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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Reviews Roundup: Arrival, Nocturnal Animals; Solange, Macy Gray

IN CINEMAS

Arrival

Tarrival-movie-poster-77013.jpghe best sci-fi tends to raise more questions than answers about our future, e.g.: How far
can technology take us (2001)? What does it mean to be conscious (Blade Runner)? And how many sequels can they possibly milk from one saga (Star Wars)? Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director best known for last year’s Sicario and currently in production on the Blade Runner sequel, knows this full well and asks us a big one in Arrival: how would we be able to communicate with alien visitors if and when they arrived? And would we want to? Language is as much a barrier between humans and aliens in this film as the glass screen that literally separates them on board the looming, ominously dark UFOs that have landed in arbitrary locations across the globe. Well, not arbitrary enough to exclude the USA of course, and so the country’s military deploy linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to attempt a communication of the third kind. This good-looking and charismatic pair of academics (it’s a film, ok) are soon the only people left who trust the invaders, whilst the military’s fingers itch to pull a trigger on these extraterrestrial threats.

How much you enjoy the film will depend entirely on your willingness to accept a third-act supernatural twist, which is unquestionably silly but also impassioned, allowing Adams an opportunity to display the full range of her acting chops. If you associate ‘sci-fi’ and ‘aliens’ with ‘action’ then I would also give this a miss, as the bored, fidgety people at the screening I attended evidently gathered. The tone is low-key, not hysterical – a Close Encounters as opposed to an Independence Day. Villeneuve can’t resist a few touches of B-movie excess though, including an unnerving score from Jóhann Jóhannsson that induces, as Peep Show’s Super Hans would express it, ‘a powerful sense of dread’. That tone turns out not to suit the film’s overarching message, which is full of hope and conciliation. The ultimate belief is in the power of communication to conquer all, which might fill you with scepticism, but for the duration of the film you can sure believe it.

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Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-movie-poster-01-1200×1777.jpgFashion designer turned director Tom Ford’s sophomore effort is as slick and polished as a Gucci exhibition. The photography has a sheen that defies the gritty elements of the plot details, the cast is almost uniformly beautiful, and they are adorned in of course very chic clothing. It hides, I think, a hollowness at its core, a fear that its director really doesn’t have much to say. Amy Adams plays a frosty, dissatisfied artist called Susan, who fears that she really doesn’t have much to say, but opens her grotesque exhibition consisting of nude fat women dancing anyway. It emerges that she was once married to an author, played with alternate charm and malevolence by Jake Gyllenhaal, who fears that he really doesn’t have much to say, but whose first completed manuscript arrives on Susan’s doorstep anyway. As she reads it, she starts to realise that he has been driven to complete his work by a singular motive: revenge. A classic plot catalyst, its importance here is sledgehammered home by Ford, with Susan even walking past a painting that says ‘Revenge’ on it; the book turns out to be a deliberately designed tool to unsettle her, a retributive act for past betrayals. It also turns out to be a standard revenge thriller, a meditation on justice within a rural West community that Ford just can’t elevate above hick country clichés. There are nevertheless some bravura sequences of suspense, particularly an early scene which takes place on a nocturnal highway and introduces a spectacularly unhinged portrayal of depravity from Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It’s a performance that offers a vivid contrast to Adams’ cloistered one, yet at either end of the scale there is little inner depth exposed. Ford thinks we’re all just animals, driven by irrational impulses and destined to repeat cycles of revenge and self-destruction ad infinitum. He may be right, at least to an extent, but we’re certainly more interesting than that, and better directors are able to show us how.

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ON SPOTIFY

A Seat at the Table – Solange

Q926.jpgueen Bey’s baby sister comes into her own on this album – or so we’ve been led to believe, with such fawning reviews as this one at Pitchfork suggesting it bears comparison to Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly. Simply put, it doesn’t. The tone here is not ‘Mad’, as implied by one track, but ‘Weary’, as proclaimed by another, a weariness that infects even a guest spot from an abnormally reticent Lil Wayne. This is most evident in the album’s groove, which is relaxed, leaning on bass lines to provide the melody as guitars and vocals meander to nowhere. Horn sections come and go, whispering of Motown as they pass, whilst aimless synth squiggles betray a hope of art-rock ‘profundity’. It’s the kind of abstruse, fractured sound collage that Pitchfork love, and has gained surprising commercial credibility following the Frank Ocean phenomenon. I prefer this to Blonde, mostly due to the aforementioned bass lines, which do have a way of drawing you into the airy compositions. But call me a moron, I don’t care: I’m much more attracted to the grandeur and occasionally absurd melodrama of her sister’s Lemonade, which I find more impressive not just as entertainment (which is important) but also as political commentary. That album had a rare understanding of how the Personal can converge with the Political, without ever assuming that they’re inextricable, and the same sense is captured by Solange here only in interviews with family and friends that comprise the interludes. Funny, sickening, and inspiring, they place the album within a historical context of black oppression that is fascinating, even if it fades into vagueness whenever Solange starts singing (with one or two exceptions – I salute the rousing ‘F.U.B.U.’). Compared to the purposeful drive of D’Angelo and Kendrick, this album therefore seems lacking, no matter what the well-meaning folk at Pitchfork would like to hear in it.

