12.31.2015

Best movies of the decade (so far).

I'm not even sure if luxuries like blogs will be afforded us in 2020 with the way this world is going, so I might as well get this in. Besides, there have been a lot of great movies in the last six years and it would be a bear to whittle out a top ten list after four more years. One interesting thing to note is how many of these movies feature the same actors. I don't know if that's good or bad.

Also, just to get this out of the way now, I make no apologies for including three (3) Christopher Nolan movies on this list. Let's begin.


1. Her (2013)

(Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, directed by Spike Jonze)

In the near future, Thomas Twombly (Phoenix) is a greeting card composer by day and sad divorcee by night. When a tech company unveils a new operating system featuring evolving artificial intelligence, he purchases one and becomes fast friends with "Samantha" (Johansson). They become inseparable as their relationship deepens amidst a futuristic backdrop where a romantic relationship with a computer can be deemed simply "cool," simply one more step for humankind, simply one more way to connect when human involvement is eternally complicated and disappointing. Thomas and Samantha fall in love in scenes featuring the most divine cinematography I think I've ever seen, through dialogue that is perfectly shaped by director/screenwriter Jonze, brought to life by Johannson's beautifully capable voice acting and a steady, measured performance by Phoenix that pays off incredibly when his world is finally rocked.

Samantha's psychological and emotional evolution is so incredibly fascinating to watch; when she reveals that she can have thousands of simultaneous conversations with other people and other OSes at the complexity she experiences with Thomas, you're forced to finally begin contemplating the larger world in which the OSes are likely far more intelligent than their creators anticipated. Her is an endlessly gorgeous, heartbreaking sci-fi love story unlike anything I've ever seen and I have no doubt that when this decade draws to a close it will still sit at my number one.

2. Sarah's Key (2010)

(Kristen Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner)

Sarah Starzynski (Mayance) and her parents are victims of the Vel d'Hiv roundup in 1942; when the police arrive at their apartment, Sarah locks her little brother Michel in a closet so that he may avoid detection. Unfortunately, Sarah and her mother are taken, and Sarah hangs on to the closet key and what becomes a singular resilience and obsession to return to the apartment in time enough to save her brother. Concurrently we have the storyline of modern-day Julia Dormond (Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris working on a story about the Vel d'Hiv roundup, during which she finds little Sarah's labor camp photograph.

It is hard for me to say more without giving spoilers, so you must see it for yourself. Mayance is fabulous, and tackles the complete range of emotions required of her with brilliance. The cinematography from the scenes in 1942 is breathtaking at times, and I think the director did an amazing job pacing and crafting scenes to have utmost emotional impact. It can be too easy to assume that any film dealing with the Holocaust must be by definition well-crafted and heart-rending, and having seen my fair share, I know this is not the case. Sarah's Key packs an indelible punch on its own merits, and is a film that, if you're lucky, will haunt you for a long time. (Seen at the 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival)

3. Inception (2010)

(Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, directed by Christopher Nolan)

After being accused of murdering his wife (Cotillard), Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) flees to France where he continues to work with a team as an extractor, entering the dreams of unsuspecting sleepers to steal information and secrets as corporate espionage. He is offered the chance to go home, and see his children again, by Saito, a Japanese magnate who in return needs the opposite of extraction: he needs the son of a rival to decide to take his father's company in a different direction; he has to believe it is his own idea; he has to be incepted. And to plant an idea means the team has to go further down the rabbit hole than any of them have ever been.

While the plot is complex and nearly flawless, the cast is dynamic and the overall effect is that of breathlessness, what I love most about Inception is how the elegant statements on dreaming touch on the metaphysical aspects of life that we struggle with even when we're convinced we already have the answers. Life being a dream that feels as real as dreams do while we're sleeping; recurring dreams being akin to life events that keep repeating, for good and ill; what deja vu really is; that in order to wake up from this madness you have to die. All of these gems are casually dropped throughout the script and add another exciting layer to an already intense and mind-opening experience.

12.12.2015

The year of music.

Every now and then a bunch of my favorite artists will come out with new albums all within the same calendar year, which is obviously awesome, so I've cobbled together a rundown of each from this richly musical 2015. Keeping my 'analysis' to one paragraph apiece is almost heartbreaking, but I must.

Kelly Clarkson, Piece by Piece
Release date: March 3

Though her last album, Stronger, won her her second Best Pop Album Grammy award, I feel this is the, er, stronger album - more variety, more vivid production, even if she doesn't break any molds. It's shocking but her American Idol contract had her locked in for SEVEN albums, and with this release she is finally free. Seriously, OMG. Here's hoping with her next one she can really try something new. Side note: Piece by Piece was just nominated for Best Pop Album for 2016.

