Wednesday, 30 August 2017

NZIFF 2017: Dramas

I have volunteered at the New Zealand International Film Festival since 2010. I started reviewing the festival in 2015 -- and I feel like that was the high point. In 2016, I was unable to do too many shifts due to other commitments, and I don't think my reviews were that interesting.

I managed to see quite a lot in 2017. Too many, as it turns out. To make the posts as reader-friendly as possible I am going to group the reviews (roughly) according to genre and release them one at a time over the next few months.

Let's jump in.

Beatriz at Dinner (dir. Miguel Arteta)
I have enjoyed Miguel Arteta's previous movies (Youth in Revolt and Cedar Rapids), and I like Salma Hayek, but this movie felt a bit like a breakthrough for both of them.

A practitioner of alternative medicine, Beatriz (Hayek) finds herself attending a dinner hosted by her wealthy clients. Lost in this alien environment, she finds her world view challenged by the callous self-absorption of her hosts and their guests.

Another movie based around an awkward dinner party, Beatriz at Dinner benefits from a terrific lead performance and understated, razor-sharp direction.

Salma Hayek is the real calling card here. The movie is good, but every time she is onscreen the movie is elevated to greatness. Beatriz is a potentially frustrating character: incredibly empathetic and spiritual, she does not talk so much as monologue. With someone else in the role, Beatriz could have been a hippy caricature, a joke, but Hayek gives the character a weight and earnestness that prevents this from happening.

John Lithgow plays Doug Strutt, a billionaire who becomes Beatriz's moral and ideological opponent. Like the title character, Strutt could have been an archetype of white male privilege. He is, but Lithgow underplays the bluster, giving Strutt a noxious level of self-confidence that feels more real.

Overall, the cast here are really terrific (Connie Britten is also good as the woman who invites Beatriz to dinner). Considering the issues the movie deals with, the cast do a great job to underplay the subtext. Nobody plays it too big or obvious, and so what could have been obvious and didactic is instead a skewering of the superficial morals and empathy of upper-class white people.

The third act I found somewhat puzzling. Beatriz is eventually ejected from the dinner. She does not really gain the upper hand or change any minds. After daydreaming about stabbing Strutt to death, she leaves in a taxi and goes to the coast, where she runs into the sea and disappears. The implication is that she is going to swim home to Mexico.

Is this sequence real? Is it a fantasy?

It is the one beat that I do not quite have a handle on. If this is her response to having views challenged is to a) commit suicide or b) revert to a childhood fantasy, then the movie is not saying anything complimentary about her principles.

When I first made my notes for this review, it was late July. Some pretty crazy shit has happened in the US in the month since, and it made me reconsider some of my initial impressions.

Thinking about the hypocrisy of the dinner guests, and their willingness to laugh off Strutt and the damage he is causing to people outside their bubble, it reminded me of the statistics breaking down the voting patterns in the last US presidential election. This movie is clearly designed to viewed through the prism of contemporary politics, but I feel that you could have made this movie at any time. The underlying issues of race and class would remain the same.

Beatriz spends the movie trying to remember where she knows George Strutt from. She recalls another gringo who came to her home town with false promises of jobs and prosperity, but just ended up destroyed her community. Ultimately it turns out that Strutt was not that man - but the movie's point is that it does not matter. Strutt is sadly just one member of this upper echelon. But the people who have given him power are the people who give him a free pass so that their lives can continue to prosper in his shadow. The movie is extremely bleak.

Overall, Beatriz at Dinner is a really enjoyable flick, and a sadly relevant indictment of America's white upper-classes.

Una (dir. Benedict Andrews)
Based on the play Blackbird by David Harrower, Una is directed by Benedict Andrews (making his film debut after a career as a director for the stage), and stars Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn.

A young woman, Una, (Mara) tracks down Ray (Mendelsohn) , the man who abused her years ago, looking for answers. Their confrontation does not go the way she expected...

Though it informs Una's journey, this movie is obsessed with frustrating any sense of closure or catharsis. The film is extremely oblique in style and tone - at the level of editing and (especially) sound design, the director Andrews never lets the characters or viewer get comfortable.

Like the central character, the viewer is constantly disoriented and displaced. We get brief flashes of Una and Ray's relationship, but not enough to cement anything. Rather than reveal anything, these slivers of the past just add more questions that the filmmakers never address. Even at the climax, a potential confrontation is deflected.

The acting by the principals matches the style of the movie. Mara's accent comes and goes, bt she gives Una a fractured quality which encapsulates the character's anger and confusion. Simultaneously strong and weak, worldly yet childlike, Mara is terrifically understated.

As Ray, Mendelsohn is a study in unreadability. Is Ray's remorse genuine, or is he just continuing his manipulation of Una? By the end o fate movie, it is hard to empathise with the character, yet Mendelsohn manages to articulate his sense of helplessness (which makes Ray even more unsettling).

Nobody fits into an easy box here. Una is a deliberately messy movie, framing catharsis and resolution as alien concepts, as inapplicable as young Una's romantic dream of running away with Ray.

If you are looking for easy solutions and  a tidy ending, this movie is not for you. Una does not tread lightly around its subject, and the filmmakers' avoidance of a more conventional structure and resolution does it justice. As Una recognises, there are no easy answers, and the wounds Ray has caused cannot be repaired.

A tough, uncompromising look at child abuse, Una is a tough watch but definitely worth a look, particularly for the performances.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Deborah Cox (1995)

Deborah Cox was one of the singers to emerge out of the post-Whitney/Mariah nineties. Like Houston, she was signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records, and it looked like Cox could follow in her footsteps. Released in 1995, Cox's debut is a solid showcase that sets the stage for her breakout three years later.

    One of the album's singles, 'Sentimental' is a solid torch song augmented by a strong vocal from Cox. The smooth production is a perfect example of mid-nineties adult contemporary, with some (extremely light) beats signalling the industry's acceptance of hip hop as part of the mainstream.

    Things get a little more funky on 'Who Do U Love', which gives her more of a chance to really stretch out. The dance remix at the end of the CD is just as much fun, just sped up and with more interplay between Cox and the backing vocalists.

    Since Cox is often compared to Whitney Houston, there has to be a few big ballads. 'I'm Your Natural Woman' fits the profile well. Cox's performance really adds some guts to the song, which has one of those melodies that could put you to sleep.

    'The Sound of My Tears' is a fairly typical ballad lifted by some nice instrumental choices - the introduction of the organ partway through is a nice touch.

    'Call Me' starts out with tinkling piano, which feels like a bad sign. And then the chorus and the song switches gears. The piano is augmented by a strong beat and another strong performance from Cox. This is one of those songs where a belter of a chorus, strong production and a strong vocal are really essential. Without those elements it might have sounded a tad repetitive.

    A hip hop ballad, 'My Radio' sounds like something off Aaliyah's first album. Cox's vocal is the thing that makes it stand out - her voice can swing between sweet and tough without effort. She makes a good use of her lower register here, and displays a versatility within these contemporary productions that I don't think Houston could have pulled off.

    Another big ballad, 'Never Gonna Break My Heart Again'. Once again Cox sells the vocal, but the song is a little paint-by-numbers. To be honest, most of the straight ballads on this record are less engaging than the other tracks on the album. Cox does not embarrass herself with any of them, but they do feel the most generic parts of the record.

    More of a hip hop number, 'It Could've Been You' sees Cox go into her lower range, adopting a growling delivery that conveys the song's frustration. Songs like this show that the Whitney comparisons are pretty lazy - here she plants her flag in territory that Anita Baker and Toni Braxton traverse with ease. It's a strong, bolshy performance that really shows off Cox's range and sass.

