2 of 2020’s best albums: Sault’s Untitled, (Black Is) and Untitled, (Rise)

album cover for Untitled Black Is
Sault’s Untitled, (Black Is)

No sooner had artists from all walks of life just about managed to persuade the world that no, the pandemic was not in fact the perfect opportunity to finally get around to producing that masterpiece. And that, on the contrary, crafting anything of substance was, sneer, a little more complicated than that, along come Sault with not one two stunning albums, both of which are double albums, and neither of which have a semblance of filler in sight.

Sault’s Untitled, (Rise).

Worse again, the first, Untitled (Black Is) seems to have been propelled into existence in response to the murder of George Floyd, on May 25th, and was released, in quiet anger, barely four weeks later in June. With Untitled (Rise) appearing but 12 weeks later. So that’s a brace of apparently hastily conceived double albums over the course of the summer, after the pair of equally impressive albums they released at the end of 2019 – ‘5’ and ‘7’.

Sault’s ‘5’.

Then there’s the question of who exactly ‘they’ are. Sault do neither promotion nor publicity. And not in the we’re-uncomfortable-in-the-limelight limelit interview way, there’s genuinely almost nothing about them, anywhere. The two principles appear to be the London–based producer Inflo and the RnB singer Cleo Sol, who are joined by a handful of the performers signed to their record label, Forever Living Originals. 

The two albums mirror and echo one another, with, on paper, Black Is producing the more sombre meditation and Rise the more danceable beats. But truth be told, they both dive and glide from menacing gloom to confident joy and back. And the mood conjured up by both albums can best be summed up by the latter’s title, ‘rise’, being at once triumphantly upbeat and confrontationally revolutionary.

Sault’s ‘7’.

Musically, we move from 70s’ RnB and the pre-disco soul of Luther Vandross to the carefully considered mashups of the Avalanches, and that turn of the century moment when dance, funk and triphop coalesced. And each album is marbled with tracks built on afro-Cuban beats, sending the sounds back to where it all began.

Exceptional albums from an embarrassingly fecund basement somewhere in the former metropolis of London, England. You can see hear the standout track Widlfires from Black Is here:

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2 Films You Might have Missed in 2020

After a year in which the headless chickens at Warner Bros declared, yawn, that cinema was dead, again, it’s easy to have missed the fact that a number of films were in fact released in the year just gone, albeit in a somewhat truncated manner. Two of which are very much worth the effort of chasing down.

Bacurau won the Jury prize at Cannes in 2019 and is the third feature from Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, which he co-directs with his long time art director Juliano Dornelles. Set in a dystopian near future, Bacurau is a mythical town in the Brazilian outback whose inhabitants are being slowly closed in on. 

Their water supply has been cut off, their town is inexplicably disappearing from Google maps, or whatever its futuristic equivalent is, and there are a group of tourists whose safari trip seems to revolve around taking out the town’s inhabitants, as if they all existed in some sort of actualised video game.

At Home, In the Company of Strangers.

Bacurau begins in malevolent sci-fi mode before morphing into spaghetti western territory via Mad Max. As such, it’s a companion piece to At Home In the Company of StrangersNikita Mikhalkov’s impressive debut, from1974. It shares that film’s refusal to be bound by any genre straight jacket, and is wilfully open to any number of interpretations. So that its political resonances are suggested rather than declaimed. The result is an impressively atmospheric trip into a heart of darkness that says little about the future and much, alas, about the present of the country in which it is set.

The Vast of Night is a much less substantial affair, but is well worth a look nonetheless. The feature debut of Andrew Patterson, who also wrote and produced it under the pseudonym James Montague, the film was actual shot in 2016. But it was picked up by Amazon last year after turning many a head at Edinburgh and Toronto, and was duly released in the summer of 2020. 

It’s an unabashed homage to 1950’s sci-fi B movies and is presented as an apparent episode of a would-be Twilight Zone series. What elevates the film is the infectious confidence with which it is directed. 

And there’s absolutely no way we can persuade you to consider a sequel…?

