Thursday, 24 April 2014

Film review: VENUS IN FUR by Roman Polanski

There’s a key difference between a young artist and an experienced artist. A young artist takes a huge theme and makes it into a small story. An experienced artist takes a small theme and blows it into stratosphere. Just take a look at what Roman Polanski is doing these days.

Carnage was minimalist. It had four actors and a ridiculously minor incident at its centre. Venus In Fur is even more extreme. It has two actors and a seemingly routine audition at the end of a busy day. Like Carnage, Venus In Fur was based on a play. Like Carnage, it’s intense, has a great dialogue and is an absolute feast to watch.

This of course is all about the famed and controversial 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It’s Paris. A small theatre amid gloomy surroundings. Writer-director Thomas Novachek is planning a stage adaptation of Venus In Furs. Vanda is a girl who comes into the theatre at the end of an exhausting day with the desperate intention of getting the main part. She has it all: the looks, the attitude, the costumes, even the name. Reluctantly (it’s been one hell of a day and his fiancée is waiting), Thomas lets her do the thing. He becomes Severin (he is not an actor, but he can read), they trade the lines, and suddenly it all comes alive. Art becomes life and life becomes art. The psychological insight that Polanski offers is priceless.

That said, the joy of Venus In Fur is in the acting. The chemistry between Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric (who looks a little like Polanski himself in his La Locataire years) is extreme, brutal, mesmerising. I couldn’t look away. Seigner in particular captures the screen and devours it with natural swagger and electrifying eroticism. She is the perfect Venus. Or maybe it’s Thomas Novachek?.. 

Venus In Fur is many things: hidden demons, insecurity, creative struggle. But it really is about art. How frightening it is. How complex and punishing. How jealous of life. Exceptional film.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #144: Syd Barrett - "Bob Dylan Blues"

For a Syd Barrett outtake that didn't even make it to Opel, this is shockingly articulate. Great tune, too, disheveled and charming. Could probably rival Bowie's "Song For Bob Dylan". The song appears on the 2001 compilation The Best of Syd Barrett - Wouldn't You Miss Me? Apparently written in 1965. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Favourite albums: THE MADCAP LAUGHS (1970) by Syd Barrett

Back in the years of my Syd Barrett obsession, The Madcap Laughs never sounded sad. It was many things: erratic, whimsical, bizarre, brilliant. But it was never sad, not even when the melancholic slide guitar of “Late Night” brought it all to a wistful end. Exciting, excited years: not putting things in perspective and simply enjoying them for what they are.

It’s a bit different now. “If It’s In You” sounds painfully sad. Syd’s mental state becomes all too graphic, and when incompetent singing breaks into incoherent muttering and the music stops, you are left with an image of his face – confused, handsome, nibbled away by helplessness and LSD.

But the music? Well, the music restarts and a typically unfocused and quirky melody charms you with its disarming insanity. If you are unable to appreciate the man’s unique songwriting talent, there must be something missing in your heart. Something wonderful and essential. Because God knows The Madcap Laughs still sounds incredible, and if part of it is Syd’s troubled state of mind, then so be it. “Terrapin” is still the best mental house blues I know. “Love You” is so catchy and silly you have to be made of stone not to get caught up in the jolly vibe. “Octopus” is one hell of a messed-up single. “Golden Hair”, based on a James Joyce poem, is one of the most strangely beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard, and that’s coming from a big Chamber Music fan. Occasionally it will sound ecstatic, at times it will just come off unbearably sad.

Pretty much like the whole album. It’s like this feverish man lying on his sickbed and all the delirium coming out of his mouth are melodies. Genuine, unstoppable drivel of amazing melodies. Robyn Hitchcock took it seriously and built his whole career around this man. But The Madcap Laughs is what it’s all about, and the slightly demented vibe and the sense of sadness will not stand in the way of what is surely one of the most unique albums ever released. 

P.S. There’s a good comment on YouTube under a “Golden Hair” video: “Imagine if Syd did a version of Finnegans Wake!” Fitting. Insane but fitting. Also, I wish I could hear that. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


As any sane person with a clue will tell you, Stephen King is one hell of a writer. For all his limitations (occasional clichés and self-plagiarism), few can create such powerful, absorbing imagery over the space of two short sentences. Imagery is of course what movies are all about, so you understand the strong creative itch that film-makers will have when reading a sweet little novel like The Stand

It really is no wonder that over one hundred film adaptations of King’s works have so far been made. Some have been dreadful (The Langoliers – if you are over 12), some have been remade multiple times (you should see last year’s Carrie to see how bad things can get), some have begotten completely unnecessary sequels (seven in the sad case of Children of the Corn). Some have angered Stephen King to no end. Some, however, are wonderful. This list includes what I believe are ten best adaptations of King’s novels, novellas, short stories. No TV series, no Salem’s Lot, but all of these have to be seen at some point or another. These are frightening, thrilling, often insane. And always impressive – so you have no excuse, really. 

