Monthly Archives: January 2010

Spring Flutter

George Davison – The Onion Field

George Davison – The Onion Field

For about fifteen seconds this afternoon, it seemed Spring was making an early appearance in London. I took the opportunity and listened to three songs that seemed to have Spring in them.

Lambchop – Up With People (Youtube link)

Broken Social Scene – Shampoo Suicide

Destroyer – Painter In Your Pocket


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Following (1998)

You got it kid!

Having discussed Drag Me to Hell, the kind of film that a blockbuster director makes after they’ve conquered the world, today’s film is Christopher Nolan’s Following, a movie made before the marquee beckoned. His debut feature, made in 1998 (after the rather inconsequential short film Doodlebug), is not far from Man Bites Dog for its unqualified nastiness or Radio On in its purity and style. It’s an exciting bag of ideas that are well honed and finely implemented, the kind of debut that outstrips its calling card purpose and really broadcast the creator’s talent.

Suspicious drinking

‘The following is my story’: so begins the narrative. The pun is clear – it’s a story about the act of following. It’s not far from a JG Ballard short story in its nastiness, and the persistent fall into further layers of nastiness. The main character begins to tell of his compulsion to randomly stalk, framed as an interview (for what reason we don’t know – it’s an exciting and portentuous ambiguity. Is this a psychiatrist, a parent or a police officer?). He is caught in the act by Cobb who confronts him and initiates him into his personal vice – burglary. Before long, he’s also entangled with a blonde whose story doesn’t quite add up (the black and white being not the only nod to noir) and a gangster with vicious designs.  Before long he’s ensnared and the only way is down.

Some could see this as a dry run for Memento only a couple of years later. They’re both told in non-linear sequence (though far less schematically here than in his later film), with a noirish slipperiness with characters’ true natures. But Following is a very different film – where Guy Pearce’s character is a man who is driven by a mission, Jeremy Theobold’s is characterised by his aimlessness (his following is a unexplained urge and he claims to choose his subjects randomly). Pierce’s character is a victim of the way in which he must experience time, whereas The Young Man’s fractured time is perhaps simply a function of his inability to tell his story straight (or the events that befall him are too shocking to be contemplated in sequence, without retracing traumatic moments).

What’s most striking is Nolan’s ability to draw strength from the limitations imposed upon him. Supposedly filmed on a series of Saturdays over a year, there’s a rawness to the scenes, both in the way they’re shot and acted, that makes the tale of intrusion into the other people’s personal lives all the more discomforting. These are not sets made to look lived in by a prop’s master. These were the actual homes of Nolan’s contemporaries and family (including an unknowing wink to his future career, with Batman sticker upon his own residence). None of the cast went on to greater things, but all are very naturalistic and likeable for it (perhaps worryingly so, given their proclivities). It’s also refreshing to see English actors portraying a life of England that’s not tied up with an inherentantly stereotypical view of British life created by the rest of the world (the kind of world that only Richard Curtis’ characters inhabit).

Don't look at me that way

Most crucially, Nolan focuses on the dialogue. And it is always dialogue between two characters. There are no scenes that involve more than two characters talking (again, perhaps a function of his limited resources; the actors were forced to drill their scenes repeatedly due to the prohibitive cost of the 16mm stock. More actors=more chances of expensive failure).

Tap tap tap

Perhaps what’s most disquieting is its transformation of the life of the amateur writer. Like the director himself, he notes human behaviour from a distance. Apparently the germ of the idea formed from a break-in he experienced, wondering what the criminals thought of his life. There’s a tacit point being made throughout of the intrusion that writers take from those around them – theft of character, violation of private space, using someone’s property against their will. The burglar and the writer are one and the same.

Like Donnie Darko or Primer, it’s a strong debut feature with an excellently worked out central premise that is then perfected by its limitations.


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Lego Life

There’s a lot to be said about Lego. Some would argue that it’s predefined patterns make for rigid play, but that misses the profound joy of completion and creation. Construction, whether it be cooking, sculpture or sentence syntax, presents us with the alchemy of turning constituent parts into something final and finished. And Lego lets you play with a Darth Vader who is unspeakably cute.

Made with a care and durability that assumes they’ll be used for generations (company motto: ‘Only the best is good enough’), Lego’s worldwide success can be attributed to its simplicity. In recent years, Lego has slightly lost their way by introducing more branded lines (although the Star Wars venture has always been a good fit with the boxy starcraft of that universe) and with increasingly specialised and preformed parts (it’s hard to imagine a child getting as giddily excited over Bionicle as I was over my first Pirate ship).

So here’s a roundup of some good Lego links:

A piece from the Guardian from last year, nicely explaining the corporate culture and the renaissance of the company following a major financial crisis.

Another good place to start for all kinds of Lego goodness is The Brothers Brick. News, creations and discussion.

A remarkably classy ad for Lego from 1981 (Lego themselves aren’t that guilty of creating ‘pester power’ television ads that parents detest, not that that stifles demand).

A great write up of a Lego factory tour by Gizmodo.

Some artworks by The Little Artists, rendered in Lego.

Impressive time lapse of the construction of the 5,195 piece Ultimate Collector’s Millenium Falcon.

Nice tribute to 8-bit video games in Lego (lest we forget the original and best).

Unbelievable pop up Lego temple kit.

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Vivian Girls

Vivian Girls have a formula. That’s no bad thing. I always think the mark of a good band is if they have enough of a unique sound to be parodied (or, more insulting, copied into the ground). While it could be argued that Vivian Girls are really the ones imitating rather than to be imitated, it’s a winning mix of anachronism and nostalgia that comes of girls writing C86 songs with a conviction and panache that suggests it isn’t a convenient pose, but  a necessary mode of expression.

And Vivian Girls do need to say things this way. Their lyrics are almost always about simple longing (‘I can’t get over you.’ ‘We’re on our second date now/What would I do without him?’ ‘Once you’ve gone remains the question baby/ Where do you go?/ Why do you leave me all alone?’) and the music seems to act as a means of escape or a means to batter it home. If the music is loud enough, if the drums crash enough, if the words are low enough, then it won’t matter that they’re gone. They’re  massively fun (their song ‘No’ features that word and nothing else) and get to the point quickly without outstaying their welcome. But it’s the honesty and unadorned quality that runs through great Motown records: the easily recognisable situations, with readily digestible melodies ripe for repeat listening.


Can’t Get Over You (at their myspace)

Never See Me Again

Second Date (on Spotify)

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Not Again: IHOP

The first in an occasional series in which I highlight something I can’t stop doing. Today: watching this old International House of Pancakes advert. 

So much to like, even through the nostalgic wash. The stuttering vocal, the day-glo food, the concentration on each family member’s reaction to their food and the defensive tone of the tagline (‘JUST FOR THE FUN OF IT, OKAY?’). Superb.

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Drag Me to Hell

Bless You!

Drag Me to Hell, co-written and directed by Sam Raimi, is a return to horror after a ten year sabbatical in which he become one of the world’s most lucrative film makers in making the Spiderman trilogy. Following a path in parallel to fellow splatter-master Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings, he was entrusted to helm one of the biggest franchises in cinema history perhaps because of his ability to wring entertainment from limited resources. However, far less than Jackson, Raimi stuck to his guns, producing films (forgetting the final instalment) that were as engaging and human as they were exciting and humorous.

But it’s clear that Raimi had his own fish to fry. Following a script created more than fifteen years before, Drag Me to Hell riffs on modern preoccupations while having foundations in classic Twilight Zone tropes. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is an aspiring bank loan manager. In a moment of cold aspiration, she refuses eerie Sylvia Ganesh (Lorna Raver) an extension on her home loan. Shaming her, the caricatured gypsy places a grievous curse upon Christine. She will be visited ever more violently by a Lamia over three days, when it will finally come to Drag. Her To. Hell.

It’s perhaps disingenuous to say this is a return to horror for Raimi. At its best, his work has never been truly dedicated to scaring as much as smiling, or more often, guffawing. It now seems a testament to the complete tone deafness of the BBFC during the video nasties that films as uproarious and indecently silly as Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 would be banned.

Drag Me to Hell is a more complex beast still. Raimi is still capable of delivering on the level of gross out – one example that stays in the mind is Sylvia violently sucking on Christine’s chin in an epic punchout (worthy of Raimi’s classic They Live six-minute tussle).

Chin Sucka

But this is a movie of two creatures – the ridiculous Sylvia (and anyone who worries about the depiction of gypsies should perhaps consider how much Raimi is aiming at verisimilitude)  but also the creeping terror of the Lamia. It’s a fantastic doubleplay, with the two beasts striking two tones as Raimi alternates between making us laugh with horror and then chill us with it. It’s as though he is standing offscreen urging us to be scared, and then mocking us for being so, then as we become comfortable, using our ease to scare us further.

The more chilling aspects of the film are most often carried by the superb sound design. Flies are used as a visual motif to warn of the coming of the Lamia, but the soundtrack picks up the sound ably, with insistent violin hum taking up the sound of the insect. There’s no simple quietLOUD scares, but unnerving surround which gives the film an uneasy quality even in its lighter scenes.

Raimi avoids the pitfalls of a nouveau riche (as it were) filmmaker, instead relying on the instincts that put him in that position in the first place. He could easily have used big name actors but choose to employ mid-level and character actors to great effect. Justin Long is worth singling out for his awkwardly believable but supportive boyfriend. He reads the lines with  real humour and warmth that makes his and Christine relationship worth caring about.

Also familiar from Raimi’s past successes is a realism to the dialogue that suggests that it’s not a mere segue to the next set piece (indeed, recent revelations about Raimi’s refusal to accept a weak Spiderman 4 script seem most likely founded in his ability to write a better one himself given the inclination). That said, when the next set piece does arrive, there’s an assuredness to the way they are worked out. Raimi knows when to show restraint and when to go all out. When Christine rams a ruler down Sylvia’s throat, there’s a sick wit to his moving between a side-on view to one which shows it from Sylvia’s perspective.

Measuring Up

There’s also a cohesion and conciseness that’s a real relief from the boggy expanses of  recent genre films. Rather than taking a flight of fancy outside the world established at the beginning, it stays in the suburban and banal setting throughout. If Ash had remained in S-Mart throughout Army of Darkness, you’d be halfway to imagining Drag Me to Hell‘s world.

Kick ass and chew gum

Raimi also knows how to wring just the right mix of the unsettling and the juvenile from a Meet The Parents scenario. Christine seems to be finally winning over her boyfriend’s parents, when the dessert she has brought begins sprouting eyes. But it’s when she attempts to quell the situation by skewering the eyeball that the scene really elevates itself, as blood oozes like some ungodly filling. Raimi knows how to really play with the awkwardness of these moments, more than can be said of any number of ‘Wha Happened?’ films that make this kind of set-piece their stock in trade.


Unashamedly entertaining, it feels close to a filmmaker’s sabbatical. Shelved for over fifteen years, it seems Raimi is now finally in the position to make the films he has always want to, in a way that only experience can teach.

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