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Stripped – Macy Gray

90187667_1.jpgUnlike Solange, Macy Gray’s voice is strong enough to hold its own in a hushed setting, as evinced on these acoustic jazz live performances recorded in a decommissioned Brooklyn church. The backing is supple and graceful, as befits an empty church, a quartet that’s reserved and wise enough to give Gray room to shine, offering brief guitar and trumpet solos to comment on and gently push her melodic inventiveness to new heights. Gray’s never really done jazz before, at least not explicitly, although her husky vocals have always been redolent of latter-day Billie Holiday. She began her career with dreams of pop success which, in that attention deficit world, materialised only briefly with the hit ‘I Try’. That song is reimagined here in hard bop format, along with other self-penned standards, a few originals, and covers of Metallica and Bob Marley. I’ll take the guitar solo on ‘Nothing Else Matters’ over James Hetfield’s any day, not to mention Gray’s actual singing, both of which make the surprise cut an unexpected highlight. And despite not managing to wrestle ‘Redemption Song’ away from Bob, she does his legacy proud, showing a generosity of spirit that suits me just fine in this world’s toxic atmosphere. In fact this album has been just about the only thing to keep my spirits up over the last few days, a validation of music’s escapist potential. You could do a lot worse than try it out as a cure for the post-Trump blues – vaulting over dark times has long been black music’s greatest gift to the world, and Macy Gray is keeping that spirit alive.

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Reviews Roundup: Doctor Strange, My Scientology Movie; Robbie Williams, Conor Oberst

IN CINEMAS

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-307116l.jpgI was attracted to this by the strong reviews, presence of the ever-worthwhile Benedict Cumberbatch, and promise of something Strange. It turns out that Marvel’s commitment to Strangeness is as half-assed as it is to anything else that might threaten their revenue. There is nothing Strange in the title character, bar his name: a typical masculine figurehead to whom human concerns like money and taking a beating are a matter of indifference, with a smattering of Cumberbatch’s trademark gruff, belligerent intelligence tossed into the mix to make him ‘stand out’. There is nothing Strange in any supposed spiritual undertones: the Doctor’s journey to Nepal in order to heal his mind and body leads him into the path of Tilda Swinton’s (oh so white) guru, supposedly called the Ancient One but who could just as easily be named Yoda or Morpheus. There is nothing Strange in its multidimensional action scenes: Christopher Nolan will be touched to see Inception given homage, but the images of cityscapes folding in on themselves and gravity-defying fight sequences, also cribbed from The Matrix, are given a bloodless makeover by Marvel which sap them of wonder and tension. There is certainly nothing Strange about the appallingly dull romantic subplot (gifted to the unfortunate Rachel McAdams), wasted supporting actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen are far too good for the nonentities they perform), and the singularity of purpose, which is to set up further sequels. All of these are familiar tropes that have left me feeling aloof from the Marvel franchise. Why such badly written productions are consistently overpraised for having a few well-timed gags I struggle to understand. So the best I can say about this film is that I was rarely completely bored, its zippiness certainly preferable to the DC output from this year. But is there anything truly Strange, inspired – will it last? I don’t think so.

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ON BFI PLAYER

My Scientology Movie

mAe9TuWsboDF25iFKMawChXUB9H.jpgTalkin’ ’bout Strange, how about a religious cult that requires you to pay for the rights to its teachings? Scientology is the perhaps inevitable religious incarnation of 20th century capitalism, where worshippers praise the business model and ruthless ingenuity of its CEO, David Miscavige, as opposed to any spiritual entity. As this documentary demonstrates, Miscavige is very much an Old Testament God, dealing wrathful penance on his inferiors: the business model relies on the bullying of anyone who dares to question his authority, labeled as SPs (Suppressive Persons) and subjected to mental, verbal, and occasionally even physical abuse. Like any good thuggish businessman (Sir Green’s hero), Miscavige is surrounded by a wall of inscrutability, blocking access to him or any of his closest circle and thus posing a challenge to documentarians seeking to understand the Church of Scientology.

