The Beach Diaries 2014 – #2 in an Occasional Series

•June 24, 2014 • 2 Comments

What are the Beach Diaries?” If this is you, you oaf, and it’s your first time here, scroll to the bottom for enlightenment.

***

** After a hugely positive review on the Wrestling Observer/Figure Four Weekly website, I wake to the news that I’m currently the author of the #2 best selling pro wrestling book in the world — although the #1 is a Jiu Jitsu book, which doesn’t count — a statement to end with “sup, ladies?” if ever there was one. I’m up early because I’m dog sitting for the day, which sees me at the beach at an unusual hour, way before the usual lunchtime crowd-rush that usually provides me with so much material.

** There’s nobody else around but other dog walkers and joggers of various fitness levels; some sinewy and well-geared, taking numerous passes from pier to café and back; others with a lead-footed slog along the prom, in a gamely way that suggests they’ve committed to making a change, for the first, or twentieth time. Dog-walkers and joggers. That level of specific population is an odd feeling, like being in a videogame where half the AI characters have blipped out of existence, leaving a world inhabited by just the two sets of background colour.

Chris Jericho -- 2nd Best in the World

Chris Jericho — 2nd Best in the World

** Regular readers will know I’ve never been the belle of the ball down here in Beachtown, having inspired no admiring glances or coquettish smiles from those who catch my eye, and no wolf whistles that weren’t sarcastic and followed by the cackling of a girl-gang. I was once ignored by a man slavishly drumming up signatures for a petition to save the hospital, who skipped over me like I was invisible, presumably for giving off the aura of someone who hates healthcare. My resting facial expression is ‘murderous’, I resemble Charles Manson cameoing in Point Break, and I’m only ever approached by men aged 18-35 who want a light, or think I can sell them some weed. On occasion, I have been asked by groups to take their photo for them, but only when I’ve been reading a book, which possibly paints over the edges of the “serial killer, thug, or sex offender?” vibe with an airy coat of education. Today, like walking into a nightclub as part of a famous friend’s entourage — “What’s Millard doing with Dean Gaffney? He suddenly seems handsome and cool!” — I live vicariously through a 12lb social wing-man. Snowy, the half-Bichon, half-Shih Tzu bundle of energy trotting from the end of my arm, whom everybody wants to see or touch as he passes them, shifts my position on the map of the global village out of the cave and onto a wholly different plane.

Little kids gasp “Doggy!”, grown adults point him out to each other, and the elderly — who often pass me fearfully in case of an imminent mugging, even though I try really, really hard not to give that impression, with my best efforts at genial body language — all want to stop and rub his little ears. As is a theme in these diaries, I don’t have friends. I mean, I’ll exchange jokes and opinions over social media and whatnot, but I never, ever ‘hang out’ with anyone. My philosophy on life is to go all Barry Windham circa 1993 and Lone Wolf it. Everywhere I go and everything I do in life, I do by myself. But having a dog is some weird invitation for people, especially other dog owners, to stop and talk to you, like they’ve put on the ray bans from They Live, and suddenly see a person, where once was nothing but a 6′ tall space of transparent atoms. I didn’t mind; it was fine to play dress-up for a day, although I’m not sure how I’ll feel if I ever manage that seemingly-easy yet heartbreakingly elusive life-goal of making enough money to get a dog of my own.

So, unlike the other Beach Diaries where I’m merely lurking on the outskirts, I’m suddenly right in the mix. I talk to old ladies. I exchange laughter with a group of walkers as Snowy chases a similar looking dog in mad circles and has to be dragged away. I even stop and chat to the man who keeps the topless dummy in the attic, who’s known for carrying a pet chicken around town under his arm. In a green dressing gown and work-boots held together with sellotaped toes, he introduces himself to me and the dog, who’s so wary of him, he puts the brakes on and refuses a stroke. “It must be my odour,” he says. We shake hands as we part, and I wish him a good day, and realise that arming myself with a dog makes me pretty good at the whole ‘being a human being’ thing. In the right circumstances, I could probably make a passable member of society. That said, I was still stopped by an actual urchin who wanted “two tens in exchange for a twenty.”

Yeah, no thanks

Yeah, no thanks

** We return to the beach for another long walk, later that evening. Though it’s getting late, it’s still so hot that the sea’s filled with swimmers and waders; older people, dog owners, teenage couples using the bob of the waves as a thin pretext to grope each other. Despite my love of the beach, water makes me nervous, and I’m not keen on actually being in it. I’ll walk beside it though, and like tonight, I often do, for miles and hours.

Over on the next break, a blonde woman doing the same carries a dog in her arms like a baby. I almost hesitate to put all this down, as it seems too much of a stereotype, right down to the bug-eye Kardashian sunglasses. Her dog’s legs are too stubby to walk across the stones; its billowing coat of white fluff too delicately coiffed to get plastered in wet sand. From his owner’s arms, the dog looks across at Snowy, who’s running free and wild, with the gaze of Richie Rich peering out a darkened limousine window, slowly being driven past some laughing children who’re running barefoot around a spraying fire hydrant, with a mixture of sneering “look at those simple bastards” and a deep sadness that he’ll never be able to get out and join them.

** Earlier in the week, I took the dog out for the afternoon. As we walked through the empty town centre, a football man staggered out of a pub. The blare of a TV playing the World Cup puked out of the open door, and he started shouting to himself in a slur about how he was going to get some more money out of the cashpoint. Every other syllable was “fuck,” and he moved down the pavement like they did on Star Trek when the ship got hit by a Klingon ray gun. Amid all the jovial swearing, he realised there was someone walking behind him, in earshot of his dirty mouth, and he turned –

Sorry, mate,” he said, with genuine remorse, looking the dog square in the eye.

** But back to today, and before we go home, we sit on the long bench. I squeeze the dog a drink into his portable bowl, and feed him half of a bone-shaped biscuit. As we rest beneath the shadow of the wonky shelter, I bend down to unravel the lead that’s gotten snared around my ankle, and spot a shiny pound coin right underneath where I’m sitting. Though it’s not enough to fund the move to somewhere I could house and feed a husky of my very own, after the book review, the sales, and a day spent milling around my favourite place with my favourite species, it’s still enough to make me say, out loud, “Everything’s coming up Millard.

***

bdcovers

The Beach Diaries have been running since 2011, spawning the two Kindle books you see above. Both are available on Amazon, for the price of a pint, and I highly recommend you buy them, because I like money.

The Beach Diaries 2011: £1.99 on Amazon.co.uk$2.99 on Amazon.com

The Beach Diaries 2012: £2.99 on Amazon.co.uk$3.99 on Amazon.com

If you don’t have a Kindle, here’s Amazon’s FREE Kindle app for phones, tablets, mac and PC

These days, I only put them out occasionally, as I did last year. The Occasional Beach Diaries 2013: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

And 2014: #1

Saved By the Book, aka The Laziest Kickstarter

•June 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Saved_By_the_Bell_Title_Card

7th JUNE — SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM FOR AN UPDATE

Welcome to the laziest Kickstarter ever. Here’s the deal. I’ve stuck the complete Saved by the Bell box set onto my Amazon wishlist. It’s £53 with free delivery, and if someone buys it for me, I’ll write an exhaustive SBTB book. Click here for my wishlist, and to make dreams come true.

That’s it. As crowd-funded ideas go, on the plus side, it’s got a low, low target of £53, and the perk of a fantastic, in-depth book being available to everyone in the world (with a Kindle or Kindle app) for less than a fiver in about 6-9 months time. As a minus, the cash will have to be plumped for by a single donor. (Note: this project only stands for the original series. I would not be covering The College Years, the TV movies, or The New Class.)

As to what form this book would take, it absolutely wouldn’t be one of those insipid, Buzzfeed-style “you might be an 80’s/90’s child if you remember…” retro wanks, where just referring to a thing from a time period replaces the need to have anything to say about it. I wouldn’t just be having a giggle at their clothes and hair, nor would this be an episode recap listing plot points like a wiki entry, but rather, the same, entertaining blend of deep pop culture analysis and dick jokes that you might enjoy from my other work.

Peter Engel’s productions (California Dreams, Hang Time, City Guys) are cultural touchstones for at least an entire generation, of which, Saved by the Bell is the most interesting and most well-remembered. Essentially a weekly, 22 minute morality play, painted in broad, day-glo, strokes by a gurning cast, it plays like the grand emotions of the teenage years it portrays, with an audience who whoops and woos at every hallway zinger and peck on the cheek. Bayside is a world where the bad kid who takes up smoking will be dead from lung cancer within the same day, and where never-before-seen characters appear as heavy-handed moral-cyphers, greeted like old friends, never to be referred to again once the credits roll. (Becky the duck, killed by oil; Jessie’s leather-jacket wearing no-good half-brother, who recorded the first celebrity sex tape by hiding a cassette player in Jessie’s room while she called Slater her “curly Conan”; Zack’s wheelchair-bound, teen chatline paramour). I’m particularly interested in delving into the SBTB universe’s enormous cabinet of lost things. From the strange running sub-plot of Kelly’s family being poor, to Kevin the talking robot, to No Hope with Dope, I’d dearly love to examine and deconstruct this world with the depth that it deserves, but… I think I draw the line at paying for it myself, while also not having the disposable income to drop on it anyway.

