Category Archives: Review

I started out by writing reviews, and I still write them compulsively. Whenever I can, I cover new films, new books, and new albums. But who doesn’t also enjoy spending time with a classic occasionally?

Alien: Covenant

The movie Alien: Covenant has two main villains, and it is less intelligent than either of them. That’s the problem with trying to write formidably smart characters: if you are to represent them convincingly, you need to either be formidably smart yourself, or work damn hard at your script to make up the deficit. The script of Covenant, it pains me to acknowledge, lets its villains down. Not only that, it lets its rather less intelligent heroes down. This is the sequel to the thoroughly dire Alien prequel Prometheus, and though it’s a much better film than its predecessor, it suffers from the same essential flaw: its plot relies on supposedly smart characters periodically making arbitrarily stupid decisions. Covenant leans on this prop far less frequently than Prometheus did, but the bitter aftertaste of lazy writing still lingers. And yet, to this movie’s credit, it more often than not rises above this admittedly quite profound limitation. Covenant is a handicapped but functional action-horror flick, and when it’s in gear, it packs a solid and grisly punch. Continue reading

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P. J. Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

01-177814Wilfully, earnestly, and with great conviction, Polly Jean Harvey continues to follow her own star. However much she is placed on a pedestal, the veteran English singer-songwriter remains the real thing: a musician of major talent, capable of striking originality, and sincerely concerned with using music to make important statements, both personal and political. Her newest work, The Hope Six Demolition Project, is explicitly and uniformly political; and in an age when most rock musicians have abandoned the attempt to offer serious social commentary, that alone makes it stand out. All the more disappointing, then, that the album turns out to be an awkard affair. It has its strengths, but this one will not be taking its place among the major successes of P. J. Harvey’s career. Continue reading

The Hateful Eight

There has always been a magic in Quentin Tarantino’s way with words. He has the gift of being able to write textured, beautiful dialogue that somehow sounds both earthily naturalistic and completely unlike anything you’ve ever heard anybody say. His newest film, The Hateful Eight, ought therefore to be the film that foregrounds and celebrates this talent to the fullest extent; for it is a three-hour character drama consisting almost entirely of a small group of people talking to each other. And yet instead, tragically, The Hateful Eight marks the moment when this director’s talent fails him. The characters in this movie talk in a kind of baroque, overwrought, and yet weirdly stilted parody of the distinctive speech we know and love. And what is more, they talk interminably. Tarantino indulges his every whim here, stretching out into the most twisted fever dream of his dizzily feverish career. Because he is a consummate filmmaker, his whims are still interesting enough that they add up to a watchable and sporadically enjoyable movie. But it is a flabby, sprawling thing nonetheless; and if a sensible editor had taken the knife to it, it could have been a much, much better film. Continue reading

Crimson Peak

It can be a fascinating thing when a very talented artist creates something genuinely and uninhibitedly bad. Watching such imaginative potential being so spectacularly misdirected can be perversely entertaining, even while it is also, of course, saddening and eventually tiresome. Guillermo del Toro is a man with an immensely fertile visual imagination: this is a fact that only those who are thoroughly without imagination themselves could sincerely deny. He is also, we know, a screenwriter and director capable of staggering originality and power. We know this because he made the enduringly mighty Pan’s Labyrinth, which is not a subtle film, but which interweaves its bold strokes of horror, tragedy, and enchantment with perfect balance and gut-wrenching immediacy. And yet with the arrival of Crimson Peak, it is hard to resist the terrible suspicion that this might have been an unrepeatable success. The audience with whom I saw Crimson Peak spent much of it in giggles and some of it in outright laughter. We were lucky that the film is extravagant enough to be enjoyable as an accidental comedy, because we certainly weren’t going to find it enjoyable as the Gothic horror-romance that it’s intended to be. Continue reading

Jurassic World

Early in Jurassic World, the film’s heroine Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) makes a trip to visit the raptor handler Owen (Chris Pratt), who for reasons best known to the filmmakers lives in a small hut miles from anywhere in an empty part of the island. Claire holds a PR-focused managerial job in the titular dinosaur park, which does a roaring trade exhibiting twenty different species of prehistoric beastie to the global public. She seems to pretty much run the show, but the owner of the park has specifically instructed her to get Owen to take a look at the containment facilities for the park’s newest attraction. The crowd-pleaser in question is Indominus rex, a genetically engineered super-dinosaur designed to be bigger, faster, and smarter than the stodgy old Tyrannosaurus (which is, like, so twenty years ago). Claire tries to explain to Owen than the idea behind the new creation is to up the wow factor. But Owen is scornful: “They’re dinosaurs, wow enough.” Continue reading

Songs of 2014

In 2014, I have been out of the loop on music. So much has been going on in my life that I simply haven’t been keeping my finger half as firmly on the pulse as is usual for me. And that’s fine, because I’ll still discover the good stuff sooner or later. In the meantime, however, one result of my lack of attention is that for the first time in many many years, I honestly have no idea what songs are going to show up on the critics’ “Best of 2014” lists. The album lists I can predict, because even when you’re out of the loop it’s hard to miss the year’s big albums. But the songs I cannot say. I don’t expect I’ll even have heard of most of them. I find this quite exciting: I get to consult the songs-of-the-year countdowns from the critics I respect and be genuinely surprised at what I encounter. Continue reading

Caribou – Our Love

10_700_700_488_caribou_ourlove_900Canadian auteur Dan Snaith, who now records as Caribou, is nothing if not meticulous. His elegant, peculiar electronic creations are among the most intricately designed pieces of music in contemporary dance, precisely arranged and fine-tuned to the point of obsession. His latest album, Our Love, is something of an apotheosis: warm, intimate, and melodic, it nonetheless impresses overwhelmingly as a triumph of craftsmanship, a perfect system of pulsing bass, flickering percussion, and gleaming synths. It’s an engaging and sometimes engrossing record. Unfortunately, the album rarely manages to completely transcend its obvious constructedness. It has become a cliché to observe that Snaith took a PhD in pure mathematics at Imperial College, London, and that his music sounds exactly like what you’d expect a man with that background to produce. But Our Love genuinely does feel a little sterile in its careful, consistent detail, and by the time it finishes, you’re impatient to listen to something looser, more organic, more spontaneous. Continue reading

The Piano

Rarely can any actor have managed to convey so much with so seemingly little as does Holly Hunter in The Piano. Her character, Ada, has been mute since early childhood, and not once in this intense, almost melodramatic film does she utter a single word. Yet without ever overstating herself by a single twitch of her face, or a single gesture, Hunter manages to give us access – startlingly intimate access – to Ada’s thoughts, reactions, and beliefs. She allows us to care deeply for this austere, severe woman. It is the central frustration of The Piano that Hunter is nonetheless contained by a screenplay that denies her, and us, the chance to maintain that intimacy through the film’s arbitrary and muddled final act. Ada finds closure, of some mysterious kind, but we by that time have been alienated from her by the perverseness of the narrative, and so we cannot join her in feeling satisfied with how this strange film ends. Continue reading

Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde

Blonde on BlondeNobody pays much attention to “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. It goes unnoticed, an obscure blues piece from the era when Bob Dylan was creating so much excellent music so rapidly that a great deal seems to be just lost in the flood. Yet it bears the distinction of being perhaps the most genuinely funny song in his catalogue. Dylan’s earlier albums are intermittently scattered with comic social satires – “I Shall be Free,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and so forth – but most of them are just not very funny. You need look no further than “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” for an example of the same approach executed much more successfully – largely because Dylan no longer seems to be trying to see how many human vanities he can expose in a single four-minute recording. His focus here has narrowed, and the result is an infectiously bonkers serenade to a single lady of his acquaintance who is sporting the titular fashion item. It “balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine!” Continue reading

Sigur Rós – Valtari

ValtariWriting about Sigur Rós is an exercise all but guaranteed to bring out the element of futility in trying to write about music at all. To experience Sigur Rós for the length of an album, and then to lift yourself out of your reverie in order that you might struggle to translate those slow, massive, fragile washes of sound into some kind of literal synopsis, is to be prompted for a moment to wonder why you ever felt the need to put music into words in the first place. This band remains alone in contemporary music, as they always have done, in asking their listeners to do nothing more than lie back and surrendur themselves to celestial, unapologetic beauty. They are completely uninterested in ideas, and they give the impression of bearing exactly zero relation to anything else in the musical landscape around them, so that it is pointless to try to situate them in relation to other artists. Besides acknowledging their loveliness, there would seem, at first glance, to be very little for a critic to do with them. Continue reading