Tuesday, 20 February 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ben Folds, Melbourne Zoo, February 17, 2018

Ben Folds
Melbourne Zoo
February 17, 2018

The longer the career, the harder it is to compile a setlist. More albums, more songs, more choices.

Musicians deal with this in a variety of ways. Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam regularly play mammoth sets in order to cram in as much as possible, occasionally even dropping whole albums into the playlist. On Weezer's 2013 Australian tour, they ran their setlists in reverse chronological order, climaxing with The Blue Album in full (except for that night when they played an entirely different setlist complete with Pinkerton in its entirety). And some artists endeavour to give you everything, like Paul Kelly's A-Z concerts, or that time The Living End played every single one of their records in full over consecutive nights.

(And then there are less crowd-pleasing acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins, who played new-album-heavy sets on their 1998 and 2012 Australian tours, giving fans only a handful of hits on the side. Here's hoping they make amends on their upcoming "reunion" tour.)

And then there's Ben Folds, who hit upon an innovative way to craft his setlist for his previous US and current Australian tours - paper planes.

It works like this - Folds plays a 10-song set of his choosing, then takes a 15-minute break. At the end of the interlude, there's a countdown, and fans are encouraged to through their requests on stage via paper aeroplane, which goes down something like this:

Folds then wanders around the stage, picks up a plane at random, and plays the song written on that plane (unless it's something he's already played or it's someone else's song).

The first set ends up being devoid of his signature songs, with Folds perhaps figuring those will get aeronautically selected by the audience. The biggest hits in the front end are the incredible Landed and his Regina Spektor duet You Don't Know Me (with the crowd standing in for Spektor), and the rest of Part One is peppered with three songs from his most recent album, fan favourite album cuts (such as Zak & Sara and Steven's Last Night In Town) and near-forgotten singles (Bastard, There's Always Someone Cooler Than You).

"Sing you bastards!"
This first set has been tweaked from night to night (the previous night at the Zoo saw him bust out Annie Waits, Still Fighting It, Uncle Walter and Not The Same). But it's the second set where the intrigue really lies. For Saturday night's show at the Zoo, Folds plucked hit after hit from the ankle-deep stage around him. Here are our aeroplanes (good job, Melbourne):

PhilosophyRockin' the SuburbsJackson CanneryThe LuckiestKateUndergroundAll U Can EatBrickOne Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn FacesArmy

You couldn't ask for more, although diehards won't be able to stop themselves sneaking a peak at other setlists on the tour to see what might have been.

Beyond what was played, Folds was a gracious host and a respectful visitor. He offered a quick musical lesson on harmonies, prefaced All U Can Eat by saying it was a compilation of things his dad had said, and raced through the last couple of songs in an effort to not keep the animals awake. Because, after all, this gig was at a freakin' zoo.

This guy was loving it.
You may find yourself yearning for the bass of Robert Sledge and the drums of Darren Jessee (and their harmonies) in places but the big takeaways from the show are the power of the songs in the hands of just Folds, and the prowess of those hands. As a pianist, Folds is virtuosic - a fact that sometimes gets lost amid his skills as a songwriter and vocalist.

In many ways, this gig was a novelty, thanks to its setting and Folds' airborne request procedure. And while Folds has his quirks - including a proclivity for profanity, which was amusing in the family-friendly setting - he is a seriously good songwriter. Indeed he's one of the best of the past thirty years. No matter what it said on those paper planes, it was almost always going to be gold.

Full setlist here.

PS. Dear Melbourne Zoo, get more food trucks next time. A 40-minute wait for food isn't cool.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Black Panther

(M) ★★★★

Director: Ryan Coogler.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Sterling K. Brown.

"Call it Fant-four-stic one more time, I dare ya."
Marvel continues to take its cinematic universe to new places physically, thematically, and even spiritually in its latest outing Black Panther.

Much has been made of the importance of having a predominantly black cast and crew bringing to life the first black superhero in mainstream American comics, and how huge it is for people of colour around the world to see such a thing in a major blockbuster spectacle. But this would count for nought if the movie wasn't any good.

Thankfully, Black Panther is great. It boasts a sense of grandeur as it tells a sprawling Shakespearean tale that traverses the political, the racial, the ideological, the familial and the fantastical.

Prior MCU watching is not a prerequisite here, but for fans this picks up in the wake of Captain America: Civil War, with Prince T'Challa (Boseman) preparing to take the throne of mythical African nation Wakanda following the death of his father T'Chaka.

As T'Challa grapples with ruling his people and keeping his country hidden from the outside world, new and old enemies emerge - the unhinged Ulysses Klaue (Serkis) and the mysterious Killmonger (Jordan), both with deep connections to Wakanda.

