Music I got recently

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Live From KCRW

I would have preferred a full concert recording from the Push the Sky Away tour, but this loose and casual 10-song show performed for the KCRW station in Santa Monica is a great live offering. It’s predictably dominated by the Push the Sky Away material, and the rest of the picks match the quiet, meditative mood of that album, bar the closer Jack the Ripper, a throwback to the fire-and-brimstone Nick Cave of old. It wouldn’t be a Bad Seeds gig without The Mercy Seat, their signature showstopper performed here as a stripped-down piano version with all the white-knuckle tension and power of the original.

Gattaca – Original Soundtrack by Michael Nyman

It only took me 20 years but I finally got a copy of one of my favourite film soundtracks. Nyman’s beautiful emotional score suits this underrated sci-fi drama perfectly and stands up on its own as a classical piece of music. It’s on the sombre side and requires the right mood to listen to from start to finish, but its finest moments, especially The Departure, never fail to move me.

Feist – Pleasure

I’ve been a long-time fan of Feist, which is why I have stuck with this album for as long as I have. I probably miss out on a great deal of music that I could get into if I gave it more chance, but there’s just not enough hours in the day to treat every artist with patience. Pleasure is easily Feist’s least immediate and poppy record and there are no breakout quirky hits like 1234; the songs are sparse, pared back and lacking in obvious hooks. The opener Pleasure, with its weird dissonant bluesy riff, is probably the closest thing to catchy. The rest of the songs take a while to unlock, but prove to be worth the effort in the end.

Triple J’s Hottest 100 – Volume 24

I got into the habit of buying these compilations of Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 countdown every year. They make for a fun time capsule of what the radio station’s musical landscape was like in a given year (in retrospect, it’s a bit sad to trace the decline of rock music’s presence from the good old times when the early 00s bands like Franz Ferdinand ruled the list). This year it’s another solid 40-track, 2-CD compilation including songs by Flume, the xx, Starboy among others.

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room

Laura Mvula’s rich soul voice would put her into the retro territory occupied by Adele and Amy Winehouse, but in truth she’s a lot more off-centre and idiosyncratic. The oddness reaches new heights on her second album, which is often gorgeous-sounding yet full of strange orchestrations and meandering melodies that have zero interest in becoming normal pop songs. Like Feist’s latest, it also requires some patient listening and letting the songs unfold and sink in. The only misstep for me is Nan, a recording of Mvula’s conversation with her grandmother; I generally can’t stand this sort of self-indulgent inclusions and they’re best kept on the artists’ private laptops.

D.D Dumbo – Utopia Defeated

It’s a bit hard to describe the style of this Australian muso, whose passport name is Oliver Perry: it’s a vibrant hodge-podge of various sonic elements (even some lush sitar on the album standout Alihukwe), blending into a rather unique and whimsical vision. Keeping it all together is Perry’s warm and likeable vocal presence, which lends the album an endearing childlike quality despite some dark lyrics. Some tracks are stronger than others, but overall it’s an impressive debut.

Quote of the Day

You never feed me.
Perhaps I’ll sleep on your face.
That will sure show you.

The rule for today:
Touch my tail, I shred your hand.
New rule tomorrow.

Terrible battle.
I fought for hours. Come and see!
What’s a ‘term paper?’

Wanna go outside.
Oh, poop! Help! I got outside!
Let me back inside!

Litter box not here.
You must have moved it again.
I’ll go in the sink.

Want to trim my claws?
Don’t even think about it!
My cries will wake dead.

Baby Driver

I had a couple of biases to overcome in order to watch this movie. Firstly, the unattractive title that makes you think of some dumb third-rate summer comedy (a baby gets behind the wheel and hilarity ensues!). And then there was its lead actor, Ansel Elgort, whose punchable turn in the otherwise decent The Fault in Our Stars irritated the crap out of me. Well, I judged prematurely, because he’s more than fine in Baby Driver, and the movie itself is a rarity these days, a truly idiosyncratic thriller that doesn’t feel like a product of a committee.

In many ways, Baby Driver is a film about music disguised as a car-chase heist flick. Its eponymous hero is a young getaway driver, who has been working for kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), paying off an old debt. Baby is not a bad sort, and as the film begins, he’s only a couple more jobs away from freedom. While Doc never employs the same crew twice, there’s always someone in the bunch who’s unsettled by Baby’s quirks: he barely ever speaks and he hardly ever takes his earphones out. Baby needs his tunes (different i-Pods with different playlists to suit the mood) to drown out his tinnitus, the result of a childhood car accident, but his passion for music goes further than that. At home he cares for his old deaf foster dad, and spends time making mix tapes from his secret recordings of gang meetings. When he meets the girl of his dreams, a waitress called Debora (Lily James), the two get to have nerdy conversations about music and songs with their names in them – when Debora learns Baby’s name she exclaims that he’s got everyone beat.

The film weaves music and the love of music into the story in inventive and joyful ways – some action scenes aren’t just set to the music, but carefully match the beats of a meticulously chosen song. The opening credits sequence could make one think they’re about to watch a musical, and there was a brief (and perhaps unintentional) reminder of La La Land’s primary colours in the scene where Baby and Debora visit a laundry and you see brightly coloured clothes spinning inside the dryers.

The car chase sequences are exceptional and some of the most exhilarating and well-choreographed action scenes I’ve seen in a long time, but whether Baby’s behind the wheel or romancing Debora, the movie is just tremendous fun to watch. The superb supporting cast is one of its biggest strengths. Other than Spacey’s boss, the standouts are Baby’s partners in crime played by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, a violent loose cannon and a deceptively laidback ex-Wall Street man, respectively. The film’s only real weakness is a crucial plot point involving Spacey’s character where things get implausibly sentimental, but it’s a minor complaint about an otherwise excellent and fresh offering from Edgar Wright.

Oh and have I played Queen’s Brighton Rock over and over since watching the movie? Oh yes.

Passengers

This movie copped a massive backlash upon its release last year, and in all honesty it was practically asking for it, with its grossly misleading trailers and advertising which treated its premise as a twist and in the end made some viewers feel like they received a pretty glittery gift box with a dead puppy inside.

Here’s what the bullshit summary on my DVD rental reads like:

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are two passengers onboard a spaceship transporting them to a new life on another planet. The trip takes a deadly turn when their hibernation pods mysteriously wake them 90 years before they reach their destination. As Jim and Aurora try to unravel the mystery behind the malfunction, they begin to fall for each other, unable to deny their intense attraction… only to be threatened by the imminent collapse of the ship and the discovery of the truth behind why they woke up.

Here’s what actually happens in the film (spoilers ahead):

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The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

I was a true Agatha Christie obsessive in my teens, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every single novel and short story she’s ever written, in Russian translation. Even now that I can see the flaws in her writing more clearly, her knack for plotting and the ability to construct an elegant puzzle of a mystery – and doing it fifty times over – is pretty phenomenal. When I’m in between books and don’t feel like digging into something brand new, I’ll often reach for an Agatha Christie detective novel for a quick and easy detour. It’s hard to pin down exactly what, among all the other crime fiction I’ve read, makes them so uniquely re-readable despite knowing the identity of the murderer. It’s part nostalgia, part the very simplicity of Christie’s writing, uncluttered and efficient and not without its own charm and wry humour. Hers is a cosy, old-fashioned world that is just nice to visit from time to time.

The ABC Murders was an exception in that I’ve only ever read it once more than twenty years ago, and subsequently forgot all about the story, thus giving me a rare chance to read a Christie novel as if for the first time. It’s one of the later Hercule Poirot mysteries, in which Poirot is retired and Captain Hastings, his old loyal friend, is losing his hair, which leads to some amusing exchanges between the two friends.

The plot kicks off with an anonymous letter addressed to Poirot, which states that a murder will take place on a certain day in the town of Andover, and challenges Poirot to do something about it. At first no one around Poirot is convinced that the letter is something more than a sick joke, until, surprise, a murder does happen, with a couple of macabre details: the victim’s name also begins with letter A, and the ABC Railway Guide is left by the body as a calling card. When a second taunting letter arrives, it looks like a crazed serial killer is working his way through the alphabet. It also appears that the novel is handing the reader the murderer on a silver platter, with the narration switching from the usual Hastings first-person perspective to a third person view in the chapters about a certain Mr Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who might as well have been named Mr Red Herring.

Unfortunately for me, I figured out the culprit long before the end, because of a Jo Nesbo crime thriller involving a serial killer I read a while ago which had exactly the same (undeniably clever) twist. Even disregarding that, I didn’t think that The ABC Murders was a top-shelf Christie, and it’s not surprising that it hadn’t left much of a trace in my memory. Granted, it’s unusual in her oeuvre in that it deals with a serial killer, but, without spoiling things too much, I didn’t think that it delivered on that novelty, while also missing the strengths of her usual “small circle of suspects” setup. The supporting cast of characters isn’t one of Christie’s most memorable, and the experiment with the point of view feels largely pointless. A detective novel needs misdirection and red herrings like bread needs flour, but a red herring that lasts an entire novel while also being so bleeding obvious is just annoying. But I also wouldn’t call the book a failure, as it’s still fairly engaging and fast-paced, and the dynamic between Poirot and Hastings is endearing as always. Fact: I still can’t bear to re-read Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, where the duo is parted forever.

The Intouchables

A charming feel-good French drama/comedy about an unlikely friendship, The Intouchables is maybe not the most original film ever and doesn’t dig into its premise all that deeply, but it remains irresistible thanks to the exuberant lead performances and the film’s belief in the power of human empathy and resilience.

Based on a true story, it centres on the relationship between Philippe (François Cluzet), an enormously wealthy middle-aged man rendered immobile from neck down after an accident, and Driss (Omar Sy), a young immigrant from Senegal who becomes his caretaker. In the beginning of the film, Driss, recently released from prison for theft, shows up at Philippe’s Versaille-like mansion for the caretaker job interview, not because he’s genuinely interested in the position but because he’s after a formal rejection that will help him collect unemployment benefits. Driss is rude and crude to everyone in the room, tries to hit on Philippe’s lovely secretary, and pinches a Faberge egg on his way out, but his vitality and don’t-give-a-damn attitude paradoxically win over Philippe, who above all wants a caretaker that won’t pity him. The arrangement also works well for Driss, since he’s kicked out of his home by the family’s matriarch after she gets fed up with his disappearances and criminal ways.

Since the two men take to each other straight away, their relationship is more about mining comedy from their culture clash, and exploring the ways they manage to impact each other’s lives. These are mostly predictable (cultured Philippe loves opera but streetwise Driss thinks it’s boring as batshit!) and, at least on one occasion, stretching believability. Also, some of the transitions between the film’s vignettes and subplots are handled a tad too abruptly. But none of these really detract from the film, and Sy’s charisma helps Driss get away with the humour at the expense of Philippe’s condition that often comes close to bad taste. The film makes it clear that, despite the obvious social and cultural discrepancies between the two men, this love of irreverence is their common ground, and their bond is truly moving. It helps that Sy and Cluzet bounce off each other so well as actors, with Sy’s freewheeling energy and physicality, and Cluzet’s restrained performance, where he can only express himself with his face and voice. The French love their odd couple movies, and they do them well.

The Wicker Man (1973)

I watched the so-bad-it’s-good remake with Nicolas Cage a while ago, so I thought I’d look up the original British cult horror movie with Christopher Lee. I really mean it in the best possible way, but my reaction could be boiled down to, what the hell did I just watch? This is a strange, strange movie, an utterly bizarre blend of folk traditions vs. Christianity, musical (no, really), detective story and horror. The latter doesn’t really kick in until the last ten minutes or so, but when it does the results are uniquely creepy and chilling. It was also interesting to compare the film with the misbegotten Neil LaBute remake, whose inexplicably terrible choices and revisions are even more stark in direct comparison.

The story takes place on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle, where a police detective named Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives to investigate a missing child, after receiving an anonymous tip-off. From the moment he sets his foot onshore, it’s clear that something is off-kilter. At first, no one seems to have heard of the girl, including her own mother and sister. Then it appears that she’s dead, a fact that nobody on the island is overly concerned about. As a devout and conservative Christian, Howie is also disgusted by the old pagan rites and beliefs that thrive on Summerisle, which include much frolicking in the nude, maypole dancing, reincarnation, worship of nature, and, as Howie comes to suspect, human sacrifices.

The many folky musical interludes took me by complete surprise, but they’re pleasant and catchy and help immerse the viewer further into the insular world of this small community where quaint, happy and colourful ever so often gets interspersed with dark and weird. I always found the old pagan lore fascinating and eerie, and with a huge cruel, mad-eyed streak to it. Nature makes for a pretty terrifying deity. Even so, for much of the film Howie’s narrow-minded intolerance makes him a rather off-putting protagonist, a sanctimonious prudish sourpuss with no sense of humour whatsoever who constantly lectures the islanders and berates them for abandoning Jesus.

At the centre of the mystery is the suave and benevolent Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), a gracious host who smiles fondly upon the girls jumping naked over the fires and insists that “We don’t commit murder up here”. Lee is absolutely magnetic in the role, and has to be about the only person who could make a goofy yellow turtleneck and seablown 70s hair look sinister. No scratch that; there’s a sequence near the end of the film where, during the May Day village parade, Lord Summerisle prances around in what amounts to drag, a long black wig and all, which in any other film would have looked like the most ridiculous thing ever, but comes off as super-creepy here.

Regardless of what side you think the filmmakers take in the clash of Christianity with the old pagan beliefs, the ability of seemingly normal, decent people to commit and go along with horrific acts done in the name of their religion is scary as hell. The Wicker Man is a truly original gem and hopefully it doesn’t get completely overshadowed by the silly Nicolas Cage bees meme, as entertaining as it is.