Thursday, 28 September 2017

JAMES BOND: The music

For me, the music is the most important element of the James Bond franchise. Even more so than any of the other trappings, the soundtrack - particularly the James Bond theme - is the element which ties the franchise together and gives the movies a depth and cool that - more often than not - they would otherwise lack.

Dr. No

Like the movie, Dr No's score is an embryonic version of what was to come. The centrepiece is the James Bond theme. Written by Monty Norman, based on a musical he had previously composed, the theme was arranged and performed by the John Barry Seven. Barry's arrangement elevated Norman's composition and landed him the job of scoring most of the films between 1963 and 1987. This theme remains a mainstay of the series and an aural signature for the character.

Most of Norman's score is missing from the soundtrack album, which is made up of source tracks Norman recorded with musicians in Jamaica. The most interesting track is 'The Island Speaks', an atmospheric piece which plays during Bond's journey to Dr. No's island.

The rest of the album is interesting as a curio. One track which re-appears in a couple of different versions, is 'Dr No's Fantasy'. Another, slower version is confusingly named 'The James Bond Theme' - it's interesting and kind of eccentric, but it's not quite strong enough to stand up on its own.

Hopefully, Norman's full score gets a re-release at some point in the future. As it stands, this album is only notable for the first appearance of the Bond theme and the song 'Jump Up'.

From Russia With Love

Monty Norman was replaced by John Barry for the sequel, and the series' musical signature was cemented. This score introduces the first of Barry's alternative Bond themes. Entitled '007', it is more staccato and orchestral - there are points where it sounds like a wireless set relaying information. More adventurous and romantic than the Bond theme, Barry would re-use it in four later Bond scores.

The rest of the score is fantastic. Atmospheric, tense and evocative of its various locales without tying itself down the same way Dr No does. It's a classic adventure score, filtered through Barry's jazz influences.

The title song is serviceable, but lacks a little punch. More successful are the instrumental versions of the theme which reoccur throughout the film (the version which plays over the opening credits is great, especially when it segues into the Bond theme halfway through).

Goldfinger

Packing as much style and swagger as the movie it accompanies, after fifty-something years there is something evergreen and exciting about John Barry's Goldfinger score. From 'Bond Back In Action' through 'Dawn Raid on Fort Knox', it is  a triumph. Even the incidental tracks, like 'Into Miami', are great. The song is solid gold, and Barry lays it through the score in a way that ties the whole thing together.

The one downside to Goldfinger, score and movie, is that future films and composers would try to use it as a template, to much diminished effect. 

Thunderball

The movie is a little middling; the same cannot be said for the score. It is not as propulsive as Goldfinger, but it is more atmospheric, and slower-paced, which makes it more enjoyable as a listening experience.

This is the first time in the series history where most of the score is built on the melody to a song that did not make the film. 'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' was recorded by Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick, but the producers felt the song should have the title of the movie. The result is a soundtrack which is about 15% influenced by Tom Jones' title song. His song is fine, but I think I like 'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' - it's too bad it never had a shot. The result is richer - I don't think 'Thunderball' is as interesting in instrumental form is 'Kiss Kiss...'

Barry develops a 'mystery' theme through tracks like 'Moving the Body' and 'Searching for Vulcan' which is very memorable (every time I go swimming, it starts playing in my head). It gets its most muscular workout in the build-up to the underwater battle ('Underwater Mayhem...').

A bit more stately than its predecessor, Thunderball is the aural equivalent of a day at the beach.

You Only Live Twice

A bit overshadowed by the scores either side of it, You Only Live Twice remains a really enjoyable Bond score. The song is not an all-timer, but it ranks just below the first division, and Barry makes good use of its melody in the rest of the score. Despite the movie's focus on spectacle, the score feels more geared toward romance than action. 'Mountains and Sunsets' is one of the best single tracks in the franchise, and had its main notes incorporated into the Robbie Williams' song 'Millennium'. The one off-note is the re-appearance of '007', feels awkward and out of style with the rest of the score. This version also feels a bit stiff and cold.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

All of the previous scores in the franchise, no matter how good, were leading up to this.

Influenced by Barry's misgivings about new Bond George Lazenby, OHMSS is the most mature and tonally sophisticated soundtrack the franchise has ever produced. The main title theme is a glorious one-off. Like Dr No, which opens with the James Bond theme, Barry developed an instrumental theme that carried through the movie. Powered by a Moog synthesiser, bass guitar and horns, it is propulsive and exciting, but leavened with a melancholic edge. One has to wonder if - had Lazenby continued - Barry would have re-used 'OHMSS' as a secondary character theme ala '007'.

The other centrepiece is 'We Have All The Time In The World', sung by Louis Armstrong. A beautifully understated ballad, it is the only real love theme in the franchise's history. Barry weaves between 'OHMSS' and this song throughout the score, only occasionally pulling out the old standby.

The Bond theme is also affected by the movie's fatalism - Barry uses an electric piano in place of the usual guitar for the melody, which undercuts its swagger. It makes more sense when Barry segues into the familiar theme over the closing credits. It is almost like the series formula reasserting itself following the death of Mrs Bond.

Top to bottom the best score the series ever had - the title theme is one of Barry's most successful experiments, and, most significantly, the score feels so of a piece with itself that when the Bond theme pops in, it feels incongruous.

Diamonds Are Forever

A weird revision of his brassy Sixties style, Barry tips his hat toward contemporary trends (particularly funk), while retaining his focus on traditional orchestration. This is the point in the franchise where the quality of the film and the quality of the soundtrack  begin to diverge.

