Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Knife - Tomorrow, in a year: Review

Dispell your expectations now because Silent Shout 2, this ain't. Tomorrow in a Year couldn't be further from that seminal record, nor could The Knife have sought to alienate their casual fanbase any further with this highly avant-garde offering: a 2cd opera foray into the history of evolution. Commissioned by a Danish performance group with a mandate so enticing no artist could turn it down, Karin and Olaf Dreijer have pushed the boat out so far that the shore is no longer visible and indulged the subject matter with a staggering depth and precision- asking only "does life have a sound?" before attempting to recreate it. Tomorrow in a Year seems destined to walk a tightrope between expectancies of 'music' and demands of art's indulgence- is it an 'enjoyable' record or is it a work of such precise art as to merit deconstruction?

It begins with minimalism, much in the way life on this planet did- the faintest chirps and buzzes reverberating and coalescing. As the first disc blossoms, the music begins to take on a more tangible quality. Modulated vocal lines (delivered not by Karin, but by mezzo soprano Kristina Wahlin Mommes, actress Laerke Winther and pop artist Jonathon Johansson) sweep over buzzing synths that do little more, initially, than offer grounding. Field recordings and foundsound contribute to a sense of unfurling. It sounds at once alien and everso familiar; Olaf Dreijer's recce's to the Amazon providing context for the slow build of these compositions. Time itself is the crucial element as sound finds a life of itself: Beat structures, when they do appear, mirror human heartbeats. Rhythm is composed in line with animal influence- at one point harmonising the chorus of poison dart frogs. Elsewhere, sound boxes are utilised to duplicate and affect samples in line with Richard Dawkins' theory of gene trees. Absolute attention to miniscule detail permeates every moment of these records.

The second disc is more immediate- nuance and minimalism giving way to increased detail and structure, much as evolutionary patterns refine over a period of time. Karin Dreijer finally offers a vocal take on the 11 minute opus The Colouring of Pigeons- the very essence of fragility. As the album draws to a close, it's as if nature has led us from the ether to a place where beats, lyrics and structures can coexist in a meaningful sense. Tomorrow in a Year is as much a document of it's own evolution as it is a retelling of nature's laws and entwined mythologies. But how succesful is it? One suspects that the live opera, touring Europe in late Feb- will afford an audience a more fulfilling experience than this studio re-performance.

Belleruche - The Liberty EP: Review

North London's Belleruche have been busy since forming in 2005, self-releasing numerous 7 inches and touring the world over. Now signed to influential Brighton-based label Tru Thoughts, 'The Liberty EP' represents little more than a stop-gap between albums. Rather than making a 'novella' esq statement, Belleruche include a collection of remixes and acoustic reworkings to accompany the two original tracks that open the EP. As such, it's hard to pin down exactly what this record is about.

Openers "56% proof" and "Gold Rush" offer a soulful blend of guitar riff and minimal beats, while singer Kathrin deBoer croons lustfully in call and response in a manner which recalls both Lamb and Portishead's upbeat moments. The riffs overlap with ease and DJ Modest's beat-work is just that: modest, throughout. Never allowing excess, the music is constantly restrained . It's ample fodder for post-dinner party swaying- not enthralling enough to hold course being spun by DJs and not cerebral enough to entertain the home listener. It's crying out for just a little more 'punch' and would certainly benefit from being performed live. Elsewhere the acoustic reworkings are bluesy and competant enough, but the same critique applies. The five remixes which close the EP are varied in their reworkings- but there's a sense to which they've been bandied on to this EP, having nowhere else to live. All of this contributes to a rather thin whole. Belleruche are clearly talented and thoughtful, but would do well to make more assured, individual statements.

Ponyo: Review

It's an interesting crossroads for Hiyao Miyazaki. His films have charmed audiences worldwide and garnered critical acclaim- and in this case, earnt the distribution services of no less than Walt Disney. You could argue that Disney's been going through a kind of existential crisis post-Lion King, so jumping in bed with the world's "in vogue" animator is a by-numbers move. With previous films, notably Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki has addressed a Japanese audience's history and tradition but with Ponyo, the themes are more universal.

We're introduced to Sosuke, an smart kid with a heart of gold. He lives with his (quite delectable- is it wrong to fancy cartoons?) mother, voiced by the infamous Tina Fey, in a town by the sea. Elsewhere, deep under the sea- a paranoid scientist is custodian to the oceans. His daughter, a magic-endowed fishgirl by the name of Ponyo, escapes in search of adventure only to be discovered and treasured by Sosuke. Therein follows a wonderful love story, full of innocence and charm. The film is visually beautiful, using a palette of simple watercolours. Similarly, the Western dub is spot on (and I didn't think I'd be saying that) with Liam Neeson providing real internal conflict as Fujimoto, and Cate Blanchett offering typically otherwordly tones as the Goddess of the sea.

This wouldn't be a Miyazaki film without the obligatory backdrop of mythology and 'end of the world' fable- however those expecting a subplot as profound as Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa: Valley of Winds may be disappointed: Ponyo is by design a light film, intended primarily for children. But even cast in this light, Ponyo offers a subtle politic, as ocean pollution and fishing-to-extinction are discussed in passing. A youthful audience may leave with a newfound appreciation for nature, without the film having been dogmatic or preachy. Ponyo is a beautifully simple kid's film, the kind anyone could appreciate- it's heart utterly in the right place.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Capitalism, A Love Story: Review

It's hard not to feel a little sorry for Michael Moore. Cue disquiet and confused stares. For all his earnestness, he's become the poster boy for an amorphous protest movement that is quick with relish but short on the detail. Moore finds himself a minor celebrity- a position which must sit uncomfortably with the supposedly egalitarian politics he espouses, but also of no surprise: Throughout his recent filmmaking, Moore has sought to put himself in the front line. These aren't one's 'conventional documentary'- where the filmmaker is but an invisible hand; Moore's films so consciously allow him a presence as to render his household name status something of a planned career aim. Perhaps that's cynical, but for better or worse his films have become common knowledge: even if one hasn't seen 'Bowling For Columbine', you'd be hard pressed to find someone who couldn't tell you which on side of the political fence Moore sits. This has arguably had it's benefits (publicising an oft-marginalised political discourse) but equally has not come without significant cost. Audiences will dismiss a Michael Moore film without a second thought due to the very notion of being so overtly preached at, coupled with the perceived factual inaccuracies of previous efforts. Moore's well-documented (no pun intended) selective myopia with regards to 'the facts' has even spurned a 'retort documentary', the cleverly titled 'Manufacturing Dissent' (Persistence of Vision Produtions, 2007)- a film which, ironically, was littered with as many errors as it accused Moore of.

With 'Capitalism: A Love Story', Moore is taking his broadest shot yet. Whereas previous films have aimed with specificity, 'Capitalism'- well, you can infer it's subject from the title. A brave move: Economics is hardly the world's most invigorating of conversation starters and yet 'Capitalism' is by some distancehis most affecting film of recent history. Previous endeavours have focused on dividing the audience along partisan lines but here, the inescapable truth is that the financial crisis hasn't discriminated. Recent events have so ordained that we're all affected (whether we know the difference between GDP and GNP or not). Irregardless of racial, ethnic, political or religious groupings, whether you supported Iraq or stood against it, if you believed in earnest that some gothy entertainer invoked Columbine- recent economics hasn't taken such trivialities into consideration. It's this very sense of far-reaching, bipartisan injustice that drives Moore's latest. For once, it's as if he's speaking for people rather than at them.

