From the Archive — Marie Antoinette

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This was originally written for and posted at my former online home. 

There was a lot of suspicious murmuring when the teaser trailer for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette hit. It looked like a period piece, but what was that New Order song doing there? Coppola was announcing that she was going to make a period piece, but she was going to make it her way. If that meant incorporating early 1980s pop songs, so be it. After all, it’s not necessarily more anachronistic that incorporating late 90’s art pop into a film set in the mid 1970’s, or automatically adding an orchestral score to any movie set in any time, for that matter. And if that proved to be the first indicator of a pervasive personal stamp on her film, all the better. If only.

The shortcomings of Coppola’s film are handily illustrated in the lead performance by Kirsten Dunst. Unlike some, I have no immediate problem with Dunst in the role. In fact, if the only Oscar ballot sent in annually was from me, she’d have two nominations by now. In this film, Dunst is quite good in the early going, when the queen-to-be she is portraying is surveying the world she has been ushered into with a childlike hesitancy and confusion. As the history progresses and the role requires greater depth and commitment, Dunst has nothing to give. She’s lost, reciting lines rather than conveying a life. It may not be her fault, as it seems like Coppola herself loses interest when her privileged girl becomes a woman and a ruler. The verve and observation of the earlier scenes slips away and a hopelessly familiar period drama fills the screen.

Coppola does use her pop songs — Gang of Four, The Cure and Adam Ant are among those who’ve had their back catalog raided — but does sparingly. The only stretch in which they feel like an integral part of the film is during a relatively brief wallow in Marie Antoinette’s legendary decadence. Sometimes it truly enriches the film, giving it a rules-free post-modern kick as in the scene in which the dancers at an 18th century French ball spin around as “Hong Kong Garden” from Siouxsie and the Banshees fills the soundtrack, the gothic indulgence and romantic flourishes of the music unexpectedly serving as perfect accompaniment. Other times Coppola undermines her own boldness with woefully literal usage of the songs. The last thing any film needs is shots of stockpiled sweets set to the pounding rhythms of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.”

There is a certain wit that flashes in Coppola’s construction, especially as she walks us through the smothering attention Marie Antoinette receives. It’s more convincing when Coppola remains committed to the time and place of the film, refraining from drawing modern parallels such as the unfortunate moment when the notorious comment “Let them eat cake,” is used to set up a clumsy indictment of tabloid culture. Like a lot of period pieces, this film allows ample opportunity to get visually drunk on the art design (we’re convinced of the indulgent nature of this monarchy by the densely designed wallpaper alone) and Coppola as well-served by cinematographer Lance Acord here as she was with Lost in Translation. It’s always pretty to look at, even when Coppola fails to make it interesting to think about.

The film is based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: A Journey, but the journey is precisely what’s missing from Coppola’s film. We get the signposts, but little else of this woman’s life experience. There’s no resonance, just those pop songs echoing fruitlessly in our heads.

This Week’s Model — Lizzo, “Cuz I Love You”

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When I write about music, there are a few synonyms I might employ to avoid repetition of the word “singing.” I’m partial to “belting,” but I probably need to retire the term. How can it be applied with any accuracy to any track that follows Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You”? In a phenomenal, blessedly tight three minutes, the Midwestern modern chanteuse absolutely sings the hell out her lyrics of helpless affection, as if she simultaneously grabbed batons passed by Nina Simone, Darlene Love, and Sharon Jones and then sprinted forward another hundred yards. Backed by a prowling, punching blast of music — orchestrated big enough to drown out lesser singers, but merely a humbled companion to Lizzo’s voice — the cut is decisive, thrilling, and wonderfully exhausting all at once.

I could type out more thoughts, but those words would be mere sputtering, pure futility. The performance is an earthquake bomb, impossible to collapse into description. My heavens, this is special.

