The Mercy

It is impossible, frankly, to write about this film without spoilers. It just cannot be done. That being said, it is arguable that the very idea of spoilers here is ridiculous, considering anyone can Google the name of Donald Crowhurst. My recommendation is don’t do it. Refrain from any such temptation, and watch this film first, as I did (and of course, don’t read any more of this post until you have)

mercy2So if you’re still here, I’ll assume you have either seen the film, have no interest in ever doing so, or already know the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst, a very human story of a flawed man who became his own undoing. I should begin by stating that Johann Johannsson brought me here, not the first time the late Icelandic composer brought me to a film that he had worked on, but sadly possibly the last. I only knew of The Mercy because its soundtrack was the last to be released prior to his sudden passing, and Johannsson was possibly the last film composer whose soundtrack albums I would buy heedless of the film or music itself. The music did not disappoint, with new material and old it teased a sombre and moody film.  I must say, having now seen the film, it is clear that Johannsson was the perfect choice for the film’s score- the music is typical of the composers work- intimate, fragile, tender, mournful, yet enlightened with moments of joy.

Which is where, I suppose, we now come to the film itself. As I have stated, I came to the film knowing nothing about the true story behind it- I only knew that it was some kind of sailing adventure, perhaps one of those stirring and daunting nautical tales of man against nature, likely similar to the film All is Lost. Well, I was both right and wrong.

The story, part mystery, part tragedy, is well known, apparently- though naturally it was new to me. Donald Crowhurst  (played here by Colin Firth) was a failing businessman and amateur yachtsman who took part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, a competition to be the first person to sail nonstop single-handedly around the world. Crowhurst was not a good enough sailor, was under-prepared, underfunded, handicapped by a boat that was unfit for purpose- but incredibly the competition did not scrutinise entrants for sufficient experience or ability. Crowhurst’s attempt was hopelessly doomed, but haunted by the threat of bankruptcy and ruin (his financier held Crowhurst’s house as collateral if he failed to finish the race), he stayed out at sea for 240 days and attempted to hoax the press and public that he’d managed the circumnavigation. Crowhurst believed that if he could convince, through fake log-books, that he had managed the voyage, if one of the other entrants won, he would not come under any scrutiny. His schemes unravelled when the majority of the other competitors dropped out during the daunting race and when it seemed that he would succeed in the setting of the fastest time, he realised he was undone and could not maintain the lie under the scrutiny of winning. While thousands, including his wife Clare and his children, waited his triumphant return home, Crowhurst could see no way out. Radio contact ended, Crowhurst disappeared, and when his trimaran was found, derelict in the mid-Atlantic under a single sail, there was no sign of him, and the log-books that he had left revealed a tale of a tragic fall into desperation and madness, a descent into oblivion.

mercy1The story of the failed hoax, when it broke, proved to be a huge scandal, but The Mercy wisely raises above just that story, and tells us about the flawed, driven individual who loved his family but whom fate and hubris drove him to tragedy (and left his wife and children to face the fallout). While it starts all light and positive, it takes a very dark turn that was quite unexpected by me. Indeed, its one of the most depressing films I have seen in quite awhile, but nonetheless a fascinating one. Colin Firth is very good at portraying the best in Crowhurst, perhaps less so in showing his failings. Inherently Firth has too noble a screen persona and while this ultimately works against the film it does mean the eventual twist and downfall is possibly all the more shocking. Rachel Weisz as his wife Clare proves to be the heart and soul of the film, albeit she is perhaps too beautiful, too perfect? Well, that’s an issue I have often found with Weisz, as she usually gravitates towards very normal, ordinary characters in her film choices, but here it raises the question of what fool of a man could ever leave this idyllic wife and mother of his children for a dangerous journey risking life and everything? As usual, David Thewlis is excellent: here playing the dubious, provincial hack reporter Rodney Hallworth, who was hired as publicist and whose hype and tall tales fanned the flames of race fever that would eventually drive Crowhurst to foolish ruin.

