The Levelling (2017)

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Being touted as Hope Dickson Leach’s feature directorial debut, but she’s already got a few short films under her belt.

Begins with a confused, unsettling melee; torchlit party but with a Kill List-esque folk-horror excess. This threatening provincial gothic atmosphere becomes diffused across the whole film, which takes the shocking death of the brother of our central character, Clover, as the traumatic rupture at the film’s centre. Poster above is very apt: sense of bifurcation, splitting – regret that it was her brother not her father; return to a past world; a parent and daughter who’ve grown apart. Central death like a ridge, scar-tissue which must now be traced and examined; Clover feels her way up her brother’s cold arm under a sheet, navigating the terrain of this new situation. All this in a world after the 2014 flooding on the Somerset Levels; distinctly apocalyptic unreality to the ossified homestead, unsettlingly mathematical and arbitrary floodline cutting the world horizontally in two.

Quickly turns into a wonderfully haunting investigation of spatial memory and trauma. Preserved spaces like Clover’s room (with its petrified mementos of childhood) and Harry’s room, concealed spaces like the neglected dog Milo, the scene of the suicide, the ominous kitchen. Part of the farm as a breathing entity, father Aubrey as a kind of sodden Fisher King letting presiding over stock and space. Ambient landscapes interposed, psychogeographical influence of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, evidence of the natural disaster in innocuous rivers and sunken flatlands. First refreshing approach is the appropriately catastrophic metaphor for real historical events effecting under-examined provincial populations and territories (all the while giving the personal drama a proper, respectful weight and autonomy).

Most important spatial dimension, though, is old idea of the traumatic return, return to trauma. This resumption of old duties takes C by surprise – “I didn’t bring any wellies” becomes symbolic in a feature-length exposition of the same metaphorical physicalisation of trauma represented by Cillian Murphy’s shellshocked soldier in Dunkirk. A’s aggressive self-defence frequently blocks C’s inquiries by invoking her past absences – “you weren’t here” for H’s death; I didn’t give you the farm because “you left” (a particularly chilling strategy given that his miscommunications enforced another of C’s absences during her mother’s death, which serves as the traumatic precedent for H’s death). His oppugnant attitude is bolstered by an apparently un-selfcritical insistence on efficiency: “You have to get up get out of bed and milk the bloody cows.” His strategy eventually gets to C, as she attacks a sympathetically probing pastor: “I’m not feeling guilt – I wasn’t even here.” What’s perhaps more insidious is the subsequent switch in A’s defences wherein he uses the past life, with which C is trying to reconnect, as a new weapon against her, evoking that brute efficiency in enjoining C to kill an unneeded calf (having jokingly encouraged her to eat shepherd’s pie earlier).

Second refreshing approach is portrait of creepily feudal or monarchic yet cooperative limbo-world of traditional British farming. Lots of talk of authority, succession. Buried Hamlet vibe was brought home to me at the point where C jumps into a ditch to rescue Milo from drowning. Frustration at resumed efficiency mirrors Hamlet’s disgust at weddings immediately following funerals. Most notably the digging connection, with H‘s first utilisations of “harrowing” in a metaphorical sense, images of buried accusing bodies (shot badgers). The rotation of familial personnel from lends weight to C’s gendered isolation and desire to forge her own career off the farm, reflecting more broadly on relationship dynamics in that novel agricultural context.

To go with the cinematography and use of ominous metaphorical shots of submerged rabbits and cattle there’s some excellent sound design: Kermode talked about the use of ambient noise in the negative space between failed communications; sparing use of interpolated music too, particularly A Silver Mt. Zion’s He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… (particularly ’13 Angels’).

Ultimately C sees the fragility behind her father’s capricious attitude; her decision to stay at the farm is rescued from an unsatisfying act of forgiveness by an acknowledgement of nuanced psychological effects of grief (she herself lashes out at a friend in her very first appearance). The fact that this reconciliation is staged as quite a sensationalist climax does ultimately solidify a slight sense of the post-Scandi noir BBC drama, a context which emerges occasionally in the ambient landscape shots and the highly-strung script (elsewhere, the screaming peaks of terror and grief are seriously gripping). However, there’s no lasting impression of genre, because this is an intelligent, beautifully economical and expertly paced drama. Keep an eye out for the name.

