Monday, 28 February 2011

Underrated: My cult classics

Equilibrium (2002)

I'm a real sucker for dystopian narratives, so it comes as no surprise that this Orwell-inspired sci-fi action flick ticked all the boxes for me. I'm not going to deny that this movie isn't flawed; it wouldn't be a cult classic otherwise. 

There are issues with Equilibrium's plot at points, and the some of the concepts require the viewer to fill in a few gaps to sustain believability. However, I think this film suffered from some poor marketing during its cinematic and dvd release (the tagline didn't relate to the movie at all), and it didn't help that it was seen as a copy of the already popular Matrix movies, due to its similar visuals and themes.

Why do I love this film? The totalitarian imagery throughout is spot-on; you really feel the oppression of the futuristic society, depicted through the drab blocky buildings, the ruthless visored security forces and the quasi-religious iconography. The film's score is a perfect mixture of pumping techno-classical and soft synth-led themes, driving the action and pulling on your emotions. Christian Bale does a fantastic job as John Preston, the troubled cleric struggling to deal with the effect of outlawed emotions whilst carrying out his brutally repressive tasks for the Tetragrammaton. 

And possibly my favourite aspect of the film - the 'gun kata' martial art. Created by the director Kurt Wimmer specifically for this movie, the gun kata combines Western firepower with Eastern skill, leading to some fantastic action set-pieces and setting this movie apart from The Matrix with its drastically different approach to cinematic gunslinging.

30 Days of Night (2007)

At this moment in time we are drowning in vampire-related films, television programmes and literature, explaining why a movie like 30 Days of Night could very easily get lost in the deluge of blood-sucking and pointy teeth. 

Let's start with the issues plaguing this film. Yes, there are some continuity problems (Josh Hartnett's ability to grow stubble whilst no-one else does) and the ending may seem like a bit of a cop-out to some. Also the plot does feel quite jagged at points, jumping forwards quite abruptly.

Onto the good - the film's depiction of vampires. Compared to the grumpy, sparkly undead of Twilight or the CGI zombie-goons of I Am Legend, this movie does a fantastic job of actually making vampires scary. By ultilising effective prosthetics and believable performances, these ghouls actually put a chill down your spine as they hunt their human prey, lusting after their fear as much as their claret. In particular, Danny Huston does a great job as Marlow, the leader of the brood, seeming to almost pity the poor feeble creatures he seeks to ravage.

Although the movie's concepts obviously come from the graphic novel it is based on, these concepts still make the movie worthy of praise. The idea of vampires attacking during a month of darkness is a great approach to the genre, despite being slightly tenuous. Add some really effective music into the mix, and also some great colour-drained snowy settings to splash blood over, and you've got yourself a vampire film that shouldn't be left to sleep in its coffin.

eXistenZ (1999)

David Cronenburg isn't known for creating anything other than controversial cult classics, and this sci-fi thriller doesn't stray away from his track record.

I would personally say that it's the performances that let this movie down for the main part - but then again, maybe certain actors gave bad performances purposefully to demonstrate that the video game at the centre of the film's plot isn't complete? Therein lies the issue; in a movie as metafictional as this, any flaw can be argued to be intentional, making it difficult to assess its worth.

Once you get over the glaring issue above, there is a fantastic plot to be enjoyed here, discussing virtual reality and the increasingly blurred line between mechanisms and organisms in our world today. The bizarre 'organic' gaming pods add an effective 'yuck' factor to the plot, where a computer virus could actually transfer into your own body.

The film's conclusion is its greatest feature. As I'm sure I've said before, I love an unresolved ending. I think this may be why so many people didn't get on with this movie, because it can be difficult when a story doesn't end in neat 'tied-up with a ribbon' Hollywood fashion. I don't want to give anything away, but this movie's ending will either make you laugh out loud at its audacity, or start punching things with annoyance.

If you like cyberpunk, body-horror or role-playing games - ignore what you've heard about this film and give it a chance.

Post your opinions on these movies below or on my twitter/facebook page, and tell me your favourite cult classics.

Friday, 18 February 2011

'They're much better live' - my gig stats

I'm not the most prolific follower of live music, but I've seen a quite a few bands over past few years. I remember my first trip into London on the National Express to see The Datsuns with a group of mates. There's something about the heat, stench and noise of a gig that doesn't quite translate onto a recorded song or album.

