Reviews Roundup: Finding Dory; Car Seat Headrest

IN CINEMAS

Finding Dory

Who doesn’t like Pixar? Sorry – who doesn’t love Pixar? Their films are custom made to stir up strong emotions, not just mere likeability, amongst the children in the audiences and finding-dory-wallpaper-movie-poster-nemo.jpgthe inner children of their parents. They succeed – they really do – with an admirably high hit rate: the Toy Story trilogy, Up, and Ratatouille would be my desert island choices, but it could be just about any of the other films that personally resonate with you, beyond last year’s flimsy (and flimsily titled) The Good Dinosaur. The company’s very name has become synonymous with quality, both for the technical bravado of its animation and the richness of its scripts and characterisations – no other studio can come close to boasting the same consistency. Therefore I’m pleased to inform you that Finding Dory is very much a Pixar film, through and through.

Actually that seems to be concerning some people: there are murmurings on the internet that this film is just too much like other Pixar films, particularly Finding Nemo, with worries that the plot is way too similar. I’m unsure why they’ve chosen this point in time to complain – after all, the Pixar package has been the same for many, many years now. They’re certainly right that, just like the first one, this is also a film about the search for a fish that has become separated from its parents. But a dramatic separation from loved ones, combined with a quest to return home, happens to describe the narrative of just about every other Pixar film as well. That is, I believe, a large part of what has made the studio so popular: the comfort of repetition is a natural human instinct, because we all fear change – children and adults alike. We don’t want the Pixar formula to evolve, just as we don’t want Andy to go off to college at the end of Toy Story 3. Familiarity is comforting, even if there will always be cynics to criticise that comfort, labelling it as an act of ‘conformity’ or ‘selling out’ or the like, a common accusation against sequels.

But why would you want to quibble with a formula that is so enjoyable? I am all for Pixar maintaining their thematic and narrative repetitiveness, so long as they also sustain their quality control. Thankfully, in Finding Dory the quality is fairly high: Dory is an irrepressibly joyous character and the journey to find her parents and overcome that famous short-term memory loss of hers is invigorating because of the gutsy determination to do it all by herself. Which is not to say that she doesn’t get a helping hand (or seven) along the way, from Hank the octo/septopus, an amusing new sidekick who can usefully disguise himself in any surroundings, and several other cute animals (including, bizarrely, Sigourney Weaver) along the way – all of which children will love. Unfortunately, Nemo and Marlon do get somewhat sidelined in this adventure, tagging along as it is their duty to do in such a sequel, but sadly given little dramatic heft. And the emotional payoff, when it comes as it always must, tugs a little too hard on the tear ducts, with flashbacks to baby Dory’s bulbous eyes and cutesy voice virtually begging you to feel nostalgic for the lost innocence of childhood.

But hey, sentimentalism is yet another staple of the Pixar package, and even if it’s done with more subtlety in some of their other films, I’m willing to put up with it in this one because Ellen DeGeneres is so engaging as Dory, the sea life is so exquisitely detailed and brought to life by the animators, a majority of the jokes hit home (I’d say a 70% hit rate amongst the audience), and the climactic action scenes are some of the most outrageous in Pixar’s history – and therefore the most fun.

Make sure to stick around for the credits – Sia’s cover of the old standard ‘Unforgettable’ is one of the best gags in the film (think of the significance of the title), plus there are a couple more nods to Nemo for those with the patience to wait it out until the very end.

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ON SPOTIFY

Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest

One of the great coups of rock n’ roll music, and one of the many reasons why I love it so much, is that it has always catered, right from the very beginning, for the youth market Car_Seat_Headrest_-_Teens_Of_Denial_review_under_the_radar.jpgthat is typically abandoned by other musical genres: Chuck Berry was singing and playing directly to teens struggling with the perennial turmoils of adolescence whilst offering them consolation and assurance of a better future through his cocky, fun-loving guitar chops – that was the message of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and all of those countless other classics.

