Month: June 2017

Brazil

A bonkers trip into the warped and wonderful mind of Terry Gilliam that has nothing to do with a soccer-loving country in South America, and more to do with 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece. It’s also set at around Christmas, so I think I’ll be happy to think of it as an alternative Christmas movie a la Die Hard.

It’s always fun to watch movies set in the future that got made in the pre-internet, pre-iPad times (in this case, 1985). Visually, you could describe Brazil as grimy steampunk via mid-twentieth-century technology, where everybody dresses in 1940s fashions and lives in an ugly, soulless jumble of steel and concrete. It’s not clear how much of the world still exists beyond its borders, but this particular society is ruled over by a ruthless organization called Ministry of Information, which employs a giant army of clerks to manage the never-ending stream of paperwork on everything and everyone – bureaucracy on steroids if you like.┬áThe most prominent feature of this world, apart from paper, is the convoluted system of ducts that invades every living and professional space. The Ministry also has a military arm, and a more sinister branch of bureaucrats whose job is to extract confessions and information from those considered to be deviants (and then bill them for their own interrogation). The resistance to the Ministry comes in the form of persistent terrorist attacks, which are not terribly concerned about the bystanders killed in the process. It’s a thoroughly dehumanised society in every way.

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a lowly clerk in Records, the least important department in the Ministry, who is happy with his dead-end job much to the dismay of his glamorous, well-connected mother. The only indication that he craves for more than he has is a recurring dream in which Sam is a fantastical winged superhero, kinda like an angel mashed with a 70s glam rock star, soaring in the clouds and battling demonic creatures to free a beautiful blond woman imprisoned in a cage. But then, Sam’s grey life is shaken up by a series of events: the heating system in his apartment breaks down, at work he gets involved into the case of a wrong man getting arrested and tortured to death because of a spelling error, and most importantly, he gets a fleeting glimpse of a woman from his dream, in real life, who he immediately wants to pursue. Except that, unlike the quivering damsel-in-distress of his fantasy, she’s a tough and no-nonsense young woman.

Despite being set in an oppressive tyrannical regime, Brazil is hilarious and comically absurd, as well as visually inventive; I watched the short behind-the-scenes documentary that came with the DVD, and the amount of work and ingenuity put into the practical effects before the era of CGI is really impressive. While the story itself is fairly simple, the real delight is the scalding social commentary and the amount of small clever details that flesh out this bizarre world – like the fact that almost every Christmas present seen in the film is wrapped into an identical package, or the propaganda posters seen briefly in the background that say stuff like Loose Talk is Noose Talk.

My only previous cinematic memory of Jonathan Pryce is the bland villain he played in Tomorrow Never Dies, a forgettable Pierce Brosnan entry in the Bond franchise, but this movie utilises him much better and he plays Sam with a perfect mix of comedy and pathos. Robert De Niro has a brief but very memorable appearance as Harry Tuttle, the fearless guerilla repairman who delights in giving the finger to the Central Services and shows up to fix Sam’s broken heating system before the official repairmen do. Michael Palin is both funny and ominous as Sam’s friend who is employed by the Information Retrieval department, and I spotted the much younger Jim Broadbent in the role of Sam’s mother’s plastic surgeon.

Apparently, at one point the movie was cut to include a more upbeat and “audience-friendly” ending, which Terry Gilliam fought bitterly, and thank god he won because the film otherwise would be ruined and its message completely lost. Can somebody edit Source Code too? There’s a movie that could do with a bleak ending.

Calvary

I looked up the word after watching the film, expecting it to be some kind of unfamiliar religious term, but Calvary is actually a name of a place, specifically a hill near Jerusalem on which Jesus was crucified (also called Golgotha, a name I was much more familiar with). And there is in fact a blatant parallel between the events of the film and its main character, a Catholic priest in a remote corner of Ireland, and the story of Jesus, which only really clicked into place once I learned the meaning of the movie’s title.

Calvary is about a week in the life of Father James (Brendan Gleeson), which starts in a dramatic fashion: during what at first looks like a regular confession on Sunday, a man we cannot see but who Father James knows well describes the horrible sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of a priest as a child. He is now hellbent on revenge, but he sees no point in executing his abuser (who’s dead anyway), or a guilty priest – he wants to kill a “good”, innocent priest, and Father James has been selected to take the fall for the sins of the church, just down the beach in a week’s time.