Two films that narrowly missed out are The Dead Zone and Apt Pupil. Both are very good, with Christopher Walken and Ian McKellan giving some of their most memorable performances. Apt Pupil in particular is a very nasty piece of work, but then it has more to say about Nazism and past in general than you would care to admit. And the most unsettling thing is that I was actually rooting for Todd in that final scene... I blame Stephen King for that.

10. PET SEMATARY (1989)

As far as films with misspelled titles go, Pet Sematary is the scariest one. Freaky, unnerving experience. Even when something doesn’t quite work (the completely unnecessary subplot with Zelda), it is scary all right. The premise is your standard horror film fare: an adorable American family moves into a new house. Two cute children, a cat and swings in the yard. What’s not to like? The twist is a pet cemetery behind the house where things don’t exactly die. They come back to haunt those who buried them. It is one brutal twist, and I promise you that the last 20 minutes won’t leave you for days. The face of Gage will get stuck in your mind like that line from The Ramones: “I don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary…”. Thank God I didn’t see it when I was a 14-year-old boy watching Soviet comedies in shady black and white.

9. THE MIST (2007)

The Mist is Frank Darabont’s least celebrated adaptation of King’s work. This time we’re dealing with a 1980 novella about a military experiment gone wrong. Thick mist overcasts a small American town and spawns monsters of various kind. Apocalyptic stuff. A group of people gets stuck in a supermarket, and the horrors outside (tentacles, gigantic insects) are almost matched by the horrors inside (general stupidity and religious fanaticism – King’s beloved subject). The Mist is engaging from start to finish, a perfect film for a late evening with a bad storm knocking on your window glass. A word of warning for those who have read the book: the ending is different. To this day I can’t decide whether I like it or not. But apparently Stephen King appreciated the change.

8. THE GREEN MILE (1999)

This is a big one, of course. Oscar-nominated, 3 hours long, Tom Hanks. Oscar-nominated fine, Tom Hanks fine (having said that, this is a serviceable but not especially inspired performance), but those three hours might have been stretching it. Still, everything exists in this film for a good reason, and despite obvious parallels with The Shawshank Redemption (this film suffers from inferiority complex), the thrill and the emotional impact go deep into your psyche. The mouse made me cry, twice. “The Green Mile”, a death row in the morbid era of the Great Depression, is a very real place due to strong performances and an expertly scripted plot. The supernatural element should look completely ridiculous, but somehow doesn’t. Not in a faithful Stephen King adaptation. Besides, it’s not like I didn’t cry because of that mouse. Twice.

7. STAND BY ME (1986)

I have already confessed my unconditional love for the brilliant coming-of-age novella this film is based on. This is one of those non-scary Stephen King works that are all about the man’s enormous storytelling power. Very minimalist plot: four boys go on a silly but exciting quest to find the dead body of a missing teenager. It’s not about where you get, of course, but how you get there. I’m generally a big ‘children’s acting’ agnostic, but Stand By Me didn’t make me wince even once. All the boys have different personalities and they convey those differences quite effortlessly. The film might seem more sentimental than the book, but as far as coming-of-age stories go – this is one of the best ever. Side note: “An Encounter” by James Joyce has to be my personal favourite.


Every list has to have a surprise choice, and mine is this little film from 2004 that was unjustly dismissed by critics. Worthy, sharp direction from David Koepp. Masterful soundtrack from Philip Glass. And one of the strongest performances from Johnny Depp. I don’t see how this could go wrong, and it didn’t. Depp plays Mort Rainey, a frustrated writer who has recently lost his wife and is currently going through a severe bout of writer’s block. The frustration intensifies when one morning he is confronted by John Shooter (John Turturro giving a very cynical performance), a farmer from Mississippi, who accuses Mort of plagiarism. It’s a tight thriller, engaging and with a good twist. Plus, the film is well aware that the ending is the most important part of the story. Secret Window was based on the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden.


Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I couldn’t look away, this truly was one of the most compelling acting duets I’ve ever seen. The story is well-constructed and overall Dolores Claiborne is a powerfully bleak drama. Still, it’s Bates and Leigh that make it happen. Mother and daughter, seemingly so different, who are reunited following the suspicious death of a paralyzed old woman Dolores was looking after. There’s a huge will left, and Dolores is suspected of premeditated murder, not least because there was one particular incident in the past involving the death of her husband. Her daughter, Selena, is a semi-successful journalist who gets back to the depressing small town of her childhood to help. There are lots of hair-raising flashbacks telling about the gruesome past that brings the women so close to each other. Alcohol, cigarettes, despair and those immortal words: “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to”. A devastating film.

