Arooj Aftab’s new album, Night Reign

Arooj Aftab came on to most people’s radar with her third solo album, Vul­ture Prince, in 2021. Mar­ry­ing ele­ments of exper­i­men­tal jazz and tra­di­tion­al folk music from her native Pak­istan with the sort of urbane pop that the likes of Sade and Enya con­coct, the result was a plain­tive and evoca­tive explo­ration of her attempt to deal with the death of her younger brother. 

That album’s suc­cess and the Gram­my it won her gen­er­at­ed sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure around a fol­low-up album so Aftab took a time out to form a trio with the jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and the mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Shahzad Ismai­ly. And in 2023 they released their Love In Exile album.

Iyer and Ismai­ly reap­pear here on her fourth solo album, Night Reign, where they’re joined by Gyan Riley, son of min­i­mal­ist pio­neer Ter­ry, the harpist Maeve Gilchrist and Elvis Costel­lo, who makes a cameo on, improb­a­bly, the Wurlitzer.

Ini­tial­ly, the album was going to focus exclu­sive­ly on set­ting the poet­ry of Mah Laqa Bai Chan­da, the first woman to pub­lish poet­ry in Urdu, to music. But in the end, just two of the album’s tracks are set to Bai’s words. And instead, she wise­ly decides to open the album up to give it a broad­er, more cos­mopoli­tan hue. 

So that, even more so than with her pre­vi­ous album, Night Reign moves with ease from Eng­lish into Urdu and back, and back and forth between the worlds of jazz, pop and tra­di­tion­al Pak­istani folk music. 

What’s so sat­is­fy­ing about the expe­ri­ence of lis­ten­ing to the album is the sense you get of its ‘uni­ty of com­po­si­tion’, which Aftab achieves thanks to her dual roles as vocal­ist and pro­duc­er. The 20 years and more she’s spent per­fect­ing her craft in both guis­es allows her to meld those poten­tial­ly dis­parate worlds and fuse them togeth­er into an organ­ic and cap­ti­vat­ing whole. 

Night Reign exudes appar­ent­ly effort­less poise and is an album you can enjoy equal­ly in the inti­mate pri­va­cy of your head­phones, or on repeat, for hours, on in the background.

The boys from Pitch­fork gave it an 8.3 here

Watch the video for Raat Ki Rani here:

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Season 3 of the sumptuous “My Brilliant Friend”

The Rai/HBO adap­ta­tion of Ele­na Fer­rante’s revered quar­tet of Neapoli­tan nov­els returns for its third sea­son (it’s been out, truth­ful­ly, for a while now), and if any­thing it’s even more impres­sive than sea­sons one and two.

My Bril­liant Friend, which is both the title of the first nov­el and of the over­all series, fol­lows Lenu (as in Ele­na) and Lila as they move through child­hood into adult­hood and maturity. 

With one leav­ing the squalor and cor­rup­tion of the impov­er­ished neigh­bour­hood in Naples where they grow up to become a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist. And the oth­er stay­ing behind to stand in defi­ance against every­thing that bares down on her in those unfor­giv­ing environs. 

And through all the men, and sex, and births and betray­als and suc­cess and fail­ure, the one thing that holds firm is the depth of their fierce friend­ship, forged as it was in fire of youth.

Ferrante’s tetral­o­gy occu­pies a curi­ous space. Like the nov­els of Bret Eas­t­on Ellis and Philip Roth, they’re clear­ly and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly lit­er­ary, but they’re far too suc­cess­ful to be classed as pure­ly lit­er­ary. The clos­est com­par­i­son is prob­a­bly Tom Wolfe’s Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties

Remark­ably, the tele­vi­sion series not only does jus­tice to the orig­i­nal, if any­thing it improves on it. And it’ll be inter­est­ing to see what they do to cor­rect the fact that, between our­selves, the fourth of the nov­els isn’t quite as unput­down­able as the pre­vi­ous three, and rather drifts off.

