Saint Etienne, “Tales From Turnpike House”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #83 – released June 13, 2005)

Track listing: Sun In My Morning / Milk Bottle Symphony / Lightning Strikes Twice / Slow Down At The Castle / A Good Thing / Side Streets / Last Orders For Gary Stead / Stars Above Us / Relocate / The Birdman of EC1 / Teenage Winter / Goodnight

To paraphrase a classic title of one by Rod Stewart, every album tells a story: it could revolve around hastily assembled contractual obligation or inspired artistic reinvention, announce a new talent to the world or remind a long-uninterested audience what that talent is still capable of. Occasionally, it can even tell a literal story—a concept album, if you will. I’ve written about a few on this blog, from a concise suite about sexual infatuation to a conflation of the cycle of life with the four seasons. Some are predominantly defined by structure or sequencing; there’s also a number that forgo linear narratives for sustained themes such as childhood and parenting, impending mortality or a failed love affair (perhaps the most popular album concept of all.)

None of the three discs I’ve previously covered by British pop trio Saint Etienne were strict concept albums, but they each told at the very least figurative stories. So Tough (1993) served as a collage of early ’90s London sights and sounds, Tiger Bay (1994) combined electronic dance and acoustic folk into a shimmering whole and Good Humor (1998) recreated the 1970s AM radio gold its members Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell grew up with. Their subsequent albums would also hinge upon a common aesthetic or theme: Sound of Water (2000) mostly eschewed the band’s typical pop hooks for atmosphere and texture, while Finisterre (2002) set out to capture London at the crossroads of a new century, linking together a dozen aurally disparate tracks with Michael Jayston’s authoritative spoken word narration. Neither album was necessarily subpar, but something about them felt less immediate and a little tentative, as if in a quest to continually explore new avenues, the band lost some of the luster that those three prior albums emanated effortlessly.

Fortunately, their next record, Tales From Turnpike House pushes their sound to new heights, but with none of that hesitation—it’s assured and complete as anything they’ve ever done. Not coincidentally, it’s their first album to sport an overarching narrative: a day in the life of various residents of a London tower block (for non-Brits, roughly, a high-rise apartment building.) It’s such an ideal concept for this particular band, whose back catalog’s not only undeniably London-centric but also steeped in humanism with a rare ability to find exceptional beauty in day-to-day life. Building upon such a strong, likeminded focal point brings out the best in them as lyricists.

However, Tales is even more special for the distinct backing vocals and harmonies on nearly all of the album’s songs, which were arranged and performed by Tony Rivers and his son, Anthony. It’s typical Saint Etienne for their members to reach out to a relatively obscure and forgotten-by-the-public-at-large figure like Rivers, a former member of late ’60s sunshine pop group Harmony Grass and a ’70s and ’80s session background vocalist. And yet, the familial, choirboy harmonies by him and his son are arguably the album’s secret weapon. On first listen, they seem more than a little retro and heavily reminiscent of The Beach Boys (a fitting touchstone, since St. Et. swiped the titles So Tough and Good Humor from them.) Over the course of an album, they become a wordless Greek chorus, musically binding everything together, their omnipresence gradually more resonant and profound.

“Sun In My Morning” opens Tales with a quiet but insistent ting-ting-ting percussive sound—possibly a triangle or a chime. Here, it acts as sort of an alarm clock, only softer and kinder (this is a decidedly slow, sweet wake-up call.) Over an acoustic guitar, Cracknell’s inimitable vocal follows, elongating words and phrases to their breaking point: “Made… a list of things to do… today / what a shame… the morning breeze just blew… it all away.” Then, just over thirty seconds in, the song’s title announces the chorus. On that chord change, everything brilliantly comes alive: some soulful organ, a skittering flute, and most prominently, the Rivers’ intricate, overlapping harmonies.

Having had ample time to wipe the sleep from our eyes, “Milk Bottle Symphony” vaults forward, upping the tempo and introducing us to various Turnpike House residents—among them, “Number twelve, there’s Amy Chan / Writing down a line for the candy man,” and “Emily Roe’s at Thirty-One / Twenty minutes left to get her homework done.” Gifted as the band is at pinpointing such minute details (Emily “leaves her cornflakes on the sofa / says goodbye to mum”), they also excel at painting a bigger picture: note the dramatic pause at mid-song, silence ceased by a sweet clang-clang-clang that could be a literal interpretation of the song’s title, or how effective the staccato string section sounds over the track’s driving electronic beat on the instrumental coda.

“Lightning Strikes Twice” is the first of many Tales tracks where Saint Etienne reclaim their status as purveyors of alternate-world number-one hits. Resembling a more earnest, if no less slinky version of synth-pop duo Goldfrapp, the song kicks off with Cracknell in her lowest register, modulating her vocal up a few notches with each line until it reaches the euphoric chorus of “Everyone should have a reason to believe / so I still believe that / lightning will strike twice for me,” dramatically stretching out that first word to “Evvv – ryyyy – one.” An irresistible paean to sustained optimism as a life-force, “Lightning Strikes Twice” goes out on a limitless high, reprising the song’s key-changing middle-eight with the Rivers’ harmonies guiding all into the stratosphere.

The contrast between it and “Slow Down At The Castle” could not be more striking: after a mournful folk guitar intro, it shifts into a minor-key suburban gothic that’s almost a warmer, kinder cousin to So Tough’s similarly-toned epic “Avenue”. Its childlike melody gels splendidly with Cracknell’s phrasing but its complexity comes from a few rather baroque but well-employed touches: a harpsichord break, impossibly lovely backing “bong-bong-bong” Rivers harmonies, even a surprise Theremin solo! The piano melody on the outro mirrors the guitar intro almost identically, adding an exquisite grace note at the end.

“A Good Thing” brings Saint Etienne back to masterful dance pop mode with a vengeance. This album’s second single and a close cousin to their biggest UK hit “He’s On The Phone”, it dutifully sounds ultra-contemporary, downplaying the idiosyncrasies of Tales’ preceding songs (almost nary a Rivers to be heard here.) Happily, even at their most accessible, Bob, Pete and Sarah rarely settle for anonymity. As in many a St. Et. composition, Cracknell remains pragmatic but urgent, droll but serious in advising and furthermore reminding a former lover just what’s he lost. Still, what sounds gloomy on the page is transformed by the music’s continual uplift, so much that Pedro Almodovar, a fan, placed the song in his film Volver and it fit beautifully without receding into the background.

An endearingly fragile bossa-nova practically gliding by on vibes, bongos, spare electro-beats and a whole lot of “ba, ba, ba’s” from Cracknell and the Rivers, “Side Streets” was an unconventional choice for the album’s first single, if only for all the surefire big pop productions surrounding it. The lyrics, about a single woman on her daily commute are also far more complex than your average top 40 fluff. Cracknell sings of taking the long way home, acknowledging but not altogether fearful about dangers lurking within an urban center’s corners. She’s at once defiant (“I’ve got features I quite like and don’t mind keeping”) and matter-of-fact (“I’ll probably get it tomorrow”) but the warmth of the arrangement and her vocal (try not to melt at the way she pronounces the word “bubble”) tempers what in less nuanced hands could come off as merely chilling.

After a somewhat deceptive, slow piano intro, “Last Orders For Gary Stead” suddenly locks into a two-chord glam rock groove, complete with electric guitar, pounding piano and Cracknell sounding like the love child of David Bowie and Dusty Springfield. The first St. Et. Tune that absolutely swaggers, it should be an anomalous fit but it works, especially when it reaches its heavenly, Rivers-assisted multi-tracked chorus. Having briefly met the title figure back in “Milk Bottle Symphony”, Gary serves as a through line for the album’s overarching narrative. Here, he’s at his preferred environment of the local pub, and a figure of amusement to some (listen to how tartly Cracknell sings, “He just cools it down / they should knight him for it.”) Still, he’s potentially a tragic figure as well. “She’s in two minds, maybe she’ll board up her door,” the chorus explains, before resolving itself in a neat bit of wordplay: “He sinks two pints / and that’s how it goes.”

As the band’s dance anthems go, “Stars Above Us” not only bests “A Good Thing” but on some days might even top “He’s On The Phone”. “Stars above us, cars below us / Out on the rooftop, baby,” is its glorious chorus, riding high on a shamelessly disco groove (nearly nicked from Kylie Minogue’s “Love At First Sight”) and Niles Rodgers-like rhythm guitar. Musically, it’s far from their most forward-looking song, but none of that matters when the beat kicks in after that dreamy intro and the chorus comes on full force. “Stars Above Us” is positively transformative, taking one to the best place imaginable; in a nod to their greatest early single, Cracknell sings, “Nothing can touch us, baby,” and it’s awfully hard to disagree with her.

Amazingly, “Stars Above Us” was not a UK single, but Savoy Jazz, Saint Etienne’s then-US record label had the foresight to promote the song and a series of remixes—it became the band’s first top ten club play hit in over a decade. Unfortunately, the label ended up seriously botching Tales’ US release seven months after the original edition came out: not only did they rearrange the track listing, placing the two UK singles at the beginning and thus doing away with the day-in-the-life-of-a-tower-block chronology, they cut out the two tracks following “Stars Above Us” and inserted two new replacements (“Dream Lover”, “Oh My”) randomly into the album’s sequence.

Granted, the two nixed tracks are arguably Tales’ least essential. “Relocate”, a duet between Cracknell and David Essex (sounding far more weathered here than on his ‘70s hits like “Rock On”) reads like a distaff Brit take on the old Green Acres theme (wife wants to move to the country, husband wants to stay put in the city.) It’s charming (love the pointed, irritated way she asks him, “You call this life?”) and fits in with the overall concept, but it’s also slight, its merry-go-round melody a touch too music hall for these sophisticates. Meanwhile, “The Birdman of EC1”, the album’s sole instrumental, is a melancholy organ, mandolin and Mellotron-accented breath of fresh air and little else. However, Tales needs both songs for they provide necessary texture; without them (as on the US edition), the transition from “Stars Above Us” to the album’s two final crucial songs feels jarring and rushed.

Tales enters its most powerful stretch with the startling fanfare of harmonies and chiming notes that announces “Teenage Winter”, one of the most unabashedly heartbreaking songs in a catalog with no shortage of them. In its verses, Cracknell delivers a spoken word monologue, reuniting us with such figures as Gary Stead and other various building residents. If “Milk Bottle Symphony” depicted them with an air of promise and hope, now they’re more wistful, almost melancholic, really. Their world is continually in flux: a chain tanning salon replaces a mom-and-pop bakery, and the internet’s daunting presence lessens the nifty stock for record collectors scouring the local thrift shop. Each person is inevitably getting older, “holding on to something / without knowing / exactly what you’re looking for.” Over melodic triplet notes resembling softly falling snow, Cracknell sings in the chorus:

Teenage Winter’s coming down
Teenage Winter floats a gown
Over every place I’ve been
And every little dream
Forever.

That last word just hangs there, gorgeously resounding through the song’s lush guitar, organ and woodwind arrangement (which also includes a sneakily affecting melodic bassline.) “Teenage Winter” is an incredibly poignant lament, made even more so by the fact that Bob and Pete had just entered their 40s when they recorded it (with Sarah not too far off)—for the first time, one can detect a real sense of mortality in Saint Etienne’s world. Rather than rally at time’s arrow with nostalgia and self-pity, they confront it the kindness, wisdom and acceptance that only comes with age.

It seems inconceivable that anything could top “Teenage Winter”, but closing track “Goodnight” comes perilously close. A simple lullaby, it brings Tales full circle from “Sun In My Morning”. Stripping away all instrumentation, we’re left with Sarah, Tony and Anthony. Hearing just these voices at this point in the album’s sequence and the extraordinarily haunting sound they make together (like a delicate tapestry of onomatopoeia) is almost too much to bear. So is Sarah pleading, “Please sing me to sleep and stroke my hair / I’ll close my eyes and pretend that you’re there.” That little couplet really gets at what Tales as a whole is all about: one can always uncover specks of brilliance in everyday, ordinary things, but real transcendence often comes in dreams, in imagining possibilities and processing pain, and using this learned experience to move forward. These threads run deep through Saint Etienne’s entire oeuvre, but on Tales they push furthest, expressed so eloquently they’re impossible to miss or shake.