Built around one of the series' all-time greatest songs, Diamonds Are Forever is one of Barry's most location-inspired scores. Track to track, this score oozes with the cheap glitz and sleaze of Las Vegas. It's not as good as OHMSS, and a step down from his work in the Sixties, but it remains one of my personal favourites. The electric piano which popped up in OHMSS returns, but is less obvious - there is a strange beat where Barry uses it to briefly echo the previous score's version of the Bond theme (pay attention during the pre-credit sequence when Connery's face is shown).

Aside from the song, the highlights are Wint and Kidd's theme - off-kilter and creepy - and '007 and Counting', which is the one time where the score hits the feeling of Barry's earlier scores. The one bummer is 'Moon Buggy Chase', which is shrill and repetitive (it is almost like Barry hates the scene as much as the viewer).

A bit more throwaway, but still a lot of fun, Diamonds Are Forever is the runt of the Connery run.

Live and Let Die

George Martin was a genius, and in terms of replacements it is hard to argue against him. It helps to have that song, but Martin's soul and funk-inspired score is extremely addictive. 'Whisper Who Dares', 'Trespassers Will Be Eaten', 'Boat Chase' and 'Underground Lair' are worthy of Barry himself. The score is a bit dated, but the injection of funk works so well it almost does not matter. Built off a great song, Live and Let Die still has a solid case for being the best James Bond score not penned by John Barry.

The Man With The Golden Gun

John Barry returned for his seventh tilt at the wheel, and while it is solid, there is something underwhelming about the whole package.

It could be the song, which I don't hate, but as a foundation for a score it is not on the same level as the previous scores. There is something a bit irritating about having those opening notes repeated over and over again - they just don't stack up to a 'Goldfinger' or a 'You Only Live Twice'.

Contradictorily, the most fun track is the western saloon-style instrumental of the title song, which plays during the pre-title funhouse set piece. It's just as eccentric as Lulu's version - maybe that's why the more traditional orchestral variations fall flat, they lose some of the song's character.

The Spy Who Loved Me

This soundtrack is the first real dud of the series, which is depressing since it was composed by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch, and features one of the best songs ever made.

The main problem is that it is very inconsistent, and, for the CD release, there is not much of it - the best parts of the score are not on the album (where is the music from the car chase?). The first few notes of 'Bond 77' are great, but then it turns into a disco dance tune, and the rest of soundtrack follows suit. If this was played in a club I would dance to it, but in the movie it is a total misfire.

Moonraker

My god what a study in contrast in tone between film and music - John Barry returns to deliver the limpest score of his tenure. The song is flaccid, but overall his approach is all wrong for the OTT nonsense onscreen. It is ultimately too slow and stately, which kills any sense of excitement. A very strange approach, especially considering how the film feels like a live action cartoon.

It's not a complete wash. Barry's score for the space sequences is beautiful, as he augments the orchestra with a choir. Otherwise, it is like the theme song - completely forgettable.

For Your Eyes Only

At the dawn of the eighties, John Barry took another break, and Rocky composer Bill Conti took over. Like the previous Barry stand-ins, Conti went for a contemporary tone. Once again that tone was disco, which was basically dead by the time this movie was released.

This score is so odd - in its own way, it hits the emotional beats of each scene, but the disco style is such a clunky fit that the it just sounds like the score to a Magnum PI episode. The disco influence on the gun barrel music is so overt every time I watch the movie I expect Moore to moonwalk backwards into frame.

'Melina's Revenge' is a personal favourite - it is actually two tracks combined; the first half covering the death of Melina's parents, and the second half is the music from the pre-title sequence, which plays as Bond takes over control of the helicopter and gets rid of Blofeld. It is very seventies, but the way the music kicks in is just magic.

The title song is memorable, although it's not a particular favourite of mine. To Conti's credit, he makes good use of its melody throughout, which might explain why the disco aesthetic is not as smothering as it could have been.

Octopussy

Octopussy is a score (and a movie) that has slowly risen to become one of my favourites. As with Moonraker, Barry goes heavy on the strings for a more expansive, classical sound. For some reason, this score works for me in a way that Moonraker did not. 'Bond Look Alike' and 'Palace Fight' in particular are great fun, managing to be a little playful while also building a bit of tension. It feels like the score to a light caper, which is perfect for this, the Moore-iest of Moore Bond movies.

I have grown to tolerate the theme song, although that may have more to do with Matt Gourley's incessant praise of it on the James Bonding podcast. The big problem is that it does not feel big enough - it feels more like one of the franchise's secondary theme songs ('If There Was A Man' from The Living Daylights; 'If You Asked Me To' from Licence to Kill), rather than something to anchor the movie on.

A solid outing for Barry, Octopussy marked his brief return to being James Bond's fulltime musical accompaniment.

A View To A Kill

Once again John Barry saves a terrible film with a score it does not deserve.

This score is absolutely beautiful. I used to dislike Barry's eighties scores - I missed the brass and jazz textures, but I have come to really enjoy the emphasis he placed on strings. There is something rather melancholy and beautiful about his instrumental version of the title song, particularly the use of a flute solo to stand in for Simon LeBon.

The Living Daylights

The arrival of a new Bond also marked the end of an era, as John Barry's last stab winds up acting as a fitting finale to his tenure.

Aside from some dated synths, this ranks as one of his best scores. The song is okay, but that is due to Barry's contributions, which overcome the nonsensical lyrics. In addition, his re-orchestration of the song in the score is terrific.

