Toys

Returning from a week away at the festival, my first weekend with the boy was filled with activities that included catching the latest, perfect-trilogy-breaking Toy Story 4. Best we catch up with the last film so it’s fresh in memory…

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I had watched TS3 at the cinema when it came out in 2010. A year into my university degree, it held a mirror up to my own maturation and matriculation. I had grown up with Andy, and now he was leaving his toys behind for college. It struck me that I was now in the process of leaving behind adolescence and the time for play was over.

This had some poignant resonance that I was able to push down, at least for the next few years of intermittent debauchery, but it bubbled up once again this second viewing, now from a different angle.

With the boy under my arm, we watched as Woody would make desperate plays to make himself relevant to Andy, not wanting to be left behind. The moment which appears to console and allay his neuroses is telling: he watches Andy hug his mother, who is crying, out of focus in the background, and realises that they are one and the same. As do I.

He understands that his time with the boy is transitory, it exists for a short time in which the relationship is close and intertwined, but then you have to move onto other things, invest your love somewhere else.

Andy is not just leaving behind his toys, he is leaving his family.

Realising that the bond I have with this boy under my arm may never be as strong as this present moment, knowing that eventually he will outgrow the role and no longer need me, I crumble and the tears stream from my face.

I saw my father cry twice: once at a funeral for a friend, and once as he told me, without words, that our dog had been put down. And now here’s me sobbing into an existential void brought on by a fucking animated toy.

I wipe my face and look over at the boy – smiling ear to ear, clueless of his Dad’s pitiful neediness – at least we have this moment now.

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Balcooney

I’m partial to the odd deep dive into the bizarre recesses of the internet, delving into rabbit holes to plunder some obscure gold that I can show off to others given the right opportunity.

I found my moment a little while back, when I had free reign of a cinema after hours, celebrating a youngun’s bee-day. Whilst people floated about outside the auditorium I slid some of my finds on the big screen and cranked up the volume. Some take the bait, others I coax in by dancing towards the light.

I introduce a particular playlist that I had always had dreams of playing in a different context. My last flat was three stories up and my room looked out onto the high street, perfectly opposite a club called Urban 9. A similar building, this pay-to-enter, shirts-and-shoes joint matched my room in having music play on all floors. Although it had levels, it’s not huge inside, and this would mean that a queue would sometimes form outside.

My genius idea was to DJ a set to the queue outside from my balcony, lifting the vertical windows – like proper waist to ceiling Dawson’s Creek sliding motherfuckers – positioning my speakers and blasting some Dutch hip-hop to those unsheltered patrons thirsty for music. And like all ideas that I think are great, I tell someone and try to expand on it until it gets too big and becomes unwieldy. At one point we had planned a regular residency, with myself wearing a costume and mask, hosting a party in my flat, projecting the music videos on my wall whilst the music is thrown out across the road. Ridiculous.

I tried to stay true to Doug Stanhope’s credo that it’s only funny if you do it, but the simple plan grew until the point that I moved house and fucked it for myself.

So the night of this lad’s birthday I decide to sneak out my Balcooney playlist of Dutch hip-hop, and all it takes is one playthrough when I get asked the name of the artists. I say I might share my private playlist later.

It doesn’t matter, as it seems between them they have Shazam’d each and every one of them, digitally pick-pocketing me of my precious gold. This playlist had one lacklustre debut and now they’re off out in the world without me.

So fuck it, here is that playlist. I still plan to work this into a house-party that has a screen large enough to accommodate. Or I could always give a knock to my old place, in full regalia, and explain that I have a show to play.

(All of these songs have become favourites of my son. This one in particular which he requests every car journey. A child of 4 years old is truly the best captive audience).

Lucid (2019)

Written for RAF News June 2019

A young nebbish introvert struggles socially until a neighbour introduces him to lucid dreaming, allowing him the possibility of realising his fantasies.

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Zel (Laurie Calvert) is a car-park attendant for a burlesque-style club with an apparent reputation and a clientele of wealthy hedonists, judging by the drivers who come by his window. Constantly reminded of his status, and mocked by his thuggish boss Theo (Cristian Solimeno), Zel’s desire to ask out one of the clubs dancers and to stand up to Theo is just a dream. This is until a washed-up psychologist (Billy Zane) teaches him that he could take control of his dreams and use them to build real-world confidence.

Lucid dreaming is a real phenomenon that is used for such purposes (the ‘lucid nightmare’ being the subject of Vanilla Sky and Nightmare on Elm Street) which makes the concept a solid basis for a film. Shot on a modest budget, Lucid works within its means and manages to turn it into a strength. Astonishingly, it is worth noting that first time writer and director Adam Morse has achieved this despite being registered blind for the past decade.

Having a cripplingly timid main character, that is not always sympathetic, is challenging but Calvert plays it realistically. The main hurdle in believability is the relationship between Zel and frizzy cravat wearer Elliot, but Zane’s calm confidence fills this void or distracts at the very least, able to provide some comedy alongside the catalyst for change.

As perfectly deconstructed in Nolan’s logic-twisting action-epic Inception, dream logic dovetails naturally with cinema: scenes can jump to different locations, or begin in the middle, and it will seem completely ordinary. In Lucid everything is neatly laid out, with set-ups and pay-offs, and without getting complex, which is a huge achievement considering the subject.