4. MISERY (1990)

If you’ve read King’s brilliant book On Writing, you’ll know how proud he was of the idea for Misery. A famous writer gets into a bad accident and is rescued by an obsessive fan. His number one fan that is a complete nuthead, a nurse with a history of violence. She traps the writer in her quiet, isolated house, and does things that will occasionally make you scream or look away or jump in your chair. She makes him write a new novel with the sort of plot she would like. She also has a pet, a pig named Misery. You have to give it to Stephen King: it’s the sort of idea many writers would kill for. Also, it’s the sort of idea that pretty much ensures the success of the actual story. Kathy Bates again, and this is the performance that won her the Academy Award in 1990 and so early in her career. Unforgettable little film.

3. CARRIE (1976)

Carrie is a classic and a very peculiar one. There’s an interesting juxtaposition at the heart of this film, and it will work into your brain slowly and in a very unnerving way. There are all these bright colours and there’s something inherently dark and frightening creeping in. It’s something that will draw many new generations into this story of an awkward girl who gets her period blood and thinks she’s about to die. Carrie was of course the first adaptation of a Stephen King book, and arguably it’s the most stylish one. It was directed by Brian De Palma, and you will know it from the first shots. Carrie is hated by everyone in her school, she has no friends and her mother is an abusive religious fanatic. However, Carrie has supernatural power and she will unleash her revenge. Some intense and memorable scenes will stay with you for quite some time. By modern-day standards, Carrie will hardly be considered a horror film, but then what modern-day standards have to do with anything?


This is one of the most universally adored films of all time and while I would love to dispute that, there’s precious little to fault here. The Shawshank Redemption is brilliant entertainment and one of the very few Stephen King adaptations that can be enjoyed by just about anyone over 16. It’s a thrilling prison drama, and a plot that never lets go. Unlike The Green Mile, it doesn’t have a supernatural element and doesn’t feel overlong. There’s basically no horror element here, and it masterfully balances the high voltage and intensity with moments that are reflective, humourous and sometimes genuinely moving. The pacing is perfect. Tim Robbins? His best performance. Morgan Freeman? One of his best ever. The twist is so smart and well-plotted, it will impress you even on later viewings.

1. THE SHINING (1980)

Anthony Burgess didn’t like what Kubrick did to A Clockwork Orange, and Stephen King flat out hated what Kubrick did to The Shining. Makes perfect sense: Kubrick's artistic vision was too vast to be placed within another man’s plot. He reworked The Shining to his own vision, and in the process made one of the greatest, most bizarre, disturbing and enigmatic films of all time. People will never stop talking about the symbolism and the ideas of The Shining (I highly recommend last year’s documentary Room 237, but only if your nervous system is really strong), just like they will never find out how Jack Torrance got out of the pantry. I think King wrote a great novel, but I also think that Kubrick took it to a whole new level of artistic achievement. There’s no need to describe the plot. Just see it for yourself and watch the Overlook Hotel slowly sink into deep, and quite graphic, insanity.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #143: Kate Bush - "Something Like A Song"

Fifteen. Fifteen years old when she did this. Need I say more? Kate Bush is not just my favourite female musician or a thing like that, she is actually one of my favourite artists of all time. Yes, those select few that include Joyce, Allen, Satie, Monet and Nabokov. I literally melt away when I hear this early demo.

Friday, 11 April 2014


Highlights: Bagboy


It’s only their third EP without Kim Deal but it’s already tiresome. It feels like this has been going on for ages, and now they also have a wonderful idea of combining all those EP songs and making a full-length album out of them. Come on, Frank, who do you think we are? Out of these 12 new songs 6 are good and 6 would have been laughed off any proper Pixies album.

Still, let’s finish this thing off and be done with it.

EP3 isn’t exactly a trainwreck type of thing, but we’re deep in no-man’s land. “Bagboy”, by far the strongest song here, opens the EP in a groovy and meaningful way. “Silver Snail” has an intriguing, dark guitar line that promises great things, but while the songwriting is definitely there, the spark never arrives. “Ring The Bells” is Pixies for little girls in polka-dot dresses. I don’t mind, but equally I’m not too impressed. “Jamie Bravo” is a catchy pop-rocker (Spanish singing!) that never bothers to have an edge. If I need Weezer, I’ll go and listen to Weezer, thank you very much. (Mercifully, I never need any Weezer.) 

