Sunday, 30 October 2016

CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

My local rep house had a screening of the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur horror classic Cat People. I've never seen it, so I went along.

This movie is very well known, so I'll keep the plot synopsis short: An all-American guy Oliver (Kent Smith) meets a repressed European woman, Irena (Simone Simon) at the zoo. About 5 minutes later they fall in love. And 5 minutes after that they get married. The young woman refuses to sleep with or even kiss her husband, for fear that she will turn into a panther and kill him. Hubby gets frustrated and seeks help from his female friend Alice (Jane Randolph) who is in love with him. Then shit goes bad.

This is a low budget movie with a 72 minute running time, so I'll try to cut it some slack. The acting is pretty bad -- ranging from comatose (lead Kent Smith is about as appealing as a tree stump) to solid (Jane Randolph is the best thing in the movie).

Putting all that aside, this movie's reputation is based on its two main set pieces -- Irena tailing Alice through Central Park, and the pool sequence, in which Alice is trapped by an unseen feline who stalks around the pool.

These scenes are terrific, and remain as terrifying today as they did over 70 years ago. Relying almost entirely on lighting and sound design, Tourneur makes Irena's supernatural alter ego feel like a genuine threat without ever resorting to the crude creature effects which mar his otherwise excellent Night/Curse of the Demon (1957).

They save the rest of the movie, which, despite its short running time, drags in places. The rapid blast through the plot also means the emotional beats don't have a chance to land. And while the set pieces are great, the ending is strangely underwhelming -- it may have something to do with the fact that these latter scenes feature a real panther, and lack Tourneur's usual subtlety.

 I didn't like it as much as Night of the Demon, but flaws aside, Cat People is definitely worth a look. Make sure you see it on the biggest screen you can with a great sound system.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back review

I really liked the first Jack Reacher movie. I have never read the books, but I enjoyed that movie. There were flaws, but overall it felt like a fun throwback to the hard-bitten action flicks of the seventies, with a strong vein of humour, some fun action and a terrifically terse performance from Tom Cruise to recommend it.

When I heard there was going to be a sequel, I was pretty keen.

The plot is pretty straightforward: Jack Reacher (Cruise) gets dragged into action when his successor (Colbie Smulders) at his old unit is arrested for espionage and he in turn is accused of murder.

After breaking her out of jail, Reacher has to go on the run to clear her name AND rescue the girl who MIGHT be his daughter before the bad guys kill them.

Boy, this movie is a letdown. Chris McQuarrie, whose duties on Mission: Impossible prevented him from coming back, is sorely missed. He has a handle on pared down, hardboiled thrillers and this movie proves how hard it is to achieve.

Ed Zwick is not known for his genre fare. He's made his bones on movies that trade in genre tropes but stretch for greater dramatic weight. For a good example, check out Glory, for a bad example, pretty much everything else he's ever done.

To boil it down, Zwick is a little too high-bar for this kind of material, and his lack of investment is evident onscreen. The plot never really comes into focus, the villains are extremely mediocre, and Cruise's Reacher, once so taciturn and uncompromising, comes off as a bit of an oaf here.

Cruise still knows what he's doing -- he flings out what few one liners he has with precision, and is still believable in the action sequences -- but the movie around him is flabby and confused.

Here Zwick fails him, with confusing editing and hand held camera work that turns most of Reacher's brawls into chaotic melanges of fists and faces. The one set piece that works, and feels the most like the original film, is the one where Zwick plonks the camera down and lets Cruise do his thing -- swaggering through a crowded airplane to surreptitiously dispatch of two thugs.

Colbie Smulders is fine as Cruise's partner Turner, but her character always feels one script draft away from being really memorable. She's not a damsel in distress (we'll get to that one soon), and she has agency, but there's something iffy about her backstory and motivations that make it hard to really invest in her story.

As Reacher's potential offspring, Danika Yarosh is fine but forgettable. Not her fault but that whole subplot rings hollow -- we've only known Reacher for one movie and suddenly we expected to be emotionally invested. Reacher's a cypher and there just isn't enough characterisation there to make that storyline interesting. If this was Cruise's fourth or fifth movie as Reacher, then this bit of backstory might have made for a good movie, but here it feels wedged in and unnecessary. The character just ends up being a hostage for the third act, and you can see it coming a mile away. If the movie had just been about Reacher and Turner, maybe the movie would work better.

The villains and their plan are the real problem. Robert Knepper and Patrick Heusinger are pretty weak sauce and colourless. Heusinger at least gets to play a character who is more physically capable than Reacher -- that adds a certain tension to their scraps, but other than that, neither is all that interesting. Knapper is barely onscreen, and his weaselly industrialist is never that imposing or threatening. The movie needed more of a threat and a sense of stakes -- there's a lack of tension that just bogs the movie down in between the set pieces, and as already outlined, those are not staged to a standard that would make up for the deficiencies of the plot. 

Overall, while not terrible, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a pretty underwhelming follow-up to a decent thriller. If there is another instalment, hopefully Cruise finds the right creative team (ala his other franchise gig) to get this series back on track. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Bond 25 speculation: If Daniel Craig returns

There's been more speculation about Bond 25 recently, so I put together some thoughts on what I'd like to see in it.

If Daniel Craig came back, my hope would be that the producers would do what they did in For Your Eyes Only and scale things down and work on making the story work.

What I'd like to see:

a) a simple story. Casino Royale boils down to a card game -- if Bond wins, the world is spared a lot of bad stuff; if he loses/dies, bad things will happen.

