Saturday, 22 January 2011

FILM: Black Swan

Subtlety is not Black Swan's strong suit. The themes, the metaphors, the characters - they all pretty much identify themselves in the film's first five minutes, like some abstract role-call. At first watch, it seems ludicrously clunky, but on reflection, it seems like a statement of intent - "Let's announce what the film's about now, get it over with, and just enjoy ourselves, okay?". It's like a stand-up firing off all the punch-lines at the start of their routine, with the rest of the show built purely on call-backs. But the key theme running through the tale, the lightness and darkness of one soul, duality and dichotomy, can be extrapolated as a commentary on the film itself. Much like the confused Nina (Natalie Portman) who's drive to change from 'White Swan' to 'Black Swan' leaves her a little worse for wear, so too does Black Swan come unstuck by being neither classy or trashy enough.

To marry a grainy, realistic aesthetic with the high melodrama and fantastical flourishes is certainly an interesting idea, but it is perhaps better in theory than it is in execution. The fault does not lie with the direction - Aronosky's knows how to fill a frame, with tight, claustrophobic shots following the back of the protagonist's head working to as great effect here as they did in The Wrestler. Nor does it necessarily lie with the thrills and spills, with tastes of wince-inducing Cronenbergian body horror among the "did you just see that?" visual trickery.

But it's the incongruity of the two combined that just does not sit right. Had Black Swan been a more subdued character study of obsession and paranoia, it would have been a more satisfying experience. So too if it had gone the other extreme, and fully revelled in the giallo excesses it merely hints at. With all the tension and creepy imagery running through Black Swan, I had hoped that a truly bizarre gothic finale, or some Grand Guignol moment of bloody terror which may have excused the overwrought emotion, heavy-handed visual pointers (LOOK AT ALL THE MIRRORS! THE MONOCHROME! THE TATTOOS!) and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, but alas, one is not forthcoming. To reference Cronenberg again, The Fly struck the balance of emotional depth and pure grue perfectly (and it's high art credentials were enshrined with composer Howard Shore's opera adaptation).

Yet, there is still so much to like about Black Swan that one can forgive what it does or doesn't do, as clearly this is how it is meant to be. Much like last year's Shutter Island, it's ripe old hokum but enjoyable and exhilirating both because of and despite of this. It's a thrill-ride disguised as something deeper to appease the arthouse pallet. It's about ballet, you see, yet still probably has as many yuks and gags as Drag Me To Hell, with a dark, and oddly cheeky, sense of humour on occasion.

Yet at its core has a potentially Oscar-winning performance from Natalie Portman. And if she goes home with the gold, it would be throroughly deserved, as she completely gives it her all. Of course, the hours of training each day over a year's worth of preparation would have been for nought had she stumbled when it came to playing the transformation of Nina from naive sheltered waif to unhinged cauldron of anxiety. And although Nina is a hard character with whom to empaphise or fully understand, it is difficult to see how much more committed she could have been to the part, proving that the Star Wars prequels hadn't sucked the life out her. Kudos also to Barbara Hershey as her overbearing mother, Mila Kunis as her would-be rival, Winona Ryder's washed-up has-been, and Vincent Cassel's posturing sex-squid of a director - rather cookie-cutter characters all, barely sharing more than one dimension between them, but equally played at full tilt.

If you go with the flow, and don't expect anything deep and meaningful, you'll find a rollicking yarn, filled with frills and spills. It will leave you with some pretty vivid and memorable images, but where it should get under your skin or twist your brain, it simply skims the surface, albeit with grace and poise. In the end, exciting and entertaining though it is, Black Swan at the same time delivers too much and not enough, ending up neither black or white, just a little grey.


Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010: Music of the Year

I spent every one of the preceding three hundred and sixty five days, now lost to the annals of history and all things intangible, filling my earholes with someone else’s made-up words and noises, and now I present to you ten such collections over that course of time that particularly tweaked the part of my brain that responds favourably to music.

10. The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards

Little Jack White has so many thumbs in musical pies at any one time, it seems like everyone forgets to bat an eyelid his way when he unleashes yet another rock glob on the populous even if it is still royally deserved. So, with a quick turnaround second album from the other band that isn’t The Raconteurs, it was like Consolers of the Lonely all over again. Which is a shame, as it is rollicking good fun from start to finish, with piss and vinegar seeping from its wet black jeans. Not a pretty image, but an image nonetheless.

> > > Hustle and Cuss

9. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

I’m pretty late to the LCD Soundsystem party (a great oversight on my part), but thankfully rectified with Mr James Murphy’s third (and final?) outing of liquid crystal disco. It sounds effortlessly cool, but there’s so much going on, it’s just plain fun to listen to, dance to and do just about anything to – be it the washing up, filling out an application form or being attacked by PANDUHS!

> > > Drunk Girls

8. Fukurouzu – Loop Suru

A pure punt of a purchase based on hours spent in HMV and Tower Records in Shinjuku and Shibuya at their countless listening posts sampling as much as was currently riding the Japan-o-charts, and it’s only really a mini-album, comprising seven tracks from this new indie group. But every track is superb, each different but just as good as the last. I look forward to whatever they do next.

> > > Dekinai

7. PVT – Church With No Magic

An interesting departure from 2008’s brilliant O Soundtrack My Heart (under their then-name of Pivot), with a darker moodier synth-led atmosphere and added lyrics, though ultimately the singing is just another layer of sound than making their output any more conventional. In fact, it’s probably a harder sell than their instrumental-only work. Still, despite the decidedly iffy title track, Church With No Magic (the album) is an overall success from a band that won’t let expectations get in the way of invention.

> > > Window

6. Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM

Sure, she’s not the greatest singer, but, aware that her personality and heritage are integral to her success, she clearly knows who will best utilise these to create terrific tracks. 5:55 saw her collaborate with Air, Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker. But this time around it was Beck on songsmith duties (a role repeated as principal penner for Sex Bob-omb in the year’s third best movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World), and such a creative union brought about this rather fine selection of ditties.

> > > Heaven Can Wait

5. MGMT – Congratulations

With many a semi-psychedelic catchy-riff festival anthem under their belts (despite still being a disappointing live act) from Oracular Spectacular, follow-up Congratulations could have easily been more of the same. Instead, they went and did something even better, creating a spiralling dizzy mix of magic and wonder that harked back to decades gone by with both joy and sadness. A surprising and mature album that defies the flash-in-the-pan success I expected from them. Congratulations.

> > > Congratulations

4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Blah-blah-blah, not as good as Funeral. Blah-blah-blah, no-one liked Neon Bible anyway. Well, The Suburbs, on its own terms, is a plenty good album. Sure, it could probably lose a few tracks around the middle, but it manages to capture a different feel to their previous offerings, yet still remains distinctively Arcade Firey. There are obvious highlights (Ready to Start, Rococo, Empty Room, Sprawl II) from the get-go, but as a whole, it’s a definite grower and one I’m looking forward to returning to in the months and years to come.

> > > The Suburbs

3. World’s End Girlfriend – Seven Idiots

Is there no end to this man’s mind-boggling talent? A release on his new Virgin Babylon Records label and a late entry into my top ten, it’s also my favourite Japanese release I’ve heard this year. A throwback to the electro-scrambling of his earlier work but still retaining the classical beauty and dark atmosphere of Hurtbreak Wonderland, Seven Idiots is hard to pin down, but an irresistible treat for WEG acolytes, and probably as good as any place to begin for the freshman.

> > > Les Enfants du Paradis

2. Yeasayer – ODD BLOOD

If I still had albums on cassettes, Yesayer’s latest would be one worn-out tape this year, which would have required a lot of unspooling and respooling when not jammed into my chunky old walkman. Luckily, the digital age avoids such wear and tear, so I was free to enjoy every one of the wonderful songs in ODD BLOOD on heavy rotation. Refreshingly upbeat and positive, it’s stirring stargazing stuff.

> > > Ambling Alp

1. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

My new favourite lady of song and dance, and while I would usually do that terrible thing one does about things they love by secretly hoping it’s never popular so it can be your own special thing, I wish Ms Monae every success that comes her way. In this day and age of Lady Gaga left right and centre, here’s an artist with style AND substance. And some killer moves to boot.

The ArchAndroid represents Suites II and III of her Metropolis saga (begun with the equally wonderful The Chase EP), featuring a time-travelling plot of forbidden love, the suppression of robotkind, and t-t-tipping on a tightrope. But what really marks The ArchAndroid out from the pack is the diverse range of musical showmanship and craft throughout the album, hopping from genre to genre with every track, yet all tied together by the narrative through-line and Monae’s incredible range. Rock, jazz, classical, folk, funk, soul, electronica…all bases covered, all boxes ticked, all with relish and fun, but with surprising depth and meaning.

It’s wonderful to have an artist so resolute in breaking down boundaries, avoiding categorisation and celebrating differences rather than conforming to mainstream expectations or whatever is ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ in any given week. What the world needs now is a little bit of Janelle Monae.

> > > Tightrope

If the list and YouTube links were not enough to satisfy, I’ve also knocked up a playlist featuring tracks from some of the albums above, as well as a bunch of my other tip-top tracks of the year, in a handy one-size-fits-all Spotify playlist.

LISTEN NOW: 20x2010