Sunday, November 19, 2017

Mini-Reviews for November 13 - 19, 2017

All of a sudden, the movie theaters have gone from having no movies I'm interested in to having like two billion. Must be the end of the year [insert rant about movie distribution practices].

Movies

The Florida Project (2017)
As far as finding humanist beauty in the intersection of modern kitsch and poverty exploitation goes, The Florida Project is doing nothing nearly as interesting or affecting as last year's American Honey. And as far as Sean Baker movies go, this is no Tangerine. It's rambling and loose in every way that Tangerine's chaos was tight and thrilling. But as with Tangerine, even this comparatively weaker material is absolutely elevated by the sheer strength of performance—not just Willem Dafoe (though he's excellent) but especially the six-year-old Brooklyn Kimberly Prince, who delivers (though copious improvisation and a very good eye in the editing room) one of the best onscreen child performances I've ever seen, capturing as movies rarely do the shambolic sense of play that animates children's interactions with the world. She's amazing, and the film has the good sense to place her directly at the film's center as she flits through a fantastically realized extended-stay motel—the setting is the film's second star, for sure, though of course fans of Tangerine shouldn't be surprised that Baker is able to capture the alternatingly warm and desperate character of an off-beat, real-world setting. It's a movie with enough successes that I'm relatively forgiving of its more egregious missteps: the slack middle third of the film, the somewhat obvious way with which the plot thuds toward its conclusion, and particularly the flabbergastingly bad and cheap-looking fantasy sequence that makes up the film's final seconds. But those performances, man... Grade: B+

Person to Person (2017)
Well, this is a throwback. The 16mm film, the jazz and soul soundtrack, the (parodic) emphasis on hard-boiled print journalism, even the costuming suggests something of a sanitized '60s/'70s NYC. The easy-going character quirk, the low-stakes ensemble plotting, that specifically mannered humor that comes from characters acting recognizably emotive but not exactly human says 2000s American indie. It's sort of a cross between Robert Altman and a less surreal version of Me and You and Everyone We Know, and it's absolutely the lightest-weight version of that combination I can imagine. But it's so warm and fun that I have a hard time imagining someone not feeling good about having seen the movie either. Grade: B


The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo) (2016)
The movie is supposedly a metaphor for the life of Saint Anthony of Padua. Being Protestant, I of course know jack squat about saints, so a lot of the explicit parallels sailed right over my head (and continued to fly even after the movie, when I looked up the patron saint of lost things [see, I learn things!] on Wikipedia and still had troubling finding the parallels). Not that it really matters, since regardless of the specific connections to Anthony, this is still very obviously the story of a man becoming a saint, and what's most interesting about it is the way that sainthood seems thrust upon him without his consent—for example, early in the film, our protagonist is tied up and made into something of an unwilling icon for two young tourists, who use him to feel secure against possible pagan forces, which, to my Protestant, not-canon-oriented brain, has all sorts of interesting things to say about the practice of canonization and the way that the legacies of individuals are exploited by future generations of believers. I suppose this is a little sacrilegious, but it's subtly and smartly so, something that can't be said for some of the movie's more explicitly sacrilegious (and even blasphemous) ideas, e.g. a character named Jesus who never doesn't feel like a clumsy attempt at transgression whenever he's onscreen. It's all fascinating and beautifully shot, but not always in the most successful way. If that makes sense. Grade: B

Johnny Guitar (1954)
Look, there's no arguing that "Johnny Guitar" is a baller title for a movie. But you know it; I know it; the poster even knows it: this movie belongs to the magnificent Joan Crawford as Vienna, not the titular guitarist (who, despite some romantic subplots, is almost a secondary character). Crawford's is a powerful performance, deep with subtext and nuance, and thematically, her character is a striking icon to the ways that women must grasp and claw their way forward if they are to make any progress against the hoards of angry men who scream at any change to their society. The movie softballs the gender dynamic, I'd say, by having a woman lead this band of villains (as if our heroine couldn't have faced off against just men), but only a little—Emma, our chief villain, is a truly nasty creation who serves as a very watchable (and detestable) foil to Vienna, regardless of the way that she serves perhaps as too much of a feminine counterpoint to Vienna. Grade: A-

Television

You're the Worst, Season 4 (2017)
This season of You're the Worst does the impossible in that it makes Lindsay a believably redeemable character, a television miracle of sorts after the stabbings and, uh, cuckolding of last season. By largely jettisoning Paul (though he does make a couple of hilarious cameos), the show is able to ground Lindsay in an emotional reality that feels absolutely true to the character and unexpectedly makes her plot the more affecting of the season. The same goes for Vernon, weirdly, and the show manages to wring a surreal tragedy out of him. The same cannot, alas, be said for the remainder of the cast. They each have their moments, but Jimmy and Gretchen's will-they-won't-they is entirely dull, considering how unlikely it is that the show will end without these crazy kids together, and Edgar's storyline with his new writer friend (admittedly played perfectly by Johnny Pemberton) is pedestrian when it isn't a total afterthought. The show's as funny as ever, and per usual, it manages to deliver at least one episode that completely knocks my socks off ("Not a Great Bet," in which Gretchen returns to her hometown—for all my gripes with this season, it's one of the best TV episodes of the year). But the unevenness with which the series approaches its characters' forward movement has become bumpy to the point of discomfort. Grade: B-

Music

St. Vincent - Masseduction (2017)
Masseduction is St. Vincent's weakest since Actor (still my least-fav, don't hurt me), but instead of that album's angular, off-beat guitar passages, Masseduction finds Annie Clark melodically and instrumentally forthright in a way that recalls her St. Vincent debut, Marry Me. This cuts both ways; lyrically, Clark is more personal than she's been in years, despite the persona-heavy ad campaign, again recalling Marry Me's introspection and emotional transparency, but musically, the Jack Antonoff production, while clean and immediate, lacks a lot of the layered complexity that's made previous St. Vincent releases to rewarding to revisit, and even after only a few weeks of listening, I'm starting to find moments on the album worryingly thin. It's still St. Vincent, and there are still tremendous moments. But the whole is having a difficult time coming together as a complete work of ownage. Grade: B

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mini-Reviews for November 6 - 12, 2017

Get 'em while they're hot.

