Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Incredible Jessica James (Netflix)

Starring ex-Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, The Incredible Jessica James is another indie comedy scooped up by Netflix earlier this year.

Jessica James is a struggling New York playwright who has just broken up with her boyfriend. As she deals with rejection and a new potential love interest (Chris O'Dowd), the incredibly together Jessica begins realise she is not as together as she wants to be.

Five years ago, James C. Strouse's The Incredible Jessica James would be the kind of indie that I would wait to see pop up at my local arthouse theatre. With Netflix picking up movies like this and Deidra and Lanie Rob A Train, I don't have to trek into the CBD at some ungodly hour to watch it.

First thing first, Williams is great. More than anything else, she is the reason to watch this movie. She is funny, charismatic and manages to carry the character's emotional arc even as the movie around her falters.

The movie is always watchable, and occasionally hits a comedic target (Jessica's trip home is toe-curling, even without the punchline of her baby present), but the movie's strength comes from Williams in the lead role. According to the information available online, Williams was involved from the beginning in the development of the character, and it shows.

It's become something of a cliche, but what I really liked about Jessica was that while she does have romantic entanglements that she has to deal with, she spends most of the movie invested in her love of theatre. Unlike a lot of female characters who are derailed by romance and fixate solely on this, this movie actually spends time with Jessica and the things she is interested in. It's an emphasis that is usually only seen with male characters, and it fleshed her out.

There is a lot to like about Jessica James, but there is something weirdly undercooked about the movie. While Jessica's emotional journey eventually comes into focus, it takes almost half the movie for this dramatic thrust to coalesce. It does not help that some of the obstacles and subplots she runs into do not carry the emotional stakes that the movie thinks they have: the dream meetings with her ex are especially guilty of this - because they are imagined by the main character, we are deprived of external insight.

It's not necessary for a character to be defined by other people, but in this case the inciting incident is Jessica's offscreen breakup, and since the movie continues to return to it (via dream sequences) I was expecting a little more insight than what we got. We get it eventually, but the movie is almost over. Thankfully, Williams' performance has done the heavy lifting in making her evolution believable, because I wasn't really getting it from the movie.

Chris O'Dowd is solid as her would-be love interest, but both he and Jessica's ex (who only appears in the flesh at the beginning and the end) feel like sketches. They are intended as brick walls for Jessica to bounce off, so we can gain more insight into her character. However, when we start to get into the home stretch and Jessica confronts her insecurities, it feels like we are missing the context to make her resolution feel cathartic.

It sounds like I'm ripping this movie, but I found it pretty enjoyable. It may not be as fully fleshed-out as it could be, but it's a good time. While not as incredible as its title, The Incredible Jessica James is worth a look for Williams' central performance. Hopefully this film can act as a calling card for more high-profile pictures.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

IN THEATRES: Girls Trip & Baby Driver

The Midnight Ramble returns with another double bill review. And spoilers, these movies are both great.

Girls Trip
This is the best studio comedy of the year.  

When Ryan (Regina Hall) gets invited to be a keynote speaker at the annual Essence Festival taking place in New Orleans, she wrangles her old friends Sasha (Queen Latifah), Lisa (jada Pinkett-Smith) and wildcard Dina (Tiffany Haddish) to join her for an overdue reunion. As the trip gets underway, the four friends run into complications which test their shared bond...
This is one of the rare movies where everything feels on-point: the cast are all great, the script (co-written by the creator of Blackish, Kenya Barris) and the direction (by Malcolm D. Lee) are all operating like a well-oiled machine.
I'm going to echo a lot of people but Tiffany Haddish owns this movie. To say she steals it would imply that someone else owned it, but from her first moment onscreen, she just fills out the screen. And kudos to the editor for picking all of her best ad libs. Improv can often feel listless and kill the pace, but every piece of Haddish-flavoured nonsense is pure gold.

While Haddish is the standout, no one is short-changed. This is one of those rare  ensemble comedies where all the characters have their own stories.
Jada Pinkett-Smith is great as the square mom rediscovering her inner freak, while Queen Latifah gets a great set piece in which she hallucinates a Latin lover during a bad trip. She also gets a sweet character beat in the third act where she reveals her true worth.
And finally, Regina Hall.
I already went insane praising the lady's chops in previous reviews, but this movie just highlights how versatile she really is. Playing an Oprah-like guru, she has the central character arc, and proves a fine straight man to all the other characters' madness. And thankfully, once the substances start flowing, we get to see some vintage Regina Hall crazy.
Everything in this movie works. One of the signs of how great it is is the pacing. This movie is over two hours long (the touch of death for a comedy), and yet it flies by. And the movie is about something (female self-worth and friendship) without feeling didactic or wedged in (think of any recent comedy which tries to hit you over the head with a closing message). It all flows seamlessly together as a whole.
If it isn't obvious, I loved this movie. It's great and I hope you all get to see it at some point (see below).
Hey New Zealand distributors, sort this out
Whenever it comes out down under, check it out.

Baby Driver
Marking a neat break from the superheroes, Edgar Wright returns with his own spin on the seventies car chase thriller.

Baby is the best getaway driver in the business. And he can't wait to get out of it so he can spend the rest of his life with his love, Debora (Lily James). But when his boss (Kevin Spacey) insists he keep working, Baby realises he will have to switch gears to avoid losing everything he has fought for.

Wright's love letter to the Western-style minimalism of Walter Hill (The Driver), Baby Driver is less visually hyperactive than his previous work. Aside from Martin Scorsese and Russ Meyer, no filmmaker can match Wright's talents for approximating the beat and rhythm of rock'n'roll cinematically. The action is well-choreographed, shot and edited. Most people will probably focus on the car chases, but the sequence that really impressed me was the foot chase in the third act. The soundtrack is terrific, and while the movie is almost wall-to-wall sound, it never gets tired.

The supporting players are all terrific. Spacey is not really operating outside his wheelhouse, but he's solid. The crims Baby works with are a collection of terrifying live wires: Jon Bernthal and (especially) Jamie Foxx. Even the seemingly normal Buddy (John Hamm) and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) are bad news.

But while it has many good qualities, there is something holding me back from saying I loved Baby Driver. I enjoyed it, but I never felt entirely won over by it. While I enjoyed the style and the music, there were a few points where I felt outside, where Wright's choices worked against the movie.

My one issue derives from the protracted denouement, chronicling Baby's stay in jail while he waits to be reunited with Debora. Wright seems to be striving for a romanticism that the movie has not earned. Maybe it's just me, but I felt the love story worked as a component of the crime plot, but it never overshadowed it in the way Wright thinks it does. I never really felt the protagonists falling in love to the degree that would justify the extended coda.

It might also have to do with the fact that I felt the main players did not have the kind of dynamite chemistry to make me invest in their relationship. Lily James is very winsome as Debora, but there is something that does not click about her co-star. Ansel Elgort is good in the lead role, but he does not have the kind of presence or charisma to make the character's silence read.

