Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019

They are the unquiet, apparentlyHere's how good Sheffield's documentary film festival is - that picture there is of a film we saw by accident. Taking a break in between screenings to indulge in our two favourite food groups at self-explanatory restaurant Craft & Dough, at one point I look out of the window we're sat next to and realise that Paradise Square is full of people. It takes a few seconds longer to realise that they're watching a short film that was shot in that very location. Chloe Brown's A Soft Rebellion In Paradise has got a nice idea at its core, but a) taking a poetic feminist call to arms, b) filming several hundred women yelling it in a public square and c) playing that film back in the same public square doesn't do much for your audio quality: ironic for a film about letting women's voices be heard.

In a way, it's rather terrific that Doc/Fest takes over the city so much, with its branded tote bags visible on every other shoulder, and films showing everywhere you look. However, the majority of their events are held in normal venues with roofs and soundproofing. Here are seven of them.

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Simian Substitute Site For June 2019: Monkey Menace

Monkey MenaceMONTH END PROCESSING FOR MAY 2019

Movies: It's a personal prejudice, I admit it. When Curzon Home Cinema releases a film on video-on-demand the same day as it comes out in cinemas, I think of it as a smart way of giving challenging movies as wide a release as possible. But when Sky Store does it, I tend to think "well, that's probably a shit film, then." That may be the case for, say, something like Final Score, the thriller that was literally marketed as Die Hard In Upton Park: but it's not true for Arctic. The tagline Sky are using to market this one is The Martian On Ice, which for some of us evokes the image of Matt Damon skating at the Empire Pool Wembley for a Christmas run. In fact, a more obvious comparison point would be All Is Lost, which had sailor Robert Redford battling with above-freezing-temperature water, rather than the below-freezing-temperature water Mads Mikkelsen has to deal with here after his plane crashes in the middle of the Arctic. It's a credit to co-writer/director Joe Penna that the storytelling is so clear, given how much of it has to be told in either pure images or Mikkelsen's semi-audible mumbling. Having Denmark's finest as your lead actor doesn't hurt, either, as his quiet determination keeps you with him every step of his journey. Obviously this would have been great to see on its microscopic cinema release - I mean, just look at this poster - but watching it at home works just fine. (Except that it looks like the film was removed from Sky Store today, which is why that link above doesn't work. It's available for download and on physical media from June 24th, so treat this as a heads-up.)

Music: Summarising Q2 2019 in ten tunes...
1. Have you ever noticed that the opening title sequences of all HBO's drama shows are exactly 100 seconds long? This is Nicholas Britell's music for the titles of Succession: it aired here last year on Sky Atlantic, which is ironic given that it's a thinly-disguised satire on the Murdoch family, and opens with their equivalent of Rupert pissing on the floor of his wardrobe thanks to Altzheimer's. I bingewatched season one in two chunks on recent flights to and from Asia, and I'm now officially on board for when season two turns up later this year.
2. How many times have Lamb split up and reformed so far? It seems have been happening at intervals of around five years since 2004. Even the title of their latest album, The Secret Of Letting Go, was apparently written while they were considering breaking up again. Well, as long as we get records this good as a result, I'm not too fussed about the emotional turmoil they're going through.
3. Yeah, I know I said the Simian pages would be free of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend references from now on, but that was before I saw the cast's live-concert special, now available on Netflix. It's also available as an album, hence Skylar Astin's appearance here, channelling his best Broooooce.
4. Ringo Shiina is back, and she's even more unclassifiable than ever: her new album Sandokushi was preceded by three digital singles, none of which appeared to have anything in common with each other stylistically. This track - the title translates as God, Nor Buddha, FYI - was actually the b-side of a 2015 single that passed me by altogether, which is why the rather fancy video is four years old.
5. Speaking of singles, I was whining in the last one of these playlists about how The Chemical Brothers seemed to be releasing single after single without any sign of an album. Well, No Geography is finally out, but let's feature one of the singles anyway - mainly because the breakdown in the middle is one of their most outrageous demonstrations of tension and release, in a career that's been built entirely on that sort of thing.
6. I really wasn't sure about The Divine Comedy's first single release from their upcoming Office Politics album: Queuejumper sounded just a little too quirk-by-numbers for me, a bit of fluff written solely to get into the charts, assuming such things exist any more. But this followup is lovely, balancing the warmth of its first two verses against the unexpected turn it takes in its third.
7. I've told you already, you guys, Kojey Radical is going to be bloody huge, and this single is just the start of the next phase of his world domination plan.
8. Coming soon: a new bit of Monoglot Movie Club, based around a magnificently incomprehensible film I saw in Japan. This track by Hanawa plays over the end titles: I'll tell you that its basic theme is 'Saitama prefecture is a shithole but we like it,' and let you work out the rest. After all, the chorus is virtually in English already.
9. If you'd told me thirty years ago that in the future I'd be looking forward to a live album by New Order, the band responsible for some of my most disappointing concert experiences of the 1980s, I wouldn't have believed you. But their MIF 2017 shows pulled in an orchestra of a dozen student keyboard players to beef up the sound, and the results I've heard so far are damn impressive.
10. Wreckless Eric turned 65 this month. I know this because I was at a gig he did at the 100 Club on his final day of being 64. If you're only familiar with him from the early hits like Whole Wide World, you've got 40 years of unexpected musical detours to explore - the new album Transience is probably as good a place as any to start. The live version of this track is notable for a keyboard-driven psychedelic freakout in the middle, although Eric himself notes that audiences outside the big cities tend to want him to 'cut out the Pink Floyd shit'.

Theatre: Even though I've been going to the theatre for the best part of forty years, I've somehow managed to avoid seeing Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman until this month, when I caught Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's new production at London's Young Vic. As it's the first time I've seen it, I can't comment on the impact of their main casting decision - making the Lomans an African-American family - although it's obvious that it adds another layer to Willy's conflicts with his boss and his neighbours. The main reason we were there was for Wendell Pierce - Bunk from The Wire! - and his Willy Loman is utterly mesmerising. You gradually realise that Pierce's TV work is largely based around confident characters who know exactly what they're doing, and it's astonishing to watch him gradually reveal how much of that is a front in Willy's case. But the rest of his family - Sharon D. Clarke as Linda, Arinzé Kene as Biff and Martins Imhangbe as Happy - are equally great, backed up by an excellent supporting cast. The last time a piece of theatre hit me this hard emotionally, it was the Young Vic's production of A View From The Bridge, which suggests that this is a theatre that knows exactly what it's doing when it comes to Miller. Death Of A Salesman runs till July 13th: attention must finally be paid.

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BrewDogging #60: Dalston

Eh, it wasn't that chilly at all. Rather temperate, actually.As we enter BrewDog Dalston on its opening night, a nice young chap on the door says hello to us. It's the one big disappointment of the evening.

Thing is, at the time I thought it was a really nice touch, and that they were doing it for everybody. But within seconds of it happening, The Belated Birthday Girl told me that the chap in question was JB, BrewDog's guy in charge of bar management, and he was greeting her personally because they've met a couple of times on occasions like this. And there was me thinking I'd found a suitable role for my retirement years, standing in the doorway of a BrewDog bar and welcoming people as they entered like it was a pissed Walmart. Not to be, sadly.

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Simian Substitute Site For May 2019: Gorilla Brewing

Gorilla BrewingMONTH END PROCESSING FOR APRIL 2019

Books: One hundred and one years after the birth of Spike Milligan, it's fascinating to see the rise of a new generation of comedians who are equally open about their struggles with mental health. The Blindboy Podcast frequently takes time out to provide a layperson's guide to cognitive psychology, and even closed one recent episode with a guided meditation, which is all a very long way indeed from Horse Outside. And then there's Limmy, whose new book, Surprisingly Down To Earth, And Very Funny, recently came out in hardback. The back cover blurb tells the story of how his publisher originally asked him for a book about his mental health, while Limmy himself suggested that an autobiography would allow that topic to emerge naturally along the way. And it does: we get to hear about his experiments with booze and drugs, his bouts of depression, and his troubles with women (the latter coming under the splendidly-titled category of 'fanny fright'). But it's all told in Limmy's distinctive voice, which keeps the tone sardonic and light even as it gets into some very dark areas. Few autobiographies would have a chapter as full of unironic joy as the one here called My First Wank, for example. The book's title may have entirely different connotations to those of us who follow him on Twitter, but it turns out to be a perfectly accurate description of its contents.

Music: If you're reading this on May 1st when it goes up, you may be aware that this is a momentous week for Japan. After thirty years in office, Emperor Akihito has retired, the first one in several centuries to leave of his own volition rather than be carried out in a box. As such, he's been joyously milking his last few months in office: his final appearance at the sumo in January was particularly lovely. As control passes from Akihito to his son Naruhito, the Japanese calendar reaches the end of the old emperor's Heisei era and starts a brand new one for the new kid. The new era name was kept a big secret until April 1st, when it was officially announced as Reiwa, giving Japan's computer programmers a mere month to code around their own version of the Y2K problem. Here's what gives me confidence that they'll cope: just two hours after the era name was announced, a J-pop band called Golden Bomber had released a single called Reiwa on all digital platforms, and a video for it on YouTube. In the weeks leading up to April 1st, they'd recorded the song with a two to three syllable gap in the chorus: on the day, as soon as the announcement was made, they ran into the studio, recorded the one word that was missing, dropped it into the right places and sent it out into the world. Is the song any good? To be honest, I'm too dazzled by the perfect combination of opportunism and technology to be sure. See what you think.


Telly: It's been mentioned several times already in these pages, but let's hear it once more for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, whose final episode will be quoted in dictionaries of the future as a definition of 'sticking the landing'. Its ending turned out to be hiding in plain sight from the very beginning, and managed to wrap everything up beautifully, leaving us with 62 episodes of fine telly and over 150 songs. Here's a playlist of 40 of my favourites, ten from each season. It's 41 videos long, because one of them appears twice: I like how you can reverse-engineer current US TV standards and practices from the differences between the broadcast and unbroadcastable versions of My Sperm Is Healthy. Those boys (but mainly girls) just aced the quiz.


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Simian Substitute Site For April 2019: Why Can Monkey・Pheasant・Dog Beat The Demons?!

A little of knowledge about Momotaro: Why can monkey・pheasant・dog beat the demons?!MONTH END PROCESSING FOR MARCH 2019

Books: So, a friend of mine has just published his first novel. Let's just pause for a second and quietly acknowledge what an awkward position that puts us both in, shall we? With that out of the way, let me introduce you to Tickle Me White by Michael Doust. It tells the parallel stories of an unlikely pair of people, a London bus driver and a professional dominatrix - I can only assume that the title Fifty Shades Of Grey-Green was already taken by someone else. It's one of those novels that's very keen to teach you stuff you don't know, whether it's the bus equivalent of four-dimensional chess that drivers play with each other to maximise their rest periods, or the exact construction of various pieces of bondage equipment. How much of this is down to research and how much to experience, I wouldn't dare to say: but some of the early part of the book gets a little too bogged down in those sorts of details for my liking. Then about halfway through the plot kicks in with a vengeance, and the book becomes the morality tale that Doust promises you on its cover. (Right this second, I'm really enjoying getting to call him by his surname in a review context.) It's obviously not flawless - like any self-published book (including my own), it needs a vicious copy edit by someone unconnected to the author - but the second half builds nicely into an enjoyably grim farce. I'd say it was like Tom Sharpe with fewer jokes, except I have to admit that the final punchline had me hooting. So, when's the next one?

Radio: Well, sort of radio, in the way that Netflix is sort of television. It's interesting to watch Audible travel down a similar business strategy to Netflix - starting off as a supplier of other people's work (in this case, audio books), but gradually moving into producing their own original content. Earlier this month, I attended a recording session for a pretty special bit of content: The Goodies: Live In Your Ear, a one-off reunion of Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie for a new audio adventure, over three decades after they were last on telly. Obviously age has taken its toll on them, to the extent that Garden had to cry off at the last minute with a back injury (gamely replaced on the night by producer Barnaby Eaton-Jones, who we're assured will be revoiced by Graeme in post-production). Myself, I was a little concerned that the script was credited to Gareth Gwynne and John-Luke Roberts, with Garden and Oddie relegated to a 'with' credit. But I needn't have worried. The sound-only nature of the silliness makes it more reminiscent of an extended sketch from I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again than authentic Goodies, but there are worse things to sound like, and there are plenty of callbacks to their classic TV moments. Best of all, Oddie, Brooke-Taylor and their hard-working supporting cast are visibly - and, I hope, audibly - having huge amounts of infectious fun: there's never a sense of them going through the motions. There's talk of this becoming a regular series if it's a success, but I'd be happy enough for the Goodies to call it a day with this delightful hour in the can. Expect to hear it on Audible at some point in the near future, assuming you've got a subscription.

Telly: Well, sort of telly, and so on. If there's one Netflix series that everyone's banging on about at the moment, it's Russian Doll, and with good reason. It's the story of Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), a woman whose 36th birthday takes a spectacular turn for the worse. It then keeps on taking a turn for the worse, though not in any way you might expect. The obvious comparison point is, of course, obvious, but there's a lot more going on here than a simple homage: the show burns through scenarios, theories and pitch-black gags at a rate of knots, barely giving you time to consider one possibility before it rushes on to the next. It's a show that's driven by its narrative surprises, so the colder you go into it, the more fun you'll have - the trailer on the page I've linked to blows at least one of the best of those surprises, so proceed with caution. Best of all, Russian Doll is one of the few Netflix shows that considers brevity to be a virtue: eight episodes, none of them longer than thirty minutes, culminating in an actual ending rather than an extended tease for a theoretical season two. Everyone involved is at the top of their game, but co-creator/co-writer/co-director/star Natasha Lyonne is sensational: whoever it was on Twitter who suggested she could be the lead in a Columbo reboot definitely has something there.

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Nadolig Llawen Eich Anifeiliaid Fochaidd

You'll have to trust me on this one, but that's Cardiff Castle in the dark over there on the right.One of the advantages of starting a new job in late November is this: all those Christmas parties in December give you plenty of opportunities to meet up with your new colleagues. This, inevitably, leads to a number of conversations along these lines.

"Doing anything nice for Christmas this year?"

Yes, we're spending it in Cardiff.

"You've got relatives there, have you?"

Well, no, actually. We're going up there to visit the BrewDog bar. We've been to 58 of them so far, you know.

"...that's rather a lot. So it'll be your first visit to this bar, will it?"

No, we originally went there back in 2015. This time we're going to get our Beer Visas stamped. There's this little booklet they put out last year, let me show you -

"Oh, are those mince pies over there?"

...well, I'm sure they'll get used to it eventually.

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BrewDogging #58: Brixton

BrewDog Brixton compensate for their lack of veggie haggis by turning the whole building into a House Of Hummus.[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, Dog Eat Dog/Angel, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton, Berlin, Warsaw, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong, Oxford, Seven Dials, Reading, Malmo, Tallinn, Overworks, Tower Hill, Edinburgh Lothian Road, Milton Keynes, Canary Wharf]

You thought BrewDog Angel (see previous episode) had a long, drawn-out birth? Technically, they've been hyping the arrival of BrewDog Brixton since 2013, when they released a new dark beer called Brixton Porter in anticipation of its imminent opening. (Given the company's legendary tin ear for tie-ins with geographical locations, we should be grateful they didn't call it Brixton Riots.)

Brixton Porter came and went, and so did whichever site it was they had in mind for their second Sarf Landan bar. It took them a good five years to acquire an alternative location. Things have changed quite a bit over that time.

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Simian Substitute Site For March 2019: Chaos Monkey

Chaos MonkeyMONTH END PROCESSING FOR FEBRUARY 2019

Books: First happy consequence of the new job: having a regular commute into work for the first time since 2005, which means I can start reading books again. Paradoxically, the first book I took with me to work was one which boasted in its actual title about how it was aimed at people who didn't have the time to read. Astrophysics For People In A Hurry (a Christmas present from The Belated Birthday Girl, so thanks for that) is a collection of essays written by Neil deGrasse Tyson, America's answer to our own Brian Cox. Originally published in Natural History magazine, they've been rearranged here into a primer for the general public on the basic principles of astrophysics. The obvious comparison point (and the original inspiration for The BBG's purchase) is the remake of the TV series Cosmos from a few years ago, which Tyson hosted. There are overlaps between the two, but it's important to note that the TV series wasn't written by him, but by Carl Sagan's collaborators on the original Cosmos, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter. The approach taken here by Tyson is more detailed than that of the TV show, as you'd expect, but it also manages to be less po-faced about it: he takes great amusement in the gigantic scale that the universe operates on, and it comes across in the wit of his writing. With at least one brain-expanding new concept introduced in every chapter, it's just the thing to give you a bit of perspective on the way into the office. (But at the same time, we have to acknowledge the existence of this.)

Movies: Second happy consequence of the new job: meeting new people and gradually learning where your interests coincide. So I was quite pleased to find myself chatting to my boss the other day about Bollywood cinema, with particular reference to the odd things that happen when India tries remaking popular films from other countries. There's a good example playing in cinemas right now: Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy, which is a remake of 8 Mile in all but name. You may not have been aware that India had a hip-hop scene, but let's face it, why shouldn't it have one? Everywhere else does. Inspired by a couple of real-life Mumbai rappers, Naezy and Divine, the film tells the story of a Muslim student Murad (Ranveer Singh), who turns his frustration at living in the slums into some wicked rhymes. The Muslim angle is an interesting one for an Indian film, and gives an extra bite to the inevitable pushback that Murad encounters from his parents. The requirement for a commercial Bollywood flick to stretch to at least two and a half hours plus intermission means that the story is spread a little thin in parts, and you can probably predict most of the main beats of the plot well in advance. But the characters keep you hooked, the visual style is impressive without being ridiculously flashy, and the music is cool as hell: mind you, I've always had a soft spot for rapping in languages other than English. The end credits number - featuring Naezy and Divine collaborating with Nas - gives you a feel for what to expect.

Music: It's been a while since I did one of these, so here's the first Audio Lair playlist of the year, in Spotify form with bonus YouTube links for people who don't believe in that stuff. It's the new shit for 2019!
1. Except, of course, this isn't new for 2019: it's I Trawl The Megahertz, the 2003 orchestral album by Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout, which has now been remastered and repackaged as a Sprout record. It didn't get the love it deserved sixteen years ago, and it's nice to see the rerelease is finally picking up interest, even if it is reducing the resale value of my long-deleted original copy in the process.
2. With five episodes to go before it finishes forever, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend appears to be on track to wrap satisfyingly: visibly moving all its characters towards an endgame, but realising that now is as good a time as any to push the envelope a little further. A song and dance number in praise of antidepressants, done as a thinly-veiled pastiche of the opening of La La Land? Sure, why not?
3. I have no idea who's representing us at the Eurovision Song Contest this year, and don't really feel the need to find out. But the Australian entry is being performed by Kate Miller-Heidke, veteran of three of my Pick Of The Year compilations, and the only person ever to perform at Eurovision who I've previously seen in the back room of an Islington pub. So I'm rooting for her. (Yes, Australia has been technically part of Europe since 2014. Try to keep up.)
4. Joe Jackson has come and gone out of my consciousness repeatedly over the last (swallows hard) forty years or so: it strikes me that roughly once a decade, he strikes gold. Amusingly, he seems to have come to the same conclusion, and his upcoming tour is focused around one album each from the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s. The most recent decade is represented by his 2019 album Fool, whose eight songs are solidly up there with his best, even if they do all tend to meander into extended outros.
5. Coming later this year from Pet Shop Boys, we have a live recording and video of Inner Sanctum, the spiffy live show they did at the Royal Opera House a few years ago. Their new four-track studio EP, Agenda, is presumably going to have to stand as their quota of new material for 2019. The satire's a little heavy-handed in parts - and my God, those rhymes - but the music keeps it all bubbling along nicely.
6. At this stage, I can say that two of the albums released this far in 2019 are solidly great pieces of work, and they're both from artists who've been going for forty years or so: Joe Jackson, and The Specials. In the latter's case, the world doesn't appear to have got much better since the release of Ghost Town, so it's not like they don't have anything to sing about. Hooray for all the fiftysomething blokes like me who got their comeback record to number one in the album charts, simply by being probably the only people in the country who bought anything on a physical CD that week.
7. The Chemical Brothers have become one of those acts - Massive Attack and Roisin Murphy are two more that spring to mind - who appear to have given up on albums for now, and just bash out great singles that they release as soon as they're ready. Like MAH, which has a suitably uplifting message for our troubled times.
8. The last time Cinematic Orchestra and Roots Manuva collaborated on anything, it was the delicious 2002 track All Things To All Men. (Look it up yourselves, I'm limiting myself to one link per paragraph here.) This isn't quite as good, but it does make you think that their respective sounds complement each other perfectly.
9. Similarly, The Lego Movie 2 isn't as good as The Lego Movie, but it's still got a lot going for it. The end credits song by Beck and Robyn gets an added boost from The Lonely Island's rap about how much fun it is to sit through the end credits of a movie.
10. The final track isn't new at all, as this is from Kamasi Washington's 2015 debut album The Epic. But we're seeing him live next week, and found this while doing some pre-gig research. I hope it's not significant that I prefer his cover versions to his original work.


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People Still Call It Love: #JFTFP19 (part 2 of 2)

I find these days that the anime Salaryman Kintaro really *speaks* to me.At some point, we'll need seriously to address something that regular readers will have noticed by now. Back in 2006, I had a major personal overhaul in two departments: I changed my job to one that was more part-time in nature, and I changed this site to a blog format that allowed for more frequent posting. It never really occurred to me how closely the two were interrelated, or how much work I was doing on the site in the downtime between assignments - until late 2018 when I moved back into full-time employment, and suddenly discovered that I didn't have the free time to write four or so posts a month any more.

In the old days, I'd have seen as many Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme movies as possible during their London run in the first full week of February, and within a couple of days I'd have reviews up on the site, so that people in non-London cities would be able to read them as the programme toured the country. As it stands, I've just managed to write them up by the end of February, which counts as a bit late in my book. Apologies if you've been waiting for them.

Anyway, enough of my work-life balance issues (which, to be honest, are just me learning to cope again with the amount of work that most regular people do for a living). I've already covered half a dozen of the seventeen films in the 2019 Japan Foundation programme, People Still Call It Love, in Part One: here come another half dozen in Part Two. You'll have to fend for yourselves with the rest, I'm afraid.

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