2010: my year in film

9 Jan

The blogging train is back on track – here’s round two of my “hey, the date changed – I better tell people what I think about stuff!” endeavour.

In the last couple of years I have watched a lot of films, and the main person to blame for this is Mark Davidson. When we were flatmates, he convinced me to get a Cineworld Unlimited card, and explained to me the virtues of LoveFilm. And during the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2010, he asked me to partake in a podcast he was starting for his excellent blog. This has now become a monthly deal, and in the December edition we discussed our films of the year. In case you missed the podcast (or I should probably say: in case you heard the podcast, sorry, but…)  here are my Top 5 Films of 2010.

5. The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right centres on a same-sex couple, played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, who each conceive a child via the same sperm donor. The family seems to be a happy and close-knit unit, until the kids decide to track down their biological father, the lovable Mark Ruffalo, and things get a little bit shaken up. The characters in this film are so well developed and realised that I just really enjoyed watching them interact, and I really cared about what happened to them.  I also admired the way the film makers didn’t try to politicise this story, or make it a movie with a particular message, other than the fact that family and relationships, whatever form they take, are complicated and beautiful.

4. Monsters

One of the best films I saw at the EIFF, Monsters is set 6 years after alien life has crash-landed in central America, resulting in a large area between South America and the USA being quarantined. The story centres on two characters journeying through this infected zone, trying to get back home.  Kaulder, a photographer trying to document the devastation caused by these aliens and ultimately to capture an image of one of the elusive creatures, is tasked with escorting the injured Sam (his publisher’s daughter) to the coast. Their relationship is key, and is played perfectly, perhaps owing to the fact that the actors are a married in real life. Director Gareth Edwards is from a special-effects background, and his work here integrates seamlessly with the real world footage, much of which was filmed organically and improvised as the small cast and crew themselves journeyed through central America. A fresh take on the disaster movie concept, where we actual see very little of the monsters but learn much more about their effect on the lives of ordinary people in the “infected zone”.

3. The Social Network

Facebook is so hot right now, so it’s no surprise that a movie about its supposed origins was one of the biggest of the year. I was excited when I heard that the writer of “The West Wing”, the director of “Fight Club” and the singer of “Sexy Back” were teaming up, and they definitely all delivered. The dialogue was just as snappy as we’ve come to expect from Aaron Sorkin, and David Fincher ably directed us through dorm-rooms and court-rooms to give a picture of the events that started Mark Zuckerberg on the road to becoming Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2010. Although the truth of the tale is sometimes questionable, it was a story well told and well acted. Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield were believable frenemies and JT proved that he definitely has some acting chops. While I don’t believe Zuckerberg to be as ruthless or unpersonable as this portrayal, I think the film used this “Mark Zuckerberg” character to draw out some of the key themes associated with Facebook today – it’s effect on privacy, relationships, business models, etc. Definitely a film with a lot to say to this generation, and well worth a look.

2. Up In The Air

Another zeitgeisty film I enjoyed this year was Jason Reitman’s Cloon-fest, Up In The Air. George Clooney plays a consultant who travels from city to city, informing the employees of failed companies that they are losing their jobs. All this flying around forces him into something of a nomadic lifestyle, the freedom of which he fully relishes. But this lifestyle is threatened when Anna Kendrick’s character shows up – a young, bright-eyed, loved-up graduate with designs on revolutionising the business.  One final cross-country trip, involving run-ins with his family and love-interest Vera Farmiga, causes him to consider his transient existence and wonder whether it’s time to settle down. I can definitely relate to the tension between wanting to lead an exciting and unpredictable life, but also valuing the security of family and “home”.  Some of these themes reminded me of Into The Wild, a film in which the lone-wolf protagonist finally concludes  “Happiness only real when shared”. Great performances from the three leads and a funny and thought-provoking script made this one of the films I most enjoyed last year.

