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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Leftovers: September 2012

Leftover Movies:
Celeste and Jesse Forever:
        Has it been a bit too long since a piece of art forced you to relive some less savory moments of your romantic past? Well, have I got the movie for you! With a cast exclusively populated by thespians known for comedy, Celeste and Jesse Forever doesn't immediately seem like the kind of movie that requires tissues, which is why I'm giving you fair warning. Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg star as the titular duo, whose official courtship ends with the snazzy opening credits. Longtime sweethearts going through a divorce, Celeste and Jesse are besties to the degree that no legal documents could keep them from spending their free time with one another. What could, however, is the rampant romantic and social confusion that descends upon them as they attempt to keep their friendship intact. Both Jones and Samberg are terrific in the film, employing their low-key screen presences to perfect effect, their bubbly, warm chemistry keeping the downer afloat. Director Lee Toland Krieger ensures that things move at a zippy clip, highlighting emotional turning points and subtle revelations with equal aplomb. If you're looking for an admirably crafted, honest break-up movie that doesn't go for the jugular (I'm looking at you, Blue Valentine), you'd be wise to check this one out.

Safety Not Guaranteed:
        Oh, wait, you didn't want something so sad, and would rather your romances be light-hearted, endearing, and winning? I've got something for you, too! SNG stars Aubrey Plaza as largely the same jaded-as-hell girl that we've all come to know and love, but in much different circumstances. Serving as an intern at an independent Seattle newspaper, Darius (Plaza) volunteers to help on an article that puts her face-to-face with Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a man who posted a personal ad looking for a partner to... wait for it... travel back in time with him. What sounds like a kooky premise on paper is, well, a kooky premise on the big screen, but that's a lot of SNG's charm. Outside of its wonderful cast, the film is a marvelous entertainment, moving from one charming, breezy, funny sequence to the next with no discernible effort, and a touch of style to boot. Helmer Colin Trevorrow has cooked up something absolutely delicious and delightful, a modest effort with a firm grasp on what movie magic is made of.

Leftover Music:
Menomena: Moms
         This recommendation comes with a qualification. The lyrical content on Moms, quite frankly, a bit much for this writer (one song opens, "Heavy are the branches, hanging from my f***ed up family tree," which is only the tip of the iceberg). That's not to say that co-frontmen Justin Harris and Danny Seim haven't endured troubles enough to write an album this wrought with hurt, but their phraseology can be a touch blunt. What I have no qualms with, on the other hand, is the band's instrumentation, always varied, swirling, lovely, and unpredictable, as much so here as ever. Listen as seemingly subtle opener Plumage adds layer after layer, or how Pique manages to stack one sound on top of another with meticulous care. Just about every tune here is a dense accumulation of sounds, each building from one minute to the next, sonically robust as all get-out by the time the track ends. A lyric-less Moms would be near album-of-the-year status for me, but the actual release at hand is still something to celebrate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Master (Limited Release Date: 9-14-2012)

        The Master is by no means my least favorite movie of the year, but it will almost doubtlessly prove my least favorite to review to write. The film comes with all sorts of baggage, be they related to the flick's loose interpretation of Scientology, its mercilessly knotty subtext, or (most importantly) the legacy of the man behind the camera. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of America's most celebrated film-makers, his enormous narrative scope, and raging sense of eccentricity greatly endearing him to many a movie buff, this writer included. And while the guy has tackled some thorny, esoteric thoughts and themes in the past, there is truly nothing in his catalogue thus far that could have foretold The Master. Simply put, it is one of the strangest, most polarizing statements to cross American silver screens in the last several years, and many a head will be hurting upon the rolling of the final credits. If you want to see what PTA has been up to since his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood, you'd better put your thinking cap on, and be ready to feel exhausted afterwards.

        In his first feature since one of the most bizarre public meltdowns/method acting projects in recent memory, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a naval veteran returning home from WWII with only shreds of traditional humanity still intact. Quell's body is twisted and gnarled into unpleasant shapes, his voice often indecipherable as he loses his own train of thought. He specializes in creating cocktails out of some truly disgusting household items, his animalistic sexual desires seem to dominate his every thought, and the threat of violence appears to be constantly simmering just below the surface. Freddie is a mess, one of the most deranged and sickening messes you'll ever see committed to the big screen, which is exactly why Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is so drawn to him. 

