The Handmaiden (2016) – Film Review

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An adaptation of Sarah Waters’ acclaimed Victorian-era erotic thriller Fingersmith, The Handmaiden transposes the action to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Stoker), who also worked on the adapted screenplay, this is a big step up for a director mostly known before for his highly stylised scenes of ultraviolence. Like far too many talented directors, Chan-wook’s technical audacity has been squandered away on an obsession with gratuitous gore and cold, empty characterisations that, filmed in the right lighting, are perceived as Art by easily duped critics. He has shown more sympathy for the mechanics of vengeance than, say, real people, which I’ve always found disconcerting.

Which makes The Handmaiden all the more of a surprise. It’s not just beautifully photographed, evocatively scored, and sumptuously designed (in sets, lighting, colour, make-up and all other departments). It’s not just unusually gripping and tense from beginning to end, like no other film I’ve seen this year. It’s also a major, accomplished piece of humane filmmaking. Thrillingly driven by a myriad of emotions, of which vengeance is thankfully but a minor one, the characters here live and breathe in three dimensions, they have complex and contradictory webs of desire, and they act in consistently surprising ways. It’s Chan-wook’s first novel-on-film, as opposed to a shop-of-horrors designed expressly to shock.

He gets some great performances from the leads. Kim Tae-ri flitters between hysteria and calm as Sook-hee, a pickpocket hired by the con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to act as handmaiden to Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and convince her to marry him. Hideko is a fabulously wealthy orphan, and it’s the fortune rather than the woman that the Count is after. So the pre-hatched plan is to send Hideko off to a mental asylum shortly after they marry and then split the stolen dowry with Sook-hee. But human foibles get in the way. Hideko starts to fall in love with Sook-hee, not the Count, which complicates the double-crossing at play. And Sook-hee in turn falls for Hideko. Or does she…?

As The Handmaiden progresses we are shown the same crucial scenes of wooing and lovemaking from the perspective of different characters, and it has the disorientating (but thrilling) effect that our assumptions concerning who is ‘performing’ in the romantic and sexual liaisons of the three main characters are continually readjusted. Love and sex are two areas in life where the strong-willed can be reduced to weakness, and as such they are powerful tools to be used in manipulating others. As the plot twists and turns, we begin to question whether the purity of love or sex can ever exist at all, or whether there will always be an element of performance to them. The pivotal sex scene between Sook-hee and Hideko, for example, starts with them pretending to be man and wife on their wedding night, so are we to believe that the grunts and groans which follow are genuine, or are they all just a part of the scene’s role-playing? Is Sook-hee preparing Hideko for her first night with the Count, or is she enacting her own desires upon this beautiful woman beneath her? Can there ever be a complete connection between lust and love, we wonder?

The film bravely poses an answer to all of these questions in its final scene, which of course I won’t dare to spoil. But look out for it, and consider its meaning very carefully. I believe the ending is the most audacious and inspiring thing that Chan-wook has yet committed to film, and even if it comes directly from Sarah Waters’ book, the boldness required to bring it to life onscreen is remarkable.

Still, the film is not perfect: Chan-wook can’t resist a lengthy scene of grizzly torture, which clearly gives him as much of a hard-on as the sex scenes, what with its lavish close-ups of mutilation. I’ve heard nary a word about this particular scene in the press’s lengthy discussions on the film’s morality, a dispiriting example of how violence is perceived as more ‘normal’ in the world of film than sex. People will sit quietly through scenes of the most excessive bloodletting and be unperturbed, yet lose their shit when they see two naked women getting it on.

Indeed, there has been some criticism that the explicit scenes of lesbian lovemaking are an uncomfortable example of male wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than an ode to female liberation, because they’re filmed by a guy director. To these accusations I would reply that not only were these scenes far more explicit in the original novel, Fingersmith, but also that the author herself gave this film her seal of approval, demonstrating that Chan-wook has stayed close to the spirit of his source material rather than indulging in his own masturbatory fantasies (though of course he could be doing both, at least he’s not doing the latter in any unjustifiably excessive way).

Taken overall the film is a resplendent celebration of female sexuality, and this couldn’t be clearer. Even in this day and age, that’s an astonishingly rare thing to find in cinema (it’s more frequent in pop music, one of the main reasons I’ve become attracted to that form above film in recent years). Most art films are so eager to prove their smarts and tell us something downbeat about humanity that they forget the main reason why we have sex: because it’s fun. I recently watched Raw, a horror film that is being applauded on the arthouse circuit for linking sexual awakening to cannibalism, without anyone acknowledging how deeply, deeply silly that concept is even on a surface level – cannibalism is an aberration in human nature, whereas sex is a universal part of it, so equating them doesn’t make much sense at all.

Stick to The Handmaiden, which is a film about fucking that’s the real deal: sex as pleasure, as performance, sometimes as manipulation, but most importantly, when it’s good, as love.

