The Red Turtle (2016) – Film Review

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If you have any doubts left that animated films can be amongst our most serious and profound artistic statements (you shouldn’t), this film should dispel them with the easeful grace of a turtle’s fin gliding through water. It doesn’t shout about how profound it’s being: quite literally, there’s no onscreen dialogue (beyond the odd ‘hey!’). It doesn’t beat you around the head with capital-S ‘Symbolism’, either. But in a hushed way, with only a whisper of pretension, its simple tale of a man washed up on an island who first attacks and then befriends a giant red turtle manages to convey all aspects of life from birth to romance to parenthood and death – and then back again to a kind of rebirth. All in just 80 minutes.

It’s a Studio Ghibli co-production, which might account for its radical simplicity -unshouted messages of environmental concern are at the heart of My Neighbour Totoro and many other of the great studio’s works. And indeed here too, exceptionally well-drawn backdrops of the natural world make an unshowy argument for the environment’s inherent beauty and the importance of our custodial duty in preserving it. Stormy seas and crystal blue waters, expanses of sand and towering palm trees, birds flying and turtles soaring – these are all exquisitely detailed and painstakingly coloured, as we’ve come to expect and now unfortunately take for granted with Studio Ghibli.

Yet The Red Turtle departs in many ways from the studio’s oeuvre, co-produced as it is with several other studios including France’s Wild Bunch and Belgium’s Belvision, whilst directed by an outsider: the Dutch-born, London-based Michaël Dudok de Wit. This seems to me a fittingly global setup, for international cooperation is the only way in which we can truly act to preserve the environment. But the difference is most apparent in the human figures: Studio Ghibli’s characters have always been clearly expressed through their eyes, the so-called windows to the soul. Here, the eyes take the form of just single black beads, which as many reviewers have pointed out owes a greater debt to Hergé’s Tintin comics than anime, and which means that we learn more about the character’s personalities from their overt body movements and physical interaction with surroundings. As such, the mise-en-scène is generally more distant, the camera tending to point down at the living figures from far above when they’re on land and far below when they’re in the sea, giving them space to move around and convey their emotions to us, cleverly, without the need for close-ups.

This distancing effect also powerfully conveys the film’s key message: that the natural world is far bigger than all of us tiny human beings who inhabit it, and surely it will carry on long after we’re gone. Our hero is dwarfed in almost every shot by sand dunes, enormous trees and rock structures, and in the film’s most dramatic moment a frightening tsunami. His vulnerability recalls last year’s The Revenant, where Leonardo DiCaprio was similarly both oppressed and enchanted by his surroundings, but of course it also recalls all battles with nature that have been a consistent fascination in our narrative fictions from The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe to Life of Pi. I’ve long believed that the stories we tell mirror the deepest fears in our collective subconscious, and the fear that the world we inhabit could one day swallow us all up and leave no trace of our existence is a common one, no doubt because it’s not just very likely to happen at some point but practically a certainty. As I’m sure I don’t need to stress, rising sea levels due to our incessant and stupidly short-sighted polluting makes our continued existence on this gorgeous planet diminishingly likely. In its final shot, The Red Turtle breathes a sigh of dismay at this future extinguishment, whilst showing us how nature will carry on regardless, like a newborn turtle making its first dangerous journey from sandy shore to the sea.

As you may have gathered, if you have children, this might not be the animated film to share with them at a young age. Or maybe it is – we do all need to understand, from a very young age, how the environment is so much more important than mankind’s ego-driven pursuit of profit, or else we run the Trumpian risk of speeding up our eventual demise. And this film is positive at heart: it believes that if we stop, look and listen to the natural world, rather than simply exploiting it, we can not only extend but, perhaps more importantly, also greatly enrich our species’ lifetime.

So do go to see The Red Turtle, please, and take as many people with you as possible: you will be enchanted by almost every one of its 80 minutes, I guarantee. You could just switch off and enjoy the extravagant visuals if you prefer – but I say choose to ignore the underlying message, and dismiss it as hippie nonsense, at all of our peril.

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I usually post a trailer at this point, but the one for this film gives away vital plot elements that I was careful to conceal in my review – and, what’s worse, it also contains a majority of the film’s most impressive shots. A common gripe with trailers, but particularly grievous in this instance. Avoid, and head straight to the cinema.