Most Bond movies, especially since the Seventies, seem to be ashamed to keep their stories simple. They feel the need to throw in extra twists and villains. Forget that -- just keep it straightforward.

b) by keeping the plot straightforward, it allows breathing space for other things -- like characters. And the most primary of these is a good villain. Spectre fumbles this badly with weak motivations and a baffling scheme where the stakes weren't that tangible. Put Bond against someone who is at least his equal, with a strong motivation and a simple goal with horrific consequences if he (or she) wins.

c) This might be too much to ask, considering Casino Royale set the bar so high, but Spectre suffered from the undercooked romance between Bond and Madeline Swann. A well-written relationship between Bond and the woman will give an emotional weight to the story, and provide something for the audience to invest in. I would personally be in favour of keeping this relationship non-sexual -- it's a cliche of Bond movies that the franchise can afford do dodge for at least a few installments. I would suggest having no woman at all, but this is James Bond, so...

d) keep the supporting players at home.

The new supporting cast are great -- but next time, use 'em or lose 'em. Casino Royale worked just fine without them, and Spectre lost a good 20-30 minutes with unnecessary subplots.

e) Here's an idea. How about a 90 minute runtime? No Bond movie has gone under 100 minutes, and most of them have at least a few superfluous scenes. Spectre clocked in at a leisurely 2 and a half hours -- and felt every minute of it. Let's keep it nice and economical this time.

f) Let's have some music to write home about. Thomas Newman is a good composer, but I could not remember one note of his scores. Bring back David Arnold, or somebody else who can get a whiff of the old John Barry flavour back.

What I'd like to see go

a) Ever since Skyfall, there's an air of 'prestige' wafting around the franchise which needs to go. Big name directors and stars aren't necessary for Bond, and I'd hate to see the series sink further into respectability. It's James Bond, glorified pulp. Treat it as such, and do it well.

b) The bloated budget. I get it -- movies are expensive. But 250 million dollars?!? Back in the Eighties, the Bond producers set a cap of 30 million for their budgets, and I feel like a similar strategy might be helpful today. It might help with the story-telling and force the filmmakers to become more imaginative.

c) Endless callbacks. I think I'm done with the eulogising. References to earlier movies have been present in the franchise for a long time, but it has become a drag on the series since Brosnan. Just do your own thing and stop worrying about referencing something Connery did back in 1964. The movie will thank you for it.

d) Stop having Bond go rogue. Just have him get a mission -- then he can go and do whatever he likes. 

e) get rid of the eye in the sky. Bond is at his best when he can only depend on himself.

James Bond is a character built on arrogance and self-awareness, so there's no better way to end this rant by massaging my own ego. Keep in mind, I've tried to come up with something that fits the parameters of Craig's Bond, so don't expect too much in the way of gadgets and the more 'epic' stuff.

My pitch: After some kind of cool pre-title scene involving explosions and hot chicks, Bond has a routine assignment to retrieve a thing or a person. 

After retrieving said person/object, he is ambushed and cut off from home (maybe his Aston Martin gets blown up ala For Your Eyes Only). 

He has to make his way through a gauntlet of various obstacles to get the thing/person to safety.

And instead of a massive faceless organisation, make the villain another assassin who constantly has Bond on the back foot. Making the villain an evil version of Bond would be a nice change of pace, and give Craig's Bond a genuine threat to face.

Think of him/her as a combination of Golden Gun's Scaramanga, From Russia's Red Grant, For Your Eyes Only's Locque and Living Daylights' Necros. Take Scaramanga's personality, Grant's intelligence, Locque's anonymity and Necros' human battering ram and you could have a great foe.

Craig's Bond really hasn't had a physical foe to contend with (Spectre's Hinx wasn't around long enough to make an impression) and making his last movie another battle of wits ala Casino Royale would suit his style and give him some dramatic meat to bite into.

Since the filmmakers are always remaking previous Bond movies, this pitch could work as From Russia With Love meets The Man With The Golden Gun.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Don't Breathe review

Don't Breathe is one of the heavy hitters of 2016's horror releases. I finally caught a screening the other night.

This review contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie, come back when you've seen it. 

If you've seen the trailers, you know the deal. Three delinquent thieves break into a blind man's house after hearing he's loaded. At first, they think they have the upper end -- until their prey turns the tables and kills one of them. 

For the first half, this movie is basically what would have happened if Wait Until Dark had been played from the villains' point of view. 

In any other movie, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) would be extremely unsympathetic. However, director/co-writer Fede Alaverez (who made a bit of an impact with his remake of The Evil Dead a few years back) manages to ride the line of making their own plight believable and relatable, without condoning what they are doing. 

For the first half of this movie, this tension works in the movie's favour. Even when the Blind Man (Stephen Lang, terrific) joins the action, the movie manages to juggle both sides while ratcheting up the tension.

The person I was with felt the movie was at its strongest here, and was thinking it would end up like Sam Peckilnpah's Straw Dogs (1971), in terms of the way it objectively chronicles an escalation in hostilities between two parties that are not clearly delineated as good or evil.

Alas, this juggling act is dropped in order to make the Blind Man a flat-out villain. And the filmmakers go about it in an extremely distasteful way that left me extremely conflicted about the movie as a whole.

During their attempt to escape the house, Rocky and Alex end up in the basement, where they discover that the Blind Man has kidnapped and forcibly impregnated the woman who accidentally killed his child. When this woman is killed, the Blind Man captures Rocket and attempts to rape her with a turkey baster.