My issues aside, Baby Driver is a good time at the movies. It's a thrill ride in the old school sense of the term, and is a good option if you are (like everybody) a little tired of the same CG-style blockbusters which occupy the mid-year. 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Last Boy Scout: Out of the Black

I watched this movie ten years ago, and fell in love. For two-three years, it was one of my favourite action movies. Written by Shane Black, it was my go-to movie when people would bring up his name (this was around the time that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang had come out).

Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) is a former Secret Service agent-turned-detective. Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) is a former football star dealing with an addiction to painkillers. Both men are damaged goods, counted out by everyone they know. But when Joe is hired by Jimmy's girlfriend, who dies shortly thereafter, the unlikely pair are forced to work together to find out who killed her and why. Following a trial of evidence and bodies, they end up discovering a vast conspiracy that forces them to confront the ghosts of their past.  
    When I first watched The Last Boy Scout, it totally blew my mind. Not only was it a great action movie, it was chock-full of great characters spouting a seemingly endless supply of one liners - it was like a Preston Sturges movie with scatological references. While I had seen a few Shane Black movies by this point, this was the one where I started to pick up on recurring elements.

    The Last Boy Scout is a pretty typical example of Shane Black's style. While it has action, the story is basically a hardboiled detective story, and the people tasked with solving this mystery are not ubanebrains ala Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot; they are anti-heroes with weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans's characters fit this to a T.

    The 'boy scout' of the title, Hallenbeck lost his job after he attacked a senator for beating a woman. He used to have ideals, but being punished for trying to do the right thing has turned him into an empty introvert who does not care about anyone. Jimmy Dix is a former football star who fell into depression and drug abuse when his family died in a car crash. Like Joe, he has lost the will to live, and survives on one night stands, drink and painkillers. Both of these guys are burnouts who have given up on life, and have been counted out by everyone around them. Like the heroes of Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys they are in need of redemption.

    With Black, theses archetypes are par for the course. It helps that they all feel like different, fully fleshed-out characters, but they do fit a type. What really highlights how talented Black is his an affinity for making even the smaller parts memorable. The Last Boy Scout is populated with great bit players: Joe's sleazy partner, Mike (Bruce McGill); the overly articulate henchmen; the guy Joe kills in the alley; and Kim Coates's over-eager henchman, who gets his nose shoved into his brain).

    The best of the supporting characters is Darian, Joe's daughter, played by horror icon Danielle Harris. Acid-tongued and wise beyond her years, she sets the blueprint for the Black child protagonists we see in Iron Man 3 and last year's The Nice Guys.

    The other great character is Taylor Negron's Milo, the villain's effete henchman. All of Shane Black's movies feature a strong antagonist who is a mirror of one of the heroes (think Mr Joshua (Gary Busey) in Lethal Weapon, Timothy (Craig Bierko) in The Long Kiss Goodnight or Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) in Iron Man 3). They represent what our hero could become - the thing that separates them is a sliver of humanity that they rediscover over the course of the story.

    This is one movie where the action beats are less interesting than the showdowns that precede them:
    • the 'fat wife' exchange between Joe and the hitman in the alley 
    • the scene where Joe and Jimmy are beaten up by the 'inventors of Scrabble'
    • Joe with the hand puppet in the woods 
    • the final confrontation in Sheldon Marcone's (Noble Willingham) office  
      The character interactions are what keep this movie in my rotation; the action is kinda rote. It needs to be there, but it never outshines the wordplay.

      With a decade's distance, my feelings toward the film have mellowed a bit. The movie is still funny, and the characters (particularly Negron's Milo and Harris's Darian) are memorable, but there is a layer of cynicism and brutality over the movie which does not come across well. There is a mean-spiritedness to the film which is lacking from other Shane Black joints of this era.
        I put it down to the movie's direction. Tony Scott gives the whole movie a sheen which robs the story of some of its gravitas: it feels too glitzy. He later went on record that he felt the script was better than the movie, and he's not wrong. In reading about this movie, it is clear that it was not really his fault.

        The film had a tortured production, with endless re-writes, stars who did not get along (surprising considering how well they work onscreen), and a feud between Bruce Willis and producer Joel Silver that saw them part ways (delaying Die Hard 3 in the process). Black had to undertake a series of re-writes to include more action scenes, including the finale in the football stadium. You can still see the outline of Black's original concept under the pyrotechnics, and it is the character relationships and interactions which make the movie so watchable.

        I love this movie, but of all the Shane Black movies that have been made, this is one where a remake might not be a bad idea.


         Shane Black

        Sunday, 16 July 2017

        BITE-SIZED REVIEWS: The Spiral Staircase & Fear in the Night

        Youtube is a great place for finding old Hollywood movies. Most of the movies are bad flicks that have fallen into the public domain, but occasionally you come upon something good. I went trawling a few weeks ago, and came upon a few finds.

        The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
        One of the great thrillers of the forties, The Spiral Staircase is one of those movies that I have been looking for. Watching it on a laptop was not ideal ( and if the Auckland Film Society does a screening, I'll do another review) but it wound up being a really enjoyable watch.

        Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a mute servant woman in 1900s New England. A serial killer is on the loose in the area, and he is targeting women with disabilities. Stuck with her invalid employer and her squabbling sons in their gothic mansion, Helen is terrified that she is next on the killer's list...

        Directed by the great Robert Siodmak (The Killers), The Spiral Staircase is a creepy thriller with one foot in gothic melodramas like Gaslight (the period setting; a lonely woman under threat) and the other foot in film noir (the central character with trauma; the villain's perverse psychology). 

        Despite its age, there are aspects of the film which feel surprisingly modern: the score stands out immediately. Based around an eerie high pitched tone, it feels like the score for a sixties or seventies thriller. The scenes in which the murderer stalks his victims, with their focus on a roving camera and focus, feel very reminiscent of Black Christmas and Halloween.

        The film's focus on the main character's impairment is interesting, and also betrays how different attitudes were to people with well, any kind of impairment. Rendered mute by a childhood trauma, Helen is constantly badgered by other characters (including her doctor boyfriend) to speak. The characters are obsessed with fixing her, and the movie is ultimately focused on how her inability to speak works to the killer's advantage.

        The reveal of the killer and the reason for his targeting of disabled people is... interesting? It's a bit of a cop-out. To be honest, the whole denouement is a bit of of a damp squib. Helen is not particularly active in destroying the villain, and literally stands by while another character shoots him dead.

        Aside from an underwhelming finish, the movie is pretty solid. I was expecting more of a stripped-down genre exercise, but the cast and subplots are surprisingly dense. It ends up being more of a spin on Ten Little Indians, only with fewer characters.

        Acting by the cast is strong. McGuire is an empathetic heroine, and manages to avoid too many histrionics in her portrayal of Helen. Ethel Barrymore, as Helen's employer, provides a touch of class to proceedings. Apart from these two, the cast are solid but don't really stand out.This is a movie about the direction and the atmosphere, more than the characters.

        A fine melodrama, The Spiral Staircase is worth a look. As a classic exercise in suspense, it still works a treat.

        Fear in the Night (Shawn Maxwell, 1947)
        The acting debut of Star Trek's DeForest Kelley, Fear in the Night is a minor film noir that I've heard referenced in various books I've read on the genre. Since it's one of my favourite genres (and the movie was floating around online) I decided to check it out.

        Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window), a bank teller, Vince (Kelley) has a nightmare in which he killed a man in a strange house. During the encounter, he tears a button off the man's coat.  Upon waking, he discovers marks on his throat, blood on his shirt cuff and a button in his pocket. Terrified, Vince enlists the help of his brother-in-law Cliff (Paul Kelly), a cop, to find out if the images in his head are just bad dreams or something more real...

        This movie took two goes for me to get through. I really hate watching old movies on my computer - the screen is too small to do them justice. Ever since I started going to Auckland Film Society screenings, I've really noticed how big a difference it makes. These movies were literally made to be shown on the big screen.

        Most of the famous films noir are bigger budget studio efforts, like Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, but in reality most noirs were low budget b-movies. If they were made with stars, the stars were either on the way up or on the way down. Fear in the Night is one such effort.

        In many ways, low budgets are perfect for noir. The limited settings, largely shot in interiors, with a small cast, and lots of shadows (for atmosphere and to hide the cheapness of the sets) give Fear in the Night a claustrophobia that would not have ben present with a bigger canvas. Even the actors add to the overall tone -- while Kelley is famous now, he was an unknown then, and the rest of the cast were experienced supporting players. The lack of recognisable faces brings the mystery element to the fore, as Kelley struggles to figure out if he really is a murderer, or merely a player in a broader scheme.

        The movie does have some flaws. The pacing is all over the place, the acting is - at best - serviceable, and there are some points where the writers clearly wrote themselves into a corner and have to drop a series of coincidences to get the characters on the right track.

        Still it is atmospheric, and boasts some unsettling photographic effects which help build the tension. And while the acting is not great, the monotone intensity actually helps make the central character's plight more believable.

        Overall, Fear in the Night is a decent flick, lifted by a suitably clammy atmosphere and some striking visuals. The big reveal is odd, but works with the off-kilter style the filmmakers have created. The movie's mystery is more fun than the reveal, but within the story-world I feel like the resolution actually works, even if - writing-wise - the execution is a little workmanlike.

        A big success on release, writer-director Shawn Maxwell would later remake the movie as Nightmare in 1956, starring Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy.

        Friday, 14 July 2017

        SINGERS IN THRILLERS: The Bodyguard and Romeo Must Die

        I watched a couple of boring thrillers featuring singers. To make up for this epic waste of time, I present a rambling breakdown of why these movies are so boring.

        The Bodyguard (Mick Jackson, 1992)
        Originally written in the Seventies for superstars Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, The Bodyguard finally made it to the screen with superstars Kevin Costner and Whitney Huston.

        Someone is stalking superstar singer/actress Rachel Marron (Whitney Huston). When the threats turn to violence, her entourage hire ex-Secret Service man Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) to protect her. As Farmer fights between his professional code and his feelings for Rachel, the stalker's campaign continues to escalate...

        I did not see this movie for years. All I knew about it was the soundtrack, which my grandfather played constantly.

        I finally caught up with it a few years back, and man, it was a bit of a downer. Going in, I knew the basic outline, but what I was imagining in my head was more along the lines of In The Line of Fire -- with dance numbers.

        Re-watching it now, The Bodyguard is still a bit of a disappointment. The concept of a bodyguard protecting a superstar is already pretty thin. It requires a lot of strong components to make it exciting: the casting of stars is certainly important, but it also requires a really good script and exemplary direction to give the wafer-thin idea wings. But the makers behind The Bodyguard fail to accomplish any of this.

        The key foundation of the movie is the love story, and that requires chemistry between the leads. On that count, The Bodyguard is a total flop. Huston is pretty credible in her role, even if the script gives her nothing that good to work with. Costner tries to model his performance on Steve McQueen, but it just does not come off. Cosnter's forte is the everyman; McQueen was more of a presence. Costner tries to go for McQueen's smouldering minimalism, but it's like pouring a glass of water in an empty swimming pool. We end up with long stretches of tedium with two people speaking words at each other with nothing behind them. They might as well be two boulders in the desert.

        On the thriller side of things, it's pretty skimpy. Once Farmer becomes Rachel's head of security, that plot takes a backseat to the love story, leading to a middle act where nothing is pushing the story forward.

        The two scenes which pick things up are the cabin sequence, in which Farmer takes the Marron clan to his family abode in the woods, where they are attacked by Rachel's stalker; and the finale at the Oscars. It is the one scene where the filmmakers send up the glitz and glamour of Rachel's world - it's the sequence that is often ridiculed, and with good reason. For me, I wish it could be gaudier and dumber. 

        Actually 'gaudier and dumber' is my note regarding the whole movie. It needed to lean into its inherent theatricality and cheese. As is, it's so sterile and safe that it just never comes across well. This is low melodrama, and the filmmakers should have treated it as such. 

        The Bodyguard is one of those ideas that will probably end up remade. If it does happen, a proper musical is probably the best way to go. The recent London musical adaptation has sprouted touring versions around the world, and has been pretty successful so far. So The Bodyguard might get another go at the big screen before too long.

        If you have not seen The Bodyguard, I'd stick with the soundtrack. The movie is the definition of 'okay', but I don't know if I can recommend it fully. Make it part of a drinking game with friends.

        Romeo Must Die (Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2000)
        Produced by uber-producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and The Matrix), Romeo Must Die was the first US starring vehicle for Hong Kong martial arts star Jet Li and the screen debut for RnB singer Aaliyah Haughton.

        After his brother is killed, former cop Han (Li) escapes prison in Hong Kong and heads to America to avenge his death. He ends up in the middle of a rivalry between his father (Henry O) and a rival African American organisation led by Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo). When O'Day's son is killed, Han joins forces with O'Day's daughter Trish (Aaliyah) to discover the culprits and avert an all-out gang war.

        I caught this one on home video just after it came out. Going into it, I had no idea who Jet Li or Aaliyah were. My parents rented it along with a bunch of Jackie Chan movies (I think Gorgeous was one of them). My brother and I loved Jackie Chan, and we watched a bunch of the American re-cuts of his Hong Kong releases growing up. Compared with those, Romeo Must Die did not come off that well. I don't remember too much from that viewing aside from three things: the kids discovering Han's brother hanging from the power lines; the x-ray shots showing bones breaking; and two women making out in a club.

        Watching it some 17 years later, Romeo Must Die is rather interesting. An attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Asian action stars and hip hop, the film is a time capsule of late nineties pop culture. In a way, its attempts to be so contemporary wind up dating it more than The Bodyguard.

        In its favour (and unlike The Bodyguard), the movie benefits from a strong cast that gel together. Jet Li is good as Han - he handles the dramatic requirements of the role well, and it's a given that he can do the action justice. And while the love story is never really built up, he does have a good rapport with Aaliyah.

        Speaking of which, Aaliyah is surprisingly natural as Trish. She has charisma, and leavens her role with a bit of humour. There's not that much to the role, but she makes it watchable. It's too bad her career was cut short because she comes across very well here.