        The leader of an ever-growing community who calls themselves The Cause, and refers to Lancaster almost exclusively as Master, Dodd is a smooth-talking intellectual with some enough new-age ideas about birth, death, time, and the universe to fill a few books. Germane to these beliefs is the notion that humans are not animals, and that we all ought to, "return to our inherent state of perfect." So Quell needs guidance, and Dodd needs a project, but what on paper sounds like a match made in heaven turns out to be a far more unruly beast.

        If that summary sounds a bit convoluted/strange/abstract for your liking, then I'd avoid driving within 15 miles of any theater showing The Master. The film is endlessly unpredictable, heading full-throttle in directions both deplorable and unforeseeable, all while reveling in its own vagueness, and deriving obvious pleasure from its ability to turn stomachs. Its mysteries have been rattling around ceaselessly in my head ever since I saw it, but unlike previous Anderson think-pieces, I don't necessarily feel like I'm getting any closer to the answers. 

        Perhaps that's the point, but this is an awfully draining movie experience to end with a big fat question mark, which is undoubtably where the Magnolia director drops us off. The Auteur's films have almost always ended with momentous, concrete occurrences (lengthy prosthetics, jaw-dropping meteorology, "I'm finished!"). The Master, by contrast, seems to float away like mist, daring audiences to find a meaning all their own.  Much like Dodd's preachings themselves, the flick feels either deep, intertwined, and complex enough to support multiple features, or too devoid of actual meaning to even be worthy of one. I have yet to make up my mind on the matter, and will likely need a second (and possibly third) go-around, but no middle ground on the matter really feels possible.

        What will not require multiple viewings, on the other hand, is admiring the craft on display here. Working for the first time without trusty cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson turns to Mihai Malaimare Jr., who captures to the whole thing with the hypnotic beauty of a fever dream. Blood maestro Johnny Greenwood is back to turn the screws with reckless abandon, applying pitiless levels of foreboding and dread through-out, especially in the marvelously composed opening moments, among the film's best.
        But all the talk is about Phoenix and Hoffman, and why not? Hoffman wears snakeskin like he owns it, calculating his words and thoughts down to the most minute of details, all the better to maintain power over his followers. Besides the obvious L. Ron Hubbard citation on display here, Hoffman also seems to be sneaking pages out of the Orson Wells/Lawrence Olivier school of glorious over-acting, which makes him a perfect foil for Phoenix's feral channeling of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. These are big names to throw at any recently-delivered performance, but lovers of film history will find them largely unavoidable, especially in the case of Phoenix. His work here is so enormous, so volcanic, that it just about takes over the movie, and could easily be called hammy if it weren't so searing, so impossible to look away from. 

        And I guess that's where I'll stop my review, dropping you off in the middle of a thought as if a complete sentence would suffice, much like the movie itself. I know what I love about The Master, but I'm still working through its distanced, tangled whole. I'll let you know when I figure it out, but those who call themselves fans of well-crafted, important film-making ought to see it for themselves in the meantime. The Master isn't about to tell you what to believe, so why should I?

Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

G.O.O.D. Music: Cruel Summer (Release Date: 9-18-2012)

        As contradictory as it might seem in light of Kanye West's professed, 'me first, everyone else last,' world view, his music has always been about sharing the wealth. His debut album, The College Dropout, featured no fewer than 12 guest artists, and the dude's only gotten more into delegation since. Consider his last three releases: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy seemed to invite anyone within shouting distance of the music industry, and was followed by his joint effort with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne. And now here arrives Cruel Summer, the debut release from the collective of artists West has gathered under the umbrella of his G.O.O.D. Music imprint. Plenty of hip hop artists love to party, but no one enjoys hosting quite as much as Yeezy.

