Sunday, December 9, 2018

Mini Reviews for December 3-9, 2018

Can this semester please be over now?


Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
I am profoundly ambivalent on the fact that 2018's "romcom revival" seems intent on reviving the romcom as defined by the mid-2000s, my least-favorite era of the genre's history. Could we not have revived the screwball romcom? Or the walking-and-talking, When Harry Met Sally-style romcom? Anyway, Crazy Rich Asians is a strikingly faithful evocation of the mid-2000s romcom wave, not just in its plotting tropes (though lordy, they're all there, from the gay friend to the kooky best friend to the third-act breakup to the air-travel-related climactic proposal to even the music cues, which consist of Mandarin covers of the usual suspects of 2000s pop music, right down to Coldplay's "Yellow") but also in its half-hearted, underwritten execution. I understand why people are excited about the way this movie transposes the whole genre into a heritage heretofore unrepresented within the genre. Heck, I was stoked just by how this year's crypto-PureFlix Little Women depicted some of the nuances of the homeschool experience so well, so I can only imagine how gratifying it must be for Asians and Asian-Americans to see a mainstream Hollywood film evoke their experiences with this much specificity (though I myself don't have the heritage to recognize most of the details of that specificity). But still—I was never too jazzed about this type of movie to begin with, and representational milestones are only so compelling when the results are basically Monster-in-Law. I will say this, though: the sets and costuming in this movie are AMAZING, and the one considerable difference that Crazy Rich Asians has from most 2000s romcoms (besides culture) is that it is consistently, jaw-droppingly spectacular on the mise-en-scène front in a way that's usually reserved for lush period dramas and effects-heavy action extravaganzas. The movie's characters are as crazy-rich as advertised, and the film makes the absolute most it can out of that fact, filling every single frame with some of the most dazzling lifestyle porn I have ever seen in a movie. Down with the oligarchical rich, etc., sure, but y'all, this is the magic of cinema. If this film doesn't win the Production Design and Costume Design Oscars, it will be a heinous crime against self-evident excellence. Grade: C+

Cam (2018)
This thriller begins a bit more conventionally than I would like, puttering around just a little too long on the screen-watching end of the "cam girl" world that it lives in. But once this gets going, it gets into some seriously weird doppelganger stuff—if not full-on Persona-level reality-breaking (though several sublime moments get close in the most deliciously drawn out pieces of disorientating tension I've seen all year—you'll know it: "GET OUT OF MY ROOM"), then definitely akin to what's going on in Altman's 3 Women. The film's climax is nearly transcendent in its doubling down on mirrored imagery. Very much My Thing. Grade: B+

War on Everyone (2016)
Well, this was terrible. A satirical take on police corruption and brutality that forgets to be a satire, which leaves us with nothing more than a "haha, isn't it hilarious how terrible these cops are?" thing. The answer, of course, is NO, it's not even mildly amusing. I take that back: Michael Peña is mildly amusing by virtue of being Michael Peña and therefore gifted with great comic timing and line delivery. But the rest of the movie is awful and intentionally offensive in that dreadful manner that's not so much punk rock or insightful as it is indicative of a lazy white dude sitting on the couch thinking he's clever by virtue of just hurting people's feelings in elaborate and profane ways. Also, the plot makes no sense and feels rushed in delivery: a real "the food is terrible—and such small portions!" situation here. Grade: D+

Happy Valley (2014)
This movie's larger point—that the intersecting cultures of football fandom and male hero worship create an atmosphere that reinforces dominant culture to the detriment of those hurt by the dominant culture—is a familiar one. But there's something uniquely powerful about this film's documentary footage of Penn State football fans ranting about how of course they care about those sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky, blah blah blah, but WON'T SOMEONE THINK OF THE FOOTBALL PROGRAM?!? Like I said, a familiar point, but it's not every day you get to see a mob of angry football fans basically start a riot over the punishment of those complicit in child abuse. Talk about making your subtext text. Grade: B+

Secret Beyond the Door (1947)
A film-noir adaptation of the "Bluebeard" fairy tale incorporating a heavily Freudian lens on the story and directed by Fritz Lang—and somehow it's boring?? The math just doesn't add up, but that's the score, folks. The film's biggest gaffe is turning the relatively straightforward Bluebeard story archetypes into a convoluted family melodrama in the style of Rebecca, only unlike Hitch's very good earlier film, Secret Beyond the Door's script is nowhere near nimble enough to juggle all the various pieces, and consequently, important pieces of information zip by in the blink of an eye while inessential scenes linger well past ripening (especially during the movie's extremely protracted beginning—why does it take so long for the titular door to show up?). It's Fritz Lang, so it all looks really good (if never nearly as stunning as the director's best), and the Freudian stuff is a pretty interesting take on the material, once we get there—though grounded in some deeply regressive ideas about gender, because... well, Freud. But none of that makes the movie's long stretches of tedium any more fun, nor does it explain how such a waterproof concept let all the water leak out. Grade: C


GLOW, Season 1 (2017)
Netflix's half-hour dramedy about the world of '80s women's wrestling shares a couple of producers with one of the foundational "Netflix Original Series" experiments, Orange Is the New Black (one of whom is Jenji Leslie Kohan, that earlier show's creator), and it's not hard to see the shared DNA: a sprawling, diverse cast of mostly women, the juxtaposition of quirky sitcom humor with serious dramatic stakes, a fascination with society's margins, an interest in peeling back the layers of (often male) power that affect the female experience, an exploration of the intersections of gender, class, and race. It's a lot less ambitious and a lot more outwardly comedic in its premise (professional wrestling vs. mass incarceration... you get it) than its spiritual predecessor, and as such, it falls down on its face a lot less frequently than OItNB; it's also a lot more comfortable to just let its character interactions be an end to themselves, and GLOW is mostly free of the thematic mouthpieces that are frustratingly a cornerstone of most OItNB episodes. Basically, it's the irreverent middle child to Orange's valedictorian, eager-to-please oldest child. That GLOW has a lot less to prove (and therefore can take a more lackadaisical route to its end) than its predecessor is a testament to just how much terrain OItNB cleared in its first few years; it's also a great example of how a lot of the creative energy of American independent film has recently found a home on television rather than in cinemas. I cannot imagine anything resembling GLOW appearing on televisions even just ten years ago, but it feels very much akin to what was happening 15-20 years ago in independent cinema, and honestly, there's not a lot—neither thematically nor stylistically—separating GLOW from, say, this year's Support the Girls (written/directed by American indie veteran Andrew Bujalski). All of which is to say that GLOW's first season is a lot of fun, bolstered by an absolutely killer ensemble and directed with a non-intrusive but sharp style. Moreover, it understands the theater of wrestling better than most media I've seen, and the way it interweaves character dynamics with the piece-by-piece construction of an aesthetic of wrestling pays off marvelously in the genuinely rousing season finale, in which the women tape their first episode, an elaborate exhibition of solidarity among these disparate characters. It takes a bit to get there, and honestly, the first third of the season is not great (not coincidentally, when the women's stories exist mostly in isolation of one another), but the back half of the season is a marvel. Grade: B+


Ariana Grande - Sweetener (2018)
It's not as if Ariana Grande needs to prove that she's one of the best pop stars of our current moment, and honestly, "thank u, next" has deservedly overshadowed this album. But let's think back to mid-August, those halcyon days of summer before all the nasty winter weather, and remember that one of our best pop stars released an album this good without even including her best song of the year on it. It's a record that's by turns tender and confident, sometimes in the same song ("Sweetener," "No Tears Left to Cry"), walking that well-trod path of empowerment pop and heartbreak soundtrack in a way that feels all her own. It's a pop album, so there's going to be some filler and awkwardly placed singles (I'm not a huge of "The Light Is Coming" nor its sequencing within the album), but those instances are relatively few and far between for this genre. Anyways, "God Is a Woman" covers a multitude of structural sins. Grade: B+

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mini Reviews for November 26-December 2, 2018

Happy December, everyone.


Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
There's a moment in the mid-film sequence where Vanellope finds herself in a physical manifestation of a Disney fan site (best not to sweat the mechanics of this) and, amid a procession of stormtroopers and a cavalcade of Star Wars sound effects and musical cues, we hear the Wilhelm Scream—which seems to posit that either the use of the Wilhelm Scream in Star Wars is so iconic that an entire generation assumes it's a "Star Wars Sound," or else Disney really, really wants to will this into being. It's a strange little instant that's just one of a whole cascade of strange, disorienting choices in this film—the bright "Inside Out Meets The Internet" design of the film's environments crashing into the cynical brand exploitation of that same setting; the out-of-nowhere '80s-kids-movie style traumatizing imagery, like a dude with a talking cyst on his neck; the ouroboros of Disney's own muddled instinct for self-critiquing brand maintenance that the trailers promised. It's a film that flirts with a sort of conceptual Uncanny Valley, where we're presented with things (mostly brands) familiar to us from our years as digital natives or transplants, only twisted and personified in such a way that they're both cutesy and slightly zombified. It's an exceptionally creative film, but it doesn't have a clue where to focus that energy. Of all the feature films Disney has released in the Lasseter era onward, Ralph Breaks the Internet is certainly the weirdest, which I dig quite a bit. But it's also probably the least successful overall of those features, too. Grade: C+

Widows (2018)
A political thriller in which a coalition of women steal power and resources from an oppressive male oligarchy? Yes, please. It's not nearly so cut-and-dry "woke" as that, being much more about the knotty ways in which corruption and public good intertwine and make real, clean political reform difficult. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't cathartic to see women of color going all Robin Hood on the racist old white dudes like it were the 2018 midterm elections. Not being from Chicago, I can't say if this is a particularly good depiction of the political climate of that city in particular, but as a vividly rendered mythological plane of byzantine political forces (reminiscent of David Simon's version of Baltimore in The Wire), it's wonderful. My only reservation is that the extension of one of the city's rail transit lines serves as a central metaphor for the corruption of political capital—dunno how my urbanist self feels about that. Grade: B+

Blindspotting (2018)
There is a lot to like in this movie. I'd even go so far as to say that the movie has no bad ideas, which is impressive (and a good sign) for a movie which is practically premised on being nothing but ideas. An Edgar-Wright-style urban comedy about dealing with how the world of your youth changes as you leave your youth (complete with tons of Wright-esque edits)? An incisive look at race identity that explores the interlocking layers of what defines whiteness and blackness? A soulful but really legitimately angry look at the collateral cost of a rapidly gentrifying Oakland, CA? An easy-going buddy comedy with naturalistic but frequently hilarious dialogue? A, like, freakin' rap opera? These are all A+ ideas executed sharply, and I've barely scratched the surface of what the film has on its mind. It's too bad that the only good idea the filmmakers couldn't think of was any idea of how to stitch all this together into anything resembling a cohesive film, since the whole thing feels like a particularly interesting but typically disjointed example of the old "exquisite corpse" writing experiment. But the individual pieces are so compelling that I'm willing to go along with the bumpy ride. Grade: B

Gertrud (1964)
If I'm being completely honest, I probably need to rewatch this, since I kind of rushed through the film distractedly because it was due back at the library and I had no renewals left. That said, what did stick with me I like a whole lot. The long takes of brutally honest conversations, the gorgeous but subdued cinematography, the way that the men float in and out of Gertrud's screentime like benevolent and malevolent spirits on her existential quest, the casting of love (or its dissolution) as some kind of history-ending, cosmic struggle—it's all very good. I just probably retained 70% of it at most, and I'd like to spend more time on it once the library isn't breathing down my neck. Grade: B+

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Masculinity—or at least, the traditionally performed signifiers of it within American society—is a prison, and I've not seen many films that evoke the agony of society's gendered weights as poignantly as this one does. I was kind of blown away; I dunno what I was thinking, but I was imagining more of a "bad boy has smoldering stare, rides a motorcycle" thing, not something this excruciatingly pained and well-observed.

If you're interested, the Cinematary podcast's 223rd episode discussed this movie this week, and I was on it! You can listen here.

Out of the Past (1947)
Solid film noir with tremendous lighting. It's a Jacques Tourneur movie, so of course the blacks are as black as they come, and the shadows are practically blotted onto the screen with India ink. There's probably more going on visually than narratively, which isn't to say that the narrative is "bad," but it does wear its film noir tropes on its sleeve perhaps to too naked an extent. Robert Mitchum is merely fine as the hard-boiled protagonist, which is a bit disappointing in light of Night of the Hunter. But Jane Greer is incredible as the femme fatale, and Kirk Douglas is doing this fun proto-Joe-Pesci heel turn. Grade: B


Party Down, Season 2 (2010)
I basically have nothing to say about this cancelled-too-soon show's second season that I didn't already say about its first season. Megan Mullally does a good job of replacing Jane Lynch, who left for Glee, without recreating her exact dynamic, and this second year overall is a good example of how to lightly tweak the chemistry on the show without entirely re-inventing itself (Adam Scott's Henry becoming the team leader, for example). Anyway, the cast is great, the show is very funny and surprisingly poignant, the jokes sometimes edge into an unfortunate homophobia-adjacent space, etc. This season is at pretty much the precise same level of quality that the first season was. Too bad about that early cancellation, though it does have what seems like the perfect ending. Grade: B+


The Truth Lies Here by Lindsey Klingele (2018)
A decent YA pastiche of Stranger Things and that kind of creepypasta-lite mystery. It's always fun in this type of story to see how the threads of the mystery creep out to tie together the whole town in a conspiracy; however, I can't help but remember all the William Sleator I read as a kid and wish that this whole thing were just a bit weirder--it ultimately boils down to a pretty standard (though tenderly rendered) daddy issues book, just with Men in Black creeping around. Klingele is no prose stylist, either, though I feel like I say that about most YA novelists I read these days. Maybe I'm just getting old. Grade: B-

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Mini Reviews for November 19-25, 2018

