Author: yggdrasille

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.

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.

The Mist

Written and directed by Frank Darabont, The Mist is a third story by Stephen King that Darabont adapted for the screen after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It would have been a pretty solid if unremarkable horror movie except for two things: a truly awe-inspiring monster sequence near the end, and the ending itself, which I suspect left many people feeling angry, depressed or both (I’m in the “depressed, but wow what a bold ending” camp, myself).

As far as horror film settings go, a supermarket probably wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind, but this is in fact where most of the movie takes place. The Mist doesn’t waste much time on the setup: when a bad storm leaves their house without power, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son drive into town for some emergency supplies. Everyone else in their small Maine town had the same idea, and so the store is full of locals, weekenders and a few soldiers from the nearby military base. Soon, all hell breaks loose: a bloodied and distressed man runs into the store, air raid sirens begin screeching, and in a blink of an eye the supermarket is enveloped in an unnatural mist.

It’s not a spoiler to say that there are Terrible Things lurking in the mist that will attack and devour anyone attempting to leave. It begins with a pretty humdrum tentacle creature, but through the course of the film the monsters get more and more fantastical and unnerving, particularly if you’re not a big fan of insects and spiders. The actual explanation for the mist and the creepy-crawlies is not particularly interesting, but they’re mostly there to examine the dynamics within the group of terrified survivors, and what ordinary people will be driven to do when their ordinary world collapses. It doesn’t take long for the various tensions to arise, initially between the locals and out-of-towners. A far greater source of friction however is the local religious nut, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who sees the events as God’s divine punishment for the sins of mankind. At first her doomsday mongering goes ignored by the rest, but as the situation gets more desperate and the body count increases, more and more people join her congregation, and start thinking that maybe a human sacrifice to the monsters outside is not such a bad idea.

I was about halfway into the film before I realised that there was barely any music in it, a decision which is quite effective and complements the documentary feel. Thomas Jane (who reminded me a bit of Christopher Lambert, of all people) is solid as the lead, but a bit too bland and lacking in charisma, as far as “everyman” actors go he’s no Tom Hanks. The rest of the cast do their best to breathe in some individuality into their stock characters, and I was amused to see the lady who played Charlotte’s snobby mother-in-law on Sex and the City pop up here. Overall, it’s a well-executed horror film which probably wouldn’t be that memorable if it wasn’t for its ending; hate it or love it, it does stick in the memory.