Being human

FireAtSeaSamuele

There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.

FireAtSeaboys

Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.

FireAtSeadoc

There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.

FireAtSeaSamueleland

Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.

FireAtSeaposter

I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

Commie Roots

ASayleThatcherStole

Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016

2015: out with “new”

DSCN1777

To paraphrase the Electric Light Orchestra, the big wheel keeps on turning. But before 2015 winds down and 2016 rattles into view, I thought I’d reflect on the old year with a stock-take of new experiences I have notched up since January 1. This may not be a long list, as life tends to solidify into routine when you pass 40 unless it doesn’t, and fresh experiences are rarer. This also makes them more cherishable.

HotChipWhyMakeSense

For the record, these are my cultural roundups of the year, now patted into shape after a few last-minute additions, the incorrigible bean-counter that I am.

I didn’t do the year in theatre or gigs as I didn’t step foot inside a theatre in 2015, and only attended one live show, albeit a splendid one, and a new experience, so let’s start there.

classicfmlive

  • Classic FM Live | I have been to a classical concert before – the then-controller of Radio 2 invited me to a Prom when I was at 6 Music – and I’ve been to the Royal Albert Hall countless times, albeit usually to see rock or pop in the line of duty (Elton John, Echo & The Bunnymen, the Manics), and once, a ballet. This was my first Classic FM concert, and my first time seeing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of their Principal Conductor Vasily Petrenko. It was their 175th anniversary year and a very special night – also, my initiation into the rites of Classic FM, my new employer, who provided a box, and sat me with a selection of Lords (who were the first peers I have ever met). I loved seeing the young pianist Ji Liu doing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, and it was fun to see James Galway playing a selection of favourites, as I had actually heard of him! I would say that the explosive rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture by the RLPO was a musical highlight of 2015. (I also saw my pal Justin Moorhouse live; he was on terrific form in Edinburgh – arguably his best – but this is not the first time I have seen him so does not count as a “new” experience. If I hadn’t been working in Edinburgh, I might have seen a few more shows and chosen them less conservatively.)

ACsaturday-night-at-the-movies

  • Saturday Night At The Movies | One thing I didn’t foresee when this year began was a new job on the near horizon. Since my tenure at 6 Music ran out in 2012, I’ve relied on the occasional Front Row nod to keep my voice on the radio, but the wireless took a back seat. When the eminent Howard Goodall announced that he would no longer be able to present Classic FM’s weekly film programme Saturday Night at the Movies (due to having a West End musical to write and oversee), I didn’t expect to be asked to audition for the gig. I leaped at the chance. And, after a couple of tryouts in late 2014, I found myself royally announced in February as a new, contracted Classic FM presenter. My first show was on March 7, and I’ve been on pretty much every Saturday thereafter, a new experience all round. I’ve been on commercial radio stations as a guest (I’ve even reviewed the papers on Nick Ferrari’s LBC breakfast show, which is in the same building as Classic, and is owned by the same media company, Global), but I’ve never presented on one, and it’s a whole new ballgame, and I feel incredibly proud to slot in between the august likes of John Suchet, Alexander Armstrong and Charlotte Green. My appreciation of classical music, and movie music, has been vastly expanded and refined over the year and the experience has given so much back. I’ve also loved discovering videogame music (which we also cover), and becoming an evangelist for it, and communicating with the listeners and movie music fans via social media. One new thing I’ve discovered is how appreciative composers are when you play their music on the radio – as, frankly, movie music doesn’t get much of a look in. I genuinely feel as if I am offering a public service.

DSCN1980

  • County Cork | I’ve been to Cork before, but it’s not a county I know as well as I know Galway, or Kerry, and this year’s holiday in Glengarriff was a highlight of 2015, and packed with the new! First time in Glengarriff itself, a tidy harbour town, and first time to neighbouring Bantry, a metropolis by comparison, and a surefire spot for picking up the Guardian of a morning. We also visited Garinish Island by boat, saw seals in repose and dolphins at play along the way, and drove through the pretty Bandon, where Graham Norton was raised (and which has named a river walk after its most famous son). The waterwheel in the large photo above is in Bantry.

ACRABCRadioTimesCP2015

  • Nice people | My job, when writing, can be solitary. However, over the last few years, hosting has grown into a more significant string to my professional bow. My fourth consecutive year at the Edinburgh TV Festival, hosting Q&As and screenings both public and industry-only, was another blast, but something of a regular event for me. What’s always new about the job is the sparkling parade of people I get to meet and talk to in the name of work. I’ve upped my work-rate for UKTV this year with events for channels Watch and Dave that have been among my favourites. And among those new people I’ve met and green-roomed with have been: Ron Perlman and the cast of Hand Of God; the band Glasvegas (unexpected stars of the reality show Singing In The Rainforest); Monica Galetti of Masterchef: The Professionals; Roger Allam (pictured, with Barry Cryer, as voluble as ever, at January’s Radio Times Covers Party); Myleene Klass (also a colleague now); Charlie Simpson of Busted; Peter Kosminsky, who I interviewed as part of a BBC staff morale-boosting day in Salford, where I met DG Tony Hall for the first time too, too; the entire dramatis personae of Gogglebox as it stood after series 5 (minus Steph and Dom, who were busy), with special mention for the lovable and witty Giles and Mary, with whom I caroused at the Radio Times Festival before interviewing them in a freezing cold tent in front of an audience who doggedly refused to throw in the towel and seek warmth elsewhere; it was, naturally, a boyhood dream come true when I interviewed Harrison Ford in the flesh for Classic FM, in December – a hell of a way to end my Zelig year.

SkyAtlanticGherkinCharlieJordanA

  • Such thing as a free lunch | Sky Atlantic invited me, along with other gentlefolk of the press, to dinner at the top of the Gherkin in the City of London (a building that now stands as a paragon of architectural modesty in the gruesome shadows of the Shard and the Walkie Talkie), which was another first for 2015. I also discovered for the first time that the SD memory card in my knackered old phone sometimes erases all your photos for a laugh, never to be recovered. This pic was taken by Charlie Jordan. It was a fabulous evening, with a top view, and we were there to watch exclusive clips from The Last Panthers, which turned out to be one of the TV dramas of the year, luckily. UKTV also kindly invited me to a noisy Christmas press lunch at Mossiman’s, the “private dining club”, my first time there as well, although fine dining is not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s no point putting on airs and graces if you have tacky, framed pictures on the wall of all the celebrities who’ve privately dined there!

Dec2015A

That’s it for the new. It’s already old, so let’s throw it out with the neither new nor old. I’ve totted it up and I saw 140 films in 2015 that I hadn’t seen before, of which 97 were released in 2015. Nothing to trouble Mark Kermode but I pay to the go to the cinema and he doesn’t have to. And in any case, that’s quite a bit of new. I’ve also started to try and pronounce the word “new” properly, having noticed that it still comes out as the flat Northamptonian “noo” on the radio, when I prefer to to hear it exit my lips to rhyme with “phew”. Just goes to show that, even at 50, you’re not finished yet, and there’s more to do, things to improve and refine. I’ve blogged only intermittently this year, but not through want of things that enrage and engage me. May things do both once again in the new year. I am definitely getting more left wing as I get older, which I wholeheartedly welcome.

 

2015: the year in books

TheUnwindingGPackerCapitalFrankDerrickholISISbookTheCorrectionsTheEstablishmentInternetisNot2ALoverSingsRoomEmmaDonoghue

The traditional composite illustration above – which is always fetching, a smart line of book covers – might convey to the untrained eye that I have chosen nine of my favourite books from this year. In fact, it depicts 100% of all the books I read this year. And of those books, only four were published this year. This, if you’re a regular browser, is fairly typical. I’m not a voracious book-reader, certainly not like I used to be, but I always blame that with cast-iron certainty on the New Yorker, and this year has been no different. (One of the books up there, The Unwinding, is by a New Yorker writer, but I find I’m still slogging through it. I haven’t given up yet, though, which is why it’s still pictured, and still by my bedside.)

Capital

Three of them, I read on holiday, during an intensive fortnight of downtime. It’s what holidays are for (something I’d forgotten). All three were old, not that it matters, and two of them novels. I found Capital compulsive to begin with, as it’s set in a street in South London, which is my quarter, at the time of the 2008 crash, which I lived through, but felt the thriller element was a distraction from the social history and by the end I was reading out of a sense of dogged loyalty. When it appeared on TV last month, I was able to pick fault with the adaptation in a way that I am never normally qualified to do. Room, I purchased because I was due to see a preview of the film, by Lenny Abrahamson, and fancied seeing how it worked on the page. Brilliantly. It’s my second favourite book of 2015 (it was published, and raved about by the rest of the readerati, in 2010, but I have never claimed to be a tastemaker). The film is out in January.

TheCorrections

My first favourite book was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a novel that took the world by storm in 2001. It’s been in our house for at least a couple of years, and the holiday enabled me to tackle it. I couldn’t put it down. But most people probably knew that already. I don’t care. It was a revelation, and not a book that should ever be turned into a film or a TV series (as was once mooted). It’s pure literature. It needs to be read, not adapted. Oddly, I followed up this edifying and electrifying experience by starting Freedom by the same author, and it just did not click with me. I put it down. Maybe, like Lionel Shriver, he has one masterpiece in him, which is one more than the rest of us.

ISISbook

The book about ISIS, one of many rushed out this year for obvious reasons, is a useful guide, but inevitably out of date already. I’ve appreciated it as a potted history, as much of it takes place after The 9/11 Wars and The Looming Tower, when al-Qaeda were the ones to watch.

 

Billy Bragg’s book is a compendium of his lyrics, and a lovely thing to have if you’re a fan. Jim Bob’s second Frank Derrick novel is a lovely, humane social comedy about ageing that really should be turned into a film or a TV series, and you don’t have to be a fan of his music (although why wouldn’t you be?) to appreciate its lyricality. Talking of being a fan, if a single image sums up my year in books, it’s this one.

GogglebookadJAL

It’s a thrill to be able to say I had a book out this year. My name may not be on the cover of the Gogglebook, but it’s in full view inside, and I really did write it, except for the bits that are taken from the TV show, clearly. If you’d like to order it but not from the biggest online bookshop in the world, this link takes you to Hive, and means you can send custom to a local bookshop, an initiative I fully support.

EndOfACentury

My name was on the cover of another book, too. Less mass-market, it’s an art book, End Of A Century, another beautifully designed and illustrated tome, which I was delighted to be asked to edit: a tribute to the amazing artwork of my late friend John Wrake, better known as Run, who died in October 2012. To research the book with his wife Lisa, who designed it and provided footnotes from his original notebooks and diaries, was a labour of love, and allowed us to spend two days in the NME’s archive in November 2014 (all the illustrations in the book are for the NME’s lead album review – I reprint one below). It’s a hefty chap, but something I’m proud to put my name to. You can order it and sample some more of Run’s work here.

1995_blur_liveatthebudokan

Not as bookish a year as it might have been, but full of words and pictures.

Film 2013: great beauty

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.beyond_the_hillsSpring+Breakersthe-great-beauty2Frances-Hagravity-cuaronBlue-is-the-Warmest-Colorblackfishbig i-wish

As I write, it’s not quite yet the very end of the year, but my records indicate that I have seen 153 films in 2013 – that is, 153 films I’ve never seen before (which includes films I’ve seen but never before seen on the big screen, such as Manhattan, Aguirre Wrath Of God and Chinatown). Of those 153, 122 have been films released in 2013. If I were an actual film critic, I’d be seeing around seven a week. But I’m not one. So I’m calling 153 a decent tally. But never mind the width, feel the quality.

Here are my Top 30 in order. I’ve eschewed qualitative ordering in my entries for TV, books and albums, but I feel more confident about films as I log them as I go, and enter a star symbol next to any that stand out from the pack. This makes it easier to sift them. Frankly, the Top 10 rose effortlessly to the top, but the next 20 confirm that it was a damn good year.

1. The Great Beauty | Paolo Sorrentino | Italy
2. All Is Lost | JC Chandor | US
3. Gravity | Alfonso Cuarón | US/UK
4. Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
5. Compliance | Craig Zobel | US
6. Beyond The Hills | Cristian Mungiu | Romania
7. I Wish | Hirokazu Koreeda | Japan
8. Spring Breakers | Harmony Korine | US
9. Blue Is The Warmest Colour | Abdellatif Kechiche | France
10. Frances Ha | Noah Baumbach | US

11. Mea Maxima Culpa | Alex Gibney | US
12. Silence | Pat Collins | Ireland
13. Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | US
14. Nebraska | Alexander Payne | US
15. Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
16. A Field In England | Ben Wheatley | UK
17. Mud | Jeff Nichol | US
18. The Selfish Giant | Clio Barnard | UK
19. Shell | Scott Graham | UK
20. No | Pablo Larrain | Chile
21. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | US
22. Captain Philips | Paul Greengrass | US
23. Parkland | Peter Landesman | US
24. Blue Jasmine | Woody Allen | US
25. Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | US
26. What Richard Did | Lenny Abrahamson | Ireland
27. Stories We Tell | Sarah Polley | Canada
28. The Place Beyond The Pines | Derek Cianfrance | US
29. In The Fog | Sergei Loznitsa | Russia
30. A Hijacking | Tobias Lindholm | Denmark