What My Bril­liant Friend does so suc­cess­ful­ly is to use the close up of its inti­mate por­traits of two female friends and set them against the back­drop of every­thing that was hap­pen­ing in Italy. As it moves from the con­ser­vatism of the 50s, to the vibran­cy of the 60s and the agi­ta­tion of the 70s. 

What the tele­vi­sion series does, even more impres­sive­ly, is to present us with an unro­man­ti­cised pic­ture of how harsh life can be for all too ordi­nary peo­ple liv­ing on the periph­ery. But to do so by mould­ing exquis­ite­ly craft­ed images with metic­u­lous­ly com­bined sounds. The result is both vis­cer­al­ly real, and at once glo­ri­ous­ly cin­e­mat­ic and defi­ant­ly romantic. 

My Bril­liant Friend proves that not every­thing that has hap­pened in the world of film and tele­vi­sion is all bad. A cen­tu­ry ago, you would have had to go to a bespoke, art house cin­e­ma to find fare such as this. Films deter­mined to zoom in on the very local but to do so in widescreen tech­ni­colour cinemascope.

Like the Sici­ly we’re pre­sent­ed with in Tornatore’s Cin­e­ma Par­adiso, or the Provence of Claude Berri’s Jean de Flo­rette and Manon des Sources, or with De Sica’s pair of rov­ing, work­ing class lovers in Sun­flower (reviewed by me ear­li­er here).

Today, it’s not only read­i­ly avail­able on a tele­vi­sion near you, there are four sea­sons of eight episodes each. And each one is com­plete­ly and com­pelling­ly believ­able and at once tri­umphant­ly and glo­ri­ous­ly escapist.

Watch the trail­er to My Bril­liant Friend here

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Close Your Eyes”, a new film from Víctor Erice

Vet­er­an Span­ish film mak­er Víc­tor Erice emerged in 1973 with his haunt­ing fea­ture debut, The Spir­it of the Bee­hive. Ten years lat­er, he was all set to deliv­er his sec­ond, much-await­ed fea­ture, when the pro­duc­er out-Amber­son­ed him. 

Orson Welles had famous­ly seen his sec­ond film and the fol­low up to Cit­i­zen Kane uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly muti­lat­ed by RKO. When the stu­dio saw how down­beat the sec­ond half of The Mag­nif­i­cent Amber­sons was, and under­stood the irony of its title, they instruct­ed his edi­tor to cut the final 40 min­utes (yes, that’s forty) and add on an oh so tacky hap­py ending. 

Not to be out­done, when Erice’s pro­duc­er found out that El Sur (’83) had a sim­i­lar­ly sus­pect sec­ond half planned, he sim­ply refused to allow him to film its sec­ond half. So unsur­pris­ing­ly, the direc­tor has dis­owned it.

Ten years lat­er, Erice made the ele­giac doc­u­men­tary fea­ture, The Quince Tree Sun (’92). And now, thir­ty years after that, he has, at the age of 82, returned with his fourth fea­ture, Close Your Eyes

The film oper­ates on two lev­els. On its sur­face, a vet­er­an film mak­er ends up re-vis­it­ing the events around a film he’d been mak­ing over two decades ago, when the prin­ci­pal actor, and his close per­son­al friend, had sud­den­ly and inex­plic­a­bly dis­ap­peared with­out trace. Was it real­ly sui­cide, or did some­thing else take place?

But real­ly, the film is an explo­ration of mem­o­ry and loss, of roads not tak­en and the life that was lived as opposed to the many that remain only par­tial­ly embarked upon. The hand­ful of things you said yes to, and the many oth­ers that some­how slipped through your fin­gers to dis­ap­pear in the sand at your feet.

Close Your Eyes is not mere­ly one of the bet­ter films of the year, it’s one if the best. But your response, rather like the film itself, will reg­is­ter on two levels. 

Of course, it almost goes with­out say­ing, to see any­thing new from Erice is some­thing to be wel­comed with unbri­dled joy. And the fact that the film is, as I say, com­fort­ably in the top ten per cent of films made any­where in the world in 2023, is a mon­u­men­tal relief and to be loud­ly heralded. 

