Album Review: The xx: I See You (2017)

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Intros can be pretty useful in stating an album’s purpose, as no band should understand better than The xx. The ‘Intro’ from their debut album, released in 2009, heralded a brand new wave of downbeat indie with its slow-motion collision course of hushed guitars, synths, and drum sequencers. It would come to define that album’s quietly revolutionary approach.

Their second album, Coexist, was released in 2012 and its intro was a reverb-laden guitar lead muffled by the deep silence surrounding it – a familiar trick of the band’s. It would come to define that album’s levelled accusations of stagnation, which were hard to deny in many respects, even if it was evidently ‘cornier’ than the debut (read: ‘happier’).

Their third album, I See You, will also come to be defined by its intro. It begins with horns playing a sequence that sounds eerily similar to Rihanna’s intro for ‘Woo’, and then quickly lurches into louder, tougher drum syncopations than the band have ever dabbled in before. We’re in for something different, and we’re hooked.

Of course, anyone who has been paying attention will know that it’s not a complete departure for all of the band: in 2015 producer/synth-and-drums-meister Jamie xx released his solo debut, In Colour, a DJ set that included enough dancefloor bangers to get on the nerves of electro-aesthete purists. But its up-tempo beats sounded just fine to crude pop fans, such as myself, and the album’s success gave Jamie the chance to bring his voracious aural appetite to the table this time around with The xx.

Their sound has always been famous for its lack of wasted space, pared down to the bare-boned musical essentials, and impressively I See You maintains that quality-control even whilst piling up multi-layered vocals and sound effects on the tracks. The use of samples, over which much fuss has already been made, are typically limited to moments where they are most needed: Hall & Oates answering the band’s disquiet with ‘Where does it stop?’ on lead single ‘On Hold’, Alessia warning them to say something loving ‘before it slips away’, Trio Mediaeval offering sexual advice on the audacious ‘Lips’.

The samples are not remotely exploitative: they are a way of communicating with the past, and their musical heros offer some sage advice on how to overcome the romantic insecurities that have always been a mainstay of their music.

Singer/songwriters Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft have warmly embraced Jamie’s need to push the band into upbeat territory. As Croft sings in her distinct quavering tones: ‘A rush of blood is not enough/I need my feelings set on fire’. In real life she’s recently become engaged to visual artist Hannah Marshall, which may explain the explicit need for passion in the lyrics. At any rate, the music responds by dynamically igniting the rhythm section and piling on live string accompaniment throughout. The xx have never been afraid of a little romanticism, so this album’s move towards melodrama feel unforced and only occasionally excessive (‘Brave For You’ is a little mawkish).

No song here is as gorgeous or immediate as ‘VCR’ or ‘Islands’ from their debut, but I See You is a classic grower. Play it once or twice and it will fade unnoticed into the background. Yet play it once or twice more and its brave, unironic emotionalism will suddenly have you punching the air.

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Film Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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Ben Affleck is the A-lister we all know, and some love. But anyone who cares about modern film will be aware of the fact that younger brother Casey has been outshining him at almost every turn. Not blessed with the cheekbones of a Greek God, Casey has needed to compensate in other areas, and work much harder to succeed. For which all of us mere mortals can be thankful.

Ben has coasted through most often dreary material, reflexively unwilling to drop his cool exterior and explore any inner depth, whilst Casey has kept on pushing into oddball, revealing territory: a youth turned on by Nicole Kidman and then murder in To Die For, a horrendous sadist in The Killer Inside Me, a stalker starstruck by yet another God-like figure, Brad Pitt, in The Assassination of Jesse James.

Now add to that fascinating list Manchester by the Sea, his finest two hours onscreen.

Casey plays Lee Chandler, a down-and-out janitor living solitarily in Boston. Right from the off we are alerted to something askew in his personality: drinking alone at a bar, a woman uses the classic icebreaker of ‘accidentally’ spilling a drink over him. She is quite pretty and has taken the risk to initiate conversation. His response?

Nothing.

That word is key to Lee’s character – he shies away from anything that might come to define him in the eyes of others. He tries to avoid social encounters, although we don’t get the impression that the reason for this is shyness. He prefers to appear an empty vessel, even if it means he won’t get laid, for reasons that are hard to decipher. We soon find out that he’s the sort of guy who goes to bars not to pick up women but to pick fights – because you don’t need to converse with another man’s fists.

Little can we imagine the true terror that has sparked Lee’s cloistered existence, a tragedy which forms the devastating heart of this rich, emotive film.

Casey Affleck is totally convincing as a man ground to a halt by grief, and he deserves all of the awards heading his way (already begun with a Best Actor gong at the Golden Globes). I am greatly encouraged by the Oscars buzz, because that award so often goes to actors who can’t help but chew on scenery. Here the scenery is the very ocean itself, and yet Affleck still tries to hide behind it.

The sea is a symbol of hope, regeneration and freedom in many films – think of the finales of The Truman Show and last year’s Sing Street, for instance, where crossing it promises a new life and real adventure. But here it is stifling: Lee is forced to move to the coastal town of Manchester after he unexpectedly becomes custodial guardian to sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick. He has lived there before, and it is where his terrible tragedy occurred. It is a site of unspeakable pain, so the surrounding sea serves as a claustrophobic reminder that he is trapped – not at all liberating, then. It is a reminder that there is no escape from the past.

This is the great theme of director Kenneth Lonergan’s filmography. Guilt and regret emanating from the past are the founding blocks of You Can Count on Me and Margaret, films which also hem their characters into unwanted lives.

Yet before you dismiss any of them as too glum-sounding, note that Lonergan is so finely attuned to human flaws that he has figured out a way in which to mine them for equal parts humour and tragedy. Just like You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea sees the troubled leading man humanised by a surprising uncle-nephew relationship in which any of his shortcomings are matched by an undeniable warmth. This blessedly allows you to laugh at many of these shortcomings, especially when said nephew (brilliantly played here by twenty-year-old Lucas Hedges – watch out for him) has a sardonic comeback for every one.

The film itself has very few shortcomings. Too-brief roles for Michelle Williams (outstanding as ever as Lee’s ex-wife), Kyle Chandler (Lee’s brother), and Matthew Broderick (Patrick’s future father-in-law) stand out. But that’s because they are so engagingly sketched out, in only a few minutes of screentime, that we want more from them. Never in this 140 minute film do we want to see less.

My very great admiration for Manchester by the Sea continues beyond the completion of its running time: I can’t shake its deep, humane sadness. I don’t think that it is safe or comforting enough to have a shot at Best Picture glory with the Academy. But who cares? Its open ending is a glaring reminder that the worst kinds of grief are an ever-open wound, stretching before us like the wide and unstoppable sea.

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The Top 10 Albums and Songs of 2016

Best Albums of 2016

Music is a vital part of my life. I listen to new albums on a daily basis, whenever I have an hour or two of spare time. Which might seem strange to some in the era of Spotify and Youtube, but I can affirm that there is a rush of excitement from hearing a well-sequenced album that simply can’t be replicated on a DIY playlist.

The album format is not just surviving in the age of streaming, it’s thriving. Last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly and my number one choice from this year generated as much discussion and fevered analysis around the world as any film or TV series to have graced our screens.

That’s enormously encouraging to folks such as me who like to hear album-length stories and/or collages of musical ideas. Albums may only create the illusion of narrative consistency, but when top-level artists are aware of the power of this illusion and utilise it, the results can be staggering.

Here’s a list then of the albums that I found not only artistically invigorating but also great entertainment, for a variety of reasons. Looking down the list I’m encouraged by a few things: the emerging dominance of female pop stars, a critical consensus forming around the quality of contemporary hip-hop/R&B that I am delighted to share, a number of rock albums that cracked my scepticism regarding the genre’s future, and a preponderance of new artists who bode well for all of the future innovations we can scarcely imagine.

The feeblest argument in the world, and an irritatingly common one, is that music, and culture in general, is getting worse. It’s a fallacy, always has been a fallacy and always will be. It says more about the individual arguing it than the culture at large. Music isn’t getting worse: it’s diversifying, mutating, constantly evolving. You can choose not to keep up with those changes and be scared by them, but that’s your loss, and you should keep it to yourself. If rock music was the only musical genre of worth then this would undoubtedly have been a shit year for music. But it isn’t and it wasn’t.

I believe in diversity not just as a core political ideology, a fuck you to those who think Trump’s culture of homogeneity is winning, but also as a key to having a hell of a lot more fun. Listen to any of the albums from any of the genres below, make sure you listen carefully, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll have yourself a good time. Which is what music is all about.

