Posts by hutchwp

Sole writer at http://cinemaetc.co.uk

The Bluetones and their love of fine cinema

As a child, a fortunate trip to my local Blockbuster during a clearout sale meant I was able to blow every last penny I had on four albums that significantly changed the course of my listening habits.

The year was 1997 and I was a mere twelve years of age.

Amongst them were Blur’s eponymous fifth album, Kula Shaker’s ‘K’, Supergrass’s ‘I Should Coco’ and debut The Bluetones album ‘Expecting to Fly’. All four bands are still regulars on my stereo and I’ve followed them throughout their subsequent careers, with all their variously successful (and unsuccessful) side projects.

Of course, as life-changing events go this is quite indicative of my relatively burden-free upbringing. But it stuck with me, so just deal with it.

Fast forward to 2005 and I was writing for my university music magazine. Unbelievably, I managed to secure an interview with Mark Morriss, lead singer for The Bluetones. I will admit I was entirely unprofessional in my approach, basically because I was spending a good hour with one of my idols.

The topic of album track ‘Heard You Were Dead’ came up during the interview, which featured on their second album ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’. I hadn’t quite segued into an information-thirsty cinema lover by this point, so the title of the song was lost on me. Mark politely explained the reference to me – a repeated quote in John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian action film ‘Escape From New York’ – and we had a chat about how much he liked the film.

Another fourteen years have passed since then and it has become apparent that their back catalogue is littered with unlikely references to the films they love. Listening to these songs again with a more complete love of television and cinema history, suddenly the references start to jump out at you.

Here are a few of my favourites.

1. Heard You Were Dead (1997)

As mentioned above, this is a reference to the insanely brilliant John Carpenter sci-fi action film starring Kurt Russell. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s well worth checking out. If you notice there’s a sequel set in LA, simply press play on the New York one again.

The lyrics to the song aren’t steeped in Snake Plissken references, instead focusing on a friend, seemingly lost to suicide (“It was over in a moment, you passed without a sound,
I know that you were shackled, but now you are unbound”). It’s a song that sits well at the end of the band’s second album, Return to the Last Chance Saloon, the lull before the brilliantly explosive and catchy ‘Broken Starr’ that closes that album, and whose name may itself be a reference to Belle Starr, the subject of many western films.

2. Thought You’d Be Taller

Not done with the Snake Pliskin references, the boys returned to the same source material to name this b-side to Autophilia. Somewhat wasted as a b-side, this track made a reappearance on the Rough Outline compilation a few years after its release, making sure it’s a bit easier to get hold of. It’s a tale about meeting a hero and being disappointed, so the lyrics sadly aren’t an out-and-out Pliskin tale.

3. Autophilia (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Car) (2000)

This track is one of my least favourite tracks released as a single by the band, but it remains a firm fan favourite. The lyrics are about a man’s overzealous love for his car. The video suitably parodies ‘Greased Lightning’ from Grease, whilst the name of the song title is inspired by the full title of Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’.

4. Zorrro (1999)

Apparently not scared of adding in an additional “r” into the title of their songs, The Bluetones opened their third album ‘Science and Nature’ with ‘Zorrro’. Zorro was a swashbuckling adventure character that has had several attempted reboots over the years, most famously with Antonio Banderas filling the boots in a disappointing 1998 film called The Mask of Zorro.

This track brilliantly kicked off their third album ‘Science and Nature’. If you’ve never heard it, you’re missing out. It’s likely the band were struggling for a name for this song since the lyrics have nothing to do with the Zorro franchise, instead concentrating on some mysterious celebration day. Indeed, it would have made more sense had it been called ‘The Wicker Man’, but then the band never liked to leave the crumbs out in the open.

5. Serenity Now (2005)

In 2005, The ‘Tones released a cracking four-track EP titled Serenity Now. The title track is arguably one of their finest pop singles and certainly one of their most underrated. A couple of years later I was working my way through Seinfeld and got to the Season 9 episode ‘The Serenity Now’. The episode features George Costanza trying to maintain his anger using a calming technique he learned from his father, who was advised to say “Serenity now!” every time he felt his anger boiling over. It’s a brilliant episode of a brilliant season of a brilliant sitcom.

The song is just as good. It kicks off with a twisting, memorable guitar riff from guitarist Adam Devlin, before firing itself into a vocal melody as catchy as anything Mark Morriss has ever committed to record. It has borrowed the title from Seinfeld as a homage, with lyrics focusing on the hatred towards a disruptive person (“Everybody you meet wants to knock your, teeth out”) and regret over not standing up to them sooner. My only issue is seeing George Costanza every time I hear the song now.

6. Hey Schmoopy (2010)

‘Serenity Now’ wasn’t the last time they showed their love of Seinfeld. Their sixth album ‘A New Athens’ featured a secret track. Titled ‘Hey Schmoopy’, it’s a reference to one of the best ever episodes of Seinfeld – The Soup Nazi. In the episode, Jerry has a new girlfriend called Sheila who he keeps referring to as “schmoopy’, much to the ire of George.