    After getting fired up, Cox dials it back for 'My First Night With You', a slow ballad written by Diane Warren and Babyface. Later to became a hit for Mya, the song is a bit maudlin for my tastes, but that's Diane Warren's forte. Cox's voice is better than Mya's, but the song is merely okay.

    One of the more baffling tracks on the album is her remake of the SOS Band classic 'Just Be Good To Me'. The first problem is that it sounds almost exactly the same as the original. However, the heavy percussion and insanely tight beat of the original has been replaced with lighter synths which kill the pace. Without the tight bass lines Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis brought to it, this cover is just too slow, which neuters its effect (the synth keyboard is also really annoying). Cox's vocal is fine, but she follows the original so closely that she never gets to really dominate the song. It's a bummer, because in the last thirty seconds she cuts loose. It's the one time it feels like her song.  With a different arrangement  foregrounding her voice, it could have been a winner. As is, it's stillborn.

    The remix of 'Who Do U Love' blows the original out of the water. Featuring an alternative vocal from Cox, this song charges out of the gate with the singer vocalising over the song's melody on piano and a muffled beat. Featuring an energetic back and forth with the backing chorus, it sounds like Cox is finally free of the Whitney Houston template the producers are trying to impose on her.

    Following the sugar rush of this remix, 'Where Do We Go From Here' is a bit of a downer. Nothing against the song - it is a big ballad ala Whitney and Mariah - but it is clear that Cox is a more interesting vocalist when she is not aping the stars she bears a vague resemblance to.

    The set I own is the UK edition, which ends with a remix of 'Sentimental' produced by Francis Buckley with a more hip hop flavour. Heavier beats and harder grooves are pushed to the fore - Cox's vocal appears to be the same as the original, and actually works better in this setting.

    A strong album that set Cox up as another challenger to Whitney Houston's throne, there is plenty of filler but the strong tracks show that she is a far more interesting vocalist than that elevator pitch would suggest.

    Related posts

    Whitney Houston (1985)

    Thursday, 24 August 2017

    SEXY* DOUBLE BILL! Unforgettable & When The Bough Breaks

    This review was meant to celebrate the release of the terrifically trashy Unforgettable, starring Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl. But the Hoyts website lied abut the release date. Whatever! Thanks to the powers of dubious streaming sites, the Midnight Ramble is proud to present reviews of Unforgettable AND last year's surrogate pregnancy thriller When The Bough Breaks!  

    Unforgettable (Denise DiNovi, 2017)
    There is nothing like a good old-fashioned erotic thriller. They were Hollywood's bread and butter back in the eighties and nineties, but the genre hit a wall around the millennium. The genre has seen a small resurgence in the last couple of years, after Screen Gems executive Will Packer started producing a series of old school erotic thrillers with African American casts.

    There is sadly no Screen Gems film scheduled for this year, but what we do have is Unforgettable, released by Twentieth Century Fox, which has two things the Screen Gems movies have lacked: An R rating and Katherine Heigl's icy stare.   

    Trying to move on from an abusive former boyfriend, Julia (Rosario Dawson) has found a new love in David (Geoff Stults), a single dad. Moving across country to be with her new love, Julia adjusts to her new life with David and his daughter Lily. However, her happiness is soon under threat from David's deranged ex-wife, Tessa (Katherine Heigl), who is determined to destroy her rival and reclaim her family.

    From the beginning, Unforgettable sounded promising. It was originally set to be directed by Amma Asante (Belle, A United Kingdom), and star Kerry Washington (Yay!) and Kate Hudson (whatever). These three dropped out, and the movie became a vehicle for Katherine Heigl and the directorial debut of long-time studio executive Denise Di Novi (Heathers, Ed Wood, and uh, Catwoman). In its favour, the trailer teased a mega-cat fight between the leads ala Obsessed, and it stars Dawson, who makes everything she's in just a little bit better.

    Off the top, this movie is way better than its Rotten Tomatoes score. It's no masterpiece, but as a suspenseful time-waster, it does the business. Like all the great trashy thrillers of old this movie puts a lot of effort into making Tessa the biggest bitch in the world and Heigl is friggin' amazing.

    The early part of the movie is a slow burn campaign of passive aggression, as Tessa needles Julia without ever showing her hand. She really is capable of anything: breaking into her house; baiting Julia's ex; staging her daughter's own kidnapping. And that's just in the first thirty minutes.

    Tessa is clearly insane from the beginning, but the way her actions escalate is really well-handled. Just when you start to wonder why Tessa is the way she is, Cheryl Ladd turns up as her mother. Jesus. Heigl is really creepy in this movie, but Ladd takes it to the land of Stepford. Snipping every time her daughter drags her cutlery; advising her to see a dermatologist; and disapproving that Tessa didn't bake the cupcakes she is offering -- you can see why Tessa is round the bend.

    This movie is bobbins, but the escalation of Tessa's campaign against Julie is really well-handled. It goes bonkers in the last 15 minutes, but her gaslighting - built around social media and a few missing bits of jewellery - is all too believable.

    In terms of direction, DiNovi handles the movie pretty well. The acting is the strongest part of the movie, boosted by some great photography by Caleb Deschanel. He turns Heigl into a gothic nightmare, floating through scenes in her impeccable wardrobe, face frozen in a permanent frown. During the climax, she is attired an old-fashioned, flowing white nightgown, which Deschanel uses - through lighting - to turn Tessa into a ghostly wraith. It is genuinely unsettling.

    I've been really complimentary toward this movie so far, but I have to say that this movie's tone is really weird. At times it feels about as visceral as a Hallmark movie, but then the filmmakers will fixate on some great detail or sequence and it's like the movie gets a charge of electricity - just take any scene involving horses, mirrors, combs, silverware or Facebook. The movie is far from perfect, but it has this uncanny ability to get under your skin when it wants to.

     The final fight is pretty unremarkable, Greg Stults is completely un-winning as the ladies' love object and the movie really has no soul. That being said, Unforgettable is weird and creepy enough that I think it deserves another look. Check it out.

    When The Bough Breaks (Jon Cassar, 2016)
    Last year I did a couple of reviews on the Screen Gems thrillers Obsessed, No Good Deed and The Perfect GuyIt took awhile, but here at long last is my review of the latest chapter in the Screen Gems production line, When The Bough Breaks!

    John and Laura (Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall) are in their forties and are trying to have a baby. After years of trying, they have decided to go the surrogacy route. They are down to their last embryo, and losing hope that they will ever get to become parents. But then they meet a young woman, Anna (Jaz Sinclair), who seems to be the answer to their prayers...

    The trailers for this movie were great. The previous movies, whatever their various merits, were assembled from pretty recognisable templates: basically any erotic thriller from 25 years ago, minus the R rating. This one felt like more akin of those movies, but slightly more original than the previous Screen Gems offerings. 

    Like those 80s and 90s thrillers, When The Bough Breaks looks very nice -- the photography definitely shows more attention to composition, and it has the kind of smoky, lush colour palette that those movies had. And while it has a PG13, this movie veers the closest to the tone of those old thrillers with some more overt nastiness.

    Once again the movie is pretty chaste when it comes to the 'eros' part of the movie -- there is little nudity, and not much sex. When it comes to the 'thriller' side of the equation, this movie is surprisingly vivid: among the highlights we get are a bloody stabbing; a creepy scene in which Anna self-harms in the bath while singing 'Rockabye Baby'; a vulnerable pet; and a fist fight-turned-birth sequence.

