbara chuckles, Michael guffaws.

Barbara: ‘Die’ is good though. That worked a couple of times with Pierce.

Michael: Die-something…

They both stare out the window. From outside, they hear the faint sound of a car-door closing, followed by the ‘bip-bip’ of a car-alarm setting.

Barbara: Christ, he’s here. Okay, we’re going with ‘Shatterha-’.

Michael: WAIT! I’ve got it!

Barbara: Go on!

Michael: …Wait…It’s on the tip of my tongue…

Barbara: Hurry up, he’ll be here any second.

Michael: …Aaarrrggghhh…I’ve just got no…time…to…think…

Barbara: That’s it!

The door bursts open. Daniel Craig walks in, wearing Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and a pink linen shirt.

Daniel: Mikey-G, the G-Man! Barbara. ‘Sup, Boo. What’s poppin’?

 

 

Rocks In The Attic #756: Various Artists – ‘Stax Does The Beatles’ (2008)

RITA#756This year’s Record Store Day was an embarrassment of riches. Not only did it deliver a bunch of sought-after soundtracks, but the funk and soul fan in me was well looked after too.

First released digitally back in 2008, a now double-LP of Stax artists doing Beatles covers sounds like something I’d make up in my dreams. Two of my favourite musical pillars colliding, the only thing that would beat this would be the unearthing of a secret LP of Stax songs recorded by the Fab Four themselves between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. I’ll keep dreaming about that one.

In fact, it doesn’t take much to imagine what Stax Does The Beatles sounds like. Much of the material collected here is available on the individual Stax releases they’re culled from, with only one or two hard to find tracks included. Probably the most famous cover, Otis Redding’s Day Tripper, is presented as an alternate take that’s just as rocking as the well-known version found on his Dictionary Of Soul from 1966. Another gem is a cover of And I Love Her, a b-side by Reggie Milner who only recorded two singles for Stax.

RITA#756aStax house-band Booker T. & The M.G.s  – once going so far as to record an entire LP in homage to the Beatles – turn in the highest number of performances on the album, responsible for four of its fifteen tracks (five if you include guitarist Steve Cropper’s solo effort of With A Little Help From My Friends, the title-track of his 1969 album).

The album’s liner notes make reference to the little-known fact that Brian Epstein once scouted the Stax studios as a potential place to record the Beatles. His visit to Memphis in March 1966 ultimately led to nothing – Epstein abandoned the idea due to fears over security – and the resulting album, 1966’s Revolver, was recorded back at Abbey Road like the majority of their work. It sounds like a match made in heaven though. “Who knows what it would have sounded like had we recorded it at Stax,” ponders Cropper.  Paul McCartney’s soulful Got To Get You Into My Life, covered here by Booker T. & The M.G.s, remains Revolver’s only glimpse of how close the Beatles came to recording a soul and R&B-influenced album in 1966.

The liner notes do make a glaring omission, however. Of all the records in the world, this really was the place to mention that John Lennon used to jokingly refer to the Stax house-band as Book-A-Table & The Maitre-D’s.

Hit: Day Tripper (Alternate Take) – Otis Redding

Hidden Gem: Something – Isaac Hayes

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2019 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked From Worst To Best

Oscars Academy AwardsAround this time every year, I write about my picks for the Best Picture nominees. This is the third year running I’ve done this (after the 2017 and 2018 awards) and it’s something I’ve really started looking forward to.

It seems to be a really shallow pool this year, with all of the major awards being spread across a relatively low number of films. I usually struggle to watch all of the Best Picture nominees in time before the awards (given New Zealand’s position in the world when it comes to release schedules), but this year I’ve managed to watch almost all of the films nominated in all the major categories.

The only films I’ve yet to see are If Beale Street Could Talk (nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress) and Cold War (nominated for Best Director). Still, it’s the best I’ve done for years. I’ve seen everything else nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and everything else in the acting and writing categories. It’s good timing too, as this is the first time in years I’ll be able to watch the awards live on TV – it’s been wrestled away from Sky TV and is being broadcast on Free-To-Air in New Zealand. I’ve taken the afternoon off on Monday so I can watch it all by myself. I told my boss that this is my Cup Final, and would happily sit in the pub watching it if I could, drinking beers and shouting “You’re not singing, you’re not singing, you’re not singing anymore!” at the screen (a chant that could be utilised when people lose out in the awards, and also when people finish singing the musical numbers).

