Tuesday, 14 January 2020

OLD REVIEW: Starboy (The Weeknd, 2016)

[A version of this review was published in 2017]

Following the pop success of his sophomore LP Beauty Behind The Madness, The Weeknd heads deeper into his musical inspirations to come up with an album that blends his thematic progressions with the sounds of eighties synth-pop.

Compared with his previous work, Starboy is more of a refinement of The Weeknd’s aesthetic than a progression. It’s like being stuck in the head of a party animal after a bad night — albeit if his inner monologue was in the form of song. Guest stars include Daft Punk, Lana Del Rey, Kendrick Lamar and Future.

‘Party Monster’ is a plaintive cry, this time from a lothario who loses himself in meaningless one night stands while pining for the attentions of his lost love. ‘False Alarm’ signals a turn into more ominous territory with a heavier focus on EDM-like beats and processed vocals. It ends with a wordless female vocal that segues into ‘Reminder’, in which our hero tries to remind his love that he has always been honest about what kind of man he is (i.e. one who drinks and sleeps around).‘Rockin’’ is more of an up-tempo dance number about the price of fame and relationships.

Around this point, individual songs start to blur into each other. If there is a flaw, it is a sady common one. The fact is, Starboy is about eight tracks too long, and the recurring themes of rejection and self-loathing start to feel repetitive.

The second half of the album picks up considerably. Songs like ’Secrets’, ‘Love to Lay’, ‘A Lonely Night’ and ‘Nothing Without You’ counter the dour, repetitive subject matter with stronger melodies and dance beats. The vague disjunction between the production and theme adds a certain ironic bite, while also softening the darkness of the lyrics.

Built on a snippet of Tears For Fears' 'Pale Shelter', 'Secrets' ended up being my favorite track from the album. For me, it best epitomized The Weeknd's ability to blend the melancholic with the ecstatic is at its best here (the music video is pretty good as well).

’Love to Lay’ and ‘A Lonely Night’ are built on similar lines but push the bass to the fore (the latter even includes an EDM break during the bridge). The lyrical themes remain the same: He’s a bad boy; she’s a bad girl, yadayada.

There are plenty of good songs, but such a long track list demands a level of ambition and eclecticism that is somewhat lacking. If you are a fan, you will be satisfied, but casual listeners are probably better cheery-picking songs on Spotify.

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.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

OLD REVIEW: Anything But Words (Banks & Steelz, 2016)

[originally released in 2017]

In a year filled wiht great albums, Anything But Words is one of 2016’s real surprises. On the surface, the debut of super-duo RZA and Paul Banks sounds like a gimmick. An unlikely collaboration with one of rap’s greats and uh, the lead singer from Interpol, Banks & Steelz goes against the wisdom that musicians from different musical genres can’t mix.

Right from the start, Anything But Words dispels any fears of a mismatch. ‘Giant’ speeds along on roving guitar as RZA speed-shouts verses like he’s plugged into a city grid. The fact that it manages to avoid sounding like nu-metal or a novelty single is a testament to just how well their dynamic works.

Their success is even more evident on tracks which should favour one of the collaborators over the other. Listening to the synth pop of ‘Ana Electronica’ or the post-punk rock of ‘Speedway Sonora’, the interplay between RZA’s raps and Banks’ baritone is so deft that it never jars. They feel like they have been at it for years.

Even the guest stars don’t feel like intruders. Kool Keith appears on ‘Sword in the Stone’ (featuring some welcome touches of fuzzy guitar and electronic piano), while Florence Welch plays RZA’s love interest on ‘Wild Season’, Method Man and Master Killa on ‘Point Of View’, and Ghostface Killah on ‘Love and War’.

The film is filled with surprises. ‘Conceal’ is a slow, prowling groove that exists on the border between nu wave and a seventies slow jam, while ‘Can't Hardly Feel’ and ‘One By One’ highlight the diverse origins of trip hop, mixing Banks’ drone-like chorus with RZA’s verses in a way that recalls hip hop and electronica.

A winning combination which never comes across as a gimmick, Banks & Steelz are one supergroup that is worth paying attention. If you missed Anything But Words the first time, it is worth checking out.

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.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

OLD REVIEW: The Electric Lady (Janelle Monae, 2013)

[originally published in 2017]

With Janelle Monae gaining attention following their prominent role in Oscar favourite Hidden Figures, it is worth taking a look back at the work that brought them to prominence.

A Monae album is akin to a Russian doll — a variety of pop surfaces covering a nugget of something more profound. Their music is a unique blend of RnB, soul, dance, jazz and basically any other genre you can think of. This blend of influences serves as the vehicle for Monae’s fascination with science fiction, which itself is a conduit for exploring themes of gender, race and sexuality.