        The love story is very underplayed here. At this point everybody probably knows the story about the test screening where people laughed during a kissing scene between Han and Trish. That scene was excised, but I wonder if there was more cutting throughout the film to remove that element. As is, the relationship between Li and Aaliyah is more believable than the one between Costner and Huston, but it does feel more like they will end the movie as friends, rather than romantic partners. For me, the main reason there is so little sign of attraction between them is the obvious disparity in age - during filming, Aaliyah was barely 20, Li almost 40. It feels more like a mentor-student relationship than something more intimate.

        Across the board, all the acting in the movie is really good. DB Woodside and Russell Wong, the villains of the piece, are probably the most memorable. It's too bad the plot requires them to hide in the background, because once they show their true colours, they are enjoyably self-serving. Delroy Lindo is also very good as a mob man trying to go the straight and narrow.

        The script is kind of predictable but throws in some interesting set pieces (I love the machine gun in the brief case); the action is solid and the soundtrack is still great. There is just one thing about this movie which holds it back, and it is significant: the direction.

        This movie is the directorial debut of cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (Terms of Endearment, Speed), and it shows.

        The movie's colour palette is very strange - it's cold and grey. I guess it was a choice to emphasise the movie's dramatic component, but it just drains the movie of energy. Apart from lacking in variety, it is significant because colour can play a big factor in how a viewer takes in a film. By limiting it to such a dour tone, it dampens excitement and undermines the tonal shifts of specific scenes.

        And while the acting is fine, there is a feeling that the actors are stuck on their own. It's hard to put into words, but I feel like a better director could have teased out more of the romantic angle between the stars - Li was only just moving into English-speaking roles, and Aaliyah had no experience to speak of. A more experienced director would have been sensitive to these obstacles and made sure to counter them. 

        He also ham-fists the action a bit. Li is a fantastic physical presence, but too often the filmmakers slice and dice the fight scenes so you only get bits and pieces of what he can do. There are too many close ups and angle changes that sap some of the impact from the fight scenes, and completely undermine the movie's attempts at comedy. The scene in which Li uses his skills during an impromptu football match with Woodside's goons should be great, but it is cut like confetti. As Tsui Hark, Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow and Charlie Chaplin prove, physical comedy (and action) works best in wide shots.  

        Ultimately the main problem is tone. Despite its action movie credentials, the movie comes across as incredibly dour and one-note. While a certain level of gravitas is necessary (it's a movie sparked by inter-family murder), but as an action picture it needs more variation. Anthony Anderson gets a few good moments as a gormless henchman, but apart from that, the movie mopes about like a teenager.

        While it has the components to be great (or at least a super slice of cheese) Romeo Must Die is not as exciting as it could be. If you like the stars, it's worth a look. But as a movie, it's a bit of a damp squib.

        Related posts

        Aaliyah (discography)

        Saturday, 8 July 2017

        IN THEATRES: Spider-Man: Homecoming

        There's only one big movie out this weekend...

        Following his dalliance with the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) spends his days alternating between school and his new life as a neighbourhood superhero. When he isn't helping his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) build Lego Death Stars or pining after the head of his academic decathlete team (Laura Harrier), Peter stops petty crimes and wonders when he can actually become a proper superhero. When he stumbles upon a gang selling hi-tech weapons, Peter thinks he's hit the jackpot. Instead, he's in over his head...

        First things first: I didn't see Civil War, so this movie had to live and die on its own terms. And while I was a fan of Spider-Man growing up and read the Ultimate line in high school, for whatever reason, I never got into his live-action adventures. The Sam Raimi movies felt like comical melodramas to me. The emotional beats were so heavy and the direction so broad, nothing about the Maguire movies hit -- not even Spider-Man 2, which people regard as one the best comic book movies of all time. I only caught the first Amazing movie. It was fine, but it was laying so much pipe with Peter's parents and a broader conspiracy that the movie's strongest pieces (namely the relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacey) felt a little squashed.

        This is a long way of saying: I really liked this movie. It's fast, funny, and features a great cast. It manages to strike a balance between Peter's high school dilemmas and super-heroics, which were always my favourite part of the character. I think the focus on Peter out of costume is what elevates the movie above the previous ones - it's more relatable, and adds some more stakes when his two lives start to converge.

        When it comes to the Spidey side of things, they really nail the characterisation. Spider-Man is very funny in the comics, but he's never been that cool or intimidating. Even under the costume, it's still a fifteen-year-old, and the movie always foregrounds that. He's just an earnest kid trying to do the right thing.

        And while he has powers, he's not that experienced or savvy, and director John Watts (had to bring him in at some point) emphasises the toll his adventures take on him. It means even when Peter is a CG character darting across the screen, the way he moves has a weight to it so it never feels like you are watching a video game. The sound design especially is a big help in this respect (I really liked the bit where he gets tangled in his parachute - Watts shoots it from inside the chute, which gives it the right sense of claustrophobia).

        Speaking of the action in overview, I really liked how reduced the stakes were; this really is a 'neighbourhood' Spider-Man. The set piece with the most stakes involves the ferry, but even that feels more real than some of the 'giant thing smashes other giant thing' which a lot of superhero movies rely on nowadays. And the finale with Michael Keaton's Vulture is pretty straightforward too. It's just two people scrabbling over the surface of a plane (and then a beach). It never feels bigger than it has to be.

        Onto the cast. They are all great. Holland is the first actor to play Peter Parker who actually seemed likeable (and wasn't 30). Batalon is great as his best friend and Michael Keaton... Man, this guy has been great for decades, and he is on great form here. He brings that off-kilter intensity to Adrian Toomes and makes him feel weirdly relatable. He's a blue collar guy looking out for his family, and the reveal that Peter's crush is his daughter was awesome. It adds a nice layer of tension to the usual teen awkwardness, and leads to the first real standoff between hero and villain. The fact that it is framed as a teen movie cliche - over-protective dad vs terrified date - makes it weirdly hilarious.

        And now to the other side of things. This movie is not perfect. 

        While I liked the fact that the movie did not try and regurgitate the origin, I felt like Peter's character lacked a starting point. It's like the filmmakers assume that we are going to be onboard with Peter from the beginning. Peter's arc becomes clear fairly quickly (he wants to become a real hero), but I never felt a sense of evolution or resolution of this arc at the end. 

        The female characters do not get a lot to do. They exist either to be pinned after (Harrier's Liz) or, in Zendaya Coleman's case, act as comic relief. She's really funny, but she exists solely to deliver jokes (points to her delivery of the bird - it is one of the biggest laughs in the movie). I hope they do more with the whole 'Allison in The Breakfast Club' thing she's doing.

        My other gripe with the movie is the music. We've had three tips at the bat now, and not one of the Spidey themes is memorable. When the most hummable piece of music is the theme from the TV show, you are in trouble. Michael Giacchino is the man, but after this and Rogue One, I'm starting to wonder.

        Final thoughts? As a teen comedy, Spider-Man: Homecoming is terrific; as a superhero movie, it's more immersive than usual; as a film in its own right, it's good, but a little superficial. Its adherence to the MCU is both a positive and a negative - it's a positive in that it positions Spider-Man in a broader context that actually makes him feel small (and hence more relatable). But it's a negative in that it demands a knowledge of the character from outside the movie, and that is a deficit. The movie is good, but it could have been even better.

