Welcome to wild, wild ‘Wyrmwood’

In the spoiler-heavy trailer above, one of the review blurbs calls Wyrmwood: Road of the DeadMad Max meets Dawn of the Dead.” Honestly, that sums it up pretty well.

It’s the zombie apocalypse, in Australia at least. If you don’t have the right blood type, then you turn into the walking dead. Cars are of no use because, it turns out, fuel no longer burns. There’s nowhere to run, few places to hide, and the last of humanity is drastically outnumbered. It’s pretty bleak. Hence, Dawn of the Dead.

Quirky characters abound, from The Doctor – a dancing madman doing experiments on those who haven’t succumb to the plague – to Benny, a goofy dude without seemingly much to offer other than his own special brand of foolish bravery. Toss in the unique armor, the altered vehicles (turns out, zombies belch fuel), the sped-up road scenes and more, and the Mad Max comparison is apt, as well.

But what saves Wyrmood from being completely derivative is the humor and the twist. Not only is the film funny, it’s not afraid to inject humor in truly dark moments, seemingly out of left field. The scene shown in the above trailer where our hero tries to shoot himself in the head, only to be out of nails in his nailgun, is not funny, at all. Until that happens, and then you’re laughing when you know you shouldn’t be. The twist I won’t spoil, but it’s a game-changer and not something I’ve seen used in a zombie flick, at least not the way it’s handled here. It is a tribute to director Kiah Roche-Turner and his co-writer Tristan Roche-Turner that it doesn’t just become a Mad Max knockoff with zombies, but is its own unique entity, and a fun one, at that.

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‘Knock Knock’ intense, frustrating

Here are the two reasons to watch Eli Roth’s Knock Knock:

  1. Keanu Reeves. Reeves gets knocked a lot for a lack of range. I prefer to think of Reeves as the DMX of acting: DMX doesn’t have the greatest range as a rapper, but he knows what he does well and he maximizes that. Reeves tends to be at his best reeled in, stoic, controlled. In Knock Knock, when shit starts to get hectic, we get to see cheating architect Evan (Reeves) rage against his tormentors, Bell (Ana de Armas) and Genesis (Lorenza Izzo). And when it looks like the deal is done, Evan’s fear is palpable. Even at his more subtle moments – such when Evan is trying to both be a polite host and keep himself from compromising his marital vows – Reeves kills it.  It may be the best performance by Reeves in a decade or so.
  2. This isn’t a horror movie. Don’t get me wrong: There are some traditional horror elements in Knock Knock. But really, the movie is an old school morality tale. Can’t resist temptation? Then you will pay, and you will pay dearly, even Biblically. Knock Knock doesn’t necessarily end how we, the audience, have been lead to believe it will throughout the course of the film. But one way or the other, Evan is ruined to the point where he might not ever come back from it simply because he wouldn’t remain faithful. I’m not a huge fan of Roth – I really like Hostel, am pretty lukewarm about Cabin in the Woods and Hostel Part II, haven’t seen Green Inferno and still think the best thing he has done was as an actor, the Bear Jew in Inglorious Basterds – but, save for one issue (see below), I was really impressed with his work here. Roth lays out the space of Evan’s home – our lone setting – impressively with the camera in the early going so we know the lay of the land once the action kicks in, and does a nice job of building the suspense and terror.

The lone drawback of Knock Knock:

  1. Rules, rules, rules. Genesis, the alpha female of our psychotic duo, talks frequently about rules. She mocks Evan for violating the bounds of marriage, noting that the lunacy she and Bell are raining down on him is the same punishment that they have given to other married men, none of whom have ever resisted the temptation of she and her sexy pal. Genesis punishes Evan for not answering questions, because it’s that time, and the rules are he has to answer her queries. And so on. The girls are very pointed about the necessity to keep to the rules, whether they are the accepted rules of matrimony or their own personal rules for this sort of encounter. But then the young women don’t follow their own rules. If the point is to punish Evan, why let Louis die? Louis, a friend/co-worker of Evan’s wife, shows up to gather some of her work for her gallery exhibit. The girls steal his asthma inhaler, work him up to the point where he has an attack, he loses his footing and falls, slamming his head into the heavy base of a sculpture and dies. Louis isn’t unfaithful. Louis isn’t really an ally of Evan’s. He’s just a guy doing a job. Then why is he punished? Sure, you can argue the girls are psychopaths, so of course they kill him and laugh at his death, because that’s what psychopaths do. But if you’re going to have killers with rules, the killers should follow the rules. Louis isn’t the target, and his death doesn’t really punish Evan (although it could have repercussions for him beyond the scope of the movie). It seems to be an arbitrary violation of the structure set forth by the killers and the filmmaker, undercutting what’s been established, and one that doesn’t really do much to further the story.
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Two ways ‘Suicide Squad’ could have easily been improved