        The album's title comes to both define and contradict the disc's content. About half of the tracks here sound cold and dirty, far grungier than West's earlier albums would have ever permitted (hence the Cruel). He's obviously trying to play to the strengths of his expansive list of cohorts, and it's pretty impressive just how often he does well by them. These songs play out like a mini-album's worth of So Appalled descendants, MC's playing hot-potato with the mic over beats just as foreboding as the are badass. Clique stands as one of the most addictive hip-hop songs of 2012, rolling off pro verses from Big Sean and Jay-Z into Kanye's ridiculous stream of conscious outro, wherein sex tapes, Tom Cruise, the benefits of melanin, and thoughts of suicide stand next to each other, holding hands. Other tracks of this ilk, like Mercy and The Morning, are constructed of similar parts, but suffer for their inclusion of lower-class contributions by the likes of 2 Chains and Chyi the Prynce. Those with shorter lists of contributors (New God Flow, Cold) tend to fair better than their more inclusive neighbors.

        Then there's that Summer half of the title. When G.O.O.D. Music isn't going out of their way to show just how hard they are, the record sees them doing the exact opposite, heading for brighter, friendlier, bubblier pastures. Only problem is, the disc's best MC tends to sit these ones out, subbing in artists ranging from inspired to head-scratching (West is on the bench for 5 of CS's 12 tracks). It's pretty hard to go wrong with the silky croon that is John Legend, but what excuses are there for Malik Yusef's head-spinningly lame poetry reading at the end of Sin City, or the entirety of slop-pop mess Bliss (is that a screaming eagle sample on repeat?). If only Mr. West would have been a tad more selfish, Cruel Summer wouldn't have ended up feeling like such a mixed bag. Had he kept Creepers to himself, we might have had something interesting on hand. As is, KiD CuDi burp-raps over the inspired beat, his lyrical highlight reading, "If I had one wish, it'd be to have more wishes/ Duh... F*** trying to make it rhyme." I repeat; that's his best line.

        If CS was released under the title Kanye West, this would be a lot less forgivable. With five solo albums under his belt, the producer-turned-rapper-turned-narcissist has a name that's come to connote a specific level of quality (see: high), but this feels more like a mix-tape than anything. I understand the guy's kind of crazy, but do you really think the line, "R. Kelly and the god of rap/S***ing on you, holy crap," would exist on an album that Yeezy was making to promote himself? This is a powerful individual trying to open doors for a few folks whom he finds deserving, and while it's a touch disheartening to hear just how wrong his talent evaluation often is, that doesn't stop Clique, New God Flow, and Cold from being anything less than awesome. As a collective unit, Cruel Summer leaves much to be desired, but its high points are pure radio rap bliss.

Grade: B-

Friday, September 14, 2012

Grizzly Bear: Shields (Release Date: 9-18-2012)

        For some people, standard indie rock lacks a little bit of pick-me-up. Wether it be Fleet Foxes' ever-soothing harmonies, or Spoon's unadorned pop directness, it's a genre who's detractors believe could use a touch of piss and vinegar. Anyone who follows this site with any form of regularity is aware that I don't exactly agree, but I certainly understand what they're talking about. Of the plethora of buzz-bands that release, 'highly anticipated,' discs each and every year, only a certain number manage to really stand out, the rest wading out into an ocean of anonymous sameness. It takes a little something special to stick out from the pack, which is exactly why the new LP from Grizzly Bear, one of indie-doms most readily identifiable acts, is one of the more disheartening discs of 2012.

        The issue with Shields is a remarkably distinct, uncomplicated one: it lacks fire. Embodying just about every problem on display here, the unfortunately aptly titled What's Wrong arrives a bit past the album's mid-point, elating and frustrating in the very same manner as the rest of the track list. It opens with a jaunty rumble, deep drum patterns adorned with Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste's hushed croons, and a slew of varied instrumentation. These are the trappings of yet another Grizzly Bear home run, all in the vein of the haunted house wonder-work that is Yellow House, but just as we build to climax, the quartet pulls their punches to an almost painful degree. The tune slips away, drifting off into a misty, unformed outro that seems to disregard the building tension of the track's first-half wholesale.

