Wednesday, December 27, 2006

AKA Year in Review 2006: The Movies – Part Two

Time for the rest of my dirty dozen. Let’s get on with it:

Snakes on a Plane – The movie that was supposed to change the way that films were marketed, and was then deemed a flop when the massive online push for this modern-day B-movie was not enough to make it a hit. Who gives a shit about box office? This was still great, unashamed popcorn movie-making. Sam Jackson spends a sprightly and hugely-enjoyable 105 minutes getting some motherfucking snakes off a motherfucking plane. It’s time to open some windows…

Thank You For Smoking – Aaron Eckhart at his fast-talking, scumbag best, as the leading spokesman for Big Tobacco, beset on all sides by a stupendous supporting cast made up of Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott, Maria Bello and Rob Lowe, amongst others. Maybe not as smart and as funny as it thinks it is, but still smart and funny enough to make my Top Twelve.

United 93 – Paul Greengrass’s clinical dissection of the events of 9/11, with the focus on the fourth plane. Never judgmental, and all the more powerful for it. The line between documentary and fiction is blurred to leave a painful exploration of an important moment in recent history. Everyone needs to see this.

V for Vendetta – Comic book adaptations are notoriously hit-and-miss. When you add Alan Moore adaptations to the mix, the misses far outweigh the hits. After all, comics have an unlimited effects budget, and the only limitations are the creative ones in the mind of the writer. I went into V for Vendetta expecting the worst, and ended up being delighted by it. Hugo Weaving is masterful as the titular V, in a performance of subtle physical acting, using his impassive porcelain mask as an asset, rather than being hindered by it, and the subtext of Thatcher’s Britain updated to Blair’s Britain didn’t hurt one bit. Remember, people should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

Wolf Creek – A movie I finally caught up with on DVD. Where most horror movies use well-worn variations on long-established genre tropes such as the things hidden in the black of night and the claustrophobic confines of the cabin in the woods, Wolf Creek spins it around to the vast, endless expanses of the Australian outback in the blinding bright light of the brutal sun, and there’s still no-one coming to the rescue. With one single, solitary line of appropriated dialogue, John Jarratt becomes of the great movie monsters. That’s not a knife, this is a knife!

Zatôichi the Fugitive (Zatôichi Kyôjô Tabi)
– Made in 1963, and I finally got to see it in 2006. In the only night of pure self-indulgence I allowed myself this year, I settled in for an evening of cult Japanese movies at the NFT, one of which was this, the fourth entry in the long-running series about the blind swordsman. There are no words to describe the brilliance of Shintaro Katsu as Zatôichi. My face hurt from the perpetual grin I had smeared across my face watching this. Perfection.

And that’s almost a wrap. If everything had gone according to plan, this would have been posted before Christmas, and I would have ended things with the final part of the Sucker Punch Christmas Advent Calendar Funk Nuggets. But everything seems to accelerate out of my control before Christmas, and this got side-lined. And then on Christmas Day, I heard that one of my musical heroes had died. So this final piece of funk history should be given to Soul Brother Number One, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Please Please Please, Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk, Mr. Dynamite, The Boss, The Godfather of Soul and a man who was the living embodiment of the funk. Mr. James Brown, take it to the bridge…

Thursday, December 21, 2006

AKA Year in Review 2006: The Movies – Part One

The end of 2006 is almost upon us, so it’s time once again to hurl my body onto the burning embers of another year’s worth of popular culture. I notice that I didn’t do this last year, and that this is the first time I’ve done this since 2004. Then, like now, I’ve opted for a Top Twelve rather than a Top Ten. But, before I unveil the list, a few observations…

This year I saw far, far fewer movies than I have in previous years. There are many reasons for this: I was less enthused with what was available to me at any given moment; I seem to have less time to indulge myself; I’m tired. I don’t know where all my leisure time has evaporated to. Some serious lifestyle changes are needed for 2007, but I’ll save that for a different blog entry.

With that in mind, my Top Twelve is composed of what I have seen this year, without cleaving strictly to release dates. Some of this stuff I caught up with on DVD long after original theatrical release, and there’s a wild card as my twelfth entry on the list, as it was something that was made in 1963. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

As a result of my much-reduced movie-viewing (something I hope to address next year), there are some notable omissions – movies that I would imagine would have had a damn good shot at appearing on my Best of The Year list had I seen them. Missing in action, then, are Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, Joon-ho Bong’s The Host, Kevin Smith’s Clerks II, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Well, there’s always next year.

