Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number Two

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People are places exert powerful holds. They can be nurturing in their influence, or they can keep someone’s ambitions — their very possibilities — smothered, doing so with a blind indifference to the effect being rendered. Quite often, the opposite results coexist in the same moment, creating an ambivalence that leaves wounds, or at least hard, lingering aches. This is a major component of the complicated truth that gives a thrumming vein of life to Columbus, the feature film debut of skilled video essayist Kogonada.

In a performance of wounding honesty, Haley Lu Richardson plays Casey, a young woman living a quiet existence in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, working at the library and clasping her loving knowledge of the modernist architecture that made the Midwestern city a destination for an especially rarified tourist. She strikes up a friendship with Jin (John Cho), visiting unwillingly after his scholar father has taken ill. In tender fashion, the two bond intellectually. In Kogonada’s screenplay, there are chatty exchanges, abundant with affection, but also challenge, mentorship, and mutually developed wisdom. Without thundering epiphanies, they together find their ways to just a little more grace, comfort, and self-assurance that they had before their orbits converged.

Kogonada films the proceedings with a moving appreciation for stillness that honors the imposing structures that are both anchor and inspiration. The edifices studied intently by Casey don’t move, yet they are dynamic in their combination of function and stealth beauty. Sometimes it is only by staying firmly in place that an entity prepares to soar. In Columbus, Kogonada’s measured, focused approach unlocks an emotional narrative that is brave and piercingly real.

Now Playing — Black Panther

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In the unlikely even there were a few outliers who still doubted the enormous scope — and corresponding influence — of the extended exercise in filmmaking known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the recently released “class photo” should have put things decisive perspective. The official ten-year anniversary of Iron Man clanking onto screens for the first time will be marked, almost to the day, by the next Avengers movie. But Black Panther may be a more fitting measure of how far the studio has come in its improbable journey.

In its first decade as the decision-makers behind which properties are transferred to the screen — and how precisely the characters are interpreted — Marvel has taken some justified guff for leaning on white male protagonists, even as the opportunity was there to easily add some diversity into the mix. At the very least, Scarlett Johansson’s take on Black Widow seems like as prime a contender for a solo outing as any of the other characters who’ve been given a name-in-the-title showcase for the last five years or so. Given that progression, the arrival of Black Panther has loomed large since it was promised as part of Marvel’s long-range promotional forecasting.

Bearing an added social weight that no movie should have to bear, Black Panther meets the most joyously hopefully expectations and comes close to exceeding them. Wisely, director Ryan Coogler (who is co-credited on the screenplay, with Joe Robert Cole) sets aside the increasingly prevalent trend of mixing and matching the various action figures of the Marvel Universe to concentrate on heavy-duty world-building within the title character’s home nation of Wakanda.

Chadwick Boseman has already been introduced as African royalty T’Challa, who dons a costume to strive for justice as the Black Panther. While Boseman doesn’t bring much more to the character than the bright charisma he displayed in Captain America: Civil War, the actor has enviable ease in front of the camera, generating automatic intimacy in every scene. There’s a certain generosity to the performance, as well. While I haven’t done the math, I suspect Black Panther introduces more significant new characters than any Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy. Boseman leans back and leaves room for other actors (Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Winston Duke are all marvelous), operating with the confidence of king. To be fair, he may also be conserving his energy so he’s prepared to share the screen with Michael B. Jordan, Coogler’s favorite actor who is given the gift of the strongest villain role in the MCU to date. With no slight to Boseman, it’s reasonable to assume that Jordan would have been Coogler’s first choice for Black Panther, but Eric “Killmonger” Stevens is a solid consolation prize.

Coogler works with his team to bring a remarkable amount of lovely, inventive craft to the movie. The art direction, costume design, and cinematography (by Mudbound Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison) are all exemplary. And there’s an admirable attempt to introduce slightly more nuanced geopolitical motivations into the traditional tussle of good and evil. Even with all those layered components, Coogler also takes advantage of the freewheeling possibilities within this sprawling fictional world of superpowered beings to get exuberantly playful in his storytelling. In the middle of everything, Coogler delivered a stealth Marvel version of a James Bond movie, and it’s flat-out wonderful.

Years ago, I wrote a generous, positive review for a Robert Townsend movie called The Meteor Man, in which he played an inner city superhero. Although I didn’t have the ideal terminology to express the viewpoint at the time, I explicitly championed the film in part because I recognized that representation matters. The same concept factors into the impact of Black Panther. It doesn’t erase some of the usual middling issues that come with most superhero movies, like the little plot holes that exceed reasonable suspension of disbelief or the still nearly-inevitable moments when the action devolves into a digitally rendered beehive of indiscernible kinetic hash. But it does give the moments of stirring heroism an added emotional heft.

