Thursday, 28 June 2018

IN THEATRES: The Incredibles 2

After defeating the Underminer, the Parr family are given an opportunity that could help pave the way for changing the laws that keep supers in the shadows...

This movie is really good: the story works fine, the action sequences are inventive and the comedy - especially a battle between Jack Jack and a raccoon is one of the funniest things I'll see this year. Brad Bird has a terrific facility for creating stories that combine the elasticity of a cartoon with the emotional resonance of great drama.
This movie is really good, and I have nothing interesting to say about it.

When I started doing reviews of new releases last year, I thought it would be a fun diversion - but after watching a lot of movies - some good, some bad, and some that leave no impression either way, I've decided to put a pin in this section of the blog.

That does not mean I will stop reviewing new movies - it just means there will be fewer of these reviews, and the ones I do write will be about movies that really get my mental gears going, which will hopefully make them more interesting to read. 

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

IN THEATRES: Sicario - Day of the Soldado

After a series of bombings lead the US government to designate the Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organisations, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is brought in to lead the campaign. Rather direct confrontation, his plan involves fermenting distrust between the various cartels so that they begin a war with each other.

As part of his strategy, he brings in 'sicario' (hit man) Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and a team of mercenaries to kidnap the daughter (Isabela Moner) of a major cartel leader.

Though the kidnapping is a success, it becomes obvious that the situation they have instigated may be beyond their abilities to control...

While it lacks the almost Lovecraftian dread of its predecessor, Soldado is a fine action drama that takes the world and the key supporting players of the first film (Del Toro and Brolin) in a new story that still feels of a piece with the original.

Whereas Denis Villeneuve's film was concerned with showing the labyrinthine, enigmatic and chaotic nature of America's War on Drugs, with Emily Blunt's protagonist as the audience surrogate.

Soldado is also about innocence corrupted - the film is built around two converging plotlines: the kidnapping of Isabela (Moner); and the initiation of a young man ( Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) working as a people smuggler along the border.

While the main focus is on Graver's scheme to start a gang war, the film is ultimately about the cycle of violence, and the recruitment of new soldado (soldiers) to carry on the bloodshed. This is encapsulated at the end of the movie, which features a pair of scenes in which our protagonists are forced to confront their own mirror images - seated opposite post-rescue, dead-eyed Isabela, Graver finds he is unable to maintain his own basilisk stare; meanwhile Alejandro meets with the former people smuggler, who wants to become a 'sicario'. 

Repeated references are made to Graver's past 'success' in the Middle East, and how the goal is to turn the cartels' turf into 'Afghanistan'. There is a dark joke in aligning one failed conflict (the War on Terror) to another (the War on Drugs), and this sense of context gives the film a sense of foreshadowing, as the viewer waits for the protagonists' plan to fall apart. 

One element of the original Sicario that returns here is the disjunction between narrative resolution and plot resolution. In typical action films, the resolution of the external conflict mirrors a personal resolution for the protagonist. It's an essential part of the catharsis we get from watching most action-driven narratives. Both Sicario and Soldado feature the main character accomplishing a specific goal that does not lead to a restoration of equilibrium in the diegesis; in the original, Alejandro kills the head of the cartel and his entire family, yet the movie does not signal any broader geopolitical shift. Life goes on, along with the violence. 

In Soldado, this central action sequence takes place about halfway through the movie, when Graver, Alejandro and their team are ambushed by Mexican police while trying to bring the girl back to Mexico. Though their adversaries are killed, the girl and Alejandro are left behind in the desert, while the government terminates Graver's campaign due to the broader political repercussions of a US strike team killing Mexican cops in Mexico. In the world of Soldado, action is not so much propulsive as it is retroactive, destroying any sense of order or sense of direction.

There are no rules in this movie's universe, and no way to adapt fully to them. All you can hope for is to survive.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

IN THEATRES: Hereditary

When her secretive, controlling mother dies, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to move on. Her relationship with her mother was - at best - strained; the rest of her family are dead, due to mental illness and (it is implied) her mother's manipulative nature.