Before we get to my pick of the year’s 30 (!) honourable mentions, here’s my ranking of the Best Picture nominees, from worst to best:

Black Panther

8th: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

As many have pointed out, this wasn’t even the best Marvel film to be released last  year. I’m all for genre films starting to get nominated for Best Picture again – it used to happen in the 1970s before the ‘message’ films of the 1980s started to focus the Academy’s gaze – but if you’re going to do it, at least pick a better film.

Last August, the Academy announced a new category – Outstanding Achievement In Popular Film – such was their desire to recognize this film (before changing their minds following a public outcry that it trivialised the awards). Their need to recognise Black Panther, for its predominately African-American cast, together with it being the highest-grossing film of all time by a black director, seems to be a purely political move. This is very strange in a year when multiple nominations awarded to BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk would have spared the Academy from any accusations of white-washing.

As a result of their misplaced focus on making sure Black Panther gets some awards attention, the Academy has completely overlooked female directors. Susanne Bier (Bird Box), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Dorota Kobiela (Loving Vincent), Lynne Ramsey (You Were Never Really Here), Josie

Rourke (Mary Queen Of Scots) and Chloe Zhao (The Rider) were all overlooked for both Best Director and Best Picture. I don’t think there should be a quota in place to ensure female and black directors are recognized. It should be a meritocracy, and each one of these films is a far better picture than Ryan Coogler’s superhero film.

Black Panther: A marvel only in its mediocrity.

Bohemian Rhapsody7th: Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, 2018)

I’ve already written at length about my problems with this film. I’m kind of jealous that everybody enjoyed it so much, but the historical inaccuracies just overshadowed everything in my eyes. Maybe if I didn’t already know so much about Queen, I might have enjoyed it. The attention thrown at Rami Malek in the acting categories is also surprising. His low energy / none-existent charisma just doesn’t translate, and a pair of false teeth does not a Freddie Mercury make.

Green Book6th: Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018)

A film about racism for stupid people.

 

A Star Is Born5th: A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

Having avoided the original 1936 version, the 1954 remake with Judy Garland, and the most recent 1976 version, I didn’t really know what to expect with A Star Is Born. The Joy Of Sex poster for the 1976 version, featuring a naked Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, just put me off watching any of them. It almost put me off cinema for good. I didn’t rush to see this one either, as I met somebody late last year who spoiled the ending within minutes of us being introduced. Yeah, thanks.

It seems an odd choice for a Best Picture nomination. Even with a brand new script, the simple fact that three versions of the film already exist suggests that innovation and originality isn’t a high priority for Academy voters. It’s a joke that this film was nominated when other more deserving films – First Man in particular – were overlooked.

Still, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga turn in fine performances, and the music is solid enough. 2009’s Crazy Heart – surely a point of reference for debut director and co-writer Cooper – was a far better film in a similar vein.

BlacKkKlansman4th: BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018)

I’m hot and cold about Spike Lee. Once you get beyond his first couple of seminal films (joints?), his hit rate really starts to suffer. For every Inside Man (brilliant!), there’s a Summer Of Sam (laughable!). Advance word of BlacKkKlansman was strong, and despite me initially getting it mixed up with a Dave Chappelle sketch about a blind black man joining the Klan, I really enjoyed it.

In the lead role, John David (son of Denzel) Washington shows he has a bright future, Adam Driver is as watchable as ever, and it was great to see Topher Grace back in the spotlight playing the slimy KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. What a dumbass.

Roma3rd: Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

Cuarón was the first Mexican-born director to win Best Director (for 2013’s Gravity), and while it looks very likely that he’ll repeat that accolade this year, a Best Picture win would actually make him the third Mexican winner in the last five years (following Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillmero del Toro).