 

Playing Catch-Up — Bohemian Rhapsody; Birds of Passage; Ralph Breaks the Internet

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Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher, 2018). This biography of Freddie Mercury, concentrating on his time as the frontman of Queen, is almost startling in its ineptitude. Put aside that it treats the basic chronology of the band’s history as jumble of incidents that can be rearranged at will, reduces most of the characters (including the protagonist) to flavorless dopes, and even that it fabricates an extended hiatus in order to inject phony suspense to the famed performance at Live Aid. In its most fundamental narrative mechanics, it is a baffling failure, made with a level of clumsiness that somehow passed through an array of entertainment business gatekeepers. The torturous production history is partially to blame, but no one deserves extra credit for conducting a rescue mission in a leaky boat. Dexter Fletcher is officially uncredited for his efforts as an unexpected understudy to director Bryan Singer, who was fired midway through production. If his name had been put on the posters, he would have been forgiven for traveling theater by theater to cross it off. Rami Malek is no more than a mediocre mimic as Mercury. As with every other part, the wigs, makeup, costume, and other transformative elements account for the majority of the performance.

 

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Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, 2018). Many of the beats in this crime drama are familiar. The novelty of the setting jolts the story away from any narrative weariness. Birds of Passage is sharp and dizzying, lofting its tangled conflicts between drug trade factions to Shakespearean heights. Spanning from the early nineteen-sixties to the cusp of the eighties, the film has a headlong momentum into violent collapse, made yet more fascinating by the cultural particulars shrewdly adding another level of convincing motivation to the treacherous pride and vengeance that practically guarantee a brutal fate. Directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego flash a strong visual sense without sacrificing clarity, even in the handful of moments built around dream logic. The performances are all solid, with an especially strong turn by Carmiña Martínez as the family’s matriarch who’s equal parts spiritual and pragmatic.

 

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Ralph Breaks the Internet (Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, 2018). Like its predecessor, Ralph Breaks the Internet leaps joyously into a premise laden with possibilities and then draws surprisingly little inspiration from it find there. This time out, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) brave the World Wide Web in search of a part needed to rescue the latter’s home video game from the scrapheap. There’s fun to be had with the vagaries of online culture, and the film absolutely has some clever bits. It’s telling, though, that the comic highlight is some mischievous tweaking of Disney princess tropes which could have have been mined with justification if Ralph were breaking cinema history, the children’s section of the local library, or, thanks to a nifty parody song with music from none other than Alan Menken, a soundtrack-heavy CD collection. There’s simply not enough rigor to the storytelling. Silverman gives a terrific voice performance as Vanellope, building who emotional journeys into single lines.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #776 to #773

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776. Buzzcocks, A Different Kind of Tension (1979)

Buzzcocks operated with a raw nerve openness (few other bands would be so brazen to release a single called “Orgasm Addict” in the nineteen-seventies), so it makes sense that their final album signals the reverberating conflict that was about to shake the band apart. A Different Kind of Tension is what the album title promised, plausibly reflecting the edgy guitars and squalling melodies that dominated the band’s sound. But it could also be as simple as an admission that the band members’ sometimes divergent outlooks were reaching a point where continuing as a collective was untenable.

In a wonderful way, “Sitting Around at Home” can’t quite settle on which type of tension is best, veering between plodding and racing in its pace. Therein is the dazzling unpredictability of the band. Buzzcocks’ offerings exist in the place between punk and post-punk, less a figure on the evolutionary chart than the atmosphere around the shuffling beings. The post punk burble of “Raison D’etre” is practically a template, but it also somehow exists in its own sweaty, snarled space. The band can the material up with all sorts of studio effects — as with the album’s radio dial sound effects or the weirdo robot voice on the title cut — but the steely spine of expert songcraft running through the tracks is what’s memorable.

“I Don’t Know What to Do with My Life” is a razor wire assessment of the perpetual disappointment of youthful existence, when it seems like the height of foolishness to join a society that refuses to extend a gracious helping hand (“I don’t know what’s gone wrong with my life/ But you know I never do seem to win/ Whenever I think I’ve straightened it out/ It becomes a vicious circle again”). In its capturing of the glum wheel-spinning of a spiked hair, leather-clad generation, the cut could make a claim for being the quintessential Buzzcocks song in the same way “Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me” is the essence of Morrissey’s elegant self-pitying misery, never to be bested. But it exists on very same album with the piquant “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” an unrequited love song that could Pete Shelley’s finest moment as a songwriter.

