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December 4, 2012, 3:47 PM
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If anyone is still stopping by looking for new content, I can now be found at where I will hopefully do a better job of consistently providing content. Thanks.


The Best Album of 2012?

Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (heretofore to be referred to as The Idler Wheel) is the first album of the year to really take hold of me and insist I surrender to it completely from the very start. There have been some excellent records released in 2011, don’t get me wrong. The new offerings from Andrew Bird, Beach House, of Montreal, The Shins, and The Walkmen all stand out, along with Jack White’s uncharacteristically personal Blunderbuss. However, The Idler Wheel inspires a feeling I haven’t felt since the opening bars of “Perth” first captivated me on Bon Iver’s self-titled 2011 release (one of about five 2011 records that remains in my regular rotation; about which, more at a later date.)

Aesthetically, The Idler Wheel represents a stark departure from her previous two Jon Brion produced outings (we’ll ignore the Mike Elizondo produced re-recording of Extraordinary Machine). In contrast to Brion’s baroque arrangements, the majority of the album consists of skeletal piano parts brought to life by innovative percussion (courtesy of Apple’s co-producer Charlie Drayton), occasionally opening up a little with the aid of minimal string arrangements, an upright bass, or an exquisitely placed field recording. “Jonathan,” “Periphery” and “Left Alone” feature Apple playing busier motifs – the latter features a hypnotic piano line that is continually falling back on itself, providing a feeling of constant movement that isn’t getting you anywhere –  but still rarely venturing into anything that could be described as polyphonic.

There are bits and pieces here that wouldn’t feel out of place on Apple’s earlier records. With more conventional drumming, “Anything We Want” would be classic Fiona Apple. The chorus of “Valentine” is also very distinct, going so far as to quote Extraordinary Machine’s “Get Him Back” while telling an ex-boyfriend “I watch you live to have my fun” (a theme that turns up on the very next track as “I like watchin’ you live” in “Jonathan.”) “Werewolf” is also vintage Fiona, overflowing with wit, the only uncharacteristic flourish present is a field recording of children screaming on a playground. “Hot Knife,” on the other hand, is unlike anything she’s recorded before, consisting solely of her singing while Drayton pounds away on timpani.

Stylistic choices aside, there is no mistaking The Idler Wheel for the work of anyone but Fiona Apple. Referring to one of her records as personal is merely stating the obvious but, if we set lyrical content aside, this may be her most personal musical statement. While previous producers preferred using juxtaposition; contrasting her revealing, occasionally ugly, lyrics with intricately beautiful musical accompaniments; Drayton reinforces the thematic content of the lyrics in the music itself. Piano lines stripped down to their very core, getting at the emotional truth in the chord progressions, backed by busy drumming the echoes the pitter-patter of an anxious heart. It’s rare that percussion serves as such an intrinsic part of an album’s mood.

With each subsequent addition to her catalog it becomes clearer that Fiona Apple is one of the defining talents of her time. These are merely first impressions regarding The Idler Wheel, so it’s clear it was worth the seven years Apple saw fit to make us wait. I’m confident it will continue to bear fruit for quite some time like the greatest albums always do. Hopefully her next album, whenever it makes its way to our ears, continues the trend.

The Best Films of 2011: #2 The Skin I Live In

I don’t think any of the other films I saw in 2011 ingrained themselves as deeply in my consciousness as The Skin I Live In. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it as I walked out of the theater, wandering aimlessly down the street and into the nearest Thai restaurant. A man behind me idly mused to his spouse “I’m not even sure why the Tiger guy was in the film…” and I thought “Yeah, what was with that guy?” as I tried to see how many shrimp I could fit onto the tines of my fork. But like so many great works of art Almodovar’s film refuses to let you go, coming to mind at the most random of times, begging you to revisit it, making you realize it has appreciated in your mind even without your revisiting it, by simple means of contemplation.

The film is a classic example of termite art, seeming at first to be nothing more than lurid, if entertaining, melodrama, it is at heart a pretty incisive look into gender, identity and female victimization in cinema. I’m not sure I’m capable of exploring that aspect of the film any better than Macrology did here, so I’ll just point you to that post and move on. Never one to hide his influences Almodovar is clearly drawing on Vertigo and Eyes Without a Face but the central “twist” (if you can call it that) lends the film a heightened level of perversity. This is mitigated somewhat by the surgical detachment with which Almodovar observes the proceedings (which isn’t to suggest the film is emotionless, far from it), an approach that also serves to align our sympathies with the Antonio Banderas character, at least initially.