Its a very sober tale of the human condition, I thought, and I found this film to be both riveting and horrifying, frankly, especially as I had no idea of the story’s dark denouement. Carried along by the beautiful light and darkness of the music of Johann Johannsson, with all the poignancy that his own passing itself entails, I found this to be a very fine film. It feels very much like an anxiety-dream,  a terrible fall into hopelessness and quite harrowing.

The Mercy is currently available on Amazon Prime, and on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Vanishing

vanishingThe Vanishing is based upon a real-life mystery, in which three lighthouse keepers out in the Flannan Islands, stationed at the lighthouse on Eilean Mor twenty miles west of the Outer Hebrides island of Lewis, in Scotland, disappeared sometime around December 15th 1900. A relief crew found the island deserted, the logs in the building recounting a terrible storm but otherwise not indicating what might have happened to the three men, no trace of whom was ever found.

Well, I’ll state it now- ‘Gerard Butler in fine performance in decent movie’, something I was beginning to think I’d never write. Having taken the money and run as he slummed in too many action b-movies, it’s actually something of a surprise to see him demonstrating a low-key, underplayed performance such as this with some genuine warmth and sensitivity. Ably supported by the ever-dependable Peter Mullan and newcomer Connor Swindells, at its best this film is structured like a play, and makes for a fine character piece.Where it falls down is in the depressingly predictable melodrama that ensues as the film offers its own suggestion for what may have happened to the three men- and when I state that there’s a box of gold involved, I guess groans are inevitable. Maybe I would have preferred Aliens or some kind of vaguely supernatural maritime threat. Yeah, maybe the latter. Greed and gold and smugglers/criminals… I don’t know. It somehow failed to live up to the mystery, to me,

Ultimately the film could have been a slow-burn character piece about men slowly disintegrating on a lonely barren island as cut off from humanity as would be an astronaut on the moon decades later. With no boat of their own, they were dependant on a boat from the mainland some six weeks later with its relief crew, and had no working radio to contact anyone. Imagine the loneliness, the desolation of the unforgiving barren landscape cut off from their fellow men. Its a great premise for a psychological thriller, perhaps, and there’s some of that, here, but it’s betrayed by a simplistic plot of lost treasure and antagonists coming to the island looking for it. I don’t think the film is ever entirely predictable, it’s better than that, but some of its ensuing melodrama feels disappointing. Possibly its quite unfair of me to expect something as dark a journey into darkness as Apocalypse Now, but this film could have been that. It could have been darker, denser… maybe a little like Angel Heart or Jacobs Ladder.

Which is, again, me criticising a film for what it isn’t, rather than what it is.

I will just mention the film’s score by Benjamin Wallfisch- well, describing it as a ‘score’ possibly isn’t quite right. Its really an ambient drone of a likely small orchestra augmented by an electronic soundscape, and really just functions to establish mood. As such it serves the film well enough but I doubt it would be a pleasant listening experience in its own right, and so is sadly typical of so many scores today. Wallfisch of course is famous for replacing Johann Johannsson on the scoring duties of Blade Runner 2049, and this connection interested me because a lot of The Vanishing music recalls the wintry electronic soundscapes in some of Johannsson’s albums and soundtracks. Particularly, here, the strange sounds of his Arrival score. I did wonder whether Johansson’s music was used as a temp score for this film, or even if he had been possibly chosen to score this film prior to his untimely passing. That’s all conjecture on my part and possibly ill-founded, but it was remarkable, some of the similarities here.

In Johann’s Endless Pause

endlessIt seems I am endlessly reminded of the loss of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose sudden passing last year still feels like some kind of shock. I suppose it’s because I keep on returning to his music, and the kind of melancholy that infused so much of it. For the past few days I’ve been listening to In the Endless Pause There Came The Sound of Bees, one of his early albums and the soundtrack to a little-known animated short film titled Varmints. Its a short album – the original animation is less than thirty minutes long- but it is full of al kinds of beauty and tenderness, a really deceptively complicated soundscape with fragile melodies and textures. I discovered the album back when I first became besotted with Jóhann’s music through his Fordlandia album and became obsessed with discovering his past albums, scouring the internet for copies where I could. In the Endless Pause is a really fine soundtrack, so much so I would not be at all surprised to find some fans of his music consider it their favourite. It is so subtle and otherworldly, using electronics, organ and choir and solo voice to weave some particular magic that only Jóhann could really manage, somehow- and a sober reminder indeed of what we fans lost. Everytime I listen to some of his music I wonder at his talent at what what may have lay ahead of him, what fine music we will never hear, what films may have benefitted from his touch. I listen to his music now and feel like I and his music are held in some endless pause- as if some divine ‘pause’ button was pressed too soon, and I’m waiting for someone to press the ‘play’ button, so somehow he’ll be back, and there will be more of his beautiful music in the world.