In its cinematic fundamentals, Black Panther is among the upper tier of Marvel movies. In the manner in which it meets its greater, grander demands, it is something more. Simply put, it matters.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #976 to #973

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976. Madness, One Step Beyond… (1979)

The band Madness essentially began in 1976, as a group called the North London Invaders. There were lineup changes of the course of the next couple years — including the entrance, exit, and then return of lead vocalist Graham “Suggs” McPherson — and a brief stint under the name Morris and the Minors. In 1979, they dubbed themselves Madness, nicking the moniker from a song by Prince Buster, a Jamaican performer who clearly had a significant influence on the band’s sound.

After Madness’s debut single, “The Prince” (also paying tribute to Prince Buster), became a surprise hit on the U.K. charts, making it into the Top 20, the band was nabbed by upstart tastemakers Stiff Records. Their first full-length, One Step Beyond…, arrived in the fall of 1979, mere months after Madness had settled into their identity and style.

That style was jaunty, ska-spiked pop, drawing heavily on Caribbean styles while setting the lyrical outlook of the lyrics in the hardscrabble realities of the British working class. The lead track and title cut again looked to Prince Buster, covering one of his songs and pilfering the shouted announcement intro from another (“The Scorcher,” to be exact). There’s a surprising amount of invention embedded in this amalgamizing appropriation, the band’s eagerness for the material they’ve borrowed adding a certain electricity to the whole affair.

The descriptive recounting of the concerns of regular blokes goes a long way towards making Madness feel original rather than a shiny tribute act. “In the Middle of the Night” updates the neighborhood survey of “Penny Lane” (“Hello there, George, newsagent on the corner/ How’s the old car? Yes, the climate’s getting warmer”), and “Mummy’s Boy” spends plenty of time in the pub as it snaps together calliope pop with the tale of a lad who’s overly connected to the matriarch of the family. The approach allows for surprising complexity, as on “My Girl,” which on a surface level is about a layabout bloke who isn’t quite stepping up (“She’s lovely to me/ But I like to stay in/ And watch TV on my own/ Every now and then”). The song gradually shifts to suggest that he’s living with a simmering depressing he can’t express (“I tried and tried but I could not be heard/ Why can’t I explain?/ Why do I feel this pain?”). That’s fascinating nuance for a band whose horn-stung music sometimes seemed designed to accompanying a roving party.

The sociological astuteness hidden in the grooves doesn’t mean One Step Beyond… is a slog. The prevailing vibe is still loopy fun, as if the band were convinced they’d only get one shot at making a record so they might as well employ whatever cockeyed idea came to mind. “Land of Hope and Glory” resembles a comic writing exercise transmogrified into song, and there’s a version of  “Swan Lake” that sounds as if the band is daring the powers that be to loop a hook around them and drag them offstage. And then the album closes with the beautifully absurdity of “Chipmunks Are Go!”

For their efforts, Madness were rewarded with a platinum album in the U.K., a pair of Top 10 hits, and an undisputed place as one of the bands of the moment. All in all, not a bad way to get a musical career underway.

verlaine dreamtime

975. Tom Verlaine, Dreamtime (1981)

Dreamtime was the second solo effort from Tom Verlaine, and it’s obvious that his band Television still cast a shadow that was difficulty to escape. To a degree, Verlaine acknowledged it by dredging up the old, as-yet-unshared Television song “Hard on Love” to rewrite it as “Without a Word,” recording it and slapping it right onto the end of side one. Sure enough, it almost sounds like a lost track from Marquee Moon, Television’s masterpiece, albeit as a track that’s been slowed and gently reshaped into some sort of post-modern Roy Orbison ballad.

Verlaine was no hitmaker, but he had his ardent supporters, especially in the cooler corners of the music press. Creem magazine termed Dreamtime a “roiling fireball of rockismo delight.” In the manner of the best rock writing, that description makes little sense and yet is perfectly correct. The album undulates with offhand ambition and sonic stylings that are enveloping enough to distract from the grasping, practically abstract lyrics. There’s the nicely jittery “Fragile,” for example (“I saw you coming in the headlights/ Rubbing your arms and shaking your head/ You say, “Oh, I just don’t know, it’s not so safe/ And it gets so tiresome playing dead”). Arguably, Verlaine is at his very best when he most emphatically embraces that model, as on “The Blue Robe.” The guitar parts are questing and serpentine, and the lyrics consist only of the term “Hi-Fi” repeated, making it feel like an instrumental with an especially odd rhythm component on the second half.

