My Favourite Films of 2011

It’s been an odd year for film. It may not have had the immediate cachet that last year displayed, but it was still split between old masters coming out of the woodwork to re-establish their claims and newcomers making incredible debuts. Beyond the assured money-spinners of Harry Potter and The King’s Speech, the British film industry delivered a number of excellent films with fairly minimal fanfare – many of them reviewed here. In addition to the great Brit-flicks on my list, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a very well-crafted film that harked back to a more slow-paced, cerebral type of spy story. And John Michael McDonough delivered a great debut with mordant Irish crime comedy The Guard, featuring Brendan Gleeson in a standout role as a shambolic small-town policeman clashing with Don Cheadle’s straight-man Fed. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List was matched in ultraviolent intensity by Simon Rumley’s US-UK production Red, White and Blue and Bong Joon-Ho’s Korean revenge thriller I Saw The Devil. In Hollywood, summer blockbusters like Thor and Super 8 were very well-made, combining spectacle with a Spielberg-esque light touch. (Transformers 3 was predictably awful. I saw it in a double bill with Super 8. The less said about it the better.) All told, I think this year has at least as much quality releases, but any narrative surrounding them has yet to emerge. Anyway, I hope you enjoy my entirely subjective top fifteen.
15. Kill List
Dir. Ben Wheatley (UK, 2011)
95 minutes

This gripping horror-thriller provided one of the most disturbing film-watching experiences I had last year. A tale of two ex-soldiers turned hitmen taking on a job that goes very badly for them both, it turns on an audacious narrative shift that somehow comes with the inevitability of a nightmare. The grim landscape of anonymous chain hotels and suburban housing developments lends a perfectly bizarre incongruity to the increasingly gruesome storyline. Director Wheatley uses jump cuts and eerie soundscapes to keep the audience constantly on edge, lending domestic arguments and scenes of bloody violence the same unsettling atmosphere. Not for the faint-hearted, but still astounding.

14. Archipelago

Dir. Joanna Hogg (UK, 2010)
114 minutes
A drier-than-dry comedy of manners about a well-to-do family’s holiday on the Scilly Isles doesn’t sound a promising prospect. But Joanna Hogg’s latest feature fashions an absorbing drama out of those raw materials. Through lengthy, static camera shots, she achieves an almost anthropological focus on the awkward upper-middle-class social manoeuvrings. Tom Hiddlestone stands out from an excellent cast as the first son preparing to embark on a volunteering mission for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. And despite the distanced direction, we still feel for this dysfunctional but essentially caring family.

13. Attack The Block
Dir. Joe Cornish (UK, 2011)
88 minutes

In a year full of foul, poisonous rhetoric from our political classes directed towards the disenfranchised, it took a low-budget sci-fi film from comedian-turned-first-time-director Cornish to humanise inner-city youth. The protagonists aren’t whitewashed; they first appear mugging a young woman on her way home. But an alien invasion inspires them to fight back in defence of their block, and the rough-hewn community within. Block is fast-paced, witty and extremely well-crafted for a debut feature. And underneath the action, it poses serious questions about how we live together. It’s a hopeful and humanistic picture, unafraid to wrap big ideas in populist entertainment.

12. Bridesmaids
Dir. Paul Feig (USA, 2011)
125 minutes

Bridesmaids is well worth discussing beyond the cultural conversation it started about women in comedy; it’s a sharp-eyed, extremely funny look at growing up. Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph are excellent as the childhood friends whose relationship is tested to destruction over the latter’s impending wedding. Wiig’s Annie is impressively three-dimensional; immature and often unlikeable, she perfectly portrays a young-ish adult unhappy with the turns her life has taken. The supporting cast all put in good work — particularly Chris O’Dowd and the hilarious, scene-stealing Melissa McCarthy — and despite the overlong runtime, it’s an enjoyable ride with people who feel real.

11. 13 Assassins
Dir. Takashi Miike (Japan, 2010)
126 minutes

Master of ultraviolence Takashi Miike here delivers a more toned-down historical samurai picture – which still makes it crazier than most action films out there. The setup — former samurai recruits the titular group of swordsmen to assassinate a sadistic young lord — is a long, slow boil, containing questions of honour, duty and sacrifice. It all leads up to the film’s centrepiece; a delirious 40-minute battle sequence, staged in a booby-trapped village, with the 13 assassins versus a small army. Miike stages the carnage expertly, creating a grippingly visceral sequence that ebbs and flows like a real battle. You stagger out of the cinema privileged at having watched a master at work.

10. Drive
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, (USA, 2011)
100 minutes

A stylish throwback to the ‘80s LA-set thrillers of Michael Mann and William Friedkin, Refn’s first US-set film is also of a piece with his previous studies of violent men, shot with a lyricism that belies the brutality they carry with them. Ryan Gosling’s taciturn stuntman/getaway driver isn’t just a Hollywood archetype; he’s a character who’s internalised those those archetypes to show a better face to the world. And although his budding relationship with Carey Mulligan is tenderly believable, it’s only when he’s plunged into the middle of a botched gangland deal that his true nature comes to the fore.

The film benefits from an excellent supporting cast, including the aforementioned Mulligan as a beatific single mother, Bryan Cranston as Gosling’s sad-sack boss, and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as a pair of vicious gangsters. But for long stretches Refn chooses to present the film as a near-mute Zen pulp poem, letting the electronica-heavy soundtrack do the talking and concentrating his camera on the architecture of LA, Gosling’s blank expression, the glare of neon or a spurt of rich red blood. It’s a strange fusion of noir and fairytale, with familiar elements retooled and let loose on the road once more.

9. Meeks’ Cutoff
Dir. Kelly Reichardt (USA, 2010)
104 minutes

Though it contains few moments of violence, Meek’s Cutoff is one of the tensest films I saw in 2011. Kelly Reichardt’s low-budget Western takes place among a group of emigrants journeying to Oregon. Travelling by wagon, horse, and on foot, they are constantly vulnerable to the smallest accident marooning them in the parched landscape.

Tensions shimmer like heatwaves between the members of the party, particularly shifty guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) and self-assured traveller Emily Thetherow (Michelle Williams). Reichardt’s unobtrusive direction and use of minimal dialogue or music draw us inexorably in to this almost alien world, where the creak of wagon wheels is the only sound. It’s a journey that leads us not towards a traditional climax, but a brief, surreal moment of epiphany.

8. The Interrupters
Dir. Steve James (USA, 2011)
125 minutes

I’ve unfortunately missed out on most of the critically-acclaimed documentaries released in 2011, with one exception. This powerfully affecting story of death and life in inner-city Chicago follows a group called Ceasefire, composed of former gang members, who walk the streets doing what they can to stop the cycle of retaliatory violence spinning out of control. In each nervy conversation with a young person they’re aiming to dissuade from violence, you see the toxic combination of youthful bravado and rage borne of desperation. And as the members themselves tell their stories, you’re left with the sense that each of them feels a furious need to try and relieve future generations of the kind of pain they’ve both caused and suffered.

It’s a film short on moralising and easy answers. The people featured are themselves the story; their self-justifications, reminiscences and struggles to make it through day a reminder of universal human frailty and the capacity for hope.

7. Weekend
Dir. Andrew Haigh (UK, 2011)
97 minutes
Haigh’s debut is a honest, melancholy but uplifting relationship drama about two people coming together in a one-night stand turned brief romance. The slightly shy, introverted Russell (Glen Cullen) picks up Glen (Chris New) at a club, and while both assume it’s a one-time thing, they end up hanging out and getting to know each other over the course of the weekend.It’s a rare example of a film featuring a gay couple that doesn’t play as a tragedy or worthy issues-based drama. The closest it comes to polemic is the presentation of the simple urgency of the affection Glen and Jay feel for each other; no one could watch this film and come away unconvinced of the relationship. The flat, affectless handheld camera work makes you feel like makes you feel present in the the most intimate moments, and both Cullen and New give excellent performance, with all the hesitations and awkwardness of real conversations. As the weekend goes on, each becomes more and more exposed to the other until their conversations are raw and almost painful in their honesty. It’s a wonderfully made love story that manages to be truthful about love.

6. Submarine

Dir. Richard Ayoade (UK, 2010)

97 minutes

Comedy genius/music video director Richard Ayoade (you might know him from such Britcoms as The IT Crowd and Darkplace) branches out into feature filmmaking with this coming-of-age tale. Set in a small Welsh seaside town, it follows Oliver Tate, a precocious schoolboy who, like most teenagers, views himself as the heroic protagonist in the film of his life. But strains in his parents’ marriage and the arrival of his first crush threaten to throw his world into confusion.

Ayoade has crafted a brilliant vision here, alternately laugh-out-loud and moving. The distinct look of the film, riffing on Wes Anderson and the French New Wave, is enhanced by the gorgeous retro soundtrack from Alex Turner. Newcomers Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige are excellent as the star-crossed teenage couple, with the adult supporting cast (Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine) holding up their end. But in the end, this is a film all about youth; how we romanticise ourselves, and the inevitable heartbreak that comes when we have to reconcile that image with the real world.

5. True Grit
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (US, 2010)
110 minutes

There are few films that can make me leave the cinema with a sens of aboslute glee. This year, True Grit was one of them. Was it the sense of being in the hands of directors who have absolute mastery of their craft? Was it the excellent performances from Hailee Steinfeld as steely fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, Jeff Bridges as drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, and Matt Damon as conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf?

Maybe it was that for a Coens film, this is remarkably straight-faced. There are extremely funny lines, thanks to the dry wit of the novel remaining in the script, and moments of off-kilter humour. But as the film takes us to the deserted wilderness beyond American civilisation, it becomes a ripping adventure yarn where the central trio are tested, parted, and then brought back together to help each other.

It’s utterly thrilling to see a directorial team firing on all cylinders, working with excellent actors, bringing a great story to the screen. The perfect climactic action sequence, a non-stop series of impasses and reversals, and the moving coda set years after the main narrative, are a perfect closer to this wonderfully-crafted film.

4. The Skin I Live In
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar (Spain, 2011)
117 minutes

Almodóvar’s latest is a bizarre melodrama/thriller featuring Antonio Banderas as disturbed plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who keeps a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), as a pampered but de facto prisoner in his home. The three inhabitants of the mansion – Vera, Ledgard, and his housekeeper – spend the early part of the film dancing around each other in a strangely self-aware performace of their required roles. The ever-present monitor screens and microphones in the house by which Ledgard keeps watch over Vera makes the audience complicit in his voyeurism, and draws us into the bizarre family set-up, before it is blown apart by a relevation which recasts all that has gone before.
Banderas has never been better, his soap-opera-star-gone-to-seed looks perfectly suited to the charismatic but dangerous Ledgard. Elena Anaya is, if anything, even better; the smallest changes in her expression and body language suggest a world of torment under her placid exterior. As with most Almodóvar films, there is a depth beyond the pulpy subject matter, and the chronological trickery only enhances the film’s themes. For all the acting and gameplaying going on in the film, this is a story about identity and the inner strength needed to remain true to oneself.

3. Animal Kingdom
Dir. David Michôd (Australia, 2010)
113 minutes

After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, J (James Frecheville) is sent to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver), the matriarch of a family of criminals in suburban Melbourne. Caught between his family and the detective pursuing them (Guy Pearce), he must rely on his own wits to stay alive.

The plot, a “relative innocent caught up in criminal underworld struggling to break free” set-up, is well-worn in crime films. Where it differs is in the depiction of murder in the midst of banal Australian suburbia. The operatic tone of a Goodfellas is absent here – these are frightened, desperate men, crashing around cramped under-lit houses. And even Pearce, the nominal “hero”, fights a battle between morals and expediency. The wonderfully foreboding atmosphere makes Animal Kingdom feel like both an excellent crime thriller and examination of a dysfunctional family, looking at the lies we tell our relatives and ourselves.

2. Take Shelter
Dir. Jeff Nichols (USA, 2011)
120 minutes

I’d heard the praise for Jeff Nichols’ latest film long before it arrived in my neck of the woods. But I was still unprepared for how it affected me. This is an unbearably tense film, with scenes scarier than most horror films. And the most terrifying thing about it is that all the threat comes from inside the protagonist.

Michael Shannon plays a taciturn Midwestern blue-collar worker plagued by bad dreams and premonitions of doom. While the film doesn’t strain for topicality, it’s easy to read into Shannon’s nightmares modern-day America’s fear of terrorism, plagues and natural disasters, to say nothing of fear as a pathology in itself.
We never shake the sense that Shannon and his family are under terrible threat, both from his own mind and the insanity and barbarism of the US health care system. The more his condition worsens, the greater the chance of losing his job (and the health insurance that comes with it) becomes. Like a toppling row of dominoes, every mistake and bad decision leads inexorably to a worsening of their situation. Shannon’s massive, slablike face (probably the closest our puny “reality” will come to channeling a Jack Kirby drawing) is brilliantly expressive, registering the tiniest shifts from love to dread to stoic determination. While we see Shannon’s gradual breakdown staged against a mundane semi-rural background, the claustrophobic cinematography and eerie sound design draw us deep inside a world where one’s own senses can’t be trusted.
Take Shelter remorselessly presses on the nerve marked “fear of your family turning against you”, and even worse, it teases the possibility of Shannon turning against his family. It’s a film about fear, isolation, and the unique torment that is facing mental illness without support. But Nichols recognises that relentless pessimism is as much of a cop-out as unearned optimism. Any happiness gained during this film is hard won, but comes with the honesty of looking your problems in the face, and relying on the people who care most about you.

1. The Tree Of Life
Dir. Terrence Malick (USA, 2011)
139 minutes

During the time I’ve spent on this list, I’ve been trying to sum up what my greatest cinematic experiences of last year meant for me. I feel that the very essence of film lies in its power to transport you, for that giant screen to be a gateway of sorts to another world. More than anything, Terrence Malick’s latest film reminded me of the essential wonder of cinema. You are held rapt, and given a glimpse of something wonderful.

A young boy in small-town 50s Texas. A grown man, ill at ease among towers of steel and glass. The beginning of the universe, the making of the world, and the struggle of life in all its forms. Malick weaves these threads into a tapestry that contains all the questions on life, nature and spirituality that he’s been asking over his entire career.And it’s remarkable how subtly these themes are integrated into the DNA of the film. The constantly roving cinematography, taking the POV of a silent observer flitting in and out of rooms and wandering along bucloic country roads, is the viewpoint of an endlessly curious child. When the scenes switch to a detached, almost Kubrickian exploration of the early universe and primodial life on Earth, we carry that sense of childlike wonder with us. Every instance of creation — the birth of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s children, the musical signatures tapped out on the piano, the massive arrays of machinery that Pitt works with — echoes that primal moment when something was born from nothing.

While the film is a distillation of Malick’s favourite themes – man vs nature, sin and grace, how a child sees the world – it also feels like an expansion of his vision, an attempt to do something even more impressionistic and abstract. It might not have worked for some, but I was riveted. I assume there will be more to discover on further rewatchings, but one showing was enough to make a deep impression on me. It’s what film should be about.


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My 21 Favourite Albums of 2011

Because fuck a Top 20, that’s why.

21. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
An album that speaks to our times, with unsettlingly delicate orchestration and vocals illustrating lyrics that speak to the blood-soaked reality behind the bucolic image of English history.
Essentials: The Words That Maketh Murder

20.Kanye West/Jay-Z – Watch The Throne
Could it ever have lived up to the hype? Probably not. But in among the filler are a decent amount of straight bangers.
Essentials: No Church In The Wild, Gotta Have It, Murder To Excellence

19. Big K.R.I.T. – The Return of 4Eva
Up-and-coming Southern rapper Big K.R.I.T. delivers a mixtape with the tightness and cohesion of an official album, varying from bass-heavy trunk anthems to perceptive trips down memory lane.
Essentials: Rise And Shine, Dreamin’, American Rapstar

18. Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams
Classic girl-group garage-pop that rises above pastiche.
Essentials: Bedroom Eyes, Just A Creep

17. Danny Brown – XXX
This year Danny Brown gave us hilariously filthy lyrics, woozy drugged-up beats, grim tales from post-industrial Detroit, and a compelling portrayal of a post-twentysomething afraid they’ve missed the chance to make something of themselves. All on one mixtape. One FREE mixtape.
Essentials: XXX, Pac Blood, DNA

16. Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness
The riotous chroniclers of youthful indiscretions age (dis)gracefully into an indie band heavy on the heartbreak.
Essential: By Your Hand, Songs About Your Girlfriend, To Tundra

15. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Expansive, glittering dance-pop magic that sprawls but never bores.
Essentials: Midnight City, Reunion

14. British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
The deliberately archaic British Sea Power turn their attention to modern times with an album of squalling guitars and lyrics that form a perfect soundtrack to this year of protest.
Essentials: Who’s In Control, Mongk II, Living Is So Easy

13. The Roots – Undun
The Roots expand their scope further on this concept album, taking cues from jazz and classical orchestration to tell the story of one man’s life and death.
Essentials: Make My, Kool On, Lighthouse

12. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
The mad genius returns with an album that feels like a showcase of all his greatest successes, from gravel-voiced barroom stomp to eerie fairground tunes.
Essentials: Chicago, Hell Broke Luce

11. Doomtree – No Kings
A furious blast of insurrectionary punk-tinged hip-hop, railing against the established order.
Essentials: No Way, Beacon, Gimme The Go

10. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Expansive, anthemic rock incorporating everything from electronica to country.
Essentials: Victory Dance, The Day Is Coming, Wonderful (The Way I Feel)

9. Random Axe – Random Axe
Black Milk, Guilty Simpson and Sean Price trade their differing but equally versatile mic skills over classic boom-bap producation.
Essentials: Random Call, The Hex

8. Girl Talk – All Day
Mixtape king Gregg Gillis mashes up another disco-friendly masterclass in pop.
Essentials: The whole thing.

7. Gang Of Four – Content
Just when we need them, Gang of Four deliver more spiky, bass-heavy tunes that dissect the rot within our consumerist cargo cult.
Essentials: She Said “You Made A Thing Of Me”, I Party All The Time, A Fruitfly In The Beehive

6. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
Billy Bragg-style singalong acoustic ballads with a progressive-yet-traditional concept of identity, community and remembering where you’re from.
Essentials: Peggy Sang The Blues, I Am Disappeared, Wessex Boy

5. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light
Rich, textured songs that frantically race from contemplative noodling to get-down funk jams.
Essentials: Keep Your Heart, Will Do, Caffeinated Consciousness

4. Drive- By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
The quieter cousin to last year’s raucous The Big To-Do, this album indulges the Truckers’ storytelling side, from Southern Gothic to Modern Americana.
Essentials: I Do Believe, Used To Be A Cop, The Thanksgiving Filter

3. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
Alex Turner and co continue their journey to songwriting geniuses with this impeccable collection of British pop soon-to-be-classics.
Essentials: She’s Thunderstorms, Black Treacle, Suck It And See

2. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
US fem-rock supergroup delivers blasting guitar-heavy love letters to the transforming power of music.
Essentials: Romance, Boom, Glass Tambourine

1. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
Impeccable songwriting and musicianship combined with country/Americana roots give this album a timeless quality.
Essentials: Don’t Carry It All, Down By The Water, This Is Why We Fight

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Thought Bubble 2011 Reviewed

Last month I went up to Thought Bubble, the Leeds-based comic convention. It was my first time at an event like this; the draw for me was a combination of seeing artists and writers I liked, meeting up with people I was internet-acquainted with, and check out some more under-the-radar comics. And, of course, spending a bit of time back up in Leeds.The event was held across a couple of convention halls down at the Armouries, with some other venues drafted in for talks and other events. While it wasn’t the easiest of layouts to navigate, all the staff and volunteers on hand were absolute pros and ever ready to help out attendees.

From the initial rush of people at the start of the first day, things slowed down to a constant gentle press; the place was crowded, but never oppressive. And there were plenty of things to see. The convention was was very mixed in its setup, so “professionals” and self-publishers would have tables alongside each other. The atmosphere was very friendly and non-exclusive.

When I didn’t have anything specific to get to, I was happy to wander around looking at the independent comics on sale, and watching wonderful artists like Sean Phillips, Cameron Stewart and David Aja doing sketches. (I often forget how calming and relaxing it is just to watch someone draw.) I also had the pleasure of meeting up with Dan White, Andrew Hickey and Illogical Volume, of the excellent UK comics blog collective Mindless Ones, and chatting with them about comics and other assorted nonsense.

I also happened to pick up some very good comics while there, the majority of which I would never have heard of otherwise. Some reviews below:

Cindy and Biscuit in: What We Did At The Weekend
Dan White (Writer/Artist)
Publisher: Milk The Cat Comics

Dan White’s latest Cindy and Biscuit entry is in the best tradition of “kid’s comics”, in that it perfectly sums up what it means to be a kid; the instant switching between wide-eyed innocence and bloodthirsty attack mode, the value in discovering something all your own, and the inevitable bump as you’re brought back down to earth after yet another intrusion from the adult world.

The art means a lot here. Biscuit is drawn as the Platonic essence of dog; constantly either alert or in motion, his whole body converging to the sharp point that is his nose. And Cindy is all knobbly knees and elongated limbs, the perfect representation of the gangly awkwardness of childhood. This self-contained story of a girl and her dog fighting off an alien invasion is in full colour, brilliantly used to heighten the encroaching weirdness. It’s got action, comedy, and maybe even a little bit of poignancy too. Highly recommended.

Jack Teagle (Writer/Artist)
Publisher: Nobrow

I first found out about Teagle when I picked up his comic Jeff Job Hunter (also from NoBrow) earlier this year. A fun satire about a young jobseeker tasked with questing through an underground dungeon full of monsters in order to collect his JSA, it struck a sour chord with my experience of being out of work.

Fight! is the first of an occasional series, beginning with two wrestlers fighting as analogues of God and the Devil. Lou, the “Devil” character, is tired of his red skin and horns stereotyping him as the “heel”, and sets out to discover what happened to his famous wrestler father.

As with JJH, the simple, cartoonish art creates a pleasant blend of the surreal and the mundane. Teagle packs in as much as possible, with a back-up story on the inside cover and fake ads on the back. It’s decent, but I’d recommend Jeff Job Hunter over it.

Filmish #3: Technology and Technophobia
Edward Ross (Writer/Artist)
Publisher: Chiaroscuro

This series of minicomics offers straightforward introductions to various aspects of film theory. They owe a great debt to Scott McCloud’s books – as in Understanding Comics and other works, a cartoon version of the author appears on each page to explain concepts to the reader and interact playfully with the contents of the panels. This issue looks at the way technology has been represented and criticised in films, from Chaplin’s Modern Times to Videodrome, Jurassic Park and Primer. There are cited quotes from academic texts, and a bibliography at the end for further reading. A neat idea, executed well.

Hitsville UK
John Riordan (Co-Writer/Artist), Dan Cox (Co-Writer)

A spectacular technicolour pop-comix blast of greatness, Hitsville UK is a comics about the sense of romance that you get from all great music, and especially from stuff you stumble across by accident. The conceit of the comics is to profile several bands grouped around one start-up record label, allowing Riordan to take a different art style for portraying each act. The skipping between each different band and their various troubles gives the comic an excellent sense of pace, like it’s a bunch of old-school 2-page strips crammed together.

The off-kilter kookiness of the art and colouring suggest a world at right-angles to our own, where all the romance and promise of music still holds absolutely true. It’s pretty much perfectly designed to hit someone like me in their sweet spot, but don’t let my blatant bias put you off – it’s actually really good!

I Got Comics #1
John Miers (Writer/Artist)

An large-format collection of art-comics stories where form reflects function. Contrast is a constant here; black versus white; colour vs space; the art playing out scenarios of antagonism, thesis and antithesis. Whether illustrating a philospohical debate, a family argument, or the story of the Tower of Babel, the stories suggest conflict as the essential stuff of the artists’ life. The tour de force here is the closing story “Ink Vs Paper”, a black-and-white fight scene taking place in a Japanese castle, between combatants who use the material of the comic against each other. It’s Spy vs Spy with a fourth-wall-breaking conceit.

Pope Hats #1 and #2
Ethan Rilly (Writer/Artist)
Publisher: Adhouse

The first two issues of this series by Canadian cartoonist Rilly (released in 2009 and this year, respectively) are wonderful-looking, really well-constructed comics. Pope Hats follows Frances, a young law clerk who has to deal with the trials of her workplace and her flighty, hard-drinking actress roommate. Better critics than I have listed the artistic influences on display here, but I was taken with how much Frances looks like Tintin, sharing the button nose and black dot eyes of Herge’s boy reporter.

There’s a bit of Adrian Tomine in its portrayal of ennui among educated young people, and something of Dan Clowes in its static angles and deadpan realism. But Rilly avoids the worst tendencies of both writers (self-indulgence for Tomine, misanthropy for Clowes) by focusing in on the little moments when people my age stop and picture life passing them by. It’s hard to explain the appeal of this comic other than that it makes you feel for the characters. They’re drawn small, navigating a landscape of grids and straight lines, while trapped in their own thoughts, talking at cross purposes, unsure of how to break through to each other.

The two issues include one or two back-up stories, which is mainly a chance for Rilly to do some smaller vignettes. Along with the well-designed cover, it gives each issue a feel of being a more complete package; of it being a comic in a proper physical sense.

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Comixtime: “This is a Russian story”

The Winter Men (Six-issue series)
Brett Lewis (Writer), John Paul Leon (Artist), Dave Stewart (Colours), John Workman (Letters)
Publisher: Wildstorm

There’s a P D James quote about how the detective story isn’t really about murder; it’s about the restoration of order. That’s true for a lot of crime stories. But there’s another kind: one that uses the disruption of the established order to lift the lid on what has been accepted as normal, to show the rottenness and insanity of a system that operates from day to day without being questioned. The best thriller writers – Hammet, Le Carre, Ellroy – write stories like this. Crime stories, spy stories – stories about what “order” really means, and what that does to people who know about it.

The Winter Men is a mixture of crime story and spy story, set in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when economic liberalisation created a new capitalist state ruled by criminals and spies. The main character is Kris Kalenov (who seems to spend the whole of the book wearing at least one plaster over his battered face), a veteran of a Soviet super-soldier program who’s fallen on hard times in the new Russia. He and his former comrades are just getting by, working as mercenaries, bodyguards, gangsters. Then he gets entangled in a case involving a missing girl, and becomes caught up in a conspiracy reaching from the mafiyas on the streets to the ex-Soviet spooks and oligarchs who control the levers of power.

The superhero stuff never threatens to overwhelm the story or take the reader out of the narrative, but on the other hand it never becomes a metaphorical gloss on the story. The Winter Menis about what it means for people who served as symbols of Soviet power to keep on living after that system has collapsed.

It’s a dense comic – there is a lot on each page to take in. It doesn’t rely on splash pages or “cool” moments, it doesn’t hold your hand and point out every element. There are significant visual and verbal cues that I completely missed the first time round.

A lot of this density and cohesiveness comes from it being a comic where everyone is working at the top of their game to the benefit of the finished work. Brett Lewis’ writing is excellent, but his collaborators make it work within the comics medium.

John Paul Leon is part of that Sean Phillips/Michael Lark school of pencilly, shadow-heavy art that’s usually used for “gritty” street-level spy/crime comics. He’s seriously good, and in this comic he gets a chance to flex his muscles, staging talky sequences and shootouts and car chases with equal aplomb (and anyone who reads comics should know how hard it is to do a car chase in the medium. Lewis and Leon pull it off brilliantly). It’s because his art isn’t glossy or fantastical. And that means you feel every gunshot, every punch, every instance of shattering glass and spurting blood. And the moments where the characters sit around talking are staged and drawn just as well, the excellent use of body language drawing you in to the noirish atmosphere.

Dave Stewart’s colours help with this, giving the proceedings an appropriately muted tone. And John Workman’s lettering adds so much to the finished package. Where lettering is usually seen as an afterthought in comics, here it’s obvious how essential it is. Russian and English dialogue is rendered differently, leading to some excellently subtle communication of plot points that hinge on knowing who speaks both languages.

There’s a unique quality to the dialogue and narration. It reads like it was originally written in Russian, then translated to English. There are odd moments where English phrases seem to be mistranslated, or metaphors are used without explaining the context. Just as in the wider narrative, you’re thrown in, and have to catch up.

There’s an argument to be made that this series approaches the status of The Wire of comics. I think a comic that matches The Wire in sheer density would be something like From Hell, but The Winter Men, while not as huge and in-depth,  has that Wire-esque look at the structures that maintain a
deeply broken society – from the power players at the top to the foot soldiers at the bottom. Unsparing in its portrayal of how many people suffer, bleed and die to keep the established “order” in place.There’s an issue in the back half of the book where Kris and his gangster pal Nikki spend a day driving around the city, attending to police business and Nikki’s criminal enterprises. It’s a low-key slice of life story, with little to no connection to the main plot. But you’re still riveted, because Lewis, Leon and their collaborators have created an entire world, where the lives of the characters seem to be independent of the demands of the story. That would be great in literature. It’s doubly great in comics.

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Chaos Reigns? Technique in modern Hollywood action cinema

A pair of short video essays I watched recently have got me thinking about modern action cinema, what it does, and who does it well.

Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Chaos Cinema Part 2 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

They came via Matt Prigge, who rightly says:

except that Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films do this well and aren’t simply about chaos. They’re about lightning fast thinking.

Now action on screen is one of those things I think about a lot. Stuff like fights, chases and shootouts are easy to put on screen, really hard to do well. Cheap thrills are embedded in the DNA of cinema. They’ll always be around. We get a kick out of excitement and violence. Basically, the “Chaos Cinema” thesis isn’t (or shouldn’t) be about modern action cinema being ruined forever by those awful modern techniques. It’s a question of whether these techniques are realised competently or not.

Of the directors whose work is shown in the videos, the ones best at using the jittery, verité aesthetic are Paul Greengrass, Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan. (I’d put Neil Blomkampf on this list too for the terrific District 9, but I don’t want to judge him based solely on one feature film.)

Greengrass is known as the guy who brought shaky-cam into the mainstream, after importing it from his docudramas such as Bloody Sunday. As a former director for World In Action, he’s interested in blending a feeling of the factual into Hollywood.

His Bourne films require the jittery, quick-cutting pace because they need to reflect Damon’s Bourne reacting almost instantaneously to the threats ranged against him as his super-spy training kicks in. In United 93, the hand-held docudrama format takes you inside the horrifying situations better than a more conventional style could. Likewise, Green Zone (as with Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) uses that same style to evoke the reportage and amatuer footage from chatotic war zones that has spilled across our screens in recent years. Form informs content, and vice versa; I don’t see why a director should be pilloried for taking a stylistic decision that unambiguously works for the film he/she’s making.

Consider Nolan. He’s a director whose action chops have steadily improved with each film; the fights in Batman Begins were fairly awful, over-edited and confusing. The Dark Knight caught a fair bit of flak on the editing front, but on the big set-pieces he excels. I mean, tell me there isn’t some of the visual grammar of the big car chase in Bullitt (quoted admiringly in the the first video) in the Bat-pod chase sequence.

By the time he made Inception, he’s come on in leaps and bounds. There’s something of the low-key style of 70s actioners in the controlled, lengthy mid-shots during the van chase and hotel fight scene – he even built a costly and complicated revolving set to get around having to cut away during the latter sequence. Claiming him as part of the “Chaos Cinema” phenomenon doesn’t hold weight for me.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s definitely a move towards louder and more incoherent blockbusters. Aside from mere incompetent attempts to ape Greengrass-style verité, there’s also a cynical deliberate attempt by some directors to bludgeon the audience into submission, to not so much distract them as wear them down so they become accepting of ever more grimly mediocre Hollywood product.

The “anti-style” of directors like Michael Bay and Tony Scott is still an auteur’s style – in that it is recognisably their own – but contrary to classic auteur theory, which talked about the director’s control of style, it reflects the auteur’s lack of control. And in tandem with their films’ content and worldview, it’s a gleefully teenage celebration of base impulses.

And this is the problem with the wide net cast by the “Chaos Cinema” thesis – it mistakes a technique for a malaise, and ignores whether its practitioners exercise judgement, taste and competence or not. Those make all the difference.

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Game-changing: plotting in Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones

Following on from my previous post about Breaking Bad, I want to talk about its approach to plotting and the similarities it shares with George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series of novels, which I started reading recently.
A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series (and the recent HBO TV adaptation based on it), begins with a clear setup; despite having several POV characters, we know our hero is meant to be, and we know what form the primary conflict of the story will take. At first, that is, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. As this blog post puts it:
Much of that, I think, goes to Martin’s playing around with different ways to deal with rising action than simply resolve it in a climax. In Game of Thrones, Martin initially does give us a hero in Ned Stark, antagonists in the Lannister clan, and the sharply-defined conflict of the eponymous “game of thrones” they play against each other. The action rises traditionally enough at first, but then, instead of resolving, the arc disintegrates.
Martin delights in defying expectations and delivering some genuinely shocking moments to the reader. By the end of A Game Of Thrones, the central dynamic that was set up within the established order of his world has broken apart: we are now presented with a number of different noble families and assorted individuals moving against each other in a vast array of shifting alliances.

Breaking Badfeatures a number of differences in its storytelling. The very clear preoccupation of the series is whether Walt (and his family) will stay alive and ensure the same for his partner and family. Vince Gilligan isn’t as kill-happy with his characters as Martin is; but he is still fond of subverting the traditional instigation-rising action-climax-denouement storytelling model.The third season, for example, begins with the appearance of a clear threat to Walt. He remains unaware of the menace bearing down on him for almost half the season — until a shocking explosion of violence shatters the previous directions the characters had taken. Reactions to this break inform everything that happens, right up until another threat emerges at the very end of the season, creating a terrific cliffhanger.

Gilligan has explicitly stated his intention to keep changing the status quo:

“Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades,” saysBreaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan. “When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?” So Gilligan designed Breaking Bad to transform its hero into a villain…

and this can be seen in the way he keeps pulling the rug out from under our established view of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Martin’s novels and Breaking Bad both keep their audiences on their toes using this technique. Instead of a slow build to a climax, shocking twists hit you from out of nowhere, leaving existing subplots to spin off into their own stories, which in turn crash into each other to be obliterated or continue on a new course. It’s not an approach for every narrative, but it’s a wonderful way to blindside the audience and keep a story innovative.

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Horror and crime: Breaking Bad vs. The Shadow Line

There are a couple of TV shows I’ve been watching recently. One’s British, the other’s American. One’s a limited series, the other’s currently on its fourth season. I like one far more than the other, but they’ve both taught me a lot about a certain kind of crime show, and when an examination of morality ultimately fades into a horror story.

“…Because you’re wearing gloves.”

 The Shadow Line is a seven-part drama series aired on the BBC recently. Written and directed by Hugo Blick, it follows the dual investigations of the police and criminals into the murder of a gangster.

While it’s byzantine, over-stylised and unafraid of being pretentious and self-indulgent, it’s also well-worth watching despite its flaws. Its creation of a specific and absorbing atmosphere is second to none. And this atmosphere is not entirely related to the crime or even noir genres. As this excellent blog post put it:

the monster of the show– and I very much use the word monster instead of villain on purpose to distinguish it from THE WIRE… That monster is very real and very much a part of our world– the monster is corruption.

The Shadow Line specialises in a kind of despairing, existential horror, the sort that features in HP Lovecraft stories. The characters can struggle all they want, but this is The Way The World Is – the good are crushed and the bad triumph in the end. It’s a worldview common to the conspiracy thriller sub-genre, particularly the ones the BBC did so well back in the 1970s and 80s (and to which The Shadow Line is explicitly harking back).

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, offers up a moral horror. It’s the horror that comes from watching an at-first sympathetic character becoming more and more irredeemable. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a nebbishy high-school chemistry teacher and the series’ protagonist, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and makes the decision to start cooking crystal meth to provide for his family after his death.

It began as a (seeming) act of desperation taken by a dying man. But as the series has gone on, we’ve seen Walt take ever more ruthless measures to keep himself alive. We see him cause huge amounts of pain, suffering and death. And as the bodies pile up around him, he never falters in his constant efforts to justify himself. It’s not just Walt; all the characters know right and wrong. But they do the wrong thing anyway.

“A man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it … because he’s a man.”

The message of The Shadow Line is “don’t go there/do that or the monster will get you”. Breaking Bad’s power comes from watching the hero become the monster. Walt has a lifetime of rage and resentment built up inside him, and his pride, along with the opportunity to excel at the work involved in his deadly business and unleash his id in the guise of his Heisenberg persona, create a deadly mixture.

(Brief aside: a regular featureof the Audio Assault podcast, named Lab Notes, specialises in discussing each episode of Breaking Bad’s current fourth season, and comes highly recommended by yours truly.)

The word “hauntology” has been applied to The Shadow Line before, and the surreal, often-nightmarish atmosphere it evokes suggest a kind of TV reality that is fuzzy at the edges. The figure of Gatehouse (Stephen Rea), in particular, appears as an echo from the wave of secret-state thrillers produced by British TV in the 70s and 80s.

They too, specialised in buried secrets, where knowledge was the real danger. Often the theme is of Britainas a small country packed full of history. Layers pile upon layers, the past granting the present more meaning – as with the ancient stone circle, resembling a target, where the climactic sequence of The Shadow Line takes place.

Breaking Bad offers a different geography. The show’s mileu is retail parks, fast-food joints and identical subdivisions, where horrific events take place hidden in plain sight. An alternate landscape of crime, horror and death is mapped onto suburbia – the meth lab under the industrial laundry, the shoot-out in the shopping centre’s car park.

At the same time, the series sketches in the background the disintegration of the middle-class American dream. Pre-diagnosis, Walt was forced to take a second job at a car wash to supplement his income as a teacher. The inability to meet medical bills, for Walt and others, is a recurring plotline in the show. The ghost haunting at the edges of Breaking Bad is the suggestion that this very middle-American nightmare, minus the meth-dealing, is now a fact for millions of people.

The nightmarishness of both series comes not only from the subject matter, but also from the pacing. They revel in the clenched-knuckle slowness of a car crash, of knowing something horrible is going to happen but being powerless to stop it. Breaking Bad specialises in “bottle episodes”; self-contained, single-location stories that show the characters trapped physically, as well as metaphorically (plenty of TV shows do this, but BB does it better than almost anyone else), drawing out the tension to almost unbearable levels.

Both The Shadow Line and Breaking Bad are horror masquerading as crime. They are perfect series for a world where we have ever more information, but less idea of what to do with it. We know of the myriad dangers lurking in the shadows, or about to meet us up ahead, but we simply remain glued to the screen, eyes open.

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