Top Ten Movies of 2014 — Number Three

3 coherence

Coherence takes place almost entirely within a single house, and yet it truly resides in an incredibly expansive existence. A group of friends gathers for a dinner party. The scene is filled with the sort of easygoing banter that carries with it a complicated shared history, include a few passing hints of resentments and conflicts previously addressed and bypassed but not quite forgiven. In the midst of all this chatter arises curious, largely unworried conversation about news stories about a comet passing through the night sky. Then the power goes out. From there, James Ward Byrkit’s feature directorial debut spins off in deliriously inventive directions, all of them tied neatly to some mind-warping principles of quantum mechanics. By his own report, Byrkit created the film as a sort of puzzle he had to solve, recruiting actors with improvisational skills and giving them minimal information about the strange plot turns they were going to encounter. The film carries the spirit of The Twilight Zone as effectively as anything I’ve ever seen, not only in its employment of edgy paranormal elements, but also — mostly, even — in its canny ability to depict the myriad ways that human nature drives people to turn on each other when they’re under mounting duress. With a bracing intellectual energy and a exhilarating command of sharp tonal shifts dealt out with devious regularity, Byrkit makes a film that dazzles in its relentless ingenuity.

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The New Releases Shelf: No Cities to Love

no cities

I believe I officially have to rethink my standing policy of greeting all band reunions with unyielding skepticism that extends to the point of preemptive dismissal. I’ll admit it’s been outdated for a while, a vestige of the time when I and many of my fellow college radio-reared music snob cohorts measured artistic credibility beginning with a consideration of distance from anything that could be termed selling out. Decisions seemingly made on the basis of readily available dollars rather than following some fictitious muse were commonly met with peak animosity, and getting the band back together was one of those decisions that always seemed to qualify. Though I’ve encountered plenty of evidence in recent years that an unexpected return engagement can be a fine thing, I’ve largely stuck to my old notion, openly grousing about listeners who had no interest whatsoever in twenty years worth of Frank Black music suddenly getting excited because “Pixies” is stamped on the front cover (okay, so I stand by that one). Leave it to Sleater-Kinney to turn me around for good.

No Cities to Love is Sleater-Kinney’s eighth album overall and their first in almost exactly ten years, following a layoff that was termed an “indefinite hiatus.” By all expectations, the band’s exceptional 2005 album, The Woods, was their last, a suspicion that appeared to be verified with the announcement of Start Together, a box set released last fall that included all the band’s full-length releases. The dates printed on the cover — 1994 – 2006 — looked like the data carved onto a gravestone. Instead, amongst the albums was a cryptically labelled single with a previously unheard song, “Bury Our Friends.” It was unmistakably Sleater-Kinney: pummeling, intense, tuneful, pointed, and exhilarating. It was also, as it turned out, the opening salvo in what can fairly (though perhaps prematurely and a touch too hopefully) be termed Phase Two of the band. It was a delectable taste of all that No Cities to Love offers.

The album is strong enough to make it tempting to assert Sleater-Kinney hasn’t missed a step. That assessment, however, sells them short. Clearly as it’s a record that could have only come from all three of them — not from the Corin Tucker Band, nor Wild Flag, onetime musical home to Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss — it is also one that carries with it the time apart as assuredly as the blessed kismet of the trio’s collaboration. For one thing, the album that keeps circling back to the concepts of togetherness and revived bonds. Backed by cascading guitar lines and popping drum beats, “Surface Envy” declares, “I feel so much stronger,/ now that you’re here/ We’ve got so much to do,/ let me make that clear” before the chorus drives it home, punching harmonies insisting, “We win, we lose, only together do we break the rules/ We win, we lose, only together so we make the rules.” Metropolises might be unlovable on the title cut, with its irresistible, singalong hook, but the song eventually concludes “it’s the people we love.” And then there’s the track that revealed the sneaky reunion, the words “We’re wild and weary/ But we won’t give in” resonating fiercely, as if in defiance of their own self-imposed demise.

Start to finish, the album is a powerhouse, writhing to life with the probing rhythms of “Price Tag” and moving with barely a breath all to way to the closing track, “Fade,” which shifts adventurously enough during its three-and-a-half minutes that it almost feels like Sleater-Kinney is trying to squeeze in a few more sonic ideas before the tyranny of the runout groove closes in. I could keep going, but what’s the point in hunting out different overjoyed superlatives for every last track? No Cities to Love is a great album, and that would be the case had it arrived after a break of twenty to thirty years or mere minutes after the prior release. Context matters, to be sure. But when music is this fantastic, it’s also largely incidental.

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Top Ten Movies of 2014 — Number Four

4 snow

Snowpiercer achieves remarkable narrative freedom precisely because director Bong Joon-ho believes in sticking to the rules. Other films that strive for thrill ride status, either in terms of vividly stirred intellect or full-throttled action (Snowpiercer is one of the rare beasts that goes for both), are all too quick to abandon internal logic when it serves the perceived need to set pulses pounding with clockwork regularity. Bong understands the value of setting parameters — maybe your own wonderfully gonzo parameters, but parameters nonetheless — and then honoring them. A movie doesn’t have to be believable to be plausible. It can achieve that necessary component to sound storytelling by locking into its own sharply defined world and never wavering, no matter the temptation. So Snowpiercer is set almost entirely on a ludicrously lengthy train that traverses the entire planet in the exact span of one year while serving as home to the remaining living population, trapped inside the vehicle by the hyper-arctic temperatures that resulted from a misguided attempt at countering the effects of global warming. The highly stratified class divisions of current society are compounded within the train with the different train cars serving as literal separations of the rich and poor, the downtrodden in the back and the wealthy up front. And it all makes perfect sense, both within its own carefully crafted structure and as allegorical commentary laced with viciously ingenious satire. Bong handles the slippery tone with skill, taking advantage of the journey forward on the train to unlock unexpected wonders with every new car broached by the revolutionary band of underclass heroes. He also builds images of unlikely beauty (Hong Kyung-pyo provides the aces cinematography) and expertly guides his cast through tricky performances that need to strike the same balance between gravitas and absurdity as the rest of the film. Chris Evans is sterling as the central hero, Alison Pill is a true ace in the hole as a crazy-eyed schoolteacher, and Tilda Swinton plays a villainous overseer with the sort of warped invention that no other actor should even attempt without a spotter.

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Your apocalypse was fab for a girl who couldn’t choose between the shower or the bath

jupiter

I’ve been enthusiastic about Jupiter Ascending for quite some time, and that anticipation only ticked upward when the film suffered the ignominy of a postponement from the heart of summer to the dreary days of early February, a scheduling shift announced a mere six weeks before its original release date. That’s because I wasn’t necessarily craving my time in the theater before the latest sci-fi extravaganza from Andy and Lana Wachowski (or as they’re billed in the credits for Jupiter Ascending, simply “The Wachowskis,” like they’ve formed a traveling family band) out of a belief it was going to be good. Given what I’d seen and heard, I expected the film to be either a masterpiece or a debacle, with the latter looking more likely when one of the trailers was capped off by Mila Kunis delivering the line “I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs” with admirable sincerity. Brilliance or bust, I would have been overjoyed either way.

In the end, I don’t think Jupiter Ascending rings the bell at either end of the spectrum I mentally laid out for it. Instead, it’s an enjoyable, playful film that effectively captures the spirit of old paperback adventures from publishers like Tor and Del Rey, those bulky, pulpy novels that were often trembling fantasy epics in a glistening science fiction disguise. Even the various spaceships and otherworldly cityscapes look as if they were peeled right off of those well-worn covers and transferred to the screen. If it feels at time like a pastiche, it’s at least an echo of an entire genre, and the Wachowskis stuff the film with so many ideas and concepts that it can feel like they’re trying to shove the wide-ranging invention of that genre into a single film.