I’m sure if I sat sown and thought about it for 20 minutes, I could probably work out quite how he manages to match-cut that tracking shot that seems to glide all the way into the basketball game and then effortlessly back out again and into the night. But I’d rather just luxuriate in its brash exuberance. Part of the joy of seeing magic is knowing that it’s only a trick but being for the life of you incapable of working out exactly how it was that the trick was done.

Clearly made for thruppence ha’penny, thanks to its bravura direction The Vast of Night looks like a million dollars and more, and is the most impressive calling card since Donny Darko, if that’s not too hubristic an appellation to lay on it. And both films, by the by, come in at a crisp 90 minutes. Would that some of their more seasoned, ahem, superiors would follow their lead.

You can see the trailer for Bacurau below. 

And for The Vast of Night below.

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I May Destroy You, the new HBO/BBC series

I May Destroy You

In the MacTaggart lecture she gave at the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival, Michaela Coel, the star of Channel 4’s sunny sitcom Chewing Gum, told a stunned audience that she’d been sexually assaulted. She’d been out on the tear trying to avoid a writing deadline, and the following morning she began getting sinister flachbacks. It’s just such a night that her dazzlingly impressive 12 part dramedy series I May Destroy You circles around.

Coel plays Arabella, a thirty something doyenne of the Twitterati who is expected to build upon the success of her surprise best seller Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial by delivering its sequel to her agent and publisher. 

And, faced with a 9am deadline she does what any respectable writer would, and heads out on the town. The following morning, as the haze of the night before begins to slowly clear, she starts to get flashbacks of being raped.

Over the rest of the series, she and her closest two friends, aspirant actress, Terry and their gay partner in crime, Kwame, slowly piece together the events of the night. 

But the ‘event’ of that night is as much the backdrop as it is the focus for the stories that the series follows. As the characters experiment with drugs and sex, work and play in search of what they assume will be revealed as their true identities in a world where identities, certainties and all manner of lines have been seen to disappear ‘neath perpetually shifting sands.

What’s so exhilarating about the series is the way in which Coel steers, and frequently veers between comedy, pathos, ironic detachment, genuine pain and back again. And often, all in the course of the same, single scene.

We flashback to Arabella’s Italian boyfriend, and the trip she and Terry make to Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome. To her childhood, and her estranged and idealised father. And to an event at school that is looked back upon in a very differnt light. And all the while, everything is slowly but surely helping to create a picture of exactly what it was that happened that night.

The writing is flawless, both structurally and dialogue-wise, it’s impeccably put together and all the performances are note perfect. Most impressively, not to say unusually of all, Coel manages to deliver on the season’s finale, which I’ll obviously not spoil by saying anything about here.

I May Destroy you is that rare thing. A series that comfortably lives up to and delivers on all of the entirely justifiable hype.

You can see the trailer to I May Destroy You here.

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HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’

The Plot Against America.

What you think about the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America will depend on whether or not the name David Simon means anything to you.

If you’ve never heard of him, then you will very probably find the six part mini-series perfectly diverting. Roth’s novel imagines a dystopian, counterfactual past in which FDR does not win his third term in 1940, and is instead defeated by the celebrity du jour and would-be fascist Charles Lindbergh.

John Turturro and Winona Ryder are introduced to the erstwhile first lady.

Lindbergh helped set up The America First Committee to promote American isolationism and keep them out of the Second World War. Championing white supremacy and blaming the Jews for trying to involve America in a European fracas, he not only refused to condemn the Nazis, he’d travelled to Germany in 1938 where he was awarded, and proudly accepted, the Service Cross of the German Eagle from Hermann Göring.

So it’s not hard to see what drew Simon to the source material. But, disappointingly, the series fails ultimately to take flight. And it fails on two counts. 

The gang’s all there, The Wire.

First, as every schoolboy knows, the best books make the worst films. And what works so well in the novel is the way in which Roth gets inside the young Philip’s head to give us a child’s-eye view of the world he finds himself in. So that the political backdrop is precisely that, a backdrop.

The book’s one failing, without wishing to give anything away, is that rather than move towards a dramatic crescendo, plot wise, it just sort of fizzles out. 

Treme.