Roma is a beautiful film. Beautifully shot, beautifully acted and beautifully told. The fact that it’s possible to see such a film on a streaming service is either a positive or a negative, depending on how you look at it. While it’s availability on Netflix massively increases its potential audience, ultimately it could mean that future art-house films will follow this down the path of least resistance: streaming rather than screening.

Joint 1st: The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018) and Vice (Adam McKay, 2018)

The Favourite

I was so impressed by both of these films, that I just can’t separate them. On one hand, you have bizarro Greek director Yorgos “is as good as mine” Lanthimos with period black comedy The Favourite, his follow-up to The Lobster (yay!) and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (nay!). On the other hand, you have Adam McKay’s Dick Chaney biopic Vice, his follow-up to The Big Short.

Vice

Both films are served by incredible acting performances. In McKay’s film, Best Actor nominee Christian Bale puts in a career-best performance (in a career full of career-best performances), inhabiting the role of Vice President Dick Cheney, with Best Supporting nods to Sam Rockwell (George W. Bush) and Amy Adams (Lynne Chaney). While in Lanthimos’ film, British national treasure Olivia Colman (Queen Anne) is nominated for Best Actress, with both Rachel Weisz (Sarah Churchill) and Emma Stone (Abigail Masham) up for Best Supporting Actress.

The Favourite A

Both films are nominated for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (Adam McKay for Vice, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara for The Favourite), and Best Film Editing (Hank Corwin for Vice and Yorgos “is as good as mine whether I can make this same joke twice” Mavropsaridis for The Favourite). A couple of additional nominations in Production Design, Cinematography, Costume Design round out The Favourite, while Vice also picks up a nomination for Makeup & Hairstyling.

The reason it’s so hard to choose between the two films is that in addition to everything else, they’re both very strong in defying convention. I’d usually run a mile from a historical period drama and a political biopic, but The Favourite and Vice transcend their respective genres. The Favourite is more concerned with the interplay between its three principals and a few choice insults (“You look like a badger”), while Vice borrows the fourth-wall narrative framework of The Big Short with Jesse Plemons explaining Cheney’s actions to the audience in bite-size chunks.

I really like the fact that The Favourite is spelt with a ‘u’, and the use of Elton John’s lovely harpsichord ballad Skyline Pigeon (from his oft-overlooked 1969 debut album) almost makes up for the horrible typeface they used on the closing credits.

Mark Gatiss and Nicholas Hoult round out the cast of The Favourite, but the supporting cast of Vice is something else. Alongside Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell leads a supporting cast including Alfred Molina, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry and Alison Pill.

Vice A

Bale looks, sounds and acts incredibly like Cheney – stopping mere inches short of over-egging his mannerisms, and the rest of Bush’s White House administration look just as authentic. Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice all look fantastic and as close to the real thing as you could get.

Both films deal with what goes on behind the doors of power. But the fact that we’re all still living with the consequences of Cheney’s actions makes Vice all the more frightening, and for that it’s the most important film of the year.

Honourable Mentions

 

Here are my other favourite (eligible) films from the year (in alphabetical order):

Honourable Triptych 1

American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018) – True story retelling of a group of college kids carrying out a major robbery. Part-documentary, part-heist thriller, it’s narrated by the participants themselves. The story is told in a really clever way, dealing with differing viewpoints and conflicting memories.

Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018) – The year of the Netflix movie got underway with this creepy sci-fi mystery, directed by the author of The Beach and screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine.

At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel, 2018) – Willem Defoe turns in a career-best performance as Vincent Van Gogh during his final years. Aside from some over-egged camera-work and editing, I really enjoyed this poetic struggle between natural beauty and personal insanity.

Honourable Triptych 2

Bad Time At The El Royale (Drew Goddard, 2018) – After 2012’s excellent Cabin In The Woods, Drew Goddard was definitely somebody to watch out for. Like his previous film, he has again scripted another interesting story set in a locked-off location. A messy waste of a second half, but the Tarantino-esque set-up in the first half is just glorious.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2018) – Another Netflix movie, this anthology film sees the Coens return to the western genre (after 2010’s True Grit); although aren’t all Coen Brothers films westerns to an extent? Some episodes resonate stronger than others, but a solid watch all the same.

