Monthly Archives: January 2013

Album Review: Villagers – {Awayland}

I had my eyes / ears opened to Villagers in the autumn season of yesteryear, when I swung by the Warwick Arts Centre to watch Grizzly Bear perform on their Shields tour.  Villagers were the support act, but even with only nine songs dealt (with no recognition on my part whatsoever), I thought they completely owned the evening, even snatching it from the jaws of the towering Grizzlies.  Conor J O’Brien’s crew of maestros traded in a tempestuous set, one which left the Butterfield Hall rocking in their wake.

I delved into their backstory shortly after the gig, and found myself in thrall to their debut album Becoming A Jackal.  A folky, literate selection with the lightest touch of the Gothic in its veins, I could see why it had scooped the Ivor Novello prize and a nod for the 2010 Mercury.  Resultantly, the follow-up {Awayland} was one of the albums I was most looking forward to for 2013.  And it doesn’t disappoint: once again, O’Brien has proffered a strange storybook filled with the fantastical, set to frequently enrapturing landscapes of sound.

Although the firmly-plucked acoustics and O’Brien’s whimsical literacy remain, {Awayland} finds Villagers expanding their inventory, incorporating brass, frenetic rhythms and dashes of electronics into their sound.  Resultantly, it does sound a little disjointed as a whole album, with so many disparate pieces serving the whole, but by and large, the individual songs are captivating enough to safely designate {Awayland} as worthy of any music aficionado’s patronage.

Gentle opener ‘My Lighthouse’ is built around little more than a bendy guitar line and O’Brien’s clipped croon.  It’s a pretty and wide-eyed beginning, even if it does stop rather too abruptly for its own good.  So far, so Jackal.  But it’s with the next two songs that O’Brien really opens up the throttle and takes us on a thrill-ride.  ‘Earthly Pleasure’ really is something: beginning on a springy guitar motif, it builds and builds in urgency until it has morphed into a galloping beast, slashes of guitar rising from the conflagration to back O’Brien’s cries of “oh, Earthly pleasure, ring out / From the rigours of this road”.  It’s utterly captivating, not to mention slightly bonkers.

Better still is ‘The Waves’, the first single to leak online last year.  Borne on ripples of subtle electronics, O’Brien conjures up arresting imagery from the off, his delicate crooning pin-sharp as he sings of destructive forces advancing on unsuspecting shores.  Ominous pianos flutter in the background as the song gradually swells, gathering momentum as it approaches a fierce crescendo of squalling guitars, brass and crashing drums.  It’s a masterpiece of slow-burning drama, impeccably crafted and exhilarating when it reaches its proggy finale.  Fans of Wild Beasts will find plenty to admire here.

Thematically, when penning {Awayland}, O’Brien apparently became entranced with the notion of the “innocent abroad”, and in reflection of the album artwork, {Awayland} roots itself in escape and entrapment equally.  The sweeping vistas of ‘Grateful Song’ are matched by the uneasy stomp of ‘Judgement Call’, which ends with the threat “I’ll make your world a living hell / I’ve lost the will to judge myself”.  Whatever that child on the album cover is looking towards on the choppy horizon, it’s not as simple as innocence would dictate.

These sentiments are perhaps best highlighted in the form of ‘Nothing Arrived’.  Effectively the album’s centrepiece, it’s a deceptively simple singsong built around a cute piano descant.  For all its sweetness, however, after several listens, the aching sadness of the song really finds its clout.  The power is there in O’Brien’s anguished wail at the song’s climax, underpinning that sober murmur of “I guess I was busy / When nothing arrived”.  The resultant sound permeates a particular brand of soft beauty, which is quickly thrown off-balance by the sturm und drang of ‘The Bell’, its desert-baked riff heavy and theatrical as O’Brien launches into one of the catchiest choruses on the album.

It’s moments like these when the tone-hopping works well, though it doesn’t gel every time.  ‘Passing A Message’ sounds a little out of place with its itchy bass riff and malevolent tone, though it’s still impressive when it tumbles into a heap of cascading pianos, rumbling drums and images of Sequoia trees and paddlefish.  The focus is regained with ‘In A Newfound Land You Are Free’, a late-in-the-game lullaby which weaves a sap-free magic of its own, before the jaunty ‘Rhythm Composer’ tosses everything into the fray for one final rainbow-flavoured skip, joined by some of O’Brien’s bounciest vocals yet.

Does it hang together as a cohesive album?  Perhaps not: it’s a little too disparate in its aesthetics, leaping from one tone to the next.  It doesn’t quite preserve the same coherence as Becoming A Jackal, but musically and lyrically, these songs are individually riveting.  Lovers of beautiful, theatrical music should get themselves here, pronto.  As for the other challengers of 2013, make your moves…

7/10

“We gotta get the kids before they grow / God forbid they retain their sense of wonder.”