The breakup of Buzzcocks was probably inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it had to be permanent. Trailblazers in every way, Buzzcocks were one of the bands that helped established the notion of ahead-of-their-time acts returning to the fray after the time finally started to catch up. Reunion gigs started before the eighties were up, and a new studio album arrived in 1993. In all, Buzzcocks released twice as many albums in the revived iteration as they did the first time around.

 

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775. The Psychedelic Furs, All of This and Nothing (1988)

Approximately one decade deep into their career, the time had clearly come from the Psychedelic Furs to break the seal on the fine art of scavenging their recording history for a “best of” album that could be peddled to masses with curiosity piqued by modest hits but unlikely to hunt down selections from the back catalog. Following the attention roused by a rerecording of early single “Pretty in Pink,” for the movie of the same name, Psychedelic Furs made a clear stab at commercial crossover success with the 1987 album Midnight to Midnight, which worked somewhat. It was their highest-selling album in the U.S. and spawned the band’s sole Top 40 single in the U.S.

The single in question, the gloriously dramatic “Heartbreak Beat,” is present on All of This or Nothing, buried deep in the track listing, as if the band was determined to make the unschooled curious run a proper gauntlet of what came before. It’s a version of the mild combativeness built into the band’s persona, exemplified by frontman Richard Butler’s churlish unwillingness to play the music biz game he’d joined. The lax churn of “All That Money Wants,” the requisite new song recorded for the release, was reflective of his unease with playing shows in front of the band’s set of new fans, indifferent to all but the few songs they knew from MTV, though the typically cryptic lyrics can make that difficult to parse (“I’m drowning in my sleep/ Painted lies on broken lips/ That promise heaven tastes like this/ Came home pushed and full of pins”).

In a college radio station library, All of This and Nothing was essential, and it surely did well on the charts as a new release because there were plenty of student programmers excited to play the likes of “Love My Way” and “Heaven” without whatever restrictions might be in place to prevent overly redundant raiding of the broader library. At the station where I earned my FCC operator permit at the time this album was release, “The Ghost in You” would have been allowed on air no more than once a week, but All of This and Nothing‘s place in rotation meant it could instead be played every day. I suspect were weren’t the only broadcast outlet that boosted this record’s airplay because of such a loophole.

At the time of the collection’s release, there was some scuttlebutt that Psychedelic Furs might be winding down, done in by their own success. The end was indeed nigh, but not quite that nigh. The band’s next studio album, Book of Days, came out the following year.

 

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774. R.E.M., Green (1988)

R.E.M. wasn’t the first band to mimic the journey of the students who played them on college radio and take a career step that resembled graduation, but their leap was probably the most momentous. As college radio came of age in the nineteen-eighties, R.E.M. was without question the band. Every album received saturation airplay on the left end of the dial, and the quartet from Athens, Georgia maintained their indie cred through little acts of rebellion, like staying loyal to their original independent label, pointedly refusing to lip sync in music videos, and keeping record sleeves free of printed lyrics. Green didn’t quite change all of that, but it came close.

Following five studio albums with I.R.S. Records, released at roughly a yearly pace, R.E.M. signed a multimillion dollar deal with Warner Bros., about as a large of an entertainment conglomerate to which they could tether themselves at the time. Gifted with more money and studio time then they’d ever enjoyed before, R.E.M. set out to craft an album that pushed them in slightly unfamiliar directions sonically and creatively. It’s heard clearly in cuts “Pop Song 89,” “Get Up,” and “Stand,” all of which had a gloss and bounce not found on the band’s previous records. Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills went so far as to swap instruments at times, eliminating any overt comfort or complacency.

