Raygunesque #7: Re:Reading The Brief

Art & Culture

I originally started this column to fill in for my old mucker Miles from Thunder, as a kind of guest Thunder Picks piece. And they liked it so much, they asked me to do some more. Funny thing is, I strayed from the original brief (“re-read the brief”, as an oft-used line on the late-lamented Faith Fanzine website would say).

So, after a few interviews and assorted bigger features, I thought I’d go back to my roots (if you could have roots with something as recent as a few months ago) and make a few selections of some of the highlights of things I’d seen or picked up in the past few months, a la Thunder Picks…

Beyond that, I’ve been meaning to put together a Five Things I Learnt At This Year’s London Film Festival piece too, but day job deadlines, family bereavement and other issues, such as the proper writing I do got in the way. So I slipped it in here under the radar…

1 Cold In July

This slipped under the radar during its original theatrical release – heck, I’d even been invited to a special screening at a swish screening room attended by none other than Don Johnson. I’m not normally one for that “wasn’t he great in the 80s and look he’s still alive” kind of guff that starts off being all ironic and before you know it, ends up with everyone talking about “the Hoff” like a bunch of post-modern divs, so I wasn’t too sure about Johnson’s appearance in this dark, Texan noir kind of tale.

Sometimes films just kind of pass by and before you know it they’ve disappeared – that’s certainly not the kind of end-story that this film deserves. Johnson is ace – I literally cheered when he turned up adding a touch of outré flamboyance to the proceedings. But I was already hooked by then. Ten or so minutes in, in fact, I knew this was a winner. Now I’m not normally one for compiling top 10 lists of my films of the year (too many rules, too many guidelines), but if I did, this would be a dead cert for inclusion.

Director Jim Mickle has put together a mightily impressive CV within a relatively short space of time and seems at ease moving from genre to genre. His last two outings, Stake Land and We Are What We Are, the latter turning a Mexican cannibal flick into a piece of American gothic, are both worth watching And if you’re going to buy Cold In July – strongly recommended – then go for the Zavvi Steelbook version. It truly is a thing of great beauty, smartly referencing both the VHS era AND the film itself.

2 What We Do In The Shadows

“Have a look at this,” someone from independent distributor Metrodome told me the other day, sending me an online link to view this New Zealand film, “I think you’ll really like it.” And it’s a late entrant for comedy highlight of the year. Just when you think the whole mock documentary genre – mockumentary, if you will – has been done to death, along comes something such as What We Do In The Shadows. Rather than flogging a dead horse in a desperate bid to eke out a few laughs, this tale of vampires, which is co-directed, written and starring Jemaine Clement (him out of Flight Of The Conchords) and cohort Taiki Waititi (whose credits include helming the underrated Eagle Vs Shark), works a treat – the format suits the comedy entirely. Playing at cinemas now, worth searching out.

3 The Possibilities Are Endless

I’m a long term Edwyn Collins fan, back to the Postcard days, no less. He was always the perfect pop star – impeccably dressed, a bundle of amazing songs, Dennis Bovell on production duties (in the later years), an impossibly good quiff, a great sense of humour and post-modern irony, a love of the important things in life (punk rock, disco – Poor Old Soul, one of his finest moments, was written in a bid to blend the two). The tale of his debilitating stroke, near-death experience and subsequent recovery, is truly inspirational. Seeing him at one of his first gigs after his miraculous recovery was a genuinely uplifting moment. And yet, like much his post-stroke work, while there’s sadness at his plight, there’s not that kind of condescending “bless, the poor fellow, having a go at it again”. His post-stroke albums and gigs have stood up as great records, up there with his other solo outings. And the film carries that same message too. There’s hope, there’s inspiration, but it doesn’t play the sympathy card too heavily. And the first half an hour, effectively Collins drifting in and out of a stroke with an at-times experimental feel, is breathtakingly good. As someone who’s just watched his mum die after a series of strokes, seeing how it can devastate, it’s as near to a description of the state of the victim’s mind as you could see. Genuinely moving, truly worth seeing.

