Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (2000)

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Cover: An artsy shot of New York City, taken from a high angle and showing the Empire State Building. It’s pretty, but it’s difficult to see the relevance. The album’s title was taken from the edge of the 1998 £2 coin, although Noel wrote it down slightly wrong while drunk. (The Isaac Newton quotation is actually, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the *shoulders* of giants.”) By the way, this album sees Oasis as a trio. Original members Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs and Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan quit during the recording sessions and for legal reasons their contributions had to be replaced. So here Oasis is just Liam Gallagher (vocals), Alan White (drums) and Noel Gallagher (everything else).

Best track: From its crackly, vinyl-like opening, Gas Panic! is a special piece of music. The lyrics are sinister and threatening, the music is dramatic and dynamic, and the overall effect is rather magnificent.

Honourable mentions:
* Fuckin’ in the Bushes starts the album and immediately tells you that this is something different from the Oasis norm. It’s based on a heavy drum pattern, features wordless backing vocals, and uses samples of dialogue taken from the film of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Oasis often used this track as walk-on music at gigs.
* Go Let It Out was the album’s first single and got to number one. Noel has said it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written and is “the closest we came to sounding like a modern-day Beatles.” That might be a stretch, but there’s still an enjoyable polish to the sound. It’s also another sign that this album sees Oasis playing in a slightly different sandpit – this is psychedelic rock with a full, rounded bottom end. (Noel plays the bass guitar throughout the album. “Pick up the bass!” he says just as it enters this song.)
* The very likeable Who Feels Love? was the album’s second single. Like Go Let It Out, it has a ‘heavy-hippie’ vibe. There’s a strong Beatles influence – the intro is reminiscent of Within You Without You, an instrumental passage from the 2.47 mark sounds like Dear Prudence – while the whole track also has echoes of the Stone Roses. The multi-tracked vocals, meanwhile, are like something from a Crosby, Stills & Nash song. Oh, and the mix is fantastic. There are lots of details you’d miss on a scant listen.
* Sunday Morning Call was the album’s third single. It’s a pleasant-enough ballad, but lead singer Noel has never liked it – he thinks it’s pretentious and earnest. So in 2009 he had it relegated to a hidden track on an Oasis singles compilation. In a recent radio interview, he chuckled over the fact that no one’s ever missed it.
* The rousing Roll It Over is a Champagne Supernova-style epic.

Worst track: Barring cover versions, Little James was the first Oasis song not written by Noel Gallagher. His brother Liam’s opening effort is a tepid, insipid and musically boring tune about his seven-year-old stepson.

Weirdest lyric: Speaking of Little James, on this song Liam proves that he can go toe-to-toe with Noel in terms of lazy rhymes: “You live for your toys/Even though they make noise/Have you ever played with plasercine?/Or even tried a trampoline?”

Best video: Go Let It Out’s promo is shot in extreme widescreen, heavily edited, and features Liam singing from the back of a double-decker bus. There are also shots of him playing guitar, which he doesn’t do on the audio.

Personal connection: Although they didn’t play on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, Gem Archer and Andy Bell (not the one from Erasure) had joined the band by the time I first saw Oasis live. It was at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium on 15 July 2000 and was during the tour to promote this album. The support acts were Johnny Marr’s Healers and the Happy Mondays. And someone threw a cup full of piss over me. (He wasn’t aiming specifically at me. Trapped in a throng of thousands, some louts had taken to urinating into plastic cups and chucking them as far as they could.)

Review: Some say the release of the Oasis album Be Here Now in August 1997 marked the end of Britpop. (Personally speaking, I remember realising it was all over when Q magazine covered drum-and-bass DJ Roni Size in about January 1998.) But Standing on the Shoulder of Giants represents a new phase in the band’s career in more ways than one. Two-fifths of the line-up quit during the recording sessions, while the style of music moved towards drum loops, samples, snyths and prominent bass sounds. Liam Gallagher even started writing songs. The result is a very interesting and often enjoyable album: it might not all work, but it has ambition. 