Part of this score's strength may be because this is the only time in the franchise in which all of the film's musical themes are based on songs: aside from the title song, we get the Pretenders' track 'Where Has Everybody Gone', which is another first in that it is the only time a henchman gets an identifiable theme tune of his own. It's a cool song, although I feel like it could use a bigger female vocal - if franchise mainstay Shirley Bassey had sung it, it would probably be better known. Barry's orchestral versions of the song ('Necros Attacks'; 'Inflight Fight') are also dynamite.

Barry also bases the romantic theme on another Pretenders song, 'If There Was a Man', which plays over the end credits. The song is adult contemporary cheese, but the orchestral versions in the score are really good (the album includes an alternate instrumental which is far better).

I criticised the synths, but I have to say Barry uses them well, especially in 'Ice Chase'. They don't overwhelm the orchestra like they do in the late nineties films.

Overall a superb summation to John Barry's work on the franchise.

Licence to Kill

When John Barry was too sick to return, the producers enlisted Lethal Weapon and Die Hard composer Michael Kamen to give this darker movie a more contemporary edge. The results are, as usual, underwhelming.

The main problem is that it lacks a real signature of its own. The most obvious problem is that it does not incorporate the melody of the song into the score. It is not a deal-breaker, but there is no other theme in the score to give it some character of its own.

Kamen's version of the Bond theme is fine (the slow-build which plays as Bond rises out of the water behind the sea plane is great), but the rest of the score does not amount to much.

GoldenEye

Eric Serra was famous for his synth scores to Luc Besson movies like Le Femme Nikita and Leon, but he was out of his (fifth) element on this movie. The biggest misstep in the franchise, GoldenEye was such a miscalculation that it is the one time in which another composer was hired to re-do parts of the score.

'The GoldenEye Overture', which plays during the pre-credit sequence, is fine and works with the scene, but overall Serra's techno aesthetic is totally at odds with the movie's tone. It is a testament to the movie's other qualities that the score does not torpedo it.

The 'standout' examples of how badly Serra bungles the task are 'Ladies First' (which plays during his flirtatious chase with Xenia Onatopp) and his rejected music for the tank chase. Composer John Altman was brought on at the last minute to quickly come up with an orchestral score for the tank chase which made heavy use of the James Bond theme. Altman's contribution was left off the soundtrack album, but you can find a version of it floating around on Youtube.

Otherwise the score feels like a mash-up of bad elevator music and the soundtrack to a late eighties porno.

Tomorrow Never Dies

The arrival of David Arnold as composer led to a decade of musical stability for the Bond franchise.

Tomorrow Never Dies is one of his best soundtracks, even though it features the elements that would derail his later scores for the Brosnan era: a big dollop of Barry (strings, brass, and horns) with contemporary textures (in this case, drum'n'bass).

Unlike his later Brosnan-era scores which emphasise elements of techno, with Tomorrow Never Dies Arnold makes sure that they are subordinate to traditional brass and strings.

Barry-like touches are present throughout ('Hamburg Break-In' echoes Barry's "Bond Back In Action' from Goldfinger), and Arnold brings back the James Bond theme in an energetic arrangement that re-invigorates the old standby.

And while the Sheryl Crowe song is dire, Arnold's own Bassey-esque 'Surrender' (sung by kd lang) made it to the end credits. Like Thunderball, Arnold composed the score with the melody for this song as the backbone, but Crowe's song wound up getting the prime slot.

One of the best scores in the series, with Tomorrow Never Dies the Bond series got its mojo back.

The World Is Not Enough

More techno-influenced than Arnold's first score, and not nearly as fresh, The World Is Not Enough does earn points for being a little more tonally varied than its bold, brash predecessor. Arnold lends this score more pathos to match the more mature intentions of the film.

As a score this one actually ranks with Barry for doing a better job at hitting the tone than the film it accompanies. The action cues are fantastic, but the real highlight is 'Elektra's Theme', which features throughout the movie as a motif for the characters' effect on Bond and the narrative trajectory. 

I am lukewarm on the title song - objectively there is nothing wrong with it, but there is something lacking from it. Maybe it just fits the template too closely - it really has no defining character of its own.

More offbeat is 'No One Else To Blame', a moody ditty Arnold came up with to play over the end credits. Sung by Scott Walker, it hits the downbeat tone of the movie - clearly the producers agreed, since they had Arnold go back and replace it with an up-tempo version of the James Bond theme, to leave the viewers on a high note (the song is included on the soundtrack album).

Die Another Day

While not as bad as GoldenEye, this score represents the nadir of David Arnold's tenure. The movie is out of ideas, and, sadly, so was the composer. He struggles manfully to bring drama and excitement in 'Hovercraft Chase' and 'Anatonov', but his music lacks variation and nuance. Once again, he is hamstrung by a terrible title song,which was produced too late to be used in the score. Overall Die Another Day comes off as loud, hollow and tied to its time.

Casino Royale

Purposely depriving himself of the James Bond theme, which had become something of a crutch in his previous scores, Arnold rises to the occasion with tracks which accentuate the movie's tone and themes. His romantic theme for Vesper Lynd is lovely, and while 'You Know My Name' is a bit middling as a title song, Arnold's uses of its melody in the score are glorious (particularly on the heart-pumping 'African Rundown'). When the Bond theme finally makes its appearance, it feels earned. One of the best scores in the franchise.

Quantum of Solace

Not a bad effort (and better than the song) but Quantum of Solace is a bit of a dip in quality from Arnold's previous score. 

He continues the restraint of his work on Casino Royale, utilising the familiar theme for only a few minor moments and picking up 'Vesper' in a few places to ensure thematic continuity. However Arnold's largely at the mercy of the movie, which is the most relentlessly action-oriented in the franchise. He makes a lot out of the movie's quieter moments, injecting lashings of pathos ('I Never Left') and comedy ('Field Trip') in among the action cues.