Movies

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
There's that old Howard Hawks aphorism about a good movie being "three good scenes and no bad ones," and I'd say this applies almost to the letter, though it's frustratingly without any great scenes. It's the sort of well-observed, literate film that Noah Baumbach could make in his sleep (probably while dreaming about The Squid and the Whale, whose plot Meyerowitz uncannily resembles), and as such, it plays perfectly to Baumbach's strengths without reaching for any of the fresh air that's made his recent Greta Gerwig collaborations so exciting. Even without his partner in the credits, though, the cast here is exquisite, likely saving the movie from being even more fractured and scene-based than it already is. I'm sure Sandler's going to get all the praise (and he deserves it), but really, there's not a bum note in the bunch. Grade: B+

The Little Hours (2017)
I haven't read The Decameron, the 14th-century source for this bawdy, bizarre comedy. But I've read The Canterbury Tales along with a few other works of literature of the era, and if it takes a murderer's row of modern alt-comedy actors and a metric ton of profane anachronisms to remind us of the valuable truth that human beings have always been as filthy-minded and irreverent as they are in our present age, then I welcome this experiment with open arms. Grade: B+





The Lure (Córki dancingu) (2015)
I guess between this and Raw, I'm now 2/2 for being ambivalent on non-English-language, off-format genre experiments in 2017. A sort of horror-musical take on "The Little Mermaid," The Lure has the winning premise out of those two, and unlike Raw, it actually goes for broke in executing that premise, full of all sorts of gore and appealingly weird mermaid tale kink. But the narrative is so lopsided that the movie nearly topples—the whole inciting incident of a love-struck mermaid gaining legs in trade for her voice appears 2/3 of the way through the movie, making that first hour almost tedious in the way it repetitiously establishes and re-establishes the world of the film and the last half hour an underdeveloped rush. Also, music-wise, this is no great shakes, though I'm willing to chalk that up to the fact that it's just no fun reading musical lyrics in subtitle. Grade: B-

Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)
I went into this having misread the title as Einstein in Guantanamo, so this movie held at least two surprises, to say nothing of the rather intense sex scene in the movie's middle (though given The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, maybe that last bit shouldn't have shocked). But for all its narrative and stylistic energy, Peter Greenway's retelling of Soviet cinema legend Sergei Eisenstein's time in Mexico is a film at odds with itself, its intensely playful editing and cinematographic manipulation weirdly cancelling out the centerpiece romance that informs the film's emotional heft, resulting in a film that's chilly and distantly admirable instead of actually engaging. Grade: C+


Snow on tha Bluff (2011)
I watched this unaware of whether it was a documentary or a fictional drama. It turns out it's mostly the latter, something that becomes kind of evident through a few too pat dialogue scenes, but as a found-footage drama, particularly one that lives in that disorienting haze of between reality and movie, this is electric and frightening in the manner of Greek tragedy or cosmic horror. The lightly fictionalized life of actual Atlanta dealer Curtis Snow is one beset by ancient forces; agency is something only wildly grasped at beneath the towers of the ruling elite of the Atlanta skyline, whose apathetic spires are glimpsed from a distance, gods under whose heel any gesture toward legal, middle-class functionality seems like nonsense. The execution is sometimes bumpy, most so in the one-on-one scenes with Snow's ex-girlfriend (which most strain the credulity of the home-movie premise), but the conceit is perfect. Grade: B+

5 Centimeters per Second (秒速5センチメートル) (2007)
A triptych of stories plays a long-distance romance in fast forward over the film's spry hour-long runtime. Being a Makoto Shinkai movie, it's of course gorgeously animated, each detail of each frame a marvel of specificity and vibrancy; also being a Makoto Shinkai movie, the beautiful animation provides the backdrop for a teen romance played to nearly operatic intensity, and as always, this is the part of the film that occasionally warbles. But even so, each of the three chapters have moments of such stunning beauty that any quibbles with tone become sort of secondary to the ability of Shinkai to instill even relatively terrestrial human interactions with a sense of the sublime. My favorite comes at the end of the second chapter, which is told through the eyes of a character outside the central romance looking in; even the bittersweet final minutes of the movie don't begin to approximate the deep pathos of the precise second when the rocket launches. You'll know it when you see it. Grade: B+

Television

The Show About the Show, Season 1 (2015-17)
A bonkers, meta, hilarious, and altogether genius web series made by Caveh Zahedi (whose work I am unfamiliar with but will likely seek out after this)—each episode is about the making of the previous episode, which subjects the normal human tensions inherent in collaborative creation to a kind of geometric growth. An episode is divided into two different formats: the first being Zahedi's rambling, Woody-Allen-esque to-the-camera monologues recounting his memories of the previous episode's creation, with the second being the recreated scenes to illustrate Zahedi's memories. This interplay between Zahedi's monologue and the collaborative recreation leads to increasingly tense and nutty escalations of relatively mundane conflicts. For example, during the pitching of the show, Zahedi's wife expressed some ambivalent feelings about the project, which in turn leads Zahedi to recount that in his monologue during the pilot, which then forces him to have his wife recreate the moment in which she's unsure of his vision, a prospect that his wife is unenthusiastic about, which then leads to Zahedi mentioning her reluctance in his monologue in Episode 2 (about the creation of the pilot), which means that he has to convince his wife to act out their previous interaction, which makes her a bit more disgruntled, and so on. Given how central recreations are to the premise, it's unclear just how much of this is "real," and that's both the point and beside the point, as you can take this as either trenchant commentary on media representation or as just an excuse for crazy hijinks. It's a wild, uproarious feedback loop that gets more hectic as it goes until the final two episodes culminate in some truly horrifying, UK-The-Office-style comic tragedy that's as bracing as it is laugh-out-loud funny. This is not going to be everyone's ballgame, and I'm sure most are going to find it to be an eye-rolling postmodern wank-fest (especially given Zahedi's hubris, although like the aforementioned Woody Allen, I'd say this apparent dickishness is intentional at least as often as it isn't). But it's absolutely my ballgame, one of the most engaging TV experiments I've seen recently. (P.S. It's all on YouTube, and you can watch it here. It's only about 90 minutes, so why not?) Grade: A

