The Columbian film, Birds of Passage.

Birds of Passage.

Ciro Guerro’s Embrace of the Serpent was the stand out film of 2015 (reviewed earlier here), so his follow up was much anticipated. On the face of it, Birds of Passage, which he directed with his production partner and former wife Cristina Gallego, couldn’t possibly be more different.

Over the course of two decades, we watch as the decease of narcotics comes to infect the whole of Columbian society. It begins innocuously enough, with the arrival in 1968 of a ragbag of hippies in search of a better class of high. But very quickly, every corner of the countryside has been laid low by the kind of blind greed that only ready cash can produce. And before long, the whole country has descended into a very modern hell.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Where Embrace of the Serpent was a meditation on colonialism in measured blacks and whites, the new film is a riot of colour and awash with noise. But that colour palette aside, the two films share remarkably similar concerns. It’s just that they are looking at the world through opposite ends of the telescope.

This time around, we are embedded in the Wayuu group, tribes of native Americans who live to the very north, on either side of the border between Columbia and Venezuela. And it is through the prism of their concerns and their traditions that we witness the havoc wreaked by the spread of the international drug trade. So once again, we are looking at ethnicity, ethnography and the discordant clash as age-old traditions come up against the progress offered by the modern world. 

It’s ravishing to look at, and sumptuous to behold, sonically speaking. And I desperately wanted it to lift off and take flight. But it doesn’t.

The Wayuu people.

The film’s problems can be traced to its casting. Not the cast, who all do their best, but to the ethos behind the casting. For the film makers insisted on casting actual Wayuu tribespeople in a third of the roles, and deliberately avoided any “named” actors throughout – the only name is Natalia Reyes, soon to star in the latest Terminator reboot. Yes, that’s what the world needs, a n other instalment from yet another CGI, green screen Hollywood franchise. 

She plays the wife of the protagonist, Rapayet. He himself is played by the Cuban baseball star Jose Acosta. So, unsurprisingly, with so many inexperienced performers, there is a decided dearth of passion to the telling of the tale. And this is further exacerbated by the script. Reyes, for instance, who is so strikingly central to the film’s opening half an hour, tamely disappears from view for much of the rest of the film. And without that core relationship to root for, and given the bloodless, one-dimentional nature of so many of the other performances, it’s impossible to care very much about what happens to the various characters as they make their way inevitably down.

(L-R) – José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in Birds of Passage

In short, the film is weighed down by its lofty ambitions and its sense of moral rectitude. It’s too ethnographically concerned to allow the drama catch fire, but not sufficiently to qualify as a documentary. It looks and sounds amazing, and it’s definitely not a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as it might have been.

You can see the trailer to Birds of Passage here

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Titanic Rising, bewitching new album from Weyes Blood.

Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising.


From the moment those piano chords serenely chime as the opening track on Titanic Rising gently departs, you’re instantaneously transported to those arrangements Richard Carpenter used to craft for his sister Karen. And the album that follows comfortably delivers on that promise, and then some.

This is the sort of sophisticated, grown-up and unashamedly romantic pop music that the Brill Building churned out with such apparent effortlessness. The melodies of Burt Bacharach and the lyrics of Hal David were the perfect fit for Richard’s lush orchestration and Karen’s transcendent vocals. 

Carole King’s Tapestry.

Carole King became the Brill Building’s most successful graduate when she moved out to pursue a solo career. Her 1971 album, Tapestry, sold over 25 million copies, as she merged those perfectly crafted, classic pop songs with the introspection and doubts of the newly emergent singer songwriter.

And Natalie Mering, whose forth album this is in the guise of Weyse Blood, is very much continuing here where King left off. If anything, Mering cuts even more of an impressive figure. Carole King, after all, was aided in her endeavours by some wonderful lyricists. Mering is doing all of this on her own. 

Caren and Richard Carpenter

The result is a collection of personal, questioning songs that recall Hunky Dory era Bowie, but which are given the sort of orchestral, soaring majesty that only a Brian Wilson or a Phil Spector would have attempted to produce.

The album gets a suitably impressed 8.5 from the boys from Pitchfork, here. And you can see the official video to Everyday, here, and you can hear that beguiling opening track A lot’s gonna change, here.

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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 and gloriously cinematic the Host of Seraphim, 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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