 

1: Beyoncé: Lemonadebeyonce-lemonade-album-cover-1481312441.jpg

Nothing has cheered me up more in 2016 than the World’s Biggest Pop Star releasing the year’s only indisputably great album. The ease with which Lemonade transitions from the personal to the political, and from the wintry spiritual of the first cut to the heated funk of the last, takes my breath away every time. It hangs together conceptually, sure. But like any great album it’s the music that keeps you coming back. Fresh and innovative, roving across American genres from bluegrass to hip-hop, it’s glued together by Beyoncé’s vocal nuance and authority. When she sings of her complicated victory over Jay-Z’s cheating ways (fact or fiction – does it really matter?), I can’t help but hear it as a battle cry against the misogyny that Trump’s victory represents: ‘My love was stronger than your pride.’ Fingers crossed we can say the same to Trump and his ilk in four year’s time. Cross them tight.

 

drive-by-truckers-american-band-album-cover-art.jpg2: Drive-By Truckers: American Band 

One of the reasons that rock music has been dying recently is that it lacks a certain fighting spirit which, in many ways, has been its lifeblood from the very start. That makes this release, from Alabama’s finest country-rockers, all the more essential. They soldier on against waves of injustice on all sides with a simple, driving boogie and impassioned songwriting, neither of which they have ever made sound so urgent.

 

3: Car Seat Headrest: Teens of DenialCar-Seat-Headrest-Teens-Of-Denial-compressed.jpeg

Did I just say something about rock music dying? Hold on to your guitar straps for a minute because here comes Will Toledo, up-and-coming genius and frontman of Car Seat Headrest. Toledo knows that displaying your influences is unavoidable, so it’s easy to trace this one back to Sonic Youth, Pavement, Nirvana, and – yes, really – Dido. He knows too well the truth about drugs: ‘Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit.’ And he knows that real transcendence can come from music, with huge riffs and singalong choruses helping us to see past human tragedy to a damn good joke.

 

Elza-Soares-The-Woman-at-the-End-of-the-World-Cover.jpg4: Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World

79 year old Brazilian samba queen who has faced a life of devastating tragedy and is coming to the end of her world, yet still likes to fuck (‘Pra Fuder!’) and belt out compact tunes like a young ’un. Her kaleidoscopic clash of world music styles can be abrasive, until you notice that she loves a killer melody all the same.

 

5: Rihanna: ANTI2016-rihanna.jpg

My most-played album of the year, probably because it’s less challenging than any of the above. It’s just an old-fashioned great pop record, consistently fun and surprising in ways that Rihanna has never fully achieved before. It only stumbles when taking on Tame Impala, but returns with a vengeance on the final three tracks. They go from modern doo-wop to vocal powerhouse to expertly-judged ballad in my favourite sequence of music of the year.

 

Chance_3.jpg6: Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book

If there’s a God, I want it to be Chance’s God. A higher power of forgiveness and optimism, He doesn’t frown upon collaborating with Muslims or see much of a difference between party and gospel music. Chance is now a confirmed major talent: thoughtful, goofy when he feels like it, and a superlative rapper. What’s more, you can download his music for free.

 

7: Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These WingsLambert_wings.jpg

94 minutes over 2 discs still leave me hungry for more. Admittedly, 5 or 6 of the tracks fail to hit home, mostly on the second disc. That leaves a success rate of about 75%, which is still better than The White Album. And that fraction peaks so high that you don’t much care anyway.

 

005802177_300.jpg8: Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos

British rappers haven’t achieved much success globally, and deservedly so. Yet every once in a while there’s an exception who deserves much more, and here Tempest proves herself to be the heir apparent of The Streets. Sharp and attuned to political reality, her beats are also more finely crafted than the over-lauded Skepta. Go forth and take the world by storm.

 

9: Leonard Cohen: You Want it DarkerLeonard-Cohen-You-Want-It-Darker.jpg

Bowie’s vanishing act was the more memorable for being so carefully orchestrated, but I’ll always prefer this elder statesman’s final album. Direct where Bowie was evasive, the lyrics here face up squarely to mortality and his maker: ‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.’ I’d swap that one line for everything on the irritatingly opaque Blackstar. Meanwhile, the chamber music that Cohen turns into his epitaph never stops accumulating depth and beauty. A fittingly humble farewell.

 

macy-gray-stripped.jpg10: Macy Gray: Stripped

‘I Try’ is one of my all-time favourite singles, although I’ve failed to connect with much else of note from this jazz-pop vocalist. This live acoustic set, recorded in a church, is a revelation: the jazz quartet aid and abet Gray’s unmistakeable gravel-toned voice, lulling the singer bassline by sinuous trumpet solo into a playfulness that is truly becoming.

 

Runners-up… 

11: The Julie Ruin: Hit Reset

12: The Avalanches: Wildflower

13: Britney Spears: Glory

14: Paul Simon: Stranger to Stranger

15: Young Thug: Jeffery

16: Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

17: Houston Person & Ron Carter: Chemistry

18: Kanye West: The Life of Pablo

19: Conor Oberst: Ruminations

20: Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid

21: Anderson .Paak: Malibu

22: Parquet Courts: Human Performance

23: Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition

24: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

25: Pussy Riot: xxx

26: Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.

27: A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

28: Bon Iver: 22, A Million

29: Against Me!: Shape Shift With Me

30: Blood Orange: Freetown Sound

31: Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman: Lice Two: Still Buggin’

32: American Honey Soundtrack

33: Chance the Rapper & Jeremih: Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama

34: The Coathangers: Nosebleed Weekend

 

  

Best Songs of 2016

This list was a little easier to compile: I simply checked my most-played tracks on iTunes for 2016, and with a few alterations lo and behold I had my favourite songs of 2016! I like this method because it’s honest – I’m not about to bullshit you about tracks I think I should like. Here are some tracks that I actually do like, nay love, and play on a regular basis. Which doesn’t mean the pleasures I receive from them are just instinctual, so I’ve tried to lay out the reasons for my fascination with each one below, to explain why I keep on returning for more. And because 2016’s been such a stinking pile of horse manure, I thought it might be a nice idea to chuck in an inspirational line from each one to cheer everyone up a bit:

 

1: Kanye West: ‘Waves’

The man’s had a balls-up of a year by any standards, and released an atypically muddled album. Anyone predisposed to be pissed off by him, which is a lot of people, will be immediately turned off by the ‘bitch’-centred trilogy of opening lines on this track, and his misguided decision to collaborate with Chris Brown. Still, listen closely and you will discover not just redemption but a beauty that is overwhelming. The gospel vocals, brilliantly clipped to sound very much like ‘Waves’, are the entry point to soothe your anger. And then you catch the lyrics, which are all about love and respect – even after sex, which Kanye’s decent enough to believe should never involve degrading women. ‘Bitch’ turns out to be a term of endearment in this song, which you and Taylor Swift and I might not agree with, but the messy intention is all Kanye’s and there all the same. He loves women, he loves sex, and he loves Love. And for the space of this song at least, he doesn’t see much difference between them: they are all waves that never die.

Inspirational Line: ‘Waves don’t die, baby/Let me crash here for a moment/Baby I don’t, I don’t need to own you.’

Video not available.

 

2: Rihanna: ‘Higher’

If you question Rihanna’s talents as a singer (as I foolishly used to) then give this a spin. Her delivery pushes on higher until you can really believe, more than any performer in years, that she really is in love. Or is that just a blunt she’s singing to?

Inspirational Line: ‘I know I could be more creative/And come up with poetic lines/But I’m turned up upstairs and I love you/Is the only thing that’s in my mind.’

 

3: Rihanna: ‘Love on the Brain’ 

Exhibit B in the case for Rihanna’s vocal prowess. Smart and funny, just like on the rest of ANTI, she handles doo-wop with a solid sense of control that we’ve come to expect since ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, and an incredibly astute sense of timing that we now will too. Bitch better give her credit.

Inspirational Line: ‘It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good/And I can’t get enough/Must be love on the brain.’

 

4: Car Seat Headrest: ‘Fill in the Blank’

Songs about depression shouldn’t fill you with joy. But somehow I’ve been bopping around to this for months now. A crescendo of guitars, layered vocals, and pain turns out to be life-affirming once again – a trick that only Nirvana and a select few others have managed to peg down. That’s the sort of level Car Seat Headrest are pitching at.

Inpirational Line: ‘I’ve got a right to be depressed/I’ve given every inch I had to fight it.’

 

5: Kanye West: ‘Ultralight Beam’

One of the many signs of a genius is the effect that they have upon their collaborators – they know exactly when and how to tease the best out of them. So we have career-best spots from first Kelly Price, soaring in gospel anguish, and then, even more impressively, the irrepressibly upbeat Chance the Rapper. Their mentor knows exactly what he’s doing.

Inspirational Line: ‘I’m tryna keep my faith/But I’m looking for more/Somewhere I can feel safe/And end my holy war.’