Untitled-1

This wishlist idea is my way of putting it down to fate. If the universe really wants a definitive SBTB book written by me, then someone will make it happen. If not, no crushing biggy. I’m not a beggar, so I won’t keep harping on about it for ages, or pleading with the actor who played Mr. Belding for retweets. I’m not really expecting anyone to actually buy it for me, but I’m going to put it out there and see what Lady Fate (i.e., someone with way too much money on their hands) has to say. Also, I’m aware that in publicly posting my Amazon wishlist, I’m acting a bit like those camgirls who rinse dresses and laptops out of lonely, cum-smelling men. And yes, there’s a bunch of other stuff on my wishlist, some of which has was added suspiciously recently (10 minutes ago), because you never know when an eccentric or drug-addled billionaire might be looking for things to throw their money at, Brewster’s Millions style, so fuck it. While this puts me barely one step up from sheepishly queuing in the post office to weigh a package stuffed with taint-soiled boxers, addressed to dongmilker69, you can’t blame a guy for trying. Sadly, the Paul Ross canvas print is currently unavailable.

If you’re not interested in dropping a half-hundred on a future book, then maybe check out my most recent one, which already exists, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, a book which is currently making a strong case for mass-appeal non-fiction being as pointless a venture as all the other weird shit I’ve put out over the years that nobody bought either. Also, it’ll give you a taster for the kind of thing you could expect from a SBTB book, and all for less than the price of a pint.

Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal on Amazon.com ($3.99)

Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal on Amazon UK (£2.99)

Amazon’s FREE Kindle app for Phones, Tablets, Mac and PC.

As a bonus treat, Dustin “Screech” Diamond once stopped paying the lease on a storage locker filled with boxes and boxes of old childhood memorabilia. The contents of these ended up on eBay, and then on this blog. While you consider whether or not to gift the world with a Millard-penned examination of the ultimate summer holiday staple, please enjoy this picture of a young Screech proudly posing with his collection of He Man toys like a real cool mack daddy.

screech he man

And if you’d like to see the Saved by the Bell book, by me, then either share this link around so’s someone might make it happen, or plump for it yourself by clicking here and buying the box set for me. Okay… Time In!

7th JUNE UPDATE

FATE HAS SPOKEN

sbtb

Thanks to an incredibly generous, and possibly crazed benefactor… yep.

The Beach Diaries 2014 – #1 in an Occasional Series

•May 23, 2014 • 3 Comments

bdheader

What are the Beach Diaries?” If this is you, you oaf, and it’s your first time here, scroll to the bottom for enlightenment.

* The sea defense redevelopment by the riverbank pushes me on a different route to my usual, taking me through streets more notable for revenge stabbings and sunrise drug raids than for slow-moving snakes of lobster-backed tourists. As has revealed itself over these past four years, the summer makes perverts of us all, with parades of sweaty flesh inciting the reflexive lust response of animal instinct, and the self-loathing that follows. Today brings the first lech-shame of the summer. Like an unwelcome old friend, my id, my inner voice, suddenly tosses aside its mask of pretension, its love of Herzog and Fort, and using big words where a small one would do, and transforms into a leering builder, leaning over a scaffold with a copy of the Sun clutched in his fist, semi-lob propping up a scuffed-up pair of plastering trousers, with an “Oi oi, darlin’!” that echoes over the clack-clack-clack of heels speeding across pavement below.

Standing on the corner ahead of me is a woman in a Dancin’ Stevie Richards crop shirt, with a tight yoga body, and well-fitting jogging bottoms that accentuate the sleek curve from lower back to bum and back in again. She paces a little, in a meandering circle, as if uncertain of where she’s going. The builder in my skull nudges my ribs with the hard bone of his elbow.

Cor, look at that. You would, wouldn’t you? Until you damaged yourself? Eh? Eh?

Fine,” I reply, “Yes. I would. Shut up before someone hears you.” By now, the objectifying cis bastard is pretending his rolled-up newspaper is a cock, and frenetically thrusts it into his encircled fingers.

As I reach the woman, she stops me with an “Excuse me….

You wouldn’t happen to have 60p for the phone box, would you?” The half-arsed intonation of ‘phone box’ seems to acknowledge it for the anachronism it is, and that we both know there’s probably not one within a ten mile radius. I tell her, truthfully, that I’m not carrying any money, “sorry.” Even though she’s most probably trying to fund a bottle of cider, the sexy beggar on the corner is so friendly, signing off with a warm “Okay. Thanks, darling,” that I kind of enjoy the interaction, and feel brightened by it as I cross the road onto the beach.

* A well-dressed, posh-looking elderly couple sit beneath the shade of the wonky shelter. The man’s in a mobility scooter, with a tweed jacket and boater, and resembles nothing but an upper class Larry David. He and his wife both smile broadly, with their attention on the newly purchased book that he’s examining with great pleasure. He’s positively beaming as he holds it up in front of his face to read the back cover, at which point, I get a look at the title on the front, in jaunty yellow text — ‘FARTING’

(I couldn’t make out the smaller lettering, which presumably read ‘The Bumper Book of…‘ or ‘Dr. Trumpington’s Guide To Botties and…‘)

* On a packed pier, an awkward, sunken-looking, thirty-something man sits, arms folded, at one end of a bench. On the opposite end, pressed up against the arm rest and facing away from the man, is a woman so stunning, she looks like the star of a badly dubbed foreign commercial for toothpaste set at an Italian outdoor café. The three-foot gap between the pair of strangers is an insurmountable length of miles; an endless vista of desolate social desert.

As I glance at the two bookends, the man catches my eye and throws me an immense look of annoyance. It’s not an annoyance at me, but at the way it all works; it’s a look that that tells the universe, yes, he’s fully aware of the tragic visual metaphor, but there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Though I’m sure he tries not to, should he peer down at the opposite end of the seat, his benchmate is no more than a mirage, tauntingly within reach but impossibly far away all at once. No matter how many days he spent trekking across the wooden slats, he could never get close enough for their worlds, or bodies, to embrace. It’d be like that viral video of the rat trying to run up the wrong escalator.

* Later in the week, I’m sitting my auntie’s dog for the day. Of course, I take him to the beach. But on the way back, I inadvertently end up walking the exact same route I used to take to school. I’m hit with an almost overwhelming wave of — not nostalgia — more a tumbling out of a wormhole with a bad landing. It feels like I could go back right now and slot perfectly into the yesterday of 1996, and I picture desk-side conversations between me and my now-adult classmates.

What have you been up to since we left, Millard? Done some travelling? Carved out a career? Started a family? Been making the memories to see you through the sensible, settled years of middle-age? Built a life for yourself?

Abso. Lutely. Nothing,” I reply.

Maybe I could counter their tales of Thai beaches, or nights spent sowing oats or chatting and laughing until dawn, with my own anecdotes — the summer I spent emptying my grandfather’s catheter a half-dozen times a day. I’m a man out of time, like when Desmond in Lost started Quantum Leaping in his own body, and found himself looking at a reflection 15 years older than it was an hour ago. As me and the dog trot along the path I took daily for years, back when my head was filled with the vague yet exciting sense of a future, an overwhelming weight of irrevocable loss mingles with the smell of the warm shit I’ve been carrying for the last two miles.

***

bdcovers

The Beach Diaries have been running since 2011, spawning the two Kindle books you see above. Both are available on Amazon, for the price of a pint, and I highly recommend you buy them, because I like money.

The Beach Diaries 2011: £1.99 on Amazon.co.uk$2.99 on Amazon.com

The Beach Diaries 2012: £2.99 on Amazon.co.uk$3.99 on Amazon.com

If you don’t have a Kindle, here’s Amazon’s FREE Kindle app for phones, tablets, mac and PC

These days, I only put them out occasionally, as I did last year. The Occasional Beach Diaries 2013: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

Always Believe: Warrior 1959 – 2014

•April 9, 2014 • 14 Comments

warr

As a child, I could often be found sprinting around the house with coloured shoelaces tied to my arms, beating my fists against my chest, as I mimicked my idol, the Ultimate Warrior. What was he, anyway? Space philosophiser? Ancient Mayan deity? Escapee from one of Charles Manson’s peyote trips? That’s what was so great about the Warrior; he belied comparison, in a cartoon landscape where gimmicks were easily definable in a few words or less. Jovial fat sailor; puffing barber; real-life giant; coked-up symbol of God-fearing Americana. But Warrior? Warrior was some crazy alien who’d crash-landed into our planet like a meteor and clawed his way out of a crack in the desert to fry our undeveloped human brains.

