Month: December 2016

Music I got recently

More like, music I got ages ago but didn’t get to write about, but better late than never.

christineChristine and the Queens – Christine and the Queens

Why does everything sound so much more charming when it’s sung in French, or with a French accent? Christine and the Queens is the androgynous alter ego of the French singer Héloïse Letissier, who alternates between English and French on this album but is at her most appealing when she sings in her mother tongue. Catchy, top-notch electronic pop with some provocative lyrics.

hopesixPJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

I’m a terrible PJ fan – I only got hold of this album a good few months after its release, which is inexcusable for a die-hard fan like myself. It says a lot about her consistently excellent output that I couldn’t describe this, probably my least favourite album of hers so far, as anything less than “very good”. A follow-up to 2011’s Let England Shake, Harvey’s first openly political album and a real game changer for an artist who’s mostly been very inward-looking in terms of lyrics, The Hope Six Demolition Project is basically more of the same, in terms of music and themes. It’s inspired by her travels to war-torn or otherwise tragic areas of the globe, including Kosovo and Afghanistan; and musically it’s quite close to its predecessor – in fact when I first heard the opening single The Wheel, I thought it was a standalone leftover from the Let England Shake era. It’s fair enough for an artist to keep exploring the themes that feel close to their heart, but it is slightly disappointing to see a retread after a career full of bold turns with every album. Not that it’s a complete sound-alike – it leans heavily on the saxophone and horns this time around, and a lot more choral singing. It’s a very solid album that grew on me more with further listening, but apart from the already-mentioned The Wheel it’s not chockfull of individual memorable songs, another somewhat disappointing first. And what’s up with that clunky title and the hideous cover art?

bat-for-lashes-the-brideBat For Lashes – The Bride

Another hardly-favourite-but-still-very-good release from one of my favourite artists – a concept album written as a soundtrack for an imagined film about a bride who is left at the altar, not because her fiancé is a scumbag but because he dies on the way to the wedding. A downer, that. I fell in love with Natasha Khan’s beguiling, dreamy, mysterious music right from her debut, and here she sticks to her unique vision. The mood is overwhelmingly sad and mournful, which can get a bit same-same if you’re not in the mood, and there are no standouts like the stunning Laura from her previous album, but it’s a beautiful collection of songs and Natasha’s voice is as bewitching as ever.

catseyesCat’s Eyes – Treasure House

I have a soft spot for the Beauty and the Beast duets – Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell, Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra – so this collaboration between Rachel Zeffira (dreamy, celestial) and the Horrors frontman Faris Badwan (dark, gravelly) hits the spot. I loved their retro-ish debut album from a few years back and I’m very pleased to see that the spark remains on their second album as a duo. 60s-tinged, multi-layered, baroque and luscious music, with a sinister neo-noir vibe on some songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Twin Peaks soundtrack.

Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-amy-adams-imageCaught up with the other Amy Adams movie released recently, and a very different beast to Arrival where she also starred. Directed by Tom Ford, it’s exquisitely photographed, strongly acted, and does well to create meshing narratives with their own moods and textures, but in the end it all felt rather hollow and trying-too-hard. There’s much to admire about it, but my reaction in the end pretty much boiled down to, so what.

The film opens with a sequence that’s clearly meant to provoke an uncomfortable reaction, featuring morbidly obese women, naked except for cowboy hats, boots and gloves, dancing and gyrating against the blood-red background in slow motion. These, it becomes clear later, are part of a new art installation in the gallery owned by Susan (Amy Adams), a high-roller in the Los Angeles art world and a profoundly unhappy woman. Her world is immaculate, extravagant, overstyled, glossy and oh-so spiritually empty, and her second husband (Armie Hammer, probably doomed to play born-into-privilege types forever and ever) is acting cold and distant. The next day after the opening, Susan receives a yet-to-be-published novel from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she hasn’t spoken to in years and who dedicated the novel to her. While opening the package, she receives a nasty papercut that draws blood. Foreshadowing much?

From then on, the movie splits into three stories: Edward’s novel that Susan keeps on reading with increasing discomfort, Susan’s current miserable life, and flashbacks to her former life with Edward. The story-within-the-story is about a man called Tony (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who drives with his wife and daughter through West Texas at night, and has a run-in with a bunch of young sadistic thugs. Suffice to say, things go from bad to worse to sheer horror, and Susan’s response to this fictional story becomes more and more emotionally fraught and personal, as it becomes obvious that she effectively cast her ex-husband as the protagonist of his brutal novel. There are other visual touches linking the two stories: Susan’s red couch from her L.A. home becomes a sinister prop in Edward’s story; Tony’s wife and teenage daughter in the novel bear an eerie resemblance to Susan and her real daughter.