“We wanted to do something a little different, and also to get away from the whole idea that you had to have bass, drums, and guitar to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Buck later said.

“The Wrong Child” pushes into the unexpected by discordantly layering slight instrumental plucking and emotive vocal work, and “Turn You Inside-Out” adds a bruising abrasion that would later come into fruition on Monster. Michael Stipe’s vocal provides the primary texture on “Hairshirt,” which is almost unbearably tender. The untitled closing track is wistful and sweet, and “You Are the Everything” wears the guise of a standard love song while hinting at deeper meaning in its cryptic lyrics. “World Leader Pretend” is the exception to the no printed lyrics rule, suggesting it is the cut that merits the closest scrutiny, a sort of centerpiece to the record.

“For me, the big moment is ‘World Leader Pretend,'” Stipe later told Rolling Stone. “It’s a tribute to Leonard Cohen, using military terms to describe a battle within. I was so proud of the lyrics and my vocal take that I refused to sing it a second time. I did it once. That was it.”

Given the outlay of money given to R.E.M., and the recent blazing success of their contemporaries U2, there was some expectation that Green was meant to be a blockbuster and any other result would be tragic. Instead, the album performed roughly on par with its predecessor, Document, reaching a similar Billboard album chart peak and producing one Top 10 single. The band’s major commercial breakthrough was still one album away. For that one, they started lip syncing in videos.

 

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773. Close Lobsters, What is There to Smile About (1988)

Hailing from Scotland, Close Lobsters shoved their way onto the U.K. music scene in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, exhibiting the sort of brash indifference to their own success that was irresistible to the music press in their home territories. The band’s first album was released in 1987, but the always eager marketplace demanded more. Or maybe the music biz honchos the band answered to were worried about a fickle audience careening away in search of the next big new thing. Either way, Close Lobsters were obligated to deliver an EP as a swaying bridge in between more significant efforts. In this case, the truncated batch of new tracks, entitled What is There to Smile About, is far more than a stopgap. The EP is sharp and scintillating, better than many of the revered album of the era and indeed topping any of the full-lengths released under the band’s name.

The title cut is a chiming, soaring blast of tuneful cynicism, and it’s matched in its cheerful negativity by the single “Let’s Make Some Plans” (the suggestion of the title is explained by the next lyric: “Cuz they can go wrong”). “Violently Pretty Face” is like a vintage Psychedelic Furs song delivered with greater ease and confidence, as if Close Lobsters had comfortably hit the next developmental phase that was eluding their immediate predecessors in the category of brash tunesmiths.

What is There to Smile About suggests that Close Lobsters could have benefited from a slightly different model than the one that took prominence in their era. The U.K. still had a robust trade in singles and EPs, but the album was king in the States. But the tight economy of two short sides and out was perfect from the Close Lobsters’ brand of catchy insolence. As expected, they released an album — the solid enough Headache Rhetoric — one year later. What is There to Smile About is the better, stronger statement of their artistic capabilities. Not every band needs two long sides.

 

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 — Miller’s Crossing

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There were few actors who could take full command of a film like Albert Finney. Immediately intimidating, Finney was a bull among fawns. But he was also nimble, cunning, authentic, and playful. He didn’t work all that often, yet racked up accolades that he gladly rejected, refusing to be knighted and steadfastly bypassing the Academy Awards, though he was nominated five times. I didn’t review many of Finney’s films over the years (he was far more prolific as an actor before I started trying to express my movie affection in words), but I did write this for the old radio show. This early Coen brothers effort was released within our first few weeks on the air. I believe it represents the first time I tried to pen a full-on rave.

With only two prior films to their credit, Joel and Ethan Coen have already established quite a reputation. Both their first film, Blood Simple, and their follow-up, Raising Arizona, gained them significant critical acclaim. With their latest, Miller’s Crossing, that reputation should only grow, and deservedly so.