9

Get Out (2017)

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It’s smart. The dynamics of racial tension operate on a few levels in Jordan Peele’s script, who has a great ear for squirm-inducingly misjudged chat, hilarious and horrible. This is clearly the focus and it’s a great topic – it makes the construction of a robotic and uncanny community inevitable – but there are a few less amusing undercurrents. Tied into the themes of underexposure and cohabitation are issues of employment inequality, even modern-day slavery – uncomfortably present notions in the mind of Chris’ Dick-Halloran accomplice, Rod, masked though they are by his conspiratorial imagination. Rod’s trouble getting institutional help, which becomes increasingly significant towards the end, also touches on the problem of high rates of AWOLity among African Americans. People have talked about these immediate issues being suppressed by the more comic observations, but I think GO shows the way awkwardly superficial relations hold a more profoundly imbalanced framework in place. For Chris, “It’s all good” (and variants) becomes a quietistic and isolating mantra for diffusing tension, especially in the more subtle interactions with the seemingly sympathetic Rose, a kind of ally-squared in this horrible context (C is really alone before he even arrives). Observant horror in the year of Romero’s death.

It’s cine-smart too. Being a horror-novice I get most of this second hand, but so will an audience of people my age; easy to enjoy alongside Edgar Wright’s TCC trilogy and Shutter Island. There’s a nice flow from the former to the latter, in a sense, with the toe-curling social negotiations gradually giving way to a mistrustful search for answers. Preceding all this is a nasty encounter with a deer which put me in mind of Von Trier’s Antichrist. Also thinking of Under The Skin during the trips to “the sunken place.” The psychotic brother definitely seemed to be going for DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django, too; later, the bingo slave-auction is a horrifying set-piece. Performance-wise, Daniel Kaluuya nails the reticent discomfort as well as the gasping panic, while his mumbled incredulities after some of the more egregious social interactions are always amusing and empathetic.

But it’s also smart in terms of pace (yeah too many). JP has talked about comedy being training for writing horror; the importance of timing is evident here, with the jump-scares carefully measured (sometimes forgone altogether) to keep you guessing. As a whole, the film moves along economically too, its briskness correcting for both the simplicity of the central idea as well as its predictability. While it is somewhat predictable, the tone does shift, as mentioned, and the climax is a gutsy and well-earned blowout which is less inventive but just as entertaining withal. It’s harder to piece the narrative together in retrospect (if the abductions depend upon hypnosis, and hypnosis depends upon the subject’s comfort, why are the family so knowingly discomforting?) but questions don’t come up while you’re watching, and the way grotesque violence somehow emerges from superficial solidarity is a point in itself.

Read about the alternate endings on wiki, too. You can see the seams when the police car pulls up with the sinking reactions on C’s and R’s faces. Makes for a nice final twist when Rod gets out instead. Shame the reason JP felt the need to swap it is because stories about police brutality against young black men seemed especially close to the bone in the States at the time. Obviously dealing with different issues here but glad we can all enjoy a smash blockbuster written and directed by an (established) AA debutant which deals with the complex realities of American racism in 2017; especially in a film as fun and generous as GO.

8

Halogen Continues (2017)

Sigurbjörn Þorgrímsson died six years ago; Trip have put out this retrospective comp. Aims to cover the idiosyncratic sweep of these scattershot releases (apparently he recorded more under other aliases and in groups). RA points out in their review that the label itself is testament to SÞ’s incubation of a national dance music scene in Iceland, with Bjarki among others on its roster.