Video not available.

 

6: Miranda Lambert: ‘Vice’

It took at least three plays for this country ballad to stop sounding corny and worm its way into my consciousness. But I’m glad I stuck it out, in the end taking it for more rides than Lambert’s had post-divorce flings, notches on the bedpost that she used to wear with pride but here has grown troubled and weary of.

Inspirational Line: ‘I wear a town like a leather jacket/When the new wears off, I don’t even pack it/If you need me/I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me.’

 

7: Britney Spears: ‘Invitation’

Britney’s back, and packing more conceptual weight than ever before. If you enjoy S&M this may well turn you on. If not then you can just revel in the kindness of Britney’s desire to set you free and the power released by her self-realisation of complex, loving desires.

Inspirational Line: ‘Here’s my invitation, baby/Hope it sets us free/To know each other better/Put your love all over me.’

 

8: Drive-By Truckers: ‘What it Means’

This band admit they don’t know what it all means by the song’s end. But they make a damn good hack of keeping the spirit of 60s protest music alive, starting with a graphic depiction of Trayvon Martin’s shooting and sliding further into hell from there, if that’s possible. It’s so refreshing to hear a white Alabaman sing ‘If you say it wasn’t racial… It means you ain’t black’, and the spirit-of-rock handclaps at the end never fails to raise a tear.

Inspirational Line: ‘We want our truths all fair and balanced/As long as our notions lie within it/There’s no sunlight in our ass/And our heads are stuck up in it.’

 

9: Aesop Rock: ‘Rings’ 

The wordiest of rappers delivers plenty of them here, although the theme is about the pictures he used to draw. Now he paints pictures with music, and his funk-electronica mix paints them beautifully.

Inspirational Line: ‘You can’t imagine the rush that ensue/When you get three dimensions stuffed into two.’

 

10: Drake: ‘One Dance’

I can’t stomach Drake, but it would take a real buzzkill to deny the fun of this mega-hit summer anthem, in which his African roots pick up the flow and run with it.

Inspirational Line: ‘I need a one dance.’ Of course.

The Top 10 Films and TV Shows of 2016

what-is-your-most-anticipated-film-of-2016-592456.jpgBest Films of 2016

This was a great year for film. In the Top 10 below I found at least 3 instant classics, with only one of them obscure enough to qualify as a quirk of personal taste (Heart of a Dog).

My criteria were really very simple: a) did it entertain me? and b) did it provide food for thought? If the answer to both was yes then you’ll see them appearing at the top end of my list. If they marked highly on either aspect alone then you’ll see them lower down, although it must be said that entertainment is generally of greater value to me (exceptions: Son of Saul, 13th, Fire at Sea).

List-making is a little bit silly – can anyone plausibly state that Deadpool is a more worthwhile film than Spotlight? I believe so myself, upon comparison within their respective genres, although pitting them against each other is still a daft game indeed.

But we like daft games, don’t we? And why not? In the next few weeks Oscars buzz will help to drive up profits for challenging motion pictures that would never have found funding otherwise. The Academy’s list-making will therefore have real world consequences for both professional filmmakers and the open-minded public.

So my reason for this list is hopefully to introduce you to some new films, and to assure you of the quality of others that you may well have heard of (Bad Neighbours 2 really is worth a look-in).

My only credentials for offering these up to you is a lifelong, undying fascination with the medium of film and a hunger for keeping up with all of the major new releases that places me, I humbly suggest, above the level of average moviegoer in terms of knowledge and experience.

But the worth of my opinion undoubtedly ranks below that of a professional critic – time and money are always an impediment. So although I do my best, it’s simply impossible to keep up with everything, and for that reason I heartily welcome any of your recommendations from this year’s crop. And because I’m certain that I’ve missed a few, this list is likely to evolve and change over the years – who knows if there isn’t another film lurking out there, like Leo’s dreaded bear, to replace my current number one?

Director’s names are listed in brackets and links to my reviews are provided where they exist. This list is compiled based on films released in UK cinemas in 2016.

 

1: The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)xthe-revenant-character-poster-leo.jpg.pagespeed.ic.WW3BIva79j.jpg

I hope this doesn’t go down in history just as the film that won Leo the Oscar, because it’s so much more than that. The true triumph is Iñárritu’s, who along with (cinematographer) Emmanuel Lubezki mounts not just the most visually spectacular and exciting action film of recent times, but shoots it through with an emotional rigour that never lets you forget the terrible, lasting damage that animals can wreck upon one another. Nature’s heart of darkness hasn’t been so vividly exposed since Apocalypse Now or Deliverance.

 

large_large_pLfM70yTVYYQFN9mk4yDlClOsqT.jpg2: Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)

Laurie Anderson’s tribute to the passing of her beloved pet terrier Lolabelle is a documentary of unusually personal poignancy. Suffused with a warmth that can only be described as love, it tries to understand death with the aid of Buddhist philosophy and cyber-technology – which are more closely related than you might think. Still, you don’t need to be spiritual, or care remotely about our digital era, to be profoundly moved.

 

3: Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)Anomalisa-2015.jpg

An adult animation about depression, mental illness, romantic disillusionment, and the struggle to relate and communicate? That is also very funny? This film is as anomalous as its hero believes himself to be. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before it, this Kaufman weird-out has its moments of freakish romanticism – but be warned, there’s a cynical sting to this particular tale.

 

american-honey-movie-poster-5712.jpg4: American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

Teenagers travel across the American Midwest selling magazines and jiving to hip-hop in this daringly epic drama from the UK’s Andrea Arnold. Amongst their number is newcomer Sasha Lane and a pony-tailed Shia LaBoeuf, who kindle the kind of romance that is as fractious as the film’s narrative and as fucked-up as life is for these poverty-stricken youths. Arnold has crafted a Grapes of Wrath for displaced millennials everywhere, and it’s to her considerable credit that the result is less harrowing than serenely beautiful.

 

5: Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams)Life-Animated-Poster-small.jpg

That comma is where this documentary lies: somewhere between life and animation. Its subject, autistic young adult Owen Suskind, uses Disney movies to learn how to talk, cope with bullying, and later to try and understand the world. Believe what you want about the influence of big business upon art: just witness first-hand the impact that the biggest of animation studios has had upon one man’s life.

 

Dheepan-Poster.jpg6: Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)

Not only is this a major attempt to empathise with the plight of refugees, its look at a Sri Lankan family united not by blood but fake passports prompts fascinating questions about how easily the bonds between us can be faked/performed. It derails spectacularly in the final act, true, but the overall effect is too enlightening to ignore.

 

Little-Men-2016-movie-poster.jpg7: Little Men (Ira Sachs)

This sweet, tough, and tender little (85 mins) indie drama details the destruction wrought by financial disputes in a struggling Brooklyn community. The friendship of two boys in particular is put under strain as the ‘adult’ world of their parent’s debt, economic insecurity, and fear of failure intrudes upon them. The film (and cast) may be little, but its heart is large.

 

Mustang_poster.jpg8: Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

Encouragingly, here is yet another strong debut from a female director, the Turkish-born Ergüven. A sign that decades of outspoken feminism is finally having an impact on a stubbornly male-dominated industry? I hope so, just as this film offers a hopeful take on the uprising of young women in Turkish society. Their degradation through arranged marriages is unflinchingly portrayed, which only makes their moments of liberation shine all the more brightly.

 

9: Your Name (Makoto Shinkai)your_name_movie_poster_0.jpg

Animes have such disregard for the physical world’s rules that they can leave one agape like a child. As this body-swap comedy mutates into a cosmic disaster movie it’s hard for anyone acquainted with Japanimation to be surprised, yet equally hard not to be totally disoriented and compelled. A sensation in Japan, this is destined for legendary cult status here.

 

deadpool-poster.jpg10: Deadpool (Tim Miller)

Moronic. Offensive. Childish. Blasphemous. Cheap. Crude. Hyperviolent. OTT. 1D. Low-tech. Overhyped. Mildly psychotic. Obvious. Cynical. Cash-in. Stupid. Stupid. Very, very stupid. Oh, how I love it.