         This happens again... and again, and again. Yet Again, Half Gate, and Sun in Your Eyes all follow suit, alluding to something enormous and cathartic before turning into vapor in the face of delivering such a blow. Speak in Rounds looks a tiny bit further into its aggressive potentials, but it's hardly the stuff that head-banging is made of (and besides, it sounds waaay too similar to Veckatimest's superior Southern Point to really impress). Forgive my vulgarity, but the best description that I can conjure is musical blue-balls, where the excitement of many tracks' opening halves causes an almost physical discomfort when the band repeatedly refuses to make good on their promises. This all goes without mentioning the rag list of numbers that almost neglect to stimulate at all, The Hunt, A Simple Answer, and Gun-Shy all noodling along in pleasant, forgettable fashion.

        By no means is Shields a bad album, but it's a disappointing one by nearly every measure. Had another band released it, one who hadn't reached such heights of musical wonder over the last several years, I might be more inclined to laud its sharp production, and its smattering of lovely tunefulness. But we've already heard these guys drop the bomb on Colorado, seen them ascend to pop heaven on Two Weeks. There's only one track here that threatens to do such damage (Sleeping Ute), but just when you feel like the album opener is ready to make the walls around it shake and crumble, it pulls back, and waves a white flag. Grizzly Bear is way too smart to have done all of this bait-and-switch stuff on accident, and this reluctance to explode does cast Shields in a unique light from its two adored predecessors, but at what cost? The disc often feels counter-intuitive for no real reason, more determined to confound expectations than the delight or impress. It's trail-blazing by means of neglecting to trail-blaze, and if that logic makes as little sense to you as it does to me, you're probably in for a let-down.

Grade: B-

Monday, September 10, 2012

The XX: Coexist (Release Date: 9-11-2012)

        It's always risky to declare something a classic before it's even five years old, but damn if The XX's 2009 debut doesn't feel like one already. Entering a musical climate that, on levels both mainstream and independent, largely favored excess and bombast, XX's militant minimalism sounded ironically enormous. Co-vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim whispered lyrics as though sharing the sexiest of secrets, hip-hop style beats arising out of nowhere only to be swept away by twinkling guitar lines, and all with that irrefutable air of nighttime. It was simple vibe, one stripped of all additives and distractions, direct and precise to the point of revelation. Even the disc's detractors would be foolish to deny just how distinct the band's sound was upon impact, or how much it has effected certain spheres of the music world ever since. Lauded upon introduction and worshipped in hindsight, XX placed its parent band in a precarious position, one atop a Jenga tower that would need only a so-so sophomore effort to come crashing down.

        The XX knows this all too well. This feeling of nervousness, of reluctance to make even one false step, permeates everything that occurs on Coexist. While playing it safe and treading lightly has always been this band's preferred mode of operation, their latest record takes this thesis to even further extremes, canyons of quiet, empty space littered across almost every track. Opener Angels gets things going in an appropriately cavernous manner, strung together on Madley Croft's smokey declarations and sliding guitar, employing drum machine in the least intrusive way imaginable. As with just about every song on their rookie campaign, Angles seems to end before it's even developed, only revealing its perfected, 'less is more,' zen when you discover the track rattling around in your brain hours later.

        While Coexist is probably at its most stripped-down right out of the gate, it's not exactly like things get complicated thereafter. Try lofts around on little more than a siren-like guitar line and a softly reverberating beat, while Missing unearths a way to make Madley Croft's voice even more enshrouded in fog, which previously seemed impossible. Only Reunion, with its skittering steal drums and mid-song change-up, really dares to raise its voice above the hush, but even then, they're only using inside voices. It's enough to make Crystalised sound like it might blow out your speakers by comparison.

