Film Journal: November 2018

Films seen in November, with at least one candidate for my 2018 top ten. Rewatched titles are starred.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It’s not so much that Melissa McCarthy is a revelation here as that she finally has a role that allows her to be more than just silly or weird (although she’s occasionally those things too.) The real-life story of Lee Israel, a struggling, middle-aged, alcoholic writer who fell into a brief stint as a literary forger, should be something that works better on page than screen, but director Marielle Heller (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL) translates Israel’s own memoir as if it were a living, breathing, sincere re-creation of Manhattan in the early ’90s (credit the astute adaptation, co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty). Israel and her cohort-in-crime, aging hustler Jack Hock (a perfectly cast Richard E. Grant) are despicable, unapologetic misanthropists, yet they feel so well-drawn that you’re almost compelled to root for them anyway. Grade: A-

Atomic Blonde
Visuals aside, this is just ok, but Charlize Theron is an exquisite badass. C+

Boy Erased
I liked and admired this film, but I didn’t quite love it. It seems to check off all the right boxes: terrific lead performance from Lucas Hedges (and good work from Nicole Kidman), firm handling of sensitive, timely subject matter, a rewarding, effective narrative arc… but it comes across as a little numb at times–much like THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, which I rated higher because it had a stronger, more deeply felt point of view. I don’t want to begrudge straight actor Joel Edgerton for his decision to adapt this particular real-life story, but it feels like the stakes aren’t as crucial as they should be. Everything plays out exactly as you’d expect and almost hope for it to, so it’s a crowd pleaser but alas, nothing revelatory. B-

Meet The Parents*
Still love Greg’s takedown of the flight attendant, which would’ve been unimaginable post 9/11; would probably like the rest of the movie more if not for the shitty sequels. B

Simon of the Desert
Making an effort to become more familiar with Bunuel, as I’ve only seen a handful of his films (and none in the last 15+ years.) This one is rich enough to suggest perhaps more directors should try making 45-minute-long features. The ending’s completely absurd, but it’s kind of the best part, too. B+

The Royal Tenenbaums*
I want to live in this film’s sad, absurd, elegiac world more than any other one. A+

From Here To Eternity
Probably one of the more… interesting casts of its era and holy shit, Sinatra could act. I’m not too big on war films, but until the last ten minutes, this is more a conflicted-about-the-military film with gobs of sex (or the limit of what they could get away with at the time) thrown in. B+

The Battle of Algiers*
Impressive as a large-scale recreation of actual events; even more affecting for its laser-sharp focus on faces and close-ups, as if Pontecorvo was trying to make a Carl Dreyer action film. A-

At Eternity’s Gate
In theory, Willem Dafoe seems a misguided choice to play Van Gogh, given the age difference, lack of resemblance, etc. Happily, he makes a stunning transformation without resorting to extravagant physical enhancements like Gary Oldman as Churchill–he becomes the man, mind and soul more than body; it’s as sharp a left turn as Dafoe could take from last year’s THE FLORIDA PROJECT. At times, Julian Schnabel’s film is a tad more pretentious than provocative, but his imagery is inspired, visually recalling the artist’s renown landscapes and portraits without coming off as mere copies–an impressionist take on a post-impressionist. B

Green Book
Cheesy for sure, but I admit I teared up at the end. What can I say, Viggo is both way too much and yet perfect. B-

The Edge of the World
Starting a deep dive into Michael Powell’s filmography as I make my way through his terrific memoir, A LIFE IN MOVIES. Made a few years before he teamed up with Emeric Pressburger and often cited as his breakthrough work (Powell himself agrees), it’s pretty sophisticated for its era. Filmed on the remote isle of Foula, north of Scotland, the cinematography is predictably stunning, veering between abstract landscapes and more intimate shots. It’s elegiac and soulful for a vanishing way of life, but it also avoids easy sentimentality. You can see why Scorsese is such a fan. B+

Border
From the writer of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a contemporary fable about Tina (Eva Melander), a somewhat dumpy middle-aged guard for the Swedish border patrol who is excellent in her job, mostly due to her intense, visceral, almost superhuman sense of smell. One day, Vore (Eero Milonoff), a man whose unusual physical features closely resemble her own, walks through her checkpoint, and she immediately smells a rat…or at least, something that’s a tad off. From there, BORDER just gets stranger and more otherworldly, all the way to its utterly creepy but still kinda sweet final scene. While the film as a whole doesn’t quite scale the heights of its vampire predecessor, its blend of docu-realism and dark fantasy keeps it afloat. Melander is also a real find, giving one of the best, most original performances I’ve seen in recent memory. B+

Wonder Boys*
Apart from the instrumental score, this has aged beautifully; I suspect its cult will continue to grow.
“Sometimes, people just need to be rescued.” A