 

Runners-up…

 11: Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

12: Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (Eva Husson)

13: Son of Saul (László Nemes)

14: Zootropolis (Byron Howard, Rich Moore)

15: 13th (Ava DuVernay)

16: Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)

17: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)

18: The Little Prince (Mark Osborne)

19: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)

20: The Big Short (Adam McKay)

21: Bridget Jones’s Baby (Sharon Maguire)

22: Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier)

23: Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)

24: My Scientology Movie (John Dower)

25: Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears)

26: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (Ron Howard)

27: Café Society (Woody Allen)

28: Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)

29: Room (Lenny Abrahamson)

30: Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)

31: Ghostbusters (Paul Feig)

32: Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

33: Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton)

34: Bad Neighbours 2 (Nicholas Stoller)

35: Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar)

36: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates)

37: Eddie the Eagle (Dexter Fletcher)

38: The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)

 

 

BTv-Series.jpgest TV Shows of 2016


This list is a little more off-the-cuff than the above and probably less useful as a result. TV shows are such a big time commitment that I only really start one if I expect that I’m going to love it, and tend to jump ship quickly if I find it disengaging. Which is probably my loss, as I’ve been assured that Mr. Robot and Westworld are much better than their opening episodes which caused me to give up. Here are 10 that do carry my seal of approval, for what it’s worth, the picks that I can safely say are as brilliant as any of the films that I’ve seen all year. The most useful point of reference here is probably the network/channel/online service, so I’ve put these in brackets. Links to reviews also provided.

 

1: O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)large_3nyt5niDxXMNGfKlXQ2XmB9hCUn.jpg

This 8 hour documentary, exhaustive yet never less than compulsive viewing, about O.J.’s rise and fall has the arc of a great tragedy and the venomous aftershock of knowledge that it’s all terribly real. Better on the complexities of race and O.J.’s persona than FX’s fictional miniseries (see below), it never lets us forget how a nation’s emotional involvement would come to overtake cold hard evidence in the Trial of the Century. As such, it’s essential.

 

stranger-things-poster.jpg2: Stranger Things (Netflix)

The kind of quirky joy that pops up and makes your Netflix subscription worth it every once in a while. The unnaturally gifted cast of pre-teens giving their all combine to make this essential viewing alone. Yet it’s the melding of supernatural elements and the very human fear of loss that keeps you hooked.

 

3: Orange is the New Black: Season 4 (Netflix)Orange-Is-the-New-Black-Season-4_poster_goldposter_com_1.jpg

Netflix have also gifted us TV’s best current ensemble comedy, which hit its peak by tackling a nation’s racial fault lines head-on. The final, eruptive, frightening scene is a better summation of where we’ve arrived at in 2016 than anything I’ve seen – with only one difference. The white man is still holding the gun.

 

the-night-of-poster-473x700.jpg4: The Night Of (HBO)

Another show to inform us all about the flaws in the American criminal justice system, with defence and prosecution taking turns to throw stories at the jury until one of them sticks. We know the story involves a Pakistani-American student who awakens to discover his one-night-stand brutally murdered. But like the jury, we are left to work out the rest for ourselves, and to ask how far our shifting assumptions come to bear on any comprehension of the ‘facts’.

 

5: Planet Earth II (BBC)th.jpg

More popular than The X Factor? Hell to the yeah – though its creation of pocket-stories is just as manipulative in its own way, and its tricks of tension and release are nearly as old-fashioned. Who cares? To deny its beauty and staying power would be to show little interest in our planet – which to any human with a love for being alive would be ridiculous.

 

american-crime-story-people-simpson-poster-752x1024.jpg6: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)

An important addition to the O.J. saga because it takes a calm, unsensationalist approach and lets us see how misogyny might just run deeper than racism in America’s heart. So a case that should have been about the appalling abuse of Nicole at the hands of her husband, superstar or not, turned into a referendum on the LAPD – a debate worth having, though not in the courtroom of a suspected murderer. Also made clear is how an angry male lawyer (Johnnie Cochran) became a media celebrity, whilst an angry female lawyer (Marcia Clark) was chastised and subjected to moronic critiques about her appearance. We need to be reminded of these double standards, which course through society to this day. And though Cuba Gooding Jr. struggles to convey the charisma that made O.J. so dangerous, outstanding performances from Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance in particular, combined with excitable camerawork and a sharp attention to detail, help to make the case for the People behind the media circus behind the most infamous of all court cases.

 

the-crown-poster2.jpg7: The Crown (Netflix)

Leave your prejudices at the palace gates and you’ll most likely enjoy Netflix’s priciest drama. The focus is on the weight of the crown, with a recently coronated Elizabeth beginning to realise how her royal duties might come to impede her personal life. Yet clashes with Churchill, a tempestuous Margaret, and a caddish Philip, amongst others, bring enough intrigue to ensure that The Crown is never a burden to its viewers as well.


The-Get-Down-3-600x889.jpg8: The Get Down (Netflix)

A bit of a mess – a clash of disparate styles much like hip-hop itself (though less disciplined), I nevertheless have high hopes for this show’s future. Baz Luhrmann’s opening episode is his strongest showing since Moulin Rouge!, wildly kinetic and with a lust for urban street life. It captures the excitement of the dawning of a new, authentically working class cultural wave.

 

Unbreakable-Kimmy-Schmidt-Poster-unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-39747987-357-500.jpg9: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 2 (Netflix)

Endless optimism should get boring fast. Not when you’ve got Tina Fey on writing duties.

 

299408.jpg10: War and Peace (BBC)

Sexed-up Tolstoy turns out just fine, perhaps because Tolstoy was authentically sexed-up himself in the early years. That it comes from the BBC is more of a surprise; an interesting sign that their period dramas are moving both forwards and backwards.

Reviews Roundup: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Life, Animated; The Rolling Stones

IN CINEMAS

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

220px-Rogue_One,_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster.pngThe Force Awakens was a genuine, fresh surprise, a bolt out of the blue to electrify a limping saga. Much has been made of its similarity to A New Hope, but we don’t watch Star Wars films for narrative ingenuity (I hope), we watch them for kickass action and plenty of laughs. JJ Abrams understood this – apparently more than George Lucas, whose prequels became overly reliant on the series’ greatest weaknesses: dialogue, characterisation, emotions.

Rogue One stumbles a bit on these same inevitable failings, particularly in the opening scenes where too much exposition sets up what is in essence a very simple plot: rebel factions try to steal plans for the Death Star so they can later destroy it in the fashion we all know.

The dialogue is wooden as ever, even if it’s being performed by increasingly gifted young actors, queuing up to pay duty to their childhood dreams. Felicity Jones is convincing as Jyn Erso, our new protagonist, although she has no discernible character traits other than ‘tough’. Riz Ahmed, fresh off HBO’s excellent miniseries The Night Of, confirms his status as a rising star, merely by appearing in this blockbuster as opposed to any specific aspect to his performance. And the supporting cast is a feast of international talent: Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen courting the Chinese market (and finally acknowledging the series’ indebtedness to Eastern philosophy), Diego Luna courting the Hispanic market (and ladies of all races).

Gareth Edwards, the film’s director, has made an explicit point with this multicultural cast. It goes beyond broadening the commercial horizons (which is obviously a factor). It stands as a testament to how far we’ve come since the 70s, and how far the PC movement has won despite protests to the contrary. Which is brilliant: it opens up the opportunity for a greater variety of talent to emerge from all corners of the globe – and it pisses off all the right people in the process.

Yet in the film’s structure Edwards falters, placing too much stress on the climactic battle for the Death Star plans, with tension and screen time sapped from earlier scenes to compensate. The Force Awakens worked as a series of action vignettes with real depth to its photography, operating on various planes within individual shots like a less intense precursor to The Revenant. Rogue One instead feels more like a computer game, with CGI ships blasting at each other and human rebels shooting rows of storm troopers ad infinitum, without any imaginative leaps between them. It’s a visually uninventive cop-out in a film where the visuals are the most crucial aspect by far.

Another major cop-out is the coming and going of Darth Vader, who does so in the time it would commonly take for a toilet break. His appearance therefore falls into the same category of cynical marketing ploy as the Joker’s in Suicide Squad.

Otherwise, Rogue One is hardly a bad entertainment, with enthusiasm and an obvious affection for previous instalments in the series. Edwards is not a bad director, keeping things moving for the most part and sustaining momentum after the initial 20 minute lull. The cast and, of course, the special effects are top-notch.

Then why did I leave the cinema with a shrug and not a bounce?

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ON BFI PLAYER

Life, Animated 

life-animated-movie-poster-lg.jpgThis extraordinary documentary exists in the gap between life and animation. It reveals that this might be less marked for some people than others. The example given is Owen Suskind, a charming young man who developed autism as a very young child and lost most of his speech capability as a result. Remarkably, he later learned to communicate again, but only with the help of Disney films. By watching these obsessively, rewinding and replaying them in order to find meaning in the world, he discovered a way of expressing his innermost thoughts.

That Owen learned to speak again is inspirational, that he did so with the help of fictional, animated characters elevates Life, Animated to a rare level of insight for a documentary. It stands as an expression of the ways in which we watch and learn from films. They encourage us to empathise with other characters, to inhabit their inner worlds and share in experiences of happiness and pain, which can in turn help us to understand our own complicated feelings. Humans with autism particularly struggle to comprehend emotions, so it is revelatory to witness Owen as he copies the facial expressions of Disney characters, clearly trying to make sense of them all in order to make sense of his own life.