28/01/2013

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Film Review: Gangster Squad

The year is 1949, we’re deep in the heart of Los Angeles, and Sean Penn and Josh Brolin are whacking each other like scrapping schoolmates.  Welcome to Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s third directorial bow; a film which marks a change in pace following his previous comedic outings.  After attracting attention with the cracking Zombieland and the relatively competent 30 Minutes Or Less, Fleischer has upped his game for Warner Bros. in the form of Gangster Squad: a slick, glam beast which boasts a smoking cast of A-Listers and an inflated budget of $60m.  With such promising elements in place, and with the hype nicely building thanks to a sleek marketing campaign, The Coolest Film Of 2012 looked primed and ready.

Unfortunately, things haven’t been as smooth as all that.  For one, production was delayed in summer when a whole scene had to be cut and replaced in the wake of the tragic Aurora cinema shootings.  Gangster Squad’s release date was thus bumped back to early 2013, allowing the hype to swell even higher in the meantime.  Additionally, if you weren’t bedazzled by the ice-cool trailers and teasers, the problems inherent to its construction may have started to stick out.  From seeds of fact, a bombastic tale has been sewn, and while dosing the material with glitz and glamour, Fleischer and co. seem to have become a little too carried away, reducing what should have been a lean, punchy crime thriller into a rather flat, generic gangster flick which doesn’t offer much beyond its surface gloss.

Real-life gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has got LA by the balls, commanding a vast empire with the only uncorrupted police factions too scared to touch him.  LAPD Chief Bill Parker (a worryingly gravelly Nick Nolte) finally decides to take action – from behind his desk, of course – by hiring the straight-up Sergeant John O’Mara to assemble an undercover police unit.  This ‘gangster squad’ have one simple aim: to bring down Cohen in any way they can.  If this all sounds a little bit like The Untouchables, it is: expect stakeouts in seedy downtown bars, a criminal mastermind none too pleased about the shift in authority, and a hearty helping of firepower.

Speaking of the latter, it must be said that Gangster Squad does provide plenty of bang for your buck.  Penn himself is a menacing presence indeed, snarling and snapping his way through criminal patter and occasionally erupting in volatile bursts of anger.  His Cohen may not be perfectly formed, but there’s a magnetism to his performance, which serves the film well as it builds to its reckless climax.  It’s a shame that – several exceptions aside – the heroes aren’t nearly as engaging.

It’s possible that this is down to Will Beall’s screenplay.  His first real stab at a Hollywood film shows patches of promise, but by and large he leans heavily on generic clichés which sap the film’s energy.  Few of the actors are granted roles to really sink their teeth into, and it does feel like such a waste of talent to see the likes of Emma Stone and Josh Brolin saddled with such stock parts to play.  Stone looks ravishing as ever as Cohen’s moll, but she never once has a chance to serve as anything more than eye candy.  Likewise, while Brolin invests O’Mara with a steely conviction and a moody growl, there’s nothing setting his protagonist apart from the crowd.

Thankfully, the ever-reliable Gosling is often close at hand to weave his magic.  He elevates the film as the drawling Jerry Wooters, treading his way around the script’s potholes with a deft touch and opening up a big old tin of Badass when he finally reaches for his sidearm.  Either Beall’s characterisation skills finally coalesced here, or Gosling just has a gift with the material, because whenever Wooters is on screen, Gangster Squad flies.  That’s not something which can be said of the remaining squad members, whose stock roles (guy sharp with a knife; guy sharp with a gun; junior cop who’s barely even in it) prevent otherwise able actors from making their presence felt.

As for the action, although Fleischer’s fondness for slo-mo has been apparent since Zombieland, his temptations finally rush into overdrive this time around, with several of Gangster Squad’s action sequences worthy of Zack Snyder himself.  Lighters flicker to life in extreme close-up, bullets tumble to the ground balletically, and in one (hilarious) case, a bauble bursts apart in a shower of golden splinters.  It’s all too much, especially considering that elsewhere, the director shows potential: the tension prior to a Chinatown shootout is handled nicely, and on the occasions that RyGo gets his hands dirty, it can become genuinely exhilarating.  But when the bulk of the film’s action is dealt with in such a ham-fisted way, it comes across as self-indulgent and bloated rather than stirring.  The climax is a boxing match?  What?!  No!  Just shoot the fucker!

When all’s been said, whether you find yourself enjoying its slick action stylings or chuckling at its edifice, there’s no denying that Gangster Squad is an entertaining romp: whether intentionally or not, it will leave you grinning at least a couple of times over its course.  If only it didn’t take itself so seriously, perhaps it would be more of a hoot than it’s actually turned out to be.

Gangster Squad is an unconditional triumph of style over substance.  Deft writing and sharp characterisation are off the table, but even so, you’ll probably indulge in a whoop or two at some point here.