Beast (Michael Pearce, 2017) – Hauntingly beautiful romantic thriller set on the island of Jersey. Stellar performances from leads Jessie Buckley and muso Johnny Flynn.

Bird Box (Susanne Bier, 2018) – Yet another Netflix offering, Sandra Bullock stars in a tense thriller somewhere between The Walking Dead and A Quiet Place. It feels very strange for Susanne Bier to direct a genre film, but I’ll take it. Features a great score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who seem to score every film these days).

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018) – Wonderful true story account of author Lee Israel making ends meet by faking letters from literary giants. I spent the entire film imagining that Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock was a later-in-life Montague H. Withnail, as the timeline sort of works out. It’s been fantastic to see Grant so enthused to be nominated (for Best Supporting Actor), posting selfies on Instagram with everybody he’s gleefully met on the awards circuit.

Chappaquiddick (John Curran, 2017) – Australian actor Jason Clarke is good in anything you put him in, and he shines here as Senator Ted Kennedy, underachieving younger brother to John F. and Robert. A low-key examination of a major cover-up by one of the most powerful politic families in history.

Honourable Triptych 4

Death Wish (Eli Roth, 2018) – Being a fan of the original Charles Bronson films, I wasn’t looking forward to this; surely another pointless remake. My low hopes were rewarded with an enjoyable slice of b-movie action, in a revitalised revenge / vigilantism genre (Taken, The Equalizer, Mandy, Revenge) that shows no signs of stopping.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (Gus Van Sant, 2018) – Joaquin Phoenix keeps on circling that Best Actor Oscar with this, his portrayal of disabled cartoonist John Callahan. After losing out for Walk The Line (2005) and The Master (2012), could this be his year?

First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018) – You can smell the grease and hear the rattle of the 1960s technology that (allegedly!) put man on the moon, in this superb biopic of Neil Armstrong. His second collaboration with Chazelle, Ryan Gosling mumbles his way through the perfect film for him – as much a meditation on the grief of losing a child, as a celebration of the technological advances of mankind. A crime this wasn’t nominated for Best Picture.

Honourable Triptych 5

Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, 2018) – Documentary following the ‘will he / won’t he’ climbing of El Capitan without ropes by Alex Honnold. As gripping (credit to my wife) and tense as cinema gets, this was a very, very hard watch.

Game Night (Jeff Tomsic, 2018) – Hollywood has made some really solid comedies in the last decade – Horrible Bosses, 21 Jump Street, We’re The Millers – and Game Night continues the tradition (last year’s Tag was also a good watch). Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams and friends get involved in a murder mystery they think is just a game, but turns out to be very real.

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018) – Hollywood horror has been largely overshadowed by stronger foreign films for most of the last ten years, preferring instead to shovel up predictable jump-scares and pointless remakes. Hereditary is a return to form and something far more real and disturbing. Marketed as ‘this generation’s Exorcist’, it’s more of a retread of Rosemary’s Baby. So good, I re-watched it almost immediately; psychological horror done right.

Honourable Triptych 6

Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, 2018) – A sequel to the best Pixar film so far could have been a mistake, but under the same director in Brad Bird, it just about works despite some messy plotting in the final act.  The absence of the definite article in the title is disappointing though.

Instant Family (Sean Anders, 2018) – Solid comedy with its heart in the right place, despite the usual amount of Hollywood schmaltz. Gets close to doing for comedies what 2017’s The Big Sick did for rom-coms.

Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018) – Subtle drama about a war veteran and his teenage daughter attempting to live off the grid. Ben Foster – as fantastic as always – shines alongside newcomer (and New Zealander) Thomasin McKenzie.

Honourable Triptych 7

Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela / Hugh Welchman, 2017) – The last 12 months have been a drought in terms of trips to the cinema. Kids, work and other things have got in the way. One of my biggest regrets is not catching this on the big screen. Beautifully hand-painted, this rotoscope-style animation tells the tragic tale of Van Gogh’s short life. Part mystery, part love-letter to the Grandfather of modern art.

mid90s (Jonah Hill, 2018) – A nostalgic tribute to the skate-culture of his youth, Jonah Hill has written and directed an impressive first film.  Another score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross alongside hip-hop gems from the period.