A startling combination of cosmic sixties beat-poetry and eighties self-help aggression, his promos involved snorting, talking into his hands, and breathlessly spouting thesauric fairytales of cod-mysticism and old gods, in one of his two speaking volumes; purple-faced yelling or a throaty stage-whisper. Should future civilisations unearth tapes of 1980’s WWF, between the acid-cowboy dervish of Randy Savage, Hogan’s bug-eyed non-sequiturs, and these three-minute bursts of biblical concept album performance art, they’ll think that Erich Von Daniken was probably onto something. Even amongst that company, Warrior’s interviews stood out as notably insane. Asked to do an impersonation of a wrestler, most people would shout “Next week, I’ll kick your ass!” into an imaginary camera, but his most infamous, to build up the most iconic match of his career, revolves around his daring “Hul Ko-gan” to hijack and crash a plane, as a means to testing his mettle. With its strangely measured cadence, it plays like Brando’s speech in Apocalypse Now, and increasingly in the era where teams of writers hand WWE performers a script before they give them the mic, it now feels like something we all dreamed.

An enigma in every way, truly he was the product of his billed hometown, Parts Unknown, and the term ‘larger than life’ has never been more apposite. How could someone like that even be real? Looking at him when you were kid, with muscles so swollen that his body was a criss-cross of pulsating veins, and with things — tassels, boots, hair — rippling in his wake as he blustered through our world, you felt he belonged in the pages of a comic book. So strong was this mythic status, that when he returned after the steroid scandal, many pounds lighter and with a new haircut, there was playground talk the world over of his death, with rumours another wrestler had replaced him beneath the paint. Even the manner of his alleged passing — eaten by a shark — suggests he was considered far too post-human to go out like any normal mortal. Sadly though, his real death is another grim run-through of wrestling’s hard reality that we’ve seen dozens of times before, and will again.

warr2

But as ludicrous as the whole colourful package was, he made it work, exploding through the curtain on the cymbal crash of his music, with the crowd instinctively raising as one to see a luminous blur streaking down the aisle. Sure, he was usually gassed by the time he hit the ring, and you could count the moves in his arsenal on the fingers of one hand, but should an unstoppable caveman-genius really be conscientiously tying his opponents in complicated knots? Quite rightly, he moved like an animal that’d broken free of its cage, and his blows looked as though they needed a flashing POW! on impact. The gimmick worked because — like the catchphrase of his post-wrestling Warrior brand — he truly believed, and consequently, you did too. Like Bray Wyatt today, there was never a moment when you felt it possible that beneath the Warrior, there was a Jim Hellwig, someone who ate, drove, watched TV and took a shit when he wasn’t on our screens. His 100% commitment to the character is what made a snarling, facepainted maniac with neon tassels on his biceps spitting black metal poetry monologues and shaking the ropes completely believable. How many people could have pulled that off?

Though pro wrestling, at its best and worst, can evoke a lot of emotion in its audience, it’s rare that that stretches beyond the usual sports response of anger or elation, into grander, movie-like territories of feeling, and it’s uncommon wrestling even makes an attempt at walking that path. A notable exception is the post-match to Warrior’s retirement bout with Randy Savage. At the time, in a sexist way, it was considered a moment “for the gals,” as Miss Elizabeth ran from the crowd to reunite with Randy, after saving him from a Sensational Sherri beating, and though it’s soapy, the embrace of wrestling’s golden couple remains one of the genre’s most memorable tableaux. Twenty-three years on, all of its players are now dead. Apart maybe from the kid with the big glasses and enormous floppy orange hat, who was seen weeping with joy.

Warrior’s later life will inevitably turn his passing into a moral argument about whether or not we can separate art from the artist (although even as a fan, it’s a push to categorise Ultimate Warrior matches as ‘art’). Perhaps seeing the hungry market for it, his retirement years are marked by the unabashed peddling of right wing bile against homosexuality, or trolling the internet over celebrity deaths, turning current events into rambling, multi-thousand worded online rants with the same all-or-nothing passion and incomprehensible fervour as his promos. Conversely, there are myriad Youtube videos of Warrior interacting with fans, adults and children alike, with a gentle, humble manner, going out of his way to put them at ease and seemingly genuinely thrilled they’ve taken the time to come and see him. In seeing these, it’s hard to settle the two sides.

warr3

In the final 48 hours of his life, he buried a lot of hatchets that’d been sticking into open wounds for the better part of 20 years, and emerged, like you imagine the character did as he came snorting and pacing into arenas back in the day, out from the wilderness and back under the bright lights. Maybe that freakish physique — even at 54, broad-shouldered in a Hall of Fame suit — and melon-sized bodybuilder’s heart had been hanging on all this time until he could make his peace and say his goodbyes to the fanbase he genuinely adored. And in hindsight, it’s hard to take his speeches at anything but that — a goodbye. Once the rabid crowd reaction had died down, he spoke of a man’s heart taking a final beat, and lungs taking a final breath, and of the spirit of the Ultimate Warrior living forever, thanks to the fans. Never has a speech sounded more like a eulogy. Less than 24 hours later, he collapsed and died in front of the wife and young daughters who’d sat so proudly and lovingly in the front row on Saturday night.

I have a vivid memory of watching Summerslam ’88 for the first time with my cousin. When the Honky Tonk Man did his open challenge — “Get me somebody out here to wrestle, I don’t care who it is!” — I turned to him and said “Imagine if the Ultimate Warrior comes down,” and we both laughed, because what a dumb idea. Honky Tonk Man against that guy? He might as well let someone run over him with a tank. That’s the core of the Ultimate Warrior. Utterly unique, both in the crazy world of pro wrestling, and the normal world outside, he always stood out as something more. More than a wrestler. More than a man. He was Warrior. Right to the end. And beyond.

My new book, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, featuring a detailed look at Brian Pillman’s Loose Cannon character, and its place in the funhouse mirror world of kayfabe, and the crazy lies and delusions of Hulk Hogan is available now on the Amazon Kindle.

Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal on Amazon.com ($3.99)

Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal on Amazon UK (£2.99)

Amazon’s FREE Kindle app for Phones, Tablets, Mac and PC.

More wrestling posts:
The Mad Lies of Hulk Hogan

Dissecting Bray Wyatt

WWF Magazine’s Anti-Masturbation PSAs

Andre the Giant’s Bra Sunglasses

Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal

•March 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

You might have noticed that things have been quiet around here lately. Well…

blogcover

Yep. It’s available right now on the Kindle. I figured I’d just spring it on you with no warning, in the literary equivalent of a man leaping out of the bushes (and asking for a minimal fee in exchange for hours of entertainment).

The Hydrick and Ghostwatch pieces I posted on here made me realise I had something of a theme (and they’ll be coming down from the blog forthwith), so I ran with it. 55,000 words, with interconnected longform pieces about subcultures where the nature of truth is subjective. Here’s a look at the contents page:

I – Fifteen-Minute Messiah – The James Hydrick Story
Phony psychics, Kung Fu cults, and the man no prison could hold.

II – The Legend of Bill Murray
Where does the truth lay, when Hollywood royalty becomes walking folklore?

III – Pillman – Don’t Work Me
In pro wrestling’s world of broken reality, one man pretended to lose his mind. Then he forgot how to get back.

IV – Exorcising Ghostwatch
Why Britain’s cultural bogeyman is scary only as a fuzzy, analogue sense-memory.

V – The Mad Lies of Hulk Hogan
Whatcha gonna do, when an absolute load of old bollocks runs wild on you?

VI – The Rise and Fall of a Psychic Empire
In chasing ghosts, Most Haunted found something else – huge ratings, and lurid public betrayals.

VII – Touch of Death – The World’s Deadliest Men
From movie stars and dojo wars, to the men who can explode your heart; the macho tall tales of martial arts.

Wrestling fans, you’ll note the Brian Pillman piece, which is the most extensive take on the Loose Cannon character/incident by far, and its place among the confusing world of kayfabe, and Mad Lies of Hulk Hogan, which is (mildly) expanded and updated for the book. But really, this is a book for everyone.  Along the way, it takes in a ton of stuff, from Derek Acorah and the UFC to Purple Aki. Millard’s gone mainstream!

Anyway, please buy it, because it’s great. Here are the links.

Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal on Amazon.com ($3.99)

Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal on Amazon UK (£2.99)

Amazon’s FREE Kindle app for Phones, Tablets, Mac and PC.

 

My Top 20 Movies of 2013 – The List: Part 2

•December 18, 2013 • 2 Comments

Previous: 2013 Preamble2013 List: Part 1

2012: The PreambleTop 20 Part ITop 20 Part II

2011: The PreambleTop 20 Part ITop 20 Part II

2010: The PreambleTop 10

2009: Top 10

10

Refn has made himself at home on these lists, and this year’s entry is yet another divisive film that’s currently causing the words “Right on, Millard,” or “Look at this pretentious fuck-nut,” to be spoken inside your head. While Drive took a while to find its critics, after contrary bells got mad that people liked it, this one was inspiring angry derision at its première, albeit at Cannes, a setting which trades only in grand gestures of walkouts or standing ovations that go on until the heat death of the universe.