This subplot smacks of the worst kind of exploitation. Rape should not be used as an easy plot point, and the way Alaverez shoots the scene is so cavalier (one shot, lingering on a drop of semen hanging out of the turkey baster, is especially odious) that it threw me out of the movie. 

Clearly, the filmmakers were stuck trying to make their burglar heroes sympathetic, so the only way they could think to make their prey an antagonist was rape. This genre-fication of sexual assault has become a trend in pop culture that has to stop -- rape has become a convention of villainy that minimises a real-life issue, and it adds nothing to this movie's effect. 

For the most part, Don't Breathe is a strong horror picture -- but this shift into making the Blind Man a flat out sexual deviant robs the movie of its power. The more complicated character identification of the first half is far more interesting (and terrifying) than the second, where the Blind Man becomes Jason Vorhees and the movie downgrades into a cynical, manipulative and carelessly cruel slasher movie.

I recommend seeing it -- Alaverez is a good director of suspense -- but your mileage will vary with the shift in Act Two. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016


Following the unprecedented success* of my Orange Is The New Black reviews, I decided to take another crack at a Netflix series. I had no idea what Easy was, other than knowing it was some kind of anthology and indie darling/mumblecore poster boy Joe Swanberg was behind it.   

I liked the sound of that, and the cast was solid, so I took the plunge and checked it out.

Episode One: 'The Fucking Study'

Elisabeth Reaser and OITNB's Michael Chernus play a longtime couple trying to spice up their sex life. With Halloween coming up, they decide it is the perfect time for some role playing. While their kids are out 'trick or treating', the couple attempt to play a game of 'sexy neighbour' and 'construction worker'. Events do not go to plan.

This episode was a little underwhelming. It was pretty predictable, and while the acting was good these characters did not feel particularly interesting.

Episode Two: 'Vegan Cinderella'

This episode is leaps and bounds above the first one. This time, the story is about a young woman attempting to adapt to her new girlfriend's vegan lifestyle. She chucks out all of her food and buys an old bike to try and fit in with her new girlfriend.

Kiersey Clemons from Dope plays the lead here, with Jacqueline Toboni as her new girlfriend and Jaz Sinclair as Clemons' best friend and roommate. Unlike the first segment, this one was fun and a bit different. The humour felt more natural, and less like the set up for a joke.

Following supporting roles in Dope and Neighbours 2, Clemons gets to be the centre of attention here, and she is terrific as the lead. Hopefully, Hollywood BS doesn't get in the way and she gets more leads. She's a real talent.

Episode Three: 'Brewery Brothers'

Two brothers, responsible Matt (Evan Jonigkeit) and free-spirited Jeff (Dave Franco), are brought back together when one of them has a baby. Yearning to spend more time together, the brothers decide to start an illegal brewery together. When Matt's wife Sherri (Aya Cash) finds out, the couple have to re-evaluate their relationship.

This episode is kind of sweet -- it has a good theme but suffers from a really shortened run time (each episode runs 30 minutes). It does feel like the pilot for a great TV show I would watch. The resolution is a nice twist, but it would have meant something if the story did not feel so crammed in.

Episode Four: 'Controlada'

With this episode I feel like I'm getting onto the wavelength of this show. 

This story concerns a couple, Bernie (Raul Castillo) and Gabi (Aisling Derbez), who are trying to conceive a baby when Gabi's ex-boyfriend Martin (Mauricio Ochmann) arrives for a visit. 

Long stretches of this episode takes place in Spanish, and yet it is the most relatable in terms of the focus on the nuances of the characters and their motivations. Because this episode is so small and intimate in scale, it fits the format better than some of the previous episodes. There's no real plot to get in the way, allowing character dynamics to take over. 

Episode Five: 'Art and Life'

Probably the best episode of the lot, because it takes a theme and channels it into a vignette that works for the short format of the show. As stated previously, most of the episodes feel like movies forced into 30 minutes -- this one feels exactly the right length. 

Marc Maron plays Jacob Malco, a graphic novelist who specialises in exploiting the ugly realities of his life for his books. When the release of his new work kills his (latest) relationship, he enters into a spiral of depression and (greater) self-absorption. At a (sparsely attended) lecture, he meets a beautiful young photo artist, Allison (Emily Ratajkowski). They get drunk and have sex.

The next day, the artist wakes up believing he has found his one true love. He goes to an exhibit of her work where he is horrified to discover that she had taken naked photos of him while he slept. He has a meltdown in the middle of the exhibit, which ends up as a viral video on the internet. Of course, Jacob's feelings change when his outburst boosts his profile and increases the sales of his book.

A fun little curio that manages to act as a pretty good skewering of the ego that goes into art (and life), this episode features a strong performance from Maron as the blissfully self-unaware artist and the great Jane Adams (Hung) as his best friend Annabelle. 

Episode Six: 'Utopia'

A married couple, Tom and Lucy (Orlando Bloom and Malin Ackerman), discover Tinder for the first time and decide to try a threesome. Things get complicated when their mutual friend Annie (Kate Micucci) swipes right.

On the good side, Bloom and Ackermann are surprisingly good in the lead roles -- Bloom in particular is not the most versatile actor, but even he fits in with the Swanberg aestheticProbably more of a disappointment after two strong episodes, 'Utopia' exemplifies my problems with this show.

