Saturday, 21 March 2020

BOOTLEG REVIEW: ArtScience (The Robert Glasper Experiment, 2016)

[This review was originally published in 2016]

Jazz maestro Robert Glasper is someone I’ve been meaning to get into for the last couple of years. I’ve caught individual tracks from his Black Radio albums, but I’ve never had a chance to get through an entire album. 

Earlier this year, Glasper released a posthumous collaboration with Miles Davis, Everything’s Beautiful, and has followed that up with his latest solo offering, ArtScience.

A series of extended jams, Art Science is my kind of joint. At times it sounds like Davis’s In A Silent Way mixed with the latest in dubstep and rap. 

The opening song, ‘This Is Not Fear’, lays out the thesis of the album, with Miles Davis’s famous quote about the influence of African American music upon on popular music. This acts as a licence for Glasper to use each track to blend genres, mixing traditional Jazz-style improvisations with soul vocals and dance beats.

‘Day To Day’ has the beat of an old-school funk song, with disco-like strings, while ‘No One Like You’ is a 9 minute epic. Bracketed by vocal choruses, it is a terrific band jam, with Glasper’s excellent blending of electronica filing out the edges. ‘You And Me’ and ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’ are slow jams. The latter is especially noteworthy for its use of vocoder which adds a dreamy, otherworldly dimension to the song.

The rest of the track list is built on similarly nebulous territory. All of the tracks display Glasper’s attention to detail and an ability to weigh analog and synthetic elements in a way that feels totally organic. None of the songs are what you could call traditional jazz, yet they also fall outside traditional categories of pop and soul. It is the genre-bending which ultimately makes ArtScience a worthy investment for your eardrums.

A strong recommend.

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BOOTLEG REVIEW: No Jacket Required (Phil Collins, 1984)

[This review was originally published in 2016]

The latest in the re-releases of Phil Collins’s back catalogue continues with this deluxe edition of his biggest hit, 1985’s No Jacket Required.

If you are familiar with more than one Collins joint, most of them probably came from this record. ‘Sussudio’, ‘One More Night’ and  ‘Take Me Home’ are all present and correct. 

The remastered sound certainly adds an extra sheen to the songs — the horn section on ‘Sussudio ‘(provided by Collins mates in Earth, Wind and Fire) in particular, is rather notable — rising above the rather dated synths and drum beats to add a real energy to what could have been a rather cold, computerised dance number. 

Lesser known songs stick out more — ‘Only You Know and I Know’ might be even better than ‘Sussudio’, with a faster pace and Collins delivering a more fiery performance than usual. However, the album’s chief flaw remains largely unaffected — the omnipresence of synthesised keyboards and drums gets a little wearing about midway through the album, and songs begin to blur together.

If you hate Phil Collins, this is another nail in the coffin. If you’re a fan, there is not much added value here. You get a solid selection of live cuts, but only three demos. With an album like this you would expect a little more in the way of behind-the scenes material (where’s the demo for ‘Sussudio’?). 

The demos are the most interesting aspect of this release. They represent pop at its most embryonic, with basic melody and percussion in place. There is an unintended comic aspect to these tracks -- Collins had clearly not worked out lyrics yet, and so apart from a few choruses, you get to listen to a man sing literal gibberish to fill in the dead space. More early drafts like this, and a few interviews (ala Michael Jackson's re-releases), would have made this edition feel more 'deluxe'.

Overall, it’s a decent package, worth checking out for the remastered sound. No Jacket Required is not as good as Face Value, or fellow Genesis alum Peter Gabriel’s So, but it remains a solid example of mid-eighties pop.


Face Value

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

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BOOTLEG REVIEW: Gameshow (Two Door Cinema Club, 2016)

[This review was originally published in 2016]

Two Door Cinema Club’s third album is a disco-flavoured dish. From the opening track, with its chanting, child-like chorus, and the Nile Rogers-style guitar, the influence is evident,but never overpowering.

The Chic-style guitar continues through ‘Bad Decisions’, a blend of post-grunge anthem and seventies dance track which is hard to resist. The lyrics are more tempered than the up-tempo music, as singer Alex Trimble tries to console himself by going through the advantages of being young and surrounded by all the technological advantages of 2016 — even though he sounds less than convinced by his own argument.

The rest of the album continues this delicate balance between vintage textures and more modern alt-pop foundations.‘Ordinary’ exudes more more of an 80s New Wave flavour, while ‘Fever’ begins with plaintive guitar against a synth backdrop that feels like vintage AOR, before segueing into a more modern electronic ditty.

Other standout tracks include ‘Invincible’ which boasts some fantastic Brian May-style guitar wailing, and ‘Good Morning’, which builds a strong groove on a lyric about a person whose attempts at renewal keep leading him back to the same headspace.

Overall, Gameshow is an immensely entertaining record which pulls off the difficult trick of mixing elements of homage with solid song-craft — unlike some recent albums which attempt to hearken back to past trends, the style here is matched by substance, and musical callbacks augment the songs. This is no hollow tribute exercise, and neither is it an ungodly mess. Definitely worth a look.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

BOOTLEG REVIEW: The Fantastic Films of Ray Harryhausen

[This review was originally published in 2015]

Featuring four of Ray Harryhausen’s best known films, this box set is a solid introduction to his work. 

Boasting a great score by Bernard Herrmann and some striking colour photography, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan Juran, 1958) is a lot of fun. Harryhausen’s work here is the main draw, but there is a lot to recommend here. Usually Harryhausen’s creatures are the most lifelike characters in his films, but 7th Voyage actually boasts some acting to write home about. Lead Kerwin Matthews boasts an old school charisma that works for Sinbad, and is a fine foil to the fantastical creatures he has to overcome. The other cast members are fine, but, as the other films in this set show, the lack of a strong human protagonist detracts from the enjoyment. Onto the real reason we are all here: the monsters.The Cyclops, two-headed Roc and the dancing snake woman are terrific. The dragon which guards the villain’s castle is not as interesting (he’s just chained to a wall), but he does get to briefly throw down with the Cyclops. The stand out set piece is Sinbad’s sword fight with a skeleton — staged in depth, with both combatants moving through the environment with few bad composites, it is the best part of the film. While the special effects are a little crude in comparison with Jason & the Argonauts, the film overall feels a bit more atmospheric and exotic than Jason (especially in the striking location photography). The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is definitely the most underrated film in this collection, and well worth a look.

Jason & the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963) is one of the classics of the Harryhausen canon and it is easily the standout of this set. A follow-up to his first Sinbad adventure, it is basically everything you liked about The 7th Voyage of Sinbad but bigger and better. As the titular lead, Todd Armstrong looks like a Greek statue, but with half the charisma. Of the cast, Nigel Green stands out as Hercules, a man whose great strength is outweighed by his ego. The script is a major help here, with a strong sense of humour offsetting the portentous exposition one usually gets in fantasy films of this kind. The monsters are all terrific, and together are probably the best showreel for Harryhausen’s work. While the fight with the skeletons is rightly celebrated, it is the sequence with the giant statue Talos which is the standout. Particularly noteworthy is the moment when the statue’s head turns to face his foes. The film’s other creatures are not nearly as memorable. The hydra is well-animated, but the showdown with Jason is unimaginative — Armstrong just runs around and swings his sword a bit — and then stabs it in the heart. The finale with multiple skeletons is still jaw-dropping. The only real flaw is that the ending feels like the set-up for a sequel that was never made.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (Gordon Hessler, 1973) is chiefly memorable for a scene-stealing performance from Tom Baker as the villainous Prince Koura (in the role which got him the audition for Doctor Who). Once again, Harryhausen’s creature work is terrific, but the rest of the film lacks a certain energy. It features the Keanu Reeves of 70s genre cinema, John Philip Law, as Sinbad. He’s not terrible, but he’s not as charismatic as Kerwin Matthews from 7th Voyage. The film is not nearly as well directed as the previous two — once again, as with Law’s performance, Gordon Hessler’s work is not bad, but it never rises above the merely workmanlike.

Sinbad & the Eye of the Tiger (1977) is the final title in the Sinbad series, and is a rather sorry end to the series. On the acting front, Patrick Wayne steps into Sinbad’s sandals and makes you wish for the magnetism of John Philip Law. Directed by blacklisted actor Sam Wanamaker, this movie is the very definition of diminishing returns. As usual, Harryhausen’s work is the main attraction, but it is hard to maintain interest when everything else is so dull.

The special features, including interviews with Harryhausen and documentaries detailing there production of his most famous films (including his work outside of this box set), make up for the mixed quality of the films.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

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Thursday, 19 March 2020

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Black Moon Rising (Harley Cokeliss, 1986)

Professional thief Quint (Tommy Lee Jones) is hired by the government to steal files from a corrupt corporation. When he is tracked down post-robbery, Quint is forced to hide the tape in the only place he can find - the boot of a super car, the 'Black Moon'.

When the car is itself stolen, Quint finds himself drawn in the crosshairs of a powerful crime syndicate. He tracks the car to the syndicate's HQ, a hi-tech skyscraper with near-impregnable security.

Quint will need all his skills to break into the building and get the car out before he runs out of time.

Based on a script originated by John Carpenter (the credits list two other scribes), Black Moon Rising is a high-concept action film that might be more well-known than I give it credit for.

The chief reason for watching this movie is Tommy Lee Jones. Prior to his breakout role in The Fugitive, Jones was a respected character actor who occasionally starred in genre fare. An interesting bit of trivia is that Tommy Lee Jones also starred in the Carpenter-based thriller Eyes of Laura Mars.

From the opening scene, in which he coolly talks a would-be robber at a gas station, Jones owns every scene he is in as the veteran thief. While he cracks wise and has a cat-like facility for getting out of trouble, Jones brings a grizzled pathos to Quint that gives the character a sense of weight and weakness.

Apparently John Carpenter wrote Black Moon Rising around the same time as Escape from New York, and the two films share some DNA. They are both centred around anti-heroes who are enlisted by government forces to do their dirty work. Watching this movie, it is a real shame that Jones and Carpenter never worked together - as Quint, he fits as one of Carpenter's no-nonsense professionals.

And while the movie does not look like a Carpenter movie, the story-telling does feel rather reminiscent of his early work. We start with a short scroll of electronic text - a communique between unseen members of the Justice Department - that lays out the basic set-up.

Carpenter's stories are pretty good at establishing character through action, and Quint's introduction, talking down a nervy gunman while buying a cup of coffee, is a little gem. In under a minute we know everything we need to about Quint - he has already scoped out the location's security, he knows the police's response time, and he is perceptive enough to recognise that the gunman is green and probably recognises something of himself int he young man's predicament ("I'm just trying to help you, son").

While the concept of the scene feels Carpenter, it also fits Jones to a T. He is the smartest person in the room, he is funny without being sarcastic and he shows just a beat of gravitas as the button to the scene.

While the Carpenter connection is the main selling point for genre fans, Jones makes the viewing experience worthwhile. Sure, the script feels very Carpenter but the movie lacks his visual touch or sense of atmosphere. With Jones in the lead, the movie gains a bit of spice.

His portrayal of Quint feels more multifaceted than the character on the page - all the history we need in that hawk-like face, the cackling laugh, and his long stare. Quint feels like a man who has been through a lot, and his sense of humour acts as both a coping mechanism and a weapon to keep his opponents off-balance.

The rest of the cast - including Linda Hamilton and Robert Vaughn - are good, but they do not get a lot to do. Hamilton plays a car thief under the thumb of Vaughn's creepily possessive gang boss, who becomes Jones' love interest. While all the characters have interesting wrinkles (Hamilton is a former runaway), none of them really pop like the supporting casts of Assault on Precinct 13 or Escape from New York.

While the conceit of getting a car out of a skyscraper is interesting, the script piles on a bunch of contrivances to get us to that premise. The final heist is also a bit too easy - sequences which could be extended for tension (Quint's vertiginous crossing between two skyscrapers.
Watching the climax might give some viewers a sense of deja vu. I have a sneaking suspicion James Wan is a fan of this movie, because the ending to this movie feels VERY similar to a certain set piece from Furious 7, even down to some of the shots and edit choices.

Overall, Black Moon Rising is a decent B-movie anchored by a terrific lead performance. The Carpenter connection makes it interesting, but as a movie in its own right, it is just fine.


Eyes of Laura Mars

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Saturday, 14 March 2020

IN THEATRES: Colo(u)r out of Space

A family living in the middle of the woods find the r lives turned upside down after an asteroid lands in their front yard. While this event is destabilising enough, events take a turn for the worse...

HP Lovecraft. Nicholas Cage. Richard Stanley.

Add all those names up = colour me intrigued.

I will admit that I never really got in to Lovecraft. His influence has permeated popular culture so I know the familiar things every other nerd does (here's looking at you Water!). I think the only story of his I finished was The Dunwich Horror. I bought At the Mountains of Madness but did not get far.

Watching this movie so soon after Village of the Damned, I was stuck by how this movie accomplishes so much more as a horror thriller and as an interpretation of its literary source's sense of tone. This movie feels unsafe - we watch a family break down, and this is played out in unflinching detail.

This is taking place in a couple of ways, some in terms of performance/character choices, some stylistic and some in terms of imagery/taboo-breaking. The breakdown of social order, the breakdown of the body, the breakdown of the rules of the world (space, time, technology).

The most terrifying aspect of Lovecraft to me is that the human characters are often incidental to the action - they are witnesses, bystanders and collateral damage to forces whose appearance and motive are beyond our comprehension. This movie’s audio-visual approach is all about this, especially in terms of extending the characters' confusion to the viewer.

One element in this is Nic Cage’s performance - oscillating rapidly between performative gestures and understated family man, it is difficult to tell whether he is acting out growing panic, or he is being overtaken by the effects of the 'color'.

The filmmakers do a great job of racking up the tension - gradually adding layers of sound design, off-kilter lighting, and increasingly fast editing until the diegesis we have been used to has been completely transformed. In light of COD-19, I am not sure if I will be able to go to a theatre for a while, but I am so glad I watched this in a theatre. This is a fully audio-visual experience - every element is designed to disorient and disturb you. 

Speaking of disturbing, the body horror imagery is well-done. Even though I think its thunder has been stolen by John Carpenter’s The Thing and Brian Yuzna’s Society it still works because the filmmakers do not just understand Lovecraft approach to horror, but because they understand that it is scarier if the viewer is not able to grasp exactly what they are seeing. We see flashes of explicit and abject horrors, but it is largely kept in shadow or offscreen, augmented by sound design. It is deliberately disconcerting, which makes the flashes of horror all the more effective.

I do not want to go into more detail. Once this movie is available to stream, turn the lights off, close the blinds and throw your phone down a well: Color out of Space is a legitimately terrific horror movie.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

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IN THEATRES: Bloodshot

After soldier Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) and his wife are killed by his enemies, Garrison's body has been given to the corporation RTS which has developed a new technology that brings him back to life.

When his memory returns, Garrison escapes to seek vengeance on the man who killed his wife. Little does he know that his entire motivation has been engineered by RTS to silence anyone who knows what they are really up to.

Will Garrison find out what is going on?

I have really come around on Vin Diesel. And it is all thanks to the Rock and Jason Statham. Hobbs & Shaw was such a long, lifeless self-satisfied PoS that I really came around on old Dom. Throw out the knowing self-parody - give me earnest machisimo.

Griffin Newman on the High & Mighty podcast hit it on the head - he said the key to Vin is how aggressively, unabashedly, EMBARRASSINGLY earnest he is onscreen.

With Fast 9 pushed to next year, it will have to wait to see if the Fast crew can survive sans Rock. Even if Han was not back, I have hunch it would still be better than F&F Present H&F.

In the meantime, Diesel has a new solo vehicle out now, one where he is the star and minus an familial ensemble.

I have never read the comic book on which this picture is based. I did not even know it existed before it was announced, and I did not care until I caught the trailer in front of some other movie. It looked silly, cartoonish and absolutely juiced with that patent Diesel gravitas.

But what about the movie?

The first thought I had about the movie was how it tied into this chapter of Diesel career. Whereas Diesel career pre-2009 was pretty eclectic, but after a series of bombs and his return to the Fast and Furious, Diesel has become far more conservative - he has largely avoided star vehicles and has begun a process of converting his other franchise properties into vague approximations of the F&F 'family' dynamic.

Aside from The Last Witch Hunter, Diesel’s most popular releases have been ensemble pictures. Xxx 3 converted the concept from one daredevil-turned secret agent to a team, and Riddick positioned the title character as one of an ensemble of badasses (we shall put aside Guardians of the Galaxy since Diesel does not creatively oversee that property, but even there he is a member of a family unit).

It could be the case that Diesel has recognised that his most popular films - Fast and FuriousPitch Black and Guardians of the Galaxy - are ensemble-based, and he pops harder when juxtaposed with other characters. 

Whatever the reasons, Bloodshot fits comfortably as the latest chapter in Diesel’s thematic franchise of family-centric action pictures. 

While the movie is based around Garrison, the movie is ultimately about a group of outsiders coming together to help Garrison escape. Whereas the villain uses his technology to keep people as indentured slaves, Garrison is able to inspire a mini-revolt and the film ends with Garrison and the survivors forming a unit and riding off into the sunset in a literal camper van. It cannot get more 'family' than that.

This star stuff aside, the best part of the movie is Diesel. He has a feel for melodrama and with a character like Garrison, he is home free. I am not even saying that he is hammy - he plays the stakes of the initial set-up, and then when he learns that he has been manipulated, he plays that sense of betrayal well.

There is a short scene where Diesel meets his wife, the person he has believed dead for so long, and he really sells the sense of confusion and pain that the character is feeling. He has gone from the tragedy of believing his wife was dead, to learning that she has had an entire life that he has missed - he cannot even remember that they broke up. 

And now to the rest of the movie.

In terms of direction Bloodshot is a mess. The editing is chaotic; shot compositions are noticeably poor (there are multiple shots where characters are crammed into the corner of the frame or characters’ heads are awkwardly scraping the top of the frame); basic geography and basic story-building within scenes are frustrated by shots and editing that does not build in the way that the script intends.

The most interesting set-piece is Diesel’s assault on a target in a tunnel. Lit only by red flares, with flour covering everything like snow, it is a fun environment that looks like garbage because the shot choices and editing totally short-change it. It does not say much when the movie trailer showcases this sequence better than the movie.

As far as the other cast go, they are mostly fine - it is just a bummer that the script gives them nothing to work with. Eiza Gonzalez is fine as the one member of RTS who comes around to Garrison's side - one thing I really liked was that the movie does not pitch their relationship toward romance. Their dynamic is closer to combat buddies. 

One surprising miss is Lamorne Morris, as the tech guy who helps Garrison. Morris has been great in other things, but here he is saddled to a stock character and a couple of character choices which feel wedged in. While the movie could use some levity, the character feels inappropriately comedic in a way that does not really fit with the tenor of the scenes he is in.

While the story has promise, Bloodshot is a frustratingly sloppy movie that is purely of interest as a piece of the Diesel filmography. I have totally come around on Diesel, and I look forward to whatever he does next, but that does not take away from the sad fact that Bloodshot is not good.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond, The James Bond Cocktail Hour

You can subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.