On that front, Arnold is on great form: 'Time to Get Out' and 'Pursuit at Port Au Prince' are great. The real highlight may be 'Night at The Opera', which gets the pulse racing without leaning into the percussion or synthesisers.

Quantum would perhaps have been more memorable if the melody of the score was tied to the title song, but this is another Arnold joint where contemporary taste overruled musical unity. Arnold later used the melody of this score for the song 'No Good About Goodbye' for Shirley Bassey. Rumours persist that this song was rejected in favour of the White-Keys track. I have no idea what the truth is, but the song is so close to the melody line that runs through Quantum that it is hard to dismiss as a coincidence. 

Skyfall

With the arrival of Sam Mendes in the director's chair, Skyfall also marked the series debut of his favoured composer Thomas Newman. An Oscar winner with a solid pedigree, on paper Newman sounds like a great stand-in for David Arnold. But that is not the case.

While it is not terrible, Newman's score for Bond 23 is relatively anonymous. As always, the big problem is a lack of memorable melody - Adele's 'Skyfall' gets referenced in 'Komodo Dragon' and it is great, but it is missing from the rest of the movie. 'New Digs' has some nice agitated guitar and Newman reaches some Barry-esque romanticism with the evocative 'Severine' and 'Modigliani', but otherwise it sounds like Modern Blockbuster Score 101.

Even the Bond theme, when it reappears, feels a little uninspired - Arnold always gave it a bit of panache and originality, but Newman seems to be going for the original vintage, with no flavour of his own.

Spectre

Following his middling effort for Skyfall, Newman returns to deliver a score with even less character than his first. Like Skyfall, it is not without its good points: the opening track, 'Los Muertos Vivos Estan', features Tambuco on percussion. By itself it boasts more energy and swagger than anything else on the album. But once again, the score feels indebted to a contemporary aesthetic that is heavy on simple themes and motifs, but light on strong melody. It does not say much that the most memorable track on the album is the instrumental version of Sam Smith's insipid theme song.

Here's hoping whoever gets the gig for Daniel Craig's swansong can end his era on high note.

Friday, 22 September 2017

IN THEATRES: Kingsman - The Golden Circle

After the Kingsman organisation is destroyed, Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) have to join forces with their US counterparts, Statesman, to take down a global drug baron (Julianne Moore) intent on taking her operation legit - even if that means sacrificing millions of her customers in the process.





    Man, this movie really suffers from a bad case of sequel excess.

    Everything you liked about the original (Colin Firth; gadgets; ultra violence; hip soundtrack) is back, but pushed to the most obnoxious level. If you found the original entertaining, you will be underwhelmed. If you thought the original was too mean and violent, this might not change your mind.

    The freshness of the original is missing, and what new ideas it does have (Julianne Moore's villain; a sociopathic US President; Elton John) don't feel as developed or interesting. It does not help the movie's case that it is constantly referencing its predecessor, to the extent of including flashbacks to the original. Making it even worse, brief sightings of Samuel L. Jackson's Valentine and Sofia Boutella's awesome Gazelle only reinforce the movie's lack of interesting elements.

    The movie's focus on re-treading old ground also reinforces the movie's lack of purpose. The original Kingsman had a pretty clear thesis ('What does it mean to be a gentleman?'), and was structured to show that being a gentleman has nothing to do with background or economic status. By contrast, The Golden Circle never really figures out what it wants to be about.

    Aside from the main plot, there are so many subplots that it gets a bit lost in the fray:
    • introducing the new organisation Statesman 
    • re-introducing Colin Firth's Harry Hart 
    • Eggsy's relationship with Princess Tilde from the first movie
    • the US President (Bruce Greenwood) using the villain's planned genocide as a way to achieve his own goals
    • Eggsy's uneasy partnership with Statesman agent Jack Daniels (Pedro Pascal)
    There is an interesting sub-theme about the war on drugs, which links the film's various antagonists, but it never feels related to what our heroes are up to. I did enjoy Bruce Greenwood's moral crusader President. Coming from a movie released in 2017, with an actual religious fundamentalist a heartbeat away from the office, he is easily more terrifying than the film's villain.

    I know this franchise is a take-off on James Bond, but it is sad that it did not take on a few more tropes from the series - ideas like a simple plot (Bond v bad guy; Bond kills bad guy; end), ignoring continuity (e.g. no flashbacks) and no world building (Spectre aside). This movie is so busy that it never really has room to breath and become fun. Instead it just feels like a victim of modern trends in franchise-building.


    The big new addition, Statesman, comes off like a cheap joke. Well, it would if the movie did not spend so much time on it. The focus on developing the organisation from an archetype of Southern white masculinity is a little questionable, but also feels a bit tired. Kingsman felt more fleshed out in the last movie, but its American cousin feels like an after thought. It does not help that the key players (Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry) are barely in the movie, and do not contribute much to proceedings. (BTW, it does not say much for Kingsman or Statesman that they have no idea that the other group exists).

    The focus on Pedro Pascal as Whiskey also feels unnecessary. He is not that interesting as a character, and he is sidelined as soon as Colin Firth returns to action.

    Speaking of which, Colin Firth's return never really feels essential, despite the movie diverting a large part of its middle act to his rehabilitation (amnesia, baby!). It does not exactly undermine the significance of Harry's death in the original - but does not add anything to it, or his relationship with Eggsy (here's hoping the plot device that brings him back is dropped in the next movie).