Will Toledo, singer/songwriter extraordinaire of Car Seat Headrest, also speaks directly to teens in the great rock tradition, but his alter-ego is a world away from the cocksure guitar hero of Chuck’s Johnny B. – it takes the form of a schmuck named Joe, a youngster struggling with depression brought about by the fear of entering the adult world: ‘how was I supposed to know how to make dinner for myself?’ is just one of the many complaints he issues on Teens of Denial. Joe can feel his life careening out of control, much like ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’, the subjects of one song, or the captain of the Costa Concordia (remember that cruise ship which infamously sank off the coast of Italy in 2012?), the subject of another: ‘how was I supposed to know how to steer this ship?’

Fear, doubt, anxiety, depression: these don’t sound like the ingredients that make for a great album, they sound like the makings of a non-stop pity party – and then you find out the damn thing’s 70 minutes long. Yet like Morrissey before him, Will Toledo manages to pull it off thanks to a humane and sympathetic voice that reaches out to the troubled souls of the universe and takes their problems at face value. But he also pulls it off thanks to generous dollops of humour that help keep the album grounded: ‘Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit’ he reveals to us in a typically funny-sad moment from the album’s best-titled song. Toledo, like many of the best artists, keeps us guessing at to the extent to which Joe, the narrator, encompasses his own personal feelings and experiences, and this keeps things engaging and interesting upon repeated listens.

And believe me, repeated listening is most certainly worth doing with this album, with the music unravelling welcomingly and revealing catchy hooks and fascinating sonic details every time you spin it. Toledo is a true indie auteur, recording hundreds of songs throughout his teenage years in the back of a family car (hence the band’s name), honing his craft and becoming a hero on Bandcamp, before signing with Matador Records and releasing a compilation of the best songs from this era, Teens of Style, which was unfortunately patchy at best but paved the way for the grandly ambitious release of this entirely new collection of songs. His musical touchstones on Teens of Denial are clearly the noise-rock bands of the late 80s/early 90s (Pixies, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Guided by Voices etc.), deploying generous feedback, squeals and squalls on his guitar to capture the chaotic energy of youth, carefully avoiding standard verse-chorus-verse structures in favour of a more liquid approach to songwriting in which melodies appear and disappear with startling frequency, and using dynamic soft-loud contrasts to punch home the turbulent messages in some of the more disturbing episodes (particularly ‘Cosmic Hero’). It is, in all, a powerful, thrilling spectacle, with unexpectedly charming moments in the form of catchy singalong choruses, even if Toledo can’t resist cynically matching them to lines such as ‘I give up’ or the deliciously sarcastic ‘Drugs are better, drugs are better with/Friends are better, friends are better with/Drugs are… etc.’

What a treat this is! An album for those teens and young adults struggling to adjust not just to the actuality but even to the idea of growing up, and angry at themselves for not being able to cope with more ease. This is a generation being told by their superiors that they’re a bunch of lazy slackers – that they should quit moaning, get off their asses and get a damn job. Toledo is self-deprecating and honest enough to recognise that there may be some truth in these accusations, particularly regarding himself. But it doesn’t make him any less fearful for those Teens of Denial in the world who are still trying to figure out what the hell they’re going to do with their life, youths whom he knows will often turn to music for a measure of assuredness and comfort.

I happen to be one of those people.

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Why I Love Kanye: A Toast to the Douchebag

Kanye is probably the most misunderstood figure in modern culture. Almost every action he makes is accompanied by a backlash of public vitriol unequalled by almost anybody else outside of politics. Only Bieber and perhaps One Direction face an equivalent level of accusations regarding the degradation of the musical establishment and culture.

rtr_kanye_west_jc_150407_16x9_992.jpgFools who decry the state of modern music often see Kanye as one of their key targets: a narcissistic imbecile who ‘steals’ other people’s music for profit and personal gain. Well, for starters, he doesn’t ‘steal’ any of the music he samples, he pays for the rights to use them, and he uses them in exceptionally creative ways. The best example of this is when he turns Jamie Foxx’s rendition of ‘I Got a Woman’, a song with troubling intimations of male possessiveness, into the centrepiece of ‘Gold Digger’, a song which satirises the way in which all human beings exploit each other. In the context of the song’s twist ending, in which a suddenly rich man ditches his black girlfriend for a white girl, the choice of sample is revealed to be not just a catchy hook but also deeply ironic and, most importantly of all, very funny indeed.

