From the Archive — In the Valley of Elah

elah

For many, Paul Haggis will forever be the person who directed the most egregious Best Picture Oscar-winner of the past twenty-five years. He’s not. That honor belongs to Ron Howard. I’ll over no further defense of Crash at this time (although I’ll admit I can) and will instead note that Haggis’s follow-up directorial effort is a solid film and boasts a couple tremendous performances. This review was written for my former online home.

The sophomore directorial effort from Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah, takes on the Iraq war with a pointed urgency. More specifically (or more broadly, depending on how you look at it) the film grapples with the cost of war on the people who wage it, those who love them and the very psyche of the country immersed in it. Like Haggis’s Oscar-grabbing Crash, the film is heavy with ambition, examining a multitude of layers in addressing the social ills it puts in its sights. Unlike Crash, it largely overcomes any tendency towards oversimplification or, worse, manipulating the characters and the situations to craft scenarios that state the filmmaker’s thesis with a leaden thump. Instead, it tells a wrenching story with grace and integrity. Even when a scene rings a bit false, it at least feels like it’s still part of the story at hand rather than a Crash-like attempt to show off every bit of the politicized pinwheel.

The story focuses on a man who finds out that his enlisted son has one missing after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Not one for adjusting to others’ paces when a problem needs solving, he loads into his pickup truck and begins investigating the situation for himself. The film is structured as a mystery, with the discoveries of new details regarding the son’s disappearance going hand-in-hand with discoveries about the life the son was leading. The father is played by Tommy Lee Jones as man of conservative dignity, addressing the topless waitress in a topless bar as “ma’am” and unwilling to be seen in his undershirt. Watching him encounter the seediness his son moved through is to realize the film is less about clues to this young soldier’s death and more about clues to his damaged life.

Jones gives a great performance in the lead role. I’ll grant that I only have so much authority to make an decisive statement on his recent career, having remorselessly bypassed many performances, but I still feel confident calling this the finest work he’s delivered since getting a shiny little statue several years ago. Jones subtly shows the crumbling belief system of his character as time and again his personally held truisms about his son, the military, the country and his own approach to the world are proven tragically, hopelessly wrong. Jones has never been shy about infusing some bombast into his characters and there are few actors more capable of spinning warped line readings into revelatory character moments, but here he withdraws and plays everything tight and perfect, showing his inner wounds through his eyes. Charlize Theron is excellent, too, playing a police officer who gets drawn into the case and struggles against the inherent sexism in her department.

That last detail, however, also represents one of the weaker elements of the film, the portions where those who bristle against Haggis’s social-statements-by-numbers soapboxing will find ample evidence that there’s still plenty of weight left in those heavy hands of his. While some of the scenes with her hostile cohorts have the snap of genuine exasperation in the way they depict the reflexive nature of the misogyny, enough others stumble along as undercooked nonsense from a screenwriter laboring to make a point. There are other less glaring moments, as well, but the most significant test of patience may be the final shot. It is the obvious close of the film from the moment it is set up in the first act, and the gesture depicted underlines Haggis’s arguments with blaring emphasis. This is a major punctuation mark attached to the end of the film, as if Haggis has closed with a graphic of a exclamation point. As opposed to the glistening fakery of the cleansing snow at the end of Crash, though, it still feels in character and holds enough hard truth to make it feel less like a manipulation and more like a man coming full circle, returning to a moment from the beginning of the journey that changed him forever.

One for Friday — Toni Childs, “Don’t Walk Away”

childs

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Toni Childs released her debut album, Union. A native of California, Childs spent much of the nineteen-eighties on the fringes of the music scene in London. She cultivated several creative relationships there, showing up in the background of songs here and there. When she moved back to the U.S. for a bit in the mid-eighties, she also connected with David Ricketts, who was one-half of the band David & David. She contributed backup vocals on the duo’s album, Boomtown, and when they split shortly thereafter, Ricketts committed to pitching in on Union. He’s a credited co-producer and co-writer of several tracks, but the material is unmistakably an expression of Childs’s attentive wanderings, especially in the world music influences that settle in like an infused flavor.