Father James might know his would-be-killer, but the viewer doesn’t and is invited to make guesses as the week unfolds and we meet the local folk, a troubled and/or immoral bunch steeped in anger and disappointment: a fellow priest who Father James judges to be insipid and without integrity; a butcher who might or might not be a wife-beater; a wealthy man without a moral scruple; a monstrously cynical atheist doctor; a resentful barkeeper and so on. There’s also a visit from Father James’ daughter, who was born before he joined priesthood, and who is recovering from an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Gleeson’s sharp, intelligent, compassionate performance is the beating heart of the film, and he’s surrounded by a host of richly drawn characters, not to mention the bleak, rugged natural beauty of the Irish coast. At some point, I more or less forgot about the whole detective element of the story, and the movie became more about spending time with an incredibly compelling character and getting immersed into his life and world. It’s a complex portrayal of a moral person in an amoral world who is nevertheless not a perfect saint, with the moments of rage, exasperation, despair and judgemental attitude. It’s also mixed on Father James’ detached quality: on one hand a degree of distance is necessary in his role, yet it also gets challenged through the examination of his relationship with his daughter, and then in the devastating final scene, which in hindsight could only have happened the way it did. An unsettling but worthwhile viewing.

Cabaret

As I’ve mentioned in some other reviews, musicals are not really my cuppa, so if you bring up a classic movie musical chances are I haven’t seen it. Same went for this 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse; the only two things I knew about it was that 1) it starred Liza Minnelli and 2) it’s set in Weimar era Germany, at the time when the Nazi Party was on the rise. After watching the film, I can happily add one more musical I really like to my short list. Maybe my issue is more that I don’t care for the wholesome happy musicals?

One thing I noticed straight away is that the song-and-dance numbers in Cabaret are confined strictly to the stage of the grimy, kinky and seedy Kit Kat Club in Berlin, where Minnelli’s Sally Bowles performs, so there are no characters spontaneously bursting into a song mid-scene (not that there’s anything wrong with that). All the songs and musical sequences are effusive, superbly choreographed, and metaphorical to the main story about the turbulent relationship between Sally and Brian Roberts (Michael York), a young bisexual English language teacher. The depiction of sexuality kinda took me by surprise, as it must have been pretty daring for a film of its time.

Liza Minnelli is easily the most outstanding thing in the movie, with her unusual, almost-stylised features and huge saucer eyes fringed by impossibly long lashes, and her performance rightly won her an Oscar. Sally is flighty, self-centred, amoral and greedy, but so charming and child-like she’s impossible to dislike, as Brian finds even when she does something terrible that punches him right in the gut. Another memorable creation is the impish, androgynous, leering and frequently creepy Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), who also performs at the club, sometimes with Sally and sometimes with a gang of sleazy female musicians and dancers (and mud wrestlers), and whose song topics include threesomes and anti-Semitism.

The rise of the Nazi Party is shown indirectly: at first they’re a silly group who nobody takes seriously and whose members get kicked out of the club, then much later, a chilling scene in a beer garden shows a young Nazi youth sing Tomorrow Belongs to Me, a scary call to nationalism that’s enthusiastically embraced by the other patrons. In the last scene, the dominance of swastika bands in the audience makes the seemingly happy and joyful concluding song (life is a cabaret!) sound desperate and depressing. This darkness beneath the thrill-seeking and hunt for pleasures is what ultimately made this film appealing, but who knows, maybe I should give The Sound of Music a chance after all.

Wonder Woman

With the quality of the recent DC output, Wonder Woman basically needed to be merely decent and competent to qualify as the best of the bunch. And compared to something like Suicide Squad, Patty Jenkins’s film is an outright revelation, but to someone who’s had their fill of merely decent superhero movies, it comes off as mostly rote and by-the-numbers origin story except that, this time, it stars a female superhero. Which yes yes is a cause for celebration, but I just wish there was more to distinguish this movie other than its femaleness.

If there’s anything in the film I could freely gush about, it’s Gal Gadot’s charismatic, star-making turn as Diana (who is never actually referred to as Wonder Woman in the movie, but nevermind). While I’m undecided whether she’s in fact a good actress, it doesn’t matter when she owns the role in a way rarely seen onscreen, and her acting limitations are in a strange way suited for the character. A protagonist who is pretty much perfect in every way except for their naivety can be a terrible pious bore when done badly, and utterly irresistible when done right; I loved how good, empathetic and earnest Diana was and how the film handled its uplifting message without a shade of cynicism. More than anything else, it’s fantastic to see a female superhero who is also unabashedly feminine. In one of the movie’s most wonderful moments, Diana, who’s just arrived to London, rushes away to coo delightedly over a stranger’s baby – a human instinct that is, more specifically, typically female.

A great lead character however is not quite enough, and the story is where Wonder Woman feels thin. It starts well enough on the all-female island of Themyscira where Diana grows up as the daughter of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and receives training from her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, who is the second-best thing in the film and deserves her own badass prequel). Themyscira is one of the film’s loveliest settings, looking like a fabulous Mediterranean island straight from the Greek mythology, even if the CGI effects make it look a tad unnatural.

Blissfully unaware of the outside world beyond her magically protected island, Diana gets a rude shock when, one day, a plane crashes near the shore bearing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a soldier and spy who tells the Amazons about the devastation of the Great War. Believing the bloodthirsty god of war Ares, the sworn enemy of the Amazons, responsible for corrupting the minds of men, Diana leaves with Steve in hope of finding and defeating Ares. In her innocence, Diana thinks that, with Ares gone, men will be good again and cease all fighting; no prizes for guessing whether this black-and-white view of the world gets ruthlessly shattered before the end.

There’s some nice fish-out-of-water humour in Diana’s encounters with the 1910s London, but this is also where the film shifts the focus to Chris Pine’s character and a subplot involving deadly mustard gas, neither of which are terribly compelling. I enjoyed Pine’s turn as Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek series, but his performance here didn’t work for me: he’s too smarmy to be a straightforward good guy, yet not cocky and smarmy enough to be a charming rogue either. As a result, Diane and Steve’s talky scenes and romance felt rather like a chore to sit through. The forgettable gang of supporting characters Steve recruits for their journey to the war front have their ethnicities to distinguish them (Scottish, Native American and Arab) and little else. Villains are introduced in the form of a barking German general (Danny Huston) and his sinister chemist henchwoman, Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). While the latter has a striking look to her and starts off intriguing (especially as it dispenses with the stereotype of women as uniformly nurturing and compassionate), Doctor’s character unfortunately doesn’t go anywhere interesting.

I’ve seen complaints about the ending of the film turning into the usual overwrought CGI extravaganza, but to my surprise I honestly didn’t mind it, nor the fact that Ares doesn’t get much of a characterisation. While I had some issues with him, Ares worked fine for me as less of a three-dimensional character and more like an obstacle or test for Diana. What bothered me way more is that, for someone who believes men to be essentially good and acting under an evil influence, Diana seems to have zero regret for the many German soldiers she kills during the course of the film. Because this is a summer blockbuster, our heroes must have faceless fodder they can mow down without regrets in a kickass action scene, but I found the use of WWI as a setting for this sort of sequence a tad distasteful, particularly when the movie itself gives the hero a solid reason to have compassion for the slain. Also, the overuse of slo-mo got a bit obnoxious; it was cool when 300 did it but 300 came out more than ten years ago, guys.

Wonder Woman is rightly praised for giving the world a charismatic, strong, likeable heroine for the ages (I would so play as Diana if I saw this as a little girl), I just really wish she was in a less formulaic and safe movie.

Music I got recently

The xx – I See You

Like many people, I adored this band’s hushed minimalist debut, but then came the dreaded second-album dilemma: where to go next after you’ve already emerged as a fully formed deal with the sound, image and mood all perfected? More often than not it’s a course of diminishing returns, more of the same but not quite as good. Luckily, on this third album the xx seem to have figured out how to move on by embracing a wider range of influences, samples and vocal loops, and the end result sounds both fresh and unmistakably like the xx. There’s also a greater variety of mood; while it’s not necessarily a “happy” album some songs sound decidedly more optimistic and upbeat. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim may not be great singers in a conventional sense – neither of them has much depth or range – but they know their way around limitations and their vocal interplay still remains enchanting. A couple of songs in the middle of the album sticks closer to the blueprint of the debut, and while they’re fine the best tracks are the ones where the band push themselves.

Seis Cuerdas – Mar Adentro

I rarely ever purchase CDs from the street buskers, but I happened to pass this duo while walking down the Santa Monica promenade in Los Angeles earlier this year, and I found their flamenco guitar music so inspiring and stirring I stuck around to listen and shelled out my last holiday money. That fiery live quality is inevitably dulled on the studio recording, but still it’s an excellent collection of instrumentals. The first track in particular makes me want to grab some castanets and go dancing down the street.

Goldfrapp – Silver Eye

I kinda lost touch with Goldfrapp over the last few years and didn’t think much of the last two albums, but got roped back in with this satisfying comeback. It returns to the electronic dance pop of Supernature, while also referencing their more atmospheric, subdued releases, so it’s basically a combination of everything they do well and there’s something for everyone no matter which Goldfrapp you like best, dreamy and pastoral or dance club and synthy. The opening and standout track, Anymore, with its steady pulsating beat, is vintage buzzing sexy Goldfrapp; while nothing else quite matches it this is a very solid album and Alison’s breathy vocals are fantastic and sensual as always.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Despite being a huge Nick Cave fan, I unconsciously held off listening to this new album knowing the tragedy that had shaped its making, the accidental death of Cave’s teenage son. In hindsight, I think I felt uncomfortable at the idea of getting close to someone else’s raw grief; death has always been a huge theme in Cave’s music but this real-life mourning is something else entirely. As I found out later, the writing and recording for Skeleton Tree had commenced before the incident, and there are no direct references to the loss anywhere on the record. But listening to the album, it’s impossible not to feel its shadow looming over everything like a black cloud, and not see the record as a stark landscape of grief. While harrowing, it’s also a brilliant follow-up to Push the Sky Away, and musically sounds like that album’s darker, more ambient and eerie cousin. Which is just fine by me.