    My big beef with the previous movies is that they are very predictable. Here, the script adds more complications, including a secondary antagonist who makes the plot harder to predict. Initially Anna is under the thumb of her psycho boyfriend Mike (Sons of Anarchy's Theo Rossi). At first, it looks like the movie is going to turn into a blackmailing scam. But then Anna falls in love with John and kills Mike. 

    Jaz Sinclair makes for a far better femme fatale than Ali Larter in Obsessed. They give her character an extremely dark backstory. It's hard to make a pregnant woman the villain, but this movie throws everything it can at Anna to make her as evil as possible. Of course it turns out she is not who she says she is.

    I really liked Morris Chestnut in this movie -- he didn't really have much to do in The Perfect Guy but here he is the centre of all the action. As the situation escalates, he handles the movie's darker tones well.

    The rest of the cast are a little underserved. Regina Hall is fine, but her character is made the vehicle for the script's more ham-fisted plot turns. It's a bummer, because she is so good in so many thingsMichael K Williams turns up as a gumshoe, which sounds better than it ends up being. His role is just a way for Chestnut to learn about Anna's backstory.

    The third act of this movie feels like three different ideas grafted on to each other. This is not a bad thing -- it gives the movie some more set-pieces, and takes a pleasing detour into absolute insanity. It's the one time the movie heads toward Obsessed territory.

    When The Bough Breaks features two fights. The first one is between Hall and Sinclair. It's not that long, but it introduces the idea that Sinclair's pregnancy has given her super-strength. Just as the action looks like it might be revisiting the Beyonce-Ali Larter title bout, her water breaks. After the birth, Sinclair disappears with the baby and Chestnut goes looking for her.

    This tussle between Sinclair and Chestnut is... so hard to explain without it coming out wrong. It feels oddly evocative of the ending to Aliens, with Chestnut as Ripley and Sinclair as the Alien Queen. If you can picture these two actors next to each other, this second matchup is completely barmy. A key section features Chestnut tiptoeing into Sinclair's bedroom to steal his baby back while she sleeps beside it. Of course she wakes up and we get the least convincing final fight since the Van Damme-Raul Julia rumble at the end of the Street Fighter movie.

    It is so unequal, you can't help but laugh. When Chestnut throws Sinclair through a glass table AND a glass cabinet, I howled. And that's not even the end of the scene. No more spoilers. It's a popcorn finish to a popcorn movie, and worth whatever amount of money you paid for it.

    Of all of these movies, this one is an easy favourite -- it is the best directed, has a lot of set-pieces, and while the sexy stuff is neutered, the movie's violence is on-point, which gives the movie an edge over its predecessors. The finale is also filled with so many OTT beats that I had to give it the (non-existent) trophy.

    On this evidence, I cannot wait for the next one of these movies to come down the pipe. Eventually one of these movies is going to kick major ass. These movies don't cost much and there is clearly an audience, so hopefully they give one of these projects to a young up-and-comer, like Blumhouse does. I feel like the pieces are there for something really terrific.

    Related reviews

    Obsessed (2009)

    *It's not that sexy

    Tuesday, 22 August 2017

    AFS Screening: Fatima (Philippe Faucon, 2015)

    In a break from the classic Hollywood of my last couple AFS reviews, here's something more contemporary.

    Fatima (Soria Zeroual) is an immigrant from Algeria. She works all day as a cleaner while looking after her daughters. Fatima struggles to balance her commitments while trying to better her situation by taking French classes. Nesrine (Zita Hanrot) is a medical student, struggling with her studies and the pressures of her mother's generation, who think she is above them. Meanwhile, Fatima's younger daughter Souad (Kenza Noah Aiche) is rebelling at school. She feels embarrassed about her mother's status and inability to fit in. Events come to a head.
    I had never heard of this movie before, and the awards plastered on its poster, made me think it was going to be typical Oscar-bait fare, an overly important drama about a social issue that manages to miss the mark (e.g The Help). Thankfully it was nothing like that.
    A movie about people trying to connect with each other, despite cultural and language barriers. It is filtered through a coming-of-age frame, as Fatima tries to contend with her daughters and their growing pains. Each generation are separated by culture and language; while they attempt to make inroads (the girls are as shaky with Arabic as Fatima is with French), this divide is widened every time the family hits a speed bump (Souad skipping class).

    What I really liked about Fatima was that it did not build to a major 'movie' crisis - no one died or got into crime. These people are going through everyday problems and issues. The filmmakers recognise that these problems are enough drama, when the main character who is still negotiating a new language and culture.

    In the lead role, Soria Zeroual is very stoic and reserved. She does not get any big moments that you would see in a trailer (or at an awards ceremony). Fatima is a woman stuck in a place where she does not feel comfortable, and Zeroual's performance embodies that sense of bafflement and dislocation. There is a quiet pathos to her portrayal that grows throughout the picture.

    As her daughters, Hanrot and Aiche are also good, but their roles are more tangential.

    Stylistically the movie is unadventurous, but it works for the story. Faucon makes good use of focus and mise-en-scene to isolate Fatima within the frame. The only times she is in a secure position is in her apartment - whenever she is out of this comfort zone, she is either stuck behind other characters or framed in closeup with other characters out of focus behind her (the parent-teacher conference is particularly strong example of this visual strategy).

    I generally try to make these reviews a bit longer, but I do not have much to say about this one. Watching it as someone without the cultural context of either being Algerian or French, there is probably some things I am missing. 

    If I have one note, it is that the movie is so short that I wanted more. On the other hand, I also have no idea what could be added.

    There you have it. Fatima, an award-winning drama that won't make you want to jump out a window.

    Previous AFS reviews

    Purple Noon (2015)

    The Servant 

    Eyes Without A Face 

    Night of the Demon (2016)

    Grand Central

    Tales of Hoffman

    Saturday, 19 August 2017

    IN THEATRES: Logan The Informant!

    Indiewood darling Steven Soderbergh has returned from self-imposed retirement with the heist movie Logan Lucky.

    Wanting to break his family's run of bad luck, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) enlists his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), his sister Mellie (Riley Keough) and convicted bank robber Joe Bang (daniel Craig) for a heist during the Coca-Cola 600 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend (which means more money).

    Coming out of this movie, I was struggling to come up with thing sot write for this review. It wasn't bad; neither was it great. It's just... okay. The movie cruises along, flirting with comedy and drama, but never building on either.

    Tatum's character has a subplot with his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), which proves pivotal for his character turn, but there is little sense of real build-up, so when his character makes final choice, it does not feel earned.

    The heist is cool - it requires a prison break during a riot - but in terms of execution it never feels that tense. It is also not funny enough.

    The acting is fine - Tatum is a solid lead, and has a good rapport with Driver as his brother. However it never really feels like he is the centre of the action. Driver is the most interesting character - a war veteran who lost an arm. He manages to evoke a man with a sense of loss and lack of direction with a deft touch - his deadpan delivery is also the funniest thing in the movie. I wish other aspects of the picture were as multifaceted as his performance.

    Daniel Craig is fine, although I was distracted by his accent. It is pretty good but I always felt like I was watching an actor playing a character. The only time I believed him is in the scene where he confronts Driver after it seems Tatum has betrayed them. It is the one time I felt a sense of motive and emotion behind an interaction.

    The one misfire in the cast is Seth MacFarlane. This guy is just not made for live action. Combined with his British accent and bizarre hairstyle, he feels like a sketch character. Every time he was in a scene it pulled me out of the movie.