So in alphabetical order, here is the first half of my Top Twelve:

The Black Dahlia – Much-maligned on release, and not without justification, this movie is a colossal mess. The four lead roles are horribly miscast. Fiona Shaw’s manic, mannered performance looks like it has wandered over from another movie entirely. There is far too much plot and story vying for attention that it never really gets. It’s all over the place. That doesn’t stop Brian De Palma’s adaptation of the first part of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet from ending up in my Top Twelve. Audiences looking for noir ended up getting pulp instead, and that’s fine by me. I do so love me some pulp. It may be a mess, but I still loved it.

Casino Royale – Or, as I like to call it, Bond Begins. The icons need rejuvenating now and again. Sometimes it works (Batman Begins, the Doctor Who relaunch) and sometimes it doesn't (Superman Returns, the BBC’s Robin Hood relaunch). Casino Royale worked. Bond films are always entertaining diversions, but they’re rarely rewatchable. You just wander out of the cinema having enjoyed yourself, and forget all about it. Casino Royale strips away all the barnacles that have become encrusted on the 007 mythos over the decades (the gadgets, the girls, the suave debonair one-liners), and takes Bond back to basics. Daniel Craig is phenomenal, playing Bond as a bestial brute of a man. In a neat inversion of the formula, Craig becomes the eye-candy rather than the women, his body a rippling mass of cuts, bruises, cartilage and lethal simian musculature. He fails as often as he succeeds, but fights on with determination and animal cunning. I’d watch it again.

Hidden (Caché) – Michael Haneke’s tale of a middle-class French family terrorised by anonymous videocassettes delivered to their home is both ice-cold and razor-sharp in its forensic dissection of paranoia, guilt, culpability, and personal responsibility. Unsettling and truly brilliant, Hidden would make a nifty double-bill with David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

Inside Man – A heist movie to rank up there with the greats like Dog Day Afternoon (an obvious touchstone for this latest Spike Lee joint). To discuss it would be to spoil it, but I will say that Lee manages to create an exhilarating genre piece that still manages to seamlessly weave in dead-on observations about violence, the media, corporate America and living in post-9/11 New York. Glorious.

Little Children
– An examination of middles-class ennui that makes American Beauty look like the over-praised, overly-mannered Plastic Bag Full Of Nothing that I’ve always known it to be. Aside from the irritating and intrusive omniscient narrator that keeps popping up, this is a corker of a film with possibly Kate Winslet’s finest performance ever. So, so good.

Me and You and Everyone We Know – I have grown to loath the word “quirky”. It has become an all-purpose word that has lost its meaning. It’s hurled at anything that dares to be different or shuns formula and cliché. Miranda July’s beautiful look at how people interact and ache for intimacy and love is exactly the sort of movie that has probably been described as “quirky” many, many times. I would rather call it lovely, funny and uplifting.

The other six to follow. But before I leave, it’s time to get on the good foot with the Sucker Punch Christmas Advent Calendar Funk Nuggets! Today, I bring you the manly Minneapolis funk of Morris Day and The Time, the only band that could make Prince quake in his high heels. Everyone knows Jungle Love and The Bird, so I’ve gone instead for Jerk Out. From 1990, when the original line-up was reunited for Graffiti Bridge, here are those magnificent seven shameless hipsters making fools out of themselves and chasing girls. Oh Lawd…

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Peter Boyle 1935 – 2006

Holy crap. Peter Boyle died.

To most people, Peter Boyle will be forever known as the perpetually grumpy Frank, the curmudgeon always prepared to fire off a withering putdown as the patriarch of the dysfunctional Barone clan in Everybody Loves Raymond.

But for me, Frank Barone was just another chapter in the long and wonderful screen career of a fine character actor whose performances have tweaked my pleasure centres for decades. Even his briefest appearances struck a chord and stayed with me. The role of Wizard, the philosophical hackie who passes on his street-corner wisdom to the simmering Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is a relatively small one, but it remains an unforgettable scene in a movie crammed full of them.

“You get a job. You become the job.”
Peter Boyle as Wizard in Taxi Driver

His broad glistening bald pate with the wisps of hair framing it on the sides, his immense grin, the eyes that could twinkle with either mirth or malevolence (or both at the same time) – whenever Peter Boyle appeared on-screen, you knew that you would be in for something to savour. Personal favourites include the tremendous Seventies caper movie Slither, and his showing as the standard-issue shouty police commander in Walter Hill’s Red Heat. He steals every scene from Bill Murray in Where The Buffalo Roam, despite the fact that Murray is superb as the good Dr. Gonzo himself, Hunter S. Thompson, and Boyle still manages to eclipse his efforts with a manic, wild-eyed, utterly hilarious performance as Carl Lazlo, a thinly-disguised portrayal of Thompson’s friend Oscar Acosta. But there are two films in particular that I can watch again and again and just revel in Boyle’s mastery of comic timing.