Most Frequent - this is quite a simple category, doesn't need much explanation. The '(s)' symbol means I saw the band as a support act.

1. Enter Shikari x3
2. The Datsuns x3
3. [dweeb] x2, x1 (s)
4. Pendulum x2
5. Verra Cruz x2

Most Surprising - these bands were either unexpectedly impressive or were unknown to me before I saw them live.

1. Shy Child
2. Gojira
3. Dan Le Sac VS Scroobius Pip
4. The Eyes Of A Traitor
5. Stereophonics

Most disappointing - not all live music experiences live up to expectations, as these acts demonstrated to me.

1. Dragonforce
2. My Chemical Romance
3. Incubus
4. Delirious?
5. Queens Of The Stone Age

Ambition Achieved - these are the bands that I wanted to see for years or managed to see before they split up.

1. Rage Against The Machine
2. Deftones
3. Fear Factory
4. Reuben
5. Sikth

Best Metal

1. Rage Against The Machine
2. Deftones
3. Fear Factory
4. Metallica
5. Trivium

Best Rock

1. Audioslave
2. Muse
3. Verra Cruz
4. [dweeb]
5. Manic Street Preachers

Best Electronic

1. Pendulum
2. The Prodigy
3. Justice
4. Enter Shikari
5. Dan Le Sac VS Scroobius Pip

And The Rest - a round-up of all the other live acts I've seen.

36 Crazy Fists
Black Dahlia Murder
Biffy Clyro
Death From Above 1979
The Devil Wears Prada
Hundred Reasons
Jurassic 5
Norma Jean
Plan B
The Showdown
The Sword

I know I've probably missed a few bands out, but that must mean they weren't very memorable. Post your own gig stats in the comments box below, on my facebook page or on twitter!

Friday, 11 February 2011

First Impressions: Boardwalk Empire and Outcasts

There's loads of really good stuff on tv at the moment, mostly due to all the HBO shows now being broadcast on the new 'Sky Atlantic' channel. However, there are a few original programmes that have grabbed my attention, and I thought I'd fill you in on my initial opinons.

Set in 1920's prohibition-America, Boardwalk Empire tells the story of the illegal import, manufacture and sale of alcohol in Atlantic City, focusing on the life of crooked politician, Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. The first few episodes of the programme have been fairly slow-paced, but I think that helps the characters stand out, and there are quite a few characters. The sets and costumes are really impressive and convincing, allowing you to immerse yourself in the narrative. Mister Buscemi is joined by a host of talented actors, such as Kelly Macdonald and Stephen Graham, who continue to build the illusion to greater level. My only criticism so far is that I can't see how the show can develop much further; I guess I'm waiting for a twist that will complicate and lengthen the plot - but I'm sure that twist will be the cliffhanger into season two!

Traveling back across the pond and also into the future, it's the BBC's new sci-fi show Outcasts in the spotlight now. Co-incidentally the recent remake of Battlestar Galactica is now being shown on Sky Atlantic, providing an interesting contrast between high-budget US sci-fi and its not-so-high-budget UK counterpart. I didn't have many expectations of Outcasts, as BBC science fiction tends to be cheap and tacky, but it's actually not that bad. The show is about the residents of the planet Carpathia, a recently colonised world struggling to cope with dissident settlers, rogue clones and a variety of unsavory characters with personal agendas. Although there are a few sci-fi cliches the programme has quite a few original ideas and themes, and doesn't look cheap at all. Some of the performances aren't exactly stellar but Neil Cunningham and Langley Kirkwood hold it together as Carpathia's president and the enegmatic clone leader respectively.

Along with these two programmes I'm also watching Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos and House, so my Sky+ box is going to fill up very quickly! Let me know your thoughts on any of the above shows in the comments section below, or on my twitter/facebook page.

Friday, 4 February 2011

My top ten electronic albums

10. Badmarsh and Shri – Signs

Mixing Eastern tones and trip-hop beats, this album blends the sublime with the gritty. The instrumentation is what makes this record really shine, using strings and flutes in great contrast to electronic drum sounds. There are some fantastic vocal performances to be sampled here, especially during the chilled-out 'Sajanna', as well as some hectic beats on tracks like 'Tribal' and 'Bang'.