Necessarily, in order to visualise the book, the programme makers decided to flesh out the political sub-plots in lieu of being able to dramatise what is essentially an inner monologue. But all that does is to highlight how literary the novel is, and how impossible it was always going to be to try to adapt it for the screen.

Second, and very surprisingly, it is, dialogue-wise, incredibly clunky. Everybody says exactly that they are thinking, and characters are forever spouting exposition and telling us, in case we missed it, what to think.

One episode begins with the father asking his friend why the local police aren’t protecting the Jews from the neighbourhood vigilantes. To which he replies: 

“Not many Jews on the Newark Police Force.”

“But that shouldn’t be the point”, the father says earnestly, emphasising the word shouldn’t, in case we’d missed it’s import. And so on.

What’s so especially disappointing about this is that this is the programme maker and the team who brought us The Wire. Rarely had dialogue been less on the nose.

There isn’t space here to look in more detail at what Simon has done since then. Suffice it to say, his output subsequently has looked increasingly conservative, and The Wire is looking more and more like something of an anomaly. 

Show Me A Hero.

After The Wire and Treme, skipping delicately over Generation Kill, the conservatism of Show Me A Hero, reviewed earlier here, came across as refreshing. But The Deuce, not withstanding its subject matter, was every bit as conventional. And now this.

All of which is a shame. Because the show is actually pretty good at imagining what it must be like for members of a minority community to live their normal lives, as the country they think of as their own turns inexplicably against them.

This Plot Against America isn’t a bad show. The dialogue is no more clunky than in the vast majority of shows you’re likely to sit through. And it looks every bit as ravishing as you’d expect of a modern day period piece. But I do hope we’re not going to have to re-evaluate Simon’s output. The medium needs its heroes.

You can see the trailer for The Plot Against America here

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“When All is Ruin Once Again”; impressionistic, elusive and impressive.

The filmic essay is a very particular breed. Part of this the golden age of television that we’re all luxuriating in has been the plethora of extraordinary documentaries that the small screen now has to offer. Most conspicuously with BBC4’s Storyville strand, reviewed by me earlier here. But the filmic essay is something else entirely.

Adam Curtis, reviewed by me earlier here, is the best example currently of someone producing this very specific type of documentary. There are plenty of individuals who attack a subject and pursue a particular polemic in a consciously objective manner. But an essay is an active attempt to try to understand something. 

Adam Curtis’ very personal meditation on Afghanistan.

It’s open and questioning where more conventional documentaries are crusading and confrontational. And When All is Ruin Once Again is a confident and original addition to its ranks.

The film is set in Gort, on the border of Clare and Galway in the west of Ireland, and is framed by the opening of a section of the motorway between Gort and Crusheen, in 2010. But its completion is promptly aborted as what was then the recession took hold. And it wasn’t until 2017 that it eventually came to be completed. 

The husband and wife team of Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth moved to Gort in 2010 and made the film over the following seven years. Documenting the changes that the country, and especially the West has undergone, as we moved effectively from the 19thcentury into the 21stover a period of little more than twenty years. And few things encapsulate that change as pertinently as the transformation rendered by the construction of a motorway.

But the film refrains from lazily contrasting a noble if austere past sullied by the enforced transition to a crass, materialistic future. In which an Irish identity has been sacrificed on the altar of globalization. What you get instead is a thoughtful and gentle portrait of one generation quietly making way for the necessary arrival of the next.

For the most part, the film avoids the sort of hectoring you might have feared given the subject matter. It does take one misstep. It ends with a voice over issuing a bog standard warning of the imminent environmental catastrophe that unchecked global warming presents. Which is a shame. Because that’s exactly that kind of tedious didacticism that the rest of the film so impressively avoids. 

Apart from which, When All is Ruin Once Again is a refreshingly subtle and quietly personal portrait of a world in transition. Which is neither good nor bad. It simply is, and ever thus will it be.

You can and should see it on the RTE Player. And you can see the trailer for When All is Ruin Once Again below (though I should point out, a tad disappointingly if inevitably, it’s a pretty misleading trailer. The actual film is, happily, much less didactic than the trailer implies.)

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