But then events take a turn for the worst: her mother's grave is desecrated; her daughter Charlie dies in freak accident. Annie is at the end of her rope - until she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), another woman dealing with loss whom she meets at a support group.

Joan has found a way to deal with her grief, and presents Annie with an opportunity that might be the key to bringing the whole family back together...

Horror is a genre where you can really see the director's stamp. For the first two thirds of Hereditary I was hyper-sensitive to the choices that writer-director Ari Aster was making, in terms of shot selection, the sound design and space within the frame - I felt like I was stuck in a vice.

This is not a criticism - there is nothing wrong with being aware of technique, only when it is not used well, or as an attempt to cover up a deficiency in terms of performance or narrative function. Hereditary works on a technical level - I have not felt this unsafe in a studio horror film, at least in terms of  recent cinema releases.

What do I mean by that?

We are in an interesting time for horror on the mainstream stage. Horror is usually treated like a dirty secret - John Carpenter has a famous quote where he equates being designated a 'horror' filmmaker with being a pornographer. Nowadays, with the consistent box office success and critical acclaim of Blumhouse and films like The Conjuring and last year's Get Out, there are a lot of think pieces throwing around the idea of 'elevated horror', as though the genre is evolving out of something bad or low-rent. Or pundits go for the old tactic of trying to strip the horror tag off a film.

Horror, like comedy, is based on primal emotions. That is why its popularity with audiences remains consistent, while its critical fortunes are more complicated. There is an overriding sense that because it deals with visceral emotional responses it is somehow lesser as a form of artistic expression. 

Hereditary works because it engages with those primal responses on a universal emotional site: the family unit.

It also deals with has the intelligence to engage with familial taboos - not only the death of a child, but how the traumas of one generation can be passed on to the next, and the ultimate horror of recognising that parents can be fallible or malignant.

I have a theory that the film's success in exploring these ideas is the reason why a segment of the audience dislikes the film's final turn into the supernatural. Demons and headless corpses are familiar horror tropes - they are easy to grasp, and to dismiss, as fantasy.

You cannot do that with family crises, which are real, complex and hard to resolve. They are also universal - whoever you are, whatever familial unit or relationship you are involved in, the fear of losing trust in someone you care for is something that we all at least contemplate.

And what makes Hereditary work so well is that it has such a firm, unflinching grip on that fear - not of ghosts or witches, but hearing a parent tell their child that they never wanted them; or a spouse believing their other half has lost their mind, and can no longer be trusted.

Because those things are truly terrifying.

Monday, 25 June 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)

In the middle of World War 2, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) feels trapped on the sidelines. Ruled unfit to serve because he cannot pass the physical, Steve refuses to let this setback prevent him from doing his part. Impressed by his determination and humility, a mysterious scientist (Stanley Tucci) offers him an opportunity to finally achieve his dream...

If you had asked me any time before 2011 that I would become a fan of a Captain America movie, I would never have believed you. I could never get around the irony of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed superman fighting against a regime based around idealising blonde-haired, blue-eyed supermen.

This movie is the perfect example of how a film can rise above its flaws to become something special. Because when you take a closer look at The First Avenger, there are some aspects where it drops the ball - the middle act is basically a collection of similar-looking action sequences; the villainous Red Skull is a bit of a cartoon, the third act is rote and completely short-changes itself in order to set up the next Marvel movie. And while it looks great, there is something vaguely televisual about the production that makes it feel like an expensive pilot for a Captain America TV show.

But what saves this movie is what it gets right, and that vital element is the character of Steve Rogers. You can mess up a lot of things in an action movie, but if you get the characters right, and make them people worth investing in, it can be the deciding factor in making a movie worth watching.

Steve Rogers is an ordinary guy who does not like bullies, and tries to stand up whenever he meets them - no matter how many times they knock him down. It would be easy to take a character like this, and try to make a joke out of his earnestness, or ala Man of Steel, try to complicate his motivations to make him 'gritty' and 'dark'. But director Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (with some help from an un-credited Joss Whedon) avoid both of these pitfalls, investing time in showing Rogers' determination to overcome any obstacle that stands in his way. 