Opening with the philosophical preponderance: "What defines us?"- then seeking to demystify the myths of capitalism throughout both historical and contemporary example, it's a more basic approach than has been undertaken with earlier work but is no less polemical for it. We have the standard cocktail of investigative journalism, archive footage, interview material and stunt- Moore seeking throughout to play 'how things should be' against 'how they are'. There's the standard trope of letting a specific person act as telling of the whole (a journalistic practise made infamous by The Simpsons episode in which Bart gets his own news show entitled "Bart's People") - Moore continues to let his interviewees cry first before getting into the depth of the argument but regardless- the film's most successful moments should make you livid. We meet a former employee of Walmart, who left in acrimonious circumstance when his former employer cashed a secret life insurance cheque after the death of his co-worker wife, a sufferer of asthma. This shocking practice, referred to openly (if not affectionately) as 'dead peasant insurance policies' is apparently not uncommon these days.

Equally, the leaked memo from banking conglomerate Citigroup which states that the US can now be considered a 'plutonomy' (a society in which the majority of wealth is generated and consumed by the top 1%) displays an unsurprisingly elitist, and contentedly so, world-view. Moore uses these and other powerful examples to expose the fallacies in the free-market dogma that all shall benefit from competition, that such economic systems benefit society as a whole. But the most harrowing moments of the film come from his scrutiny of the $700 billion bailout orchestrated by perennial blame-figure Dubya, and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Through interviews with members of Congress and impassioned footage from the chamber itself, the entire act is presented as a financial coup d'etat, the biggest in history- an argument given credence when Moore asks the senator in charge of accounting for the bailout where she believes the money has gone. After some pause, she admits not knowing. A staggering moment for sure, but one only compounded when you read in the fine print that no accountability was demanded by Congress and review by a judiciary expressly prohibited. Furthermore, in drafting the legislation- Paulson (himself a former Goldman Sachs CEO) makes explicit his exemption from possibility of prosecution.

But while these moments may (perhaps should) evoke some small protest spirit within the audience, the film is equally riddled with flaws. In many regards, 'good documentary' (like a blog you return to) happens when the topics are specific. There is the realised fear in 'Capitalism: A Love Story" that Moore has bitten off more than he can chew- or more than could be dealt with reasonably in the film's already-overlong 127 minutes. The narrative is scattershot and flits between the bail-out, the wages of airline pilots, the marginalisation of unions, world economics, George Bush (he gives Obama the easiest of rides), 'good honest folk' being evicted, the ever widening disparity between rich and poor, advocating socialism and, of course (it wouldn't be a Michael Moore film without a trip to) Flint, Michigan.

Yet again, Moore strives to paint Flint as some microcosm for America's economic woes: he visits the former site of General Motors- articulating Flint's decline as endemic. Similarly, the moments where Moore takes centre stage prove the most trying, both in their placement and execution. After the exasperating details of the bailout are just settling in, the film cuts to a tongue-in-cheek action scene in which Moore is seen driving a security van to the banks, cornering them off with police 'crime scene' tape and, with a megaphone, somewhat impotently asking for 'our money back'. It's an unnecessary visual gag- the point of injustice having already been made. But Moore's earnestness, or ambition, necessitates that he indulges in the grandiose and entirely set-up faux-theatre performances. I would argue that there's a decent argument to be had about the legitimacy of sourcing protest movements as entertainment, or rather providing entertainment through protesting- but the overriding tone of this film is one that is deeply unfunny. Indeed, Moore forgoes the cartoons of previous films-and if there are jokes in this film, they're financial, and they're on us.

Early in the film, Moore narrates that when asked as a child, he stated that he wanted to grow up and get into the church, become a priest. Not for the fancy garb, he says, but for the community role they play. Conversely, a preacher is exactly what Michael Moore is. For even when the weight and substance of his arguments are irrefutable, Moore still allows room for theatrical showboating, for reminding the audience just who is making the case. Sadly, this- not the manipulative tone he takes in presenting said arguments (he never claimed to be objective), is his biggest and most valid criticism. Which is a shame, because by rights, this film should be a call to arms. We've been collectively duped, yet Moore can't just let the facts speak for themselves.

Capitalism: A Love Story is out Feb 26th via Overture Films