His critics are right about one thing: Kanye most definitely is a narcissist. But he’s in fairly good company there: it’s a trait he shares with, well, everyone who’s ever recorded an album with their name on it. What’s fascinating about Kanye is that he not only acknowledges his own self-obsession, but he makes it one of the central themes of his art. ‘I love you like Kanye loves Kanye’ he jokes in a memorable moment from his latest album, and his ego has even led to claims of his being God, on a track from Yeezus titled, with great subtlety, ‘I Am a God’.

This, assuredly, is one of the reasons why he receives such a passionately hostile reaction from the general public: he is more honest than most about his feelings of self-worth, even within the typically boastful world of mainstream rap. There is, however, logic behind his narcissism: for Kanye, as with many great artists, the concept of truth, or at least personal honesty, is of greater importance to him than anything else – and that includes false modesty. He proclaims himself a genius because he damn well believes it, and he’s not going to lie to you about it just to satisfy your bourgeois distaste for arrogance.

What’s more, this arrogance is well-founded: musically, he is the supreme example of a simultaneously experimental and accessible artist since The Beatles; his monumental skills as a producer are denied by no one in the music industry outside of Noel Gallagher (a notorious old fart). His depth of knowledge with regards to musical history is displayed continually throughout his career in an astonishingly diverse use of samples from a variety of genres, rhythm tracks and, when the occasion suits him, even live instrumentation and orchestras to decorate his deeply felt music. But don’t take my word for it, here it is straight from the mouths of some of rock’s greatest musicians:

‘The guy really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.’ – Lou Reed

‘I love Kanye… People say he’s eccentric, which you’d have to agree with, but he’s a monster, yeah. He’s a crazy guy that comes up with great stuff. He inspires me.’ – Paul McCartney

‘There are so many musicians who I admire and look up to and get inspired by and just when I think all the good songs have been written already, someone goes and does something [new] – and Kanye has done that many times.’ – Beck

On Kanye’s arena tour: ‘That might have been the greatest show I’ve seen in my life. It was more punk, more in-your-face than anything I’ve seen.’ – Jack White

Lyrically, he also has one of the broadest ranges of anyone in recent years, covering such diverse topics as racial discrimination, the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, the death of his grandmother and the perceived betrayal of his own African-American roots – and that’s all on just one of his albums (the stunning, ambitious Late Registration). And then there is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: his musical and lyrical culmination, and quite simply a masterpiece of self-examination from start to finish.

I cannot overstate this enough: Kanye is a brilliant, precociously gifted artist who has done2016-02-08-a4-kanyewest1.2150b.jpg more than enough to earn the right to label himself a genius. You might find his arrogance hard to bear, but if you start to examine his music you will quickly discover a complex human being underneath the surface: conflicted, self-doubting and troubled; desperate to enjoy life on his own terms, yet finding it eternally difficult to chase away his inner demons. ‘The devil is alive, I feel him breathing’ he gasps on the beautiful ‘Heard ‘em Say’ early on in his career, a theme which he would return to often and reiterate.

No other modern superstar has been so explicit about his own flaws and failings; in one particularly revealing moment from the classic ‘Runaway’ he says: ‘I sent this girl a picture of my dick/I don’t know what it is with females/But I’m not too good with that shit’. The macho boastings of Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and the like are noticeably absent from this verse: instead there is insecurity, doubt and feelings of regret at his own sexually provocative behaviour: ‘You been putting up with my shit just way too long’. In the chorus, however, Kanye turns this regret on its head by opting to raise a toast to all the ‘assholes’, ‘scumbags’ and ‘douchebags’ of the world – himself of course included. Therefore he is demonstrating both insecurity and arrogance within the same song, in the space of just a few seconds. This is because, despite displaying frequent feelings of remorse for some of his more questionable actions, he is ultimately unapologetic about himself as a person: he is rich, arrogant, promiscuous and, worst of all to a good many Americans, a ‘Black Skinhead’. A douchebag, a scumbag and an asshole, all wrapped up into one. What’s more, he’s proud of it. This self-awareness, as well as his blessed ability not to give a shit about what anyone else thinks about him, sets Kanye apart from the pack and is the key to his troubled genius.