What is great about Rogers is that his determination is not that of your garden variety action hero. He is never portrayed as a macho individualist, and he is not particularly nationalistic. His desire to enlist is not rooted in patriotism per se, or gung-ho about the military. He is just a good man who knows what it is like to be marginalised, and wants to fight injustice wherever it exists - whether that is a hulking bully at a movie theatre, or Nazis.

By contrast, Steve Rogers is defined by a desire to help other people, but and to be accepted by the rest of the community. There is a sense of egalitarianism to his character that is not usually associated with action heroes. In the training sequence, his split-second decision to jump on a grenade, is not based on self-glorification, but a desire to protect the people around him. It is also the action which convinces the military brass that he is the candidate to test Erksine's serum on.

This leads to my favourite scene in the movie.

Steve's final meeting with Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is the keystone to the character and the movie. Erskine explains the reason why w short asthmatic was chosen over a trained soldier. Because Rogers has never had power, he knows the importance of it and how it is used.

It is the thesis of the movie, and carries through the rest of the movie. When Erskine is fatally injured and taps Steve on the chest, he is basically transferring his belief in Rogers to be a 'good man'. Steve gets to exercise that when he goes AWOL to rescue POWs from a prison camp.

The other noteworthy element of the movie is Steve's relationship with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), which builds well from a rapport based on shared lack of status. Considering how poorly romantic subplots are handled in action movies - see Thor - the focus on a slow-burn attraction was probably a wise choice. Their understated dynamic works well, and gives the film's conclusion more poignancy than it would have (especially considering the final scene).  

        In terms of other highlights, while the second act is a bit rote, it is enlivened considerably by the brilliantly meta 'The Star Spangled Man' musical number. It's basically the origin for the 'Captain America' moniker and his costume, but it never feels shoe-horned. It's also extremely catchy.
          Still on the musical side of things, composer Alan Silvestri deserves all the cred for coming up with a genuinely memorable theme for its title character.
          Captain America: The First Avenger may not be as good as its sequels, but for me it has something those movies strive for, but never quite attain: heart. 

          Sunday, 24 June 2018

          NOIR WATCH 2018: Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)

          Johnnie McQueen (James Mason) is the leader of an IRA cell in Northern Ireland. After escaping from prison six months ago, he has been holed up in the home of Kathleen (Kathleen Sullivan), a woman who secretly loves him. He is now planning to rob a mill to finance his group.

          After so much time out of action, Johnnie's skills are rusty. The robbery goes well, but he is caught in a scuffle during the escape and ends up abandoned in the middle of the street, with a bullet in his shoulder.

          Alone and delirious, Johnnie now has to figure a way out of the city before the authorities hunt him down.

          Directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), and starring James Mason, Odd Man Out uses the context of Northern Ireland to focus on - as the opening crawl states too plainly - the way that human beings act when stuck between duelling loyalties. Despite the omnipresent threat of violence, people are willing to provide a modicum of help, but that help is dependent on their weighing of what they have to gain or lose.

          Details are kept vague - we never hear the IRA referred to by name, and there is very little exposition about the history of Northern Ireland. While there is probably a commercial consideration (and censorship) behind this choice, it ends up reinforcing the movie's focus on how this context affects the central characters.

          As Johnnie, James Mason is wonderfully muted. Johnnie is a character who spends the first 15-20 minutes trying to prove his masculinity, and then spends the rest of the movie as a semi-verbal object, a MacGuffin that passes from one set of characters to another. I was fascinated by how low status the performance and the character is - Johnnie is a character in a state of emotional and physical decline, and there is no turning point.

          From the first scene, Mason conveys McQueen's dulled prowess. We are introduced to him in a bedroom, sitting on a bed and drinking tea. While his dialogue and actions establish McQueen as a professional, there is a lack of polish and weight to Mason's delivery, as though he is playing a role he does not quite believe. When his lackeys question his readiness, Mason's forcefulness feels like an overcompensation.