To give readers unfamiliar with either Jóhann or this particular album an idea of what this music is like, here’s a link to the film/album’s End Theme.

Its a fine gem of an album indeed and perhaps surprisingly upbeat. Jóhann’s music has a reputation for being moody and sombre, and much of it is, but I don’t think that necessarily means its dark or depressing- I suppose it’s the Icelandic in his soul. I think ‘fragility’ is a word I’d prefer to use, or ‘intimate’.

The album was rare when I bought it, years ago, but can be found now on a Deutsche Grammophon anthology, Retrospective 1, which contains seven of his early recordings (a second Retrospective collection is due next year, likely collecting his later and more commonly found works). The Varmints film itself came be found on Youtube too and is well worth a watch, and I believe can be purchased on itunes.

Mandy (2018)

mandypicI came here by way of Johann Johannsson’s strange, dark and intense score (the last one that he recorded, I believe, prior to his passing). Otherwise, I would have likely given it a wide berth, if only because of Nic Cage’s involvement. I used to like Cage’s work but his increasingly manic OTT-style wore increasingly thin over the years. I think his Crusader Elvis in Season of the Witch was the final straw.

Anyhow, spoilers ahead- I don’t usually like to raise any with films still fairly ‘new’ but I can’t help it with this one. So anyway, here we are. I suppose an easy shot would be one of style over content, but that’s clearly the intention here- the story is a paper-thin b-movie plot and its the colour-saturated, gaudy 1980s-era VHS sensibility that raises this into something that is either, well, genius or trash. Johannsson always had a gift for knowing what suited the film project he was working on, and he nails it here – so much so that I’ll give the film the benefit of doubt and declare it brilliant. His music score drips grim darkness and dread and colours the film as intensely as the cinematographer and all the work likely done in post to make the image such gorgeous madness.

Madness is the key word here, and I’d suggest that this films director should go and make a Lovecraft film next. Watching Nic Cage’s lumberjack woodsman descend into madness during this film was an experience indeed- more so because Cage somehow stayed fairly restrained throughout. He didn’t play it overboard and slip into farce- instead we can sense the pain torturing him and by the end he’s slipped into some other universe entirely. I almost expected the film to cut to a shot of him dead and his car wrapped around a tree, revealing the true insanity of the final shots as he drives under blood-red skies with his wife alongside him on the seat.

In some ways, particularly in its style over content (or style is content), the film reminded me a great deal of The Neon Demon, but this film is far, far superior. For what it is, its almost perfect.  There. I really enjoyed a new Nic Cage movie. The world really is going to hell in a handbasket.

And we really lost something so special with Johannsson’s passing. This film sounds so remarkable and strange, what bizarre wonders did he have yet ahead of him? Alas, we will never know, and that just adds another level of pain and darkness to this strange insane film.

Mary Magdalene (2018)

mary1In some ways, what got me to watch this film was a throwback to the old days, being drawn to a film through its soundtrack. Back then it would be a new James Horner album, these days its either scores/albums by Bear McCreary maybe or, in this case, Jóhann Jóhannsson. Unfortunately, as is the case with James Horner, being drawn to a film by way of Jóhannsson’s work is soon to be something of the past- this score was his final film project before his passing in February this year. Co-written with the cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, a frequent collaborator over his, this is a delicate and sensitive score. Throughout the film it impressed upon me how much the film world has lost with his passing- the music and its placement is a frequent joy through the film and often I’d just reflect on how good a score it is. I bought the album several months ago and as a listening experience it is fine, but within the film it really does surprise, and delivers on another level entirely. It just makes the film all the more affecting and a sober experience.