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Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (2017) – Album Review

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Rap is the most exciting musical genre on the planet right now, and Kendrick Lamar is easily one of its most exciting young talents. Yet the hype stirred up on Twitter and beyond by this album’s release has been beyond ridiculous – he’s been compared to Gandhi in some quarters, to Jesus in others (the Easter Sunday ‘resurrection’ album that fans predicted and, er, mysteriously never materialised).

As anyone who’s ever listened closely to K.Dot’s lyrics will know, he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy: ‘Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit’ goes one line on this album; ‘I’ll prolly die at these house parties fuckin’ with bitches’ goes another. These are enough to give any Fox News anchor a brain haemorrhage, but they’re true to the language of the street, and they’re true to the cultural world of hip-hop from which Kendrick emerges – for better and worse. More importantly, these blunt depictions of street life contrast with the regular doses of decency and thoughtfulness offered up by the Good Kid in the M.A.A.D City: ‘pride’s gonna be the death of you and me’ he worries at one point, in a self-reminder to always be humble; at another he sweetly tells a girl that he respects ‘the cat’ and asks politely to put his head in it. ‘It’s okay,’ she replies.

The values learnt on the streets of Compton, those of violence and braggadocio, come square up against the values of the church, with its promise that the meek will inherit the earth, again and again on DAMN. ‘PRIDE’ and ‘HUMBLE’ appear next to each other in the tracklist (interestingly ‘PRIDE’ is more about humility and ‘HUMBLE’ is a boast track), as do ‘LUST’ and ‘LOVE’, as do ‘FEAR’ and ‘GOD’, to hammer home the internal conflicts at play. No simple moraliser, Kendrick is always willing, eager even, to admit his own faults and hypocrisies, much like a certain Kanye. Yet it all culminates in ‘DUCKWORTH’, a real-life street narrative involving an incident many years ago where record label CEO Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Triffith nearly killed Kendrick’s father. That Kendrick and Anthony can now work with each other in the studio demonstrates the redemptive power of music in a hopeless world of cynical violence, absolving any former beefs with a joining together of creative powers. It offers a way out of the endless cycle of pointless street killings. It offers hope.

All of which is fascinating and compelling, a psychological and spiritual puzzle of the highest order, which makes the 5 star raves to have greeted this album not only predictable but also understandable. Still… let’s calm down, take a deep breath, and assess DAMN.’s success with equanimity, shall we?

We all know that Kendrick can spit bars like an AK-47, pen rhymes like a bard, spin tracks like a wizard – he’s one of the most talented musicians around, for sure. So I expect more from him than what’s on offer here, a slapdash mess of intermittent brilliance that comes closer to the chaos of untitled unmastered. than the coherence of a masterpiece like GKMC or TPAB. Those highlights had a clear sonic identity that emerged from their overall concepts. So the downbeat atmospherics that seeped through GKMC perfectly conveyed that album’s melancholic portrayal of a boy exhausted with the thug life in Compton; and the extraordinary jazz-funk party of TPAB contributed immensely to that career-high’s celebration of black culture. With DAMN. the only concept that seems to exist is that of trying to please everyone at once, blatantly following Drake into trap’s subgenre marketplace on most tracks, in a concession to his more commercial fanbase, whilst simultaneously juggling elements of less danceable electronica, and throwing in some live instrumentation from old faves like dynamite bassist Thundercat on ‘FEEL’, and strings arranged by Kamasi Washington on ‘LUST’, to appeal to the more traditionally minded (i.e. ‘real’ music snobs).

Kendrick has reached that rarefied station of upper-echelon artistic acclaim (see also Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen, Radiohead) where everything he does is immediately cited as proof of his genius, hence why many publications have already been claiming the musical eclecticism on DAMN. to be an example of the man’s restless desire to push into new territory. But to my ears, and I listen to albums a lot, it sounds more like the result of a lack of clear focus, and a petrifying fear of alienating various factions of his fanbase. He readily admits to his ‘fear of losin’ creativity’ on ‘FEAR’, and it shows. Especially in his tendency to switch up beats purely for the ‘WOW!’ factor, some time before they’ve had a chance to fully establish a groove. The technical mastery on display is sometimes not genius, it’s just showing off – opting for form over content, in the same way that bad guitarists do in the dick-waving look-at-me solos of the heavy metal scene.

That said, there’s always a moment on every track that makes me sit up and go damn, and usually there’s more than one. Whether it’s the Al Green falsetto sleezing up ‘LUST’, the thrill of the delivery justifying the self-satisfaction of the sentiment on ‘DNA’, the lurching between thwomping electronic beats and a minimalist(!) U2 on ‘XXX’, going all psychedelic soul on our asses on ‘PRIDE’, or riding a mutated Bruno Mars sample with Rihanna on ‘LOYALTY’, I’m so often engaged and enthused as a listener that it carries away all care of the overall chaos. And it’s my pleasure to announce that one track is a genuinely poppy R&B ballad that is wholly and unironically about love, which should annoy all the right people – namely those who believe that Kendrick’s greatness lies within his supposed links to the ‘avant-garde’ (i.e. white hipsters).

