Thursday, 28 March 2019



Jordan Peele, 2019, USA-Japan

Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ starts with the Reagan-era commercial for “Hands Aross America”  playing on a tv set with ‘C.H.U.D.’ on the VHS pile beside it, and this juxtaposition proves a big clue to the film’s agenda – ripping the trick from ‘Climax’. Oh, should I then write that as ‘U.S.’? The focus of many reviews will be on the film’s sociology and politics, and Amanda Marcotte provides a useful and direct analysis that ‘Us’ concerns the uprising of the consequences of Reaganism. Peele says ‘Us’ is not about race this time, and it’s true that its metaphors are set more on class, but of course class will always feature race. The director of ‘Get Out’ is unlikely to ever be able to escape the shadow of that debut, but it is also unlikely that he would want to. Just to say that having a black family as central protagonists in a horror film seems quietly ground-breaking enough (see Shudder’s ‘Horror Noire’ for a fine run-through of the dearth of black representation in the genre). 

But why both ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’ will have longevity beyond being attuned to their contemporary contexts, their eras and political climate, is that they deliver their horror wholeheartedly and with panache. ‘Get Out’ had the don’t-go-there premise, the dark secrets of a superficially benign community and the mad scientist trope. ‘Us’ has the doppelganger, the monsters underground, home invasion, the bodysnatchers and repressed coming up from the tunnels. Both films are stuffed full of all this horror stuff so while all the social commentary and poignant analogies are taking most of the attention, these tropes are providing all the fun. And they are fun films too: they are good with the natural humour. Maybe ‘Get Out’ suffers from having an obvious comic relief, but the humour in ‘Us’ is far more organic and fulfils much of the crowd-pleasing. 

I saw a Twitter witticism by someone that he had just overdosed on ‘Us’’s metaphors and had to lay down. Surely some will accuse Peele of trying too hard, of being too full of itself, but going off the rails and reaching too far is what horror does and Peele has a fine sense of the balance between fun and symbolism. After all, it’s not as if Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is subtle. Peele is obviously wallowing and enjoying the tropes so if you read this as cliché, it’s not going to exceed disappointment. And there are all the references and rips from other films – there’s ‘Climax’ at the start, there’s ‘Funhouse’, even the red of ‘Don’t Look Now’, if you like, or Myer’s boiler suit, and the glove that is both a reference to Freddy and Michael Jackson – and on it goes. Typical of contemporary horror, the Easter eggs for fans are plentiful. 

And that Peele delivers good, solid and relatable characters that are far above the genre standard shouldn’t be undervalued. One of the notable touches is how he has characters in such outrageous scenarios talking in a more realistically casual manner that isn’t quite typical of the genre. It helps the whole cast deliver memorable performances whilst still working as archetypes (the man-child horny husband, the indifferent teen, the unfulfilled trophy wife, etc.). Lupita Nyong’o especially gives exceptional lead and support performances, proving again that the genre is giving women some of the best roles around ~ but everyone gives great twin performances.

The doppelgangers are, of course, the Ids of the characters: the brutish father, the creepy grinning daughter, the animalistic and destructive son. It is with the son, Jason (Evan Alex), that there is perhaps one of the films greatest subtleties: at a crucial moment, he seems to realise that Pluto (his double) is the worst of him, but that they come from the same stock and so intuits Pluto’s trap, that he can control his “tethered”, then apparently melding with Pluto to thwart him. And although everyone gives fantastically physical and otherworldly Id-performances, it is surely Evan Alex’s scrambling around like a monkey or a spider that remains most memorable, and so at odds with the more prosaic character of Jason. Even Umbrae’s (Shahadi Wright Joseph) smile-like-a-horror-icon and Red’s horror-croaky voice are pulled back just at the moment of being over-done. 

But like ‘Get Out’, ‘Us’ almost sabotages itself with an unsubtle moment where everything stands still for exposition. These moments are untypical of the fluid flow and fine judgement on display before and after, but it seems there is so much to get in that Peele hasn’t yet quite figured how to avoid these moments of obviousness. But nevertheless, much else is so strong that surely this weakness can be forgiven. 

It’s not so much about the twist which any genre-savvy viewer will suspect/know – so it’s barely a twist at all, maybe – but how the film plays with that throughout and what it goes on to say: it’s about how, given the chance, she came from the underground and learnt all the signifiers and mannerisms to be the thing above ground, in a comfortable middle-class and loving family. Did we think she was just playing a part, because she really did seem to care about the kids, etc.? No, she undoubtedly really meant it. Give the underclass a chance and they’ll be indistinguishable from the privileged. Hell, they might even achieve “Hands Across America” where the privileged failed.

