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Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

Posted: November 1st, 2009, by Alex McChesney

Much as I enjoy his movies, I suspect that Werner Herzog and I have very little in common. I’m not German, have never had a mustache, and am not an acclaimed director. In fact, I suspect that our lives probably only intersect on one tiny point. Neither of us have seen Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Not that it really matters. Port of Call… was never intended to have any connection with that film, and it’s title seems to have been dictated by a marketing suit who happened to notice that both films involve… well… you know. It’s an unfortunate decision that gives this film the air of a dashed-off sequel when it very much deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Nicolas Cage plays the titular copper, who starts the film as a reasonably good lieutenant – at least as good as anyone in the film gets – who injures his back in the line of duty and quickly becomes hooked on prescription painkillers, so beginning a downward spiral of addiction that takes in everything from gambling to heroin. On the journey to rock bottom he struggles to keep himself together long enough to solve the gangland killing of a family of illegal immigrants, maintain some kind of relationship with his equally damaged prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), and not get killed by one of the many, many people he pisses off on the way.

It sounds grim, but it’s played as a comedy, albeit a pitch-black one. Cage has never been the man to go to for a subtle, nuanced performance. He can, however, be immensely entertaining when let off the leash and allowed to gnaw on the scenery, and Herzog knows this, having clearly seasoned every last prop and encouraged him to indulge his vices in tandem with his character, albeit vices of performance rather than chemical consumption. The film never tips into pantomime however, not least because of Herzog’s traditionally documentarian style, which deliberately limits the use of multiple camera angles to lend a odd veneer of realism to scenes of bug-eyed crack-addled insanity, while some delightfully off-kilter inserts shot on video keep the audience unbalanced.

Screenwriter William M. Finkelstein is a veteran of TV police procedurals, having spent the majority of his career writing for the likes of L.A. Law and Law & Order, but anyone coming to Bad Lieutenant for a cop movie is likely to be disappointed. In a sense it has a lot in common with Herzog’s 1977 movie Stroszek, replacing that film’s doomed immigrant protagonist with one born and raised in the USA. Indeed, Bad Lieutenant explicitly references Stroszek on at least one occasion, suggesting that the similarity is not accidental. Herzog, who now lives in Los Angeles, was allegedly displeased with the way his earlier film was seen purely as an indictment of America, and perhaps this film can be seen as an attempt to soften that interpretation by placing greater responsibility for his downfall in the main character’s hands, though facilitated by modern society.

In any case, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans should be relished for the bleak insanity of the Lieutenant’s rollercoaster ride of self-destruction, though it’s a ride likely to turn your stomach by the end.

Defense Grid: The Awakening (XBox 360/PC)

Posted: September 21st, 2009, by Alex McChesney

I’ve purchased three games for the XBox 360 in the past month. A two-for-one coupon bagged me cheap second-hand copies of Grand Theft Auto IV and Bioshock from a local shop. Fine games, both, they were developed by large teams and retailed at full price upon release, and neither has had a look in since I spent 800 points (about $10 or £6.80) to download Defense Grid.

Games in the “tower defense” sub-genre are generally pretty simple affairs. A pre-defined stream of baddies march into your base, intent on grabbing some of the resources held there and making off with them. You have a limited amount of cash with which to purchase towers that have various effects on the enemies, the cheapest and most common of which is simply to fire a stream of bullets (arrows, whatever) at them. Killing bad guys earns you more cash with which to build more towers, or upgrade those you have, with the level ending when you wipe out the enemy or all your resources have been stolen. Like the best games of strategy, from a simple rule-set a complex web of interactions and tactics emerges, and because of the relative ease with which they can be developed, they have generally manifested as lightweight “casual” games, or browser-based timesinks like FlashElementTD.

So why spend actual cash money on Defense Grid: The Awakening when you can play virtually the same game for free many times over? Well, for one, the definition of a tower defense game is loose enough that it can be easily screwed up. A tiny imbalance between enemy unit types and available towers could render the game unplayable, or so easy as to be pointless. As you work your way through each level of Defense Grid’s story mode, it becomes clear that a lot of time and effort has gone into the design of the enemies and the towers themselves, ensuring that there is never a single one-size-fits-all solution to any given situation.

But while you can tell yourself that you’re only interested in the intellectual challenge, part of you is still tickled by big, flashy spectacle, something that Defense Grid delivers in spades. The core gameplay may be relatively basic, but it’s presented with the glossy sheen of an expensive mainstream title. Your bases are lonely sci-fi ruins perched among canyons and glaciers, the enemy a horde of alien mechs destined to melt under the concentrated firepower of your laser turrets and cannons. I may be advancing through my thirties, but I still get a little thrill from making a giant alien robot explode prettily, and I expect you do too. Beyond the graphical sheen you also have an amusing AI narrator who sounds to these ears to be a dead ringer for Patrick Stewart, and a serviceable if generic soundtrack.

The main story mode comprises three diverse maps, plus three bonus levels and a stack of rule-tweaking challenge modes. If you’re of a mindset that enjoys a thoughtful experience at the same time as blowing shit up, Defense Grid’s well worth the few bucks being asked for it.

Official Site
Defense Grid on XBox Marketplace
Defense Grid for PC on Steam

MJ HIBBETT & THE VALIDATORS – Regardex, Ecoutez et Repetez (CD, Artists Against Success)

Posted: August 6th, 2009, by Alex McChesney

Are you a male, 30-something IT professional with an undying nostalgia for the music of the 1990s?  I am, I’m afraid.  So is MJ Hibbett, and, being an unpretentious sort, his songwriting eschews complex metaphor and sticks to simple tales about his everyday existence – songs about workplace crushes and getting older and settling into suburban life.  That’s admirably honest, I suppose.  In fact, if you’re in a similar boat, you may find yourself thinking “Great!  A songwriter who sings about my life.”  After all, isn’t most pop music aimed at teenagers?  Isn’t it about time we had a champion?

I found myself reacting to this album in that way, then feeling a little bit guilty about it.  There is value in finding the beauty in the mundane, for sure.  The films of Mike Leigh are rightly praised for exactly that.  But there’s not much art to what Hibbett does, and I’m not sure that it’s healthy to enjoy something just because it validates your own existence.  Not at my age.  I should be looking for transcendence in my art, lifting my soul out of the world of mortgages and washing-up, not reiterating it over a dated britpop soundtrack.

But there is a degree of good-natured humour here without tipping over the novelty-band precipice, and I can’t help but smile at images like that of Sir Clive Sinclair on the cover of Heat.  And that dated britpop soundtrack is implemented with confidence, some nice hooks, and the occasional moment of joyous bombast.

So maybe I just need to pull my head out of my backside and admit that I quite liked it.  Sometimes it’s ok to be everyday.

MJ Hibbett’s official site

Space Invaders Extreme (DS)

Posted: August 12th, 2008, by Alex McChesney

Retrogaming is big business nowadays. For years the the digital antiquarian who wished to play yesterdays arcade games had to either own the original hardware, hunt down a dusty seaside arcade that time forgot, or, latterly, download an emulator and ROM images. Recently, however, the industry has woken up to the goldmine that is its heritage, and now it seems that there are as many compilations and “enhanced” re-releases of classic games available both on the shelves and through online channels such as XBox Live and the Wii Virtual Console than there are original games.

The problem with such freely available nostalgia is that it often disappoints. Certainly, one can still spend many happy hours causing suburban havoc on Paperboy, or having your ass handed to you time and time again by the brutally punishing but still, somehow, enjoyable Defender. Some games have a timeless quality that makes them just as enjoyable today as when they were released, despite their technical limitations. Others, however influential they may have been, are more difficult for any but the determined to eke any genuine pleasure from.

For this reviewer, Space Invaders has always fallen in the latter camp. Released in 1978, it’s widely credited with bringing video games into the public eye, inspiring many, many clones, introducing game mechanics that live on to this day, and causing a shortage of 100-Yen coins when it was released in Japan. Indeed, round our way it became synonymous with video games in general – to “play Space Invaders” or “Spacies” meaning to play any electronic game at all. To the modern gamer, however, Space Invaders can be a frustrating experience. Every bit as difficult as Williams’ Defender, it can feel agonisingly slow and offer scant reward for progressing through its identical waves.

Released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the original, Space Invaders Extreme is an attempt to update the game for a modern audience, and manages to do say in a way that’s fun and accessible, while maintaining a sense of continuity with the past. Superficially, the classic “left-right-shoot” mechanic remains in place, as are the advancing hordes of invaders which, aside from now being colour-coded, look just as they did 30 years ago. But such a basic framework has given the developers plenty of room to build upon, introducing bonus levels, boss battles, powerup, and varied formations of invaders. Visually, the chunky sprites play over a variety of psychedelic backgrounds that are carefully rendered so as not to obscure the action and can be turned off if deemed too distracting. Rather than slavishly imitate “retro” sound effects, shots and explosions complement the soundtrack, and the overall aesthetic is closest to trippy cult favourite Rez than anything else.

The original Space Invaders was, as all games of its era, all about getting a high score, and though Extreme does have a level progression, and even an “ending” of sorts, it’s still all about racking up the points. Fans of its ancestor know that it’s a deeply tactical game, with various strategies that can be employed to boost your score. Many of these take advantage of quirks of its implementation rather than deliberate design decisions, and its hard to see the modern gamer having the patience to analyse a game in that manner, so Extreme offers a multitude of bonus opportunities both heavily signposted and obscure, making it a game that can be enjoyed for five minutes aimless blasting or as a focus for the obsessive-compulsive, and online leader-boards give the scoring a sense of purpose, though its in the nature of these things that the top spots will have been filled up with ludicrously high scores by teenage boys with too much time on their hands, and the online two-player modes may be more appealing for the rest of us.

Happily, it doesn’t shoe-horn in use of the DS touch-screen or mic, and most of the time the top screen just shows scoring information, with the play area extending into it for bosses and bonus levels.

Whether Space Invaders Extreme has longevity for those of us who aren’t bothered by online competition is debatable, but it’s a refreshing take on the classic, and is available at a knock-down price if you’re bothered to shop around. A PSP version is also available, which I haven’t played but which I understand is virtually identical, minus the online play mode.

Official Site


Posted: June 18th, 2008, by Alex McChesney

In the 90s the marketing department of internet service provider America Online had the bright idea of offering potential customers 28 days of service for free, knowing that providing they were able to log in and pick up their email most people wouldn’t want the hassle of switching to someone else, sticking with the service out of sheer inertia. Unfortunately AOL required its customers to have custom software on their machines in order to connect, and rather than wait for people to get wind of the offer and come to them, they chose instead to press vast quantities of floppy discs and mail them out to every address in the land, whether they owned a computer or not. Soon the AOL install disc became so ubiquitous that, for all the company’s problems, it was for doubling the size of the world’s landfills with useless floppies (and latterly CD-ROMS) that they attracted the most derision.

It’s probably far from the worst act of environmental irresponsibility committed by marketing knobs, but it was so visible since so many people found disc after worthless disc shoved through their letterboxes. There is a point to this geeky little tale, and it’s that the record industry is, to this day, similarly wasteful when it comes to mailing out promotional records for review, and although their address books contain only the names of those individuals who may be able to provide them with some publicity, be that a full-page review in the NME or a couple of lines on a blog somewhere, they put out far more than the odd floppy disc. Those of us who write about music, and especially those who do so for free, do so because we love it, and of course we aren’t going to complain about free records. But for every promo that becomes a well-played fixture of your record collection, there are at least a dozen that end up destined for the charity shop, or, worse, the bin.

The switch to MP3 downloads of review material seems like an obvious one. Unless the record comes in some unusual packaging and the whole object merits consideration, why not just provide the content that’s up for review? But the record industry has been historically skittish about downloads, fearing large-scale piracy of albums before their actual release date, so kudos is due to Fat Cat records for having the nerve to start providing promos in downloadable form, beginning with this, the debut EP from one Tom Brosseau. One can even stream each track first to get a sense of whether it’s appropriate for review before wasting bandwidth on a full download. How nice.

It’s funny, then, that the move to a new form of distribution should be launched with an album of such resolutely traditional music. Tom Brosseau’s influences are very much worn on his sleeve on this five-song EP. Opener “George Washington” in particular is a fairly lacklustre attempt to “do” Bob Dylan, and it’s telling that the nasal drawl he adopts on this track is absent for the rest of the EP, replaced by a far gentler, and less grating, vocal style. So too is the folk-rock instrumentation, most of the record adopting a simple acoustic-guitar-and-voice format before going entirely a capella right at the end.

