Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: Radiohead - The King Of Limbs

Radiohead takes great pleasure in defying expectations. Four years removed from their acclaimed In Rainbows, a self-released album that skewered the floundering record industry by inviting fans to "pay what you like", they released their 8th album The King of Limbs with a similar flourish. Dropping vague hints and images to whip fans into a frenzy, by the time the album was released a mere 6 days after its announcement, expectations were unsurprisingly redonkulus. If their ambiguity and reclusivenss is a way of tampering expectations, they may want to consider a new business model. With that being said, there's not much Radiohead could do at this point to quell the madness that accompanies their albums.

As a collective of songs, the 37-minute King of Limbs proves to be a tough nut to crack. Opening with some of the most discordant sounds this side of Autechre, "Bloom" seems to pick up where In Rainbows' "Videotape" left off, inside of a heaving, churning machine. Like the drone of an industrious package of bolts and rubber, the pieces here are eerily synchronized, but never enough to feel comfortable or human. Even Thom Yorke's voice, the one constant through years of experimentation and innovation, is off-balance and uneasy, resigned to the sidelines and never allowed to stretch out. It goes without saying, but a chorus or anything resembling a "hook" is nowhere to be found in this opening song. Yet despite this glaring omission, the sheer volume of ideas and sounds keep you revisiting it again and again, if only to try and find something to hum along to.

The rest of the album progressively sheds the thorny exterior of the opening song, slowly bending the energetic percussion and electronic blips into traditional song structures. By the second half of the album, the songs have found their groove (or maybe we have), and the ride is decidedly smoother. The sparse gunfire drums of "Lotus Flower" give Thom's voice and feet space to dance (see below), and the gorgeous "Codex" stands up favorably to any song in their catalog.

Many have speculated that eight songs released Friday are only a part of a larger King of Limbs experience that will reveal itself at a later date, going so far as to dig up clues in old interviews or even taking Thom's final words on "Separator", "If you think this is over, then you're wrong" literally (not exactly their style). I don't know if there is any truth to the rumors, but I do know that it's nice to be captivated by music, even if it's only for 37 minutes every four years.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On repeat: Jessica Lea Mayfield - Blue Skies Again

If there is one consistent punching-bag on this blog, it is country music. Which is a tad ironic, considering some of my favorite albums fall under the "alt-country" umbrella. Ryan Adams' "Heartbreaker", is one of the handful of albums I consider "perfect", and a little band named Wilco hasn't done so bad for themselves either. So when I dismiss most country music offhand, know that it's not that because hate the genre, it's because they have such lofty contemporaries to measure up to.

One such artist who compares favorably to the Wilco's and the Ryan Adams' is Ms. Jessica Lea Mayfield. At just 18, she released With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, which earned substantial buzz and critical acclaim. Her music oozed atmosphere associated with back porches and dusty saloons, but it was her smoky voice and ear for melody that caught many an ear. On 2011's Tell Me, she expands her palate beyond country accoutrement, buffering her voice with whirling electric guitars and effects, that recall more Ennio Morricone than Woody Guthrie. No less country, but with sharper teeth.

Despite the squealing guitar solos and vocal effects, each song has a tender melody at its core that stands admirably in the face of all these elements. The best balance of this, comes on a song like "Blue Skies Again", that gives her a burbling bassline to sing on, before the tornado of guitars and background singers sweep into the chorus. On her last album, it would be drained of its energy and exuberance, becoming a tear-stained piano ballad in the process. Perhaps being able to drink in the bars her music lives in has given her a new perspective on her sound, or maybe her earlier work was just draped in teenage ennui that she is still shaking off. Whatever the case may be, she has a rawness and presence that is remarkable at any age.

"Blue Skies Again"

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Films of 2010 (5-1)

The Grammys are tonight. Lady Gaga just arrived in an egg. I will not be watching, though I hope the Black Keys or Arcade Fire get the "best alternative album", whatever the hell that is. I think in the 60's the Grammys and the Oscars were both revered awards, but sometime during the disco era, they headed down different paths. The Oscars remained high-brow, awarding the best films and actors, regardless of their box-office returns or critical acclaim, while the Grammys were little more than a rehashing of the Billboard Top 40. You sold a million albums? Pick up your Grammy at table 2. If the Oscars worked this way, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston would sweep every year. Thank god the Academy still realizes that the general public are morons. I can't think of a better day to honor the year in film than the day the Black Eye Peas take home 9 Grammys. Here's my Top 5.

5. The Social Network
After being less than enthralled with Fincher's Facebook opus the first go-round, e I gave it another try and saw what I had been missing. Namely, Reznor's impeccable score and Fincher's steady tone and direction. The performances are solid and Sorkin's script is sharp, but with lines coming fast and furious, those which fall flat, fall hard. It's to Sorkin's and Fincher's credit that things move fast enough that the awkward lines are quickly covered by others before they can derail a scene, but it highlights the dangers in writing a script about smart people doing smart things. You try to outsmart yourself.

4. Winter's Bone

I was floored by this film the first time I saw it back in April, and it has lingered on my mind every since. Never has a country landscape seemed so foreboding and terrifying this side of a horror movie. The performances are uniformly excellent, from John Hawkes (Oscar-nominated) as Teardrop to Jennifer Lawrence as Ree (also Oscar-nominated). The lengths Ree goes to protect her family from certain peril are courageous, and made all the more so when you consider she is 17. A dark horse for Best Picture.

3. Exit Through the Gift Shop
An exhilarating documentary that manages to subvert the very genre and raise more questions than it answers. Packaged as a street art expose', Exit Through the Gift Shop takes a page from Orson Welles' F for Fake and asks questions of art and artistic "voice" to the viewer. Once the stakes and players are introduced, the direction and subjects continue to shift like a gyroscope, trading places scene by scene, until by the end, most are so tossed around and disheveled that they assume the entire thing is fake. I don't think things are quite so black and white, but as a film, it's brilliant.

2. The King's Speech
I had very little interest in seeing The King's Speech right up until the moment I started watching it. Even then I was ready to give up on it the moment something rubbed me the wrong way or played into the stereotypes I had queued up in my head. A period piece about a British King finding his voice on the eve of the Great War? It sounded like a lost Jane Austen novel, and with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush sharing the spotlight, I expected something that would feel like a play and bore me to no end. Well wasn't I surprised and delighted to be completely wrong. Not only is it inspirational and heart-warming (and perhaps the worst R-rating in the history of film), but Firth and Rush are fantastic, and Top Hooper's direction couldn't be further than the static stage camera I was expecting. Hooper gets the camera extremely close to his subjects, and surrounds them with elaborate wallpaper and set pieces to give many shots a surreal, dream-line quality. He has my vote for Best Director, if I had a vote to cast.

1. The Fighter
The Fighter was my favorite film of 2010. It may come as some surprise, but for me, it's a lot like the characters that exist within it. It's not as flashy as Inception or The Social Network, and it may not have Oscar-bait performances like The King's Speech or Black Swan, but it does all the little things right, and by the end of it all, is the only one left standing. That's not to knock the performances or direction in the slightest. David O Russell did some amazing work here, especially with his blow-for-blow fight re-enactments, that were even filmed on VHS so as to seem more authentic. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are both incredible talents operating at a high-level throughout this film, forcing Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams to raise their game to meet them, which they do admirably. But more than just a solid amalgam of talent, The Fighter has what most films spend their entire running time trying to get to: a final scene that you are invested in. For viewers that watched Mickey Ward get beat up in the ring and by his family for most of his life, his final fight is about as cathartic a moment as you'll see at the cinema. And once the dust settles from the award circuit and subsequent media hemmorrhage, that's realy all that matters.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Films of 2010 (10-6)

As I alluded to in my previous post, 2010 was a great year in movies. So great in fact that my honorable mentions would stack up favorably against the best films of other years (not 2007, of course). The problem with such a strong field of films, is that it makes it unnecessarily difficult to "rank" them. I know Roger Ebert thinks "rankings" and "star-ratings" are fluffery, but even among fantastic films there are films you enjoy more than others. Whether or not you can articulate it is another matter. I don't think Ebert has a problem on that end. Here are my 10-6. 

10. The Town - People were too hard on The Town. Some lapped it up because it hit theatres in the middle of the Boston Parade that was 2011, others despised it for the same reason. It's hard to view movies in a vacuum, but if you filter out the headache-inducing Boston accents and your feelings about Ben Affleck, you'll find The Town an innovative and stylish crime film, a high compliment when Jason Statham cranks out (no pun intended) 4 of these a year. The performances are strong and believable (I don't know why people came down so hard on Jon Hamm as the FBI agent) the plot is smart and dense, and it never resorts to trotting out generic action movie elements. The car chases are thrilling, the robberies are exhilarating, and the climactic scenes are as tense as any this year. Anyone still harboring reservations about Ben Affleck's directing chops can kindly get bent.  

9. Cyrus - From one movie everyone had an opinion about to one I wish more did. After seeing this at the Boston Independent Film Fest, I thought for sure this would be this years Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, but after a little digging, I found out it only made 7.5 million, which makes me sad. Maybe it wasn't marketed right. This poster makes it look like some Italian drama where everyone dies at the end. Instead, Cyrus was one of the funniest movies I saw all year, and also one with some of the mostt candid things to say about relationships and trust. This film gave legitimacy to Jonah Hill's acting career, proved the John C. Reilly is the best "everyman" in Hollywood, and confirmed my suspicions that Marissa Tomei knows the precise coordinates of the fountain of youth.   

8. 127 Hours - You must have been trapped under or next to a giant rock to be unfamiliar with the premise of this film. I know that joke was in poor taste, but it just spoke to me. James Franco plays Aron Ralston, a risk-taking adrenaline junkie who finds himself trapped in a crevice for 5 days with enough food and water for an afternoon hike. Coming from director Danny Boyle, I was apprehensive about this film from the start, having been less than inspired by his previous film Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later. I did love Sunshine though, so I held out hope that a change in genre might do him well. Boyle has a reputation for being an extremely stylish director, and with little to work with for much of this film, his visual style is what keeps this film engaging. Using muddy flashbacks and dream sequences alongside Fincher-esque super-zoom shots, Boyle keeps the camera busy and dynamic, even though his protagonist isn't going anywhere fast. It's also Boyle's style that makes the end of the film so powerful and emotional (Sigur Ros doesn't hurt either). Franco is good, but Boyle is the star of this show. 

7. I Love You Phillip Morris- Jim Carrey has no right to be this funny. He's supposed to be in terrible dramas like The Number 23 and hamming it up in comedy blackholes like Yes Man and Fun With Dick and Jane. He is an Adam Sandler/Nic Cage hybrid, that may miraculously find a perfect role once a decade (Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine), and otherwise stink up the box office. So what his he doing in the true story of a gay conman who falls in love with his cellmate in prison? Did his agent get the script mixed up with Ace Ventura 3? I can't answer that, but what I can tell you is that this movie is a riot, and crosses the line into amazing territory when you realize the entire thing is true. I still didn't believe it after the movie was over and had to cross-reference with Wikipedia, but sure enough, it was all there.  

6. Inception - And the backlash of the year award goes to......Inception. Sometime around September, hating on Inception became very much en vogue. It was became the fodder for internet memes, South Park parodies, and even people who had raved about it a month earlier were sheepishly retreating to their basements. I'm here to coax them out of hiding. It's ok to like Inception, and just as ok to make fun of it. Just make sure you acknowledge what a tremendous feat it really is. Brazenly original and masterful in it's storytelling, it was like no blockbuster to come before it. It forged its own genre and made its own rules. Nolan blends a simple premise into a furiously complex and thrilling final act that brilliantly leaves the largest question unanswered. Others may not be, but time will be kind to Inception. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Films of 2010

So I snagged my graphic from The AV Club? I don't have time to spend 3 hours in Photoshop trying to put Jesse Eisenberg's head on Buzz Lightyear. I have a blog to uphold, and you get what you pay for with unpaid interns. Just be grateful I got around to this and leave a kind word in the comments. I promise there will be enough pretension and snark to tide you over until the next rant.

First off, let me list a couple movies I wanted to see but didn't have a chance to. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I missed most of these were because I was intimidated by their length (TWSS). I'm sure Carlos is fantastic, but I have a hard enough time finding 5 minutes to shave, let alone watch a 6 hour miniseries. The same goes for Un Prophet, which I am reasonably sure I will love and hate myself for putting off. Others I just didn't get around to for whatever reason. Included in this category are I Am Love, The Ghost Writer, Let Me In, Marwencol, Rabbit Hole, Another Year, and Mother. Granted none of these are huge films, but I would have liked to have seen them before I compiled a list. If any blow me away enough to shake up my list, I'll be sure to come clean.

One last distraction before the meat of this post. Although I've missed some films this year, I've still seen a ton, and it's a shame that critics distill a years worth of cinema into a convenient 10-film package. I can't believe that just a few years ago the Academy had only 5 best picture nominees each year. Even with ten, at least that many deserving films are snubbed and left out of the party. So in the spirit of inclusiveness, I'd like to list a few films I loved that didn't make my Top 10.

The Tillman Story - Riveting and affecting, Bar-Lev's documentary is more than a romp through the life of a fallen patriot. It follows the emotional journey of the Tillman family and their war with the US Government over how he should be remembered.

Toy Story 3 - I think you might have heard of this little film, now the highest-grossing animated film of all-time.  Here's my review of it from July.

Black Swan - Exceedingly well acted and meticulously shot, but not as profound or serious as people have made it out to be. Great film-makers can make B movies too.

True Grit - Maybe the resonance will hit me upon further viewings, but after masterpieces like No Country and A Serious Man, I was hoping they'd reach for more pathos. Good thing minor Coen Brothers is better than the A-game of most everyone else.

Micmacs - A piteously overlooked film this year. Jeunet's taps into the wonder and beauty that made Amelie so alive and irresistible. This is his stab at a more slapstick premise, but still gets the tender moments alongside the laughs. Here's my review from April.

The Illusionist - From the director of The Triplets of Belleville, comes the story of an aging, marginalized illusionist and his biggest fan, a girl named Alice. The animation is beyond breathtaking, and the storyline accomplishes a great deal with nearly no dialogue.

The American - One of the most polarizing films of the year for critics was probably a victim of misplaced expectations. The poster teases a James Bond-esque caper, and the trailer did nothing to assuage these assumptions. What viewers got instead was a gorgeous, nuanced film and a subtle performance from Clooney. Some found this hard to stomach. I ate it up.

I'll start counting them down tomorrow. Don't touch that mouse.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Podcast Enlightenment

Being someone that seems to subsist on indie music exclusively, you might be surprised to find out that I listen to a lot of Podcasts too. Sometimes I get bored listening to albums again and again, or just get tired of the predictable formulae. For days like this, I subscribe to a swath of Podcasts that fill my every need. If I'm feeling intellectual, there's one for that. If I'm feeling cheeky, there's one for that too. What I'm trying to say, is that there are thousands of Podcasts out there, and you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't take the time to find a few that you like. Here are my favorites.

1. Filmspotting - I think this is one of the first Podcasts I ever downloaded, and I still listen to each new episode the day it comes out. The premise is simple. Adam and Matty review films in the Windy City. They bicker, there is a back and forth, and they usually agree to disagree. Matty is more an auteur, and Adam is more of an everyman, but they are both articulate and their love for cinema is undeniable. They also countdown a Top 5 list every week, often score interesting interviews, and are especially gracious to their fans. They are one of the most popular film Podcasts for a reason. Check them out.

2. Uhh Yeah Dude - Probably my favorite Comedy podcast. Jonathan and Seth generally riff on the past week in news and their lives and inevitably get into laughing fits and absurd situations that make my coworkers question my sanity for laughing so hard alone at 8AM. They call themselves "Two American Americans, saving America from herself", and it's pretty accurate. Seth is a complete riot, jumping from tangent to tangent and pushing everyone into hysterics, and Jonathan is more introspective and philosophical. It's the Seinfeld of Podcasts. SEATBELTS.

3. Radiolab - I wish I could remember where I was the first time I listened to Radiolab, because I'm sure it was a seminal moment in my young life. Without being overly dramatic, if you listen to ONE Podcast from this post, let it be this one. If you like This American Life, you will kick it to the curb. Where This American Life can be rambling and preachy at times, Radiolab is peerless. Featuring several stories on a common theme, it gets me misty more than I would care to admit. But it's not the stories alone that are so amazing, but the sound design. If you've ever listened to old radio broadcasts, you will understand how important sound is, and Radiolab has taken this to heart. There is music, sound effects, and other odds and ends that suck you completely into the story in a way that most films can't even do. Please please please check it out.

4. Doug Loves Movies - Doug Benson is a comedian whom I had foolishly dismissed as a pothead from what little I knew about him. As it turns out, he is one of the wittiest comedians out there, and his Podcast showcases this admirably. Each episode involves Doug inviting 3 famous people (other Comedians, actors promoting a film, etc) to talk about movies and generally have a good time. At the end of the episode they all play the "Leonard Maltin Game", where Doug will read them snippets of a Leonard Maltin film review and tell you how many actors are featured on the IMDB. The guests then bid and outbid each other (lower and lower numbers of actors) until one calls another ones bluff and they are forced to guess the movie based on the number of names they claimed. For instance, if a person bid 3, that means they can determine the movie from the bottom three actors in the credits. This is a small part of each episode, but always hilarious. I especially like it when guests are being annoying and Doug puts them in their place with scorching sarcasm that's often over their head. Give it a whirl if you like Comedy and/or Movies.  

5. The Pod F. Tompkast - Paul F. Tompkins is probably my favorite comedian, so when I heard he was coming out with a Podcast, I was positively giddy. Unfortunately, it only comes out once a month, but what he lacks in quantity he makes up for in quality. The episode usually features him riffing on things seemingly willy-nilly, usually until he gets himself giggling too much to continue, at which point he usually plays a clip from a live show for a few minutes. When he comes back, he often has guests or calls his friend Jen Kirkman to make small talk and generally be goofy. Additionally, he has reoccuring skits during the show that feature him doing uncanny impressions of celebrities. Well, sort of celebrities. He does a John C. Reilly that I actually thought was John C. Reilly for the first 3 episodes. He also does an Ice-T, the Cake Boss guy and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Somehow he worked all of these guys into one storyline that gets more and more preposterous with each episode. Get in on the ground floor of this hilarious podcast.

6. Stuff You Should Know - Stuff you should know is exactly what it claims to be. It features Josh and Chuck talking about a new topic every few days, and telling you all you'd care to know about it for half an hour or so. If it sounds like a snoozefest, it's not. The guys are really funny, and extremely thorough in their explanations. Their most recent episodes are called: How Munchausen Syndrome Works, How to Control a Riot, and What Has the World's Deadliest Venom? They do not disappoint, and I found myself going to afterward to find out even more after listening to an episode. Often times, I find myself listening to episodes about things I have no interest in, only to be completely rapt within 5 minutes. Try it and see.