The critics who’ve pounced on the film with malevolent glee take shots at the film’s cheesiness as if it’s evidence of dreadful mistakes on the part of the filmmakers. On the contrary, I think any creators who’ve opted to name their lead character Jupiter Jones (Kunis) know exactly what they’re doing, and I admire the hubris of embracing the exuberant ludicrousness of the film’s ancestral influences with such unabashed pleasure. For Neo’s sake, they’ve cast Channing Tatum to play a human-wolf hybrids who soars across the air using gravity-manipulating boots that are essentially outer space roller blades. The Wachowskis siblings are resolutely committed to finding fun in this manifestation of their collective imagination, without any winks of knowing parody intended to desperately preserve a veneer of coolness.

As the nature of my praise above implies, the film’s plot is built out of familiar elements: the beleaguered nobody who discovers they’re secretly an immensely special purpose (in this case, the owner and queen of Earth!), creepy royal siblings who squabble over their pieces of a vast empire, intricate intergalactic political maneuvering spotted with hidden agendas and double-crosses. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for in commitment and remarkably contained sprawl. The Wachowskis claim the original screenplay was six-hundred pages long, and it sometimes feels as if they’ve tried to fit all of it into a running time that just edges over the two hour mark. They want it all. There are wild set pieces tearing apart cityscapes, earthly and otherwise, and enough elaborately devised space gowns to fill an early season episode of Project Runway. There is room for both Kunis’s trademark natural ease (she even makes the “I love dogs” moment work, largely by playing the moment that follows with the right beat of mild mortification) and for Eddie Redmayne, as the chief villain, to deliver the acting equivalent of a Nirvana song, shifting from low, raspy quiet to strident bursts of high volume abandon in a startling moment. Maybe the Wachowskis don’t manage to balance all this with equal grace throughout, but at least they have the daring to carrying their load while walking the highest of wires.

 

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College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 79 – 77

79 glove79. G. Love & Special Sauce, Coast to Coast Motel

I don’t have very many distinct memories relating to the Philadelphia act G. Love & Special Sauce, which makes it all the more clear which one is my favorite. I was having a spirited conversation with a friend of mine about the state of radio, particularly the quality of the student broadcasters stewarding the airwaves at our shared alma mater. While acknowledging that we were all novices once and generosity is called for, he shared that one deejay caused him special dismay whenever she was on the air. As an example, he noted she once introduced a song by saying, “And now here’s Glove and Special Sauce.” Given the timing of the conversation, it entirely possible the infraction in question led directly into a track from Coast to Coast Motel, the band’s second proper release. Assuming the deejay had a lack of playlist imagination, there’s a decent chance the song was “Kiss and Tell,” the lead single from the album, which is indicative of the record’s shift from the white guy hip hop of their debut to a more roots rock influence. I’m not sure what further turns in the road happened for G. Love and the gang, but they kept cranking out albums, including as recently as last year, which saw the release of Sugar.

78 grover78. Grover, My Wild Life

Grover had a petty nice pedigree as a band, even if the experience of its chief member was built almost by happenstance. Angie Carlson interviewed the band Let’s Active when she was writing for the Minneapolis alternative newspaper City Pages in the mid-nineteen-eighties. She struck up a relationship with the band’s frontman, Mitch Easter, which led to marriage and a place in the group’s line-up. As Carlson reported it, original Let’s Active member Faye Hunter departed the band shortly thereafter “and all of a sudden I had to sing the ‘girl parts.'” As it turns out, the band and the marriage were both doomed. By the mid-nineties, Carlson was looking for a new outlet for her musical creativity, assembling a group that included Chris Phillips, drummer for the Squirrel Nut Zippers. They dubbed the band Grover, partially because they were looking for a name that conjured up no natural preconceptions (the greatest Muppet ever may have also shared inspiration on the band name). There’s not a lot of Grover music readily available out there, but what I could put my ears on sounds like an attempt to mate eighties tunefulness with nineties grunge power. Yes, that’s as messy as it the description implies. My Wild Life was the sole album by Grover. Carlson reportedly went back to the world of independent weekly journalism.

77 blue

77. The Blue Aeroplanes, Life Model

The Blue Aeroplanes were a band that sorta snuck up on me. While they had a couple earlier releases, I first heard of them when the album Friendloverplane was added to 90FM’s rotation in the late fall of 1988, as I was still deep into learning mode. Given the likely timing of its arrival in our library, it was overshadowed by far more prominent releases. As I recall, it got only the most cursory attention. I returned to it occasionally, intrigued and satisfied but not exactly wowed, either. My handwriting was fairly lonely on the sheet taped to the front cover that tracked plays. Two years later, the Blue Aeroplanes came out with the album Swagger, which included the single “Jacket Hangs.” That song became a respectable college radio hit, and seemed to do even a little better at our station. Just like that, they were a band that demanded our attention.