5/10

20/01/2013

Film Review: Les Misérables

I really should have been more conscious of Les Misérables prior to the announcement of Tom Hooper’s adaptation.  I was aware of it, of course, but when the first trailers were dropped last year (and several friends on my course subsequently started weeping over its two minutes of footage), I felt embarrassingly behind the curve.  I haven’t yet read Victor Hugo’s novel, nor witnessed the stage musical, and I was only faintly familiar with the fundamentals of its plot.  Consequently, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as I headed cinema-ways to catch this shiny new production.

The story encompasses a number of different characters, sub-plots and causal arcs, but they all roughly coalesce around the central figure of Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict recently relieved from a (completely unjust) nineteen-year sentence.  Dogged by the stone-faced Officer Javert (Crowe), Valjean defies his parole and – vowing to become a new man entirely – begins life anew.  Over the next seventeen years, his path closely entwines with that of a young working-class woman (Hathaway) and her daughter Cosette (Allen, Seyfried), with the steadfast Javert hot on his trail all the while.  All this, and there’s a bloody revolution to contend with.

Considering that the above summary barely scratches Les Misérables’s sprawling surface, Hooper has a full plate indeed when it comes to tying together each strand of action.  Juggling Valjean’s story is only the half of it: in order to really appease the fans and newcomers alike, he has been expected to depict each character reverentially, in order to maximise the emotional potency of those bittersweet musical numbers.  Thankfully, he’s just about pulled it off, with the majority of the key players given just enough time to make their presences well and truly felt.

Not that you needed further reminding, but it really is a terrific ensemble piece.  The bulk of the main cast are astonishing in how they seem perfectly suited to their roles, and in addition, most of them pack surprisingly strong pipes to make those live musical sequences hit close to the bone.  Hugh Jackman shoulders the weighty role of Jean Valjean like he was born to do so.  With all eyes on him to serve as the glue keeping everything together, as well as under pressure to provide a dazzling individual portrayal, Jackman is impressive and instantly sympathetic as the primary protagonist.  His Valjean is good through and through, yet remains strikingly authentic all the same, with that huge heart stitched firmly on those ruffly sleeves.

Russell Crowe, too, provides a thoroughly pleasant surprise as Javert.  Some have criticised his delivery as monotonous and sour, but in actuality, his limited range produces an unselfconscious and rather humanistic tone.  Javert may be an antagonistic force, but Crowe manages to keep him worthy of our sympathy, especially as the film draws to its dramatic close.  And of course, Anne Hathaway blows the house down with a one-shot rendition of I Dreamed A Dream.  No words need to be said about how wrenching a presence she is, and Hooper hits his peak when directing her battered, broken Fantine.  Don’t take those Oscar tips lightly.

Unfortunately, however, what with this triumvirate making for such engaging company, in the latter half of the film, when the focus shifts to the younger cast, Les Misérables stalls.  Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne may look the parts of the dainty Cosette and the rebellious Marius respectively, but after delving into such depths of pain and fortitude in the film’s opening act, their tale seems a trifle pedestrian.  We don’t care about their (rather dubious) affair as much as we did the compelling journeys of Valjean and Fantine, and it doesn’t help that Redmayne is easily the weakest of the headliners, in voice as well as authority.  Power to him, he does give it a good stab, but whereas the occasional rough notes dealt by Hathaway and co. merely heighten the intensity, many of his numbers wobble beneath his trembling tones.

As a result, the film’s second act hits a lull which briefly threatens to derail the film.  (I’m going to be honest, and say that, yes, I did fleetingly nod off during one scene.)  That’s not to say it’s all downhill from here: the plight of Éponine is achingly presented by newcomer Samantha Barks, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter add some infectious charm with their cheeky rendition of Master Of The House.  With the cast firing on most cylinders, the songs rousing and righteous and the detailing taken care of nicely (although why most of France’s inhabitants are Cockneys is anyone’s guess).  So far, so good.  But even with the story nailed, it’s in the technicalities that Les Misérables falters.

For one, the editing is rather off-kilter.  The establishing moments – particularly at the film’s opening – and the barricade scenes towards the climax are dealt with in rapid-fire bursts of imagery.  All gloriously rendered, no doubt, but dealt with in a heartbeat.  Consequently, with the world flashing by in such a whirlwind, rather than feel integrated into the world of revolutionary France, we feel like mere observers, rather than participants.

And that’s what ultimately keeps Les Misérables from being a truly great piece of cinema.  For all the accusations levelled at its arse-shattering 155m runtime, it needs more space to breathe.  Rather than taking stock in those hard-earned moments of relief, it seems to leap from one misfortune to the next.  When things do finally slow down, it sags as less engaging characters are examined.  It’s certainly not lacking in ambition, and several scenes are beautifully intimate thanks to the actors’ commitment and Hooper’s stark compositions, but Les Misérables never feels as immersive as it perhaps should.

I’m no expert, but having seen a fair sum of musicals in my time, I understand the required knack for involving the viewer in the communal spirit of the collective.  Whatever the mood of the number, most sequences attempt to make the viewer feel a part of the action, for merrier or for gloomier.  This sense of community is something which Les Misérables never quite grasps to the full.  Sure, there are characters we care for, and the actors invest such levels of passion into their performances that this should combat the issue.

The issue lies deeper, however.  For me, this was apparent in the film’s opening.  A camera glides up over wave-tossed seas, where the carcass of a toppled ship is hauled into dry-dock by legions and legions of enslaved hands.  The opening rumblings of Look Down begin.  But from here on in, although the action may be moving, its power is sapped by the fact that Hooper never seems to engage the viewer fully.  His world is sharply drawn, but ultimately, never all-encompassing.  Never once do we feel as if we are actually down there in the dry-dock with the slaves, or scurrying through a maze of furniture in the barricades, or shivering in the winter cold with the young Cosette.

While this gripe may merely be entirely personal, it did mar the experience for me somewhat.  Rather than proving to be a tear-tugging masterpiece of sound and scale, it merely felt decent – throughout, I was aware that I was watching a film, as opposed to being completely transported.  Hooper is great at displaying a world, but here, he doesn’t quite immerse us in it, and as such, the action is rendered slightly distant.

Don’t get me wrong.  Hooper’s incarnation of Les Misérables is a good film, and there are certainly more than a few truly great scenes (several of which could well prove to be Of-The-Year quality), but sadly, it doesn’t quite reach the heights I was hoping for.  It makes a valiant effort indeed, bolstered by impressive performances and some breathtaking live singing.  It’s just a shame that Hooper’s epic lacks the finesse and that extra spark of magic to serve as a great film in its own right.

On the whole, Hooper has done very well in adapting such well-loved source material into a respectful, entertaining and emotional ensemble piece.  It’s just slightly unfortunate that his adaptation is marred by pacing issues, and perhaps lacks that little extra magical spark.

7/10

18/01/2013

The 2012 Review: Top Ten Films

Apologies for the delay in publishing this list – I’ve been grappling with a fiendishly difficult university essay in the past fortnight, so Quotesponging had to be put aside for a short while.  However, hopefully there are still some people who have room for one more Top Ten list for last year before the big-hitters of January start arriving in force.

2012 may have been a great year for music, but it was possibly an even better year for cinema.  For what may be the first time in my life, I’ve had the chance to see over thirty films in the cinema this year alone – that might not sound like much to some, but given my previous year averages, I was on something of a roll.  As such, narrowing it all down into a Top Ten has been a painstaking experience indeed.

There has been a lot to enjoy this year on the big screen, and even looking beyond quality, a stellar range of genres and flavours were brought to the table.  Documentaries tipped into the big genre bracket with some incredible releases, among them Bart Layton’s stupefying The Imposter, and the footage of LCD Soundsystem’s final show at Madison Square Garden, which formed the powerful Shut Up And Play The Hits.  Superheroes clashed everywhere: Dredd blew away countless crims, Bats took on Bane, and the Avengers bickered until the cows came home.  Alas, it’s not all been spectacular: Ridley Scott fumbled the ball with the grandiose mess that was Prometheus, and The Bourne Legacy… well, I fell asleep during that.  An account of Jeremy Renner going to the chemist’s isn’t a whole lot of fun, although I do remember hearing lots of gunfire and the word “science” repeatedly.

But all in, it’s not been too bad, and I’d like to think that these ten films show that quality control played a steady hand for the most part.  As with my albums list, I’ll be reeling off my Top Ten first of all, before listing a couple of Honourable Mentions, and mourning Ten That Got Away from me this year.  Happy reading!

My Top Ten Films of 2012

10

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists

The best thing about being a pirate may be Ham Night, but personally, what sold it for me was how charming Aardman made it all seem.  The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists was a remarkably pleasant surprise, providing some of the most quotable gold of the year, and improving with each subsequent viewing.  The tale of the Pirate Captain and his ragtag crew of dodo-doters is completely bonkers, frequently hilarious, and merrily distils Aardman’s cheeky brand of Britishness, thanks in no small part to a superb voice cast, starring the impeccable Hugh Grant and Imelda Staunton.  But most of all, it deserves its praise because it’s just so miraculously crafted.  Stop-motion animation is rarely done on this scale, and to see it pulled off in such an effervescent manner is simply magical.

9

The Imposter

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert when it comes to documentaries, but even to a relative newcomer to the format like myself, Bart Layton’s The Imposter feels like a total breath of fresh air.  An examination of the sprawling web of lies which stemmed from the disappearance of thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay, The Imposter is a chilling, and often quite bizarre examination of the nature of deception, and in a fantastic spin on the ‘talking head’ format, the imposter himself leads the discussion.  Frédéric Bourdin is a riveting (and delightfully charismatic) figure as he freely talks about his compulsive falsehoods, and as the question of the family’s part in his scheme is played out, things become even more unsettling.  A gripping watch from start to finish, and also features a tremendous line about ears.

8

Skyfall

As I mentioned in my full-length review, I’m not really in a position to judge Skyfall as a Bond film, given that I had only seen Casino Royale prior to viewing this latest entry – for shame.  However, as a film in its own right, Skyfall thrills as well as any other actioner.  As a personal quibble, it could do with tightening in a few places, but for the most part, Sam Mendes managed a terrific job with Daniel Craig’s third outing as 007, bravely exposing the cracks in an otherwise impeccable icon’s stature.  Skyfall hits hard and heavy, from its thunderous opening sequence onwards, but it’s incredibly debonair at the same time, dosing the explosives with dashes of dry humour (nice thighs) and joyful nods to the canon.  A great anniversary gift for loyal fans and newbies alike.

7

Moonrise Kingdom

Yay, Wes Anderson.  Again, having only seen a small handful of the director’s works, I’m far from an authority on this one in comparison to the other entries in his catalogue, but Moonrise Kingdom is a pure-hearted delight.  Equal parts funny (armed boy scouts!), cute (dancing on the sand) and quietly moving (Bruce Willis, take a bow), Anderson’s seventh feature left me simply aglow with pleasure.  Of course, if you’re not a fan of the director’s rather twee aesthetic, Moonrise Kingdom will do little to sway you (it is narrated by a man who resembles a gnome, after all), but for everyone else, it’s hard to resist a creation which boasts such a sunny display of bright colour and wistful tone.

6

Avengers Assemble

Time to come clean: before making the journey to the cinema, I didn’t care much one way or the other about Avengers Assemble.  Out of all the Marvel films, I had only caught Captain America prior to the big event, and it hadn’t really struck me as vital viewing.  I wasn’t not looking forward it, but I was far from buzzing, unlike the fifteen-odd people I was accompanying en route to the Apollo.

But I was clearly just being a prat.  With Joss Whedon at the wheel, the good ship Assemble follows a deliciously entertaining course in its two-hour-plus runtime.  With a keen reverence for each character, Whedon turned out to be more than capable of juggling each element fairly, keeping the tone lean and light all the while.  The actors (sometimes literally) bounce off of each other, making Avengers Assemble one of the loosest, funniest, and most wholesomely satisfying entries in the blockbuster genre for quite some time.  Even Renner’s Hawkeye gets a few moments to shine towards the megaton of a climax, and Mark Ruffalo makes for a memorable incarnation of Bruce Banner and the big green Hulking machine.

But the bottom line is that amid modern cinema’s alleged belief that Darker = Better, Avengers Assemble works so well because it embraces its big, bright comic-book genes so unabashedly.  This film doesn’t want to make you think.  It just wants you to have a total blast.  And that’s it’s secret, Captain.

5

The Dark Knight Rises

… and now onto the other side of the same coin.  Big things indeed were expected for Christopher Nolan’s trilogy-topper this year, and in terms of scale at least, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t disappoint.  The conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy brought the series full circle in suitably epic fashion, boasting an impressive display of pyrotechnics as well as putting audiences through the emotional wringer (for God’s sake, Sir Caine, I’m not a bloody reservoir).  The levels of audience involvement commanded by The Dark Knight Rises are still surprising: even though we now all know the story, it has retained the power to excite, distress and impress, and that’s due in no small part to the deft characterisation prioritised by Nolan and David S. Goyer ever since Batman Begins.

It’s flawed, and to some people, it’s the most aggravating film released in recent memory.  But personally, I still stand by the notion that a lot of these criticisms have been blown out of proportion.  Yes, we all know the film has more plot-holes than it does extras, and some of them really are quite grating in terms of logic, but when it comes to sheer exhilaration and heart-in-mouth tension, there was little this year which came close to matching Christian Bale’s final bow as the Caped Crusader.  Hardy brought the pain and the power; Oldman, Caine and Fox brought the profundity; and Hathaway and Gordon-Levitt both proved to be dynamic additions to Nolan’s Batverse.  It might not be perfect, but Bale and Nolan certainly left this franchise with a bang.

4

Holy Motors

A dapper-looking gentleman gets into a stretch limousine one morning, and spends the subsequent day partaking in such activities as scrambling around a Parisian cemetery dressed as a goblin (naturally) and indulging in a weird and wonderful display of mo-capped sex.  Yes, Leos Carax’s fifth film is very, very odd.  But it’s also a riot: an inspiring, unpredictable experience which leaves you turning its surreal beauty over in your head as soon as the credits start rolling.  Without spoiling too much, the journey undertaken by Monsieur Oscar (the aforementioned chap) across Holy Motors’ runtime is a mixture of meta trickery and an example of eloquent storytelling in its own right.  However you choose to interpret it, it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking ride, and one well worth taking.

3

The Descendants

This is technically a film of 2011, but given that we didn’t have the chance to catch this in the UK until January of last year, I’m marking it as eligible for this list.  Alexander Payne broke his seven-year silence as a director with this gentle drama, which follows George Clooney’s Matt King as he faces a difficult financial decision, at the same time as being forced to address the unravelling ties of his family.

It may have been hyped beyond belief by critics towards the end of 2011, but the power of The Descendants doesn’t blow its hand all at once.  Over time, and bedding well over repeat viewings, it’s a film which lodges in the mind and filters its warmth long after the laughter has died down.  Ultimately, it follows a tragic tale, yet as a film, it is anything but deflating.  Amid all the heartache, there’s a warm poignancy carried through: a tenderness which refuses to become saccharine or clichéd.  The final message is one of hope and fortitude, which is helped along with a delightfully understated vein of humour, and some outstanding performances, chief among them Shailene Woodley’s portrayal of King’s oldest daughter.

2

The Raid

It’s funny that even in a year which promised Christian Bale bowing out as Batman, the Marvel team uniting to kick alien arse, Bilbo Baggins setting off on his unexpected journey, and an Indian boy sharing a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger, what turned out to be the most pulse-pounding event of all was a film with barely any plot to its name.  Made by a Welshman who lives in Indonesia.  But then, The Raid (or, The Raid: Redemption, if you like) is something else entirely.  A lean powerhouse of a film which dispensed thrills as lightning-fast as Iko Uwais’ reflexes, this is an experience which left those of us in the student cinema hooting, squealing and cheering our way through ninety minutes of explosive, balletic action.

To cut to the chase, an elite SWAT team launch a stealth strike on the tower block HQ of a drug-peddling bastard.  Shit hits the fan, faces hit the walls, and a mad dog is unleashed, all in a display of jaw-dropping martial art prowess.  I can’t really put into words how electrifying this film is, but it’s something to cherish.  Expertly choreographed, hyperkinetic and easily the most thrilling film of 2012, The Raid had us applauding in our seats on more than one occasion, and in this day and age, that’s not something to be sniffed at.

Film Of The Year

Shame

Steve McQueen’s second feature film is a challenging watch.  After 2008’s provocative Hunger, the London-born director re-teamed with Michael Fassbender to explore an equally difficult topic.

Hearing the term “a film about sex addiction”, one could be forgiven for having concerns regarding the dangers of parody, or perhaps even over-sentimental melodrama.  Shame falls into neither trap: it’s a brave, unflinching character study, deeply affecting and filled with questions about human nature.  McQueen’s camera glides through a world by turns polished and dingy, exposing the cold emptiness of modern living as well as the dingy underbelly of such a composed façade.

Fassbender is phenomenal as Brandon Sullivan, a New York high-flyer who conceals a shaky private existence from his colleagues.  When his sister Sissy (another astounding turn from Carey Mulligan – welcome back to the number one spot) unexpectedly turns up asking for shelter, Brandon’s composure begins to fracture, leading him into a downward spiral of shame and self-destruction.

It’s an intense film, and a powerful one.  Shame is not always easy to swallow, and its impact is bitterly ambiguous, but it’s an important work of filmmaking.  McQueen has definitely cemented himself as a talent to watch, and the towering central performances from Fassbender and Mulligan have shot them even higher in my estimation.  Quietly magnificent and elegantly constructed, Shame is easily my film of the year.

Honourable Mentions

They came very close indeed, but here are five films which just missed out on Top Ten honours this year.  In order of merit:

  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • Looper
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • Life of Pi
  • Carnage

Ten That Got Away

And of course, I didn’t quite get around to seeing everything I would have liked to this year.  The full list runs to about twenty-five or so, but to make things more palatable, here are ten I’m the most gutted about missing out on in 2012.  But thanks to the Warwick Student Cinema and the miracle of home entertainment, keep your eyes out for them in next year’s reappraisals!

  • Amour
  • Argo
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Grey
  • Headhunters
  • Killing Them Softly
  • The Master
  • The Muppets
  • Rust and Bone
  • Sightseers

And there you go!  Apologies once again for lateness, but thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll join me again at some point in 2013.  It looks set to be quite the cracker!

Mike

The 2012 Review: Top Ten Albums

Happy New Year, readers!  Thank you so much for chasing a link (or simply stumbling) onto my first proper End-of-Year list: I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I fretted over writing it in a vaguely articulate manner.  As with the 2011 reassessments, I’ve listed below my ten favourite albums of 2012, each accompanied by my two cents regarding why each one is such a banging listen.

In addition, following my Album of the Year, I’ve drawn up two smaller lists for Honourable Mentions (because the process was pretty painstaking this year), and records which I sadly didn’t have time for in their year of release.  I thought they’d spice up an otherwise relatively vanilla listing system, and give more scope about what I was digging in 2012.  For now, onto the main event!

My Top Ten Albums of 2012

10

Django Django

Django Django

As musicians, they’re as tight as can be, but Django Django still manage to spool a loose and colourful sound which is as upbeat and bouncy as their funky moniker suggests.  The group’s eponymous debut projects tried-and-tested elements through a thrilling Technicolor prism, with psychedelic flavours offset by hugely catchy hooks, ranging from Hail Bop’s feelgood swagger to the tropical touches of Life’s A Beach.  Perhaps it could have been trimmed by a song or two (Zumm Zumm is all good fun, but three minutes would have been plenty!), but Django Django’s debut is a promising and laudable first step.

Standout                             Hail Bop

9

Grizzly Bear

Shields

Grizzly Bear’s music has always been layered, both in sound and tone: it takes several listens to unearth each keynote and lyrical twist alike.  But on Shields, the snarl beneath their sweetness was fully realised at last.  For perhaps the first time, Grizzly Bear could be mistaken for being a straightforward rock band in places, yet Shields  never loses sight of its intrinsic beauty.  Sleeping Ute snarls with turbulent percussion and abrasive guitars, but settles into a soft reverie; Yet Again tumbles through anxious harmonies and a squalling climax; and the grandiose bursts of Sun In Your Eyes are never overwrought.  The result was among the most captivating releases of the year, filled with tension, but always hinting towards catharsis.  “Never coming back”?  On this evidence, I hope that’s not the case.

Standout                             Yet Again

8

Jack White

Blunderbuss

From The White Stripes (RIP) to Another Way To Die, Jack White has always been an enchanting and intriguing individual, almost cartoonish in his larger-than-life mannerisms.  One music publication has compared him to Willy Wonka, and I’d be inclined to agree with that metaphor in relation to his first solo album, which takes the listener on a tour of the mechanics behind his gleefully unhinged façade.  There’s still performativity here in spades, but this is White’s most personal record yet.  He may have mastered the power to entertain like few others, as evident on the funky shuffle of Missing Pieces and the blues guitar acrobatics which still go down a storm, but listening to the likes of Blunderbuss and On And On And On, it’s clear that there is a bloodied heart beating behind that lavish storytelling.

Standout                             Love Interruption

7

Bat For Lashes

The Haunted Man

Before The Haunted Man, I’d never really looked into the music of Natasha Khan and Bat For Lashes, aside from hearing the occasional single.  But taking a punt on this one definitely paid off: Khan’s third is dramatic art-pop smart enough to restrain itself when it counts.  It’s also a decidedly British album: however you interpret the contents (who is the man in question, and just what is haunting him specifically?), Khan paints a striking picture of a rural landscape tinted with the otherworldly.  Marilyn and Horses Of The Sun marry synths with opera; the bravura Lilies is awash with imagery of milk and raindrops; and centrepiece Laura commands great power with minimal tools.

Standout                             Lilies

6

The xx

Coexist

I was very apprehensive approaching The xx’s second album: their first is such a perfectly formed piece that I was worried that a follow-up would risk feeling tacked-on: a failed attempt to rebottle the quiet lightning of their impeccable first.  Thankfully, while Coexist isn’t quite as perfect as xx, it’s still a remarkable record, and the three-piece have held tight onto the magic which made them such a success.  The guitars glimmer a little brighter than before, the gentle bass runs are more prominent and the dub beats more experimental, but the intertwining vocals of Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim still command the same power that they did in 2009.  The result is a confessional, nocturnal listen, more fluid and sophisticated than its predecessor, but equally human in its sentiments.

Standout                             Angels

5

Beach House

Bloom

I really don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to enthuse about Beach House before it stops being annoying and just becomes tragic.  I think one more indulgence will tide me over for the next year, so here we go.  The Baltimore duo’s fourth album might not have been particularly adventurous in terms of breaking fresh ground, but the subtle changes brought to the table this time around made Bloom distinctive in their catalogue.  It’s an album which glitters throughout, achingly sad and yet strangely uplifting in its own way.  The songwriting is consistently strong, but what really makes Bloom tick are its tiny moments of transcendence: the guitar melody which arrives halfway through Other People, the vocal pirouettes in New Year’s chorus, the dreamy piano ascension which is released one minute into Irene: the list goes on.  It’s a meticulous but magnificent listening experience which keeps on giving.

I’d also like to add that this album houses my personal favourite song of the past twelve months, in the form of Wild.  Wherever I am listening to this song, my mood is lifted no matter how I’m feeling.  Simple, shimmering and exultant.

Standout                             Wild

4

Tame Impala

Lonerism

Like I’m sure a lot of people did, I only became aware of Tame Impala after hearing Elephant repeatedly on the radio.  The strutting riffs were stamped into my head through repetition, and after reading a few positive reviews, I thought it might be worth checking out the single’s parent album.  After just one listen in full, I was hooked: this album is incredible.  Pretty much entirely put together by Kevin Parker, it tackles a rather miserable topic lyrically, but it stirs its moodiness into a melting pot of joyous noise.  Boasting some of the most upbeat and irresistible music of the year, gilded with a ’60s gloss, Lonerism swerves from cosmic jams (Endors Toi) to freakouts (Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control), but keeps everything in check with exuberance and catchy hooks in spades, while Parker’s nasal croon never becomes indulgently whiny.  Instead, Lonerism is bags of fun, eye-opening, and surprisingly poignant when taken as a whole.

Standout                             Why Won’t They Talk To Me?

3

Fiona Apple

The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Fiona Apple didn’t blow all her audacity in that twenty-three-word album title: her first album in seven years was even bolder in its choice of aesthetic.  Most often only supported by stark, spidery piano melodies and drum machines, Apple lets her voice take centre-stage, as it should.  The result is forty-three minutes of raw emotional potency, detailing cracked relationships, monstrous creatures and fractured histories.  Apple’s vocals are a tour de force: shaky, explosive and ripped straight from the lungs, she’s an evocative figurehead, something which is amplified over such unpolished production.  Every wound is made relevant, every message heard loud and clear.  I haven’t heard anything quite like this before or since, and The Idler Wheel… deserves to see Apple as a more widely-recognised talent in the singer-songwriter world.

Standout                             Werewolf

2

Alt-J

An Awesome Wave

For a band whose single releases have become so successful individually, it’s miraculous to hear how wholesome Alt-J‘s first album sounds altogether.  The opening notes of Intro signal darkness falling, and with the arrival of a clattering drumbeat, An Awesome Wave instantly whisks the listener away.  Ignore those who are still sneering “smart-arse”, because Alt-J reaffirm faith in the belief that indie and pop music still hold the power to pull some wonderful and wacky new shapes.  I covered most of this in my full-blown album lowdown (catch it elsewhere on this blog) back in April, and I still stand by my original judgement eight months on.  An Awesome Wave is as headrushingly good as its title suggests.  Every individual piece fits the puzzle perfectly, even when there are leaps in style and formation between tracks.  To cap it off, after playing it at least thirty times over, it never fails to enthrall me every time, from start to finish.  Easily the debut of the year, and the indie success story of the decade so far.

Standout                             Dissolve Me

1

Album Of The Year

Grimes

Visions

From April until about October, I thought I had Alt-J pegged as my winners for 2012.  Then Fiona Apple‘s The Idler Wheel… took over in my estimation, at least until I heard Tame Impala‘s Lonerism a few weeks later.  However, after a final assessment, I’ve realised that the album which I have returned to most this year – and which I have ENJOYED the most – was the third album by Claire Boucher’s Grimes project.  I’d like to think that this constant agonising is an indication of how good a year 2012 has been for the music industry, and to be fair, the top four albums in this list are all as strong and vital as each other.  But if there can only be one winner, it has to be Visions.

The creative process was tortuous, and the resulting album could all too easily have ended up as a bloated, self-indulgent mess.  Instead, by some miracle, Visions is a lean, winning piece of work.  It’s a strange mixture of dream-pop, dubstep, electronic experimentalism, and even sci-fi.  Boucher is far from a virtuoso, but the rougher edges of Visions only cement its charms further.  It’s something of a cracked gem, and I quite like calling it a cyberpunk album: it sounds desolate and hypermodern, but it’s also brimming with invention, with looming arrangements lifted by Boucher’s pixie-like presence.  The songs themselves are both fun and troubled in equal measure: the spooked Be A Body utilises a glorious falsetto leap; Circumambient makes the dancefloor sound deadly; and Genesis skates wonderfully close to joyous synth perfection.  If this is what our dystopian future is going to sound like, then count me in.

Standout                             Genesis

Honourable Mentions

They didn’t quite make the cut this year, but here are the next five albums which just missed out on places in my top ten.  Listed in order of merit:

  • David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant
  • Hot Chip: In Our Heads
  • DIIV: Oshin
  • The Staves: Dead & Born & Grown
  • Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball

Five That Got Away

And finally, here are five albums which slipped through my fingers this year, due to money / time / consciousness constraints.  Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with each of these in the next few months, and some of them may appear in next year’s amended list.  This list doesn’t feature ALL of the albums of 2012 that I regret missing, but of that (significantly longer) list, these are the ones I most wanted to catch:

  • Cat Power: Sun
  • Flying Lotus: Until The Quiet Comes
  • Four Tet: Pink
  • Jessie Ware: Devotion
  • Sigur Rós: Valtari

And that’s just about it for music 2012!  Thank you very much for reading, I really appreciate your time and consideration.  Do get your own opinions or criticisms in if you’d care to, I’d love to hear them.  For now, happy listening, and Happy New Year!

Mike