Dionysus, the new album from Dead Can Dance


Dionysus, Dean Can Danse.

Dead Can Dance established themselves in the 80s as one of the archetypal indie bands and were part of a triumvirate that included the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. Each offered up a heady mix of ethereal female vocals over an intoxicating cauldron of industrial goth, post punk and world music. And it was the corner stone upon which the era-defining 4AD records was founded.

Though always based in London, 4AD came increasingly to be associated with underground American acts such as the Pixies, Throwing Muses and the Red House Painters, who they signed in the 90s, and, more recently Bon Iver, St Vincent, Iron and Wine (see my earlier review here) and the National, who all form part of the current rostra.

It’ll End in Tears, This Mortal Coil.

But it was that core trio, and more specifically their three totemic sirens that gave 4AD its distinctive hue. Liz Fraser with the Cocteau Twins, Alison Limerick with This Mortal Coil and Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance.

Gerrard and Brendan Perry are the musical duo around which dead Can Dance revolve, and the pair have been joined by an assortment of musicians over the course of their nine albums. The best known of which is probably the Serpent’s Egg, with the soaring , which you can hear here

The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron and Wine.

Dionysus is their latest offering, and their first since their comeback album, Anastasis, in 2012. Ostensibly in two acts, the 7 tracks come in at a curt 36 minutes but there’s a heft and a genuine sense of substance that belie its brevity. 

As ever with a Dead Can Dance project, there’s an intellectual seriousness to the album that sets it apart in a world obsessed with merely getting noticed. There’s something pleasingly refreshing about a band who are unapologetic about taking what they do seriously. 

Bluebell Knoll, the Cocteau Twins.

The result is a rich and complex soundscape formed from propulsive north African rhythms and densely layered Arabic vocal lines, brought to life thanks to an assortment of exotic, esoteric near eastern and central European instruments such as the zorna, the gadulka and the gaida (see Ben Cardew’s review on Pitchfork here).

You can see the video for the Mountain here

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If Beale Street Could Talk, the new Barry Jenkins film.


If Beale Street Could Talk.

If Beale Street Could Talk is the keenly awaited follow up to the surprise hit that Barry Jenkins had in 2016, when he won the Academy award for Best Film with Moonlight. And if that weren’t pressure enough, it’s a James Baldwin adaptation. 

Tish and Fonny are childhood sweethearts, but the latter is in jail having been falsely accused of rape. And Tish is pregnant with their first child. So she and their two families are trying desperately to somehow raise the cash needed to pay for what will almost certainly be a fruitless attempt at legal redress. 

Beautifully shot and impeccably crafted, Jenkins takes an elliptical approach to the narrative as he moves back and forth through time to construct his story one piece at a time. Essentially it’s a love story with shades of Romeo and Juliet, as Fonny’s mother looks down from a height at the match her son has disastrously made with his unworthy mate.

This is brilliantly captured in what is in effect the central scene, as they two families square off from one another as Tish’s parents announce the happy news of her pregnancy. And therein lies the rub. For this scene is what the first third of the film culminates with. And although the rest of the film is perfectly fine, indeed mostly very good, the rest of the film never quite lives up to that first third.

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight (2016)

This, you’ll remember, is exactly what happens with Moonlight, which I reviewed earlier here. That film is divided into three parts, and the first two, and especially the first, are excruciatingly moving. But the third is ever so slightly underwhelming. Well, to put it in Wildean terms, to fail to ratchet up the dramatic tension of your story once is forgivable, but to do so twice feels like carelessness.

James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

All drama must needs move through an arc, rising and rising, before finally falling. You need to pass through E C C C C; Exposition, Conflict, Crisis, Catastrophe before final Catharsis. And dramatically speaking, both of Jenkins’ two principle films flatline after the drama of their first halves.

If Beale Street Could Talk is still a very good film, it looks ravishing and it’s a wonderful antidote to all that green screen nonsense. But Jenkins will need to work with someone on structure and the building of dramatic tension if he’s to avoid becoming but a brilliant stylist.

You can see the trailer to If Beale Street Could Talk here.

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, clever video game, dreary drama.


Black Mirror:Bandersnatch.

Erstwhile television critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker launched Black Mirror in 2011 on Channel Four, and in 2015 he and it moved over to Netflix for its third season. 