There’s a strange elegance in it’s simplicity – when it feels as though its about to nosedive into fantasy, it pulls back and lands something much more relatable.

Fonotune: An Electric Fairytale (2019)

Written for RAF News June 2016

A rag-tag bunch of headphone wearing wanderers make their way across barren desert-lands to see the final gig of a retiring rockstar in the middle of nowhere.

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We first join mute drifter Mono, played by the film’s director FINT, and despite offering absolutely nothing – he will be our constant and surrogate. Along the way he bumps into a series of individuals all with the same purpose so they amble together in the same direction; and so must we. Rather than exchanging words, they each listen to their preferred radio station, the names of which decorate the screen with stylish typeface.

But despite the promise of music, the most prominent sound is of footsteps as our gang march through a largely empty frame, collecting members such as Stereo the Hustler (Yûho Yamashita), and Analog the Drifter (Kazushi Watanabe).

To call them characters would be a stretch – they are set apart by their clothes and choice of music, exhibiting one behaviour throughout, second always though to walking. The combination of slow, repetitive shots with an occasionally arresting composition combine well with the ambiguity if you have the patience, but this could very well be tested. These names too appear as well crafted title-cards, emblazoned across the screen like a Batman onomatopoeia circa Adam West.

Some details dropped along the way suggest FINT knows very well what he is doing and – there is a moment in which the gang stop to watch an impromptu performance by a band without instruments or amps, their thrashed enthusiasm heard only through comically muted twangs.

The few moments in which we are transported to the station FNTN where a futurist DJ is mixing live, the scenes come to life and the minimal aesthetic is elevated. It is frustrating that this isn’t used more, perhaps the fear is that it would feel too much like a music video. Instead we drift alongside the group in near silence, hoping for a pay off that will never quite take shape.

Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America (2019)

Written for RAF News May 2019

The late Hugh Hefner, whose well-timed death had him narrowly avoiding the Me Too movement, is the subject of a new documentary, or rather his late night talk show-come-entertainment showcase of the late 50s through to 1970.

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If one were not hip to the groove of this television show, or indeed Hef’s history of activism, they might think from the title that this is a scandalous tell-all. In actual fact, Hefner wasn’t always the bathrobed pensioner of his later years, he was among many things a smooth-talking host of dinner parties; a curator of comedy and musical talent spanning from folk to gospel.

Playboy’s Penthouse, the initial incarnation of the show, aired in 1959-60 before midnight. A formal affair, shot in black and white, Hefner greeted the audience as a party guest and welcomed them to observe intimate performances from legends such as Nina Simone and Nat ‘King’ Cole. It feels a little stiff and yet it plays as far less contrived than contemporary talk shows, with Hefner’s suave yet emotionless style sometimes offset by the wise-cracking of comedians such as Bob Newhart or Lenny Bruce.

As this documentary, which features Hefner himself as a talking head, makes clear – the mix of talent from different races was unprecedented. After the Second World War there was still a cultural separation, in places such as Georgia an enforced segregation. This show was an antidote to these beliefs, showing progressive ideals through its celebration of diverse music and giving a platform to much deserving artists.

The musical acts, which were political as a matter of cultural context, would remain political in the second version of the show Playboy After Dark, airing from 1969-1970. Once again bridging two decades, the show’s conversational segments would be transgressive, talking about social change, injustice and racism. Not shying away from controversial subjects but steering head-on into them, offering opinions on the ongoing Vietnam War for example.

Feeling a little like a ‘best of’ stitched together with interviews of featured musicians, the uniting theme of the subtitle is the championing of free speech, which remains as important now. Loosely made relevant with stock footage here and there, the archive footage speaks for itself. The film is worth watching just to witness icons sharing the same space, the same stage, and having their voices heard.

Shed of the Dead (2019)

Written for RAF News May 2019

Trevor (Spencer Brown) spends his days in a shed on his allotment, painting miniature figurines for a fantasy role playing game, ignoring the reality of his unemployment by imagining himself a hero.

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Using this overgrown patch of land as a hideout from his nagging wife, distilling vodka from potatoes pilfered from his neighbours, Trevor isn’t popular. He is smug and condescending without a modicum of self awareness, refusing to get his allotment in order because gardening isn’t for him.

Cowardly and yet aggressively combative, his only friend Graham (Ewen MacIntosh) is an agoraphobe who shares his misplaced arrogance. But together they might be the only hope for humanity on the brink of a zombie apocalypse. It doesn’t get bogged down in explaining how or why, but the assumption is that we’ve all seen enough zombie films to get the gist; and we have.

The film has the most fun when it’s playing with special effects and make-up, but it does itself a disservice by creating a central character so loathsome that you end up routing for the undead. Although it is farcical, when Jeff accidentally kills a neighbouring gardener (Kane Hodder) in the opening of the film, and decides to chop him up to avoid suspicion, nothing supernatural has occurred. He is simply an unsympathetic and painfully unfunny sociopath.

As the title pretty much spells out, this English Zombie comedy is derivative, making references to films that are making references to other films, like a photocopy of a photocopy, losing trace of anything original or funny.

The bulk of the cast, including small parts for horror legends Michael Berryman and Bill Moseley, have seen there fair share of low budget horrors and zombie flicks – a sub-genre that has become so saturated that it is mentioned in the film itself, but that doesn’t mean it won’t keep coming back.