Frantz (2016) – Film Review

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François Ozon’s 17th film in 20 years (amazingly prolific for a 21st century director) is certainly one of his finest. It’s a bold idea: a remake of a 1932 drama, Broken Lullaby, by one of the greatest directors of all time: Ernst Lubitsch. Broken Lullaby is one of that sly master’s lesser efforts though, certainly more suited for a reboot than the eternally fresh To Be Or Not to Be or The Shop Around the Corner. And besides, Ozon takes intriguing liberties with his source, inventing a second half to Lubitsch’s tale (itself based on a play by Maurice Rostand), in which the supporting woman powerfully seizes centre stage away from what was previously a narrative concerning a returned soldier.

The woman is German and is called Anna (Paula Beer), and at the start of the film she’s mourning the death of her fiancé, Frantz, at the end of the First World War. She finds out that a Frenchman called Adrien (Pierre Niney) has been visiting her fiancé’s grave on a daily basis, for reasons that are initially unclear, but help to create a satisfying web of narrative suspense throughout the film’s first half.

Psychosexual implications abound, with the unsettling thought that Adrien might be trying to replace the deceased Frantz in Anna’s affections; this has an undoubted whiff of the ‘doubles’ and necrophilia of Vertigo about it. And, like that film, our understanding of the principle character’s motivations change with a perspective shift in the second half. It follows Anna in travelling to France, and so we start to see the more fantastical aspects of her obsession with Adrien.

We also witness the knife-edge tension between her home nation and his, and several scenes of xenophobic mistrust between French and German locals are very well handled by Ozon, demonstrating the colossal tensions brought about by the war even in the early years of peace. One particularly pointed scene sees Anna sitting in a French café as the locals stand up to salute a trio of soldiers with a loud rendition of La Marseillaise, and Anna’s uncertainty as to how she should act, her embarrassed awkwardness, accidentally exposes the veiled threat of nationalism lurking beneath even simple, understandable acts of patriotism. The Nazis could just have easily happened in France, had the economic situation been anywhere near as dire as Germany’s in the interwar period, and Ozon is quick and thoughtful enough to be aware of this.

Less well handled are the film’s lurching transitions between black and white and colour photography. These might be intended as a tribute to the truly great film about interwar Germany, Heimat, but they still feel heavyhanded. And the luscious colour photography in particular manages to overkill the Romanticism of the scenes of romance (scenes filmed in fields and forests and streams, with poetry recited). I wish it had stuck to the crisper black and white tones throughout, which reveal so much fascinating detail in the contours of the actor’s faces.

And what faces! Pierre Niney’s is thin and aquiline, inviting sympathy with his kindly eyes, yet also inviting suspicion with a hyper-alertness that seems to be working hard to mask some terrible secrets. And Paula Beer’s is pretty in a quiet way, searching and inquisitive and young (the actress is only 22), yet clearly downcast with the weight of the world already. Mature. François Ozon seizes on these unique features to exploit the finest two performances thus far in all of his films, using the complex shadows of Pascal Marti’s photography to maximise each one’s impact in a most impressive way.

Ozon’s got another film coming out this year, of course he does, but he’ll have a tough job matching the repressed passion of this one. Even if he could sometimes do with a wee bit more of Lubitsch’s legendary lightness of touch.

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Jlin: Black Origami (2017) – Album Review

I would first like to offer my deepest condolences to all of the poor families affected by the terrorist incident last night in Manchester. I’ve been unable to think of anything else all day: appalled, sickened, depressed. I wasn’t sure whether to publish this review today, out of respect, but these attacks are a deliberate attempt to disrupt the flow of civilised society, not to mention our enjoyment of music from death metal to Ariana Grande, and so I feel that the best way to retaliate is to carry on appreciating the wonders of music as usual (whilst never, ever forgetting the lives tragically lost, of course). Which is why a) I’m still going to be seeing Radiohead in Manchester on the 4th July, fuck you radicalists, and b) I’m still going to recommend the very good album below on this day of mourning. We should stick to our pleasures, in the face of extremism, now more than ever before.

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Jerrilynn Patton, a.k.a. Jlin, is an electronic musician from Gary, Indiana. She’s renowned for her work in footwork, an electronic subgenre that combines rapid dance beats (tracks hurtle by at approx. 160bpm) with avant-garde flourishes. I’m by no means an expert on electronic music (got the above information from Wikipedia, folks), but I was nevertheless instantly attracted to this distinctive artist’s world: multiple polyrhythmic percussive elements tussle with each other atop chopped-up Indian voices, ululations which are made to sound just as percussive through their lack of melodic cadence, whilst dark basslines and industrial sound effects quietly undermine the general uplift of the clamour. This is a ‘black’ record in two senses of the word: firstly, in its stark rejection of the colouring of melody, leaving a pop-abjuring vacuum as dark as space that’s somewhat alarmingly filled with the angry, martial beats of drums; secondly, in its celebration of an underclass of explicitly non-white sampled voices, which come together across the course of the album to threaten the despised ‘1%’ (the name of one song, which helps to make the political context more explicit). The overall effect is of M.I.A. without the hooks, every track crossing cultural borders like that artist’s famous ‘Paper Planes’. Jlin was apparently inspired by her ongoing collaborations with Indian ‘dancer/movement artist’ Avril Stormy Unger, and it shows, but the musical texture has a speed and aggression that very much finds its feet in the footwork of Jlin’s earlier career, whilst there are also collaborations with American avant-gardists William Basinski and Holly Herndon. What should be a mess instead comes across as a focussed 45-minute blast of electronic rebellion, culminating in a ‘Challenge (To Be Continued)’, which comes both as a promise and a veiled threat after all that’s gone before. The lack of melodic structure makes the soundscapes more of an endurance test than, say, Burial (a personal favourite). But, even for an electronic dilettante, the effort’s certainly worth it.

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Paramore: After Laughter (2017) – Album Review

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Well this is a nice surprise. I’ve never paid this band much attention, due to my general irritation with labelmates Fall Out Boy and the silly middle-class self-pity and even sillier death fixation of emo music. A quick check back to 2013’s Paramore confirmed my biases were correct. That album’s adoption of 80s synths and other pop concessions made it an unexpected hit with critics at the time, and their first no. 1 album in the US and UK to boot. But far as I saw it, the bombastic and humourless overproduction smothered any suggestion of pop sensibility, and it felt designed expressly to appeal to unstable teenagers. Not for me.

So imagine my shock at the pure pop brilliance, now immersed fully in new wave, evidenced on the first 5 tracks of After Laughter, with hook after hook hitting home, trick after trick working unforeseen magic. First listen gave me a piquant musical adrenaline rush to rival Grimes’ Art Angels – that’s quite a compliment in my books – whilst several listens in my excitement has only slightly diminished. I still adore many of its surprises: the marimba and bongos that open out and bleed into the crunchy synth-rock hooks on ‘Hard Times’, the ‘Low-key! No pressure!’ chants on the addictive ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, the supremely melodic basslines and Afropop-derived guitar licks on ‘Forgiveness’ (a superb example of the never-better interplay between the band members), the soaring choruses on ‘Told You So’ and ‘Fake Happy’ (and indeed all the other songs). Haters gonna hate, and a quick check on their Facebook page confirmed my suspicion that some ‘fans’ (though not all) would be screaming the moronic, depressingly mindless phrase ‘sellout’. Me, I’m high on their rejection of emo trappings in favour of good old-fashioned pop effusiveness, and I sincerely hope they can take this all the way up the charts again (Harry Styles be damned).

Sadly, it doesn’t sustain, and the last 4 tracks are as weak consistently as the first 5 are strong. Baffling production choices occur, such as on ‘No Friend’, which buries the vocals deep down making them indecipherable – for artistic reasons that are equally indecipherable. And ‘Tell Me How’, a piano sort-of ballad that closes the album, unfortunately only serves to expose the weakness of lead singer Hayley Williams’ voice, which can carry a tune just fine, but only if it requires belting out, and just isn’t subtle enough to sustain a whole album of dynamic changes. I found myself yearning for Rihanna, who carried with ease the album-closing ballad on ANTI, a similar pop tour-de-force, and with a depth of personality that Hayley Williams can only dream of.

It’s best to ignore the lyrics as well, as I have in this review, because they don’t seem to have shrugged off the emo shackles so well as the music. You might think ‘all I want is a hole in the ground’ and ‘I can’t think of getting old/It only makes me want to die’ are windows into depression, but I think they’re shutters obfuscating the deeper beauty of the album. The pop ebullience of the first few tracks (plus the terrific ‘Pool’ and ‘Grudges’) is the real reason to purchase After Laughter: wide open and searching for fun, not to mention dancefloor giddiness, the band discover a depth of musicality in the childishness of these highpoints that they never managed to find in teenagerdom.

Paramore of this please.

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A Monster Calls (2016) – Film Review

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The uncharitable might dismiss this film as saccharine hokum. And saccharine it is – tears flow bountifully, as befits a film based on a children’s book about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and whose only friend is an imaginary tree (voiced by Liam Neeson, who of course suffered a very public loss of his own). But is it hokum? I don’t think so; it’s got some vital things to say about grieving. Key to appreciating the film is acknowledging that the boy, who appears in every scene, is not a likeable character. Conor O’Malley (played with immense courage by 14 year-old Lewis MacDougall) is caustic and aggressive, lashing out physically at the school bullies who have given him hell and, more troublingly, some of his loved ones who haven’t. Spielberg would recoil at such a thing, but I greatly admire how it refuses to sentimentalise youth. As the mother’s health continues to deteriorate, so does Conor’s rage understandably build up. But if we watch closely then we start to realise that this outwardly expressed anger is really directed at himself, and we begin to feel for the poor kid. As does the imaginary tree monster of the title, who acts as some kind of subconscious counsellor, relating three (lushly animated) stories that are designed to demonstrate how there’s no such thing as right and wrong. These stories finally draw out a truth, a nightmare, from within Conor that lies at the heart of all human beings when they’re put in the position of witnessing the long drawn-out death of a loved one. It’s an unimaginably painful truth, and it’s especially awful to hear when coming from the mouth of a pre-teen. But its nakedness helps to make this one of the most honestly therapeutic films that I’ve seen. And as such, A Monster Calls is necessary viewing – not hokum. With an added bonus: excellent supporting turns from Felicity Jones as the dying mother, Sigourney Weaver as the embattled grandmother, and Toby Kebbell as the handsome but flakey divorcee father. I accept that it’s very middlebrow and rather artlessly directed, but then every type of -brow has to deal with death at some point, don’t they?

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You can watch it online now: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-a-monster-calls-2016/?gclid=CI7jzt7u4NMCFc687QodydUBBQ

Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs: Among Horses I (2017) – Album Review

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It’s every blogger’s dream to be able to recommend an artist far-flung from the mainstream, whom their faithful readers will probably never have heard of, yet whose quality merits immediate attention.

With Among Horses I, here are two of them.

One I was already aware of, many thanks to Robert Christgau’s raves: Withered Hand, a.k.a. Dan Willson, Scottish folkie responsible for two of the quickest-witted albums of the past decade – Good News and New Gods, go seek out and buy them NOW. The other fella was new to me: A Singer of Songs, a.k.a. Lieven Scheerlinck, Belgian folkie and smooth-voiced chum of Dan’s.

Travelling together to Catelonia, they recorded this pastoral-themed EP in a mate’s farmhouse out there (the mate’s also the drummer). A long way from the city and their native lands, you can really hear it in these pretty-as-you-like songs, which are all about distance. The metaphorical distance, for example, of alcoholism wedging itself between a couple in ‘After the Rain’, of wishes vanishing into the ether in ‘Wishes Gone’, of an old self being bid farewell at the end of ‘Among Horses’. The metaphysical distance of a narrator proclaiming his spirit to be alive in the religious retreat of ‘Santa Cova’, following a vicious battle at Pamplona in which he became a ‘broken down body with a lion’s heart’. And of course the literal distance in the quietly strummed music, which retreats softly into the background until you choose to concentrate on it. Which you should.

All six songs are memorable in tune, with half of them attributed to each artist. A Singer of Songs’ tracks are more Beatlesque to my ears, with the ‘la la la’ backing vocals and warm n’ folky guitar lines of ‘Wishes Gone’ recalling Rubber Soul, and the repeated mantra of ‘It’s ok to stray/Don’t be afraid to lose your way’ drawing out ‘Stray’ to nearly six minutes in length in a manner very much akin to the nursery rhyme comforts of ‘Hey Jude’. Withered Hand’s contributions meanwhile are briefer and simpler in acoustic construction, with the emphasis instead placed on the complexity of lyrics. Which is fine by me, because they are oblique and so very beautiful. Try: ‘Our river used to wind its way/Down from the valley into the plain/You’ll be looking at a new man/After the rain.’

Brief though this EP may be, its rustic charm and positivity so overcome the prevailing tenor of political negativity ravaging the western world these days that I can see myself returning to its alluring glow quite often. ‘Farewell old sad me’, as one line goes here. For less than £5 you can sing the same.

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