We are all complex and flawed human beings, therefore it is encouraging when artists are brave enough to convey complex and flawed visions of themselves. Why is it that the general public are so much more in thrall to bland, inoffensive icons like Gary Barlow, who preach about how we should do right by one another and give our precious money to charities, whilst secretly dodging tax on the side? Whatever your thoughts are on Kanye, it’s impossible to conceive of his dodging tax without openly boasting about it on Twitter or via one of his songs. That is because he is deliberately, obstinately open and truthful, actively avoiding hypocrisy and refusing to hide behind a thin, fake veneer of respectability. This makes him endlessly fascinating, as all open and truthful human beings are.

Freely admit your flaws, and then decide to love yourself anyway: that is the way of Kanye and the lifestyle that he endorses to the world. If you can love a few other people along the way, people like God (or Kim) who will accept you just the way you are, well then, that’s just a bonus. If everyone could learn to love themselves like Kanye loves Kanye, the world might not be a better place, but it would certainly be a hell of a lot more interesting.

Reviews Roundup: Orange is the New Black: Season Four; The Neon Demon

ON NETFLIX

Orange is the New Black: Season Four

After a lacklustre third season, OITNB returns with fire in its belly and a renewed sense of medium_orange-is-the-new-black-serienposter-staffel4.jpgpurpose for its fourth season, arguably the best yet. The problem last time around was that there was very little antagonism between the different groups of inmates, which meant that there was very little tension propelling viewers through each of the episodes, and the major storylines were primarily intended for comedic appeal but fell flat (Piper’s used-panty business and Norma’s miracle-working were the key culprits). This time, the writers and producers have clearly listened to the show’s critics, and they use the influx of new inmates and subsequent overcrowding of the prison as a catalyst for greatly intensified action. Moreover, a theme that has always been lurking in the background is thrillingly hauled kicking and screaming to the fore: race relations.

There has always been racial segregation in Litchfield, as Piper was made painfully aware of from the start when she unsuccessfully tried to sit with the black inmates, but in this season outright war breaks out between the different groups: Piper unwittingly starts a gang of neo-Nazis, the Dominicans form a drug cartel, the African-Americans face a tragedy that brings them together in rage, and the prison staff overwhelmingly represent a white male privilege that threatens the peace of the entire institution. These opposing factions confront and antagonise each other across the span of the thirteen episodes, building up to a finale of such explosive proportions that it cannot help but represent our worst fears about the American dream of integration turning sour, or far worse than that – dangerous and violent.

This comes at a time, of course, when there really is a racial war occurring on the streets of that famous melting pot, in which African-American communities are facing off against predominantly white male police officers in the streets of its poorest communities, and Donald Trump is winning political points by stoking the flames of prejudice against the Hispanic population. So OITNB’s confrontation of these issues, its examination of the Black Lives Matter movement and the frightening state of race relations currently existing in America, feels urgent and, for the first time in the show’s history, switched on and keyed in to very contemporary concerns. That it does so with compassion and complexity, refusing to sentimentalise any of the racial groups by depicting them as helpless victims, yet equally refusing to demonise any group by depicting them as caricature villains (even the Nazis experience conflicting feelings of compassion towards the other inmates at times), results in one of the most incisive and insightful deconstructions of race relations since Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a great deal of comedy to enjoy in this series also: primarily, there is the wonderful Blair Brown portraying TV chef Judy King, a new inmate and celebrity who is given the special treatment in Litchfield and is willing to exploit every moment of it – as well as other people – for her own amusement and sexual gratification. Then there is Caputo, the assistant warden still struggling to balance his need to be the ‘good guy’ and his attraction, quite literally in the case of one of his bosses, to success within the bureaucracy of the prison’s corporate management – he is compassionate and yet also pathetically turned on by manipulative women in power, and as such he always brings big laughs and an ever-compromised heart to the show.

