The cultured teenager

the best of literature, film and music, shown through my rather short-sighted eyes

Must-see film #7:Once Upon a Time in America

Unquestionably one of the most epic and powerful gangster movies ever made, Once Upon a Time in America stands proudly alongside The Godfather and Goodfellas at the forefront of the genre. But whilst The Godfather is a calculating study of the corrupting effects of power and Goodfellas provided an insight into the rough-and-tumble of mafia life, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece is something else; an epic account of the lives of two friends, played by Robert De Niro and James Woods, who happen to be gangsters.

Noodles (De Niro) is an ageing Jewish mobster who, lured by an anonymous invitation, returns to Manhattan where a botched robbery resulted in the deaths of his gang over thirty years ago. Who has sent this message and why? It is a mystery Leone proceeds to investigate, charting Noodles’ rise from ghetto kid to mafia kingpin right up to the ambiguous finale and in particular Noodles’ relationship with his partner and childhood friend Max (Woods). The story of the two men’s relationships, and the love, lust, greed, betrayal and revenge that surrounds it has the same qualities as the best of opera and ancient myth in its epic portrayal of status and human emotion. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a sentimental story. The characters, although fascinating, are not exactly likeable, possessing dangerous, sociopathic qualities. Yet what sets Noodles and Max apart is their mutual need for each other. Leone’s locations are wonderfully atmospheric, switching between the bleak inner-city ghettos that are the childhood location and the glitzy high society that symbolises fulfillment of the American Dream. The 1920s details and costumes are all impeccable, whilst Ennio Morricone’s score (arguably the greatest film composer of all time) is wonderfully apt, perfectly capturing the operatic tone of the film. As for the performances, De Niro delivers a beautifully nuanced performance as Noodles, a man seemingly unable to forget his past, whilst Woods, whose appearances on Family Guy often overshadow the fact that he is a fine actor, is outstanding as the intense and sociopathic Max. In my opinion Sergio Leone’s finest film, Once Upon a Time in America is a fitting epitaph to one of the all-time great directors. A saga of truly epic proportions.

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Must-see film #6: The Ladykillers (1955)

This is a film that should never get remade. It is British and iconic of subdued 50’s films, incredibly witty but poignantly subtle; for this reason Hollywood should see this as a forbidden zone. Unfortunately my warning comes far too late. Not that I have seen it, but the 2004 remake of The Ladykillers is not what a movie like that should become; people wanted to remake because it was so good, but often, films are good because they are of their right time. The Coen Brothers are undoubtedly good directors and if anyone were to make a decent effort at a remake they’d be pretty good hopes, however their brilliance often comes from their originality and zaniness, but that cannot be achieved from a remake like this. All in all, their remake was deemed a failure.

Hollywood have found impossible what the British film industry has found so easy for generations; simple, honest comedies. Ealing studies produced another gem in this warm-hearted black comedy, about how a gang of five criminals attempted to steal some loot by duping an old grandmother into nonchalantly taking it on their behalf. This mismatched gang of criminals consists of the wise ex-serviceman (Parker), hardened tough guy (Green), cockney rebel (Sellers), mysterious assassin (Lom) and a criminal mastermind who is long past his expiry date, Professor Marcus. Marcus is created brilliantly and effortlessly by Alec Guinness’ superb characterization and dry wit, edging it far past anything Hollywood would be able to produce. The failed attempts to steal the bounty, through pretending to be a string quintet in order to trick the perfectly cast, elderly woman (Katie Johnson), eventually end in the fatal yet hilarious ending, which although being a black comedy isn’t dark but as naff as you’d expect from a British comedy in the mid-50’s. This also deliciously brings back the gloomy, hazy images of an industrial post-war London and the true spirit behind post-war England, showing that gloom doesn’t last forever, and we can still have a good laugh.