Only God Forgives is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is fitting of such a trance-like piece, where silent characters slowly drift between migraine-lit scenes like they’re part of a dream. Everything’s laced with a soporific slowness that adds to the tone of unreality, in a world cloaked beneath artificial light. When they’re not obscured in shadow, characters are bathed in dull reds, like they’ve yet to wash away the blood from past wars, while Bangkok’s streets are a parade of sickly yellows. You barely see daylight more than a handful of times. The film’s early stretches almost play like a silent movie, with Refn further paring things down from the monosyllabic Drive to bare-bones minimalism. A near-mute Gosling tip-toes through what’s an essentially a simple story of dominoing revenge, though it’s his nemesis, an unstoppable, unsmiling, and unassuming human Terminator, that leaves the biggest mark. Karmic retribution incarnate, and wielding a sword of vengeance, his slow walk, the gentle squompf of his slip-ons, is the film’s reductive Imperial March. Kristin Scott Thomas, Ma Baker by way of a genetically engineered megabitch, injects an impotent, Oedipal bent to Gosling’s problems, as she mourns for the son who should have lived, the better-respected, better-hung brother to useless Gosling and his four-inch flopper.

The cloud-like dispersion of about ten minutes plot and dialogue into ninety adds to the neon rabbit-hole effect, and the otherwise sleepy pacing makes the violence, including a genuinely horrific torture sequence, all the more jarring, like being awoken by a scream. Only God Forgives does feel like a dream, but the kind you might have if you passed out in an alleyway behind a Soho fuck-parlour, the night filled with sounds of a broken sign buzzing above your head, and the wet thuds of distant fist-fights and bored prostitutes being fingered on a stack of mouldy cardboard.

09

A film that’s rooted in the hopeless, backwards grasp at faded youth spins on an emotional meta-weight, as the Cornetto Trilogy draws to a close with a crow-footed, thin-haired Simon Pegg. World’s End‘s tale of the grim acceptance of time’s unstoppable march, of friendships that dissolve as people move on isn’t just the experience of the characters, but the audience too, who’ve made the journey from SoTD to Hot Fuzz, to now, and is much more affecting for it. When Shaun came out, I was a penniless writer, trying desperately to find success amid a succession of empty, miserable days, and now, almost a decade on, well… let’s talk about you instead, eh?

The World’s End‘s spiritual logline is ‘You can never go home’, tackling that experience of returning to old haunts and realising that they, and the people inhabiting them, have intangibly changed, in a vague way of being “off” somehow, while you still feel like you did at nineteen. Edgar Wright and co. take this innate human experience and filter it literally, through Invasion of the Body Snatchers paranoia, in a typically funny, flashy, and feelings-heavy film. The charming Frost/Pegg chemistry is present and correct, albeit neatly role-reversed, and the action sequences are caught halfway between a videogame, and the way a drunk would remember it all going down, with pro wrestling moves, and Nick Frost using bar stools like Hulk fists.

Pegg’s Gary King is like those people we all know, who flourished back in the days when social standing was determined by haircuts or being good at football, but with grey, adult lives that made so few new memories, schooldays are grimly fresh in their minds. His rage at the excruciating limbo of adulthood, where you feel you’ve been sold a lie; exciting beginnings that never begin, fulfilling futures that didn’t show up; it all resonated really, really strongly with me. For some reason. These periods are easily revisited, even unintentionally, with sense-memory time-travel, like the Stone Roses songs that farted out of King’s tape-deck. Sometimes you doze off and have a cruel snatch of a dream that puts you right back there. You’re at your first job, or back in the sixth form, and you feel it; that hope, and all the possibilities; things you didn’t even realise you felt at the time, but now they’re gone, and you’re 34, broke, falling asleep in the bath to flashes of a time when you felt like you had a life awaiting you, and the only thing that stops you opening your fucking neck with a bread knife is knowing how badly your mum would take it. Anyway, great film.

08

In a previous piece on here, I spoke about the term ‘Hauntology’ — think, the innate creepiness in the visuals of the past; brown wallpaper and public information films of 1970’s Britain — and A Field in England has one of the most overpowering senses of hauntology in many a year. There’s something inherently unsettling about that Civil War era, of Matthew Hopkins putting innocent women to the stake, and crop failure ascribed to the meddling hand of the Devil himself. In a time period where modern religion has yet to sweep away Pagan earth-worship with superstitions of its own, it’s a distinctly British mysticism tackled by Field, of ancient nature and countryside, and hallucinogens that grow underfoot, where Pan stalks between stone circles, prancing his cloven feet down ley lines.

Such motifs make for a floppy-hatted sibling to the Brit folk-horror of Wicker Man or Blood on Satan’s Claw, though it’s less implicitly a horror film, than a tale that becomes all the more horrifying, through an array of trippy, grubby visuals and an increasingly disconcerting tone. Military drumbeats pulse like the heartbeat of the earth, and characters stand posed in silent visual tableaux, with outstretched hands crooked like buckled figures from medieval tapestries. There are moments in Field that feel like those hypnagogic flashes as you jerk awake from a vivid dream, off-angle and at uncertain distance, the filmic equivalent of the old hag sitting on your chest in the dark. While onscreen depictions of drug use usually resemble Martin Fowler’s fish-eye lens LSD trip in the laundrette, Field‘s hypnotic ten-minute hallucinatory sequence feels like someone’s fucked a broken kaleidoscope into your third eye, and there are points where your senses implore that you turn away, back to the real world, just for a second, before it properly breaks your brain. That scene alone would be a brave piece of film-making to test any audience, but the ease in which it slots into the film as a whole is a testament to the conviction of cast and crew.

That’s not to say it’s a film without humour, as there’s plenty in the interplay between the bumbling, bickering group, and the comedic spine holds firm even as things lurch to some very disturbing places. In particular, a scene where, following some unholy, unseen shrieks of torment, Reece Shearsmith emerges from a tent, is one of those sequences that will wrap itself to your psyche like a wet sheet, until you’re beneath the soil. Unbelievably unsettling, startling, and mesmerising, Ben Wheatley allows it to play out in a way most films would have pulled back from, forcing us to witness the full horror, with no narrative sofas to hide behind. And that dogged death-grip on experimental images and amorphous ideas is A Field in England in a single, haunting nutshell.

07

The Lords of Salem is the Rob Zombie of Devil’s Rejects, as opposed to the Halloween remakes, and as someone who always works better with his own material, it’s the perfect melding of artist and subject matter — a horror film about a haunted record. People give Sheri Moon flack for only appearing in her husband’s films, but in her toughest role to date, it’s a flawless performance of a slow descent into madness. There’s a suffocating quality to Heidi’s (Moon) spiralling condition, as she becomes further and further adrift, degenerating into a strained, worn presence, sleepwalking down a path like a beaten, lost dog finding its way back home, with each sleepless night and terror-filled day further dulling her — and our — sense of reality.

Shining-style title cards denote the passing of the days, sliding us down towards inevitable doom, and the whole film is coated in an incredible sense of dread, lurking just over your shoulder and holding its breath when you do. With creeping, silent zooms on the ‘empty’ apartment at the end of the hall, and numerous poo-making jump-scares, this is Zombie at his most frightening; his day-glo visuals — the lure of a red room that brings to mind Corman’s Masque of Red Death; hairy, giant man-beasts — layered with an awful foreboding. As with the Devil’s Chord, the idea of inherently Satanic music is an idea deeply bedded in occult folklore, but one that’s weirdly unexplored in film. One thing I loved, as art within a story rarely lives up to its fictional billing, is that the four-note dirge is super unsettling for real. As a director who’s always made great choices when it came to marrying music with image, Zombie’s use of Venus in Furs and The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties will change how you hear these, honestly, already pretty fucking creepy songs forever.

After years of tweenage, CW makeovers, Lords makes witches scary again, and here they’re primal creatures, their naked, sagging bodies caked in filth, cackling and unrepentant, even as they burn. Meanwhile, the less brazen modern-day coven — Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn — are clearly having a fucking blast, chewing the scenery only as a precursor to gobbing it straight at the lens, and to its core, this is a story of feminine power. The men of Salem are relegated to the dark recesses of the background, where even Bruce Davison’s detective work is clearly fated for uncovering exposition, helpless to stop the horrible events that’ve been set into motion.

Typically with Rob Zombie, the cast is filled with horror icons and forgotten faces; most excitingly, They Live‘s Meg Foster, whose pale blue eyes saw her playing a lot of blind people in the eighties, and who’s terrifying, in a role which sees her, at 64, bravely full frontal nuddy for all of her many scenes. Although, with lines of dialogue like Geeson’s “Have you come here to stick your nosey cock inside her head and fuck her brain, Mr. Matthias?” it’s no mystery why actors would want to work with him. Things come to a head with a Satanic reunion gig that looks like Hieronymus Bosch’s take on a Spencer Tunick shoot, and as we end up in a place we, and Heidi knew we must, crushing final shots remind us just how far she’s fallen.

06

There’s this idea that old people aren’t proper people, that they’ve always been old. White, ghostly hair; face drooping downward in innocent folds; fingers gnarled and perpetually cold. It’s hard to connect the shuffling vulnerability with who they were; someone who loved, someone who fought and fucked, who did and felt any of the things ‘real’, young people feel, right now. In Killing‘s subjects, it’s instinctive to be similarly conflicted, when faced with smiling elderly men who’ve tortured and killed thousands, and are revered as heroes.

