I was raised in a world without YouTube for many of my years, I lived in a time where you relied upon your VHS recording your film or tv show. These were also years in which access to a wealth of obscure films was not a click away. I’m fortunate to have a father who enjoyed watching quirky or cult films from way back when so whenever they were on television, he would stick a VHS cassette in the rickety player we had to watch the next day. This is how I came to see such classics as the remake of The Blob, Tremors, Mr Vampire, Meals on WheelsMurder by Death and so on. Whilst a lot of these films still resonate fondly with me, there is one in particular that stands out ahead of the rest.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I first came into contact with John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” as it feels like it’s always been a film in my life in some way. If I was to guess, I believe my dad played a VHS copy (recorded off of the TV with the ads included) to shut me up on a Saturday afternoon when I was about 4 or 5 years old. The film dazzled me from a young age and was the ultimate fantasy film for a kid obsessed with 70s Kung Fu films (thanks again, Dad) and Power Rangers. It was so action packed and fun from beginning to end that I fell in love with it.

A few years later, I got my own VHS player in my room (weirdly enough, this was in the 2000s when VHS was on it’s deathbed but I digress) and therefore proceeded to record a ton of my old favourites from the five channels. Soon I had a mountain of cult films at my disposal and the most treasured out of them all was Big Trouble in Little China (overwriting a previously recorded version of Mortal Kombat II, the label still stated that film). I watched it regularly and would have go-to bits if I couldn’t be bothered to watch in full. I was still obsessed as I was as a younger version of myself. Time passed and I eventually got the DVD which I watch at least once a year. For those who have never seen, heard or even got Big Trouble in Little China, let me bring you up to speed.

Big Trouble tells the story of Jack Burton, a free-wheeling trucker who seemingly talks to nobody over the truck radiowaves. Owed money by old friend Wang after winning several bets at the San Francisco docks, he accompanies Wang to the airport as his fiancé, Miao Yin. Out of nowhere, she is kidnapped by a mysterious gang and taken to Chinatown with the intent of being sold off as a sex slave. Whilst Jack and Wang are in pursuit of the gang to rescue Miao Yin, they encounter a mysterious and other-worldly figure known as Lo Pan who, along with his powerful henchmen known as the Three Storms, kidnap Miao to complete a sacred ritual. Jack and Wang race against time time to save Miao Yin and to avoid her death by stopping Lo Pan.

One of the key things with Big Trouble in Little China that has made the film so enduring to me is it’s lack of conforming to narrative norms. The best example of this is the fact that the main hero of the film Jack (played perfectly by Kurt Russell) is a inept fool who seems to be incapable of doing anything heroic. In the middle of a gun fight, Jack seems confused as to why no bullets have left his gun (the safety’s on) and seems even more startled when he finally kills someone. Whilst he may have the big talk and the quips, he’s as useful as a chocolate teapot when it comes to action. What made this funny was that the film was released at a time when cinemas were chock full of Arnie/Sly shoot’em ups with death counts hitting the near thousands. Jack Burton would struggle to hold a gun facing the right direction.

The casting of the film was pretty perfect with Kurt Russell as the aforementioned hapless hero Jack, Kim Cattrall at her most 80s as his love interest, Gracie Law. Veteran character actor James Hong plays the evil David Lo Pan in a rare main role and Victor Wong (aka that actor you cast when you need an eccentric Chinese character) as the eccentric Chinatown tour guide Egg Shen. Unfortunately, Dennis Dun who played Wang seemingly fell off the face of the Earth following the film which, given his fun performance as the film’s ‘real’ hero, is a pity.

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The mixture of shoot outs and Martial Arts action is a delight to the eyes and makes the fun just a fun experience to watch. The fight choreography is amazing as Carpenter and co throw everything at you at once;  men flying around, sword fights, flying sword fights, battles between magic and black magic, knife fights. The mass fight scenes are on par with many of the 70s Kung Fu films it takes inspiration from, especially the epic alley way fight.