That rapidly-built prominence clearly lasted for a bit, as Life Model, an album that I don’t recall getting invoked all that much as a must-listen by anyone in the music press, did well enough at the station to chart on the year-end list. The album is a solid extension of the music that helped the Blue Aeroplanes to their breakthrough, but it also sounds a little worn out, even generic. “Broken & Mended,” — a single the yielded a video playing some of the same tricks as the Cars’ “You Might Think,” but a decade later, making it seem dopey and dated — is punchy, and guitar-driven, and hooky in an almost offhand way. It’s also lacking in the band’s dark-tinged charm, a little edge of hidden menace that shaded the best of their earlier music. Too often, the attempts at enticing gloom come across as Nick Cave Lite. “Ghost-Nets” has a practiced spookiness and spoken lyrics that almost immediately shift from intriguing to ponderous (“Leaving is hard/ Arriving is, too/ There’s a gate and a fence/ The fence is you”). Later track “Daughter Movie” fares better, thanks to a more casual approach to the writing (“This is very sloppy writing today,” Gerard Langley says at one point). Fuller, fiercer backing music also helps, providing a sharper contrast between the words and the sonic ground they trod upon.

Elsewhere, Life Model roves without coming up with anything all that inspired. “Frightened at Night” comes across as a less hyper-articulate version of the gentle calypso crooning Mark Eitzel was playing around with at the same time, and “Honey I” has extensive lyrics in French, which is a gummy dollop of pretension that even the mightiest bands can’t extricate themselves from without looking foolish. “Vade Mecum Gunslinger”  is one of the stronger tracks, succeeding despite despite playing like a parody of the Godfathers. Then again, maybe that’s exactly why it works. Maybe what the Blue Aeroplanes really needed at this point was an excuse to escape from their own reputation and self-regard with a big ol’ helping of willfully dumb rock ‘n’ roll.

Previously…

An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music

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From the Archive: Away From Her

As I (and other equally devoted members of my household) make the requisite mad dash through elusive year-end features to make certain we have a complete accounting of all the Oscar-nominated fare, at least in the major categories, I finally caught up with the presumed victor in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category. I’ll get to a review of that soon enough (or maybe not so soon as I suddenly have an abundance of things to write about and only so many daily posts to work with), but it seemed timely to look back at another film that covered similar ground and also featured a strong lead performance by a duly revered actress.

Sarah Polley has made about three-quarters of a great film with her directorial debut Away From Her. Adapting an Alice Munro short story, the twenty-eight year old actress crafts a compelling story built upon simple, prolonged heartbreak. Julie Christie plays a woman who is coming to terms with the encroaching effects of Alzheimer’s disease as her spouse struggles even more with the thought of her intellect and emotions drifting away. The subject matter holds inherent dangers. This could easily swerve into TV movie disease-of-the-week hysterics or the calculated maudlin manipulation of the sort that envelops the average Hollywood weeper. Instead, Polley brings a becoming patience to her filmmaking. She finds the piercing pain in the little details, presented carefully. The bulk of the film is so natural, so honest, so real that it feels as much like eavesdropping as movie-watching.

In this approach, Polley also brings a potent universality to the film. The particulars of Alzheimer’s are all there, but there is a broad resonance to the hard decisions the main characters must make. When Christie’s ailment progresses to the point that she must enter an assisted living facility, the wrenching process could apply to any elderly couple the must struggle with a similar choice for whatever reason. And as Christie slips further into the recesses of her own wounded mind, the palpable sense of loss is applicable to anyone who has lived through a dissolution of a relationship that they themselves weren’t ready to release. The quiet agony of her husband, played with marvelous dignity and restraint by Gordon Pinsent, is nearly unbearable.