Books

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (2009)
YA novels often have a problem with voice, where the opening chapters are usually intoxicating and distinctive before giving way to more pedestrian prose (lest I sound too high and mighty, this one of many fears I have with my own novel, but you don't want to hear about that). The Disreputable History is one of the more disappointing iterations of that trend, given just how strongly the first few chapters promise a witty, erudite deconstruction of the East-Coast private school patriarchy. And it's not that the book isn't that; it's just maybe a bit more sedate and traditional an execution of that than the beginning of the novel suggests, grounded (appropriately, I suppose) as much in the world of teen hookups and relationship drama as it is in the tearing down of systematic ideas. Regardless of what I want the book to be, though, it's still a great deal of fun, and our protagonist, Frankie, is an engaging and winsome guide. So no matter what we hoped for—let's celebrate what we got. Grade: B+

Music

SZA - Ctrl (2017)
This will likely end up as my favorite musical debut of 2017. Solána Rowe, alias SZA, croons her smooth R&B melodies with grace and abundant personality, reminiscent of last year's Solange and Noname releases in its warm, empowered sound. If there's any justice in contemporary pop music (and the gigantic success of "Love Galore," the album's second single, seems to indicate that there is), she's going to be the next big thing. It's not flawless, but it's a way better pop debut than the world deserves this year. Grade: B+

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Mini-Reviews for October 30 - November 5, 2017

Halloween has come and gone. Goodbye, spooky season; hello, desperately-clinging-to-the-beauty-of-Thanksgiving-before-the-onslaught-of-Christmas season.

Movies

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
It's beginning to look like the best I'm going to be able to do with most Marvel movies these days is to identify one or two fresh element that I enjoyed among the usual low-grade frustrations of this franchise. With Ragnarok, I have not one or two but three things to like here: 1. Taika Waititi, both as writer and performer—the off-the-cuff silliness typical of his screenplays breathes life into the film and is particularly well-suited to the character of Thor (not to mention when the words are uttered with Waititi's own beautiful delivery in the form of the Waititi-voiced rock alien, Korg); 2. Jeff Goldblum, who is at his Goldblummiest and, with apologies to an enthusiastic but altogether misused Cate Blanchett, the film's best villain, pound-for-pound the funnest and funniest part of the film; 3. The production design, which is delightfully colorful and kooky, continuing in Guardians 2's footsteps in moving the aesthetic of the MCU further into that sweet, sweet Jack Kirby style (though it's a firm step down from the visual splendor of that first 2017 Marvel film). These things are so good—better than the normal heights of Marvel fare—that they rescue the movie from a deeper well of narrative dysfunction than any Marvel movie has had since maybe Iron Man 2 (though if I ever get around to rewatching Doctor Strange, that might take the cake). What we have here is essentially two completely different movies smushed together—the first one comprised of Thor's imprisonment on the garbage planet Sakaar and featuring prominently all three elements I listed above, the second one a plodding drag encasing the first, featuring the titular Ragnarok as Blanchett takes over Asgard. I think I'm virtually alone in finding the Thor series's combination of arch high fantasy and silly humor as one of the chief pleasures of the MCU, and Ragnarok's bifurcated structure puts even my affection for that formula to the test. So thank goodness the rest is such fun. Grade: B

What Happened to Monday (2017)
It would be okay that What Happened to Monday's dystopian premise was almost comically elaborate if it resulted in a future that was either plausible or thematically interesting. But instead it's just kind of dumb. And even that would be okay if its sort of absurd premise that GMOs are causing a rise in multiple-child births was a vehicle for Noomi Rapace to indulge in some Tatiana-Maslany-style multi-character performances, and I guess that's sort of the case, as Rapace plays all seven characters in a set of septuplets. But in an unfortunate combination of shallow writing and a kind of listless Rapace, it's not really that engaging to witness (especially not when compared to Orphan Black, surely the gold standard in these kind of hijinks). And even still all that would be okay if the film's unrelenting focus on sci-fi action yielded some fun spectacle. But alas, this is some Syfy-level forgettability on that front. Three strikes you're out, movie. Grade: C

Manifesto (2017)
I guess between this and The Death of Louis XIV, I'm two for two with 2017 films that began as art installations. Cate Blanchett acts as 13 different characters who all, within their abstract vignettes, recite various artistic and political manifestos, from "The Communist Manifesto" to "Dogma 95," and it's her performances, recontextualizing the high speech of these texts within the cadences of everyday speech and in doing so, de-enshrining the language to show the grit-between-your-toes-ness of the spirit of these works, that are the main draw here. I can imagine this working better within its original gallery setting, but taken as a whole feature film, Manifesto is occasionally tedious but also frequently mesmerizing. Grade: B


Amour Fou (2014)
I mean, it's basically about a couple enmeshed in the preparations of a suicide pact, but for that hook, it's a remarkably restrained, occasionally plodding movie that spends at least as much time observing characters debate liberalism vs. feudalism as it does contemplating suicide. Knowing nothing of German author Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel (the real-life murder-suicide that this movie is based on), it's not always obvious to me the connection between the political philosophy discussed and the central couple, and the filmmaking, while handsomely constructed, is a touch more staid than I'd like. But by the end, the disparate threads of the movie have balled up into something that, if not quite cohesive, is definitely fascinating. Grade: B

Martyrs (2008)
This movie has a reputation as a maximally hard-to-watch torture-fest. And it's not like that's not there (although greatly more subdued than the conversation around it indicates). However, the conversation surrounding the film sells the philosophical preoccupations a bit short, which are very much concerned with the act itself of watching others experience great pain—it's a movie in dialogue with itself, with virtually diametrically opposed halves, one steeped in the tropes of sadistic horror and the other much more concerned with the cool contemplation of horror and its capacity for tremendous meaning, quoting more or less explicitly from what's probably the film urtext of finding meaning through extreme suffering, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. It's all perhaps just a bit too obvious with its metaphors, especially in that first half, but there's no denying that there's something fascinating about this mix of schlock and metaphysics. Grade: B+

Pulse (回路) (2001)
This movie has both a retrospectively charming depiction of turn-of-the-millennium internet technology (a character furtively consults a manual, fumbles at phone cables, and uses one of those internet startup CDs in attempting to connect to the internet) and exquisitely constructed scares (not one of them jumps). Pulse is tremendous at using the language of film (editing in particular) to turn relatively small environmental details—for example, black smudges on walls—into terrifying imagery. If the irritating, '90s-TV-esque cold open and "flashback" to the main action of the film feel a bit cheap, nothing about the rest of Pulse does. This is tremendous filmmaking. Grade: A-