His greatness lies elsewhere, namely in a fervent desire to hold on, at all costs, to some sort of concept, romantic or religious or otherwise, of ‘LOVE’. Even in the face of unspeakable violence, the endless cesspool of racial injustice, deplorable political figureheads… and his own monstrous ego. A deservedly monstrous ego, emanating as it does from the towering proportions of his quite undeniable, virtually irrepressible brilliance.

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Conor Oberst: Salutations (2017) – Album Review

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I’m such a fan of Conor Oberst’s alternately acid/alkali lyrics (scourging his enemies or scouring his own thoughts) that I enjoyed last year’s solo acoustic set Ruminations when I reviewed it, whereas many critics understandably didn’t. Too dirge-like, sure, but melodic enough to carry a sympathetic listener away regardless. Salutations, in contrast, is warm and welcoming to all, a full band brought in to beef up the sound and add a community atmosphere to the 10 songs originally featured on Ruminations, with 7 new ones tossed in for good measure. The backing band consists of young folk-rock maestros The Felice Brothers and 74 year-old drummer Jim Keltner, who more than holds his own in these sessions at twice Oberst’s age, and they all sound attuned to the auteur’s every warble. I agree with AllMusic and Robert Christgau that what impresses most this time around is the musicality and confident attitudinising, as opposed to the painful depths of the lyrics that were the highlight on Ruminations. When targeting Ronald Reagan on ‘A Little Uncanny’, with full band now in tow, it serves the ex-President a stinging slap to the face. Yet not all the songs benefit from the remodelling, and perhaps a few could have done with cutting from the overdosed 67 minute running time – did we really need ‘Tachycardia’ and ‘You All Loved Him Once’ yet again in this setting? Still, hard to complain all that much when you have stonking new songs such as ‘Napalm’ and ‘Anytime Soon’, which sound more Dylan than Dylan has in many a year. I’ll still play Ruminations at midnight when feeling blue. But most of the day is not comprised of midnight’s dark, luckily, and so for that reason we have all been given Salutations.

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The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (2017) – Album Review

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A well-named band: they provide all of the instant-gratification of pornography, it’s just that the testosterone rush comes from pop hooks and quick tempos rather than exploitation. Hurrah for them, especially when the band is as gender-balanced as it is – in contrast to pornography’s submissive women, backup and sometime lead vocalists Neko Case and Kathryn Calder come on strong and keep getting stronger. Focus on the ‘New’, i.e. progressive.

That said, the star of the show is and always has been A.C. Newman, lead singer and now sole songwriter following the departure of Dan Bejar (never a patch on him anyway). Bejar would often throw curveballs at the Pornographers’ records – see his ‘Spidyr’ on Brill Bruisers, which murmured dully along until suddenly letting loose on a freakish harmonica solo. These oddball Bejarisms were fun but didn’t always sit well with Newman’s more classically structured pop songs, so it comes as no surprise that Whiteout Conditions is the band’s most consistent album yet.

11 songs in 40 minutes, it’s as short and snappy as any great pop record should be. Compactness is the name of the game, and that applies as much to Newman’s 3-4 minute songwriting as to new drummer Joe Seider’s unfussy tempo-keeping and fills. In fact, Seider’s stability is a major asset here, demonstrating its importance through his absence on the album’s worst track, ‘We’ve Been Here Before’, which sounds aimless but you don’t know why, until the drums kick back in again on ‘Juke’ and you realise that’s why.

Up high in the mix with the percussion are the keyboards and a whole host of synthesizers, continuing the band’s fascination with Kraturock and 80s pop demonstrated on their last album, Brill Bruisers. Further moving away from the straight-up rock of their early releases (at least relatively straight-up – their influences were always eclectic), you have to concentrate hard to discern the guitars, which are drowned beneath waves of other electronic instruments. In the codas to each song, as the synths invariably dominate, you could say that they sound more like New Order than New Pornographers. But the band maintains a clear identity throughout, especially on ‘Second Sleep’, where the chopped and sampled vocals of the gal singers go beyond New Order’s chilly textures to find the humour lurking underneath.

Some highlights: barnstormer ‘High Ticket Attractions’, which plays the male and female vocalists off each other to generate mucho excitement (a trick deployed many times on this album, but never more effectively); ‘Colosseums’, which somehow incorporates a marimba seamlessly into the electro-pop groove; ‘Clockwise’, which perhaps has the snakiest synth riff of the lot, biting mischievously at the drums. Generally, though, the individual tunes don’t stand out as well as the overall consistency of playful sound, which is the main reason that you’ll want to return to the album.