It’s a unique and frequently quite brilliant series, full to the brim with terrific characters and a superlative ensemble cast portraying them. Structurally, it is starting to come together more, although still somewhat chaotic in its balancing act of the multiplicity of storylines and subplots; the scripts could sometimes do with tightening up to draw the various strands thematically together in each episode (using The Wire or Mad Men as outstanding examples). Still, you really do care about these inmates, and the last episode, which uses flashbacks to allow a major character to reappear shortly after her death, has a poignancy that is unmatched in any show that I’ve seen this year. Season Four is a great achievement, and one with a strong political purpose that I hope will be renewed in later instalments.

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IN CINEMAS

The Neon Demon

neon demon movie poster.jpgNicolas Winding Refn is, in my eyes, an incredibly frustrating young director. He clearly has remarkable talent and, crucially because it is so rare to find, a distinctive visual style and voice. Yet he is so determined to be perverse and provocative, at the expense of any humanity or complexity, that he consistently undermines the beauty of his films with a harsh, unforgiving, and stubbornly one-dimensional tone. Shock is his primary aim – not in a schoolboy, shop-of-horrors type way (he is far from commercially minded), but in an intellectual sense, delighting in offending the bourgeois moralists that he presumes dominate the critical establishment. His films are routinely booed at the Cannes Film Festival, a fact which I’m sure delights him.

I appreciate the morbid humour and anti-establishment motivation behind this drive, and accept that he is in a long tradition of great filmmakers with an insatiable desire to shock the public out of the complacency of their daily lives: Hitchcock, Buñuel, Lynch, Cronenberg, von Trier, Tarantino etc. all fall into this category. But those directors have so much more going on in their works than mere shock value, whereas Refn’s output leaves one cold and with little to ponder once the films have finished. Drive had its admirers, but I was not one of them – it left me with no lasting impression beyond the meticulously staged scenes of violent retribution. Only God Forgives had few admirers, and again I was not one of them – it appeared to me to be Freud-on-steroids, all style and very little substance.

In contrast, I am at least a partial admirer of his latest feature, The Neon Demon, about a virginal young girl who attempts to make a modeling career for herself in L.A., only to cross paths with sinister and sadistic businessmen and women that are happy to abuse her. The standard objections to Refn as a director still apply, including the most grievous of all: he has little time for actors, abandoning Elle Fanning in her struggle to bring the lead role some depth, and permitting Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks to walk on and off set again, leaving the barest of impressions. Refn has always preferred to focus his attention, with the intensity of a close-up lens, upon the set, costumes, colour schemes, camera movements, chilly synth soundtrack – the mise en scène as opposed to the human beings.

But there is a decent attempt here to contribute to the conversation on one of cinema’s greatest overarching themes: the fetishistic voyeurism that the presence of a camera both implicitly and explicitly encourages. The first shot of this film is of an apparently dead woman, her throat seemingly slit, sprawled out on a sofa in an unquestionably erotic manner, as a camera flashes, repeatedly capturing the moment (at twenty-four frames per second?). We soon discover that this woman is a prospective model, and that the blood adorning her is only make-up. It’s just a show: she’s alive. Or at least she’s alive to the other characters on the screen – is she any more alive to us? After all, this woman remains an illusion. She is an actor playing a character that doesn’t exist. Crucially, we can see her, but she can’t see us. And doesn’t that remind you of something? A corpse, perhaps?

With a devilish persistence typical of his perversity, Refn explores the relationship between the modelling industry and necrophilia throughout this film. Photographing women turns them into inanimate objects, corpses if you will, unseeing objects upon whom we can project our sexual fantasies. So it is also with cinema (highlighted magnificently in Vertigo). Yet of course, as we watch these models and actors, we may occasionally notice that they do have eyes, that they are real people, that they could have the ability to look right back at us, if only they were not separated from us by a screen – or by death. That perturbs and unsettles us: the thought of inanimate objects or corpses having the ability to come to life is the stuff of nightmares, not dreams. So this film progresses with a frightening inevitability, concluding with grandly realised scenes of true horror. Look out for the final scene, one with truly memorable bite, in which the onscreen dead looks right back at us, in a particularly grotesque fashion, forcing us to question the nature of cinema and voyeurism in the process. Are you enjoying what you’re watching?

Death, destruction, sex, bloodletting: they are all entwined in our movies, and we continue to pay to watch these events displayed before us onscreen. Only the best directors are aware of the frightening implications of this complacency, and that our deepest desires, our voyeuristic obsession with onscreen objects (which explains the popularity of pornography), could be more menacing than we tend to realise. The Neon Demon is not the first film, and it won’t be the last, to confront us with these disturbing issues, but it is a welcome sign that Refn is growing in maturity. If he only allowed himself to explore a little more of human nature beyond what he has learnt from watching films, then he would have the potential to become one of the truly great filmmakers.

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Reviews Roundup: Ghostbusters; The Julie Ruin

IN CINEMAS

Ghostbusters

official-ghostbusters-2016-poster.jpgI have absolutely no patience at all for the angry reception this film has received before its release, which is sadly just one more example of the hostility and bad-tempered fanboydom that the internet tends to inspire. Infamously, when the trailer was first released on Youtube, it inspired a malicious campaign to make it the most disliked video in history. This succeeded, inspiring a chorus of moronic, deeply prejudicial comments, normally prefaced with: ‘I’m not sexist, but…’ The trailer was not great, but it was far from the worst in history. As many could quickly tell, the main reason for this overwhelmingly toxic reaction was not nostalgia for the original, although this of course played a part, or any concerns about the quality of the upcoming film, but antagonism towards the idea that it was to be updated with an all-female lead cast.

No other recent remakes, and there have been plenty, have received anywhere near the same amount of public vitriol. The shock that a male-dominated buddy comedy could be replaced with a female-dominated buddy comedy seemed, absurdly, to inspire real horror in the hearts and minds of many of the worst people/trolls to exist online. It was impossible not to detect misogyny in the brutal decimation of this film taking place before it had even been released. Many of the best comic actors to have arisen in recent years are women (see the superb Bridesmaids, for instance), and it is far from a negative to give some of them a blockbuster showcase for their talents. That the blockbuster in question happens to be a remake of an 80s ‘classic’ is irrelevant: if there’s going to be a remake of a much-loved film, it had better be strikingly different, or else… what the hell’s the point? Electing to have female Ghostbusters was a smart move by director Paul Feig, a decision which, if carried off, could bring fresh life to an original that has aged not nearly so well as nostalgists might have hoped (compare its creaky inconsistency to the perennially entertaining E.T., Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, for example).

So it was with an open mind, as you all damn well should, that I entered the cinema, ready to judge this Ghostbusters on its merits alone. Luckily it has many: enthusiastic performances from the leading ladies, special effects that come across as both comical and nightmarish, a well-judged preference for comedy over extended action sequences, and a good-natured Chris Hemsworth in a wobbly yet frequently hilarious turn as the requisite sexy dumb blonde receptionist. The dialogue is snappy and pithy throughout, filled with sharp one-liners, even if some of them admittedly do miss the mark. And there are some great set pieces crafted with style: a heavy metal concert where the crowd cheer on and take selfies with a nefarious apparition that is attempting to terrorise them, the great Melissa McCarthy transforming into a ‘deflating balloon’, Kate McKinnon eating Pringles and Chris Hemsworth a sandwich as the world falls apart around them, and expertly judged and well-timed cameos – some of which are to be expected, but not all of them.