Sort of a cross between the Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, each episode presents a one-off, stand alone fable that explores a technological dystopia set in the very near future.  Invariably, the stories revolve around a societal What if question that is taken to its logical extreme.

The topics that each episode explore are momentarily intriguing, and it’s all glaringly au courant, that is to say trendible, so the first twenty minutes are generally fairly entertaining. But invariably the episode soon fizzles out, because Brooker is not really concerned with, and therefore not much good at, drama. He’s all too easily dazzled by the cleverness of his initial conceit. And his latest, Bandersnatch, continues the trend.

Black Mirror.

Nominally a feature film, it’s his and Netflix’s attempt at that much heralded hybrid, the interactive film. The idea of an interactive film emerged about 25 years ago as the digital revolution took off, and there were a number of factors that brought it into being.

First, DVDs replaced video, and with them came the advent of the deleted scene. At the same time, a new generation of video game consoles arrived, offering massively more sophisticated graphics. And the evolving world of Virtual Reality promised an even more impressive visual landscape, from which who knew what might emerge. 

So viewers began to ask themselves, what if we could decide what happens in a story? Could we choose a version of the film with those deleted scenes, instead of the one that the film makers ended up deciding on? And if so, what other things could we change about the stories we watch? Bandersnatch is the realization of that fantasy.

Your first decision, to ease you in.

So, as ever, for the first twenty minutes, you’re intrigued. You get ten seconds to make a black or white, Yes or No decision. And the story progresses, and ends, according to the decisions you make. Except it doesn’t.

Inevitably, if you make the “wrong” choice or choices, the film ends prematurely, and you’re offered the opportunity to go back to your “wrong” decision, and choose the other option. Of course you could politely decline, turn off your devise and pick up a book instead. But obviously you don’t, you go back to follow the alternative story lines, with their choice of endings, to see what other ways the story could have gone. 

Our hero’s been offered a deal, what does he do?

Which is an interesting idea, and it’s all terribly meta and frightfully clever. But as soon as you can go back and change your decision, that decision no longer has any weight or value. So any sense of tension and all the drama is immediately neutered. 

When one character says to our hero, one of us is going to jump off this building, who’s it going to be…And the action freezes for a jagged 10 seconds, and youhave to decide who, that’s exhilarating, and frightening and thrilling. But as soon as you can go back, and make the other decision, just to see what happens, before you know it, you’ll be glancing at your phone to see what you’ve missed since you started playing the game. 

And there’s the rub. Because interactive dramas already exist. They are called video games, which is what this is. And as a video game, it’s really interesting. Because what it shows is that the future of video games lies not with VR, but with live action. Bandersnatch is what video games will look like the day after tomorrow. 

Which is a really interesting polemic. And a polemic, like all the other Black Mirror episodes, is what this should have remained as. Had it appeared as an article in Vanity Fair, or in one of the Guardian supplements, it would have provided for a really interesting distraction. But as a drama, never mind a 90 minute plus drama, it’s woefully dull and progressively tedious.

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A cult classic road movie from the 70s.

Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two-Lane Blacktop is exactly the sort of film everyone expected there to be hundreds of after the global success that Easy Rider enjoyed in 1969.

Easy Rider starred and was written by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, together with Terry Southern, who’d previously worked on the script for Dr. Strangelove and was credited by Tom Wolfe as having pioneered New Journalism. It cost just $400,000, but went on to gross over 60 million dollars. 

Both a commercial and a critical sensation, it ushered in the New Hollywood era that blossomed throughout the 70s with the likes of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Francis (ex of Ford) Coppola and Paul Schrader.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

Surprisingly, Easy Rider has aged remarkably well and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t already seen it. As is this, its spiritual sequel.

Two-Lane Blacktop, the blacktop being the open road on which our latter day cowboys face up to one another on, came out in 1971 and was directed by Monte Hellman

A driver and a mechanic prowl the open road looking for likeminded loaners to race, living off of the proceeds. Inevitably, they pick up a girl looking for a, ahem, ride, and what plot there is revolves around their pursuit of her, and their confrontation with the older outrider they square off against on their respective steel steeds.