Holiday week, hence short post. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Coen Brothers doing a western anthology film fills a lot of holes in my heart I didn't realize I had. Being an anthology film, it has its ups and downs, of course, but even the downs aren't so much "down" as they are just inevitably not as good as the film's first and best segment, the utterly delightful and demented musical sequence starring Tim Blake Nelson from which the film gets its title. Elsewhere, we have the Coens as naturalists, adapting a Jack London story with a grizzled Tom Waits (is there any other kind?) in the lead role as a gold prospector, the Coens as existentialists (by way of Sergio Leone) in the nearly wordless James-Franco-as-fate-addled-outlaw segment, and the Coens in full-on mythical mode in the final segment, which brings the film's far-flung fascination with death into a culminating carriage ride into literal hell. In this way, it's sort of in the same vein as Hail, Caesar!, an experiment in bringing all their various genre proclivities under one roof; Buster Scruggs goes the extra mile by making the film something of a survey of the full breadth of the Coens' worldview, too, a treatise on all the various ideas that have animated their filmography from Blood Simple onward: that of absurd fate, that of the essential foolishness of humanity's pretensions of rationality, humanity's finitude, that of the crucial empathy in the face of all this. That's to say nothing of the purely aesthetic pleasures of the film: the storybook framing devices (with wax-papered "color plates"), the typically florid, hilarious Coen dialogue, the stark, vibrant digital cinematography. If nothing else, it's an extraordinarily beautiful film with a keen attention to detail. But thankfully, it is something else, and a very good something at that. Grade: A-

Private Life (2018)
It's incredibly easy to chart this movie as the intersection of Nicole Holofcener, Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and Noah Baumbach's collective careers—which, unless you are one of those people who (understandably) has an allergy to that brand of cinema comprised almost entirely of upper-middle-class white New Yorkers walking and talking and bickering, is more description than critique. As an iteration of that genre, Private Life is minutely observed and acutely felt. The central struggle of a couple who are struggling to conceive feels lived-in to an extent that fertility plots rarely are in media—lived-in to the point of chaffing, an at-once breezy dramedy hinged on verbal quips and a bracing domestic struggle that rubs you raw with its slowly dawning but deeply insistent sense of tragedy. I know I compared this film to Baumbach et al a second ago, but the extent to which this film wears its heart on its sleeve and to which that heart is lacerated feels entirely its own, and it's great. Grade: A-

Maleficent (2014)
That this is sort of a stealth playtest for Disney's reprehensible new thing of doing heavily CGI'd "live-action" remakes of their animated properties is just icing on the whole nasty cake of this movie. I suppose I should give the movie credit for at least trying something new with the original story, given that I tend to like revisionist fairy tales. But it's just so lousily put together. The CG is trash, and, more importantly, the revisionist elements feel entirely haphazard, as if they never got past the pitch stage—what if Maleficent's arc is a rape-revenge story? What if we dealt with the whole icky thing of Aurora's "true love" being some rando she met in the woods twelve hours prior? What if fairies and humans are at war, and the humans are the bad guys, because COLONIALISM? What if Maleficent's arc was about surrogate motherhood? Wait, didn't we already have an arc for Maleficent's character? I can't remember, just go with it—hey, I have an idea: what if Maleficent is a scorned lover and is taking revenge on the king? What if they have a cage match at the end of the movie? Is this too much to put into a 97-minute cash-in on one of Disney's most revered properties? What if none of this fits together? Do you think our CG is good enough to stitch it all together in post? Grade: C-

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
It's easy to dismiss this film as an exercise in cinematic sadism, and to be clear, it's not not an exercise in cinematic sadism—to watch this film is to be "treated" to 95 minutes of virtually uninterrupted tragedy, often of the most happenstancial kind, human society being cruel for the sake of cruelty. But the specific way that Bresson frames this misery feels subversively profound, too. The choice to make so many of the film's incidents perverse inversions of Biblical narratives is deeply rattling: Balaam's donkey, beaten but denied human speech; the Virgin Mary raped and abandoned. It calls attention to just how much of the Bible's depiction of the Divine is aspirational—how much of a grace note it is for God to intervene on the behalf of the oppressed and how often that feels far divorced from a world in which oppression marches forward unimpeded, not only undeterred by our parochial society raised on the Biblical narratives but in fact spurred on by it. Society, undergirded by our collective Christian morality selectively applied, is both cruel and a fount of misprioritized empathy. Balthazar the Donkey is an expressionless, perfectly blank vehicle for empathy, upon which it is easy for us audience members to wish Christian charity as we see him mistreated time and time again. But human beings: these are not tabula rasa targets for our empathy; they are dirty and grating and weak, and we hate them. This is the film's strongest indictment, evoking one of the most crucial Bible stories of them all: the often-overlooked ending of the Book of Jonah, in which Jonah mourns the death of the vine under which he found shade, while at the same time wishing for the entire city of Nineveh to be destroyed. It's the crux of the film's moral spine: we care about this donkey, for which we neither worked for nor helped grow—should we not care for our own teeming mass of humanity, who cannot tell their right from their left? Grade: B+

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Mini Reviews for November 12-18, 2018

I guess it's awards season now? It doesn't feel like it. Anywhere, here are reviews.


Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
It's, like, fine. I kind of dig that it treats "quantum" with the same sort of hand-wavy magical gobbledygook that sci-fi treated "radioactive" in the '50s and '60s. "Quick, we need some sort of vaguely sciencey rationale for telepathy! Uh... what about quantum entanglement?" It's fun in a very classically B-movie way. The rest is very much the kind of movie you got from the original Ant-Man, with maybe just a tad fewer inspired moments à la the cut from gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine to toy-sized Thomas the Tank Engine. A lot of the humor of the film feels a little too schematic, which was also true of the first one, and the mommy-daughter dynamics don't scan quite as well as the daddy-daughter emotional core of the first. But, like I said, it's fine. Nothing great; certainly nothing to justify why Marvel, after two movies, hasn't just jettisoned all this "ant-man" stuff and given the reigns entirely to Michael Peña's character, who remains the best thing about either of the films. But fine. Grade: B-

The Guilty (Den skyldige) (2018)
On a technical level, it's impressive the tension this film is able to wring out of its writers-workshop-prompt premise: it's a movie that takes place entirely in an emergency call center and whose action almost completely occurs via phone calls of which we only ever see the call-center side. It's not particularly showy in how it does it (though there's a bit with a red light near the end that is both obvious and beautiful), but The Guilty nearly perfectly balances shot length with editing in a way that's never ostentatious but always brutally effective in its drive toward a thriller intensity. On a thematic level, it's a remorseless little deconstruction of the hero impulse, showing at every turn how our protagonist's desire to be a hero in the traditional, individualist sense leaves crucial collateral damage—though impressively, manages that clear-eyed characterization without ever completely tipping its hand as to where the plot will go next. The movie isn't a revelation or anything, but it's a deftly executed experiment with just enough thematic edge to make it stick; it helps that it's a lot of fun to boot. Grade: B+