Don’t get me wrong: Suicide Squad was a helluva lot of fun, with solid performances all around and Will Smith and Margo Robbie in particular earning their paychecks. But Suicide Squad is not a well-constructed film, and at times it’s so choppy and lost it’s almost hard to watch. I think two issues could have been fixed that would have changed that.

First, that awful beginning. We get introduced to Deadshot (Will Smith), then Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Then Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, just one of the many terrific casting choices in Suicide Squad) meets with some military types to try to convince them to create her Suicide Squad, wherein she reintroduces both Deadshot and Quinn. Then she introduces other members of the squad, but doesn’t even mention Slipknot. As the squad members are pulled from their cages and assembled to get their embedded neck bombs – which will blow their heads off should they try to flee – we are re-introduced to Killer Croc and Diablo. Then, when it’s mission time, Slipknot, who hasn’t even been mentioned, shows up. But at the first opportunity to escape, he gives it a try, and since he’s the only member of the squad which has hardly been a part of the first 20 minutes of the film, we all know he’s going to get his head blown off, and sure enough, kaboom! Then Katana, who, much like Slipknot, isn’t mentioned for the first fourth of the film, joins the mission. She’s not a meta-human, she’s not American military, she’s very likely not even American, but she hops on the helicopter with a once sentence explanation that explains virtually nothing, and immediately she’s Rick Flagg’s right-hand man. It’s a freaking sloppy, redundant, train-wreck of an intro, something that seems like it is more the product of a 12-year-old who has been off his ADD meds for a few days than the creation of a respected writer (Training Day) and director (Fury) like David Ayers. If the rumors are true – rushed script, re-shoots, etc. – it sounds like Ayers was at the mercy of an unforgiving release calendar and a studio that’s already made a mess of Batman v. Superman and may be doing the same to Wonder Woman as I write this. The intro sets the tone for the entire film, and this one didn’t help develop character or story and just felt like a muddled effort to get Smith and Robbie extra screen time.

Second, fewer characters. This is where Marvel gets it right. Before the first Avengers film, we had Iron Man, Thor and Captain America in their own films while introducing Black Widow in Iron Man 2, as well as brief appearances by Agent Coulson and Nick Fury throughout those films, giving us at least a sense of what to expect from these characters. So when Marvel gathered those six with the Hulk and Hawkeye (who is even teased in the first Thor), you had a fully functioning unit from the jump off. DC, of course, couldn’t take the time to introduce at least a couple of these villains in the heroes’ movies, which means all the character development has to be done in Suicide Squad. And given that the characters driving this film are Deadshot, Harley Quinn and Rick Flagg (and, to a lesser extent, Diablo), that should have meant that Captain Boomerang, Katana, the Navy Seals and even the Joker received less screen time. Boomerang was redundant, another fighter like Killer Croc, except, because of his water skills, Croc was more valuable to this story. Katana, again, is just another fighter whose character is underdeveloped. Each could have been saved for the sequel. The Navy Seals don’t add enough to justify even the small amount of screen time they ate up. And the Joker, not being the main villain, would have been better served being a largely faceless presence asserting himself at various times throughout the film, only showing up for the jailbreak. Jared Leto’s performance is terrific, which is a serious problem, because I spent most of the film wishing the Suicide Squad was fighting he and his weirdo minions rather than the really underwhelming Enchantress, her less-powerful-than-he-looks brother and a bunch of rock-head foot soldiers. Leto stole the show when he was onscreen. Of course, if they had sidelined the Joker a bit, there may have been time to develop the relationship between Flag and the Enchantress/June Moone, Rick’s main squeeze and damsel in distress, making the Enchantress more interesting. Because the main characters here are Deadshot, Harley, Diablo and Flag (Joel Kinneman), and it’s their stories we should focus on. But because DC wants to sell action figures, we get an underdeveloped and unnecessary Boomerang. Because DC wants more diversity onscreen and wants to tap the Asian market, we get an underdeveloped and unnecessary Katana. Because DC wants to up the body count, we get all the superfluous Seals. And because of Leto’s dynamic performance and audience familiarity with his character, we get a terrific Joker who overwhelms a significant portion of the rest of the film, of which he really only is a small part. It smacks of poor planning on the part of DC, which isn’t a new or original criticism, but a vital one, particularly since DC is swimming in the wake of Marvel’s well-designed universe.