Without ever approaching the sort of heights Verlaine reached with Television (an admittedly unreasonable expectation, Dreamtime is filled with solid songs. On “There’s a Reason,” Verlaine’s trademark hiccuping vocals clack against guitar parts that move with riveting tension, setting the track always on the verge of exploding into cacophonous noise. There’s also pleasure to be found in the gentle glam rock preening of “Mr. Blur” and the trilling guitar solo at the midpoint of “Down on the Farm.” Dreamtime is a solid record. Others who moved on from seismically important (or at least impressive) bands delivered far worse when they lane shifted through solo careers.


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974. Lindsey Buckingham, Law and Order (1981)

Any reasonable evaluation of the music Lindsey Buckingham created in the long wake of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours suggest that the much-lauded musician had some animosity toward the cultural monster he helped create. At the very least, he took authority that comes with riches and fame to experiment wildly, expectations be damned. That reading is backed up by Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s follow-up, which was met with mounting confusion from fans who really wanted Rumours II. Tusk is a better album than its predecessor, but it was doomed to be perceived as a failure, given the flat unlikelihood it too would spend over 30 weeks atop the Billboard charts and sell over 13 millions copies worldwide in its first three years of existence.

If Tusk shows Fleetwood Mac could benefit immensely from the fevered aspiration that swelled in Buckingham (the vein of experimentalism is largely attributed to him, at least as a catalyst), then Law and Order, Buckingham’s first true solo album reveals that ambitious can run up agains the boundaries of creative talent. Much of the album is odd for the sake of being odd, bounding into crazy sound landscapes with no apparent exit plan, leaving Buckingham spinning in figurative circles, sadly lost.

As if wanting to further rattle the fans who chafed at Tusk, Buckingham opens the album with the resolute strangeness of “Bwana.” That’s followed by “Trouble,” which has some of the vestiges of the Fleetwood Mac gentle pop insistence, but with a woozy quality, as if the hooks are somehow haunting themselves. Released as the lead single to an unsuspecting public, it remarkably made it into the Billboard Top 10.

In general, Buckingham is all over the place. “I’ll Tell You Now” is the sort of airy amble of a pop song that formers Beatles routined dropped in their respective solo career, but then there are also bizarro covers of Gary Paxton’s “It Was I” and the standard “September Song,” written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, in which Buckingham adopts such a tonally questionable approach that he could be the drunk at the end of the bar bellowing a swan song as the lights flick on and off to signal last call. And “That’s How We Do It in L.A.” has a galloping pace and melodic screeching that anticipates “Holiday Road,” recorded two years later for National Lampoon’s Vacation.

At times, Buckingham is almost at war with his own pop instincts. For all the weirdness, he seems more at home on a track like “Shadow of the West,” a cowboy ballad doused in the sticky sauce that would serve as the lifeblood for adult contemporary radio, including obliquely drippy lyrics (“Dancing ever changing desert sand/ I was burned by the touch of her hand”). Maybe its the ethereal backing vocals of his Fleetwood Mac bandmate Christine McVie that makes it sound more natural. Regardless, it was a clearer signal of where he was going next. The following year, Fleetwood Mac released Mirage, a complete retreat from the boldness of Tusk into soft rock safety. And Buckingham was front and center on the album.


i crush bozo

973. Happy Flowers, I Crush Bozo (1988)

For those upon whom the irony of the band name Happy Flowers is lost, a quick study of the personnel listed in the liner notes should offer clarity. A duo that has opted for the stage names Mr. Anus and Mr. Horribly Charred Infant are definitely up to no good, in a fabulously twisted way.

I Crush Bozo was the second full-length from the Charlottesville, Virginia band. It was released by Homestead Records, one of the only labels prepared to put up with brilliantly caustic, bleakly comedic nonsense like this. Built on especially messy punk sounds, the songs tend to play like dares to the audience. The lyrics occasionally traffic in familiar blast of teen angst, but more often skew a little younger and therefore more mundane. On “Old Relatives,” the complaints are about forced familial togetherness (“I’d rather be outside playing ball or watching TV/ But instead I’ve got to sit inside/ Sit in the stupid living room with the plastic covers/ Eat disgusting cheese crackers and watch my relatives get trashed”) and “I’m the Stupid One” features a litany of unfavorable comparisons against siblings that start to turn dark (“And then there’s my sister Sharon/ Sharon’s sort of pregnant right now/ But she’s still really nice and smart”).