It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s consistently entertaining enough to warrant your money, and overall I think it has more spirit(s) than the original. I even prefer the theme tune this time around: Missy Elliott adds some funky pizzazz to that antiquated relic. Which is exactly what Paul Feig does with this fun and fresh production. Overall, I think it will date much better than the more revered, older version of Ghostbusters, even if its reputation is destined to be hijacked by those who simply cannot escape the ‘glory days’ of their childhood favourites.

I really do mean what I say: I prefer this to the 1984 Ghostbusters. I’m not sorry if that offends you. Because I ain’t ‘fraid of no trolls.

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ON SPOTIFY

Hit Reset – The Julie Ruin

‘I can play electric guitar/While shaving my legs in a moving car’ Kathleen Hanna boasts Hit-Reset-640x640.jpgon this album, a typically imaginative couplet that is a witty and explicit ‘fuck you’ to the men who dominate the guitar-shredding rock music industry. In commercial terms, at least: grrls have been dominating artistically for at least a quarter of a century, with bands such as Hole, The Breeders, Ex Hex, The Coathangers, and the monumental Sleater-Kinney carrying the baton on from the great male punk bands of the 70s, the American hardcore acts of the 80s, and the grunge icons of the early 90s. Hanna has been an integral part of this latter-day movement, establishing the first seminal riot grrrl band with Bikini Kill, before continuing her radical feminist preaching under a different moniker with the brilliant electronica-inspired Le Tigre. Then, tragically diagnosed with late stage Lyme disease, she went out of action for nine years, before returning reenergised with her new outfit The Julie Ruin in 2013, which combined the high-decibel mayhem of Bikini Kill with the considered keyboards and harmonies of Le Tigre.

No matter what band she’s been performing under, Kathleen Hanna has always been the undisputed star of the show, as one of the most compelling vocalists in the business: her voice is at once cute and ferocious, tender and brutal, honest and sarcastic, brittle and thunderous. It straddles contradictions, moving from a purr to a snarl to a howl to a screech with barely a warning, illuminating the meaning behind her lyrics at times with subtlety and at others with a deliberate lack of it. Hit Reset fully utilises this varied expressiveness: yelping on ‘I’m Done’, chatting on ‘I Decide’, murmuring on ‘Calverton’, cooing on ‘Let Me Go’, Hanna invigorates them all. Her vocals are the primary reason for tuning in, and indeed they retain their fascination after multiple listens. One of the exceptional singers of our time, she is greatly underappreciated by the general public, even if ‘Mr. So and So’ might tell us that that’s the way she likes it: ‘I love girl bands, how they take command/It’s a turn on you don’t need to know’ she sings, mocking a type of ‘fan’ that she would rather not be associated with.

The music makes a satisfying accompaniment to this vocal tour de force, albeit only intermittently outstanding. Ferocious yet brief uptempo onslaughts provide the meat, with surprising touches such as the surf guitar licks on ‘Hello Trust No One’ and the gently cascading pianos on ‘Calverton’ providing the substance. Hit Reset is satisfying and pushes the grrrl punk movement into new and frequently beautiful territory, which is encouraging for an artist over twenty years into her career. I expect great things to come, and will continue to follow her progression with enormous interest. I just wish more of you would do the same.

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Reviews Roundup: Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story); blink-182

IN CINEMAS/BFI PLAYER

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)

This debut feature from Eva Husson is based on a real life incident in which several MV5BZjBjNDM2MjktYWY1ZS00OTZkLWI1ZTktYTcxZjFhNGNhNTU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTExNDQ2MTI@._V1_UY1200_CR111,0,630,1200_AL_.jpghundred teens in Atlanta were discovered to have been holding massive orgies in the homes of their absent parents, for at least a year and possibly longer. The ages of the participants ranged from twelve to sixteen, many of whom claimed to have had over a hundred sexual partners during that period. The ring was only exposed after multiple cases of syphilis were diagnosed amongst them.