I’ve been trying to figure out my ultimately blah response to it all, and I think it’s down to the fact that the movie did nothing to make me care about Susan and Edward’s relationship. The flashbacks reveal them as a couple of young and idealistic lovers whose relationship falls victim to the demands of the real world and different aspirations. Problem is, the movie doles out this information in the most obvious way possible, with the subtlety of a brick to the face, though I did enjoy the brief cameo by Laura Linney, almost unrecognisable as Susan’s pearl-wearing, conservative Republican mother. Blue Valentine from a few years ago, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as the doomed couple, covered a similar ground in a much more nuanced fashion. Also, it turns out that Susan did something awful to Edward near the end of their marriage, but this doesn’t have an impact it should have had. Without a real emotional centre, the story basically comes down to, he sends her a screw-you novel, she is disturbed. The end. The only real standout for me, other than the stylish visuals, Susan’s wardrobe and great sense of atmosphere, was Michael Shannon’s mesmerising turn as a laconic, enigmatic Texas lawman who at times is even more frightening than the criminals he’s chasing.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life_after_lifeLooking at the title, I presumed that this was going to be a book about the afterlife, something like The Lovely Bones, but in fact its meaning is one life after another. This book doesn’t treat death as final: its protagonist, Ursula Todd, dies when she is born in 1910 with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Then in the next chapter and the next life she gets another chance: the family doctor who originally couldn’t be present because of heavy snowfall makes it to her birth, and cuts the cord in time. A few chapters later, five-year-old Ursula and her sister Pamela drown at sea, then in another life they get rescued by a stranger who happens to be nearby. A year later she falls to her death out of the window while trying to rescue a favourite doll, then she is stopped by the kitchen maid before she climbs the windowsill and lives on.

At that point, while enjoying the book, I thought to myself, ok is this going to be like playing a video game where you die and fail a level, then come back and pass the level, then fail the next level and so on? Because that’s going to get old real quick and this is a thick book. But the novel, thank god, was much more inventive than this. The early start-and-stop-and-start narrative is about the more straightforward perils of childhood, but as she grows up and has more autonomy over her choices and actions, Ursula’s many fates take many, wildly different routes. In one life, a kiss from a visiting American student ends with an abusive marriage, in another, a timely slap prevents a disaster. Romance that happens in one life takes another trajectory in the other, and same people and places play different roles in different chapters. Ursula herself becomes vaguely aware of her own alternate past lives, experiencing strange feelings of déjà vu and inexplicable dread, and a visit to a psychiatrist touches on the nature of time and reincarnation, handily visualised as a snake with a tail in its mouth.

Merely explaining the concept of the novel however does no justice to Atkinson’s empathetic, humorous and vivid writing, which brings to life complex family dynamics and life in England between and including the two world wars. Ursula’s family is comfortably wealthy and live just beyond the north London, in a leafy area not yet swallowed by the encroaching suburbs. While Ursula herself never quite gels into a fully realised character, probably because of her ever-changing life course, the novel has a rich supporting cast, of which Ursula’s snobbish and caustic mother Sylvie and erratic, free-spirited aunt Izzie stand out the most. The details of wartime London and its blitz horrors are harrowing and authentic, though the book feels less convincing when it travels over to the continent in a life where Ursula ends her days in the 1945 Berlin instead. Atkinson knows her England through and through, Germany on the other hand feels a lot more sketchy.

If I continued the earlier video game comparison, World War II is the unbeatable big boss of Ursula’s life; even when she makes out of it alive the tragedies it visits on her family leave it mangled forever. In the opening chapter set in the 1930s Germany, Ursula dies while trying to assassinate Hitler, and the closest the novel gets to “what it all means” is the implication that Ursula’s ultimate goal is preventing the war from happening. But the book remains rather vague on this account; there’s even an intriguing remark by one of the characters that perhaps a great evil happens in order to prevent an even greater evil (this in fact made me half-expect a version of Ursula’s life where Hitler dies but the future turns out to be even worse than WWII, but I guess this would be getting too much into science fiction turf). Despite this lack of clear resolution, this is a remarkable, rich, haunting book that I’d probably want to re-read down the track.

Frances Ha

frances-ha-film-still-3I wasn’t sure at first if I could warm up to this movie about a bunch of twenty-somethings in New York, but in the end it was charming and well-observed enough to endear itself, though its charm is a tad on the self-conscious side. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is shot in rather plush and gorgeous black-and-white, evoking memories of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

At the start of the film, Frances (Greta Gerwig, willowy and luminous) is a 27-year-old young woman stuck in the awkward post-college limbo, struggling to forge her own identity and make a living out of her chosen profession as a modern dancer. You get a sense that she loves what she does, but at the same time there’s a crippling insecurity and sluggishness that prevents her from really making advances in her career. She lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and the two girls have the kind of close, intense friendship – “like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore” – that you know will never survive the pressures of the real grown-up world. Eventually Sophie is the first one to break away, moving out to a coveted flat in Tribeca that Frances can’t afford, and then to Japan with her investment banker boyfriend. Frances is left aimless and adrift; she moves in with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), a couple of smartass well-off hipsters, then when her dance company gig falls through she visits her parents in Sacramento for Christmas and goes on to do crappy odd jobs at her old college campus.

This doesn’t amount to much of a story, more like a series of setpieces and vignettes about being young and unsure of yourself and your place in the world, which are in turn funny and embarrassing. Frances is both charmingly offbeat and her own worst enemy, making bad decisions, being socially awkward, telling pointless lies and getting herself into cringe-inducing situations, but she is rarely less than adorable thanks to Gerwig’s wonderful performance. Even at her lowest point, there’s some kind of cheerful indomitable spirit to Frances that makes you feel she’ll be alright and figure things out in time. I was half-expecting a romance with one of the hipster boys Frances lives with for a while, but the real love story here is between Frances and Sophie. The movie is a poignant portrait of what happens to friendship when one person moves on to a different stage in life and the other stays behind, while also suggesting that this rift can still be bridged when people care enough about each other.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-upCome back, Star Wars prequels, all is forgi…

jarjar

Ok maybe not. But given the choice, I think I’d still prefer to re-watch George Lucas’ misguided trilogy rather than this latest soulless snorefest from Disney. As terrible and stilted the prequels are, they’re at least terrible in a zany, colourful and unique way and whatever else they made me feel it wasn’t boredom.

Rogue One is the first entry in the probably never-ending stream of stand-alone Star Wars films, unconnected to the main Skywalker saga but also acting as a prequel to A New Hope. It tells the story of how the Rebels managed to get their hands on the plans for the Death Star… which to be honest didn’t really set my interest alight when I first heard it, because honestly who cares how they got them? Still, there was no reason why they couldn’t have made an entertaining flick about it, and the largely positive reviews persuaded me to watch it.

I guess I should mention some positives before I tear this movie apart. Gareth Edwards, the director, has an eye for visuals, composition and sense of scale, and the movie has some beautiful locations and elegant images. The opening scenes, shot in Iceland, were especially striking. Darth Vader’s screentime is pure unadulterated fanservice, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the appearance of one of the cinema’s greatest villains thrilling. The Star Wars action porn in the third act, involving just about everything fans loved about the action in the original trilogy (X-Wings! TIE fighters! Walkers!) is undoubtedly well-shot and is probably the main source of goodwill this movie seems to have.

Unfortunately, while Edwards has a way with effects and action, he’s got no clue how to handle human characters and drama. Say what you will about J.J. Abrams’ shortcomings as a storyteller and the underwritten, inconsistent characterisation that plagued The Force Awakens, he’s phenomenal at getting lively, natural performances and squeezing the last drop of charisma and chemistry from his cast. In Rogue One, flat line deliveries rule the day and no one is allowed charisma. You can see some actors try and inject individuality into their characters, but because the director has no clue about who these people are they’re getting no help from him and just end up flailing. Everyone is dull and drab as dishwater, including the main character of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, just as wasted here as he was in Doctor Strange), an engineer who plays a key role in the creation of the Death Star. Jyn’s relationship with her father is supposed to be at the heart of the film, but it spends no time on the father/daughter bond before the Erso family’s peace is broken by the arrival of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, need I say he’s wasted as well?), director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial military. Galen is taken, his wife is killed, and Jyn escapes, and before you know it boom she’s a sullen grown-up miscreant who gets recruited for a mission by the Rebellion. Because we never get to know Jyn as a person, all the father/daughter emotional beats land with an indifferent thud and her later transformation into the leader for the Rebel cause is completely unconvincing.

The multiple supporting characters are even flatter than Jyn if it’s possible, and are introduced in a rushed manner as the first act hops manically from planet to planet, hastily throwing in a bunch of ciphers I never got to care about. Donnie Yen’s blind warrior monk comes closest to being a distinct personality and cracks the film’s only joke to get a chuckle out of me. The official comic relief is the former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), but his brand of humour is so at odds with the film’s overall vibe it feels out of place. The absolute nadir however is the ghastly CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing as the Grand Moff Tarkin, which made me feel like I was suddenly dropped into one of my brother’s video games. Sorry but the technology is not anywhere near good enough yet to simulate a real living human being, and this distracting uncanny valley creation gave me the creeps.

The idea behind Rogue One would naturally lend itself to a classic heist film, but the movie wastes the entire first two acts on detours and boring Erso family drama before it finally gets to the all-important mission and the big action scenes. But because my emotional involvement by that time was nil, the action simply feels exhausting and the tragic loss of life doesn’t move. There’s an attempt there by the filmmakers to try a more nuanced, morally grey approach, but in the end it all feels like mere lip service. It’s still about the good guys mowing down the bad guys without any qualms, and no real humanity given to the Imperials. Which is not really a problem in a Star Wars universe with its black-and-white, fairytale-like morality, but it really doesn’t work in a “serious”, supposedly gritty movie that sets out to be the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars.

I’m still interested in Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII, but the Star Wars stand-alone movies are off to a dismal start and may be showing up the limitations of this universe.

Elle

elleI caught what was probably one of the last screenings of this film in Melbourne, from the far left seat in the first row of a tiny movie theatre. Which usually would have been a major source of irritation – I hate sitting too close to the screen at the movies – but all of that went out of the window as soon as it started. With less than half a month left to 2016, I feel pretty safe in saying it was my favourite film and best lead performance I’ve seen all year. While elegantly shot and full of oh-so-tasteful-and-French interiors, it’s very much a Paul Verhoeven film, provocative and full-blooded.

Elle begins with the most unsettling use of a cat’s face since Jonesy the Ginger Tom watched a crew member die horribly offscreen in Alien. This time, the impassive feline eyes witness the violent rape of its owner, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), a woman in her 50s who is assaulted in her flat by a masked intruder. It’s not an uncommon scenario in movies, but Michèle’s reaction afterwards gives a good warning that this movie is about to subvert your expectations over and over again. After her attacker leaves, Michèle chucks the dress she was wearing in the trash, takes a bath, and orders food. She doesn’t call the police, for personal reasons revealed slowly over the course of the movie. Instead she changes the locks to her apartment and coolly informs her friends about her rape over a fancy dinner. All in all, Michèle’s intent is to simply compartmentalise and move on, but it seems that the unknown rapist is not done with her yet and his creepy texts make every man in her life a suspect.

This sounds like a setup for a psychological thriller, which Elle is, but at times the mystery of the masked man feels like it takes a backseat to the thrill of simply following a fascinating, singular character played by an actress at the height of her profession without fear or vanity. She is the kind of ballsy, mean, damaged, funny, cutting, complicated, don’t-give-a-f*** character that is almost exclusively a domain of male actors in movies these days. A large chunk of the film is taken up with Michèle’s interactions and relationships with people in her life, and there’s a lot going on in her life for sure. She runs a successful video-game company with her best friend Anna, where she’s disliked by the majority of her younger male employees. There is her amiable but rather useless grown son and his bitchy pregnant girlfriend; an ex-husband who is dating a much younger yoga teacher; an affair with her friend Anna’s husband; Michèle’s mother who mortifies her with her love of Botox, heavy make-up and young men; and a handsome neighbour who she’s having intense erotic fantasies about.

All the while, the memory of the assault and the ongoing stalking loom over the proceedings, and things turn out to be a lot less cut-and-dry than the typical revenge thriller would have it. The movie’s turn of events could be seen as hugely problematic by some, but to my mind it simply acknowledges the fact that human beings are complex, their sexual desires don’t always veer towards wholesome and nice, and they don’t always react in proper, approved ways. It takes a lot of skill to pull off this gleeful, confronting mix of horror and comedy of manners, but this made-in-heaven match of director and lead actress manage it and how.

P.S. Movie cat watch: Michèle’s British Shorthair is gorgeous.