Fever Ray: Plunge (2017) – Album Review

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“Hey, remember me?/I’ve been busy working like crazy.”

That lyric applies to me here in China, working away at learning how to be an effective teacher, but it applies far more to Fever Ray.

One half of the brother-sister electronic duo The Knife, it’s been four years since their last album and eight years since Ray’s eponymous solo debut. So maybe you could accuse her of slack, but you’d be wrong; just listen to this new album and it will become self-evident how hard she’s been working at perfecting her craft.

Plunge may be the Swedish auteur’s most triumphant work of individualism to date. Always the more intriguing half of The Knife, she takes her electronic wizardry and carefully articulated vocals to new heights, and then douses it all in the kerosene that is her personality.

Where Fever Ray was a slow, sombre meditation on marriage and motherhood, Plunge erupts with a midlife vitality borne from the ashes of turmoil. Because, as 42-year-old Fever Ray, a.k.a. Karin Dreijer, confirmed to The Guardian in November: “Yes, I got divorced… This [album] is about freedom, and curiosity. Now I think it’s absolutely possible to create a family that isn’t a nuclear one.”

So Plunge is the sound of her explicitly breaking free from those domestic shackles, breaking free into the wider world again. In fact, it goes even further than that: it breaks free not just from the concept of marriage, but also from the idea of heterosexuality.

Plunge isn’t a “coming out” album per se, but it’s clearly a party thrown to celebrate the queer aspects of Dreijer’s identity. The most ecstatic moments come from sexual unions with women: “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” she declares, as a chorus of jubilant synths voice their approval, on the BDSM fantasy of “To the Moon and Back”. “She makes me feel dirty again” she sings with a sly confidence on “Falling”. And then there’s “A Part of Us”, set in a gay club, which is described as a “safe space”. Why? Because there’s “No disrespectful gaze.”

What makes this album so interesting is the apparently conflicting ideas of danger and safety combining in queer spaces to provide an electrifying union of sexual and romantic possibility. That’s what you can see in the video for “To the Moon and Back”, the album’s first single, in which the alluring (for some) transgressions of a BDSM gathering take place in the most innocent of settings: a tea party. And that same duality is all over the album: compare the fetishistic urgency of a song like “This Country” (“Gag me, awake my fighting spirit”) with the almost banal pronouncement of affection of a song like “Mama’s Hand” (“The final puzzle piece/The little thing called love”).

The frissons of sexual excitement and romantic possibility in the air, despite her frequent acknowledgments of heartbreak (“Wanna Sip” can be painful to listen to), give Fever Ray’s music huge reserves of confidence and buoys up the overall atmosphere. It’s a world away from the funereally paced and haunting dirges of Fever Ray. The beats are generally fast and punchy, the electronics upbeat and vivacious. It’s hard not to get caught up in the infectiously positive vibes. The great “IDK About You”, for instance, rips along at 150 BPM, seemingly denying the uncertainty of its subject matter through the vigour of a musical whirlwind.

It’s her most consistent set of songs to date, including the 5-minute instrumental title track, which several listens have taught me to respect as essential to the album’s narrative. Its ever-changing rhythmic backdrop captures the uncertainty of this moment in Fever Ray’s life, but its strength manages to convey how she will power through regardless. It’s a “Plunge” into the unknown that close listening reveals to sound truly exhilarating, and is vindicated by the celebratory “To the Moon and Back” that follows it.

If Ray’s style is still a little too arch for my tastes, a little too wilfully bizarre, well, that fault is probably my own. Because objectively speaking I admire every single one of these 11 tracks. And subjectively speaking, I enjoy returning to over half of them. Which is plenty.

Plus, there’s the very best political jibe of the year: “This country makes it hard to fuck”.

And she lives in Sweden!

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Harmonium (2016) – Film Review

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It’s that time of year again when every blogger is weighing up their ‘best of’ lists and scrolling through others to find out what they’ve missed. That’s why I leave my lists to the very end of December; I know there’s always more great stuff to be found. I’m never going to be able to catchy every worthy film, no amateur reviewer is, but it’s the effort that counts, because it uncovers hidden gems like this one.

Harmonium is a tragedy in miniature, impressively written and directed by Kōji Fukada. It won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and despite that honour it had only a very limited cinema release in the UK, hence explaining why I missed it.