Monae’s music is based around telling the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android on the run for falling in love with a human. A metaphor for the ‘other’, Monae’s focus on androids acts as a stand-in for societal others — racial, sexual, class etc.

The Electric Lady is Monae's third album, following the 2003’s self produced effort The Audition, and the fourth and fifth parts in their Metropolis concept project (if anyone is interested in catching up on the previous chapters, check out their EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (2007) and 2010 album The ArchAndroid).

If that sounds like a lot to swallow, don’t worry. The great thing about Monae is that the music is extremely enjoyable. It’s like getting the key to the ear candy store. You might end up with cavities and a headache, but you’ll have a great time.

Opening with  an overture that sounds like a cross between the theme between a spaghetti western and John Barry’s score to the sci fi flop The Black Hole (1979), The Electric Lady launches into ‘Givin Em What They Love’, a sweet groove featuring Monae’s idol Prince on vocals. Lifted by some some sanctified organ and a scintillating guitar solo from the Purple One, it sets the stage for the album perfectly.

Even better is ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ a terrific anthem Monae shares with Erykah Badu. Highly danceable and oddly poignant in light of recent events, it is an ode to black femininity and sexual positivism. ‘Primetime’ is a duet with Miguel and plenty of plaintive guitar. ‘We Were Rock & Roll’ is psychedelic soul, complete with added sanctified call and response choruses. ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ is a duwop song by way of armageddon. ‘Look Into My Eyes’ is an old school torch song — and by old school, I mean it sounds like something you would hear Julie London or Sarah Vaughn toss off in 1961.

Signalled by another overture, the second half of the album continues Monae’s musical magpie adventures. ’It’s Code’ is a slow jam from the Seventies, with smooth production and light synth touches which recall Leon Ware’s productions for Marvin Gaye’s I Want You and his own Musical Massage. Monae’s stay in Seventies textures continues with the funky ‘Ghetto Woman’, which reaffirms the empowering mantra of ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ 

The album does run out of steam a wee bit towards the end, aside from ‘Dorothy Dandridge’s Eyes’, another Ware-style slow jam (with a cameo from Esperanza Spalding) and an inspired use of shredding guitar on the fade-out.

Overall,  The Electric Lady is a fantastic album and a great entry point for anyone looking to getting into Janelle Monae’s music. Hopefully Monae's success with Hidden Figures does not delay their next musical adventures. 

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.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

IN THEATRES: The Gentlemen

Drug lord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is keen to retire and sell off his empire. As word spreads of his decision, various forces arise to claim as much of it as they can, including an upcoming gangster (Henry Golding) and an unscrupulous journalist (Hugh Grant).

As the bodies pile up and unseen enemies attack his infrastructure, Mickey and his right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) scramble to figure out what's going on.

After a decade of big-budget Hollywood efforts (including the Sherlock Holmes films and, uh, King Arthur - Legend of the Sword), Guy Ritchie returns to the world of the British criminal underworld of his debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (as well as Snatch and RocknRolla).

Weirdly, the film this most reminded me of was Jon Favreau's Chef, in that it represents the filmmaker returning to a smaller but familiar template to regain his mojo - with McConaughey's character as an avatar for the veteran filmmaker trying to maintain his business in a rapidly changing world (while trying to deal with American interests who attempt to betray him).

Now I have not seen any of the above films, so I cannot judge how far this movie diverges from or emulates his previous work.

As a film in its own right, The Gentlemen has an interesting conceit - the story is told as a series of flashbacks as a muckraking tabloid journalist (Hugh Grant) tries to blackmail a gangster (Charlie Hunnam) by revealing what he knows of his dealings with his boss (McConaughey).

Throughout the movie, something about it rubbed me the wrong way.

The focus of the film is on middle-aged gangsters, and the younger characters are presented as either villains or victims. There is a sense of helplessness to these characters that can only be resolved by our heroes' maintaining control.

While conflict between generations can make for interesting cinema, The Gentlemen is only interested in using that conflict to preserve the status quo. There is a subtext of generational rage and racism running through the movie that made the whole experience somewhat unpleasant.
The film is concerned with themes of ageing and the changing face of London. While the film has a diverse cast, the story is filled with caricatures who are all presented as various kinds of antagonists or obstacles for Mickey and Raymond.
This is most obvious in the character of Dry Eye (Henry Golding), one of the film's antagonists. He is presented as the most despicable character in the film, a psychopath with no respect for the rules the other characters live by. While it is interesting to see Golding take on a different role from the somewhat milquetoast characters he has played recently, the character of Dry Eye feels like check list for the worst bad guy cliches. His final act feels like the worst kind of lazy misogynistic writing, and when combined with the film's presentation of POC, it evokes Birth of a Nation.

There is also a clear disdain for anyone who is not white, male and well-off - our heroes run into gangs of hooligans on drugs, Youtube-obsessed rappers-boxers. The ultimate antagonist behind the scheme taps into such an old stereotype I was shocked that it made it to screen.

What is worse is that Ritchie plays the whole thing for laughs, but there is no satire here - the punchline is that all of these people fulfilled their stereotypes.

It is a bummer because in the middle of all this, Hugh Grant is really good as a seedy tabloid journalist (which feels like an in-joke on his relationship with British tabloids).
Other than that, The Gentlemen just feels angry and tired.

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.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

The Intruder (Deon Taylor, 2019)

Young couple Scott (Michael Ealy) and Annie (Meagan Good) are looking for their dream home to raise a family. When they find a beautiful property for a steal, they think their dream is realised.

What they do not count on is former owner Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid), who is determined to keep the property exactly as it was, at all costs...

Like 6 Underground, The Intruder is a throwback - in its case, the thrillers of the 80s and 90s. Movies like Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Unlawful Entry, in which a young couple find their lives turned upside down by an antagonist who invades their home (literally and metaphorically).

The biggest surprise of this movie is that it was a theatrical release in the US. These kinds of movies used to be big business, but the genre has largely gone the way of courtroom thrillers and gone to the small screen (the prime example is Netflix's You).

The Intruder comes from the pen of David Loughery, who previously wrote Lakeview Terrace and Obsessed, the film which inaugurated Screen Gem's line of thrillers aimed at black audiences. Where Obsessed was based around a murderous temp, The Perfect Guy featured a murderous boyfriend and When The Bough Breaks (my personal favorite) debuted the archetype of the killer surrogate*, The Intruder is a former home owner who is a little overprotective of his former home.

Of all of these films, The Intruder actually feels like something original. Sure, the bones are familiar, and the movie makes little sense, but there is something about this movie that made it more... unsettling.

While the film is PG13, there is a simmering nastiness to the film that feels far more visceral than the soft-pedaled scares of its predecessors - and a major reason for this is Dennis Quaid's performance as Charlie.
Often compared to Kevin Costner, Quaid has always been more willing to pick roles that play against his good looks. In The Intruder, there is a whiff of permanent agitation to Quiad's performance that energizes the movie.

While the filmmakers largely keep the viewer aligned with protagonists, there are moments peppered throughout the where the focus shifts to Charlie's POV: during a sequence when Charlie visits the house after the new owners have moved in, diegetic sound dies away and is replaced by an increasing whine as he sees what has happened to 'his' living room.

This shift in perspective is only employed in a few moments the movie - the only other major beat I noticed was a violent fantasy Charlie has involving Scott and Annie's friends. I liked these moments - they come out of nowhere, and the filmmakers do not return to them - I took it as a sign that they recognized that audiences can put together that the bad guy is the bad guy, and we can put together what he is thinking.

This brief detour inside Charlie's noggin does allow the filmmakers to hint at other ideas which are not necessary to see onscreen, such as his growing obsession with Annie. From the first scene, it is obvious that Charlie sees her love of the property - and her affinity for country life - as qualities he desires, and it is clearly her that he is transferring the property to, rather than the couple.
Charlie sees Annie as an addition to his home, and as the film progresses, Charlie's plotting is based around not only reclaiming his home, but destroying his rival Scott.

My big complaint with The Intruder is that it blows a potential source of tension as a final (and obvious) twist: at the climax it turns out that Charlie has a hidden room inside the house where he has been living ala Bad Ronald and whoever Gary Busey played in Hider in the House.

It is not as shocking as the film makes it out to be, and underlies the film's inability to lean into to the tension of losing control over your home. I have a feeling the movie could have had more suspense if the film revealed this early on (it might have also saved us from a couple of hack jump scares).

The one time in the movie where it felt like I really get a sense of our heroes' vulnerability is the one sequence where I appreciated the PG13 rating: While she is home alone, Annie has a shower - unaware that Charlie is outside in the hall. The camera stays on Quaid's face as he watches her. His face tenses and he removes his shirt. He is prevented from further action when he hears Scott's car outside. Even though nothing happens, the implications are disturbing, and solidifies just how much (potential) power Charlie has over the protagonists.

Aside from Quaid, the acting is pretty good. Ealy and Good are solid as the leads, and helped get over some of the script's contrivances, especially Annie's belief that Charlie is completely innocent. Good plays Annie as a bit of a pollyanna, which made it more credible.

In this respect, I would credit the script for adding a wrinkle of un-trustworthiness to Scott (his predilection to flirt with women) that makes Annie's willingness to accept Charlie's odd visits more believable. I wish the movie had focused more on this potential fissure, but as is it works to destabilize our heroes' equilibrium.

While the film does define the conflict between Scott and Charlie's different brands of masculinity - white-collar anti-gun hero and the macho gun lover - the subject of race is never overtly raised.

However, it feels more present than previous Screen Gems thrillers - there is something intentional about having the villain be an old white man trying to hold onto his property while falsifying his personal history and covering up his own inadequacies with deceit and violence. It does not feel subtle - Charlie even has a red baseball cap - but for a movie that wants to be a crowd-pleasing thriller, it is low-key enough that it could be overlooked.

The Intruder is not an underrated masterpiece. There are a couple of easy jump scares, and as already highlighted, the film's approach to suspense is too inconsistent for it to really sustain tension. However, Quaid's performance gives the movie a lot of juice, and the final action sequence - complete with a falling chandelier - is ridiculous but fun, with a surprisingly brutal button as the ending.

While it may not beat Obsessed's final brawl, and it is not as OTT as When The Bough Breaks, The Intruder is the closest this 'franchise' has gotten to the 90s thrillers these films are indebted to. 

*I think?

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.

Monday, 6 January 2020

6 Underground (Michael Bay, 2019)

In an attempt to right the world's wrongs, a mysterious billionaire gathers a team of specialists to take down the threats no government will touch. Having faked their deaths, and boosted by their leader's financial resources, this oddball team turn their sights on a despotic dictator responsible for war crimes against his own people.

After a decade of Transformers, Michael Bay has returned to R-rated mayhem.

In many respects it feels like classic Bay: arbitrary angle and camera moves, rapid editing, magic hour, bizarre lashings of comedy, general tonal incoherence and a complete disdain for human characters.

Despite the presence of Reynolds and his writing collaborators Paul Wenick and Rhett Reese (ZombielandDeadpool), there is little to differentiate this movie from Bay's previous work. I am not a fan of Bay, but there was something weirdly reassuring while watching this film.

Amid the shapeless dross of most Netflix product, 6 Underground looks and feels big - Bay's aesthetic has its critics, but with how flat and uninteresting most Netflix releases are, there is something pleasing about his overheated nonsense.

That being said, the film is far less nuanced when it comes to other aspects of its story and characters.

The plot is based around our hero - a billionaire tech bro - discovering his humanity after watching thousands of people lose theirs in a chemical attack orchestrated by a brutal central Asian dictator. After faking his death, he assembles a team of experts in various eclectic fields and turns them into a private version of the Dirty Dozen.

The parallels to Assad are as subtle as a bus to the face, and while the movie does reference how major powers play a part in installing these regimes, the answer the movie has to have our heroes' mission be focused on toppling the tyrant and replacing him with his benevolent brother.

While the premise is interesting, 6 Underground is best viewed as a collection of set pieces. The characters get some business to do - there is a romantic subplot between a former cartel gun man and an ex-CIA agent that takes up most of the non-action moments - but this is not a movie that delves too deeply into making its core group make sense.

The film is more interested in the idea of a group of outsiders finding family together than making that a major element of the text. Outside of Reynolds' One, we never really get a sense of what motivates our heroes.

And One's backstory does not make him that endearing - he just comes off as a bit of a prick. While his motive is understandable, there is something odious about a rich white guy learning empathy from watching the genocide of thousands of poor brown people.

It might be the affect of the filmmaking, but outside of the gassing sequence, the film never feels that concerned with humanising the people of the country - other than the Tyrant's brother, the group have no ties to the country. While it is arguable wether it is necessary to get too into the sociopolitical context of an imaginary country, it is hard to see what the group is fighting for. They do not even have allies among the locals.

While Bay's return to full-throttle action will be welcomed, at a certain point I began to think about how expensive this movie was, and the number of other filmmakers with similar pedigrees who could have used some of Netflix's largesse. 

If you are onboard for Bay, 6 Underground is worth a look. Otherwise, the John Wick movies are readily available.

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.

Sunday, 29 December 2019


You know what this is.

I watched it last night. It has been two days and I am still trying to reconcile what I just watched.

I have not had an experience like this movie since I ran out halfway through Martyrs. I was laughing, I was crying, I was screaming for it to end.

But I could not look away.

The movie starts and already feels like an assault. A car stops in an alley, a massive human figure drops a bag among the garbage and drives away.

A group of cat-people cluster around the bag and tear it open to reveal Victoria (newcomer Francseca Hayward), a naive young cat who becomes our guide into the world of cats.

We are immediately launched into a song as multiple cats start singing about being 'Jellicle cats'. Before we even have a sense of the location OR the characters we are meeting, the camera starts swirling around and the editing goes into overdrive - but rather than capturing the energy of the song, it only disorients who is who and where everyone is in relation to each other.

It is a lot to take in, and it establishes the basic sensation of watching Cats.

Through out the movie, I was enraged and impressed by the film's unwillingness to give non-fans a break. And there is almost no downtime. We go from song to song to dance number to song with no let up.

There are a few beats of spoken dialogue, but there are no downbeats, and no silence. This is wall-to-wall sound and motion for 110 minutes.

The transition between these moments are so arbitrary - at no point did I feel settled. Often there are no signs ahead of time that a new song is about to happen.

Sometimes a song about a particular character will start and since half the words are made-up nonsense it is hard to tell if they are talking about a cat or a concept. And then said character will appear, and I have a new uncanny face to haunt my brain box.

Speaking of which...

The stories of the unfinished effects have already added to the tale (har har har) of this movie - I am pretty sure I saw the un-corrected version (one of the cats seemed to be wearing sneakers in the first alley scene).

The effects are all over the place - sometimes characters' faces seemed to float free of their heads; background characters are either poorly rendered or out-of-focus.

Bad effects are one thing but when they are used to pull off some of the ideas in this movie, it tips over into genuinely unnerving.

Yes, the cats are people. But the mice are also people (with CGI faces of children, as if it was not disturbing enough).

AND there is an army of dancing cockroaches who are also anthropomorphised - we get to watch the cat people eat them.

There is even a scene where a dog shows up, but sadly it is kept offscreen.

Onto the sex!

I heard from people online that the movie was 'horny' but it is merely one component of all the surreal sh*t going on in this movie.

There is something so off-putting about these half-digital characters, and then combined with the environments, and the way that Hooper shoots them, that constantly throws off your attention. There a few moments where the characters do not seem to be interacting with the settings they are in - they either float above the floor or stand in front of backdrops that lack depth (the person I went with muttered that it looked like a Tim and Eric skit).

One of the key weaknesses of the film is that there is a severe lack of unity between the camera work and the edit. All film is based on a unity of affect - how a shot is composed is just as important as how these shots are juxtaposed with each other.

With Cats, I often found it had to tell where people were in relation to each other, or who they were looking at. There are a couple of set pieces where characters are singing toward a point out of frame but the frame is so tight I have no idea where they are, and the shots go on so long I felt boxed in.

I felt like I was trapped in a box watching this movie - which is bizarre because there is quite a lot of choreography and movement. But the pacing is all wrong, and the editing of every scene drags every moment past the point of tedium.

Every element of this movie is designed - however inadvertently - to keep you on edge. It is an achievement.

I found myself concentrating so hard to understand what was going, how it was conceived, and why it was conceived in the way it was.

Who is this movie for? What is it about? Who is the main character? Why is Judi Dench breaking the fourth wall?

After it was over, I felt like I had been through some kind of ordeal. My head was sore, I wanted to throw up and I could not stop giggling. The reason it took this long to put out this review is because I was still trying to get over the hangover of it.

But now that the movie is out of my system, I find myself unwilling to condemn it.

This movie is a unique beast. You get big bad movies all the time, but most bad movies do not stick with you. And most of them feel like bad copies of other movies.

Cats is not an ordinary bad movie.

It has a singular vision, and every choice it makes is designed to nudge the viewer closer to the edge. But it is committed.

And while the acting is al over the map, every performance is 110% earnest. They are invested to the most embarrassing and sugary degree.

This movie made me physically ill - my head felt like it was being squeezed; I was giggling uncontrollably and crying out of one eye.

There is something glorious about the fact that this movie, backed by a major studio, with this crew and cast, managed to make it through the system without being noted either to death or to blandness. Because this movie could have been excruciatingly boring.

But it is so singular and focused on whatever the hell it thinks it is that it ends up being that rarest of beasts - a legitimately great terrible big movie.

This thing is going to be immortal. There will be cult screenings of this for years to come, with in-jokes and audience rituals that people will know and parody.

For while the filmmakers may have not had an idea of what the audience was for this movie, there is one. And they will give this movie legs long after Universal has pulled the plug on its theatrical run.

More personally, those freaky human faces on cat bodies are chiseled into my retinas till the end of time.

Ignore its title and subject - this movie is a unicorn in a forest of corporatised banality.