There are, broadly, three approaches on show here: skittering and acidic IDM excursions, evolving techno-tinged suites, and blissful ambient pieces. The immediately ear-catching standouts come in the second group: ‘Borealis’ is structured with the linear but weaving flow of a chase sequence or a cut from a Wipeout soundtrack, but the queasy synth tones and mechanic percussion kind of remind me of the synthetic nightmares on The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. ‘160 Techno’ has the same vibe of pursuit but sounds more urban and nocturnal like that Studio OST album from a couple of years ago; obviously its a lot more in your face, with some big-beat synths and a few ankle-breaking rhythmic shifts which skid through hardcore and breakbeat territory. ‘303 Ambient’ is the third triplet with its low-key start which crashes into a massive techy beat and starry synths.

Of the more cerebral cuts, ‘Lag 24’ is pretty distinctive with the interplay between its Mika Vainio-esque fuzz blasts, bouncy reverbed synths and impatient polyrhythms. ‘Lag 9’ sways, running in circles as the percussion plays catchup with itself. ‘Lag 8’ is good evidence of the compositional juggling-act going on with these shorter cuts; synths are often more percussive than melodic. Almost feels like the guy’s hammering everything out on an MPC at times.

The ambient pieces are generally pretty gorgeous. ‘Autofloat’ follows ‘Borealis’ with an equally playful ease but pushed through ebbing and flowing synths; it’s got the wonder of a particularly well-lit view of the night sky. ‘Bliss’s stupefaction is more new-age, maybe Jarre via Lopatin; it’s crisp but kinda sleepy, less immersive. The more abstract closer ‘Halogen Continues’ is perhaps the grandest and most beautiful, ending things with quite a poignantly elegiac note given the comp’s provenance.

Throughout a sense of wunderkind and almost amateuristic virtuosity, like the music is happening while you’re listening to it. Distinctive throughout despite ranging from crowd-pleasers to more leftfield tinkering. Perfect album art too given the otherworldly wonderment behind much of the ambience that sometimes serves as a floor for the beats and sometimes envelopes everything. HC is a nice testament to the variety in the talent the guy clearly had; feels like an anthology. Good for a boring train journey too.

8

Dunkirk (2017)

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Christopher Nolan is getting better at writing beginnings. The hijacked aeroplane sequence is probably the best part of TDKR, while about 40 minutes in here I was expecting D to be his best film. Fionn Whitehead’s character provides a focal point for the tension between individual and mass, emerging out onto the beach which should represent a salvation but which actually proves to be a purgatorial nightmare (a French soldier had drily wished him luck on his way). There’s a chilling wordlessness to his character matched by the eerie perpendicular queues snaking towards the waves like a Gormley piece or like groynes permanently embedded to stop the sand drifting away down the coast. The first of the set-pieces – a mad rush to get a wounded soldier onboard a departing steamer – is a nail-biting high which also works some moral complexity into the predicament of the two central infantrymen (the ethics of saving another vs saving yourself).

This opening stretch is also the strongest on a new side of CN: mass movement. Really some Kurosawa-level observation, particularly with shifts in attention among the huddled soldiers on the mole, noticing the enemy fighter overhead in ones twos then all at once. I’d say, though, that the standout here is a moment of statuesque silence: a drifting destroyer with ranks of soldiers like plastic toys, crammed and staring faceless towards us from a distance. Adding to that sense of purgatory, there is something very deathly about these apparently salvaged men.

Thought about Priestley, reassuring himself that the pastoral Britain of the past was “the real truth” that would survive the temporary nightmare of the war. He also covered Dunkirk (from Paper 6):

On 5th June 1940 he told BBC radio audiences that the most “characteristically English” aspect of the rescue journey across the Channel was the role played, not by the navy’s standard machinery, but by “the little pleasure-steamers,” at which we’ve laughed “all our lives,” and onboard which we have seen “the ladies eating pork pies, the children sticky with peppermint rock.” The literal nostos [OED “a homecoming or homeward journey as a literary subject or topos”], the returning home of Epic heroes, is figured as a scene from childhood, an example of the strangely permanent banality of British holiday tradition overcoming the temporary chaos of the war.

Dunkirk is very obviously a “homecoming” for the stranded soldiers, from a British perspective, but Priestley figures it as achieved through a resurrection (a reapplication) of the “past” Britain which thereby conquers the nightmare. In D, the nightmare of Dunkirk – for at least the middle 50% of the film – is that it wasn’t a simple evacuation, rather an abortive and constant returning to the beach: FW’s infantryman is spewed back onshore after being capsized (he watches individual soldiers try and fail to escape on dinghies) while Cillian Murphy is taken back against his will after being rescued by Mark Rylance on a civilian mission, a physical analogy to his traumatised, shellshocked psychological condition. Of course D ends with Churchill’s famous reinvigorating speech, which stresses the reality that war is not linear but cyclical with the need for mass military redeployment. The sense of returning, of failure to escape, is particularly strong here though (it being an underlying theme that CN excavates and examines quite comprehensively) for the fear of failure: the Dunkirk story is so miraculous – in a way captured by CN’s film – that we still can’t quite believe it.

It’s interesting, therefore, that CN decided to neglect personal histories and instead embellish his own imagined scenarios: terrified young soldiers waiting for the incoming tide in a beached hull; a bomber pilot (the profligate and touchy son from the BBC’s War and Peace) trapped in a stuck and sinking cockpit; a lone Spitfire struggling to land in time on a French beach. As mentioned with CM’s physical shell-shock analogy, these predicaments are usually illustrative of broader experiences, as well as being paced and interwoven dextrously enough to contribute to the ever-mounting tension. Hans Zimmer does a lot of this leg-work, too, with one of his best scores: taut and swooping, held together by a near-constant ticking.

I’ve seen complaints about CN’s characters; D is certainly his least character-driven film. He has discussed this as an intended approach:

The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? (Wiki)

I personally found their relative, often near-silent anonymity to be appealingly general for a topic apparently impossible to cover across its breadth of individual stories. Nevertheless, Mark Rylance is the standout as a principled and pragmatic civilian volunteer; CN is right to compare FW to a young Tom Courtenay (his expressive blankness is quite Long Distance Runner); and Harry Styles actually puts in a commendable shift as a panicked francophobic infantryman.

There are a handful of moments when that cyclical frying-pan-to-fire structure creates visual similarity, with the threat of drowning recurring particularly often, but these tend to emphasise the difficulty of escape rather than create any stale repetition. The only major problem I had with D was the patchy script. It was apparently CN’s shortest screenplay by about half; what we do get is usually engaging and often poignant but occasionally overly-romanticised and sometimes quite flat. D really works better as physical spectacle. There’s no shortage of marmite patriotic energy, especially in the final stretch, but while I don’t really go for marmite I think CN appreciates the story at its civilian rather than national level. D therefore should sidestep any accusations of coldness, despite being dependably technically amazing (see the dogfights and capsizing ships in particular). Haven’t seen Interstellar yet but I’d still confidently put him up with Cuarón at the front of the pack for contemporary western blockbusters.

8

Toni Erdmann (2017)

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A pretty uncomplicated story: Planes Trains, here cast as a melancholy clown-type dad impersonating a life-coach in an attempt to reform / upstage / keep an eye on his daughter who is working in Bucharest on a boring consultancy project. There’s a Eurozone context which is undeveloped, except to feed into the critique of the emptiness of modern frequent-flier lifestyles. Pretentions to something bigger, as well as some interrogation of the merits of its own arguments, but still a kind of constant magnetised reversion to this simplistic binary.

Winfried, or Toni (when incognito) has a bit of Falstaff, a bit of Wallander, a bit of Boris Johnson, and a bit of Partridge in him. He’s the focus of the early scenes, where his jesting lands him in some warm water, and he suffers a few poignant setbacks like the distancing and deterioration of his mother and the death of his old dog. He decides to reconnect with his daughter Ines, who is presented initially as cold and uptight. However, the picture of her corporate world is a very grim one – with rampant casual sexism piled on top of the grey bureaucratic malaise – and her status as an antagonistic figure is complicated by real victimhood (“happiness is a strong word,” she says). Nevertheless she remains utterly unlikeable for almost the entire film, often enthusiastically fronting the kind of aggressive mentalities of which she is a victim, while her father remains amusing in a childish way but ultimately pathetic and inane, with his personal travails suffused into a patronising and soft humanitarian ease.

A lot of this is very uncomfortable, and not just in a Partridge / Gervais way. There is a particular discussion at a bar which is excruciating, with Ines’ efforts to ingratiate herself into a hierarchy rebuffed by snide male colleagues and superiors in favour of jocular engagement with the uninterested W. At one point during a desolate day at a mall, W asks her “are you even human”; later, a colleague backhandedly shuts down her rebellious business presentation and warily tells her “you’re an animal”. It doesn’t feel like she’s being given much of a choice.

Maren Ade has questioned attempts to label TE a comedy; the first half isn’t at all funny, once the interruption of false teeth into discussion about consultancy has become established as a repeated scene-structure. Once the jig is up, Toni has a few, more interesting naturalistic encounters with local Romanians, where his improvisations begin to appeal to Ines, but which still tend towards a very simplistic ‘don’t worry be happy’ moral (there is one pretty cheap laugh with a silly song, and one burst of insanity with a naked party) In the end this is painted as insufficient, with W a resolutely pathetic figure and Ines unconvinced (despite his message having induced her to quit her job). 160 minutes later we’re back to where we started.

A depressing trudge, with one flash of surreal beauty and a general faint dusting of improvised unease. Very happy The Salesman took the Academy Award over this one.

4

Black Origami (2017)

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Opener ‘Black Origami’ skitters and bangs with cascading chimes, breathy female vocals, scarab percussion, sonorous bass. Some North African sounds in the synths are joined by thumping hand percussion and claps – encircling instrumentation, reminds me of the inclusive medley of Africa Express’ rendition of Terry Riley’s In C. It’s a statement of intent as far as instrumental diversity goes, expanding the palette from Dark Energy but retaining that propulsive and relentless drive derived from footwork, a genre which Jlin seems to have transformed almost beyond recognition.

Love the mechanically rapid toms and serpentine shakers on ‘Enigma’ – succinct summation of the power of combining manual sounds and mechanical production. Looped vocal sample definitely cleaves to the DJ Rashad archetypal footwork style. Far more stripped back melodically with plenty of negative space, which reminds me of more British bass music trends like SOPHIE’s skeletal pop madness.

Middle Eastern synths on ‘Kyanite’ and perhaps South Asian vocal samples, although its hard to say given how fragmentary they are – poring over the sounds, some mysteriously partial some perfectly and entirely captured and repurposed. Gut-tightening revved synths introduced near the end, enhancing the aggressive feel of this opening stretch; does have that rollercoaster feel of entertainment done to you. These opening three tracks are distinct mostly in the geographical traditions they evoke. There’s a lot of similarity in the linear structures; they’re more like a sequenced stretch, an evolving kaleidoscopic trip for which we remain sharply awake.

‘Holy Child’ opens the B side with the surprisingly distinctive stamp of William Basinski on the sampled vocals (they do remind me of the mood on his recent, meditatively funereal release A Shadow In Time), which are much more foregrounded giving the track a more distinctive melodic component; the same distinctive approach is inflected in a more cerebral, less physical direction. ‘Nyakinyua Rise’ splits this difference in Jlin’s sound by shifting completely in the other direction, being almost completely percussion and bass – thumping snares and bruising shouts – until about halfway with the arrival of a vocal which could be sampled from a Japanese combat video game. It’s easy to sit here and narrate the album’s compositional diversity and complexity, but the effect of Jlin’s painstaking editing is to keep BO fresh in a way that few footwork albums or comps succeed at.

Buzzsaw synths on ‘Hatsheput’ recall the revving on ‘Kyanite’, though they’re much more foundational here, playing with that balance between fragmented and holistic sampling (which I usually associated mainly with percussively looped vocals, in footwork) (actually those ‘Kyanite’ revs do return; ‘H’ is probably the least distinctive track on BO.