I’ve briefly mentioned them previously, but the Three Seasons (Thunder, Lightening and Rain) prove to be terrifying and iconic foes in the film. They serve as Lo Pan’s most trusted guards and each of them possess extraordinary abilities; strength (Thunder), control of storms (Rain) and control of lightening (Erm, Lightening). They were always the coolest part of the film, especially Lightening who strikes a resemblance to an iconic video game character, at least to me anyways. Thunder is also (in)famous for a scene where he expands, a lot, to a brilliantly gory degree.

But maybe the most endearing thing about the film is that it’s clearly of it’s time. It looks and sounds like a film made in the 1980s; Lo Pan’s wedding in his underground lair has more neon than a Michael Mann film and the special effects are pretty cheesy even by 1986 standards. I also said sounds because John Carpenter scored the film with a Moog heavy soundtrack that has a slight East Asian feel to it. He also needed a catchy song for the end credits which he once again made himself. The song “Big Trouble in Little China” by fake band The Coupe de Villes is both amazing and awful at the same time with Carpenter doing his best Jim Morrison impersonation to some fairly incredible music. I always knew of the song from the credits but it wasn’t until I got the DVD that I truly came to enjoy it. It is so cheesy that a commenter on YouTube correctly described it as “Eighties as fuck“. Truer words never spoken.

The film was not one of director John Carpenter’s biggest hits and didn’t make a massive dent on the box office making just over 50% of it’s 20 million dollar budget. Who would’ve thought a wild west/martial arts hybrid wouldn’t have been everyone’s cup of tea? It was also massacred by critics at the time, resulting in Carpenter moving further and further away from the mainstream Hollywood system and almost disappearing until the late 90s. The film, however, has developed a fairly die hard cult fanbase over time and is seen by many to be a VHS classic.

I guess my level of fandom made the recent news that Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock was interested in remaking Big Trouble in Little China. My initial reaction was that of disgust and confusion as to why anyone would go out of their way to remake a cult film. As much as I love the film, it was a money loser at the box office; I don’t see how this would really change with the remake. My other, more rational thought was simply this; why not try? If the film is faithful to the original then it’ll result in more people watching Carpenter’s version. If the film bombs, it can be derided and forgotten like Total Recall (2012) or Robocop (2014) and curious audience members can instead uncover the joys of the original. Either way, a sure fire win for all as the original with be view by more curious film fans.

So in closing, I implore all of you to seek out this classic and experience it for yourselves. Both hilarious and visually stunning, I guarantee you will not have a more entertaining 90 minutes watching a film and you have my word on that. I guess there’s no finer way of leaving you than with some sage advice from the greatest action hero of all time, Jack Burton.

You just listen to the old Pork Chop Express here now and take his advice on a dark and stormy night when the lightning’s crashin’ and the thunder’s rollin’ and the rain’s coming down in sheets thick as lead. Just remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.’

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Death and loss aren’t necessarily new or ground-breaking themes within music. Death has been something that’s been sang about since the dawn of vocal music and the idea of loss is a recurring narrative within genres such as the Blues. They’re also two concepts that human beings encounter over several points of their lives and, death specifically, is something that we can all agree is something that carries significant heartache and sorrow to each of us when we come across it in our lifetimes.

Sufjan Stevens is a bit of a musical chameleon; he has released everything from Folk to Hip-Hop to impenetrable Electronic albums to Orchestral tributes to a train route in New York to Christmas albums. Despite his unwillingness to stand still in a genre for more than one album at a time, he has retained the reputation of being one of the truly great songwriters of his generation. His last major release was the schizophrenic and deeply intriguing “Age of Adz” which was, to put it mildly, a bombastic anxiety-ridden journey into the mind of Sufjan (who had just recovered from a mysterious debilitating illness). After a few sporadic releases, a new album was announced at the start of this year which was to serve as a tribute to his mother and step-father; Carrie and Lowell.