    CG is plentiful, and so is a lack of stakes. All of the set pieces are airless and fantastical. They are fun to watch, but never immersive (most exterior sequences scream green screen). There was plenty of cgi and speed-ramping in the last movie (two things which I did not particularly care for), but these elements felt necessary as an augmentation for what was already there (such as Gazelle's legs).

    While the movie is overblown and overstuffed, it is still watchable. The returning cast are all on pretty good form. Taron Edgerton does not get much in the way of character development, but he tills what soil he is given. Firth and Strong are also good, although some of the avenues the script sends them down feel a bit arbitrary.


    As far as the newcomers go, Julianne Moore is having a blast as the villain. Poppy is the secret puppet master behind all of the world's drug trade, and Moore gives her an air of surface charm which the filmmakers never really exploit. She gets a terrific entrance, but then the movie gets mired in other nonsense until the third act. I wish she had more screen time so we could get more out of her - we never see that cheery facade crack, and it would have been nice to get more depth out of her (we don't even get something as simple as Valentine's aversion to blood in the first movie). Her lair suffers from being an obvious set, but I like the idea of an exiled billionaire recreating the things she misses from home. The juxtaposition of fifties Americana (Poppy's diner and hair saloon look amazing) and jungle is great.


    And Elton John's role is pretty fun - they actually find a way to make his role a bit more involved than you initially expect, and his scenes are some of the few points where the movie steps off the gas and just bathes in its own lunacy.

    Overall, while it is never terrible, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is an overlong, uninspired sequel that never comes into its own.

    Related posts

    Kingsman: The Secret Service 

    Monday, 18 September 2017

    The Ballad of Dynamotion

    This piece was written last year and has never been published.

    When Lara Liew was growing up, she knew one thing: she was going to be a ballerina. The ballet shoes are gone, but Lara is still dancing -- although in a style and context her younger self would have never contemplated. 

    Lara is the co-creator and choreographer behind Auckland dance company Dynamotion. Co-founded with her friend Tom Sainsbury, Dynamotion takes every cliche associated with professional dance companies and throws them out the window.


    Lara Liew. Credit: Tim George

    Instead of taking inspiration from classic literature, Dynamotion has created a series of musical comedies drawn from b-movies and Hollywood blockbusters. And where other dance companies pride technique, in Dynamotion, dance ability comes a distant second to enthusiasm.

    While a few cast members have some dance training, most of Dynamotion’s cast have no professional experience beyond their work on previous Dynamotion shows for the last four years.

    “Previous dance experience is certainly not a requirement when we are casting,” Lara says. 

    The focus is on personality and performance ability. Instead of an audition process, the group stay vigilant for people with the “right amount of wackiness” and “big expressive faces”.

    The key to Dynamotion is not dancing, but ‘dacting’. Lara explains the term this way: “That ability to express through the face as well as the body what the emotion is.”

    While it started as a tongue in cheek term to describe their amalgamation of dance and acting, Lara and her collaborators take it very seriously. 

    “The more shows I go to that are dance related, I go to Tom and say ‘That show needed more dacting!’”

    This emphasis on the face is present in burlesque, but Liew feels it is undervalued in more traditional forms of dance.

    Part of the inspiration for the show came from Lara’s background in burlesque dancing.

    “I trained in classical ballet and what they call modern dance — similar to jazz I guess — and I did that for my whole childhood and through high school.”

    At 15, Lara’s confidence had been shaken after she failed an important ballet exam three times. 

    “Looking back I don’t even know why I was disappointed because I liked ballet but I like modern and street jazz much more.”

    Despite her success with these disciplines, Lara was solely focused on ballet, and after she failed the exam for the third time, she thought her dancing career was over.

    “I didn’t even really think that you could have a career in dance outside of being a ballerina, which is so ridiculous…”

    Lara shifted focus to acting. While studying at Unitec, Lara’s fire was re-ignited when she saw people studying contemporary dance without learning ballet. After acting school, friends encouraged Lara to audition for a burlesque company. Lara began working regularly in burlesque and it was through burlesque that the seeds of Dynamotion were sown.

    “I had sort of found most of my burlesque work was rooted in comedy,” Lara says. 

    It was through burlesque that Lara met Thomas Sainsbury. A local playwright, Tom loved to dance and together, they started spitballing ideas.   


    Tom Sainsbury. Credit: Tim George
    The idea was based on making dance accessible and funny, with an underlying message that anyone can be able to dance. They talked about what kind of story would lend itself to being told through dance. Tom was going through a phase of watching b-grade horror movies from the Seventies, so they designed a story based in that style.

    “We thought that b-grade, naff aesthetic would be something we could achieve with actors who were trying to dance,” Lara says.

    Lara admits that the first show was not an easy experience, but unintentionally, it laid the template for all of Dynamotion’s future productions. 

    Due to the small size of the cast, not only did Tom and Lara come up with the story and the choreography, they had to take the lead roles. 

    Rehearsals took place in Tom’s tiny spare bedroom, a claustrophobic hotbox where the only window was stuck closed. Minor reprieve came from a crack in the glass. The carpet had been ripped away leaving bare floor decorated with old staples. And before they could get to work, they would have to move a heavy slate bed that folded into the wall.

    “We just had to do tiny movements and we could barely move on the spot,” Tom Sainsbury says.

    The show played three nights at the Maidment Theatre at the University of Auckland. Despite getting out of the spare bedroom and onto a real stage, the pair were never sure of how their pet project would turn out.

    “We were backstage going ’we don’t know if this will work’ because we’d never really seen anything like it before,” Tom says.

    Despite the inexperienced cast and poor attendance, the audience response encouraged Lara and Tom to continue. 