Best song: "Good Goes the Bye"
Her best album: Piece by Piece

Mumford and Sons, Wilder Mind
Release date: May 4

Their latest release is a sad study in the bullshit way nobody is ever happy with anything. If M&S had put out another acoustic album everyone would have allegedly been bored, but they did a 180 and went 'electric' and everybody was all omg, whaaat, I don't get it, who do they think they are, Coldplay, omgaaah... Objectively Wilder Mind is a perfectly solid rock album that is very charming and would have been the darling of worthless overpaid music critics everywhere had this been their debut. As with some of the best things, the more you spend time with this album, the more you understand it, and the more brilliant it becomes.

Best song: "Tompkins Square Park"
Their best album: Babel

Florence + and the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Release date: June 1

See here.

Best song: "Long and Lost"
Their best album: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Lana del Ray, Honeymoon
Release date: September 18

A gentle recap: Born to Die was a huge breath of fresh air; Paradise is stunningly beautiful and dark. We'll forgive her Ultraviolence since apparently Dan Auerbach knows hypnosis. Honeymoon is a true return to form - yes, she seems to be singing even slower, yes, somehow she's even more tortured - but that's why we listen. The first four songs come off a bit disappointing at first, because an entire album along their lines would sink like a stone, but everything picks up with "High By the Beach" and doesn't let up till we've floated past "Swan Song." LDR has a funny way of setting up a song's core melody, and then hitting the bridge and spinning a whole new soundscape; the effect is just subtle enough to make you lose yourself for a moment.

Best song: "Blackest Day"
Her best album: Born to Die

Carrie Underwood, Storyteller
Release date: October 23

Carrie can do no wrong, let's just get that out of the way. But her last album, Blown Away, was a bit underwhelming. She has new producers for Storyteller and it definitely shows - she's got some blues, some 80s, and - some R&B, which I think is fantastic. It shows in her inflections in the song "Heartbeat" and the structure of the chorus of "Clock Don't Stop." While rap-country may never take off (sad! just kidding), I'm a huge fan of musical acculteration and think there's so much potential in marrying country and R&B, and frankly it should be the direction of Kelly Clarkson's next album. Just sayin'. The only negative I have for this album is it's missing a really beautiful ballad in the vein of "Someday When I Stop Loving You" and "Wine After Whiskey." I was so looking forward to a new one.

Best song: "Clock Don't Stop"
Her best album: Play On

Ellie Goulding, Delirium
Release date: November 6

Ho-kay. Halcyon is my favorite album of the decade. She killed me and raised me from the dead with that one. I needed more of that. And...she went in a completely different direction and I KNOW, I just defended Mumford & Sons, but come on. Like 98 dance tracks, seriously. Beneficent critics have tried to point out 'ballads' - that's a joke, there ain't one damn slow song. Anyway, there are a couple of quality tracks but I'm so let down with this...plus, ok, she's in a relationship, fine, whatever, but of course that means she has lost the ability to write some real-ass lyrics. Amid the ridiculously overproduced beats scientifically designed to induce people to dance in da club, there's no way she could fit in a line like 'I think of dying all the time.' Tsk, tsk!!

Best song: "Army"
Her best album: Halcyon

Adele, 25
Release date: November 20

So there's this British singer who puts out some good songs, don't know if you've heard of her, but I'm sure one day she'll get her due. Anyway. I think 25 is legitimately better than 21 - 21 had some highest highs ("Hiding My Heart Away") but also several tracks I would regularly skip. The only track on 25 I find myself zoning out on is "River Lea." She's keeping up with the times by having fresh backing beats, and yes, her voice sounds stronger; let me give you a little tip. A person's voice doesn't fully mature until their early 30s. So...expect her voice to continue to get stronger. Be 'in the know; at your next party. Side note: I don't get the high praise for the Smeezingtons' production of the track "All I Ask." How hard is it to produce a vocal over a piano. Geez, people.

Best song: "Water Under the Bridge"
Her best album: 25

Well that was fun. Maybe next year my dudes can come out with new stuff? Ray LaMontagne, Kings of Leon, Gavin deGraw, Jonny Lang, Casey James? Etc. etc.? Please and thank you. :)

10.21.2015

Waking up in the future.

Just about everyone has weighed in on the accuracy of Back to the Future 2. I know. But when all of pop culture waits 26 years for a single moment in time, it'd be kind of a waste to let it pass by. So here we go!

What the movie got right

- digital cameras (which no one seems to have noticed)
- weather predictions - this appears to be presented as weather control, which we (allegedly) don't have, but I do have a weather app that now tells me exactly when, for example, rain in my area will start and stop, down to the minute
- 80s nostalgia
- crazy clothes/hair - it doesn't look like what we're wearing, obviously, but I imagine someone from 1985 might balk at a girl with a half-shaved head or some idiot with his pants down around his ankles
- a car that costs $39,999.95
- thumbprinting
- flat-screen TVs

Neither here nor there

- the Cubs winning the World Series. Unfortunately as of this moment they have dropped three games in a row to the Mets in the NLCS (why? because Cubs suck) but they could still come back tonight, win four games straight, and go on to the WS. We'll blame it on the magic of Hollywood

- multi-channel TV. This is an option on some TVs but the majority of people still watch one thing at a time. But the other day I was nonchalantly scrolling through Netflix and it reminded me of this movie...I don't know, for some reason I feel like the two are similar

- the visors Marty's kids were wearing. They were alerted when the phone rang and as to who it was, so you have to wonder what else they were used for. Watching TV? Natch. Maybe listening to music? I would say cruising social media but they, uh, didn't have internet. Anyway, wearing the visors is pretty much like everyone staring down at their smartphones


What the movie got wrong

- hoverboards
- flying cars
- sleep-inducing alpha rhythm generators
- the enduring popularity of almanacs (hahahaha)
- power laces, powered clothing
- the abolition of lawyers
- fully automated gas stations (completely skipping the inevitable reality of self-service)
- in the day's newspaper, a town named Wilmington was preparing for 'Queen Diana's Visit.' Awwwwwww :(
- voice-activated everything
-and much, much more

My main gripe

Instead of taking Marty thirty years into the future to impersonate his son, just have him make a freaking time capsule with a note that says 'on Wednesday, 10/21/15, take son camping.' A plot that revolves around changing a future that hasn't even happened yet is...interesting, but not logical. As we learned from the Terminator, 'the future's not set. There's no fate but what we make for ourselves.'

***

It's not easy to accurately project the future. A creative, imaginative effort should be applauded - just not counted on. To me, the most accurate futuristic films are the ones in which the world looks dirty and unkempt - films like Judge Dredd, Robocop, and the bone-chilling Children of Men. In them, there are plenty of technological advances but humanity is raw and unpredictable, not presented as wearing all white and moving with creepy fluidity, as if advancing into the future means shedding what actually makes us human.

To create a logical depiction of the future, I would focus more on the shifts that we ourselves endure; culturally, economically, socially. (I would say politically but come on - any vision of the future MUST be totalitarian). I would make any fictional tech a part of the woodwork rather than front and center, on display. (The near-perfect movie Her gets this really right) Changes in how we relate to each other; how the norms of today can create the nightmares of tomorrow; whether advancing technology will draw us together or push us apart - that's what the future is really about. The future of us.

Happy Back to the Future day. :)


10.17.2015

Snapshot.


What I'm Reading: Faith of a Heretic by Walter Kaufmann
What I'm watching: C-grade scary movies on Netflix
What I'm listening to: Honeymoon, Lana Del Ray
Mood: searching
Smells: oddly...nothing
Sounds: someone perpetually tinkering on their brokedown-ass car
Temperature: 53 degrees
Thoughts: so proud of myself. Two blog posts this year. Really doing it, I am.

7.25.2015

Review: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

It's safe to say that all three of Florence + the Machine's albums have been radically different from each other. The first, Lungs, contains three styles: torch songs, 'big' songs, and girl group pop songs. Weighted, there are more of the first two styles, and to me only 'Dog Days Are Over' and 'Between Two Lungs' fall into the third category, but taken as a whole it feels nicely balanced stylistically.

Their second album, Ceremonials, pointedly favors 'big' songs. This was cool with me because I had loved 'Cosmic Love' and 'Blinding' so much, and now I had even more in 'Seven Devils,' 'Heartlines,' 'No Light, No Light,' 'Spectrum' - wait, actually, the entire second half of the album. Which in hindsight, was not the best choice. (Dudes, it was nominated for Best Pop Album at the Grammy's and lost to Kelly Clarkson. Whom I love, BUT STILL) Ultimately the album felt bogged down in the heaviness, and this was pointed out a lot by fans who were hoping for an album that contained torch songs in the vein of 'Girl With One Eye' from Lungs. They could see what I couldn't because I'd gotten what I wanted. Ha.

Now, with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, F+TM have refocused again, this time favoring the girl group pop. If this was a conscious decision, it makes sense - moving away from the mistakes of the previous album but still mining the potential in a style not unprecedented for Flo. It also made it easier, I think, to introduce a much wider range of dynamics and expression with the several moodier, rock-influenced songs on the album. There are no highs higher than anything in their catalogue, but there are much lower lows and it is fantastic.

There is also a noticeable difference in the songwriting. The lyrics finally sound like they come directly from her experiences, instead of consisting mostly of literary enigmas which, while interesting, ultimately can prevent one from fully immersing in a song. 'Various Storms and Saints' is a great example of a track which might be tossed aside as initially uninteresting, except the words and the way she owns them turn it into a performance that gets more urgent and beautiful the longer she sings. Those words are raw, too: "I don't know how I don't just stand outside and scream."