Cosmos (2015)
I'm not afraid to admit that I didn't really understand this. Maybe if I'd read more of the French existentialists I'd have been more on its wavelength, but as of right now, filtering Sartre through a slapstick comic lens with a dash of postmodern epistemology just didn't connect to my brain. I enjoy the sense of play (and the uber-cheesy score is reminiscent of what Twin Peaks did with the reappropriation of soap-opera-esque leitmotifs, which is cool); I would have enjoyed it more if I'd understood anything at all that the characters said. Uh huh, the universe is absurd; it's just a tad more absurd with this movie in it. Grade: C-

Blue Caprice (2013)
It's imbuing the perpetrators of the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks with a complicated humanity feels fairly radical, in the same vein (though obviously on a much less genocidal scale) as 2004's Downfall—refusing to relegate those who commit mass murder into the blanket, otherized category of "monster" or "criminal" means that the film refuses to engage in the flippant hand-washing that excuses society's greater forces from responsibility and that treats human depravity as a fluke event without cause or effect. "Terrorism" is the great absolver of American imperialism and American violence, and the film's rejection of the typical cinematic signifiers of this label dovetails nicely with the film's implication of American gun culture and conspiracy-prone mainstream-adjacent spaces. All that said, the film isn't nearly as complex as it wants to be—it's a remarkably static movie, sometimes by design but more often by failed attempts for lingering imagery and lyrical moments to carry thematic weight that they simply can't bear. As much as I admire some of the theoretical ambitions, the ideas are realized somewhat thinly, which is disappointing. Grade: B-

The Company of Wolves (1984)
Neil Jordan does his typical thing by bringing storybook material to lurid, lushly gothic life—impressive, considering that this is only his second feature, that he already had his "typical thing" down this pat. As screenwriter, Angela Carter does an admirable job of translating her excellent short story to film; the phantasmagoric Freudian imagery of the story's transgressive take on Little Red Riding Hood becomes literally nightmarish here, which is in concept a little too cute (the frame device clarifying that this is a dream is entirely unnecessary), but in practice, it's often stunning—and bonus points for the two incredible (and incredibly gory) werewolf transformations here. As the film's vignettes pile up, the movie does start to become a little muddled, both on a plot level (which was never really intended to come together with much precise sense anyway) and a thematic one. But taken as a broad generalization, it's a nice companion to the original story's refutation of coddling, misogynist norms. Grade: B+

In a Lonely Place (1950)
As distasteful as it can be, history repeatedly rewards cynicism, which has made film noir one of the most enduring of the classic studio genres. Its deep distrust in social institutions effortlessly waltzes itself into modern progressive politics, and so here you have In a Lonely Place, a film not only grounded by a pair of titanic performances (Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham both vying for their career-best performances, though I'll cop to only having seen Grahame in It's a Wonderful Life prior to this) but also in a bracing interrogation of how the Hollywood system enables violent men, which... uh, yeah, still working on that one, aren't we, Hollywood? That similarly industry-critiquing peers like Sunset Boulevard have lingered more strongly in the popular imagination is less a testament to Wilder's film being the superior one (though it is, by a teensy bit), but more that this tier of cynicism—that a man empowered by Hollywood's system might still be deeply dangerous even if he's not guilty of literal murder (the great scapegoat of morality)—is still a less comfortable fit with our broader social archetypes than the spectacle of a formerly glorious woman used by the industry flaming out in middle age via the throes of mental illness. In a Lonely Place is maybe a little more straightforward and obvious than it ideally should be: it's a megaphone of a film, sometimes to the muting of its non-Bogart, non-Grahame characters. But I guess nearly 70 years later, a megaphone is still the tool for the job. Grade: A-


St. Vincent - MassEducation (2018)
Last year's Masseduction was probably the most self-consciously "produced" album of St. Vincent's career, crafted by a whole team of sound engineers helmed by none other than pop heavyweight Jack Antonoff. With MassEducation, St. Vincent reworks the same songs into basically their polar opposites: quiet, acoustic, and mostly piano-based pieces. It's an interesting experiment in theory and one that pays off intermittently. The whole album was apparently recorded in an afternoon, which shows: none of this is particularly elaborate, and while that's the point, it sometimes leaves the songs more anemic and musically reductive than the clarifying simplicity that Annie Clark was likely going for. "Happy Birthday, Johnny," already one of the quieter Masseduction tracks, becomes practically a whisper here, and the lack of volume doesn't really do anything to enhance the song; "Pills" is even worse, highlighting just how much of that song was just intricate instrumentation propping up some truly facile lyrics. Other parts of MassEducation work tremendously, though. "Hang On Me" comes alive in its piano version here, a truly beautiful ballad lifted by one of Clark's best recorded vocal performances; "Sugarboy," the lone bit of intricate instrumentation on the reworked album, is a nervy, oppressive piece of chamber pop; and on the whole, the reworked songs do a good job accentuating the emotional core of Clark's lyrics (some of the best and most personal of her career, "Pills" excepted) that sometimes got washed out in Masseduction's loud production. It's a mixed bag, for sure, but curious fans (yours truly) will find gems. Grade: B-

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mini Reviews for November 5-11, 2018

Hopefully y'all are more interested in these movies/shows than you were last week's.


The King (2018)
Any evaluations of his art aside, Elvis Presley is a figure of such titanic stature for two reasons: 1. His life is so richly metaphoric and fundamentally Americana that he can't help but resonate deeply as a secular icon, and 2. Any part of his life that didn't innately align with the broader institutions and iconography of America became coerced into alignment anyway via the mass-media commercial forces of the last half of the 20th century. And so, for better or for worse, Elvis represents Institutions in a way that very few pop stars do—not the Beatles, not Dylan, not Sinatra, certainly not the rock-and-rollers of color that Elvis surpassed: your Chuck Berrys and Bo Diddleys. It's that representationalism that made me, a white dude growing up in the Memphis area, roll my eyes so intensely at Elvis growing up: Elvis was the cranky white people fighting for noise ordinances and gated communities, and the slightly crankier old white people waxing nostalgic about Jim-Crow Memphis; he was The Man. It's also what makes The King, the second of the major essay docs getting distribution this year (after Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?), tick—the idea of making Elvis Presley's life a metaphor for America in general is practically baked into the artist's legacy. When it sticks to that, The King is frequently dazzling, using a bevvy of shockingly good celebrity interviews: Mike Myers? Ashton Kutcher?? Both good, somehow. I love Ethan Hawke, but could anyone have predicted he'd be the most perceptive Elvis critic in the film? I certainly didn't. And then you have Chuck D, who is unsurprisingly great, as well as the random people in Tupelo and South Memphis the doc runs across who have fascinating things to say about Elvis's legacy on their region. And this kind of gets to the documentary's critical flaw—none of these fantastic interviews—especially those of the people in Tupelo and Memphis—get anywhere close to the screentime they deserve. Someone (usually Chuck D) will say something fascinating, and then the movie will cut to a different scene rather than pulling on that thread. Part of this is the runtime, which is a far too short 107 minutes (if anything, this material deserved the O.J.: Made in America treatment—and how great would that have been? The privileged white other side of the coin??). More damnably, though, is how much time The King spends making an extremely labored and at least 50% bogus parallel between Elvis's life and the 2016 presidential election. Elvis as a symbol of America is richly symbolic; Elvis as a symbol for Hillary vs. Trump is tedious and perfunctory and yields exactly one good moment in the film: Alec Baldwin looking directly into the camera and stating, dead seriously, "Trump won't win." The film has nothing to say about 2016 that hasn't already been said in a thousand different ways, and put together with the existing Elvis metaphor and the wealth of often too-cute archival footage the movie crams in, it's Just Too Much. As great as some of the individual moments are, The King just can't bring it all together [insert hackneyed old, fat Elvis joke]. Grade: B-