There is a limit to Disney’s ability to prepare one for life though, as this film acknowledges by showing Owen graduating from college and leaving home. Clueless about sex and romance outside of true love’s first kiss, he must turn instead to his family for advice, who step up admirably to the challenge. His brother suggests Disney porn.

Postmodern theory is too often obsessed with the negative impact that society’s obsession with screens is having, and whilst there are certainly troubling aspects to technology’s pervasive influence, that isn’t the full story. Not by a long shot, as Life, Animated demonstrates. Owen uses animated movies not to shut off from the world, but to better understand it, to connect with the people he loves, to console himself in times of need, and to better express his own feelings. Cynics would do well to watch this and be temporarily silenced, as Owen blossoms into verbose life right before our very eyes.

Available on BFI player here.

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ON SPOTIFY

Blue & Lonesome – The Rolling Stones

Blue & Lonesome.pngThe Rolling Stones have nothing left to prove. With the recent decline of rock music as a commercial and cultural force, they are sure to remain unchallenged as the World’s Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band. So they are freed from the burdensome expectation of innovation, much like the World’s Greatest Songwriter Bob Dylan, and are thus able to look back to their roots on this pure-blues album.

They do so with admirable gusto. Mick Jagger snarls and hollers his way through the 12 cover versions with a humour missing for yonks (even if his mouth harp is less invigorating). Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood trade licks so you can almost hear the smiles on their wizened old faces. Charlie Watts is the sturdy backdrop as ever, with his supple jazz-rock simplicity still in place. And special mention must go to Darryl Jones on bass, Matt Clifford and Chuck Leavell on keyboards, and Eric Clapton guesting on guitar not once but twice.

Which all sounds like a dream for any lifelong blues and/or Stones fans, and the album does indeed have its moments. I love the sinister strut of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Commit a Crime’ and indulgent sprawl of Willie Dixon’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ in particular.

But I don’t think it merits Rolling Stone magazine’s predictably overexcited reaction; it strikes me as a good but not great blues album. To prove it, here’s a little treat I made, a playlist comprising the band’s best blues covers (and their respective albums):

  1. I Just Want to Make Love to You (The Rolling Stones)
  2. I’m a King Bee (The Rolling Stones)
  3. Confessin’ the Blues (12 X 5)
  4. Mona (I Need You Baby) (The Rolling Stones, Now!)
  5. Little Red Rooster (The Rolling Stones, Now!)
  6. I Can’t Be Satisfied (More Hot Rocks (Big Hits And Fazed Cookies))
  7. Don’t Lie to Me (Metamorphosis)
  8. Prodigal Son (Beggars Banquet)
  9. Love in Vain (Let it Bleed)
  10. You Gotta Move (Sticky Fingers)
  11. Shake Your Hips (Exile on Main St.)
  12. Stop Breaking Down (Exile on Main St.)

These dirty dozen trump everything on Blue & Lonesome because they sound not just fun but, crucially for the Stones, dangerous. The band are most enervated when shooting for subversion, with Jagger’s androgyny and sexual swagger spotlighting every single double entendre in the lyrics (and more), Brian Jones’ slide guitar crowing for sex at every given opportunity, and Keith Richards crafting the riffs and rhythms to shake your hips to because, well, you know what that can lead to.

It should surprise no one that the surviving member’s libidos have diminished somewhat over the years (although only somewhat, as Jagger has proven), yet whilst Dylan and Young have brought an elder statesman’s maturity to their blues covers in later years, the Stones here try to match the youthful vigour of their earlier work, which can only end in relative disappointment. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, but without the threat of changing the world, this acts as just a footnote to their great career. They sound like the World’s Greatest Pub Rock Band.

Give your blues-loving relatives Blue & Lonesome for Christmas and they’ll probably enjoy it. But give them the above playlist burnt onto a disc and they won’t know when to stop dancing. Which is how the blues, as the Stones envisaged it, was meant to be.

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Blue & Lonesome.png

‘Blue Velvet’ Still Startles 30 Years on

I close my eyes then I drift awayblue-velvet.jpg

Into the magic night, I softly say

A silent prayer like dreamers do

Then I fall asleep to dream my dreams of you.

Films are like dreaming. You sit there motionless, often in the dark, and passively allow a series of images to flicker before your eyes. Your consciousness is utterly powerless to control them, which depending on the images displayed can be enthralling, scary – perhaps even arousing.

Blue Velvet understands this: it moves like a dream, it makes no attempt to pertain to ‘reality’. Director David Lynch, a master of the form, uses recurring shots that serve no dramatic function, such as beetles lurking in the undergrowth of a suburban garden or a candle flickering against an ominous wind. The narrative could survive without these intermissions but the dream logic could not, because these images help us to ‘interpret’ the dream as a whole. They are also deeply unsettling, touching a subconscious nerve and transforming the film into a nightmare from which we cannot avert our eyes.

Famously, the most nightmarish element in this film is Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth. His is a genuinely frightening performance, one in which any danger seems possible. It is all the more alarming because in amongst the frequent flights of rage there is a childlike vulnerability, a face that is moved by Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy (like The Wizard of Oz – coincidence?) and wants to suckle on her breasts. He’s like a demented baby howling for his mummy, but with the body of an adult who can do real damage to the people coming in the way of his sexual fantasies.

And like us, he loves to watch others and to dream: in one scene he gazes upon Dean Stockwell miming to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ (most definitely not a coincidence) with a rapture that eventually overwhelms him. It is one of the great moments in film history, one in which the director acknowledges that, in the dark of the cinema, we are all dreaming. And just like Hopper’s character, we must eventually wake up.

* * *

bluevelvet.jpgJeffrey Beaumont: I’m seeing something

that was always hidden. I’m in

the middle of a mystery and it’s all secret.

Sandy Williams: You like mysteries that

much?

Jeffrey Beaumont: Yeah. You’re a

mystery. I like you very much.

Films are like mysteries. They make detectives out of all of us. They are a series of shots, the meaning and interconnectedness of which we must work out for ourselves. We like to guess what will happen next, who the killer is, will they/won’t they etc. And we try to predict the outcomes by scanning the screen carefully for clues.

So when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) discovers a severed ear in amongst an arbitrary patch of grass, he is not sickened or appalled by what he has found but rather intrigued. How did it get there? Is the victim still alive? What kind of sick bastard would do this? He takes it to the police but can’t/won’t stop there. The detective’s daughter, Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), leads him to an apartment that she believes could be connected to the case, and Jeffrey is determined to break in. He can’t resist the mystery. Neither can we.

The case unravels before our own and Jeffery’s eyes, and it is as compelling as we expected, encompassing murder, kidnapping, drug busts, police corruption, and other sadomasochistic horrors.

Yet running parallel is another mystery, one in which Jeffrey and Sandy try to navigate the turmoil of adolescence and realise their feelings for one another. ‘You’re a mystery,’ as Jeffrey tells her, ‘and I like you very much.’

Being a detective is hard work and we can all make mistakes, but it is also addictive and may just bring a sense of meaning to life. It certainly brings some meaning to Jeffrey’s life, whose snooping around and love life quickly becomes the central forces in his life and a distraction from his hospitalised dad. If you respond to the power of film then Blue Velvet might just bring some meaning to your life too.

* * *

a66510a23c97a5682a68a6133d8e68a7.jpgSandy Williams: I

can’t figure out if

you’re a detective or

a pervert.

Jeffrey Beaumont:

Well, that’s for me to

know and you to find

out.

Films are an act of voyeurism. Sex sells, as Hollywood and other LA industries know, and that is because there is something hardwired in a large portion of human beings that means we like to watch good-looking people onscreen, for want of a better word, fucking.

There is a voyeur in the majority of us, and as a fanatical filmgoer myself it is something that I have become increasingly aware of and perturbed by in my own psyche. Why am I so drawn to looking at other people displayed on screens, excited by their romantic adventures and also, weirdly, their perils? Films like Blue Velvet are discomforting but also reassuring: they tell us don’t worry, we are all the same.

Jeffrey is not just a detective, he is a pervert, a voyeur, someone who likes to sneak into people’s apartments and watch them undress. It is of course important that he is male, the half of the species amongst whom pornography is more widely an obsession. And he spends several scenes of the film stood in a cupboard, sometimes naked, watching rape and murder scenes evolving before him with a calm fascination.

He is in that respect like James Stewart in Rear Window, but without the excuse of being crippled and having nothing else to do.