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5 reasons to watch ‘Stranger Things’

5) The boys. Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike … er, sorry, that’s Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will take us 80s children back to Goonies or Stand By Me, in that they have the dumb, goofy kid way of relating to each other. It doesn’t seem scripted or forced, just your average four junior high kids who don’t quite get girls yet and are far more interested in the next weekend’s D&D campaign than the school dance. The teen boys and twin love interests of Mike’s sister Nancy – played by Charlie Heeton and Joe Keery – also each bring something interesting to the proceedings after coming off as the stereotypical outsider and jealous boyfriend in the early going. Terrific casting.

4) The girls. Millie Bobby Brown plays a weird, creepy girl who is more than she appears. She’s had practice: She was also a weird, creepy girl who was more than she appeared in the BBC science fiction drama Intruders from 2014. However, this is a different kind of creepy. Her Stranger Things character, Eleven or “Elle” as the boys take to calling her, is a lost puppy with great powers who doesn’t quite understand how she fits into the world, whereas her Intruders character, Madison, was far more menacing and violent. Either way, Brown kicks ass. Natalia Dyer brings some depth to Mike’s teen sister Nancy, and really brings it when the shit hits the fan. And I’m tossing Winona Ryder in here, too, although calling her a “girl” might seem a little demeaning for someone who is a year older than I am. I don’t think I’d seen Ryder in anything since Black Swan, and she still has an amazing screen presence. Her role as the mom of a lost child could have easily succumbed to silly melodrama in some over-the-top manner by a lesser actress, but Ryder keeps it grounded in a situation where that’s not as easy as it sounds. Hope to see her hauling in a best supporting actress Emmy next year.

3) The music. The soundtrack is great, full of 1980s hits and re-workings – such as a Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s Heroes – that really help set the scene. You’ll never listen to The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? the same way again. The score by Survive is another thing entirely, frequently reminding me of classic horror of the era, particularly – but not limited to – Halloween. The story and the acting are both great, but the music is like sweet, creamy icing on top of the best cake you’ve ever eaten.

2) The 1980s. No cell phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, no online gaming. It helps build the tension when you can’t reach out to everyone all at once. The over-sized walkie talkies were a great choice, both for believability and the visual, showing just how far tech has come in 30 or so years. The hair and the fashion, as well as the design of the automobiles … it’s like watching news footage from some suburban documentary in 1983 or something. It’s akin to what’s done on FX’s The Americans, the level of detail used to properly set the scene.

1) The end. As we were watching the show come to a close, my daughter asked, “Is this going to be the only season?” I mused that maybe it was going to be more of a single-season anthology show, like American Horror Story. But then two things happen, and suddenly there’s potential for so much more ahead with the same gang from Hawkins, Indiana, that we’re now so invested in. Well played.

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7/22/16: Savages in Indianapolis

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Jehnny Beth, lead singer of Savages, takes a stroll across the Indianapolis crowd

MY SAVAGES CONCERT EXPERIENCE actually started in May, when I wore my Adore Life t-shirt to the RiverRoots music festival in Madison, IN. I was questioned by more than one person about who/what Savages were. Then a few days ago, at the last day of the Forecastle music festival in Louisville, it happened again when I sported my Savages shirt. Not only did I get questions, I was also stopped by one couple who had seen the quartet in Chicago and were raving about the experience.

And I, lover of all things Savages, have done my part to spread the word. I’ve rattled on about my fondness for them here and here, so I won’t say much beyond this: I just keep listening to this album, over and over and over again. It’s like when I was in high school and could barely wait for Side 1 of a cassette to end so I could flip it over and listen to Side 2 … as quickly as possible, of course, because I wanted to hear Side 1 again. It’s probably been more than a decade since I’ve been as into any album as I am Adore Life.

BUT HOW WAS THE SHOW, you ask? Dearest reader, would I have gone on and on about it if it were anything but awesome? It took a few songs for the crowd to get warmed up, but as you can see from my photo above, singer Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton soon owned the room, roaring and raging, crooning and crashing, taking everyone prisoner. Savages rocked it like they were playing in front of thousands in a festival crowd, not like they were performing for a few hundred in the smallest room in the house. From T.I.W.Y.G. and Adore off of the new album to the more obscure Fuckers, Savages played every song like it was their last.

I already can’t wait to see them again.

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Favorite songs of 2016, the mid-year review

FAVES OF 2016

Ain’t It a Sin, Charles Bradley – The world just keeps doing Charles wrong, and it sounds like he’s ready to battle back.

All Coltrane Solos At Once, Saul Williams feat. Haleek Maul – Williams gets his Kool Keith on in a song that’s as much freak rock as it is hip-hop.

Angel, Nice As Fuck – I’d like to think this is what happens when Jenny Lewis and friends hang out and listen to Blondie albums.

The Answer, Savages – In my head, I can see Beavis and Butthead headbanging to this, fists raised to the sky. From my favorite album of the year, Adore Life.

Boys (That I Dated in High School), The Prettiots – It’s awkward, apologetic, nostalgic and funny, but never bitter.

Burn the Witch, Radiohead – Always good to have Radiohead back with new material. Like this song. Love the album.

Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, Loretta Lynn – Ms. Lynn, 84 years old with sense of humor intact, rips it on this light-hearted bluegrass cut.

Funeral for a Great Drunken Bird, All Them Witches – Stoner rock by some guys who both know what the Misty Mountains are and can probably tell you off the top of their head that they’re also known as Hithaeglir.

In Bloom, Sturgill Simpson – I love it when a cover really changes the way you think about a song, such as when Marilyn Manson covered The Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams back in the 1990s. Nirvana’s In Bloom always felt like it was raging against the machine. Simpson’s version creates an atmosphere of melancholy, with a bit of defiance coming in toward the end of the song. And it’s goddamn beautiful.

Keep on Keepin’ On, Bleached – Fans of The Runaways and The Donnas should enjoy the driving, head-bobbing Keep on Keepin’ On from this California quartet.

I Decide, The Julie Ruin – A cool blast of hot punk.

Lyrics, Skepta feat. Novelist – Reminds me a bit of Dizzy Rascal, that off kilter, seriously syncopated rhyming over sparse, strange production that gives it an almost otherworldly feel.

Make It Right, The Coathangers – Step up and make it right, advise this all-woman punk trio from Atlanta.

My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars, Mitski – Almost sounds like a cover of a Guided By Voices’ song, with that lo-fi/DIY attitude, short and to-the-point musically and odd lyrically.

Never Hold On, King Khan – Music to soothe the soul. Never Hold On would be just as comfortable in 1966 as it is in 2016.

Pain, De La Soul feat. Snoop DoggPain is classic De La Soul, sounding like something you could have pulled off of any of their albums from the last 25 years, yet fresher than anything you’re hearing on the airwaves right now.

She Makes Me Laugh, The Monkees – I’m as surprised to see this on my list as anyone, but She Makes Me Laugh is a gorgeous nugget of shimmery summer beach pop.

Shut Up Kiss Me, Angel Olsen – Olsen’s first two singles from her upcoming album are decidedly different from what we heard from her on 2014’s awesome Burn Your Fire For No Witness. And that’s not a bad thing.

Strange Torpedo, Lucy Dacus – Not even old enough to drink legally when her album was recorded, Dacus has a bright future as a songwriter.

Swear Jar (again), Milk Teeth – A good year for female frontwomen who rock. Go ahead, put another penny in the swear jar.

Twist My Fingaz, YG – This party track rides a traditional, West-Coast funk groove like something off Doggystyle or The Chronic, which seems like a contradiction when YG muses, “I really got something to say / I’m the only one that made it out the West without Dre.”

Um Chagga Lagga, The Pixies – It’s so good to have The Pixies back together. Frank Black mixes singing and talking over a thick guitar groove.

untitled 02 | 06.23.2014., Kendrick Lamar – Hip-hop’s reigning MVP gets a little more abstract, dropping untitled unmastered. without fanfare in the spring. Lamar probably isn’t winning any Grammys for this one, but who cares? The fans should love this unexpected gem.

You Don’t Get Me High Anymore, Phantogram – I like a cut that oozes attitude. This is a song to strut to.

ON THE BUBBLE

All of Me, Dirty Dishes; Even Though Our Love is Doomed, Garbage; Kids, The Frights; Ox Blood, Plague Vendor; Under the Influence pt II, Snoh Aalegra; Wear Me Out Loud, The I Don’t Cares

HONORABLE MENTIONS

III, Maxwell; American Appetite, Harriet; Captive of the Sun, Parquet Courts; Clouds Never Get Old, Bas; Criminal, Eliza Hardy Jones; The Decay of Lying, The Melvins; Divorce Separation Blues, The Avett Brothers; Dogma, Hell Came Home; Drag Queen, The Strokes; E.V.P., Blood Orange; Feel Right, Esme Patterson; Hold Your Own Hand, Mothers; How Did I Get Through the Day?, Har Mar Superstar; I Won’t Pay, Bear Hands; A Living Human Girl, The Regrettes; Losing It, Robert Pollard; Moon, Beth Orton; Mxney, Chuuwee; Nganshe, Mbongwana Star; No Star, Greys; No Woman, Whitney; November, Kera & the Lesbians; Power Child, Night Beats; RCVR, Big Black Delta feat. Debbie Gibson; Secrets (Cellar Door), Radical Face; Sex & Drugs, A Giant Dog; Since You Been Gone, The Heavy; Six White Horses, Karl Blau; Strive, A$AP Ferg feat. Missy Elliott; We Turn Red, Red Hot Chili Peppers; White Flag, Joseph; Wow, Beck

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The zen of Coop

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A damn fine cup of coffee.

“The idea of zen it so catch life as it flows.” D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

PRIMARILY IN THE FIRST SEASON of Twin Peaks, the show, through FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), introduces its viewers to Buddhism via Cooper’s obsession with Tibet. I can’t speak to Cooper’s actions with regards to the more traditional aspects of Buddhism (Dale Cooper and Buddhism is interesting if you are interested in that). However, I happened to recently re-watch the series while I was simultaneously reading D.T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and the similarities between Suzuki’s words and Cooper’s actions were striking.

The main idea of Zen Buddhism is that all truth can be found in the moment. The past doesn’t exist, nor does the future. Only by focusing on what one is doing right now can enlightenment be found. There is no enlightenment in the external. It is found within.

Cooper often embodies this idea of being all in on the moment. The primary example would be Coop’s sincere adoration for a good cup of coffee. It isn’t a need for the caffeinated energy rush. It isn’t about satisfying a thirsty palate. It is about that moment when that hot, earthy liquid makes first contact with the lips, warming the tongue and throat before comfortably resting in the belly. When Coop takes the first sip, it isn’t unusual for him to, say, lift his hand to stop all action and commentary around him, so that he can focus on that one, lone, simple action, because at that moment that is where he both wants to be and should be. There is no fear, no hate, no violence, no cases, no pressure, no clock, just a damn fine cup of coffee and a clear mind.

Joshu once asked a new monk: “Have you ever been here before?” The monk answered, “Yes, sir, I have.” Thereupon the master said, “Have a cup of tea.” Later on another monk came and asked him the same question, “Have you ever been here? “This time the answer was quite opposite. “I have never been here, sir.” The old master, however, answered just as before, “Have a cup of tea.” Afterwards the Inju (the managing monk of the monastery) asked the master, “How is it that you make the same offering of a cupe of tea no matter what a monks’ reply is?” The old master called out, “O Inju!” who at once replied, “Yes master.” Whereupon Joshu said, “Have a cup of tea.” – An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

WHILE THAT’S THE MAIN EXAMPLE of the zen of Dale Cooper – in part because it is repeated frequently, particularly in season one – it’s not the only one. There’s a moment where Cooper and Twin Peaks sheriff Harry Truman are sitting in the police station, talking shop, when Coop reaches up and tweaks Truman jovially on the nose. It’s the kind of act that could seem demeaning or rude. But really, it’s an affectionate act between two men who have great respect for each other. For Coop, it’s also an affirmation of his living in that moment. While some reactions work in many situations – as the story of Joshu above shows – there are plenty of times when an act such as Cooper’s nose touch would be ludicrous or insulting, such as at the funeral of Laura Palmer or during the questioning of Mike and Bobby. And Coop, being a man of each moment, would have never considered tweaking Truman’s nose in those situations. But for that one second in that one place at that one time, it expressed his joy at being in a place he loved, doing the job he loved, and conversing with a friend and compatriot.

These may seem like minor actions, and maybe they are. But they are also indicators that Coop is a man who yearns to catch the flow of life. It is an interesting mindfulness that you don’t often see in characters from popular culture, one that helps make Coop – and Twin Peaks – unique.

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Favorite albums of 2016, the mid-year review

THE ALBUM I CAN’T STOP LISTENING TO

Adore Life, Savages – It’s like I’m 15 all over again, and I just want to listen to the same album time after time, flipping the cassette over to start it again every time it hits the end. Since Adore Life dropped early this year, it’s been rocking my world. I like Savages’ 2013 full-length debut, Silence Yourself, and thought it showed promise. But I was unprepared for Adore Life, a significant step up in songwriting and intensity. Can’t wait to see them later this month in Indianapolis.

OTHER FAVES OF 2016

Changes, Charles Bradley – Bradley has had his heart broken, and has probably broken a heart or two himself. Changes – with the exception of the bizarre choice of God Bless America to open the album – is Bradley baring his soul for the world, looking for love, sometimes in the wrong places.

Fill In the Blank, Car Seat Head Rest – Beck, Parquet Courts, Weezer, Sebadoh The Strokes … all names of bands that run through my head as I listen to Fill in the Blank. And let’s be clear: I’m in no way calling Car Seat Head Rest derivative. They have their own thing going on, and that thing puts them in some pretty good company.

The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey – Probably the most I’ve enjoyed a PJ Harvey album since 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the City. It isn’t that Harvey hasn’t done good work since then, but there’s a cohesiveness to Hope Six that her other recent offerings have lacked.

Lightning at the Door, All Them Witches – Grungy stoner rock for anyone who has ever owned 20-sided dice. You can hear touches of Black Sabbath and Queens of the Stone Age on Lightning at the Door, and it’s best to listen with the lights out and some candles burning, preferably in a basement.

A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead – As a music fan, I really appreciate a band’s evolution over a period of time. Not everything is going to be a winner. There will always be favorites. While I don’t love A Moon Shaped Pool like I love OK Computer or Amnesiac, the more A Moon Shaped Pool simmers in my ears, the more I could see myself loving it just as I do my other Radiohead favorites.

Post-Pop Depression, Iggy Pop – I think the pairing of Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme and Iggy Pop is natural and fluid, and Post-Pop Depression reflects that. Iggy does his thing, and Homme keeps the guitar wankering reeled in, doing more subtle, detailed work over the bulk of this nine-song collection rather than cranking it up to 11.

Puberty 2, Mitski – I’m not sure what I expected when I first listened to Puberty 2, but it wasn’t a pop rock album that would work as a soundtrack to an episode of Twin Peaks. Whether it’s the gloomy vulnerability of Dan the Dancer, the dreamy strings-and-beats-driven Fireworks or the noisy defiance of My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars, Mitski drops track after beguiling track.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson – Come for the outstanding cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom; stay for more from one of the most interesting voices in American country music right now. Simpson’s less from the line of “cowboys” and “cowgirls” dominating the charts look like they went straight to the stage from the tanning bed, and more from the thoughtful, intelligent, rebellious line of John Prine, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.

We Were Wild, Esme Patterson – Esme Patterson has a wonderful voice, which has served her well. But on We Were Wild, she loosens up a bit, amping up the energy some, and the result is a more engaging collection than either of her two previous albums. This is one that grows on me the more I listen to it.

ON THE BUBBLE

BlackSUMMERS’night, Maxwell – I could see this being in my top albums at the end of the year. I don’t know that I like it as much as 2009’s BLACKsummers’night, but I find it growing more satisfying with each listen.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Introducing Karl Blau, Karl Blau; Leave Me Alone, Hinds; No Burden, Lucy Dacus; No One Deserves Happiness, The Body; The Suffers, The Suffers; untitled unmastered., Kendrick Lamar; You Will Never Be One of Us, Nails

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Sci-fi and ScarJo: A winning combo

I’ve been impressed with Scarlett Johansson’s choice of science fiction roles, namely her starring turns in 2013’s Under the Skin and 2014’s Lucy. Not only is Johansson good in two solid films, the movies and Johansson’s roles couldn’t be more different.

I’ve gone into detail about my adoration for Under the Skin elsewhere, so I won’t focus much on it. I will note that Under the Skin is quiet, allowing the action and acting to lead, moving at a deliberate pace. Between straightforward, largely quiet scenes are dark, murky, abstract moments, all eventually leading to one helluva mind-fuck ending. It’s not a commercial flick by any means, with the exception of its star being part of the biggest comic book movie series on the planet.

In Lucy, from writer-director Luc Besson (director of La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional, as well as the producer behind the Taken flicks), Johannson plays the title character, a young woman looking to have a little fun in the Far East until she gets in over her head, carrying drugs for hardcore gangster, Mr. Chang (Min-Sik Choi of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), who has killed her boyfriend and is threatening to kill others near and dear to her. The drugs, implanted in her body, leak, and said chemicals push her mind and body through about 5,000 years of evolution in 24 hours.

My guess is the science in this science fiction may not be so solid, as Lucy goes from your average human using about 10 percent of her brain to a superhuman pushing 100 percent capacity. But Besson does what Besson does: He pushes the action, whether that means interspersing lectures by expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) with shots from nature and the universe, or the attack by Chang’s men against French police that is a hail of lead tearing apart a hallway, or Lucy literally trying to hold herself together as the effects of the drug wear off during a plane ride (see the video above). In defense of the science component, as Lucy evolves from bubbly blonde to being of pure data and energy, I began to think of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series. Only Lucy manages to do in a couple of days what evolution took (hundreds of) millions of years to do in Clarke’s imagining. I’m not saying it’s accurate or likely, but Lucy fleetingly dwells on similar ideas about evolution and immortality, in between car chases and gunshots.

Johansson excels in two dissimilar roles. In Under the Skin, she is a predator, silently stalking her prey, focused solely on the hunt, until that unfortunate moment when she realizes she is just as vulnerable as the men she consuming. From that point, she goes from offense to defense, searching for a place to hide in a world she is unfamiliar with. In Lucy, Johansson goes from a happy-go-lucky young woman to an entity that is solely concerned with devouring information and processing that data to find an answer that might not even exist.

Lucy and Under the Skin are an interesting mix, and my hope is Johansson continues to look for science fiction roles. She certainly seems to have a knack for picking them.

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‘Dory’ keeps Pixar’s solid sequel run intact

Bravo, Pixar.

Rather than roll out some shitastic money-generating two-hour waste of my time – yes, Independence Day: Resurgence, I’m looking at your lame ass – Pixar did what it always does: Made a great film.

Finding Dory succeeds precisely because it doesn’t attempt to be or to recycle Finding Nemo. Finding Nemo is two films: And epic (the journey of Dory and Marlin) and escape/heist pic (Nemo’s attempt to get out of the dentist’s fish tank). The epic journey portion provides us with the bulk of the tension, and Marlin and Dory try to traverse the ocean while navigating its numerous dangers. Nemo’s fish tank efforts are largely comic relief, a break from the constant danger hovering over the rest of the film.

Finding Dory is a traditional Hollywood comedy, period, with a hefty dose of unreliable narrator in the form of everyone’s favorite short-term memory-challenged fish. When it comes time to travel from their home on the reef to the Marine Life Institute, Dory, Nemo and Marlin merely hop a ride with their old pals the sea turtles and bang, there where they need to be. No sharks, no jellyfish, no weird bottom of the sea fish with a light on its head. That’s not what Finding Dory is, and it makes no attempt to be that. Yes, there’s an escape element in Dory, but that’s where the real action in the film is, as opposed to functioning as comic relief and break from the darker elements.

Is Finding Dory the game-changer that Finding Nemo was? No, but it couldn’t be. Nemo introduced us to a lush, animated underwater landscape viewers had never seen before. There was really no way for Dory to top that.

Thank goodness Pixar didn’t attempt to do that. Finding Dory is all the better for it.

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