The words are the main flaw here. Newman sometimes creates a likeable impression as a lyricist, one who is honest enough to admit ‘I only play for money, honey’ and manages to talk about his battles with depression in revealing terms (on the title track). But if the overall concept is how to write, perform and tour in a successful band, whilst pushing all personal demons aside, then it only occasionally piques any interest in the lifestyle. Ultimately, a touring band is closed off from the rest of the world, and it shows here.

As mentioned before though, the main reason you’ll want to spin Whiteout Conditions is the fast-paced, optimistic noise it offers up to soothe your soul. It manages to avoid Krautrock pastiche through sheer enthusiasm and vigour, which is as admirable an achievement as any I’ve witnessed in pop music all year.

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Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (2017) – Album Review

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Of all the great musicians to have passed in 2016, perhaps the least remarked upon, unsurprisingly, was Ndiouga Dieng, one of the lead singers of the legendary Senegalese collective Orchestra Baobab. Here is his heartfelt tribute, in the form of another superb album from what remains of the band.

Orchestra Baobab formed in Dakar in the early 70s, just as Latin dance music was starting to make an impact on West Africa. The music was brought over on records with western colonialists (a rare kind gesture) and immediately spoke to the rhythmically minded local musicians, whose innovations had in turn helped to inspire the Cuban son and other Caribbean dance crazes several decades ago.

The result of this cross-pollination was Orchestra Baobab’s Afro-Cuban fusion style, owing in equal parts to each tradition. Their enormous success at the club level in Senegal paved the way for mbalax and Youssou N’Dour’s meteoric rise to international fame. Yet as N’Dour’s star rose, so did Baobab’s fall, not helped by the death of their original griot singer Laye Mboup in 1974. So they called it a day in the early 80s, after recording the now-classic Pirates Choice.

That would’ve been the end were it not for Nick Gold, head of World Circuit, who along with no other than Youssou N’Dour produced 2002’s spectacular comeback album Specialist in All Styles, which finally brought Baobab the international acclaim they’d always been denied, interestingly by rerecording old 70s and 80s hits with higher production values. 2007’s Made in Dakar repeated the same trick, and repeated their acclaim, but then again afterwards there was… silence.

Until now. Drawn out of their decade-long retirement by the death of Dieng (presumably) this ‘tribute’ is hardly morose – it’s the upbeat groove record we’ve come to expect from the band. There are still the other lead singers to play off each other in Wolof and French, ululating with a joy that transcends language. And there is still the prominently mixed percussion, grounding everything in a syncopation that lets you know just how this music is meant to be heard: in the process of dancing. Dancing quite awkwardly, if you’re as white and British as I am.

One marked change is that most of these tracks are originals (the exception is ‘Sey’) for the first time in 35 years. The continuity of these songs, in terms of quality, from past offerings demonstrates the continued success of their cohesiveness as a unit, despite the loss of certain group members.

Indeed another sad loss is long-time guitarist Barthelemy Attisso, who chose to pursue a law career in his native Togo rather than carry on with the Orchestra, meaning that he’s been replaced with a kora player for the first time. The hole left by Attisso is a big one – his electric musings on guitar, walking the tightrope between continental musical styles, were always a highlight, and what’s more his interest in American rock stylings (wah-wah pedal particularly) gave western listeners an accessible aural entry point.

Yet gone he is, and Abdouleye Cissoko’s kora playing is therefore what comes to define the sound of the new record. Unfortunately, the instrument is presented without accompaniment on ‘Mariama’, a track that comes halfway through and kills the album’s momentum with its air of faux-mysticism. But on other songs – when its elegant strings are used to jack up the groove by sprinkling fairy dust on the infectious saxophone chants, for instance, or surrounding and massaging the rhythm guitar – the results are magic. I love how its descending patterns augment the conguera in ‘Douga’, and Cissoko’s solo in ‘Magnokouto’ is quite something to behold.

If there is a spirituality to be found in music (I’m doubtful), it’s probably to be found in the physical forcefulness of dance music and not the ponderous mysticism presented in a few tracks here. But preconceptions are always meant to be challenged, and my scepticism regarding the kora is indeed shattered on the last track. Here the instrument, again without accompaniment, works up a sweat all on its own and firmly holds the attention for the admittedly short running time. I still prefer horns-drums-guitars Baobab, but you can never deny that the group really are specialists in all world music styles.

So all that remains to be said is this: long live the Orchestra Baobab, no matter what their present or future line-up might be. Make sure to buy this album and, oh my, go and see them live if you possibly can.