         In other words, those who struggled with XX's lack of sonic density will find even less to enjoy here, but those who fell in love with their first disc might have a brand new affair on their hands. This batch of songs clings to the subconscious even more immediately than did its predecessor, highlights like Chained, Sunset, and Tides emblazoned into your psyche upon first listen. This emphasis on anti-adornment deprives Coexist of that sense of continued discovery that embodies many of the best albums, but my god, if it isn't addictive when you first get your paws on it. Devotees of 2009's landmark might not believe that The XX circa 2012 can quite stand toe-to-toe, but any further complaints are largely erroneous. This is the exact same band, placing producer Jamie XX's stilted hip-hop beats a tad higher in the mix, turning the volume down from 4 to 2, and neglecting to further tamper with the formula. That might feel a bit conservative from a band we're used to thinking of as pioneers, but that doesn't exactly change how it sounds in your ears, now does it? If you dig The XX, it's a must-have.

Grade: B+


Friday, September 7, 2012

Netflix Instant Watch Picks for September 2012

Righteous Indignation Edition
Amores Perros
        Alejandro González Iñárritu is one of the most mind-numbingly talented directors working in film today, which makes his so-so batting average pretty disheartening. 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful all have their sterling moments, but none prove fully operational from start to finish, made lopsided by the wonderment of some sections, and the head-scratching of others. But fret not: All those who want to see the man actually nail his target need look no further than his 2000 debut, Amores Perros. One of the most passionate, fiery works I've ever seen put to film, AP segments its story into three distinct sections, following a young man trying to make it as a dog fighter (Gael García Bernal), an injured model forced into seclusion (Goya Toledo), and a drifter with far more on his mind than his words alone illuminate (Emilio Echevarría). Like the rest of Iñárritu's work to date, Perros is epic, expansive, pulse-pounding, and comes to involve a myriad of characters who connect each of the disparate plot-lines. But the flick stands-out from the rest of the Mexican auteur's catalogue by virtue of the sheer sincerity and ringing, poignant clarity with which he brings the tale to the screen. Gorgeously shot, marvelously acted, and brilliantly plotted, Amores Perros is one of the most criminally under-rated movies of the 2000's, and deserves to be seen by any and every measure.

        Young love is known to take its twists and turns, but something tells me your last torrid romance pales in comparison to what goes down in Evan Glodell's directorial debut. Bellflower positively exploded onto screens last summer, gaining staunch advocates and determined detractors with its array of bold, often unsettling choices. Besides helming the film, Glodell also produces, writes, edits, and stars as Woodrow, an unassuming twenty-something who spends his free time building flame-throwers with his best buddy, Aiden (Tyler Dawson). Their harmonious lives receive a jolt in the form of Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a free-spirit who invigorates Woodrow with her devil-may-care attitude, but when things go awry, trust, faith, and sanity are put to the test. Bellflower follows up its summer-love postcard of a first act with a feverish nightmare of anger, violence, and searing self-relaization. Glodell created the movie to help him get over a bad break-up, which should give any and all future women in his life tremendous pause, though the same cannot be said for the Hollywood higher-ups who've likely been blowing up his phone for the last year-plus. Besides possessing crystal-clear, unwavering conviction, Bellflower is also a feast for the eyes, Glodell having literally invented the camera with which it was shot, turning strolls down suburban sidewalks into blurry, surreal, technicolored events. Shocking and extreme, Bellflower is an intense, sweaty-palms movie experience that announces Glodell as one of America's most exciting young film-makers.

         Much like Amores Perros, Traffic is a 2000 release with an enormous cast, and globe-trotting ambition. That's about where the similarities end. Where the foreign wonder strings its players together using both dogs and a single life-altering event, Traffic is an enormous, multi-faceted look at the world of drugs. Benicio Del Toro won Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Javier Rodriguez, a jaded Mexico City police officer who is shaken into action. Across the border, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) toils away as a conservative judge appointed the US drug czar just as he learns of his daughter's ever-growing heroin addiction. There are many other players, including chip-on-shoulder FBI agents (Don Cheadle), oblivious housewives (Catherine Zeta-Jones), smarmy lawyers (Dennis Quaid), mysterious hitmen (Clifton Collins Jr.), and fast-talking grad students (Topher Grace), but delving too far into their functions would strip the movie of its surprise. Traffic is a dense, novelistic movie, asking difficult questions, and avoiding easy answers. It's a robust and unfettered look at one of the most complicated problems facing our world today.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Animal Collective: Centipede Hz (Release Date: 9-4-2012)

        Early in 2009, the previously unthinkable happened: Animal Collective released an album that was, in just about every sense of the word, accessible. Merriweather Post Pavilion, going against the grain of everything the band had previously ever done, was both inviting and immediate, requiring exactly one listen to be readily recognized as an unmitigated triumph. One would be foolish to believe the band regrets releasing such a smash-hit of an album, undoubtably one of the most widely-lauded efforts of that year, but it must be a bummer to be saddled with expectations for a similarly user-friendly follow-up. But something tells me the thoughts of the masses have little to do with this band's final product, as Centipede Hz stands as their most peculiar release in nearly a decade (the incomparable ODDSAC withstanding).

        Where MPP was all about discovering a readily-dicernable hook, and riding it off to heaven, Hz is more comfortable layering one odd-ball sound on top of another. The transition can be a bit jarring, especially on opener Moonjock, which pounds, stops, starts, and squeals in unpredictable, counter-intuitive fashion. First single Today's Supernatural feels cut from the same eccentric, excessive cloth, changing speeds at the drop of a hat, avoiding pop's relatable structures like the black plague. The opening stanza proves to be a mission statement of sorts; this disc is all about momentum, oddity, and mad-cap multi-tracking. Those unwilling to give an album multiple listens before passing judgement would be advised to stay home. Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Avey Tare (Dave Portner), and the boys never wanted you, anyways.

        To be sure, the level of sonic bombast on display here can become a bit exhausting, but there's no denying the album's overall sense of cohesiveness. Centipede is a much faster effort than its predecessor, speeding through dense space on wings made of deranged drum machines. As a result, the disc's sound world becomes more intuitive as the playlist progresses, and is able to really sink under your skin if given the requisite patience and attention. By the time Tare's highlight track, Monkey Riches, reaches its zenith near the five-minute mark, you're ready to follow that wacko right down the rabbit hole.

        Hz is largely Portner's brainchild, which is undoubtably the primary culprit behind its esoteric nature. Where Pavilion split time between AC's two frontmen almost right down the middle (six songs for Tare, five for Panda Bear), Centipede boasts eight tracks credited to Portner, the lesser pop-craftsman of the two, and only a pair by Lennox (Rosie Oh and New Town Burnout). It should come as little surprise that those aforementioned tracks prove by far the most hummable and easiest to sort through (not to mention being among the best, Burnout especially). Even Josh Dibb, absent for the band's previous home-run, gets in on the songwriting fun, contributing vocals for the first time on the trippy, over-powering Wide Eyed. But the tone, texture, and thematics here are all clearly governed by Portner, which, if you like your Animal Collective as sugary-sweet as possibly, is not such a good thing. Those more open to their adventurous spirit will have to decide for themselves.

        Animal Collective's 2012 offering will almost undoubtedly be remembered as something of a let-down, which is both a shame, and a simple product of the band's creative process. Merriweather was, in truth, a one-off by a band who'd rather blaze their trails across the moon's surface than through earthy pastures, and as such, Centipede Hz has a 0% chance of winning over all the folks who, 'finally got,' the band for the first time three years ago. Truth be told, even those unopposed to the group's occasional star-gazing will be hard-pressed to find a measure by which Centipede out-ranks its forbearer.

        But did you really expect/want a sequel? Animal Collective has always been about wild ambitions and thorny aesthetics, so it stands to reason that their rampant experimentation would yield an inconsistent product. And that's assuming that my present position (on the friendlier side of luke-warm) will be my final one, which is never a safe bet when handling an AC record within mere weeks of initial introduction. Their tunes often take time, and while I'm not here to tell you that Hz is some kind of classic, it surely doesn't deserve the, 'miss-fire,' label that I anticipate wearing in the near future. The tides have turned since 2012, and they will undoubtably turn again. This is Animal Collective: expect the unexpected.

Grade: B