One for Friday: The Bears, “Fear is Never Boring”

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There are plentiful reasons to long for the rock star life. For most, I suspect the main enticement are those that might show up in the most debauched sections of a memoir penned by one of the members of Kiss. I suppose there may have been a time when I would have eagerly agreed with that, but now that I’m older, I understand that hope is better directed at different glories. For example, if you have the ability and entitlement to demand anything, there are few better uses of that power than enlisting Mort Drucker to draw your album cover.

The longtime Mad magazine artist provided the cover artwork for the self-titled debut album by the Bears, released in 1987. Undoubtedly most notable for the presence of revered guitar wizard Adrian Belew, the band release a pair of records in the late nineteen-eighties, but were never more than a blip, even on college radio. And I’ll admit it was the distinctive Drucker art on the cover that drew me to it in the first place. As I was making my way is the swirling waters of college rock during my earliest days at the station, I locked an iron grip around anything that was remotely familiar, even if was only because of cover art that spoke to my wide-ranging comic geek knowledge. This is why I would also occasionally play tracks from Joe Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien, with its cover image of the Silver Surfer, nicked from a comic drawn by John Byrne.

As opposed to Satriana’s album, I found a lot to like on The Bears. Even once I had a little more time and commensurate music knowledge under my skinny, plastic belt (this story did start in the nineteen-eighties, remember), I zipped back to the release often. There was something snappy and joyous about every last track on the album, even when they were singing lines like, “Mama’s little baby like fear and torture/ Mama’s little darling likes violent sex.” And then there was Belew’s guitar work, which made the most blissfully rubbery sounds that have ever landed on a rock ‘n’ roll song.

And I never stopped feeling a little jealous about those Drucker caricatures.

Listen or download –> The Bears, “Fear is Never Boring”

(Disclaimer: I haven’t really checked, but I’m betting The Bears is 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 proprietor of the shop in question and the original artist. I share this hear with the best of intentions, having no desire whatsoever to deprive others of reasonable commerce. If it can be bought, go do it now. It’s great. Though I feel it should be completely fine and legal to share a single track from a thirty year old album, 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.)

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Now Playing: Fences

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“I once wrote this short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World,’ and it went like this —’The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story.”

That quote is drawn from a Paris Review interview with August Wilson, published in 1999. As Wilson suggests, the single sentence short story does a better job than any plot recap ever could of describing what’s happening in Fences, his 1983 Pulitzer-winning stage play that has finally made it to the screen. Still, recounting the particulars of the story is a requirement for a review (even if I often try to pretend it’s not), so here goes. Set in the early nineteen-sixties, Fences focuses on Troy Maxon (Denzel Washington), a former Negro Leagues baseball star who works for the sanitation department in Pittsburgh, hanging off the back of rolling trucks his best friend, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). At first glance, Troy’s life is fairly simple: work all week, come home to enjoy a Friday night twirl with a pint of gin, then spend the weekend working fitfully on household tasks, like the long-promised installation of a backyard fence. He’s a boisterous, commanding storyteller, to alternating amusement and irritation of his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). And he has a strained relationship with his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), as his authoritarian dictates push against the boy’s dreams of something bigger for himself, built upon a talent for football.

As must happen, matters get more complicated, though Wilson opts for the high drama of small but painful mistakes rather than overt cataclysm. (Though Wilson has been dead for over a decade, the film adheres so closely to the original stage work and the playwright’s own adaptation, crafted years ago, that he is the sole credited screenwriter. Tony Kushner reportedly helped finesse it into place for the new film, taking a co-producer credit for the effort.) Wilson is stubbornly committed to showing how people move through the world, undone by inadvertent self-treachery. Characters are built carefully, shrewdly, deeply. Those figures are then set into motion, following story threads that progress in largely expected ways, yet offer a jolt with a mixture of authenticity and the bruising poetry of Wilson’s ricocheting language.