    FACTBOX: Timeline
    October 2012 
    Terror Island 
    May 2013
    Terror Planet
    February, 2014 
    Purple Rainbow 
    July-August, 2014
    Terror Highway 
    August, 2016
    Mia Blonde in ‘Ice Dagger’

    In terms of production, every Dynamotion show takes four months. For Mia Blonde, they started working on it in May and it came out in August. Rehearsals were three nights a week for two months. Since the people work full-time, these rehearsals had to be organised in the evenings.

    When they choreograph the numbers, Lara and Tom make sure that the more proficient dancers are given more technically difficult choreography.

    “If I can do something and Tom can’t do something then we probably know that it’s in the ‘too hard’ basket,” Lara says.

    Thanks to their fast turnaround, the Dynamotion company has become more adept and ambitious in the types of dance numbers they create. 

    Lara says: “We are capable, as a cast, of harder choreography than we were four years ago.” 

    Most of the shows did not use dialogue, so focus had to be paid to movement and song choice to convey the story. They make one long playlist to measure out the runtime.

    As Lara says. “So if something goes wrong… there is no leeway.”

    Following their first show, Dynamotion has produced a show almost every year, with each production targeting a specific movie genre: Terror Planet parodied Terminator 2; Purple Rainbow took aim at the zombie genre; and their latest offering, Mia Blonde in ‘Ice Dagger’ was  a gender-swapping homage of the James Bond franchise.   


    “It’s such perfect Dynamotion fodder that it was a real natural fit,” Lara says.

    Because the group’s (assumed) informality, people are eager to join the group. Lara claims their audience have occasionally acted as a standby talent pool. 

    “Occasionally spots come up when someone can’t do a show and we go ‘Ah, you know who’s been on the waiting list for a long time?’ 

    On person who has never missed a show is Roberto Nascimento. He is one of only two dactors (the other being Kate Simmonds) who have been involved with every Dynamotion show since the beginning. 

    Roberto got involved through his friendship with Tom.

    “We had just done a different play together and he goes ‘Oh, do you want to be in this show that we’re doing? It’s like a dance comedy thing and there’s no dialogue, we just dance.’ And I said ‘Yeah’.”

    Despite having no idea what he was getting involved with, Roberto jumped in -- and he’s stuck around. Out of the 12 members of Dynamotion, he is the longest serving behind Lara and Tom.

    “I was just lucky that they thought of me at the time,” Roberto says.

    Roberto loves the lack of pressure that Dynamotion offers — it is just a chance to have fun and dance.

    “It’s important to remember you’re out there to have fun and also if I make a mistake, I’m the only one who knows.”

    Raewyn Whyte is the dance editor for Theatreview, New Zealand’s most popular theatre review website. Whyte has seen every Dynamotion show, and not just as a critic.

    “I saw it at the Fringe and I thought ‘this is cool!’ These guys are having a go and they have some really clever ideas, and there’s a good formula,” Raewyn says.

    Raewyn believes Dynamotion have carved out a unique place in Auckland’s theatre-dance scene where the emphasis is on sheer entertainment.

    "Comedy conveyed primarily through movement is very hard to pull off, and dance comedy is even harder. Most performers lean heavily on some kind of text, or the lyrics of the music. Dynamotion do use those devices but they have also mastered the knack of embodying their wacky characters wordlessly, which makes them so very entertaining,” Raewyn says.

    Roberto is extremely thankful for getting to be a part of such a unique group. 

    “Hats off to Lara and Tom for carrying it through and making it happen, because it’s tough to make things happen in this country sometimes.”

    Strangely, it is Dynamotion’s creator who has gained the most confidence from being a part of the dance troupe. 

    Lara claims her failed dream to be a ballerina hampered her dancing career. Even though she worked as a burlesque dancer for several years, Lara always thought of it as “the other dancers and me”.

    “It’s really only been in the last couple of years that I’ve had to challenge my perception of myself around dance and go ‘Wow, what a really narrow view to have of yourself as a failed ballerina’.”

    Because of her childhood disappointment, Lara never saw herself as a real dancer. Working with Dynamotion has freed her from this mindset.

    “I’m in a situation a lot of the time where I’m working with non-dancers and people who aren’t necessarily trained and I’m saying to them ‘Yes, you can be a performer. Yes, you can dance. Who cares if you’re too fat for ballet or too tall for ballet or too un-co-ordinated. Who cares if you’ve never done it before.’ And so part of it has been walking the walk, picking up what I sort of preach to other people.”

    Saturday, 16 September 2017

    I Wake Up Screaming & The Chase

    It has been a minute since I covered some film noir. Here are a pair of gems from the classic period.

    I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
    Following the murder of his beautiful protege Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), hotshot promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is the prime suspect. Hounded by an imposing detective, Cornell (Laird Cregar), Frankie has to go on the run to find the murderer before he goes to the chair.

      One of the earliest noir, I Wake Up Screaming represents an interesting intersection point between a couple of different genres and what we now know as film noir. Framed as flashback heavy mystery, I Wake Up Screaming features many of the tropes one would come to associate with the genre: a wrongly accused man as the protagonist; use of chiaroscuro; a sense of fatalism as the protagonist falls deeper and deeper into danger. More abstractly, it also provides an early example of the genre's fixation with femininity, here reflected in the deranged obsession the film's antagonists have with the beautiful murder victim.

      The character of Cornell is the most fascinating (and disturbing) element of the film. His creepy obsession with the dead woman makes for a nice contrast with his public facade as a hard--nosed detective. In many respects he is a spiritual forebear to Laura's Waldo Lydecker, only he covers up his infatuation with bellicosity and machismo. His desire is closer to romance than Lydecker, although it feels strangely infantile and impotent.     