    Soderbergh is on record as saying he is good at neutralising sentimentality and melodrama, scenes and moments which are usually played bigger (think back to the quiet close to Ocean's 11, or the ending to Erin Brockovich). He does underplay the movie's more emotional sequences (such as Sadie's beauty pageant), but there is something missing from Rebecca Blunt's script which means Soderbergh's direction smoothes everything out so there is never any real sense of stakes or emotional payoff.

    Watching Logan Lucky made me yearn for the Soderbergh of old. And since I do not have much more to say about his latest project, here's a review of one of his more underrated works, 2009's The Informant!

    Based on a true story, The Informant! tells the story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), an executive at the food processing and commodities trading corporation Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) who blew the whistle on his company's price-fixing strategy for lysine, a corn-based additive in the livestock industry. Whitacre becomes an FBI informant, but quickly becomes a liability as his fantasies of being a secret agent interfere with his 'mission'.

    Soderbergh loves to come up with a very specific take on what could be a conventional story. Sometimes it works (the New Hollywood-inspired Out of Sight); sometimes it does not (the Michael Curtiz homage The Good German). With The Informant!, Soderbergh was faced with a story filled with so many unbelievable details that would have been lost in a straight treatment.

    The result is a brilliant juxtaposition of style to material: Because the movie is from Whitacre's POV, and the character is such a fantasist, Soderbergh styles the movie like a sixties spy movie. Marvin Hamlisch's (The Sting) score recalls the jazzy style of James Bond and the Pink Panther, while Soderbergh shoots the movie with an emphasis on faded colour palette and lighting strategies that recall the freewheeling, improvised style of seventies comedies.

    And then there is the film's trump card: the narration.

    Whitacre's narration is a marvel, revealing no new information except the depth of the character's dementia. It does not take long for you to realise that this device is not conveying information - it is merely reflecting Whitacre's detachment from reality, and focus on minutiae.

    For the first two thirds of the movie, The Informant! is a breezy, offbeat comedy about a feckless rub stumbling through a low-stakes version of The Insider. Once the court case begins, the truth spills out: Whitacre has been embezzling money from the company; he hires a personal injury lawyer who turns up to court in a Hawaiian shirt; he ends up diagnosed with bipolar disorder; and he winds up going to prison for a far longer sentence than any of the men his work helped convict.

    Damon is perfect in the lead - he inhabits Whitacre's bland, gormless persona completely. He gives Whitacre a sense of self-belief and an earnestness which only serves to highlight how truly bizarre Whitacre's actions are. You can believe that the unassuming Whitacre could get away with his 'secret mission'.

    Bakula and Melanie Lynskey (as Whitacre's wife Ginger) added a baffled credibility to proceedings, while Soderbergh heightens the sense of irony by casting comedians (Joel McHale, Tony Hale, Paul F. Tompkins, Andy Daly and the Smothers Brothers) in supporting roles. 

    While it got good reviews on release, The Informant! failed to catch fire at the box office. I remember seeing it at the theatre and not thinking much of it, but over time it just stuck with me. I have re-watched it a couple of times, and it just gets better every time.

    If you're in the mood for a Soderbergh fix, take another look at The Informant!

    Monday, 14 August 2017

    BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin, 2013)

    An ingenious spin on the 'locked room' thriller, Last Passenger has sadly gone under the radar. I only caught it a few weeks ago online.

    A small group of passengers on a late night train from London discover that the train has been hijacked by a madman, who is intent on crashing it. As the train speeds up, they struggle to come up with a plan to stop the lunatic before he reaches the end of the line.

    One of the few suspense pictures that lives up to the 'Hitchcockian' tag, Last Passenger is the directorial debut of Omid Nooshin, who on this evidence should have been snatched up by Hollywood years ago.

    With a solid cast led by Dougary Scott (Mission: Impossible II), Last Passenger is an elegantly rendered little potboiler with a superb understanding of pacing and tension. Set entirely on a few train cars, Last Passenger is a terrific example of doing a lot with very little. Even better, the movie never devolves into following easy cliches: the villain, for instance, is barely shown - we see his back and a hand, but nothing more. And we never get an insight into his motives, which augments the sense of menace.

    You would think this would handicap the movie's effect, but the script is smart enough to focus on how the pressures of their predicament affect our heroes. The film is rather brutal, but not in terms of violence. As the situation grows more desperate, the characters' mutual alliance is shaken and they begin to crack. We don't get a lot of backstory (or, heaven forbid, flashbacks) to shade the characters - instead Nooshin, along with co-writers Andrew Love and Kas Graham, give us just enough in snatches of dialogue and behaviour to define the characters, and then use the increasing stakes of the scenario to bring out the characters' true natures.

    The acting across the boarding is strong without being showy. Scott, an underrated talent, provides a strong centre as Lewis, a single dad who is trying to maintain an aura of calm for his young son while trying to figure out a way to get out of the situation. David Schofield is also notable for managing to take a stock character turn and playing it so you never see it coming.

    A good thriller knows how to use sound and cinematography effectively, and on both of these counts Last Passenger is a delight. The use of focus and handheld camerawork in particular are wonderful, drawing the viewer's eye to specific areas within the frame. What is so great about the movie from a style point of view is that it is completely seamless and tied to the story.

    Also notable for featuring a believable, non-annoying child performance from Joshua Kaynama and a wonderfully malignant score from Liam Bates (very Bernard Herrmann), Last Passenger is that rare beast, a fully-realised genre picture. Every element works, and there is none of the b-movie cheese that might have derailed it. It is earnest, but not monotone. This movie is a ride in the old school sense of the word: it wants to entertain you, and it does so with intelligence and polish.

    If you can find it, Last Passenger is definitely worth checking out.

    Thursday, 10 August 2017

    IN THEATRES: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

    A passion project for Luc Besson, Valerian stars Dane 'Eyebrows' DeHaan and Cara 'Mine are bigger' Delevingne.

    Space cops! Space stations! Inter-dimensional malls! Clive Owen in a metal bib! Rihanna as a sexy octopus! Eyebrows!

    There's a plot but it's too exhausting to recall in one go. There's a mission, our heroes have to complete it. There is much shooting and killing. Plus eyebrows.

    I went into this movie thinking it would be a confusing mess, and it was. The script is not as confusing as I thought it would be but it is extremely sloppy. Character traits are set up in the opening minutes with audible clunks, are referenced throughout the movie, and then resolved arbitrarily at the climax. At no point does it feel like these set ups and payoffs are connected to each other.

    As our heroes, the Eyebrow twins are extremely dull. Dane DeHaan plays his role like a cocky adventurer - only with no charisma or sense of investment. The script does not do him any favours, and he might be too much of a character actor to convince as a straight leading man. When he isn't boring stock action dude, he's a lascivious douchebag who is constantly trying to get into his partner's pants.

    Speaking of which, Cara Delevingne is just as flat and vacuous as DeHaan. It might be a consequence of the bad script and the fact that both of them had to act against characters and environments who don't exist, but she brings absolutely nothing to the character.

    Apart they might as well be invisible, but together they are a blackhole where excitement goes to die. Or it would, if this was not Valerian and the City of a Thousand Extraneous Details.

    Because you know what? In this case none of these problems matter. At all.

    Sure, the dialogue sucks and Luc Besson has no idea how comedy works but this movie is a case where the filmmaker's vision and imagination can over power these problems. I could hang this movie for a multitude of sins, but I enjoyed it so much I'm thinking I might see it again.