If the album’s first half – with the exception of standout ‘Holy Child’ – finds ways to adapt and tinker with the same formula, the same new musical vocabulary, the second half brings it back with a crashing series of diversions and deviations which ramp up into an explosive finish. Short centrepiece ‘Calcination’ skulks with dubbed-out echoes which are transmuted into the to the fidgety atmosphere of ‘Carbon 7 (161)’; here spacey synths and rolling drum presets nod to Pearson Sound and Mark Pritchard (goes to show, with ‘Enigma’ especially, how much of an understated influence UK bass music has on BO).

‘Nandi’ shudders with opening M.I.A-style vocal blasts, increasing the building sense of threat since BO‘s midpoint with some percussion slathered in echo and reverb. We’re then attacked with the album’s violent zenith, Holly Herndon-collab ‘1%’, which finds a way to make US dubstep sound relevant in 2017 by dispersing its trademark peak/trough structure across an unrelentingly linear assault. Cartoonish and video-game samples, dial tones and answerphone messages, and a creepy vocal from a young girl play off each other perfectly in a Nintendo nightmare, a Bullet Hell abstraction.

‘Never Created, Never Destroyed’ does the same thing for trap, dialling down the genre’s obnoxious predilection for weapon-sound samples into the most fragmentary and suggestive shards, while tumbling through complex rhythms with the kind of spontaneous playfulness that made Aphex Twin’s inclusion of Jlin’s stuff in his recent DJ sets unsurprising (the vinyl release appears to have two different takes on this track, too). It’s hard as nails, a perfect gritty counterpoint to the fantasy madness of ‘1%’. BO leaves us with ‘Challenge (To Be Continued)’, whose title seems to reference Jlin’s opinion that music should be progressive and difficult to make. It’s an absolutely orgiastic cacophony of percussion, with some synoptic (there’s an elephant on it) cross-polination of geographical influences  and a return to the encircling communality of the album’s openers through human shouts and whistles.

This is a big step up from DE: the template is expanded and enriched while remaining distinctive, pushing African, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern and South Asian sounds through the structural signature of footwork. It’s out on Planet Mu and I think the buried influences of UK bass and IDM have been underplayed; BO makes a convincing case for footwork as a central and connected piece in the jigsaw landscape of contemporary Western electronic music. It balances ascetic precision with an omnivorous and maximalist palette, tweaking and adjusting its way through 44 minutes of extremely fun and pumped up bass music. It’s hard not to gravitate especially towards the more eye-catching 5 or 6 bookending tracks (as well as ‘Holy Child’) but the parabolic flow of BO gives it a lasting appeal as an album played the whole way through.

9

Baby Driver (2017)

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There’s plenty bad about this: for around the first hour most of the action feels like an advert (either for cars or coffee shops or an app or something – there was an Uber advert before the film which featured some worryingly similar choreography); too much of the car chase footage is internal, which is less exciting and confuses perspective; Ansel Elgort is MDF; Jamie Foxx is given too many lines, which deflates any menace in his performance; Kevin Spacey looks tired; the extended hog-roast/weapon-stash metaphor sucks; the ending sucks. On the positive side some of the choreography in the longer shots is great (horribly torn on the credits because it flows great but its far too reminiscent of Toby “Tugboat” Maguire’s street dance); the music usually stands up and keeps momentum; John Hamm has a Sin City cartoonish menace; there are a couple of surprises. Its greatest asset is Edgar Wright and his own enthusiasm, which is kind of diffused throughout the film and becomes infectious when BD starts going up the gears after the foot-chase scene. It’s hard not to smile when you’re watching someone else have so much fun.

So yeah, there’s plenty bad about this. Totting it up in retrospect, it doesn’t look great (I think a lot of critics have been giving it an easy ride because of a sort of backdoor Tarantino effect: EW is an anthologist). But a slight surprised satisfaction still pushed through the garbled ending and out of the cinema. I won’t be watching it again (and I’m worried about returning to Scott Pilgrim) but I hope lots of people love it.

5