In a cruel twist of fate, Tales ended up the band’s worst selling album to date in the UK (as with what happened to Tiger Bay, the botched US version didn’t help matters much.) Perhaps “Stars Above Us” or even “Lightning Strikes Twice” should’ve been the lead single, or maybe, just maybe, Tales was so ambitiously out-of-time with what constituted a hit in 2005. One could argue that’s always been the case with this cult-adored trio; for me, Tales had a larger impact than anything else I heard that year (possibly that entire decade.) It was like I’d been wishing, hoping, waiting for one of my favorite bands to create their masterpiece (despite them already having put out at least three great albums.) And then, they did. What’s more, while Tales was originally to be their final appearance in 100 Albums, as of this writing, I’m confident that’s no longer the case.

Up next: We become Panoramic.

“Teenage Winter”:

“Stars Above Us”:

 

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Film Journal, May 2018

Movies seen in May; starred titles are re-watches.

RBG
Extraordinary subject, average execution but at least in this case average doesn’t mean boring or even fawning, exactly. The only real misstep is that opening voice-over litany of dissent against Justice Bader-Ginsburg, rattled off as if to get it out of the way. Once you get past the expected stuff about her being a meme and pop culture icon, there’s considerable substance about what she actually accomplished and the lengthy, painstaking process she went through to get there. And let’s face it, political sympathies aside, a film called SCALIA! would never have been as much fun as this. Grade: B

God’s Own Country
An impressive feature debut for writer/director Francis Lee, who has a real feel for depicting physical intimacy, both sexually and in terms of relation to one’s own environment. The shame-free gay love story he constructs almost feels revolutionary in a film that’s otherwise about the ins and outs of carrying on a traditional way of life that’s increasingly challenging in the modern world. A-

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown*
One of Almodovar’s best, and easily his most realized screwball comedy. There’s nothing gazpacho can’t fix (if you mix it right.) A

The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected)
A great ensemble cast (yes, even Adam Sandler) with the lesser-known Elizabeth Marvel the MVP, however sparingly she’s used. As Noah Baumbach films go, not quite up there with FRANCES HA (which was just as much Greta Gerwig’s, particularly in light of LADY BIRD), but I’d much rather sit through it again than anything else he’s put out since. B+

Let The Sunshine In
Leave it to Claire Denis to open her latest by saddling Juliette Binoche with one heck of a blowhard beau and close it on an extended conversation between Binoche and Gerard Depardieu, decidedly *not* her beau (his actual role’s too good to disclose here.) In between, Denis’ seemingly ageless lead, playing a divorced, middle-aged artist continually pivots from one man to another in search of The One, only for it to slowly dawn on her maybe, (to paraphrase Rachel Bloom) the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that? Simultaneously confusing and enthralling like any good Denis, but also not quite like any of her other films (also typical for Denis.) B+

Strike A Pose
A profile of the male backup dancers on Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, notable not only for the where-are-they-now contrasts but also for the exposure afforded them via the infamous tour doc TRUTH OR DARE, which proved a double-edged sword. There’s an excess of great footage here, but it lacks focus scene-to-scene (all the disparate modern-day stuff doesn’t help) which is crucial in order for the overarching chronology to work. Still, the participants’ reunion near the end is lovelier than most of that trope. B-

The Misfits
The objectification of Monroe here hasn’t aged well (especially when you consider her husband wrote it!); otherwise, fascinating for what it represents about a dimming Hollywood, as it was the last film for two of its stars, and two of the other three principals would also be dead within a decade. If you have any qualms about Monroe’s acting, just watch her transformation from coquettish, adoring girlfriend to a raw maelstrom of devastation in the horse-wrangling sequence. B

First Reformed
I believe any work of art has the potential to be both ridiculous and sublime, however rarely one achieves such a tricky balance. To its credit, FIRST REFORMED is often firmly the latter—the austere opening credits sequence with its extended zoom-in; the simple, profound economy of the editing; tonally, how the dread keeps building, almost becoming constrictive but not altogether suffocating; and of course, Ethan Hawke, perennially underrated as he ages but arguably never better in a role he nearly disappears into.

The ridiculous stuff comes at the hysterical finale, but it’s to be taken seriously because it’s not silly and not played for camp or irony (just as the last fifteen minutes of TAXI DRIVER were outrageous and totally plausible.) The score gets to be a little much in the last third, but the straight-faced hymn accompanying those final minutes is perfect. Themes of climate control and corporate influence place the film firmly in the here and now, but otherwise, it feels as timeless as the work of director Paul Schrader’s old hero Carl Dreyer. A-

Flirting With Disaster*
Maybe not the best screwball comedy of its era as I once thought, but pretty damn close.
“We love you very much. If you were Jeffrey Dahmer, we would still love you.” A-

Back To The Future*
What I wrote upon my previous viewing on October 21, 2015: Influence of childhood nostalgia aside, it’s still the best blockbuster of its era, and now looks like one of the more audacious ones, too—would the oedipal stuff between Marty and his mother even be thinkable in a studio film today? A

Liquid Sky
Loved the striking visuals, time-capsule fashions and Anne Carlisle (more so as Jimmy than Margaret); didn’t much care for the rampant misogyny and numbingly awful score. Not nearly as essential a cult film of its time as REPO MAN or EATING RAOUL, but I’d happily watch Paula E. Sheppard spitting out “Me and My Rhythm Box” on a ninety-minute loop. B

The Go-Betweens, “Oceans Apart”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #82 – released May 3, 2005)

Track listing: Here Comes A City / Finding You / Born To A Family / No Reason To Cry / Boundary Rider / Darlinghurst Nights / Lavender / The Statue / This Night’s For You / The Mountains Near Dellray

Band reunions are tricky, for they come with staggering expectations: Is the old chemistry present? Can they still hit all the right notes? And, what of new material—how does it stack up against the old stuff? From Van Halen to the Violent Femmes, you see previously defunct or on-hiatus bands getting back together all the time with all-over-the-map results. But, for every five or ten shadows-of-their-former-selves or devolutions into nostalgia acts, there’s the occasional reunited band that, against all odds, manages to not embarrass itself and even add something artistically vital to its discography. Sleater-Kinney, My Bloody Valentine and The Dream Syndicate are among those who have accomplished the latter in recent years.

One of the least likely and most satisfying reunions of this young century was the return of The Go-Betweens. When this Australian band, with their core singer-songwriter duo of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan last appeared in this tale, they were coming off an enviable decade-long, six-album run culminating in their 1988 pop masterwork, 16 Lovers Lane. Like all their previous records, it received glowing reviews but failed to score radio hits or break beyond their miniscule audience. As noted in Forster’s superb 2016 memoir Grant and I, a series of misunderstandings led to an acrimonious split in 1990. Forster and McLennan would each spend the next decade cultivating solo careers, but little either of them did separately approached the majesty of their past work together (McLennan’s 1994 double-album Horsebreaker Star, which I briefly considered for this project, came closest.)

As the 90’s wore on, the two men reconciled and started playing live together again. Recorded with a new rhythm section (including Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss on percussion), The Friends of Rachel Worth was the first new Go-Betweens album in a dozen years. Far more stripped-down than the elaborately produced 16 Lovers Lane, it was defiantly a new chapter for the band, although on opener “Magic In Here” one could immediately sense some of Forster and McLennan’s rare, sparkling chemistry again. Another album, Bright Yellow Bright Orange followed three years later, and while it added nothing exceptionally new to the band’s catalogue, it was another solid set of predominantly acoustic jangle-pop.

If anything, these two albums sometimes felt as if Forster and McLennan were gently easing themselves back into being a band again with tentative, if encouraging results. For their third album of this second phase, they brought 16 Lovers Lane producer Mark Wallis back into the fold. Once again fortifying their guitar pop with a layered, Technicolor assortment of keyboards and a few horns, Oceans Apart miraculously ended up more a step forward than a look back, even if a couple of its songs lyrically, at times elegiacally reflected upon past lives and places. Moreover, it just gelled like anything from the band’s first phase and its ten songs were among Forster and McLennan’s strongest and sharpest.

From the count-off that announces Forster’s “Here Comes A City”, you can tell this is a fully-energized Go-Betweens firing on all cylinders. Spitting out clipped phrases over just two chords (but what glorious two chords!), lyrically, Forster is at his most observational: “Just pulled out of / a train station / we’re moving sideways,” he sings, “Passing churches / passing stations / a bustling complex.” Meanwhile, the music fervently chugs along, the guitar solo melodic enough but also hinting at an ever-so-slightly out of control bedlam that seems increasingly present all the way to the boiling teakettle noise accompanying repeated chants of the song’s title near the end. But it feels lithe and wry rather than heavy or foreboding, with such typically literate (and quirky) Forster asides as, “Why do people / who read Dostoevsky / look like… Dostoevsky?”

McLennan’s “Finding You” is just as striking and assured, but entirely different. Beginning with a chiming guitar fanfare worthy of all his best ones on 16 Lovers Lane, it opens with lyrics so romantic and incisive you feel Grant has been building towards them his whole career: “What would you do if you turned around / And saw me beside you / Not in a dream but in a song?” It’s pure heart-on-sleeve declaration, along with the chorus of, “Don’t know where I’m going / Don’t know where it’s flowing / But I know it’s finding you.” Because it’s expressed from such a heartfelt place and wedded to such a perfectly formed melody (and lush arrangement), “Finding You” is not easily dismissed as a silly love song. Its extended instrumental coda even provides time for contemplation of what it means to build and sustain a growing love.

“Born To A Family” finds Forster not for the first time on Oceans Apart dissecting his past. With an even lusher guitar palette than “Finding You” (including a 12-string and mandolins), it moves along on an irresistible folkish bounce as he sings about being “the square into the hole” of a working-class family. Even as a young boy, he recalls longing for art, literature and music. “What could I do / but follow the calling,” he repeats, slightly melancholy but mostly confident that he chose the right path; his breathy, “Uh huh’s” and “yeah, yeah’s” casually further confirm it on the fadeout.

By fiat of its initial resplendent waves of synths, McLennan’s “No Reason To Cry” is another step away from the more austere settings of the band’s previous two albums. Dreamily strummed major-seventh chords solidify into the title chorus (where Forster lovingly echoes his bandmate’s vocals), nearly orchestral in its numerous layers of sound. When he sings, “Been fifteen years since we last spoke,” you wonder whom the song is about—former band member and romantic partner Amanda Brown, or perhaps Forster himself.

McLennan follows the song with another of his compositions, “Boundary Rider”. As much of a confirmation of self as “Born To A Family”, it’s similarly crisp and concise, with guitar arpeggios so immediate and absorbing they seem like they’ve been there since the beginning of time. Still, there’s considerably more conflict and resignation in his voice. “So you reach for things / you’ve never satisfied / you’re running down the years” he sings, amiably but decidedly unsentimental, “And to know yourself / is to be yourself / keeps you walking through these tears.” It sounds like hard-earned wisdom, and it will be important to remember those words later.

Forster’s second song about his past, “Darlinghurst Nights”, kicks off the album’s second half. Epic like nothing else on Oceans Apart (it’s over six minutes long), it’s a vast but focused canvas for Forster to reminisce on a specific place and time via a talisman in the form of an old, unearthed notebook: “I didn’t have to read it / it all came back,” he remarks, soon reeling off long-forgotten names (“Frank Brunetti”, “Susie, who we never saw again”) and wishes (“I’m going write a movie / and then I’m going to star in a play”—he and McLennan did try their hand at screenwriting, although they never got a film made.) Although the same four chords repeat (except in the brief, heavenly middle-eight), the momentum never flags thanks to abundant instrumental and vocal hooks imbedded within. The phrase, “Always the traffic, always the lights” is the song’s North Star, appearing throughout and repeating over the extended coda, later accompanied by a chorus of rousing horns.

“Lavender” is the closest thing to love song for Forster here. Over a slinky reggae groove (rest assured, it sounds nothing like UB40), he describes a woman in a series of near-enigmatic phrases like, “She’s got a pair or black boots that kick stones / She’s got black moods she calls her own,” and also rhymes “good in bed” with “well-read.” The title is not her name, but her favorite scent and the song is not really as arch as it sounds, but rather sweet, with clarinet and flugelhorn providing elegance and an unexpected grace notes near the close.

McLennan’s “The Statue” shimmers into focus, its reverberating electronics like a sun rising over the water, its electric guitar hook practically euphoric, leading the way towards a sea of swaying romantic gestures. The lyrics build a metaphor around the titular figure with multiple uses of the word “touch” in different contexts, but it’s the melody that pushes everything forward, perhaps right towards McLennan’s next song, “This Night’s For You”. The previous track’s brightness lingers here but at a breezier, poppy tempo (dig those “ba, ba, ba’s!”.) A genuinely silly but blissful and transformative love song, it cleverly pairs descending verses with an ascendant chorus whose best moment is a call-and-response slash of guitar chords that bespeaks its author’s proficiency in stacking hooks upon hooks while allowing all of them to shine profusely.

“The Mountains Near Dellray” closes Oceans Apart with slow, dramatic grandeur: gradually fading in with guitars, keyboards and a massive sense of space, it’s half majestic ballad, half meditative tone poem. As Forster sings the song’s simple melody and plainspoken lyrics (“And when you make a wish / and you get the wish”), he exudes calm and acceptance that’s in extraordinary contrast to the hubbub and encroaching chaos of “Here Comes A City”. “Never let it go, it’s no struggle,” he concludes, and those words could apply to a myriad of things—what they actually are is less significant than the notion itself. A design for life, if you will, enigmatically inserted within a pop song.

A perfect ending to the album, “The Mountains Near Dellray” would unintentionally serve as a wistful finale to The Go-Betweens themselves when, almost exactly one year after the album’s release, McLennan died suddenly from a heart attack at age 48. While I’ll always long for all the music he and Forster might’ve put out on the momentum and goodwill Oceans Apart generated (a few songs they had begun working on would surface on Forster’s 2008 solo release The Evangelist), I’m grateful they ended up going out on such a high. “And to know yourself / is to be yourself,” is as modest and profound an epitaph as McLennan could ever have written for himself; a decade-plus later, as I edge closer to 48, they are words I increasingly take to heart as well.

Up next: Everyday People.

“This Night’s For You”:

Film Journal: April 2018

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Movies seen in April; starred titles are re-watches.

Mean Girls
Damn right Lindsay Lohan could’ve had Emma Stone’s career, if not for, well, you know. Fitfully funny in a John-Hughes-for-millennials-way, but despite the great cast (Tim Meadows, where have you gone?), it should be noted that screenwriter Tina Fey is celebrated for reinventing the sitcom rather than the teen rom-com. B-

Big Night*
Twenty years ago, this felt like an ideal of American indie cinema, in a much higher echelon than all the Tarantino knockoffs and sub-Jarmusch navel-gazing. On my first viewing in well over a decade, it seems a little quaint—pokey, even, in spots (anything having to do with Minnie Driver’s undeveloped would-be love interest) and unnecessarily flashier in others (the chef-literally-on-fire is a good sight gag that holds no meaning.) And yet, much of this gets by on charm, and charm usually holds up. Tony Shaloub adds depth and shading to what could’ve been a stock eccentric and Ian Holm, Campbell Scott and a young-ish Alison Janney are all wonderful (Stanley Tucci, who co-directed with Scott is adequate as a lead—he’s more effective in supporting parts.) And yes, the final scene remains one of the simplest, most affecting and perfect of all time. A-

Love, Simon
Greg Berlanti’s aesthetic (or lack thereof) is perfect for his CW teen shows, so it follows this feels like a competently made, supersized TV episode (albeit a far less interesting one than NATHAN FOR YOU: FINDING FRANCES.) Still, as someone who would have appreciated/longed for this film when I was in high school, I’m happy it exists. B-

Tokyo Story*
This was my first Ozu, watched in a film studies class with through-the-roof expectations from its Sight-and-Sound-poll-placing reputation. I didn’t know what to make of its style, simultaneously old fashioned and radical; it got lost in the shuffle of all the other ten-to-fifteen films per week I had to absorb. I’d go on to see at least a dozen more of his films over the next two years (including an entire class on him), and I responded more strongly to many of them (in particular, OHAYO, LATE SPRING and EQUINOX FLOWER.)

Nearly two decades on and I haven’t viewed any Ozu since the early 2000s. Seeing this again was less a revisit than looking at it with new, older, (hopefully) wizened eyes. After adjusting to the still-undiminished ingenuity of his pacing and composition, the narrative slowly but surely drew me in, all the way to the last half hour which left me devastated but hopeful. Many would say nothing happens in an Ozu film, but they’re wrong—everything happens, or at least everything that’s truly important in view of life itself. His uncommon humaneness and honesty are both summed up in its famous, unwavering exchange near the end:

Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?”

Noriko: “Yes, it is.” A

You Were Never Really Here
As a resolute devotee of Ramsey’s first two features, I’ll allow that her guidance renders this watchable (as does Phoenix, astonishing yet again) and her willingness to turn a crime thriller into a kaleidoscopic puzzle box is often fascinating (especially visually). That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a little churlish complaining that the difficult-to-parse story prevented me from unabashedly giving myself over to it. And though I appreciate a good campy sound cue or two, here, they come off as slight miscalculations, distracting from Greenwood’s tactile, enveloping score. B-

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Probably the weakest of the director’s last four features but still worth a look. I winced at the make-or-break opening shot but I also kind of admired it, especially once I fully understood its context. Surely a more ridiculous premise than even THE LOBSTER, but you can’t argue Lanthimos and his cast (Barry Keoghan, you have arrived) aren’t fully committed to it. What it lacks is an element of surprise, those inspired, my-god-what-did-I-just-see narrative leaps which elevated his previous films into more than academic misanthropic exercises. B

The Trial
Talk about batshit insane production design—at times, it outdoes even CITIZEN KANE. Maddening in (mostly) the best ways. B+

Isle of Dogs
First viewing: I already prefer it to FANTASTIC MR. FOX, but I’m a dog person, so there you go.

Second viewing: I’ve concluded this is second-tier Wes Anderson—technically more dazzling than his previous foray into animation, but not as emotionally resonant as his best (the growing bond between Chief and Atari comes closest.) But its not without complexity: for all the appropriation fracas, this is lovingly crafted (both in depictions of Japanese and canine culture) and thematically rich, with political implications more of the moment than you’d expect from this filmmaker. B+

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Director Sophie Fiennes’ vacillating back and forth between concert and cinema verite footage is initially somewhat jarring, particularly for those who know little about Jones’ life offstage (i.e.-most viewers). Fortunately, the latter’s contrast with the former grows more compelling as they further complement each other via hotel rooms, recording studios and behind the scenes of a must-be-seen-to-be-believed television appearance. She has the kind of dynamic personality and uncommon force conveying she was absolutely made for a project like this and Fiennes is correct in letting Jones speak for herself. As one woman shouted out loud at the very end of the screening I attended, “We’re not worthy of her!” A-

Eighth Grade
I can’t understate how terrific Elsie Fisher is as Kayla, an awkward, average fourteen-year-old who’s quirky enough to stand apart from any other similarly-aged protagonist you’ve seen before and also recognizable to an almost painfully universal degree. Delectably cringe-funny, this would be as discomforting as WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE if not for writer/director Bo Burnham’s humanism—his affection for the minutiae of this ultra-specific world (like the boy-athlete crush who nonetheless loves to make fart noises with his arm) is omnipresent, thankfully without nostalgia’s rose-colored lenses. B+

The Rider
At a time when filmmaking is more accessible than ever, it’s heartening to still see real talent emerge. Chloe Zhao has such a firm handle on what she’s trying to depict and express in this film about Native American rodeo cowboys in South Dakota that I was immediately attuned to both its poetry and authenticity. Had I not already known that most of the cast were playing versions of themselves, I might not have ever guessed it—that’s how strong Zhao’s direction is. The story itself one can surmise wholly from the trailer, but that barely diminishes its power. A-

That Summer
The unearthed pre-GREY GARDENS footage of the Beales (shot by Joans Mekas and Andy Warhol for a shelved project) is worth seeing for anyone who finds the gals adoring instead of annoying (I’m in the former camp), complete with musical performances, tales behind beloved old furniture and more raccoons. The rest, narrated by Peter Beard with some voiceover from Lee Radziwill gives ample context, but in the end, this is still more a collection of B-sides than anything revelatory. B-

The Third Murder
A legal thriller from a director best known for his Ozu-worthy family dramas? It slots more neatly into his oeuvre than you’d expect, primarily because the mystery per se is steeped in familial relationships, only this time with heavier implications and consequences. Although Kore-eda has delved into darker material before (the abandoned family of NOBODY KNOWS), he’s a little too intellectual here—extended musings on judgement and guilt are examined to the point of exhaustion. But the world he depicts is as rich as ever, full of scene-stealing (but not in an obvious way) characters and lovely, uncomplicated but effective imagery (most memorably, an overhead shot of three figures making snow angels.) B

2004: Take Your Records, Leave Me Mine

A decade after alt-rock peaked culturally (if not yet commercially), indie rock did the same, but it was a different world—for starters, you rarely heard this music on the radio. More often, you had to find it online, usually at Pitchfork.com, arguably never closer to the zeitgeist since then, especially when it placed Arcade Fire’s Funeral on top of its year-end best albums list. I don’t think I was even aware of the band until this happened, and I spent most of the year writing for a competing website (albeit a far less buzzy one.)

The playlist I’ve assembled for 2004 contains so much mid-oughts indie-rock royalty: in addition to my favorite Funeral track, there’s Sufjan Stevens, Franz Ferdinand, Neko Case, Ted Leo and Tegan and Sara. Plus, a handful of relatively obscure but likeminded artists I was assigned to review, including Tamas Wells, Marit Bergman, Tompaulin and Paul Brill, whose New Pagan Love Song (represented by its title track) almost had an 100 Albums entry of its own.

We also have a few ‘90s holdovers putting out some of their best work: a single from PJ Harvey’s unjustly forgotten Uh Huh Her; Morrissey’s second-last great song to date (which rhymes “bullet” with “gullet”); The Magnetic Fields, triumphant at the impossible task of a follow-up to 69 Love Songs; and Sam Phillips with one of her loveliest ever ballads (effectively used in Gilmore Girls and its Netflix sequel).

As always, it’s the oddities I adore the most: the Delays’ wonderfully androgynous vocalist, Loretta Lynn’s beguiling spoken word memoir-piece, Madeleine Peyroux’s so-crazy-it-just-might-work cocktail jazz Leonard Cohen cover. However, let me direct your attention to A Girl Called Eddy (aka Erin Moran (not the Happy Days star)). Her elegant, self-titled debut sounds like a cross between Aimee Mann and Dionne Warwick (with a hint of Karen Carpenter) and like nothing else put out in 2004. “The Long Goodbye” is such perfect, heartbreaking pop I never skip it whenever it comes up on shuffle. She hasn’t released anything since—does that make her this decade’s Jen Trynin?

Click here to listen to my 2004 playlist on Spotify:

  1. Tompaulin, “Slender”
  2. Bebel Gilberto, “Simplesmente”
  3. Delays, “Nearer Than Heaven”
  4. Jens Lekman, “You Are The Light (by which I travel into this and that)”
  5. Sufjan Stevens, “To Be Alone With You”
  6. Tamas Wells, “Even In The Crowds”
  7. The Magnetic Fields, “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend”
  8. Nellie McKay, “Ding Dong”
  9. Rufus Wainwright, “Peach Trees”
  10. A.C. Newman, “On The Table”
  11. A Girl Called Eddy, “The Long Goodbye”
  12. Feist, “One Evening”
  13. Junior Boys, “Teach Me How To Fight”
  14. Mark Mothersbaugh, “Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op”
  15. Loretta Lynn, “Little Red Shoes”
  16. Paul Brill, “New Pagan Love Song”
  17. Kings of Convenience, “I’d Rather Dance With You”
  18. Madeleine Peyroux, “Dance Me To The End of Love”
  19. Tegan and Sara, “Downtown”
  20. The Futureheads, “Meantime”
  21. Marit Bergman, “Adios Amigos”
  22. Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood # 3 (Power Out)”
  23. Mr. Airplane Man, “How Long”
  24. Neko Case, “The Tigers Have Spoken”
  25. Air, “Venus”
  26. The Divine Comedy, “Our Mutual Friend”
  27. Sam Phillips, “Reflecting Light”
  28. Scissor Sisters, “Mary”
  29. Ron Sexsmith, “From Now On”
  30. Morrissey, “First Of The Gang To Die”
  31. PJ Harvey, “The Letter”
  32. Franz Ferdinand, “The Dark of a Matinee”
  33. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Me and Mia”

Kings Of Convenience, “Riot On An Empty Street”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #81 – released July 27, 2004)

Track listing: Homesick / Misread / Cayman Islands / Stay Out Of Trouble / Know-How / Sorry Or Please / Love Is No Big Truth / I’d Rather Dance With You / Live Long / Surprise Ice / Gold In The Air Of Summer / The Build-Up

Read enough criticism and you’ll inevitably come across the phrase, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (or some variation thereof.) It has been credited to everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa, though multiple threads point towards actor-comedian Martin Mull, of all people, as its originator. Regardless, this simile uncovers a truth about music most critics would rather ignore or better yet, transcend: sometimes, it’s a challenge to fully articulate why we like (or hate) a particular piece of music. Obviously, it’s not impossible—at this writing, I’ve spent four years of this blog going on and on about eighty-plus albums. Still, I fear that what I want to express about my love for all this music might occasionally get lost in translation: how can mere words recreate exactly what I felt the first time I heard side two of Abbey Road or the moment when Since I Left You clicked as a whole for me?

I’m reminded of this phrase whenever I try to explain why the music of Kings of Convenience hits me where I live. A Norwegian duo made up of former classmates Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe, they’ve put out three albums of hushed acoustic folk-pop full of close-knit harmonies (somewhat accented but always sung in English) and delicate, nylon-stringed guitar work. Simon and Garfunkel are their most obvious antecedents—their best songs exude the same intimacy of something like “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”—but they also neatly slot in with such liked-minded contemporaries as Elliot Smith or early Belle and Sebastian. Released in the same year as The Strokes’ Is This It and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, their debut’s title, Quiet Is The New Loud (2001) read like both an introduction and a provocation: here were two guys playing indie music not especially in sync with the garage rock revival times, which fit in well with their just plain unfashionable appearances on the cover.

What is it about KOC’s terminally untrendy, relatively simple folk-pop that I so strongly respond to? Øye and Bøe are far from the only duo to ever forge a career together out of songwriting, harmonies and acoustic guitars; arguably, they’ve done nothing as innovative as what The Everly Brothers (or, if you wish to be less charitable, Chad and Jeremy) accomplished decades before. And yet, when “Homesick” opens their second album with its clarion melody and rare, crystalline electric guitar lead, whatever irritations or distractions I’m feeling instantaneously dissolve. It’s calming but also instilled with wonderment approaching awe in the presence of seemingly endless beauty.

All of KOC’s limited oeuvre is worth hearing, but Riot On An Empty Street is the one to get because it builds upon what they established with Quiet Is The New Loud, honing their songwriting craft to a very fine point. As pretty as this music initially appears, it has considerable substance if you look beyond the placid surfaces—not that KOC is in any way dark or depressive, but once you consider the album title’s irony and apparent contradiction, it’s apparent how there’s so much more at play here than unassuming (if not silly) love songs. “Homesick” itself features a narrator whom describes home not by family or friends he’s left behind, but as fleeting memories made flesh by music: “I can’t stop listening to the sound / of two soft voices blended in perfection,” (hmm, whom does that remind you of?) they sing, “From the reels of this record that I’ve found.”

That’s not to say KOC aren’t all-out romantics, but they approach themes of love and infatuation with a pragmatism that bespeaks their Scandinavian background, not to mention the resignation of residing in a place with short-to-nonexistent winter days. “Love Is No Big Truth”, they conclude via one song’s title, while at least allowing for the possibility that “Love comes like surprise ice at dawn,” in another. On “I’d Rather Dance With You”, they lay out the law with ample charm, proposing to sidestep all small talk: “I haven’t read a single book all year / and the only film I saw, I didn’t like it at all,” they confess, so why waste time yelling over the din of the dancefloor and instead use the space as nature intended?

“I’d Rather Dance With You” is rather danceable itself in an indie-disco way, featuring a propulsive beat, banging piano and a lead viola riff. In the album’s midsection, it arrives after two songs that also manage a brighter, fuller, leaning-towards-contemporary sound without feeling at all out of place. On the aforementioned “Love Is No Big Truth”, Øye and Bøe somehow manage to resemble a rootsy New Order, entirely swapping that band’s synths and drum machines for guitars, pianos and live drums rhythmically manipulated to have a similar effect. Likewise, with its chorus eloquently turning on the guys’ harmonies, “Sorry Or Please” crisply shuffles along as if it were trip-hop played on real instruments, accented by strings, a trumpet solo and even a banjo.

Also widening the band’s scope are two guest appearances from Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist (more commonly known by just her surname), shortly before her own breakthrough album Let It Die (and three years prior to her scoring a surprise top ten hit.) On both “Know-How” and “The Build-Up” (which she co-wrote with the boys), she’s deployed as a secret weapon, nonexistent until each song’s second half when her bell-like vocal suddenly takes over. She’s especially effective on the latter track, a pensive dirge that begins with Øye emitting plaintive phrases one by one. Then, the melody changes, perking up ever so slightly as Feist warbles her verses. Still, her album-closing lyrics, where she sings of a sound, “Written on your ticket / to remind you where to stop / and when to get off,” just seem to mournfully hang there, leaving a haunting afterimage.

There are hidden complexities throughout Riot On An Empty Street that can easily catch one off-guard. “Cayman Islands”, with its tranquil, wistful air, sounds like it should be a gentle account of time spent in a tropical paradise, but it’s more a metaphor for pondering the unexpected, labyrinthine path to love and closeness (“How someone could have chosen / to go the length I’ve gone.”) “Misread” wraps its scrutiny of intent and cross-wired communication up in such an alluring bossa-nova package you can get away with playing it at brunch, even with lyrics like, “The loneliest people / were the ones who always spoke the truth.” Meanwhile, “Stay Out of Trouble” affably re-writes Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” for a kinder generation (its narrator simply notes, “Try not to think about me too much,”) but doesn’t ignore a breakup’s pain (“I was alone and freezing / still trying hard to understand you.”)

However, for everything gestating within this music, I get the most pleasure from how it sounds and the tone it settles upon. As the album’s penultimate track, “Gold In The Air Of The Summer” also serves as the apotheosis of these qualities: the warmth of the guitars and piano and how the latter positively shimmers and sparkles in the brief instrumental break; the slow build up and back down again; the air of mystery withheld (opening line is, “Without giving anything away…”), followed by the promise of something found (“And now you and me are on our way,”); and most of all, the silence underscoring Øye and Bøe singing “You’ll shine like gold in the air of summer,” over and over before the piano and guitars resume and the song delicately comes to a close.

KOC returned five years later with a third album, Declaration of Dependence—initially, a minor let-down for simply being more of the same. Fortunately, its impact has deepened over repeated listens to the point where I now consider it nearly equal to its two predecessors. I’m not sure how much more they can eke out of this template, which may be why (at this writing) a fourth album has yet to appear (though they’re apparently working on it.) Still, if there’s one thing I can fully articulate about why I adore this duo, it’s the timelessness of their music—as fresh now as it was fifteen years ago. Much as I also love Simon and Garfunkel, could they even make that same claim fifteen years after their heyday?

Up next: A Reunion.

“I’d Rather Dance With You”:

“Gold In The Air Of Summer”:

Film Journal: March 2018

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Movies seen in March, now with letter grades because I feel like it. Starred titles are re-watches.

The Unknown Girl
This would be Dardennes-by-numbers if not for the new wrinkle of embedding a murder mystery within their usual neorealism; the problem is they don’t have the knack for the former, as its continual presence threatens to drag down the rest of the film (reportedly seven minutes shorter than the 2016 Cannes cut; perhaps they could’ve cut it down further.) Thankfully, Adele Haenel (whom I didn’t recognize from either Water Lilies or Nocturama) gives the film something of a center—her youthful doctor, fixated on responsibility and guilt, contains enough layers and flaws to make her more than a narrative construct. Grade: B-

Patti Cake$
It has all the clichés you’d expect from the Rocky of overweight, working-class, female New Jersey rappers, but I liked it anyway. Credit Danielle Macdonald in what should have been a star-making turn (a cliché, I know, but it really applies here) but also Bridget Everett, who is immense and devastating as the alcoholic, failed rocker mother who refreshingly turns out not to be the film’s villain. Hardly anyone saw this Sundance hit, but if they had, Everett might’ve given Allison Janney some stiff competition at awards season. B+

Thoroughbreds
Starts off a little boring and leaden, with two rich girls (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, both very good) in a passive-aggressive pas de deux. It achieves some focus once the what-to-do-about-the-creepy-stepfather problem is established—a narrative we’ve seen too many times before. Despite all that, first-time director Cory Finley proves a talent to watch. The camerawork, the immaculate suburban, Old Money mansion setting and the almost avant-garde sound design all cohere to bring about an almost thrilling sense of dread which builds to an unforgettable, extended long shot that’s like nothing else I’ve seen. B

The Passion of Joan of Arc*
Utterly shocked and transfixed when I first saw this on a 19” TV screen circa 2001; viewing it again on a giant movie screen in 2018 was no less powerful, even as I knew exactly what to expect. Understandably radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film (at least one I’ve recently seen) that utilizes faces and close-ups like this. Uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this late-silent film’s rare achievement makes me wonder. A+

Frantz
Genre magpie that he is, I don’t believe Francois Ozon has shown this much restraint in any of his previous work, from Swimming Pool to Potiche; I debate whether this is a positive, for the story, a loose remake of Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby cries out for some melodrama. Still, this is sweet but unsentimental, with gorgeous-not-glossy cinematography (including selective, interesting shifts between black-and-white and color) and period design, but also uncommon kindness and introspection over how people process the aftermath of something as traumatic and life-disruptive as war. B

Loveless
Not as sharp a political allegory as Leviathan, nor does it possess that film’s necessary gallows humor (which might’ve been out of place here, anyway.) However, Zvyagintsev remains a necessary critical voice for his country and the petty squabbles between the two never-should-have-married leads are relatable to an almost uncomfortable degree. It’s bleak, but not unrelentingly so—brief, lyrical touches, like Alexey’s swirling red-and-white ribbon or the unremitting duty of volunteering citizens point towards a humaneness lurking within the director’s rigorous worldview. B+

Aguirre, The Wrath of God*
Third viewing and I’m still a little more baffled than seduced (although this time the guitar portions of the score made me swoon.) Here’s the thing: it could use even *more* Aguirre—apart from that immense, justly celebrated opening shot, the film only comes alive whenever Kinski’s glowering mug is onscreen, as if to say, “Well, of course the cameras should be on me! Why would you *dare* look away?” B

The Death of Stalin
Excessively funny and appropriately dark, from the “musical emergency” opening to the slapstick moving-of-the-body to a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child. I may need a second viewing to determine whether this is really of a piece with In The Loop and the best of Veep. Still, Steve Buscemi hasn’t fit so snugly into a role since Ghost World, and that I never even considered him for the Iannucci-verse is just one of many things that keeps this from feeling like a retread. A-

Viva
Notable for actually being shot in Old Havana (a peek into a one-of-a-kind setting) and for its RuPaul’s Drag Race-worthy cabaret performances, which alone are essential viewing. The estranged father/son relationship is fine but takes too long to develop into something involving. Apart from the setting/culture, it has nothing on any Almodovar melodrama. C+

Snow White and The Hunstman
Sillier than the Disney version while also taking itself way too seriously. Kristin Stewart looks so uncomfortable that I’m relieved she and Olivier Assayas found each other. D+

Uncle Howard
Howard Brookner was a promising filmmaker who completed three features before succumbing to AIDS in 1989 (days before he would’ve turned 35). Directed by his nephew, Aaron, (whom he strikingly resembles), this is about average for a dead relative documentary, but the breadth of Howard’s unearthed, archival footage is a treasure trove—not just the numerous outtakes from his William Burroughs doc but also his own artful, affecting video diaries. B-

Nathan For You: Finding Frances
Feels less like a supersized television episode (even though technically it is) and more like a made-for-TV movie due to its uncommon seriousness. Nathan Fielder has always attempted a tricky balancing act between sincerity and satire, and he’s never threaded that line so carefully—at least for the first hour, before you’re almost certain he’s picked the former over the latter. Almost. A-

Talk To Her*
First viewing in a decade with almost unreal expectations—always considered this my favorite Almodovar, his mature masterwork. It’s still one of his best, but more challenging than I remember: the first half feels so slow and subdued, even compared to All About My Mother. But its themes of longing and companionship solidify after the scene whose dialogue provides the title, and rarely since has the director constructed such a tender (if twisted) scenario between two men. Also, Geraldine Chaplin is a hoot here. A

Foxtrot
Despite the title-referencing dance step, where one always ends up in the same place where one started, this is continually unpredictable to a degree most other films are not. The extended mid-section swaps the bookending domestic melodrama for David Lynch/Jim Jarmusch light surrealism, but it’s jarring, as if it was dropped in from another movie. This irritated me as I watched, but I admit the imagery (in particular, the sinking cabin, the outsized spotlight and that darn camel) and unusual pacing has stuck with me. B