Really, the song titles say it all: “Get Me Off the Broiler Pan,” “Toenail Fear,” “My Frisbee Went Under a Lawnmower,” “I Saw My Picture on a Milk Carton.” The sounds are occasionally unmusical to the point of being sadistic, and the brashly delivered lyrics only compound the experience. There’s a lot of screaming about a mangled hang on “My Frisbee Went Under a Lawnmower,” for example. That I Crush Bozo could generate enough airplay to make any sort of top album is, my friends, the glory of college radio.


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 — Atonement


Since I recently lobbed a few ill words in the direction of Joe Wright’s latest Best Picture nominee in which the evacuation of Dunkirk figures into the plot, I’ll look back to a far more admiring assessment of an earlier effort from the director. Atonement was also a Best Picture nominee in which the evacuation of Dunkirk figures in the plot. How about that? And ten years ago, because of the same film, little Saoirse Ronan was also getting ready for her first trip to the Oscars. 

Atonement is a terrific book, so artfully taking advantage of the storytelling opportunities unique to the medium of the novel that the prospect of adapting it to any other form seems destined to disappoint. So much of the appeal of the first portion of the book derives from author Ian McEwan expertly switching perspectives among his character on a busy and, ultimately, momentous day at a British estate in 1935. Beyond providing a rich understand of each and every character that populates the novel, McEwan’s approach is especially apt given the devastating turn of events hinges on matters of perspective and perception. Then the closing passage of the book uses a simple but crafty technique to thoroughly upend the reader perception of the action that has come before it. Dragged into the more constrained realm of film, is there anyway that Atonement can actually maintain its resonant poignancy?

The answer is “not quite.” That doesn’t mean, it turns out, that the novel can’t be reformulated into something nicely rewarding. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright have seemingly approached the material with some degree of McEwan’s devotion to wringing every possibility out of the chosen medium. Throughout the new film version of Atonement there is a clear-eyed creativity in letting story elements emerge. The scene in which the son of the estate’s housekeeper types out a salacious note is presented in a way that is clean and crafty. Later when the film turns to a wartime setting, Wright shows that the payoff of all those fussy, pointless extended tracking shots in his prior film is that he can pull off a technical tour de force with a single shot stride through the busy beach at Dunkirk right before the British evacuation. Like the similar efforts in 2006’s Children of Men, the shot has real purpose: enhancing our understanding of the mayhem of that day by plunging us into at as free from the clarifying safety of an edit as the soldiers in the sand. When the camera finally rests, surveying the vast sea of humanity it has just navigated, the impact is formidable.

There is smart attention to key details throughout, such as the purposefulness of thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) stalking through her house, her forceful precociousness signaled before she has spoken a word by the hard pivots she uses to take corners, that physical detail revealing the precise efficiency of a dedicated mind. Dario Marianelli’s score merits special attention as well. The simple but riveting choice to incorporate the sound a typewriter hard at work into the music, essentially serving as the percussion to the score. It’s a very unique approach to the sonic landscape which has the added benefit of enriching the narrative payoff at the close of the film.

There are moments here and there that don’t quite work, mostly the result of the necessary compression from 370 pages to two hours which makes a few pieces of story either too truncated or robbed of their fascinating uncertainty. These are the exceptions, however. For the most part, Atonement represents a troupe of collaborative creators working at the top of their craft.

One for Friday — The Johnny Average Band, “Ch Ch Cherie”

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Yes, this strikes me as the sound of 1980.

The Johnny Average Band was the result of the strangely communal Woodstock-based recording studio known as Bearsville. Founded and operated by Alber Grossman, best known as Bob Dylan’s manager through much of his nineteen-sixties career. According to well-worn (and likely finessed) tale spinning, Bearsville was home to a genially fluctuating group of technicians and musicians always willing to pitch in on a recording. The informal band that stirred to life within those soundproofed walls was known as the Falcons. They eventually evolved to become the Johnny Average Band, releasing one album, entitled Some People, at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties.

The album’s lead single, “Ch Ch Cherie,” touted the presence of Nikki Wills on lead vocals. Wills was the wife of Mick Hodgkinson, a U.K. transplant who dubbed himself Johnny Average for the purposes of the new group. Her singing is fully characteristic of the era: crisp, bright, and just a little disaffected. It goes a long way towards selling the song.

I’d love to report this was a track I knew from my college radio days in the late-eighties and early nineties. Instead, I must shamefully admit that, a few exceptions aside (like the Clash or the Cure), I viewed 1980 as ancient history. Even if the Johnny Average Band’s album say somewhere in our stacks, I would have likely taken one look at the copyright date and slipped it right back into place. That was the flaw I brought to my song selections back in the day. Now I know that a song having a quality that sets it decisively in a certain era through the carbon dating of sonic styling doesn’t mean it should be set aside. “Ch Ch Cherie” surely sounded great in 1980, but it sounds just as good now.