The story of Carrie Stevens is one of tragedy. She left the family when Sufjan was just a year old and lived a life that was marred by depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism, reappearing sporadically at random points in time before disappearing again. According to Sufjan’s recent interview with Pitchfork, she also spent several years on the street, homeless and alone. On the flip side, he also notes that she was funny, caring and loving according to relatives and from his distant memories. Carrie died in 2012 and before her passing, she and Sufjan spent time together. As a result of enduring the experience of witnessing the death of his mother, who was effectively a stranger to him, the concept of this album came into fruition.

Carrie and Lowell is the polar opposite of Age of Adz as it’s considerably more minimal in its sound. There is less emphasis on experimentation with sounds and more focus on gorgeous acoustic orchestrations to provide the genuinely heartbreaking lyrics with centre stage. It’s a platform for Sufjan to relay some of his finest and most personal songs of his career with the album serving as his grieving process (which isn’t specifically embedded in just sadness).

The opening track “Death With Dignity” is so beautifully arranged, with finger picked guitar and simple piano. It feels somewhat sparse, with its lyrics centred around the feeling of emptiness we can feel when someone dies and that lack of knowing where things will get better. It’s a taste of what’s to come with complex and gut-wrenching verses.

I forgive you, mother, I can hear you
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end

That feeling of emptiness and regret are further conveyed on “Should’ve Known Better”. Sufjan divulges further into the relationship (or lack thereof) with his mother and the inescapable feeling of wishing you had done more for a person before it’s too late. Whilst it’s possible to dwell on these feelings of regret forevermore, we can’t change what has been done and must live with our prior decisions.

I should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
I should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling

A key theme throughout Sufjan Stevens albums and songs is faith and religion, most overtly in his stunning folk album “Seven Swans” (which, by the way, shows that it is possible to make Christian music that’s popular with the masses). On “Drawn to the Blood“, Sufjan questions just why such a personal tragedy could happen to him despite his strong faith in a higher power (“For my prayer has always been love, What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?”). It’s a really effective track where the sense of betrayal is evident and that temporary questioning of his faith feels so real. This is also something that isn’t something we’d typically see in his earlier works and is a sign that this is a far more personal and “real” album in comparison to his earlier releases.

The one song that truly broke my heart on the album is “The Fourth of July” which documents a conversation with someone in their final moments of life. Having lost family members, it’s in some ways that final conversation I would’ve wanted as it offers at least some form of comforting or closure during such a tragic moment. One of the more crushing lyrics is when Sufjan’s mother (who is essentially our narrator on the track) is apologetic for leaving her son at such an early age.

Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles

This song in particular resonated with me mainly because of just of lines like that. It’s simple and effective lyricism over such sparse instrumentation that convey the utter emptiness of the situation that make it just that little bit touching. It’s probably his most emotional song since “Casimir Pulaski Day

Considering how frantic his previous album was, the minimal soundscapes and prolonged instrumental outros that appear on a few songs are really effective. Take for example “Drawn to the Blood” which has over a minute of melancholic synths and string arrangements which allows the power of the lyrics to sink in. The same can be said of the title track which has a minute long solemn outro. It’s something you rarely see in a lot of music which is a real shame as it certainly adds depth if used.

There’s little resolution or hope provided on the climactic song “Blue Bucket of Gold” as it raises more questions than answers. Nobody fills that void following the loss of his mother and there’s no sign of anything good coming in the future. This understated track is the complete opposite of the 25 minute grandiose “Impossible Soul” which concluded The Age of Adz. The lyrics drift away in a sea of instrumentals and we’re left pondering our own thoughts and feelings on loss with no conclusion really being given to us.