Television

Lore, Season 1 (2017)
The practice of converting a podcast into a TV series is, to my knowledge, a relatively novel one, so I guess we can forgive Lore of the occasionally clumsiness with which it does so. But it is a little clumsy, the way it juxtaposes Aaron Mahnke's bemusedly stilted narration from the podcast with live-action recreation of highly varying quality. Sometimes (as in, for example, the series's second episode, "Echoes," about Dr. Walter Freeman), there's a conscious recreation of classic horror aesthetics and a knowing camp to the way it frames the story that makes the dark depths all the more unsettling; other times, it feels a little amateur ("Black Stockings," for example), both on the cinematography and acting fronts. But no matter which of these categories it falls into, the highlight of any given episode will be the animated interludes that accompany some of Mahnke's narration—macabre, gruesome, and artistically distinctive in ways that not even the best live-action segments approximate. Outside of that, the pleasures of this series are virtually identical to the podcast's, i.e. the mix of horror, humor, and historical survey that informs Mahnke's writing. In fact, if you're a fan of the podcast, you'll recognize a lot of the series—the episode subjects are taken verbatim from some of the podcast's more memorable episodes. It's an interesting experiment, one I'm glad was taken, but as any of the variety of mad scientists from the annals of Lore could tell you, interesting experiments often have messy results. Grade: B-

Books

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore (1988)
As with a lot of the grim-'n-gritty school of comic books, The Killing Joke is a bit too impressed by its own darkness, most notoriously in the way it sadistically maims Barbara Gordon but also just in the generally pompous, gee-look-at-me way it relishes every tidbit of the Joker's warped worldview. Still, all that is sandwiched between a truly great opening and closing act—the story is never better (or free from its own tiresome "darkness, no parents" hangups) than when it focuses on solely Batman and the Joker, and the final page is justifiably legendary. This is all bolstered by Brian Bolland's excellent, detailed artwork, the perfect complement to Moore's writing and probably at least as responsible for the book's success as Moore's words. Grade: B+


Music

Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference (2017)
Though technically an EP (32 minutes in length, practically the blink of an eye compared to 2015's three-hour The Epic), Harmony of Difference has the weight of an album. A concept album no less: a series of short, bright compositions named after various abstractions like "Desire" and "Knowledge" that then lead into the 13-minute "Truth," a soaring finale that feels both musically and philosophically the culmination of the small pieces that came before. Fans of The Epic know what they'll find here: an expansive and spiritually infused mash of post-bop, samba, choral all ribboned up with Washington's cosmic saxophone. It's a major work from a major artist, EP or not. Grade: A-

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Mini-Reviews for October 23 - 29, 2017

Sorry for the late post. Out-of-town trips are all well and good, but they jostle my blogging schedule.

Movies

The Big Sick (2017)
Cutesy to a fault and, as with about 10,000 other modern American comedies, the direction and editing are on life support (ha...). There's a much better movie that's got just a tad more of a visual sensibility and is about 8 minutes shorter—and not 8 minutes of content either, just enough of the slack between lines of dialogue to tighten up the timing and quicken the verbal pace. But this is pretty much every modern American comedy; the real news is that so help me, the movie is charming anyway—stratospherically charming, in fact. Biggest kudos to the actors, I think. Nanjiani and Kazan are fun, but the real MVPs are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Kazan's character's parents, and when they're onscreen, the movie comes alive. So much so that you almost forget about the slack timing and visuals. Almost. Grade: B

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
Yikes, what a boring movie. It didn't have to be this way. The filmmakers were handed a compelling true story on a silver platter in the form of the friendship between Ron Hall and Denver Moore (an art dealer and a homeless survivor of an abusive sharecropping background, respectively), but bafflingly, they throw all the most interesting material out in favor of the blandest inspirational movie pablum possible, complete with the whiff of white saviorism. This is perhaps no better summed up in the film's ostensible emotional climax (if this movie was actually, you know, capable of rousing strong emotions), when Greg Kinnear's Ron informs us in a brief monologue that he actually abandoned Denver in the storm of the doubt and anger he felt after his wife's death; the film does nothing to dramatize either the doubt or the anger, and instead jumps us forward to the returned status quo in the very next shot. Credit where credit is due, I suppose: in the Pure Flix pantheon, it's no God's Not Dead. But that's a mighty generous rubric that I'm not willing to extend. Grade: D+

Personal Shopper (2016)
The lesson here is that Kristen Stewart is a bona fide star (in case any of us Twilight haters needed any more convincing) and needs to be paid diligent attention to. Personal Shopper is no slack of a film, a strangle, transfixing little genre mashup (50% supernatural drama, 50% thriller, and 100% European arthouse), but Stewart absolutely carries it. Even when the movie gestures just a bit too literally (as it does in the aftermath of its remarkable climax), Stewart is never less than great, and thanks to that, the film is never less than very good. Grade: A-




Kuroneko (藪の中の黒猫) (1968)
It doesn't quite hit the depths of supernatural horror of Onibaba (the only other Shindo film I've seen), but it shares the dreamlike folktale vibes that makes that other film so entrancing. It also has one of the most devastating variations on "sex=death" I've seen in a horror movie. So you can look forward to that. Grade: A-







The Seventh Victim (1943)
I thought I had run out of Val Lewton masterpieces (especially having seen all his Jacques Tourneur collaborations), but lo and behold, here comes The Seventh Victim to prove me very, very wrong. It lacks the dreamlike ink-blackness of Cat People, instead favoring a slightly less baroque noir aesthetic, but on a screenwriting level, The Seventh Victim is even that early opus's superior, spinning a remarkably complex and deeply felt mystery within a blistering 71 minutes. It's a compellingly odd tale that features not just secret spouses and shady business dealings and all your regular noir trappings but also a coven of devil worshipers who all seem just a bit sorry that they're serving Satan, which is kooky and fun right up until the minute it isn't and instead reminds you that at its core, this is a film about what it feels to experience utter remorse, to look both life and death in the face and not know whether you prefer one or the other. It's that mix of the bizarre and the tragic (dare I say a Lynchian forebear?) that places The Seventh Victim proudly alongside both The Wolf Man and Lewton's own Cat People as one of the great American horror movies of the 1940s. Grade: A

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Mini-Reviews for October 16 - 22, 2017

Spooky times had this week at the movies. October is looking bright.