But The Spir­it of the Bee­hive and The Quince Tree Sun were both in the top one per cent of the films made when they came out. Which isn’t to sug­gest that Close Your Eyes is in any way dis­ap­point­ing. It’s just not the daz­zling, celes­tial tri­umph we’d all hoped it might be. The prob­lem, very sim­ply, is its length. 

There’s real­ly no need for its near three hours. As sac­ri­le­gious as this is to say out loud, I wish an edi­tor had been brought in to care­ful­ly cull it down to a trim two hours. There’s no need for any of the scenes in Andalu­cia, and those nuns, charm­ing as they are, should have been briefly glimpsed as non-speak­ing extras. 

It is of course com­plete­ly under­stand­able, not to say com­mend­able, that he should have want­ed to give as many of his col­lab­o­ra­tors as many moments in the sun as he could muster. But it’s hard not to qui­et­ly wish that he were a far less gen­er­ous col­lab­o­ra­tor and a slight­ly more rig­or­ous film maker. 

All of which is to quib­ble. Watch Close Your Eyes, it’s one of the best films of the year. And then treat your­self to The Spir­it of the Bee­hive, and The Quince Tree Sun.

You can see the trail­er to Close Your Eyes below:

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The Curse”, almost unwatchable, completely unmissable

The Curse, a 10 part com­e­dy dra­ma, or dram­e­dy if you will, is the ulti­mate in car-crash tele­vi­sion. It’s hor­ren­dous­ly uncom­fort­able to have to watch, and yet you can’t take your eyes off of it. 

Cre­at­ed, writ­ten and pro­duced by a com­bi­na­tion of its three prin­ci­pals, the series revolves around the mar­riage of Emma Stone and Nathan Field­er, and the real­i­ty TV show his col­lege friend Ben­ny Safdie is mak­ing about them and the work they do. 

Stone and Field­er are a patch­work quilt of every con­ceiv­able lib­er­al urge. They buy up prop­er­ties in under-ser­viced, periph­er­al sub­urbs – i.e. the ones where black and brown skinned peo­ple eke out their mea­gre exis­tences — and replace exist­ing dwellings with eco-friend­ly, ultra-mod­ern and over-priced monstrosities. 

Their end­less talk of invest­ing in local com­mu­ni­ties and nur­tur­ing indige­nous tal­ent does noth­ing to hide the fact that all they are in fact engaged in is a rapa­cious gen­tri­fi­ca­tion scheme designed to make them a shed-load of mon­ey, that they’re try­ing for­lorn­ly to dress up in lib­er­al frills and bows.

The Safdie broth­ers’ Good Time.

As the episodes progress, each aspect of their arche­typ­al­ly lib­er­al façade is unmasked to reveal a mon­strous mess of neu­ro­sis fed on an entrenched sense of enti­tled privilege.

And through­out all of which, it’s – at least ini­tial­ly – unclear whether Safdie intends glee­ful­ly expos­ing this in the real­i­ty show he’s mak­ing around their exploits. Or whether he too is caught up in the glare of their ambi­tion and the vor­tex of their solipsism. 

Could he con­ceiv­ably turn out to be even more self-cen­tred than they are? Or is there the chance that some­thing inter­est­ing might actu­al­ly result from what he’s shooting?

We are then very much on the same ter­rain that Ricky Ger­vais mapped out in the orig­i­nal The Office series, and where Curb Your Enthu­si­asm went in some of its ear­li­er episodes. Gen­uine­ly painful to behold, and absolute­ly riveting. 

This is what tele­vi­sion can do when three incred­i­bly gift­ed indi­vid­u­als decide to pool their tal­ents to expose what lies under­ground, beneath the sur­face of the soci­ety we’ve con­struct­ed for our­selves. And the less you know about any of the par­tic­u­lars, the more you’ll get out of watch­ing it. 