It isn’t incredibly clever and as it progresses becomes rather predictable but this isn’t the sort of film to criticise the slight errors in editing, but it is a witty black comedy that has aged well, reflecting a simpler time. Regards 🙂

April’s music reviewed

These are the artists and albums that I have given a listen to in the last month, bands I know and love, bands I’d never heard of before and stuff, because i just always feel like listening to something; Please enjoy,

Jack White: Blunderbuss Probably the album I have been most anticipating of any of this years releases, partly because I love everything jack White seems to produce, but also because of the knowledge that this was going to be different. And Jack White has done me proud. The tone is set by the woozy yet simplistic ‘Missing Pieces’, showing straight from the offing the emotive integrity of the album, allowing obvious references to Jack White III’s relationships, and divorce prior to the albums release. It is therefore clear why, although the album sounds like that of a band, it is a solo piece, laying himself bare, being personal and more candid than anything by his three previous bands. Where other artists pick a style and stick to it, this possibly explains the vast variety of ‘projects’ he undertakes, due to his undeniable talent for making genre crossing music which is fascinating and charming; this is prevalent in Blunderbuss, moving from woozy and soothing to abrasive and raw in a number of chords. Contrasting to a lot of the album, my personal favourite track is Sixteen Saltines, with a riff reminiscent of Blue Orchid or Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground, from the squeal at the beginning I can’t help but be consumed by the harsh bluesy hues. I think this is an album however which I need to listen to a lot more, as upon first hearing it was sometimes almost trying hard to be different to his other stuff but nonetheless is a brilliant album. 9/10

Brendan Benson: What Kind Of World An artist who I will always closely link to the man whose album I have reviewed above, but is now starting to come out of his shell. Not that he hasn’t already produced solo material, and bloody good independent work at that, but just as his classic album Lapalco worked perfect stylistically, What Kind Of World has done the same. Maybe, it is somewhat less accessible in some manners, being slightly more hazed and brooding, but nevertheless stays true to Benson’s formula, without trying too hard, making music that sounds simple and good simultaneously. It is gloomy without beingsombre and could easily be thrown into the ‘background music’ catalogue, but in no way deserves this; the piano-backed radio rock track ‘Bad for me’ is the perfect example of this and can only really be understood through a quick listen. Definitely worth a listen, whatever sort of music you usually listen to. 8/10

Pond: Beard Wives Denim My first introduction to this band was via their brother band, the much hyped (suitably so) Tame Impala, whose last two albums have both been brilliant to listen to. Containing some members of Tame Impala I was hoping that this musically gifted gene pool would spout some more glorious, guitar induced enjoyment. Boy heck was I proven correct. Merely watching the video for ‘Fantastic Explosion Of time’ is enough to leave me aghast at the creativity which would obviously feel more at home in 1968, taking psychedelia to a new level, making me presume that the band were taking some really interesting substances in the albums production. This isn’t just, however, lots of spinning colours and lyrics about sunshine, birds and free love, but hardened and edgy; it is the sort of music I want to think I would make in order to be adored. And this is the thing, a band playing this sort of music, unsurprisingly has an obsessive collective of fans. The album progresses onwards with gems such as ‘Eye Pattern Baldness’ which I originally thought could have come off an average Lou Reed album, suddenly turns into soothing lyricism and then plunges into a pool of darkness and twisting riffs. Just bliss to the ears 9/10

Please at least contemplate listening to anything here that sounds decent because I seriously doubt you’ll regret it considering how brilliant some of April’s music has been. Regards 🙂

Mass Hipsteria

Okay, I may not be the fountain of all knowledge, but logic is against hipsters; how can it possible to be ‘cool’ by specifically doing things which are considered not ‘cool’. Wearing unfashionable clothes, listening to obscure music and wearing comically large glasses. This is, from what I have judged, the Hipster ideology, and well, for the first two rules, I conform to this and am therefore accused as being a Hipster. My friends call me a Hipster, but, although I am not one, as I never really make much more than a half-arsed attempt to look cool, because if you knew me, it would be clear that any attempt would be futile, I don’t have an issue with the ideology. Take listening to ‘non-mainstream’ music for example; I do listen to music which isn’t popular in the vast majority, but this isn’t some egocentric quest for people to think I’m cool by listening to Mystery Jets, but mostly because what I like just happens to be unpopular. I have a clear cut opinion of the music I like and the music I hate, and the average person seems to like what’s in the hate pile, but every now and again things cross over. For example, some of my favourite bands, Muse, Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, The Black Keys, Radiohead, The Beatles, The Foo Fighters, are undeniably popular, but I would never consider not listening to them for that reason. I like Hipsterish music and unhipsterish music, which in turn makes me more unmainstream than Hipsters themselves achieve, through my ability to have an individual taste of music and opinion.

Just as much as I think popular music is, in the most part, less enjoyable to listen to than a recording of KFC’s most ardent customers emptying their bowels, I would say this about most popular culture in general. Popular fashion is similarly something I would never consider forcing myself to adhere to, but I am not trying to make a fashion statement by wearing unfashionable clothes to look cool, because what I wear is just what happens to have come into my possession after I have a poke around what has had the biggest price cut in the sales and contemplate whether or not I would give a crap if someone saw me wearing it. Yes, my clothes don’t look vulgar, but my aim is just to look relatively normal, not better than normal and not to look as though couldn’t give a toss, but just to fit in. But that is the issue with Hipsters, there aim isn’t to fit in, but to stand out, like a sore thumb in pastel coloured skinny chinos and espadrilles, and this is where the ideology collapses. If you are not doing what is popular, you should be doing that for yourself, because you enjoy other stuff, but not to make a point, because then when there seems to be someone stood around every corner doing exactly the same thing, with their floppy hair and large glasses, the word ‘mainstream’ just becomes reinvented, starting a new cycle of avoiding what is commonly considered cool. You are either cool or uncool, or somewhere in between, but you cannot be both, so just accept it, and allow me to listen Foals and watch foreign language films without people judging me for doing so. Regards 🙂

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

Tom lives in a society which is virtually the same to our own, except for the significant population of superheroes within society. Tom isn’t a superhero, but, as you can guess from the title, all of his friends are superheroes. Apart from the notion of superheroes themselves, this isn’t a book about sci-fi or about newspaper journalists who jump into a phone-box and gain superhuman strength, but is about humanity and life in general. These superheroes are not hiding what makes them special; rather, they treat themselves and are often treated as though they are not special at all. Tom describes how in Toronto there are 249 superheroes, “none of whom have secret identities”, and it is through this manner that Kaufman tells a story about the human condition.

Not only is Tom friends with superheroes, but is in a relationship with one: The Perfectionist. She has the ability to put things into order with the power of the mind, which isn’t a stereotypical superpower, as are many of the powers within the novel, as they mostly seem to be extensions of human personality. The Perfectionist however is unaware of the existence of Tom, because on their wedding day, her ex-boyfriend, Hypno, used his power in order make Tom invisible to The Perfectionist. As you can tell, its slightly odd and complex, but the story involves Tom flying to Vancouver in order to make her see him before she finally moves on, 6 months after she was hypnotized.

Kaufman also brings up the question of whether or not superhuman powers are a gift or not. The Sloth, The Projectionist, The Battery and The Amphibian are some of the range of superheroes who are thrown in to add more quirk and laughs into the novel. The ‘heroes’ are shown as metaphors for ourselves and the human condition cleverly by Kaufman, with numerous of my friends mirroring The Sloth. Tom however is the real hero, and unsurprisingly triumphs in a world of superhuman talents, using the qualities many of us take for granted. Its an enjoyable book, and just an hours read, so there is no excuse not to read it. Regards 🙂

Must-See Film #5: The Elephant Man

A great man once said, “hey mate, I saw The Elephant Man and wrote a review of it if you still, like, write about those in your bloggy thing”. This great man, isn’t exactly a great man but a pathetic-ish teenager called William, who happens to be pretty good at the writing malarkey and has a pretty decent taste in films. So this is his opinion on a film I have been craving to see for ages and his review leaves me yearning even more. So here you go…

Of all the recorded cases of physical afflictions, few are as tragic or as poignant as that of Joseph (often called John) Merrick, known as “The Elephant Man”. Born with an assortment of horrific deformities and exhibited as a human curiosity in Victorian London, David Lynch’s magnificent drama from 1980 explores the friendship between Merrick (played by John Hurt) and Frederick Treves ( Anthony Hopkins), the surgeon who found the man beneath the vile perversion of Merrick’s form. 

Shot hauntingly in black and white, Lynch’s cinematography brilliantly invokes the two sides of Victorian London; the squalor and filth of the slums and the pristinely cleaned homes of the upper classes. The efforts gone to recreate Merrick’s appearance are astounding; Chris Tucker’s makeup was so convincing that the Academy was obliged to create a new Best Makeup category. But awards and camera tricks should never distract from the human drama and Lynch handles his material admirably. Slowly, we watch as Treves taps away at Merrick’s nervous and damaged psyche to reveal a sensitive, intelligent and articulate individual. In the wrong hands this could have made for dreadful, cloying viewing; instead it is immensely rewarding and moving, serving as a testimony to human dignity and courage. Hopkins delivers a fine performance as Treves but real acting plaudits go to John Hurt as Merrick. To be able to communicate at all from beneath that heavy mask is a considerable feat. To deliver such a beautifully nuanced performance is the mark of an exceptional actor. Hurt never stops communicating, brilliantly conveying with childlike wonder Merrick’s gain of self-confidence and self-worth, and fully meriting his Oscar nomination (one of eight for the film). This is best captured in a classic scene, where Merrick, hounded by an angry mob outside a train station, cries out “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I…am …a man!

The Elephant Man has a couple of obvious flaws, lapsing occasionally into sentimentality and clumsily handling London’s class divide, but its overall message-that we should never judge by appearances-remains relevant. And if you don’t have a lump in your throat by the end, you haven’t got a heart.

Thanks Will Hunter, for making me still crave to watch this British classic. Regards 🙂

2011’s Best Songs

The end is nigh for a year which has been interesting in every aspect musically. A year of brilliant festivals, the sad passing of Amy Whinehouse and the emergence of brilliant young prospects with brilliant unique music, not that we haven’t heard some great stuff from established artists. These are my 10 favourite tunes of the year, and I’m hoping I haven’t missed out any amazing tracks, such was the vast array of talent on show. Please enjoy…

10.)Battles – Ice Cream. Battles seem to go the hard way around making brilliant music. Separately, every part of ‘Ice Cream’ and also on the album (gloss drop) makes utterly no sense, with bumping sounds and an intro which consists of someone hyperventilating. However, and don’t ask me how, they create wonderful tunes, although it seems to originate from the Steve Jobs school of music.

9.) Miles Kane – Inhaler. He will always be known as ‘Alex Turner’s Mate’, but he has some obvious musical talent of his own. ‘Inhaler’ has roots from classic sixties music where all you need is great riff and wonders can be built upon it. This riff however packs a huge punch and Kane’s howling cries are truly his own creation and intoxicating. 

8.) Dry The River – No Rest. Here is a band I have already mentioned on a couple of different occasions, such is the influence of this brilliant, sharp folk. They are the folk equivalent of The Ramones, the dark, tattooed underbelly of the genre. 2011 has seen big folk artists maintaining their success, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, as well as young talent arriving, Ben Howard, Benjamin Francis Leftwitch, and this band. This song builds intensity like a Hitchcock film, and by the end you are left in awe by the cooing of lead singer Peter Liddle.   

7.) Yuck – Get Away. They weren’t exactly the biggest band of year, but they brought about a brilliant, beautiful ugliness with their fuzzed-up grunge. The bad-haired, denim-wearing weirdos came up trumps with their debut album and particularly with this track. This is the sort of track I wish grunge icons, such as the Smashing Pumpkins, had been able to create with snarling guitars and baffling intensity.

6.) Arctic Monkeys – Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I Moved Your Chair. Anyone with a back-catalogue with as many great tracks as the Arctics would have trouble living up to previous material, but no such problem occurs with Alex Turner at the helm. Turner has reprised his role as the orator of such lyrical masterpieces as “Run with scissors through a chip pan firefight… Wear your shellsuit on bonfire night… Go into business with a grizzly bear… but just don’t sit down ’cause I’ve moved your chair”. Clever, clever music.

5.) Howler – I Told You Once. This is reminiscent of a happy incarnation of The Strokes, brought by Rough Trades most recent signings who have brought great, simple indie music out of Minneapolis. ‘I Told You Once’ proves that music does have to be clever or particularly refined in order to be good, and remaining with the ethos of the band, it is buoyant but also nonchalant.

4.) The Strokes – Under Cover of Darkness. I wouldn’t call them the best band of year, with ‘Angles’ being a pretty disappointing album, but nonetheless they are still The Strokes and therefore still have the ability to produce great songs (if slightly more sparsely). From the moment it begins it opens with a spine-tingling riff and then Casablancas’ moody groans, complementing each other perfectly in a way only The Strokes know how.

3.) The Black Keys – Gold on the Ceiling. Another example of old-fashioned rock based on a punchy riff that convinces me I accidentally put on a Cream record. Moreover, this isn’t just the earthy blues-rock we’re used to being heralded by The Black Keys, but a sound culminating in replacing The White Stripes as one of the world’s best garage rock bands. 

2.) The Vaccines – Norgaard. The Vaccines gave easily one of the best live performances I saw this year, the highlight of which being ‘Norgaard’ and its inconceivable energy. The song resonates the sanguine vivacity when they are playing live through its bouncy hyperactive riff and sheer pace. Too often good music is a bit dull, and The Vaccines make great music through just having a bit of fun. 

1.) The Horrors – Still Life. I could listen to this over and over and over again, as I say this from past experience, explaining the imprint of a replay button buried into my thumb. Never has such brilliance emerged from the one-handed use of synths and the psychedelia of gnarling guitars, synth and Faris Badwan’s gloomy groans creates a euphoric, smooth sound. At first I thought it was a bit like Echo and the Bunnymen, but it is now clear that this is a completely unique sound to The Horrors, which has been refined and perfected. 

Well done for those who have reached the end of this post and I hope you have enjoyed the years musical offerings as much as I. Hopefully next year will provide with as much great music to talk about, regards 🙂

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

I can safely say, this is probably one of my favourite books. It’s cleverly written, has a lucid narrative, but also contrasts an embedded bleakness with many aspects of a thriller. It was through ‘Brighton Rock’ that Graham Greene found major commercial success, written in 1938, and by 1947 had been moved to the silver screen for John Boulting’s adaptation, which was itself brilliant, namely for Richard Attenborough’s ferocity as Pinkie Brown.

Pinkie Brown is the ultimate literary anti-hero, such that his malevolence and anguish still resonates with modern audiences and creates an utter fascination through the entirety of the novel. I am 17. Pinkie Brown is also 17. There is a slight contrast between us, lifestyle, time period, oh and I’m not a sinister power-hungry gangster, desperate to make not only cash, but a name for himself and a menacing reputation. One sentence in and Greene has already instilled the tone of the whole novel; “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”. The novel is structured around Pinkie’s attempts to cover up Hale’s murder, but these are somewhat thwarted by Ida Arnold, whom had met Fred hale in his last hours. Through Pinkie’s efforts to close the case on his gang’s and his own personal connection to the death, his story becomes intertwined with that of a young waitress, Rose. It is Ida’s purpose to stop Rose fulfilling her terrible, ominous fate; Greene shows Ida in complete contrast to Pinkie and Rose as a loud, secularist femme-fatale, allergic to the religious overtones and the images of redemption running parallel to Pinkie and Rose’s tainted relationship. Relationship isn’t the right word, it is more like a prison, or maybe purgatory. The only thing bleaker than Brighton and the gangster culture that inhabits it, is Pinkie and his aggressive, twisted attitude which devours all emotion he bears witness to.

Few people reach the disturbing evil that is enmeshed within Pinkie Brown and gang culture, but it is a story which still resonates, particular with youth culture, with this cultural boom of the 30’s foreshadowing those in the later 20th century, whether it be Mod, Punk or Urban culture. There will always be a dark undercurrent within society, but that makes it all the more interesting to me and, I expect, to those who read this bleak, brilliant novel. A consuming, outstanding read which I would highly recommend. Regards 🙂

Must-see film #4: Moon

Usually in Sci-Fi films, whether it be J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Star Wars or Avatar, outer-space looks like a hive of activity, exoticism and extremities. This high-octane grandiose is completely incomparable to the bleak claustrophobia which Moon seems to brilliantly capture, becoming an emotional spectacle rather than a lavish, big-budget blockbuster. Not only is this far more minimalistic than the average Sci-Fi film, but equally it is at times a dark, one-person drama constantly questioning humanity within the complex futuristic scenario, presenting an image of both space and Earth that is harrowing and wretched.

Duncan Jones (offspring of David Bowie) has used a minimal $5 million budget in creating his first feature, and I think that this is incredibly beneficial to the tone of the film. After an introductory advertisement to explain to the audience Earth’s fuel problems and how these have subsequently been solved through the conversion of fuel through an omnipresent source within lunar soil, we meet Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). Indeed, we see him in numerous situations, in numerous different examples of his loneliness, jogging, looking after his plants etc., from the first instance Jones has therefore emphasized how remote his existence on the moon has become. He is an extractor of this resource working for the company advertised, but Jones shows this as space-age capitalism, and the exploitation of Sam questions the benefits which would be gained by human inhabitance in outer space. Although Bell is remote in the greatest sense, he does have a companion called Gerty, a robot with the lucid, sardonic tone of Kevin Spacey. Gerty is however aware of the plight which has occurred and will happen to Sam Bell, and without giving too much away, highlights the sad reality of the situation as humans become as valuable, and replaceable, as machines.

Moon is an example of brilliance from many perspectives. Duncan Jones has built a plot which stands it out from any big-budget Starship Troopers schmulz and achieves a feat rarely seen in the science fiction genre; getting the audience emotionally involved within the story, but also gaining an attachment to Bell. Much of this is down to Rockwell’s brilliant performance, successfully pulling off the incredible difficulty of being a one-person cast. For all its brilliance though, the film doesn’t quite gain an inherent depth, atmospherically and philosophically, which may have been limited by its small budget and cold, utilitarian message. All in all, I highly recommend Moon, partly because it’s unlike any other film I’ve seen and this peculiarity left me more intrigued than I would have ever expected from a Sci-Fi film, if not astounded.

5 great new songs

Its time for one of these again. Hope you actually find something you like. I’m slightly reducing my number of posts for the meantime as I am far too busy with school work and university application. Hopefully you’re not quite as stressed out as me, maybe this music will relax you, but probably not. Cheers 🙂

Tribes- When My Day Comes A rather riveting, dramatic tune from an up-and-coming Camden band, whose other stuff is slightly wannabe-Nirvana, yet this has a similar sort of tune without the harshness. Easy to listen to and easy to enjoy.

The Horrors- I Can See Through You This my favourite song of The Horrors amazing third album, if not quite up to the heights of Primary Colours, but this track is certainly brilliant. Fast drums, euphoric synth and slurring vocals mixed to perfection.

DZ Deathrays- Gebbie St Every bone in my body tells me I shouldn’t like this, but, its great, because it so unrefined, with edgy guitars and semi-shouting, it leaves me in a state of puzzled amazement.

The Black Keys- Lonely Boy This is the first track of their eagerly awaited El Camino album and it doesn’t disappoint. The riff growls and the man in the video looks a bit like Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which must be good thing.

Cage The Elephant- Aberdeen Fun intellectual rock which is sublimely weird but with a mess of noise and melody.

All these songs are brilliant. I hope you agree slightly with this statement. Regards 🙂