It concerns a family whose discord is evident from the very first scene: Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and her daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) say grace at the dinner table as the man of the house Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) carries on eating. Conflicting worldviews are established without a single word passing between husband and wife. It reminds me of the opening of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, in which a shattered window foreshadowed the widening cracks in a seemingly content relationship. Here the mood is just as tense underneath the surface.

We find out that the girl, Hotaru, plays the instrument of the title and is going to appear in a concert. In order to perform, her hands must be able to play in harmony. Likewise, in order to perform the function of a working family, this trio must harmonise. Are they able to do so?

Well, it’s certainly thrown into doubt when a friend of Toshio’s, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a man with a shady past, comes to the door seeking a job and lodging. Toshio obliges his friend, and we sense that this is not just because of the Japanese custom of politeness, but because he is atoning for a sin of his own from the past.

Yasaka seems to be a man of harmony: he is calm, collected, and is always wearing the same white shirt tucked into black trousers – he’s a picture of elegance and decorum. Yet he moves stiffly, as if weighed down by some burden, which indeed he is. And this burden will latch itself onto Toshio and his family, plunging them deep into a river of discontent, in which they might well suffocate.

Kōji Fukada directs his melodramatic story with a poise as careful as Yasaka’s, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting audience and shock them. He’s no Hitchcock – suspense is limited to one or two long tracking shots. But he maintains a constant gnawing sense of unease, one that remains right up until the tragic-farcical conclusion. And it’s to his credit that this unease sticks around hours after the credits have finished rolling.

Biblical themes of Catholic guilt and eternal damnation are dealt with, yet never heavy-handedly, and the ensemble cast convincingly portrays a dissatisfaction with life’s vicissitudes that manages to universalise these religious underpinnings. In this way, it reminds me of Leviathan, a film which also showed how momentary slips from the past, a.k.a. sins, can bubble up to deny redemption.

Harmonium isn’t as powerful as that film; it doesn’t have the same self-righteous anger. Yet it works very well as a study of one family who live as if they’re playing a harmonium with hands out of sync, and tragically it seems they always will be.

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Marjorie Prime (2017) – Film Review

I haven’t posted in a while – partly because of settling in to life in China, partly because I’ve struggled to find worthy films to review. Here’s one.

It’s everything that Blade Runner 2049 should have been and more, and at just a fraction of its budget: a genuinely contemplative science-fiction film that’s also a moving meditation on the nature of memory and reality. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, it’s an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison about a family who use holographic projections (a.k.a. “primes”) to replace deceased relatives in their squeaky-clean luxurious home by the sea.

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia who takes some comfort in talking to the hologram of a 40 year-old version of her deceased husband, Walter (Jon Hamm). She lives with her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), who later on will make use of similar “primes” to cope with losses of their own.

As there’s always been something distant about Jon Hamm, you never really question or forget that he’s a projection rather than a real human being in this film. And what’s interesting is that Marjorie never forgets it either – she always talks to him on two levels, on one level as if he really is Walter, and on another simultaneously aware that he isn’t. It’s the same technique we use to watch films: we interact with a film’s “reality”, taking its stories seriously, whilst also being aware that it’s definitely not real. Pretending in this way might just help us to cope with problems in our own lives; looking at fake projections is a form of therapy. And similarly, Marjorie copes with her grief by interacting with a fake, youthful hologram of the husband that she’s lost. It’s make-believe, but that doesn’t make it any less useful or therapeutic.

Lois Smith is really rather wonderful as Marjorie, a character that crackles with wit and intelligence, yet has a cold edge that gleams often in her eye, a steeliness that seems to have caused great damage to her family and in particular her daughter. To say any more would spoil the plot, what little of it there is, as the narrative pivots unexpectedly twice. Part of what makes the film so satisfying is adjusting to these jolts.

Like an Ingmar Bergman film, Marjorie Prime accrues emotional weight merely by having characters talk to one another, exposing their inner flaws and long-held grievances towards each other. And like many a play, much of the key action is held offstage, which means you really have to concentrate. Yet the long-held shots that linger on the character’s faces (real or not) and the remote beach locale in which much of the action is set, plus the lush string-laden score by Mica Levi, help to inject a cinematic flow into what is otherwise a stagey affair.

Indeed, some of the dialogue translates badly onto film, creating a few clumsy interactions that can damage your suspension of disbelief a little, which as we know is crucial – when this happens, the holograms onscreen are exposed for the actors they really are.