The film is set in France, and we are left to assume that much of the narrative has been fictionalised. Fictionalised but, crucially, not sensationalised, for Husson takes a morally detached approach to the source material. The camera casually roves through the crazed sex parties, glancing at threesomes, lesbian encounters, drug abuse, and fellatio with the same complacent gaze. The ensemble cast, meanwhile, engages in these acts with a sense of calm that feels appropriate to the natural development of these orgies, yet with an inquisitiveness that reflects their age and inexperience.

Mainstream filmmaking is far too fearful of the depiction of sex, an aspect of life that is much more common and much less shameful than the extreme violence that continually permeates our screens, which is why films such as this one are so important, even if they are only seen by a relative few. Like the excellent Blue is the Warmest Colour before it, this film seeks to display both the positive and the negative effects of sexual relations in equal measure: sex is normally fun, of course, and this shouldn’t be denied in any truthful representation of it, but the vulnerability from exposure it entails can also lead to potentially huge emotional damage. The promiscuity on display in Bang Gang, amongst both male and female participants, is never associated with shame or degradation, as it so often is in a Hollywood where hypocrisy rules supreme. But when romances inevitably blossom amongst the entangled limbs of the vulnerable youngsters, it creates complications and distressing realities for them all, which they are touchingly ill-equipped to deal with due to their limited experience of life.

It is very well written and directed by Eva Husson, quite rightly refusing to pass judgment on the rather extreme sexual awakening of these teenagers and instead focussing on their emotional awakening as the realisation dawns upon them that sex might only be continually satisfying, not to mention fun, in tandem with a mutually loving and respectful relationship. The path they take towards this recognition might not best please Daily Mail readers, but it should prove entertaining and involving to anyone with an open mind.

Link to the whole film:

http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-bang-gang-a-modern-love-story-2015/

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ON SPOTIFY

California – blink-182

california-blink-182.jpgBefore you skip ahead to the star rating, just let it be known that I like blink-182. Their pop-punk styling was deliberately Green Day-esque from the start, but they always had the melodic quirkiness to match that band, and a uniquely puerile sense of humour (names of their two best albums: Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket). Yes, they put a porn star on the cover of one of their albums, and yes, they ran around butt-naked in a music video, but incredibly these kinds of antics came across as charmingly juvenile rather than irritating. Even more incredibly, they actually managed to release a few decent ballads in their time, with ‘I Miss You’ and ‘Stay Together for the Kids’ bearing the strain of repeated listening.

California is the first album to be released by blink-182 since the departure of their lead guitarist Tom DeLonge, who has gone on to, er, investigate the existence of UFOs with the government. The clear maverick of the group, his hooky, pop-laden guitar work and nasally, snotty vocals gave them a distinct sonic identity, which has now sadly departed along with him. Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba is the chosen replacement, bringing to the table hardly an ounce of charisma or tunefulness. The riffs are unremarkable, and his voice is so unerringly similar to bass guitarist Mark Hoppus’ that the harmonies and ‘na-na-na’ choruses are completely devoid of interest.

I have no problem with bands evolving over time – just look at the revitalisation that Brian Johnson brought to AC/DC, or Stevie Nicks to Fleetwood Mac; but blink-182 have chosen to use this abrupt change in line-up to demonstrate a newfound maturity, an attempt that fails abysmally. If you’re interested in being taken seriously and the best lines you can come up with are meaningless slogans like ‘life is too short to last long’, then really fellas, head on back to the drawing room. Boring break-up songs and self-pitying mantras clog up the album, inspired, as you might be able to tell from the front cover, by emo music, by far the least intelligent genre of music to emerge in the last twenty years.

I detest any type of music that mistakes ‘maturity’ with defeatism and an exaggerated depressiveness; blink-182 have fallen into that trap and it makes them appear a lot more silly than they ever did running around in the nude and singing about fart jokes and enemas all those years ago. The only moments of cheer on California are the skits ‘Built This Pool’ and ‘Brohemian Rhapsody’, one-liners that manage to raise a smile amidst the woeful majority of smug guitar odysseys. It’s rare in any album that you can say its best moments are the shortest. Maybe DeLonge really is better off searching for aliens.

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