On the single “Don’t Walk Away,” little time is wasted before putting the powerhouse vocals of Childs on display. After a little surge of music, Childs busts in with a truncated version of the song’s chorus, and it’s all throaty authority. This will be no dainty singer-songwriter ingenue, but a true belter. At times, it seems the song simply isn’t going to be able to container. Maybe no song really could.

“Don’t Walk Away” found a modest place in the Billboard Hot 100, but she never edged into the main U.S. chart again. I often think of Childs as someone who flared and faded into obscurity, but she just opted for a productive change of home base. Evidently, she was huge in Australia, notching several Top 40 singles and selling a slew of albums. Her 1996 “best of” collection was the country’s fifth biggest selling release of that year. A diagnosis of Graves’ disease one year later understandably slowed her productivity, but she’s still actively engaged in developing new music and connected theatrical experiences.

Listen or download —> Toni Childs, “Don’t Walk Away”

(Disclaimer: Like most of the A&M releases from the stretch of the late-eighties and early-nineties when they committed to having a high number of idiosyncratic, college-radio-ready artists in their stable, I believe Union to to be out of print, at least as a physical object that can be acquired from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensate both the proprietor of said shop and the original artist. This song is being shared in this manner in this space with that understanding, but also with the strong recommendation to head out and engage in commerce that actively helps music artists. The track is shared as a catalyst, not a replacement. Although I fully believe my actions qualify as fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

The Art of the Sell, XTC, “Making Plans for Nigel”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

xtc nigel

I think of the various college rock bands from my youth as being hobbled by a lack of inspired promotion by their record labels. Then again, XTC got a whole board game to help push their 1979 single “Making Plans for Nigel.” What I wouldn’t give for a Dirty Computer game (as opposed to a dirty computer game, which I really don’t need, thanks).

Now Playing — Ant-Man and the Wasp

wasp

As the superhero comic book publisher with the firmest commitment to continuity, Marvel occasionally felt obligated to start an issue with a clarifying caption that placed the story therein on the vast fictional timeline. Something on the page that’s not quite synching up with other titanic tales currently filling the spinner rack? That’s easy to explain, true believer: Events in the periodical in question take place before Captain America #180, so that’s why Steve Rogers is still donned in red, white, and blue. For example.

With that in mind, it seems important to note that Ant Man and the Wasp — which is essentially Marvel Cinematic Universe Part XX — takes place before Avengers: Infinity War, its immediate predecessor on the studio’s release schedule. Some other cinematic effort will be charged with picking up the pieces scattered by Thanos and his special bejeweled glove. Tonally, that’s not really where the movies featuring the practitioners of Pym Particles are at. This is the frothier corner of the Marvel Universe, where the charming absurdity of superhero science is met with a grin and a wisecrack.

As the film opens, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is under house arrest, a repercussion of his excursion to tangle with other costumed do-gooders on foreign soil. He’s also fallen out of touch with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), but he initiates contact again after experiencing a strange vision associated with his previous excursion into the microscopic quantum realm. That sparks the adventure to life, and the stuffed script (credited to five writers, including Rudd) brings in a supervillain called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a quest to find Hope’s long-lost mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the quantum realm, evasions of governmental authorities led by FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and nefarious thugs (led by Walton Goggins, speaking with full Boyd Crowder loquaciousness) who want to steal Pym’s technology.

Director Peyton Reed juggles the abundance of material admirably. Not everything has the same zing and a couple major dilemmas are solved with suspicious ease, but the film builds energy as it moves along. As the title promises, Hope has donned the Wasp suit presented to her at the end of Ant-Man, and Lilly remains the true standout in the series. Invariably, the performers can start to feel like mere cogs in the machine in the Marvel movies, but Lilly imbues Hope with an unyielding sense of purpose. Others can feel like they’re tumbling in for movie moments, but Lilly is grounded. She lives in this world and reacts to its outlandishness accordingly.

At a time when the characters from the various Marvel movies are romping freely across the boundaries of individual films, Ant-Man and the Wasp is blessedly self-contained. It’s clear that Scott, Hope, and the gang will be roped into the greater cataclysm soon enough. For now, though, it’s satisfying to see them doing their own thing, racing around the streets of San Francisco and dealing with challenges a little more modest than threats to the very fabric of the universe. Staying on brand, Ant-Man and the Wasp succeeds in part because of its attention to the small stuff.

