Monday, February 28, 2011

Catching Up With 2010: Music

Because I only did a brief top ten list for the past year in music, and because I heard so much of 2010's most acclaimed and noteworthy music after the calendar year was over, I thought I'd weigh in on some of the many albums I hadn't previously written about.  About half of these are things that I'd heard in 2010 that didn't crack the top ten list, and the other half are things that I didn't hear until very recently.  Since I didn't include letter grades for the albums on the top ten list and I am including grades for the albums listed here, I should note for comparison's sake that I would've given the Flying Lotus and Baths albums an A, the Big Boi, Zach Hill, Deerhunter, and LCD Soundsystem albums an A-, and the Gorillaz, Strong Arm Steady, Sufjan Stevens, and Kanye West albums a B+ (though in hindsight the last one is probably worthy of an A-).  The forty-odd albums covered on my top ten list and this current post aren't the only 2010 releases that I've heard, but they are the ones that had some sort of memorable impact on me as a listener.  

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Arcade Fire’s music has always been a little too ordinary to justify their occasionally bombastic arrangements, and they tend to sound way too polite when they are trying to “rock out” on their more stripped down songs.  They’re usually at their best when they aim for the soaring, open-hearted epic pop that connects them to the Bruce Springsteen/U2 tradition.  A few gems in this style, the terrific single “Ready to Start” and the quasi-disco “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” are hidden in this overlong song cycle.  C+

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
Ariel Pink’s newest album sounds like some sort of record company-rejected glam rock opus, the quality of the tape weirdly manipulated by the passage of time.  Or it sounds like the Residents covering Hall & Oates.  What sets Pink apart from past “bedroom pop” crazies like Wild Man Fischer is his genuinely strong grasp of the pop form.  Songs like “Bright Lit Blue Skies” and “Little Wig” are at least as catchy and well-crafted as the best radio-friendly music of 2010, but they have an unpredictable undercurrent of feral, sweaty perversity that makes them truly exciting.  B+

The Black Keys – Brothers
The Black Keys are probably never going to make an album that doesn’t sound like everything else they’ve recorded.  But this is the best version of that album so far, with a welcome emphasis on the funky, soulful, and psychedelic aspects of the duo’s well-worn rootsy sound.  B

Caribou – Swim
This is the one album that definitely would’ve made it onto my top ten list if I’d heard it before the end of the year.  It certainly bears mentioning alongside some of the other top-shelf dance music of 2010.  Like Baths, Caribou seems as concerned with writing well-constructed songs as he is with crafting hypnotic beats.  He also knows how to make a coherent, tight album, with nine excellent tracks that are distinct from each other while still forming one overall vision.   And while the persistent lyrical themes, which revolve around the end of a long-term relationship, sometimes seem like an odd fit for the liquid, future-disco beats, Dan Snaith’s ghostly vocals do a great job of bridging the gap between the despair of his words and the elation of his electronics.   A-

Johnny Cash – American VI:  Ain’t No Grave
Maybe there didn’t need to be a sixth volume of a dying Johnny Cash singing Rick Rubin-produced cover songs from a variety of genres.  But there’s still a lot of life left in the formula, and the moody, cinematic title track may be one of the country legend’s most haunting vocal performances.  B

Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Cee Lo Green’s previous solo albums were self-indulgent, overlong, and inconsistent, but they were also admirably ambitious and strange.  Even his poppy Gnarls Barkly collaborations with Danger Mouse had enough odd edges to set them apart from most other things on the radio.  But The Lady Killer represents a step back into thoroughly conventional soul music territory; even the catchy hit “Fuck You” sounds like something that might be played in a dentist office.  Cee Lo is still having some fun with the formula, as evidenced by the James Bond-style “theme song” that bookends the album, and the music is never less than competent and pleasant.  But it’s disappointing to see this once-exciting artist settling for so little.  C+

Dirty Projectors and Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca (EP)
I understand why this seven-track EP didn’t wind up on too many year-end lists.  It is too modest to serve as a proper follow-up to the last Dirty Projectors album, the earth-shaking Bitte Orca.  And it doesn’t qualify as a return to form for Bjork after 2007’s disappointing Volta, since she only appears on about half of the tracks and didn’t write any of her own material (DP head Dave Longsreth is credited with all of the songwriting).  Still, this is some of the prettiest, most otherworldly and most vocally exotic music to come out of 2010, and it finds one of rock’s most exciting and vital bands further refining their unmistakable sound while quietly delivering some of their best songs to date.  B+

Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?
The twelve tracks on Emeralds’ newest full-length owe a heavy debt to the Fripp/Eno collaborations of the mid-‘70s.  Most of the tracks distinguish themselves from the music on No Pussyfooting and Evening Star by being pop-length and slightly more rhythmic; some of the lengthier, more ambient material sounds so similar to the trio’s most obvious influences that their existence seems pointless.  But even if this isn’t as forward-thinking or original as the year’s best electronic music, it sure is pretty.  B-

