Review: La Di Da Di – Battles

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This piece was originally published on the 10th of September 2015 by The 405.

BBC Television Centre, November 2007. A virtually unknown band from New York City has been invited to perform on Later… with Jools Holland alongside the likes of Richard Thompson, Róisín Murphy, and Crowded House. They look completely out of place in such company, not at all unlike four nerdy A/V club kids trying to impress their parents with a daunting melange of effects pedals, electric guitars, synthesisers, laptops, and towering amplifiers (and not to mention the one solitary drum kit). They sound it, too, as the song they play is both incredibly complicated and aesthetically baffling – a whimsical amalgamation of glam, progressive rock, and all manner of other eccentricities. It’s a triumphant display of technical proficiency – a playful construction of syncopated rhythms, looping, and evolving melodies – but also a test of stamina at eight minutes long. With the exception of the drummer, each member has to juggle multiple responsibilities, but they seem overwhelmed by the task. The song isn’t being performed as much as fought; for all the band’s electronic equipment, it feels alive and untamed, refusing to sit still with the addition of new elements. They linger on a precipice of disaster until the song is finished with them, expending all their energy on maintaining a semblance of control, and when the house lights go up the audience goes fucking wild.

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Wes Craven 1939 – 2015

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This piece was originally published on the 1st of September 2014 by The 405. This was the first full obituary I wrote, and it was difficult for a couple of reasons. First, the news was deeply upsetting as I had a considerable amount of respect for Wes Craven and his work, which I hope comes across in the piece. Second, on a practical level, the rigorous demands of online publishing don’t really afford much time to craft the thorough, detailed consideration of the subject’s life and work that one would want to write. I think I did an adequate job here, although I really would have liked more time to research. He lived a hell of a life, I only wrote about a tiny slither of it here.

It’s strange to write about someone like Wes Craven in the past tense. The venerated director sadly died on Sunday at the age of seventy-six following a battle with brain cancer, but he still feels so present. A cliché, perhaps, but no less true of a director who left such an indelible mark on horror cinema, and on popular culture writ large. This is, after all, the director of such landmark films as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), and The Last House on the Left (1972). Had those films been made by three separate directors, they would each be regarded as legends among fans of horror cinema for having reinvented the genre; that he made all three, and countless other fascinating, idea-driven horrors throughout the last five decades, is a testament to his genius. Certainly, one of horror’s great voices has been lost, and our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.

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Review: Me – Empress Of

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This piece was originally published on the 1st of September 2015 by The 405.

“Can I get up off my knees, and find a rhythm of my own?” It’s an entirely rhetorical question, some necessary bile flung towards the stifling and unfulfilling partner of ‘Love Myself’, the seventh track on Lorely Rodriguez’s debut album as Empress Of, Me. It’s also, thematically speaking, one of the most significant statements to be found on a record that’s largely preoccupied with the process of finding one’s own rhythm.

Entirely self-produced, and conceived during a month of self-imposed exile in Mexico, Me was an intensely personal project for Rodriguez, one wrought from the extensive introspection that comes as a natural by-product of prolonged isolation. Each track is informed by specific memories and experiences, and whether she’s exploring various romantic relationships, contemplating loneliness, or lamenting the privileges that elude her as a woman of colour, she writes with the assuredness of a woman who truly know herself and the world around her. To be sure, the candour and brevity of her lyrics reveal a compelling, matter-of-fact confidence – a strength derived from a willingness to put oneself out there and embrace vulnerability. When singing about great sex on ‘How Do You Do It?’, for example, she bluntly acknowledges that “I forgot that I could let someone else fulfil me,” and in one line tells an entire story that’s at once devastating and empowering. Then there’s ‘Kitty Kat’, which has Rodriguez responding to a catcaller with an appropriately brutal “Don’t kitty kitty kat me like I’m just your pussy.” This is the kind of directness that leads an artist to title their début album Me, and it resounds throughout a record that is, unsurprisingly, all about its creator.

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Capsule Review; The Visit (2015, M. Night Shyamalan)

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This piece was written in September 2015 for the first and only issue of a magazine published by the University of Kent’s School of Arts.

Following the big-budget atrocities of After Earth and The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan has had to go back to basics with his new horror film, The Visit. Working with a meagre budget (by his standards) of $5 million, he eschews overwrought apocalyptic designs and laughable fantasy indulgences, and instead sets the narrative action almost entirely within an unassuming farmhouse. The drama there is simple: Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a teenage filmmaker, and her younger brother Tyler spend a week in rural Pennsylvania getting to know their estranged grandparents, and tensions grow as the children become increasingly aware that nanna (Deanna Dunagan) and pop-pop (Peter McRobbie) put the strange in estranged. That is, quite remarkably given who we’re talking about here, your lot; Shyamalan’s vision with The Visit never extends beyond a modest chamber piece predicated on the interactions between four characters. And he would do well to rein it in like this more often, as The Visit is the work of a filmmaker liberated, rather than inhibited, by constraints.

This is most clearly manifested in Shyamalan’s decision to shoot The Visit in the style of a documentary, with the film doubling as a film made about the trip by the precocious, film-savvy Becca. This is, of course, a cheap way of shooting for Shyamalan, but he approaches this frankly tired style of filmmaking with a grace that few others have managed. On one level, the faux-doc style provides Shyamalan with the opportunity to imbue his formal decisions with quick and easy emotional meaning because, considering that Becca is the diegetic filmmaker and editor, all the filmmaking choices explicitly express character. On another level, however, this style also allows Shyamalan to indulge his long-dormant sense of playfulness. He delights in the spatial and emotional proximity to the protagonists, in building tension through the manipulation of on-screen and off-screen space, and in letting both of them goof around on camera like the children they are. The result is a funny, unabashedly entertaining film; not an ironic horror-comedy, but a genuine horror film made with a wry smile. It finds Shyamalan shorn of pretension and in command of fundamental things that had previously eluded him, such as tension and levity. It is, at the very least, the most accomplished and enjoyable work he’s made for fifteen years, but it could very well be his best film to date.

Capsule Review: Legend (2015, Brian Helgeland)

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This piece was written in September 2015 for the first and only issue of a magazine published by the University of Kent’s School of Arts. It’s a decent review, so I thought it would be worth republishing here.

Legend, singular. This title is not an accolade this biopic bestows upon either Ronnie (Tom Hardy, straining) or Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy, excellent), the twin doyens of organised crime in London’s East End during the 1950s and ‘60s, but is instead an acknowledgement that the film dramatises the mythology surrounding them both. Indeed, writer-director Brian Helgeland wisely bypasses wearisome backstory and begins the film when the Krays were already immersed in the process of creating their legend of inter-gang rivalries, ruthless violence, and living large with Britain’s most illustrious celebrities. It follows, then, that Legend is an entirely romanticised formal construction, one that erects a distorted façade around the slightest semblance of historical fact in order to create something resembling slick entertainment. As real as the Krays and their crimes were, Helgeland’s direction is more concerned with luxuriating in the comforting, glossy artificiality of garishly lit sets, flamboyant camera movements, and myriad familiar gangster movie signifiers.

All of which could have been palatable had Helgeland committed to the artifice on a deeper level, critiqued our cultural fascination with the Krays by giving us exactly what we want à la Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (in essence saying we allowed them to thrive because we love watching them). But while Legend’s surface details tell one story, Helgeland’s script tells several as it inexplicably dithers between uncovering the ugly private lives behind the legend – Reggie’s relationship with his wife Frances Shae (Emily Browning, who provides the film’s execrable voice-over), his fractious sibling rivalry with Ronnie, etc. – and delighting in the various public exploits that secured their place within Britain’s cultural mythology. Legend is therefore entirely bereft of focus, an interminable two-hour muddle that depicts terrible people in a superficial and unquestioning manner because it cannot decide between affirming and dispelling their legend.

Phil Hartman, Special Guest Voice

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I wrote this piece in the summer of 2015, when I was involved with a website about The Simpsons that ultimately never saw the light of day (because the guy behind it wrote a book instead, which is fair enough). The site would have had writers contributing to various A.V. Club-style discussions about Simpsons-related topics. The first piece was going to be about the point at which we believed the show began to decline. I initially wanted to write about ‘Homer’s Enemy’ (one of my favourite episodes – a deeply cynical admission from the writers that they could no longer maintain their integrity as Fox milked the show dry), but someone else involved in the project called first dibs. So, instead, I used this piece as an opportunity to exalt the great Phil Hartman, whose murder in 1998 unfortunately coincided with the show’s decline. (Which is not to say his death caused that decline  –  that would be dumb and insensitive and completely missing the point ). And, reading it back now, it’s a perfectly cromulent piece of writing, so why not free it from the tyranny of My Documents and publish it here?

Phil Hartman had appeared in fifty-one of The Simpsons’ then two-hundred-and-three episodes before his death on May 28th 1998, making him by some distance the show’s most prolific guest actor. (His final, fifty-second appearance was posthumous in season ten’s ‘Bart the Mother’.) Though the show has become increasingly concerned with shamelessly trotting out trendy guest stars in a bid to grab ratings, Hartman retains this honour eighteen years and almost four-hundred episodes later, and with good reason. Beginning with his first appearance as the sleazy Lionel Hutz in season two’s ‘Bart Gets Hit by a Car’, and ending with ‘Bart the Mother’, Hartman lent his perfect, shit-eating-grin of a voice to Springfield’s most magnificent bastards — the smooth-talking hucksters, the unabashed shysters, the narcissistic blowhards. Often pitched somewhere between sincere charm and devious smarm, his reassuring cadence imbued these characters — no matter how brief their role or singular their dimension on the page — with exuberance and a surprising degree of humanity, ensuring that even their most banal utterances (“Hi, I’m Troy McClure!”) would leave an indelible, hilarious mark on an episode.

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Interview: Old Barber

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This piece was originally published on the 16th of July 2015 by The 405. It was the third and final piece I wrote for ‘Glasweek‘.

Pop duo Old Barber are fascinating within the context of Glasgow’s underground music scene for that exact reason: they’re a pop duo. They make accessible, dreamy pop music that is wonderfully unabashed, with nary a guitar to be found amid a mix of synthesisers and drum machines from prolific Glasgow musician Taylor Stewart and vocals from Luna Webster (who also releases music as a solo artist).

Like many Glasgow based artists, Old Barber have a lot going on – Stewart juggles many different musical projects such as Rapid Tan, Bin Men and Jinzo, and Webster runs the youth politics site Have I Got News for Youth – meaning they’ve only released one EP thus far, 2014’s UFO Phil. Despite their lack of material, however, we were compelled to talk to both Webster and Stewart because of their unique position within the scene. That and the fact that our love of their first single ‘Liquor and Lipstick’ (a remix of a song that Webster recorded in 2013) instigated the process of organising Glasweek (because, honestly, it should be huge). And anyway, there’s always the tantalising of more Old Barber yet to come.

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