Playing Catch-Up — Ocean’s Eight; Only the Brave; Brigsby Bear

eight

Ocean’s Eight (Gary Ross, 2018). In concept, this stab at reviving the Ocean’s heist film franchise is clever, especially in the way it reshapes the fundamentals to reflect the gender-swapped crew. Maybe it relies on stereotypes, but I like the wall the masculine garish flash of Las Vegas has been supplanted by the Met Gala, to cite one example. In execution, though, Ocean’s Eight is surprisingly drab. The long con has no snap to it, and the cast of aces is left stranded in characters that haven’t been fleshed out past their introductory traits. Gary Ross was once a filmmaker of some promise, but here he takes the material and practically embalms it.

 

only the brave

Only the Brave (Joseph Kosinski, 2017). Adapted from a GQ article about the firefighter who lost their lives in the blaze that took over the landscape outside Yarnell, Arizona in 2013, Only the Brave is the sort of serious-minded docudrama that used to be well-represented on the major studios’ release schedules. The rarity of such a thing in this time of cinematic gods and monsters makes it tempting to overpraise it. The mere existence of the film is a triumph. And Only the Brave is commendable in many ways. The lead performance by Miles Teller engages a lower working class stiff grinding his way out of self-inflicted hardship with tough honesty and a welcome lack of condescension. And the film deftly avoids sensationalizing its central deadly cataclysm, the fatal flaw of the similar Deepwater Horizon. Even so, the script is peppered with problems, including a dream sequence that haunts crew leader Eric “Supe” Marsh (Josh Brolin) and a pervasive sense that it’s sanitizing the culture of these rough men who face down death for a living. Liberated from the nonsensical science fiction myth-making of his previous features, Joseph Kosinski directs with a commendable respect for the emotional and narrative clarity.

 

brigsby

Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2018). In this odd indie comedy, Kyle Mooney stars as James Pope, a young man who spent his whole life in a secluded bunker presided over by parental figures who kept him diverted with a steady stream of videotapes featuring the adventures of a fictional bear who looks like he started on his quests after being kicked off New Zoo Revue. When James is liberated from his captivity, the confusion of the real world makes him fixate on his childhood hero Brigsby Bear even more, because it’s the core of his identity and therefore his only hope for rebuilding a sense of self. Brigsby Bear almost finds its way to insightful observations about the ways in which art and the creative process — especially in the service of lighter fare — can provide a mechanism for dealing with trauma. Dave McCary doesn’t quite seem to know how to instill the necessary weight into the film’s ideas, leaving a finished product that too often feels like a gimmick that hasn’t quite developed into a story.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #900 to #897

waterboys pagan

900. The Waterboys, A Pagan Place (1984)

When Mike Scott got underway on A Pagan Place, the sophomore album by his band the Waterboys, the preceding material hadn’t yet seen release. Instead of responding to any feedback from the public, Scott was still very much guided by his own perception about how the Scottish band’s sound should evolve, at least initially. Of course, it’s an open question as to whether or not Scott has even been all that concerned with outside notions about what he’s up to with his music.

It’s no wonder “The Big Music” was selected as a single. Both in title and execution, it offers a succinct description of the what the Waterboys deliver. Although officially the second album, A Pagan Place is arguably Scott finally getting to build up the Gaelic wall of sound he likely always had in mind. The tracks fill up with thick layers of sound, different elements being introduced with happy abandon. This was the first album to feature short-term Waterboy — and future World Party frontman — Karl Wallinger, and there’s a clear sense that Scott is leveraging the presence of the skilled collaborator into complex, fulsome avalanches of earthy sounds.