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The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (2017) – Album Review

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69 Love Songs. The Charm of the Highway Strip. Distortion. The Magnetic Fields’ albums tell you straight-up what their concept is, and 50 Song Memoir sure delivers on its title’s promise. 50 songs. 5 CDs. 10 songs per CD. Each song representing a year in bonkers genius Stephin Merritt’s life, and not a single one of them over 4 minutes. Boom. As tidy as we’ve come to expect from this mad formalist.

At 2 hours and 30 mins this will demand a heavy chunk of your lifespan in order to play, replay, and let it sink in as it deserves. But it will reward your attention, with some of Merritt’s best quips, character sketches, and general musings on offer.

The twist this time around is the added ‘memoir’ element to the lyrics, a first for the notoriously aloof writer. In Merritt’s words these are: ‘a mix of autobiography (bedbugs, Buddhism, buggery) and documentary (hippies, Hollywood, hyperacusis)’. All set to his accustomed musical style of thickly laid on synthesizers, randomly assorted instruments (100+, most played by him) and of course ukuleles. If you’re not grinning several times throughout then maybe this whole ‘pop music’ thing isn’t for you.

Disc One: The most philosophical segment, the main topics here being religion, spirituality, and a wide variety of superstitions, all of which were instilled in the young Merritt by a mum who believes in everything… ‘Except crystal healing.’ Starting off agnostic by wondering where he comes from at just 1 year old, and winding up an atheist as he realises that the answer to most spiritual questions is plain old ‘No’, the coming-of-age transformation here is a repudiation of his single mother’s eccentric hippie values. The Magnetic Fields’ always childlike music, full of nursery rhyme singalongs and silly synthesizers, are just perfect for this formative decade’s subject matter, making this the best disc of the collection. Highlights: ’66: Wonder Where I’m From, ’68: A Cat Called Dionysus, ’70: They’re Killing Children Over There, ’74: No. Lowlights: ’72: Eye Contact. Rating: 4.5/5

Disc Two: The best disc is quickly followed by the worst. Born myself in ’92, too late to understand the supposed ‘romanticism’ of the New Romantics, I struggle to admire their influence on the music here and Merritt’s teenage years. He may have loved John Foxx, Neu!, and Japan whilst growing up, fine, but his music has always been far wittier and, in sharp contrast, ‘infinitely terse’. So even on the duller 80s-derived moments here there is a pithy line to keep you amused: ‘Let’s arrange our hair like Rorshach blots!’, say, or ‘It sounds like you’re torturing little metal elves/This is how to play the synthesizer’. And on this worst disc may just be the collection’s best track, a fuck you to one of his mother’s many jerk-off boyfriends that goes ‘Na na na na na na na/You’re dead now/Na na na na na na na/So I sing/Na na na na na na na na/Life ain’t all bad.’ Highlights: ’77: Life Ain’t All Bad, ’79: Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life, ’85: Why I Am Not a Teenager. Lowlights: ’81: How to Play the Synthesizer, ’84: Danceteria! Rating: 3/5

Disc Three: We’ve reached the college years. Which means intellectual discussions on morality in ethics and the works of Ethan Frome. But more importantly it means drinking, dancing, and sexual exploration – from the beautiful blonde man Merritt spots on a dancefloor and never sees again to Fred and Dave and Ted with whom he shacks up in a one-bedroom flat and shares more than just the limited space. Sadly this is the 90s, which means alongside the singer’s gay blossoming there is the ravaging despair of AIDs to contend with. Merritt survives to make music, but many of his friends don’t. This is their legacy. An excellent one, even if none of the songs are truly outstanding. Highlights: ’86: How I Failed Ethics, ’87: At the Pyramid, ’88: Ethan Frome, ’93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted. Lowlights: ’89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo, ’91: The Day I Finally… Rating: 3.5/5

Disc Four: Here is classic Magnetic Fields territory – most of the songs on this disc are related to a pining for lost love. Merritt’s deep and laconic vocals never allow the grandiosity of his self-pity to become too much to bear, and they work just as well here at illuminating romantic isolation as on 69 Love Songs. Wandering around New York in the snow (track 6) is the central metaphor, a place of beauty and loneliness in equal measure, much like the bars he inhabits in the next song because he prefers beer to tea. Pianos and background choirs are more prominently placed, in a maudlin display counteracted by Merritt’s unsentimental voice and his extensive grasp of pop history from Bertolt Brecht to Tom Waits to the Stones, who in some way all inhabit the bawdy ‘XXX ex sex’ extravaganza. Highlights: ’01: Have You Seen it in the Snow?, ’02: Be True to Your Bar, ’03: The Ex and I, ’04: Cold-Blooded Man. Lowlights: ’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers. Rating: 4/5 