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) (2017)
I am all for the idea of this film's exploration of middle-aged female sexuality—a refreshing change from the normal cinematic man's game of sexual conquest + ennui. And the film's methodical repetition as Juliette Binoche's character cycles from one man to the next allows for some precise attention to detail: a hand moving slightly over a leg, a winding conversation animated not by the participants' words but their stutters and silences. But... I dunno, the repetition also makes this movie a little tedious, too, and in practice, there's nothing in this movie that makes me feel anything too strongly, neither on a visceral level nor on an intellectual one. I've been thinking that maybe I need to give Claire Denis's filmography another chance after feeling the same way about Beau Travail a few years ago, but maybe the problem is just that Denis and I don't connect. This movie is fine, but fine isn't something I'm going to stand up and sing about. Grade: B-

Custody (Jusqu'à la garde) (2017)
There's not a lot to this movie besides it's viscerally intense depiction of domestic abuse, and honestly, it's somewhat frustrating that the film, for example, makes a dead end out of the daughter's plot. But the final thirty minutes are severely potent on a level that I wasn't at all ready for based on the relatively docile first hour of this film. And on an aesthetic note, I am overjoyed to report at least one European film with thoughtful compositions and a lack of dependence on handheld camera work. Grade: B

Take Me to the River (2015)
What an unbelievably tense movie, hoooooly cow. What gestures toward a somewhat typical "coming out" movie in its early goings (Ryder is going to visit "the Nebraska family," who doesn't know that he is gay) slowly morphs into something that's not not a coming out movie, exactly, but is also one of the most hair-pullingly uncomfortable thrillers I've seen in a long time. More so than most other movies that try to wring the "regressive backwoods" trope for tension, Take Me to the River understands the specific layers of social nuance that can make rural America so frightening to those who aren't part of it (or to those who can't fit in with it): the searing quiet, the disorientingly labyrinthine fields that stretch acres between the houses on a sprawling property, the intensely performative masculinity, the uncanny valley of feeling the difference in social mores without ever quite being able to pinpoint what exactly is different (and of course without anyone saying anything directly to you about it). More than anything, though, this movie understands the alien echo chamber of Family—the way that idioms and behaviors build upon one another until family becomes a world unto itself, and you don't realize it until you step out and then try to step back in and see everyone who's still inside, like tranquil frogs in a pot as the water creeps toward boiling. Grade: A-

The Wolfpack (2015)
The ethics of this documentary are dicey, to say the least; I'm not saying that director Crystal Moselle is taking advantage of the hyper-reclusive homeschooled family that she chronicles here, exactly, but seeing these kids—and most of them are kids, if not by age (I think at least two of the siblings here are legal adults) then definitely by temperament, talk frankly about the borderline-abusive upbringing they've experienced at the hands of their father while their father lumbers around in the back of the frame raises some real questions about the documentarian's role in a situation like this. But assuming you can put those questions on the back burner, there's something kind of profound—albeit rough-cut—going on in this documentary. There's the cynical way of looking at this, I suppose, that views these secluded folks become a walking IMDB forum in their film enthusiasm ("The best movie of all time is definitely Godfather: Part Two," says one of them, dressed in the black-tie attire of Reservoir Dogs) and thinks about the invasive power of toxic masculine film culture. But there's also the broader, much more idealistic idea of the transformative, even liberating power of film, the way that wide-eyed individuals use film to contrast the boundaries of their own homes with the wider, more wonderous world of cinema—the way we crave cinema as a way of modeling behavior, as a way of educating ourselves about the world as a whole because we are terrified that our own context is too small to do so on its own, so small that on its own, it will leave us hopelessly ignorant and helpless abroad. I wasn't brought up anything like the boys in this documentary, but I'd be lying if I didn't see at least a little of myself in them and the role of film in their lives; I suspect the same is true for a lot of us. Grade: B

F for Fake (1973)
Probably the most delightful I've ever seen a hyper-meta, post-structuralist, experimental arthouse movie be. Aesthetically, you can practically see the birth of Errol Morris here in the film's use of re-enactment for documentary purposes and the loquacious, essayist impulse in the film's pileup of tangentially connected images and words (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control-style Morris in particular). But Orson Welles flips the Morris script—or, I suppose, Morris flips Welles's script, given the chronology: instead of an a faceless documentarian bending the magnetically showman and storytelling impulses of his subjects into profound philosophies, Welles steps in front of the camera himself, caped and hatted in a magnificently flamboyant black, to be his own documentary's showman and storyteller. In that regard, it feels a little bit like an experimental documentary iteration of vaudeville, with Welles as the extraordinarily camp and completely magnetic MC tying everything together with a winking, sonorous presence. It's of course a work of high ego (because it's Welles), and it's a thematic snake eating its tail (because hyper-meta post-structuralism). But it's entirely great, I promise. Grade: A


The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 1 (2017)
I've always wanted Amy Sherman-Palladino to just go full-on Howard Hawks and write a screwball comedy, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is probably as close as I'm ever going to get. I'll take it. Lead by an effervescent Rachel Brosnahan playing Midge Maisel, a woman in late-1950s Manhattan who, when her husband leaves her, decides to take up a career in standup comedy, the show is a cascade of barbed and frequently hilarious dialogue in the same rat-a-tat cadence that animated the best of Sherman-Palladino's Gilmore Girls—and miraculously, none of this is undercut by the involvement of Sherman-Palladino's husband, Daniel, whose contributions are somehow not irritating this time around. Even more miraculously, unlike so many shows centered around a fictionalized entertainment act, Brosnahan-as-Maisel-as-standup-comic is actually quite funny, and it requires little imagination to see how Mrs. Maisel could actually find success as a comic. On a writing level, all this is girded by a strong emotional core and mercifully nuanced depiction of class and family—those worried that Sherman-Palladino had lost her ability to pierce with her writing the subdivisions of the middle and upper classes after Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (me) need worry no longer. It helps that Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub, who play Midge's wealthy, straight-laced parents, are superb in their roles as a jointly satiric and emotionally resonant presence. And on a cinematic level, this is all depicted through an unusually thoughtful attention to camera movement and lighting (even for our current "peak TV" moment), most notably in the dialogue-free musical interludes wherein the characters move in the naturalistically choreographed rhythms of their day-to-day lives as the camera glides around them as if on skates—put together with the dialogue, it's scratched my screwball comedy itch with aplomb. This is the most consistently good thing that Sherman-Palladino has done since maybe the third season of Gilmore Girls, and I'm retroactively calling this one of my favorite shows of last year. It's wonderful. Grade: A-


Joni Mitchell - Song to a Seagull (1968)
Joni Mitchell was already an accomplished songwriter by the time her debut album dropped ("Both Sides Now" had been a hit for Judy Collins, for example, though Mitchell herself wouldn't record her own version until her sophomore album, Clouds), but Song to a Seagull is her entrance as a performer. In some regards, Song to a Seagull is a good establishment of who Joni Mitchell is: it's a sturdy collection of ethereal and literary-minded folk songs, sung with Mitchell's typically winding vocals. But this is still very clearly a debut, and Mitchell is either holding back on some of her more adventurous impulses or has not yet fully realized them—either way, not her best work and more than a little hippy-ish in a way that Mitchell would reject in the coming years. But to say that Mitchell has not yet achieved the heights that she would reach in the '70s (some of the greatest music of the 20th century) is not to say that she has failed, and Song to a Seagull is a fine sequence of late-'60s California folk with at least one great song (the closing track, "Cactus Tree"). Not essential, but certainly not a waste of time. Grade: B

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Mini Reviews for October 29 - November 4, 2018

Alas, October has ended and thus horror season. See you again next year.


Suspiria (2018)
It's ostensibly an homage to Dario Argento's 1977 batshit opus. But in practice, what 2018's Suspiria feels like is less a brightly colored cult horror film than one of those epic post-war European movies about modernism and fragmentation and fascism and complicity and the nature of God and evil and stuff—if not a full-on Tarkovsky-style art film, it's at least of the school of early Bertolucci or a slightly less onanistic Fellini. So I guess your enjoyment of the movie kind of hinges on how you feel about that whole class of filmmakers—I dig them, and I mostly can get behind Suspiria, though it lacks the moments of brutal clarity that typically brings those filmmakers into such sharp focus. Your enjoyment of this film is also definitely dependent on how much you can get behind the sprawl of it all. It's a spacious 2.5 hours, which offends my sensibilities of preferring 90-minute features, but it's also this curious case of its bloated runtime not feeling quite long enough to contain what this movie wants to accomplish. There's a lot of movie here, from the fairly delicious ridiculousness of some of its choices (Tilda Swinton plays not one, not two, but THREE roles, praise heaven) to the totemic weight of its themes, which cover not just fascism and, ya know, the whole sweep of Western history but also gender and art and a bunch of other things—to say nothing of the complicated mythology of its literal plot of an ancient witch coven and the competing power dynamics therein. I've got a complaining tone here, but I do want to stress that a great deal of this is quite compelling or at least intriguing, and there's a perverse streak of dark humor throughout. And what better time to revisit the pernicious persistence of fascism than right now? The movie evokes that idea with a compelling collision of horror and elegy (a juxtaposition perfectly suited to Thom Yorke's score) in a way that feels profound on those occasions when the film allows its cluttered brush to thin out enough to see the landscape behind it all. This is most apparent in the movie's final twenty minutes or so, which luckily are hands-down the film's best. None of this fixes how the movie is entirely Too Much, but it at least makes it consistently commanding of attention, if not consistently breathtaking. Grade: B

Fort Maria (2018)
I complain a lot on here about improvisation and the hacks that directors often use to try to evoke an improvised vibe: riffing dialogue in 21st century American comedies, handheld camera in European arthouse, etc. So enter Fort Maria, a movie advertising itself as entirely improvised based off a small treatment—red flags, my friends, red flags. But co-directors S. Cagney Gentry and Thomas Southerland and their four principal actors (whom the directors call "co-creators," which is absolutely fair, given the heavy-lifting the actors had to do in creating their characters without a script) know what they are doing, and the end result is a perfect exhibit for the best-case scenario for controlled chaos of cinematic improvisation. The characters feel lived-in, the plot feels both organic and driven, and the dialogue is generous and discursive in a way that's similar to the naturalistic verbosity of Richard Linklater films. The film's story—a parallel study of identity and social connection, explored through the experience of a woman who is suffering from acute agoraphobia and her adopted daughter who has left to meet her birth family—is small but never insignificant, and the whole thing just crackles with life, animated by this great b&w cinematography. This movie's making the rounds (I saw it via Knoxville's Public Cinema group [welcome back! hope we get more of these again soon!], so keep your eyes peeled for it. Grade: B+

I Think We're Alone Now (2018)
Solid acting on Dinklage and Fanning's parts, and nice cinematography on Morano's part. But pretty tedious otherwise. "The last man on earth is wrong about being the last man on earth" is a decent (if familiar) premise, and the idea that the plot unfolds based on discovering the extent to which he is wrong is interesting. But the movie does next to nothing with that except unfurl its plot, at first slowly and then like really, really, shockingly rapidly, and neither mode (slow nor whiplash-inducing fast) serves these characters much, who are just the barest of "gruff man gettin' stuff done, maybe recovering from trauma" and "sarcastic but effervescent lady disrupts gruff man's routine, may also be recovering from trauma" archetypes that populate far too many post-apocalyptic media. There's this weird veneer of "cool" that's slapped over the movie, too, where Dinklage rocks out to Rush and stuff, and I want to like that, but it doesn't really add a lot to the movie and gets dropped after the opening act and the closing credits. Anyway, I can't remember how this got on my Netflix DVD queue, but I kind of wish I'd gotten Halloween II like I thought I was instead. Grade: C-

Last Shift (2014)
A rookie cop has to stay the night in a haunted police station. There are some decent scares, usually the more patient ones (a long conversation that reveals a "Purloined Letter"-style horror-in-plain-sight at the end), but in general, this movie favors skittering, jumpy horror that I quickly grew tired of. Last Shift sort of wants to be this cross between Repulsion and Assault on Precinct 13, but it's up to neither movie's pedigree and instead falls back on some pretty uninteresting horror cliches. Grade: C

The Devils (1971)
This movie is notorious for its sacrilegious imagery and gross-out effects, and it delivers those in spades. I can now say I've seen a nun humping a crucifix, so cross that one off my bucket list, I guess. It's worth noting that this isn't just perversity for perversity's sake (though the film does seem gleeful in its almost masochistic journey toward church censorship)—there's a trenchant and passionate critique of the abuses of the Catholic Church motivating all of this, first in its depiction of the way that the power structures of the Church allows church leaders to sexually exploit their flock (uh...), and later in the film, how even when the higher-ups in the Church become aware of the sexual deviancy of their leadership, they are too concerned with the purging of metaphysical evils to address the clear and present moral crisis facilitated by their practices regarding priests and nuns (UH...). I'm not Catholic, so I can't speak to the nuances of this critique, but as your friendly neighborhood Protestant looking in from a distance, these seem like critiques that the Catholic Church is only just now coming to grips with (and honestly a lot of Protestant churches, too, if they are addressing them at all—not denying that). Still, I think the movie gets a little tedious when its back half pivots to become basically The Crucible, and its moral core is undercut a tad by the sheer tonal problem (that The Crucible also runs into) of making it hard not to sympathize with a dude unjustly accused by the Church's kangaroo court, even when the movie has previously gone out of its way to show this man an abuse, corrupt man not really deserving of sympathy. And I'm still not sure what I think of some of the enthusiasm for deviancy—there's a biting, punk-rock energy to it that's cool, but with that comes a juvenile button-pushing that feels less vital. Grade: B