Eight years between fantasies and fears out of 10

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X-Men (2000, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a politician proposes legal limits on people who have been born with special powers, a terrorist called Magneto plots to turn everyone into mutants. Standing in his way is an old friend with a more live-and-let-live approach…

Get used to multiples names…
* The film’s point-of-view characters are Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Marie aka Rogue (Anna Paquin). They learn about the lives and rules of mutants so we can too. Jackman is such an effective leading man – very Harrison Ford-ish – that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role. But he was only cast three weeks into filming when Dougray Scott dropped out because production of Mission: Impossible II overran. Paquin’s good too, and it’s a shame when Rogue becomes a damsel in distress in the second half. After bumping into each other in Canada and forming a touching friendship, Wolverine and Rogue end up at Charles Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters, which is also a front for a team of mutant superheroes.
* Xavier aka Professor X is played by Patrick Stewart, who brings gravitas, soul and a bald head to the role. His lieutenants are Dr Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Halle Berry in a dodgy white wig) and Scott Summers aka Cyclops (James Marsden). Jean has a flirtation with Wolverine, which irritates her fiancé Cyclops, but it’s not specified why she doesn’t get a cool codename. Storm is sadly a bit of a non-entity, and is also involved in the film’s worst moment. An uncredited Joss Whedon worked on a draft of the script and wrote a Bondian quip for the character – “Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?” she says when facing off against an evil mutant called Toad. “The same thing that happens to everything else!” However, Halle Berry delivers it without any irony at all and the gag is lost. (Imagine a Buffy character throwing away the second half of the line.)
* Students at the school include Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Sumela Kay) – both will have more to do in sequels.
* On the other side of the mutant divide is a remarkably small team of bad guys. Magneto’s real name is Erik Lehnsherr and he’s played by Ian McKellen with an American accent and an arrogant air. He has just three sidekicks: the giant Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the creepy Toad (Ray Park from The Phantom Menace) and the blue-skinned shapeshifter Mystique (a seemingly naked Rebecca Romijn-Stamos… Wowzers).
* The only other notable character is Senator Kelly, played by the reliable Bruce Davison. He opposes mutants but is then turned into one by Magneto and dies.

Stan Lee cameo: The creator of the X-Men can be spotted in the scene where a mutated Kelly walks out of the sea and up a beach. Lee is one of the shocked onlookers.

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that will be contradicted or expanded in future movies.
* Sabretooth acts like he’s never met Wolverine before, which doesn’t marry with the backstory told in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
* Kitty Pryde will be recast twice and get more to do in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).
* Charles tells us he met Eric when they were 17 – that story will be dramatised in X-Men: First Class (2009).
* Jean Grey mindreads Wolverine and sees memories of surgery he was subjected to – both X2 (2003) and Origins: Wolverine will expand on those events.

A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend Fraser Dickson to give a comic-reader’s view on this movie: “As a lifelong fan of the X-Men comics this film was always going to struggle to live up to expectations, but I was encouraged after hearing about some of the cast and went in feeling optimistic. It made a promising start, touching on elements of the Days of Future Past story, but the ‘death ray’ set atop the Statue of Liberty in the finale was far too B-movie cliché for me. I left wondering whether films adapted from comics could ever work and would always end up seeming just too childish and naff. Then I saw Iron Man…”