The impression here is of a songwriter steeped in the American folk tradition. Which is, of course, all fine and well. I’m not anti-folk music. Some of my best friends own banjos for god’s sake, and play them without irony. But the problem with tradition is that it often goes hand-in-hand with a creativity-stifling dogma. Brosseau clearly has the ability to be a charmingly poetic songwriter. Track two on this EP, “Empty Houses”, in particular demonstrates the strength of his abilities in that department. But the talent that is in evidence here should be finding a unique voice for itself, and there is disappointingly little evidence from this EP that it is doing so. Listening to it is a pleasant, but ultimately unsatisfying experience, scattered as it is with hints that Brosseau is capable of much more.

Perhaps music reviewers should adopt a new ratings system based on what becomes of the review copy of the record after the piece as been written. If this was on CD, it would probably would not be immediately sent to Oxfam, but would be filed away and unlikely to be brought out again unless asked to review a second outing by the same artist. As it stands it’s not yet getting deleted from my iTunes library. In the event of a cull brought about by limited disc-space it may be in some danger, but it could yet be saved by the presence of a satisfying follow-up record that does its creator justice.


PHOSPHORESCENT – Captain’s Rest, Glasgow, April 21 2008

Posted: April 23rd, 2008, by Alex McChesney

“Pride”, Phosphorescent’s most recent recorded work, isn’t buried under thick swathes of overproduction, but there is a certain? wooziness to it.? The mournful country-tinged songs are complimented rather than smothered by this, but in the cramped and sweaty confines of the Captain’s Rest, overlooked by the slightly sinister waxwork of the eponymous Captain himself, the atmosphere is very different.? The crowd are sympathetic enough, but I’m sure any musician would like to keep a little more distance between themselves and a Glasgow audience given the chance, no matter how confident they may be feeling about their abilities or the goodwill present.?? Stripped of any backing save that which he builds himself with a loop pedal, the quality of Matthew Houk’s songs and the fragile ache of his voice are laid bare, and prove themselves, thankfully, up to the task.? Much of “Pride” is just as effective in this simpler format, his guitar and vocals loops providing texture when necessary.? Words tumble and fall over one another, lines accomodating far too many syllables than they rightfully should be able to, TARDIS-like, suggesting an off-the-cuff ramble that’s also effortlessly poetic.? He even manages to find some beauty in mawkish Dire Straits number “Close To Me”.

I used to live just along the road from the Captain’s Rest.? I never went inside until tonight.? It appeared to be your typical Glasgow “old man’s” pub, and I must admit that the nautical theme didn’t exactly appeal.? I was surprised when I heard that Phosphorescent were playing there, but this appears not to be a random aberration but the first of many forthcoming shows at the ‘Rest.? Certainly Phosphorescent were a welcome and appropriate debut act for this tiniest of venues that could actually become a favourite if the quality of booking remains as high.

CONTROL (Dir. Anton Corbijn)

Posted: October 8th, 2007, by Alex McChesney

Anton Corbijn’s Control follows the life of Ian Curtis, from a teenager who got married too young through his time with Joy Division, struggles with epilepsy and eventual suicide at the age of only 23. Based on his widow Deborah’s memoir “Touching From a Distance”, as well as the testimony of many of those who knew him, it aims to be a definitive portrayal of a young man whose influence would live longer than he did himself.

And this is very much a film about Curtis. If you expect a piece about the Manchester music scene of the 70’s, you’ll come away disappointed. Nor is it a film about Joy Division, the other members being somewhat sidelined. Sam Riley plays Ian Curtis as an unremittingly serious and brooding young man, slowly being pulled apart by the pressures of fatherhood, the worsening of his epilepsy, the numbing side-effects of the cocktail of drugs prescribed to him in a vain attempt to control it, and guilt over his affair with Belgian fanzine-writer Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara). While Riley turns in a decent performance, he’s hampered by a script that doesn’t allow him a lot of range on the other side of the emotional spectrum, which weakens the film’s portrayal somewhat. Few people on this earth live inside a black cloud 24/7 and are still able to function, and, indeed, Curtis’s former bandmates have gone on record to point out that, as troubled as he was, they were still mates and still able to share a laugh and a joke from time to time. But beyond some very brief teenage hi-jinks at the start of the film, the image of him presented here, in playing him so straight and po-faced, seems less human given the absence of any light whatsoever. Even the twenty-minutes or so of Michael Winterbottom’s jokey 24 Hour Party People that deal with Tony Wilson’s Joy Division years managed to shine a little light on the character, and when his death comes in that film it packs a greater emotional punch.

Control is, however, a strikingly beautiful movie. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white, Corbijn’s long career as a photographer is in evidence, bringing a stark beauty to grim 70’s England, though it’s perhaps worth noting that Manchester itself doesn’t get much of a showing beyond the Macclesfield housing estates where Curtis lives. But for all its faults elsewhere, Control succeeds visually, and I’m keen to see what Corbijn does next.

The supporting cast are largely excellent, with the actors playing Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris having learned the actual songs and playing them with a fitting sense of awkwardness, since if you’ve seen archive footage of Joy Division you’ll know that although they could make a mighty noise they never looked entirely comfortable doing so. Subsequently, the scenes of the band performing live and in the studio are among the film’s highlights, though while Riley does a good impersonation of Curtis his voice occasionally fails to capture that famous low-frequency growl. Samantha Morton maybe fails to convince as a teenager in the film’s opening scenes but is generally very good as Deborah Curtis. But it’s Toby Kebbel who really shines as manager Rob Gretton, delivering every sweary fucking line with total relish and providing the film’s comic relief. If his perfomance in Dead Man’s Shoes wasn’t enough to get him recognized as a serious talent, Control has to.

But it’s the writing that ultimately lets the film down. When tackling a biopic, it is expected that there are key moments in the subject’s life that have to be tackled, like navigational waypoints in the audience’s journey through the movie. However, although the writer is obliged to hit them, and even expected to by an audience that probably knows the basic structure of the story already, it’s still important for these events to be woven smoothly into the fabric of the narrative – you aren’t producing a documentary, but a work of fiction which may be based on reality but can only emulate it. Too often, unfortunately, Control fails to hit these marks smoothly, relying on some sadly lumpen dialog to dump info on the viewer. The worst instance of this surely being the introduction of Gretton, who basically walks in and says “I’m Rob Gretton and I’m going to be your manager.” Yes, the character is a cocky bastard, and if this were an isolated instance of Control showing rather than telling it would get a laugh and be forgiven, but sadly it isn’t, and along with that most deadly of cinematic sins: using a voice-over to indicate how a character is feeling (That some of it comes from Curtis’ own writings is no excuse.) it robs the film of the powerful impact it could have had, by slapping you awake and reminding you that this is a movie.

The late Tony Wilson was fond of quoting John Ford: “If it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.” But as exciting as legends are, they can be dangerously two-dimensional. Enjoyable though it is, Control feeds the myth rather than humanizing its subject.

SUNSHINE (Dir. Danny Boyle)

Posted: August 30th, 2007, by Alex McChesney

Question: It’s the future, and you are on a spaceship. A fire has broken out in one part of it, and threatens to spread to the rest of the ship. Do you…

A) Get the computer to open up an airlock, immediately suffocating the blaze?


B) Flood the compartment with oxygen – precious, scarce oxygen that you kind of need in order to complete your mission without dying – in order to help the fire “burn-out” quicker?

If you answered B, then you would probably be qualified to join the cew of the Icarus II on their mission to restart our dying star in Sunshine. The Earth is doomed and their mission must succeed in order to save mankind. Sadly, whoever had the responsibility of selecting the handful of men and women who would embark on this voyage apparently just chose some names out of a hat and came up with a group of dull ciphers with dubious problem solving skills. We join them sixteen months into their mission. Some bad things happen and some of the characters die. Then some more bad things happen, resulting in more deaths. And then they either succeed or fail in their mission, but you probably won’t care by then. None of the characters are remotely interesting or have inspired any sympathy, and any sense of the impending threat to mankind is limited by having us follow the ship of exposition-spouting dullards for the entire film, never once enlightening us to the actual situation back on Earth other than to briefly mention that it’s getting a bit chilly back home, until the very final scene.

Seeing a bad movie is frustrating, but not as frustrating as seeing one made by such writer/director team with such a strong pedigree. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland took on the zombie movie in 28 Days Later and made it seem fresh and genuinely frightening again. Why, then, when tackling the sci-fi epic did they fail to resist an overdesigned vision of the future, and a mish-mash of half-digested cliches?

Sunshine is a movie that frustrates not because it is bad, but because it should have been so much better. There’s the kernal of a good movie in there, and the occasional effective moment that promises more than is delivered. When the crew find the “lost” spaceship that went before them, for example, and start to board it, we are treated with some genuinely unnerving single-frame images that hint at a much darker horror than the rather bland one that they encounter. Perhaps it would only have taken one more draft of the script – tightening the dialogue, creating a sense of genuine urgency, and given the characters some, well, character, to thaw out Sunshine, but we’ll never know.


Posted: July 12th, 2007, by Alex McChesney


The last record I bought was the debut by Bracken, which was purchased from Monorail purely on the basis that it was on the Anticon label, and they can seemingly do no wrong. This is no exception and may be my favourite album this year so far. I guess I should probably review it properly some time.

My iPod, however, is largely playing host to old episodes of In Our Time, the Radio 4 programme in which Merlvyn Bragg chats to three academic types about history, science and philosophy. The site only allows you to download the last episode, but a workmate has been archiving them for the past year or so, and I’ve set myself the marathon task of listening to each one, as well as the new ones when they come out.

Imagine a world in which, in order to listen to a radio programme or watch TV, you had to sit in front of a little box at exactly the right time! Apparently people used to do that! Madness.


The lecturer who took the writing course I’ve just finished repeatedly recommended Raymond Carver as a master of the short story, so I’m finally getting round to reading his collection “Cathedral”. His style is very clipped and minimal, which is refreshing if a little dry at times, but they are all expertly constructed. Like Bukowski but without the rage.


Nothing on TV, since Doctor Who finished. Well, ok, and the odd episode of Big Brother, which has caught me more this year than the last few, but not in the same obsessive way as the first few years.

Last night we watched The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada which was fabulous. Tommy Lee Jones is, as they say, “the man.”


Supersonic this weekend. Also, NYC in August for a friend’s wedding then off to Texas to spend time with the inlaws. After that… other stuff I can’t talk about yet.

Working on:

I’ve been working on a desktop Blogging app called “Poster” which will hopefully see a first beta release some time soon, and will be cross-platform and excellent, I assure you. In fact, I’m writing this post on it just now.

Plus occasional tunes, occasional writing, and occasional paralysing panic when I realise that I’ve got a million more important things I should be doing, like getting the flat cleaned up and on the market.

AIRPORT GIRL – Slow Light (Fortuna Pop)

Posted: May 30th, 2007, by Alex McChesney

A conceit used by most music journos is to pretend to know everything about a band’s ouvre before reviewing them. Maybe they don’t pretend, actually. Maybe they do research and stuff. I dunno. Anyway, I’ve never heard of Airport Girl, so I can’t tell you if this, their second album, is a massive departure from their first, though the accompanying press release seems to suggest so. If that is the case, then a cautious pat-on-the-back may be deserved, since I like the direction they seem to have taken, and if it’s a retrograde step then their last record must have been something pretty bloody amazing.

Yes, it’s a bit on the twee side, but on the strength of this relaxed and reverb-heavy record I could see Airport Girl becoming someone’s favourite band. That someone isn’t me. That person is someone a bit less cynical, and, by extension, probably a few years younger than I am. Airport Girl probably won’t even keep the coveted favourite band status for too long, but it these wistful and well-constructed songs will be the soundtrack to that summer where they went to that festival and got off with that girl/boy for the first time. It might even inspire their own musical exploits, the emphasis being on maintaining a warm multi-instrumental melancholy rather than technical noodling.

That there are similar bands who have explored similar territory, and that I personally would put on a Galaxie 500 record before this one, seems scarcely the point. Airport Girl provide a very acceptable entry point into that particular space.

Official Site
Their Myspace Page