So much has been said about this film that it’s hard to know what to add, except that all the hyperbole is fully deserved. It’s a thoughtful, uncomfortable, and intense mediation on what it means to be human, and presents us with characters who are irredeemable, with a narrative arc that can only ever be about emotionally bringing themselves to account. The Act of Killing‘s method is to involve its participants in cinematic recreations of their past. Everyone wants to be a movie star, even genocidal killers, and unable to refuse the lure of the camera, they eagerly play up to the roles they’ve painted themselves, in decades of retelling stories from their Death Squad adventures. As gangsters and gun-slinging heroes, framed within a school-play, Hollywood aesthetic, they get to retell the oft-traded war stories that have become a twisted version of “tell us what you did in the war, grandpa” — like the general who brags about how many twelve-year-old girls he raped, back in the good old days. At one point, during a bizarre musical dance sequence, Anwar Congo, a man who personally strangled over a thousand people to death with a length of piano wire, is presented with a medal by the ghost of one of his victims. For a documentary that examines humanity through the meta-medium of film, and film within a film, its denouement is essentially a re-take of its opening, leading to a scene where an old man dry-heaves on a rooftop, in one of the most emotionally devastating commentaries on the human condition ever committed.

05

I was mildly terrified going in to The East, as it contains many single elements I already love, all mushed together in one place, like a surprise birthday party that’ll either be the best night of my life, or end with me sobbing in a toilet cubicle. Alexander Skarsgård. aka hunky Eric Northman, for whom I’d fling aside my hetero-status in a priapic heartbeat; Ellen Page, recipient of a billion unanswered tweets; Brit Marling, a permanent fixture on these year-end lists and major talent-crush, and Marling’s collaborator Zal Batmanglij, a pairing who sat atop last year’s Top 20 with the extraordinarily brilliant Sound of My Voice . It’s a relief to say that, unlike the entirety of my adult life, I was not disappointed.

As with Elysium, The East is a timely tale of corporations bleeding the world dry, as the whole, broken system crumbles around our food-bank queuing feet. The East, the group, are a more socially-minded Project Mayhem, anarchist eco-vigilantes whose ‘jams’ are a halfway squat-house between terrorism and protest. Their hits on multinationals have the set-ups of a heist movie, and it’s a sweet hybrid of the intrigue of Sound of My Voice, with the exhilaration of a thriller. The East keeps things taut, both in tension and scope, and as you’d hope for from Marling/Batmanglij, there are plenty of those — now trademark — electrifying moments of creativity. In particular, now three movies in to her writing work, the straight-jacketed dinner party scene had me sagely nodding out a “Classic Marling…” in the way that an offensively racially stereotyped alien would cause you to exclaim “That’s our Lucas!” In their hands, the hook of an undercover agent, the constant threat of discovery, becomes a creaking balloon of tension, riding on the back of a hedgehog.

The collection of street-kid characters never resorts to dreadlocked stereotypes, with not a Guy Fawkes mask in sight, and Skarsgård exudes a quiet (and dreamy) magnetism, in a leadership role which could have fallen into broader Manson/Durden strokes in a lesser piece. It’s a film that functions as a much-needed escapist fantasy for the helplessness of 21st century life, as you’re forced to choose between heating and groceries, while student protesters get kettled by riot police on the rolling news, and feeling like you want to do something; but what? Should I start a revolution from my cramped, cold little flat? It’s always a good sign when a movie leaves you inspired to inhabit its world, like how Karate Kid saw me waxing on and off, or Raiders had me wrenching the plug from the bathtub and swinging it like a whip until it hit me in the eye, and my mum confiscated it. Following The East, I had a craving to ride the rails, stop showering, and take down The Man, even though I’m likely to be homeless for real next year anyway. But it also made me want to write something as exciting and invigorating, so I peeled off the balaclava and fired up Final Draft instead.

04

As a commentary on the attribution of blame, in the wake of random acts of violence, being lain at the feet of art; more specifically movies and videogames, The Dirties is, unfortunately, always going to be timely. It’s also always going to set a lot of people’s nerves on edge, by logline alone. A found footage movie about the planning of a school shooting? Tough sell. At this point, we’re almost exactly a year out from Sandy Hook, and always within reach of a similar incident, but this isn’t the dunderheaded provocation of Elephant, as we follow a pair of socially outcast highschool friends, and film-buffs, making a movie about a bully-slaying school shooting that seems to be turning into a documentary.

Matt Johnson (as ‘Matt’, further blurring the lines) sees life as a movie where he’s the star-auteur, always performing, or thinking how to best frame himself for the imaginary audience, effectively treating the universe as a Matt Johnson Joint. I’ve known people like that, who talk as though the cameras are rolling, in fake-sounding, faux-deep dialogue where giving up a hobby becomes “That’s just not who I am anymore…” before staring off wistfully into the middle distance. They’re imitating the grand emotions they saw once on Dawson’s Creek, while being completely hollow and unformed as an actual entity. Although, that’s a little off-point, as Matt’s a frightening character because of the nonchalant manner with which he discusses blowing his fellow students’ skulls off. Is he joking? Is he for real? Everything’s so fucking ironic these days, with people afraid of getting caught being earnest — an entire generation of walking memes — that neither his ‘accomplice’ nor the audience are sure where he stands, at least until the end. Parlaying that modern disease into a self-aware school shooter, borrowing Catcher in the Rye from the school library “cos it’ll be funny,” is a genius move, especially when any would-be maniac is fully aware — often, as a motive — that infamy awaits, with 24 hour news using body-counts like a high score, and where any actual docu-footage would be ghoulishly judged on the Dutch camera angles and soundtrack choices.

The movie-within-a-movie is a superbly observed student film, with surface-level emulation of heroes like Tarantino, but enough loving creativity to make you feel bummed out when the sneering cool kids don’t get it, and to empathise with its sociopathic director. Everything’s littered with cinematic references, from a superb set of end credits, to the Feeney call from Boy Meets World, and the concept of a found footage movie edited by an obsessive movie nerd allows for a lot of meta-foolin’ with the genre, like the moment we pull back to the editing desk from a heartfelt montage to be asked “Is this too cheesy?” Director, co-writer and lead, Matt Johnson is terrifyingly talented and terrifyingly young, and The Dirties is the bravest, most fucking blistering début in recent memory. Other than that hilarious time he was deemed too fat to fly, this is by far the best thing that Kevin Smith’s ever been associated with.

03

Schooldays are a live combat situation, with enemies on all sides, and friends who’ll stab you in the back just to clamber onto your corpse and stand that little bit higher on the social ladder. Everyone’s jostling for position like chimpanzees, with Alpha sports lads and popular girls sat like the general on the hill, while the gawky and the last-picked huddle together in the trenches, fearful of giving away anything that can be used to destroy them — rumours that you trod in shit that see you referred to as ‘Poo on the Shoe’ for the next decade. I Declare War follows a hot afternoon’s war game between two teams of children, as they navigate the battlefield of childhood, complete with its WMD-sized emotions, and with approaching adolescence looming on the horizon like an enemy sniper. It’s Lord of the Flies through Stand by Me, all seen through the eyes of its young participants.

The stick-and-twine weapons are as real to us as they are to them, and characters are armed with real guns and grenades that transform play into legitimate combat, scouting through the forest and long grasses like Vietnam. Paint-filled water balloon grenades explode, leaving debris and a deafened whistle, and bullets shatter tree bark as kids crouch for cover. The sense of leaking imagination heightens the whole film, with one character who pictures himself with Cyclops-style superpowers, blasting shit to smithereens with eye-lasers, and another who holds imaginary, cloying conversations with a crush. This child-soldier aesthetic provides all the tension and sudden, visceral shocks and shouts of “Nooooooo!”of a real war movie. And that’s what this is, as much as Platoon or Saving Private Ryan.

Rules are laid out with a nifty, child-like animated sequence, as PK, undefeated master strategist, obsessed with military history and Patton, leads a team against the arrogant and unhinged Skinner, a pubescent general in aviator shades, who’s staged a military coup. All the war archetypes are present; nervy pacifist, double-act, mysterious loner, and a female character who’s one of the film’s many strengths. In movies about gangs of kids, the token girl has a tendency to be comparatively smart and mature, but War‘s is as pleasingly flighty and childish as the rest, albeit gifted nuclear-powered skills of bewitchment and manipulation amid a bunch of hormonal boys. The all-child cast adds a fresh angle to aspects of a genre that exists almost entirely on worn clichés, daring each other to eat dog dirts, and bringing new takes on stereotypical war-film dialogue.

What are you doing after the war?”

You’re coming over and eating pizza, and we’re watching a movie.”

The gunplay is actually a small part in a war of emotions, as blacks and whites get smeared into the greys of “all’s fair…” and the raising stakes bring issues like collateral damage and torture into the mix. Character motivations lay in rumours and lunch room chatter, in broken friendships, jealousies and crushes; all of these at play on the canvas of war, where the slights of adolescence can be seized for revenge, with past wounds that run as deep and traumatising as anything John Rambo howled over; wounds that will freshly bleed all over the dirt floor before it’s time to go home. I’m just gonna say it — this is the best war film since Full Metal Jacket.