“I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me. Out of my way, asshole.”
Peter Boyle as Jack McDermott in The Dream Team

The first is The Dream Team, where he plays Jack McDermott, a former advertising executive with a predilection for undressing at inopportune times and who now believes he is God, set loose on the streets of New York with fellow crazies Michael Keaton, Christopher Lloyd and Stephen Furst. (All four of them are just terrific in this movie). Truly wonderful stuff.

“This is the body and blood of our saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. And a damned fine Beaujolais!”
Peter Boyle as Jack McDermott in The Dream Team

The other movie is, of course, Young Frankenstein. What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said? Nothing at all. So, in a break from the onslaught of funk music I’ve been hurling up here all month, I leave you with this moment of comedy gold. Peter Boyle. Gene Wilder. Putting On The Ritz.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Stray Bullet Points

Ola! I’m back with some bits and pieces from Barcelona. It has been harder than I thought to weld all this stuff into something resembling a compelling narrative. The narrative part is easy. Making anyone other than me give a shit has proved much tougher. (This is what happens when you take three months off blogging and retreat to the harmless confines of the just-for-me paper-and-pen journal.)

The last time I left you hanging, I was heading for the airport armed with nothing more than a bagful of essentials and the rudimentary Spanish I’ve picked up watching Dora The Explorer with Buttercup. But there’s not enough meat on the story of my trip to write this out as a travelogue of “I did this, and then I saw that, and you wouldn’t believe what that motherfucker said to me then?”

When in doubt, go for short controlled bursts of easily-digestible highlights. It was a month ago now, so this is just an exercise in sense-memory and deciphering my disjointed notes. Enough of the cons, let’s get on with the prose:

The Schmooze – Years on from my time in the customer-facing world of retail, I thought I had lost the ability to talk unrelenting crap to complete strangers. I was wrong. It was as easy as ever to turn it on and turn it off. I just flicked my Internal Bullshit switch, and the effluent was flowing same as it ever was. I find that a bit disturbing…

Working the stand at the convention, I unleashed the closet carnival barker that must have been hibernating deep inside me for the last decade or so, and I was practically standing on tables shouting “Come and get some free shit!”. I was propping up the stand like a bartender, lubricated with free beer, doing some of that soft sell nonsense.

Man, that made me feel dirty. Never again. Forgive me. Marketing is for scum. I hereby permanently recuse myself from the ranks of the ScumPeople.

First Impressions
– In the spirit of fairness, I decided to give my colleagues a clean slate in Barcelona. No matter what I thought of them, I’d give them a fair shot to prove me wrong.

That was a colossal Waste Of Time. By the end of the week, I was having an internal conversation trying to decide whether Rainbow was a sleazy prick, or was he a scum-sucking fuck bag?

The Wednesday Night Party – More freeloaders eating plates of fried shit that you can only swallow with free beer. Also, the weird disconnect you get when the song on the sound system has nothing to do with the music videos playing on the large screens all over the place. It’s always disconcerting to see the video for We Are The World on mute, looking at Al Jarreau or Daryl Hall crooning earnestly into a microphone, when all you can hear is the thudding bass of Gwen Stefani on Hollaback Girl saying "This my shit" over and over and over again.

In a moment of serendipitous cosmic rebalancing, in the cab back to the hotel, the radio was playing John Denver. As I listened to him singing, I felt very, very homesick. “Take me home, country roads…”

Parting Shot – I did manage to get about five minutes to myself. One evening, I went to the roof of the hotel to take some photos. It was worth it. With all the money spent on so much unnecessary travel and food and software and bullshit, all the R&D, all the focus groups and extensive testing, NOTHING was as perfect and as beautiful as the one, free, pure thing I experienced that week. Sunset over Barcelona:

And we can finally say goodbye to all that. Thank Odin I’ve got that out of the way. Next time, something else. I promise. But before I go, lest we’ve all forgotten, it’s time for the Sucker Punch Christmas Advent Calendar Funk Nuggets! Back from the days when TV shows had the sound of screeching metal interspersed with the glorious madness of the wah-wah pedal, here is Laurie Johnson’s moment of funk immortality, The Professionals:

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Too Much Coffee Man

This morning I drank three cups of strong, black coffee followed by a can of Red Bull.

Stupid. Very stupid.

Now I can hear my blood singing as it rockets around my veins, and I’m trying very hard not to grind my teeth. As a result, I’ll get back to that Barcelona stuff tomorrow or something. I can’t hold a thought down long enough to do anything useful today.