Movies

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
I remain enamored with Tom Holland's Peter Parker, pretty much the platonic ideal of the character (with apologies to Tobey Macguire, whose dopey vulnerability works tremendously in the context of the Raimi films but misses out on some of that essential Peter-Parkerness that Holland nails). Michael's Keaton's Vulture is also a delight, making this year's Marvel outings an astounding 2/2 for villains, and while this is certainly a low bar to clear, I'd be up to the argument that he's the best MCU baddie so far. And then there's the setting—Homecoming sketches Queens and Peter's Midtown high school broadly, but it sprinkles them with just enough specific detail (e.g. the hall pass Peter holds in a school scene late in the film) that they feel alive and lived in, a refreshing contrast to the MCU's usual mix of generic Euro-American urbanscapes and light-futuristic Manhattan science labs. Based solely on these elements, Homecoming has the feel of a much better movie than it is, and it's a frustrating thought experiment to consider just how good it could have been if this movie hadn't been beholden to the blandly competent filmmaking and scripting tropes that's increasingly becoming a low-key disease in the MCU. This movie is clearly more at home with the small-time personal scenes in Queens and the high school, and the imposition of Tony Stark and the rest of the MCU tie-ins just feels tired and unnecessary and dilutes what's actually good here. And let's talk about the climax, shall we? It's another pileup of weightless CGI action, which... snooze. These movies are focus-grouped to death, right? Hasn't someone told them that the climaxes in Marvel movies are almost invariably the least interesting parts of the films? Well, whatever. Homecoming is fine, and parts of it are way better than fine. After the suckfest that was The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2, I suppose I should be grateful the franchise is moving in a positive direction. Keaton and especially Holland are so good that I guess I am kind of grateful. It's certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. Grade: B

A Ghost Story (2017)
I've been thinking this one over hard, and since I've seen it, I've come down a bit from my initial feeling that this was the best movie of the year. Not by much—David Lowrey's aching rumination on grief and loss is by turns heartbreaking, cosmic, and profound in the way that it uses a ghost's POV (one of those old-school Charlie-Brown-type ghosts that's just a sheet with eye holes cut in it, no less—certainly the most charming of the film's myriad lo-fi effects) to examine the impermanence of one's legacy, both in the relatively short-term context of your own loved ones lives and in the long-term view of the entirety of human history. It's borderline brilliant in places and never less than stunning visually. But through it all, there's a sort of fallacy of perspective that bumps it down a notch. The central idea here is that while a normal ghost story involves the resolution of some unfinished aspect of the ghost's life, and this film's ghost refuses to let the loose threads of his life resolve. It's compelling to watch everything change around a ghost insistent on not changing, but the film also doesn't quite interrogate this idea quite enough to escape the egotistic myopia of the way the ghost demands to be remembered even as its clear that it's time he moved on. This is compounded by an uncomfortable racial subtext to the film that wraps up a Hispanic family as well as (spoilers?) a scene of Native-American-on-European-pioneer carnage—again, interesting and occasionally compelling choices, but also ones that the film doesn't seem to want to engage in a way that eases the possible advocacy of white supremacy. The very presence of these questions and close readings in my mind is a testament to just how striking this film is, though, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tremendously moved (and even a bit awed), despite the movie's flaws. It's truly something special we have here. Grade: A-

Lady Macbeth (2016)
This movie's adept at showing the ways that oppressive social systems (here, rural Victorian England) corrupt individuals all along the social spectrum. It's not just Florence Pugh's titular Katherine and her desperately murderous attempt to cling to autonomy in the face of a literal patriarchy; it's also the hired help, even lower on the social ladder than Katherine's comparatively privileged position, who treat their fleeting moments of freedom like an anarchic sport; it's also the female servants, lower still, terrorized by the male help and exploited by Katherine. These groups form a multilayered web of uneasy alliances and out groups, and Pugh especially is excellent at selling it with an appropriate balance between nuance and ham. However, as good as that whole dynamic is, the movie can also be weirdly boring, too. It's all too obvious that this is a novel adaptation, as the story has not quite taken the shape of the cinematic medium, and as a result, there are quite a few slack patches. When it's good, it's very good. But it's not always that. Grade: B

The Falling (2014)
An odd and utterly unclassifiable blend of melodrama, psychological thriller, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and coming-of-age-by-way-of-The-Crucible, The Falling is completely entrancing and difficult to parse in that beautiful way that speaks more of untold depths than frustrating dead ends. The film hints at both the occult and the traditional sexual metaphors that accompany such tropes, but throws them into disarray through a resolute refusal to issue any sort of value judgement on the characters here. Instead, what we're left with is the rich landscape of the English girls school (a landscape that finds its emotional anchor in Maisie Williams's mesmerizing performance) presenting otherworldly occurrences with the heightened matter-of-factness of myth. It's kind of amazing. Grade: A

The Others (2001)
Right up to its final 10-ish minutes, The Others is very close to perfection (minus a sequence of scenes involving an absentee husband that constitutes the sole loose wheel in the set), but the movie sails right past the goal posts into merely very good territory with an ending that's thematically interesting but, in practice, deflating. But even that can't put a damper on the lavish sets (filmed in sort of the platonic ideal of a haunted manor) and eloquent lighting (probably the best-lit horror movie of the past 20 years, no joke), to mention nothing of a typically excellent Nicole Kidman. It's frustratingly close to being a masterpiece, and weirdly, that probably knocks it down a few more notches than a movie that didn't shoot so high to begin with. But there's a ton to enjoy here. Grade: B+

They Live (1988)
The only thing holding this movie back from being top-tier John Carpenter alongside The Thing and Halloween is the vagueness of its conspiracy plot, which is broad enough in its New World Order archetypes to accommodate pretty much any lens you want to put on it without really saying anything too meaningful about any of those lenses. However, everything else about They Live is a delight, from the retro B&W schlock of the "sunglasses" POV to the primal precision of the action beats to the typically laconic Carpenter wit ("...and I'm all outta bubblegum"). Grade: A-




The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The thing every The Phantom of the Opera adaptation must deal with is that the original novel kinda sucks, wanting to glom dark Romanticism's archetypal profundity without offering anything of substance of its own. The 1925 adaptation has at least two considerable benefits over its source material. First, it's able to actually show the rich imagery of its opera house and adjoined catacombs, and given this was 1925 and the height of the cash-flushed opulence that was the American silent film industry, you know it looks stupendous. Second, it sidelines Raoul for the majority of the film, which is great because Raoul is a drip. That doesn't quite solve the central problem that the story still isn't that interesting, but in describing this movie, I may have just talked myself up half a letter grade. Grade: B