It's a little uneven, a little mumbled, but‘Us’ is a far more open work, far
more willing to let the audience pile in with interpretation where ‘Get Out’ was more definite. It’s chock-full of social commentary and symbolism that can be parsed long afterwards. It helps that there are many striking images to hang it all on and that it’s all nicely and sharply filmed – already I note costume companies are taking the film’s get-ups as Halloween options. Peele offers another meal of genre tropes to interrogate another perennial topic of sociological horror, but does so with humour, vigour and with a sense that the genre can stab and viscerally reveal subjects in ways that others cannot. 

Monday, 25 March 2019

"Lonely Decoy" - Buck Theorem album #2

Here is my second album, "Lonely Decoy". I was asked years ago to do something for an open mic in Manchester, and at the time I really didn't have much to perform and thought spoken word was the way to go. That's where the track "Lonely Decoy" comes from. But then there's a cover of Orbison's "In Dreams", which I reckon to be my oldest favourite song as I have loved it since I was very young and going through mum's collection of 7-inches, And then there's a track about a seance, and then other ambient tracks to fall asleep to.

If one track does nothing for you, I say try the next... just in case...

Thursday, 14 March 2019



Nadine Labaki, 2018, 

This is the tale of Zane (Zane Al Rafeea), who is apparently around twelve or thirteen (they can’t quite tell). Zain has a tough life, struggling to exude masculine confidence and dominance over the surrounding chaos of his family and the outside world, all whilst looking younger than his age. When homelife becomes unbearable – like Zvyagintsev’s ‘Loveless’, the parents are too obsessed with their own misery to impart real affection to their kids – he takes to the streets and strikes up an unlikely babysitting job with illegal immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw).

Labaki directs with her focus always on her subjects, although there a couple of occasions that it descends into annoying blurry and unintelligible shaky-cam, or there will be a breath-taking birds-eye view of Beruit. Her husband produced, giving her a freedom from studio demands. Mostly it has the naturalistic, quasi-documentary feel that many bildungsroman focusing on poverty utilises (‘Pixote’, ‘Kes’, for example) rather than the magic-realism trend (‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ comes to mind). Robbie Collins says, 

“…Capernaum is closer in both texture and spirit to the Brazilian crime epic City of God: it teems with the same excitement and danger as Fernando Meirelles’s film. The sensation of being right there on the ground stems from the nimble camerawork, which darts after Zain through the city’s markets and slums, and also the incidental colour vividly woven through the story itself.”

There are plenty of tentpoles where it could hang its drama upon, but even the courtroom framework where Zane is suing his parents dissipates once the characters speak their piece. It’s the kind of conceit that promises the most tabloid of structures and narrative, but the verdict is not the point. Many moments that could have made for high-drama are played out off-screen to allow the sorrowful struggle of the desperate and disenfranchised to play out mostly unruffled by cruder demands of narratives. The film doesn’t want for emotive and heart-tugging moments, but they’re as clear-headed as they are manipulative. It also navigates around something more lurid and grimmer (I’m thinking of ‘The Golden Dream’ and ‘Helos’ (both excellent)): for example, the sequence where Zain is trying to sell to various groups on the street and often getting beaten up is delivered as a montage rather than dwelt upon. In this way, it retains understatement whilst trawling through its tragedies and absurdities. 

In a world of mostly belligerent and manipulative adults, Rahil provides empathy and softness. You will wonder that the toddler playing her baby (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) seems to be giving as much of an affecting performance as the adults (which is evidence of masterful editng). Zain Al Refeea’s look of constant resolve and defiance is the film’s guiding force, charging forward, until it becomes a mask for an irreparably hurt kid. Anyone familiar with the tricks of these things knows it is likely to culminate in Zain finally smiling as he has spent the entire film morose and never cracking one – even during the somewhat hilarious encounters with “Cockroach-man” – but even when it comes, there is a moment just before when you doubt if he can even achieve it.

You Total Cult - my podcast debut.

Well, I was recently ambushed to appear on the most entertainingly nerdish podcast “You Total Cult”. I wasn’t expecting it, but it proved most fun. I was in the usual fine company - the YTC host, Mike, and James Eastwood and Rich Byrom-Colburn - and we were in a pub in Lewes as a most atmospheric mist crawled and glowed outside. 