Enter Louis Theroux: a much-loved icon in the UK, renowned for his ability to break down walls of inscrutability. Sadly, he has not been granted any special access this time, so we only get interviews with ex-members, and not all of them are entirely frank: Mark Rathbun, a former senior executive, is volatile and flips out whenever Theroux tries to broach his complicity in the Church’s past cruelty. It can be seen as a metaphor for the impenetrability of Scientology as a whole, which Theroux – well, of course fails to penetrate. Which might make you question the point of this feature-length, and you’d be right to, but consider this: has any documentary highlighted so well the relation between this LA business institution and that other one which effectively peddles dreams? Not just the Tom Cruise link, which is obvious, but also the Church’s use of propaganda, created in its very own production studio to support its top-down business model, is aligned to the ways of Hollywood, and the bizarre annual gala which opens and closes the film is as ingratiatingly self-congratulatory as the Oscars. The decision to use actors to play the roles of Miscavige and Cruise is not just a practical way around their lack of approachability, but also a sly acknowledgment of the ways in which acting and demonstrations of religious belief can overlap. It’s a fascinating insight from a film in which the tensest moments are standoffs between the filmmakers and current Scientologists, like a Hollywood western but with people pointing cameras at each other instead of guns. Naturally, Hollywood is a less sadistic institution than L Ron Hubbard’s. Isn’t it?

The film can now be watched (cheap) on the BFI website, here.

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ON SPOTIFY

The Heavy Entertainment Show – Robbie Williams

robbie-williams-heavy-entertainment.jpgTake That alumni and all-round geezer Robbie Williams is almost unique amongst musicians in that you look forward to hearing what bad ideas he’s come up with on his latest release. There’s a real stinker here: a song that samples Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets (better known as The Apprentice theme tune), features a barking chorus of ‘have it like an oligarch’, and rhymes ‘Russian’ with ‘end of discussion’ and ‘concussion’. Anyone looking for socio-political import from ‘Party Like a Russian’ – they should seek out Randy Newman instead – will be disappointed to hear Robbie’s announcement that it’s ‘not about Mr Putin’ but about how ‘Russians are ridiculously good partiers’. The rest of us will be too busy stifling our giggles, which is what Williams of course intended. His tongue-in-cheek absurdity and embracement of bad taste are admirable and sometimes very funny, making him the deserved champion over Gary Barlow in the solo act stakes, but as is so often the case he falters when it comes to enlivening the dreary ballads. ‘Love My Life’ and ‘David’s Song’ are cringey in the bad way, over-vocalised and over-produced. And whilst I have approximately zero issue with pop stars using guest writers, if only Williams had brought his personality to bear on The Killers’ ‘Mixed Signals’, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Pretty Woman’, and Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Hotel Crazy’, all of which belong very much to their authors and not to Robbie’s quirks. The best moment here is the least likely to appeal to the mum-rock demographic he so courteously courts, a touching ode to his two-year-old son. It’s called ‘Motherfucker’.

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Ruminations – Conor Oberst

conor_oberst_ruminations_albumcover.jpgLike Morrissey, Robert Smith, and Nick Drake – key inspirations all – Conor Oberst has the knack of transmuting personal turmoil into accessible, bizarrely life-affirming entertainment. The trick is in the details: the Romantic metaphor of ‘The Rain Following the Plow’ turns out to be ‘never as profound as I had wanted it to be’, society’s rock star martyrdom complex is dismissed as being a way to ‘satisfy the Philistines’, the singer’s self-pitying nature is gently mocked in the final track where he decides to keep on drinking and spilling the beans to a pissed-off fellow at the bar. Oberst has a predisposition for melancholia, a trait he shares with many third-rate songwriters, but the above surprises and many more offer a diversion from the path of woe-is-me cliché, which helps to make his music a joyful rather than a depressive experience. That warbly voice of his, which turned Bright Eyes into an underground sensation, may irk listeners averse to post-adolescent angst, but it evokes pain and pleasure with a pointed simplicity. The musical accompaniment to his distinctive voice is here limited to piano, harmonica, and acoustic guitar, a quiet setting that evokes the wintry nights of Oberst’s home town in Nebraska. Cue the inevitable comparisons to other folky wordsmiths, particularly early Bob Dylan and the Bruce Springsteen of Nebraska. Indeed, the music sounds familiar, but comfortingly so, in the best folk tradition; it’s designed to never distract from the words, which are Oberst’s forte. These words are nothing like Dylan’s or Springsteen’s, they’re more insular and less expansive, but then again there is a moment in which he flees his Catholic school on a stolen motorbike: autobiographical or not, Conor sounds Born to Run, and run away he does with this lovely set.

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