02

Critics — I refuse to use the word haters; I’m not Kanye West — may accuse me of being lazy in such a shockingly (or at this stage, mercifully) brief write-up, especially for the second best film of the year, but Upstream Color is not your normal film. For one thing, like Stoker, I don’t want to peel back any of the wrapping paper before you get your hands on it, and also, it’s completely fucking impossible to try and categorise or surmise, without me hammering out a 10,000 word dissertation about how densely incredible it is. It’s been almost a decade since Shane Carruth’s previous work, Primer, a film that people are still trying to unravel, and Upstream will similarly be subject to endless dissection and interpretation as we all grow old, hunched and erectionally dysfunctional.

With themes of identity and loss, sense memory and life-cycles, from the startling visual opening, you’re immediately hooked into an ethereal mystery, bleeding out into all the facets of what it means to be you. It’s everything you hoped for from Carruth, and a million times more, although Amy Seimetz’s staggering performance shouldn’t get lost amid the confirmation of one man as the most unbelievably talented and unique auteur of his generation. He’s got the potential to become a mythic figure, eschewing press or social media, and film-biz convention, to emerge from hermitude and gift the world his beautiful works, and though I hope it’s not another ten years before we see the next film, honestly, you could watch this a hundred times and still be entranced.

01

The zombie genre is as dead and rotting as Bub himself, having lurched itself into the pop-culture mainstream somewhere between pirates and onesies, as studios continue to churn out tedious films and awful, inexplicably popular TV shows. What else is there to be done with the zombie? You’d think nothing. The actual answer: a ton. Though The Battery is closer in spirit to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy than a Romero film, it’s by far the best zombie flick of the post-28 Days modern era. What’s more, it was made for $6,000, which is less than Will Smith’s urinal cake budget on After Earth.

Writer, director, and leading man, Jeremy Gardner is a slacker-survivalist completely at home in the apocalypse, with all the freedoms of employment and hygiene it brings. Picture Ron Swanson’s ostracised adult son; a sweaty, crumb-chinned man you’d want at your back when the shit went down, and the polar opposite to life-buddy Mickey, who shuts himself away behind a pair of headphones, ensconced inside the pre-chaos tunes of a security blanket discman, while trailing the zombie-kill scorecard with a fat zero. Thrown together by the disaster, they live out their days like you did your childhood summers, exploring, mucking about, and idly killing time before sunset. To invoke the phrase ‘buddy comedy’ would be massively underselling The Battery‘s appeal. It’s a thoughtful treatise on the male psyche, with quiet moments that reel us in to the characters’ slow, drifting malaise as they tramp through abandoned back-roads. As a double-hander, its strength lies in the believable relationship of two men who only have each other, which, despite the stumbling threat of flesh-eaters, has settled into regular beats of social interaction. Like 2010’s Monsters, it’s the human condition via genre-film, as with Gardner’s Ben badgering his buddy to take that step and kill his first zombie, like college kids teasing their virgin buddy to be a man, before locking them in a closet with a hooker until its done.

“I'm the only person you know, Mickey. Period.”

“I’m the only person you know, Mickey. Period.”

When a voice on a radio offers a sudden alternative, things begin to fracture in the way they do as friends grow apart when one decides to settle down, while the other’s happy to amble through life, free of responsibilities. In that sudden possibility, the hope of something else, of a comfort and security that could never be found in the repetitive days of baseball pitching and Womble-esque scavenging, it’s no longer enough to merely connect with a less-isolated past through a mix CD and a bottle of perfume. As the stakes get raised, things escalate into a series of incredibly tense scenes, and a final act where they become truly trapped, not just with the situation, but with the eventual mundanity of all horror. The finale, a long, single-take stretch, mostly dialogue-free but for the howling dirge of the brain-hungry mob, is phenomenally powerful and brilliantly acted, with one moment that, even on a second watch, dropped the pit of my stomach straight down to Hades.

It’s honestly hard to comprehend that this was made for $6,000. More than any genre, there are a ton of cheapie zombie flicks, as it’s a comparatively easy route to a first film, if you’ve thought up some cool kills in lieu of a decent screenplay. Most film-makers’ idea of trying new things in a Z-flick extends no further than the assortment of wacky implements being stabbed into the heads of the undead, or which locations can be boarded up and splattered with gore. Even in the big-budget Hollywood realm, everyone sticks to the confines of a haggered genre, throwing money, test screenings and reshoots at reels that lack in any innovation. The Battery is the ultimate triumph of creativity and gargantuan lead balls over lazy bullshit and cliché, and at no point would it be out of place against any film on this, or any list. It looks great, sounds great, it’s funny — the ‘Put ‘em on the Glass‘ scene — uplifting, moving, brave, and in one drunken dance sequence, contains the most foot-stompingly joyful thing in cinema this year. All for $6,000. 1/31,666th of World War Z‘s budget, not even counting the probable $100m in promotional costs. But it’s not here because of the low budget. I’m not measuring movies against each other, pound-for-pound, like fantasy MMA fights. It’s here in spite of it; it’s here because it’s the best, most inspiring movie of the year. Go see it.

And there we have it. As is tradition, let’s close out with Gen Ip’s always-superb video love-letter to the year in cinema.

***

If you’re now thinking “If only I could somehow show my appreciation” or “Does this Millard gentleman have further works I might explore?” then you’re in luck. My books are available on Amazon UK and Amazon.com for a nominal fee, and if you don’t have a Kindle, Amazon have a free app.

My Top 20 Movies of 2013 – The List: Part 1

•December 16, 2013 • 5 Comments

Previous: 2013 Preamble.

2012: The PreambleTop 20 Part ITop 20 Part II

2011: The PreambleTop 20 Part ITop 20 Part II

2010: The PreambleTop 10

2009: Top 10

20

As of now, Prisoners inexplicably sits in the IMDB top 250. Inexplicably, you say? But it’s here on the list? That it is, and for the first hour or so, it’s the tense, weighty thought-piece about the ethics of torture, and the lengths to which desperate men will go that you might have expected going in. Hugh Jackman, a man who spends his life preparing for emergencies, suddenly finds himself in one, and it’s a scorching performance as he unravels, grasping a fistful of straws so violently they’re spluttering the safe word. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal, a high-strung IED of twitches and blinks, is fantastic. Though there’s nobody who wouldn’t find their head in their hands at the sight of Terrance Howard reaching for a trombone, audiences should feel safe in the knowledge they’re witnessing a solid, tense drama.

But on the winds, is that…? It is. The distant dong of a broadly-painted warning bell, tolling in the cliché of a child-minded, probable-nonce, Paul Dano, which is dangerous performance territory (see: Daniel Mays in Red Riding). Thankfully, Dano keeps things just the right side of the Deacon-line, and Prisoners becomes an interesting mystery, continually expanding outwards like all good mysteries should, before, as we were forewarned by our brain-damaged harbinger, it all starts to go a bit wacky.

Firstly, we meet a vigilante paedo-priest, and then kiddy-fiddler #3, who’s identified when he’s clocked by Gyllenhaal lecherously caressing a stuffed rabbit at a candlelight vigil. It’s such a pantomimey, Lifetime Movies reveal, that you’re one close-up away from a drool-slavered chin and leaky boner-tent. It’s around this point that Prisoners becomes a condensed (yet still over-long) mini-series, tipping a giant sack of improbable distractions into your lap to buy more time, with a sea of red herrings and jarring supervillains. Once we meet a bad guy who’s exactly how Nolan’s Batman films would portray the Riddler, we glance down to find our cinema seats have morphed into coconut mats, whizzing on a rapid, spiralling descent into spectacular dumbness. It’s all so gloriously and unexpectedly stupid, like Zodiac penned by someone who fended off middle-act writer’s block by hoovering a load of PCP into their lungs. The only way to watch is to revel in the bizarre combination of massive craziness and powerhouse acting, from two leads who were quite clearly cast by accident, instead of the material’s rightful players, Nic Cage and a sweaty John Cusack.

19

The first V/H/S was a big disappointment. A modern take on the Amicus or Tales from the Crypt horror portmanteau, using found footage, is such a killer idea. The problem with anthology films, particularly those with multiple directors, is uneven quality, with weaker segments dragging everything down, such was V/H/S. Ditto, this year’s ABCs of Death, a 26-chapter anthology, featured a tiny handful of excellent shorts bobbing atop a giant stew of shite like poo-tainted Halloween apples. Thankfully, barring the framing device and rather dismal first skit, V/H/S/2 is absolutely brilliant.

Adam Wingard’s opener plays like Black Mirror dry-humping J-Horror The Eye, and is passable, but once that’s out of the way, it’s genuinely hard to pick a stand-out. ‘Safe Haven‘, co-directed by The Raid‘s Gareth Evans, brings to mind everything from the People’s Temple to Heaven’s Gate, and the scary bits of survival horror videogames. It also features the most extraordinary — and real — trail of dangling snot, which caused me to thank all the gods I don’t believe in that it wasn’t in 3D. ‘A Ride in the Park,’ by the people behind The Blair Witch Project, takes a GoPro strapped to the head of an infected cyclist as a means to discover a new, gruesome, and wildly fun way of tackling zzzzzzzombies in 2013. The short running time keeps it exceptionally tight and fast-paced, as something that probably would have outstayed its welcome as a gimmicky feature-length. Finally, Jason ‘Hobo with a Shotgun‘ Eisener (who incidentally, was behind one of ABCs of Death‘s truly cracking shorts) directs ‘Slumber Party Alien Abduction,’ the title of which is plot inference enough; another taut little piece, although the final shot, a found footage cliché, is probably a step too far. Even though they release these things in the middle of the year, I do love a modern horror series taking up the annual franchise mantle, in the way that — the rubbish — Saw films did on Halloween, and the anthology is a great way to introduce new genre directors, or give existing names a chance to play around with an idea that wouldn’t have legs, or a greenlight, as a full movie of its own. When it works, like it did this time, it’s a huge amount of fun.