Once again, despite decent acting, this is another episode that ultimately falls flat because of the runtime. The premise for this one sounds promising as a comedy or a drama -- how will the experience effect the couple? Will their relationship be weakened or (more radically) strengthened by it? Once again, the story is fudged by the time we get to the credits.

Episode Seven: 'Chemistry Read' 

Guru Mbatha-Raw and Jake Johnson star in this one, but that is not much of a recommendation. This is the one episode where it's hard to grasp what it is about.

The episode does include one vaguely interesting scene -- an extended take in which Mbatha-Raw's character (an actress) has to perform a full audition scene with no cuts. The problem is, it's hard to tell what it all adds up to. 

I wasn't really feeling this one. The acting, as usual is good, but the episode ultimately feels like cut scenes from a drama, except that they ran out of money before they could shoot the important scenes.

Episode Eight: 'Hoop Dreams'

Hannibal Burris joins the revolving cast as Jason, a Chicago journalist investigating the Brewery Brothers from Episode Three. 

While 'Brewery Brothers' focused on Matt (Evan Jonigkeit), this one is focused on Dave Franco's Jeff. While girlfriend Noelle (Zazie Beetz) is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, Jeff is trying to deal with his brother's ambitions for the brewery.   

Whereas its prequel felt like a pilot, this feels like the season finale. I really like the rapport between the actors -- the focus on two very different couples would make for a great TV show in its own right, and it is serviceable here, but feels reined in by the limits of the show. 

Final Thoughts

Like all anthologies, Easy suffers from a few segments which do not work. Most of this is due to stories which demand more than 30 minutes. 

Episodes Two, Four, Five and the Brewery Bros episodes are definite highlights. The acting is all good -- it ultimately comes down to the quality of individual scripts.

Here's hoping Joe Swanberg can come up with some better stories for Season 2. And I hope this doesn't put Netflix off further anthology shows, because it's a good format -- they just need a good concept and strong stories.

If you're curious, check out the episodes I've highlighted, but overall it's a miss.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

RIHANNA: Anti (2016)

After a four-year hiatus, Anti was released at the beginning of this year. Rihanna had released a couple of hit singles (none of which appear here), but combined with a couple of missed release dates, it's clear the singer had made a choice to take her time.

Going into this one, I was  a little trepidatious -- the album cover looked like the worst kind of self-conscious cover art and the number of songs seemed really ambitious. Sixteen songs is a pretty hefty track list, and Rihanna's albums are generally bursting with filler.

The album opener, 'Consideration', is a duet with neo-soul singer SZA. It immediately sets you in the headspace for something different. This is followed by 'James Joint', a dreamy little ditty about Mary Jane (not Spider-Man's girlfriend). Too bad it's just over a minute long.

'Work' is another big hit which I cannot get into. The chorus is repetitive and grating. The interplay with Drake is the best part of the song, and saves it from being a complete washout.

'Desperado' is this weird, kinda-slow jam with an imposing bass and synthetic drum beat. It builds into a strangely romantic track about a woman basically threatening her lover who is getting itchy feet.

At this point, the album starts to sound like if Frank Ocean remade Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Songs like 'Woo' and 'Needed Me' have that same focus on synth atmos and disconnected vocals. There's a bit of echo to Rihanna's voice which makes it a little more haunting and almost James Blake-like (especially on 'Yeah, I Said It'). 

The lyrics are concerned with failed relationships, and making a clean break. While not as explicit as Marvin Gaye's autobiographical 1978 album, Anti is similarly introspective and self-focused. The way Rihanna's voice drifts in and out, with a simple, repetitive, almost dance-like rhythm is also very evocative of songs like 'When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You' and 'Anger'.

Unlike Gaye's effort, the focus on synths means Anti is a more chilly affair. Thematically, this makes more sense -- Rihanna's album is about a woman looking back with a degree of distance; Gaye's album is stuck in the moment, when the anger and confusion still feel fresh.

Of these tracks, 'Same Ol' Mistakes' feels like a culmination. Over 6 and a half minutes, Rihanna castigates herself for feeling like a 'new person' even though she keeps falling into the same line of behaviour.

'Never Ending' sees the album change tacks again -- it's another ballad based around acoustic guitar. It's too bad Rihanna is such a four-quadrant pop star: it would be cool if she took one album to go into one of the genres she cherry picks from.

'Love On The Brain' is a wonderful surprise. It's an old school, 50s-style soul number, complete with backing chorus and electric organ. More of this please!

'Higher' is a more comedic take on a torch song. Containing lines like 'This whiskey got me feeling pretty', slurred delivery and a slightly jerky string section, it manages to be pretty funny while also feeling completely sincere, as Rihanna beseeches her lover to take her back. There's a vulnerability to her vocal which makes the song a bit darker, and adds an edge to the humour.

'Close To You' sounds like a piano ballad from the early Nineties. It's a nice, subdued little number and the perfect closer.

The edition I have is the deluxe version, with three extra tracks. I have to say, they are pretty anti-climactic.

'Goodnight Gotham' strikes a bum note -- it sounds like a crappy cast-off from Rated R. The next two tracks, 'Pose' and 'Sex With Me', are better but in a similar aggressive vein. Best to go with the regular release -- these tracks are not essential, and detract from the overall effect.

I have to say, I REALLY liked this album. The time away has really helped the overall quality of this effort, and the extended track list allows Rihanna to try out a bunch of different styles and tones. Following a few albums where it felt like she was in neutral, Anti feels like a genuine progression for the pop star.