Mile 22 (Peter Berg, 2018) – Peter Berg has made some really solid action films with Mark Wahlberg – Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day – and this is their fourth collaboration, with a fifth due later this year. This one finds Wahlberg’s CIA team tasked with moving a high-priority asset twenty-two miles through a South East Asian city. As tense as thrillers get.

Honourable Triptych 9

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018) – The Cruiser’s Mission: Impossible films should have run out of steam by now. Despite the wet squib that was John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2, the rest of the series has been fantastic, and this sixth film didn’t disappoint. Features a brawl in a men’s restroom that might just be the best action sequence I saw all year. Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson: take note.

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018) – The horror community seems to be divided on whether this qualifies as a horror film or not. Who cares when the film’s this good? John ‘Jim From The Office’ Krasinski stars and directs his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, as their family try to survive in silence after an alien invasion.

Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018) – Presented entirely via computer and smartphone screens, this shouldn’t work. After a few scenes you just get used to it, as you follow John (Harold, of Harold & Kumar fame) Cho’s frantic search for his missing daughter. Pitched as the first ever mainstream Hollywood thriller to star an Asian-American actor (my blind ignorance doubted that at first, but it seems to be correct), this innovative film treads similar ground to Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013) and offers a horrifying peak at how such events unfold in today’s digital world.

Honourable Triptych 8

Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018) – Japanese drama about an odd family unit living in poverty. Has the same, shuffling pace as something like 1953’s Tokyo Story, but deals with the social class at the other end of the spectrum. The gradually unfolding explanation of who everybody is, in relation to everybody else, is really well handled.

Sorry To Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018) – Nuts dark comedy about a young black man who puts on a white voice to excel in his telemarketing job. I stayed on the ride as long as I could, but it lost me in its final third.

Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, 2018) – Remake of Dario Argento’s seminal horror places the action in 1977, the year of the original film’s release. Dakota Johnson joins a dance academy in divided Berlin, where all is not as it seems. Quite a muted film for a horror…until its roaring finale.

Honourable Triptych 10

Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (Peter Rida Michail / Aaron Horvath, 2018) – An incredibly fun blast through a thousand pop-culture superhero references, this requires multiple viewings to catch everything. A great fart joke in the first few minutes sets the ball rolling nicely, as all fart jokes should.

Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018) – Engrossing documentary which first marvels about the bond between identical triplets separated at birth, but then leaves you seething at mankind for the actions of those pulling the strings.

You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017) – After 2002’s excellent Morvern Callar, and the success of 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, we had to wait another six years to see what Lynne Ramsay would do next. This taut, gritty thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix fits somewhere between Taxi Driver (1976) and Drive (2011). The role couldn’t be any different to Pheonix’s part in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, but while Ramsay’s film won him the Best Actor at Cannes last year, it seems too much of a leftfield choice for the Academy.

My Picks For The 24

Finally, here are my picks for what the Academy will actually vote for on the night. I’ll try to remember to mark these next year to see how close I got!

Eight A.jpegBest Picture: The Favourite

Best Director: Roma

Best Actor: Christian Bale

Best Actress: Olivia Colman

Best Supporting Actor: Adam Driver

Best Supporting Actress: Emma Stone

Best Original Screenplay: Vice

Best Adapted Screenplay: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

 

Best Animated Feature Film: Isle Of Dogs

Best Foreign Language Film: Roma

Best Documentary – Feature: Free Solo

Best Documentary – Short Subject: Lifeboat

Eight BBest Live Action Short Film: Skin

Best Animated Short Film: Bao

Best Original Score: If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Original Song: Shallow from A Star Is Born

Best Sound Editing: First Man

Best Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Production Design: The Favourite

Best Cinematography: Roma

Best Makeup And Hairstyling: Vice

Best Costume Design: The Favourite

Best Film Editing: Vice

Best Visual Effects: Ready Player One