Some thoughts. Four documentaries in the Top 30 (and one in the Top 10) says something powerful about the continued relevance of non-fiction. (The Act Of Killing topped many a critic’s poll in Sight & Sound; for me, it was a unique film, but not one I actually enjoyed.) And two Irish films in the Top 10, too, which has to be a first, and a welcome one. I note that only half my Top 30 are American, which feels like a significant victory for “the rest of the world” as Hollywood accountants call it – although I only did a Top 20 last year and less than half were American, so who knows? On a geographical note, Gravity is apparently “British” enough to qualify for a British Bafta nomination in 2014, as it was shot here and Alfonso Cuarón has dual UK citizenship.

For the record, the following films also received a star under my yes-or-no rating system this year, so they merit an honourable mention. More documentaries, and two more Irish films!

Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | US
This Is 40 | Judd Apatow | US
For Ellen | So Yong Kim | US
The Spirit of ’45 | Ken Loach | UK
Arbitrage | Nicholas Garecki | US
Reality | Matteo Garrone | Italy/France
Neighbouring Sounds | Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil
Good Vibrations | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | Ireland
The Gatekeepers | Dror Moreh | Israel/France/Germany/Belgium
Spike Island | Mat Whitecross | UK
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Easy Money | Daniél Espinosa | Sweden
Behind The Candelabra | Steven Soderbergh | US
The World’s End | Edgar Wright | UK
Before Midnight | Richard Linklater | US
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa | Declan Lowney | UK
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks | Alex Gibney | US
The Deep | Baltasar Kormákur | Iceland
Fire In The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster | Antony Wonke | UK
Hawking | Stephen Finnigan | UK
Oblivion | Joseph Kosinski | US
What Maisie Knew | Scott McGhee, David Siegel | US
Mister John | Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ireland/Singapore
Leviathan | Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | US

A final postscript: I didn’t get to see Philomena this year, which leaves an obvious gap as I suspect I will like it.

Kazoogazing

MBVcover

Better late than never. And I actually mean that. It has been 22 years since My Bloody Valentine released their second album, Loveless, and I dispatched myself to interview Kevin Shields, Deb Googe, Bilinda Butcher and Colm Ó Cíosóig at the Mitcham home of their manager, for the attendant NME cover story. It wasn’t an easy interview, but then, they weren’t an easy band, and they didn’t make easy records. They stood alone, despite being roped into a fabricated “scene”, cheekily christened Shoegazing. (It was the effects-driven, languidly-paced, pale-faced guitar bands who bloomed in MBV’s wake who really deserved the tag. Oh, and we gave one of them a cover, too – Chapterhouse – a notoriously poor-selling issue, as I recall, despite a decent story written on the road in the States and a fantastic coverline: “Here’s Looking At Shoe, Kid.”)

I fell in love with My Bloody Valentine on first listen, which will have been Strawberry Wine on the Lazy label’s EP of the same name in 1987. Not their first release – I can’t claim to have been in at the ground floor, but then, I was never a tastemaker – but my first listen. It was, of course, You Made Me Realise, in August 1988, that took them to a new level of originality and raw power, and if you weren’t smitten then, you were never going to be a convert.

I had arrived at the NME by the summer of ’88, and, as a result, from my vantage point within the citadel, their subsequent releases arrived, for free, in 12-inch record envelopes from Creation, with my name on. (I would have bought them had my life taken a different turning.) I only saw the band live once, which was at the Town & Country Club in December 1991 on the Loveless tour, but it blew my mind, as promised. (Our deputy editor, Danny Kelly, had been to see them at the beginning of the tour to review, and claimed that during the now-legendary ear-bleeding take on You Made Me Realise, his plastic pint glass flew off the edge of the balcony through the sheer sonic force. We believed him.)

I still hold Loveless to be one of the great albums of all time, never mind one of the great albums of its era. Though it has individual tracks – and a single, in the rave-inflected Soon, which Shields neatly calibrated at the end – it’s one of digitally recorded music’s most persuasive arguments for the Long Player. I had MBV’s early releases on vinyl, but Loveless arrived on CD, and it feels tailor-made for the single listen. You can’t shuffle it. (Well, you can, but you shouldn’t, you philistine.)