Books

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)
It's frustrating that this novel isn't better than it is: the prose is inelegant, the story is way overplotted (sometimes to no apparent effect—e.g. a running subplot that involves sexual tension between Starr and her boyfriend, which culminates in... nothing), many of the characters fit stock types, and the happy shades of the ending feel unearned. Basically, it has all the usual shortcomings that plague the average YA novel. But those flaws are matched by some impressive strengths as well. Thomas has a fantastic command of setting and a real knack for using characters and various bits of cultural ephemera to illustrate vibrant communities, especially the African-American inner-city neighborhood that is the stage for the majority of the novel. And within this setting is embedded the novel's second great strength, which is the way it shows the exchanges and conflicts of ideas within this community. The characters in The Hate U Give aren't always well-drawn in the dramatic sense of having nuanced motives that evolve over time as they encounter conflict (with the exception of Starr and her father [the two best characters in the novel by a country mile], these are mostly static voices), but Thomas makes these characters tools for depicting the ways that communities dialogue within themselves—not in the sense that one character is right and the other character is wrong but in a way that shows how communities that are mostly united on a front (like the African-American community's unanimously grieved response to a cop's fatal shooting of a black teen) have diverse and often contradictory reactions within that front, often stemming from subtle but important differences in worldview and background. Through that act of community-wide discourse, these characters occasionally become compelling in a collective sort of way. It's undeniably exciting to see a low-income African-American community with its (often radical) political beliefs taken so seriously and respectfully in a YA setting. I just wish the entire package were something a bit more refined—the good things here are the sort of features I'd love to see blossomed in a masterpiece novel instead of trapped in a just pretty good one. Grade: B

Music

Bob Dylan - The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964)
I go back and forth on whether Blonde on Blonde is the weakest of Dylan's classic 1960s run of albums (search your feelings, you know it to be true). But when it's not that one, The Times They Are a-Changin' is definitely the alternate pick. That's not to say this is a bad album. But Times is certainly Dylan's most obvious and plodding record of the era, the one that feels most of the Folk Revival scene of the early '60s that he'd spurn only a year later. Dylan could be a caustic and compelling political writer (see both the preceding Freewheelin' and the soon-to-be-recorded Bringing It All Back Home), but his politics here are just kind of bluntly laid out, sans the elegance of his earlier work or the vitriol of his rock trio. His work as a Civil Rights ally on this album is significant, but in a kind of historical, abstract sense that's hard to feel in your gut. There are good—very good—songs here: I'm thinking specifically of "With God on Our Side" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." But the album doesn't have a ton that you can't find executed better on superior Dylan LPs. Grade: B

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Mini-Reviews for October 9 - 15, 2017

Fall Break is, sadly, now over. So long, beautiful week with loads of time for watching horror movies and reading. It was wonderful.

Movies

The Wailing (곡성) (2016)
Horror movies with subtext are good, and horror movies with metaphysical and/or religious subtext are the best. The Wailing is the latter, and it's a whip-smart one at that, operating not just as an impressively dense, twisty horror narrative but also a frightening religious fable about the seditious nature of evil and, if I'm not mistaken (I might be—I don't know nearly enough about Asian history/politics), a pretty piercing political allegory about xenophobia. It's a movie that, in depicting a single South Korean village, envelops the totality of the world stage without ever violating the reality of its small-time setting, suggesting the far-reaching consequences of the way that mythological and social powers engage with one another. What I'm saying is that The Wailing is pretty much brilliant. Grade: A

Inland Empire (2006)
One of the things that's helped David Lynch maintain such a devoted following is that as odd and experimental as his work tends to get, there's usually a concrete narrative to be sussed out upon repeat viewings—in other words, viewed in a certain way, they're puzzles. At least, until Inland Empire. I have no earthly idea what's going on on a narrative level in this movie, and I doubt that repeat viewings will help clarify this; for all the talk of that "dreamlike" Lynchian atmosphere, Inland Empire may be the only film of his that's completely untethered from from a grounding reality, its events progressing with the rhythm of a nightmare: the same actor plays an entirely different character in two consecutive scenes; a door in Poland opens in Hollywood; human figures contort into horrifying distortions; clips of incongruous music float in and out of the mix. Which is not to say that it's a haphazard film in the least. All its scenes circle around iterations of similar themes of violence, filmmaking, identity, and ambition, and it's almost as if Lynch is building a collage out of the tenuous logic of whatever narrative each moment gives us. The movie has the feel of something monstrous bursting through the barrier between subconscious and conscious, and as such, there's an elemental power to the film's cumulative effect, even if on a moment-by-moment basis it's kind of ugly and baffling. Plus, Laura Dern deserves all the awards for her performance here. Come for her, if for nothing else. Grade: A-

Them (Ils) (2006)
This movie's greatest strength is just how coy it plays with its antagonist(s)—basically, a horror movie of the home invasion variety in which the shots are specifically constructed to obscure what exactly it is that's afflicting our protagonists (for a long time, it's not even clear whether or not it's human). The effect is almost abstract, and it's mesmerizing in its obliqueness. Unfortunately, the movie throws all that down the toilet in its final minutes with an epilogue that not only reveals far too much but then punctuates it with several screens of explanatory text. I know, "based on a true story," blah blah. But come on—this was building to something great, and instead, it's just pretty good. Grade: B


Body Snatchers (1993)
When I was in elementary school, we lived on an Air Force base. My mom wanted to grow a vegetable garden, so she, my siblings, and I planted one with the help of my grandfather. It all went well enough until one day, we got a knock on the door. It was an officer telling us that we couldn't have a garden because the soil was filled with toxic chemicals that would get into the vegetables. So we had to destroy the plants. I say all this to explain why Body Snatchers, the third film adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, now relocated to a military base, resonated with me, perhaps even more than the revered 1978 version. My experiences on the Air Force Base were largely positive, but there's no denying the vague disquietude of living in a location where everyone dresses alike, where toxic waste resides in the soil beneath your feet, where armed guards and cement barriers greet you each time you leave and return, and where, in a heartbeat, you could be caught and quarantined within the small confines of the base (as actually happened on 9/11/01). It's not hard to imagine my warm childhood memories twisted into horror like that on display in this film. I'm a little iffy on some of the stuff that happens toward the film's end, but in general, it's a fantastic iteration on the Invasion evolutionary chain. Grade: B+