For her next album, Rihanna should consider working with a different creative team -- like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Maybe it's the vague echoes of Janet Jackson on some of her harder tracks, but I feel like a collaboration with those guys could lead to something really cool that will keep her feeling fresh and interesting.


Friday, 7 October 2016

RIHANNA: Unapologetic (2012)

Rihanna's last album until this year's AntiUnapologetic also marks the end of her series of annual releases.

The album opens with 'Phresh Out The Runway'. It's a bit of a mess, sounding like a new jack swing track mashed together with dubstep and Rihanna's occasional outbursts on top. Frankly, I could not wait for it to end.

The next track is the big hit 'Diamonds'. It's s a really good track, with a more uplifting lyrical bent that marks a break from the toxic romance formula she's used previously. It's a mystery why Rihanna didn't just open the album with this one. 'Diamonds' also benefits from excellent production -- its heavy electronica, but it is used effectively to underscore Rihanna's voice. This is the kind of treatment they should have applied to 'We Found Love'.

'Numb' is cut from the same cloth as the opening track, with Rihanna's repetitive verses on top of a repetitive, vaguely tuneless beat. It briefly picks up at the climax, with a hilarious rap from Eminem, but it's too little, too late. Given their shared love of dirty wordplay, it's surprising they have not collaborated on a track like Talk That Talk's 'Cockiness (I Love It)'.

'Power It Up' is a little bit better, but it never powers up. Compared with 'Diamonds', most of the tracks on this album feel lethargic and aimless.

'Loveeeeeee Song' is another duet, this time with rapper Future. It is a considerable step up from 'Numb', because it is actually a duet, with Future and Rihanna trading verses about romantic expectations and realities. It's quite melancholy, although not as memorable as it could be.

'Jump' is not a cover of the Van Halen song. Maybe it's because of how lackadaisical the dance numbers have been up until this point, but I enjoyed this track quite a bit. It's nowhere near the level of similar tracks on Loud or Good Girl Gone Bad but it's a nice injection of energy, with a good, passive-aggressive vocal from Rihanna and a strong beat.

'Right Now' features uber-producer David Guetta, and repeats all the signatures of his style -- that rapid escalation of feedback that starts every track, the loops and weird, siren-like beats are all present and correct. Guetta's style is more sympathetic to Rihanna's voice than Calvin Harris, but there are still points where it feels like two seperate songs fighting for attention.

'What Now' is your typical Rihanna ballad of heartbreak and despair, with a heavier beat than usual and a welcome dose of wailing guitar. It's an  okay track, but pales in comparison with the track that follows.

'Stay' features a lot of piano and a duet with Mikky Ekko. More stripped down than previous tracks on the album, it is another ballad about trying to find love, but its sentiment feels more believable than previous tracks, probably because of the more developed lyrics and the use of real instruments instead of synths. It's not as instantly catchy as 'Diamonds', but it has its own understated charm. Thankfully, it was released as a single, so clearly Rihanna knew she had something good.

Depending on how you feel about their previous history, 'Nobody's Business', a duet with Rihanna's on-off abusive boyfriend Chris Brown might turn you off. I thought I was going to hate it, but goddammit this track is great. It's a funky disco track with a monster hook that is impossible to resist. Considering they broke up a few months after the album's release, the lyrics are unintentionally hilarious, as Rihanna and Brown declare their eternal love, and tell everyone to bug off.

'Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary' clocks in at nearly seven minutes, split into two distinct halves -- the first focuses on Rihanna's usual subject of tainted love, before shifting into slower, more introspective  and spiritual territory. It's an interesting track, with the lyrics conveying a certain level of despair as the author prays for some kind of redemption.

'Get It Over With' includes a cliche of post-Rated R Rihanna that I've grown to love: the judicious dropping of the F Bomb during a ballad. She's done it a few times, and considering how many of her songs revolve around bad relationships, it makes sense to throw in some adjectives which really convey how she feels. In the end, it gives songs like this some guts, and makes them feel a little more relatable.

'No Love Allowed' is a fun shift from the romantic despair that overwhelms the rest of the album. In contrast, here the singer sounds like she's just given up. Despite the bleakness of its lyrics, when combined with the electronic reggae backing track, it takes on an oddly comic tone which stands in stark contrast to the more earnest tracks of the album. It's another song about being dumped by a sociopathic lover, but the production and arrangement save it from sounding too much like a xerox of other Rihanna songs. However, by the time it's over, you get the feeling she should sing about something else.

'Lost In Paradise' closes the album. It's a return to the electronic BS of 'Phresh Out The Runway', although Rihanna actually gets to sing more than one verse.

'Half Of Me' is a bonus track from the deluxe edition. It makes for a better finale to the album, if only because -- unlike most of the songs -- it sounds like they spent some time putting it together. It's not great, but it's agreeable enough, and features another great deployment of the F-bomb. The lyrics are a callback to 'Question Existing' from Good Girl Gone Bad, centred around a celebrity telling her audience that what the crazy stuff they hear about and see her do is not the sum total of her personality. Considering the title of the album, it's ironic how apologetic it sounds.

This album hit home for me a theory that had bubbling through these reviews since Loud. All of Rihanna's albums of the 2010s to this point have been a bit hit-and-miss, mixing strong singles with a lot of filler. I blame the annual release date. With such time constraints, it's no wonder most of the music comes off as a bit bland and half-baked.

What's obvious is that there is greatness scattered throughout these albums. If you took the hits from Loud, Talk That Talk and Unapologetic, you end with enough tracks for one really strong record that could stand toe to toe with Good Girl Gone Bad.

It's a good thing that Rihanna took a break after this album -- if she kept up this pace, the law of diminishing returns would have probably hurt her in the long run.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

RIHANNA: Talk That Talk (2011)

Released a year after LoudTalk That Talk took the place of an expected deluxe edition of Loud (ala Girl Gone Bad Reloaded). It's a patchy affair, but like its predecessor, Talk That Talk boasts some really good songs that balance out the filler.

The biggest hit off this album is not one of Rihanna's best. 'We Found Love' boasts a terrific vocal from the lady herself, but Calvin Harris's production is cold and off-putting. A more restrained treatment ala the piano version of 'Watch The Way You Lie', with the emphasis on the vocal performance, would have been a better choice.

Of the rest of the songs, there are few real standouts. The bad songs aren't terrible and the good songs aren't that distinctive, so it just ends up kind of middling. In a weird way, it actually makes the album, as a whole, more enjoyable to listen to than Loud. I found myself letting the disc just play from beginning to end while I worked on other things. It's good background music -- take that statement for what you will.

'Cockiness (Love It)' is one of the few times Rihanna goes back to the Rated R well --it's one of the album's best tracks, filled with dirty wordplay that feels designed to make you giggle while your granny blanches.

'Roc Me Out' is a fun, crunchy dance number that made me wish Rihanna would  do a full-on rock song like Janet Jackson's 'Black Cat'.

The version I own is the deluxe version, with a few extra tracks. The best one is 'Fool In Love'. It is probably too much to read a bit of autobiography into this track, with its story of a woman trying to make peace with her parents about the bad man she loves. Featuring some great electric guitar from Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, it builds to an awesome crescendo that serves as a fine curtain closer to the album.

Overall, I enjoyed Talk That Talk more than Loud but in the end it is a pretty average record. Quality-wise, the songs might be better on average than Loud, but it doesn't have anything as memorable as 'S&M', 'Only Girl (In The World)' or  'Love The Way You Lie (Part II)'.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

RIHANNA: Loud (2010)

I had heard mixed things about Loud, but the presence of guitarist Nuno Bettencourt made me  excited to give it a listen. I'm a big fan of his band Extreme, so to see his name pop up in the credits filled me with hope.

The strain of her annual commitment to release new content is pretty evident on Rihanna's fifth album, but it still boasts some strong songs.

Following the more aggressive sound of Rated R, Loud feels like a return to the style of Good Girl Gone Bad, with the more adult themes carried over from Rated R. It's not really worth going into the track list in great detail -- simply put, the singles are great, the deep cuts not so much. To that extent, Loud is not that dissimilar to Rihanna's first two albums.

'S&M', 'Only Girl (In The World)', and the Eminem collaboration 'Love The Way You Lie (Part II)' tower over the rest of the record. The guest stars (Drake and Nicki Minaj) don't gel, and other tracks, while not particularly bad, blur into the background.

'King Size Bed' and 'Man Down' are fun, and add a little bit of variety. 'The former is a ballad, riding the line between adult contemporary and country music. Not sure if Bettencourt's the man on guitar, but whoever it is does a decent job. 'Man Down' heads back to reggae, and feels like Rihanna's spin on the 'I Shot The Sheriff'/'Miss Otis Regrets' subgenera of bad romances ending in a hail of bullets.

Overall, Loud is an appropriate title for this album: it has plenty of flash and pyrotechnics, but not much beyond that.

Previous reviews

Music of the Sun 

A Girl Like Me

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

RIHANNA: Rated R (2009)

With the re-release of Good Girl Gone Bad in 2008, Rihanna commenced a frenetic period of recording and touring that would climax with 2012's Unapologetic.  Released at the end of 2009, Rated R came out on the heels of revelations about the physical abuse she had suffered at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown.

I remember when this one came out because of the Chris Brown stuff and because it was the first time Rihanna underwent a major style change. However, before I listened to it I was drawing a blank. I  could not remember a single song off of this album. Even though I’m not that familiar with her other work, I can associate a song or two with her other albums. While I’d heard Rated R was great, looking at the track list I could not recognise a single song.

Anyway, on with the review. 

The first thing to say is that, for an ostensible concept album, it does not feature the obvious bloat of similar projects — songs average 3-4 minutes, and the track list is only 13 songs (12 if you ignore the opening vignette).  

‘Wait Your Turn’ and ‘Hard’ are darker and harsher than anything on her previous albums — the beats sound rather industrial or trance-like. When combined with Rihanna’s flat delivery and the repetitive lyrics, this sound is rather oppressive — it’s like ‘anti-dance’ music. As scene-setting for the shift from the pop sound of her previous album these tracks work, but as songs in their own right, there’s not much to talk about.

‘Stupid In Love’ changes things up by pulling back on the harder synths in favour of piano and finger snaps. This allows the listener (or just my old ears) to concentrate on the lyrics. While vaguely a romantic ballad, the lyrics act as a monologue about leaving a bad relationship. It’s hard not to see parallels with Rihanna’s personal life, but the lyrics are not explicit enough to make that clear. That aside, the song is good.

‘Rockstar 101’ features guitarist Slash, although you have to listen hard to pick out his contributions — he is swamped by the industrial/trance/EDM elements. 