But I won’t leave you with nothing. Oh no. Here is the latest exciting instalment of the Sucker Punch Christmas Advent Calendar Funk Nuggets. This one is for my man B to wish him a Happy Birthday for tomorrow, because I know he loves this. Groove on, brother. Here are the Red Hot Chili Peppers with their cover of the Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster. Also, this record is the source of one of my favourite urban myths.

You give me that funny feeling in my tummy…

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Homage to Catalonia

Busy, busy, busy. I’ve been meaning to get to this for a while now, but it’s taken me a while to clear my backlog of lifecrap, but I’m here now, and that’s all that matters, right?

So, where was I? I was about to regale you with tales of my week away at the Microsoft Tech-Ed IT Forum in Barcelona, wasn’t I? Seeing as that was nearly a month ago now, I had better get on with it.

To say that I was going to Barcelona with a few reservations would be an understatement. First up, I don’t like being away from my wife and daughter for long periods of time. I like the relative simplicity of my day-to-day life. All the crap I have to endure is made tolerable because I know that, no matter what I have to deal with on any given day, when it’s all over I get to go home to Buttercup’s beaming face and shining bright eyes as she runs towards me shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!”. I get to kiss my beautiful wife. And I get to decompress in my refuge with a hearty meal and a hot bath and a good night’s sleep. Simple pleasures. If I get deprived of the emotional nourishment of seeing my loved ones for unnecessary reasons, I don’t like it one bit.

Secondly, I didn’t relish the thought of being on-the-clock 24 hours a day for an entire week. I knew that I wouldn’t get a minute to myself the whole time that I was there, and I knew that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to go walkabout and discover Spain and soak up the country. (I was right, too). For the duration of my time there, I was bouncing from hotels to conference halls and back again, and I could have been anywhere in the world for that. I can’t with any honesty say that I have seen Spain, which saddens me and seems like a wasted opportunity, but there was nothing I could do about that.

Thirdly, I’m not particularly fond of my colleagues. Let me rephrase that. It sounds too even-handed and it’s not strictly true either. I don’t like my colleagues. They’re fucking idiots. (There you go. Any last vestiges of ambiguity blown away right there). My company is so tight-fisted, I wasn’t even given a hotel room to myself and I had to share, so I really didn’t have a second to myself (unless you count trips to the toilet, but I tend to work that room alone anyway).

Finally, it’s crucial to remember that I.T. isn’t my vocation, or my calling, or even my career. It’s Just A Job. To me, it’s a high-end version of flipping burgers. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t have any particular aptitude or affinity for it. I just do it to pay the bills. No matter what I do between 9 and 5.30 every week day, I’m a writer. Bearing that in mind, and fighting my growing disdain for this week away, I thought: “Well, if you’re a writer, write about it then!” So, I decided I better report on this shit, cobbled together from a small pile of notes scrawled in dark corners on the back of receipts and shredded cigarette packets, every word saved so that I could file these Despatches from Nerdvana.

Before I wrap this up for the time being, and for the sake of some illusory anonymity to stop my ass getting fired, everyone I write about will be saddled with an alias, and I need to introduce my cast of characters. Let’s call my company WTF Software. In addition to me, I was accompanied by three of my colleagues. First up is one of the company directors, and he’s a dead ringer for Montgomery Burns. He’s got the same bald pate, the same beaky nose, the same slightly doddering gait and, worst of all, the same penny-pinching miserliness that characterises the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. He’s a sly motherfucker too. The only difference is that he smokes his own body weight in grass on a weekly basis. So, I need a name for our Pot-Head Monty Burns. I’m calling him Rainbow.

Next up is an over-enthusiastic little ass-licking Marketing fucknut who irritates me intensely. I’ll get into him in more detail later. (Short version: I hate him). For now, let’s call him Cole.

Last of our protagonists is my roommate for the week and the only tolerable person I spent time with for the duration of the conference, and I’ll call him Olaf. Actually, he’s a pretty decent guy, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have his own fully-stocked arsenal of irritating tics and traits that started to grate before the week was up.

Shit, this is running long and the plane hasn’t even hit the tarmac at Barcelona Airport yet. But, for now, this is…

To be continued…

But wait! There’s more! Everyone loves an advent calendar and, here at Stately AKA Manor, I’m no different. So, with every blog entry posted here in December, I will be harnessing the power of YouTube to bring you the Sucker Punch Christmas Advent Calendar Funk Nuggets, where I will be cherry-picking a slice of funk buried in the YouTube vaults. I reserve the right to be idiosyncratic and self-indulgent in this endeavour. I know Buttercup will enjoy this. Whenever I hit shuffle on my iTunes, she lights up and shouts “Daddy! Funky Music!” and starts dancing…

Today’s selection is the mighty Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, performing the Greatest Record Of All Time – The Theme from Shaft – at Wattstax. He’s one badmutha…