        Despite its flaws, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a really fun movie. I am actually excited to see the next Spider-Man movie.

        Check it out.

        Friday, 7 July 2017

        BATMAN RETURNS: 25 years later

        Released in 1992, Batman Returns was the eagerly anticipated sequel to 1989's Batman. Controversial on release, the movie has undergone a critical revival in the decades since. Even with successive Bat-movies, it stands out as the most unique big screen take on the Dark Knight.

        Abandoned in the sewers as a child by his wealthy parents, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) has returned to Gotham to exact his revenge. His emergence to the surface world triggers the neurosis of the city's other crazed denizens: Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a rich business man with plans to milk the city for all its worth; his timid secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is ready to smash more than just the glass ceiling; and finally, Bruce Wayne, the solitary billionaire who sees in Cobblepot a reflection of his own inner freakishness.  

        One of my earliest memories is Batman. Like all kids in the nineties, there were plenty to choose from: The movies, the cartoon, sixties TV show and the toys were all part of my childhood. And while I liked them all, the one that always stuck in my head was Batman Returns. For whatever reason, my parents never bought it for me, and I only saw it a few times on VHS or TV.

        About ten years ago, around the time Batman Begins came out, I got curious to re-watch the old movies again, and to see if they stood up. I had not seen Batman Returns since the nineties, and had forgotten most of it by then. Re-watching it then and now, I am amazed at its imagination, its pathos and ability to make its dream-like world feel weirdly real.

        Compared with the original '89 Batman and the Schumacher films which followed it, Batman Returns feels like a film surrounded by TV commercials - Batman '89 gets by on its set design, Elfman's score and Nicholson's Joker; the Schumacher movies turn their characters into mannequins for the various costumes of the accompanying lines of Bat-related toys.

          On the surface Batman Returns is not that dissimilar to the rest of the franchise. The nineties Batman movies are criticised for having too many villains and not focusing on the title character, but in the case of Batman Returns, they at least serve a thematic purpose in that they reflect aspects of Bruce Wayne/Batman's character. While Burton keeps Batman in the shadows, the focus on the overlapping dynamics of his relationships with the movie's three other major characters serve to define his role within the film's bizarre diegesis.

          In his own deranged way, Danny DeVito's Oswald Cobblepot presents a flip side to Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne. Both are born of privilege, but due to childhood trauma they are forced to live as outsiders, unable to enjoy the privileges of their status. Abandoned by his wealthy parents for his freakish appearance, he presents a villainous inversion of the trauma that motivates Batman. But whereas Bruce is motivated to stop what happened to him from happening to anyone else, Cobblebot's is the exact opposite. With his parents dead, Cobblepot has expanded his sense of persecution to include the society his parents represented. By killing the first-born sons of Gotham, he intends to perpetuate his pain, triggering the grief that his parents never showed for him.

          If the film has a real villain, it is Christopher Walken's Max Shreck: a city father who projects an air of civic responsibility, in reality he is a heartless capitalist out to suck the city dry (rather like the person he is named after).  Ultimately he is the most outright evil character of the piece because he operates from a position of pure selfishness - all the other characters have some kind of underlying motivation. Max does not. The only thing he cares about is his identikit son, but even that affection is based on ego. Max just sees his son as an extension of himself, a perpetuation of his greed and ambition.

          Like Cobblepot, Max is a dark reflection of Bruce. Unlike Wayne, whose inherited wealth has not impeded his sense of empathy and philanthropy, Max is a self-made man whose self-reliance has warped into mono-mania. It's an interesting juxtaposition that highlights just how much of an outsider Bruce Wayne is among the jet set.

          The most iconic part of the movie is Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Beyond her look, I think the main reason this version of Selina Kyle has stuck in the pop culture psyche is that she remains the most interesting of the character's big screen incarnations.

          Sitting outside of the good-evil binary, Selina shares qualities with both Bruce/Batman and Cobblepot - neither a hero nor a villain, she is a rather unique character in that she is granted agency, and refuses to be aligned by either of the male characters. She even ends the movie on her own terms, rejecting Oswald and giving up a chance at a relationship with Bruce. This is a neat rebuke to the traditional, tidy romantic closure implied by the Bat films released either of this one.

          The relationship between Selina and Bruce is the most interesting dynamic in the movie. To be honest, it is surprisingly affecting considering how little screen time the characters actually share. The movie repeatedly juxtaposes sequences of their dual identities meeting/fighting/flirting, in a bizarre form of double courtship. Unlike Oswald, they are split. But whereas Bruce is able to seperate his two lives, Selina finds Catwoman to be a far more appealing persona. In rejecting Bruce at the climax, she is rejecting the idea of meek and mild Selina. 'I would love to live with you in your castle forever just like in a fairy tale. I just couldn't live with myself.' In this way, she further highlights how isolated Bruce is - even among the freaks, he can never be complete.

          As with all Burton movies, these are all interesting ideas that the movie kinda, sorta explores, but not in a way that resolves. Still its these character dynamics, as bizarre and haphazard as they may appear on the page, that make the movie so damn fascinating.

          From a technical standpoint, the movie is a marvel. Freed from the constraints of the previous movie, Burton directs the whole movie with pace, pathos and a wonderfully dark sense of humour. The photography features his signature blue tone (very Edward Scissorhands), and Danny Elfman's score is just sublime. His re-arrangment of the Batman theme for the opening credits is just the greatest. The cast are all great - the three villains are the clear standouts - and are aided by the wonderfully arch wordplay from Heathers scribe Daniel Waters, who, considering his previous experience, I am guessing was responsible for Selina Kyle's expanded role.

          The movie's not perfect - it does not really have a main character; the villains have multiple schemes which seem to switch repeatedly in importance; Gotham appears to house about 100 people and is about the size of a village square; and I don't understand why the Penguin dies at the end. There's a lot of stuff to pick at, but it just doesn't matter. It's like the filmmaker's vision is so coherent it can motor through plot problems and weird character beats (Batman killing the strong man) without disturbing the whole. 

          One of things that stands out about Batman Returns from the position of 2017 is how unconcerned it is with fidelity to its source or a broader continuity. Aside from the title, a few cast members and the odd reference to the previous movie, Batman Returns is a singular entity with its own sense of macabre internal logic. A rarity for the genre,  it feels of a piece with itself. With the genre's increasing reliance on continuity and a shared visual aesthetic, we are unlikely to see its like again.

          Monday, 3 July 2017

          SADE: Lovers Rock & Soldier of Love

          After the break between her previous albums, Sade Adu took an eight years to get another album out. In the interim, her band-mates took another projects, including their own album under the name Sweetback. Stuart Matthewman made the most of the break, contributing to the making of neo-soul icon Maxwell's debut album. In 2000, the stars realigned for the release of Lovers Rock.

          Lovers Rock (2000)
          I found this one a bit hard to get into at first. The style is completely different, at least on the surface -- thematically, the songs trade in the same ideas of past albums, with a heavier emphasis on failed relationships. On the other hand, there is more of a maturity and ruefulness to the lyrics which ring more true than her more studied and portentous material in the eighties.