Disc Five: Finally we arrive at the Merritt of his 40s, cranky and irritable yet still wryly amusing. He gets his kicks early on by bitching about the press, surfing, and an ex-boyfriend’s new lover: ‘Who has been sniffing around your back door?’ But then a strange and uplifting thing happens, first to the music which gains some bounce and pizzazz after the melancholy of the last disc (see especially ‘You Can Never Go Back to New York’), and then to the lyrics which round the album off with some beautiful, heartfelt love songs that suggest Merritt has finally found contentment. Of sorts. You never can tell for sure with this tricksy fella. Highlights: ’10: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, ’12: You Can Never Go Back to New York, ’13: Big Enough for Both of Us, ’14: I Wish I Had Pictures, ’15: Somebody’s Fetish. Lowlights: ’07: In the Snow White Cottages. Rating: 4.5/5

I must concur with my fave critic Robert Christgau that, overall, the album’s Achilles heel is the fact that Stephin Merritt takes on all the vocals, a rare feature on Magnetic Fields albums because it’s such a darn one-note voice. But really that’s nitpicking. The brilliance on display here is all his, all in the writing, leaving his reputation as one of the quirkiest and most admirable songwriters around still intact. ‘Everybody is somebody’s fetish’ he points out, and Merritt has enough wide-ranging appeal to please many people’s musical fetishes. So get going and begin exploring this rich 50 song set, in order to find those magical moments where his pleasures will joltingly align with yours.

Happy hunting.

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The Salesman (2016) – Film Review

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We all know the Best Foreign Film win at this year’s Oscars was a middle finger up to Trump’s Muslim Ban rather than a genuine award based on merit. Director Asghar Farhadi’s refusal to attend the ceremony was the real statement being applauded as The Salesman was crowned – we all knew it, and the audience of celebs all knew it as they gave their obligatory standing ovation. How many of them had seen the film, I wondered?

I reserved my ovation until after I had seen it, and an ovation it deserves – if a muted one. Asghar Farhadi is one of the very best writer/directors working in film: a troubled humanist, a keen and subtle political commentator, a generous and wise handler of actors. Yet The Salesman is a minor effort when measured against his high points – certainly not a patch on the great A Separation, and not even close to the lesser The Past (absolute must-sees if you haven’t already). Still, and this is a testament to his brilliance, it deserves to be seen.

The film follows a young married couple who, in a familiar Farhadi motif, seem content on the surface, but deep down there lies another story. Cracks are forming, quite literally in the film’s opening sequence where an entire apartment block’s foundation is shown to be collapsing and the camera homes in on a splintering window. The symbolism is heavy-handed here, some would say pretentious. But I would argue that it’s potent, visually showing us in a few frames what the words between this couple will manage to evade, namely that their marriage is built on an unstable foundation. The events of the film will serve to expose this fragile bond between them.

The pair are performing the lead roles in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at a local theatre (just as they’re performing in their own marriage). The choice of play is important because it’s another drama about a married couple whose relationship involves skirting around the truth.

Similarly to Miller’s classic, The Salesman has a lot more interest in the male role, with the female largely a passive observer of the man’s deceitful self-destructiveness. It’s a disappointing flaw in both, yet less forgivable in Farhadi’s film, because unlike Miller’s play the action pivots around a terrible event happening to the wife. Farhadi seems more concerned with the effect on the husband. For a humanist, that’s an unfortunate lapse.

Still, if you can accept the androcentrism, there is meat enough on The Salesman for it to be worth a nibble. As with his past films, Farhadi’s focus on the divisions within a relationship can be read as a commentary upon the divisions – religious, moral, political, and other – in modern Iranian society, which has fascinating implications. Never does he come down firmly on one side of the traditional/modernising divide, seeking instead to demonstrate Renoir’s famous adage that ‘everyone has their reasons’, which is why I repeatedly call him a humanist. The ‘villain’ in The Salesman, the wife’s attacker, is shown to be so pathetic and weak that you can’t help but sympathise with him, even as you shudder at his representing an old order of misogyny. Meanwhile, the avenging husband appears increasingly sinister despite the most honourable of intentions, defending his wife, which gives the film an intriguing spin on the revenge thriller.

So The Salesman is a tough moral puzzle, like all of the best Farhadi films, and what’s more it has a genuinely riveting final half an hour in which husband and attacker finally confront each other. The intensity of the probing handheld camerawork, nevertheless always restrained by the director’s cool touch, lets the tension builds in a genuinely unpredictable manner. What will win out, we wonder, hysteria or rationality?

This is a minor yet worthwhile work by a major director, then. Have you seen Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man or Spielberg’s A.I.? That’s the sort of level we’re talking about here – flashes of genius, but no masterwork.

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Elle (2016) – Film Review

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Agent provocateur Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, Showgirls – to name just a few of his films to have pissed people off) was forced out of Hollywood to make this film in France. Why? Because it was, inevitably, a risky project that required a fearless leading lady, and Hollywood so rarely produces such women.