The film itself is a fascinating and very finely crafted piece. Beautifully photographed with some stunning locations, it feels quite authentic, reminding somewhat of the similarly excellent Agora, another film revealing a ‘hidden history’ with a feminist angle.

As might be expected by the title, Mary Magdalene is a biblical tale, a sort of re-interpretation, or reboot, if you will, of the story of Mary Magdalene and her place in the story of Jesus Christ. It  shares ideas and themes raised within The Da Vinci Code book/film, that the Catholic Church in the sixth century, in particular Pope Gregory in 591AD, rewrote history and cast Mary as a prostitute in order to encourage a male-centered doctrine and power over the Catholic Church and its teachings that was maintained for centuries.

There’s naturally some tendency to see this film as a part of the ‘me-too’ movement and placement of women in their deserved position of integrity and power, a feeling of a wrong being righted. I suppose with regards faith and religion, everything should be taken with some sensitivity and care- some will see this film, and the Biblical story of Christ retold here, with as much a pinch of salt as The DaVinci Code or as much reverence as befitting the Jedi religion of Star Wars. Others will take it as truth or even heresy. But simply as a story, and a film, this is a dramatic and fascinating piece.

Strangely enough, over and above the interpretations of Rooney Mira’s Mary Magdaline or Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus, is how the film portrays Judas Iscariot (Tahar Rahim) and reinterprets his motivations with some sympathy,  rather than simply depicting him a villain. Here he is utterly confident that the subject of his devotion will usurp and overthrow the Roman tyranny and free his people, and in particular, reunite Judas with his fallen wife and child. Judas’ treachery here isn’t for silver coins but rather to force the Messiah’s hand and bring about everyone’s salvation. Judas is convinced that when trapped by the Romans, his lord will be saved by God and the evil Empire torn down.  His horror at how events actually unfold is palpable and his own end inevitable.

In some ways, this film is not a religious one- it depicts some of the miracles of Christ and events from the bible with some detachment- which may be the films failure, as it fails to really emotionally engage- its more an intellectual exercise. Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus, while not wholly successful, is suitably enigmatic and detached from everyone around him, and his friendship with Magdalene, while warm and convincing, curiously seems to infer that only she perhaps really understands him and his word.  There is a sense of humanity corrupting or misunderstanding Christs teachings. After the crucifixion the Apostles already begin to fragment and argue over the teachings of their master, while Mary and her truth walks away into oblivion.

Mandy OST by Johann Johannsson

mandyostListening to Johann Johannsson’s final score, a twisted and disturbing work drenched in sadness, misery and darkness, is certainly a sobering prospect. It is hard to seperate it from the perspective of the composer’s sudden passing earlier this year. As an unintended footnote of the man’s career it is stark and unforgiving. In some ways it is quite unlike his other work (although hints of it’s darkness are strewn across many of his works) but the almost unbearable melancholy of the love theme -one of the saddest love themes to grace a movie- betrays the score as being that of Johannsson, while the ’80s electronic soundscape of the final track ‘Children of the New Dawn’, presumably the end title (I haven’t seen the film yet), evokes the John Carpenter scores of that era so authentically its hard not to do a double-take at the credits.

It hints that perhaps new directions for the composer lay ahead of him- perhaps a reaction to his rejected BR2049 score? Then again, and its a grim game to play, but listening to some of the moodier, menacing and almost experimental tracks I have to wonder if there’s actually indication here of what some of BR2049‘s score may have sounded like, some of its atonal horror harking back to some of the original Vangelis score’s underscore. Which seems at odds to reports of Villeneuve thinking that Johannsson’s score was too much a deviation from the Vangelis original, so likely I’m wrong here (and unless the rejected score gets released someday we’ll never really know).

In any case, while its hardly easy listening there is something rather hypnotic about the terrible darkness of this music, especially in relation to it being the composers final work we are likely to hear. The sadness wallows within and about the music, dreadfully.