      While he is not the culprit, he does get the film's stand-out suspense sequence - appearing at the foot of Frankie's bed, appearing like a ghost out of nowhere.  

       

      Despite these elements, the film is not a fully-formed noir. Much of the action is played as a comedy thriller, with an emphasis on the burgeoning romance between Betty Grable and Victor Mature. The film's multifaceted tone is actually one of the film's selling points. The mix of (relatively) light romance and dark psychological drama complement each other, giving the story's dramatic shifts more punch.

      Once Frankie goes on the run, the movie begins to resemble The 39 Steps, mixing the suspense of the police manhunt with the romantic atttraction between Mature and Grable. The film's recurring motif of using 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' as a romantic refrain gains an ironic edge, as Frankie gets deeper into his predicament.

      In terms of acting, the cast are all on good form. Mature has a good time as the flashy Christopher while Grable is surprisingly effective as the 'plain jane' sister (although that is a stretch). The real standout is Laird Cregar as the deranged Cornell. Simmering with rage, he underplays his mania just enough that the reveal of his real motives comes off as a genuine surprise.


      The movie's 82 minute runtime ensures that it moves at a clip but this is one case where it could have used a little breathing room - Frankie's peril never feels that real, in spite of Cregar's imposing presence.

      Overall, a solid chunk of old-school entertainment and an intriguing look at the development of the genre we now know as film noir.

      The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946)
      When you watch a lot of film noir, you are going to notice the name Cornell Woolrich (or his pen name William Irish) pop up a lot in the credits. Woolrich wrote many novels and short stories which were later adapted for film, including the classic noir Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmack, 1944), boy-cried-wolf thriller The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949), and most famously, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954).


      Based on a story by Woolrich, The Chase is based on a familiar Woolrich scenario: a protagonist caught in a nightmarish scenario.

      Chuck (Robert Cummings) is a WWII vet-turned-Miami drifter who, thanks to an act of kindness, becomes the chauffeur for a vicious gangster, Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). While working for Roman, Chuck falls under the spell of his tortured wife, Lorna (Michele Morgan).

      He quickly comes up with a plan for both of them to escape to Havana. They manage to get away, but it is not long before Roman has Chuck framed for Lorna's murder. Back on his own, he is murdered by Roman's sociopathic stooge (Gino).

      At this point, Chuck wakes up. It is the day he and Lorna are supposed to take the boat to Havana. His attempted escape was all a dream. At this point we learn that Chuck suffers from PTSD and has completely forgotten about Roman and Lorna. He goes back to the only place he remembers: the military hospital.

      Meanwhile, Roman has discovered Lorna is in love with Scotty and is not too happy. Will Chuck remember what happened in time to save her?

      The Chase is a pretty solid thriller for its first half, growing increasingly more bleak as it progresses. And just when it could not get worse, it pulls the rug out. But while it could be an easy cop-out, it is just a springboard to a different kind of thriller: a race against time in which the hero is completely helpless... or so it seems.

      While it is not the most well known noir, The Chase has gained notice for its unique structure: the entire second act is Chuck's nightmare of their escape going wrong, with both characters ending up dead.


      While Cummings and Morgan are fine, it is the villains who really make this movie stand out. Steve Cochran is an actor I am not that familiar with, but on this evidence I need to check out more of his stuff. With Lorre as his second, I was expecting him to steal the spotlight, but it is the more clean-cut, 'all-American' Cochran who stands out. He balances an excruciating level of politeness with sudden bursts of violence - the scene where he socks a hairdresser for a minor mistake is genuinely shocking.
      Lorre is also great as Gino. He plays the role as a sadist who cannot be bothered disguising his disgust for other human beings. Between his apathy and Cochran's sadism, they give the movie a malicious sense of humour that adds to the sense of events escalating out of control.

      The ending is a bit too neat and tidy, but The Chase is still one of the best noirs I have seen in a long time.

      Friday, 15 September 2017

      BAD MOVIE JAMBOREE: Rock the Kasbah (Barry Levinson, 2015)

      Burned-out rock manager Richie Lanz takes his last client on a USO tour to Afghanistan. After she bails and abandons him, Lanz tries to figure a way out of his predicament. Along the way, he runs into a collection of oddball characters: Kate Hudson's saintly call girl; Scott Caan and Danny McBride's gun runners; Bruce Willis's hard-nosed mercenary; and a young Pashtun girl who dreams of becoming a singer (Leem Lubany).


      The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The same goes for Hollywood dramas with social relevance. Hollywood has a history of taking important political events, figures and issues, and refracting them through a white guy's point of view (Cry FreedomThe Help or this year's Bruce Lee kinda-biopic Birth of the Dragon).

      Rock the Kasbah is a particularly obnoxious example of this storyline. Every decision made, at every level of production, reads like checklist of what not to do with a movie based on real events.

      To be honest, this movie feels like a dodge. Two studio executives had some money in an offshore account that they wanted to get rid of, and so they took a bunch of drugs and dictated a rambling story about their own lives to some poor schlub and presto!

      Throw in a talented director and cast in need of some quick cash... and you got yourself a movie baby!

      It is almost unbelievable how strong the cast's collective pedigree is here, and yet everyone is completely off-base. Murray, usually so sure and on-point in his choices, is a cartoon. A portrait of a boorish Ugly American, Murray's self-obsessed scumbag completely overshadows the central figure of the story: Leem Lubany's Salima.


      Ultimately this movie never clarifies what its purpose is. While it offers a dedication to the real woman the movie was based on in the closing credits, that story is never foregrounded - it just becomes another kooky subplot, and a catalyst for Murray's redemption.

      But even that arc makes no sense. Murray's asshole producer does exactly the same thing he did at the beginning at the end. The only thing that changes is that he gets shot - taken out of the third act entirely. It falls to other characters, offscreen, to get him out of trouble.

      There is the kernel of a movie here, but it is buried under a bunch of self-consciously eccentric characters and subplots. For such a simple concept, it feels so top loaded with unnecessary nonsense. It feels like five or six movies mashed together.

      It is so frustrating, because the story does not need to be padded out. Murray's character is so unnecessary for the story, yet he is in every single scene. Salima never gets a sequence on her own - her whole story is basically cutaways from whatever BS Murray is doing.


      Lubany is good, but is completely stranded in this dreck. Hopefully she finds better roles in the future, and is not just 'exotic' window dressing for Hollywood egos.

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      Thursday, 14 September 2017

      IN THEATRES: American Assassin

      After his fiancé is murdered by terrorists, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) goes on a one-man war against the cell responsible. His activities draw the attention of the CIA, who recruit him to become an assassin for America.

      Rapp is soon on a new mission to stop a former agent (Taylor Kitsch) with a nuclear weapon intent on death and mayhem.



      Vince Flynn is one of those thriller novelists I've seen on the shelves but I've never bothered to read. Hopefully his books are better than this movie, because it's been less than a day since I've seen it and I can barely remember what happened.

      Sometimes you watch a movie and all you can see is the movie it desperately wants to be. American Assassin has all the ingredients of something decent: a great cast, a focus on the protagonist's psychology, as well as the old standbys of fights, explosions and pointless hot chicks. The fact that all these elements are also the building blocks for a hundred Redbox rentals and direct-to-streaming dreck should also be an indicator for how far this movie fails to engage as a theatre experience.

      American Assassin is stuck between these two poles, offering early promise that it is more than it's generic title, before completely falling off a cliff into mind-numbing mediocrity.

      The cast are mostly solid. O'Brien is strangely believable as a baby-faced killer; Sanaa Lathan and David Suchet add a little class (but not much else); and Taylor Kitsch is completely vanilla as the psycho bad guy. The highlight is Michael Keaton as Rapp's taciturn instructor in the art of American Assassin-ing. He brings his offbeat intensity to what could have been just a gruff cliché, and it adds a little bit of spice to the otherwise bland proceedings. I don't know why they just didn't make him the bad guy.


      The movie is at its most interesting in its first act, as the script moves economically through his transformation from traumatised victim to hardened vigilante, coolly tracking down the cell responsible for killing his fiancé. From there the movie turns into a conventional 'loose nuke' story - complete with an obvious double agent and a finale in which our hero has to go rogue to get the job done.

      The script wants to be a bit deeper than a simple action movie - it makes reference to the parallels between the villain, a fellow agent who lost his mind, and Rapp's own inability to keep the mission and his own murderous desires separate. This is a solid foundation for a character in an action movie (or any movie, really), but this movie never clarifies exactly what Rapp's flaw is, mostly because his flaw is a need for violent retribution, and that is what his enablers/employers are in the business of doing.


      The character arc is clearly meant to be Rapp learning to not let his emotions get in the way of being an assassin for America, but this is just lip service in the movie. There is a creepy implication from the CIA bigwigs that they are eager to use Rapp because of his psychotic drive to kill, something which they have been unable to find in their other American Assassins. This attempt at moral ambiguity is blunted by the movie's celebratory focus on Rapp's inability to follow orders. The movie ends with his bosses unable to track him down. While they bumble about Stateside, the movie ends on Rapp as he is about to assassinate the next president of Iran. The character does not really change that much from the beginning of the movie until the end, apart from the fact that he learns how to properly stab a dude in the neck. He is a stone-cold killer at the beginning, and is a stone-cold killer at the end. So much for character depth.

      In the end, the movie feels like a 20 page treatment for a generic spy movie, rather than a fleshed-out story. All the key beats are there, but they have no connective tissue tying them together. The movie just winds up feeling like a bad network TV pilot, hinting at storylines which will be explored across 22 episodes. This is one of those projects that clearly needed a few more minutes in the oven.

      Even with a generic script, something entertaining could have been salvaged by the direction, but sadly it is not much more inspired. While he avoids shaky cam, Michael Cuesta does not show a lot of imagination or understanding of dramatic staging, particularly in the fight scenes. The angles and cuts are often confusing and fail to establish a clear sense of geography. There is a sequence in a Turkish bar in which a key piece of plot info is revealed, our hero and villain meet for the first time, and a semi-important character dies. Watching the scene, I could not even describe the room, let alone where characters were within the room. There is an overreliance on coverage, and a disinterest in scene-setting which reinforces why this movie feels like it belongs on the small screen.

      The art direction and choice of locations does not help. A large portion of the movie is set in Rome and Istanbul. You would not know because the movie takes place in shadowy rooms, tunnels and back alleys. It just feels banal. In the case of the tunnels, they evoked the similar tunnel used in episodes of Alias back in the day. This lack of care is evident in the one set that does pop - a hotel room with a massive floor-to-ceiling window, against which Rapp battles an arms dealer's bodyguard.

      Wow, I am amazed I had that much to say about this movie. American Assassin is not an aggressively bad movie, but it is an exceptionally dull and uninteresting one. Which is even worse.

      On this evidence, O'Brien and Keaton deserve another shot at an action franchise, but for Mitch Rapp, the mission is over.