Conspicuous Consumption

After being so lax with keeping track of movies and music here last year, I thought I’d try posting every month about what’s passed across my audio-visual radar. Then the end of January came and went, and I thought I’d make it bi-monthly instead. Welcome to Conspicuous Consumption, an occasional series for 2020.

Study of Harmony

I started January by scouring Best Of lists to catch up on some albums I’d missed in 2019. A few I especially enjoyed were Indoor Pets’ Be Content, Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising, and Old LP by that dog. (Not that dog; the band, “that dog.”) Titanic Rising was so good that I tracked down Weyes Blood’s earlier albums, and found myself listening even more to 2016’s Front Row Seat to Earth.

As the month wore on I listened to a lot of Queen (after watching Bohemian Rhapsody), and then went on a modern classical kick as a result of a Metafilter thread. That thread introduced me to John Adams’s Harmonielehre, which is extraordinary, and to the best performance I’ve heard of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres”, by Anne Akiko Meyers and Akira Eguchi (available on Meyers’ 2018 album Mirror in Mirror).

February brought La Roux’s new album Supervision, which has nothing as good as “In for the Kill” (but what does?), but is still a solid listen; and at long last, Grimes’s Miss Anthropocene, which has a hard act to follow in my favourite album of the 2010s but is growing on me more and more. “Violence” is a highlight, but it has many more.

Lately I’ve been listening to a couple of old songs for an upcoming karaoke night with work colleagues, the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and Midnight Oil’s “Power and the Passion”, one of the two first singles I ever bought. I was going to do a song from Bossanova for the Pixies, but the karaoke place didn’t have any on its playlist; and thought Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning” might be more familiar to a UK crowd, but it’s a tougher one to sing. (I was surprised there was as much Midnight Oil on the playlist as there was.) I decided I’d skip my fallback of attempting a recent pop song, as “Bad Guy” from an older guy seemed just wrong.

I was going to channel my inner Frank Sinatra by attempting “That’s Life”, until I discovered that my inner Frank is no Frank. It’s going to be hard to top my best-ever karaoke performance, “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.

Album of the last two months: it’s probably already Miss Anthropocene, with Front Row Seat to Earth and Harmonielehre vying for second.

The Goes Wrong Shows

My TV viewing this winter has been sporadic, but the shows have generally been impressive, starting with the BBC’s latest version of A Christmas Carol by Tom Hardy’s production company. Guy Pearce was an excellent Scrooge, even if his Aussie accent seemed incongruous at times, and Stephen Graham, who was outstanding in the last series of Line of Duty, made an equally memorable Jacob Marley. The tone of the production made it feel like a proper ghost story rather than a jolly Christmas cliché, and even if one or two elements weren’t perfect it was still a worthwhile watch.

Even better was Dracula by Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat, a worthy new incarnation of ol’ black eyes, performed brilliantly by Danish actor Claes Bang. The first episode was equal to the very best Draculas I’d ever seen; the second was almost as good; and the third was… not as successful, but still a reasonable effort at resolving the story, and had some fine individual scenes. With each episode running to movie length it was like watching a trilogy where the first two were great and the third flawed, which reminds me of another that concluded this winter…

Other notable TV of the last couple of months has included a new series of Doctor Who (the usual mix of good and less good), a new Channel 4 series of The Great Pottery Throwdown (makes a change from Bake-Off), the inadvertently hilarious BBC series Spy in the Wild, with bizarre robot animals inserted into a typical nature documentary setting to surprisingly little effect, and the funniest comedy series I’ve seen in a good while, The Goes Wrong Show, each episode of which is a self-contained masterpiece of intentional supposedly unintentional theatrical chaos. Great viewing for the whole family, and a couple of weeks ago we all went along to the Edinburgh run of one of its theatrical precursors, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which was equally brilliant.

But the very best telly I’ve seen lately, over a few nights in mid-January, was the 2019 HBO series Chernobyl: indeed, a month or so later I’m still thinking it might be the very best telly I’ve seen ever, against a lifetime’s stiff competition. For days I could think of nothing else; I kept the fascination going by listening to the accompanying podcast, reading up on how things are in the exclusion zone today, and considering buying books about Chernobyl that I’d never end up reading (although I resisted that urge). I was baffled by Lucy Mangan’s review of the first episode in The Guardian, which seemed to get it as wrong as could be. The music, too, was unforgettable, and must be the real reason that Hildur Guðnadóttir won her recent Oscar, because the music for Joker wasn’t as memorable for me.

As someone who was eighteen when Chernobyl happened, but heard only what Western scientists were able to infer about it, I couldn’t get over the enormous sacrifice made by so many in the Soviet Union to contain its impact, and how close the disaster came to rendering half of Europe uninhabitable. That possibility reminded me of Darwinia, a science fiction novel of an alternative twentieth century where Europe was struck in the 1910s by a mysterious event that instantly replaced its built landscape with a wilderness of jungle and alien animals, where it was unsafe for humans to venture. How different the last thirty years would have been with no Scandinavia, no Poland, no Germany, no Britain.

It really is an extraordinary five hours of television. You should watch it.