The song is a simple ukulele-led instrumental song, so it’s likely that it was finished on the same day as the band watched an episode of Seinfeld and they named it after that.

7. The Fountainhead (1995)

‘The Fountainhead’ was one of the band’s first ever singles, initially finding a home on the Fierce Panda label in 1994. The name is inspired by the novel of the same name, or more likely the film adaptation from 1949 starring Gary Cooperas Howard Roark. In it, a young architect wants to work in ‘modern architecture’, despite the film he works for tending towards traditional designs.

I had always thought this song was about a failing romantic relationship but with the knowledge of the film it is more likely to be about the storyline of the film.

“God knows I’ve tried to bridge the gap,
I’ve tried to be me and time after time I’ve lied,
Just to say the things you wanted to hear”

8. Castle Rock

‘Castle Rock’ is named after the fictional town that provides the setting of many Stephen King stories. They include ‘The Body’ (a.k.a. ‘Stand By Me’), ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Cujo’.

I can’t see any reference in the lyrics to anything in any of the films. I’m sure the chorus would have been improved with the phrase “I think I might be losing my way” being replaced by “I think that Chopper’s sicking my balls”, even though it wouldn’t have fit tonally.

9. After Hours (2002)

The lyrics aren’t any kind of reference to films (other than a glancing nod to Fred Astaire), but the Edgar Wright music video is a joy to behold.

It’s clearly inspired by 1976 musical comedy film Bugsy Malone. It’s a prohibition-era bar, serving milk rather than beer and starring children as the gangsters. It comes complete with dancing children and a punchline gag involving the band and some cream-firing guns.

Edgar Wright is good friends with The Bluetones and has regularly collaborated with the band throughout his career. He directed the music video for ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’ in 2000. They starred in an episode of Spaced in 2001 titled ‘Mettle’, which centred around a robot wars tournament (in which the band competed). He featured their Science and Nature track ‘Blood Bubble’ in the trailers to promote the series. Later on, Sleazy Bed Track was used his film in Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

Their work together never got any better than the After Hours music video and it’s a real underrated gem.

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Well now I just want to listen to The Bluetones.

Film review – Mrs Lowry & Son (Adrian Noble, 2019)

L. S. Lowry once claimed he only ever used five colours: vermilion, ivory black, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white. Mrs Lowry and Son puts Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave together in a film as flatly coloured as any of Lowry’s paintings, with a plot to match. This isn’t to bismirch the overall effect – a film with a different tone would feel like a mis-step.

These are astonishing performances from the two leads.

Spall plays the titular son, famed Lancashire artist Laurence Stephen Lowry. He brings Lowry to life, as he struggles against his own mother’s opinion of his work and allows that to permeate his confidence. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch play out.

Of course, without Redgrave giving an equally wonderful performance as Elizabeth Lowry, the whole thing would fall flat. It’s well written and delivered perfectly. Redgrave has seldom felt so dislikeable. She has a dedicated son that she completely takes for granted. All she offers is a relentless undermining that only serves to stifle his genius.

The naming of the film tells you all you need to know about how important Redgrave is to the plot. It is arguably more her story than it is his, with her character as overbearing to the story as she was in real life to Lowry’s paintings.

It feels dreary, but this is a portrait of an artist living in Pendlebury in the 1930s. It was a dreary time to live, as families were built around the financial gains of working in the local coal mines.

The film soars when Adrian Noble works some of the more familiar of Lowry’s works into the visuals of the film. As a child who grew up in nearby Burnley, Lowry was revisited many times during art lessons at school. I’m not an expert, but it is a joy to see the masterpieces brought to life.

The joys of this film shouldn’t be limited to those from northern England, nor just to fans of his art. It’s very well executed and is well worth your viewing time.

Is Ben-Hur really all that it’s cracked up to be?

Ben-Hur is one of the most celebrated and successful pieces of cinema in the history of the art. It had been on my bucket list for a long time, which feels like it’s getting longer rather than shorter. I’m 34-years-old now and this is a good age to be looking back beyond my 1984 birth year.

I make no apologies for the spoilers. It’s over half a century old, for Christ’s sake.*

The film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a prince living in Roman Empire-occupied Jerusalem under the watchful eye of guards working for Julius Caesar. His long-time best friend Massala has returned following extensive guard training and is now a fully-fledged devotee to the Roman Empire. However, when a guard’s march walks through the city and a tile falls from a roof and hits a guard, Ben-Hur is blamed and banished to slavery, whilst his mother and sister are sent to prison, all at the hands of a Massala keen to impress his superiors. This begins Ben-Hur’s plight to avenge this wrongdoing and seek justice.

Now, there are a couple of things that may have been prevalent in the marketing of Ben-Hur back in 1959, but 60 years on all we hear about is the chariot race scene and as such we’re left with a few surprises.

