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!
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.
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.’
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.
I really, really must get hold of some more Eurythmics. All the Eurythmics!
I’ve always been a fan of Annie Lennox’s amazing voice, and Dave Stewart’s keyboards and synthesisers, not to mention his general air of Fuck You.
But even now, starting my fourth decade in music, I only have this and two other records – 1984 (For The Love Of Big Brother) and Revenge. I’d like to think I would have been a fan if I had been born a little earlier – their brand of dark pop is the type of ‘80s music that resonates with me the most – but I do like to hear stories of their concerts here in New Zealand when they were at the height of their powers – their show at Western Springs in 1987 sounds like an absolute blast.
And as for Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) – what a banger. For some reason, it always makes me think of its use in a YouTube video I saw about 10 years ago, following a group of young fellas at the Wellington Rugby Sevens, as they tried to snog as many middle-aged ladies – *cough* cougars *cough* – as they could.
‘His arms and his legs are broken’ – what an opening, with Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Elijah Price, being born in the back room of a clothes shop in 1961. This definitely isn’t your average superhero film; it’s from the imagination of a career-peak M. Night Shyamalan, building on his 1999 breakthrough The Sixth Sense.
The film also marks a return to form for Bruce Willis, who had also starred in The Sixth Sense, but seemed to sleepwalk (zombie-walk?) through that role. Willis’ character here, David Dunn, is a compelling Everyman, although it’s a little hard to believe he’s only just realising in middle-age that he’s never ever been sick or injured.
The opening interplay between Dunn and the young lady on the train is filmed brilliantly – a one-shot from the perspective of the child peaking from the seat in front. Little flourishes like this highlight Night’s flair for camerawork; one of many quiet moments that will be rolled out when his work is inevitably reappraised.
The opening cue on James Newton Howard’s score suffers from a fairly horrific late-‘90s dance music beat. Coming in over the opening credits, it sounds like a b-side collaboration between Moby and All Saints, instantly dating the film in a way that West Dylan Thordson’s subsequent scores for Split and Glass have managed to avoid. The rest of Howard’s score is perfectly fine though, if a little repetitive and short on ideas.
It’s a pretty nice collaboration between composer and director. The score is equally romantic and haunting, immediately recalling the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Night’s love for Hitchcock is clear to see all the way through the film: the shot of Bruce walking back to his van – shot through the open windows of the van – is pure Hitchcock. The façade of the church he’s just exited is Hitchcockian enough, but the framing of the shot, the colour, and the composition is pure Hitch. As is the shot of Willis from behind, looking from the stadium tunnel, as he’s watching the football practice in the rain. Overall, the grain of this film is just great; it looks like it could have been made in the 1970s.
It’s such a great cast too – Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson together again, as though it’s Die Hard 3 Part II, and we also get a couple of House Of Cards alumni in Robin Wright and a short cameo by Michael Kelly. Even the 13-year old Spencer Treat Clark plays a blinder as Dunn’s inquisitive son.
The 1960s flashbacks to Jackson’s character growing up are designed brilliantly. The locations look authentic and lived in; not all shiny and brand new in the way some films get it wrong. The colour-scheme of the film is also noteworthy: the many green of Willis versus the stark purples of Jackson. When the two characters meet, the hieroglyphics behind Jackson are purple characters on green stone, and when Jackson meets Wright, the floor is a garish mixture of the two colours. Green and purple were chosen for being at opposite ends of the colour spectrum – to symbolise the good versus evil dynamic – but I wonder if purple was chosen for Jackson because in comic books African-American characters often have a purple hue on their skin when depicted at night. Other characters in the film are given other primary colours – for his inevitable cameo, director Night is dressed in a bright blue jacket, and the evil, housebreaking janitor wears a bright orange jumpsuit.
Aside from David Dunn’s troublesome memory when it comes to his own wellbeing, my other gripe with the film is the character’s moral compass. When he decides to start using his super-powers, he stands between strangers in the busy train station, but decides that petty theft and rape are crimes not worth pursuing. Come on Bruce, start at the bottom and work your way up to murder, maybe?
The other letdown is the surprisingly tepid title cards that flash up at the end of the film: ‘David Dunn led authorities to the art gallery and Elijah Price is now in an institution’. This feels like a total cop-out, but maybe something else is at play – perhaps the filmmakers ran out of money or time, or it could just be Night purposefully not giving us a twist ending – a trope that would become his trademark. Going against type is one thing though, this feels particularly underwhelming.
Dire Straits’ fourth studio album does little to suggest that their next record would catapult them into one of the biggest bands on the planet. In fact, it seems to do the opposite. Opening your latest offering with a 14-minute meandering epic in Telegraph Road isn’t the most commercial move a band can make. Following this with the equally epic 7-minute Private Investigations suggests that the band aren’t too bothered about getting played on the radio anymore.
While studio album number three (Making Movies) was the final time Mark Knopfler’s brother David contributed rhythm guitar to the band (although his parts were ultimately re-recorded by his brother), Love Over Gold represents the first appearance by new rhythm guitarist Hal Lindes. The absence of any familial bickering allows the elder Knopfler to do his thing, probably accounting for the long-form nature of the record.
Of the album’s five songs, the shortest is just shy of 6-minutes long. It’s definitely an epic, grandiose approach to songwriting Knopfler is taking, but it’s a real head-scratcher to contrast this to the cheese of Twisting By The Pool (already recorded by this point, but yet to be released) and Walk Of Life.