Eminem – Recovery
Why can’t Eminem just leave his tired shtick behind and rap?  On a number of tracks on his latest LP, he proves once again that he is truly an elite MC, capable of rhyming multiple words within many of his lines, switching the pace of his flow on a dime, and occasionally coming up with devastatingly funny battle rhymes.  But while the technical virtuosity is undeniably impressive, this “comeback” album doesn’t really have anything new to offer.  Even with ringers like Just Blaze and Dr. Dre handling production duties, the beats are mostly grey and lifeless, the tracks seem to have been assembled in a random order, and Eminem’s familiar life story gets less interesting every time he repeats it.  C

Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea
It was a great year for electronic music, a genre that would scarcely exist without Brian Eno.  The electronica trailblazer’s most recent LP finds him refining old sounds rather than creating new ones, and the more ambient material isn’t essential, but eerie, percussive tracks like “Horse” and “2 Forms of Anger” are some of the most vital and lively tracks Eno’s produced in the past three decades.  B-

Field Music – Measure
Field Music have an almost scientific understanding of the inner workings of pop music songwriting and production.  The songs on Measure are complexly and densely arranged, but there aren’t any extraneous elements or unnecessary diversions.  The choruses are catchy, the instrumental breakdowns are purposeful, and the lyrics match up nicely with the music.  Measure is also amazingly consistent for a double-disc, twenty track album, and it’s hard to guess what would’ve been cut if they’d chosen to pare it down to a single disc.  But Field Music’s tastefulness is a double-edged sword; part of the reason that the album is so consistent is that few tracks really stand out (aside from a few gems like “Let’s Write a Book”), and the band’s tight control over their aesthetic can make their music seem a little safe, sterile, and distant.  Still, this is an impressive achievement, and one of the better guitar-pop albums of the year.  B

Flying Lotus – Pattern + Grid World (EP)
There was no way that this twenty minute EP could compete for attention with Flying Lotus’ epic song suite Cosmogramma, which found the Los Angeles-based producer confidently branching out into new territory with string sections, live bass, and occasional vocal assists from the likes of Thom Yorke.  But while Pattern + Grid World does mark a return to the more familiar instrumental hip hop of Flying Lotus’ earlier albums, it also contains some of his very best work in that style.  “Kill Your Co-Workers” might be Flying Lotus’ most impressive individual track to date, and it isn’t even that much better than the other six tracks.  A-

Ghostface Killah – Apollo Kids
Meth, Ghost, and Rae – Wu-Massacre
These albums by high-profile Wu-Tang Clan members seem to have been rushed into production to capitalize on the success of Raekwon’s 2009 LP Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, which briefly suggested a return to form for the once-vital rap crew.  Wu-Tang are perhaps the only group in music who actually benefit from a “back to basics” sound, and the stripped-down, battle rhymes over heavy beats style heard throughout both of these albums is undoubtedly an improvement over their largely scattershot oeuvre of the last decade.  But the tracks seem to have been thrown together in an arbitrary order, with a goal of reaching the minimum length required for a full-length LP, and Method Man, Ghostface, and Raekwon rarely appear as a trio on their group album.  Standout tracks like “Purified Thoughts” and “Meth vs. Rae 2.0” show that the Wu-Tang Clan still possess the talent needed for a full-scale comeback, but they’ll have to stop making albums that feel so lazy.  B-/C+

Gold Panda – Lucky Shiner
The music on this full-length debut of London-based DJ Gold Panda is unfailingly lovely, but overall there are too many aimless and shapeless tracks.  Still, highlights like the hypnotic “You” and the exotically percussive “Same Dream China” suggest that Gold Panda might have a Cosmogramma or Cerulean-level masterwork in his future.  B-

How to Dress Well – Love Remains
How to Dress Well have a striking sound – Bon Iver-style close-miked falsetto singing married to crisp, repetitive electronic beats.  It sounds great on a track-by-track basis, but the band’s lack of versatility (you wouldn’t be able to pick out the one live track if it didn’t end with applause) becomes a problem over a full-length album.  C+

Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
You could argue that this two-disc, twenty-five track album could use some trimming, but its shagginess and sprawl is actually a big part of its appeal.  In fact, the second, looser half is an improvement over the first, largely because it features more songs that allow the musicians (particularly the guitar players) to stretch out and bend the songs into different shapes.  I may be underrating The Guitar Song a bit, because I am not really a country music fan, but even I can tell that Jamey Johnson is one of the more talented singer-songwriters in the genre.  B

Liars – Sisterworld
Too often, Liars’ music sounds like a muddy, aimless blur.  But Sisterworld marks an improvement over their past work by pumping up the volume of the guitars and finding lyrical subject matter that fits their sluggish vocal style.  Sisterworld is this year’s audio equivalent of a good horror movie; even if it isn’t always fun to listen to, it is never less than effectively creepy.  B

Julian Lynch – Mare
This lovely “bedroom pop” album suggests what Shuggie Otis’ seminal Inspiration Information would sound like if it were based around folk rather than R&B.  If anything, the four-track recordings of Lynch sound more primitive and dusty than the one-man pop constructions on Otis’ 1974 album, which only adds to the weirdly personal, one-of-a-kind ambiance of Lynch’s music.  Touches of jazz and hard rock come out of nowhere, yet seem like perfectly organic outgrowths of these moody, nearly-ambient pieces.  The album sneaks up on you, smartly pacing itself so that it gets better as it goes along, building to the ecstatic folk-jazz of “Ruth, My Sister” and the hypnotically repetitive (and almost Indian-sounding) “Travelers.”  With a few more listens, this modest yet deceptively complicated album might actually become one of my very favorites of last year.  B+

Maps & Atlases – Perch Patchwork
Maps & Atlases are yet another indie rock band that have figured out how to turn their complicated sound (twisty folk guitar parts layered over African-inspired polyrhythms) into an accessible pop sound without toning down their sophistication or ambition.  And while Perch Patchwork isn’t quite the unqualified breakthrough that, say, Veckatimest was for Grizzly Bear or Dear Science was for TV on the Radio, it’s strong enough to suggest that Maps & Atlases’ next album might be a masterpiece.  B

M.I.A. – Maya
The M.I.A. backlash seems to have been fueled less by musical concerns than some unflattering media profiles of the Sri Lankan singer’s personal life.  While Maya isn’t quite as colorful as Kala, and is certainly more confrontational than her earlier work, it’s still full of exciting, forward-thinking production and left-field genre crossbreeds.  Any album that can hold the infectious synth-pop of “XXXO,” the future-reggae of “It Takes a Muscle,” and the ferocious punk of “Born Free” deserves some credit.  B-

Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
Though this was one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, it sounds more like a good start than a fully-realized breakthrough.  For all of Monae’s sci-fi concepts and genre-blurring arrangements, her music isn’t really that far advanced from decades-old P-Funk and David Bowie.  And at over 70 minutes, The ArchAndroid could definitely afford to lose a little fat, even if the only bad track is a garish Of Montreal collaboration.  Still, no one could say that the album is boring, and Monae proves equally adept at straight-up R&B, Broadway-style showtunes, glam rock, and funk, and she even occasionally makes music worthy of her OutKast mentors (as on the wonderful, Big Boi-assisted single “Tightrope”).  If The ArchAndroid isn’t quite stellar, it’s mostly because it seems like Janelle Monae will be capable of making even better music in the future.  B

Mount Kimbie – Crooks and Lovers
Crooks and Lovers is essentially an album of pleasant background music, but it’s really good background music.  Hopefully Mount Kimbie will aim a little higher in the future, since standouts like “Before I Move Off” and “Mayor” show that they have a real talent for dense, James Blake-style vocal cut-ups, but there is something to be said for nice music that you can get some work done to.  B-

The National – High Violet
I’m one of those people who think that the National are kind of boring.  But even I have to admit that High Violet is a very successful album within the narrow parameters (drums/bass/guitar, verse/chorus/verse) of the National’s straightforward sound.  Good stuff, even if it isn’t for me.  B

Owen Pallett – Heartland
The artist formerly known as Final Fantasy fully justifies his theatrical, melodramatic tendencies with genuinely complex, left-of-center arrangements that add delightful orchestral colors to his established violin-plus-vocals sound.  Even if Pallett’s lyrics wind up being no less baffling than on the average concept album, his whimsical arrangements give Heartland the feel of a fairy tale pop-up book come to life.  B

Prince Rama – Shadow Temple
It wouldn’t make sense to call the music of this Brooklyn trio original; three of Shadow Temple’s eight tracks are cover versions of traditional Indian songs, and the band’s psychedelic freakout style is clearly inspired by the more intense music of the hippie era.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Shadow Temple sounds nothing like the rest of the current “indie rock” scene, and it doesn’t make Prince Rama’s haunting, highly percussive sound any less riveting.  B+

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – Mantra Hiroshima
Mars Volta leader Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has been putting out so many (increasingly indistinguishable) solo albums per year that hardcore fans could be forgiven for not even paying attention anymore.  Still, there are some gems buried in the prolific guitarist’s avalanche of releases.  This year’s standout was Mantra Hiroshima, the second Rodriguez-Lopez album to feature the ferocious drumming of Zach Hill, and a more focused, heavy, and enjoyable listen than their previous collaboration, 2009’s Cryptomnesia.  There isn’t much to write about here – just really great musicians tearing into a tight set of ridiculously loud jazz/rock/funk instrumentals – but the lack of distractions is a relief.  B

Spoon – Transference
Spoon have been so consistent and so tasteful for so long that it’s easy to take for granted a non-masterful yet perfectly fine album like Transference.  The versatility and ambition of Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga isn’t in full effect, but there aren’t any bad tracks, and “Written in Reverse” is the heaviest thing that Britt Daniels and Jim Eno have produced to date.  B

Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
Considering that the Beatles are the most important, influential pop group of all time, it’s odd that so few current bands are directly inspired by their sound.  Tame Impala’s aesthetic seems entirely derived from a very specific element of the Beatles’ sound, namely the John Lennon-written songs of the Revolver through Magical Mystery Tour-era, with their sunburst guitars, tribal drum beats, primitive synth parts, and floaty, stoned vocals (this impression is reinforced by lead singer Kevin Parker’s uncanny vocal resemblance to Lennon).  The eleven tracks on the band’s first full-length are almost catchy and lovely enough to seem worthy of the music of their legendary inspiration, suggesting that Tame Impala will be a band to keep an eye on in the future even if their heads never get out of the past.  B

Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
At times, this ambitiously arranged, civil-war themed song suite suggests a punk version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (or at least a harder-edged version of Green Day’s American Idiot).  But while it’s nice to see any group branching out into more versatile territory, and it’s invariably cool to hear a modern rock band incorporate bagpipes, fiddles, and trombones into their sound, Titus Andronicus don’t seem to be able to transcend their straightforward punk rock background.  The chief problem is lead singer Patrick Stickles, whose Pogues-ish barking is a poor fit for his band’s newfound pretty side.  It’s only during The Monitor’s rare instrumental passages, such as the moving coda to “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” that Titus Andronicus’ music is allowed to live up to its full potential.  C+

The Walkmen – Lisbon
The Walkmen’s “Bob Dylan sings Velvet Underground songs with the Strokes’ recording equipment” sound can get a little monotonous, but Lisbon contains some nice variations on the formula.  The band seems to have acquired a Spoon-like ability to simultaneously refine and expand their sound, leading to highlights like ”Stranded” (which makes interesting use of what sounds like the world’s most hungover mariachi horn section) and “Angela Surf City” (a soaring yet compact anthem).  B

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Ugetsu

Year of Release  1953
Country  Japan
Length  97 min.
Director  Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenwriter  Yoshikata Yoda (adapted from short stories by Akinari Ueda)
Cinematographer  Kazuo Miyagawa
Editor  Mitsuzo Miyata
Art Direction  Kisaku Ito
Costume Designers  Tadaoto Kainosho, Shima Yoshimi
Cast  Masayuki Mori, Sakae Ozawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Mitsuko Mito, Machiko Kyo

Beauty  Kenji Mizoguchi’s films are famous for their “flowing scroll” visual style, in which uninterrupted lateral tracking shots give the impression of a large image unfolding before the viewer’s eyes.  Ugetsu contains many striking and lovely examples of this distinctive visual language, most notably in a shot that begins with two lovers enjoying a nighttime bath and glides, with no discernable edit point, to show the same two having a picnic in the daytime.

Strangeness  Ugetsu’s camera movements resemble little else in cinema, aside from other films in Kenji Mizoguchi’s oeuvre (many of which were also shot by the great Kazuo Miyagawa).  Whether or not the actual storyline of the film, with its lack of distinction between the spirit world and the real world, will seem “exotic” to the viewer may depend on their geographic proximity to Japan.  In some respects, the environment of Ugetsu, with its ultra-pale ghosts, warring bands of samurai, and ornate brothels, almost seems like a summation of all of the stereotypes associated with “traditional” Japanese culture. 

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The flowing scroll approach to cinematography adds an extra layer of meaning to Ugetsu’s simple, fable-like story.  While the plot follows two men (Masayuki Mori and Sakae Ozawa) who follow their respective dreams of wealth and stature while ignoring the families they’ve left behind, the camera follows their progress unblinkingly yet from a distance, suggesting the viewpoint of an indifferent spirit who realizes that humans are merely a small part of a large canvas.  Even as the characters get closer to realizing their dreams, the camera reinforces the ephemerality of their lives and makes their abandonment of their families all the more tragic.

Tradition  Because Mizoguchi was making films as early as the silent era, he was able to invent his own style rather than borrowing heavily from others.  In this respect, he is similar to such highly distinctive filmmakers as Fritz Lang and Carl Theodor Dreyer, yet a film like Ugetsu would never be mistaken for the work of those directors.  Later films as diverse as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) break many of their scenes up into single, poetic tracking shots, but perhaps the only films that precisely resemble Ugetsu’s aesthetic are Mizoguchi’s own.  The style arguably reached its apex in Sansho the Bailiff (1954).