Review: At 100 minutes the film is considerably leaner than most modern superhero movies. This decade’s Avengers films, for example, are 137 and 136 minutes, while the two recent Superman movies add up to around five hours. So with only an hour and a half before the credits start rolling, X-Men doesn’t hang about. The first 10 minutes feature a prologue set during the Second World War, the introduction of Rogue and her dangerous abilities, a debate in the Senate that kicks off the plot, the establishing of Charles and Eric’s rivalry, and the first sighting of Wolverine. It’s slick, enjoyable, intriguing stuff. However, it soon becomes clear that the trade-off for the bum-friendly running time is a flimsy plot. The movie feels like the pilot episode of a TV series. A lot of screen time is spent on introducing characters and explaining superpowers, while the story’s main beats are reduced to ‘heroes guess what the bad guy is up to’ followed by ‘heroes set off to stop him’. It’s not complex and there’s not much tension to anything. But it’s still obvious how influential the film’s been. Many subsequent comic-book adaptations have followed X-Men’s lead in playing things for real, for example. That 1944 prologue – showing a young Magneto in a Nazi concentration camp – is very important. Not only does it set up the themes of prejudice and fear of difference, but it also tells us this is not a traditional superhero film. This is set in a close approximation of the ‘real’ world, not the faux 1940s of the Christopher Reeve Superman films or the gothic Gotham City of Tim Burton’s Batman. The cast are also ‘playing the truth’ of the situations. There’s no Gene Hackman or Jack Nicholson given licence to camp it up, which adds weight to everything that’s happening. There may still be comic-book conventions on show (everyone has two names, the team dress up in silly costumes) but they’re also wittily undercut (Wolverine pokes fun at the aliases, his X-Men outfit doesn’t fit properly). There are regular moments of humour or humanity, in fact. The film has *heart*. The storytelling is also impressively clear, precise and confident. It’s just a shame it’s so simplistic. It doesn’t feel very ambitious.

Seven Statues of Liberty out of 10

Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E Elias Merhige)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Germany and Czechoslovakia, from around July 1921.

Faithful to the novel? Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalised account of the production of Nosferatu. (Now a classic of silent cinema, Nosferatu was an unauthorised film adaptation of Dracula. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere on this site.) In 1921, German director Friedrich Murnau casts Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok in his new film. Schreck insists on staying in character and grotesque make-up at all times, but this is not method acting: he is *actually a vampire*. In return for Schreck’s gruesome performance, Murnau will allow him to turn the movie’s leading lady once filming is complete… In reality, Max Schreck (1879-1936) was a character actor who was known as a bit of a loner with a strange sense of humour. FW Murnau (1888-1931) made many well-regarded German and American films in the 1920s, some of which are now lost.

Best performance: It’s a strong leading cast. John Malkovich and Willem Defoe are really terrific as Murnau and Schreck respectively. And Catherine McCormack is great value as the feisty, decadent diva Greta Schroeder, who’s playing the Mina equivalent in Nosferatu. In reality, Schroeder (1892-1967) was far from a big star in 1921 but Shadow repurposes her as a successful actress with bags of self-confidence. She repeatedly mentions the theatre and rehearsals: ie, she represents the old order. Murnau, dressed in his scientific white coat and steampunk goggles, represents the future – and that’s why he feels able to sacrifice her for his art. Also worth mentioning is Cary Elwes, who shows up halfway through as Fritz Arno Wagner. Here he’s a Lord Flashheart-like cameraman-cum-dilettante, but in real life Wagner (1889-1958) was a master cinematographer who shot many German Expressionist films as well as Fritz Lang’s classic M (1931). It’s Elwes’s second ‘Dracula’ role: he’d been in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.

Best bit: There are some moments of genuine creepiness. When the crew is filming Count Orlok’s first appearance in Nosferatu, he emerges from a darkened tunnel. Not only is it our first sighting of the character but his co-star Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) has never clapped eyes on him before and looks genuinely terrified. Von Wangenheim then has to go with the Count into the tunnel. Crucially, *we* never follow them inside it, which makes the shadowy space all the more threatening.