What’s worse, it winds up concluding in a scene that is too enigmatic for its own good; like The Tree of Life, its reaching for higher metaphors winds up deadening the overall emotional impact.

Which is not to say that you won’t be moved multiple times before the denouement. In particular, I was touched by the film’s portrayal of an old woman, for once, as a complicated web of personality traits, only one of which is adorably cantankerous. So it joins Amour in the list of films that manage to look at the ageing process unflinchingly – a list that I hope will grow, because it’s a rich, relatively untapped area for filmmakers to explore.

If there’s a finer film about memory this year, I don’t remember it.

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Update on My Blog

I’ve been absent on here for a few weeks, and there’s a good reason for that… I’M MOVING TO CHINA! Tomorrow!!

I’m going to teach English in Guangzhou, which is the largest city in the south – it’s pretty near to Hong Kong. Needless to say, I’ve been busy getting my work visa and everything else sorted, so I haven’t been able to keep up with as many new films and albums as I’d like to. What I have caught up with hasn’t inspire me to write about them, either, which is another reason I’ve been silent. I was looking forward to writing about Blade Runner 2049, being a huge fan of the original, but frankly I don’t think it’s good enough. The critical adoration it’s received makes me feel a little uneasy, as it tends to overlook huge problems with the pacing, acting, dialogue, and even some of the basic plot elements. I don’t get, I just plain don’t get, certain critics who have said that it’s a better film than the original – it’s not even better than Logan, which is a far from perfect film, but is still my favourite blockbuster in what’s been a very disappointing year.

Another reason I’ve been quiet lately is that I’ve started writing for The Young Folks, an American reviews website. It’s voluntary, but it’s a lot of fun as I’ve been able to write pieces on older music that I love as well as more recent stuff. Here’s my review of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP in case you’re interested, and my review of Tricky’s latest (mediocre) album ununiform that I wrote for them. I’ve just finished a piece on Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love which was a joy to revisit and write about, it should be up soon.

The final reason I haven’t been posting on here lately is that I’ve been editing a film that I made with my grandma, interviewing her friends, older people, about their views on Brexit. The results were fascinating, because in my hometown of Lewes most older people actually voted to Remain and were horrified by the outcome of the referendum, unlike the rest of the country where older people were much more likely to vote Leave. That’s because it’s a middle class community full of retired academics from Sussex University and London, what the Daily Mail would describe as ‘elites’ no doubt. But they’ve lived through a lot, most of them through WWII and all of them through the formation of the EU, so I think they’re worthwhile and fascinating to listen to, and you can often feel the weight of history hanging over their carefully chosen words. Here’s the video, in case you’re interested:

I haven’t decided what to do with this blog while I’m in China; censorship and a shortage of cinemas will sadly make reviewing films a lot trickier, and I don’t know how much of my listening time the music reviews for The Young Folks will end up taking. It’s possible I could start writing about my experiences of teaching in China instead. We’ll see.

But I’ll carry on coming over to WordPress to check out what you’re all doing, for sure. And if you don’t hear from me for a while, I wish you all the best in the near future and hope y’all carry on with your excellent blogging work.

Prophets of Rage: Prophets of Rage (2017) – Album Review

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Public Enemy + Cypress Hill + Rage Against the Machine = FUCK TRUMP3.

So goes the formula for this group, formed during last year’s appalling US election campaign, which smashes Chuck D and DJ Lord from Public Enemy, B-Real from Cypress Hill, Tom Morello and the rhythm section from Rage Against the Machine, all together in a Hadron Collider of rage.

Don’t use the word ‘supergroup’ though – as Tom Morello told Rolling Stone last year: ‘We’re not a supergroup, we’re an elite force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.’

Erm, ok then Tom. To be fair, I do understand what he’s trying to say – most supergroups are formed in order to massage their member’s egos and make them feel self-important, whereas Prophets of Rage have a specific purpose that exists outside of themselves, which is to create a ‘revolution’ I guess. Yep, I’m being snide: I don’t believe these chaps are any more capable of starting a genuine revolution than Russell Brand.

But then I like Russell Brand, quite a bit actually, because he’s the rare celebrity who genuinely cares about improving himself and the world around him, even if his confusion and egocentrism often gets in the way of results. What’s more, he talks in a genuinely musical way, with a casual poetry that is quite absorbing on a surface level.