The film loses some potency through its final act as multiple plot complexities become overwhelming. Very quickly, that becoming natural quality gives way, and the heavy orchestration of an author’s hand becomes too apparent (including one throwaway moment that drags political commentary into the film that is so out of place that it should have been excises altogether). Relationships shift and individual’s perceptiveness alter in ways clearly meant to add power to the closing moments. Instead, the opposite occurs. The film begins to feel artificial and the actor’s are left to wring whatever truth they can from the false notes of the script.

Luckily, these performers are well up to that task. Pinsent and Christie are an exquisite tandem, incisively playing the soft comfort of a couple married for over forty years. They show the assurance of deep knowledge of each other but also acknowledge the real fragility of affection. Naturally, Christie has a few key moments to play, portraying the effects of the illness. She forgoes showiness in favor of subtle snapshots of the confused straining of a person who’s only certainty is that there are things she should know that are plainly out of her mental reach. Despite any attempts to bring home a big ending, it is those sorts of little moments, shot and played with a valiant openness, that give Away From Her its resonance.

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One for Friday: Eggs Over Easy, “Henry Morgan”

Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 8.05.20 AMAmong the many targets of my retroactive pop culture grumpiness, classic rock radio is one especially deserving of my ire. There wasn’t a flood of rock ‘n’ roll history available to anyone with an on-ramp to the information superhighway and the diligence to keep following hyperlink spurs until they discovered something wild and different. There were magazines to read, but they could only describe the sound, not share it. Some benefitted from cool older siblings or other local rock aficionados who were happy to pass along some black vinyl wonder with an insistent “Listen to this.” The best bet, though, was the radio. Done right, the broadcasts carried over the airwaves could share the whole wide world of possibilities being fulfilled by those with guitars, drums, and an urgency to ramble their way to some sort of deeper emotional truth that had a good beat and could be danced to.

I listened to a lot of classic rock radio during my high school years. For one thing, I was living in a little dirtbag Midwestern town in the nineteen-eighties, and admitting to a pleasure any other sort of music (except, of course, horrendous hair metal) was an invitation to ridicule. But I also connected with it, enjoying the primal qualities of the form struggling to blend together myriad influences in its foundational years. Almost across the board, there was a sense of blissful discovery, even with those performers I didn’t find all that impressive. But now I know I was getting only the slenderest sliver of that history. Yeah, I heard the same seven or eight Led Zeppelin songs so often that I have a knee-jerk aversion to their plodding, heavily appropriated blues rock somewhat akin to that developed by a lab rat who touched the electrified cheese one too many times.

It’s not that I think the music of the band Eggs Over Easy is inarguable brilliance that demands to be shared, but it’s as good as a lot of the other stuff that became mainstays of classic rock radio. And the band’s story is filled with the sort of interesting details that deejays are always clamoring for to help fill out their raps. Eggs Over Easy were a group of American musicians who went over to London to record an album. When creative problems dashed those plans, they started gigging around the city while they hunted down a new deal. Their easygoing approach — there’s a musical kinship with The Band, including a quality to the lead vocals that calls to mind Levon Helm — set them apart from other groups playing in the U.K. around that time, and they came to be viewed as the act that kicked off the pub rock movement of the nineteen-seventies. Their first album, Good ‘N’ Cheap, came out in 1972. Though there was a sophomore release almost ten years latest, the debut is considered the main document of the band, though it contained only a hint of the reported one-hundred-plus songs in their repertoire.

“Henry Morgan,” from that debut album, is just over four-and-half minutes long. Surely one of those classic rock stations I listened to could have found time to play it every once in a while. It could have happened in conjunction with a few less spins of “Light My Fire,” maybe. That would’ve been nice.

Listen or download –> Eggs Over Easy, “Henry Morgan”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Eggs Over Easy is currently out of print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the owner of said shop and the original artist. In general, Eggs Over Easy music is hard to come by. Indeed, I likely nabbed this track and the couple other Eggs Over Easy MP3s in my collection from some now-forgotten spot on the internet. Consider this a version of paying it forward instead of me beating pans and yelling “I am so great!” because I faultily believe I made some sort of clever discovery all on my own.)

 

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February 2015
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