As directed by Washington, the film feels consistently betrays its origins on the stage, but that may be the point. Even in carrying forward most of the cast from the 2010 revival that earned him a Tony Award, Washington demonstrates a commitment to preservation over reinvention. Assuming his performance carries much the same shape and potency as his stage turn, it’s easy to see why he claimed that trophy. Washington is thunderous in the role, while also offering hints of the thwarted life and resulting haunting sense of inadequacy that forms Troy’s bluster. Davis also won a Tony for that 2010 production, and it’s fascinating to see her bring a far more tempered, natural approach to the character, even when the script afford her the chance to rage in a couple showstopper moments. At times, it can seem as if Washington and Davis are in two slightly different productions, taking different tones in the adaption of the play. Remarkably, that disparate quality work, enhancing the chasm that opens between the two characters.

In the same Paris Review interview cited above, Wilson attested to the accuracy of an Edward Albee quote put before him: “A firstrate play exists completely on the page and is never improved by production; it is only proved by production.” This film version of Fences has its little flaws, but it achieves that central goal. It offers proof, decisively.

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Laughing Matters: White Bear Mitsubishi commercial outtakes

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Because as much as I want to reserve this feature for slinging profundities about the hidden insights of well-crafted comedy, or simply indulge in a little nostalgic reminiscing, sometimes I just have to concede that something I’ve stumbled upon made me laugh harder than I have in ages. And so we come to white bear on the ice.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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Edgerton, Holmer, Kriegman and Steinberg, Moore, Øvredal

The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015). I find it amusing and even endearing that Joel Edgerton bypassed any potential inclinations to establish himself as a serious cinematic artist with his feature directorial debut and instead crafted a lurid little thriller not unlike those that routinely slunk into cineplexes throughout the nineteen-nineties. In The Gift, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to Southern California because the former has taken a new job. While shopping for their new home, Simon and Rebecca bump into Gordo (Edgerton), an acquaintance from Simon’s high school days. Gordo insinuates himself into their lives — including the stealth delivery of gifts — so insistently that it begins to pick up an air of danger, and that’s before it’s clear that there’s a nasty secret to be unearthed. The film is basic but accomplished enough. Edgerton delivers a nice performance, keeping Gordo’s motivations teetering on the edge of uncertainty without ever cheating and maintaining a level of sympathy for the character. Bateman is shakier as his role becomes more demanding, though it’s interesting to see him playing against type, accentuating the nasty edge that’s present but buffered in many of his performances.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, 2016). Occasionally, documentary filmmakers hit the jackpot. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg surely believed they were undertaking a fairly simple journalistic tracing of an attempted redemption political campaign for Anthony Weiner, running to become the Mayor of New York City a few years after a sexting scandal drove him from his place in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the midst of the mayoral campaign, however, a new, similar batch of online infractions emerged, at precisely the point Weiner’s campaign was on the upswing. Kriegman and Steinberg were then gifted with a public meltdown of astonishing proportions, which offered sharp insights to the dangers of a cavalier life lived in public, the broken political system, and the toxic narcissism that drives certain people. Given wide access to Weiner, the filmmakers capture amazing moments, such as the politician gleefully rewatching a combative interview on Lawrence O’Donnell’s television program, utterly oblivious to how badly he comes across. The material is assembled well, though they occasionally prove themselves just as prone to distraction by the most salacious elements, as when they afford too much attention to one of Weiner’s most fame-hungry online partners, a woman with a name ludicrously spot-on for a sex scandal participant: Sydney Leathers.

The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2016). The agreeably low-key indie film follows Toni (Royalty Hightower), an eleven-year-old girl who regularly accompanies her older brother (Da’Sean Minor) to the local community center, where he is training as a boxer. Toni wanders off to a different gym and finds a group of girls training as members of a championship dance team. She musters up the courage to join the squad, and it seems the film is settling into a familiar pattern. Then writer-director Anna Rose Holmer delivers a surprising turn. One by one, girls on the team are falling prey to terrible fits, none of which can be explained. Holmer has a talent for striking, unique visuals that never become indulgent. She demonstrates an even more impressive command of tone, infusing the film with the creeping menace of a horror film. Hightower is warm and winning in the lead role, and there’s a dandy supporting performance by Alexis Neblett, playing a diminutive teammate with a couple Minnie Mouse buns atop her head and a vivid confidence.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (André Øvredal, 2016). The director of the Norwegian found footage horror film Troll Hunter makes his English-language debut with this grim and playful story of a father and son coroner team (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, respectively) who endure a stormy night with an especially perplexing cadaver (Olwen Kelly). Written by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, the film is at its best through its nice slow build, as every slice reveals something a little more troubling as the woman on the slab. Like a lot of horror films, it has trouble pivoting into its third act, defaulting to the usual heightening tactic of bringing on the cataclysm. Before that, it’s dark, dandy fun.

Sisters (Jason Moore, 2015). While Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, together and apart, are tremendous in many venues, the big screen continues to prove vexing. Working from a screenplay by longtime Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell, Fey and Poehler play the siblings of title. They journey back to their hometown of Orlando after news comes that their childhood home is being sold. Through slippery logic, they decide to have one big blowout party before the deal closes. Glumly unfunny mayhem ensues.

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Five Songs from 2016

There is a way we do these around these here digital parts. My list of the top ten albums of the year is followed by the sharing of a quintet of songs, probably not featured on one of those albums, that I think are also among the significant highlights of the music   year just past. I’m not claiming these are the five best singles or songs of the year. Instead, it’s simply a batch of tracks that, at one point or another, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Lucy Dacus, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”

Dacus saunters through the door Courtney Barnett kicked open, delivering smart, wry lyrics undergirded by punchy, purposeful, tuneful guitar rock. The tale of shifting identity in emotional defeat is ruefully lovely and spot on. Technically, this first showed up in late 2015, but it grew far more prominent when Dacus’s No Burden was released in the spring.

 

Rihanna, “Higher”

Though I was atypically open to and excited about some artists from the broader pop realm this year (still somewhat reflexively in the guys-with-guitars mindset that defined my teen-aged self, I would not have considered Beyoncé to be a likely contender for my best album of the year selection at the dawn of 2016), my taste largess didn’t fully extend to Rihanna’s much-lauded Anti. This piercing torch song is the exception. It’s a stunner.

K. Flay, “Blood in the Cut”

Intoxicating and icily bruising, this is the exact kind of song that once took an honored place on our college radio station party mixes, strategically positioned so it would whir up late in the night after enough social lubricant had been administered to ensure fearless, full-throated crowd harmonizing with its caustic, fearless stridency.

M.I.A., “Survivor”

This was my spiritual lifeline after the results of the 2016 election came down like a toxic rain.

Grimes, “California”

“California” originally appeared on Grimes’s masterful 2015 album, Art Angels. This remixed version was created because Grimes had a video in mind and wanted to finesse the sound to match her vision. Reportedly, she considers the album version to still be the definitive take on the track. I’m not choosing sides. They’re both fantastic. This modified “California” performed the magic spell of making me truly hear a song I already knew well, emerging with a heightened appreciation for its merits. In that experience is everything I love about music: the glorious pliability of the listening experience, the way meaning and impact changes depending on how and when you hear it, and the way a real artist — and Claire Boucher definitely qualifies for that title — can exact thrilling transformations with a flick of their talent.

Previously…

Five Songs from 2015
Five Songs from 2014
Five Songs from 2013
Five Songs from 2012
Five Songs from 2011

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CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 100 – 98

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100. New Order, “The Perfect Kiss”

It’s difficult to pin down precisely which version of the New Order song “The Perfect Kiss” sits at the momentous #100 position on this chart. On the 1985 album Low-Life, the song finishes its work in just under five minutes. There are a flurry of other edits of the track across different seven-inch singles, sometimes shaving as much as an additional minute off the song. Arguably the best known, though, is the iteration released as a twelve-inch single, that clocks in at a robust 8:46. And it’s a few second longer yet in the official music video, directed by Jonathan Demme, one year off of the release of the seminal Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. Featuring a new live in-studio performance captured, the video lets the song stretch out to the epic proportions that could leave dance floor denizens spent. Interestingly enough, it’s only the longer version that includes the title in the lyrics, announcing with the final lines, “My friend, he took his final breath/ Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death.” That grim line has been interpreted by some to be a reference to Ian Curtis, the doomed lead singer of Joy Division, the band that New Order spun out of. According to New Order’s Bernard Sumner, though, the song wasn’t constructed while the band was in a particularly reflective mood. “‘Perfect Kiss’ was written in a mad session in the studio,” Sumner later explained. “It was written, recorded and mixed in seventy-two hours without any sleep whatsoever. I’d already done a bit of synth at home, the bass line and we did the rest in Britannia Row. By the end of it we were out of our minds. We did it in such a compressed time because we had a tour of Australia straight after.” Even the most foreboding lyrics of the song supposedly have a benign, simple origin. “He has always been so strange/ I’d often thought he was deranged/ Pretending not to see his gun/ I said, ‘Let’s go out and have some fun'” weren’t poetic and cryptic, according to Sumner. Instead, they represent the plainest of reporting. “We were in one guy’s house in America and he was pulling guns out from under his bed — his personal arsenal,” Sumner said. “And then we went out and had a great night!”

 

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99. Greg Kihn Band, “Jeopardy”

Greg Kihn was arguably one of the more unlikely beneficiaries of the music video revolution. By the time of the 1983 album Kihnspiracy, the rock ‘n’ roll performer, either on his own or with the band that conspicuously bore his name, had been cranking out albums with punny titles at a yearly pace for almost a decade. Though the Greg Kihn Band had a minor hit with the single “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em),” released in 1981, they were mostly cult heroes at best. Then the band’s label, Berserkley Records, connected them with director Joe Dea, who wanted to move away from the straightforward performance videos that were the order of the day. For “Jeopardy,” the first single from Kihnspiracy, Dea and Berserkley label owner Matthew King Kaufman turned to Kihn to figure out how to come up with something unique for the accompanying promotional clip. “I remember having lunch with them and he was, ‘What do you like?’” Kihn said.  “I remember telling him that I like horror movies. I like Ray Harryhausen. I like monster movies. I like the old Universal horror movies. So then, bingo! ‘How about like a Night of the Living Dead where you’re getting married and it turns into a horror movie?’ And I said, ‘Joe, you can make this as realistic as you want. My life is an open book.’ In a way it’s based on my first marriage.” Bolstered by MTV airplay, “Jeopardy” became the band’s biggest hit, making it to the runner-up spot on the Billboard Hot 100, though it couldn’t muscle past Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

 

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98. Dead Milkmen, “Bitchin’ Camaro”

“Bitchin’ Camaro” is the sort of song that will stay with a band and its performers forever. After the Dead Milkmen broke up in the mid-nineteen-nineties, most of the band members went on to fairly mundane professions, working as journalists or in IT. Rodney Linderman, who went by the moniker Rodney Anonymous while on the Dead Milkmen roster, explained that unexpected recognition could invade their day jobs. “People listened to us in college, and they run into us later, and they’d be, like, vice presidents of companies,” he said. “I was in a meeting once, and in the middle of it this vice president raises his hand. It’s not even question time. He says, ‘You’re that guy from ‘Bitchin’ Camaro,’ right?’ Everyone turns and looks. Some of them had no idea what he was taking about. I just said, “Yes, I am,” and moved on.” Of course, “Bitchin’ Camaro” was quite the attention-getter and highly memorable, injecting punk brattiness with an oddball sense of humor. Even before it was nestled right in the middle of the band’s 1985 debut album, Big Lizard in My Backyard, “Bitchin’ Camaro” was getting noticed. “Early on, we had a champion in Philly with the Penn radio station, WXPN, and they picked up a homemade recording of ‘Bitchin’ Camaro,’ and it kind of took off from there,” drummer Dean “Clean” Sabatino recounted. “We played a couple of hardcore shows and the people had really identified with that song. They knew all the words already.”

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Top Ten Movies of 2006

Recent weeks have seen an online avalanche of top ten lists from movie critics of all stripes. I live in the frigid north, however, and it takes certain cinematic offerings a little longer to fight their way through the sleet and snow to our various multiplex screens. So, as usual, I need to wait a little bit on that particular exercise in backwards counting. As a bit of a stopgap, here’s my equivalent list from ten years ago, which just so happened to be a movie year I found to be particularly strong. Following my usual methodology, this writing was originally presented as ten entries scattered across a few weeks. I’ve compiled them here, so be prepared. It’s turned into something of a long read.

#1–Children of Men

It’s the extraordinary confidence of director Alfonso Cuarón that I think of first; confidence not only in his capabilities to pull off bravura feats of staging, but also a surprisingly assured belief that the audience will comprehend all the complexities of the story without overt exposition and explanation. Set some twenty years in the future, after two decades of global human infertility have reshaped the very nature of how societies operate, Cuarón’s film is bursting with important, telling details, many of them revealed in the bustling backgrounds or through the passing references in shared reminiscences. The film is focused on lives as they are lived, and it moves with unobtrusive observation, letting the truths of the world emerge naturally. That approach is especially brave as the film has so much to say. Like the best of true science fiction, it offer pointed commentary on the travails and triumphs of modern life by providing a glimpse of the future we are potentially building. Cuarón’s commentary is not offered up through boilerplate political speeches or leaden allegories to current issues, but through simple revelations of troubled places and events that are utterly recognizable, maybe not as directly connected to where we sit today, but certainly just a few poorly chosen steps away. The England depicted here, with it’s ever-present propaganda and dehumanizing cages for captured illegal immigrants, is a harrowing vision, but also one that could be right in front of us after glancing away from the forces of control and hatred that currently fill op-ed pages and throttle discourse. In loosely adapting a novella by P.D. James, Cuarón works the central concept of this dystopian future unleavened by the rejuvenating promise of new generations with astonishing depth. He shows us all the futility, fear, struggle, and pained hope that can be imagined, and does so with startling technical accomplishments that manage to place us as literally in the midst of this world as any film could. The riskiest moments play out as extended single-takes with no apparent edits and none of the safe trickery of filmmakers remodeling time. We are there, trailing Clive Owen as he rushes through a city street war zone or in the claustrophobic confines of a cramped vehicle as horrors are spilling across the windshield. Cuarón takes the recent technical advances in filmmaking and thinks beyond what is cool to determineswhat can be done to truly enrich his work. His success in this is thrilling, enrapturing, even moving. More so than other film of 2006, or of recent years for that matter, Children of Men shimmers and shines with the gratifying intellectual friction of a movie that attains the status of great art.

#2–The Departed

I don’t know if I can come up with another film as vividly alive as this one. There’s already been too much cineaste chatter about The Departed as a “return to form” for director Martin Scorsese, mostly from film writers eager to congratulate themselves for not being duped by the high aspirations (or blatant Oscar-grabbing as far as they’re concerned) of Gangs of New York and The Aviator. As far as I’m concerned, those are exceptional films as well, and certainly nothing Scorsese needs to retreat from. The Departed isn’t about giving up on high art to get back to the mean streets where he belongs. What really marks it as a fresh accomplishment is Scorsese’s urgency to fill the screen with as many ideas as he possibly can. There’s a breakneck pace to the film, especially in the earlier sequences, as Scorsese expertly figures out how to convey all the necessary information, motivation and emotional pretzels in the clearest, quickest way possible. He’s always created dense films, but this may be the first time that he’s made a movie that’s seemingly in a race with itself. It’s a measure of his astounding craftsmanship, and that of his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, that it never turns into a blurred rush. It is a quickened pulse project on screen, and it feels for all the world like the way movies should always be. The complicated dance of a story examines the photo negative worlds of cops and robbers and what it’s like to exist in the murky gray in between. As you might expect, that’s fertile ground for the cast which is populated by performers reaching new personal heights. Of special note is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a steel coil held tight but always threatening to burst open. It is a performance of glowers and undercurrents with feverish intensity that mirrors the film and, in the end, helps ground its blistering screenplay, hurtling spirits and achievements in technique in the anxious fumblings of haunting misjudgments human tragedy. So, while it’s wrong to call The Departed a comeback for Scorsese, I will concede that for the first time in years he has made a film that can leave you blissfully exhausted from explaining everything that’s great about it. That’s not a standard any filmmaker should have to live up to, but today what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a film as great as this one, what does it matter?

#3–The Queen

Helen Mirren is indeed as wonderful in The Queen as the uniformly bestowed honors this Oscar season would have you believe. Her performance is not some flat duplication of newsroom footage, but a fully realized exploration of a person. In a way, the fact that she is playing the current sitting Queen of England is almost incidental. She has thought about the ways in which generational distance can insulate someone from changing times, the confused pain of having a private matter a great preoccupation of an international public stage and the struggle of someone whose very sense of purpose is slipping through her delicate gloved hands. These are the elements she channels into her portrayal; these shape the portrait more assuredly than any title does. Except, of course, that the fact that this is the current sitting Queen of England is anything but incidental. Director Stephen Frears could have proved himself a master movie tactician simply by training his camera on Mirren’s expressive face (which he does in fact do, to his great benefit) but he also digs into the complexities of Peter Morgan’s deeply intelligent screenplay. He finds the ways in which this story with the public and personal twisted together in its DNA takes the events in the week after Princess Diana’s untimely death — the warm empathy of Tony Blair’s outreach to the British people, the stubborn silence from the royals — and illuminates a whole collection of modern truths about the dusty crumbling of monarchy, the elevation of likability over experience in our leaders, and the increasing fascinated aggrandizement of public figures. With a veteran filmmaker’s clarity, Frears brings out the best in every element, every performer. Every moment that could ring false — from a symbolic stag to a gesture of caring from a small girl — instead locks in as perfectly right. One more plaudit: as wonderful as Mirren is, she is matched by Michael Sheen as freshly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair. He goes through the most pronounced change in the film, beginning as a skeptical soul convinced that the royal family is a blundering relic of the past and finishing as a believer in their strength, sense of duty, and distant dedication to their subjects. The transformation occurs over the course of a rocky week, and Sheen somehow manages to make the journey not only believable, but admirable.

#4–Pan’s Labyrinth

It is one thing to imagine magnificent wonders, it is quite another to make them come alive in a convincing, eloquent way on-screen. The great achievement of Guillermo del Toro’s film is not the dark splendor of his imaginings, but his deft directorial touch to best showcase these inspirations. He build shadows around his creations that accentuate their deep, strange beauties. Those shadows seep into the storytelling, too. Franco’s Spain provides the setting, but in many ways it is just a big, grim metaphor for the general muted pains of childhood. That is dramatized more directly in the challenges faced by twelve-year-old Ofelia as she endures her new stepfather, a harsh captain in the new militaristic regime. Played with luminous simplicity by Ivana Baquero, the character escapes the dread of her new daily life by retreating into fantasy, and this is where del Toro’s wild things come out to play. Despite the temptation to see her escape as something truly magical, del Toro never seems completely willing to grant the audience that courtesy. The fantastic elements are surprisingly limited, not because of a lack of interest on the part of del Toro, but because to overstate the levels of retreat available to our heroine is to present a story that is tragically untrue. The pain of loss and the cut of a blade have a jarring way of taking precedence. The safety of wishes for something beyond the injurious hardships of the worst of existence is fleeting, not lasting. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is for the splendid, lovely lie of a picture of paradise that washes over bleak reality at precisely the right moment. In the sadly beautiful ending del Toro constructs, he reaches out with that tattered gift.

#5–Brick

If the hard-boiled rat-a-tat-tat of classic film noir dialogue is the way we wished we could talk, then there are moments in Brick that are so jubilantly potent that they could very well represent the verbal aspirations of classic film noir characters. The script by Rian Johnson is absolutely enraptured by language, layering in cinder block poetry and other spoken pyrotechnics with unabashed glee. Johnson takes full advantage of his conceit — a murder mystery with a high school backdrop — finding sly humor in the contrasts of tough-guy banter including references to homeroom and parent-teacher conferences, and even justifying the dense conversations as the enduring influence of a “tough but fair” teacher of “Accelerated English.” His directing matches the script, stylish and dense with rewarding details. The whole endeavor has the same devilish intelligence as early Coen brothers, and I have few greater compliments at my disposal. A film like this is aiding immensely by strong acting. While players up and down the cast list come through, it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role who has the greatest challenge and emerges with the most impressive accomplishment. His shoulders hunched against the world, his bruised face a road map of wrong turns and untimely bravado, Gordon-Levitt brings a probing intelligence to his scenes and offers just a hint of caution behind the pained heroism. He gets the stoic veneer just right and brings equal conviction to the underlying raw nerve emotions that come from betrayal. The performance is as sharp as the words he’s given to shape it, and in the case of Brick that’s really saying something.

#6–Letters from Iwo Jima

The conventional wisdom says that Clint Eastwood’s late career directorial reemergence is enriched by a anti-violence sentiment that serves as a sort of corrective to the stardom he achieved in no small part by asking helpless punks to wager on whether or not there were any bullets in his gun while he pulled the trigger. I’m not sure I buy that, and I doubt that Eastwood buys it either. Maybe instead he’s just finally reached the point where he can make whatever films he wants without having to come up with some sort of giveback to the studio –h e can make White Hunter, Black Heart without making The Rookie, he can deliver Bird without having to agree to stroll through another Dirty Harry picture — and that freedom emboldens him in his choices. Or maybe he’s just following his own personal curiosity a little further than he did previously. That’s what led him here after all; preparing for the Iwo Jima battle sequences in Flags of Our Fathers he thought about the Japanese adversaries as frightened, noble men instead of faceless, nameless enemies and wondered what it would be like to tell their story. The result is a potent, moving film that bravely immerses itself in the culture of the Japanese soldiers burrowed into tunnels on the island. As opposed to many Hollywood films, Eastwood doesn’t feel the need to give us a white man as entryway into this time and place, nor does he bury the film in bookish exposition to explain the unique particulars of their views. He simply shows us the men who prefer suicide to the indignity of defeat on the battlefield, and the imposed norm of proudly charging into an battle that cannot be won because you are doing it for the greater glory of Japan. But Eastwood also takes great care to show the conflicting views, the growing notion of the nobility, even tactical wisdom of self-preservation. Things are simply not clear-cut, because, after all, it wasn’t a nation defending that island, it was men. With great care and respect, Eastwood’s film brings us closer to those men and everything they lost.

#7–United 93

With the careful calm of a detached sociologist, writer-director Paul Greengrass grapples with the most charged day in recent American history. His entryway to September 11th is the one airliner weapon that didn’t strike its target, seemingly due to the intervention of the hijacked passengers. Without diminishing the bravery of this response one iota, the film’s reasoned portrayal shows that fighting back against the terrorists was less an act of thunderous heroism than the instinctual reaction to being backed into a terrible corner. This isn’t to say that these people onscreen act with fevered desperation. Instead, it is the nonplussed self-assurance of people who have been reduced to a single viable option. There is tension and there is worry, but the predominant sensation is that of inevitability. That coheres nicely with world outside the fuselage as Greengrass portrays it. By dramatizing the reactions in various air traffic control centers and in the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration, Greengrass depicts that Tuesday transforming from just-another-day to something far more troubling. Greengrass takes care to show that it didn’t occur in some cataclysmic way when the first tower was hit, but through the dawning realization that a vast scheme was unfolding in a sky absolutely filled with planes. There’s not much characterization to the people in the film, which only serves to heighten the impact. Without trumped up screenplay quirks and other sorts of Hollywood color and backstory, everyone seems all the more vivid, just people going about their lives until history took them into its unrelenting jaws. It is by saying less about them and portraying their individual pieces of September 11th with a verisimilitude that even most documentaries don’t achieve that Greengrass pays them the ultimate tribute. They are not fictionalized, they are real. And they are unforgettable.

#8–L’Enfant

A young man whose livelihood is completely dependent on petty crimes raises a small sum of money by selling his newborn son. The one sentence plot description is bleak and devastating, a thumbnail sketch of the rottenness of humanity. And yet, while that description is entirely accurate, it’s also misleading. There’s no denying that the choice of the central character is horrid, but the stunning trick Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film pulls off is making the viewer understand why he does it. You don’t sympathize with him or feel he deserves some sort of second chance. As he rushes around his destitute Belgian city trying to reclaim the child with the juvenile impatience of someone who’s more concerned with getting out of trouble than the wellbeing of his offspring, you in fact can find more and more reason to dislike him. The film makes you understand by developing the character so well that his impetuous nature, simplified world-view and underdeveloped emotional maturity is laid bare. You can despise the action he takes and yet recognize how, to him, it was perfectly reasonable, as plain and uncomplicated of a dilemma as which jacket to put on when a chill hits the air. The Dardennes aren’t interested in some sort of expose or trumped up examination of the terrible misfortunes that plague the world. They simply tell a sad, quietly powerful story with great acumen, conveying with equal precision the instant joys of a playful wrestling match with a lover and the smothering panic of a remote, unprotected interaction with criminals unburdened by mercy. The Dardennes are equally merciless, but they’re also free of judgment. In the end, that evenness is what gives this film of small, wounded lives its lingering power.

#9–Volver

When it comes to the storytelling, Talk to Her was more bold and unique, and Bad Education was more richly complex, like a tight, satisfying novel. Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver can feel like a softer cousin to those films, not to mention the bustling fresh establishment of a unique cinematic voice that is All About My Mother. Yet Volver lingers in its own way for its own reasons. Almodóvar’s audaciousness is restrained and his insights more refined. There are none of those Almodóvarian moments seemingly designed for little more than eliciting gasps. Instead there is a discipline to the proceedings, a focus that helps the whole film cohere thematically. Almodovar has long been renowned for his affectionately constructed female characters, and that comes through with grand clarity here, as the film repeatedly allows its women some level of tender liberation from men who have caused them harm. One could argue that even extends to the reclamation of his former collaborator Penélope Cruz from the Hollywood star machine that has stranded her in a series of English-language performances that have been strained at best, but more often downright embarrassing. She seems to have a decent enough command of the language, but no capability to work with it in believable rhythms. Working in her native language untwists her tongue. The words pour out of her rapidly, forcefully, passionately. She builds the character out of pain and heartache, and finally a little hope. And it is the strength of Almodovar’s filmmaking and the potency of his empathy for the characters that makes that hope feel well deserved and decisively earned.

#10–A Prairie Home Companion

I’ll concede right up front that this selection is as much a tribute to a storied career as a celebration of this particular film. Of course, it’s not like I’m making room for Prêt-à-Porter or something, trying to pretend a disastrous movie is wonderful just to get in one more testimonial to the grandmaster skills of director Robert Altman. A Prairie Home Companion is a little wonder in its own right: rambunctiously funny, disarmingly thoughtful, and, in the end, a grand appreciation of the happy messiness of creation. In using his longtime radio program as a launching point for a screenplay, Garrison Keillor brings us a production filled with his trademark mix of nostalgic music and homespun humor and also takes us backstage to the tumult, roving distractions, and barbed dressing room conversations. All this serves to enrich the showmanship on stage and the songs being belted into the shining, silver microphones. It’s one thing to hear and see Keillor effortlessly rattle off a long monologue extolling the virtues of some sponsor. It’s quite another when he’s doing so with consummate unflappability as a stage manager struggles with a towering stack of papers, trying to find the one sheet that he requires to usher the show to the next segment. As the film world mourned the death of Robert Altman, the considerations of mortality in this film became prime fodder for discussions. The prevailing sentiment presented here is that you meet the end not with heavy speeches or maudlin proclamations, but with the same simple, dignified dedication that was brought to every day, every show, and, one can extrapolate, every film. Indeed, and bravo.

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January 2017
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