Scott could sometimes grow overly insular in his approach, following the eddy of his songwriting instincts until anyone paying attention could grow a little dizzy. Even as the title cut provides ample evidence that Scott’s propensity for endless vamping can be thrilling, the album mostly succeeds because of the recurring sense that he’s looking outside of himself for inspiration. “Church Not Made with Hands” imagines a woman who achieves a spiritual satisfaction through her own sense of assurance, and “Red Army Blues” is rendered from the perspective of a Soviet soldier. Apart from the lyrics, Scott’s music sense is sometimes more approachable, evidenced by the way “The Thrill is Gone” recalls Van Morrison and “All the Things She Gave Me” almost sounds like a song that could have become a broader hit (maybe because it bears at least a passing resemblance to Simple Minds’ “All the Things She Said,” a song that, it should be noted, arrived on record one year later).

This is, after all, Scott somewhat early in his career, before principles hardened into combativeness. On A Pagan Place, there’s a feel of camaraderie, of wanting to make music for all to hear.

 

 

jane sky

899. Jane Siberry, The Speckless Sky (1985)

The Speckless Sky is the third album from Canadian performer Jane Siberry. In her home country, it was a significant hit, winning her awards and pushing her high on the charts. It rattled up some interest in the U.S., too, but Siberry’s sound was just strange enough, especially at the time, that it’s hard to imagine any real breakthrough was imminent. Siberry was such an odd match that her first three albums were released in the States on Windham Hill Records, a label far better known for somnambulant new age music than the pop deconstructions Siberry crafted. It’s like the music universe just gave up and dropped her somewhere at random.

I’d wager some college programmers never even found this album because it arrived in a Windham Hill package. Those who did clearly found something to like. There’s an enduring generosity toward the idiosyncratic on the left end of the dial. The songs on The Speckless Sky are in a perpetual state of reinvention. The proof of Siberry’s vision is in a track like “Vladimir • Vladimir” which anticipates the revered pop abstractions of M83, well over a decade away. “One More Colour” sounds like Cocteau Twins if Rickie Lee Jones had performed some sort of baptism that chased the ethereal mysticism from their souls, and “Mein Bitte” is a new wave song emanating from a melting jukebox in a fever dream.

“Map of the World (Part II)” is maybe the ideal version of a Siberry song, in that it sounds like Laurie Anderson, but with a guiding spirit drawn more from classic pop records than the jagged confrontation of the nineteen-seventies New York art scene. It has a swarm of complicated melodic and lyrical information loaded into it (“I led my horse along the latitudes/ Across the folds and into white/ And somehow along the way/ My horse slid off sideways and was gone forever”), but it still feels grounded in a way that makes it no more absurd or inscrutable than the countless pop songs that fill in the corners with cheerily trilled nonsense syllables. In a wonderful alchemy, Siberry makes the strange seem sensible.

 

 

journey departure

898. Journey, Departure (1980)

I’m loathe to compliment journey, but I have to admit that “Any Way You Want It” makes for a mighty impressive kickoff to an album. Departures was the sixth album for Journey, but only the third since they’d undergone a serious reinvention which included the hiring of Steve Perry as lead singer. After scuffling on their first few records, that band — at the urging of their label — was actively trying to make hits, and “Any Way You Want It” absolutely announces itself as one, exploding with the forceful chorus from the very first note.

And so my praise for Departure comes to an end. The rest of the album ranges from pedestrian to dreadful, bearing all the worst hallmarks of the slicked up album rock posturing of the day. “Walks Like a Lady” is modern blues music drained of all authenticity and danger, but at least its gutty simplicity gives it a reasonable forward momentum. The band fares worse when they try harder, as on “People and Places,” which is like something their fished out of Pete Townshend’s trash the morning after a dark night of the soul found him taking an ill-advised pass at writing some desperate post-disco Tommy II.

The album also includes the dreadful power ballad “Someday Soon,” pushy guitar histrionics on “Line of Fire,” and the thunderously dumb rock grind “Homemade Love.” Disconcerting common for the era, “Where Were You” is gross rock star pining for a young girl (“Where were you/ When I wanted you to love and hold me tight?/ Where were you, little darlin’/ When you said to pick you up after school?”) that has an added dollop of skeeziness when the elusiveness of the presumed-minor is dismissed with the lyric “I don’t mind, little baby/ Cause your sister’s lookin’ real good to me.”