18

Amid endless debate about the skewed balance between rich and poor, with braying, egg-faced automaton, David Cameron preaching a ‘permanent austerity’ while literally sat on a golden throne (“We’re all in this together!”), Elysium doesn’t so much predict the future, as daub a sci-fi veneer on the present. Blomkamp paints a living, retching, future-slum world, unlike the empty lens flares and Poundland Blade Runner locales of your Len Wisemans; a world beset by the pertinent issues of now. As space border-hoppers — desperately seeking a better life, or the simple right of healthcare for their kids — try to sneak rocket-ships past immigration, the Haves, cloistered on a floating utopia, preach a sneering Not in My Back Yard.

Elysium marries these BBC Question Time topics with the kind of whomp-ass action sequences you’d hope for when the director of District 9 meets a buffed up, radioactive Matt Damon. Blomkamp’s design work has always been gorgeous, and it stands out all the more in cinematic areas that have long become homogenized into lazy standards. Futuristic guns have all been the same since Aliens, and robots could stagger unnoticed between any number of 21st century sci-fi flicks, but Elysium‘s weaponry ‘n droids evoke the kind of seat-leaning wonder you felt as a kid. There’s a real ‘weight’ to the effects, a lack of which is a huge problem in CG-heavy action films where you’re asked to connect to characters who’ve been pasted onto a PS3 cutscene. Action sequences here feel bruising; a handheld docu-feel, with dashes of ostentatious flash and beautifully used slow-mo. Another important piece of any genre puzzle is a repulsive villain, and Sharlto Copley’s shark-eyed merc is so magnificently dickish, you struggle to connect him as the same guy behind the bumbling, tragic Wikus. As confirmed by Elysium, future generations may view District 9 like those stories of miners finding living toads encased inside ancient rock. In hindsight, that film unearthed a pair of fully-formed talents, who could run and somersault as soon as they tumbled out of the womb, while others spend entire careers dragging themselves from film to film on hands and knees.

17

Eli Roth’s brand is the suffering of naïve first-worlders on carefree jaunts in foreign lands. From the Hostels to his upcoming cannibal flick Green Inferno, Roth bloody loves it when happy-go-lucky tourists pay the flesh-price for their cultural crimes. I hope his next film involves gap-year Christian missionaries building a school in Africa, laying down a single brick and taking Instagram snaps of themselves holding cute little black children like props, before they’re wrongly accused of being witches and hunted down by rioting, hyena-owning, machete-welding gangs. Wait. That’s actually great. Ah fuck, and now I need to write it.

Anyway, he’s back again, co-writing, and also acting, and as with all his stuff, the pitch is like something an excited teenage boy would babble into your face between wanks; “So there’s an earthquake, right? In a crazy foreign country where everyone’s either a hot woman or a prick. But get this — the earthquake brings down the walls to the local prison, and all the insane criminals get out!” Talk about a can’t miss. And it doesn’t. Just like Machete Kills, which was also fun, it’s rammed hemorrhoid-tight with inventive gore and bits that make “Ohh shit!” fly out of your mouth as you look around for someone to high five. The chaotic madness of a violent earthquake, with rioters, looters and horny prisoners running loose, is the exploitation-flick perfect storm, and this is the rare example of a killer premise that translates from napkin to screen.

Aftershock is part of this year’s perplexing destruction of of my previously infallible IMDB-based movie-choosing system, which is crumbling like a twat-filled Chilean club in a natural disaster. Unless there’s a specific reason I want to check it out, as a rule, I avoid anything rated below a 5, which is a guarantee of stinkage. As much as people always seem to be wrong, en-mass, their numerical judgements average out pretty well, and for poor movies, there’s no hiding in the IMDB rating. Or there wasn’t. Aftershock, currently a 4.8, sits here on the Top 20, and The Last Exorcism Part II sports a 3.9. Sub-four, but I still loved it. Has my judgement become impaired? Are you reading, open-mouthed, a list of terrible choices, with the same bewilderment I feel watching shrieking audiences fall for Robbie Williams’ wanker-at-a-wedding, “All this? For me?!” faux-humble bullshit act, time and again? No matter. Aftershock is a ton of fun, and had I waited, I may have been put off by the low score and bad reviews, but now you’ve read this, you too will avoid that fate, unless you’re a dunce. Oh, and stay away from the trailer, which is stupidly spoily.

16

Big, blockbuster action movies fill me with dread. The digital age has replaced thoughtfully choreographed set-pieces of action past with a bunch of random scenes where people narrowly miss stuff. Seriously, look for it. Since computers made it possible for characters to safely run through corridors or war-torn cities, while crumbling walls juuust miss falling on their heads, or buses thrown by giant monsters are duck-and-rolled under at the last possible inch, action movies have been shit. You’re never not aware it’s all just some dude in a green-screen warehouse side-stepping left like a Knightmare contestant, “Yeah, we’ll draw God’s CG turd narrowly missing you.” Roland Emmerich’s 2012 was an endless parade of “Oh no, gonna get hit by that falling building… Phew, narrowly missed! But now the road’s collapsing behind us… blimey! Narrowly missed!” and last year’s utterly excretable The Hobbit was even worse. Peter Jackson’s trousers get real tight when stuff gets narrowly missed. Thankfully, none of the awful blights of modern actioners are present in Pacific Rim.

As required by the monstrous budget, this is a way broader movie than the oddball-arthouse feel of Del Toro’s usual fare — so broad that a spluttering English character literally says “By jove!”– but one of his greatest strengths is rooting the fantastical in real, relatable human emotion. For such a huge, blustering movie, and following endless summers of noisy tedium, where they’re determined to not have you give a shit about any of the characters, it’s a near-revelation. Sure, they’re giant CG robot-suits, but the stellar character work has you invested in the fights. Fights, incidentally which are both fun, and where you can see what’s going on, rather than it just being shapes hitting other shapes.

Military fetishism has become another tired old trope, but Rim‘s designs inspire awe and excitement in a way Avatar never did, imbuing it with a sense of scale that draws you further into the world, instead of thinking “That must have took ages to render,” while briefly glancing across from Redtube. The mechs, and their alien adversaries, feel like a futuristic take on Universal’s classic movie monsters; American Gladiators a hundred feet tall, each with respective pro wrestling-style names and trademark finishing moves. Like with Gilliam or Herzog, Guillermo del Toro’s one of those filmmakers whose unique voice shines through whatever he does, and despite the summer blockbuster budget, Pacific Rim is every bit as him, and every bit as brilliant, as the films that preceded it.

15

Every year, there seems to be one film that I don’t want to talk about for fear of giving away its secrets. I knew nothing about Stoker, so watching was like hopping aboard a magical mystery tour, fearful of ditching over a cliff amid a cloud of my fellow passengers’ death-farts, but thankfully spending most of the journey mumbling to myself “I don’t know where this is going, but I like it.”

Written by the guy with the tats from Prison Break, who sent it out under a pseudonym to let it live on its own merits, it’s an incredibly confident first screenplay. An intricately constructed puzzle of overlapping pieces, visually, it’s phenomenally inventive, and Matthew Goode is perfectly cast as the worldly, exotic uncle of a small, broken family whose genetic trait seems to be ethereal detachment. Even Nicole Kidman, whose immovable, porcelain urinal of a face couldn’t find a way to emote through all the botox if she was being bitten in half by a shark is well placed, as the emotionally distant mother to Mia Wasikowska’s India. Interplay between Goode and the phenomenal Wasikowska is underlaid by a dozen different layers of coiled tension, like the oppression in the air before the sudden strike of a violent storm, and with a predatory undercurrent suggesting that should the masks slip, either could pounce — in love or war — at any moment. While Stoker is a fantastic, mesmerising puzzlebox of a film, I don’t think there’s ever been a less-needed final few minutes. The ending feels like it was tacked on by another director, and is the antithesis of the seething subtlety that makes the film as a whole so strong.

14

Although he’s one of those prolific auteur types, Steven Soderbergh usually leaves me cold. His back catalogue makes for a terrible gap in my film-nerd armoury, barring that one where Gina Carano kicks Fassbender right in his lovely big william, so what better time to start getting into his work than after he’s announced his retirement? Behind the Candelabra could almost be a vampire story. Liberace/Lee is something of an ageless figure, rendered immortal by a maxed-out level of fame, and veiled beneath wigs and plastic surgery. Matt Damon’s Scott, meanwhile, is hand-plucked from normality into Lee’s world, and enormous mansion, until he’s eventually replaced by a younger model, the way his predecessor was, and released back into the wild, irrevocably changed into what Lee made him. So far, so Vlad.

It’s a leisurely feel, sauntering through the years with no real plot beyond the building marital ennui, and giving spacious, gaudily-decorated room for the characters and their relationship — “Brother. Father. Lover. Best friend.” — to breathe. It’s funny, warm, and utterly riveting, and more than pretty much any film this year, you buy into the two characters and their relationship in a way that almost makes you forget about Michael Douglas proclaiming himself King of Cunnilingus. Matt Damon, a 43-year-old portraying a teenager, wears Hollywood’s most impressive aging-down yet, and as Liberace himself has become shorthand for personal excess, all Ric Flair robes and hot tubs, Candelabra provides a perfect level of of sumptuous glitz.

He’s a complicated figure; more than just a daylight Nosferatu operating on a cyclical system of “you’re only as old as the man you feel”; and Douglas imbues him with a believable level of charm. His Liberace stage performances require the word fabulous to be broken up with two hyphens, while the more tragic aspects of the character beneath the toupee are as crushing to the audience in their inevitably as they must have been to Scott. Another tragedy is that a pair of Oscar-worthy performances will go unrecognised as such, with Behind the Candelabra unable to secure a theatrical release in the US because two fellas having a bit of a kiss and cuddle is too much for the tender stomachs of America’s Christ-loving homophobes.

13

As the existence of comic characters no longer depends on whether the network that airs the sitcom in which they live decides to renew for another season, Partridge is one that can, and will, live on in various mediums and formats for years, or decades to come. Like Kenny Powers or Ron Burgundy, Alan’s part of our cultural folklore, with his quotes and verbal tics ingrained into our British braincells like primitive man’s fear of fire and loud noises. Over the years, he’s gotten so fleshed out, that different to, say, cries for Ghostbusters 3 so we can catch up with Peter Venkman, when we do get to meet Alan once in a while and see where he’s at, it’s more like bumping into an old colleague. Albeit a colleague who left under circumstances best described as ‘unclear’, and who’s startled by your over-enthusiastic ‘hi!’ as they’re browsing the Blu-ray rack in Morrisons.

As such, Alpha Papa feels like another natural extension of Partridge, rather than the days when sitcoms took to the big screen for a 90 minute Spanish holiday. As a film version should, it further extends its world, taking us out into Norwich, and the wilds of Cromer pier, and adding yet more meat to the bones of its lead and supporting players. Alan becomes more interesting as he gets older, with Coogan now the perfect age to portray a character who’s become more and more defined by the breakdown he was always inevitably headed towards. Post-Dundee Alan is a mess of neurotic impulse and second-guessing, forever choking down panic as his arms mentally windmill back from the wobbling edge of the psychological precipice, fearing he’ll tumble down into a relapse.

Alpha Papa is densely packed, without a single syllable or piece of physical movement going to waste, filled with lines, background jokes and vocal intonations that creep up with the stealth of a sweet smelling blow-off if they didn’t catch you right away, like a spade to the chin. Every piece of dialogue is quotable, slotting right into the library of very funny, very Alan lines of previous works, and the soundtrack — Roachford’s Cuddly Toy; the theme to Ski Sunday – is so on-point, it’ll become as iconic to comedy fans as one of Tarantino’s cinematic playlists. Thankfully for a big screen outing, the stakes are kept perfectly Partridge, with a siege at a local radio station still fittingly movie-sized, without venturing into White House Down world-saving. One scene even gifts us the credit of ‘Armed Mangina Officer’, which may trump Threads‘ famous ‘Woman Who Urinates Herself (uncredited)’. It’s often a terrifying prospect when beloved TV characters make the jump to film, but you leave Alpha Papa relieved and happy, with bad guts from laughing, and excited at the prospect of what Alan Partridge will be like at 60, 70, and 80.

12

Generally, low-budget horror clasps your wrist in its skeletal fingers to drearily walk you down one of two forking paths; ninety minutes of noisy slash-by-numbers, or panties-clad women being bothered by ghosts. Praise the Pit then, for Jug Face, a film that’s rooted in atmosphere, and the hard-set rules of its wildly original mythology. Establishing its tone right from the chalk-drawn, lore-setting opening titles, the story centres on a community of backwoods folk, isolated from the rest of the world, with their own rules and sacred traditions, and a religion focussed around the worship of a big hole in the ground — The Pit. The Pit, the all-knowing, silent deity looms over every scene and decision, kept happy with human sacrifices; offerings determined when a Pit-possessed potter sculpts a face jug in likeness of the chosen one.

Lauren Ashley Carter’s Ada is an outsider in a whole community of them, doe-eyed and incredibly striking (I needn’t worry about The Pit — I’ve already fallen into your beautiful eyes! <3), and trapped in the unenviable role of a woman in a horror film, desperately rallying against her inescapable fate. Rules are rules, be they of religion or genre, though that doesn’t stop the brave few from trying, and this seemingly futile battle, a constant struggle against dominoing repercussions, is underpinned by a super strong performance. Jug Face works as an inbred sister-piece to The Woman, with overlapping cast and crew, and Carter and Sean Bridgers, father and daughter in the latter, have a sweet relationship of feelings left unspoken, him the vulnerable village oddball at the end of pointing fingers once suspicion starts to fly, and her, the cause behind it all. Larry Fessenden, the man whom vaguely familiar character actors labelled as That Guy bow to as their king, shows why he should be afforded more screentime, while Sean Young gives a terrifying Hicksploitation take on the ardent religious mother, particularly during an aggressive vaginal inspection.

The production design is evocative of all the good ol’ brotherfucking locales of cinema past; a timeless rust and decay, with jam-jar moonshine and grimy hoe-downs, and the face jugs themselves are really unsettling, though not enough to stop me from wanting one of my own. Most interestingly, this isn’t an “is it or isn’t it?” mystery, as The Pit is established as real from the very beginning, rather, it’s an inventive mirror for unthinking, blind faith, as they defer their lives to a deity moving in mysterious, violent ways; like praising a God who cures cancer from a baby he also saw fit to fill with tumours. Those arbitrary interpretations of random events, in Jug Face‘s world, spawn from the literal breaking of commandments. The Pit heals because It’s kept happy with the sacrifices, and It’s mad because It’s been disobeyed. As an allegory for religion, it’s an audaciously blunt choice to have God be an actual empty hole.

11

Harold Camping has a lot to answer for. If not for 2011’s non-Rapture, then this year’s cinescape would be a very different, less doomy place. The day itself made for pretty great entertainment, if you happened to be watching the Camping church webcam as the hours ticked on, like I was. During their last hours on Earth, waiting to be sucked into the sky, Camping’s followers fielded phone calls that evolved from prankish mocking to cutely sympathetic in tone as it became clear Jesus was busy washing his beard or something. The church office was manned by an increasingly dejected elderly man, who began by confidently insisting that Gabriel’s trumpet would parp any time now, before gradually slumping into a figure not unlike a child in a raincoat looking up at the kitchen clock and realising that weekend dad had broken yet another promise. Finally, the webcast cut to pre-recorded hymns, and two years later, roughly the time it takes to bring a movie from conception to theatres, cinema screens of undestroyed planet Earth played It’s a Disaster, Hell Baby, Best Friends Forever, Rapturepalooza, The World’s End, and the second best of them all (always the Danny McBridesmaid), This is the End.

Post-Curb Your Enthusiasm, that thing of celebrities playing heightened versions of themselves where they’re rude or drugged-out has become a go-to, either as a way out of typecasting, or a final embracing of it (or, in many cases, a lazy pitch line. “I play myself, but I’m a dick!”) The ensemble cast play up to preconceived notions, casting James Franco as the pretentious weirdo, Seth Rogan the amiable stoner, and Danny McBride the psychopath you might think him to be, had you never seen Kenny Powers out of character. Jay Baruchel’s struggle as the outsider friend, now stuck with an LA crowd of Hollywood douches as huge-cocked hell-demons rampage outside, functions as a backbone of the story most people can identify with, albeit on a scale that usually doesn’t involve Satan’s jizzing throbber.

This is the End is everything an R-rated comedy should be, using the freedom to take things as far as they should naturally go, rather than tedious Movie 43-style testicles, turds, and people getting blowies off their mum. It’s also gloriously silly in, well, most places, with Danny McBride and James Franco’s lengthy, improvised argument about cumming over each other a particular highlight. Like with everything he’s ever been in, McBride prances away with the movie, like a cat burglar who’s flipping you off as tosses your wedding albums into a sack, and there’s a ton of celebrity cameos that’d be better off not spoiled by you looking them up on the wiki page before you see it. Rogan and Goldberg’s appreciation for risqué, biblical-themed comedy and heartfelt yet fucked up friendships, combined with their flagrant disrespect for religion makes me think that Preacher, much as I always wanted it for myself, is in safe hands.

***

If you’re now thinking “If only I could somehow show my appreciation” or “Does this Millard gentleman have further works I might explore?” then you’re in luck. My books are available on Amazon UK and Amazon.com for a nominal fee, and if you don’t have a Kindle, Amazon have a free app.

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 84 other followers

%d bloggers like this: