Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fassbender X 2


Steve McQueen’s oblique character study is a haunting, provocative thing. Michael Fassbender- who for my money along with Jessica Chastain gets the award for hardest working person in showbiz this year- is magnificent as the simmering sex addict whose life of ugly, unfulfilled sex is interrupted by his equally unhappy sister (Carey Mulligan). Directed within an inch of its life with breath-taking opening and closing montages, McQueen’s film doesn’t say much, instead expressing its psychology through spellbinding long takes and subtle lens focus. In short, "Shame" is a harrowing experience. I was largely unimpressed with McQueen's acclaimed debut, "Hunger", but I now sit ready to qualify him as a major new talent.

A Dangerous Method

The beauty of David Cronenberg is his unique ability to stage a film teetering on the brink of perversion, and then slowly pull back the exterior to reveal a conservative morality tale. With "A Dangerous Method", there's sadomasochistic sex, professional jealousy and repressed emotions framed within a James Ivory-tale of famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Fassbender) and his obsession with both a father-figure in Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) patient-cum-mistress Sabina (Keira Knightley). "A Dangerous Method" is talky and intellectually challenging... but also a bit sexy in the representation of Sabina's sexual desires that Jung awakes in her. Essentially the story of a destruction of the 'relationship' between everyone Jung calls friends in his life, "A Dangerous Method" is riveting in that dry, almost clinical way of Cronenberg. I wouldn't expect (or want) anything else.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tops In Pops, 2011 Style Part 2 (the absolute best)

5. M83- Hurry Up We're Dreaming

Part synth rock and part flat out good rock, M83 continues to dazzle and impress with each new release, this time sampling out a hearty double album full of great stuff.

4. Explosions In the Sky- Take Care, Take Care

Another example of a veteran group of musicians resisting the urge to tamper with a proven template, 'postrock' band Explosions In the Sky create a moving testament to the power of instrumental rock. Seamlessly weaving in guitars, drums, and horns, their music always builds to a cathartic denouement. "Take Care, Take Care" is all of this and more.

3. The Antlers- Burst Apart

After their debut album, "Hospice" broke through and became one of my very favorite albums of the last 5 years, I wasn't sure if they'd be able to match that album's soul-stirring confessional heights, but their latest does. These guys are here to stay.

2. Yuck- Yuck

Take Sonic Youth and add equal parts Dinosaur Jr and one gets Yuck. But seriously, Yuck is much more talented than those faint comparisons, echoing the very best of 90's indie rock with a modern spin. I look forward to whatever they do next.

1. Radiohead- King of Limbs

Ok, did anyone who regularly reads this blog expect anything less? I heard that "King of Limbs" was their least impressive work in over a decade. I read they've hit the wall creatively and need to push modern rock forward like they did with "OK Computer" and "Kid A". Honestly, why can't we just appreciate "The King of Limbs" for what is is- a groovy, trancy, tight, hard-edged exploration that feels like a genuine exhale of music?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tops In Pops, 2011 Style Part 1

For me, music in 2011 was a schizo year. Finding any real new artist to appreciate seemed to be tougher than ever, with the latest waves of 60's retro, chill wave and hipster-lite never striking a chord with me. Ultimately, what saved the year was the resurgence of old pros dropping solo efforts, effectively saying "I'm still here and know how to make it." Looking over my ten favorites of the year, it's comprised of said veterans whose music I either grew up on or feverishly adopted over the last few years. Maybe I am getting old.

10. J Mascis- Several Shades Of Why

As the perennial voice and writer of lauded 90's indie band Dinosaur Jr, songwriter J Mascis' solo album evokes the yesteryear of his pained songs and slurred guitar. Along with Thurston Moore and his solo release this year, Mascis' album is a thing of beauty.

9. Beirut- Riptide

Beirut is an anomaly in modern music, sounding like a gimmick at first with their influenced sound of Eastern European horns, polka and dance hall flavor. But lead singer and songwriter Zach Condon is the real deal, heartfelt with his inflections and a brilliant songwriter. While "Riptide" isn't quite up to the magnificence of "Flying Club Cup" or previous outings, it's still head and shoulders above everything else out there.

8. Bill Callahan- Apocalypse

I can just get lost in the subtle sound of Bill Callahan... one of the most important songwriters working today. As the lead singer for influential rock band Smog and general Austin icon, Callahan's latest solo album came and went with little fanfare back in the spring, but it deserves more recognition. This is one dark, but ultimately uplifting work.

7. Mogwai- Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Honestly, there's nothing revelatory in the music of Mogwai. You know exactly what you'll get and how their largely instrumental arrangements will build, but damn if they don't continue to impress with every new release. I have a penchant for rousing post-rock (see "Explosions In the Sky or "Do Make Say Think") and Mogwai does it better than most.

6. The Twilight Singers- Dynamite Steps

I just love Greg Dulli and his tormented voice, and The Twilight Singers is yet another project that he lends his talents. Messy, loud and complex, "Dynamite Steps" is probably their best album since the early 00's.

Next up: the top 5

Friday, December 09, 2011

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Unintentional Double Feature: 2 From Kinji Fukasaku

When there’s a prolific filmmaker in the likes of Kinji Fukasaku- 66 titles listed on imdb- one can always expect a few oddities in the mix. While a good majority of his films, produced in the 60’s and 70’s, set the template for ‘yakuza’ films that deal with the complex, multi-layered hierarchy of inherent violence and betrayal, some of his best work resides in the always chic disaster Sci-Fi genre. Three different efforts in three different decades- “The Green Slime” in 1968, “Message From Space” in 1978 and “Virus” in 1980- reveal a creative artist willing to dabble in foreign territory with surprisingly good results. Through each film, which become progressively better with “Virus” being a near masterpiece, Fukasaku tackles the well worn genre with gusto and imagination.

“The Green Slime” is probably best viewed where I first saw it recently- late at night on TCM after a few adult beverages. A relic of the 60’s, definitely, the film follows a group of astronauts as they attempt to land on a meteorite that’s slowly plummeting towards Earth, effectively blowing it up and altering its course. Michael Bay, anyone? What the astronauts find on the meteorite and subsequently bring back to the space station with them is a decidedly nasty alien life force that wrecks havoc. Living first as the eponymous green slime, the life force soon morphs into a monster that drains the ship of its energy and electrocutes anyone in sight. “The Green Slime” is not an especially good film, but it is harmless fun. Beginning as ‘kiddie’ Saturday afternoon serial with models and costumes that seem left over from an Ed Wood production, it soon turns into a latex-suited monster film that seems to exist as Fukasaku’s excuse to blend Godzilla and Hollywood science fiction. Even the theme song- part 60’s acid rock that lingers in one’s head long after the film itself is over- screams of the time period. I don’t regret seeing “The Green Slime”, but there were finer moments for Fukasaku.

One of those finer moments is “Message From Space”, a low-rent “Star Wars” impersonation replete with a narrative that features a kidnapped princess and a rag-tag group of galactic beings charged with the task of saving her and her home planet. The inevitable cheekiness of the late 70's- and Fukasaku's own determination to chop socky filmmaking in general- also dates "Message From Space", but it doesn't belong in that "so bad its good" category. As midnight cult filmmaking goes, it's a serviceable sci-fo romp that goes a long way in creating terrific atmosphere from gaudy sets and some lunatic performances which include a Japanese pimp, two hot dog spaceship pilots and Vic Morrow joining the quest to save the aforementioned princess from a planet of marauding invaders. But redundant as it is, “Message From Space” is wholly entertaining, like a Shaw Brothers rendition of “The Lord of the Rings”. And although technological advances hadn’t quite grown beyond the model and latex suit phase yet, "Message From Space" overcomes its cheapness through a genuine attempt to specify a grand adventure within the confines of a newly burgeoning high concept genre. And, for the record, the above poster from Egypt has nothing to do with the film itself.... but I love its gaudiness.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Last Ten Films I've Seen, November Edition

1. Horrible Bosses (2011), Seth Gordon- I'm really tired of the modern comedy, and this miserable excuse only compounds my feelings. Nasty, snark.... full of non sequiter humor that is the love child of so many Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler movies.

2. J Edgar (2011), Clint Eastwood- Probably Eastwood's most generic film in years. Not only do we learn next to nothing about J. Edgar Hoover that wasn't already present in tabloid fodder, the male-on-male relationship between he and Armie Hammer is as blunt as a sledgehammer. Maybe the RIP Ken Russell could have enlivened the wrestling match.

3. A Very Private Affair (1962), Louis Malle- One of the Malle films I've been searching after for years finally got a humble TCM run. My God Bardot is stunning, but the film was a bit lackluster, too early to register as a nouvelle vague masterpiece and too shallow to exist on the same movie-movie overdose as early 60's Fellini and Godard. Did I mention Bardot looks good?

4. The Burning (1981), Tony Maylam- It features a young Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter! That's about all I can say for this cheap attempt to cash in on the marginal success of "Friday the 13th".

5. The Robber (2011), Benjamin Heisenberg- A chase film for the cool intellect. A man (Andreas Lust) is released from prison and immediately begins robbing banks again. In his spare time, he runs marathons, becomes involved with an old flame (Franziska Weisz) and stashes his money. The second half of the film is austere and quiet... a characteristic even more remarkable because it deals with a breath taking run/escape from the police. Watch this with "Drive" for a neat double feature. Heisenberg is a major talent to watch.

6. Melancholia (2011), Lars Von Trier- Somewhere around "Manderlay", Von Trier kinda lost me. With "Melancholia", he has pushed me off the cliff. Painfully dull with an exorbitant running time, I searched and listened for the metaphor to this chamber piece about depression and the end of the world for a long time and never found it. Wholly unpleasant to sit through, with no redeemable characters, this may be the first time I rooted for the end of the world.

7. The Descendants (2011), Alexander Payne- Another high profile, critical-proof film with a well respected auteur that landed with a big thud. Middlebrow beyond belief, its a film that deals in about as much sadness as Von Trier's punishing effort with a little more lightheartedness. Payne obviously takes heed in having a situation work out a little more messily than in ordinary fiction, yet I could sense every flip of the script in "The Descendants". And that damn cloying soundtrack did nothing to help its cause.

8. Take Shelter (2011), Jeff Nichols- I still can't shake some of this film's energy.... especially the unbearable ten minute scene in a storm shelter towards the end. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain both deserve some kind of award here and Austin director Jeff Nichols delivers another astonishing, slow-burn portrait of nowhere America. See it immediately.

9. Tierra (1996), Julio Medem- Re watched Julio Medem's magical collision of love, pesticide and the wind burned plains in which his film is set. Available on bit torrents out there, I highly recommend discovering this terrific director and his works.

10. Terri (2011), Azazel Jacobs- Amateur actor Jacob Wysocki embodies the overweight, culturally ostracized lead character well, and John C. Reilly is very good as the school principal who takes an active interest in his well being. The tone of the film, as Terri befriends a pretty girl ("Rescue Me's" Olivia Crocicchia) and a troubled peer, wavers in the end.