David Lynch is fearful of the damage that voyeurism can inflict upon impressionable youths like Jeffery, who learns to inflict his own kind of sexual violence on women before the film’s end. This is a subtlety that clearly eluded Roger Ebert in his famous pan of the film: we are supposed to be shocked by the naked, beaten flesh of Isabella Rossellini when it is exposed to us. It tells us something about ourselves, about our complicity in watching movie violence, and our freakishly obsessive voyeurism.

* * *

ecf1b5c2b2d2930afe3e7285ceb0825c.jpg            Frank Booth: Let’s hit the

fuckin’ road! We’re giving our

neighbour a joyride! Let’s get

on with it! Anyone want to go

on a joyride with us? How

about you, huh?

Films are many things, but they wouldn’t be worth a dime if they weren’t also a joyride. Blue Velvet is not just profound, it is also a hell of a lot of fun. It is a thriller that thrills and it leaves you hanging on every scene until the hypnotically bizarre finale which features a standing corpse.

It is also a joyride for being a triumph in all artistic departments. It is hard to cease to be amazed by the film’s mesmerising soundtrack, its trick of balancing tension and emotional meaning in the editing, its carefully choreographed photography, and its vibrantly contrasted hues of black, red, and of course blue.

The mise en scène is thrilling to witness on every viewing, and demands to be seen in a cinema, which makes this 30th anniversary rerelease, in cinemas from Friday, a blessing. I know that I’ll be going to see it, watching and dreaming and getting caught up in the mystery of great filmmaking again as if it were the first time.

How about you, huh?

My Top 10 Christmas Songs

Yep, I like Christmas songs. Love ’em. They demonstrate something that I particularly admire about popular music, which is its lack of pretentiousness. Whilst there is every place in the world for Hamlet, there is also a place for fluff like A Christmas Carol, and therefore there’s also a place for Mariah Carey. None of the songs below are trying to say anything meaningful, which doesn’t mean the lyrics can’t sometimes stop you in your tracks (‘White Christmas’, ‘Fairytale of New York’). They are just intended to bring you some festive cheer, as simple-minded as Will Ferrell’s Elf, and I say good on ’em.

They’re also quite blatantly commercially minded, intended to cash in on a season that has essentially become all about cashing in. I’m not Marxist enough to believe that capitalism is inherently evil – just deeply, profoundly, atrociously flawed as it currently stands – so I have no problem in accepting cash-cow motivations for music. If they want to make a quick buck and make people happy, again I say good on ’em.

So make sure to enjoy the benefits of consumer capitalism at this time of year, and have a listen to these cash-ins, which I’m sure you will enjoy. Every single one I’ve played with pleasure for some years now, and with luck you’ll discover one or two to light up the dwindling daytime hours:

 

1) Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love 

Please. That word sums up this song, with Darlene Love sounding more imploring, more desperate than just about any singer going back to the Blues. And it’s supposed to be Christmas. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, this Yuletide perennial plumbs the depths of despair in order to find transcendence. Boy does it find it in Phil Spector’s production, decking the Walls of Sound with extra booming grandiosity for the season. The pianos sound like they’re about to fly off with the reindeers to the moon, the drums as if they’re about to crash down through the chimney with Santa. And the vocals!

 

2) White Christmas – The Drifters

Bing Crosby’s is the one you know, but this is my go-to when I’m a-dreamin’ of a White Christmas. Down here in the south of England it really is quite the pipe-dream, so I appreciate the rich vein of humour brought to the song by this great doo-wop outfit. The Drifters sound just like a family gathered together around the fire and having a ball of it, trading octaves and jokes long into the night. Which couldn’t be further removed from Crosby’s wistful solo version.

 

3) All I Want for Christmas is You – Mariah Carey

Note how many of the best Christmas songs are about hoping, dreaming, wishing. They’re uplifting whilst acknowledging the conditions of a less-than-ideal present, in this case the absence of Mariah’s baby. The image of her alone and ‘waiting/Underneath the mistletoe’ is melancholy indeed, if unlikely, but belied by the rush of the chorus and sweetly enthusiastic singing. Yes, the song is overplayed. I don’t much like Mariah Carey either. But in this setting her strained over-dramatising is, most peculiarly, perfect.

 

4) ’Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong 

The funniest voice in music knows exactly how to bring festive cheer to the house. Just like the big man himself, Armstrong is warm and approachable but also a little sinister – just what is that voice? ‘Cold winds are howling, or could that be growling?’ Louis starts to wonder, alone at night, in his own trademark growl. With the spooky-comic atmosphere in place, it seems just about possible that anyone could be coming to the door. I’ll leave it to Louis to answer the title.

 

5) Christmas in Hollis – Run-D.M.C.

Christmas wouldn’t seem like a natural fit for the tough street talk of hip-hop – but then again Run-D.M.C. never were especially tough. They were all about the simple joy of rhyming, which translates well to the festive season: ‘Rhymes so loud and proud you hear it/It’s Christmas time and we got the spirit’. Of course they sampled ‘Back Door Santa’, of course they did, the cheeky chaps. Proof that Christmastime and daft funk are not mutually exclusive.

 

6) Fairytale of New York – The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl 

With great amazement I’ve seen sweaty nightclubs filled with confused youths singing arm-in-arm to this one, a ‘fairytale’ that encompasses alcoholism, depression, an explosively dysfunctional romance, and a couple’s dreams fading away like snow onto wet asphalt. True, there’s that triumphant chorus, stirring orchestral fadeout, harps and strings and all – often I find myself singing along too. It’s the very definition of ‘bittersweet’, a hilarious oxymoron set to music. And it’s the only Christmas song ever, I’ll wager, to contain the words ‘scumbag’, ‘maggot’, and ‘cheap lousy faggot’.

 

7) Merry Christmas, Baby – Bruce Springsteen 

The Boss is utterly triumphant, fresh off his biggest (and best) hit album with Born in the U.S.A., on this swaggering live version of the R&B standard. On peak vocal form, he sexes up the chorus like a pro and eggs on the legendary E Street Band with not one but two ‘Come on, boys!’ Their stomping blues rendition tops Charles Brown’s, Otis Redding’s, Elvis Presley’s – er, Hanson’s. This is where I’ll come when I want my Christmas complete with blistering sax solo.

 

8) Santa Claus is Coming to Town – The Jackson 5 

Nothing quite captures Christmas Eve like the voice of a boy so exuberantly youthful that you just about believe that he could still believe in Santa. Young Michael Jackson is jaw-dropping as ever here, screeching ‘wow, yeah!’ and hurtling you straight back to your childhood. His later, increasingly disturbing attempts to sustain a perpetual childhood in Neverland brings a retrospectively scary/tragic undertone to this classic. But the harmonies really are eternal.

 

9) I’ll Be Home For Christmas – Bing Crosby 

Yet another downbeat Christmas jingle about dreaming – it can be seen as the partner song to ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ in that respect, from the distant lover’s perspective. Crosby’s mournful vocals are so extended that you suspect he never will make it home for Christmas. Yet the result isn’t even remotely depressing, as the orchestration delivers an atmosphere ready to roast chestnuts over.

 

10) Winter Wonderland – Aretha Franklin 

This wonderland is better than Hyde Park’s because it has the Queen of Soul as your tour guide. She sounds unironically delighted at the idea of building a snowman, groo-oo-oo-ving by the fire (try listening to this in the last verse without smiling), and of course strolling through the kind of White Christmas that Crosby can only ever dream of. Without a care in the world, as is her regal right.

 

Runners-up…

11) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland

12) Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto – James Brown

13) I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday – Wizzard

14) Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me) – Elvis Presley

15) 2000 Miles – The Pretenders

16) I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – The Ronettes

17) Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt

18) Step Into Christmas – Elton John

19) Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry

20) White Christmas – Otis Redding

21) Back Door Santa – Bon Jovi

22) The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) – Nat King Cole

23) Blue Christmas – Ernest Tubb

24) Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! – Vaughn Monroe

25) Up on the House Top – The Jackson 5

26) White Christmas – Bing Crosby

27) Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms

28) Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee

29) Merry Xmas Everybody – Slade

30) Someday at Christmas – Stevie Wonder

31) Frosty the Snowman – The Ronettes

32) In the Bleak Midwinter – Bert Jansch

33) Happy Christmas (War is Over) – John Lennon

34) Santa Claus is Coming to Town – The Pointer Sisters

35) It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas – Bing Crosby

 

Merry Christmas!

elf.jpg

Reviews Roundup: Your Name; Elza Soares

IN CINEMAS

Your Name

Your-Name.-Shinkai-Makoto-04.pngThis body-swap anime, a major hit in Japan, doesn’t look set to repeat the world-conquering form of Studio Ghibli’s smashes Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Which is a shame because it’s a beautifully crafted film, somewhat akin to a Taoist Freaky Friday crossed with Donnie Darko. If you can’t imagine what that might look like, pay to see this film.

