28 October 2015

"I’m not nothing" - The Return of Wax Idols

Just a short review here as I'm really excited for this new album!

American Tragic by Wax Idols is the latest evolution in the band’s sound. And there’s so much to love here in the band's step forward: production, mixing, drumming, lyrics, song titles, even the sequencing is perfect. This is the Wax Idols experience at a new high. Shinier, more piercing, and even more engaging. An absolute gem of a pop record that’s high among the year’s best.

While the album looks short at nine songs, it’s a slow burn of a musical journey that explores the dreams and ambitions of being one’s own distinct self. As statements of intent, there are song titles bearing this out: "I’m Not Going", "Goodbye Baby", and "Severely Yours" which sounds like an especially acerbic (and delicious) closing to a break-up letter. So with this new album, Wax Idols is here to stay. Detractors can’t hold her back or make a dent in that resolve to make her own way. While Discipline + Desire was in parts a record of drowning, struggling, and persevering, American Tragic is what happens when you finally come to the shore and stagger forward. Coming to shore like Nancy in The Craft, let me add.
While "A Violent Transgression" starts it all off ominously like its predecessor but with a smoother malevolence, it isn’t until the next song "Lonely You" that the album's sonic change becomes apparent and announces the band’s evolution. It’s obvious why this is a single - with an equally stylish and memorable music video starring Wax Idols mastermind Hether Fortune! Endlessly listenable and incredibly catchy, it’s everything that one could love about Wax Idols. It’s a perfect song, but those haunted vocals higher in the mix really make it stand out in the band’s catalog a Wax Idols anthem. To remind us of how she got to shore is "I’m Not Going" which is a beautiful hymn to persevering. It’s in "Deborah" that we have the album’s highlight, however. The guitar and drums create some wonderful tension which the singing hardly alleviates - only to make it all explode in the choruses. Harder drums, cavernous guitar, and some sparse Cure-like synth, this exorcism in song is a knock out. I would take a guess that the Deborah in question is Deborah Curtis speaking to her late husband. Maybe I’m wrong on that interpretation – if not it’s about time someone broached the subject so hats off to Wax Idols – but regardless it’s a great song about moving past those who’ve hurt or betrayed us. "Goodbye Baby" coming off the heels of "Deborah" makes explicit the need to make a break with another person. Another great song it also features some especially expressive singing. What really becomes wonderfully obvious in the second half of American Tragic is the mixing. The vocals sound better than usual and reveal a wonderful swagger to the singing. The intense brooding of Discipline + Desire now reinforced with an infectious swagger is a combination that helps American Tragic (and Wax Idols) reach a new level aesthetically. "At Any Moment" – great solo and keys by the way – makes this especially clear. But to hear the difference compare Discipline + Desire closer "Stay In" to "Seraph". While the yearning and frustration that helps make "Stay In" such a perfect song are present, the vocals are curiously buried somewhat as if those emotions should haunt rather than confront. An aesthetic tactic that does work let me add, but in "Seraph" it all springs to life from the very beginning. And with a bit of Cult-like attitude in that opening guitar! All to great effect as the album closer is a powerful reclamation of one’s self and a perfect summation of American Tragic. I’m not nothing, indeed. May the ambitions of Wax Idols burn forever.

16 October 2015

Roxane Gay

We had the distinct pleasure of seeing Roxane Gay this Wednesday evening past at University of Kentucky's Singletary Center for the Arts. Coming to stage in an unassuming and relaxed manner, she took a seat and began to read. She immediately won over the audience in the crowded hall with "UPS Man" which transfixed me with its humor and lovely appreciation for the delivery man. I've never laughed so much with one person's appreciation for the human form. Then she read chapter one of her novel An Untamed State which was more somber but showed a keen attention toward emotional states. It sounds like a tough novel to read given the story in that chapter but it was very intriguing given its power. Then she read three pieces from her essay collection Bad Feminist: "Typical First Year Professor", "How to Be Friends with Another Woman", and "Bad Feminist, Part Two". Then there was a Q&A where on the pop culture front she was asked about Joss Whedon, Taylor Swift, and BeyoncĂ©/Jay-Z and also on matters of writing, self-care, and surviving in academia. This was one of the best author talks that I've attended and Gay's insightful comments were appreciated. She was humorous and relaxed, always whipsmart, and a delight. I commend the university for bringing such a wonderful writer to its campus.

07 June 2015

David Bordwell on HHH

David Bordwell, the renowned film professor and author of Figures Traced in Light, has released a new video lecture on Hou Hsiao-Hsien entitled Constraints, Traditions, and Trends. A valuable commentator on Asian cinema, Bordwell's video is sure to provide greater context and appreciation for this master filmmaker.

01 April 2015

Movie diary for March 2015

Mr X
I appreciate how a film documentary for once uses formal analysis to chart a director’s cinematic development. With someone like Leos Carax, it’s the only way to do it so the director certainly knew her material here. There are quite a few interviews with associates so the talking head approach certainly isn’t neglected. I could have done without Richard Brody, however.

Leave Her To Heaven
Gene Tierney as an evil sister in a Technicolor film noir is pretty much all you need to know.

Mr Turner
A darker look at the creative process than I’m used to seeing! Mike Leigh here heads out to territory trod by Pialat’s film Van Gogh rather than his own earlier film Topsy-Turvy. He goes much farther than Pialat, however. Turner is given his due as a painter of course and also actually shown to be a bad person (or a man of his time as some would more politely say), and just as quickly not denied his humanity. That is, his frailties. It’s not a pretty film, but Turner isn’t a friendly subject. He’s a genius, but not some angel or eccentric. Timothy Spall does a great job being Turner leaving Leigh free to show all of the man’s actions in context. I’m just glad someone once again made a film about an artist just showing how much work and lack of glamor goes into making art. Definitely recommended for history nerds.

Starry Eyes
Another film about how making art isn’t glamorous. In this case: the art of acting. Or breaking into the industry as this film is more about what it takes than just how good you are. Or ruthless as the gruesome murders near the end demonstrate. On the whole, I thought it was quite good. There’s a disturbing audition scene where the lead channels her inner Isabelle Adjani circa Possession warning you that this movie won’t pull its punches. There’s also an especially telling image near the end as the aspiring star looks in the mirror to reveal her new self that’s equal parts newborn, mannequin, and space alien. A new spin on an old Hollywood tale, but I recommend it. The retro score - think Chromatics - is worth it alone so take that into account as well.

The Two Faces of January
Who knew that Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen would make such a good couple? And did anyone expect so much intended sexual tension from a movie where Oscar Isaac and Viggo Mortensen are fleeing the law? The director certainly knew what to give his audience! A lot like A Most Wanted Man, it feels like an excellent TV movie. That is, a modest thriller that delivers.

Notes on Marie Menken
More of an anecdotal rather than analytic approach to her films. It was interesting to learn about the New York scene around Menken, but a more focused view of the women herself would have added better perspective.

Fellini Satyricon
There’s some gorgeous set design in this movie that I very much loved - and I guess that’s all I have to say right now.

The Madness of King George
Also known as the movie that changed my life as a history nerd. I think what’s truly remarkable about this one is how it doesn’t treat mental illness lightly at all. There’s no jokes at all about funny mad men or horny old men or anything that degrades the figure of the mentally ill. Even without the period trappings, mental illness is treated as a sad and horrifying experience that no-one can explain. Least of all in the so-called Age of Reason - another object of the film’s irony. Nigel Hawthorne’s tremendous performance - which lost to Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump at the Academy Awards, ironically - places this thematic ground in dramatic context as well as bringing perfect empathy to George the Third’s predicament as a man, husband, and king. The film’s attention to politics is also quite remarkable - the politics of family as well as state - something that I don’t often see done so well if at all in other historical dramas about royalty. Seldom have I seen a supporting cast given its own set of challenges - in this case the king’s government trying to stay in power while the Prince of Wales and his cronies try to take over - while keeping it integrated within the ongoing plot. (I have a feeling this helped prepare me for the multiple plot lines on Game of Thrones!) It’s got so much going for it and every time I see it I’m satisfied and moved by how it comes together. A perfect movie, I daresay.

Two Men In Manhattan
A gritty nocturne made even more impressive by the location shooting. This was one of the few Jean-Pierre Melville films that I hadn’t seen and I can see why it takes a lower spot in the tier of his work. It’s good in its own way and certainly more laidback than his more noted crime thrillers but I thought this change of pace from his more famous work showed the film’s strengths.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him
James McAvoy walks around a lot trying to figure out what the hell happened. He’s good and you’re also quite keen to learn what happened, but mostly he’s lost and has to deal with it all by himself. He’s got a small circle of friends and a father - Ciaran Hinds, incredibly - with whom he talks but it’s not a whole lot of emotional support. He finds closure at least.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her
I think this one was better due to the interior focus on El. Plus the way she interacted amongst her support system - friends, family, her amazing teacher played by Viola Davis - was more interesting in that her part of the plot moved forward in a more compelling manner with these people on her side. She finds peace with herself at least.

All Cheerleaders Die
Maybe it’s my love of Detention rubbing off here, but I didn’t think this was so bad. It’s a somewhat trashier film with an added slyly feminist commentary, but I think it succeeded in making it’s point. Sorry that it’s not May 2. But seriously: watch this with Detention.

Bitter Moon
The flashback structure, femme fatale, and damaged male lead gives this film a very strong flavor of the film noir. Polanski’s usual interest in corruption and innocence - see also Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Macbeth - is given closer attention and much greater depth than in those earlier films. Peter Coyote as that damaged lead narrates his entire history with his wife Emmanuelle Seigner (who has a far better role in the similar but more ironic later Polanski film Venus In Fur) so it’s quite a long account on how one man is destroyed by his embrace of the erotic. As a novelist, he fancies himself a Henry Miller of sorts - much to captive audience Hugh Grant’s consternation. (And our amusement as the cuts to the present reveal Coyote narrating to Grant in a purple prose that clearly represents our author’s writing talents!) For awhile there, it looks like Hugh Grant will succumb to the same cycle of interest and exploitation. In fact, his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) does so at the end as her jealousy over Grant’s continued attention to Coyote’s story causes her to make a successful pass at the wife. Peter Coyote just about saves it all as he gives life to a movie that almost collapses on its own curdled view of human sexual relations. It’s certainly not the film that will encourage anyone to give s/m a try but fans of Secretary should seek it out.

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, And Supermarkets 
Since this isn’t a traditional approach to the live concert or the rock band documentary, I found it very helpful to have seen before The Beat Is The Law - Fanfare For The Common People which also used Pulp as a subject to speak on Sheffield. In this documentary, Pulp returns to Sheffield for a farewell concert which is the lens for looking at Sheffield today as well as the band’s continuing fame in their hometown. The whole band is interviewed in various places - such as the soccer field where the drummer, Nick Banks, is a coach. There isn’t a lot to learn about the band as it’s assumed you’re familiar with them already. But for those for liked Pulp or the earlier documentary, this is required viewing.

Guardians of the Galaxy
I still love the visual effects; the deliberate use of casual cruelty less so. I guess that’s a given for a movie about a bunch of mercenaries, but that’s what happens when James Gunn directs.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Required viewing for all fans of Studio Ghibli. There’s a leisurely pace to the film so it really feels like a lovely day-long visit to the famed animation studio. The behind-the-scenes look at film production was very interesting, but hardly the only draw to the documentary.

Dark Touch
I think I’ve found the perfect horror film for people who don’t like too much blood. The sound design while consisting of frequently long silences is amped to provide most of the terror which complements the shadowy sets and dominant palette of blues, grays, and whites perfectly. There’s a distant quality which helps add to the isolated state of the lead. She’s very good especially in such a sensitively observed story about child abuse which locates the terror of violence squarely within the confines of the family. That it becomes a larger look at ptsd only adds to the film’s power. I’m very impressed by how well the film addresses those issues. This is certainly one of the best horror films that I’ve seen this year.

House of Cards (Season Three)
This show is too silly to over-analyze, but it was very satisfying to see Robin Wright step out from Kevin Spacey’s shadow. Her acting in the scenes with the American citizen at the Russian prison were especially excellent. This season was a lot better than season two, but really Wright getting more space is the better development.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season One)
Another show too silly for me to over analyze so I’ll leave it to the experts: Anne Helen Petersen on race in Kimmy Schmidt.

15 February 2015

Eustache and Carax

I just realized that my favorite Leos Carax film - Boys Meets Girl - was released in 1983. This was two years after Jean Eustache died. I really wish he could have held on until he saw Boy Meets Girl. It’s archly Godardian which I think he’d have appreciated, but it’s also a vision of modern Paris that I know he’d have appreciated. The melancholy of the film doesn’t hurt in that regard, either. It’s like he and Carax could have truly been peers. But instead it was time to go. Still, I’d like to imagine that Eustache could have seen the film and felt that familiar spark.

07 February 2015

A Storm Of Swords

This is my favorite book of the series thus far. While it’s longer than the last two and sets up even more narrative complexities, its apparent themes make the plot quite straightforward. The biggest theme is given voice by Oberyn of Dorne: “Men are seldom as they appear.” Dany learns that lesson first-hand as do Tyrion and most notably the Starks. (That the greatest revelation in the book is made to Sansa in a quiet fashion is some next-level dark humour on GRRM’s part.) Tyrion does not learn this lesson well at all – especially as it happens to him as a series of cruel jokes on his life. His relationship with his family is quite bad already, but by book’s end it’s utterly decimated. His story in this regard is the book’s best sustained narrative achievement as he watches it all spin out before his eyes. After Tyrion’s strategic planning saves the city in the previous book, he is sidelined by a disfiguring wound and his triumph is quietly forgotten by all around him. Those existing family issues and his state in life only disgust him further and his alienation from it all takes a very dark turn. His bitterness and self-hatred become more intense until they come to the surface at the trial for a murder he didn’t commit. As if that isn’t dramatic enough, he also kills his lover Shae and his father Tywin in cold blood. While this sounds like narrative overkill, GRRM’s skill in making all this quite reasonable to Tyrion and understandable to the reader is a considerable achievement. That he parts by disowning his own beloved brother – who’s been disowned earlier by a disapproving father – only underlines the extent of how bitter Tyrion’s become. Jaime isn’t as he seems, either. While Tyrion is subject to quite a bit of psychological dissolution so is Jaime. He manages to adapt and evolve from it, however. Maimed, rejected, and as equally ironical about his disfigured state as Tyrion is toward his own, he couldn’t be more different. He represents the other path of breaking from his family that Tyrion more violently marched down. That Jaime ends up looking better here than in the previous two books is another achievement on GRRM’s part and indeed another example of the writer’s ability to play with genre conventions. The contrast between Tyrion and Jaime is another one of the many reasons that I find the book so interesting. The greatest example of the book’s theme is the Red Wedding, of course. A setpiece that’s easily the best stretch of writing in the entire series. Creating all that tension just from emphasizing a drum in the background at a feast while a character registers the troubling atmosphere and then pulls it all back for the reader to watch unfold is no mean feat. It’s even more uncomfortable because it’s seen from the eyes of an innocent mother watching her son be killed. This brings to bear the second theme of the book: how much ruthlessness is needed to maintain power? Dany has to consider it closely as she metes out punishment in a city she’s conquered. Robb has to weigh his father’s lessons of justice against the needs of executing a successful military campaign. Tywin easily makes the decision to set in motion the Red Wedding. Varys testifies against Tyrion at the trial. Littlefinger plays that game at numerous points which are revealed in this book. There’s no stopping anyone in this book and GRRM makes it abundantly clear that there are no sacred vows that bind the powerful. Those that do try to act with honor – Tyrion and Jaime – are quickly disillusioned. That Arya and Sansa live on the front lines of a violent and treacherous world to which they’re trying to adapt is an example of this morally mutable situation. Even poor Samwell Tarly has to get his hands dirty with some creative diplomacy to get Jon elected as leader of the Wall. Jon and Sansa face a lot of intrigue which indicate these subtler ways of surviving that GRRM is also adept at portraying. All in all, this book offers a lot on the narrative and thematic front which makes the book such a rewarding reading experience.

04 January 2015

The Best of 2014: Wovenhand and Angel Olsen

Intense individuals can often be a handful. Either through simply ignoring social cues or being deaf to them, they can be an eccentric bunch. Or perhaps they're tuned to a different frequency. I spent some very enjoyable time in the company of two such figures hearing such different melodies. I can't really separate Angel Olsen or Wovenhand into best or second best. For me, they're both tied as the best of 2014. Wovenhand - still a force of nature as ever - is a major contender for the top of the list any year they release music, but on this round it was a particularly fierce showing. I think Refractory Obdurate is the best record they've released. In short, I was quite impressed by how much it rocked. The menacing vocals are there, but powered by an unstoppable passion. It's one of the most thrilling rides of 2014. On the subtler but no less intense side is Angel Olsen with Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Intensity of lyrics energized by haunted singing - see the excellent "White Fire" - mixed with a longing and devastation of the truly lovelorn - see "Stars" and "Windows". The first side features three songs that rock out triumphantly though sardonically before settling in for the long, dark night. The haunted, intensely introverted spirit of her earlier album Half Way Home is present here on the second side. Like Wovenhand, it's shocking how consistent in tone and ferocity but excellent in variety is the album. One leaves refreshed by the passion and beauty of either record. Devoted to one's vision and experienced in its execution, I can't think of two other more thrilling records.

Also enjoyable were the new albums from Pallbearer and Artificial Brain.

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