In Miller’s Crossing, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays Tom, the right hand man to mob boss Leo, played by Albert Finney. As the film progresses, Leo gets into a turf war with Johnny Caspar, played by Jon Polito, which is sparked largely by Caspar’s desire to see a small-time hood named Bernie killed. As the turf war develops, Tom finds himself thrown out of Leo’s organization only to ally himself with Johnny Caspar. We see the conflict and the manipulations through the eyes of Tom as he deals with his involvement with Leo’s moll, the repercussions of the turf war, a gambling debt he must pay off, and, in one of the film’s most effective scenes, carrying out Caspar’s orders to kill Bernie.

At the center of the film, Byrne plays Tom perfectly. Tom is cool as ice and hard as nails. When a thug asks him about a fat lip he’s sporting, Tom responds, “It’s an old war wound. It acts up around morons.” The supporting case is uniformly excellent, particularly J.E. Freeman as the Dane, one of Caspar’s tough guys, John Turturro as Bernie, and Polito as Caspar.

The script by the Coen brothers is outstanding. The plot has an amazing amount of detail, and the dialogue is smart and terrific. Joel Coen handles the directing chores and has turned in a job equal to the screenplay. Each scene is so well-crafted that the film is always a true pleasure to look at. At a time when mob and gangster pictures are coming out at an incredible rate, Joel and Ethan Coen can be very proud. They’ve created one of the standouts.

4 stars, on the 4 star scale.

This Week’s Model — Andrew Bird, “Sisyphus”

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I’m fully prepared to defer to John Darnielle if he posits differently, but I think there’s no story from Greek mythology with more of an indie rock vibe than that of Sisyphus. The story of a egotistical king who was punished by the gods, cursed to roll an enormous boulder up a hill only to have the freedom granted him upon reaching the top eternally thwarted by the rock magically tumbling the bottom every time. And thus the cursed task began anew. The radiant defeat of the Sisyphus story gives it a fine layer of indie cred. No matter what is done, the burdensome toil of merely existing doesn’t abate, and heaven knows we’re all miserable now.

In the new single from his forthcoming album — with the wickedly wonderful title My Finest Work Yet — Andrew Bird invokes the Sisyphus story for a characteristic dose on tuneful melancholy. In the lyrics, he artfully expands the metaphor, thinking about the doomed destination of the boulder (“Well, I let the rock roll on down to the town below/ We had a house down there, but I lost it long ago”) and suggesting the dictates of imposed fate are no longer the driving force behind the repeated chore. In a way, the track is a reclamation of misery, firmly emphasizing the perseverance built into the Sisyphus story. No matter the circumstances, surviving is a victory.

“History forgets the moderates,” Bird sings, and its an inspiring call to arms, or at least a gentle nudge to arms. We’re still in an indie rock place. There’s no reason to risk getting anyone too excited. Laconic charm can carry the day just fine.

Right. Now back to the boulder.

 

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Six

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Director Yorgos Lanthimos surveys society and sees corroded souls, all of them sending out alternating waves of hurt and affront, like sonar that delivers wounds. He also, to the benefit of misanthropic cineastes everywhere, finds the resulting eternal struggle to be bleakly funny. And he knows how to run that humor through a piping bag, leaving elegant lines of vibrant frosting that’s only a little poisonous. The Favourite is based in historical fact, of royalty and attendants and palace intrigue. It avoids the staid fealty that often comes with the firmly established costume drama tropes by injecting the proceedings with the gruesome messiness of humanity. Lanthimos takes the interlaced duplicities of the story (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are co-credited with the screenplay) and bends them mercilessly. Even the images distort, as if warped from the florid couplings taking place within the frame. It makes for a decadent, delectable banquet, and the actors enlisted by Lanthimos — notably Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Nicholas Hoult — are properly gluttonous at platefuls of high-caloric emotion bestowed to them. The Favourite can seem like a film deviously at odds with its own cinematic genre, but I don’t that’s quite true. Instead, Lanthimos has made a film that is subversive in the way it consistently sets expectations only to shrewdly undermine them, a whirl of imbalance that mirrors the interplay of power-focused players engaged in a perpetual test their own fractious strategies.