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Nearly every review I've found of this movie talks about the way it makes a virtue out of the typical slasher movie fake-out cliches, and that's absolutely true; the jump scare has never been so perfected as when this movie lampoons its essential silliness and twists it into a metaphor for the violation of women's bodies through non-violent means (before the actual violent violation, of course). This is not a horror comedy, exactly, but it's very funny. The fake-out gags, sure, but there is a lot of the reverse, too, where we know something very bad is happening while the characters remain almost comically ignorant of it—in particular, one scene involving a refrigerator that seems to have heavily influenced the early main-character-clueless-of-horror-in-front-of-his-face goings of Shaun of the Dead. Even with all this genre subversion, the movie still hews a little closer to slasher tropes than I'd like—we're still dealing with scantily clad women being cut up, and while this is written/directed by women, which is a relief, I still wonder if this plays too much into the hand of the genre pitfalls. Regardless, mild trepidation aside, I enjoyed this quite a bit. Grade: B+

The Ghost Ship (1943)
The big joke about this is that there are no ghosts, nor anything even close to resembling one. So the RKO-mandated title is a gigantic bit of misadvertisement; what we're left with instead is a sort of thin psychological thriller about a ship's officer whose worried that his captain is insane. It's got some pretty good atmosphere and a few nicely tense scenes ("There are some captains who would hold this against you"), which make it entertaining enough that it's not a waste of time. But there's nothing all that remarkable about it, and the beginning portion of the movie is super weak. Grade: B-




Music

The Sugarcubes - Life's Too Good (1988)
I think, if we're being honest here, the only reason most of us still talk about The Sugarcubes is that the group was a jumping off point for Björk, who has totally Beyoncé'd the other fine members of this group with an all-eclipsing solo career. Life's Too Good, The Sugarcubes' debut, is a good record of post-punk energy, but I'm here for Björk, and, with apologies to the rest of The Sugarcubes (who I am sure are talented in their own rights), Björk totally steals the show here with her soaring vocals. The rest is fine. Grade: B

Monday, October 9, 2017

Prog Progress 1975: Queen - A Night at the Opera

Hi, everyone! Welcome to Prog Progress, a blog series in which I journey through the history of progressive rock by reviewing one album from every year of the genre's existence. You can read more about the project here. You can learn about what I think are some of the roots of progressive rock here. You can see links for the whole series here.



Progressive rock wasn't dead in 1975. It's generally a bad idea to call any genre dead, given music's propensity for crate-diving and stylistic revivalism, but even by those caveats, prog was never as close to dead as, say, swing jazz or ragtime piano have been. Still, after the barrage of lineup changes, dissolutions, and critical pannings that assaulted prog in '73 and '74, it was clear that there would be a time in the near future when the genre would have to sink or swim. Enter Queen.

To be fair, Queen had entered quite some time before 1975. The band had existed in some form since 1968 (originally under the name "Smile"), and their classic lineup of singer Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon, and drummer Roger Taylor had all been playing together since 1971. Their first album, self-titled, had come out in 1973, and by the beginning of 1975, they had, in the grand tradition of '70s rock bands, released a second self-titled (Roman-numeraled, naturally) and Sheer Heart Attack, which had peaked at #5 and #2, respectively, on the UK charts. So it's not like these guys were some out-of-nowhere act. But 1975, and specifically the release of their fourth album, A Night at the Opera, was definitely the moment the band fully "arrived." Their most commercially successful act to date, A Night at the Opera hit #1 in not only the UK but also Australia and the Netherlands, and its lead single, "Bohemian Rhapsody," went #1 pretty much everywhere.

But why am I telling you all this? You know Queen. Everyone knows Queen. We can all head-bang to the guitar part of "Bohemian Rhapsody" together, and it'll be great. In fact, of all the bands covered thus far in this Prog Progress series, Queen is the most popular by a substantial margin. But I'm guessing at least a few of you are reading this and scratching your heads and drawing Venn diagrams between "Close to the Edge" and "Killer Queen" with big question marks above it and wondering, "They're prog?" Well, yes they are... were. But unless you'd dug into their first few albums, not that you'd know.

Queen was never purely progressive rock in the sense that the genre's heavyweights—Yes and Genesis and King Crimson—were, or even in the brief way that Jethro Tull was. There were no 20-minute epics or flights of avant-garde frenzy or Hindu shastra lyrics. They didn't even have a dedicated keyboardist, practically the cornerstone of the prog sound after guitars. Many sections of their first two albums flirt with heavy metal a la Black Sabbath, in fact. But when you get right down to it, Queen and Queen II and even most of Sheer Heart Attack are still basically prog, albeit a less ambitious and experimental variety than the most visible genre torchbearers. Brian May's knotty guitar passages (oftentimes composed on piano before hashed out on the axe), the meandering, multi-section melodies of their songs, the suite-like progression of their tracks—that's all prog. But while prog's sun begins to set in the mid-'70s, Queen's is ascendant. And that's not just the mysterious whims of music commercialism at play here; what Queen does in 1974 and especially 1975 is shrewd and savvy.

Starting with Sheer Heart Attack in 1974, Queen begins to sprinkle their heavy, proggy guitar rock with something that previously had little place in the prog canon: pop. You've heard it: it's called "Killer Queen," and it peaked at #2 in the UK. Filled with finger snaps, soaring Freddie Mercury vocals, doo-wop backing, and an infectious melody, this is likely the sound that came to your head when I first mentioned Queen. Either that or "We Will Rock You." Or "Fat Bottomed Girls." Or "Radio Ga Ga." That's because Queen's legacy is as a particularly operatic arena pop/rock band, not a progressive rock band.

And that's what makes 1975's A Night at the Opera so interesting. It catches the band at the exact moment when it makes that pivot from early-'70s guitar prog to late-'70s arena pop, and the result is a fascinating convergence of styles that makes the record both an artifact of this particular moment in the band's trajectory and a timeless piece of gonzo, sublime genre fusion. As successful and fresh as "Killer Queen" was, it's almost out of place on Sheer Heart Attack, which doesn't really have a song that even approaches that single's hummability, instead filling out the rest of the album with the same (if slightly more refined) type of guitar muscle that defined the first two albums. But A Night at the Opera is a completely different story. And it's awesome.