1. Inception

There isn’t much to say about Inception that hasn’t already been said, given that it featured on the majority of critics Best of 2010 lists. Christopher Nolan is carving out a niche for himself making intelligent blockbusters, when so many other directors seem to be dumbing down. The Dark Knight proved that comic book films didn’t have to be predictable and superficial. And now Inception reminds us that good sci-fi doesn’t have to be set in space, or re-tread the same old tired ideas. Choosing the realm of dreams meant there were no limits on Nolan’s imagination, the extent of which we can see in the worlds and concepts he has created and explored here. Some people have complained about plot-holes or contradictions, but I was so engrossed by the film that I didn’t notice. Everything from the soundtrack to the special-effects seemed pitch perfect to me, and I found the themes of guilt, memory and the subconscious fascinating (unlike my podcast co-host). Leo continues to impress, as did Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ellen Page. Nolan seems to be a director with the Midas touch and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

cheers for looking over that document. the only question i have, i didn’t mention anything about the testing about the figures being correct in january etc because there wasn’t really anything technical to be done

2010: my year in music

4 Jan

It’s been a bit quiet on here lately, so in an attempt to get myself back on the blog-wagon I’m going to jump on the end-of-year list compilation train and hope it carries me into a brave new world where my thoughts are no longer imprisoned in my mind.

To begin, I thought I’d talk about music I enjoyed last year. Couldn’t quite decide on the best way to do this – best albums of 2010? Best gigs of 2010? Ever on the fence, I’ve settled for a hybrid I’m calling my Top 5 Bands of 2010, assessing my experience of the year in music in a single swoop.  All the bands I’ve chosen had albums released this year and toured somewhere I was able to see them.

5. Band of Horses

Despite hearing and loving Band of Horses song The Funeral in various places (maybe most notably this video of Danny MacAskill biking round Edinburgh) it was only in 2010 that I properly gave them my attention. Their album Infinite Arms was released this year – an enjoyable slice of Americana showcasing both sides of their sound from the upbeat, poppy tracks like Dilly and Factory to the more soft and sombre numbers like Evening Kitchen and For Annabel. While there’s nothing here that can quite hold a candle to tracks from their previous albums (like The Funeral, Is There A Ghost and No One’s Gonna Love You) it’s a solid album. The main reason they made this list is that I was able to see them this summer supporting Snow Patrol in a gig in my home town Bangor, the biggest gig in Northern Ireland’s history. While Band of Horses were undeniably and expectedly upstaged by the home-coming Lightbody & co, they played a sweet, albeit somewhat subdued, set. It was awesome to watch a band I really love playing on a stage above a spot in the park where I used to chuck a Frisbee around with my mates. The alliteratively named Ben Bridwell seemed to have a sweet nature that didn’t really vibe with his mountain-man beard and tattoos, but any perceived contradictions were forgiven when his band began to play.

Evening Kitchen (from Infinite Arms)
No-One’s Gonna Love You (from Cease To Begin) and a cover by soul-man of the moment, Cee-Lo Green

4. Beach House

Arguably the best thing to come out of Baltimore since The Wire, Beach House are a two piece indie outfit making atmospheric pop gems. I saw them twice this year, first supporting Grizzly Bear at the Queen’s Hall Edinburgh and then again at the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. I hadn’t really heard of them before the Grizzly Bear gig, but by the time Primavera rolled round I was in love with their album Teen Dream. This is not to be confused with the similarly named Katy Perry album Teenage Dream – while the hooks are not quite as infectious as those of Ms. Perry, front-woman Victoria Legrand is every bit as alluring and her voice much more memorable. They seemed to rise to playing a festival crowd much better than Grizzly Bear themselves did, Legrand’s piercing vocals easily drifting across the Parc del Forum. It’s still on my to-do list to explore their back catalogue, but with tracks like Zebra, Walk In The Park and Take Care, there are plenty of reasons to keep revisiting Teen Dream.

Zebra (from Teen Dream)
Walk In The Park (from Teen Dream)

3. LCD Soundsystem

My first trip to Glasgow’s Barrowlands was certainly a euphoric one (and it’s with some regret that my second visit, a week later, to see Pavement’s reunion tour was just ousted from this top 5). There’s something liberating about being at a dancier gig, where the crowd allow themselves to be more animated than the indie-staple foot-taps and head-nods. Hearing Tribulations, All My Friends and Someone Great live in this atmosphere was truly amazing. I’m not sure whether I expected just to see James Murphy alone on stage behind some decks, but the full-band set-up was a pleasant surprise, and the musicianship on display by Murphy and his collaborators was impressive. The man just oozes cool, and his coolness would continue to drip into my life in 2010 through album This Is Happening and his work on the soundtrack for the film Greenberg. An artist that just seems to keep getting better, I hope this is not (as had been rumoured) the last LCD Soundsystem record – you have so much more to give, James!

All I Want (from This Is Happening)
Someone Great (from Sound Of Silver)

2. Wintersleep/Postdata

Narrowly winning this round in the war of the Murphy’s, Paul Murphy of Wintersleep/Postdata! Wintersleep are a Canadian band I started listening to a few years ago, but it’s fair to say my interest had waned in recent times. Then I discovered the lead singer’s side-project Postdata were supporting David Bazan on his UK tour, which I caught at the Captain’s Rest in Glasgow. This was one of my gigs of the year, mainly because of my unhealthy love for Bazan, for his rich voice and his honest musings on life and religion. Postdata sounded great as well, melancholic but with enough melody to not completely kill the mood. The album provided a sombre sound-track for my commute to work on many wintery mornings in early 2010, and inspired me to revisit Wintersleep, and pick up their latest two albums Welcome The Night Sky and New Inheritors. It was a timely move, as they returned to the Captain’s Rest in their own right in September and played one of the most enjoyable gigs I have ever seen. The sound was pitch-perfect and their songs seemed even more alive and unpredictable on stage than on CD.

Postdata – Warning (from Postdata)
Wintersleep – Preservation (from New Inheritors)

1. Deerhunter/Atlas Sound

I’ve already mentioned Primavera Sound, an amazing festival I went to in May. I think my favourite performance there was, surprisingly, an artist called Atlas Sound who I’d only listened to for the first time a few weeks before the festival. I bought their 2009 album Logos to gear myself up for the festival, and songs like Walkabout and Attic Lights got me excited about seeing them live. There’s plenty of layers and sounds in their music, so I was surprised when one man with an acoustic guitar, harmonica and some pedals took the stage. Bradford Cox doesn’t exactly cut a dominating figure, but I was blown away by his set. For an idea of what it was like, this set of videos from Pitchfork’s Cemetery Gates series is probably a good place to start. It was only speaking afterwards that I realised he was also in the Deerhunter, a band I’d heard of but not listened to. I’ve just picked up their latest album Halcyon Digest and was spinning it lots in the car while I was home over Christmas – phenomenal. I love their mixture of ambient noisiness and classic pop melodies. Their upcoming gig at Oran Mor in March is probably my most-anticipated of 2011.

Atlas Sound – Walkabout (from Logos)
Deerhunter – Basement Scene (from Halcyon Digest)

a mark of bad caricature

5 Aug

I was browsing the BBC News site when I came across a story where Archbishop Vincent Nichols was criticizing our love affair with social networking. Despite the fact that I’m writing this on wordpress, and will probably publicize it on Facebook and Twitter, I think I partially agree with him. But that’s a discussion for another day. What was more interesting than the article itself were the comments. Lots of “the church is stuck in the past” and “social networking isn’t as harmful as organised religion” type comments, as to be expected, but there was one which particularly stood out to me:

The church in all its disguises along with government and minority groups have made sure that its breaking some law or other to even get close to another human being without paying a tax,fine or be imprisoned.

I’m sorry, what!? I just can’t begin to fathom how someone would write this and not see how sensationalist and ridiculous a comment it is! The commenter was from Ipswich, a place where I lived for 3 months and made many friendships, none of which (to my knowledge) incurred any form of monetary penalty or jail term. It’s probably indicative of just how free and easy our lives are that people feel the need to fabricate ways that the government is oppressing them, just to have something to complain about.

Also, “The church in all its disguises”!?!? When did we all become characters in a Dan Brown novel? This is one of the straw-men depictions of religion that really gets my goat. I’ll be the first to admit and point out the many mistakes that “the Church” has made, particularly in the days when it was indeed heavily institutionalized and state-controlled but things have changed, a lot, and “the Church” enjoys no real power in the realm of politics, other than being another demographic that politicians sometimes try to woo or placate for their own ends. Like the way I caricatured politicians there? 😉

It’s the anthropomorphism that annoys me. “The Church” in this context is not a singular organism to which we can attribute intention or action. What we have is a collection of denominations, each a collection of local churches, each a collection of people with various opinions, ideas and agendas. I think painting groups of people as sinister organisations like this makes for better fiction than it does discussion.

But “the Church” is an offender as well as a victim here. I’ve seen it particularly in response to the issue of abortion. We would be led to believe that there is some sort of organisation out there that actually takes pride and joy in watching the death toll of unborn babies rise, seeing it as a marker of success in the same vein as rising stocks. It’s almost as if, at the meeting of this organisation, “the Left”, they discuss the week’s “liberal agenda” at the top of which is listed “Kill more babies”. Abortion is a complex and horrible issue, which I don’t intend to wade into here, but I think we can all agree that we don’t do anyone any favours by trying to simplify the arguments or caricature and dehumanize those on the other side of the fence.

OK, rant over!

snoozin’ for a bruisin’

3 May

by Inocuo

by Inocuo

I’m a big fan of the snooze button on my alarm clock. I’ve cut down slightly recently, but I used to regularly enjoy about 45 mins of snooze time. For the mathematically minded, thanks to Sony Ericcson’s inexplicable 9 minute snooze, I am able to ignore my alarm 5 times every morning before finally hauling my ass out of bed. My flatmate used to ridicule me for this. “Why don’t you just set your alarm for 45 mins later?”. This makes sense – it would be nice to have 45 mins of extra actual sleep. Maybe it’s partially because I like the idea of getting up earlier than I do, and having the alarm always set early at least makes it feel like I’m trying. But I think it’s more due to the fact that I really enjoy that sort of half-asleep, half-awake state I occupy during snooze-time – it’s got all the relaxation of actually being asleep, with the added benefit of being awake enough to enjoy it.

I got a new phone at Christmas, and for the first couple of months of 2009 I decided to use the radio as my alarm clock. Instead of hitting snooze I would just lie in bed and listen to the news until I felt like getting up. It was great. I was au fait with current affairs. I heard a lot of important people say things live that I later read as quotes on BBC news. It felt good knowing the day’s events BEFORE being told by the Metro on the bus. I was familiar with everything that was being talked about on “Have I got news for you”. However, I discovered a massive downside to my new life as a conversant and switched-on young-professional – I wasn’t remembering dreams anymore. I’m not sure whether I was still having them or not, but I started to think that maybe all that snoozing allows my dreams to ferment and lodge themselves in my brain. To be fair, I’ve never really had a particularly active or interesting dream-life (unlike Joseph or MLK), but there was still something scary about thinking you aren’t dreaming at all any more.

So I switched back to the snooze routine, and the dreams have returned. And while they’re mostly just ideas for films that seem amazing at the time but make no sense in the cold light of day, it’s nice to feel more connected to my imagination. I wondered, where else might I be starving my subconscious? (or my soul?) I realised that some days, for most of the day there was some sort of signal blocking out what was going on around me – woken up by the radio, eat breakfast with BBC News 24, travel to work with iPod, work on computer all day, travel home with iPod, watch some TV, surf the internet and then go to bed to be lulled to sleep by the various buzzes and squeaks of pipes and ‘sleeping’ electronic equipment. Depressing!

Obviously, this is an exaggeration but it did make me wonder what I’m missing out on. Here are 2 things I think we’re in danger of losing:

  1. The art of meditation.
    I’m not talking about yoga or anything, I just mean the ability to actually think about something and process information, before it’s just replaced by another stream of input and forgotten.
  2. Connection to our environment.
    The people around us on the way in to work, the sound of birds singing in the morning, the sky, and all kinds of other poetic stuff. Here’s a mewithoutYou lyric about how the natural world often has more to say for itself than all the noises and distractions we surround ourselves with.
And at the water’s edge, Babylon;
As we lay and slept,
The river wept for you, Zion!
The stones cry out,
Bells shake the sky!
All of creation groans…
Listen to it!

mewithoutYou ~ ‘O Porcupine’

Admittedly, I haven’t really changed anything in my lifestyle since I started thinking about this stuff, and maybe I’ll never be motivated enough to do so. But I’m definitely learning to appreciate those surprising moments of liberation that come with a power cut or a forgotten mobile phone. I guess it’s good to be disconnected sometimes.

the view from the fence

23 Apr

by Duchamp

by Duchamp

sit on the fence to avoid committing oneself, to remain neutral

I’ve never really been the argumentative type. I suppose it stems from having quite a shy disposition, I tend to be more of an observer in discussions than an active participant. I got the nickname “Diplomatic Dave” while on holiday in South Africa because I tended not to take sides in arguments. I was quite happy with the nickname. Everyone loves diplomacy right? But recently, the joke in favour has invariably involved the fence. Sitting on it. Living on it. Getting off it. The connotations of being a fence-sitter annoy me more than those of being a diplomat. Rather than the quietly heroic negotiator that I like to imagine myself as, it implies a sort of wishy-washy, doormat with insufficient self-confidence to invest himself in a point of view, afraid to offend and pandering to the whims of the encircling opinionated. I’m well aware that there is a big part of my temperament than leans towards this caricature. I generally like to avoid conflict and try to be everyone’s mate which, to be honest, has served me well and kept me out of trouble – for example, as of last weekend I’ve officially broken up more fights than I’ve partaken in (1 – 0, if you’re keeping score!).

So is it a good thing to sit on the fence? Here is my defence as to why I have yet to de-fence myself (PUN!).

I know you are, but what am I?

I’ll admit, it can be a lot of fun to just disagree with someone and play devil’s advocate. Not only fun, but useful on many occasions, to highlight another opinion and make sure you’ve thought through the various options. In fact, arguing is really important. Academia, and therefore a lot of development and advancement, depends on it.  And even parts of my degree touched on the role of argumentation in reaching agreement (for “agents” not people, but still!). But let’s face it, alot of arguments are stupid – an attempt to establish a smug sense of superiority that only serves to further entrench two opposing viewpoints. Even arguments about light-hearted things can quickly get out of hand – “could Jesus draw a perfect circle!?”, “can Taking Back Sunday be considered a ‘hard rock’ band!?”, “is it weird to eat soft weetabix AND crunchy cereal in the same bowl!?” – all of these are banterful exchanges that I’ve seen turn into pretty vitriolic squabbles. I’d rather be sitting on fences than building new ones for no real reason.

Death from above!

The time inevitably comes when you have to get off the fence. I guess that’s the moment at which a fence-sitter reveals whether or not they actually have any backbone, and whether all this rhetoric is backed up by action. Malcolm X (thanks Google!) said “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”. I remember that quote being chucked around at various church YF meetings (though I don’t think they ever revealed the source…), along with references to Ephesians 4:14 about being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming”. I firmly believe this; there are some things you need to make up your mind about, and you need to be able to defend your convictions. But I hope that by choosing my battles and not getting bogged down in trivial debates, my voice might carry more weight when I actually need to make it heard. Think of the fence like the top rope in a WWE wrestling ring – sometimes precarious, but from up there you can launch some punishing acrobatic attacks, which often lead to the pin!

Few issues are black and white.

There’s a verse I really love in the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 7 v 18  “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.” This really resonated with me growing up as a Christian, realising how so many issues require a balanced approach and how there are so many contrasting view points which inevitably get some things right and some things wrong – few things are really black and white (or one side of the fence vs the other). It was equally striking how often we seem to get this wrong, especially in churches, creating labels and divisions that lead to arguments, often over trivial and inconsequential things. C.S. Lewis turns this on it’s head in the Screwtape letters,  where Wormwood writes “All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged”, knowing the problems and conflict likely to result from isolated, extreme positions. I find that the view from the fence makes it easier for me, personally, to “grasp one and not let go of the other”.

Maybe I should aspire to be a fence-hopper rather than a fence-sitter… and engaging a bit more with both sides of the debate instead of just observing. Feel free to disagree with me, but don’t be surprised if I just say “good point” and have done with it.