Movie Marvels

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, which I saw just after Christmas. There’s a reason I haven’t gone back to my list of favourite films of the 2010s to add it in a postscript: it wasn’t one of my favourite films of the 2010s.

It certainly had its moments. C3PO’s memory wipe. Hux being the spy for the most Hux-like of reasons. The flashback to young Luke training young Leia. Han’s cameo. Luke’s force ghost. The Ren/Rey battle on the remnant of the Death Star with waves crashing over them was truly epic—more than the finale with the Emperor, I thought. And far better that Rey was a Palpatine than a Skywalker, even if keeping her a nobody would have been best of all. Also, Richard E. Grant was born to be a Star Wars officer baddie. (“We’ve gone to a galaxy far, far away by mistake!”)

It also had its weaker moments. I found it impossible to buy into the Leia scenes, knowing how they were cobbled together; tiny snatches of phrases shoehorned into made-to-order dialogue were never going to have the impact of the first two movies. It also wasted Jodie Comer, buried in a few seconds of flashback as Rey’s mother.

The Last Jedi was the best of the three, I thought, and this was the least—mirroring the original trilogy nicely—but I still liked The Rise of Skywalker well enough in the moment.

Naturally, I read far too many reviews and articles about it, some of which are worth noting here: Film Crit Hulk’s, Jeannette Ng’s, Chuck Wendig’s, and Abigail Nussbaum’s reviews; what happened to Kelly Marie Tran’s character, what the movie lost by not having Carrie Fisher, and other effects of its rushed production; and Mark Hamill in conversation with Frank Oz.

Catching up on some notable movies I’d missed in 2019, I enjoyed Ryan Johnson’s Knives Out, which went in some unexpected directions but maintained all the pleasure of an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery; Booksmart was a superior coming-of-age movie with two excellent leads; and I liked Joker well enough for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, but ultimately found it a bit unsatisfying. Aquaman was a more enjoyable slice of DC superhero silliness.

Two other superheroes of a sort featured in Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, covering the 1970s to early 1980s rise, fall and triumph of Freddie Mercury (of whom I’ve long been a fan) and Elton John (who’s been an unavoidable presence my whole life, is less of a personal obsession, but undeniably has some strong tunes). They were different enough to both be worth watching, and had equally strong lead performances; I’ve liked Rami Malik since season one of Mr. Robot, and Taron Egerton since 2016’s excellent Eddie the Eagle.

The last few months have been filled with superheroes for me, as I’ve been watching a decade’s missed Marvel movies with my daughter. In January and February we saw Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, completing the timeline viewing order (rather than release order) of the 22-film MCU cycle. Those five were all pretty decent, but Thor: Ragnarok was the best of them, really cranking up the comedy in the character, which was harnessed to equally enjoyable effect in Infinity War and especially Endgame. I would never have expected that Thor would end up as my favourite character in the MCU, but I think he has.

The best movie I’ve seen in the past couple of months, though, wasn’t Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok but Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, which I sought out after Jon Ronson praised it on Twitter. The Fanfare thread on the movie noted Abigail Nussbaum’s review of it, which praised some aspects but was ultimately negative, for reasons I took issue with at Fanfare and will recycle here. At one point Nussbaum noted sarcastically that it was “full of German-language covers of The Beatles and David Bowie!”, which got my goat (skip this bit to avoid spoilers):

Covers? Covers? “Sie liebt dich” was the Beatles’ love song to their early fans in Hamburg, recorded only nineteen years after the war ended. “Helden” was Bowie’s love song to West Berlin, recorded a dozen years later. Their use at the beginning and end of the film gave them enormous resonance, holding us in the moment of 1944/45, the 1960s/70s and the present day simultaneously, making it clear that the story is as much about now, about the kids watching alt-right rubbish on YouTube who need to hear that the adults they trust don’t buy it, and need to see trusted adults resisting it. ¶ And if Nussbaum missed that, maybe that’s why she thought that “Jojo Rabbit is that tired, problematic trope, a story about a person who learns not to be racist by meeting one of the people he was racist against”. That was secondary to its story. Its key moment is when Jojo realises that his own mother is harbouring a Jew. That’s when his Hitler Youth worldview really starts to collapse, right through until the entire Nazi world collapses around him in the final scenes. Although Elsa is a significant character, she isn’t the heart of the movie: at its heart is Jojo’s mother, the character that Nussbaum spends 300 words telling us she wishes was at the heart of the movie—to the point where she describes the story she wishes that “Jojo Rabbit had chosen to tell” by relating a series of scenes that were in Jojo Rabbit.

It’s a great film. Catch it when you can.

29 February 2020 · Film

In putting this together I somehow managed to forget the series I’d just finished watching on the BBC, Good Omens, based on the 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It was a great adaptation, with a wonderful pair of performances from Michael Sheen and David Tennant as the angel and demon odd couple Aziraphale and Crowley, and many excellent supporting performances; it didn’t capture everything of the novel, and updating it to the present day made some aspects feel slightly off, but it was as good as one could hope for and in many respects better. David Arnold’s mock-Queen version of the series theme at the end of episode one was a belter.

Added by Rory on 5 March 2020.