    Right from the opening, Besson drops us into a literal universe of creatures, technology and future politics with little real exposition to introduce the viewers to what the hell is going on. And it's great! So many movies like this are terrified of keeping viewers in the dark, but this one just expects the viewer to pay attention. It's not that arcane or complicated, and is considerably more interesting than the bureaucratic nonsense in the Star Wars prequels.

    Where to start? 

    John Goodman as a pig-like alien? Herbie Hancock as the leader of the human race? A con man with three bodies? And an inter-dimensional mall? This review could just be list of everything in the movie. 

    And I cannot believe I am writing this, but my favourite parts of the movie are Ethan Hawke and  Rihanna. As soon as they show up, the movie gains a couple of characters who are actually worth watching. Hawke plays a sleazy club owner, and Rihanna plays Bubble, a shape-shifting exotic dancer who appears to be the only other person working at said club. 

    Hawke's role is essentially a cameo, but for a good 10-15 minutes the movie is a weird buddy movie between Dane Eyebrows and Riri. I think the reason why it works is because for this sequence it actually feels like the characters need things, and are doing tasks to get those things: Valerian needs a disguise to get into a section of Alpha where government agents are barred; Bubble wants to have her talents appreciated. 

    Maybe my expectations were lowered by the leads, but Rihanna is great in this movie. Her dialogue is just as garbage as everyone else's, but she gives Bubble this earnestness that makes her the most sympathetic character in the movie. In fact, when Bubble and Valerian have to go rescue Eyebrows lady, it feels like DeHaan actually comes out of his coma to deliver a real performance. It's the one time in the movie that Valerian feels like a hero with a recognisable moral code. When Bubble dies (arbitrarily), the movie loses that chemistry.

    Clive Owen plays the villain, a war monger determined to conceal his role in a planetary genocide. He is not in the movie a lot, and the most memorable part of his character is the strange medallion/bib that he gets strapped into at the start of the movie. He is nowhere near as interesting or over-the-top an antagonist as Gary Oldman in Besson's The Fifth Element.

    Despite this, the final reveal that he is the movie's villain is interesting, and gives the world of Alpha a level of moral ambiguity that the movie does not quite earn, but it is another interesting detail in this gumbo of a movie. The movie's plot basically boils down to a cartoon examination of collateral damage in war, and how nations can develop an overriding desire to bury the more odious parts of their histories.

    The ultimate saving grace of Valerian is its world-building. Luc Besson has been obsessed with bringing this property to the screen for decades, and his passion really shines through. So many movies fail to build a world you would want to return to (see The Mummy for a recent example), but Valerian creates such a multi-faceted and idiosyncratic world (and finds multiple ways to explore several different parts of it) that you just want to immerse yourself in it.

    It definitely reminded me of The Fifth Element, but in the right way. If you are looking at it in traditional story-telling terms, Fifth Element is better. It has a clearer story, with more interesting protagonists and a better villain. But as a trip to another world filled with crazy characters, Valerian is just as much fun.

    Besson recently declared that he is currently writing Valerian Part 3. With and without context, that statement is the height of hubris (especially after the movie's box office performance), but on the strength of this movie, count me in.

    If this movie does not sound like something you would enjoy I can totally understand. But if you can get on its wave length, Valerian is a hell of a ride.

    Sunday, 6 August 2017

    FRESH MEAT S3 & 4: Go with Vod

    After a rather lacklustre attempt at reviewing the Fresh Meat Season Two, the Midnight Ramble presents a (hopefully) more coherent and fully rounded review of the last two seasons. Ultimately, it felt better to review these seasons together, since they are basically following the same extended story, with the same overriding theme. The theme for these seasons is 'what have I got myself into, and how do I get out of it?' Each character is stuck in a situation, at least partially of their own making, and this season is all about how they react to their individual crises. Spoilers: not well.

    After a slow start, Season Three hits you with a series of gut punches that help make this the most emotional complicated and engrossing season so far. Even Kingsley and Josie's pettiness is not as risible as the last season.

    Episode One introduces our 'heroes' as they about to go on a downswing. Simon finds a girl who likes him, but is too scared to do anything about it. Thinking he and Heather (Sophie Wu) have broken up, Kingsley tries to re-start things with Josie. Vod and Oregon return from their travels through South America, only to find Vod's paramour from their trip, Javier, has followed them home. Oregon gets tired of being their translator, while Vod quickly realises he has no intention to leave. Kingsley and Josie re-kindle their romance, but he then finds out that Heather's lack of communication was because she was looking after her grandfather, who is dying. Meanwhile JP spends the episode trying to get some.

    Episode Two compounds the ensemble's collective flaws. Kingsley is back to being an asshole -- he is still carrying on a long-distance relationship with Josie while not breaking up with his current, and frankly, more suitable girlfriend. Kingsley dodges a confrontation with Heather and Josie when his girlfriend dumps him after her grandfather dies.

    Speaking of characters digging their own graves, Vod marries Javier and Simon -- still too scared to admit that he likes Sam -- gives up a chance to have a girlfriend.

    Episodes Three to Five then track our heroes' decline: Vod dumps her new husband in a department store, a strategy which does not end up solving her problem (he comes back). Meanwhile, JP's obsession with Sam leads him to assemble a quiz team to win the quiz night she has set up for cancer -- JP cheats, gets caught out and blows his chance. While most comedies would end this emotional fallout at the episode credits, the writers push this through the rest of the show.

    Increasingly lovesick, JP takes half the household to join him in a three-day paid drug trial. As usual when they are stuck together in a new environment, they end up going crazy and causing trouble. One brief spark of hope is offered when Kingsley thinks he has cancer -- sadly he doesn't, and we are forced to endure his navel-gazing for another season-and-a-half.

    Meanwhile Oregon has written a play based on the household. While it is meant as a commentary on the other housemates, Vod ends up taking on her role, which derails Oregon's original intent. The sweetest moment is when the show bombs -- while Oregon's play is trashed, Vod gets great reviews. This is the point where Vod and Oregon's trajectories began to shift, culminating Vod and Oregon going head-to-head in the election for student union president.

    The fifth episode is the highpoint of the season. Vod's mum visits, and her housemates finally get an insight into Vod's past. Vod's mother turns out to be a violent drunk with no impulse control. Dod has basically had to act as her mother's guardian, cleaning up in her wake. When she destroys the house following one of her binges, Vod finally snaps and confronts her. Despite her antics, Vod has been a somewhat remote figure until this point, and from this episode on, the character becomes far more vulnerable.

    This episode is largely free of laughs, but it is the most emotionally resonant episode of the season. Some comedy is provided by a subplot in which Simon becomes a radical feminist, but the rest of it is played straight. In fact, from this point on, the series default setting shifts from comedy to drama. Vod is basically the cast's canary in a coal mine - when the good times end for her, you know something fundamental has shifted with the show's direction.

    After a couple of years, Fresh Meat returned for a final six episodes. Despite the gap in time, there is no real difference with the preceding episodes. Rather than abetting, the darkness of Season Three continues into the final episodes. This season is a real endurance test, as the ensemble are finally confronting the future.

    JP has to battle his brother Tomothy, Kingsley tries going out with an older woman and Oregon becomes president of the student union but finds her ambitions are outstripping her abilities in the role. Meanwhile ostensible outsiders Vod and Simon tackle their own respective crises: Vod has to deal with her massive student loan; Simon has to get his brain around the whole idea of existing outside the university environment.

    While their problems are clear to the viewer, it takes until Episode Three, when the guys go to London for job interviews that these problems become self-evident; Simon gets separated from the guys and has to find his own way in the big city. Of course, while Kingsley and JP go in too confident and blow it, Simon's dress sense and particular set of skills wind up serving him well.