          Featuring a more stripped down aesthetic and simpler arrangement, 'By Your Side' is something of a shock to the system. The simpler production means the music is more intimate and the sentiment never registers as an affectation. Even Adu's vocal feels genuine, and lacks the distance which is her signature.

          Bearing a resemblance to dub, 'Flow' boasts a simple hip hop-like beat and acoustic guitar. To be honest, even stripped of their signature aesthetic, this track really feels like classic Sade. It's too simple to be memorable but helps cement the band's change in sound.

          By the third track, 'King of Sorrow', the change gels. The more spare sound works well to humanise Adu, and allows the listener to really focus on her lyrics. While there is little change in theme (introspective soul searching is something of a cliche with this band) it does not feel tired or repetitive.

          A sombre torch song, 'Somebody Already Broke My Heart' benefits from some vague neo-soul influence (some judicious stabs of distorted guitar and soft beats feel like leftovers from a Maxwell session). 

          'All About Our Love' is a short but sweet love song. It makes one wish that Sade could deliver more concentrated shots of pop like this, rather than more of the languorous songs she usually delivers (even some of her best songs could be improved by better pacing and shorter length).

          'Slave Song' is a reggae-infused track about the history of slavery in the West Indies. It's a nice tip of the hat from the group toward the history and context behind the musical influences they are drawing on. As a song, it is not that memorable, but the lyrics are worth chewing on.
            'The Sweetest Gift' is dedicated to Sade Adu's new child. It is a sweet little number which furthers the album's more emotional tone (and makes a nice break from the usual relationship dramas).

            Mixing the album's acoustic guitar with chanting and a cello, 'Every Word' boasts a great musical backing, but the melody and lyric don't really stick in the mind that much. All the components are there but the result kind of sits there. Not bad, but not that memorable.

            The next track is 'Immigrant', a song  which picks up the historical and political themes of 'Slave Song'. It is another track that takes inspiration from West Indian culture and history. As a song, it feels more complete than that track. The lyrics are very evocative, referring to the same history as 'Slave Song'  and work well with the minimalist, hip hop-style beats.

            Titled after the musical genre that inspired the album, 'Lovers Rock' becomes a metaphor for the narrator's romantic partner. This song is about a character who is the flip side of all the smooth operators and Mr. Wrongs of albums past. The song has a nice beat to it, although it could lose the spoken word section.

            Zigging where you would expect them to zag, Sade end Lovers Rock with 'It's Only Love That Gets You Through', a piano ballad.In fact, this is one song where I feel like it could be even more stripped down - at certain points during the song, Sade Adu's vocals are mutli-tracked to emphasise specific lyrics. It just takes away a bit from intimacy of her voice and the piano. Overall though, it's a nice understated finale to the set.

            Overall, Lovers Rock is an album that is more impressive as a stylistic shift than as a collection of songs. While the musicianship and production remain on-point, there is something weirdly ephemeral about the individual tracks. Even with the best ones, I'm not sure there is a song that I can immediately recall like her previous albums.
              Soldier of Love (2010)
              Sade's most recent album, Soldier of Love is to its predecessor what Love Deluxe was to Stronger than Pride: a return to the classic format, with a few of the new ideas developed in Lovers Rock.

              The opening track, 'The Moon and the Sky', is a bit of a weird one. At the start it sounds like an unholy union between Lovers Rock with trip hop. Sade's voice is also weirdly interpolated with the backing chorus. It's all rather confusing.

              This is immediately redeemed by the title track, which stands as one of Sade's best. A 2010's update of a spaghetti western track, with jazzy guitar and hip hop beats, it's a gem. Sade Adu's voice has aged a little, but has lost none of its opaque allure. By itself, it's the best track Sade's done since 1992.

              Continuing the Latin motif of the previous song, 'Morning Bird' is a piano-led torch song that feels like an update of Sade's classic work. It's not nearly on the level of Promise or Stronger Than Pride, but it is atmospheric in a similar way to 'I Never Thought I'D See The Day'.

              A shift in more positive, up-tempo direction, 'Babyfather' sounds and feels like a sequel to Lovers Rock, although it feels tighter and melodic than anything on the previous album. An ode to parenthood, it is a sweet number that stands apart from the darker trend of Sade's work.

              One of the pleasures of Soldier of Love and its predecessor are its focus on real instruments. 'Long Hard Road' features a return to the interplay between acoustic guitar and cello from 'Every Word', although here these elements feel like essential parts of the song, rather than sonic ideas that don't quite connect to the tone of the lyrics. Here, the instruments complements the dark lyric, amplifying the themes of hardship and isolation, with Sade's usual steel providing a certain flicker of resistance and hope.

              Sade and country. It's not a combo that you would expect, but considering Sade's recurrent focus on bad relationships and strong women, 'Be That Easy' actually feels like an overdue take on the genre. While it's not the best track on the album (might have to listen a few more times), it is one of the more successful genre exercises on the album.

              One of the benefits of Sade's newfound minimalism is that it foregrounds the lyrics. 'Bring Me Home' opens the way most songs should: with a full-fledged Viking funeral. All jokes aside, the imagery of this song is very evocative, as Adu conjures various methods of going 'home', with the destination left pleasingly oblique: Heaven? Hell? Nothing? By the end of this song, it is clear that the war is over for the soldier of love. It should sound silly, but the combination of the violent imagery, Adu's typical understatement and the atmospheric musical bed make it more haunting than funny.

              Almost waltz-like in temp, 'In Another Time' is another wistful portrait of a woman dejected by her brushes with amour (think 'Sally' or 'Jezebel'). In a slight improvement, Adu tries to reassure her that all is not lost. Unlike the tragic heroines of previous songs, this one is offered a glimmer of hope. Love may end, but life goes on. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into the sax solo.

              'Skin' is one of the more interesting tracks on the LP. A song about starting over after a bad breakup, it uses the image of washing skin (or peeling off dirt) to represent this renewal. As a song it's too mellow and throwaway, but the lyrics at least show some imagination. And it's nice to see Sade stay away from wallowing in the post-break malaise. Nice to see even the band got sick of it.

              A fitting finale to the ideas of the previous songs, 'The Safest Place' is a reflective track in which Adu emphasises the importance of her emotional scars, and how they have made her a better person. Calling her heart a 'lonely soldier' who has been hardened by war, while her lyrics are dedicated to an unseen lover, they are really a salute to her own self-worth. She is now in place where she can afford to love, or not to love, as she sees fit. No more smooth operators or Mr Wrongs. She has been through all that before. She can handle all of it.

              A solid return, and a more successful change in direction than Lovers Rock, Soldier of Love benefits from a more sure handle on how to change the band's style while ensuring that the stylistic change works with the songs. Speaking of which, while most of the songs are not as memorable or catchy as her earlier work, they feel more well-constructed than on their previous album. And with the title track, Sade have created a great tune that stands up there with 'The Sweetest Taboo', 'Smooth Operator' and 'No Ordinary Love'.

              Soldier of Love came out over six years ago, with no news of future recordings since. We are back to the waiting game they have been playing since 1992. The last I heard of the singer was when Drake shared a photo on his Instagram account of them hanging out. Here's hoping that is a sign that the call will go out soon and the band will regroup to deliver another record.