Listen or download —> The Johnny Average Band, “Ch Ch Cherie”

(Disclaimer: I believe the Johnny Average Band’s output to be entirely unavailable in a physical format that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said business and the original artist. The track is shared here with that understanding, as well as the conviction that “fair use” is still a thing. Even so, I 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.)

Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number Three

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The Hollywood Foreign Press Association endure a significant amount of wholly deserved derision for the sometimes spurious reasoning employing in divvying films into the broad categories of “Drama” and “Comedy/Musical” every year (a practice, it’s worth noting, abetted by studios trying to game the system in the run-up to the far more prestigious Academy Awards). But in the case of this year’s poster child for eye-rolling misclassification, Get Out, I think the decision to reductively dub the film a comedy actually serves to illuminate one of its great strengths. Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut begins with the basic textures of a horror film, but then contorts them into a piece of cinema that redefines what genre filmmaking can do. The film doesn’t subvert the form. It’s not as simple as that. Instead, it expands the very possibilities of the horror film, incorporating social satire in a manner that remarkably enhances the fiction’s authenticity.

The wariness displayed by Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, whose journey upstate to meet his girlfriend’s parents turns menacing, suits the confines of the story, but it also seems to exist outside of it, like meta-commentary offered conspiratorially to the audience. It’s a note perfect performance, bolstered by equally great work from the entire cast, with special commendations due Lil Rey Howery, Betty Gabriel, Bradley Whitford, and especially Allison Williams, who has her own version of crafty duality to play. It is Peele’s. Kaluuya plays the main character, but it is truly Peele’s voice in the leading role, delivering a striking assessment of race and identity in the modern U.S. with an abundance of insight and a complete absence of didactic lecturing. And it’s memorably funny, too. Being real, it accomplishes so much that it probably belongs in a category all its own.

Playing Catch-Up — Darkest Hour; The House; Dear Heart


Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017). Director Joe Wright does his damnedest to pump up Darkest Hour with tricky visuals and little jolts of energy, but the stodginess of this drama is finally overwhelming. The film depicts the early tenure of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as British Prime Minister, with particular attention to how he bucked political pressure when his nation’s soldiers were stranded at Dunkirk, trying to bring them home without engaging in peace talks with Nazi Germany. Oldman is fine as Churchill, though I feel he sometimes lets the makeup do the heavy lifting on the performance. More problematically, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten trudges along as a dull history lesson dressed up with rudimentary narrative trappings, like the plucky newcomer (Lily James) who serves as a sort or audience surrogate and the wry wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s wistfully supportive at just the right time. Churchill is a towering figure in world history. Darkest Hour suggests he might be too big for the screen.



The House (Andrew Jay Cohen, 2017). The premise of this comedy is woefully thin, and Andrew Jay Cohen shows little concept of how to effectively pump it up. A middle class couple (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) are blindsided by the cancellation of a scholarship they were counting on to send their daughter (Ryan Simpkins) to a pricey private college. They land on a scheme, cooked up by an emotionally reeling friend (Jason Mantzoukas) to open an underground casino in their idyllic suburban neighborhood. Besides the inevitable appearance of comically threatening gangsters, that’s really about it. There are ringers throughout the cast, but no one can really make a joke land, a flaw that is probably less on them than on Cohen’s wobbly directing. As co-writer of the recent Neighbors comedies, Cohen evidenced at least a little interest in slipping actual ideas amidst the scatalogical banter. There’s none of that here, leaving just a joyless romp.


dear heart

Dear Heart (Delbert Mann, 1964). Geraldine Page plays Evie Jackson, a small town woman who journeys to New York City for a postmasters convention. As conceived by writer Tad Mosel (who adapted his own short story for the screen), Evie is a vivid crafter of flattering fictions about herself. In many stories, that quality would intertwine fingers with a pitiable neediness, but that’s not quite the case here. There’s fortitude to Evie, too, and Page prospers in exploring the character’s layers. Mann also offers witty, withering portrayals of the default gruffness of New Yorkers and the unfettered social debauchery of the civil servants away at their annual boondoggle, all of which Mann depicts with a keen eye for detail. The plot sags a bit in the third act as it skews towards the conventional in Evie’s budding relationship with a greeting card salesman (Glenn Ford, out of his depth against the sparkling inventiveness of Page), but overall Dear Heart is steely and cunning.