Sunday 30 May 2021


On the run from law enforcement, arsonist Simon (Kyle Gallner) tries to raise some quick cash for his secret punk band PsyOps, for whom he adopts the persona of the mysterious balaclava-clad frontman, John Q. After befriending the socially awkward Patty (Emily Skeggs), the pair begin to stir things up in their boring, suburban town like a pair of outlaws, with Patty unaware that Simon leads a double life as the punk singer she's been sending love poems and sexy polaroids too. Directed by Adam Rehmeier and produced by Ben Stiller, Dinner in America is available from June 1st on the Arrow Player.

A dependable screen presence but perhaps lacking a signature role, Gallner, with his borderline neo-nazi haircut and permanent "fuck you" attitude, chews up every scene here with a sneer on his face and a cigarette in his mouth and enjoying every second of it. Simon is abrasive, sociopathic, an affront to traditional suburban American values and precisely the sort of agent of chaos the meek, shy Patty needs injecting into her drab life, cleaning the cages in a pet store. Apart from her supporting role in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, I was unfamiliar with Skeggs's previous roles, and although her Patty might start the film as something of a black canvas, she has fun taking her to where she ends up.

The film is interspersed with a series of traditional polite family dinners (hence the title), with Simon the inciting influence that the topic of conversation tends to veer away from what you'd expect over the dinner table and most often no-one's sticking around for dessert. It's at these moments where the film's rich vein of black humour comes to the front, with Simon unafraid of being outright hostile towards his hosts, whether it's revealing to one young boy that he's adopted or accepting the sexual advances of a bored housewife (Lea Thompson in a brief cameo, adding to the great supporting cast of Mary Lynn Rajskub and Pat Healy as Patty's parents). 

Wearing its 'young couple on the run' movie influences on its sleeve, it's Badlands meets Buffalo '66 with the comic sensibilities of David Cross's directorial debut, HITS (an under-seen gem). Although certainly not conventional, in many ways it's a true romance, with Simon and Patty moving from animosity to unsteady friendship to pure renegade lust for each other, once they reveal their true selves and then can't bear to be apart from one another. Dinner in America may have a cold, black heart, but for sure it's still beating. Right up there with the best f-ed up love stories, Dinner in America offers so many great moments that make you want to cheer Simon and Patty on, like getting revenge on not one, but two pairs of locals who routinely call Patty a "retard", a surprisingly fruitful musical collaboration that will still be playing in your head once the credits have rolled, and fun details like a license plate that says "69URMOM" and lines like "you fucks just made my shit list".

But what's most impressive is how director/writer/editor Adam Rehmeier has managed to deliver a story with a real, anarchic punk attitude - something other films claim to offer, but that Dinner in America does with ease. That's in no small part thanks to Gallner and Skeggs, who have a real combustable energy whenever they're on screen together in a film that's fiery, funny and kinda fucked up in the best possible way.



Dinner In America is available on:

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£9.99 to buy

£5.49 to rent

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Saturday 8 May 2021


Released after the tragic events of 9/11, composer William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops albums came to speak for those lost for words when mourning the lives of so many in New York City. Now, nearly 20 years later, David Wexler's documentary uses interviews with Basinski and a selection of music aficionados to assess the impact of the ambient albums and reframe them against the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Created using a 12 inch piece of audio tape passing through a recording device on a short loop (roughly two seconds), Basinski noticed that as the quality of the tape quickly degraded, aspects of the audio changed as "drop-outs" occurred, creating a truly unique piece of sound that would in time destroy itself when played. Working on them during 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Basinski - who was due to go for a job interview at the World Trade Center and watched the towers fall from the roof of his building - merged his new music with footage of the giant smoke cloud drifting over the New York skyline, creating a poignant elegy to the city and becoming an instant hit.

This film starts with this music, now placed over black and white footage of deserted New York streets and Central Park, signs of closure and social distancing immediately making us aware this was filmed in recent times. Such is the unescapable harmonious beauty of Basinski's most famous work that there's a compelling argument that, had director David Wexler created an artistic extension to the music of Disintegration Loop 1.1 and allowed all 63 minutes to play out over images of a pandemic hit NYC, the parallels between the two most troubling times the city has had to face this millennium could have made for a powerful re-contextualising of the music, whilst also paying respects to those lost in 2001.

But, this isn't that kind of documentary. Instead Wexler's 45 minute film provides us with a potted history of Basinski and his career, from his beginnings in high school bands to moving to NYC in the 80s, playing at CBGB's and launching his Arcadia club in a trendy NY loft space (where the cover photo for Jeff Buckley's Grace album was shot). The frank and open Basinski appears via numerous Zoom-style calls to Wexler to talk about his early life, struggles as a musician, creative process and experience recording and releasing his best known work around 9/11. Framed within the pandemic, there's a worry that although these Zoom interviews help establish the context for the time this film was made - and are a necessary evil to have any sort of contact with interviewees - they lack a certain visual flare or cinematic language that help avoid giving the film an inbuilt expiry date. It's a quibble over something I do realise Wexler was cornered into when this film went into production mid-pandemic, but it's to the detriment of the lasting impact it may have that it's an often uninspiring watch, particularly when the early shots of a deserted New York work so well against Basinski's music. 

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 later in the year, it's an appropriate time to look back on The Disintegration Loops, and although the film purports to use the music as a soundtrack for a city in lockdown, it doesn't manage to convincingly do this barring some bookended sequences, instead functioning more as a promotional film for William Basinski. Whilst rightly appreciating the truly beautiful pieces of ambient music that has brought Basinski fame and recognition in the years since, although the pandemic production may have hamstrung a more visually memorable film, the impact of his music certainly won't just fade away.



Thursday 6 May 2021


Now in full swing and launching a selection of cinema screenings today is this year's Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, better and more succinctly known as CPH:DOX. Among this year's selection is A Song Called Hate, following the Icelandic rockers Hatari as they enter Eurovision.

Known for their outlandish performances that blend performance art, bondage gear, leather and growled lyrics over pulsating electronic rhythms, Hatari aren't exactly the first band you'd have in mind for the traditionally 'bubblegum pop', family friendly institution that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Chosen as their country's entry in 2019 with their song Hatrið mun sigra (AKA Hate Will Prevail), although the title is as provocative as the fascistic imagery the band uses, they're nice boys really and want to warn about the rise of nationalism across Europe, including their native Iceland. With the expectation that the Enfant terrible band will use the global platform of potentially 200 million Eurovision viewers to deliver a political message that others daren't, the staging of that year's contest in Tel Aviv provokes the opportunity for them to comment (or as they put it "uphold a critical discussion") on Israeli-Palestinian relations in some way.

A collective that expands to over 10 members in the run up to the contest, in reality the band is largely the work of two cousins, Klemens Hannigan and Matti Haraldsson, who have performed together since childhood and who launched the band along with drummer Einar Steffanson in 2015. The frontmen of the band and the focus of this film, Icelandic director Anna Hildur's documentary follows them in the weeks before the concert in Tel Aviv as they embark on a promotional tour of Europe and meet and collaborate with Palestinian musician Bashar for a tour of Israeli-Palestinian borders and camps to see the problems for themselves.

It might sound odd for a film ostensibly about Eurovision - best known for its bright, hopeful outlook on the world - to wade in on the Israel/Palestine conflict, and yes, it is a bizarre amalgam of tones that you have to allow yourself to be taken in by, but to be frank, the Eurovision stage has seen stranger things happen in its time. Matti and Klemens remaining stoic and monosyllabic in interviews with press about what their plans are, but the documentary does capture a slight slipping of the mask as the group collectively ponders what their protest should be, and what potentially career ending repercussions they might face from the power of the European broadcasters. It's clear that they've backed themselves into a corner of staging a protest but with no actual idea of how to pull it off in a meaningful way that will be seen, with a Eurovision imposed 15 second time delay in place to make sure none of the acts attempt to slip anything too outrageous in during their 'live' performances.

In fairness to Hatari, despite the infamy they are courting and the unavoidable feeling that their protest is simply another part of their act, their desire to use their platform to deliver a meaningful message to create social change seems genuine enough, if somewhat naive. For all their pomp and composure, Hildur's camera captures some real moments of truth from the band, such as the Matti's anxiety that leads to tears before their performance, the sharp intake of breath after the loosening of a girdle worn by one member to walk the red carpet, and their collective panic once their small, but effective (and crucially, televised) protest finally takes place during the Eurovision broadcast.

Like 2006's Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up & Sing, that saw the band deal with the fallout from their comments on George W. Bush's Iraq War with unsteady support from some and virulent distain from others, A Song Called Hate never fully explores all the issues surrounding the Israel/Palestine divide, nor does it have the time to do so. Instead it works best as a document on how artists can use their platform and visibility to engage in political activism in a meaningful way and provoke wider discussion on the topic. As to whether they should, that remains open to debate. Whether Eurovision wanted to or not, they gave Hatari a stage and the opportunity to use their performance to send a message to the world, and isn't that really what Eurovision should be about, anyway? A lively, engaging mix of performance and politics, A Song Called Hate is one to enjoy.




Following in the footsteps of the almighty retro arcade doc King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Mads Hedegaard's Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest charts another plucky contender hoping to make gaming history by playing his favourite arcade game for 100 hours straight. Hoping to achieve the feat is the brilliantly named Kim "Kanonarm" Köbke - a nickname he's had since he first starting playing games in Danish diners in the 1980s - a mulleted Danish grandfather who loves listening to Iron Maiden and playing the classic arcade game Gyruss among his friends at Copenhagen's Bip Bip Bar. An outer space-set shooter that sees you manoeuvre a space craft around the screen as you blast away patterns of stars, Kim once set a Gyruss record by playing for 49 hours on one coin, but with the help of his friends his new goal is to beat that record in honour of Thomas, a friend they lost to suicide.

Attempting this record is not without its health risks, and although Kim is in decent shape for a man his age, people have died attempting similar endurance records. And so his team of supporters have tailored a complicated score tracking system to help in his efforts and make sure the game - much like the famed Donkey Kong kill screen - doesn't crap out on him and bring his record attempt to a halt. Starting off with 5 lives and only ever showing a maximum of 5 on screen, he can technically accrue around 250 extra before the game errors, so he must keep track of how many he wins so he doesn't hit the top limit. Conversely, he can allow the game to play on without him so he can grab some much needed sleep for ten minutes or so, but someone must count the lost lives to make sure he doesn't lose them all. All Kim has to do is concentrate on his scoring, keep his eyes open, and hastily run to the garden whenever he needs to take a leak.

The comparisons to King of Kong are unavoidable with its use of flash graphics and retro 8-bit sounds, but Mads Hedegaard's film doesn't shy away from acknowledging the existence of the former, going as far as featuring a couple of the big names from that film and the world of arcade gaming, Walter Day from official scorekeepers Twin Galaxies, and the self-proclaimed "greatest arcade machine player" Billy Mitchell, who talks to Kim and his friends via telephone ahead of their record attempt, and before a cheating scandal sees him fall from grace in the eyes of his fans. Prior viewing of King of Kong isn't necessary to enjoy Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest's own underdog story, with Hedegaard going some way to show why the quiet, unassuming Kim is such an unlikely but perfect subject for a documentary in the way that his mind works when he's paying the game. If you do know your arcade gamers, needless to say that Kim is definitely more of a Steve Wiebe than a Billy Mitchell, and gains more of our support for it. As for Kim's team, they're a similarly unique group of gamers, thankfully a lot more vocal and outgoing than Kim, who double as experts in the fields of music theory, physics and poetry.

The documentary spends its first hour detailing the prep and training needed for the record attempt, before switching into its final act as Kim settles down in front of the Gyruss machine and gives us the kind of one man against the odds battle not seen since the finale of Rocky. It could be easy to dismiss the film and his record attempt as frivolous, but as we hear the game play on and Kim's cache of lives fall away as he attempts to rest his brain for a few precious minutes, it's one of the tensest moments in cinema I can recall. Not wanting to reveal the result of his record attempt, what I will say is that for anyone who's ever experienced one of these life-engulfing obsessions that seem completely alien to most other people, there's so much to relate to in Kim and his friends and their collective efforts to have a lasting impact in the world they call their own.

A gloriously fun journey into this outsider lifestyle anchored by a loveable group of misfits you can't help but root for, Cannon Arm and The Arcade Quest is undoubtedly the best snapshot of this subculture since King of Kong and a truly captivating underdog story. A strong recommend.



Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest is now showing as part of this year's CPH:DOX festival. Tickets for its cinema screenings can be purchased here.