The Favourite
The three leads are all great and it has delectably bitchy dialogue (only THE DEATH OF STALIN bests it in that category this year), but on the whole, it feels a bit… empty, I guess. As with THE LOBSTER, I need a second viewing to be sure. B

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2011: Let Me Hear That Song

Kaputt and Northern Gospel, 2011’s two albums that I wrote about here will both likely end up high on my best-of-the-decade list at next year’s end; looking over the songs below, I can see more than a few placing high on the adjoining tracks list: M83’s 2011-meets-1986 anthem, Iron and Wine’s Christine McVie pastiche, Ivy’s house-pop resurrection, Wilco’s catchiest tune (without Billy Bragg), kd lang’s finest ballad, Lana Del Rey’s still-startling debut and R.E.M.’s sweet last gasp.

And that’s not all! Don’t forget Jens Lekman’s cautionary note to the lead actress of a Lars von Trier film, spirited one-shots from alt-country rocker Jessica Lea Mayfield, garage punks Those Darlins’ and Aussie duo An Horse (it was the golden age of discovering new music through iTunes’ free Song of the Week), awesome cover versions from James Blake and Kris Delmhorst, the eerie, Norah Jones-led “Black” (made immortal by Breaking Bad late that year), and of course, Kate Bush’s 13-minute paean to fucking a snowman.

As for The Rapture’s urgent, exuberant dance-rock opus (also a last gasp from them), it’s not a Bee Gees cover—it’s much better than that.

Click here to listen to my 2011 playlist on Spotify.

1. Wilco, “I Might”
2. Those Darlins’, “Screws Get Loose”
3. Atlas Sound, “Mona Lisa”
4. Beth Ditto, “I Wrote The Book”
5. Jens Lekman, “Waiting For Kirsten”
6. Smith Westerns, “Weekend”
7. Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Blue Skies Again”
8. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
9. Emm Gryner, “Heartsleeves”
10. Iron & Wine, “Tree By The River”
11. PJ Harvey, “The Words That Maketh Murder”
12. Kate Bush, “Misty”
13. M83, “Midnight City”
14. The Kills, “Future Starts Slow”
15. Junior Boys, “Playtime”
16. James Blake, “Limit to Your Love”
17. Lykke Li, “Youth Knows No Pain”
18. Kavinsky featuring Lovefoxxx, “Nightcall”
19. Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”
20. Kris Delmhorst, “Tonight She Comes”
21. Lana Del Rey, “Video Games”
22. Ivy, “Distant Lights”
23. St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy”
24. Lady Gaga, “Marry the Night”
25. Florence + The Machine, “What The Water Gave Me”
26. My Morning Jacket, “Outta My System”
27. Cut Copy, “Need You Now”
28. Raphael Saadiq, “Movin’ Down The Line”
29. John Maus, “Hey Moon”
30. Laura Marling, “The Beast”
31. R.E.M., “Uberlin”
32. kd lang & The Siss Boom Bang, “The Water’s Edge”
33. Danger Mouse & Daniel Luippi feat. Norah Jones, “Black”
34. Gillian Welch, “Scarlet Town”
35. Meshell Ndegeocello, “Chance”
36. Lindsay Buckingham, “That’s The Way Love Goes”
37. Washed Out, “Amor Fati”
38. An Horse, “Dressed Sharply”
39. The Rapture, “How Deep Is Your Love?”
40. Tune-Yards, “Bizness”

Emm Gryner, “Northern Gospel”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #92 – released September 10, 2011)

Track listing: Ciao Monday / Last Day On Earth / North / Home / Heartsleeves / Ageless / A Little War / Fast Exit / Survive / Transatlantic

I took on this project not only as an excuse to write about my favorite albums, but also to examine the format itself—what, as a work of art, it can accomplish and contain. I’ve covered albums constructed as musical or thematic suites, albums that are hard-to-categorize hybrids of disparate genres or categories, even an album crafted almost entirely out of other recordings. And yet, any music enthusiast knows that there exists those platonic ideals of the format: the ten (or twelve) track set (initially driven by how many pop songs could fit on two sides of a 33rpm vinyl record) where every piece sounds like it belongs as one equal part of a unified whole. Blue, The Dreaming, 16 Lovers Lane, Automatic For The People, If You’re Feeling Sinister and Seven Swans are but a half-dozen of these types of albums I’ve written about here (among others).

Northern Gospel, the 2011 album by Canadian singer-songwriter Emm Gryner, is a worthy addition to that list. After a pair of independently released albums, she signed to a major label and released Public in 1998 at the age of 23. During a boom time for the music industry, Public didn’t sell well enough for the label to keep Gryner on its roster; since then, she’s released all her music on her own label, which is why you probably haven’t heard of her. I first read about Gryner in Glenn McDonald’s blog The War Against Silence in early 2001; later that year, she released Girl Versions, a covers album featuring songs written by male artists ranging from Ozzy Osbourne to Stone Temple Pilots, stripped down into mostly piano-and-vocal arrangements. At that time, her neat take on Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” received ample airplay on a local college radio station; I soon acquired Girl Versions and most of her back catalog.