              Previous reviews

              Sunday, 2 July 2017

              SADE: Stronger Than Pride & Love Deluxe

              Following the rapid release of their first two albums, Sade began the first of a series of extended breaks that see the band attain a level of mystery to accompany their fame. 

              Stronger Than Pride (1988)
              Featuring a more expansive and energetic sound than their first two albums, Stronger Than Pride represents both a culmination and a step forward for the band's established style.

              A bit more hot and heavy than her other albums, this one feels like the soundtrack to one of those erotic thrillers that came out around the same time as the album. Hit single 'Paradise' definitely sounds like it could be the theme song for Against All Odds or Body Heat.

              While the singles are solid, it is the deep cuts where Adu and the band really get to flex their muscles. The omnipresent melancholy feels less of an affectation.

              I'm not sure what to call the title track. It is built on a slow rhythm, and while the tempo never changes that much, it has a great sense of pace to it. A lot of Sade songs feel long but this one never does.
                Following this slow burn, 'Paradise' feels like a shot of adrenaline. The hit song off the album, it features a great beat to it. It feels like the band are really locked in.

                'Nothing Can Come Between Us' is less memorable, but maintains the same kind of tempo. It has a good melody, and the interplay between Sade and a backing male vocalist adds a little more pizzazz to it.

                Opening with acoustic guitar, 'Haunt Me' sounds exactly like its title. Joined by piano and Sade's voice, the song is an eerie experience abetted by the sense of space. Other instrumentation is mixed low, leaving the song as a largely instrumental duet between strings and keys. Sade often tries for mysterious and fails - 'Haunt Me' succeeds, and is one of the more memorable deep cuts on the album.

                Built on an off-kilter groove, 'Turn My Back On You' is the funkiest track on the album. The song has a dirty bass foundation that sets it apart. Adu's vocals are separated from the band - it sounds like she is being beamed in from another dimension. It's an odd effect, but means that she almost becomes the backing track for the band, who are on great form here. It's a pretty long song, but the band throws in enough solos and variations on the basic groove that it never grows stale.

                A more traditional Sade number, 'Keep Looking' is also built on a faster tempo, but feels more akin to 'Hang On To Your Love' or 'Paradise' than 'Turn My Back On You'. The guitar which helped give 'Haunt Me' such power returns. Once again, it is mixed louder than the rest of the instruments. It almost acts as a accent to Adu's vocals. It's familiar but with a dash of something new and spicy.

                More of a ballad, 'Clean Heart' slows things down as Adults returns to another story of love, loss and introspection. Once again, the band are on great form, and make the song feel fresh (there's some lovely muted trumpet sprinkled around).

                With strong percussion, 'Give It Up' picks up the pace but lacks 'Paradise's strong bottom end and catchy melody. It's pleasant enough, but it was not until I heard Vacation's (DJ John MCSwain) recent mashup with Drake's 'Get It Together', that it became clear what was missing.
                  Most famous for its use in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle True Lies, 'That'll Be The Day' is a haunting, introspective slow burn. It's not one of Sade's best known songs, but it is one of the stronger deep cuts. It's a good atmospheric piece - you can imagine it as the last song playing in a hotel bar - but has a strange, emotional pull that makes it linger in the mind. A hidden gem, and one of my personal favourites.

                  The album's finale is a real change of pace. 'Siempre Hay Esperanza' uses what sounds like a cheap drum machine as its rhythm section. It sounds odd at first, but when blended with other instrumentation (mostly sax and other percussion), it works. It should sound like the most Eighties track on the album, but it is so odd that it never feels completely contemporary. 

                  Overall, while Stronger Than Pride largely draws inside the lines of what you would expect from a Sade record, there are several curveballs in terms of style and instrumentation that make it feel like a step forward from the rigid template of the preceding albums.

                  Love Deluxe (1992)
                  One thing you can say about Sade is that they don't rush. Four years after their last album, Love Deluxe was released. More in line with the cool melancholy of her earlier albums than the relatively humid Stronger Than Pride, Love Deluxe delivered another hit single in 'No Ordinary Love', which gained a second wind after its inclusion in the 1993 film Indecent Proposal.

                  Love Deluxe is the first Sade album I ever bought, and that was largely because it had 'No Ordinary Love' on it. It was so good, I ended up letting the album play. I used to be a little leery of Sade, mainly because I'd heard so many people who called her a 'jazz' singer. I'm not that musically literate but I've never felt like she had much affinity with real jazz singers. Taken as a pop singer, she makes more sense.

                  One of Sade's best and most well-known songs, 'No Ordinary Love' opens the album on a high note. A return to the cool elegance of their first two albums, the song is a marvel of understatement and atmospherics. Like their best songs, it opens slow and minimalist, before gradually building in tempo and sound into a monster. It's great.

                  A slight change of pace, 'Feel No Pain' is a reggae-like track that is great at three minutes, but goes on for five. Built on a slow, steady groove, it's a pretty good song that feels just a smidge longer than it needs to be.
                    'Couldn't Love You More' is the Sade song per excellence. It's not the best Sade song ever, but it is the best example of what a Sade song is. For a song about love, it is surprisingly melancholiac. You could read it as a message to someone who has passed away).

                    More Latin in feel, 'Like a Tattoo' returns to the stripped-down, guitar-led sound of Stronger Than Pride. Adu's voice works best with a lot of space, and this kind of arrangement really adds a weight to the melancholy of the lyrics. In the same way that Promise built on and improved upon their debut, Love Deluxe feels like a refinement of Stronger Than Pride, and 'Like a Tattoo' is the perfect example of this evolution.

                    A piano ballad, 'Kiss of Life' is far more upbeat than the previous songs. Sade's vocal is warmer than usual melody is far more straightforward - the song is so positive ini sentiment, I started to think it was a gag. But no. The music does not deviate to the mordancy of the first half of the album, and Adu's lyrics never undercut the music's good vibes. An odd change of pace, but a welcome one.

                    Sounding like a precursor to every Dido song ever made, 'Cherish the Day' is another ballad about pining about a man you can't have. The guitar is the standout here - backed by electronic atmos, it gives the song a pathos that complements Adu's vocals. The final single off the album, it was later covered by Robert Glasper on his album Black Radio.

                    'Pearls' is a tribute to a poor pearl diver. It's a bit dubious in terms of its lyrical choices, and the lush orchestration over-eggs the whole thing. It's the one real dud on the album.

                    A minimalist funk number? A piano ballad? More low-key than 'Pearls', with a deliberately undercooked groove, 'Bullet Proof Soul' is one of the more intriguing tracks on the album. The metaphor of the lyrics is rather evocative, and is augmented by the idiosyncratic instrumentation.

                    Awash in world music-style synths, 'Mermaid' evokes the title character's aquatic environment in a style that feels very 1992. It might be the most contemporary Sade has ever sounded. An otherworldly instrumental, it is a strange, haunting way to close the album. Once again, Sade manage to tilt away from their formula at the right time.

                    Love Deluxe is not as consistent as Promise, nor as adventurous as Stronger Than Pride yet it remains one of Sade's best collections of songs. It makes a few changes to the basic template which, combined with the quality of the songs, ensures that album sounds of a piece with its predecessors without sounding too familiar.