My_Bloody_Valentine_-_MBVSo, to their third album. (Not a sentence I thought I’d write in my lifetime. Certainly not until the band reformed for those Roundhouse shows in 2008 and Shields started dropping tantalising hints about the record they’d started in 1996 being “three-quarters” finished!) Titled, annoyingly but with scorched-earth defiance, m b v, it arrived on February 2 with almost no fanfare, like the David Bowie single. But would it be any good? I only got my hands on it two days ago, but I’m here to tell you that it was worth the wait – a wait, lest we forget, during which you could have given birth to a child and watched him or her leave home for university.

Due to the arse-over-tit way I uploaded the album from WAV files to iTunes – and because of the unbearably non-intuitive, counterproductive latest version of iTunes, particularly its search facility – the first time I fired it up from the laptop, it would only play randomly, which was a crime against humanity. I’ve fixed this now. Fortunately, my maiden listen was via my iPod, where it plays in order. So when I’ve been listening to it in transit – and it really suits gazing not at shoes but out of train or bus windows – I’ve experienced it as a whole, in full, from one end to the other. It’s a glorious piece that runs to about 46 minutes over nine tracks. (Loveless runs a little longer, but over 11 tracks.)

Along the way, considering the langorous timeframe, during which time dictatorships have been toppled and wars begun and ended, not so much has changed in the My Bloody Valentine universe. The palette of multiple slightly and not-so-slightly distorted guitars, washed over with sounds that appear to have emanated from synths but, unless the Shields manifesto has changed, won’t have done, is recognisable. (Their tricks have been much copied, and adapted, but still nobody sounds like them.) While the dancey nature of Soon bamboozled us in 1991, it’s the jaunty nature of New You that’s the album’s most generous, head-turning surprise. While opening salvos She Found Now and Only Tomorrow remind us of Loveless, New You, brilliantly named, reminds me of Can’s I Want More in feel, and adds a bona fide bounce to proceedings, as Butcher coos somewhere in the middle distance. It’s a cornerstone track. You have to hear it.

Elsewhere, the drone, screech and aerobatic stream are present and correct, and uneasy listening is the captivating result. If someone listened to m b v, or Loveless, and declared it “noise”, you wouldn’t argue with them. It is. But a beautiful noise, as Neil Diamond might have had it. And nor would you try to convert them. For many, this music will go in one ear and, eventually, out of the other. Presumably this is why, with all the hype and expectation, Loveless only got to 24 in the charts 22 years ago. You really do need to tune in, and if not, walk out.

The changes are subtle. An optimism seems to come out in the vocal in Who Sees You, although I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it. Is This And Yes bears the unmistakable addition of a keyboard pulse, atop which the vocals positively glisten. If I Am cruises along on a ragged snare beat with woozy vocals that almost take it into Stereolab country. The rhythm on In Another Way is furious – albeit tempered by the balm of Butcher’s serenade. Not so on the instrumental Nothing Is, where this same rhythm is almost repeated but to a much grungier end. Most adjustments, though, are closer to imperceptible. But then, it wasn’t broke, so why fix it? (For alphabetical reasons, when the album ends on iTunes, it goes straight into the mechanically rhythmic Machine Gun by Portishead. A sympathetic transition, actually.)

Yes, m b v sounds like the entire sonic cathedral has been filtered through a single kazoo, but the genius of that! And it ends with a mighty six-minute track that seems to have been sculpted from sampled train and plane noises, Wonder, which pretty much confirms my suspicions that it’s for listening to between A and B. Where Soon brought Loveless to an accessible close, Wonder might be the most difficult movement on m b v. It climbs and climbs as if barreling up a mountain with no intention of coming back down.

I actually don’t mind if the fourth MBV album comes out in 2035, if it’s this good. I really, actually don’t.

Merry, gentlemen?

Robin Hood has been picking up some rave reviews since it premiered in Cannes. It’s out tomorrow. I saw it yesterday, but not in Cannes, and can thus report back without any chance of being influenced by a) the thrill of being on holiday, or b) the relief at seeing something in English with some exciting bits in it.

Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, it seems to have been greeted as a quasi-sequel to Gladiator, as if Crowe is playing a Blackadder-style Zelig figure whose ancestors crop up throughout history, looking and sound the same, and getting into scrapes. Well, who can blame people for having such expectations: Gladiator was, and remains, a fantastic example of the revivalist historical epic – old fashioned in tone and sincerity, but new fashioned in terms of camera technique and CGI embellishment. Crowe found his brand, and Scott put the seemingly unassailable, paradigm-shifting majesty of Alien and Bladerunner behind him. However, lest we forget, Crowe and Scott have re-teamed already, since Gladiator: for A Good Year, the belated cinematic vision of Peter Mayle’s Provence idyll, made because he and Scott are old Adland pals and neighbours in Luberon. The film was a piece of Sunday supplement froth. The sort of film that even those critics stationed for two weeks in the South of France would find insubstantial and silly.

So, is Robin Hood the new A Good Year? Well, guess what, it’s a massive improvement, in that Crowe plays a warrior rather than a corporate trader, but it’s also not as good as the critics in Cannes think it is. Certainly, you have to admire Scott for steering clear of CGI overkill and seemingly creating as much of the horse- and archery-based action for real. There’s way too much slo-mo, which for me is becoming the shortcut to high drama – you could film a market trader walking to Pret in slo-mo and it would seem more significant – but if an action blockbuster is stylish, who’s complaining. I ask this question: is the story any good? After all, it’s an enduring myth that has inspired filmmakers since the silent days, and indeed provided an excellent Saturday teatime kids’ remake a couple of years ago on BBC1.

So, it’s actually an “origins” story that – NOT REALLY A SPOILER ALERT – ends with Hood being outlawed by King John and with his “merry men” lined up in the trees of Sherwood Forest with their eye on the rich. This is fair enough – Batman Begins was terrific – but with the outcome preordained, does it deliver along the way? Well, there’s a complicated set-up, way too predicated on chance and a runaway horse for my liking, that involves Hood taking the identity of a Nottingham-based knight who has been killed by Evil Mark Strong and his French marauders. This leads him to Maid Marian, who’s as old as he is, and a showdown with the tax-collecting, grain-transporting military-agricultural complex.

If you’re expecting lots of Evil Sheriff of Nottingham, don’t – Matthew MacFadyen is wasted in the potentially juicy part, and only gets two scenes. Indeed, many fine British thesps get little to do, including Robert Pugh, Mark Addy, Gerard McSorley and – literally in one scene as a messenger – Steve Evets from Looking For Eric.

Ingmar Bergman’s old muse Max Von Sydow is imperial as the blind Sir Walter, but then he always is, and in much trashier films that something by Ridley Scott; Eileen Atkins is impeccable as Eleanour; and Cate Blanchett never phones anything in, but if I’m honest, it’s all a bit glum, a bit preoccupied with father-and-son issues and a bill of rights, and escalates in a manner that’s dramatically understandable but not narratively.

Sure, a film like this that trades on noise, bluster and spectacle has to up its game, and thus a few blokes firing arrows at some other blokes will not do in a post-Lord Of The Rings world of sieges and battlements and casts of thousands. Thus, it builds to an actual invasion of England by the dastardly French, all looking like Jay Rayner, which is staged like Saving Private Ryan except made of wood.

I could appreciate the spectacle of this coastal climax, but it felt nailed on, and required us to believe that a ragtag English army, geed up by the wandering English/Welsh/Scots/Irish accent of Robin in a speech designed to conjure Braveheart, could get to Dover in an afternoon. If I’m nitpicking then it’s only because I’d grown a little tired and underwhelmed by about 90 minutes in and there was over half an hour yet to run.

This is serviceable expensive modern cinema, handled with due confidence and frown, and maybe we should be grateful that the average age of its principal cast is so high and not be critical of the creaking bones of Crowe in a role that always spoke of lithe athleticism and Errol Flynn-like spark, but I’m afraid I was led up a path of great expectation by the men and ladies in Cannes that turned out to be muddy and difficult to pass.

Still, funny to see ginger Dr Morris from ER as Will Scarlet, who’s apparently Welsh now, although that’s an accent that’s even harder to pull off than Nottingham. I admire Crowe for attempting the full Shane Meadows by the way [I know he’s from Uttoxeter, but an American/Australian attempting the accent would be pleased if he was in the same land mass], but it’s so inconsistent you wish he’d rolled out the Richard Burton after a liquid lunch he essayed for Gladiator. Ah, another mention of that film.

Was I not entertained? Well, yes, but I wanted more.