Gryner’s talent and longevity is enough to make any reasonable listener seriously question why she isn’t far better known (her highest profile gig was playing keyboards in David Bowie’s touring band not long after Public.) Naturally, her inclination to remain fiercely independent following her brief major-label stint has limited her reach to a potential audience by default. Still, as more artists like Gryner continue to emerge in an era where the music distribution has changed dramatically, audience size and household-name celebrity seem less relevant than ever—in fact, what has always mattered more is the work itself and how it endures.

Sift through Gryner’s extensive discography and you’ll find a remarkable consistency, from the glossy pleasures of Asianblue (2002) to the stark melancholy of 21st Century Ballads (2015). Even the relatively overproduced Public conveys an instinctual knack for melodies and hooks, not to mention Gryner’s strong, effervescent, clear-as-a-bell voice and her lovely piano (and bass) playing. She also tends to include at least one or two perfect pop gems per album: “Summerlong”, “Disco Lights”, “Symphonic” and “Young As The Night” are but a few, as is 2006’s “Almighty Love” which a figure no less famous than Bono listed in an article as one of ten songs he wish he’d written.

What makes Northern Gospel stand apart from Gryner’s previous work is that it is entirely made up of perfect pop gems—you can easily imagine each of them (with perhaps one exception) as an alternate-world hit single. It has no instrumentals, no genre experiments, no brief tracks that serve as intros or outros or links, no medleys or song suites, no mood pieces or tone poems—only ten tight, catchy songs all between two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half minutes long. While this has the potential for monotony or too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome, each song is memorable enough in its own way to register upon impact and resonate with repeated listenings.

“Ciao Monday” opens Northern Gospel on a sprightly blend of whimsy and defiance. “I came alive in 1985 / made a pretty good plan out by the lakeside,” she sings over three resounding piano chords and a brisk acoustic guitar, taking on that well-covered subject of the most hated day of the week. The chorus is playground chant-simple (“Open the door, you can walk right through / Oh, Monday, Monday, I’m done with you”) but it’s infectious rather than cloying, enhanced by handclaps and a heaven-sent, chord-changing bridge (another Gryner specialty.) “Last Day on Earth” may up the tempo a notch and emphasize electric piano and various synths, but it plays as a natural follow-up. Transferring her gleeful kiss-off from the abstract day-of-week to an actual person, she practically beams as she unreservedly admits, “It’s a good day with you out of my life.”

After those two upbeat tunes comes a pair of ballads. “North” feels wistful and spacious, full of echoing piano chords and a rich declarative chorus. “Home” is somewhat slower and a bit mournful, underlining its Beatles-esque piano with soft surges of brass and organ. However, the songs are really two sides of the same coin. After recording albums in locales ranging from Ireland to California, Gryner made this one in her native Ontario. “North” is explicit in its homage to her place of origin (“In my heart you’re North of the border / shining down like the Aurora”) as it pleads for someone to join her there, whereas “Home” turns the tables—the singer is now the one far away from where she grew up, her regret palpable and devastating.

“Heartsleeves”, which follows, is one of ten songs most anyone would want to wish they had written. “Take all of your tears and make / a Great Lake that’ll freeze in winter,” she sings right at the intro, going on to describe an undervalued, perhaps long-distance relationship. With each line, the music builds until it reaches the ebullient chorus which seems to absolutely sparkle and sigh, especially when it hits the repeated lyric, “Don’t / stop / wearing your heart on your sleeve / Don’t / stop / ’cause of me,” those first two words delivered in a charming staccato. There’s no instrumental break at all—Gryner’s poignant melody and vocal carry the entire song, all the way until it circles back to the opening lyric at the close.

The album’s second half includes “Ageless”, an ode to a fellow musician that’s celebratory (“You’re rock n’roll and I’m the queen / when I’m around you”) but not too reverent to be relatable, and “Fast Exit”, whose piano-pounding bop resembles a cross between Carole King and The Pointer Sisters, its breathless, elated rush actually masking another lament to a lost love (“A fast exit / I was wrong / I’ve frozen you in a weekend song.”) In between those two energetic rockers sits “A Little War”, which Gryner originally recorded in a far more spare version on 2000’s Dead Relatives. Here, it’s a majestic, lighter-waving power ballad, flowing with warmth and grandeur, almost her very own “Purple Rain”.