Detour (1945)
As a piece of craft, Detour is pretty sloppy (understandably, given the shoestring budget and lighting-quick shooting schedule, but still), and the fact that the film's preservation looks like it's seen the butt-end of the public domain doesn't really help. Yet the movie's pitch-black heart is pure noir in the best way possible. The sheer bitterness with which Tom Neal's character/narrator spouts off the typical noir nihilisms about a perversely random universe elevates its philosophy far above the pack. It's not like noir in general is famous for its good cheer, but Detour is an exceptionally sour and nasty movie even for its genre, and the contempt for each of its characters that the film has is an acid bath. It helps that the movie's mean little story is a white-hot 68 minutes, making this feel something like an extended episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, complete with the punchy plotting and bleak smirk of dark comedy. And like that show, Detour manages to be both bracingly cynical and also a lot of fun. Grade: B


Spiritualized - And Nothing Hurt (2018)
Spiritualized latest and reportedly last album finds Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) in a better place than he's been in decades—which is great for him and a nice way for the band to bow out. Throughout their run, Spiritualized music has flowered from destructive tensions: between gospel and noise rock, between classic rock's hedonism and alt-rock's self-flagellation, between sobriety and intoxication, between heaven and hell. But with And Nothing Hurt, the music feels more at ease than anything the band has ever put out. That isn't to say that the music is conflict-free, and you still get plenty of spaced-out noise-rock jams ("The Morning After") and euphoric pop swells ("Here It Comes (The Road) Let's Go"). Musically, it's a slightly more adventurous fare than the band's previous effort, Sweet Heart Sweet Light (though nothing quite matches the neo-Brit-Pop death swagger of that album's "Sweet Jane"), but lyrically, Pierce has found peace. It's certainly a happier ending than we had any reason to expect after Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space. Grade: B+

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Mini Reviews for October 22 - 28, 2018

Rev yous.


Halloween (2018)
It's about as fan-servicey as the trailers promised, which is to say: very. At times, the film tries to say something about the fundamental magnetism of Michael Myers (a nice dovetail with the fan service, admittedly), which would be interesting if the movie didn't keep getting distracted by weird comic cul-de-sacs and some fairly ridiculous gore. David Gordon Green directs handsomely, and the cinematography is generally very good—if a bit ruined by the overzealous editing à la last year's It, and some of the directorial flourishes feel more like obligatory "cool" than anything truly inspired (one long take in particular feels very much like someone saw that episode of True Detective and was like, "Bro, that's sick"). Still, it looks nice, and that niceness is complemented by a solid finale. I'll cop to having seen this in a bad mood, so perhaps I should recuse myself. But I thought this was aggressively mediocre. I guess when you get right down to it, I shouldn't have been expecting anything more than I usually expect from slasher sequels (even ones forty years delayed/retconned), but at least a lot of those had the good sense to be completely loony in their mediocrity. Grade: B-

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (2018)
Gus Van Sant adapts John Callahan's memoir into something of a Gus Van Sant's greatest hits collage—mostly, a fusion of the counter-culture, drug-addled meandering of Drugstore Cowboy with the therapeutic schmaltz of Good Will Hunting. And it works really well on a moment-by-moment basis (both of Jack Black's appearances are among Black's best cinema in years), even if the whole package doesn't exactly hang together as something special. Which is I guess how it usually goes with greatest hits collections. Grade: B

Southside with You (2016)
"Before Sunrise, but it's Barrack Obama and Michelle Robinson's first date" is a supremely kooky premise that this film plays entirely straight. It's a profoundly weird experience to try to engage sincerely with the emotional arc of this movie knowing that one of them will eventually become the leader of the free world, and the chasm between the very light, very sweet text of the film and the overwhelmingly weight of its historical context creates a cognitive dissonance that's like a significantly more intense version of the way The End of the Tour exploited the collision of the popularly imagined David Foster Wallace with acted simulacra of that image. Here, there's the obviously pandering liberal vision of Obama as the great man who, according to the film, can on a whim rouse community organizers with an impromptu speech or make old white people comfortable with the ending of Do the Right Thing crashing into a youthful, horny, and honestly kind of douchey Young Barrack not that far removed from the pretentious navel-gazer of Ethan Hawke's Jesse in Before Sunrise, just with a bit more political soulfulness thrown in. The movie makes it utterly impossible to set aside your own opinions of Obama the Political Figure while also seeming (somewhat perversely) to tease you with the prospect that this is "just" the story of two young activists falling in love. It's an interesting experiment (one—despite all this rambling—I'm not entirely convinced is intentional, but oh well) that's probably more interesting as the subject of a graduate student essay than as a viewing experience, largely due to the somewhat flatly written and only passably acted central relationship. It's not exactly uncommon knowledge, but perhaps it's taken for granted that the reason the Before movies work so well is the extreme synergy between its screenplay and its actors—it's not that Southside with You is poorly written and acted, exactly, but that crucial chemistry isn't there. Combined with the political semiotics loop-de-loops, it's hard to really get that invested but just as hard to dismiss entirely. Grade: C+

Big Eyes (2014)
I don't know how much I buy that Burton is positioning this film as a metaphor for his career, but if it is, it amusingly positions Amy Adams as '80s/'90s Burton and Christoph Waltz as 2000s-onward Burton, which feels just about right. Anyway, Big Eyes is nothing really to write home about, but it's solidly constructed (which is practically a miracle for modern-day Burton) and it's really, really nicely shot and lit—and not in that normal, post-millennium Burton way, either. Grade: B

Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から) (2002)
The opaque milkiness that water gets as it seeps from a regular drinking-water pipe through the ceiling of your home and back into your living space is particularly off-putting, as if there is something irremovably contaminated about the drywall and insulation and other structures that literally make up your home. Somehow, it is worse than lake or river water, which on a scientific level is (I imagine) significantly filthier. But to see such filth come from your own house—it makes me feel ill. Dark Water makes this essential repulsion its premise, and it's frequently horrifying. It also takes the idea of contaminated water leaking through a home to its metaphorical extreme, using that imagery to explore generational trauma (the true structural contamination of a home) and the knots that form between parent and child, knots that twist and ache and wind until it's hard to trace the linkages that separate one generation from the next. It's scary, sure, but more than anything, it's heartbreaking. Grade: B+