So it is too with Prophets of Rage: they don’t have the discipline to really change the world, but anyone expecting that from them is missing the real satisfaction, which is at the surface level: they’re rock stars and they rock pretty fucking hard. Anyone looking to rock stars to effect genuine change is delusional at best, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. If it gives you an outlet for expressing repressed anger about the current political scene, that’s great, but don’t expect any Trump fans to suddenly jump on board the progress train because a rap-metal album is yelling ‘No hatred! Fuck racists!’ at them (the chorus of ‘Unfuck the World’).

Me, I hate Trump and the way the world is going so much that I’m thankful for any soundtrack to vent my frustrations, and this album does the trick. Even if it never comes close to the subtlety of It Takes a Nation of Millions, the fist-pumping calls to action here make you feel a part of a community who genuinely care, if only for 40 minutes. Then it’s back to watching the news and feeling western democracy’s collective sanity eroding away…

It gets me pissed off and head-banging more than any other metal album I’ve heard this year, which is a good thing, when that anger is channelled into a cause rather than directionless, as is the case with so much heavy metal. And if Tom Morello falls back on his collection of sound effects rather than communicating genuine revolutionary fervour on his solos, the Rage Against the Machine rhythm section is the musical highlight here, particularly Tim Commerford on bass who funks it up to provide the catchiest moments – check him out on ‘Unfuck the World’ and ‘Smashit’.

His funk also allows the band’s roar to accommodate the three rappers, who manage to react with their heavy metal without combusting. Predictably, Chuck D is the most absorbing to listen to, his indomitable bass being one of the most consistent pleasures in musical history. Yet B-Real arguably gets more chances to shine, adding a touch of lightness on the weed-supporting ‘Legalize Me’ and then suddenly getting serious about homelessness on ‘Living on the 110’ to prove he’s not just a Flavor Flav. The difference of their unmistakeable timbres makes for intrinsic interest throughout.

I wish they’d call out Donald Trump more often, and by name. But as a collection of political sloganeering it has the same chant-along power of RATM’s ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!’ It’s far more likely to move drugged-up crowds at a festival than get people marching on Washington, true. But then, ever since the 60s, that tradition has gifted us with a lot of terrific music, and if this doesn’t stand with any of the hippie-era’s greats, it’ll do the trick just fine at this awful moment in time.

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The Bob’s Burgers Music Album (2017) – Album Review

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After writing yesterday’s post about The National’s new album I was reminded to revisit this collection, in which the band feature on a bonus EP called ‘Bob’s Buskers’ (along with St. Vincent and Stephin Merritt) singing songs from the show. To hear the perennially humourless Matt Berninger cooing along to ‘Bad Stuff Happens in the Bathroom’ is an unmissable treat, especially for those who take indie-rock’s pretensions with a pinch of bath water salt.

The rest of The Bob Burger’s Music Album is comprised of 107 original songs taken from the acerbic and potty-mouthed American animated sitcom about a family who run a burger joint. The average length of the tracks is just over a minute – they make their point quickly and leave in a rush. As such, for those who aren’t well acquainted with the show, the experience of sitting and listening to them all in order can be an overwhelming experience, an onslaught of silly voices and fart jokes rushing by without subtlety or grace. The first time I listened all the way through it gave me a headache.

But revisiting it has assured me of the quality of the music here. An ace review over on The Skinny describes, better than a non-fanatic such as myself ever could, the importance of music to the show’s overall scheme. Bob’s son is supposed to be some kind of 11 year-old musical genius, a modern-day Mozart obsessed with scatology and cheap pop songs, and as such great care has been taken to make the satirical numbers genuinely musical, in honour of his genius. There are chirpy pastiches of James Brown (‘Funky Finger’), riot grrrl (‘Bad Girls’), musical theatre (‘Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl’), and country (‘I’ll Trade You These Tears/I Won’t Go Solo On You), to name a few. There are covers of pop perennials such as ‘One Way or Another’, ’99 Red Balloons’, and ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ (changed to ‘Don’t You Love Cotton Candy’). All of these homages are, surprisingly, very respectfully done – the satire never descends into being needlessly gloating or cruel. And the production is just wonderful, crisp and clear, and with superb musicianship audible, particularly on the bass guitar and banjo which appear throughout. The ditties all have bounce, and are crafted with care: this is no cash-in hack job.