Of all the thematic ideas explored across the MCU films, Black Panther boasts some of the most interesting. Wakanda's national modus operandi is very much "Wakanda first" - as part of the it's elaborate hi-tech secrecy that quite literally hides it from the outside world, they accept no refugees, offer no foreign aid, and are reluctant to engage on a global stage. These ideals are all the more intriguing because of Wakanda's incredible wealth, both financially and technologically.

The film's philosophical crossroad comes in the form of a character who has seen the injustices wielded against black people in the US, and wonders why the power of Wakanda couldn't be used to level the playing field in the face of racism - an ideology closer to the Black Panther Party of the civil rights movement than the Marvel superhero of the same name. This sentiment digs even deeper when a dying character invokes the slave trade with their final words in one of the most poignant moments the MCU has seen.

It's fascinating fodder for a CG-heavy blockbuster from the biggest mega-franchise the world has ever seen. To Coogler's (and Marvel's) credit, the film doesn't pay lip service to its racial themes - it owns them and is all the better for it.

And while the extra levels of well executed intelligent ideas elevates this above, say, Justice League, there is also the requisite amounts of action and CG carnage. One particularly lengthy take involving a fight in a casino is mindblowing, while a car chase through the South Korean city of Busan is another highlight. However, the inevitable final showdown between T'Challa and Killmonger is a bit too heavy on the CGI, as are some sequences where green screens stand in for the wilds of Africa.

The cast is another reason to see this. Jordan's Killmonger is one of the best villains we've seen in the MCU because he's one of the most interesting - you could almost barrack for him or at least empathise with him. Serkis' Klaue is more cartoonish, but adds a manic level of fun to every scene he's in, which helps break up some of the seriousness. The script also adds enough grins and winks to lighten the sombre tone enough, while Wright's Shuri provides welcome comic relief.

Nyong'o and Gurira are also highlights and make the most of well written roles with real strength to them. Freeman feels out of place but it works, Whitaker adds gravitas, and Kaluuya's W'Kabi is another interesting character well portrayed.

But it's Boseman and Jordan's show, and when they go head to head the film sizzles. Their relationship holds up the second half of the film. The first half coasts along with a James Bond vibe, but once Killmonger gets to Wakanda, it becomes a superhero version of Heat, with two equally matched, equally driven, and almost equally sympathetic characters lighting up the screen. Boseman has a regal swagger, while Jordan is more street, yet they are not terribly dissimilar.

It's a shame some CG-heavy sequences don't look great because it's one of the few downers in this. There are also a few too many pushy moments in the score, although it's worth noting that when the score works, it's some of the best music we've seen in an MCU movie.

The production design is also great. The techno-Africa look is cool, rivalling the work of the Sakaar scenes in Thor: Ragnarok.

All up, Black Panther is a thoughtful yet exciting superhero journey into deepest Africa that does the character and his people proud.

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Post

(M) ★★★

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson.

No one could believe he was buying another vowel.
Spielberg. Streep. Hanks. These are quality names.

Throw in John Williams and Janusz Kamiński too. And Bob Odenkirk - obviously he's not in the same league, but come on...  it's Bob Odenkirk.

There is some serious talent here, with each of them acquitting themselves perfectly well. It's all solid work. It's a good job, well done.

But the problem with The Post is it's only just a good film - with this director and this lead duo, it should be a great one. Or is that expecting too much from the Spielberg/Streep/Hanks triumvirate?

Even ignoring the shadow cast by the incredible careers of these three titans of Tinsel Town, a more powerful legend looms larger over The Post - a little film called All The President's Men.

As previously stated, All The President's Men is the gold standard for journalism dramas, and The Post is lucky to limp home with a bronze. Spielberg's ode to The Washington Post is a historical prequel to Pakula's 1976 classic - The Post details the newspaper's coverage of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which happened about a year before Woodward and Bernstein's stories on the Watergate scandal.

At the centre of the film is Post owner Katharine Graham (Streep), the first woman to publish a major American newspaper (and someone who was unfortunately written out of All The President's Men). As she grapples with her paper being floated on the stock market, the paper's editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) laments being left in the dust by their rivals The New York Times over the so-called leaked Pentagon Papers, which detailed the US Government's own knowledge of their likely failure in the Vietnam War.

When Post journalist Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) gets hold of a large stack of the Pentagon Papers, it thrusts The Post into the firing line of the Nixon's government, which had already ordered The Times to stop publishing details from the leaked report. Katharine must make a choice - publish and potentially lose her paper, or sit back and wait for the whole thing to blow over.