‘Russian Roulette’ is a similar proposition to ‘Stupid in Love’, in that it uses the form of a ballad to explore themes of entrapment and alienation. If you were to pick out a song that shows Rihanna at her best, this is a great example. This song, as with most of her best work, is based trying to hide pain -- when Rihanna oscillates between her natural reserve and something more exposed, it makes for a great song

The thing that used to put me off about her was how disinterested and detached her vocals were. It made songs like ‘Umbrella’ — a good song— feel monotonous and flat. I never bothered to listen to most of her songs all the way through, which created the impression that she was nothing special. Thanks to these reviews, I’ve gained a real appreciation for Rihanna’s vocal skills. 

She’s good at letting just a hint of emotion into her delivery — listening to one of her songs feels like pulling a rubber band back until its reached the breaking point. And then her voice will break and the full force of the song hits you right between the eyes. It’s an underrated quality she has. 

I’m going to skip right over ‘Fire Bomb’ because I don’t get it — I’ve listened to it three times and still cannot make head or tail of it.

‘Rude Boy’ feels like a response to all the songs by male singers and rappers in which they brag about their sexual expertise. In this song, Rihanna is calling them on their misogyny, turning their aggression on them.

‘Photographs’ continues the running theme of Rihanna lamenting on the collapse of a bad relationship. A duet with (bizarrely auto-tuned), it’s a melancholy number that sticks in the mind long after it’s done. 

‘G4L’ was boring. It just sounded like bits and pieces from the other songs on the album put in a blender. There is just nothing interesting or distinctive about it.

‘Te Amo’ is Rihanna doing bossa nova. Kinda. The song is about Rihanna dealing with being the object of another woman’s affections. After the grief she’s had with the opposite sex in the last couple songs, it makes for a nice change of pace. The music video resolves the conflict of the song by having the singer fall for her mysterious paramour (played by Laetitia Casta, the French supermodel).  

‘Cold Case Love’ is rather minimalist in comparison with most of the songs on Rated R, before escalating to a crescendo at the finale, with the addition of a guitar solo, string section, drums and processed beats. It works pretty well, sounding almost like her take on ‘In The Air Tonight’. 

‘The Last Song’ sounds exactly like the title. I don’t know who did the guitar parts on this album, but whoever it is is doing a terrific job. It really makes me hope that Rihanna does a rock album eventually.

Overall, Rated R was pretty good. It was not as immediately appealing as Good Girl Gone Bad Reloaded, and some of the electronica was grating, but the shift in tone and lyrics was welcome and gave the album more weight than its predecessor. 

Previous reviews

Music of the Sun 

A Girl like Me 

Monday, 3 October 2016

RIHANNA: Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded (2007-08)

Good Girl Gone Bad is the moment Rihanna broke through the sound barrier and entered the zeitgeist.

According to Wikipedia, the release of this album is where Rihanna's run really started -- between 2008 and 2012, she released an album every year, and completed her transition from a minor league pop singer to a really big star. 

Following its release in 2007, Rihanna re-released the album with four new songs. This Reloaded edition is the one I will be rambling about today.

The opening track,  'Umbrella', was the big hit, and helped break Rihanna as the next big thing. Sure, she'd had a few hits before, but 'Umbrella' showed that she was more than a one-hit wonder. I heard the chorus so many times on the radio that it's made me immune to its other charms. It's a good song, but that never-ending chorus puts me in a terrible place.

Next up is 'Don't Stop The Music'. Rihanna built her career on a few songs built on the bones of older hits. Good Girl Gone Bad has two of the best examples of this approach in this song and 'Shut Up and Drive'. 'Don't Stop The Music' takes a sample from Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough'. Regardless of its roots, the song manages to stand on its own legs. I would compare it to the remix of SWV's 'Right Here', which interpolated samples from MJ's 'Human Nature'. The result is a song that quotes a familiar song in a way that does not simply echo the earlier song.

While I was familiar with most of the songs on this album, the real finds were the deep cuts. One that really stood out is 'Breakin' Dishes'. Backed by a urgent beat, the singer rages against her unseen cheating boyfriend. She gets so mad waiting for him to come home she destroys her house and declares she's 'gonna fight a man tonight.' It's a bit dark and funny, and feels like an early sign of the darker, kinkier territory Rihanna would explore in her next album.

'Shut Up And Drive' follows. A fast paced dance number, its origins in 'Blue Monday' are easy to point out, but the song feels completely its own, with such a difference in tone and style that it feels completely seperate.

In contrast to the electronic sturm und drang of the first half of the record, 'Hate That I Love You' is a nice, low key duet with Ne-Yo. Backed by some acoustic guitar and a clapping chorus, it is a change of pace from the bass-heavy dance numbers of the first part of the album. From this track, the tone and style of the album shifts away from the synth-laden toe-tappers to more introspective songs.

Of this section, 'Rehab' is an easy standout (bonus points for the strings), but its success overshadows other tracks like the title cut and 'Say It', which are solid album tracks.

'Lemme Get That', in particular, is an interesting genre-bender: it starts as a fairly standard club track and then switches into a ballad before switching back again. 'Question Existence' is another track that deserves a higher profile -- it feels of the same ilk with the earlier 'club' section , but paced like a slow jam. All in all, there are no real duds here.

This is the first album Rihanna made where it felt like every song was a potential hit. This edition includes the four bonus tracks recorded after the album's original release. 'Disturbia', written by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown, was a big hit, and is a pretty memorable track, but it doesn't stick to the ribs like some of her other hits.

'Take A Bow (Main)' initially sounds like a sequel to Christina Aguilera's 'Beautiful', but winds up generating a melancholy vibe all its own, minus the off-putting sincerity of the Aguilera track. Even though it was not part of the original track list, it provides a terrific finale to the set.

This deluxe edition also includes with the oddly enjoyable duet with Maroon 5,  'If I Never See Your Face Again'. Some critics compared it to songs by Justin Timberlake and Jamiroquai, which is probably why I enjoy it so much -- it builds a pretty strong groove. It's a little bit of a bummer that the vocals aren't better. Rihanna and Adam Levine have no chemistry whatsoever (she was parachuted in as a late replacement for Janet Jackson, who might have been able to carry this kind of number off) but it's a testament to the composition and production that the song manages to carry itself to the finish line.

All in all, Good Girl Gone Bad Reloaded is a terrific pop record with no real weak links. It put Rihanna on the map as one of the biggest pop stars of the late noughts, and inaugurated the most successful stage of her career.

Previous reviews

Music of the Sun 

A Girl Like Me 

Sunday, 2 October 2016

RIHANNA: A Girl Like Me (2006)

Released less than a year after her debut, A Girl Like Me finds Rihanna moving into more traditional pop territory, and establishes the quick turnaround of her future releases. If one factors in the Reloaded version of Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna managed an album a year between 2005 and 2012.

Going into this album, I was a little less ignorant of the content. I remember 'SOS' blaring from the radio about a million times around the end of high school. I was not a fan of the song,  so I was not really looking forward to doing a deep-dive into this one. However, after the joyless dirge of Music of Sun, things could only get better.

Fittingly, the album starts with the one track I know. 'SOS' was one of those songs that was passed around a few times before Rihanna got it. It basically set the template for a decent portion of Rihanna's hits: take a piece of an older song (in this case, Soft Cell's cover of 'Tainted Love' from 1981) and then build a dance number around it.

It's a pretty good song, and immediately wiped the plastic reggae of Rihanna's debut out of my memory. The production is better, and Rihanna's voice sounds a little more older and more confident.

This sense of confidence continues on 'Kisses Don't Lie', which manages to weave a reggae groove within a pop context far more successfully than anything on Rihanna's debut.

Other highlights include the guitar-led ballad 'Final Goodbye', 'Unfaithful' and the duet with Sean Paul, 'Break It Off'. None of these songs rank with Rihanna's best, but they are  a massive leap above her first album.

'Crazy Little Thing Called Love' did not turn out to be a cover of the Queen track, but like 'Kisses Don't Lie', the reggae number (featuring J-Status, who guest-starred on Music of the Sun) is a fun little confection that is (as I've already stated) far better than similar tracks from her debut.

While it might not have as many good songs as her later albums, I enjoyed A Girl like Me far more than I expected to. Even with lowered expectations, this album was a good time.

The dance tracks are memorable, the reggae tracks don't feel overly produced, and there are a few tracks where Rihanna experiments with other genres. Overall, it is a decent smorgasbord of different flavors.

Taken as either a stepping stone to the pop gold of Good Girl Gone Bad  or an album in its own right, A Girl Like Me is a lot of fun.

Previous reviews

Saturday, 1 October 2016

RIHANNA: Music of the Sun (2005)

"Tangents are not only allowed, they're encouraged" 
                                                                    -- John Gabrus 

For some reason I can't really explain, I started getting into Rihanna's music this year. I listened to a coulee songs, liked them and listened to a few more. Since I was already on that road, I decided to have some fun and review all of her albums. Since she's only released eight, and they are readily available, this task did not feel that daunting.

At the start of this, I was only vaguely aware of Rihanna's music. I mean I wasn't completely unaware of her -- she's so omnipresent you can't miss her -- but I knew nothing of her work beyond the big hits. The earliest song I can remember of Rihanna's is 'SOS', so going into her debut, I had no frame of reference. 

Man,  this album was boring. It's a collection of the reasons why I tend to run away from mid-noughties pop music. Bland songs and bland production -- if Rihanna had not kept plugging away, I doubt whether anyone would remember who she was.

The album opens with the one hit off the record, 'Pon De Replay', which would not even cut it as filler on a contemporary Rihanna album. There's a disjunct between Rihanna's voice and the production, which fills out a mechanical beat with what sounds like that air raid siren from the Death Star.

The rest of the album segues into more of a Caribbean vibe. I am not that familiar with reggae or Barbadian musical styles, so I'll leave that aspect alone. However, the style here is very electronic, with little in the way of real instruments -- it makes the music sound plastic, cold and, frankly, a bit racist.

A few songs rise a bit out of the morass. The title track is a little rote, but is pleasant enough (there is a synth string section in the background which kind of ruins it though). 'Willing to Wait' is a nice change of pace -- it's a sultry slow jam and sticks out even with Rihanna's present day work. 'Let Me' is the one dance track where the 'Caribbean' flavour and the dance beats connect. It may be the best track on the album.

All in all, Music of the Sun is aggressively middle of the road. It's dull and unoriginal, with the attempts at mixing the musical styles of Rihanna's homeland with then-contemporary pop styles feel forced and a bit racist.

 However, as a look back at where she started, this is a vaguely intriguing document. When juxtaposed with her next two albums, it is interesting to track how Rihanna and her collaborators figure out what she is good at, in terms of style and subject matter.

On its own though, Music of the Sun isn't worth a listen.