Watch the trail­er for The Curse here:

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The Zone of Interest: Jonathon Glazer Comes of Age

Dur­ing the 1990s, a cohort of direc­tors emerged to team up with some of the more ambi­tious indie bands and brands to pro­duce a wave of ground-break­ing music videos and ads. 

Spike Jonze, David Finch­er, Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry and Chris Cun­ning­ham made music videos for, respec­tive­ly, the Beast­ie Boys (Sab­o­tage), George Michael (Free­dom), Fiona Apple (Crim­i­nal), Daft Punk (Around the World) and the Aphex Twin (Come to Dad­dy).

Many of whom, you’ll have noticed, went on to make the move into fea­tures. But, with the excep­tion of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adap­ta­tion, and Gondry’s Eter­nal Sun­shine of Spot­less Mind (all three of which were writ­ten by Char­lie Kauf­man), their films proved to be every bit as con­ven­tion­al and stu­dio-bound as the wave of from-adver­tis­ing-to-fea­ture film mak­ers who’d pre­ced­ed them, with the likes of Rid­ley and Tony Scott, Adri­an Lyne and Alan Park­er.

Radio­head­’s Street Spirit

And when Jonathon Glaz­er, the classi­est mem­ber of that for­mer cohort, made that same tran­si­tion, it seemed that he too was des­tined to sim­i­lar­ly disappoint. 

Glaz­er had made the icon­ic videos for Radiohead’s Street Spir­it and Kar­ma Police, and Jamiroquai’s Vir­tu­al Insan­i­ty, as well as Guin­ness’ surf­ing-hors­es and Sony Bravia’s explod­ing-paint-in-a-Glas­gow-hous­ing-estate ads.

But his ini­tial for­ay into fea­tures was decid­ed­ly under­whelm­ing. Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004) and Under The Skin (2013, and reviewed by me ear­li­er here) were thin and nar­ra­tive­ly under-cooked. So it was with some­thing of a heavy heart that I sat down to watch his fourth fea­ture, The Zone of Inter­est (2023).

How refresh­ing to be proved so unequiv­o­cal­ly wrong. The Zone of Inter­est is both a seri­ous film and one of gen­uine substance.


It doesn’t seem to have much of a sto­ry, and you’d be for­giv­en for think­ing there’d been lit­tle writ­ing involved in the craft­ing of the script. But the supe­ri­or writ­ing comes in what Glaz­er leaves out from the source mate­r­i­al of Mar­tin Amis’ 2014 nov­el. As ever then, the writ­ing is in the editing.

It is the fact that noth­ing remark­able hap­pens, as the Ger­man fam­i­ly go about their dai­ly busi­ness some­where in Poland, in 1943, that makes it impos­si­ble for us not to notice that they are liv­ing lit­er­al­ly next door, not just to a, but to the most noto­ri­ous con­cen­tra­tion camp ever con­struct­ed. That then, dev­as­tat­ing­ly, is the story. 

How on earth can that be? How can human beings pos­si­bly live right next door to that, and not be con­sumed by it? As such, it becomes a sear­ing indict­ment of the Ger­mans, the east Euro­peans, and of the whole of the West. After all, every­one there knew what was going on, but almost no one did any­thing about it.

In his New York­er review , Antho­ny Lane won­dered whether an entire fea­ture film was the best way to explore what was being avoid­ed. After all, hadn’t Alain Resnais done that so much more eco­nom­i­cal­ly in Night and Fog, his 32 minute doc­u­men­tary film from 1956?

But it is pre­cise­ly because we already have Claude Lanz­man­n’s mon­u­men­tal 9 hour Shoah (reviewed by me ear­li­er here) and Resnais’s Night and Fog, both of which address the holo­caust head on, that a film which refus­es to do so becomes so potent. 

By not to fac­ing up to what ought to be unavoid­able, the film forces us to address those unan­swer­able ques­tions. And, irre­spec­tive of how unsat­is­fac­to­ry any answers might be, it’s vital nonethe­less that those ques­tions are asked.

You can see the trail­er for The Zone of Inter­est here:

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