I’ve been listening to this album for a few weeks and whilst it touched a nerve with me from the first listen, it struck me a little harder recently. I awoke last weekend to hear some particularly horrible news that had happened to a friend of mine from way back when. When I revisited this album again after hearing this, the songs hit me like a punch to the stomach as they perfectly encapsulate those cycle of emotions you go through when you lose someone you love.

Carrie & Lowell is a remarkable album. You very rarely get such an insight into an individual’s personal life that you get on this album and even when you do, it’s rarely as beautiful and tragic as this. Whilst the themes of death and loss aren’t new, such a well documented and crafted journey into the concept of death and the grieving process is worthy of praise. As a result of such a personal tragedy, Sufjan Stevens has released the finest album of his career to date, and has immortalised his mother with such a touching tribute.

One of the biggest clichés in the Horror genre, outside of lusting teenagers getting intimate in a secluded and uninhabited area at midnight, is that of unnecessary sequels. You can’t find many Horror film series that didn’t overstay their welcome by at least 3 or 4 films before vanishing into utter absurdity. There are many examples of this; There were 5 official sequels in the Nightmare of Elm Street, Friday the 13th had 9 sequels. This is also not counting the cross-overs, television series and remakes. Both of the original films were considered landmarks of the Horror genre and brought about a rabid desire in the 1980s for a slew of slasher films to follow suit. Over time, the original films were forgotten and the genre was diluted to the point where the original films were unrecognisable. This is unfortunately the fall of the Horror genre as a whole.

Maybe one of the more inappropriate and perplexing Horror sequels (aside from Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan) was the third Halloween film of the original 8 entitled “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”.

Maybe one of the more confusing things about this film is the deviation from the winning formula put in place by John Carpenter, namely the unstoppable antagonist Michael Myers. Season of the Witch removed Myers from the equation and essentially belongs in a world where the previous Halloween films are just films and works of fiction. The film centres around a shady toy company Silver Shamrock and their fiendish plans to KILL MILLIONS OF CHILDREN ON HALLOWEEN.

Oh, and there army of android killers that keep popping up. You always need androids. 

As a kid, I watched this on Channel 5 on a Friday evening and was mainly intrigued to watch one of the Michael Myers films. I was surprised to find no trace of the Shatner mask wearing psychopath outside of a brief clip of a trailer for the original film in a bar scene. There were a few moments that creeped me out, namely the Silver Shamrock adverts and the scene where a young Pumpkin mask wearing child has his head disintegrated to snakes and locusts. However, watching it back now, I find the whole deal corny in a typical 80s Horror film way.

It's Only a Movie: Films For All Hallow's Eve

The idea of removing the series cash cow and replacing him with a narrative revolving around the theft of Stone Henge and mass child murder may seem like a terrible idea. Well, I guess the scathing reviews it received and negative fan reactions it invokes to this day is all the explanation required as to why the series returned to the Michael Myers cannon. Then again, it’s not like those sequels were of a higher quality of film as the series pretty much followed the same pattern of it’s Elm Street and 13th counterparts.

All of that aside, there is no better viewing material on Halloween than a campy, unnecessary Horror sequel. This film fits that bill.


Pulp Fiction (1994. dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Pulp Fiction was released 20 years ago today in America. That’s an insane sentence to write seeing as the film does not appear to have aged a bit since it’s initial release. Every scene is still massively quotable and despite several pastiches and parodies, the iconic scenes do not lose any of their appeal. With not a single ounce of hyperbole intended, it is quite easy to argue the point that Pulp Fiction is the best film of the past 20 years.

It’s really hard to pick a scene or two from the film as potential stand outs as they’re really all on an equal playing field. I was considering the opening diner scene, the Vincent and Jules scenes that crop up or the watch saga but opted for the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene.

Everything about the scene itself is perfect; it shows off Tarantino’s flair for dialogue as the character interaction is genuinely interesting. Every line is sharp and well delivered by Thurman and Travolta (who play off of each other so well) and the conversation comes across as organic. Beyond the discussions surrounded failed tv pilots and Tony Rocky Horror’s ill-fated fall from grace, there’s also that dance scene which is often imitated and never truly duplicated. It works so well in this portion of the film, playing off the obvious chemistry between Mia and Vincent and is the precursor for one of the more tense turn of events. It’s also an excellent display of twisting which is something far less prevalent in this; the Age of Twerking.

And also, it has a great Chuck Berry song playing in the background. Any excuse to feature a scene with Chuck Berry playing in the background is good with me.

Gah, YouTube is adhering to “copyright laws” and doesn’t feature the entire scene. Jesus YouTube, don’t be a…

One of my earliest posts on this here blog was a Halloween post. It was pretty much a compilation of shows/films I thought would make ideal Halloween viewing and it’s still one of the more popular posts I made based on the views it still gets in 2014. I’m doing the same thing again this year, devoting individual posts to each entry. It’ll be fun, honest. 

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Chris Morris is, without question, my favourite comedian of all time. I still have vivid memories of watching the original 2001 broadcast of Brass Eye’s Paedophilia special at the age of 11 and being equally astounded and confused as to what I had just encountered. I’d never seen comedy so abrasive, controversial and gloriously unapologetic. After witnessing that 2001 special, I watched the whole show and it’s predecessor “The Day Today” which was equally as hilarious, if a little more tame with the constraints of the BBC. And then, I heard nothing for some time. Many years later, I heard something about another show Morris had created that I never even knew existed. It was called Jam.

Jam is the bleakest and most disturbing comedy series ever broadcast on mainstream British television. It was Morris unleashed and at his most abstract from both a production and humour standpoint. Using mostly audio from the radio version dubbed, episodes were 20 minutes long, featured no ad-breaks or credits, no overarching narratives and a surrealist editing style (aided by a brilliant Trip-Hop soundtrack) which created a truly unsettling atmosphere to the show.

With sketches focusing on an ex-husband’s bloody present to his ex-wife (hint: it includes a woodchipper), an unethical sale of a homes that involved repeated sexual encounters with the buyers and a plumber performing unnecessary ‘repairs’ to a baby, the laughs are not as immediate or as obvious as they are in Brass Eye and The Day Today. At points, you wouldn’t be alone if you didn’t suspect that you were watching an especially abstract David Lynch film from the 90s and not a comedy sketch show.

Unrelenting dark whilst worryingly hilarious at points, Jam is well worth a look in this festive Halloween period.

crystal-castles

Tuesday was, unlike Ice Cube’s, a lousy day. I woke up late for work, forgot to take the rubbish out to be collected, I left my keys at home, I got shat on by the rain and had one of the blandest lunch time meals of my life. I almost wept.

This poor day was topped off by the moderately sad news that Crystal Castles’ vocalist Alice Glass was leaving due to various reasons, some of which personal. It [potentially] marks the end of a band that I was particularly fond of and who always produced interesting music over three very different albums. Here’s a quick look back and a few choice songs from each release.

I

Crystal Castles (or “I“) is an album very much embedded within the sound that was evident in 2008; it’s chiptune mixed with synthpunk and has a DIY feel to it (which was the in thing at that point of the decade). There were brief allusions of the darker sound they would later develop but on the whole, it was very much a glitchy chiptune riddled album. Whilst others like MSTRKRFT sound pretty horrid in 6 years later, the debut CC album is still a really good listen. I think notable standouts so many years later are “Alice Practice“, “Vanished” and “Tell Me What to Swallow” which is an oddly sombre number.

(II)

Where the band began to truly become something special was their second album known as “II“. The Chiptune sound was gone and the electronics became more polished and the music more aggressive at points. This was certainly the point where the band’s sound got progressively darker with Ethan Kath producing some really interesting music like “Celestica”, “Birds” and “Empathy“. The version of “Not In Love” is also probably the best thing relating to Crystal Castles.

It was at this point that I also went to go see them (twice) on their fairly extensive UK tour. As polished as they were on record, their live sets were fairly shambolic with Alice essentially screaming into the microphone and drinking straight out of a Jack Daniels bottle. The undeniable beauty of a song like “Celestica” was very much lost in a live environment which was a tough pill for me to swallow when I saw them on both occasions and it definitely dampened me on the band for some time. To this day, I will never forget that show I saw at the Leeds Metropolitan mainly because of the 45 minutes of screaming and feedback I witnessed and the amount of alcohol I consumed that rivalled Alice. The second time was just as chaotic and less audible when I saw them as part of the NME Shockwaves tour in 2011.

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After the disappointment of seeing them live both times, I was very much pleasantly surprised when their third album (III) was their best. Everything about “III” is dark. The horrifically depressing cover art of a Yemeni woman holding her tear gassed son, the names of the songs and the general mood of impending doom that looms over the tracks. Hell, what would you expect from an album where the key theme is oppression in it’s various forms?

I think a lot of people slept on this album and didn’t give it the credit it deserved, mainly because it didn’t have the crossover appeal single that the second album had with “Not In Love”. Instead, it was far more gothic with the bleak “Plague” “Wrath of God” and “Sad Eyes” as the choices for singles, which all sound glum from their names alone.

I loved “III” and thought it was their finest hour as a group. It’s a gloomy and an intoxicating listen that showed the progression the group had made. This was the point where the band’s music was the best it had ever been and for once, their lyrics were quite excellent behind the veils of distortion. With the band now seemingly a distant memory, I’m glad to say they left when they were creatively at their best. The album’s last song “Child I Will Hurt” you is probably the best thing they ever recorded. It’s hauntingly beautiful and is one of the few moments in the history of the group where you can almost see can somewhat glimpse at the vulnerability of Alice Glass.

Whether this is the end of Crystal Castles or merely the end of the band in it’s current form, we’ll have to see. Here are a few of my personal favourites from the 3 albums.

We live in troubled times. There’s a threat within music that it’s being rapidly hollowed out by artists seeking commercial gain moreso than creating something of substance out of one’s love of music. Unfortunately, the music we hear on the radio becomes increasingly more saturated and devoid of any creativity as time goes by.

It’s at such low points in Hollywood blockbusters that we would call on our heroes. In the Batman series for example, the bat symbol would be beamed into the sky signalling for the hero to swoop in and save the day.

Aphex Blimp

This Sunday just gone, a blimp was spotted around London sporting the above logo on one side and “2014” on the other. Symbols were being printed around New York with the same logo. I began going into meltdown the minute images started cropping online and was utterly intrigued; would it be new music? Re-releases? Live shows? Whilst a lot of questions emerged, one thing was a definite fact; Aphex Twin was returning and he was going old school, promoting stuff via messages in the sky.

I became enamoured with Aphex Twin a few years ago when I started to delve into the Warp Records back catalogue extensively. His compilation album “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” is still one of the more beautiful Electronic albums I’ve ever encountered. It takes the ambient soundscapes that a pioneer such as Brian Eno created and brings them into a more contemporary environment, creating thought provoking yet danceable music. I also enjoyed his completely menacing and relentless releases “I Care Because You Do” and “Richard D James Album” which really reinforced the IDM feel of his music.

It’s been 13 years since his last and most complex album “Drukqs” in which James recording hauntingly beautiful songs on incredibly hard to programme sequencers and sythesisers. Since that time, he’s DJ’d here and there and done the odd live show but there’s been no new album under the Aphex or AFX banner. Well, now he’s back with “SYRO” which features some truly excellent album artwork.

FINAL MASTER SYRO DIGIPAK.indd

Anyway, for the unitiated or simply to whet the appetite in anticipation for the album due out on 23 September 2014, here’s some of my favourite Aphex Twin songs for your listening pleasure.