“Fast Exit” ends on an abrupt final note with a sigh from Gryner; the next song almost seamlessly begins with her taking another breath. “Survive” is the most explicit the album comes to embodying its title. Musically, it’s a ballad full of soulful piano chords, Hammond organ and surging electric guitar; lyrically, it feels like the most personal/possibly autobiographical of Northern Gospel’s songs, or at least it hits the hardest. Working through themes of self-doubt, perseverance and day-to-day malaise, Gryner offers the following advice: “The trick is to survive, yes survive / You gotta want to keep yourself alive,” before changing perspective, asking, “Do I, do I?” It’s an intensely intimate detail wrapped in a timeless melody and arrangement.

The album signs off with “Transatlantic”, that least likely alternate-world hit single I referenced above. It’s more ethereal and less direct than anything preceding it, but still an effective closer, its melodious, overlapping vocals resulting in a gorgeous wash of sound, allowing for tension with the electronics underneath. It continues the album’s themes of the literal and figurative spaces between Gryner’s past and present and people she’s known—subject matter that would also work for an introspective, moodier album (and Gryner’s made a few of those.) Northern Gospel opts for the immediacy of classic pop, and such a pairing of sound and content proves irresistible.

Up next: Another near-perfect ten-track album, albeit on the more introspective side.

“Heartsleeves”:

“Survive”:

Destroyer, “Kaputt”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #91 – released January 25, 2011)

Track listing: Chinatown / Blue Eyes / Savage Night At The Opera / Suicide Demo For Kara Walker / Poor In Love / Kaputt / Downtown / Song For America / Bay Of Pigs (Detail)

One of Robert Altman’s best, most perplexing (and thus, underseen) films is 1977’s 3 Women, a drily-amusing-until-it-becomes-incredibly-unnerving psychodrama regarding female friendship and shifting identities. Infamously, he claimed the plot (such as it was) came to him in a dream—not so far-fetched, given its eerie allure and air of inconclusiveness. I’d like to think that Kaputt, the ninth album by Destroyer, the nom de plume of Vancouver-based singer/songwriter Dan Bejar, similarly came to its maker in a dream—on the title track, he even admits as much, rattling off a list of UK music mags (“Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME”) before enigmatically concluding, “All sounds like a dream to me.”

For many listeners, Kaputt will feel strangely familiar as it contains a panoply of identifiable musical touchstones. New Order homages (especially the upfront, Peter Hook-aping bass of “Savage Night At The Opera”) sit besides traces of Steely Dan’s later yacht-rock period insouciance, a measure of Roxy Music-circa-Avalon splendor, the lush, laid-back sweep of mid-80s Brit sophisti-pop groups like Prefab Sprout and The Style Council, and even a little Cocteau Twins-derived ambience, all of it transmitted via Bejar’s outwardly fey warble (somewhat reminiscent of Al “Year of The Cat” Stewart) and a bevy of creamy, cooing female backing vocals.

Upon its arrival, Kaputt seemed a bit out of left field for Bejar. Admittedly, I’d only heard one of Destroyer’s eight previous albums, 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies; primarily, I knew Bejar as one of the three singer/songwriters (along with A.C. Newman and Neko Case) in the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers, who had put out five albums in the decade leading up to Kaputt. With few exceptions (“Myriad Harbour”, “Testament To Youth In Verse”) Bejar’s three or four tunes per TNP record were rarely my favorites due in large part to his voice. Meandering and often mealy-mouthed, it wasn’t as seamless a fit for the band’s razor-sharp power pop as Newman’s melodic tone or Case’s siren call.

Thus, Kaputt’s departure from that template was revelatory: finally, Bejar had constructed (or perhaps stumbled upon) a sound that seemed more forgiving and complimentary to his particular voice. Technically, I can’t exactly pinpoint why they meshed so well together; all these discernible influences should have resulted in an album of record collection rock where listeners could spot the pastiche or facsimile. Instead, it came off as an idiosyncratic odyssey, driven by a sensibility you wouldn’t mistake for anyone else than Bejar’s.

Although it arrives just past Kaputt’s midpoint, the title track is the album’s centerpiece; it may also be the key unlocking a good chunk of its secretive pleasures. Its lead instrument, an electronic sequencer (“doot-deet-doot-dit-doot-deet-doot-dit…”) also acts as its heartbeat, a constant that only disappears near the last of the song’s six-plus minutes. Trumpet and sax filigrees bloom throughout, while warm guitar chords, a disco bass line and atmospheric synths color the spaces in between. As usual with Bejar, the lyrics are more tone poem than cogent narrative, such as the opening lines, “Wasting your days / Chasing some girls, alright / Chasing cocaine / Through the backrooms of the world / all night.” He’s simultaneously hedonistic and almost brutally wistful, particularly whenever a chord change results in an emotional crescendo (notably on the aforementioned rundown of UK music mags, of all things.) More than one person I’ve played this song for assumed it was by Pet Shop Boys, which hints at the grandeur Bejar aims for, but he’s far less arch or purposely clever than Neil Tennant. Like the rest of Kaputt, “Kaputt” is very much its own thing, stretched-out with extra texture but still an immediate, arresting pop song.