Review: This very interesting and very enjoyable movie is built on layers of subtext. There’s an enormous amount of *stuff* going on. For a start, there’s a parallel being drawn between the fiction of Nosferatu and the events going on behind the scenes. Unlike their real-life counterparts, the crew in Shadow of the Vampire shoot Nosferatu in narrative order. This allows us to follow both stories at the same time: the two strands run alongside each other; events and motivations are mirrored. (Orlok wants the girl in both, for example.) Also evident are similarities between the vampire myth and the moviemaking process. Film can bestow immortality, like a vampire; and at one point, Schreck stares down the lens of a projector, transfixed by its power to contain/recreate ‘life’. Shadow of the Vampire was made in the year 2000 but occasionally mixes in clips from the 1921 shoot for the actual Nosferatu, and this weaving together of footage from a eight-decade stretch again highlights the power of cinema. It can manipulate reality, twist time, control people’s actions – like a vampire. Munrau, meanwhile, is presented as an all-powerful director, browbeating his colleagues and imposing his will. At one point he says, “If it’s not in the frame it doesn’t exist.” This is the director as a dictator or god – a powerful ‘higher being’ with a singular vision. Like a vampire. A more obvious correlation is a visual rhyme going on with drugs and vampirism (ie, needles standing in for teeth), while there’s a nice comment on the text of Dracula when Schreck laments that the saddest part of the novel is when Dracula’s seen preparing his own dinner table. All fascinating stuff. It must be said that the film has blemishes – the *five-minute* title sequence really tests your patience; there’s some heavy-handed dialogue early on; and occasionally the editing can be a bit jarring – but the positives far outweigh the negatives. For example, there’s great fun in the general behind-the-curtain-ness. We get to see Murnau directing actors during takes (a common silent-era technique), men turning hand-cranked cameras, special-effects tricks being revealed, and shots from Nosferatu being carefully restaged. Period-apt intertitles are also used to speed the plot along when necessary. Add a dry line in comedy, brilliant performances, a nicely understated score and some lovely visual storytelling – the compositions, framings and blockings are often fantastic – and you have a fun little film that deserves to be more acclaimed.

Nine scientists engaged in the creation of memory out of 10

Dracula 2000 (2000, Patrick Lussier)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: We begin in 1897, on board the ship the Demeter then in London. We soon cut to the year 2000, in London and later New Orleans.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a new story – a sequel to the events of the book, in effect – but there are lots of interesting parallels. After a Victorian prologue, the main action takes place in 2000. Matthew Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) initially tells us that he’s the grandson of Abraham Van Helsing, the man Bram Stoker fictionalised in his novel. Matthew runs an organisation called Carfax Antiquaries and collects ancient weapons. One night, a team of criminals break into his vaults, where they find a coffin – inside it are the remains of Count Dracula, who was defeated a century earlier. When the crims steal the coffin and fly it back to America, Dracula (Gerard Butler) is accidentally resurrected and starts killing. The plane crashes near New Orleans and the pilot is later found lashed to his controls (a nice echo of the captain of the Demeter in the novel). Van Helsing and protégé Simon Sheppard (Johnny Lee Miller using a wideboy accent) follow the count to the States and start to hunt down the vampires he’s created. Van Helsing also reveals that he’s actually Abraham: he’s been taking small doses of vampire blood for over a century in order to extend his life. (We see flashbacks to him capturing Dracula in 1897: it’s nothing like what happens in the novel. Is the idea that Bram Stoker invented all the stuff with Jonathan Harker and the others?) Unfortunately, Van Helsing’s connection to vampire blood has been passed on to his daughter, Mary (Justine Waddell, poor), who Dracula is now targeting… The character of Dracula is given a new history – after the clichéd hint that he’s Vlad the Impaler, we get the real story. In a move that adds an extra layer of meaning to the film’s title, it’s revealed that Dracula was Judas Iscariot before his immortality – hence his dislike of Christian symbolism and his allergy to silver. There are also some other interesting rhymes with the novel: Mary’s best mate is called Lucy Westerman (sic), a police doctor is named Seward, while three of Dracula’s female victims form a version of the Brides.

Best performance: Nathan Fillion shows up as a priest, a role that prefigures his grandstanding stint in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a show that must surely have been an influence on this movie).

Best bit: Newly arrived in America, Dracula attacks a TV reporter (Jeri Ryan) and cuts her throat – but because we view the incident through the viewfinder of a camera (which uses a mirror) we don’t see the vampire as he does it.

Review: A pleasant surprise. ‘Executive produced’ by horror legend Wes Craven, this is good schlocky fun. There are effective scares, a few good gags, and lots of pleasing directorial flourishes. It also inventively riffs on Stoker’s story and characters, while there’s a pleasing combination of old-school horror tropes and modern, high-tech thriller elements. It’s not perfect, of course, and sadly the two lead characters – Simon and Mary – are very underwritten. But this is a mid-budget B-movie that isn’t embarrassed to be a mid-budget B-movie. It revels in its genre-ness and is all more entertaining for it. (When released in Europe several months after its US debut, it was renamed Dracula 2001.)

