Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Oath (Ike Barinholtz, 2018)

When the government demands an oath of loyalty to the president, the country is divided over its legality, and what will happen if you don't/sign it.

That is the conundrum facing couple Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) as they host Chris's family for Thanksgiving, which also happens to be the deadline for signing the oath. 

The tension of the political climate is exacerbated by the tensions between Chris and his family, particularly between Chris and his brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz).

Will they get through the holiday without getting arrested? More immediately, will the family survive?

For its first half The Oath is fantastic - interweaving the tension of family with the tensions of different political ideologies (clearly with Trump's America in mind).

The simmering conflict between Chris and his family (his dad's inability to use the TV; his brother and his girlfriend's parroting of conspiracy theories). The movie is also savvy enough to highlight how insufferable Chris is - he is unable to decouple himself from his phone to focus on what is going on with his family

The performances of the movie are Tiffany Haddish and Bill Magnusson. As Barinholtz’ extremely levelheaded wife Kai, Haddish is a complete contrast to her more well known roles, she is constantly on lockdown, watching (and countering) her husbands self-righteousness.

As the fascistic agent Mason, Magnusson is terrifying. Evoking the adamant, closed world of right wing mentality (impervious to facts or critical thought), Mason is the most overt evocation of the conflation of patriotism and authoritarianism in the movie - and ultimately a sign of the movie's weakness in its final act. 

Barinholtz builds a terrific world for his story to take place - the characters and their conflicts feel lived in and more complex than mere political differences, and the ideological divide is not reduced to a false 'both sides' equivalence. One of the best things about the movie is how well it does at evoking the current moment - people continuing to ignore the rise of fascism and the co-current breakdown of institutions, in favour of an outmoded left-right dichotomy that no longer applies.

How can you have a polite discussion of the state of the country, when one side is jailing people for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty (or trying to ban abortion/ban migrants/ban transgender people from any and all government services)? 

The Oath's willingness to engage with America 2018 is admirable, and provides for some dark, bitter laughs. The movie is its best weaving these two building tensions as the family gathers for Thanksgiving. But a joke is only as good as its punchline, and while it has a great set up, The Oath does not have the strength of its convictions.

About midway through the movie, it becomes clear that the filmmakers have created a scenario bigger than their characters' ability to resolve it. Once the movie turns into a hostage drama, with the family effectively kidnapping two government agents, the movie feels less surefooted.

As the stakes rise, there is a widening gap between what the movie is trying to do in reaching a resolution with the scope of political breakdown it is trying to satirise. There is a point where the situation gets so dire, the humour takes a back seat. And just as the movie feels like it is about to get unsafe and really complicated, the external crisis is resolved. 

In how it relates to the action of the movie, it feels like a cop-out: a deus ex machina just when we need a reprieve. 

In the moment, I liked it - if only for how it did not feel like a victory. Our hero has no control over what will happen to him, and that remains the case at the conclusion. In this respect it reminded me of the Hungarian movie The Ear (1970), in which a couple are terrorised by the mysterious actions of unseen government actors. No spoilers, but in that movie the ending is terrifyingly inexplicable - a manifestation of the helplessness of individuals against all all-powerful State.   

With The Oath, I found it hard to buy how the external resolution related to the resolution of the main story, particularly between the family and the government agents they take hostage. Billy Magnusson's character - previously an aggressive macho man thirsty for blood - does a turn which feels totally at odds with his character in the rest of the movie. 

The ending feels contrived and easy, which feels totally at odds with the the enormity of the issues it establishes at the beginning. Though unintended, it feels like the movie's most unsettling joke - in a movie, this situation can be resolved. Out here, you are on your own.

Ultimately The Oath bites off more than it can chew. It is still worth checking out, but it’s hard to figure out whether the unease I felt at its end was intended or a result of knowing a situation like this in the real world is unlikely to end this way.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Monday, 20 May 2019

New Year's Evil (Emmett Alston,1980)

On New Year's Eve, 1980, music personality Blaze (Roz Kelly) is hosting a broadcast of her (radio? TV?) show to ring in the new year. During a call-in segment, a man calling himself 'Evil' informs her that he is planning to "commit murder" every time the clock strikes midnight in each of America's time zones.

As he gleefully updates her on his tally, the police scramble to hunt the killer down before he achieves his goal...

I really should have waited until New Year's to post this, but the mental well has been a bit dry and this was the only thing I have seen worth writing about.

This movie is bizarre. I am honestly having trouble putting into words what the hell this movie even is. It is clearly inspired by the holiday-themed slashers inaugurated by Halloween, but that is where any relationship to human entertainment falls away.

Released in 1980, the film feels like a prototype for where the slasher was going. The genre had not coalesced yet - while the movie is familiar in structure one of the chief pleasures of the movie is how it deviates from expectations.

In other slasher movies, the focus is generally on a heroine and a small ensemble of victims in an established location. New Year's Evil throws this out the window, isolating Blaze from most of the action. Apart from receiving Evil's calls, she spends the movie MC-ing her new year's party, and ignoring her son Derek (Grant Cramer), who because of her neglect exhibits violent and weirdly sexualised urges that she appears to be unaware of (By the way, that is my analysis based on what the movie gives me - Blaze's interactions with her son make no sense, and we are given zero context for their relationship prior to the movie's beginning).

The one element that really sticks out is how the movie portrays the villain: in other slashers -and murder thrillers in general - the villain is kept offscreen to preserve suspense and a sense of mystery.

Here, the villain is shown from the beginning, introduced on a payphone, threatening the heroine with the film's premise. And as the movie progresses, Blaze is pushed offscreen, with Evil/Richard (Kip Niven) becoming the real centre of the movie.

We watch him meet his victims; we watch him kill them; we watch him trying to beat the clock to reach his next one. It is like a scummier version of Day of the Jackal.

Because we spend so much time with him, and because of his self-imposed deadline, the movie’s suspense is off-centre. Instead of worrying about Blaze or the victims, the basis of the suspense is ‘can Evil complete his plan by midnight?’ In another break from slasher villains, he does not wear a mask until the  movie is almost over - an utterly inexplicable choice that sums up the movie.

Sometimes a movie can have unintended meaning. Watching New Year's Evil in 2019 was a strange experience - on the one hand, from a technical and a narrative standpoint the movie is vaguely incompetent, while at a subtextual level the movie is far more disturbing than it is on the surface.

The film was produced by the Cannon Group, at the time run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Golan. Their movies are fascinating for their ham-fisted attempt to ape trends in American pop culture, and New Year's Evil is no exception. While it features American actors and follows the broad strokes of a slasher movie, as a viewing experience it feels off in almost every respect. There is something very uncanny about this movie, from directorial choices to the ways characters behave.

The photography resembles a 70s TV movie with less of a lighting budget, the acting ranges from decent (Niven is pretty good as the disguise-switching villain) to wooden (the guard asking for the punks' tickets at the beginning is an automaton), and the film's ignorance of new wave music is hilariously off-base (there's a scene where 'punk' audience members mosh to a slowed-down blues number).

If I had watched this movie a few years ago I probably would have dismissed it out of hand, and laughed at Richard's motivations. I still laughed, but after watching endless news stories of incense, white supremacists and the last decade of GOP bullshit, this movie's bizarre focus resonates. As Richard rambled about why he was doing what he was doing, a question popped into my head that I have not been able to shake:

Is Evil's rampage really that ridiculous? 

Sure, the movie world he exists in is a bizarro version of our own, but when you strip that away, all you are left with is an angry man who is upset because he feels he has lost his place in (patriarchal) society. Ultimately, despite the movie's perverse desire to romanticise his demise, Richard is a mediocre white man incapable of dealing with his wife's success. He is not unique - just read the comments under anything a woman tweets.

The whole story is ultimately about how Blaze's independence ruins her family. The movie cannot even give its ostensible lead character an opportunity to defeat her husband.

After Evil strings her up underneath an elevator, Blaze is saved inadvertently by the police who stop the elevator's descent - during a shootout with Richard, a cop's bullet hits the control box, stopping it from crushing her to death. Instead of sticking with our 'heroine', we follow a panicked Richard as he is chased to the roof of the hotel. Now trapped, Richard (wearing a mask ala Halloween which he has never worn during the rest of the movie) quotes Hamlet and dramatically jumps from the roof to the ground below, where he is surrounded by a crowd of onlookers and mourned by Derek.

The movie ends with Blaze in an ambulance driven by Derek wearing his father's mask, who has murdered the driver and clearly has similar intentions for his remaining parent. Just before the credits start, the radio announces that Hawaii is about to celebrate the new year.

New Year's Evil's attempt at a twist ending, with Blaze unable to escape her torment, ultimately feels like a tacit agreement with its villains' views. Even though Richard is dead, his rage has been transferred to his son, who will complete his mission. 

A strange, silly mess of gender politics and mangled genre tropes, New Year's Evil is a strange offshoot of the rise of the slasher movie, and - dare I say it - in its bumbling way offers an unintentional indictment of the machismo it also appears to celebrate.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Friday, 3 May 2019

BOOTLEG REVIEW: There’s Alot Going On (Vic Mensa, 2016)

This review was originally published in 2016.

Short and succinct, Vic Mensa’s first EP deals with the current zeitgeist in direct and unflinching detail.

’16 Shots’ is about the police shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014. It’s a strong number, boosted terrific production and confrontational spoken word section describing the events leading up to the 17-year-old’s death.

After the fury of this track,the song which follows, ’Danger’, feels like a release. While a repetitive, synthesised bass sounds ominously in the background, Mensa offers his own sex-fuelled, blood-soaked version of Carpe diem. Or at least that’s what it initially appears to be about. Like every track soon the album, whatever subject the song is about gets turned inside-out. Mensa will lay out a premise and then proceed to undermine it — or at least give it a nuance or new angle which forces the listener to keep thinking.

‘Shades of Blue’ tackles the water crisis in Flint, Michigan head-on, before spinning out into a broader critique of state of African Americans, before turning on his own self-involvement and career focus. It’s a brilliant, multifaceted number that expands from a fairly obvious setup into something extremely profound. It’s the best track on the EP — hopefully it doesn’t get lost in the conversation when his album comes out.  

The title track is also terrific, and serves as a summation of the EP’s content.

Mensa does give the listener a breather in the middle, with a few tracks which take things in a lighter direction: ‘New Bae’ and ‘Liquor Locker’ are clear cut summer jams — one about girls, the other — you get the idea . Of the two, ’Liquor Locker’ is the standout, benefiting from the presence of guest star Ty Dolla Sign and some great bass. 

There’s Alot Going On is definitely worth a look for the calibre of the songs and Mensa’s intelligent rendering of its central theme. 

On the evidence of this, Mensa’s full-length album cannot come soon enough.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we review the 1963 film From Russia With Love, starring Sean Connery. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

BOOTLEG REVIEW: Good Times! (The Monkees, 2016)

This review was originally published in 2016.

Their first album after the death of Davy Jones, the Monkees have enlisted a couple of big-name fans to help them craft this, their first album in 20 years.

And to be honest, it sounds like they never went away. They aren’t trying to top the charts or sound particularly contemporary, they just sound like The Monkees,only re-energised and managing to capture the magic of their sixties heyday without sounding like an echo of their past glories.

‘Good Times’ gets the party started with a posthumous duet between Mickey Dolenz and a demo of Harry Nilsson from 1967. From there, ‘You Bring the Summer’, ‘She Makes Me Laugh’ and ‘Our Own World’ continue the good vibes. You would never know these were new compositions — they feel like they fell out of wormhole from the sixties.

Though the record is peppered with polished versions of outtakes and demos from the Monkees’ past, it is a testament to how uniformly strong the material is that contributions from the likes of Rivers Cuomo, Noel Gallagher and Peter Weller manage to feel of a piece with the outtakes from the old days. This dive into the archives also allows the group to provide one final contribution from Davy Jones (‘Love To Love’).

The album feels like the distillation of the sound and vibe of Summer ’66. Catchy melodies and simple, memorable lyrics are here in abundance, and while not all the songs are great, together they add up to one of the most unpretentious and just plain fun albums of the year.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we review the 1963 film From Russia With Love, starring Sean Connery. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

BOOTLEG REVIEW: Face Value (Phil Collins, 1981)

This review was originally published in 2016.

Before the success, before the hype, before the hate, Phil Collins was just another member of a popular band having a go at a solo album. Of all the Collins albums being re-released this year, Face Value remains the jewell in the crown. Without the pressure to make hits, Face Value emerges as the most fully rounded and enduring album of his career.

Everyone knows ‘In The Air Tonight’, but the rest of the album is just as good, while being completely different in style and tone. 

What stands out about listening to Face Value in 2016 is its diversity. From the blue-eyed soul of ‘This Must Be Love’ through the world music of ‘Hand in Hand,’ Face Value is a smorgasbord of different flavours. 

Collins wrote the majority of the album following his first divorce, and that rawness runs through the album like a blast of cold water. While there are brighter moments, such as ‘This Must Be Love’, the majority of the tracks explore Collins’s sense of helplessness, isolation and anger. 

While the production is clean, the sheen of his later blockbusters is not in evidence, which is to the good. The everyman quality of Collins’s voice, so often ridiculed, is perfectly suited to the autobiographical focus of songs such as ‘The Roof Is Leaking’, ‘I Missed Again’ and ‘I’m Not Moving’. 

In contrast to his later works, the use of synthesisers is restrained and well-judged, allowing the eclectic instrumentation to breath. The horn section (Collins’s friends from Earth, Wind and Fire) adds a real swing to proceedings, and Collins manages to add interesting touches of piano and that most dreaded of eighties signifiers, saxophone (on ‘If Leaving Me Is Easy’).

The only bum note is the cover of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. It is the one time Collins's instincts fail him -- the song is a mess of over-produced multi-layered synths, sax and drums, with Collins struggling to be heard through the racket. A more understated treatment would have served him better.

Easily the best record Phil Collins ever made, Face Value is far deeper than its title implies, and well worth a re-visit.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we review the 1963 film From Russia With Love, starring Sean Connery. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

BOOTLEG REVIEW: Post Pop Depression (Iggy Pop, 2016)

This review was originally published in 2016.

Produced by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, this is a strong set from the veteran rocker.

‘Break into Your Heart’ is a strong opener, building a Doors-like atmosphere that is a nice throwback to Pop’s early inspirations. Intentional or otherwise, it is an atmospheric salvo that pulls you in. From the second track, ‘Gardenia’, the style shifts toward the style of his Bowie collaborations of the late 70s.

‘American Valhalla’ might be the best track on the album. A first person narrative about an aimless search for validation after a life of violence, it is one of the more political tunes on the album. While the lyrics are not explicit, it could be taken as a lament for his homeland’s veterans.

Among other highlights, ’Sunday’ stands out for its’ great bottom. Combining a wistful lyric with a bass-heavy, funky beat, this is the closest thing to a dance tune on the album. 

The set climaxes with ‘Paraguay’, a terrific tune in which Pop looks forward to escaping the material BS and superficiality of contemporary society. Featuring chugging guitars, chanting and Pop raging against the anxieties of modern living. It’s awesome, bleak, hilarious and uplifting, all at the same time.

The production is nice and scuzzy. It feels like a great garage band got together and jammed out. Pop’s lyrics are evocative and elliptical without slipping into obvious symbolism. One of the highlights of the album is Pop's occasional spoken outbursts, which lend the set an extra layer of righteous anger. And while his voice may have weathered, Pop sings with a vigour and vitality that puts most of today’s over-produced rock stars to shame.

All in all, Post Pop Depression is a terrific contemporary showcase from one of rock’s enduring musical voices. 

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we review the 1963 film From Russia With Love, starring Sean Connery. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Friday, 19 April 2019

Akasha (Hajooj Kuka, 2018)

Three months into his two months leave, rebel soldier Adnan (Kamal Ramadan) is ambivalent about returning to his unit. When his girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus) kicks him out, Adnan has to go on the run before his commanding officer catches him.

But before he leaves, Adnan needs one thing: his gun.

Set during the Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), Akasha (The Round Up) is a comedy about two AWOL soldiers on the run in their home town from both their units and the women in their lives.

In the premise one can see the contours of the Hollywood version - two soldiers go on the lam dressed as women - but Akasha is more nuanced and grounded than its initial set up suggests. The disguises do not even last that long. 

What is most fascinating about the film is the way its context is woven through the entire diegesis. The movie's greatest success is its juxtaposition between the characters' hijinks and the sociopolitical pressures they are under.

Adnan is a fascinating character - starting out as a bit of a blowhard, he has been dining out on the celebrity he gained from shooting a government drone down with his beloved AK 47, who he has nicknamed 'Nancy'. Nancy is the one thing he cares for - in an early scene he lovingly rubs it down with skin cream. 

It is an extremely warm and intimate sequence - or would be, if it was not a man literally stroking his gun. Adnan's relationship to his gun is the basis of his confidence, and his masculinity. 

When his long-suffering girlfriend Lina takes Nancy as her own, Adnan is - in his own mind - unmanned. 

One of the great things about the movie is the way it satirises Adnan's views of gender roles - without his weapon, Adnan has nothing; meanwhile Lina literally moves on with her day, with 'Nancy' as a trophy.

While the conflict itself is never a subject of ridicule, the movie constantly juxtaposes images of  men playing war while everyone else in the village (women, elders and children) try to get on with life. 

The soldiers drive around aimlessly with nothing to use their mounted machine gun on - at one dramatic moment, it stalls in sand.

Occasionally the compositions are messy, the editing sometimes works against comprehension, and some of the performances are pretty wooden, but none of these flaws matter when the dramatic intent remains so strong.

Furthermore, this movie is funny: Adnan's infatuation with 'Nancy' is ridiculous, and his attempts to win over Lina fall flat. Even the minor beats are great: there is a running subplot involving one soldier trying to tell jokes is excruciatingly hilarious. 

The movie is not about violent or romantic resolution - the movie is ultimately about its main characters accepting different kinds of responsibility, and not necessarily as soldiers. Adnan finally has to acknowledge his deficits to Lina (in front of everyone), while his friend Absi (Ganja Chakado) - a resolute non-combatant - supplies their commander with info about an enemy force that is preparing to attack the village.

Woven within the broader historical context, the movie is also a universal story about characters achieving maturity - whether our heroes will live long enough to make good on this growth is left up in the air.

The debut of documentarian Hajooj Kuka, Akasha is definitely worth a look. You can check out more information about the film here.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we review the 1957 novel From Russia With Love, written by Ian Fleming. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!