There is so much to discuss regarding this film I really don’t think I can do it justice here. In fact its complexity is what kept me coming back to it again and again, seeing it three times in less than two months. So I’ll just comment on a few things. One of my favorite scenes has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the film, in which a woman’s spurned husband brings his errant wife’s clothing into a consignment store. Grace notes such as this can carry a lot of weight and I think it serves as a pretty direct rebuttal to the critics who claimed the film was humorless. The cinematography is as gorgeous as you’d expect from an Almodovar film and the score is easily one of my favorites of the year. As are the lead performances from Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya, the former returning to the director who made him famous after over two decades. The final scene might also be my favorite of the year, especially viewed in light of earlier interactions between the two characters it features, lending an appropriate underlying perversity to its perfection.

The Best Films of 2011: #3 Drive

Style as substance in the extreme, Drive made for one of the most hypnotic movie going experiences of my life. In theaters I tend to find myself checking the time at least once or twice even during films I’m enjoying, blame it on a low attention span. When the end credits rolled for Drive I awoke as if out of a daze, newly aware of my surroundings, having been engrossed in a world I would’ve gladly spent twice as long in. A world that resembles our own but also that of a fairy tale, underscored by the story of the scorpion and the frog, albiet one filtered through the mind of Travis Bickle.

Drive’s strange magnetism is apparent from the very first scene, a superbly shot and edited getaway. The entire film is composed with a remarkable attention to detail, not just the stunning cinematography and pitch-perfect sound design but little things that engage the audience. Like The Driver’s apparent LA Clippers fandom being revealed as just another aspect of his escape plan. Just when this sequence is easing it’s grip on the audience the opening credits welcome you into its 80’s-inspired swoon, courtesy of Kavinsky & Lovefoxx’s “Nightcall.” At this point I had surrendered to the film and was willing to follow it pretty much wherever it wanted to take me.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t moments that drew me out of my stupor. Touting a strong supporting cast featuring Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, and AMC stalwarts Christina Hendricks and Brian Cranston, acting is seldom an Achilles heel in Drive. That said, Ron Perlman has some cringe-inducing line readings, none worse than when he refers to a call as ‘one motherfucking fine ass pussymobile motherfucker!’ And any review of Drive would be incomplete without mention of the violence. I actually admired how extreme they were willing to go. Long desensitized by action films piling up bloodless bodies as if it’s some kind of contest, it was refreshing to see the extermination of life induce the sickening feelings it should (or at least should have, a guy behind me laughing and saying “he’s going to wake up with a headache in the morning!” was the sole blemish on an otherwise pristine trip to the theater), and if they had to stretch the bounds of reality along the way? So be it.

The Best Films of 2011: #4 Le Quattro Volte
March 18, 2012, 11:47 PM
Filed under: film | Tags: , , ,

For a solid hour while watching Le Quattro Volte I thought I was watching the best film of the year. I was completely engaged watching the trials and tribulations of an aging goatheard and the subsequent struggles of a baby goat becoming acclimated to life in this world. The film follows the voyage of a soul through Pythagoras’s four stages of life (Human, Animal, Vegetable and Mineral) and it’s inevitable that as we observe a tree and it’s eventual conversion to charcoal the subject matters is inherently less gripping. Fortunately, the final two stages comprise only the last quarter of the film’s runtime and they aren’t completely devoid of interest.

All caveats aside, this is a fantastic film. Much like last year’s Sweetgrass, Le Quattro Volte recognizes there is something profound to be discovered in the movements of large quantities of animals over various landscapes. Frammartino’s sense as a visual storyteller is rather adept. Particularly in the first section of the film as he patiently relates his protagonists habits, preparing us for when they are inevitably disrupted. During the second stage the film blurs the lines between fiction and documentary. Certainly the goat’s birth is legitimate and beyond that you wonder how much direction the baby goat was given, or could have been given.

If the dog in the film is any indication, perhaps more than you think. The film’s centerpiece is a lengthy unbroken take in which the dog wreaks havoc on a passion parade passing through the town. It’s a remarkably timed and choreographed piece of silent comedy, for which my appreciation only deepens when I consider the logistics. Le Quattro Volte is a film that quietly contemplates the living things that share the earth as a habitat, the circle of life in a literal way that is made clear at the end of the film. It finds deep meaning in the way we live our lives, the way we relate to our environment and the way both keep finding ways to go on.

The Best Films of 2011: #5 The Tree of Life
March 18, 2012, 11:46 PM
Filed under: film | Tags: , , , ,

It’s hard to imagine there’s a film that’s been dissected and torn apart by critics more this year than the Tree of Life, which makes finding something new to say about it rather difficult. I have my qualms with it; the Sean Penn scenes feel disconnected from the rest of the film, the dinosaurs are… dinosaurs and the new-agey climax is perhaps a bit much. The rest of the film, however, is so overpowering that it isn’t hard to cast those concerns aside, to lose yourself in the grandeur of the creation sequence, to become immersed in memories of a childhood that seem all too familiar.

As I sat watching the film in the theater for the first time I remember thinking “this is what memory feels like.” The snippets and reflections, the flights of fancy that couldn’t possibly be legitimate, the imagined experiences of others. If there’s one thing that has stuck with me it’s that Malick seems to have found a cinematic analogue for the way we reflect on life, one that feels completely organic. It’s messiness and density are perhaps endemic to that conceit, as are the tenuous connections and layers of meaning that connect one scene to the next.

There have been hints of something like The Tree of Life in each of Malick’s previous films but this feels like the first time we’ve seen Malick completely unfiltered. The poetry, the melding of voiceover and image that seems so distinctly him was hardly present in Badlands. With each successive film it’s become more imposing, until it exists at the expense of all but the barest semblance of a narrative as it does here. This is one man’s life and ideas poured into what feels like a consummate work of art, and for that it is kind of breathtaking, whatever minor problems I may have with it.

The Best Films of 2011: #6 A Dangerous Method

Jim Emerson did a piece towards the end of last year where he charted the precise moments he fell in love with certain 2011 films. For me and A Dangerous Method that moment was the very second shot. Keira Knightley writhing and screaming, thrusting herself into the corner of the carriage we had just seen racing down the road, in a misguided attempt to break loose of her confinement. Howard Shore’s score feels a little too arch, slightly perverse. As befits a film involving Sigmund Freud, that strain of perversity runs throughout the film. A sense of irreverence for the film’s period trappings. Shots framed slightly askew, attention drawn to Viggo Mortensen’s prosthetic nose, the knowing way in which he’s constantly chomping on his cigar, a precisely timed nip-slip denoting a character’s state of mental imbalance.

It all mirrors the event portrayed in the film, the entrance of Sabina Spielrein into the lives of Jung and Freud and the subsequent introduction of female sexuality into academic discourse. Spielrein is embodied by Keira Knightley in a stunning performance. Her earliest scenes are overwhelmed by bodily contortions, as she physically confines what she perceives as her own perversity. Drawing on great reserves of will to keep it from being dealt with in healthy and natural ways. The performance is over-the-top to the point of discomfort and at the risk of generalization I think in many cases it’s that very feeling of discomfort that has led people to paint this as a bad performance. Cronenberg clearly knows how to handle actors and it’s an insult to assume this isn’t exactly what he wanted on the screen. It’s a clear attempt to create the same feelings in the audience that Spielrein was creating in her peers.

Spielrein is so much the focus of the proceedings that when it steps away and turns to the relationship between Freud and Jung it occasionally loses a bit of it’s momentum. I’ve heard the opposite argued but I find that very difficult to fathom. Also, running at a spare 99 minutes there is a feeling that maybe Cronenberg is attempting to do too much with too little. One wonders what an HBO Miniseries take on A Dangerous Method would’ve been like. But the pleasures here are primarily formal, the way Cronenberg forgoes typical framing, lenses and editing patterns and what he’s trying to communicate by that, it’s a masterclass in mise-en-scene. At the risk of making another generalization and alienating more of you I will say I can only assume those who deride A Dangerous Method as boring are ignoring what’s on the screen and casting their narrow focus towards the page.