It concerns a city boy and a country girl who find that sometimes they will wake up in each other’s bodies. Cue the funniest running gag of the year (involving breasts) and much general confusion. As the film progresses it uses this premise to break down age-old binaries crucial to Japanese culture: male/female, country/city, past/present, traditional/modern, youth/old age, destruction/rebirth. The latter should conjure up painful images of post-war Japan, which this film subtly evokes in scenes of natural disaster that change this gentle comedy into something more urgent. The chronology also becomes confused at this point, a familiar Japanimation device, as both space and time collapse around our heroes. It seems they must find each other. But why? They’re not sure… And will they remember each other’s name? They don’t know… The mystery continues right up until the film’s final frame.

Director Makoto Shinkai has been touted as the new Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, but as usual these comparisons fail to do justice to his unique vision. This has a grandiose romanticism and bawdy humour that clearly marks it out from Studio Ghibli’s largely infantilised (not a criticism) output. It shares with those masters an ecological fascination, rendered in stunningly animated rural vistas, but contrasts them with the bustle of modern Tokyo in urban landscapes that Shinkai seems equally fond of, capturing them perfectly.

I was less enamoured with other aesthetic flourishes, such as the J-Pop and schmaltz concessions to the tween market on the soundtrack. Also the gender representations are too neat, with the girl becoming suddenly more ‘aggressive’ and the boy ‘compassionate’ as they inhabit each other’s bodies.

Yet these quibbles rarely detract from a film that was so compelling it caused the entire audience at my local cinema to burst into applause at the end, which should come as recommendation enough. Remember the name.

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ON SPOTIFY

The Woman at the End of the World – Elza Soares

brazil.jpgElza’s surname in English conjures up two of her defining characteristics. She has ‘sores’ that run far deeper than ever should in any one person’s lifetime, including a poverty-stricken upbringing in the favelas of Rio, an enforced marriage at twelve years old, subsequent widowhood at twenty-one, the loss of four of her children, an abusive relationship with the footballer Garrincha (chronicled on this album’s ‘Maria da Vila Matilde’), and systemic racial abuse encountered throughout her career. But she also ‘soars’ in her music with a half-sung half-rapped rasp that evokes Macy Gray and Tina Turner, turning Elza into a legendary figure in the world of samba and beyond.

Now approaching eighty years old, Soares wisely surrounds herself with younger musicians who bring a panoply of sounds to bear on her own eclectically influenced voice. Members of São Paulo outfits Passo Torto, Bixia 70, and Mena Mena accompany her original tracks with a classic samba groove melded with jagged rock guitar riffs, polyrhythmic African percussion, avant-jazz brass arrangements, classical violin accompaniment, and hundreds of other wild effects drawn from a variety of sources. This may sound fairly challenging, but despite the sonic inventiveness at work it’s a remarkably easy listen, addictive and catchy, riff-laden and fun. The songs both expand into brave new territory and contract into conventionally hooky delights. This trick is what marks out the very top level of musicianship.

The show still very much belongs to Elza though, as demonstrated on the a cappella opening track, which instantly draws you into the record on her charisma alone. She comes across as a battle-worn figure, frayed and old and weary. Yet emphatically not defeated. The English translations, provided when you purchase the album, are illuminating in this respect: on key track ‘Pra Fuder’ she celebrates fucking with great relish, claiming ‘my turmoil turns me into a she-wolf’. The theme of this album has been stated as ‘sex and blackness’, which is why it comes across as a celebration, a triumphant middle finger up to the hardships of life.

On the title track she accepts the encroaching end to her life with a calm ‘I go on singing till the end’. One listen to this and you will hope that she can live up to her promise, for many years to come.

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Reviews Roundup: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Miranda Lambert, Metallica

IN CINEMAS

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fantastic-beasts-poster-lg.jpgThe great charm of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world is that it exists in tandem with our own,
it’s just that us Muggles can’t seem to notice it. As a wish-fulfillment fantasy then it comes tantalisingly close, as if we could almost reach out and touch it. This is crucial in helping to explain why Harry Potter’s become such a phenomenon: kids can be pretty sure that it’s not real, but then again… can they? That question’s enough.

So one of the best ideas to bless this film is that a Muggle (or ‘No-Maj’ as the Americans say) forms one of the cohort hunting down magical beasts in 1920s New York. His enchantment enhances our own, helping us to marvel once again at the realm of wizards, goblins, and 20ft. monsters. But just like us, the journey to this world can only ever be temporary, as the poor Muggle goes through the film aware that he’s to be ‘obliviated’ (his memory erased) at the end of it. Does that diminish his enchantment? Does it diminish our own, to know that we have to walk back out into the non-magic world once the credits roll? ‘It’s just like opening your eyes,’ the Muggle tells us. Exactly.

The wizard who gives our whistle-stop tour of fantastic beasts run amok is Newt Scamander, played by Potter superfan Eddie Redmayne. In interviews I’ve seen him light up with excitement when talking about Rowling’s creation, though that same thrill is harder to detect in his performance. This is because Newt is supposedly a ‘difficult’ chap, a hyper-intelligent loner who tends to irritate people – which might smack more of Cumberbatch terrain, but Eddie gives it a good go anyway, playing down his effortless likeability. If we don’t get the feeling of a fully formed character, with luck we might over the course of four more films to come.

The same could be said for the supporting characters, with none of them yet standing out as Ron, Hermione, Draco, Hagrid, Dobby, Dumbledore, Snape etc. etc. all immediately did in the prior classics. The villain of the piece here is deliberately confused, hidden away until the post-finale with a last-minute cameo that will wet the lips of fans the world over. Whether this evil-doer will come to match the hideous energy of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named remains to be seen. Just as it remains to be seen whether Rowling can beef up the love interest ‘Tina’ or provide more insight into the mysterious ‘MACUSA’ (Magical Congress of the U.S.A.). She will need to do both in order to rival the extensive reach of her still-defining series.

Of course the main draw of this winter blockbuster is the action scenes, which is where director David Yates certainly delivers, with some impressive setpieces taking place in the tourist hotspots of the Big Apple (which is where the beasts inevitably congregate). There are more than enough thrills to help this movie cruise the box office wave through to Christmas. And what’s more, it deserves to.

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ON SPOTIFY

The Weight of These Wings – Miranda Lambert

miranda-lambert-weight-of-these-wings.jpgMiranda Lambert is, simply put, one of the best artists of the decade. Unbeknownst to most in the UK, where country music has only ever achieved fringe success, Lambert’s a critical and commercial smash in the States – for all the right reasons. From the start she established herself as the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to the bro-country assholes who dominated the charts at the time, a gun-tootin’ cigarette-smokin’ badass prepared to take them to task for their misdemeanours whilst hypocritically (and hilariously) celebrating her own. Then she settled down with 2014’s Platinum, about her marriage to country-bro Blake Shelton, which portended a domestic bliss that came abruptly to an end earlier this year with news of their divorce.

‘The Nerve’ is the name of the first disc of this double album, and Lambert still shows plenty of it in spite of her recent split. The trademark sass and swagger which brought her to fame are still here, with the opening half a dozen songs rocking harder than anything I’ve heard all year, layering guitars and backing vocals atop each other in quite the visceral gut-punch. But the words don’t sound half as self-assured, detailing a return to singleton life viewed as both liberating and scary. She opines in the opener that ‘Happiness ain’t prison, but there’s freedom in a broken heart’. This line gets trickier every time I hear it: if what she had before was happiness, what is it that she’s got now? Is her broken heart a worthwhile price for freedom? She seems unsure, and that uncertainty plagues the songs here, from the depiction of a ‘Vice’ she sometimes finds a comfort but realises might be ‘gone before it ever melts the ice’ to her pained admission that the early excitement of relationships are often just a matter of ‘Pushin’ Time’. The music veers from slick country raunch to eerily sparse ballads as a response to these contradictions, a powerful and disturbing effect that helps to place the first disc amongst her finest moments on record.

‘The Heart’ is the name of the second disc, and like most double albums it’s where the quality starts to decline. At its best, Lambert channels the energy of prior legends with an overt country twang: ‘To Learn Her’ is so much like the great Dolly Parton ballads, both in sliding-guitar beauty and in sentiment; ‘For the Birds’ is reminiscent of ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, at least in the verses, and is almost as much fun; ‘Good Ol’ Days’ has the subtle heart-tug of a Willie Nelson classic, with a warm ocean of acoustic backing to luxuriate in. These highlights can’t detract from the overall maudlin excess though, a navel-gazing that fails to throw up many new perspectives on her heartbreak – or anyone else’s, for that matter – as she does relentlessly on the first disc. But there she is at the end of the album’s slightly OTT 94 minutes, with ‘I’ve Got Wheels’ finding her exactly where she started: on the road, with her heart a little more scarred, her nerve a little more damaged, but still keeping on a-rollin’ on.