From there, the album’s other tracks serve as branches, extending in various directions but all connected to one tree. No less than three of nine tracks here each contain the lyric, “I wrote a song for America,” but it’s simply another reoccurring motif, not leaving the impression that Bejar’s run out of things to say. Similarly, Kaputt’s songs are packed with repeated lyrics woven into the arrangement’s fabrics as much as its horns or synths. “I can’t walk away” (from “Chinatown”), “I won’t and I never will” (from “Blue Eyes”) and “Winter, Spring / Summer and Fall / Animals crawl / towards death’s embrace” (from “Song For America”) are but three examples. In keeping with the idea of dream logic, they don’t hold any hidden meaning; they only convey Bejar’s knack for vocal hooks.

However, to dismiss Kaputt as a triumph of sound over content isn’t entirely fair. “Savage Night At The Opera” contains ample savage wit along the lines of, “Let’s face it, old souls like us are being born to die / It’s not a war until someone loses an eye!” Or take the opening lines of “Blue Eyes”: “You terrify the land / You are pestle and mortar / Your first love’s new order (does he mean the band?) / Mother Nature’s Son (Beatles reference?)” His imagery is often puzzling, but rarely is it blank. Case in point: “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” consists of lyrics Bejar reassembled from text-filled cue cards provided to him from contemporary artist Walker, whose own work deals in appropriation (according to music critic Ann Powers.) It suitably sounds stream-of-consciousness (“Harmless little negress / You’ve got to say yes to another excess / let’s go for a ride today”) but still scans as a pop song, with Bejar crafting sterling hooks out of a few repeated phrases (“Enter through the exit / and exit through the entrance / when you can.”)

Still, both the arrangement and structure of “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” are its most striking features. The extended opening almost tricks you into thinking you’ve put on a Brian Eno ambient album by mistake—all electro-pastoral new age beauty until, just after the two-minute mark, a perky flute hook appears, soon joined by a gently thumping beat and at 2:36, finally, Bejar’s vocal. It goes on for nearly another six minutes, Bejar rattling off verse after verse until the flute hook returns for an equally lengthy instrumental outro, the beat intact while a flurry of overdubbed sax and trumpet solos play us out. The momentum remains slow-building and steady, as it also does on “Poor In Love”, whose breadth seems to expand exponentially with each verse. “Downtown”, on the other hand, shoots out in the opposite direction, vacillating between bouts of crisp funk and lush rumination heavy with echo and negative space.

Kaputt threatens to floats off into the ether with its eleven-minute closer, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” which, like “Suicide Demo…” also proceeds from a low-hum ambience to disco epic, allowing room for the pace to gently ebb and flow in between (while also dropping in a brief lyrical interpolation of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”.) It doesn’t achieve quite the same cumulative build as that earlier track, sort of just abruptly stopping on a cryptic closing phrase (“Nancy in a state of crisis on a cloud”), but that doesn’t distract from or lessen the rest of the album’s achievement (nor does “The Laziest River”, a twenty-minute, mostly instrumental suite that proceeds “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” on vinyl and European CD editions of the album.)

Since Kaputt, Bejar has released two more full-length Destroyer albums: Poison Season (2015) and ken (2017). The former further expands Bejar’s musical scope, containing everything from sumptuous strings to anthemic, Bruce Springsteen-esque (!) rock, while the latter sticks to a mostly electronic sound and closes on his biggest, boldest pop song to date (“Le Regle du Jeu”). But it’s Kaputt that transformed how I view and appreciate Bejar as a lyricist and yes, as a vocalist as well—I even dearly missed him when he didn’t participate on The New Pornographers’ most recent album, Whiteout Conditions.

Up next: (Not just) another Canadian singer/songwriter.

“Kaputt”:

“Suicide Demo For Kara Walker”:

Film Journal: October 2018

Movies seen in October, including three from Japan and two of the year’s best–both of the latter seen at IFFBoston’s Fall Focus mini-festival and slated for release before year’s end. Starred titles are re-watches.

Shoplifters
Naming a favorite film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is like doing the same for his closest progenitor, Yasujiro Ozu–nearly impossible, given their tendencies to revisit and refine themes of domesticity and humanism while maintaining a higher-than-average consistency. SHOPLIFTERS may have finally won Kore-eda the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, but I could name at least three earlier titles of his equally deserving of the prize.

This film hues most closely to one of those three, NOBODY KNOWS in its focus on an impoverished family; only here, it includes adults and children and stretches the notion of what a “family” is. With that in mind, SHOPLIFTERS explores the concept of give and take and how illegal activities such as the titular past time are weighed against both their moral implications and whether or not they serve the greater good. You sense Kore-eda sincerely pushing for the latter but also keeping in mind the former’s importance, which is what makes the film so heartbreaking once its increasingly precarious house of cards begins to topple.

A graceful overview of the human condition via fully recognizable, relatable characters and situations is one of the film’s most admirable qualities. The cast is typically solid for a Kore-eda picture; the standout, as usual, is Kirin Kiki as the family matriarch–her character arc here is especially poignant, given the actress’s recent passing. But there’s so much to love about SHOPLIFTERS, not least of which its kindhearted but fair depiction of how ordinary is, flawed people attempt to survive. On occasion, they may even seek solace in each other; often, the real tragedy occurs whenever one is unable or unwilling to reciprocate. Grade: A

Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary
A total lovefest, but few TV shows deserve one more. B

Heaven Knows What
I no longer feel bad I took so long to see this, as it now plays like a mere warm-up to GOOD TIME, albeit an interesting one. Admittedly, Arielle Holmes annoyed the hell out of me at first, but I grew to appreciate and eventually love her performance–thank the Safdies? B

The Happiness of the Katakuris*
“Like a cross between a slasher film and an all-singing, all-dancing episode of THE LOVE BOAT” is how I described this back in the day; it’s much weirder than that. A tad longer and misshapen than I remember. Perhaps HOUSE (which hadn’t yet been rediscovered in 2002; see below) has supplanted it somewhat in terms of batshit crazy Japanese horror comedies, but it’s still a hoot if you just go with its demented glee. The karaoke homage remains my favorite of the musical numbers; the typhoon climax’s still as giggle-inducing as the best of slapstick Keaton or Allen. A-

A Star Is Born (2018)
As modern Hollywood musicals go, *slightly* better than LA LA LAND, and much better than any umpteenth remake of this hoary old tale has a right to be. If Cooper finally wins his acting Oscar for this, I won’t be disappointed. Questionable camp value aside, I can imagine choosing to watch this again long before BURLESQUE or MAMMA MIA! B

Shaun Of The Dead*
A romp in every sense of the word. Bonus points for sneaking “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” in there. B+

Beautiful Boy
Another great performance from Timothée Chalamet (CALL BE BY YOUR NAME was definitely no fluke) and a good one from Steve Carell (despite him generally being better suited to comedic roles such as BATTLE OF THE SEXES). Along with the perpetually underrated Maura Tierney, they elevate the material in a way Glenn Close’s impressive work couldn’t quite save THE WIFE. In this case, the problem’s less the material than some heavy-handed direction from Felix van Groeningen (THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN). As any movie-of-the-week will show you, melodrama’s not an ideal fit for depicting drug addiction (nor is an overwrought musical score.) While this will undoubtedly comfort those with a loved one going through it, for the rest of us, it’s just an endurance test in watching other people’s misery. B-

Cold War
Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to IDA is cut from the same fine-polished glass: set in post-war Poland and shot in 1:33 black-and-white by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, it spans a fifteen-year period (leading up to roughly the time of the previous film) over which jazz musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and younger singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) have an on-again, off-again love affair. They first meet in a sanctioned troupe meant to spotlight traditional Polish song and dance. Wiktor, disillusioned as the Communist government transforms it into a propaganda vehicle, finds himself wanting to defect from his homeland, while the strong-willed, gregarious Zula has other designs.

Using his own parents as inspiration for the leads, Pawlikowski recreates a culture in the throes of a severe political takeover, drawing implications from the minute to fully societal as he limns his focus onto two very different people who nonetheless are drawn to each other. Each frame is a lovingly crafted tableau, strikingly rendered in high-contrast black-and-white and deep focus photography. The mostly diegetic soundtrack, ranging from hard bop jazz to hymn-like folk songs is a character in itself. I’m not sure if this is ultimately as deep or clever as IDA was, but in the end, it resonated with me a little more. A-

The Silence of The Lambs
Last tried watching this in a dorm room 20+ years ago at 3:00 AM, falling asleep ten minutes in (duh), so it’s great to finally see this on a big screen ALL THE WAY THROUGH (turns out I remember the last twenty minutes, but little before it.) Foster and Hopkins are both career-best, but credit Demme for rendering this more profound than your average horror procedural; even better, it still totally works as an entertaining and smart horror procedural. A-

Mid90s
I’ll go to bat for Jonah Hill as an actor, but Rick Linklater he’s not. He’s assembled a pretty good cast and the skateboarding montages are nice but the clumsy pacing reveals someone with more enthusiasm than talent for this sort of thing. C+

House*
Nothing compares to this glorious, insane mashup of THE HAUNTING, POLTERGEIST and Hello, Kitty! sensibilities. Also, I had to laugh when one of the girls says, “This is like a horror film!” and another (probably “Prof”) dismissively responds, “That’s out of date.” A

2010: So Far Away, But Still So Near

My 2010 top ten albums list is a good example of how such things are prone to being forever in flux. Only Laura Marling (my then #4) made the 100 Albums queue. The top three are still beloved, but there are other Tracey Thorn and Charlotte Gainsbourg albums I love more (the Hot Chip one is good–just not interesting enough for a 1000+ essay.)

Going through my selected tracks below from that year, most are predictable (Belle and Sebastian, The New Pornographers and Goldfrapp on one of my year-end mixes? Who saw that coming?) Still, a few curveballs remain: actual pop/EDM hit “Stereo Love”, which I might’ve heard on Kiss 108 while getting as haircut; “Shark In The Water”, one of my favorite one-hit-wonders (and it wasn’t even a hit here!); “This Charming Life”, Joan Armatrading’s best song in well over twenty years (not that I’ve heard much in the interim); and “Melancholy Beach”, a Gorillaz song you’d easily mistake for Blur in a blind listening test (I know, like most Gorillaz tunes.)

“Dancing On My Own”, however, completely owns this year (and I didn’t even hear it until that November at the earliest.) As excellent as Robyn’s new album Honey is (released three days ago and already a lock for this year’s top ten), nothing on it compares to what will always be her signature crying-on-the-dancefloor anthem, about which I would change absolutely nothing.

Click here to listen to my 2010 playlist on Spotify.

  1. The Divine Comedy, “At The Indie Disco”
  2. The New Pornographers, “Crash Years”
  3. Hot Chip, “Hand Me Down Your Love”
  4. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Dandelion”
  5. VV Brown, “Shark In The Water”
  6. Belle & Sebastian, “I Didn’t See It Coming”
  7. Laura Marling, “Hope In The Air”
  8. Tracey Thorn, “Hormones”
  9. Vampire Weekend, “Giving Up The Gun”
  10. Broken Bells, “The Ghost Inside”
  11. Best Coast, “Boyfriend”
  12. Fitz and The Tantrums, “Breakin’ The Chains of Love”
  13. Corinne Bailey Rae, “Paris Nights/New York Mornings”
  14. David Byrne/Fatboy Slim feat. Theresa Andersson, “Ladies In Blue”
  15. Goldfrapp, “Alive”
  16. Grafitti 6, “Annie You Save Me”
  17. Janelle Monae, “Wondaland”
  18. Laura Veirs, “July Flame”
  19. KT Tunstall, “(Still A) Weirdo”
  20. Metric, “Eclipse (All Yours)”
  21. Spoon, “The Mystery Zone”
  22. Field Music, “Let’s Write A Book”
  23. Edward Maya feat. Vika Jigulina, “Stereo Love”
  24. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, “I Learned The Hard Way”
  25. Guster, “Architects & Engineers”
  26. The Gaslight Anthem, “American Slang”
  27. Gorillaz, “On Melancholy Hill”
  28. Robyn, “Dancing On My Own”
  29. The Radio Dept., “You Stopped Making Sense”
  30. Scissor Sisters, “Invisible Light”
  31. Joan Armatrading, “This Charming Life”
  32. Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
  33. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Bottled In Cork”

Laura Marling, “I Speak Because I Can”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #90 – released March 22, 2010)

Track listing: Devil’s Spoke / Made By Maid / Rambling Man / Blackberry Stone / Alpha Shallows / Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) / Hope In The Air / What He Wrote / Darkness Descends / I Speak Because I Can

It’s not an exaggeration labeling British folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling a prodigy: before turning twenty, she recorded two albums (the first at age 17, beating Fiona Apple by one year) and both were nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize (she lost out to Elbow and the xx.) Furthermore, like Apple, her lyrics and relatively low-pitched vocals had the presence of someone at least twice her age. Impressive from a technical standpoint, for sure, but even on her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, one could easily comprehend her widescreen talent and distinct persona, even if the latter was understandably a bit putative.

In that regard, her second album, I Speak Because I Can, is a substantial advance. Of course, Marling’s still a world-weary teen baring an acoustic guitar (exemplified by track two, “Made By Maid” which is just that and nothing more), but from the outset, she seems more willing to take risks, both with her sound and subject matter. Opener “Devil’s Spoke” begins with neither with her voice nor guitar but a needle drop on a vinyl record, followed by a wash of electronically-enhanced ambient sound that grows in volume until, near the forty-second mark, Marling’s brisk, acoustic strumming enters, starting the song proper. A rhythm section, keys and, in the second verse, banjo flesh out the arrangement. “Hold your devil by his spoke and spin him to the ground,” she commands in the chorus, not exactly possessed but still fiercely determined.

Whereas Charlie Fink, vocalist for Noah and the Whale (a band Marling also briefly sung with) helmed her first album, producer Ethan Johns lends a tad more polish to I Speak Because I Can. Johns had previously worked with a plethora of rock-leaning artists, including Ray LaMontange, Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and Crowded House; three-quarters of Mumford and Sons also play on a majority of these songs, which might’ve quietly overshadowed the scope of Marling’s accomplishment since the band had scored their breakthrough hit “Little Lion Man” between the album’s recording and its release (not to mention Marling was also dating leader Marcus Mumford at the time.)

In retrospect, quibbling over what impact Marling had in spite of her more famous collaborators is irrelevant (she and Mumford would split by the end of 2010), mostly because Marling is so clearly the main attraction here. Any doubts should be extinguished by “Rambling Man”, a statement of purpose as assured and mesmeric as, say, Apple’s “Shadowboxer” or even Sam Phillips’ “I Need Love”. Like many a Marling song, it starts off simply, just acoustic guitar and voice, but oh how lovingly and effortlessly it builds, wrapping a crystalline melody within an arrangement it snugly fits into while also allowing enough room to breathe. Its chorus, “Oh give me to a rambling man / let it always be known that I was who I am,” is one heck of a manifesto for a teenager; she’s convincing enough to get it across.

In another time, “Rambling Man” could’ve become a standard along the likes of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”–a major-key anthem any aspiring folksinger with a guitar in hand would want to cover on stage or while busking. For Marling, however, it’s only one side of her persona, a mere fraction of her capabilities. Here, it also flickers through on “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)”, a perfectly accessible, comforting ballad graced with glistening strings and a melody simple enough to sing the lyrics of “On Top of Old Smokey” to; add a little more piano and it could almost be Tori Amos (albeit with a genuine Brit accent that renders words like “she” and “stay” as “schee” and “schtay”.)

Happily, much of the album traverses off into darker, Boys For Pele friendly territories. On one end of that spectrum, you have “What He Wrote”, a haunted, hymn-like lament inspired by letters written between a World War II soldier and his beloved. Reminiscent of 1960s folk-pop like “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and Fairport Convention’s “Fotheringay”, it’s as delicate as it is engrossing, not least because of tiny motifs such as Marling’s clipped pronunciation of the words “grip” and “ship”. On the other end lies “Alpha Shallows”, a minor-key waltz with guitar arpeggios straight out of Songs of Leonard Cohen and tautly plucked strings. Marling’s also tightly wound, her mounting despair heightened by scores of ringing piano and mandolin. “The grey in this city is too much to bear,” she pleads, her immense but measured passion soon coming out one word at a time: “I / want / to / be / held / by / those / arms,” over and over, so much longing and grief you dearly hope she isn’t just singing into the void.

If that’s not bleak enough for you, the ironically-titled “Hope In The Air” might suffice. A kiss-off to a friend or lover in the guise of a caustic folk murder ballad, it proceeds at a deliberate, dread-accumulating pace: “No hope in the air / no hope in the water / not even for me / your last serving daughter,” goes its oddly catchy chorus. Which each verse, Marling manages to seem more incensed without ever losing composure, nearly speak-singing lyrics like, “My life is a candle and a wick / You can put it out but you can’t break it down / In the end, we are waiting to be lit,” with an urgency and authority you dare not argue with. When she suddenly admits, “Why fear death, be scared of living,” it’s an intriguing counterpart to “Let it always be known that I was who I am,” no matter how much she may now be inhabiting a character; come to think of it, how autobiographical is “Rambling Man”, anyway?

She further muddies those waters whenever she flashes a sense of humor and more than a hint of self-deprecation. Both come through most strongly on “Darkness Descends”: while the lyrics read like an introverted young Goth’s confessional (“Can I just say I don’t feel the light / But darkness descends once more into my life”), the music and melody are as breezy and cheerful as a quick-footed romp at a local pub’s dance night. The tempo also repeatedly comes to a pause, only to start up again as if mocking her for finding an additional thing to fixate on. She keeps all but telling us to leave her alone, only to be silently saying (or perhaps not, via her congenial, multi-syllabic “aaaahhhhs”), “But I’d really wish you’d stay.”

I Speak Because I Can concludes with its title track, a thrilling declaration of resilience in a world crumbling around one’s self. The narrator shouts out to the husband who’s left her, “When you look back to where you started / I’ll be there waving you on.” In the years since, Marling herself has rarely looked back—her subsequent discography is one of this decade’s richest. A Creature I Don’t Know, Once I Was An Eagle and Short Movie all made my year-end top ten albums lists, and in retrospect, 2017’s Semper Femina probably should have as well. With each release, she further expands her musical palette, exploring and occasionally creating new sounds and subgenres. LUMP, her recent collaborative EP with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay, takes a deep dive into atmospheric EDM folk; it’s an unlikely detour and as solid as anything she’s done. And to think—at this writing, she’s not even thirty. Marling remains a former prodigy worth paying close attention to.

Up next: “All sounds like a dream to me.”

“Rambling Man”:

“Hope In The Air”: