King Creosote and John Hokins (Leeds City Varieties, 9 February 2012)


Leeds City Varieties is a lovely venue for gigs like this: large enough to get a good atmosphere, small enough to allow an intimate atmosphere ideal for thoughtful, gentle music.

The warm-up act, Withered Hand, a solo act aka Dan Willson, got us off to a low-key start. His reedy voice, wry and sad lyrics and pretty tunes (apparently, he was described as a “melodic wimp” by Rolling Stone) were helped along by a self-deprecating humour in his inter-song chat. And, unusually for a support act, the CD I bought at the gig was possibly better than the live performance, reminding me (in a good way) of Neil Young at times.

The main act started off by performing the album, Diamond Mine, in its entirety and with Kenny Anderson offering no interruption at all between songs. King Creosote is normally a one-man act, Anderson on vocals and guitar, but for his last album, and here, he is joined by Hopkins on keyboards, harmonium (I think) and occasional recorded sounds and other effects, necessary to reproduce the album but not reproducable live otherwise. I was starting to think Anderson was a bit of a grouch and I might be in for another ‘Fleet Foxes’ event but, once the album was done, Anderson became much more chatty and the effects tapes were ditched for a more basic approach. I’ve heard that King Creosote has a prodigious output and that the quality threshold is variable but the songs here were all good enough for me to invest in one or two more albums, to investigate his back catalogue.


Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)

young adult

A high-school prom queen, Mavis (Charlize Theron) having ‘escaped’ from her small-town roots and gone to live in the city as a writer of teen romances, ghost writing for an established series that is about to be cancelled, has a shitty life, writer’s block and seems to be depressive, watching daytime tv and lacking any connection to people, her only companion one of those little yappy dogs that are used as fashion accessories. She receives an email from her school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) proudly showing off his new baby, and decides that Buddy is the missing thing in her life and sets off back to her old home town to ‘free’ him and win him back; they were obviously ‘meant’ to be together.

This basic plot, whilst not exactly romantic, is not far removed from many of the rom-coms we’ve seen over the last few years, in which basically stalkerish behaviour is presented as somehow adorable. The difference here is that Mavis’ behaviour is always shown as obsessive and borderline mentally ill – but we are still encouraged to empathise with her even though we’re by no means intended to approve of what she’s doing. Part of this is through her growing friendship with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a boy she totally ignored at school (along with 90% of those other kids who were too uncool for her then) and who was left permanently disabled after being attacked by ‘jocks’ under the misapprehension that he was gay. Matt has a somewhat sour outlook on life (understandably) made worse by the fact that his moment of fame as the victim of a hate crime was then ignored when it transpired that he wasn’t, after all, gay – as if his victimhood had been devalued. Matt is a scabrous conscience here, telling Mavis the truth but not actually sabotaging her deranged plans.

I found myself comparing this film to Bad Teacher, the totally unfunny ‘comedy’ last year and realising that it was the total lack of reality or characterisation in that film that left its supposed ‘darker’ elements just leaving a bad taste and the lack of empathy for the characters that made its jokes so flat. This film is not riotously funny but it is has frequent laughs, and is also often quite moving, shifting between scathing and sentimental as its characters do quite convincingly.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Wow. This was interesting. The second film I’ve seen in a year about a religious cult led by dangerous charismatic patriarch, this was much more powerful than Red State. This cult is not a Christian one (at least as far as we can see) but more resembles something like ‘The Family’ and other pick’n’mix cults that use vague injunctions to some kind of higher power and goodness whilst interpreting what constitutes goodness so much on obedience that its devotees can only continue due to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from the cult and rings her older sister, Katie (Maria Dizzia) who she hasn’t seen for two years. Katie is now married to Ted (Hugh Dancy) and they’re taking a break from their high-stress city lives in a rented lakeside luxury cabin. Martha’s previous two years have been lived in a communal primitivism so Katie and Ted’s conventionally wealthy lifestyle is a challenge for Martha. Through flashbacks we see Martha’s process of indoctrination into the cult and the reasons for her running away, intercut with the ‘present day’ story of her trying to repress her fears of what has passed.

The indoctrination is really interesting, even if cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) lacks the obvious charisma and sense of power that Michael Parks brought to Red State, though this is the better film. Without a really powerful central figure, the cult is slightly less immediately convincing – we don’t feel the attraction – though the incrementally growing responsibility of devotees for indoctrinating newer recruits rang true, as did the escalating level of activity in the cult’s more secretive activities as cult members became more assimilated. Initially apparently benign, by the time cult members are aware of the more morally repugnant and sinister aspects of their community, they are implicated and too invested to withdraw easily. This gradual revelation, both to Martha (renamed by Patrick as “Marcy May” as part of the indoctrination process, and hence the title) and to us creates a growing sense of menace as Martha realises they might know where she now is.

Olsen, as Martha, is superb. She has that “old soul in a young body” that Kirsten Dunst and Scarlett Johansson had in their early films, which really sells the idea of someone who’s been through trauma and has buried secrets, and she makes the transitions between naïf and survivor utterly believable, and the sexualisation of her youth is disturbing (as it, of course, is meant to be here). This is a pretty open-ended film, of which one cinema-goer complained though I liked, and the developing fear of Martha is infectious, making for a pretty scary finale.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Being a documentary about the Chauvet Cave of in the Ardèche valley, and its haunting prehistoric pictures of animals – aurochs, rhinos, reindeer, lions and horses. The caves were sealed off by a rock-slide 20,000 years ago and so remained unspoilt and unknown until discovered by cavers in 1994 and Herzog was given limited and very precious access to film the rock paintings that most people will never see (the moisture caused by breathing can destroy the paintings), although a recreation of them is proposed as a theme park nearby.

Some of the pictures, dating back to 35,000 years at a time when early humans shared Europe with Neanderthals and ice-sheets covered much of the Earth, have a sense of movement and grace about them that are reminiscent of Picasso and the lions are far more impressively realistic than any I’ve seen in early mediaeval art (more familiarity with the subject, of course). There is one section with four horse heads, to which the camera keeps returning, that could either be representing a herd or else the movement of a single animal, and which is particularly special. This had a cinema release in 3D though, as we were watching on DVD, I can’t judge how reliant the movie is on that effect.

This is by no means a perfect film. Herzog, faced with a limited amount of (admittedly amazing) footage of the caves, pads it out with some talking heads, some of whom are more interesting and reliable than others. There is an “experimental archaeologist” who wears seal furs and goes by the rather marvellous name “Wulf”, a master-perfumier who might be employed by the theme park to reproduce the smells, not of the caves as they were discovered, but as they are imagined they might have been if the various animals depicted on the walls were present though, apart from humans, only cave bears were ever resident in them. Even one of the archaeologists goes a bit loopy, suggesting that the pictures can be “heard” as well as seen.

There is an attempt to put the cave into a wider European perspective with comparisons to other ‘artworks’ from the period but this is all rather perfunctory and half-hearted. Herzog seems to want to tell a story about what it means to be human and push the idea that it is not just our ability to communicate through language but to also to record and transmit ideas across time but, when his material is too thin to support his thesis, just retreats to vague talk of “spiritual” and similar guff.

Finally, there is a barking-mad postscript featuring a section, for no apparent reason and now known to be totally faked, about “nuclear mutant albino crocodile doppelgangers”. I cannot think of anything this adds to the film except a talking point. It is nonsensical and stupid and it diminishes the whole.

Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011)

Like Crazy

I admit it. I’m an old romantic at heart, although my rationalist head means that unalloyed sentimentalism leaves me gagging. So “doomed love”, “bittersweet”, “complicated” and “unresolved” are always the kind of stories that are going to yank my strings. This movie has been compared to Before Sunrise, one of my favourite films, so this looked promising. The biggest difference between the two films is that Before Sunrise plays out over one evening, whereas Like Crazy is over a few years, but there are certainly similarities in style and tone.

The premise: Anna (Felicity Jones) is a Brit humanities (not sure in quite what exactly) student studying in LA, where she falls in love with Jacob (Anton Yelchin), a would-be designer, in her last year of college. Completing her studies, she is due to fly back to Britain but cannot bear to be parted from Jacob and stays for the summer before briefly going home and then returning seven days later only to find that, because of her visa violation, that she is barred from entry to the US indefinitely and is sent home without even the chance to see Jacob once. The rest of the film is about the ups and downs of their long-distance relationship and whether this kind of romantic love can be lasting as they try to overturn the ban.

The couple are young, privileged, pretty people but I can forgive them this since they are generally so well-drawn and so damn likeable, or at least I find them so, and since we know they’re going to be put through the mill. There are some excruciatingly embarrassing scenes, for all the right reasons, as the awkwardness of first love and, later, the mindlessness of jealous arguments are played out all too convincingly and there is an easy naturalism to most of the scenes. Nice use of time-lapse, rapid flick-throughs of stills and fades between tableaux vivant scenes of wordless, sad communication move the plot on rapidly without losing the mood.

Jennifer Lawrence, as Jacob’s sometime-lover, Sam, is likeable in the all-too-commonly thankless ‘other woman’ role, though Charlie Bewley as Simon, Anna’s other other half, is a little more crudely drawn. It’s interesting how often in film the ‘wrong woman’ is simply wrong, not by any particular character flaw, but simply by not being the heroine whereas the ‘wrong man’ has to be crass, stupid or otherwise socially inept; If this is sexism, I wonder which gender it’s favouring. Bewley’s Simon is certainly not the worst example of this and we can still feel for his situation, if not wholeheartedly.

It’s an intelligent movie and both the intensity and complexity of the characters’ situations are well communicated. It wasn’t (for me) a tear-jerker but instead left me feeling reflective and moved, and it seems likely to stay with me. Like Crazy is my clear ‘favourite movie of the year’ so far, even if January has only just finished.