Verhoeven initially flirted with the idea of casting Nicole Kidman as the central rape victim with a dark past of her own, and the prospect is intriguing – Kidman did choose extremely daring material once upon a time (To Die For, Dogville, Birth) but has increasingly opted for safe fare like Paddington and Lion, so a return to danger could easily have electrified the screen. Alas, it was not to be. Other actresses to be touted include Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. All wonderful, but there was really only ever one woman with the guts to take this on, and her employment precipitated the entire production’s move to France.

Isabelle Huppert. Probably the finest actress in the world right now, an utterly fearless performer with some of the late 20th and early 21st century’s most demanding roles under her belt (The Piano Teacher, Amour, Louder Than Bombs, Things to Come etc. etc.). Waspish and cynical and unloving at times, amusing and generous and warm at others, there is little space on the human spectrum that she is unable to manoeuvre into with the quickest of glances or facial tics. This works a treat with Elle, a film that careens wildly from horror to comedy to miniaturist character study in a moment’s notice. It leans heavily on Huppert’s supreme ability as the centrifugal force preventing it from taking off into Showgirls-like lunacy.

The film begins with a cat calmly observing the rape of Michèle Leblanc (Huppert), who once her attacker has gone sweeps up the broken window glass on the floor, has a bath and carries on with life as normal. Why doesn’t she call the police? There is a reason, and it has to do with a controversy from her childhood – a shady, violent, appalling secret that helps to explain much of her bizarre future behaviour, if perhaps in too trite a pop-psychological way.

We discover that she is the head of a PS4 games company which specialises in allowing players to live out misogynistic fantasies, including a graphic orc rape scene that Michèle declares is not realistic enough – needs more orgasmic convulsions from the woman, she says. Already we are in troubling and murky moral waters: if Michèle is complicit in a culture that glorifies aggressive sexual behaviour then can it be said that she is somewhat responsible for her attack? Does she really believe that women, deep down, can enjoy the experience of being raped? And, whisper it… perhaps did she enjoy being raped?

As the film pans out we are given a new reason to be disturbed in every scene. Without giving the game away, it might be best to warn readers that there are many more rape scenes to come, some of them real and some of them not, on the way to a, well, quasi-revenge. We become more and more convinced that Michèle is a sadomasochistic deviant who seeks out abuse in all aspects of life, not just in the bedroom and her private fantasies, but also in relationships with friends and family.

Peter Bradshaw questioned in The Guardian if this film was ‘post-feminist? Pre-feminist? Non-feminist?’ I think the answer is in the title: it’s called Elle and not Elles. It’s a look at how one woman reacts to a heinous crime and should not be extrapolated to represent all women’s reactions to misogyny and rape culture. Try and make a reading of this film in relation to feminist studies and you will inevitably fall into Verhoeven’s vicious trap – what kind of modern, enlightened woman actually seeks out sexual abuse? You’re guaranteed to be pissed off. That title is a way out, claiming this film as a contained character study rather than any kind of political commentary.

Still, Verhoeven’s deliberate shock tactics are what ultimately hold the film back from greatness. Cold, ever so cold, his gallows humour is not enough to cover up an unnerving misanthropy. All of his characters are stupid and/or violent with little to redeem them; it can be seen as an arty version of Game of Thrones in that respect. I’ve always been wary of aggressive cynicism, which can make for compelling viewing in the moment but all too easily cops out from examining the real complexities of human beings, so I don’t thrill to Elle in the way so many critics have done.

Of course Elle is subtler than Game of Thrones, and it is saved by some wonderful social satire: a central dinner party scene has a delicious disdain for bourgeois convention and contains several laugh-out-loud moments. We need Verhoevian-style provocations in filmmaking because it keeps the medium alive – art should be challenging, I believe that completely, and Elle continues in the richly sarcastic and shocking vein of Buñuel, Cronenberg, Lynch, and many others. But art should also be moving, transformative, and alert to the balance of good and evil in this world (I think of a masterpiece like The Night of the Hunter).

Elle is too flat and delighted to wallow in the squalid horrors of being alive to be truly challenging: it works nicely as horror-comedy, but not well enough as human drama.

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Sunny Sweeney: Trophy (2017) – Album Review

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Sunny Sweeney is a whip-smart Texan blonde whose last album, Provoked (2014), wittily outlined her ‘Bad Girl Phase’, which included sleeping with other gal’s husbands and ordering the non-working class to kiss her ass. But it also had too many unimaginative ballads to be as outrageous as it thought, and compared to the work of that other whip-smart Texan blonde, Miranda Lambert, it sounded positively tame.

Three years later we have Trophy, which has chosen to tack into much darker territory, with choppy waters guaranteed. Suicide, miscarriage, and substance abuse are just some of the themes at hand. They are treated with sincerity by Sweeney and her team of co-writers, whilst that voice, a beautiful timbre which has a newfound maturity, sails confidently through the songs and guides them to safety.