A further note regards Johann Johannsson

The passing of the Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson was a profound shock back in February and one I have found as hard to get over as the accidental death of James Horner back in 2015. From a purely selfish perspective, the sudden loss of these two composers has meant that a wealth of future music I would have enjoyed will no longer happen- while that’s a petty thing to come out and say, its true, in just the same way as losing Prince or Chris Whitley or Jerry Goldsmith. And while I have continued to  listen to Johannsson’s and Horner’s music that had become such a soundtrack to my daily life over the years,  it is always now tinged with a sense of regret and loss.

While Horner’s passing was tragic it was at least in the service of a hobby and pastime that he dearly loved, so there has always been a little comfort/understanding from that. But the cause of Johannsson’s death was something of a mystery, and although recently revealed results from a toxicological report have cleared things up, it nonetheless has actually made it even more difficult to reconcile.

The report confirms that the Icelandic composer died of an overdose caused by his use of cocaine. Johannsson was taking prescribed medication for an illness- the cocaine combined with that medication caused him to die of the accidental overdose.

So on the one hand, its reassuring that he wasn’t so troubled somehow (success etc doesn’t make anyone impervious to feelings of depression or anxiety) that he had felt compelled to take his own life, but on the other, its just tragic that his passing was accidental and that his life was so cruelly taken from him. Natural causes such as heart attack, though, would be bad enough, but the fact that it was drug related, well, it seems to happen so often these days, doesn’t it?

Heath Ledger, Prince, Tom Petty, to name just three who passed recently from drug-related complications, and now the unlikely addition of Johann Johannsson to the list. Well, I don’t feel at all qualified to comment as I’ve never even smoked let alone took drugs (and I don’t drink much either), and I haven’t lived in the limelight with all the pressures that might put on actors or musicians but all the same, everyone seems to know these days that there’s nothing glamorous about drug use.

So while I continue to feel so sad about Johannsson’s passing, maybe I feel a little angry and uncomprehending about it too. Its an anger that we are living in this world where a soul as gifted and sensitive as Johannsson, who could write such dark and fragile music, could perish in such an accidental way, or self-inflicted way through weakness or mistake or addiction. How are such things possible in this world and how do such tragic losses of such gifted people occur? Why was Johannsson taking cocaine, was it something he had done for years, was it an addiction getting out of hand, was he driven to it or was it something he was trying new? Were his freinds and colleagues aware? Of course we will likely never know, Johannsson’s family deserve privacy and no disparaging comments on my part. In any case I am not qualified to be judgmental about it- but the tragedy of it remains and oddly its now perhaps intensified somehow. Its a terrible and sad world sometimes and I’m certain we’re never going to make any sense of it in events such as this.

Listening to- Englabörn & Variations by Johann Johannsson

englab.Listening to this is just, frankly,  unbearably sad. Its the first album by the late Johann Johannsson, and now also the last, as it has just been remastered and released by German label Deutsche Grammophon, to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the albums original release, accompanied by a second disc of variations, curated by the composer himself shortly before his death. The music was always melancholy and fragile, as most of Johann’s work was, but listening to it now the album seems to carry a whole new poignancy and depth. It feels like it has become his own requiem, and the second disc just seems to intensify this feeling.

So we seem to have the beginning and end, here, of a tragically short-lived career. It should, of course, be a celebration of his genius and perhaps one day it will be, but at the moment it feels too close to his death for that to be so. The final track of the second disc, a reworking of Odi Et Amo, arranged by Johann for voice (performed by Theatre Of Voices) is just a little too heartbreaking for comfort. It feels as raw as funeral music. What a terrible loss to us his passing is, and how strange to think that his music has now a life all its own, to be listened to for years beyond his death. As a whole this two-disc package is a remarkable piece of work (the first disc really benefits from a thoughtful remastering)-  Englabörn & Variations is genuinely worth anyone checking out to discover what was so special in his music.

I wonder if we will ever hear his abandoned score for Blade Runner 2049? I have no idea how far it had progressed, but as it was replaced fairly late in the post-production of the film I have to think it was almost complete. Perhaps, as director Denis Villeneuve contended, it didn’t really suit the film as it came together (and Johann, to his credit, didn’t seem to make anything like a public contention), but I will always be so very curious to perhaps one day hear it.