                    Previous reviews

                    Saturday, 1 July 2017

                    SADE: Diamond Life & Promise

                    Following on from an exhaustive post about Aaliyah, The Midnight Ramble shifts focus to (coincidentally) one of her favourite singers, Sade Adu.

                    Diamond Life (1984)
                    I was a bit late to the Sade train. I am more into straight RnB and jazz, and Sade always felt a bit milquetoast and bland by comparison. I nabbed one of her albums a couple of years ago, and slowly I made me way through her entire discography -- thankfully she's only released six albums, so that did not take that long.
                        The album kicks off with the album's three best songs. Opening with spoken narration, 'Smooth Operator' slowly builds to the famous chorus. Combining Sade's smoky vocals with sax, at the time people confused the band as a jazz group. To be honest, the album cut goes on a bit too long. The single version cuts to the first lyric and shortens the sax solo, stripping the song down to what it is -- a pop song about a sociopathic man who floats through life using and discarding women.

                        'Your Love Is King' is more upbeat, but suffers a bit from Sade's reticent vocal style and the band come off a bit too stiff to really sell the song's sentiment. It's still one of the best songs on the album.

                        'Your Love Is King' and 'Smooth Operator' became justifiable hits, and it's easy to see why. They are solid pop songs with memorable choruses and strong melodies. The jazzy trappings only helped to differentiate the group from their contemporaries. While somewhat alien in 1984, you can definitely see their influence on the rise of neo-soul in the next decade.

                        Following the double whammy of two of her signature songs, 'Hang On To Your Love' is the standout of the deep cuts. Pitched in a slightly more energetic vein, 'Hang On To Your Love' builds a strong groove and keeps it going for over six minutes without flagging. A lot of Sade songs go on a few minutes too long, but this is the rare case where the length feels justified.

                        After a strong opening salvo, the album dips a bit.

                        'Frankie's First Affair' has a memorable chorus, but feels a bit too lethargic -- this is one of those songs where the song would have benefitted from a faster pace.

                        Along similar lines, 'When Am I Going to Make a Living?' is the funkiest track on the album, but it could use just a bit more energy - the singer's natural chill deadens some of the song's impact. I have a feeling this is one that sounds great live.

                        'Cherry Pie' opens promisingly, with wah wah guitar, synth piano and Sade Adu cooing wordlessly. But then the lyrics start, and the song sags. Adu actually sounds like she's about to fall asleep during this song. The mixing of her vocals is also odd. There are sections where the backing track is noticeably louder than her voice. A mix of interesting bits and bobs, 'Cherry Pie' outstays its welcome about three minutes in, and then proceeds to keep going for another three.

                        'Sally' is slow-burning torch song that feels like a dry run for the band's second album, Promise. A dark tale of a long-suffering woman dealing with the bad man in her life, its mordant subject gels with the band's slow-burn approach. Adu's icy delivery ensures that lyrics do not come off as melodramatic.

                        I still do not get the intent behind 'I Will be Your Friend' - it comes across as weirdly sappy and maudlin. This is another song where the band's style and the song's arrangement do not gel.

                        A cover of a song by Timmy Thomas, 'Why Can't We Live Together' closes the record. Opening with a soft, Latin drum beat, the band members slowly join in. the effect is subtle and rather arresting -- until Adu jumps in around the two-minute mark. Against the band's slow-cooking groove, her delivery comes across as too upbeat and (somehow) flat. This is another song where Adu's voice also feels buried in the mix. It's worth listening to for the band, but this is the one song where Adu is the faulty component.

                        It's an odd way to kick off, but I have to admit I'm a bit cold on this one. While it establishes Sade's sound, Diamond Life has plenty of dead spots. The big hits all work, but as an album it doesn't quite cook the way her later ones do.

                        Promise (1985)
                        Released a year after their blockbuster debut, Promise gave Sade another hit record and one of their best songs, 'Sweetest Taboo'. Both of Sade's first two albums were recorded live, and so it makes sense to review them side-by-side, if only to see how far the band has developed since their debut.

                        Straight of the gate, 'Is It A Crime' shows that singer Sade Adu and the band have worked out the kinks and found their groove as a group. Unlike their debut, the songs on Promise don't feel like they are being forced to fit the band's style. Instead songs like 'Is It A Crime' feel totally in sync with the band's restrained approach.

                        Beginning to end, 'The Sweetest Taboo' is a joy. While not markedly different in approach to their debut cuts, on 'The Sweetest Taboo' the band sound looser and more alive, while Adu feels more engaged. Opening with rain, the slow build of the melody and Sade's teasing delivery all combine to deliver one of the band's best songs.

                        'War of the Hearts' veers toward being too long (at 6:30, it's the album's longest cut), but benefits from great production. Adu's vocals are mixed so that they ride on top of the band. The piano, percussion and sax are each given a slight echo which, when combined with Adu's multi-tracked vocals, adds to the song's other-worldly vibe.

                        Filled with melodramatic metaphors about bad romance, 'You're Not The Man' is helped along by the band's performance and the album's crystal clear production. Otherwise it's a bit by-the-numbers.

                        'Jezebel' is another song about a woman punished solely for her beauty. Its sentiment is as obvious as its title, but it's helped by a strong performance from the band -- the guitar work is especially noteworthy, adding a genuine sense of pathos to Adu's lyrics.

                        A spiritual sequel to 'Smooth Operator', 'Mr Wrong' feels like the soundtrack to a film noir, and that retro feel extends throughout the song. In fact with a few alterations, this could have been sung by Julie London or Peggy Lee.

                        Promise often sounds like a recording a nightclub band 20 minutes before closing time, and no track better encapsulates that atmosphere than 'Punch Drunk'. An instrumental, it is the one time that the band sounds remotely like a jazz ensemble, albeit of the ultra-smooth quality.

                        'Never as Good as the First Time' is almost as good as 'The Sweetest Taboo'. It has a memorable melody and even manages to be a bit funky during the chorus.

                        Sade songs tend to follow the same subject matter, but 'Fear' offers an example of how much presentation can invigorate an over-used subject. Re-framing a woman's fear of the man in her life through the metaphor of a matador in the ring. Turning into a perverse bolero, with bizarre sound effects, squealing sax and Spanish lyrics, it is one of the more unique songs on the record.

                        'Tar Baby' is about a white woman coming to grips with her daughter's mixed-race child. A rather heart-warming tale of shaking off old prejudices, it is more upbeat than the usual tales of bad love affairs that Sade is known for.

                        And just to complicate things even further, 'Maureen' juxtaposes a bouncy, effervescent backing track against the narrator's eulogy for her hard-partying friend 'Maureen', who will never get to meet her 'new friends'. Despite the subject matter, it marks a welcome change of pace and a nice conclusion to the album.

                        Tied with Stronger Than Pride as my favourite Sade album, Promise really should be called 'Promise Delivered'. Unlike her debut, I feel like this one flows better, on a track-to-track basis. It has so many great tracks: 'Sweetest Taboo' is a highlight, but there are no weak links.

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