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
A huge step down from Dream Warriors and every Nightmare film before it, The Dream Master is when the inherent silliness of this franchise collapsed in on itself and smothered its inventive spirit. There are a few inventive moments—it's apparently going to be a franchise staple for Freddy to seduce some horny dude in a grotesque way, and there's a scene involving a waterbed here that is a decent iteration on that—but for the most part, the film is pretty tedious and rote, lacking the audacious special effects/gross-out gags or the demented sense of humor of its predecessors. It almost succeeds in becoming a sort of unintentional comedy (the film's idea of literary academic debate is, "Kafka and Goethe have never been irreconcilable to me," which is surely a Mad Libs creation), but ultimately, the funniest thing in the movie is its recycling of Annie Hall's penis envy joke, which probably speaks more to the creative drought here than anything. Grade: C


Party Down, Season 1 (2009)
Though it was the American version of The Office that was at its popular height in 2009 when this short-lived but cultishly beloved comedy about a team of caterers debuted, it's the UK iteration of the show that Party Down draws most from, using that original series's borderline-cruel well of darkly observed human microdrama and the cosmic irony inherent in being stuck in a job that was nobody's first choice—there's a real sense of tragedy to these characters that is so sharply and agonizingly realized that it's impossible not to think of Gervais and Merchant's early-millennium masterpiece. Even if you're only familiar with the American Office, though, you'll recognize the DNA, from the socially clueless boss who overcompensates for his flaws to the point of dysfunction to the sardonic/wistful will-they-won't-they couple to the insufferable and rude coworkers. That isn't to say that Party Down isn't its own thing; the catering conceit allows for some pretty great "job of the week" features (catering a rich kid's yacht birthday! catering a libertarian rally!), and Ken Marino's Ron is a fresh, utterly sad spin on the "awkward/offensive boss" trope. The cast as a whole is excellent, in fact, starring all sorts of late-2000s comedy luminaries such as Lizzy Caplan (of course—can we have her in every TV series from now on? Please and thank you!), Jane Lynch (whom the show loses to Glee near the end of this first season, which... *shakes fist*), and Adam Scott. The whole package probably isn't going to blow your mind—due to the aforementioned similarities with The Office as well as its unfortunate propensity for making homosexuality the butt of its jokes (it's, like, self-aware, but it's still operating on that late-2000s assumption that if something is "gay" it's inherently funnier, which is blegh)—but it's a solid and sometimes hilarious little half-hour tragicomedy. Grade: B+


The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket (2001)
The seventh book of the Series of Unfortunate Events series represents something of a turning point in these books in a number of ways—not the least of which is that Count Olaf no longer needs a disguise, and (in the typical cynical fashion of this series) not because of any particularly uplifting victory by the Baudelaire siblings but because a typo in the newspaper leads all the other characters to belief that the villain is "Count Omar." It's also the book in which the Baudelaires begin to have more autonomy, since they get to pick where Mr. Poe sends them (the titular village), as they think the village's name—abbreviated V.F.D. on a map—will help them solve some of the series's ongoing mysteries and find the Quagmires. This is also the book in which the cruel cosmic joke of "V.F.D." comes to the fore, and the sheer accumulation of things that V.F.D. could stand for becomes something of a sick, postmodern joke—V.F.D. on the map, it turns out, stands for "Village of Fowl Devotees." The essential absurdity of the Baudelaires' universe becomes more and more apparent at the same time that their agency increases, and the series begins to modify its thesis from "the world is a cruel and absurd place that is incompatible with ideas of justice or equity" to "the world is a cruel and absurd place made even more so by the individual actions of autonomous individuals," an idea reflected not just by the Baudelaires' frustrated attempts to own their own destiny but also by the byzantine proliferation of rules that the Village of Fowl Devotees has put into place—laws and rules being perhaps the most acute way that a free people make the world a maze of absurdity. It's all very darkly funny, but it's also, more so than any other of the Series of Unfortunate Events thus far, crushingly sad—not just in the formulaic "foiled attempt at victory" that all the books have leaned into but also in the minutiae recorded of these frustrations. In what is without a doubt the saddest moment of the series so far, Klaus realizes, when he and his siblings are at their most despairing, that it is his birthday, and the book takes a few pages to mull over the chasm between what Klaus's previous expectations for this birthday and the reality of it. It's uncharacteristic for the series to languish over little character moments like this, and when it does, it's a punch to the stomach. Grade: A-

The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket (2001)
The Hostile Hospital continues the series's subversion of its own tropes that The Vile Village began—this time, forcing the Baudelaires to disguise themselves instead of Count Olaf (although Olaf also disguises himself, too). It also extends the previous book's exploration of individual autonomy to pose ethical questions about what it is that truly makes a person's decisions "evil"—do the ends justify the means? should a pure motivation be a factor? does the way that the universe's absurdity limits one's viable options change the way actions must be evaluated on a moral level? This is only accentuated by the increased visibility of Lemony Snicket as not just the book's author but also a character (a character who has perhaps committed questionable actions himself). It's always been clear that these books were postmodern metafiction, but as the series gears up for its back half, the precise nature of its postmodernism and its metafiction is snapping into focus. The Hostile Hospital is not nearly as biting or clever as The Ersatz Elevator, nor is it as sad as its immediate predecessor, but it's still no slouch. I can't believe I never read these books when I was in middle school. I would have dug them so much. Grade: B+

The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket (2002)
Like The Hostile Hospital, The Carnivorous Carnival is more of an extension of the ideas and plots of the previous few books than it is anything new of its own. Back again are the plot subversions of having the Baudelaires, not Olaf, in disguise; returning is the ouroboros of "V.F.D."; here are the same questions of freedom and one's own responsibility for one's actions (there's a particularly violent and horrifying iteration of this question at the book's finale, rivaling the infamous Aunt Josephine death by leeches in The Wide Window as the show's most grisly moment). But, as formulaic as this series can get, these ideas still feel fresh, if not quite as exciting as when they showed up in The Ersatz Elevator and The Vile Village. Plus, the book ends on an especially nasty and unfortunate riff on the "suddenly tragic ending" thing that this series loves, which is, even in a book (and series) full of mean shocks, still pretty shocking. Grade: B+


Let's Eat Grandma - I'm All Ears (2018)
Let's Eat Grandma are, in most respects, yet another piece of the current wave of female-led, emotionally forthright, retro-curious, future-focused indie rock that's been dominating the game for a few years now. What sets this band apart from Snail Mail and Mitski and their other peers in this wave, though, is a deeply atmospheric and even goth spaciousness to their music; listening to I'm All Ears feels a lot like listening to classic The Cure or Echo & the Bunnymen filtered through a distinctly millennial sensibility, and that's probably intentional—surely it's no accident that the excellent 11-minute closing track is called "Donnie Darko," name-dropping that ur-text in post-millennium appropriation of '80s goth rock. These folks aren't copycats, though, and as much as the album evokes its 30-years-prior ancestors, the music itself is as fresh and inventive as you would want a 2018 indie rock release to be, not just in the spaced-out, epic closer but throughout the album with the likes of the high melodrama of "Snakes & Ladders" and the strutting synth-pop of "Hot Pink." I've not listened to the band's 2016 debut, but that one would have to be quite an album for I'm All Ears to come anywhere near to being a sophomore slump. It's one of the strongest releases of the year. Grade: A-