Mike knew to catch me unguarded, priming me earlier by texting “Think of some of your oddest and most obscure films – I’ll tell you why later.” I had never been on a podcast before. I was a little taken aback that he declared I had some influence on his taste, but then we got on talking as we usually do about films and I felt on much safer ground. And then he punningly named the episode after me…


Friday, 8 March 2019



Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea, 2018
Hangul: 버닝 – RR: Beoning 

Maintaining and leaving a thorough sense of ambiguity, when done correctly, can create the most haunting of fiction. For this reason, for example, Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ will always be a Rorschach test and it seems to me that no line of Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ can be trusted; or maybe it’s just perhaps something you can’t quite put your finger on, like the early works of Nicolas Roeg. Lee Chang-Dong’s ‘Burning’ is all about ambiguity: for example, is there a cat/well/killer? 

Lee Jong-su (a rivetingly disarming Ah-in Yoo) is a loner looking for a story to write. But he mostly seems aimless and friendless. Also, his dad is on trial for violent behaviour, leaving the farm for his son to look after. Then one day he runs into an old a neighbour, Shin Hae-Mai (a charmingly shambolic Jong-seo Jun) … or is she? After all, he doesn’t recognise her as she says she had plastic surgery to now make her beautiful. Like everything else, there indeed seems to be some truth in there somewhere: she does seem to recognise the old neighbourhood, for example... 

She asks him to look after her cat when she’s away, which he never sees. Nevertheless, it’s obvious he’s becoming obsessed with her, so when Hae-Mi returns with rich-boy Ben (a mesmerisingly opaque Stephen Yeun), Jong-su is put out and even more repressed than before. Ben’s behaviour seems more and more like that of a sociopath, and Jong-su starts to suspect him of being a serial killer. Or maybe he’s just privileged and shallow?

Maybe Hae-Mi just disappears because the last thing that Jung-su said to her was staggeringly rude and she no longer wanted to play? Maybe the watch is in the drawer because she deliberately left it behind because she didn’t like it – maybe she dropped it? And maybe the thing about Ben and burning down greenhouses is just a pretension, a fancy? After all, there does seem to be some fabrication going on. And who can trust a cat's reactions? Everything is circumstantial, which means bewildered Jung-su’s escalation of assumptions and conclusions takes a more chilling and tragic turn. The more you try to pin down the film’s certainties, the more they tend to the subjective. It’s all in Hae-mi’s pantomiming: just believe it’s there. 

It’s the mystery that lingers, but as well as precisely staged, ‘Burning’ is beautifully filmed in slightly washed-out colours that verge on film noir, wallowing in slow reveals until it has fully planted its questions in you. Like everything else, the sound design and music also take time to show how meticulously placed and riveting it is. Based loosely on Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’, it’s as much based upon its lacunas and ellipses as what we see. There’s the gamut of issues of violence, class, repression, sexual longing and rivalry informing this troubled central love-triangle: big game is being caught here, even if motivation is often obscure. There’s the sense that the elusive centre is just within reach, calling from a distance like the propaganda blared across the border to the Lee farm. 

The three leads are exceptional, all playing a little abstract and yet thoroughly human. Yoo gets so much from silences beneath which sexual jealousies and class resentment is festering; Jun is the life and soul of the party, both bubbly and slippery and it’s easy to see why she would be the object of infatuation. Yeun is rivetingly all surface and slick, unknowable; saying so little but seemingly doing so – unlike Jung-su – out of arrogance and a superiority complex. ‘Burning’ is firmly anchored by these performances while taking its time distributing its clues and secrecies and pantomime. 

Is Jong-su looking for the truth or a story? But that’s a little disingenuous: he’s looking for both and the question is of how much the latter obscures the former. Then again, perhaps things are just what they seem. And we’ll never know because all we are left with are assumptions. And also a great film about how those assumptions and our need to impose narratives dictate our obsessions and behaviour. And class war, and sexual jealousy, etc...

Sunday, 3 March 2019


Nicolas Rapold on how 2018 film was representing progressive hope.

For those who like sci-fi panoramas, here's Fan Gao's portfolio:

Feathered dinosaur tail!

The Jam's "A Town Called Malice": That one-two punch of Bruce Foxton's opening bassline that demands that you lose your cool immediately and then followed by that opening line that reminds you that your life is all your troubles makes for one of the great beginnings to any song.
And here are Weller and Foxton on it's conception.

And one of my favourite Kate Bush songs. Somehow, for me, it just effortlessly conjures up the canon of English literature.