As for the jokes, they come thick and fast too, so it takes quite a few listens to catch most of them. Again, not being a fanatic of the show, I’m sure I missed a lot more. But there are many that tickle me: ‘The Prince of Persuasia’ is a laugh-a-second riot from the perspective of a douchebag misogynist dating guru (like Tom Cruise in Magnolia), ‘T-I-N-A’ is an acronym that ends with ‘Asthma’, ‘Taffy Butt’ reels Cyndi Lauper in for her best performance since 1983’s She’s So Unusual, and ‘The Spirits of Christmas’ has Kevin Kline repeating ‘bourbon’ until it starts to sound like ‘burping’ in a truly surreal coup.

There are plenty of missteps, but that’s just the nature of these kind of rapid-fire comedy skits, and a remarkable number really do hit the mark. It may be impossible to sit and listen to the whole thing in one sitting, but when you split it up into digestible chunks, it transforms into really top-notch entertainment.

And it proves once and for all that ‘if it ain’t man on elephant love, it ain’t worth singin’ about!’

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The National: Sleep Well Beast (2017) – Album Review

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The cliché about bands like these is that they’re ‘growers’, i.e. you have to play their albums quite a few times before they begin to make sense. That cliché happens to be true with The National. Put on any of their discs and the first thing you’ll notice is Matt Berninger’s mumbling baritone, which can be quite alienating in how it drolly resists emotional affectations.

But give them a fair chance and the music starts to blossom – including Berninger’s vocals, which like so many rock singer’s gain heft when you start to notice how astutely they pivot on his natural-born limitations. There’s a great moment for instance on Sleep Well Beast where Berninger sings about seeing his wife, Carin Besser (who co-wrote many of the songs), for the first time: ‘I wanted to ask if you could stay’, and he deliberately misses the note on ‘stay’, making him sound just like an immature little boy afraid to ask his crush out on a date. It works; moments like these accrue until you start to become pretty impressed with what you’re hearing.

The other easy entry point for newbies is Bryan Devendorf’s drumming, which is obviously virtuosic without ever being distracting, and conjures up unusual rhythms whilst tricking you by repeating them until they sound obvious. Noticing his distinctive patters can lift The National’s music from being just good background music into your foreground consciousness, and once it’s there you can then begin to notice other excellent things such as Aaron Dessner’s guitar and the subtle musical arrangements. On this album, orchestral flourishes and electronic distortions on the intros and outros subtly comment on the moodscape being created, without ever dipping into fullblown melodrama, as Elbow tend to do, a band with whom they are frequently (for some reason) compared.

I think the first half of Sleep Well Beast is their best work to date. On ‘Day I Die’ they reach the level of genuinely anthemic for the first time, with Berninger’s best-ever vocal searching for an answer to the moving question ‘The day I die/Where will we be?’, his voice projecting the last word harder than he’s ever done before, into the uncertain future that his mind is conjuring up in a weed-induced haze. ‘Walk it Back’ is a rather alarming mumble-rap in which Berninger at last sounds as ancient as Leonard Cohen used to, and where he’s interrupted by a truly bizarre sample of Karl Rove (senior advisor to George W. Bush) talking about ‘creating other new realities’ that proves the concept of ‘alternative facts’ is nothing new (Rove hated the song, which is perhaps its most glowing endorsement). Lead single ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ finds space for Aaron Dessner’s stinging guitar solo, lighting up spectacularly in order to contravene the idea of total darkness. And ‘Turtleneck’ is a straight-up garage rocker, wild and unhinged and finished in just 3 minutes, a flash in the pan where the band are normally content to simmer.

These are all career highlights; the pace doesn’t sustain. Although Dessner’s piano playing is real nice throughout, it dominates far too many of the ballads on the album’s second half, undermining the band’s usually spare aesthetic. Most of the tracks towards the end meander onwards way too long. They wander off into the rumbling darkness and tend to get lost, particularly on the title track, and the lyrics aren’t quite interesting enough to save them.

Still, this deserves a promoted place amongst their oeuvre, and the first half of the album (plus ‘Guilty Party’ and ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ on side two) should keep you coming back.

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Detroit (2017) – Film Review

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Directors often care quite a bit about criticism, more than they let on – take for instance D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation was correctly interpreted as a piece of KKK recruitment propaganda, and therefore followed it up with a lament against Intolerance to prove that he wasn’t a racist (the jury’s still out on that one). Or Francis Ford Coppola, who believed that critics and audiences didn’t fully understand that The Godfather was intended as a critique of the mafia, so aimed to make Part II a much less romanticised vision (I’m pretty certain he succeeded – it’s my favourite film).

I think that Detroit similarly aims to redress criticisms levelled at Kathryn Bigelow’s previous effort, Zero Dark Thirty, which controversially included scenes of torture without entirely condemning the practice, hinting that it was necessary in order to find and kill Bin Laden. Detroit, in contrast, unambiguously decries all forms of brutality used in the name of the law. The violence used by the police to extract information from suspected criminals is shown to be excessive and to yield no positive results, tied up as it is with systemic racial prejudice.

Like Intolerance and The Godfather Part II, the urgency imparted by the director’s need for greater moral clarity makes for a better, more powerful and more interesting film. Detroit is at once more gripping and cerebral than Zero Dark Thirty because it communicates a true sense of horror at how humans in a position of power can abuse it, rather than simply showing the good guys hunting bad guys. David Thomson described Zero Dark Thirty as being like a ‘John Wayne movie’, but that’s not a charge that could be levelled at Detroit – unless that movie was The Searchers.

Detroit concerns a real life incident that took place during the city’s race riots of 1967, following the unlawful arrests of African-American partygoers. A man shoots a toy gun out of a hotel in a black neighbourhood, and is mistaken for a sniper, which leads to a violent police raid and a roundup of the usual suspects, a.k.a. all the young black men. These men are threatened, intimidated, beaten, and otherwise physically abused by the bellicose local cops, with the state police quickly backing off, not wanting to get caught up in a ‘civil rights case’.

Bigelow directs these terrible scenes with a real feeling for the unfortunate people caught up in the crisis, and effectively communicates the terror of being young and black and confronted by a hostile government-sanctioned repressive force. There are two white women who also get beaten and stripped by the aggressive cops; they are appalled by the prospect of these women having possibly slept with black men, in a similar way to how John Wayne reacts to Natalie Wood being married off to an Indian chief in The Searchers. Sexual insecurities often play into racism: ‘what’s wrong with us?’ one cop asks the women, self-pityingly, pathetically.

Will Poulter plays the ringleader of the racists, acting the part of a young policeman with an intensity that belies, or perhaps is exacerbated by, the babyish nature of his face. It’s his finest performance to date, and also easily the best in the film, one that intriguingly hints at some of the psychological deficiencies that lead to racist behaviour. He remains entirely engrossing, whilst inviting zero sympathy. Bigelow never quite digs as deep as Poulter does – she generally isn’t as concerned with the roots and causes of racism as with the surface suspense that its deployment creates. Never mind: her acknowledgment of it as an unavoidable element of the American judicial system is progress enough.

Apart from Poulter, the rest of the ensemble cast is solid, but nobody really stands out – the script doesn’t quite allow them to. John Boyega does well enough as a grocery store security guard who works across the street from the hotel, and who gets caught up in the mayhem and tries to de-esculate the tension between the black citizens and the white cops. He winds up being labelled an Uncle Tom figure and made legally culpable for the brutality, the worst of both worlds. Boyega has a star’s aura, but is restrained here, not tussling for the spotlight, perhaps a more impressive feat than his turn in Star Wars. Because it allows Algee Smith to be the film’s heart: he plays Larry, a singer who auditions for Motown and winds up rejecting their offer, after the harrowing events of the film take their toll. It’s a rejection of the company’s (partially) white audience, turning his back on them metaphorically, like Miles Davis used to do in concert.

So far this challenging film’s failed to recoup its $34 million budget, whilst Zero Dark Thirty made a healthy profit of over $90 million. This is a bitter indictment of modern audiences, sadly telling us, as if we needed to be told, that there is a far greater appetite for gung-ho action flicks than for piercing critiques of the justice system in America. But then again, times haven’t really changed: Intolerance and The Godfather Part II made less money than their predecessors too.

So go see Detroit, to show studio execs that there is still an appetite for tough-minded cinema, at least amongst a few of us.

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Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) – Film Review

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Yesterday I reviewed the bleakest film I’ve seen in years, today it’s the silliest. Every bit as good in its own way, though. It’s a film so fresh and enjoyable that one critic over at Roger Ebert’s website even overexcitedly compared it to No Country for Old Men (in terms of reference for its source text)!

I like it quite a bit myself, but not that much. Based on Dav Pilkey’s series of potty-humoured novels for kids about a couple of best friends, George and Harold (an interracial bromance akin to JD and Turk in Scrubs), who accidentally turn their headteacher into the titular superhero – it’s not War and Peace, hell it’s not even The Wind in the Willows, but it breezes by with enough charm to whisk you up in its underclothed trail.

The key to Captain Underpants‘ success is one that Marvel and DC should be paying attention to: it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously, keeping the gag rate coming at a near-Airplane! level. If only Spider-Man: Homecoming had been half as funny as a few critics tried to claim, it still wouldn’t have come close to matching this kiddie’s film in terms of laughs-a-minute. Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, The Muppets) does a terrific job of distilling the puerile essence of Dav Pilkey’s books. There are many laugh-out-loud moments: George and Harold contemplating life apart as best friends in different classes with ‘long distance relationships never work!’; a supervillain whose full name, get this, is Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esq.; the moment where one character is told ‘you have no sense of humour, like a chair or a supermodel’; a random excursion into live action sock puppets…

Unlike Marvel, the pace is kept impressively brisk – the film feels like it was made by a 5 year-old going AWOL on sugar. Character development is therefore minimal, which means that this doesn’t have the rich textures of the best Pixar films. And if you have children, bear in mind that taking them to this won’t impart any great moral wisdom beyond ‘laughing is good’.

Still, as a superhero film it never stops laughing at its own ridiculousness the entire way through, so that it can be viewed (and celebrated) as a U-rated cousin to Deadpool. Our film culture, and particularly our comic book film culture, needs to be reminded to lighten up once in a while, or else it risks becoming like a chair or a supermodel.

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It Comes at Night (2017) – Film Review

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The bleakest film I’ve seen in years, it’s taken me quite a while to digest this one. I’m finally prepared to recommend it. Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘a downbeat cousin to 28 Days Later or The Road’, which is pretty accurate, if a little offputting. Because It Comes at Night actually is worth seeking out, even if you recoil from onscreen nihilism, as I do.

It balances its irredeemably bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic future with a compelling and relentlessly pushing narrative that sweeps away all objections in its path – only afterwards does the despair of everything that you’ve seen wash over you, like the creeping ‘it’ of the title.

What is ‘it’? We are never quite sure, and that vagueness has annoyed some horror aficionados, but it actually serves to increase the lingering sense of dread in my mind. We know that ‘it’ causes black abscesses to appear all over humans, which are highly contagious and eventually cause the one suffering to die. We get the impression that ‘it’ has caused the end of civilised society, leaving families alone in the wilderness to fend for themselves, frightened to get in contact with other people, because who knows whether someone’s infected? We watch in the beginning as ‘it’ claims the life of an old man, whose son-in-law must shoot him. This is a future Wild West in which all sentimentality is banished, a frontier reached at the end of humanity. And our cowboy, the one killing his father-in-law, is Paul, played by the laconic Joel Edgerton, who must protect his family at all costs from the invisible ‘it’. Paul has a wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo – they’re a mixed race couple, and interestingly this is never discussed), and a teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Plus a dog – watch out for the dog.

Later on this family, who live alone in the woods, are compelled to take in another family to their abode. They’re clean, and what’s more bring farm animals for food. I don’t need to tell you that this won’t end well. Trust is a luxury that these future family units can’t afford.

It’s an impressively stark and unrelenting vision from young director Trey Edwards Shults, who never lets the tension dissipate, whilst finding time to explore Travis’ sexual frustrations in a land barren of possible procreation. The ‘it’ that comes at night is never sex, to his disappointment. Meanwhile the camera lingers on haunted faces and ruptured bodies with equal interest, displaying a clear debt to the most underrated of filmmakers, David Cronenberg, in its clear fascination with body horror’s psychological devastation. Nothing is more terrifying than an internal invader, a pernicious disease, one that even a cowboy like Paul can’t shoot at. You can only watch, in horror, as it absorbs all of those around you, even those you love.

So it is with the film: all you can do is watch, passive and exasperated, yet riveted, as bleakness slowly devours the screen.

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