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Hardwired… to Self-Destruct – Metallica

metallica_hardwired_to_self_destruct-portada.jpgMetallica are clearly one of the most influential bands of all time, which doesn’t mean I have to like them. I don’t. Their brand of macho metal embodies all the worst impulses that have come to define that genre, a copy of The Rolling Stones’ darkness and arrogance with almost 0% of that great band’s humour and self-mocking irony. When I pay attention I’m objectively able to enjoy Metallica’s undeniable skill with regards to riff-making and compositional grandeur. But I find it hard to ignore the deadeningly dull displays of ‘virtuosity’ on the solos, I find their speed often fails to cover the cracks of some wildly inconsistent songwriting, and whenever I’m unfortunate enough to tune in to the lyrics I find them at best laughable (‘Enter Sandman’) and often much, much worse.

The first disc of this double album opens with a jovial little number called ‘Hardwired’, which has a chorus that goes like this: ‘We’re so fucked/Shit outta luck/Hardwired to self-destruct’. It sums up everything I hate about this band: music as defeatism, music as directionless anger, music as politically neutered rage. I’ve read reviews which seem to believe that these words are a relief in the age of Brexit/Trump, but don’t believe it. It’s exactly this kind of horseshit nihilism that these movements have capitalised on, exploiting an anger (often middle class) so blind it doesn’t give a damn about real-world consequences. In later tracks Metallica continue to pile on the gloom, as is their irritating wont, with ridiculous odes to death, Cthulhu, pyromania, and other things I don’t care enough about to research. Meanwhile the music that’s supposed to make it all valid chugs along ominously. I’m not masochist enough to be entertained by the repetitive-strain-injury rhythm guitar and Ulrich’s whack-a-mole drumming, so by the time ‘Halo on Fire’ comes on I want it all to stop. But that’s just the end of the first disc.

The second disc of this double album opens with an abstract noun that could very well sum up their career: ‘Confusion’. It concerns another obsession of theirs, war and PTSD, which they tackle like this: ‘Confusion/All sanity is now beyond me/Delusion/All sanity is but a memory’. As usual, their good intentions are betrayed by the thrill they seem to get from this macabre element, insanity being just yet another aspect of their obsession with darkness and despair. Things carry on with the usual lack of creativity for the rest of the album, including the worst joke title of the year (‘ManUNkind’), a tribute to Lemmy that confusingly sounds like a sludgy homage to Black Sabbath (‘Murder One’), a good riff dragged out to a woeful 7 minutes (‘Here Comes Revenge’), and a song that fans insist is ‘their best’ in 25 years, which translates to the rest of us as ‘their fastest’ (‘Spit Out the Bone’). Supposedly this 77 minute album is missing hundreds of riffs James Hetfield had written down on a phone lost in Copenhagen. I’m sorry to report that this fact is the most entertaining aspect of the whole album.

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Reviews Roundup: The Crown; Common, A Tribe Called Quest

ON NETFLIX

The Crown 

the-crown-netflix.jpgMy sympathies towards the royal family can be described as ambivalent at best. I would
lose little sleep if the institution, absurd relic of a feudalist past, were to be disbanded overnight. Yet much like the monarchy itself, this show has succeeded in capturing the public imagination, and it would be churlish to deny that it also captured mine. The key is not to focus on the regal responsibilities, which would be as tedious for us to watch as they are for the Queen to perform, but on the family drama seething beneath the glamorous surface of the crown. The Crown is in essence a soap opera and as daft in its own way as Downton Abbey or Eastenders, with sibling rivalry, marital strife, scandalous affairs, premature deaths, very public divorces – all of these providing the meat of the drama. Whether it is at all historically accurate remains irrelevant because it works as pure entertainment, as vaguely hysterical melodrama and as an epic portrait of familial dysfunction.

Their internal squabbles are similar to those of so many other families, but uniquely they must be resolved or else risk bringing down an institution that, as they are continually reminded, is bigger than they are. Such a weight on their shoulders is what makes the private lives of the royal family so fascinating to us, and is what makes this particular soap opera worthy of attention even amongst staunch republicans. Because, hate the institution or not, it is very difficult to despise Elizabeth, and Claire Foy does an excellent job in depicting the burdensome impact of the crown upon her mild-mannered disposition – a job that she did not choose and explicitly does not want. What’s more, republicans will greatly enjoy the depiction of shadier elements of the monarchy, including a Princess Margaret who delights in shocking the press, an alternately dastardly and dashing Prince Philip, and a post-abdicated Edward VIII whose cold-shouldering by his own family pointedly exposes their nasty side.

This hit series is doubtless to continue for many a year, as inevitably will the monarchy itself. I remain ambivalent about the latter, but about the former I could not be more pleased.

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ON SPOTIFY

Black America Again – Common

common-black-america-again-cover.jpegBlack America once again chips away at the white male orthodoxy in this album, exposing the crucial prejudice at the heart of the Trump campaign: ‘We staring in the face of hate again/The same hate they say will make America great again’. As Common and anyone with half a brain cell is aware, the ‘again’ in that famous slogan is a throwback to a White America that no longer exists, a nostalgia that acts as a veiled threat to minorities across the country. So expect Trump to keep on denying that he’s a racist whilst enacting draconian legal measures to increase the incarceration of black American youths. But also expect Black America to fight back, as they do better than almost any minority group on the planet, mobilised by a music that has never ceased to tell white nationalists where to shove it. Common name-checks James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Public Enemy on this album, legendary political acts who greatly influence the powerful title track, one which pertinently re-channels the nostalgic use of ‘Again’ from the Trump campaign.

But those artists were never just political acts, they were spectacularly successful musicians as well, each one driving R&B to previously unimagined heights. Here Common struggles to match them, making of his protest muzak not the frenzied funk of To Pimp a Butterfly but, despite using many of the same musicians, an ill-advised 70s lounge jazz vibe. It utilises many of the worst ideas of that decade’s fusion experiments, including noodling keyboards and distracting flutes, which are both given voice on the absurdly extended codas. With Kendrick’s opus there were no wasted moments (besides the 2Pac finale), on Common’s they’re everywhere. He might be on point in his rapping now like never before, but without a Kanye or a J Dilla on production he seems hopelessly lost.

Like America itself. 

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We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest

A-Tribe-Called-Quest-We-got-it-from-Here-.jpgI love the Quest – their brand of goofy rhymes over jazz-hop loops and ‘Low End’ bass is one of the great musical pleasures of the 90s – but the tail-off in their last two albums and solo careers left me with the feeling that they had nothing left to say. Cue the ‘comeback’ album 18 years after the group’s last, marketed of course as a ‘return to form’. It also acts as a farewell to the tragically deceased Phife Dawg, the Tribe’s second-in-command. Whilst ‘Trump and the SNL hilarity/Troublesome times kid, no times for comedy’ might prove that he was never much of an intellect, there’s no denying that his Jamaican patois on ‘Solid Wall of Sound’ and braggadocio on ‘The Donald’ (his nickname is ‘Don Juice’) are some of the album’s high points. Another high point is defined by his absence: the posse tribute cut ‘Lost Somebody’, where Q-Tip and Jarobi pay their respects with a sentimentalism that Phife clearly earned.

Recording this album whilst undergoing extensive dialysis treatment, I have enormous respect for Phife’s commitment to music, and only wish I could hear it more in the music itself. The problems start with the opening track, which overdoses on sound effects, chucking in studio cackles and passages from Willy Wonka, and killing the flow in the process. So it is with the record as a whole, with everything from Jack White’s guitar to the Elton John guest spot being treated as mere, gimmicky sound effects rather than musical spices to flavour the funk. It’s a mostly unengaging listen, which is a real shame as it has been touted as their last. When the dust settles, there’s no way that We Got it From Here will be mentioned in the same breath as The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. But when the dust settles, at least we’ll still have The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders.

Updated 25/11/16 (prev. 2.5 stars): Christgau has ranked this an A+, implying that it’s the Tribe’s best album (contravening my last paragraph) and record of the year. I have so much respect for the man that I immediately gave this another spin. I must admit the thrill of certain tracks (‘We the People….’, ‘Dis Generation’) and horror of others (‘The Killing Season’) struck me harder than before. Whether this is down to greater exposure or Christgau’s ever-elucidating prose I’m not sure. But I stand by most of what I wrote initially and a comparison with The Low End Theory still left it trailing. I feel that Bob has overstated its importance, although I can understand the personal significance it has had for him in transcending the post-election blues. More like an A- than A+.

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