Repeatability  Ugetsu still holds up as a lovely, immaculately crafted film.  Yet today it seems distinctly old-fashioned compared to other films of the golden era of Japanese cinema, including even period-based works such as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).  There is a certain appeal to Ugetsu’s traditionalism, but, as mentioned above, it does seem at times to be almost the stereotypical Japanese film of its era, in terms of its setting and storyline if not of its style.

Viewer Engagement  Ugetsu has a nice, cleanly told narrative, with few tangential characters and no distracting diversions from the main characters’ quest for success.  The backdrop of war is vividly felt even though the battles occur almost entirely offscreen, the intrusion of battered, desperate soldiers suggesting the devastation that war can bring to civilian communities.  The camera follows practically every movement of the main characters, yet stays far enough away from the action for the viewer to maintain an observational distance.

Morality  The moral of Ugetsu – don’t let your ambitions distract you what’s really important in life – is as basic as that of any fairy tale.  It isn’t a particularly challenging, life-changing message, and because the wives of the main characters don’t make as big an impression as their spouses (or the ghost that one of the men briefly falls in lust with), the “appreciate what you’ve got” moral doesn’t resonate as much as it otherwise might.  Yet the message of the film is often elegantly expressed through its milky, luminous shot compositions.

Ugetsu fails the Masterpiece Test, but is unquestionably a must-see for aspiring cinematographers.

UP NEXT  A very different film dealing with the effect that war has on ambitious civilians, Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Three, Disc Two)

Episodes covered:  Mum, Posse Up, Safe, Cracking Ice

Shock value is something that The Shield has been able to exploit to its advantage in the past, but FX’s relatively lenient standards for graphic content can be a double-edged sword.  The Shield wouldn’t be the show that it is if Shawn Ryan and his creative staff weren’t allowed to depict Farmington’s mean streets in all of their squalor, but sometimes the default tone of gritty ultraviolence can be deadening.  The show often manages to raise the stakes and heighten the tension of its already excitingly chaotic storylines by featuring memorably brutal scenes, such as the stovetop burning of Armadillo’s face early in season two.  But there are times when The Shield just seems to be nasty because it can get away with it, or because the writers have a hard time coming up with compelling material when they aren’t featuring their characters doing something scuzzy or “badass.”

One of the more notoriously shocking scenes from the entire run of The Shield occurs toward the end of “Mum.”  But, while the scene is undeniably well-staged and has already had a significant enough impact on this season’s storylines to be fully justified, I feel that it loses some of its potential impact because it is hard, at this point, for The Shield to produce something that stands enough apart from the show’s default violent tone to be truly shocking.  The scene in question involves Aceveda taking a hands-on role in the investigation of the house of someone connected to a drug case.  After waving away another detective helping on the case and deciding to take a look around the house on his own, Aceveda is jumped by two meth-head thugs, who manage to take the captain’s gun away.  One of the criminals forces Aceveda to give him a blowjob at gunpoint in a long, uncomfortable scene that is probably as close as a basic cable show will ever get to the famously unflinching ten-minute rape scene in the film Irreversible.

As mentioned above, the scene is very well directed, filmed, edited, and performed, with Benito Martinez in particular doing some of his finest work to date as Captain Aceveda.  The scene has thematic relevance within the episode “Mum,” with its recurring motif of people not reporting crimes committed against them, and it also supplies much of the character motivation for Aceveda in the following three episodes (basically he is taking a more aggressive stance against violent criminals than he has in the past).  But in a season where Dutch and Claudette are already conducting an ongoing investigation of a serial rapist and we’ve already seen prostitutes being sexually abused by their pimps (in the disc one episode “Bottom Bitch”), the Aceveda rape scene just doesn’t pop the way that it should.  A later quasi-rape scene in “Cracking Ice,” where Decoy Squad member Trish has to have sex with a drug dealer to avoid blowing her cover, also loses some of its queasy impact because it is surrounded by so much similar brutality.  The Shield has desensitized us, to its own storytelling peril.

That said, this group of episodes is a reassuring improvement over the too-safe-for-their-own-good early episodes of season three.  It is still disappointing that the show hasn’t delivered the epically intense season-long storyline promised by the end of season two, when it seemed like Claudette was going to be the new, morally righteous captain of the Barn, Aceveda was going to wield more power than ever as a city councilman, and Vic and the Strike Team would be torn apart by the inevitable fallout from their Money Train heist.  But the seasonal storyline is finally starting to take shape, and the Strike Team is indeed starting to feel the heat for the events of last season.  “Safe” revolves around the revelation that some of the money that the Strike Team managed to steal in the Money Train heist was marked by federal agents investigating the Armenian mob, a great plot twist that really turns the screws on Vic and his Team.  And in “Cracking Ice,” it is revealed that someone on the Team (probably Shane, since he has already bought his new girlfriend an expensive car and a diamond engagement ring) has already spent $7,000 of the money, including some of the marked bills.  This new plot direction is a great reminder of how well The Shield can exploit shock value without having to resort to stomach-churning violence.

Quick Thoughts:

- A nicely executed little story arc for Tommy (the guy who was briefly Julien's partner early in the season) as he loses his wife and child in "Posse Up," then loses his job in "Cracking Ice," and then takes his own life in the same episode. 

- Tavon didn't die in the car crash.  Although he didn't actually appear in any of this disc's episodes, the promise that he will come back by the end of the season and expose Shane's role in his accident is promising.

- As much as I like Dutch having a lengthy investigation to work on, I can't say that I'm crazy about this "serial rapist of elderly ladies" plot.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Minor Works)

Originally, this post was going to focus exclusively on Intolerable Cruelty (2003), the Coen Brothers' tenth film and the only one of their features that I hadn't seen prior to starting this blog.  But honestly, I can't say that that film is really interesting enough for its own entry. Knowing that the next several Coen projects were also all fairly minor, inconsequential works, I decided to lump them all together in one post, so that we could deal with their "mid-oeuvre crisis" all at once before getting back to their more vital work.

Despite their oddball surfaces, the Coens’ films have generally been based around fairly clich├ęd, if not outright banal, sitcom ideas.  The romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty, the brothers’ first film literally based on someone else’s idea (the script is a rewrite of a never-produced screenplay by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano), reveals what a Coen film would look like without that oddball surface, and it isn’t pretty.  The plot revolves around divorce attorney George Clooney’s growing attachment to Catherine Zeta-Jones, the estranged wife of one of his clients.  This isn’t a terrible setup for a farcical romantic comedy, and Clooney at least is an ideal leading man for modern-day screwball.  But sadly he has no chemistry with Zeta-Jones, possibly because she isn’t asked to do anything other than be a shrew, and the Coens pile on so many inane plot twists, pointlessly flamboyant supporting caricatures, and shrill “observations” about the incompatibility of men and women that the main storyline has no room to breathe.  It is a mark of the film’s lack of wit that the line “we’re gonna nail his ass” is its major recurring joke.  And since Intolerable Cruelty is essentially “Coens light,” we don’t get the usual vibrant setpieces or distinctive dialogue to distract from the emptiness at the film’s core.

If Intolerable Cruelty is the nadir of the Coen Brothers’ career, The Ladykillers (2004) represents at least a slight step up.   Remaking Alexander Mackendrick’s popular Ealing Studios comedy (1955) by transplanting the action from rural England to Mississippi is an odd choice, since the original is so thoroughly British that its value to the American viewer is questionable (to my mind, Kind Hearts and Coronets {1949} is the much funnier Ealing Studios film), though the Coens deserve some credit for at least attempting to make the material their own.  A band of thieves led by Tom Hanks plot to steal the money from a riverboat casino, but are foiled at every turn by no-nonsense churchgoer Irma P. Hall, whose basement they are using as a headquarter.  The actual storyline of The Ladykillers falls mostly flat; by the time major part of the plot kicks in, with the crooks attempting to kill Hall but accidentally killing each other or themselves, it feels like too much of an afterthought to get invested in.  But the energy level is up considerably from Intolerable Cruelty, largely because the cast is clearly having a lot of fun (Hanks, in particular, is very charming in one of his increasingly rare comedic roles) and the story isn’t weighted down with too many tangential characters.  T-Bone Burnett, working with the Coens for the first time since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), provides a fine gospel and Southern hip hop soundtrack, though it isn’t as well-integrated into the film as their past collaborations were.  It would be a stretch to call The Ladykillers a return to form, and it is certainly one of the Coens’ weakest films, but it does have its moments.

Perhaps recognizing that they’d hit a dead end with their recent, relatively conventional feature films, the Coen Brothers next worked on two different short films.  Tuileries (2006) is their six-minute contribution to the anthology film Paris, je t’aime, while World Cinema (2007) is a three-minute piece commissioned as a pre-film short for the Cannes Film Festival.  Tuileries follows tourist Steve Buscemi as he is tormented by a hostile couple whose language he doesn’t understand, a child shooting spitballs at him, and a tourist manual that suggests all of the terrible things that could potentially happen to him while on vacation.  World Cinema has cowboy Josh Brolin torn between seeing Rules of the Game (1939) and Climates (2006) at an indie theatre.  Neither short transcends its one-joke premise, but they each make good use of their stars’ put-upon demeanors, and it is somewhat refreshing to find the Coens doing something simple that they aren’t pretending is complicated.

UP NEXT  No Country for Old Men

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: L'atalante

Year of Release  1934
Country  France
Length  85 min.
Director  Jean Vigo
Screenwriters  Albert Riera, Jean Vigo (story by Jean Guinee)
Cinematographers  Louis Berger, Boris Kaufman
Editor  Louis Chavance
Set Designer  Francis Jourdain
Original Score  Maurice Jaubert
Cast  Dita Parlo, Jean Daste, Michel Simon

Beauty  L’atalante’s visuals are an unusual mixture of grainy, jumpy location shots and lyrical, carefully composed surreal images.  As the film goes on, it becomes harder to draw a distinction between the “realistic” imagery of dirty streets and rusty boats and the “magical” imagery of cats playing records and lovers’ faces appearing in the sea.  It’s as if director Jean Vigo is unveiling a hidden layer of reality that reveals that the world is more delightfully anarchic than it usually seems.

Strangeness  It isn’t enough to say that L’atalante is original – it is also one of the most unpredictable, bizarre, and impossible-to-imitate films in the entire history of cinema.  The film was butchered by unsympathetic studio editors (and then more or less put back together in a 2001 remaster), yet it seems to have leapt directly out of the filmmakers’ heads, like a wonderful dream that the whole world can share.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The story of L’atalante could hardly be more basic – two newlyweds (Dita Parlo and Jean Daste) take a boat trip for their honeymoon, accompanied by an unruly, perpetually drunk sea captain (Michel Simon) – but the way it is told, through a series of vividly weird digressions, allows the film to mimic the young lovers’ sense of wonder about the world that they are only beginning to explore.

Tradition  With its combination of realism and surrealism, L’atalante unites the two basic strains of filmmaking, documentary (Lumiere) and magic (Melies).  In doing so, Vigo had an unmistakable influence on the French New Wave of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, though not even the best of Truffaut or Rivette can match L’atalante’s elegant stream-of-consciousness.  Though Vigo was undeniably a singular filmmaker, directors ranging from Leos Carax (whose The Lovers on the Bridge owes an unmistakable debt to L'atalante) to Apichatpong Weerasethakul have picked up on his signature grounded lyricism.

Repeatability  Because no film has ever managed to duplicate L’atalante’s unique tone, it still feels as strange and revolutionary as it must have in 1934.  Michel Simon’s endlessly inventive performance as sea captain Jules (one of the finest pieces of character acting available on film) never wears out its welcome.  The same could be said for Maurice Jaubert’s lovely, romantic score, or the felines who seem to jump out of every corner of the ship, or pretty much any other aspect of the film.

Viewer Engagement  L’atalante may simply be too strange and too charming to watch passively.  And since the audience is basically following the shipmates as they sail around France, it often feels as if the viewer is part of the voyage.  It’s easy to get sucked into L’atalante’s world, which has its own incomprehensible logic yet resembles our own.

Morality  If L’atalante is indeed revealing a hidden, magical layer of reality then it is doing all of us a great favor.  But even if it is simply a poetically offbeat love story, it is one of the most evocative, open-hearted depictions of romance in all of cinema.  The messy, unruly romance of the central couple animates everything around them, and the film's love for the oddities of the world is palpable in every frame.

L’atalante passes the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  Another film known for its lyricism, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Three, Disc One)

Episodes covered:  Playing Tight, Blood and Water, Bottom Bitch, Streaks and Tips

After two seasons of breathless, intense action, The Shield has become a little boring.

Which isn't to say that any of the early episodes of season three are bad, per se.  The things that worked for the show in the past are all still here – the shaky-cam, cinema verite style that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action; the skillful ensemble acting; the dynamic interplay between police officers with different motivations and different detecting styles.  And if The Shield is ever going to produce a "bad" episode it hasn't done so up to this point.

But the problem is that nothing has really changed since the end of season two.  There are hints that Vic and the Strike Team are going to start feeling some payback for their Armenian Money Train heist, but that storyline seems to have mostly been put on the backburner for the time being.  Tavon, the intriguing new member of the Strike Team – and a potentially interesting foe to Vic if he were ever to get wind of the rest of the Team's extracurricular activities – is (apparently) dead by the end of "Streaks and Tips," when he gets into a car accident.  Aceveda has decided to stick around and continue heading up the Barn until his city council job seat takes effect, leaving he and Claudette in the same stalemate that the end of last season seemed to bring to a head.  Claudette and Dutch are still basically acting as partners.  Danny, fired at the end of season two, is already back in uniform by "Bottom Bitch," and she even has brief appearances in season three's first two episodes, basically negating a major plot development from last year's finale.  And in "Streaks and Tips," Danny and Julien are once again assigned to be partners.  In other words, we're pretty much back at square one.

The Shield works best when the characters are getting in way over their heads, escaping from entanglements in such a way that they create even more problems for themselves and others.  Shawn Ryan & co.'s reluctance to meaningfully change up the series' dynamic does a dramatic disservice to the show and to its fans.  The promise that a righteous, anti-Strike Team Claudette would be running the Barn in season three was exciting, suggesting that the noose would tighten around Vic's neck to a previously unseen degree, bringing The Shield to ever more intense peaks.  But so far the writers seem afraid to take the risks necessary to keep The Shield as edgy and exciting as it has been in the past.

Quick Thoughts:

- Not too much to say about Shane's new girlfriend yet, since it isn't clear where her storyline is going yet.  I can't say I'm too excited about the hints that she might be crazy, though, since crazy girlfriend plots are usually not terribly interesting.

- The battle between the Strike Team and the Decoy Squad could potentially become interesting, but so far the latter group seem like they'll simply be cannon fodder for whatever this season's major storyline turns out to be.

- The beating that Julien received at the end of the second season seems to have unleashed a violent streak in him.  In "Playing Tight," Julien breaks the arm of one of the former officers involved in the beating, and in "Bottom Bitch" he gets unnecessarily rough with a man he's arresting.  Plus, Danny and another officer respond to a domestic disturbance at Julien's house in "Streaks and Tips."  Although Julien is mostly in the background in these first several episodes, and it isn't clear where his storyline is heading this season, he remains arguably the show's most compelling character.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (The Man Who Wasn't There)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) finds the Coen Brothers returning to their favorite genre, film noir.  Where Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996) offered up fairly simple pastiches of the genre, The Man Who Wasn't There zeroes in on the tone of world-weary tone of classic film noirs by keeping its focus almost entirely on Billy Bob Thornton's sad-sack protagonist.  Thornton's mild-mannered, cuckolded barber is less a take-off on the typical noir antihero than he is the living embodiment of the desperate, frustrated feeling lurking around the edges of every film noir.

Thornton is married to Frances McDormand, an employee at Nerdlinger's department store.  The barber suspects that his wife is sleeping with her boss, James Gandolfini, who is married to the Nerdlinger heiress.  Thornton uses Gandolfini's precarious position to his advantage, sending an anonymous letter to the boss claiming that he will reveal the affair if he doesn't receive $10,000 – the same amount that the barber needs to serve as the silent partner in sleazy salesman Jon Polito's new dry cleaning business.  Naturally, all sorts of complications arise from there, with numerous cases of mistaken identity leading to the arrest and/or deaths of all of the main characters, all of whom are guilty but none of whom are punished for the correct crime.

For once, the Coens' plot convolutions revolve less around the characters' stupidity than their tangled emotions.  The Man Who Wasn't There boasts what is arguably the most complicated plot of any of their films to this point, with the possible exception of Miller's Crossing (1990), yet the events play out so methodically that they don't seem contrived (though it does take a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to believe that Thornton would fall into Polito's obvious scam so easily).  Thornton's mesmerizing performance, which never fails to convey the subliminal emotions buried underneath his character's stone-faced exterior, keeps The Man Who Wasn't There grounded and makes it the saddest, most humane, and most elegant of the Coen Brothers' career up to this point.

Yet there are problems whenever the film strays too far from Thornton's character and the labyrinthine complications caused by his suppressed rage.  Throughout The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coens balance Thornton's understated character against their more typically flamboyant caricatures, an effect that simultaneously makes the protagonist's disconnection palpable and offers the supporting players a chance to stand out with some funny moments in the middle of all of the sadness.  Gandolfini's heavy-breathing motor-mouth, Polito's sweaty conman, and Tony Shalhoub's over-confident lawyer (basically a reprise of his routine from Barton Fink) each play off of Thornton's meek everyman nicely.  But after Gandolfini, McDormand, and Polito are all dead, essentially wrapping up the plot, the film just keeps going and going, throwing in an extraneous UFO subplot and a quasi-affair between Thornton and young piano prodigy Scarlett Johansson.  The Coens have never been great self-editors, which isn't necessarily a problem in madcap comedies like The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), but if ever one of their films demanded an extremely tight focus, it's The Man Who Wasn't There.

The Man Who Wasn't There would almost certainly be better if it was closer to 90 minutes than two hours, but fortunately there is plenty to praise in the movie's better moments.  By now it goes without saying that Roger Deakins is the Coens' ideal cinematographer, but his crisp black and white work here is on an even higher plane of achievement than anything we've seen from him in the past.  The tense, deadly fight between Thornton and Gandolfini, complete with glass that slowly cracks and separates seconds after its hit, is as vivid a setpiece as the Coens have ever delivered.  And it's impossible to overpraise Thornton's lyrical, career-best performance.  When Thornton delivers his character's final death row narration, wondering whether he'll be able to reconnect with his wife and tell her "all the things we don't have words for in this world," he achieves something that seemed out of the Coens' grasp in their previous films – truthful, heartbreaking elegance.

UP NEXT  Intolerable Cruelty