    Drowning in debt and afraid that she has failed her dissertation, Vod moves to a commune. Meanwhile, Oregon's presidency is brought to a halt after several questionable financial decisions turn the student body against her. After trying to rally the student body with an impromptu song, she gets impeached. And fails to get her Fulbright scholarship.

    Ultimately it is the outsiders who are leaving university the most ready for the outside world: Simon succeeds at getting a job, while Vod manages to leave uni with higher grades than Oregon and a new sense of self-worth. Her parents don't show up for her big day, but it does not matter. Vod's won.

    Previous reviews

    Season One

    Season Two

    Thursday, 3 August 2017

    IN THEATRES: Atomic Blonde & The Big Sick

    This week has been crazy. I had the film festival to usher during the day and screenings in the evenings. Somehow I fit in these two. Enjoy my ramblings!

    Atomic Blonde
    A Cold War action thriller directed by one of the directors of John Wick, starring Furiosa and Gazelle? You bet I'm seeing this!

    The name's Broughton. Lorraine Broughton. An MI6 badass parachuted into Berlin just before the Wall comes down, she is tasked with retrieving a MacGuffin that could extend the Cold War for decades.

    This movie proves how special John Wick was. Whereas that film offered a master-class in economy at every level of execution, Atomic Blonde is sadly the opposite. All the pieces are there: a charismatic, physically imposing lead; a strong supporting cast; a great 80s soundtrack and visual palette to match; and some terrific set pieces.

    However all these elements amount to nothing because it is all in service to a leaden, uninspired script that prevents Atomic Blonde from rising above the merely watchable. It really is bad - there is the unnecessary framing device, which immediately neuters any stakes because we know Theron survives; there is the basic premise ('we need a list') which has been used in a kajillion movies already; and it features a series of pointless double and triple crosses which just drag the movie out.

    Let's get to the positives:

    Charlize Theron is a beast. Strolling through the movie with the relaxed arrogance of Sean Connery in his prime, if this is her audition for you-know-who then sign me up. Every time she throws someone over her shoulder, or kicks a dude down a flight of stairs, it's fantastic.

    Also in Atomic Blonde's favour, this movie avoids a problem John Wick 2 had, which is that the fights never go on too long, and they never feel overly choreographed. It always feels like Theron might lose. This movie manages the trick of making sure that these fights are cool (it's a stylish movie after all), but pays attention to the toll that the blows and bullets have on the characters' bodies. The best set piece is the only one with real stakes: Broughton has to protect a wounded defector while fighting off a group of large men in a stairwell.

    And now back into the morass.

    While Theron and co-star James McAvoy get cool moments, the characters are never that well-defined. The plot's endless reversals just make it even harder to latch onto these characters and what their motives are.

    On a related note, Theron's accent is garbage - I only bring it up because it is revealed late in the piece that she is actually an American deep cover agent. Why? I have no idea, but that plot twist exemplifies the needless amount of plot in this movie. It just gets in the way.

    And while it is stylish, the way the movie deploys its flourishes feels very after-the-fact. The day-glo title cards are fine, but aside from the night club (and sex-death) scenes, the movie has a cold, grey palette that drains the movie of life. It speaks to the disconnect between the movie's attempts to balance a more pop sensibility with a grimmer, more real-world aesthetic. It feels like two movies mashed together.

    The soundtrack is so odd - songs are dropped in at weird moments, and are mixed so loud that they took me out of the movie. Also (and this is a nit-pick) why is the music from the early eighties? Wasn't there anything more contemporary than 1983?

    In a bad sign for Leitch's next film, the movie lacks a sense of humour - there are jokes, but none of them hit, despite the cast's best efforts.

    Aside from the script, the easiest thing to pick on is the subplot with Sofia Boutella, which is unbelievably stupid. She plays a green French agent who Broughton ends up having a fling with - it's clearly meant as a spin on the old Bond trope of our hero/ine bedding an exotic femme who may be a bad 'un.

    It ends up being an excuse for Leitch to pan his camera up and down their entwined bodies. It is compounded by the resolution of this plot line - Boutella is strangled to death while attired in her underwear FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER. It's so staged and fetishised that you can't help but feel uncomfortable. It's a real bummer for a movie to push itself as breaking into a macho genre, and then still follow the same tired tropes. Boutella has been one of my favourite new actors, and to see her play such an archaic, throwaway character like this really bums me out. 

    Ultimately, Atomic Blonde  is less than the sum of its parts. Here's hoping Theron, MacAvoy and Boutella get some better action vehicles - they are too good to be wasted on half-formed nonsense like this.

    The Big Sick
    I am a huge fan of the podcast How Did This Get Made? Looking at the credits to this movie, it felt like a list of guests who have been on the show. I had heard great things about this, so on these two disparate impulses, I put it on my list of things to ramble about.

    Based on the bizarre true story of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon's relationship, from initial break-up through reconciliation following her induced coma (due to a mystery illness). Throw in his career as a stand up comedian, his relationship with Emily's (played by Zoe Kazan) parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), and his relationship with his own conservative family, and you wind up with The Big Sick.
    While I was familiar with Nanjiani and Gordon from their work in other mediums, nothing prepared me for this. I also don't think I can say anything that has not already been said. It's a really great movie that deserves all the plaudits it's been getting.

    If you are going to check out one movie this weekend, make it this one.

    Tuesday, 1 August 2017


    Ahead of her Auckland concert later this month, here is the Midnight Ramble's look at the discography of up-and-coming songstress Kehlani. If it reads like a seventy-year-old white man discovering contemporary music for the first time, apologies in advance.

    Cloud 19 (2014)
    The difference between a mix-tape and an album is something I am still trying to nail down. In Kehlani's case, I think it refers to a collection of tracks which have not been assembled together. Each track has a different producer, and a (relatively) different feel and style.

    The remake of Nightmare at 20 000 Feet went through some big changes

    Opening with a bouncy guitar loop, 'FWU' is a jaunty hip hop number that I started skipping a few runs in. Usually I am sucker for opening tracks, but this one is just okay. It doesn't help that the next song is more appealing.

    'As I Am' is the closest thing to a traditional ballad on the album (crap, I'm already screwing it up). It's a sweet song that manages to avoid sounding annoying (which is good considering the chorus gets repeated about a hundred times through the song). With good lyrics and a strong melody, this is one of the best songs on the, uh, collection.

    Produced by Jahaan Sweet, 'Get Away' oscillates between hip hop-style RnB ala nineties Timbaland, and a more lush ballad during the chorus (complete with synth string section). The effect is very exciting, as the sound expands and contracts to replicate the central character's growing feelings toward some unknown lover.

    Another ballad, 'Deserve Better' is just as catchy as the previous song, but with more obvious dub-like production. Backed by some videogame-style beats and a synth piano, it ends before it really revs up.

    Interpolating snippets of Montell Jordan's immortal 'This Is How We Do It', 'How We Do Us' is a duet with Kyle Dion that re-purposes the party anthem as a paean to the couple's romance. It's a good, catchy song, but hearing Jordan's hook just made me want to listen to the original again.

    Simultaneously more restrained and explicit than any other song on the tape, '1st Position' is a monologue from a woman to her new girlfriend, calming her nerves before their first intimate experience. It's still a bit rare to hear a straightforward RnB song about homosexual desire, and this one is really good. The narrator is basically the female equivalent of all those male singers with 'bedroom' personas. The key difference is here the narrator's intentions are more earnest and less lascivious. As the narrator continues to lay out her argument, she couches their characters' potential union as a form of female solidarity, a viable alternative to the pitfalls of dealing with the opposite sex. A clever twist on an old template, '1st Position' is one of the most interesting tracks of the set.

    More of a straightforward dance track, 'Act a Fool' features a guest verse from rapper Iamsu!. It's okay, but not nearly as memorable as other tracks on the album.

    Powered by an upbeat, catchy chorus, 'Tell Your Mama' is a fun little ditty that rounds of the set on a high note. Barely two and a half minutes long, it takes a shot at a wider idea of love and affection, directing the listener to make sure that they remember to love their families and friends. Sappy sentiment? Possibly. But the packaging is so winning, it never matters.

    Taken as a sampler of Kehlani's talents, Cloud 19 is a pretty enjoyable confection. No song outstays its welcome, and having different producers for every song does not hamper the listening experience. The variety of styles ends up being a bonus, allowing Kehlani to show off her talents within a series of different frameworks.

    You Should Be Here (2015)
    Released barely a year after Cloud 19, You Should Be Here is far more ambitious and expansive. To be honest, calling this a mix-tape feels weird. The sequencing feels more deliberate, and the album even has an intro track.
    Good cover for an album, crap ad for San Fran's air quality
    Following said introductory skit (in which Kehlani calls her grandfather and offers a dedication to all of her friends and family who are not here to see her succeed), 'You Should Be Here' converts its sentiment into song. The track is a little too processed for it to really connect, but Kehlani's performance is good, her weathered voice lending the track a grit that would otherwise be obscured by the production.

    From the people who are no longer here to those who are, in 'How That Taste' Kehlani throws a middle finger at everyone who thought she would never achieve her dreams.

    In 'Jealous', Kehlani throws more shade at the superficiality of relationships post-fame. Over a bed of hip hop beats, the narrator scorches her boyfriend for 'taking pictures', and using her to get attention from other women. Featuring a guest verse from Lexii Alijai, the track has a nice melody which adds a nice swing to the bite of her lyrics (including one hilarious bit where she threatens to 'cut it off').

    'N****s' shows Kehlani still on the warpath, turning on all the ne'er-do-wells and hangers-on who have tried to sponge off of her and manipulate her because she is young and (relatively) famous. The tone is more rueful than angry - the narrator has been on this road so many times before that she does not waste time with them any more.

    As a respite from the downsides of fame, 'Wanted' is a love song dedicated to a new boyfriend who is the opposite of the characters she slammed in the previous songs. The lyrics are still directed at the targets of those songs, as the narrator ponders whether her past lovers will be jealous of her newfound happiness.

    'The Way' features Chance the Rapper as Kehlani's paramour from the previous songs. His involvement probably helped get this set some more attention. In a nice inversion of expectations, his side of the story is less rose-coloured. There are points where he plays the character as almost a hostage of his girlfriend's attentions. It winds up being pretty funny, as the song swings between Kehlani's overheated praises and Chance's slightly overwhelmed retorts. The ironic edge winds up helping get the song's sentiment over.

    'Unconditional' is a self-empowerment anthem in which Kehlani revels in her imperfections, and dismisses societal expectations that she should look a certain way. The ultimate message is fairly obvious: unconditional love means accepting your partner's flaws. While the theme is valid, the song comes off as a bit clumsy.

    Well, this is a change of pace. The first couple times I listened to 'The Letter', I thought it was a breakup song. For some reason I totally missed the part where she referred to her mother. Accompanied by a gentle piano theme, it takes over two minutes for the narrator to refer directly to her parent. The lyrics see her grapple with trying to understand the reasons why her mother disappeared. About the time her intended audience is revealed, electronic drones and stabs overwhelm the piano, as her anger builds. But just as it feels like the song is about to reach catharsis, it dissipates to just Kehlani's voice repeating the line 'Maybe I didn't deserve you...' The song is ultimately a reflection on trauma, and how confronting your pain can often feel like an endless loop. Rather than push the false idea that you can push through them and move on, the song is purely about the struggle.

    A too-short piece about strong women, 'Runnin' (Interlude)' feels like a thematic extension of 'The Letter', as Kehlani emphasises that it doesn't matter what life throws at you, as long as you keep 'running'.

    While it is called a mix-tape, You Should Be Here feels like an album. The production and sequencing make it feel fully formed in a way that Cloud 19 did not. 'Be Alright' is the perfect example of this cohesion, as it builds on the previous songs' focus on struggle to offer a reprieve. The lyrics boil down to a version of 'if the going gets tough, the tough get going'.

    'Down for You', a duet with BJ the Chicago Kid, is another love song. It's okay, but there's a sameness to the melody which prevents it from really standing out.

    A flip side to the previous song, 'Yet' features cryptic lyrics in which the singer warns someone to don't get too fresh -- they are not close enough to be either friends or enemies. This is tinpot analysis but I took it to be a song about the way fame distorts relationships.

    'Bright' is a dose of old-school sanctified soul, in which Kehlani offers a confidence boost for her listeners, returning to the theme of  believing in yourself. The combination of the old-school style works well with the lyrics, turning it into an anthem without feeling didactic.

    Beginning as a guitar-led ballad, with an assist from Coucheron, 'Alive' morphs into a new-wave dance track as Kehlani exorts the listener to join her in being in thankful for being, well, alive. It repeats the same trick as 'Tell Your Mama' off her previous set, leaving the listener on a high note.

    More cohesive than her first mixtape, overall the songs on You Should Be Here are stronger, although the unity of sound and subject does mean we lose the eclecticism that made Cloud 19 so much fun. Still, it's a strong piece of work and worth a listen.

    SweetSexySavage (2017)
    Following her well-received mixtapes, Kehlani was signed to Atlantic Records. Her first, full-length album was released earlier this year.

    "Pink skies, smiling at me. Nothing but pink skies do I see..."
    A few things to note off the bat. The production is more polished, but also in a slightly heavier style: the beats hit harder, and the emphasis seems to be on more nineties-style dance rhythms, loops and beats. The thematic concerns of her previous work return, with a few call backs to the songs on her mix tapes, as well as to nineties RnB (it's not hard to read the album title as a callback to TLC's CrazySexyCool).

    Straight out of the gate, 'Keep On' is funkier than most of her earlier work, with a heavier beat that makes it more of a dance track. The lyrics are double-edged: on face-value, Kehlani addresses a lover who she has put through the ringer. She cannot believe that after everything she has put them through, they still stick around. On the other hand, you could read them as a subtle critique of this person: they don't have enough courage to put their foot down with the narrator's antics, which means the relationship will never improve (or, more realistically, come to a close). Despite the groove (or maybe because of it), the song has an oddly melancholic vibe - almost like a funeral dirge for a relationship that's slowly folding in on itself.

    One of the things I like about Kehlani is how she can take an idea for a song and then oscillate between negative and positive angles on it. That unwillingness to be reductive is a signature of her lyrics, and 'Distraction' is one of the more interesting examples on this album. Dealing with the idea of 'distractions', she weighs their relative merits and deficiencies. It's an odd, kind of abstract idea that it took me a while to grasp. Initially I read the lyrics as a celebration of female agency in terms of casual hookups, but I guess she had a broader idea of 'distractions'. It's got a really catchy melody and a good pace. Closer to the style of her last mixtape - the drum machine provides the same tinny beats as her previous releases - there is a wash of synth atmos under it which beefs up the sound. 

    The longest track on the album, 'Piece of Mind' feels like a mature version of a track of You Should Be Here. The narrator reflects on a toxic relationship in which her self-confidence was shattered, and the ways that she has been able to grow out of and beyond the pain. It's a rather complex look at the importance of self-worth. It's a theme that Kehlani has dealt with before, but this is probably the most realised execution of this idea.

    Marked by an infectious melody, 'Undercover' has a nice bounce to it and a memorable chorus. Barely three minutes long, it's a sugar rush of hormones in musical form.

    A play on the various meanings of the word, 'CRZY' feels like something Rihanna would record (think 'B**** Better Have My Money'), minus the blood and violence. Kehlani's brand of 'crazy' is more diverse and, uh, constructive than some of Riri's stuff, but is powered by the same kind of aggressive beat and vaguely processed vocals that were used on Rated R and Anti. As always, Kehlani's lyrics circle around the same underlying themes of acceptance and empathy which have underpinned her previous work. Justifiably, it was released as a single.

    An exercise in passive-aggressive shade-throwing (is that a thing?), 'Personal' feels like a thematic continuation of songs like 'Jealous' and 'N****s' (from You Should Be Here), in that it deals with someone (a collaborator? a lover?) who betrayed her trust, and now has to watch her from the sound lines. Backed by weird nu-wave synths, the track has an odd stop-and-start rhythm that complements Kehlani's delivery of her backhanded putdowns.

    Opening with a piano intro that sounds like it is being played through an old radio, 'Not Used to It' presents Kehlani's spin on a familiar narrative: a narrator making their way through life while dealing with a broken home and gang violence. It is imagery we have seen reflected before in plenty of great (and bad) rap songs, and it has become so well known that it has moved outside of music and pop culture to become part of the public conscience (and not for the better. Cough. Donald Trump). In its various forms and uses, this imagery has become a cliché - and hence, it has become easy to be de-sensitised to it. What is different about 'Not Used to it' is that instead of something more didactic, this imagery is filtered through another familiar frame: a love story.  By presenting it through such a small, intimate story, this imagery gets its power back. 'Not Used To It' is a prime example of the singer's ability to re-fresh old ideas with a new point of view.

    Awash with dreamy electronic textures and odd, stuttering beats, 'Everything Is Yours' is a story of symbiosis that can come with first love - only here, the object of affection is marred by doubts. It's your classic tragic ballad, in which the narrator is entrapped by affection for a bad lover. The soundscape is rather claustrophobic, which works for the circular nature of the lyrics.

    Following a song based around an internal dialogue with oneself, 'Advice' is a thematic sequel - the hunch the narrator had turned out to be right. As she continues to wrestle with the contradiction posed by her boyfriend, the song turns into a warning - even if they fit your ideal, if they fail at the fundamentals (communication, honesty etc) then you have to follow your better instincts and quit the relationship.

    Following the internal arguments of the preceding tracks, 'Do U Dirty' represents a final catharsis. Directly addressing the antagonist of the previous songs, the narrator beats the player at his own game. The song is basically Kehlani's spin on TLC's 'Creep', although the comparison is unfair -while the lyrics are suitably biting, and kind of funny ("Swear you see the good in me/But that don't beat the hood in me"), the music is not nearly as catchy.

    Following the romantic to-and-fro of the last couple of songs, 'Escape' is a bit of a reprieve. It's  another take on that old rom com trope where our heroine takes the movie to figure out that her dream man is an asshole, and that the person she really wants has been under her nose the whole time (generally some shlubby friend). I'm of two minds on the lyrics - they are either from the narrator's perspective (which cements the cliché), or this song is from the shluby friend (probably the narrator from '1st Position') finally revealing their true feelings. With guitar and piano, it is less overtly hip hop than the preceding songs, but the change in style is welcome, and a breather from all the doom and gloom.   

    If 'Escape' is that cliche scene where the female lead realises her best friend is in love with her, 'Too Much' is the scene where the scuzzy ex tries to get her back. Its beats recall Aaliyah's One in a Million, although with a more psychedelic edge. The beat adds a nice sing-song edge to Kehlani's vocals - every time she goes into the chorus it feels like she is landing the punchline to a joke on her ex. While the similarity is very slight, it felt oddly reminiscent of D'Angelo's 'Shit, Damn, Motherf***r', off his first album.

    Boasting the most memorable chorus on the album, 'Get Like' bounces along like 'Too Much' never happened. Returning to the rom com checklist, this is the scene after our heroine finally shows her ex the door and can be with her shlubby friend. Or alternatively, taking the next song into account, this is the scene where she falls to temptation and gets back together with the douche.

    While its backing track is up-tempo, 'In My Feelings' is another examination of romantic contradictions as our narrator tries to figure out why she is still with the same person, despite their faults. It is either our narrator finally breaking with her douchey ex, or a new bout of anxiety about her new beau. The reference to years passing is either an exaggeration or this song is a flash forward to the post-mortem of her new relationship. Or I'm totally off the mark. 

    The most overt ballad on the album, 'Hold Me by the Heart' is based on acoustic guitar and multi-tracked backing vocals. At times Kehlani's voice feels like it's layered under the instrument, but that might just be my shitty ear phones. It's a decent song - I think I liked it more because it was completely different from the hip hop beats and loops of the songs around it. It helps that it is based on a simple, hummable melody (on that count, it resembles 'Alive' from You Should Be Here). On its own, it comes off a little mawkish and cheesy, but within the context of the track list it feels like a culmination, a 'happy ending' to the narrator's relationship trials.

    Like her previous mixtape, Kehlani ends the album on an up-note. 'Thank You' is not nearly as obvious in its message as 'Alive', but it fulfils the same function. The narrator rises above the morass of her relationship drama to recognise that things aren't that bad (it helps that it opens with audio of a child listing the things they are thankful for e.g. family, food, a place to live). 

    The deluxe edition includes two bonus tracks, 'I Wanna Be' and 'Gangsta', which was previously on the soundtrack to Suicide Squad. Coming after 'Thank You', the effect is somewhat disconcerting. That track ends the album so definitively, it feels like the narrative threads that have been tied off are being loosened again.

    An odd beast, 'I Wanna Be' sounds like a dance track but the lyrics sound like a torch song. Thematically, this puts it completely at odds with the previous track. That aside (no one listens to albums beginning to end anymore), it's a fun song with a catchy melody and strong beat. 

    Stripped of context, 'Gangsta' feels like a parody of the album it ends. Written from the perspective of the Joker's on-off girlfriend Harley Quinn, it reads like a deranged day dream. With its slowed tempo and vaguely techno production, it is perfectly attuned to the character's romantic dementia. I haven't seen the movie, but on its on the song is a pretty good theme for the comic book villainess.

    Overall thoughts? A solid debut. A few songs sound a little too much like nineties homages, and some of the themes feel repeated, but other than that it's a really good album. Most of its flaws are fairly typical - like most albums, it is basically a great set list bloated by a few too many tracks. A more judicious track list would probably improve things a bit. On the plus side,  Kehlani does not appear to like fat on her songs - they average three-and-a-half minutes.

    A few niggles aside, as a thematic piece SweetSexySavage is surprisingly coherent. It is rare to see someone with an extremely well-developed style and set of themes so early in their career. While it does go back and forth on its ideas of relationships, this focus on swinging between ennui and exhilaration is a pretty good mirror for the realities of love - it can messy, it doesn't make sense, and sometimes it feels like going through the motions. Ultimately, while it has a few dead spots, SweetSexySavage is a pretty good album that shows Kehlani on a trajectory toward great things.

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