4 The Day The Earth Caught Fire

We’re now slap bang in the middle of the BFI’s ongoing sci-fi season, British 1950s sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Caught Fire helped kick off the proceedings with a special screening at the British Museum. Now I'm not normally one for pop-up cinema, mainly because they seem to always pick the same films, no matter where they air (Anchorman, Back To The Future, dirty Dancing, Grease, Ghostbusters, Pulp Fiction – you know the drill), but this was different, thanks, in no small part, to the film itself. It's a classic slice of British sci -fi, from the days when inventiveness and originality were more important to the genre than lavish budgets and shots of London, Paris and other international capitals being blown to smithereens. It's a Cold War, pre-Green Party eco-friendly tale of an impending doomsday. It's told through the office of the Daily Express and it's somewhat ironic that the film concerns a weather-based catastrophe, given the present-day paper's obsession with seasonal conditions. Sci-fi aside – and it's a cracking slice of genre fare too – it has two other key selling points: its portrayal of a long-gone London and its depiction of a Fleet Street and national press far removed from Leveson, phone-hacking and right wing viewpoints. It was all booze-sodden, down the pub between stories, turning copy round on a hefty typewriter, shorthand and bashing a story out in those days. “Impact” a sign on the wall screams, reminding hacks to include it in headlines, pictures and their stories. (A cub reporter once told me, after viewing All The President's Men, that the most amazing thing about Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate story was not that they brought down the US president, the most powerful man in the world, but that they used typewriters.) It’s a cracking package as well, with the customary accompanying documentary, plus loads more. Weirdly, I met director Val Guest’s grandson Harry at the screening. He was suitably bowled over by the work done. “Stepping into the courtyard of the British museum to see the milling crowd and enormous cinema screen, prepping for action, was a stunning experience,” he says after the event. “I had no idea of the scale of the production both in that courtyard and on the film they had decoded. Not having seen the film before was exciting and I was instantly sucked into Val and Wolf's surprisingly modern vision of the world coming to an end in the age of nuclear tension and global warming. As the film drew nearer its end, the quiet and engrossed audience fell silent and the courtyard seating transformed into pews before the apse where Edward Judd roams a desolate London street and the clock ticks down… An experience I will never forget.

“Britain has an incredible cinematic history,” he adds, “and any positive enhancements that the BFI can make to these films for 21st century viewers is fantastic.”

It’s now available as a dual format DVD and Blu-ray release from the BFI, it’s essential viewing.

5 A Cat In The Brain

It’s not Fabio Frizzi’s finest soundtrack – for that it’s a toss up between The Beyond and Zombie Flesh Eaters (even the most recent reissue of the former is going for a pretty penny now, although it is due for a re-release next year). It’s definitely not Lucio Fulci’s finest film (again, that’d be one of the two I’ve just mentioned, with the latter film just shading it thanks to its nasty notoriety and the great radio announcer at the end of the film). At last year’s Frizzi to Fulci event held in the Union Chapel a friend who’s far more well versed in this kind of thing than myself whispered the whole plot in to my ear, explaining the finer points and nuances of this most bonkers of films just as Frizzi pulled the strings of the live band paying homage to his works for one of exploitation cinema’s finest exponents. Despite not being the finest example of either of its protagonists’ work, the recently released soundtrack, issued via the Mondo operation in the US, has been glued to my turntable for a while now. Why? Well, it’s aided by a cracking sleeve for starters, created to Mondo’s usual high standards by Australian artists We Buy Your Kids, one of the better design outfits recreating classic horror and other film stuff in an increasingly packed marketplace. But most of all, I’m just happy that, after a fair few cracks at this, I finally managed to score a coloured vinyl Mondo “variant”. (Ugh, even typing the word made me cringe a little, hence the quotemarks.) Mondo, of course, has that annoying habit of pressing up, say, 500 standard black vinyl versions and a handful of coloured takes, which are, as the legend notes, randomly inserted into orders. Nothing can quite match the sense of disappointment that comes when you open a Mondo release, especially if you’ve been clobbered for importation by HMRC AND the Post Office, and you find a standard black vinyl version. It’s kind of like Santa turning up and giving you a lump of coal. So, finally, I got my coloured version, on what was lovingly referred to as “brain” vinyl – a kind of pinky red with white bits. And Frizzi has never tasted sweeter. As the fella at the sorting office said when I went to pick it up and had to cough up about £1 in VAT and a tenner in Post Office charges: “Don’t think about the money you’ve just paid. Think about the pleasure what’s inside it is going to give you.”

Buy the soundtrack here.


The festival can still pull in the big names Make no mistake, the London Film Festival can still pull in the big names, with a raft of big titles making their debut throughout the event and plenty turning up for the red carpet. 

It’s also where films cement their reputations – Whiplash, for example, has sealed its status as the must-see film of the early part of 2015 thanks to its airing at the event. 

But since splitting into genres and widening its scope, the LFF is increasingly looking to genre fare too. 

Take horror, for example – it’s playing an increasingly important role at the event, with the likes of It Follows adding to their burgeoning reputation as ones to watch in the coming months. 

And, like the BFI archive release (see below) it also plays host to some cracking reissued works too. To see Texas Chain Saw Massacre in all its restored glory – a marvellous job, with the film looking better than ever, and yet still retaining a scuzzy, grainy feel – on the big screen at as prestigious an event as this was a victory for genre fare.

Music documentaries keep getting better and more varied

Call it the post-Searching For Sugarman effect, but the huge success of that documentary – 20,000 plus vinyl sales of Rodriguez’ albums on top of hefty lifetime DVD sales and a strong performance at the UK box office mean that music documentaries aren’t just a way of telling a story about an artist you love, or a relatively unheard of act, nor just focusing on one part of a group or solo artists’ output either. These are bona fide moneyspinners. Highlights from this year’s event were wildly varied, but there were a few belters in what has been a strong year for the genre. Nas’ Time Is Illmatic, due out in a rather swish Steelbook edition later in December, is the rags to riches storey of the rapper’s first elpee, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. that’s right – 20 years (I remember a certain Mr Weatherall dropping a track or two from Illmatic while DJing before the final Manic Street Preachers’ gigs featuring Richey Edwards). The documentary follows the standard formula for this kind of film – rapper sees pal gunned down, it’s either hip hop or drug dealing as a way out of the ghetto – but while it may feel a touch familiar, even cliched, it’s an endearing tale, well told and the album and Nas’ early output still sounds on point. Bjork’s Biophilia is a standard concert film, lifted out of the bog-standard routine of a singer going through the motions, is livened up in part by the Icelandic singer’s patented wackiness (“ooh look, isn’t she bonkers!”), the sheer invention of some of the music, staging and visuals and, best of all, the involvement of director Peter Strickland. He knows a thing or two about music – he bonded with Bjork not over her music, but by discussing Annie Anxiety and old anarcho-punk records (a fact he revealed during an illuminating Q&A held as part of the event). Strickland’s CV already boasts the wonderful Berbarian Sound Studio, to which Broadcast contributed a rather wonderful soundtrack, and his latest, due in the new year and another one to air at the LFF, It earned rave reviews and features Catt’s Eye – that bloke out of the Horrors’ side project (although that does them a disservice) providing the music. And then there was the Edwyn Collins doc, The Possibilities Are Endless, which I’ve blathered on about elsewhere. 

The BFI archive film is consistently one of the highlights

Two years ago it was The Great White Silence, in 2013 it was Epic Of Everest. This year it was The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands. Each LFF for the past few years has seen the BFI’s archive restoration offering up one of the undoubted festival highlights. Each early, silent, black and white film has been meticulously, and, perhaps more importantly, lovingly restored and reassembled, rescued from obscurity for a while new audience. This year’s, the tale of a first world war battle, didn't earn nearly enough coverage, even though, yet again, it was among the best on offer. Maybe it was mere mention of the word “Falklands”, heck, that was nearly enough to put the Crass fan in me off for life. It’ll be out on Blu-ray early in 2015 and I can only recommend you pick it up immediately.

Electric Boogaloo – Not Just A Great Title 

Another personal highlight from the LFF. And proof as to why it’s still such an important event.  

Where else could you see a documentary about the wonderful Golan and Globus partnership, known commercially as Cannon Films and a mainstay of video rental stores in the good old days of VHS, introduced by its director, some eight months ahead of theatrical release?

I won’t talk too much about Electric Boogaloo – The Wild Untold Story Of Cannon Films now, as I’ve got half a notebook’s worth of an interview with director Mark Hartley to be used when the film’s closer to release, but it’s a great documentary paying tribute to one of the finest brands of the early video era. It’s also a fine cautionary tale too, this is not all rose-tinted nostalgia. 

True to form, incidentally, the old set-up heard about the documentary and eventually, after negotiations to appear in this film fell through, true to form, set out to make their own, cheap cash-in, which came out before the unofficial, less hagiographic version…

God, aren’t journalists and bloggers annoying

“Can we have that thing off now,” said one press pass wearing media type, who ran up to me to harangue me during one screening, just as I was about to switch off my, ahem, device. Fair enough, you might say, people with their phones and iPads on during a film deserve shooting. And I’d probably agree with you. Only thing is, the auditorium hadn’t even gone dark yet, the lights were just dimming. The fella obviously wanted to be able to stroll back to his mates feeling like the cock of the walk. People complaining about people with phones on have become almost as annoying as their intended targets. They want to wear their protests like a badge of honour. “I felt like punching him,” they’ll brag to their buddies on the Twitter. “Hanging’s too good for them,” another will chip in. “I can’t believe I was the only one standing up to this ignoramus,” they’ll reply. Before all running to Mark Kermode to tell him what a blow they’d struck for cinematic democracy (I loathe use of the word “cinematic” by film writers – “my cinematic year got off to a good start”: hey, it’s just your year). Last year it was having to pay a measly £30 for your press pass. This year, it was how many idiots they’d told to turn their phones off. Maybe they should put those Apple stickers you get free when you buy a new laptop on the side of their free Tarantino messenger bags they got given free a few years ago, like a World War II pilot showing off their kills. Oh, and another thing: it’s not a competition or a race. No-one cares how many films you’ve seen. I don’t care how many WAVs a DJ has listened to this week. Nor do I care how many screenings you’ve got into. For future reference, these people are easy to spot – they’re wearing their reds badges around their necks, even if they’re not in the vicinity of the BFI Southbank or a West End cinema or screening room. They keep it on like a badge of honour. I once spent an LFF trying to chart how far out of that area I could spot one. They’re probably complaining about festival flu. And, like me, they’ve never done a hard day’s work in their life.