And I honestly don’t have anything against these songs. But God knows this stuff would have made so much more sense if it were released under Frank Black’s name. Stop reuniting, past bands who were any good! And please – don’t for a moment consider Indie Cindy a proper Pixies LP. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

EMA - The Future's Void

Highlights: 3Jane, Cthulu, Neuromancer, When She Comes, Dead Celebrity


Who needs St. Vincent when we’ve got EMA’s new album? The Future’s Void may lack a truly signature song like “California” (my affection for it hasn’t diminished in any way), but if anything – it is even more consistent than Past Life Martyred Saints, her previous album. Just as raw and creative, and a little less fucked up.

“I’m just 22, I don’t mind dying”. She is 25 now, but EMA’s songs give off the same odor of edgy desperation. The songs are fantastic. Murky, emotional, inventive, channeling the spirit of early PJ Harvey. However, her songwriting is arguably even better, with the sheer rocking force of “Neuromancer” comfortably sitting alongside a terrific acoustic ballad like “When She Comes”. EMA excels at both ends. “Satellites”, the first single, is catchy in a wonderfully raw, unpolished and unchartable way. “3Jane” is beautiful and heartbreaking, “Dead Celebrity” is a nursery rhyme with a lyrical twist. I could go on. 

EMA has become more accessible, but she isn’t any less impressive. She has matured without compromising her identity. And the album will keep growing on you, just watch her bruised, croaky wailing in “Smoulder” dissolve into a melody that is both clever and inspirational. I will probably end up giving it a nine. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #142: Nirvana - "Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam"

For obvious reasons, though never a big fan. Classic Vaselines' song that I first heard on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged album. Incidentally, one of the first songs I learned to play on my old, now defunct nylon-string guitar. 

Friday, 4 April 2014

GUMS! and CALLUM BAIRD - Something Rotten EP

Highlights: Grangemouth At The Dawn, Chatelherault


There’s always been something about Scotland (primarily Glasgow) and melody that just clicks. Something Rotten, a new split EP from Scottish indie underground, is case in point. What we have here is a collaboration between singer-songwriter Callum Baird and a band called GUMS! (whose previous EP, Antipathy, was brilliant; read the review here).  

The two parts blend together quite well, though I generally prefer GUMS! They have it where Callum Baird has a nice tune. So whereas “Me Plus You” is decent indie with no balls, “Bonfire” has that nervy quality that gives its melodies a stronger edge. The title track sounds like a centrepiece, emotional and anthemic. However, lovely piano and backing vocals notwithstanding, this smacks too much of about a million Glaswegian pubs where I could have heard something similar. Has style but lacks class. “Grangemouth At The Dawn” is again GUMS! at their tuneful best. Callum’s catchy and lilting “Haunted House” is his strongest offering. Finally, “Chatelherault” is darker GUMS! The sort of song that knows it’s good and exploits that confidence to the full. 

That’s a 6 for Callum Baird and an 8 for GUMS! 7 overall. Good songwriting all the way through, with songs chockfull of well-written, instantly memorable melodies. This is where the promise and potential should give way to popularity and full-length albums. In an ideal world. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

ST.VINCENT - St. Vincent

Highlights: Prince Johnny, Huey Newton, Digital Witness


God. People just love her, don’t they. But before I get to the merits of St. Vincent’s latest, please take a listen to this. Now listen to this album. Now tell me what you think.

Twisted pop music. If it’s not genuine, it might sound like you’re trying too hard. You pull your socks up, way up, and they snap. It’s not pretty. “Rattlesnake”, the opening song here, clanks and clatters and then suddenly it’s over. Excuse me? Where’s the punchline? Instead, she should have opened the album with the funky post-punk of “Birth In Reverse”. More than anything on St. Vincent, the song proves that the collaboration with David Byrne left a lasting impression on her. Also, “Oh what an ordinary day; take out the garbage, masturbate” is a huge opening line. “Prince Johnny” is the sort of stuff Lana Del Rey would record – if Lana Del Rey was about substance rather than style. “Huey Newton” starts as a haunting ballad with a lovely watery keyboard line and then becomes all noisy and tastefully abrasive.

Unfortunately, Annie Clark isn’t a great songwriter. St. Vincent is a good album, but the lady just doesn’t have that many remarkable songwriting chops. It’s clever, inventive, but you feel the effort. She tries so goddamn hard to make it clever and inventive, and as a listener I feel compromised. After the soulful and surprisingly straightforward “I Prefer Your Love” (‘…to Jesus’), the thing becomes very messy. Good choruses are mixed with go-nowhere verses and desperate attempts at being idiosyncratic. Having said that, “Severed Crossed Fingers” is a great closer. 

An impressive, self-consciously smart record, but Christ what a suffocating listen. She won’t give you a chance to breathe, and she won’t give you a single sensation you won’t get from a far superior Kate Bush album. Still, a seven. Some things are for admiration rather than love.