The first thing we hear on "Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To...)" [1] is a cascading piano ballooned by heavy, atonal guitar strokes over a screeching second guitar, and for a moment, it sounds like we're in for the proggiest thing Queen ever did. But then there's a scream, and all of the sudden, we're in the middle of a baroque (if furious) pop song framed by bouncy piano chords and Mercury's clean, precise vocals. Then the chorus hits, and Mercury's voice soars on a swell of what sounds like a practical orchestra of overdubbed voices. When the song ends, the record cuts abruptly to "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon," a jaunty, turn-of-the-century-showtune-esque number that somehow becomes a vehicle for an out-of-nowhere Brian May guitar solo that flips us into the absurd hard-rock pomp of "I'm in Love with My Car." This is A Night at the Opera in a nutshell: flitting from sound to sound, genre to genre, from irony to aching sincerity, with a reckless enthusiasm that's giddy and unhinged. It's delightfully weird, and while prog has never shied away from weirdness, this is a flavor of weirdness not often seen from the likes of Yes, et al: it's camp.

It's not that the progressive tendencies have disappeared, exactly—the guitar pyrotechnics are there, as are the stadium-sized sounds, multi-part suites, and sudden dynamic shifts; we've even got a self-serious, 8-minute epic inspired by the Bible ("The Prophet's Song"). But the album is not just prog, even by the loose Queen standards; there's also music hall and jazz and glam and pop and folk and skiffle and tap dance and soul. One of the central ironies of progressive rock that prog haters love to bring up is that the word "progressive" belies the fact that the genre tends to be kind of regressive, since it appropriates genres from the past like classical and jazz and grafts them onto rock in the name of "progress" rather than making true innovations [2]. On Opera, Queen seems to be goofing on this regression by adding these splashes of pre-rock genre pastiche (e.g. skiffle and tap dance, sounds not heard on a Queen album before or since) to its established prog rock sound—"Oh, you're going all prep-school artsy by quoting Bach in your rock epic? Well, here's some vaudeville atchya!" And even when Queen does go straight for the prog vein, it's as if they decided to double down on prog's sillier, theatrical elements and overwrought emotions (e.g. the aforementioned "I'm in Love with My Car," which is an all-holds-barred love letter to an automobile, complete with engine sound effects) or isolate elements of the genre from one another in order to cast those elements in sharp, sometimes humorous relief (e.g. "The Prophet's Song," which jumps right from heavy guitars to an extended a cappella section). Making an album that knowingly winked at the inherent silliness of prog's core features while still delivering complex, heady musicianship was probably the smartest approach to the genre at this point in prog's life cycle, and Queen, of all groups, had the depth of perspective to do so.

Queen isn't exactly making fun of prog, per se, but they're walking the genre up to the precipice of self-parody and then kicking it right off the edge, only in a way that also feels affectionate and sincere, as goofy as it can get. Like I said, Queen is diving full-bore into camp here, and it's camp mixed with a generous helping of straight-up humor, both sentiments rarities within prog that I welcome with open arms here because the music is an absolute blast. This of course all culminates in the defining Queen moment and (with the possible exception of "We Will Rock You" [3]) the band's most popular song: "Bohemian Rhapsody," a wild, ridiculous, hilarious, and strangely moving suite that crashes all the album's various impulses together into a dizzying climax where any such distinctions between musical tribes cease to matter. Is this a parody? Is it trying to say something profound? Does this even count as prog? Does this even count as rock? Who cares—it's friggin' Queen, and it's magnificent.

An important part of how successful this is has to do with just how nimble everything feels, especially when compared to prog's experimental vanguard. This is a spryer prog than we've seen up to this point, a prog that, for once, sets its sights on refining those elements of prog often placed on the back burner by the genre's more high-minded torchbearer: lyrics, melody, songcraft. A lot of genres have fused themselves to Queen's sound on this album, but the most prominent fusion of them all is the one that's really more of an ethos than any specific techniques: pop music, that relentless push toward catchy tunes and relentless earworms above all else. As I said earlier, this pop sensibility is a relatively new development for Queen. Not that they were a particularly impenetrable band before, but with A Night at the Opera, you see a clear ambition to follow up on "Killer Queen" instead of, for example, "In the Lap of the Gods." They are modeling themselves as a pop band, and in doing so, they twist progressive rock into the most amusing shapes they can before shaking it off completely in the second half of the '70s.

A Night at the Opera is a significant, one-of-a-kind album in rock music in general, but it's its specific role in Queen's evolution that makes it significant to prog instead of just some one-off oddity, because with it, Queen, intentionally or not, sets the path forward for most prog bands who had any intention of surviving into the late-'70s and beyond. Time and time again, you see prominent prog bands make this pivot from prog to pop: Genesis became a synth pop band, Yes became a new wave group, the Moody Blues reincarnated itself as a rock/pop outfit, Emerson, Lake & Palmer became whatever this is; even an obscure prog/jazz-fusion group named Journey got into the game and became, well, Journey. Not all of this was a planned trajectory by the bands. Often, these changes coincided with key members leaving the group or new creative voices joining. But the trend is there: as the '70s progressed and intellectual, complex rock compositions fell out of fashion, prog groups became increasingly pop-friendly. The popular narrative often cited is that punk killed prog, but the truth is, prog euthanized itself; rather than toil in obscurity on labyrinthine concept albums, they all just kind of decided to go where the market winds blew strongest.

That's not to suggest that these guys "sold out" or any of that credibility shibbolething that oftentimes makes music fandom so tiresome. A few of these bands produced legitimately good work in their pop phases. The best of these, by far, is Queen, whose string of albums following A Night at the Opera are, while never quite up to this classic's high water mark, as solid and inventive as any pop group of the era. To be honest, Queen were never all that great at the prog thing anyway. They just wanted to have fun. Some of these other guys, on the other hand... well, we'll get to that next time.

See you in 1976!


1] Dedicated to Norman Sheffield, it turns out—the band's first manager and all-around tool, if this song is to be believed: "You never had a heart of your own: kill joy, bad guy, big-talking small fry," goes the first chorus. Sheffield sued the band for defamation over the song.

2] This criticism is silly, of course, because it assumes that musical innovation is some magical thing that comes out of the air without any precedent. But we'll let the haters have their moment here, I guess.

3] Sports arenas have put their thumb on the scales a bit here, I think.