I can heap all the derision I want on Departures, but it proved Journey were on the right path. It was the band’s first album to make it into the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart, and it basically staked out the creative course they’d follow for their next release, Escape, which became a smash that to date has sold over nine million copies.

 

 

nitzer that

897. Nitzer Ebb, That Total Age (1987)

David Gooday, Vaughan “Bon” Harris, and Douglas McCarthy met while attending school in Essex, England. Dismayed by the light, silly pop that was able to make it all the way to the top of the British charts in the early nineteen-eighties, the trio decided to form their own band that would be vicious and confrontational in wielding synthesizers and other electronic instruments.

“We wanted to remove ourselves from that English music scene generally, and a lot of the music we identified with was coming from Europe, so we wanted a name that sounded kind of European,” Harris told The Chicago Tribune years later. Nitzer Ebb was pure nonsense, but it evoked the likes of Kraftwerk and other krautrock ruffians. It stuck, and the group started crafting fierce, agitated pop with shouted lyrics. Once they connected with producer Phil Harder, the industrial groove really locked in, and the band’s debut album, That Total Age, arrived in 1987.

The album plays like anger fed through a vocoder overcome with decay. It’s music for punks who want to dance, but don’t want to put up with the wounded luxury of Depeche Mode to do it. “Murderous” is emblematic, pairing shouted slogans with a surging electro rhythm and buzzing noises that elbow their way in from time to time.  Like other dance-friendly music, the material on That Total Age is resolutely repetitive. “Smear Body” sometimes feels like it’s settled into an unbreakable orbit and it will continue playing when the planet is broiled to inhabitability. “Let Your Body Learn” has a similar treadmill relentlessness.

It’s no wonder some enterprising internet user correctly determined that playing all ten tracks simultaneously was roughly as artistically satisfying as any other configuration of presenting the album. That’s not a criticism. It’s simply a honest report about how this music is built.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

 

From the Archive — House Party 2

house party 2

There were some films I covered during my three year tenure as co-host and co-producer of a weekly movie news and reviews radio show in the early nineteen-nineties that I remember as actively making me angry. This was one of them. I’m fairly sure I made that clear when I delivered this review on mic. I preserved the quotation marks I included in the script, certain they were a signal to heighten the clear contempt in my voice when I uttered the words contained within them.

The film House Party 2 sends a very clear message about women. Women are objects whose sole purpose is to provide pleasure to men. The house party referred to in the title of the film is in fact a “jammie jam,” where women who are dressed “appropriately,” meaning in skimpy lingerie, are allowed in for free and all the men have to pay ten dollars for the privilege of ogling them. Women are supposed to do whatever their man wants them to, and any woman who is determined to think for herself — say, for example, a feminist played by rapper Queen Latifah — is treated as a minor villain.

Some may say this rampant sexism is a simply a characteristic of the culture that House Part 2 immerses itself in. If the film were merely documenting those sexist attitudes, as the far superior film Boyz in the Hood did, then it would be excusable. Instead, House Party 2 is celebrating those attitudes, absolutely reveling in the distasteful treatment.

Actually, House Party 2 has an abundance of reasons why it’s just not good. In the film rapper Kid goes off to college, and his cohort Play loses his tuition money to a shady woman promising a record contract and a king’s ransom. This causes Kid to struggle with jobs and grumpy deans, plus try to deal with all his classes. And it’s all tired and hackneyed. Of course there will be one college professor who’s extra hard on Kid and eventually help him see the light and realize what a good student he can be. Of course Kid and his girlfriend will drift apart only to come back together again. And on and on. By the end, you’re longing for the joyous fun of that promised house party, but the film even cheats you out of that. By all rights, the party should be fun to watch. Instead, it’s just as dull as the rest of the film.

There are several performers in this film who one imagines would be entertaining with better material. Tisha Campbell, playing Kid’s girlfriend, is a smart charmer, Georg Stanford Brown is striking and imposing as a college professor, Queen Latifah approaches her character with impressive conviction, and Kid has a natural, upbeat comic sense. All of it is wasted here. This film is a house party none of them should have attended. I know I wish I never had.

1 star, on the 4 star scale.