          Reed juxtaposes the intimacy and cosy domesticity of this scene by cutting to a series of tilted, tracking shots of city streets. The shots are given no direct source - the filmmakers cut to Johnnie and his men in a car, heading toward the mill.
          These moving shots feel like they are meant to be Johnnie's POV, as he struggles to acclimatise to an outside world he has been kept from Johnnie's weakness is further reinforced by Reed's staging of the gang's arrival at the mill.

          While the other men jump out of the car, Johnnie has to get out on the far side of the car and walk around the boot. To make it more awkward, progress is interrupted a middle-aged woman who crosses his path. Johnnie has to stop in his tracks, and wait for her to pass.

          Once Johnnie's agoraphobia gets the better of him, he loses all sense of agency (and his place as the central focus of the diegesis). Johnnie becomes a MacGuffin, and a signifier to the people he meets: a lover; a fighter; a martyr; a criminal; of what it means to do the right thing. It's not so much a suspense thriller about a man trying to avoid his fate as it is the story of a community struggling to figure out what they will do when such an individual comes into their corner of the world.

          As Johnnie's predicament grows more dire, he becomes associated with entropy, illness and death. This is liberalised in the case of Lukey (Robert Newton), an artist obsessed with capturing intense emotional states on canvas. When he stumbles upon Johnnie, he sees his chance to capture death.

          While Lukey fails in his task, his designation of Johnnie as a dying man holds: Johnnie  is doomed. Even when he is reunited with Kathleen, he is not given a reprieve - he goes from doomed fugitive to doomed lover, a new status orchestrated by Kathleen as British soldiers surround them.
          In the end, Odd Man Out's brilliance lies not in its ground-level view of a wanted man in the middle of a complex geopolitical situation, but how people living in such a climate figure out how to either deal with it, or shut it out.



          Elevator to the Gallows

          Saturday, 23 June 2018

          NOIR WATCH 2018: Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958)

          Two lovers (Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet) have come up with a plan to kill an inconvenient husband and make it look like a suicide. The crime goes according to plan, but a critical oversight leads to Julien (Ronet) being trapped in the titular conveyance.

          While he tries to get out of his predicament, his car is stolen by young lovers Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin) for a joyride that ends in more tragedy. With no knowledge of what haas happened, Florence (Moreau) wanders the streets believing that Julien has betrayed her.

          Will Julien escape? Or is the elevator really the vehicle to his doom?

          Directed by Louis Malle, starring Jeanne Moreau and featuring a score by Miles Davis, on pedigree alone this movie is worth checking out. 

          One of the key themes of noir is a protagonist caught in a situation they have no control over - on its own, Julian's dilemma could be a great set-up for a noir or a claustrophobic thriller, but his imprisonment in the elevator serves as the first falling domino in a chain of events that turns the movie into a meditation on the fruitlessness and nihilism of life in post-war (and pre-1958) France.
          The film's two plot lines are based around crime - one is premeditated, the other is not. Irregardless of intention or process, both parties lose: this is a diegesis in which even the most talented people are fallible, and every plan is subject to circumstance and chance.

          Reinforcing this idea of human fallibility, the film is filled with specific references to the contemporary historical context: the Occupation, Indochina and the (then) on-going Algerian War. The characters' personal crises feel like reflections of a broader national crisis. Still recovering from an enemy occupation, and with its colonial empire crumbling, the film's vision of France is of a nation in terminal decline, heading into an uncertain future without reckoning with the trauma of the recent past - by drawing on recent history and popular socio-political anxieties, the film ties the noir theme of irreversible fate to the external context.

          Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin) are aimless youth - Louis's life is based around petty larceny while Veronique is obsessed with silly romantic ideas that she barely understands (she has a crush on Julien; her idea to commit suicide). The film's view of these characters is incredibly pessimistic - they don't express any desires beyond satisfying their most immediate appetites. Louis sees himself as a tough guy, stealing cars and pretending to be a soldier to impress a middle-aged German tourist with a new car he desires.

          Louis and Veronique are like a parody of Julien and Florence - their attraction is superficial and their actions are spur of the moment. In the end, however, they are not that dissimilar: they are both guilty of murder, and are equally capable of making mistakes. 
          As far as the cast goes, it is hard to look past Jeanne Moreau. The rest of the cast are functional, but Moreau pops (it is easy to see why she became such a star). Aside from Miles Davis's score, Moreau is the most noir-like aspect of the movie. From the opening shot, of Moreau whispering "I love you" into a phone, she conveys the movie's pessimistic view of human interactions.

          While she shares qualities with the noir archetypes of the hard-nosed detective and the femme fatale , Florence is never fully reconcilable as either archetype. The film's focus appears to be to deliver a genre narrative, but to focus on the fallibility and weaknesses of the characters. What happens when the familiar tropes and narrative conventions are taken away? You are left with people, people subject to moments of weakness and variables they (and the viewer) cannot predict. 

          Only 24 when he made the film, Louis Malles displays a sure hand over the story. Juggling multiple storylines, Malles has a strong understanding of tone and pace that makes them feel both distinct and of a piece, without ever losing a sense of forward momentum. Malles had previously worked on Robert Bresson's incredible A Man Escapes. There is a certain economy to the scenes involving Julien, particularly the opening assassination that reminded me of Bresson's film.

          The movie is simultaneously visually straightforward and innovative. Elevator to the Gallows is regarded as a precursor to the Nouvelle Vague, the film's use of sound is the most obvious stylistic element - Florence's voice-over as she wanders the streets, searching for her lover. The use of natural light adds to the film's sense of claustrophobia - even outside of the elevator there is an oppressiveness to the locations (both Paris's urban sprawl and the chintzy hotel where Louis and Veronique hide out), as though contemporary France is dead and empty.

          While I had heard great things about this movie, the main reason I wanted to watch this movie was the score by Davis - and it is great. Davis captures the mood of the film perfectly, and adds to its sense of isolation and oppressiveness, with his trumpet feeling like a plaintive cry for help in an uncaring universe.

          A perfect blend of genre and art house, Elevator to the Gallows is a terrific thriller that works as both straightforward entertainment and a meditation on the alienation of modern life; and the individual's inability to impose control over the variables of life. The film does not reinforce the theme of the inevitability of fate (ala Hollywood noir). Rather, Elevator to the Gallows is ultimately a story about no one's path overrides anyone else's. In the end, our fates are dictated by our own respective, unpredictable choices and motivations.

          Sunday, 17 June 2018

          BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Zombi 2 AKA Zombie (Lucio Fulci, 1979)

          After an abandoned sailboat drifts into New York City Harbour, and its un-dead passenger kills a cop, the daughter of the boat's owner, Anne (Tisa Farrow), and a reporter, Peter (Ian McCulloch), head to the ship's last port of call: the Caribbean island of Matul.

          On the island, they find a doctor (Richard Johnson) trying to cure a mysterious illness, corpses who won't stay dead, and a mysterious drumbeat that has no clear source...

          This movie feels like a nightmare.

          Right from the opening scene, in which a corpse in a body bag slowly rises off its bed and gets shot in the head, it feels like a threshold has been crossed. There are going to be no cutaways or happy endings - the dead are coming back to life and there is nothing you can do to stop them from turning you into breakfast, lunch and dinner.

          There is never any sense that the cavalry will sweep in to save the day. Before our heroes head to the island, there is a brief scene in the city morgue, where a dead cop rises from his slab. We never see what happens to that zombie,  but we don't need to. This is not a movie about preventing the apocalypse, or even about surviving it - it is simply about the experience of being in the middle of a world in meltdown.

          The thing that I really enjoy this movie, and the dividing line for why I prefer this one over Fulci's later films in this vein (City of the Living Dead, The Beyond) is how straightforward it is. Those movies are appreciated for their lack of clear narrative and dreamlike violence, but it never really struck me as particularly effective in mounting and building a sense of real dread.

          The quality about Zombie that I really like is how pre-ordained the story feels. Before the action moves to Matul, there is a scene at the morgue where a zombified cop comes back to life. There is never any sense that the cavalry will sweep in to save the day. Before our heroes head to the island, there is a brief scene in the city morgue, where a dead cop begins to rises from his slab. We never see what happens to that zombie,  but we don't need to. This is not a movie about preventing the apocalypse, or even about surviving it - it is simply about the experience of being in the middle of a world in meltdown.

          Fulci excels at creating an apocalyptic sense of dread. Every set piece feels like another nail in the coffin for our heroes and the 'real' world - a lonely housewife dragged out of her house to be consumed by zombies; our heroes crash their car and rest in a clearing that turns out to be a grave yard for the conquistadores who colonised the island, and proceed to rise from the dead; flaming zombies marching through a hospital ward; and the film's iconic climax, showing zombies shuffling across the Brooklyn bridge into Manhattan.

          Even the film's most ridiculous sequence - a zombie fighting a shark - adds to the unrelenting sense of doom: if these things can fight Jaws, then we are really screwed.

          It is a testament to Fulci's talents as a filmmaker that the movie's cheesier elements - the acting and the exposition (the history lesson about the island feels like it's been dictated from a primary school history book) - don't undermine the atmosphere.

          He is assisted by two great collaborators:

          Gianetto De Rossi's makeup for the undead is incredible - with their withered skin, old wounds filled with dirt and worms, these undead feel queasily real. I have little stomach for gore, but with this movie it is absolutely necessary and (literally) eye-popping.

          The movie is infamous for featuring a scene in which a character's eye is gauged out, but I was always more disturbed by the aftermath , when our heroes arrive at the scene to discover the zombies gorging  on the corpse while the dead woman stares wide-eyed at them, her final terror frozen on her face. It is chiseled into my retinas.

          The other key creative is composer Fabio Frizzi, whose synth score works in the same way that the movie does: the main theme is built on a simple, repeating beat - like a beating heart, or a clock ticking down to the apocalypse.

          Overshadowed somewhat by being tied to George A. Romero's Dawn of the DeadZombi 2 does not share Romero's thematic heft, but as a visceral punch to the gut it works perfectly. If you are in the mood for a zombie movie that pulls no punches, Fulci's blood-soaked vision is it.

          Saturday, 16 June 2018

          PODCAST NEWS: Update on the James Bond Cocktail Hour

          A couple of months ago, I released the first news about the James Bond Cocktail Hour, the new podcast I will be co-hosting. Here's a brief update.  

          The big news is that you can now follow us @007CocktailHr on Twitter and jbchpod on Instagram.

          We have been recording episodes, and are now in the middle of mixing and editing them. We have also been building a website and other infrastructure so that you can fully enjoy the experience.

          We shall be releasing more details as we get closer to the release.

          In the meantime, you can peruse my Bond-related musings, and imagine what my voice sounds like!

          Den of Geek articles

          Bond reviews

          Diamonds Are Forever

          The Man With The Golden Gun


          For Your Eyes Only


          A View To A Kill

          The Living Daylights

          Licence to Kill


          Tomorrow Never Dies

          The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

          Die Another Day

          Casino Royale

          Quantum of Solace

          Spectre (2015); (2016)

          Tuesday, 12 June 2018

          Aquarius (Tinashe, 2014)

          Sometimes you hear a specific song, and you are hooked.

          I had heard good things about Tinashe's debut album, and so I added the album to my rotation and promptly forgot about it. Sometime later, I was out food shopping, bored of listening to my usual stuff, when I finally remembered Aquarius and put it on. I distinctly remember wandering through the frozen food section as 'Bet' started, and it just sucked me in.

          Head to tail, this album is a genuine surprise. A few songs flirt with dance ('2 On', 'All Hands On Deck') but the overall vibe of the record is dark, slow, and disquieting. I was immediately hooked by how atmospheric it was. There are familiar tropes scattered throughout, but the songs are more haunting and tense.

          At the time, I had not heard the Weeknd, Kelela or FKA twigs, so I had no antecedents to compare it to (the closest thing I could think of was James Blake, but without his austere delivery and with a more dynamic, varied sound). Tinashe's sound felt completely different, in the best way possible. I walked home without ever hitting pause or replaying. It was just so engrossing - I have not had an experience with an album like that since... I cannot remember.

          Listening to Aquarius is the equivalent to sinking slowly to the bottom of a body of water. Starting with the muted sounds of a party and finger snaps, 'Aquarius' immediately submerges the listener in the slowed-down grooves and dark atmospherics which define Tinashe's aesthetic and tone.

          'Bet' (feat. Devonte Hynes) is even better - to use the sinking metaphor, it feels a few feet deeper. Darker in tone, and packed with apocalyptic visuals, it is one of the most effective tracks on the album. Ending with a wailing guitar solo, and processed backing vocals, it is hair-raising stuff.

          'Cold Sweat' is a slow jam for people who have partied too hard but are still going through the motions. The tempo feels like RnB, and there is a discernible groove, but the tone and otherworldly synth textures push it to another place. The lyrics are a paranoid look at hook-up culture, with references to 'friends with agendas' and 'eyes on your back'. There is a world-weariness to the words, as though the  narrator is aware of the dangers but is still willing to seek out a new partner, even if he leaves in the morning (which sounds like the best case scenario).

          Buffered by an interlude, '2 On' is the first recognisably RnB track, with a faster beat and a guest verse (by Schoolboy Q). It was the big hit off the record and makes for a nice break from the disenchantment and hollow eroticism of the early tracks.

          Compared to the (relative) power surge of '2 On', 'How Many Times' (featuring Future) feels like a go-between, marrying 'Cold Sweat's' slow-burn to a catchy chorus. Maybe because of this it is one of my favourite tracks off the album. It is so good that even the spoken word intro (in French) adds to the ambience, rather than detracting from it (it is also the clearest signpost of Janet Jackson's influence on this current trend of dark and slinky RnB ala 'Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)').

          Bracketed by another interlude, in which Tinashe briefly interrogates the concept of truth, 'Pretend' (with a guest spot from A$AP Rocky) is one of the most unsettling 'love songs' I have heard in awhile - over a (relatively) upbeat melody, the narrator tries to convince a former paramour to pretend they are in love just for one night. Completely undermining the sentiment of the sonics, the singer highlights their superficiality. The song almost feels like a dare for listeners - are they paying attention to the lyrics, or the beat? it is the ultimate 'last rites' song: She knows this guy's MO, and needs one night where all the cards are on the table they are both on the same page.
          'All Hands on Deck' is more straightforward: it is about a woman wronged too many times.  Now she is only out for hook-ups. It's the first song that feels a little outside the singer's grasp - it is catchy, but the synths are so high in the mix her voice blends into the background. There is also a very obtrusive pan flute that feels totally out of place - it sounds like it was added after the fact.

          'Indigo Child (Interlude)' is less than two minutes long, but hits all the aesthetic touchstones of the album. concluding in a crash of electronics reminiscent of FKA twigs.

          A ballad about a woman running away from love, 'Far Side of the Moon' continues the album's preoccupation with mendacious lovers and the difficulty of figuring out what a person's real motives are. Sonically, the percussion provides a martial beat that adds an edge of aggression to the bitter musings of the lyrics.

          Reducing love to the cheapest signifier of erotic pleasure, 'Feels Like Vegas' is either an ode to dance floor romance, or a deeply cynical extension of the previous tracks, with a narrator taking what she can from the only attraction she can be sure of - the lust of men she meets in the 'flashing lights' of the club.

          If 'Thug Cry' were placed earlier in the trackless, its central boost might have come off slightly ridiculous - coming on the heels of all the heartbreak and meditation on bad men, instead it feels like a reassertion of personal power, and a confident blow against displays of machismo. Whereas previous songs dealt with the narrator's insecurities about men, this song flips the script to highlight how she is not the only person affected by her relationships - and their weakness is the inability to express their emotions. It's a clever lyric, and the music is one of the most ear wormy tracks on the album. It's great.

          I have not really mentioned the interludes, but snippets like 'Deep in the Night (Interlude)' are great buffers between the more traditional pop RnB and uber-slow jams - this one is a creepy, muffled piano concerto that sounds like audio from an old video of a child's recital.

          'Bated Breath' is a return to the haunted slow jams of the first half of the record. The synths and piano are well-judged, but I particularly love how it all dies away to let Tinashe's voice carry it. This track really hits home how Tinashe uses space, silence, as part of her aesthetic. She knows how to let a specific atmosphere and pathos breath and build, rather than smothering everything in a lot of production.

          In a completely different vein, 'Wildfire' is a great, funky little number that feels like a break from all the conflict and cynicism of the previous songs. Not to say it is more positive lyrically (she equates her lover's magnetism as a poison in her veins), but at least sonically it feels like the narrator has an opportunity to escape her predicament. Coming after so many tracks dealing with deceit and betrayal, it feels like a narrative cliff hanger - is she going to break away, or will she be lured back toward heartbreak? Instead of closure, we get an ellipses. The song ends as it began, on the precipice of her choice. While we contemplate that, 'The Storm (Outro)' ends the album the way it began, with atoms and the tinkle of ivories fading into silence...

          I really enjoy Aquarius. It is well-produced, feels sonically and thematically unified, and is extremely well-sequenced. A lot of albums feel like a bunch of tracks thrown together - every song on Aquarius feels like it is in the right place, and feeds into the vibe of the song which follows it. There is a sense of cumulative effect which is very intoxicating.

          I don't really have criticisms. The rap verses have become a familiar component of a lot of songs, but they all feel a little out of place here. Even though '2 On', 'Pretend' and 'How Many Times' are conducive backdrops, the traditional party cliches and macho posturing feel a little odd within the context of the album's overall tone and themes. Not that they detract - amid the album's slow-burn, they are reassuring signposts of something familiar.

          While the album is filled with great individual songs, Aquarius is best listened to in one go. So if you  are planning on taking a long road trip, it's the ideal aural backdrop.

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          Sunday, 10 June 2018

          IN THEATRES: Ocean's 8

          Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has spent the last five years and change in jail coming up with the perfect heist. Once released, she puts her plan into action. First, she needs a team...

          I saw this movie a couple of days ago and I have really had a hard time trying to come up with anything to write about.

          This movie is fine. There is nothing about it that sticks out as especially memorable or bad. It has a good cast in cookie-cutter roles, with a scene or moment to give them some personality based on their respective places on the call sheet:

          Bullock is the boss with the plan; Cate Blanchett is the second-in-command (although if there is anything else that's interesting about the character it's not in this movie); Helena Bonham Carter is the quirky one; Rihanna is the hacker; Awkwafina is the pick pocket; Mindy Kaling is the fence for the merchandise; Sarah Paulson is the... other one.  

          As far as standouts, Bonham Carter has some nice little moments as a quirky designer who is roped into the scheme, and Ann Hathaway is great as the narcissistic socialite that the team needs to facilitate their caper. Following an eye-catching supporting part in last year's Valerian and the Cavalcade of Inanities, Rihanna adds another neat little part as the mysterious hacker who is obsessed with her own privacy. Ala wrestler-turned-thespian Dave Bautista, she has avoided jumping into lead roles, instead taking small but memorable parts that do not require a lot of dramatic heavy lifting. This may sound like an insult but she fits in with the veteran ensemble, which is pretty good for a relative newcomer.

          I know this sounds silly, but I am having a really hard time picking out who these people were. Usually with these kinds of movies, either it is more about the characters than the heist or the other way around. With this movie, both heist and characters are just functional - neither part stands out.

          This movie's aggressive okay-ness is a bit of a disappointment considering the pedigree and the fact that it is a part of the Ocean's franchise. While the latter movies have their admirers, Ocean's 11 remains a terrific example of the kind of star ensemble caper that this movie is tapping into.

          Maybe it is the lack of a Steven Soderbergh? Gary Ross is a solid filmmaker, but Ocean's 8 lacks a certain panache, a certain degree of sophistication and wit to really make it sing. The movie feels like ingredients for a great meal that has not been prepared yet.

          Go take your mum. She'll like it.