Firstly, this film is extremely religious. Indeed, the story is, at heart, a tale of how one man’s beliefs are tested and torn to shreds before eventually being restored to a place stronger than ever. Jesus Christ is an important character, even though he is never mentioned by name, nor is his face ever seen. The story uses Judah Ben-Hur as an allegory for Jesus, and it is an adaptation of a novel titles ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’. It is effective in doing so, albeit through the medium of a fairly slow-paced cinematic epic.

Secondly, whilst we’re on the topic of the slow pace, this film is almost four hours long! It is split across two Blu-ray discs.** This is a crazy amount of time, and it was proved to be far too long when the film was remade a few years ago in around half the running time. Admittedly, this version was far less successful than its most popular predecessor (itself a remake). Realistically, the only way to get through it is to watch it in installments.

Indeed, manually splitting it into a four-part mini series will make it more manageable to modern audiences. I hate myself for recommending doing that, but this film is no easy nut to crack based on what modern audiences are used to.

It’s typical of the blockbuster films of the time to be over-long and of epic proportions. The Ten Commandments. Gone With The Wind. Looking back, it seems the longer the film, the more likely it is to have stood the test of time.

It is no wonder that fans of the film concentrate so heavily on the brilliant chariot race and that horrific rowing slaves scene. True, when this film is good, it’s great. The scene where he discovers his sister and mother are still living in The Valley of the Lepers is truly heartbreaking. Watching him confront Massala on the operation table is as satisfying as it is horrific.

Of course, the chariot scene is rightly celebrated. Watching that in isolation, in all its grandeur, is something to behold. If you have the setup, I highly recommend you watch it at home in brilliant HD and surround sound. It is absolutely majestic.

It is wholly unfair to judge it by today’s standards, of course. Is Murnau’s Sunrise as entertaining as Jenkins’s Moonlight? Probably not. But it operates on a different plane. Both are excellent, judged by whatever standards, but modern audiences are more likely to enjoy a film made in modern times.

The same holds true for Ben-Hur. It’s of its time. It is definitely hard work, without a doubt. But if you can’t dedicate four hours to it in one sitting, then you’ll still get a lot out of it by splitting it up into bite-sized chunks.

* You see what I did here? Of course, this is a religious joke. And the film is religious. I’m a classy reviewer…

** Probably not a concern at the time.

Is Porco Rosso the best introduction to Studio Ghibli?

In an ongoing quest to indoctrinate my child with good cinema and expose her subconscious brain to variety of languages, we sat down and watched a Ghibli feature film for the first time. Well, okay, she didn’t watch it. She was only six-and-half weeks old at the time. I’m hoping the audio filtered through her ears and into her dreams as it played out with her asleep in my arms. At least her bath time music was definitely familiar,

As I watched it, I thought to myself how surprising it is that Porco Rosso isn’t better known and better appreciated. It’s one of only eleven feature-length animated films that Hiyao Miyazaki has directed, and sits directly in the middle of the timeline of releases. It is also, surely, one of his greatest works of art.

The plot revolves around a World War I Italian ex-fighter pilot, who now makes his money as a bounty hunter chasing air pirates. This allows Miyazaki to show off two of his greatest loves. The first is the beautifully-realistic European setting.  His version of early 1900s Italy is so authentic you can almost taste the pomodoro. It’s set firmly in the real-world events of the aftermath of the war, with the references to the Great Depression putting it in the 1930s.

Secondly, the over-arching aeronautical theme is again on display. Hayao Miyazaki’s father Katsuji Miyazaki was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, a company responsible for manufacturing aircraft parts during World War II. As you explore his work, time and time again the skies are visited and form a central part of the stories. Never is this more the case than in Porco Rosso.

Indeed, as an entry-level Ghibli film, it’s one of the best places to start. It has a focused, robust plot with a clear start, middle and end. It has elements of fantasy included. It has a wonderful Joe Hisaishi score. Everything you’d expect of a Studio Ghibli feature.

It’s interesting that it still feels very much like a film aimed at children. But what are the themes here? The war? Depression? Lost love? Fascism? The early years of aviation? Somehow these are tied together with such grace and love and packaged in a way that feels perfectly fitting for any child.

Basically, if you’re at all interested in Japanese animation, you need to work out a way to watch this film.

As for my daughter… She didn’t wake up but I’ll be making sure she revisits this one when she’s old enough to understand it a bit more. She’ll certainly recognise the score.

Note: If you want to read more about the fantasy portrayal of Europe by Miyazaki in Porco Rosso, Chris Wood’s article ‘The European Fantasy Space and Identity Construction in Porco Rosso‘ is a brilliant read.

Note: I wrote this article in December but never got around to publishing it. My daughter is now nine months old and still listens to the same music in the bath. She’s yet to watch any television, but she does love her plush Totoro.