Maybe Villeneuve or the films producers will be able to one day set in motion circumstances to release the score once some distance has been gained from the films release date. I cannot imagine, after enough time has passed, that such a release could possibly harm the film or the score it eventually was given by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.

Surely it would be such a shame, if it exists in some near-finished state, to languish in a vault somewhere. If nothing else, it would be fascinating to hear how Johann ‘saw ‘the film in his own eyes compared to what we have become so familiar with. Listening to Englabörn & Variations I am filled with such fantasies of what Johann would have created to be the films soundscape and beating heart.

Listening to: Ben Lukas Boysen

SpellsA few words about a recent discovery of mine- German composer and sound designer Ben Lukas Boysen, whose two albums Gravity and Spells have been on repeat play over the last few weeks, a somewhat fragile and moody soundtrack to my lengthier-than-usual commutes to and from work. I’m not sure exactly what I’d call it- classical ambient, maybe? Its hard to define. Basically he merges programmed piano pieces with delicately-structured soundscapes of real musical instruments and textures of electronic sound to create wonderfully evocative, rather dark and sombre pieces.  Full of echoes, delays and other manipulations of the music/sounds, yes, it is ambient but it also feels rather more than that. What I’m getting at is, if it is indeed ambient, then it is superior ambient (‘ambient’ is a musical genre that gets somewhat abused these days post-chillout etc and its easy to become tired of it and feel its all getting rather redundant, actually good ambient being quite a rarity).

The funny thing is, I couldn’t possibly tell you where I spotted this music or how Boysen came to my attention, it just seemed to fall into my lap whilst surfing the ‘net. Likely its from a recommendation on Amazon, having purchased Johann Johannsson music in the past, as in tone and mood it certainly has some kind of kinship. Maybe it’s just the magic of the internet- I’m always finding stuff like this by accident, lovely discoveries that might otherwise pass me by. In a way, they already have- Spells dates from 2016 and Gravity originally from 2013. Boysen has plenty of other works available, soundtracks etc, that he has created over the past several years, and I expect it will be interesting exploring much of it over the next few months. I love these musical journeys into something new.

gravityOne thing I will just add; the best place to order these two albums from (either on download or the old-fashioned physical cd that I prefer) is from the website of his label, erased tapes. where you’ll get some additional bonus tracks as well as downloads in FLAC etc as opposed to vanilla mp3. Its also a nice place to listen to samples etc. if you’re just curious. I’m certain that anyone who loves the music of Johann Johannsson (still can’t believe he’s gone) or ambient in general will find much to enjoy in Boysen’s music, particularly in these two albums.

Jóhann Jóhannsson has died

It is with profound shock and sadness that I have read the news that Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was found dead yesterday at his home in Berlin. Over the last several years I have enjoyed his music, particularly the albums ‘IBM 1401, A User’s Manual and Fordlandia, which are particularly moving and thoughtful pieces, and witnessed his rise as a film composer with such scores as Sicario, Arrival and The Theory of Everything. Last year  Blade Runner 2049 should have had a score by him. In fact, that score was likely the one thing I was most relaxed/looking forward to about that whole project. He seemed a safe pair of hands who might offer the film its own ‘voice’, especially following his score for Arrival, where the music was such a major part of the film. The subsequent news that he had been dropped from the BR2049,  announced late in the film’s post production, was the first real note of alarm regards the project. While so much else seemed great regards cast and crew, Jóhannsson being fired was my first real “oh, hang on, wait a  minute,’ moment when doubts began to leak in, and while the film finally turned out to be great, his absence seemed strange and I always wondered at what his score would have been like. I thought that maybe we would find out what happened and what his music was like, maybe even hear some of it someday.  But maybe now we never will.  

Berlin authorities are investigating the death and an autopsy will follow, so cause of death is obviously unknown. I am genuinely shocked and bewildered and so very saddened. Awful news. Maybe some sense will arise when we learn the facts behind his passing, but at the moment its hard to process it. I did not know the man but I did love so much of his music, and from a purely selfish perspective I am sad that I will not get to hear any further new albums/film scores from him. It feels like how I did when I learned that Prince had died. You think these guys will be around forever, and rather take the gift of their music for granted. We really shouldn’t.