It's a story with modern resonance. Not only is the press battling a president, but there is also a woman battling to find her feet in a man's world. It's got government secrets, a turning tide of public sentiment, and media outlets fighting for their constitutional right to hold politicians accountable.

While the story of The Post is great on, ahem, paper, it doesn't hold up as well as, say, All The President's Men on screen. The script is a little undercooked, which doesn't help. The tough task of telling an entire story through newsroom and boardroom conversations, as well as people poring over a box of government documents was never going to be an easy one, but The Post actually fumbles some of its storytelling (particularly early on) and struggles to maintain momentum.

Even the great Spielberg seems to struggle to find ways to ramp up the tension. He spins his camera, uses quirky angles, goes for quick cuts, gets his actors moving around, and it all feels distracting, regularly smacking of failed attempts to manufacture drama in static situations. Even Williams' score work seems ratcheted up to do some of the emotional heavy lifting. Spielberg seems acutely aware of the lack of spark in the narrative.

These criticisms aside, the film is generally good, especially when it hits its stride in the final act. It's also a loving ode to the glory days of newspapers, and its production design is a smoky haze of cigarettes and typewriter ink, captured by Kamiński's usual excellence.

Central are Streep and Hanks, and it's a joy to see them tussle on screen. Both bring their 'A' games, as always, but neither's performance would rate in their top 10s. Ditto for Spielberg - when he gets things right (which is a lot of the time) the film sails along enjoyably, but he also falls short of his past excellence.

Ultimately The Post is let down by the fact it never moves you to the edge of your seat, or indeed really moves you at all. It says important things, but often in a somewhat laboured fashion, and it is a reminder of why we need a free press while still being mostly entertaining, if a little humourless.

In years to come, this film will predominantly serve as a reminder of that time Spielberg, Streep and Hanks all worked together. As such, it will probably be remembered as a novelty, as opposed to an example of their best work.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Darkest Hour

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Joe Wright.

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West.

Churchill was about to get very specific about which beaches they would fight on.

Just give Oldman the Oscar already. And while you're at it, give the best make-up Academy Award to Kazuhiro Tsuji.

No one else stands a chance in those categories against this colossal transformation. The fact Tsuji, lured from retirement for the task, makes Oldman look like a decent version of Winston Churchill is mindblowing. But it's Oldman's immersive turn that is the real brainbender. Never in its two hours does the film allow you to think anything other than "This is Churchill".

While it won't win the Oscar for best film (I'd like to see that honour go to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), this is still a wonderfully polished character piece, delivered with style by Wright.

To put it inelegantly, Darkest Hour is a prequel to fellow Oscar contender Dunkirk. As Hitler's army advances across Europe in the autumn of 1940, British parliament ousts Neville Chamberlain (Pickup) as prime minister, leading to the precarious and controversial appointment of Churchill as PM.

Within weeks of his promotion, Churchill is on the brink of overseeing the complete obliteration of his nation - the majority of the British army is trapped at Dunkirk, and unable to be evacuated by conventional means.

Darkest Hour provides an interesting viewpoint from which to examine the war. Very little in the way of battle is seen aside from some short eerie CG moments and a brief glimpse of the siege at Calais. Instead, we're treated to a behind-the-scenes look at WWII that basically involves lots of stuffy British pollies talking.

This dryness is offset by a number of things. Firstly, Wright's camera glides through the halls of parliament and the war bunkers with an engaging ease, helping ramp up the tension when necessary. Secondly, Dario Marianelli's score is used to help give scenes a nudge, preventing them from becoming too staid.

Thirdly, the script adds enough gentle humour and poetic licence to keep things ticking along nicely, hinging the "action" on several of Churchill's key speeches.

But really, it's Oldman that makes all the difference. Like the script, he doesn't strive for historical exactitude - listen to actual recordings of Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" and it's a world away from the fire and panache with which Oldman delivers it. It's rewriting history for the sake of drama, but the film is all the better for it, and the star is nothing short of convincing as he does it. Oldman is utterly believable whether suffering a bout of depression and a moment of doubt, or spitting vitriol in the war room, or gently sparring with Mendelsohn's King George VI. It's the greatest performance of an already great career.

Mendelsohn is also worth noting for his turn, as is James as Churchill's secretary (and audience surrogate) Elizabeth Layton, and Thomas as Churchill's put-upon but iron-willed wife Clementine.

Wright publicly mused whether people would be bothered to watch a film about Churchill, but rightly supposed they would watch one with Oldman playing Churchill. It's a masterstroke, and the film is a reminder of Wright's talents, particularly in the wake of his most recent film, the absolutely dire Pan.

Oldman should win his first Oscar for this performance - if he doesn't, something is wrong with the world.

Monday, 5 February 2018

I, Tonya

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Craig Gillespie.

Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale.

"The baseball bat we broke her knee with was this big."

Of course this true story was always going to become a movie. And not just a daytime movie special, but a proper movie.

It's a story that has everything - intrigue, crime, sport, passion, and a lead character trying to live out the American dream of rising above her station and representing her country.

But best of all it has very stupid people doing incredibly stupid things all because of a fairly stupid sport (there, I said it - take that ice-skating).

For those who don't remember those fateful weeks back in 1994 when the world obsessed over "the incident" (as it's referred to in the film), this is the story of Tonya Harding, who was the greatest ice skater in the world for a short period of time. The majority of the film serves as a biopic for Harding, providing much-needed context for the moment on January 6, 1994, when Harding's main rival Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped by a lone male following a skate comp.

What ensued was a tabloid feeding frenzy, the likes of which the freshly born 24-hour media cycle had never seen before.

Central to I, Tonya is Robbie's masterful performance as Harding. A desperately unlikeable character, Harding is made somewhat palatable by Robbie's honesty in the role, and a script that does its best to find reasons to barrack for her. Robbie is the hero of the piece - she hits Harding's many moods with ease, rolling through vulnerable, strong, hilarious, stupid, determined, vicious and desperate. It's the best performance of Robbie's short career-to-date.

Not to be outdone is Janney as Harding's despicable mother. It's a role Janney easily navigates into that difficult stream between comic relief and hissable villain. Ditto for the under-rated Stan, who makes the character of Jeff Gillooly feel like a real person and not a one-dimensional bastard. And Hauser is definitely in the votes for his laugh-out-loud turn as Shawn Eckhardt, Harding's supposed bodyguard.

The film's delivery as a quasi-mockumentary skates or stumbles on the strength of its cast, so thankfully its a strong line-up of players. Otherwise I, Tonya would not be half the movie it is. This faux-doco approach is somewhat haphazard - on top of having to-camera interviews with the characters, it also occasionally breaks the fourth wall mid-drama to add a thought bubble it could have probably added in a to-camera bit. These meta-moments are too few to get used to and as a result they pull you out of the action. It's certainly not a deal-breaker - in fact, more of them might have made everything fit together more consistently.

For all its talk of subjective truth, the film could have done with some more varied viewpoints to back up that point. It could have also used some more of Kerrigan - the film is called I, Tonya for a reason, but a bit more context around Harding's frenemy would have been helpful.

Another issue is the too-obvious CG-splicing of Robbie's face on to the real-life skaters pulling off the incredible skate performances in the film. Maybe some of you won't notice it, but to experienced eyes it's distracting.

Despite these criticisms, I, Tonya is a joy to watch. It's a funny retelling of a head-scratchingly idiotic tale, with some wonderfully stupid characters telling it. The production design, costuming and make-up is also great.

But this is really all about the performances, in particular Robbie's. If nothing else, it's worth watching for that alone.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Seven things learnt from triple j's 2017 Hottest 100

Okay, so the Hottest 100 has been run and won, and amid the cries of "ya joking, should've been higher" and "triple j is so shit these days" there is some knowledge to be gained. And here it is. Sit down. Be humble.

Kendrick is king

Kendrick Lamar is the first African-American to top the triple j Hottest 100. He is the first artist to win having previously finished second. Humble is only the second hip hop song to top the chart. Lamar had four songs in the countdown - it's only the fifth time the poll-topper has had four or more songs in that year's Hottest 100. He also placed #3 in the triple j listeners' poll. Oh, and he just won a big pile of Grammys. Everything's coming up Kendrick.

Hip hop rules, OK?

Lamar wasn't the only hip hop artist doing well this year - it was a big year for rap in the Hottest 100. Thundamentals reached the top 10, Brockhampton were just outside it, and elsewhere the likes of Khalid, Baker Boy, Post Malone, Drake, Migos (on a Calvin Harris track), NERD, Allday, Big Shaq, Odette, Macklemore, Bliss N Eso, Hilltop Hoods (on a Thundamentals track), Future, and Stormzy dropped it like it was hot. All up, that's 23 songs, or almost a quarter of the countdown. Pretty sure that's a record.