Eight Virgin Megastore logos* out of 10

*The movie’s director claims on the DVD commentary that the frequency and blatancy with which we see the Virgin logo is not actually product placement but rather a gag punning on the brand’s name.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy vs. Dracula (The WB, 26 September 2000, David Solomon)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Sunnydale, California, in the year 2000.

Faithful to the novel? This opening episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season pits our heroine and her friends against Dracula, who’s suddenly arrived in town. It’s a new plot, but there are a lot of echoes of the book. The Count (played by Rudolf Martin) is delivered to his new home in coffins full of dirt. He can transform into wisps of smoke, a wolf and a bat. (When he turns into smoke while Buffy’s trying to stake him, she complains: “That’s cheating!”) Dracula easily bends Xander to his will; Xander thus becomes an equivalent of book character Renfield (even eating insects). Buffy is seduced while in a kind of waking dream and is bitten on the neck. Also, Giles has an encounter with a trio of Dracula’s Brides. The original idea for the episode was for Buffy to fight a master vampire *akin* to Dracula. But then executive producer Joss Whedon pointed out that the character was in the public domain…

Best performance: Nicholas Brendon’s very funny as the enthralled Xander, who flips between bitterly moaning about his lot and being subservient.

Best bit: A lot to chose from – mostly the comedy moments. When Dracula portentously introduces himself, there’s a beat before an excited Buffy says, “Get out!” When Xander meets Dracula he mocks his accent and does an impression of the Count from Sesame Street. He later nonchalantly locks girlfriend Anya in a cupboard. But the highlight is Giles’s reluctance to be ‘saved’ from the sexy Brides: “My shoe! Silly me, I’ll just pop back…”

Review: This is by no means one of the best episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (my favourite TV show, incidentally). I can think of a dozen straightaway that are better, while two online rankings I saw put it 100th and 65th. But it’s a reflection of the show’s high quality that it’s so entertaining. This is witty, playful and inventive stuff, full of character comedy and emotion-driven plotting. Smartly, each of the regulars has a different reaction to Dracula turning up: Buffy is excited by the danger, Willow thinks he’s sexy, Xander feels jealous, Giles feels left out, Riley feels threatened, and so on. The episode is having great postmodern fun with the clichés of the myth, but it’s far from just a spoof. Superb.

Eight big, honking castles out of 10

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

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Written by Ethan and Joel; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Three convicts – Ulysses Everett McGill, Delmar O’Donnell and Pete Hogwallop – escape a 1930s chain gang and set out to recover some buried treasure. Along the way, they inadvertently become singing sensations…

Seen before? Yes, on 25 October 2000 at a cinema in Derby with my then-housemate Hilary and some university mates.

Best performance: George Clooney’s having an absolute blast playing pomade-obsessed Ulysses. Batman notwithstanding, he’s fantastic every time I see him – From Dusk Till Dawn is still one of my favourite films. He’s a movie star not afraid to take character roles.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Pete is played by John Turturro (4) is Pete, while Holly Hunter (3) plays Ulysses’s wife. Clooney (1) will be back. John Goodman (5) shows up as a one-eyed Bible salesman, Stephen Root (1) as the blind guy who runs the radio station, and Charles Durning (2) as Governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel (2).

Best bit: The sirens. Blimey.

Review: Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey (no, I’ve not read it either), this is a madcap comedy with lots of pleasingly bizarre twists. It’s very episodic, so we get a succession of new characters/incidents – rednecks, gangsters, politicians, musicians, the Ku Klux Klan – all entertaining and fun in their own right. It’s also pretty much a musical in disguise and looks beautiful: daytime scenes are dusty, sunkissed, almost sepia, with lots of oranges, browns and mushroom greys. Really enjoyable stuff. I loved seeing it again.

Nine tins of Dapper Dan out of 10.