9. Shy Child – Noise Won't Stop

Get your synthesizers out! Keyboard and drums are all that this pair need to get the party started, and they do a very good job. This album contains some great synthpop tracks like the sunny tune 'Summer', but also some pumping aural assaults, summed up perfectly in the pounding bass of 'Kick Drum'. The rhythmic indie vocals fit well with the duo's bright sound, providing you with a tasty sonic cocktail with a pleasant aftertaste.

8. Mad Capsule Markets – OSC – DIS

Time for some punk-techno-metal. Combining raspy distorted bass, d'n'b drum loops, heavy guitars and confusing English/Japanese vocals, this record is an anime seizure for your ears. Although not purely an electronic album, this had to make the top ten for its original use of programmed instruments and beats, shown particularly well in the anthemic 'Pulse' and the high-speed attack of 'Midi Surf'.

7. Mistabishi – Drop

Since I reviewed this album a while ago, I've heard less than positive things about the artist's lack-lustre live performances. However, I'm rating the recorded album, not the performer; and this album is very good. Moving through different genres, such as dance, d'n'b and dubstep, the record is a great example of serene tones clashing with harsh bass and beats. Check out the unique 'Printer Jam' and brutal dubstep tune 'White Collar Grime'.

6. Propellerheads – Decksandrumsandrockandroll

With tracks from this album featuring in two motion pictures (Tomorrow Never Dies, The Matrix), you're probably more familiar with the record than you might have thought. Utilising some great samples and instruments, and with a variety of fast and laid-back tracks, this album features some fantastic nerdy electronic tunes. Highlights have to be the skateboard-sampling '360 Degrees' and the bullet-time classic 'Spybreak'.

5. Chase & Status – More Than a lot

As dubstep and drum and bass have recently risen in popularity and commercial appeal, this duo have successfully broken through into the mainstream (judge for yourself if this is good or bad). Nevertheless, this album is a fantastic achievement, containing some grinding yet soulful dubstep, shown in the tracks 'Eastern Jam' and 'Running', as well as d'n'b classics like 'Hurt You'.

4. Innerpartysystem – Innerpartysystem

Dark and dystopian, this record will take you to a totalitarian future where the party rules your every move – or maybe we're already there? Pumping out distorted bass and heavy beats, this rock/electro crossover album takes the best aspects of both genres and blends them with skill and originality. 'Don't Stop' attacks our contemporary consumer culture and is definitely worth a listen, as is the painful hypocrisy of 'Heart Of Fire'.

3. The Prodigy – Music For The Jilted Generation

Although almost all of this group's albums are absolute classics, I had to pick this record over the others purely on sentimental reasons. I remember hearing this in the common room during sixth form and thinking, I have to own this. Brilliant beats, uncompromising bass, smooth synths and some tasty guitar riffs make this a timeless record, with tracks like 'Voodoo People' and 'No Good' pouring on a healthy dose of electronic anarchy.

2. Leftfield – Rhythm And Stealth

Another record that brings out the rose-tinted spectacles, invoking memories of my not-so-distant youth. I first encountered the track 'Afrika Shox' from this album when the video was featured on a Playstation Magazine demo disc, and was mesmerised not only by the awesome imagery but also by the superb beats and sounds. Other great tracks are 'Phat Planet', famously featuring in a Guinness advert, and the album-opener 'Dusted'.

1. Pendulum – Hold Your Colour

This, my number one electronic album, gave me my first proper taste of drum and bass. As the cinematic opening track begins to play, you know you're in for an epic ride. And then 'Slam' kicks in, razing the ground with its unforgettable synth hook and superb breakdowns. Although this album does contain some more chilled tracks, such as 'Plastic World' and 'Girl In The Fire', it mostly offers the listener a high-octane d'n'b experience. Highlights include the reggae mash-up of 'Tarantula' and pounding club anthem 'Fasten Your Seatbeat'. If you want some powerful, innovative and emotive drum and bass, look no further.

So there you have it, my top ten electronic albums. Here's a shortlist of those that didn't quite make it into the elite.

The Chemical Brothers - Surrender
Daft Punk – Discovery
Gypsy and the Cat – Gilgamesh
Hurts - Happiness
Imogen Heap – Speak For Yourself
Justice – Cross
Leftfield - Leftism
Pendulum – In Silico
The Prodigy – Invaders Must Die

Let me know your own top ten electronic albums by posting in the comments section below.