But neither the film nor its principle characters seem terribly interested in pursuing their objects of desire. Instead, it’s the spirit of Antonioni that reigns supreme. His regal Zabriskie Pointe (reviewed by me earlier here) had come out the previous year, and, as there, the predominant mood is one of existential ennui. 

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

This is further accentuated by the casting. The two male leads are played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. The former went on to establish himself as the archetypal 70s singer songwriter, while Wilson was the least naturally gifted of the three Beach Boy brothers, musically speaking. And was so insanely young when the whole Beach Boys thing happened – he was 23 when Pet Sounds came out at the endof their heyday – that inevitably, he spent most of his thirties in a drug-addled haze, before drowning tragically at just 39.

Harry Dean Stanton, in a brief cameo in Two-Lane Blacktop.

So instead of the sort of performances with a capital P that you would have expected from a Dennis Hopper or a Jack Nicholson, they amble they way through the film in exactly the right state of disinterest, not so much by design as by default. Pleasingly, you suspect that their casting was similarly happenstance. They just happened to be there when that particular joint got passed around.

It doesn’t quite give the heady hit that Easy Rider produces. But it is a curio well worth investigating and is a pleasing antidote to all that green screen nonsense. 

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Suspiria: Dario Argento V Luca Guadagnino.

Dario Argento’s Suspiria (’77)

Dario Argento’s sixth film, Suspiria, was released in 1977 but it’s as startlingly arresting to look at, and to listen to, today as it was then. And that despite the fact that much of what was so original about the film at the time has now become commonplace.

Written with his wife, the actress Daria Nicolodi, and inspired by a Thomas De Quincey essay, the film follows the arrival of a teenage dancer at a prestigious ballet school in Germany. What elevates it and so immediately distinguishes it, is the way that it brilliantly melds the conventions of horror with the aesthetics of classic, art house cinema.

Lines and colours to die for.

The result is a film that delves deep beneath the surface to explore the depths of the subconscious, to produce an expressionistic phantasmagoria decked out in the pristine lines and primary colours of a particularly lurid art deco.

Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli based their colour palette on Disney’s use of blocks of primary colours in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). And they shot the film using the last three strip Technicolor cameras in Europe, to create the same kind of intensity that the process had given to the likes of the Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Argento teamed up again with the Italian prog rock band Goblin, with whom he’d worked on Deep Red (’75), to produce the sort of eerie and unsettlingly child-like score that would later become such a cliché in the decades to come.

Jessica Harper in Suspiria (’77).

It’s impeccably crafted, dazzlingly original and, if anything, is even more visually and sonically striking today than it was when first it was released.

Luca Guadagnino seemed initially to offer so much potential. After the promise of his third feature, I am Love in 2010, he made the visually impressive A Bigger Splash in 2015, reviewed earlier here. But he followed that up with the anaemic Call Me By Your Name in 2017, reviewed earlier here. And now there’s this, his “homage” to Suspiria.

Ah, Technicolor…

Gone are the primary colours and any sense of visual flair, gone too is any attempt to connect what’s going on up on screen with primal fears buried in the subconscious. The witches are still present and correct, as is the setting of Germany in the late 1970s. What we are offered instead is the wholly irrelevant backdrop of the political chaos fostered by the Baader Meinhof group, a tedious Me Too subtext and an extraordinarily ill-judged Nazi coda.

The question that nags throughout, apart from how in God’s name did they manage to drag this out for over 2 ½ hours, is, why on earth did they bother? What, literally, were they thinking? As Argento himself commented to Eric Kohn in his IndieWire interview here:

“Either you do it exactly the same way—in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless—or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it Suspiria?”

Ralf Fiennes injects much needed life into A Bigger Splash.

In retrospect, and ironically, given his choice of subject matter, what’s missing from Guadagnino’s films is plain to see. With the exception of A Bigger Splash, they are each so bloodless, flaccid and completely devoid of passion. There’s an all too revealing profile by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker, here, where Guadagnino comments airily that he has recently been spending as much time shooting ads, and on his latest pet pastime, interior design, as he has on film making. Imagine what Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard would have made of that.

In the meantime, if you’re more interested in full blooded cinema than you are in Wallpaper, treat yourself to Argento’s timeless gem. You can see the trailer to Suspiria (77) here.

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