It's a metal-free zone

"Where's the metal?" asked some Twitter users. The answer was "nowhere". The closest thing to heavy was DZ Deathrays' Shred For Summer and that ain't metal - it just has the word "shred" in the title. Even the Queens Of The Stone Age song was more dancefloor than moshpit. In recent years, there's always been a sprinkling of metal tracks, but that drizzle dried up in 2017. The highest ranking metal song in the whole 200 was Architects with Doomsday at #139, with Polaris' The Remedy not far behind at #142. Does this mean metalheads don't vote in the Hottest 100 anymore or were there too many killer metal songs to vote for?

Foo Fighters are officially "dad rock"

Powderfinger and Foo Fighters are locked at 22 apiece in the battle to claim the crown of most Hottest 100 entries, and with the 'Finger retired and the Foos dropping a great album in 2017, it looked like Dave Grohl and his buddies were going to take the prize. But it wasn't to be. Despite boasting a Grammy-winning single, the Foos didn't even crack the top 200. It's the first time they've released an album that didn't yield a track in the 100 (and it's a great album too). So it's official - Foo Fighters are now "dad rock", and their days of filling the triple j airwaves seem over. Muse appear to have joined that category as well, and one would imagine Queens Of The Stone Age aren't far behind.

The youths are alright

While Gang Of Youths didn't get the top prize, three songs in the top 10 is nothing to be sneezed at. Powderfinger (2003) and Chet Faker (2014) are the only other acts to have done it. Mind you, GOY is the first act to get three in the top 10 while also getting two in the top five. They had four in the top 100, and a further three in the top 200. Not bad at all.

Winning is not the end

It was a great year for acts who had previously won the countdown. Flume, The Rubens, Vance Joy, Macklemore, Angus & Julia Stone, and Queens Of The Stone Age all returned, which is a record. Typically, a few previous winners make a return to the Hottest 100 each year, with the previous best being four in 2009.

Yacht rock is back, baby

Forget hip hop, this is the genre of 2017. Winston Surfshirt's Be About You, Holy Holy's True Lovers, Ocean Alley's The Comedown, Kingswood's Golden - yacht rock is where it's at. But don't take my word for it - watch the above clip and let Hollywood Steve take you on a journey.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

(MA15+) ★★★★★

Director: Martin McDonagh.

Cast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Željko Ivanek, Samara Weaving, Brendan Sexton III.

The latest ad campaign from Apple was too edgy.
IS it too early to start talking about how Martin McDonagh is one of the great writer-directors of the past decade?

Sure, he's only delivered two films prior to now - the modern cult classic In Bruges and the too-clever but great fun of Seven Psychopaths - but they're a good foundation, demonstrating an incredible mind for scriptwriting and an understated way of bringing those scripts to the screen . And when you add his best film to date on top, you have the makings of a great writer-director.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a masterclass in screenwriting, acting, and directing. It is overflowing with great characters, brought to life beautifully by a stellar cast, and has a strong thematic and emotional core, while still being wickedly and darkly funny.

The somewhat unconventional story kicks off with Mildred Hayes (McDormand) hiring three billboards near her house to post a message questioning why the local police haven't caught her daughter's killer and rapist. The billboards set in motion a chain of unpredictable events that will affect everyone in the small town of Ebbing.

At its heart Three Billboards is about what death leaves behind, and the lasting impacts of violence. The most poignant quote in the film, and the one that sums it up the best, is simply "violence begets violence". While the expression of this idea is typically played for laughs due to McDonagh's dark wit, it's nonetheless a great theme explored in fascinating ways. Every violent act in the film - and there are a few - has interesting and unexpected repercussions, some good, some bad, with most of them spurring further violence in an escalating chain of savagery and stupidity.

Through it all, McDonagh's skill for black comedy is at the fore, softening the harshness of some of the content and packing a punch in other places. But none of it would work without a killer cast, and luckily he has that.

Lead actor McDormand is everything in this - she's a stoic, take-no-crap firecracker of a grieving mother whose sorrow and anger manifest in unexpected ways. It's a wonderful, award-worthy performance and up there with her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo as among the best in her career.

She's ably supported by Rockwell as a racist, dimwitted cop who has the most fascinating arc of any character in the film. Harrelson's too-brief appearance is a joy to behold, whether he be chuckling at everything that's going on, or dealing with his own dark truths. Elsewhere, Dinklage and Hawkes are good in small but well rounded roles - McDonagh's script makes sure to give almost every character a little story to intertwine in the bigger one.

It also tells its story in interesting ways. The opening five minutes should be shown in screenwriting class, and while its ending will bother some, it comes at exactly the right point before the film wears out its welcome. Its also going to leave you thinking.

There's little to fault here. While its not flashy or stylised, Three Billboards features good, solid direction of an auteur in full control of his storytelling powers and equipped with the perfect cast to tell his tale.