The centrepiece of the album is ‘Bottle By My Bed’, a trick title in that the desired bottle is one filled with baby’s milk. It’s a painful cry of maternal longing rooted in Sweeney’s thus far fruitless efforts to conceive with her husband. Written with Lori McKenna, a mother of five and yet an extremely empathetic voice, some of the language hits incredibly quick and deep, such as: ‘I only call my husband “baby” cause I love the word/Never wanted something so bad that it hurts’ or ‘Spend a lot of afternoons daydreaming ’bout you/Right now our mortgage is the only thing that’s due’. The classic country backdrop of steel guitars, wailing like mourners, and the constant, affectionate strum of the acoustic guitar ratchet up the poignancy to near unbearable levels – the thing’s an instant classic, simple as.

Other highlights on an album of near-constant interest are ‘Grow Old With Me’, another McKenna co-write that insists ‘love don’t give a damn about time’ and makes a youngster like me believe it, and ‘Nothing Wrong With Texas’, which uses a nostalgic, achingly gorgeous fiddle to demonstrate her pride in a home state that has a lousy reputation abroad. Then the album finishes on another emotional wrench, ‘Unsaid’, which chastises a friend for having committed suicide and left so many people, including two kids, behind, and with so many words unsaid.

But it’s not all doom and gloom y’all, and the jokes that propped up Provoked are in ample supply here (if less brilliantly perverse). Having stolen someone’s ex on the title track, she declares herself the man’s ‘trophy’, which only leads you to wonder who or what the other woman might have been. And ‘Better Bad Idea’ contains the unforgettable come-on ‘Let’s wash our dirty minds with a bottle of white wine/And do some things that we can’t take back’. Fiery at these moments and fiercely in control of her sexuality, we must wither in the heat of Sunny Sweeney’s charisma, whilst acknowledging that she will never reach the true danger of Miranda Lambert’s ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’.

Trophy is the usual mess of diverse topics and ballads/hoedowns, as with most country albums, but hell life is messy and these smartass Nashville women sure know it. So of course there are troughs – this is barnyard music, didn’t ya know? But there are also peaks aplenty, and the excitement of listening to a woman who is bold and brave, who has done enough to have earned life’s trophies. Including, I very much hope, in the near future a little Sweeney who might mark the contours of her next album.

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Syd: Fin (2017) – Album Review

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A.k.a Sydney Bennett, 24 year old member of L.A.’s Odd Future hip-hop collective (other members include Earl Sweatshirt, Mike G, and most famously Frank Ocean), and lead singer for neo-soul group The Internet, whose 2015 album Ego Death’s success enabled her to strike out on her own here. Gal’s a shooting star of talent and I pray she doesn’t burn up too fast.

Those brought up on Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey/Celine Dion-type histrionics might struggle at first with Syd, whose down-to-earth mannerisms and limited vocal range don’t beg you to bust a lung singing along. Anyone who’s attuned to modern R&B and its subtler characteristics will find it easier though, and anyone who isn’t then keep on listening, because she’s worth it.

The easiest way into Fin is on the lesbian sex jams (her sexual identity is not stated but evident), of which there are several. Syd’s eroticism comes on slow, but it keeps on growing because of what she holds back in her vocal approach, never quite putting out. Delayed gratification is the name of the game, her restraint giving the longest tracks ‘Smile More’ and ‘Body’ the slowly building intensity of foreplay. Then the tension is unleashed in short bursts like ‘Drown in It’, a 1-minute cunnilingus odyssey that would surely have Weezy’s lick of approval, and ‘Dollar Bills’, where she attends a strip club with her equally libidinous mate Steve Lacy, their male and female gazes intertwining.

Less interesting are the posse cuts, not witty enough by half and where Syd trots out such hoary clichés as ‘all of my niggas are do or die’ and ‘if I go to hell hope my bitches get to visit’. True, these sound almost radically new when being mouthed off by a female voice. Almost.

Overall though I’m tickled by Syd’s humble approach. She knows that the gangsta schtick is nonsense and merely an excuse to lay down some trap beats to get you moving, and her modest sense of funk will get you moving every time. In fact, well aware of her limited thematic intentions, she told NPR in a press release:

This album is not that deep… For me, this is like an in-between thing – maybe get a song on the radio, maybe make some money, have some new shit to perform.

Compared to the overambitious reach of her homeboy Frank Ocean’s Blonde, the way Syd aims lowbrow and hits every time on Fin seems to me the greater achievement. She may well shoot for a ‘great’ album next time, either with The Internet or on her own, and I hope she has the stuff to pull it off.

In the meantime this slinky, quietly soulful album will do just fine.

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